The Long Trek East

[[Ox Weelun sits atop his horse casually looking at the strange characters clumsily loading their horses and pack mules for the long days travel ahead. There were supposed to be four, but Ox heard that the other one is convalescing. What remains are two Elves, one the size of a boy, who look like they would be more comfortable walking through a forest than riding a trail, and a Brixian merchant. The merchant appears to be armed with only an odd long handled dagger. This is in fact one of the telescoping short swords taken from a dead Shadow Elf attendant.

Ox is a thin, rangy, balding man of his late thirties and his features are carved with experience. He reaches around and feeds his horse a bit of carrot, and the mare snorts in pleasure as it takes the treat in its mouth. As Ox bends, a tough quilted-hide vest can be seen poking from beneath the cloth of his brown traveling clothes. His demeanor is one of competence and individuality.

Ox sits back in his saddle and regards the trio, as they struggle and bumble while outfitting and securing their horses, as the animals fidget in annoyance. They obviously have no idea which end of the horse sees and which end shits, Ox thinks. He supposes that he could help them, but he is a guide and scout, not a nurse maid.

What seemed to be a difficult job; traveling past the fairly secure roads actively maintained by the empire and into the less ordered trail ways beyond, will be even more arduous do to their lack of competence. Why this odd mix of clients is interested in riding to an out-of-the way little village like Loftshire is curious. Not for Ox Weelun though. One of his strengths is his profound lack of curiosity.

Ox doesn’t ask many questions unless absolutely necessary. Where are you going and how much are you willing to pay are the only query’s you’re likely to get from the reserved tracker. That’s why Balisus over at the trading post regularly picks him for jobs above the other regular guides.

It’s true that Ox is one of the best in these territories, maybe the best. Even so, some of the jobs have paid an unusually large amount of money, with the understanding that he doesn’t ask the where’s or why’s. That’s just fine with Ox. He doesn’t need, or even want to know. That’s the situation he finds himself in now.

One of the three travelers, the black haired Brixian, finishes and stiffly mounts his horse. He awkwardly guides it next to the scout. Ox leans forward in his saddle and watches him approach. Travel is going to be slow going Ox thinks to himself resignedly.

“Ho, there guide.” Baros says to Ox in a good natured greeting. He can see the man’s tightly guarded displeasure. Most wouldn’t notice, but Baros does. He is very good at reading people, even the quiet tracker.

Ox nods by way of greeting and spits a brown stream of chew on the ground beside his horse. Unperturbed, Baros continues. "We have our pack horses and supplies set. We’re about ready I think.”

“Yer about right.” Ox says. “You got two weeks supplies there. It’ll only take one. It’ll slow us down some.”

The reticent guide doesn’t admonish, make any suggestions or judgments in his comment. He just states a fact. As Ox turns his horse and waves to the group to follow his lead out of town, and on their journey, Vaellen and Cercer pull their horses up beside Baros.

“Surely and disagreeable to be sure.” Vaellen says. “But that is to be expected from his type I suppose.”

Baros can’t help but be offended. Is the Elf talking about the rude guide in particular or South Brixian’s in general? Baros hides his reservations in any event.

Cercer doesn’t comment or seem to notice the High Elf’s comment at all. He just surveys the lean tracker silently. He is comforted by what he observes of the man and his obvious expertise in his trade.

Ox is very lightly outfitted. He doesn’t look like he has more than a day’s provisions on his horse, but Baros has a feeling that he could survive longer on that than his party with all they have bought, even without using the short bow strapped to his horse’s pack.

The only other items he has are a hand ax and an unusually designed short sword. It is edged on one side. Near the base of the blunt side, the metal is serrated, like a saw. Both of these items are utilitarian, well used, and well maintained.

Baros, Vaellen and Cercer follow the man out of town and onto the open road. They travel for days, occasionally passing another traveler; more infrequently a patrol. Now and again they stop at a small village or settlement to rest, camping under the stars otherwise. Ox uses his hand ax and serrated sword to gather wood in these cases.

Ox Weelun attempts to remain detached from his three clients, only speaking, when necessary, and not engaging in small talk. He is at ease with the little elf; who is somewhat of a kindred soul. The two hold their version of conversation; consisting of what appears to be a series of grunts, and nods about this or that trick of the scouting trade.

Eventually, Baros is able to find his way into the discussion, and soon the three are chatting with one another. Now it turns out that Vaellen is the one holding back, as he sits and watches the three engage in their coarse conversations. After awhile even he is drawn into the friendly talk.

To everyone surprise, once the dam has been breached, Ox is as talkative and of good humor as he was silent. He even shows the group a few tricks of the road to make their riding easier, and their traveling faster. He talks to Baros of the use of the short sword the agent carries and even offers the group bites of the brown root he incessantly chews and spits.

They finally get to the last guard post along the Empire road. A guard peaks his head over the wooden wall of the small fort and regards the group cautiously. He looks as if he is about to ask for a toll of some sort, when he sees Ox. Ox nods his head and solutes the man, who returns the gesture with a smile before disappearing behind the wall.

It is less than one hour past the last guard post that Vaellen calls a halt to the party.

“Hold.” Vaellen announces to the group. He looks into the tree line intensely, and then dismounts his horse. The long ride has not agreed with his backside. His is stretches, as he walks toward the tree line.

“What’s this then?” Ox says, spitting a gob of chew on the ground. Normally he wouldn’t ask that question, but he feels comfortable now. “More high and mighty tom-foolery from the High Elf?”

“Our friend claims that he has an appointment in these woods somewhere.” Baros says without matching the scouts mocking tone. “I suppose this would be it.”

Vaellen stops ten feet from the edge of the forest and waits. After a moment a figure clad in green leaf armor walks from out of the trees. Nearly two dozen more armored Elves stand just inside of the cover of trees. These Elves wear bucklers and thin Elven long swords at their waists. On each of their backs is a fine wooden longbow and quiver of arrows.

“Good day to you Elvin kin.” Vaellen says in the language of High Elves. The Elven mage-warrior raises one hand in greeting.

“And to you Vaellen GreenLeaf.” The armored Elf says raising one mailed fist smartly to his chest. He wears a saber on one hip and a parrying dagger on the other. They both compliment his leaf plated armor. He briefly glances at the three men waiting on their horses, and then disregards them haughtily.

“I am Captain Ullus of King Alluvel’s Leaf Guard, and I am here at his command.” The Elf says, once again addressing Vaellen.

The adventurers look at the group of High Elves curiously. They are too far to hear, but have an air of formality that you would only expect to see amongst royalty.

“Why are they acting so stiff-assed?” Ox asks Cercer. Being an Elf, Ox figures he would be able to share some insight.

“Eloquence is their way.” Cercer answers with a shrug. “It will often take a High Elf twice the time to say half as much.”

As Ox and Cercer conjecture, the High Elves continue their discussion.

“Do you have word on my request of King Alluvel?” Vaellen asks courteously.

“I have indeed good Vaellen.” Ullus says. “I am happy to inform you that the King is pleased and has sent a reward for you.”

“I speak of my request for aid in my quest wise captain.” Vaellen says doubtfully. “Not a reward for my services.”

“I know nothing about a request for aid.” The Captain says with a light air of confusion. “I was ordered to give you this…”

Captain Ullus raises a long fingered hand, and a warrior steps forward, carrying an ornate sword and sheath. The pommel and fist guard is silvery and ornate. The warrior presents the weapon to Vaellen, who takes the weapon.

“The Silver Leaf dueling saber is a very prestigious gift.” Captain Ullus says, raising his chin with pride. Vaellen can see that he wears an identical weapon. “Its balance and speed are unmatched.”

“Tell King Alluvel that he is indeed generous.” Vaellen responds; knowing that his words of thanks will never reach the King’s ears. He is bubbling with anger at his request being disregarded in such a way. He is not even sure the King knows much about this whole affair, or would even care to, but Vaellen maintains his composure and air of refinement.

“The artifacts if you please.” Captain adds. Vaellen pulls the transcriber stone and music box from beneath his cloak and hands them to the waiting warrior, who then steps back into the forest.

“And finally…” the Captain says once again raising a hand. A second warrior walks forward holding an ornate wooden case. He opens it and a cold mist rises from within. Inside is a red satin cushion.

“The Hoarfrost Wand if you please.” Ullus says smartly.

“Of course.” Vaellen replies, although he hesitates. Captain Ullus doesn’t move, so if he notices Vaellen’s trepidation, he doesn’t let on.

Vaellen places the wand carefully in the case. The Leaf Guard Warrior closes the case, and then retreats back into the forest as well.

“Good luck to you good Vaellen.” Captain Ullus says raising his fist to his chest once more.

He raises his hand with a flourish and his soldiers disappear back into the forest with Captain Ullus following closely behind.

Vaellen watches the cadre of soldiers leave and then turns back to his companion. There is only the slightest crack in his proper and reserved demeanor, and Baros is the only one to notice it.

“We may continue.” Vaellen says; mounting his steed. He doesn’t speak of the meeting, and no one else asks him of the encounter. It is clear that if he wanted to share his conversation he would have.

The group continues their travel eastward. The road continues to be rough, except for one patch, spanning little more than a mile. Far in the distance they can see a small castle, and there are frequent patrols, farmsteads and small villages all about. Along this length of road they are forced to pay several tolls. Ox’s influence does not seem to stretch into Lord Alith’s lands.

It is early morning; a few hours after the adventurers past what may be the last guard tower of the tightly controlled interior of Lord Ailith’s territories. After a few more hours of traveling, Cercer notices Ox looking at the road speculatively.

“What do you see?” The Wild Elf asks.

“There are some wagon treads still embedded in the trail. I’ve been noticin’em for some days now.” He says, still peering at the ground. The cold earth of the road is indeed scarred with deep tread marks. “And that would have to be a pretty heavy wagon to leave those scrapes.”

“And…” Vaellen prompts somewhat impatiently. They were already moving slowly enough. Stopping to look at every bump in the road is nonsense.

“Lookin’ at the tracks, there are only a few guards ridin’ along with it.” Ox says spitting another glob of chew. “They must be days old, and here they still are. Yup. Must be pretty heavy… and slow.”

“And why would, what must be a single trade wagon of some kind, be traveling out of secured lands with only a few guards?” Baros jumps in; taking the scouts logic a step further.

Ox doesn’t say another word about his observations and continues riding, and so the rest of the band lets the matter drop.

After another hours travel the adventurers see a large wagon drawn by four horses approaching in the distance. It is heavy, with thick metal bands securing its frame. Two more horses trail behind, tethered to its rear, while a duo of armed riders trot out front. There are two wagon drivers perched atop the long seat at the front of the wagon. It is the wagon Ox spoke of earlier, this time it’s moving back in their direction.

As the group gets closer, they can see the driver slowly pull the wagon to a halt, and eye them suspiciously. One of the riders gallops towards the four men.

“Ox.” Baros says, as the rider approaches. “Is there any place within a day’s travel of here that a trade wagon would stop at?”

“Not at all.” Ox says. “Fer a wagon that large, there wouldn’t be a place worth tradin’ at and turning around. Not fer half-a-week at least.”

The rider stops his horse not ten feet in front of the group, which stops as well. The man is clad in leather and chain, and tied to his horse is a large long sword. Baros notices the symbol of the Deepingdale Trading Company on the rider’s saddle bag, as the agent quickly sizes him up.

“Hail and good day to you.” The man says, waving one hand. His voice is harsh and contains a hint of warning despite the greeting. He is tense and at the ready.

“And hail to you fellow traveler.” Baros replies.

He’s is familiar with the Deepingdale Trading Company. They have been fined over and again for violating trade laws, and various other black market infractions. If they are attempting to move cargo through lord Ailith’s lands with such a small retinue, it stands to reason that they are trying to do so covertly. Baros was curious before, now he is suspicious.

“I am Telmus.” Baros says disarmingly. “What is your name if I may ask?”

“Daleme.” Daleme replies after faltering for a split second. That second is long enough for Baros to know that the man has given a false name as well.

“What is your business along these trails today?” The armored rider asks, attempting to get back to his purpose; ascertaining the threat level of these unknown travelers.

“Who are you to ask that?” Vaellen retorts. Baros cuts him a look, which Vaellen doesn’t notice. “We travel the road just as you.”

The man looks at Vaellen coldly, before wheeling his horse about and galloping back to the wagon. He says a few words to the carriage rider. The wagon pulls over to the side of the road and waits for the four companions to pass.

Cercer, Ox, Baros and Vaellen slowly trot passed the wagon, and can see that it is indeed sturdily made. The two horseman, both armored similarly, stare at the group stonily; any pretense of politeness gone. Both of the carriage riders are dressed in light leathers and in between them are two crossbows; knocked and ready to fire. One of the wagon drivers looks over his shoulder and says something into a small sliding shutter which slams closed.

Baros nods at the wagon drivers, who don’t return the gesture. This encounter is a strange coincidence. His instincts as an agent, and the circumstances, say that Baros should press the situation, and find out what is in that wagon. But are the risks worth what may be a senseless conflict?

Baros looks at his companions, and back to the wagon to weigh his options.

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The Long Trek East

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