The Friends You Keep
When you’re hungry, everything else gets pushed out of your mind. We had taken flight after the fall of Atriar, making our way down the great river on a pair of crude rafts. Without a chance to provision ourselves, all we had was what we could hunt or forage. Racing ahead of the Elves prevented us from doing much of that. Game had been scarce even when we dared to put ashore. It was a bad time for the whole group, especially Garmos, who had fallen in the river twice. We were all surly and snappish.
The countryside was eerily empty in those days, not the way it is now. The woods were still and quiet, even the river seemed muted. We passed towns and villages that had been abandoned for lack of proper walls. In the eastern half of Ontanath, one lived in a fortified place or one lived in fear. At least we could no longer see the black coil of smoke rising from the ash of Atriar. None of us wanted to talk about it, but we had all been effected by the fear and panic of that night. I found myself looking that way often, wondering at the whim of fate that had spared us and the torments that awaited those who had not been so fortunate.
“What’s the plan?” Eref asked me. He had decided to try his luck at fishing off the back of the raft he shared with Aisa and me. We did not have the heart to tell him that he was never going to catch anything that way. With his luck, he probably would have succeeded and I would have had to put up with the smug look he so often wore.
I liked Eref, which was saying a lot for a cutpurse and second-story man. As far as I knew, he had not stolen anything since he joined with us, but there was no way to be sure of that. Eref liked stealing. It was how he confirmed his very low opinion of most people. He also liked money, which made his choice of profession all the more logical. Check that, he liked spending money. Whenever we rolled into town, he was always broke after two or three days. Then he would come to Aisa, who ran the finances for our group, for an advance. With his easy charm and ready smile, it was hard to say no to him.
The only time Eref was serious was when he was fighting. I have to admit that I found his style confusing. In the army, they taught us to be cautious, using the heavy shield to protect ourselves. It is much harder to kill the other guy when his sword is stuck in your gut. Garmos fought in the same patient way. Eref, on the other hand, seemed to think that he was privy to some secret magic that would keep him safe. Most of the time it worked. When it didn’t, Eref often ended up looking like something fresh from the butcher’s block.
The one thing you could not argue with, however, was Eref’s results. I had never seen anyone as quick and deadly as he was with that curved long knife. His favorite tactic was to skirt around behind whomever Garmos or I had engaged and try to stab them in the lower back. A couple of hard shots there and someone is down, even if you miss the kidneys. I never knew if Eref liked fighting. He would get this grim, focused look in his eye, as though nothing mattered by the target, but he never seemed to be visited by bloodlust. I suspect that fighting was just a means to an end with him, a way to finance his fun.
“There’s supposed to be a couple of towns still standing four or five days from here,” I replied. “If we can get some supplies, maybe a mule, we can head west. We have to get farther out in front of the Elves.”
“I know that,” he replied sharply. “I meant long term. Atriar stood for, what, six hundred years? We tried to make peace and they just burnt it to the ground. We have to start thinking that the good guys are probably going to lose this one. I’m not going to be a slave, Perard. I’m not going to let them geld me.” He locked gazes with me. “You know you’re the closest thing I have to a brother. You’ve never done me wrong, but hear me when I say I will cut and run before I let them take me.”
My surprise that Eref considered us close was drowned out by shock at what he was saying. I was glad that Aisa was asleep, because that was the sort of talk that would make her angry. Hell, it was making me angry, so angry that everything I had been bottling up in the weeks of running condensed into something sour and nasty. “Then why don’t you go now, you wet-bottomed coward? You could settle up with Aisa and be on your way. We wouldn’t be holding you back. You’d probably be faster on your own and I wouldn’t have to be worried about the guy who’s supposed to have my back.” I saw his hand twitch toward his waist. “You better be reaching for a piece of jerky, because whatever comes out, you’re going to eat. I promise you.”
He got that hard look in his eye, jumped to his feet and reached into his belt. I was ready for him, though, and clipped him with the pole, knocking him off the raft. Eref’s sputtering woke the others. We were only thirty or so feet from the riverbank, so in rather short order the five of us were on the shore, screaming at each other. The running, the fear and hunger, they had all taken their toll. Every little resentment and slight came boiling out as accusation.
Looking back, I don’t remember most of the things we said to each other. In that moment, we were not friends. That is why we didn’t see them at first, slipping quietly from beneath the bushes. Leaf-green drakes larger than a good-sized dog. Three, maybe four of them. It wasn’t until the little ones came swarming out of the underbrush that we realized just how much trouble we were in.
Most of the kin to dragons are solitary creatures, but the Atal-Ashi drakes are like wasps, living in underground hives. They can have hundreds of babies, all of which are born sexless. As they grow and mature, they become male or female as the hive requires. That is why it is so hard to root them out. If even a couple of the little ones get away, they will start a whole new hive. In my great-grandfather’s day, they used to be pretty rare. Towns will pay good money to those brave enough to tackle a hive. Really good money, given that they chew through livestock like crazy.
With the war, though, there were a lot less people looking for high-risk, high-reward challenges. Most of the able-bodied either were already in the legions or hunkered down in heavily fortified villages. Ontanath was a whole lot wilder than it had been fifty years ago, meaning that a hive could go undetected for a long time.
The small drakes started a shrill peeping like a hungry chick and we all froze in horror. Rested and prepared, we were more than a match for these animals, as long as the full adults did not show up. Aisa never wore armor and Eref was in his leathers, but the rest of us were out of our armor. Both Garmos and I had left our shields on the rafts, too far for us to lunge for if the drakes decided to charge. We started to back slowly towards the rafts, never taking our eyes off the drakes.
They went for Tanos first, boiling out of the underbrush. As the swarm began to climb him, he panicked, tripping as he turned to run for the raft. In an eye blink, he was covered and had taken a dozen vicious bites. Garmos was the first to swing into the fight, roaring in the way of the Dragonborn. The little ones were taken aback, but the adolescents seemed unfazed. He swung his longsword through the swarm, so close that I thought Tanos would be hurt. Garmos clipped a few of them, but not enough to make much of a dent.
“Perard!” Aisa yelled. I looked at her and realized that she was considering setting the swarm on fire. While this would be devastating to the tiny drakes, Tanos would be hurt as well and he was already bleeding badly.
“Do it!” I yelled back. We were going to have to be bold, if we were going to escape this mess. Aisa uttered a few arcane words and a great gout of flame erupted from her fingertips. The drakes’ peeping turned to a shriek, almost too high to hear. Between her and Garmos, half the swarm was already dead. She had also managed to clip one of the adolescents. I charged that one, hoping to drive it off. I misjudged how quick it was, however, and missed by a wide margin.
The instant I missed, Eref was there, stabbing the drake. His blade found its way up under the large scales on its haunches, causing it to scream. It lashed out at Eref, turning its back to me. I tried to take advantage of the opening, but missed again. Eref tried to reverse his blade to meet the attack, only to have the beast latch on just above the elbow. Fangs went deep and I thought for a half-second that it had bitten off Eref’s arm.
The swarm tore at Tanos as he struggled to his feet. Grasping his holy symbol, he sent out a wave of pearlescent light that rattled the drakes. I had seen this power twice before, but it still unsettled me. Tanos carried a big morningstar, but he rarely ever used it. Instead, he preferred the divine energies granted to him by his god. You can take pretty much any hayseed, slap some iron on him, give him some simple training and he will probably do all right. I am a perfect example of that. You cannot block a beam of holy power with your shield nor can you parry it.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Perard, how is that any scarier than what a mage can do?” Actually sitting down and thinking about it, it is not all that different, except down in my gut. What a wizard does feels like they are just speaking a different language. I speak a fair bit of Dwarven and I can tell when an Elf is swearing at me. If I were a bit smarter, I bet I could master the arcane tongue.
Moreover, you can pretty much tell when you are fighting a wizard. I have heard stories about the rare ones that wear heavy armor, but I have never seen one. In the army, they taught us to disrupt and harass them as best we could. Most of them just retreat when pressed. A cleric, though, is a different deal entirely. Not only do they hide in among the regular troops much more effectively, given that the only visible difference is how prominently they wear a holy symbol, but also their ability to heal themselves and their fellows allows them to act as a hard point in a fight. Men fight much more aggressively when they know that their wounds are not likely to be fatal.
I watched Tanos’ prayer close his wounds and knew that he was probably going to be fine. He had given us an opportunity to regroup and actually fight the drakes, rather than just reacting to them. The singed adolescent leapt at Garmos, who responded by taking a quick swipe at the beast’s eye. It turned aside and Garmos followed up with a heavy swing that connected at the base of its neck. It screeched at him and pulled back out of reach of his blade.
I took a third swing at the one mauling Eref and barely winged it. Frustrated, I used a feint maneuver I had learned in a bar fight and finally caught the thing. The blow clipped its snout just above the nostrils, bringing forth a heavy spray of blood. The drake seemed fearful for the first time in the fight and I began to hope that it might choose to run. Eref caught it low on the leg, almost at the hamstring, bloodying it even further. It tried to bolt, but I stabbed it in the neck and it fell to the ground, flopping as it died.
Just as things were looking up for us, a third adolescent came out of the woods, this one soaring on membranous wings. Aisa had told me that these were the pre-females while the beefier drakes, like the one I had just slain, were the pre-males. This drake winged its way past Aisa, clawing at her eyes. The force of the attack spun her about and when she turned back towards us, I could see three jagged gashes on her cheek. The female drake flew back into the woods.
Aisa scrambled behind me, and then set another burst of flame on the swarm. More of the tiny drakes died and the few that remained started to head back under the shrubs. With that threat handled, Garmos, Tanos and I were able to drive off the remaining male. The female did not return.
After Garmos tended to Tanos, the two of them examined Eref’s arm. The drake had torn deeply into the muscles. They explained that Eref would probably not lose the arm, but that he would be weak for days, even with their best care. I thought about it and said, “I guess we’ll have to part ways at the next town. Let’s get back on the rafts before more of them come.”
“Wait, what?” Eref sputtered. “Is this about what I said on the raft? I was just worn out and scared. You saw me just now, I had your back, just the way I always have.”
“No, actually you had your back, the way you always do. I guess I didn’t want to see it before now, but you’re always running the odds. You’re always making the safe bet. Until now, it didn’t matter because we were winning, but I’ve seen the real you.”
Garmos rumbled, “Are you sure, Perard? I have never seen him act dishonorably. Perhaps you judge him too harshly. Everyone can have a moment of weakness.”
“I’m sure,” I replied. “Tell them what you said to me on the raft, Eref. Let them decide for themselves. If I’m outvoted, so be it, but I don’t think I will be.”
Eref glanced at each of us in turn, visibly nervous. “I said that I was afraid we were going to lose and that we needed to think about that. There’s no shame in running from a fight you can’t win.”
The anger was beginning to rise within me again, but I controlled it as best as I was able. “No, you little worm, you warned me that you would run from any fight where it looked like you might be taken. You weren’t talking about us all running, you were talking about you.”
“Is this true, Eref?” Tanos asked. Out of all of us, Tanos had the most reservations about Eref. Tanos believed that all stealing was bad and that very little of it was justified. He kept most of that to himself, but you could always tell that having a thief among us made him uneasy. “Did you say that? It sounds like you.”
“Don’t act so high and mighty, fat man.” Eref was on the edge of yelling. “You liked it well enough when you could pretend that I play by your precious rules, but now that it’s out in the open you’re going to be the self-righteous ass that you really are.
Tanos’ hands clenched around the haft of his morningstar. “Get out of my sight, boy.”
“No,” Garmos interjected. “We will not abandon him in the wild. If our ways must part, we will do it the right way. We will wait until we reach Ostlea Hollow to make the decision.”
“Fair enough,” Aisa put in. “We’re all on edge, best not to make a bad decision especially since we’re like to need him.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She pointed to the ridgeline. “Somewhere over there is a hive of these things, a big one from the number of these young. If we can kill the adults and get the fee, we should be set for a long time. I would like to not have to scramble so hard.” She gestured at Eref. “I know you’re mad at him. I’m mad too, but five is better than four.”
I gave her a long look, trying to figure out whether or not she was playing me. Paranoia may not always be the most social of qualities, but it does help one stay alive. Try as I might, I could not see any deception in her. “Fine,” I sighed. “Let him come with us, but we’re not done with this, not by a long shot.”
By unspoken consensus we stopped talking and started setting up camp at the river’s edge. Eref and Garmos collected the drakes and field dressed them for meat. That night, we dared a fire for the first time in more than a week and ate hot stew that was thick with meat. Eref did leave us at Ostlea Hollow, but that was not the last we saw of him, which is a story for another day…
- I created Tanos as a level 1 Cleric. Given that Dwarves are usually battle clerics, I had kind of an intesting time running the numbers.
- Again, I don’t normally write fiction. In my “real life” I write technical and professional documents, so finding a proper conversational tone is awkward for me.
- This story takes place immediately before 1.03 – Buzzsaw in the Nations of Rage campaign that I’m working on. I’ll have some more comments later about how this story relates to the actual encounter and some of the things you can do as a GM.