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Snowfall kept the group from traveling at the pace Andrew would have preferred, but they did make progress. Once they reached the main group Curtis, Kern, and Lissa were immediately given horses to travel with the rest of the group. There was a bit of an incident when the horse master refused to give up one of his extra horses for Sorsasta, demanding that the elf walk behind the group or not come at all.
Lissa was horrified beyond words, and Curtis was just about to come to blows to help her when Andrew stepped in and chastised the horse master for slowing his progress. Sorsasta got a horse, along with a sea full of hateful glares from the surrounding humans, orog, and serkethians in Andrew’s little force. The elf was visibly affected, but she kept her posture straight and refused to meet the gaze of anyone in the group. When Lissa rode to her side in support, and Andrew gave the order to move out, the situation gradually dissipated.
Andrew’s small force, not exactly large enough to be an army but big enough to be an issue, headed north along the west bank of the river. At the suggestions of Curtis and a few other locals that had joined the group Andrew steered them a bit away from the water. They reached one of the various tributaries which fed it, and as Curtis had mentioned it wasn’t terribly difficult to cross this time of year. The small river was lower than usual, and most of the water was covered by thick ice. Moving carefully, they crossed without problems and continued on to Cheurshale.
There were no direct incidents with bandits, gnolls, or other roadside dangers as they travelled. A small group of travelers was vulnerable to many kinds of dangers but a force of over sixty armed and armored warriors, accompanied by at least a dozen members of the holy church of Elissah, went unmolested. There were always soldiers on watch at night, and during the day the group was skirted by scouts on faster horses, but they rarely saw anything that might have been trouble. Anyone who might have bothered other travelers wisely kept their heads down, or left the area entirely.
Progress came to a halt at one point when scouts caught telltale signs of trolls in the area. Though the trolls weren’t in their path, everyone knew the vicious beasts would have gleefully attacked them on sight no matter how many of them there were. Unwilling to leave the trolls to trouble others who might pass through the area, Andrew ordered everyone to ready for combat. He circled the group back around to the river, where they met the trolls head on.
It wasn’t much of a battle, really. There were only eleven trolls in all and sixty warriors ready for the fight surged at them with eager ferocity. When it was done, all eleven trolls lay smoking on the ground as fire burned them beyond the point of regeneration. Five of Andrew’s force required medical attention, and two would never see home again, but the thaesians would have done much worse had they ever made it to civilization. Lissa and the other clergy tended to the wounded, wrapped up the dead warriors’ bodies to bring them home, and travel continued.
“It’d be nice if we could have this kind of patrol regularly.” Curtis said absently, late the next day.
Lissa was riding alongside him that day, rather than with the other clergy members, but with her head wrapped in a winter cloak she didn’t hear him well. Kern heard him just fine though, and nodded his head with a chuckle.
“Would take care of a lot.” The serkethian agreed.
“What would take care of what?” Lissa urged her horse a bit closer, pulling her hood slightly back.
“Regular patrols.” Curtis said, motioning to the group of soldiers. “If there was some kinda regular patrol along the roads like this, travel would be a lot safer.”
“And easier, and faster.” Kern added.
Sorsasta, riding alongside Lissa so as to avoid trouble with anyone else in the procession, nodded her head in agreement. “My people have established a few safe travel routes between some of our cities.”
“What, like you’re better than us?” Kern growled.
The elf’s eyes narrowed and she opened her mouth to reply. Her temper, by now, was well known and it wouldn’t do to have her berating Kern in front of everyone else. Both Lissa and Curtis interjected simultaneously; the priestess put a hand on Sorsasta’s shoulder to calm her, and Curtis dropped his horse back to sit between the two.
“She probably doesn’t mean that, exactly.” Curtis said, giving an awkward smile.
“Right?” Lissa asked, looking at the elf.
With a huff, Sorsasta bit back what she might have been originally intending to say. “Yes. I was only trying to give encouragement that it is possible to establish safe routes.”
Kern gave a little derisive snort, looking away as if he was done with the conversation. Such went many interactions that involved both the serkethian and the elf. For the most part things were fine between them, but both were short-tempered and neither one liked the other.
Other than that, the journey was as pleasant as an armed convoy in the dead of winter could be. Curtis and Kern found that they got along quite nicely with most of the other soldiers. They traded stories, talked about places they’d been and things they had seen, and had fun playfully picking on the more inexperienced members of the group.
Lissa went back and forth, spending some time with her brother and Kern, and then to ride with the other clergy for a while. While riding with her brother she would listen to the soldiers’ stories and laugh at their jokes, and while alongside the clergy she would talk with them about what the church had in mind for this expedition. Few of them had any real idea what they would be doing once they reached their destination, but all of them had ideas.
Sorsasta was the only one who had any difficult time beyond that which the weather provided. At first she had attempted to ride alone so as not to bother anyone, but that only left her vulnerable to having random insults or even objects thrown her way. So instead she took to simply following Lissa, staying close by her side under the young priestess’ protection. No one bothered her after that, at least overtly, though the glares never did stop.
At night, the force of soldiers and clergy would make camp along the side of the road. During the day, they made good time on sturdy horses. The journey to Cheurshale took only six days, and the stay was brief. Andrew met with several members of the local church and ended up recruiting two young priests eager to help pacify a new land in Elissah’s name. He and his lieutenants also met with members of the local militia, and when they left the next day they had added eight more loyal blades to their ranks.
From Cheurshale they headed west along a small road. Their going was slow until the road connected to a main trade route. They made good time after that and seemed to quickly pass by small villages locked up against winter and beasts, and they even passed an ancient tower of the old world left crumbling and dark. On occasion they would meet other travelers—merchants, pilgrims, and the like—who were glad for the company of such a large and heavily armed force for part of their journey. Andrew was always accommodating, happy to welcome any who needed protection along the road.
They traveled for several weeks, and they made good time. Not one of them knew, or suspected, they were being followed by a lone warrior from the distant east. Ariste traveled slower than they did, since she was on foot and lacked any knowledge of the area, but all things considered she made good progress. Wrapped in her winter cloak, using her spear for support, she traveled the roads of this strange land in silence.
In Gray’s Ford, once the priests were assured she came in peace they directed her to the Fry farm outside town. There she talked to several nurani, who were delighted to meet a human speaking their native language. She told them her story and what she wanted, and they informed her that Lissa had headed north. So Ariste headed north.
There were difficulties for the young warrior as there were for most travelers. At times she encountered a road blocked by armed men eager to claim her money; some were dangerous enough to pay off, others were weak enough to intimidate. Only once did the situation come to weapons, and when it did she took two of them down before making her escape. Outrunning the rest was a challenge, particularly in the snow, but she survived and continued her journey. She didn’t have the luxury of stopping to rest and recover.
In Cheurshale, they told her that a force of warriors had already passed through and headed west. So she continued, and she dealt with bandits, and gnolls, and kobolds. Steadily, relentlessly, she traveled westward in search of the priestess Lissa Fry. After several weeks of travel, late on a weekday afternoon, Ariste finally arrived in the city of Sepreston.
Sister city to Temborn, on the other side of the land fragment, Sepreston sprawled up and down the edge of the world. At this time of year the city streets were decorated with brightly colored streamers, festive garlands, and candles that made the city glitter at night. The city center, near the docks that stretched into the endless sky, was dominated by a massive diorama that depicted the goddess Elissah making the case to the other gods that the world must not be destroyed in its entirety. This time of year was spent in celebration, to thank her for her mercy and for the future of the world.
Ariste smiled to herself when she saw the diorama. She knew that every deity told the story differently, but even Tharamos taught that it was Elissah who was most adamant that some of the world be spared. For that, she felt it appropriate to stop and pay homage, to thank the forest keeper for a future that might not have been without her. She didn’t kneel and pray—that would have been blasphemy, and Elissah would know who she was—but she lit some holiday incense to pay her respects.
“Merry Yule!” Someone cheerful stepped up to her and she looked to see a grizzled old sailor, a merchant of some type. The man motioned to her incense with a smile. “It’s very kind of you to make such a gesture.”
She returned his smile and nodded. “Thank you. I honor Elissah’s role in our future.”
“And she honors your homage.” The man held his arms out for a moment. “So, I simply must ask. What brings an eastland warrior to our lands? I only assume, from your shield and spear, that you’re a warrior. Please correct me if I’m wrong.”
“You are not wrong.” She nodded, and angled her shield so he could get a better look. “Though my time in the army is done, I still bear my family’s legacy.”
“You bear it well, I’m certain.” He patted her shoulder softly.
Ariste smiled and looked out toward the docks. “What brings me here is a priestess of Elissah. Her name is Lissa Fry, and she can tell me where to find a man I seek. I must bring him to justice, priestess Lissa knows where he is, and she is traveling with a noble named Winter.”
The sailor made an amused face as he listened to her explanation. “So you’re on quite a quest, then.”
“I am. Yes.” Her deep brown eyes took on a hard edge for just a moment. “The man I seek…” She paused, and the old sailor smiled knowingly as he held up a hand to forestall further explanation.
“You needn’t explain. Anybody who chases a man to the other side of the world has to have reason.” He stepped in a bit closer, and spoke softly through the noise of the holiday crowd and his bushel of beard. “It also happens that I know about the group you’re following. If priestess Lissa is with them, she boarded a ship that left here.”
Ariste cursed in her native tongue, and then took a harsh breath. “Forgive me.”
“Nonsense, I understand.” The man said with a chuckle. “Believe me, I’ve said worse.”
“I doubt you know where the ship is going.” She sighed.
“It just so happens,” the sailor replied, taking her arm as he guided her toward the docks, “that I know exactly where it’s headed. Due northwest as the ship sails, to a small fragment called Etraus.”
“Etraus.” Ariste repeated, mulling it over in her head. “If I may ask…who are you?”
“A fellow traveler, interested in lending a hand.” The man smiled and laughed. “I won’t lie, I can’t turn away a face pretty as yours. Besides, I’m just helpful by nature.”
For a time they walked through the crowd, and Ariste was silent as she considered what he said. “I suppose you are offering to take me on your ship.” Her tone was not friendly.
The sailor laughed brightly and held up a hand to protest his innocence. “Not at all! You’d have no reason to trust me. No, you can charter any ship you like. I’m just pointing you in the right direction.”
“Why?” Ariste stopped, and turned to look him in the eye. “I don’t know you.”
“You don’t have to. I’m just passing the information.” He smiled and shrugged.
They came to a stop then, and Ariste looked from the sailor back out to the docks. She took a long breath and exhaled slowly, visible in the chill winter air. “I can at least investigate your claims.”
“Entirely up to you.” He smiled and stopped, giving her a pat on the shoulder before he crossed his arms. “Enjoy your journey, warrior. May the winds fill your sails, and the clouds billow beneath you.”
She stopped as well, and gave him another little smile. “If your information is good…thank you.”
With that she raised her spear to him for a moment, and then turned to head toward the docks. Before the hour was out she had verified the existence of the other land fragment, as well as the passage of a group of soldiers. By the end of the day, she had booked passage after them.
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