Rise of the Runelords
Half-elf, Ranger, Slayer
Mistrustful of rank and nobility
Deep loathing of goblin kind
Expert in stealth and ways of the wilderness.
The word rang and echoed in his mind as he exhaled and slowly drew the string toward his ear, guiding his arrow up and in line with the massive hart at the edge of the forest clearing.
The great animal was wary as it stepped hesitantly to the threshold. Here was the boundary between a world of broad, thickly tangled shadows cast through trunk and bough, and one of bright, lush grasses elegantly bent and thatched down into long tufts, laden with the morning’s dewfall. The boundary between night and day. The air was still.
Delicate streaks of mist hung nearly motionless in the diffuse, early light. The wisps formed curtains which dampened the few tender sounds of the slowly waking forest; gentle creaks of the old oaks, a few distant songbirds. Nearby, a woodpecker thrummed, plumbing for its breakfast through the surface of a fallen hickory. But the jays were silent, sounding no alarm. The deer stepped into the meadow, its gigantic antlers slicing delicately into the white dawn fog. As it surveyed the wide meadow, it turned partly away, cautiously, half again toward the forest. Listening. With ears twitching, its broadside became exposed, and musky haunches waxed full into view.
Holding steady, Aeryc chose a target just slightly below his quarry’s chest, in the now empty space between the thick, dew-flecked grass and the graceful line of the beast’s enormous breastbone. He knew that upon hearing the subtle hiss of the bowstring’s release, the stag would instinctively flee, and in bounding away, its first motion would be to bend its legs; to coil them for a powerful thrust away from the sound. This action would first bring its heart and lungs downward by a matter of several inches for just a shred of a moment; right into the space where his arrow would meet it, piercing cleanly. This was the way he’d been taught to take down a skittish buck years ago, as apprentice huntsman in service of noble House Ornelos: quickly, with as little blood, noise, or suffering as possible.
Would that all hunters hunted this way. Many times in the past Aeryc had served directly under Sir Venar Ornelos, Master Huntsman, and third brother to Lord Velan Ornelos. He would often assist Venar as trail guide to rich or noble hunting parties. Large, boisterous groups filled with dullards and spoiled lords of this or that, along with their sons or nephews. Drunken gluttons who knew nothing of the forest or its creatures. Or its dangers. Venar and Aeryc would scout, sometimes for days, to locate prize game for these inelegant buffoons. As often as not, one of the band would simply grow impatient and jump at anything that moved through the undergrowth. Abruptly the host of braggarts would give chase, hollering, horns sounding, as their steeds thundered and crashed through bracken and bramble. Aeryc could only watch, teeth clenched, as a dozen or more hounds bayed and snapped at a doe with a broken leg corralled into a ravine, or as an exhausted, runtish boar, frothy with sweat, was speared mercilessly again and again before the killing stroke. Sometimes Aeryc would cast a pleading look toward Venar, seeing his anger. But the grizzled, old woodsman would sigh, and remind him that they paid for his keep, and it was not the place of a mere apprentice, especially an orphan half-elf of exceedingly base parentage, to disparage the recreational activities of landed nobility.
He blinked, grunted lightly, and the arrow flew. It hushed deep into the grass, several feet short of its intended mark. The buck looked at the spot, seeming nonplussed for a beat, then leapt away with a snort, back into the thicket, out of sight.
Aeryc Halftorn, as he was known by those who knew him, cursed under his breath at the morning’s fortunes. It had been several years since he’d last been on any sort of hunt with Venar. Earlier this year, with the coming of spring, he’d left behind unsavory miseries of Riddleport and set out to return to life in the wilds of Varisia. He’d since been scraping by as best he could with a few middling employment opportunities; guiding merchants over rough, lesser used roads to transport their goods to markets in unknown regions, or serving as escort for a municipal messenger with urgent news through some hidden wilderness shortcut. Most days, he simply relied on the land. He had little difficulty hunting for subsistence, and even occasionally earned some extra coin when he ventured into settlements to sell a pheasant, a bit of venison, or a bundle of furs from his traps. But nothing so lucrative as a caravan of wealthy nobles looking for a trophy. Certainly none of it amounted to enough to repay Shorafa for what she’d done for him when he’d first appeared in Riddleport. And she wasn’t likely to forget it.
So he grew hopeful when some three weeks earlier, in Melfesh, he had met a broker in the Drowning Owl who sought a competent scout for a hunting expedition through the forests of Ashwood on behalf of Orrick Bromathon and company. Sir Orrick, the broker explained, was cousin to Lord Erdon Bromathon of Korvosa, and was willing to pay extra for a guide whose familiarity with the area qualified him as capable of assisting with a foray into Ashwood specifically, in spite of the forest’s grim reputation as a haven for the supernatural. Aeryc had boasted of his many previous excursions into Ashwood, (only exaggerating slightly) and explained that he was often able to petition certain contacts in the Church of Erastil for advice on the safest ways to avoid the wood’s more unsavory creatures and spirits. (As well as perhaps obtain from them a discount on some of the herbs, wards, and potions necessary to repel various bothersome ghosts and fairy-folk.) The Bromathon messenger, Patar Bronlea, was not quick to trust what he judged to be the disingenuous assertions of a roguish ranger. Especially a half-elf.
“Halftorn? Seems a fitting name for a mutt,” he chortled. Aeryc often let people assume, when it suited his needs, that he’d been given the name simply because he was a Half-elf. That it was, perhaps, a glib reference to being “torn” between two cultures, while not truly belonging to either. Or just a placeholder name assigned to someone’s bastard son. But in truth he had only first heard himself referred to as “the Halftorn” upon waking, emaciated and half delirious, on a cot in a strange chamber in what he later discovered was the corrupt and villainous city of Riddleport.
Bronlea was nearly bald, but fully stout from head to toe. Cursed with a severe, poutish countenance, he at first seemed disinclined to offer even rudimentary cordiality. But shortly after they sat down together, a few well-timed witticisms and a flagon or two of ale were enough to loosen his demeanor and persuade him to listen to Aeryc’s credentials. Even so, in the end, Aeryc was only able to contract with him after producing a palm-sized leather medallion with the seal of house Ornelos embossed on one side, and offering Venar’s name as reference. True, the seal was a forgery. But his service to the house had been real, and the badge was merely a copy of the one that had been missing, along with all his other belongings, when he first awoke in Riddleport. Although Aeryc knew Venar would speak well of him, he abhorred having to use this sort of noble influence; he usually preferred to let his own skill and reputation speak for themselves when possible. Or at least a bit of charm, coupled with a bit of harmless deception now and again. Many hardened wilderness scouts scoffed at such haughty, gentrified name-dropping, Aeryc among them, but he was always amazed at how quickly the works became oiled when necessary. Not that it afforded him any additional respect, generally. It simply made people mistrust him a little less. Besides, the crest simply indicated his apprenticeship with Venar. It in no way revealed, or even implied, that the Master Huntsman was, in fact, his uncle.
And so the minor ruse had served to get his foot in the proverbial door and he prepared for the expedition which was to set out from —— in two weeks’ time. He had met the Bromathon’s at the appointed place and Aeryc did his best not to draw undue attention to himself as the party headed out toward what was to be the first night’s base camp. They were to make for a ruined shrine that Aeryc’s old friend, Father Palon had suggested. Palon, an acolyte among the brothers of Erastil, had assured him that the area was well protected by members of the church, as well as the road that would take them there.
Sir Orrick Bromathon, who by all appearances was well cast in his role as knight of the Korvosan guard and womanizing bachelor, insisted on taking the lead down the narrow road that led into the forest. Although calling it a road was generous, if not an outright lie. The grassy, overgrown path was barely wide enough for two horses abreast, but in certain light, if one were to squint the eyes properly, wagon tracks could be made out through the weeds and moss-covered earth. Aeryc was not formally introduced to any of the band, but apart from himself and Sir Orrick, it consisted of six men on horseback, with one of the horses pulling a small wain outfitted with provisions, spears, and gear. Orrick and one of the other men had also brought along their pages who tended to their equipment and horses. All of the men were of roughly the same age and comfortable lifestyle as Orrick, save for a tall, older gentleman with a long, almost skeletal face whom the others referred to as Cousin Thychus. Thychus spoke little, but when he did, the others stopped their jocular banter and gave deference. And so after a few hours when he suggested that the team take a rest and allow Aeryc to scout ahead for signs of suitable quarry, the others quickly agreed. Although Aeryc had spent a goodly portion of what little coin he had on securing the horse he would need for this job, he now dismounted and entered the quiet forest on foot. He much preferred moving silently through the woods in this fashion. Although he could never outpace a rider on a path or easy terrain, a mounted traveler trying to pass through the coppiced ravines and groves could never come close to matching his speed. Nor his ability to leave the close, heavy, woody silence undisturbed.
He’d quietly made a few expanding rings around the party when he’d read the first signs in the forest floor that indicated the presence of what he judged to be the enormous hart. He silently thanked the Grim White Stag grateful that the tracks and marks were not too old, and appeared to be headed upwind, in the general direction of the night’s intended destination. He returned to the party and they received the news with great celebration; mighty hurrahs and back slapping, almost as if they’d already felled the beast.
As darkness drew near, they came upon a more open area of wood surrounded by large felled trees covered in moss and splendorous with vines, small flowers and many-colored fungi. Nestled in a small space between two gentle drumlins were the foundation and vague outline of a simple but ancient stone structure. The men unpacked supplies and tended to establishing shelter while Aeryc started a fire and set to preparing the rabbits he’d caught while scouting. Although Aeryc kept a pragmatically worrisome eye out toward the perimeter of their camp, the evening passed without incident. The men ate their fill of the bread, dried meat, and cheese they’d brought, along with a generous sampling of rabbit, and washed it all down with ample amounts of the thick, syrupy wine that filled their skins. There was the obligatory exchange of hunting stories, tales of romantic or lustful conquests, and ribald jesting.
“When we’ve conquered this beast, we should make for a settlement and find ourselves some women and real merriment!” declared the drunkest of them.
“What’s near? Ilsurian? Whistledown?” asked another. “I don’t think we’ll find much to your liking there, Belwin!” The others laughed.
“It’s a bit out of our way, but hasn’t Lord Valdemar often begged us to take advantage of his hospitality during their Butterfly festival in, where is it? Rocky Cove?”
“Sandpoint. Yes, on the coast. The Swallowtail Festival sounds like a splendid idea,” approved Thychus, with what appeared to be the first smile of their journey. “In fact, It happens that I received word recently from Valdemar Manor on this very topic. I at once assumed perhaps we’d be too tired for the journey after our hunt, but it appears as though we are on the trail of a substantial prize already, if our swarthy ranger is to be believed. I wager we shall have that creature felled and butchered by mid-morning and we should be able to cover the distance to Sandpoint in time for the Festival. Ethram tells me they are set to consecrate a rather large cathedral this year. We can employ a messenger with word once we reach Ilsurian. I think indeed a week or two of salt air will do wonders for our health.”
“Yes, but I don’t think it will do much to cure Belwin of his musty odor!” poked Sir Orrick.
“Or his depraved hunger for swinish, mud-covered peasant women!” shouted the one they called Dorbral, to uproarious guffaws.
But soon they’d settled quietly into their furs and blankets and set the first page on watch, and when Aeryc finally closed his eyes for some sleep of his own, all was quiet. Which was why he was all the more surprised when he awoke just before dawn to find the camp completely empty, and that the men and all their gear, along with his new horse, had seemingly vanished.
to be continued…
*Father was an Elven member of the diplomatic entourage of Perishial Kalissreavil, ambassador for the Mierani Elves in Korvosa.
*Mother was secretly Lady Mithrana of House Ornelos, 3rd daughter of Lord Velan Ornelos. As a bastard, Aeryc was raised by a nursemaid, then later taken in by Velan’s younger brother, Venar, as an apprentice. Lady Mithrana died under mysterious circumstances after Aeryc was taken from her, and only Venar knows of the details of his parentage.
*While still an apprentice, Aeryc was captured by a troop of goblins. Held and tortured for days, perhaps weeks, he was somehow rescued and delivered to Riddleport where he awoke under the care of one of Shorafa Pamodae. He had received what appeared to be a desperately mortal wound along his torso, but Sharofa claimed to have been the instrument of his salvation. This rendered him a de facto indentured servant to Sharofa and some of her criminal allies. (Denizens of Riddleport knew him simply as Halftorn.) Aeryc fled his service at the first opportunity, and would most likely not be treated kindly by Sharofa’s underworld of its allies were he to cross paths with them again.