“The Burden of Treasures”
With a muffled grunt, Oris shifted the weight of the heavy sacks slung across his back and resumed his brisk pace through the woods. Each was an awkward and heavy jumble of loot, but the iron grip of his calloused hands had only recently begun to waiver.
Twilight had surrendered to a night of brilliant stars above him as he spent several hours pushing past tree and shadow. The blond warrior was grateful for the clear night, for without it he would not have placed as much distance between himself and the ruins of Thaldergast as he already had. With the aid of the filtered starlight from above, he was fairly certain that he was on an old trail in the woods rather than completely lost. Occasional glimpses of the Elven Star above pointed the way north and confirmed that he was not traveling in circles. It made him more comfortable in the darkness that he could keep the ruins at his back while he pressed westward.
The powerful frame of the warrior strode unarmored in the dark. The occasional unseen branch clawed at the long sleeves of his linen shirt but in his resolve he paid them little mind. His eyes were focused on the path ahead, wary of traps and pitfalls. These were goblin woods as surely as those of the valley leading to the ruins had been, and Oris was loathe to spend a single moment longer here than he had to.
To that end he was actually relieved to be rid of his lost armor. Beyond the sacks born by his muscular arms and chest, he was clad in only his shirt and trousers. His trusty bastard sword was sheathed, its scabbard hanging from his belt. The weapon tapped a rocking rhythm in the night with each step he made in his soft leather boots.
There was a loud screech from the gloom that stopped the warrior dead in his tracks. His eyes narrowed in the direction of the noise, removing one of his stout hands from the sacks he carried and slowly moving it to the hilt of his sword. Before he drew the blade an owl swooped out of its roost and flew past him into the night with another cry. With a moment’s contemplation and relief, Oris returned both hands to his burden and moved on.
Within an hour’s time, the trees began to thin and the sky became ever wider before the lone man, heralding the end of the woods. Oris regretted that Philduren’s map had been lost, but he distinctly remembered from it that the Burgon road crossed north to south for many miles west of the ruins. With any luck he would find it and then have a sure route back to civilization. Minutes later the warrior chanced to hope that his fortunes were about to change as the trees gave way to scrubland and the night sky opened up majestically over a dark horizon.
Oris felt a renewed vigor and his pace gained momentum as he passed through grass and bush. After a few hundred yards he saw a snaking line of bare stone illuminated by the starlight and he knew at once that it had to be the paving stones of the Burgon road. Doubling his pace to a near run he grew closer and closer to the road. The vegetation retreated and shrank to low grasses no higher than his boots as he moved closer. Just before he reached the road, his haste caused him to snag a loose stone, kicking it towards the paved surface. The stone disappeared and the trailing echoes of falling impacts brought Oris to an unbalanced, awkward stop inches before he would have fallen to his death.
It was not a road. The illuminated stones were the shear, yawning cliff sides of a ravine.
Oris stood there, eyes wide as he gazed into the shadowed depths before him. His heavy breath rose in misty puffs in the cool spring air. Gritting his teeth, Oris then looked away, shaking his head. He dropped the sacks to the ground with a clinking thud and growled a curse as he hunched down and sat beside them. He sat there for several minutes overlooking the edge of the cliff, regaining his breath while he held his head in his hands. Eventually, he looked back out over the cliff and into the night.
“The dammed map didn’t show any ravines!” Oris muttered tersely through clenched teeth. “Where the hell am I?” He took a stone in hand and gave it a fair toss to clear the sides of the crevice as he started a count. He heard it eventually hit the bottom of the pit with a small splash. He silently reached three as it did so, and the adventurer knew from experience that would mean about a one hundred and fifty foot drop. With a sigh he ran a hand through his long, unbound hair and pulled back several errant strawberry blond locks from his face. He did this several more times as he thought and looked out over the ravine. He concluded that it was too far to entertain the thought of jumping it.
With a snort he blew the last hair away from his eyes. His mane was a source of some pride for Oris, and the soft fingers of many women had wandered through it contentedly. However, it had been grabbed and used against him more then once and he usually bound it back when working or fighting. Somewhere in the race to remove his acid covered armor he had lost the leather thong he used to bind it.
He looked to his side and towards the slumped sacks of loot. Rubbing his chin, he considered that he hadn’t taken any time see what Glix had in his bag… it certainly was heavy enough. More confident now that he was out of the woods and many miles from the hobgoblin infested ruins of Thaldergast, the warrior reached over with a powerful arm and pulled the heavy sack into his lap.
The course fabric of the bag was bound tight at the mouth by hairy twine looped into a granny knot. Oris cracked a grin at this while he undid the bound string. He always found it funny that for a man as skilled with locks as Glix was, he could never master a few simple knots. He had known him, like the others in the party, for only the few weeks of the expedition. Yet he had never worked with another dungeoneer that was so eager to cut, mangle and lose good rope when a few choice knots and a moment’s patience would salvage or save it.
The thick fingers of Oris’s hands unbound the twine with ease and he pulled the mouth of the sack open. The starlight around him caught the glint of metal within and he reached into the bag. His hand produced a tall candlestick of gold, cast in the shape of a woman in caryatid style. A second dive into the bag recovered its twin and he set the pair on the ground to his side. The weight of the gold alone told Oris that the objects would easily purchase a replacement suit of armor, but he had no idea from where in the ruins Glix would have pilfered them. Reaching in again, his calloused fingers felt a large roll of cloth. The weight of the bundle was such that he needed both hands to lift it out of the sack.
Once removed, the sight was enough for Oris to spit out a curse under an angered brow. The warrior held in his hands a bedroll lazily bound with rope around some heavy unseen object. Such an inordinate and sloppy amount or rope was used that a ball of its coiled and unused length dangled freely from the bottom of the bundle like a tail.
If he had only known this coil was in the bag all along he could have made a harness with it to carry the sacks and saved his arms some torment. “Damn you Glix!” Oris cursed again in the night, “Damn you to hell!” After a second’s reflection however, Oris silently admitted that he could just as easily curse himself for not checking the bag sooner.
With a last shake of his head, the warrior grabbed and untied the coils and properly spooled the rope between his thumb and elbow as he did so. As he counted the bends of rope winding around his arm he let go of his anger and instead smiled at what was otherwise a stroke of good fortune. He doubted anything else in the sack would prove as useful in getting him back to civilization alive as this simple bundle of rope.
The rope now wound into a useful coil, Oris recounted the number of bends again and totaled its length at fifty feet. It was far short of what he needed to reach the bottom of the ravine before him but he felt better off with it than without. Placing the rope neatly to his side he then turned to the bedroll, another object far more useful to him now than any golden treasure. He unrolled the blue woolen blanket and revealed the heavy object at its center and his eyes were cast wide.
He beheld a wondrous figurine of silver and gold in the starlight. Fully two feet long, the statuette depicted an unclothed woman in beautiful detail. Her bare waist was heavy with child and she stood stretched tall, her arms and hands arched far above her serene smile where each pair of her limbs and palms touched to form a vesica piscis in their empty spaces.
He recognized the maiden at once as from the altar of the Goddess Aeanna that they had discovered within the ruins. The beauty of the object was enough to make it worth a small fortune, but Philduren the wizard found a curse upon the altar’s inscriptions warning any who were not a priestess of the mother Goddess from removing the holy statue, least they tempt her wrath. Oris and the others did not want to press their already strained fortunes at that point and left the treasure alone. Apparently Glix had doubled back later as the rest of the party was falling to hobgoblin arrows and snatched it. Given that Glix disappeared without a trace a few hours later, the warrior guessed that the thief may have reconsidered his actions in hindsight.
Oris gazed upon the statue of the Goddess with very mixed emotions. The object was a fabulous treasure, likely thought long lost, and any of the grand temples of Aeanna would part with a king’s ransom to have it. Not having to share the spoils with any others, Oris would be a wealthy man after years of struggle. Yet at the same time, he almost did not want to touch the thing. This was a holy, even magical object, removed from its sacred place improperly and in defiance of a curse. It may have already claimed a life, and now it was in his possession. Oris may have abided the will of the Goddess and gained the treasure innocently, but he knew enough of curses and the fickle nature of some Gods to know it may offer him little protection. Thus it was with a troubled brow and a chill in his fingertips that the warrior carefully wrapped the statue back up in the bedroll and placed it aside.
The sack now felt significantly lighter without the statue and the items that remained were all small and loose. Oris dipped his hand in and it swam though a deep pile of small thin coins at the bottom of the bag. Pulling a handful out he examined them in the starlight and as best he could tell they were mostly cheap copper pieces the size of a fingernail, mixed with a few ancient silver Kopins. Oris poured the coins back into the bag shaking his head. For all of their weight and number the coins lacked any great value. His hands searched again in the depths of the bag for anything else.
He pulled out several finger sized chess pieces, a pawn and priest of obsidian, brass and sliver. There was also a queen piece with white alabaster in place of the obsidian but otherwise much the same. Oris figured that the whole set was in the bag, as he remembered Glix finding the broken marble board and the scattered pieces several days ago.
The last of his probing searches touched a large “C” shaped object that when removed proved to be a woman’s silver armband detailed with fine, spiral etching. A red gemstone was mounted proudly at its center. Next to it in the sack was a woman’s wooden comb, lacquered in black. Light and smooth, Oris flipped it in his fingers as he looked at it. He smiled as he thought about giving both items to Calla… should he make it back to Burgon and the tall dancer alive. The thought of his hands around her waist once more curled a sly smile from his lips as he sorted the items and grabbed his original bag of treasures from the ruins.
Oris conceded that Glix was the far better looter, although the weight of his spoils would have been more than he could have ever born away from those wicked ruins by himself. The fact that the thief was no longer here to enjoy them said even more. In comparison, the warrior’s neatly bound sack had been filled with items chosen for value and their portability. He undid the hairy twine holding his bag closed and then quickly sorted and removed the contents that he had packed neatly within.
First there were the six silver goblets, some with precious stones inlaid. Beneath them he grabbled the light, bumpy tube that was an ivory scroll case carved with intricate knotwork. Oris had found the item empty of any parchment but it had become a convenient holder for a pair of crystal dice set with banded agate that he had found. These were joined by a collection of just over fifty coins, most of them old gold thrones with a few equally ancient silver scepters. All together they now rattled and rolled inside the case as the warrior put it aside. At the bottom of the bag was a neat stack of eight silver plates that he left where they were.
The lone adventurer quickly set to the task of repacking the loose items neatly and evenly between the two sacks so that the weight was equal between the two bags. Even in the dark, such a thing was routine for an experienced packer and dungeoneer like Oris. He was done and tying the mouths of the sacks shut in just under five minutes. All but the newly coiled rope found itself neatly stowed away.
Oris turned on his knees and made his way on his shins to the drop of the ravine a yard or so away. He placed his fingers and palms on the cold, rough edge of the cliff side, then lowered his head and shoulders over the stone lip as he laid on his stomach. His long hair fell past his head in a cascade as he squinted and peered downward into the darkness.
The cliff face was jagged and uneven but at a nearly ninety degree angle downward. From the top portion that the warrior could see there were ample recesses and juts of stone to assist with a climb to the bottom. However, the starlight from above grew too diffuse and weak less than halfway down, succumbing to gloom, shadow, and finally an inky darkness concealing whatever laid below.
Oris pulled himself back from the edge and rolled over onto his muscular back. He gazed upwards into the night sky awash with brilliant stars as he lay upon a cool span of patchy grass, dirt and pebbles. He thought over his choices as he traced the outlines of Gods and heroes in the pinpoints of light above him. He remembered the night hunts that his father had brought him on as a boy, where he taught him their names and stories by the campfire. After several long minutes, Oris reached his decision. He would wait until morning’s first light to scout other possible routes around the ravine, or failing that, scale down the cliff.
He stood to find shelter and rest until morning, but before he could even dust himself off, a long and deep howl arose from the unseen woodland to the east. Oris stood motionless listening to the cry and the silence that followed it. He knew it was the call of a Vhar, a beast he had seen inflict bloody carnage first hand before. A second and then a third howl called back to the first, but that was not the sound that made his blood run cold.
It was the sound of hobgoblin drums.
Copyright © 2014 Jason H. Abbott, All Rights Reserved.