These Roads We Walk - Chapter Eight - Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot

SKALD

There were advantages, sometimes, to being only slightly larger than the average coconut.

It was, for example, easier to steal a second portion of food unnoticed (although admittedly harder to fly sometimes). And people never really expected you to carry anything. Not to mention you usually got into shows for free.

And, of course, it was easier to keep your neck out of trouble even when you were sticking your nose into it.

Perched on the low, overhanging branch of a tree, Skald stretched his head towards the light of the fire enviously, as much to hear the low conversation better as to get a deeper noseful of the scent of the meat that was roasting on a spit. His long, pointed tongue ran the entire length of his scaled muzzle, and his stomach clenched painfully. A little under an hour ago, he had caught and devoured a small rabbit whole, roasting it with his own inner fires and pulling the meal up into the branches where Xanos was unable to snatch a piece.

Somehow, however, food was never quite as good when it wasn't stolen from someone else.

But in this instance, Skald was quite certain those gathered around the fire, backs turned towards the night, would not take kindly to even the smallest, fastest of thieves.

It was, Skald thought, extraordinarily stupid to get involved with Gnolls in any fashion. Especially five gnolls who seemed to be exceedingly ill-tempered.

Skald looked dowards, keen eyes locating Xanos crouched hidden several meters away in the dark. The half-orc motioned him onwards impatiently, and, reluctantly, Skald shuffled closer on the branch, talons digging into the stripped bark, hoping he would be mistaken for just another bat in the dark. He didn't think any of the gnolls were shaman, their fur apparently without the ritualistic painted and cracked bead-and-feather adornments, but a lucky bola or spear would strike him out of the sky as surely as a spell. Near the fire was a large sack, stitched together from an unpleasant looking patchwork of mismatched pieces of leather and hide. Every now and again, it trembled slightly, and Skald pitied whatever small animal they had caught for dinner.

Skald had never been fond of forests, and at night now, the darkness and the surrounding flora made him feel as though he was being swallowed whole. The Gnoll's fire was a bright circle of flexing light in the gloom, casting shifting shadows over the pitted trunks of trees as the creatures shifted restlessly. Powerful muscles sent the thick fur along their backs rippling, their manes standing up stiffly, as though they had dried into the position. Unlike the unwilling creatures forced into service by J'Nah, there was a deep-seated stench of death and joyous carnage about them that would never wash off in this life.

Closer now, he could hear the meat sizzling, and he swallowed as soon as he realised he was close to slavering. Noticed because of a rope of drool dropped on a furred head? The last thing he wanted to do was prove the half-orc right about his table manners.

Smug, overbearing, green arse-for-a-face. he thought, sulkily, although the thought perked him up almost immediately.

There was nothing quite like having a laugh at someone else's expense to cheer you up. Often, when Skald had found himself stuck inside the elf's room back at Hilltop while she exercised more patience on yet another one of Drogan's quests to prove her worth, he had found pestering the paladin and the pocket-picking dwarf (from behind the safety of a magically locked door, of course) to be a sure-fire cure for cabin fever. Lately, however, such memories hadn't done much to cheer him up. Instead of looking forward with barely restrained glee to causing uproars on quiet evening, he found himself looking towards the return to Hilltop with a deepening feeling of depression.

Was there anything left to go back to now that Drogan was gone? Although nobody had ever been particularily unfriendly towards Twen in that small, perpetually snow-covered village, Skald had the distinct impression that often Drogan Droganson had been the only reason Twen and the others had been accepted. Oh, not for race, no; elf, dwarf, gnome, even orc could find place within those walls, of that Skald was certain.

But their craft?

"People come here to forget or be forgotten." Skald recalled overhearing one day in a conversation between the elf and the local blacksmith. He had been paying only minor attention when he'd discovered the conversation was in fact not going to be about him, and had been perched nearby on a shelf, contentedly gnawing the last remains of flavour out of a scrap of old leather. "Or maybe just to start again. You can understand that, can't you?"

Thinking back now on the apprehensive, maybe even slightly accusatory looks Skald had seen lurking behind the grateful expressions of the townsfolk, he couldn't help but wonder how their attitude had changed in their absence. What thoughts had boiled. What rumours had been spread. Did they think, now, that those groomed for adventuring rather than farming attracted trouble like dwarves attracted flies?

Skald was used to being blamed for things. And to be fair, most of them had been his fault. (At least, the ones involving missing food or 'mysteriously vanishing' things that glittered.)

But this wasn't our fault. he thought. He realised that throughout his reverie, his chin had dropped lower and lower until it was actually resting between his talons clutching the branch, and below the gnolls had already fallen to tearing apart the meat, their loud snappings eerie in the darkened woods. Almost instantly forgetting his miseries, Skald watched longingly as glistening scraps of meat went into grinning muzzles; if there had been any pre-dinner conversation he had missed it.

"Didn't want deer." said one of the Gnolls suddenly, a sullen note in it's voice. "Have deer every night."

Skald commiserated.

When neither of it's companions responded, the Gnoll spoke again, studying a long, slender leg bone already stripped clean of meat with heavy disgust. "Wanna go back to clan, have warm pelts to sleep on, not hard ground. Not cold outside. Not deer."

Skald sympathised.

"Griffank sounds like human." one of the other Gnolls spoke up, and this time they all sneezed laughter, eternal grins jacking up slightly at the corners. " 'No want cold, no want stringy meat, no want die! Please, please!'"

"Well," said another, startling Skald with it's articulation, "for my part, I would rather have gnome tonight than deer. A particular gnome, in fact." The bag at it's side quivered slightly.

Instantly uneasy, Skald shuffled back slightly into the gloom of the branches, out of sight. Gnolls were often bad enough; smart Gnolls were another thing entirely. Never trust a creature that can think for itself when others of it's kind need help knowing which end to put food into.

The Gnoll that had spoken was larger than the others, thick ropes of muscle forming massive arms covered with thick, bristly dark fur that was patchy in places with scar tissue. The fur on it's broad chest was stiff with dried blood, and Skald now realised that the old scent in the air he thought must have come from their meal was instead emanating from the creatures itself. The Gnoll leaned forward across the fire and jabbed a gnarled finger tipped with a vicious looking talon in Griffank's direction. "I don't know about you, but I am less than eager to return to any amount of warm pelts -- even warmer females -- when I don't have anything to report."

"Maybe go kill other humans, bring them back instead?" suggested Griffank, then flinched when the larger turned a baleful gaze on him.

"Not everyone is as stupid as to count the taste of meat as sweet as the taste of victory." the larger responded.

"Kanesh agree with Gravit." said the other Gnoll, hoping to curry favour, although he was largely ignored.

"There is also," Gravit went on, rummaging in the sack now, which had begun to kick frantically, a curious muffled wail coming from within, "the matter of what to do with this."

And he hauled a trembling, pale, horrified looking gnome into the air above the fire.

The other Gnolls immediately hooted with wolfish laughter as Gravit held the creature at arm's length, lazily enduring the struggles and plaintive kicks. The gnome was male, garbed in an extremely rumpled and ripped tunic of dark green and black, and his sleek black hair stood up in matted corkscrews with sweat. He looked bruised and scratched all over, from the tip of his long nose to the soles of his bootless feet. "Un . . . unhand . . . " he panted, then bellowed when one of the other creatures jabbed a cruel, ragged talon painfully into his back.

"Not plump enough to roast. Stew, maybe?"

"Now, really," the gnome said, but with an air of defeat as he allowed himself to hang slack, "I don't think there's any need for such hostilities. I have a rather hefty parcel of travel rations in my pack that you are welcome to partake of." He had a somber, heavily lined face that was utterly unremarkable save for the bright intelligence in his small dark eyes. He looked like someone who was quite used to being stepped on.

"Not anymore, you don't." Gravit said, and Griffank solemnly waved what looked to be the tattered remains of a common traveller's pack before jutting his formidable jaws through a large tear in an obscene grin.

The small bit of courage that seemed to have been sustaining the gnome thus far abruptly gave out, and it seemed to Skald that he shrank in on himself, eyes dimming. "Oh. I see. I suppose it would hardly do me any good to mention that I really did not intend to interrupt your hunting escapade earlier."

"Hardly." Gravity agreed, dryly.

"And of course," the gnome went on, in an even more despondent tone, "it would do little good for me to tell you I am on my way to participate in a study in temporal magical energy flow in Waterdeep."

"I'm certain they can get along without you."

"Yes." the gnome heaved a tremendous sigh, his eyes suddenly watery with self-pity. "That's the worst part. They will."

Feeling sorry for the gnome, but unwilling to involve himself, Skald began to make his way back into the cover of the branches where he could easily scale unseen down the trunk of the tree and report back. The Gnolls had spoken of gnomes, creatures with which Skald had little experience, and if they were preoccupied with either extracting revenge or cooking, they were less likely to involve themselves in disturbing the hunt for the elf.

Of course, he thought, claws clutching at the trunk of the tree as he gazed downward at the spectacle of gnolls and gnome below, the elf WERE here, she'd probably all wanna go and save him or somethin'. It's always somethin' with her. Never just wantsta go and get a sandwich . . . always gotta save the world.

From below, one of the Gnolls made a frighteningly eager sound between a yelp and a laugh, and Skald paused guiltily as he heard the gnome -- what kinda stupid idjit goes and runs into Gnolls anyways? -- moan with fright and despair. "Then I suppose there's only one thing left to do." Gravit said, and this time he sounded amused.

And then the forest exploded with light.

Shrieking and sounding for all the world like a rabbit with a foot caught in a snare, Skald tumbled backwards off his perch, thrashing wildly as he fell. His eyes were more sensitive than most creatures, and the light had been like a supernova of pain in his brain. He hit the ground, twigs and leaves giving way beneath him, and uttered another shrill scream as one wing crumpled painfully underneath him. He whined shrilly, completely consumed by the aches in his body although he had been through worse at the hands of Heurodis; for a creature with the attention span of a puppy who had just succeeded in getting it's legs underneath it properly for the first time, the last agony was always the greatest.

When he managed to blink away the worst of the light, however, any lingering pain was completely forgotten in the promise of greater sufferance that grinned above him.

"Hello, small mammal." Gravit said in a voice surprisingly like a purr. The circle of Gnolls was like an enclosure of rank fur, of blades and grinning teeth around him, the gnome looking down in sombre sympathy dangling limp in the grip of Gravit's free hand. As he reached downwards, Skald saw the lingering glow of magical energies about the creature's broad, clawed fingers, and he squealed in alarm and tried to slither away on his back. The Gnoll's hand easily captured Skald's entire torso. "Did you really think you would be able to spy unnoticed?"

"You fool." Xanos hissed, crouching amidst the thorny bushes and suddenly suffused with a nearly all-consuming desire to bellow for the Gnolls to make a nice roast out of the flying frog and offer up anything amidst his own supplies to be used as cooking spices. His legs were beginning to cramp up from holding his position for so long, the soles of his feet alive with tiny prickles of pain, but he refused to move, refused to give away his position even though he suspected it had already been blown. He inhaled deeply the scent of the

"You may as well come out, half breed." The Gnoll's mocking, sneering voice carried through the night air, drowning out Skald's terrified squeaks. "I have been aware of you since you blundered near. Handy things for those clever enough to use them, alarm gyphs, wouldn't you say?"

Inwardly, Xanos cringed. He was willing to accept he had erred in coming as close as he had rather than bypassing the creatures the moment he'd seen a glimmer of light from their campfire; after all, stealth was hardly his area of expertise. But to think he had ignorantly passed over a magical ward and not noticed? Unthinkable. Especially given that he had suffered countless exercises under Drogan's teaching geared towards just such detection. He thought, perhaps, he would not be remiss if he were to place the blame solely on Twen.

After all, she was not here to object to it at the moment.

"You can keep the creature!" Xanos yelled aloud, ignoring Skald's shriek of indignant fear. "I have no use for it! Eat with Xanos's blessing!"

Or to object to that.

"Your generosity is great, half breed!" the Gnoll shouted, and Xanos cursed; the voice was nearer. These were creatures well suited to scavenging and creeping. He didn't doubt they were even now spreading out to flank him. "Perhaps your generosity extends towards telling me exactly what has been going on today? I've made my lair in these woods for many a season, and not once has a day been filled with as much oddness as this one."

The Gnoll's very eloquence, his conversational manner in those bestial tones, made Xanos extremely uneasy, and he shifted his weight slowly from one leg to another, quickly making an assessment of the situation. Although he was unarmed, he was confident in his strength; that much, at least, his monstrous heritage had been good for, and he flexed one massive bicep to reassure himself, the muscles hardening further when he clenched his hands into fists. In a one-on-one battle, he thought he might have been evenly matched with the clever beast. Against five, however, he felt an almost entirely unfamiliar twinge of doubt; he didn't want to have his life ended under a pile of snarling Gnolls, their jaws tearing tendon and flesh, fetid breath hot in his dying eyes.

While he had never entertained the notion of becoming a bard, Xanos had discovered from a very early age that his mind became remarkably creative whenever he felt particularily morbid.

"I have no idea what you're talking about." he said, loudly, hoping his voice would cover the sound as he sidled a step to his right. He had no idea how keen Gnoll hearing really was.

And then, suddenly, the eternally grinning face of one of them thrust it's way through the bushes in front of him, eyes bright and gleaming amidst glossy dark green leaves. "All the more unfortunate for you. I would have preferred some information, but bandying words before death only delays the inevitable."

The sudden appearance of the creature was shocking enough -- it had appeared close enough that Xanos could see the wetness of it's nose, the discolouration of it's teeth, and so quickly and soundlessly. But when it thrust two heavy forms into Xanos's chest, he fell backwards with a grunt, startled, the sudden hooting of delight all around him.

He didn't bother to try to figure out what had been pushed at him, although judging from the frantic, serpentine writhing and mewling, one was likely Skald. He was aware of a rushing sound coming towards him from all directions, and he instinctively rolled to one side, tossing Skald and the other unfamiliar burden in the opposite direction. Roots and twigs dug painfully into his back, and when he pushed himself to his feet, he immediately found himself choking under the weight of a burly, furred arm clenching tight around his throat. The Gnoll that held him howled brutally loudly in his ear, and his spine creaked painfully as the creature used it's own brute strength to bend him steadily backwards. A drop of hot saliva fell onto his neck, trickling down his chest beneath his collar.

Ever since the battle atop Undrentide, Xanos had been disoriented. The abrupt shift from titantic fight for life to being lost and seperated from the companions he had been with for so long had unbalanced him slightly, making him feel as though he was moving slightly slower than the rest of the world, or perhaps just standing outside the flow of things. Twen's disappearance had as much to do with it as anything else; he had grown used to her presence, to turning around to find someone to argue with, and not having someone to blame right now was perhaps the most frustrating thing -- knowing that the only person who had walked him into this mess had been himself.

The Gnoll's saliva, sliding now across his skin like some repulsive lover's caress as it panted eagerly in anticipation of the sound of a snapping spine, sparked a sudden and sickeningly powerful lurch of white-hot fury and indignation in his stomach, and with a snarl of his own he planted his feet solidly in the ground and shoved himself backwards, tossing back his head.

He felt the impact of his skull on the creature's head at the same moment as he felt a crumpling from within it's body pressed against him, and it let out a surprisingly human scream of agony. Instead of pitching backwards as Xanos had expected, he had driven himself backwards against a tree, pinning the Gnoll against it with his own considerable bulk. The arm fell away from his throat, and as he stepped away, he heard the thing crumple to the ground behind him, making the high-pitched, miserable hnn-hnn-hnn of a dying dog in agony.

Inhaling deeply through his bruised throat, Xanos heard the crunch of leaves beneath a foot behind him, and spun around. In the gloom, the Gnoll was nothing more than an indistinct mass of darkness flying towards him, save the gleam of wet fangs and lolling tongue, and he caught it in his arms as if in an embrace as it hit him, staggering under the weight and hissing in pain. Although it snapped ferociously at his face, blasting him with hot breath as he fought to hold it off with one hand and grapple with the other, Xanos thought he heard it giggling between it's maddened barks. One clawed, powerful hand scrabbled for a hold on Xanos's chest, and then the half-orc found himself unbalanced as he was shoved back over the body of the now-still Gnoll behind him, and his vision was abruptly filled with a bright red burst of light as the back of his head connected painfully with the trunk of the tree.

A shrill, insistent ringing filled not just his ears but his entire head as he fell over the fallen Gnoll's corpse, and it's surviving companion leered above him. It felt as though his head was drifting apart into two halves, and he thought distantly that the only reason he was perhaps not unconscious or even dead from the strength of the blow was the very thick-headedness for which both Drogan and Twen had chastised him for.

"Stupid greenskin." sneered the Gnoll, and it grasped the front of his tunic with one hand, lifting him onto his feet with only the slightest grunt of effort. It was panting with excitement, bloodlust dancing in it's dark eyes. "We pick your bones while you still alive. We drink your blood while you still scream." It lowered it's muzzle into Xanos's face. "Make you wish stupid greenskin father never steal flimsy human mother from village."

In spite of his pain, Xanos managed to sneer himself. "You have my heritage backwards, you reeking waste of flesh." And he covered the Gnoll's face above it's jaws with one hand.

The cantrip was a minor one, really, even as cantrips went, but this close the damage was shocking. Xanos smelled the strange, sickly tang of acid and burning fur in the air a second before the Gnoll released him and reeled backwards, howling in incoherent pain as it clawed at it's eyes, now little more than leaking fluid from empty sockets. And a second after that, Skald barrelled into it's face, and it's features were lost in the sudden beat of leathery wings and snapping, serpentine jaws. The Gnoll screamed again, and as Xanos quickly struggled to his feet, he saw the pseudodragon throw it's head back, a piece of unidentifiable meat and fur flying through the air.

Two. Three left. Xanos looked wildly around, trying to ignore how sick he felt, or the warm, wet sensation of something trickling down the back of his neck from where his head had met the tree. Something crashed blindly towards him, and though he braced himself for impact, it merely stumbled past him, swayed drunkenly for a moment, before crashing to the forest floor.

It took Xanos a moment to register the form of another fallen Gnoll, the hilt of a dagger protruding from the back of it's neck just below the base of it's skull.

Someone crowed in victory, managing to sound both relieved and frightened. And somewhere in the vicinity of around Xanos's knees. "Ha-ha! I'll not be your dinner tonight!"

With Skald still attached, the blinded Gnoll staggered backwards and finally succeeded in ripping the small creature off of it's face. Dangling from it's grip, however, Xanos saw Skald grin before his jaws gaped and a bright rose of flame suddenly blossomed before him, and the Gnoll shrieked from the intense heat.

In the brief flare of illumination, Xanos caught a glimpse of a wild-eyed and dishevelled looking gnome standing a few feet away -- and the retreating figures of two Gnolls. One looked back over it's shoulder and met his gaze; and, Xanos would have sworn, grinned. And then the light died out as the screaming ceased, and they vanished into the woods.

The third Gnoll lay on the forest floor between the others, and the stench of burnt and liquefied flesh and fur was beyond anything that Xanos had ever experienced, but he barely gave it more than a passing grimace. His mind was racing.

Was this forest, wherever it was, full of more creatures like that? Was the intelligent Gnoll the only one of it's kind? Were Twen and Deekin the oddness the creature had spoke of?

And was she -- were they -- already lifeless remains sprawled upon the ground, leaves scattered over their still faces?

I've made my lair in these woods for many a season, and not once has a day been filled with as much oddness as this one.

Wearily, Xanos agreed.

A rustling brought his mind back to reality, and he felt the slight weight of Skald settle on his shoulder, small claws digging in for a firmer grip. For once, Xanos was far too tired to shrug him off. "I dunno about you," Skald rasped, "but I got fur in my teeth and bruises in places I didn't know I had. I'm beginnin' to think this whole adventurin' stuff is really for the birds."

"But you do it so well!" the voice that had spoken earlier enthused. It sounded much more cheerful than before, and a moment later, the woods were lit with the soft, comforting glow of a light cantrip, and Xanos found the gnome at his feet beaming up at him, face wrinkled in a smile. "Wonderful rescue, my friend, simply marvelous! To think that you should risk your lives for my own self, a complete stranger! Never have I seen such selfishness, even in the heroine of Neverwinter herself! I, Boddyknock Glinckle, am deeply in your debt!"

When the gnome bowed so deeply the tip of his long nose poked the earthen ground, Xanos exchanged a tired look with Skald. Gnomes and Gnolls. Wherever she was, in whatever condition, Twen had to be laughing at him.