The night air was filled with smoke coming from the burning huts, next to them. Risking a look around her own house, Loyia made sure the way to the next hut was clear. After being sure that no Ogres or Goblins were in sight, she turned to Gab and placed a finger on her lips as a sign to keep silent. Genuinely smiling, almost laughing, Gab made an energetic nod to his mother, signalling he understood.
One of the smallest races on Krynn, the Kenders normally reach just below four feet tall. Slender of shape, they are often mistaken for human kids. They like to dress themselves in bright, rich colour cloths. They also tend to wear their hair long and comb them with mixed flowers and other decorations for the women, while the men normally wear the traditional topknots.
In her early forties, Loyia was of average height and very handsome with her delicate features and her pointed Kender ears. She quickly wrapped her long gold and auburn hair, with a hair string, to prevent it from obscuring her field of view.
Smiling back at her son, she bent forward and gently kissed him on the forehead. At six years old, the young Kender was reaching a little above his mother's waist, with the help of his proudly worn topknot. A wooden toy dragon in his hands – made by his aunt, Myrra – the kid was seeing the attack so far as a big hide-and-seek game. Like all Kenders, Gab didn't know fear as the other races do. That absence of fear was both a blessing and a curse. Needless to say, fearlessness tends to put them into trouble and put their already great curiosity into over gear. It didn't mean that they would put themselves in danger if they could avoid it.
Loyia turned around and dashed, with Gab following, to the next hut, which brought them closer to the safety of the woods.
Almost half of the huts in the small Kender village were already burning. The surprise attack made by the Ogre raiding party was both deadly and effective. From her position, the Kender mother could see that the procession of Ogres and Goblins – she could count six Ogres and as many Goblins – was slowly progressing along the village main road, leaving death and destruction on their way.
"Mommy! Mommy! They caught Viana!" Gab pointed toward the enormous wheeled cage that the raiders had brought with them. Two large beasts of burden were slowly dragging the cage along the main road, completely oblivious to all the commotion around them.
Loyia looked in the direction her son was pointing. She saw an Ogre holding the young girl in one hand as easily as a human would hold a large cat. On a quick glance, Ogres resemble humans in shape but much bigger. Towering between eight to ten feet tall, their yellowish skin was often covered with tattoos and scars. They also had long, black, greasy hair. Those Ogres wore different and mismatched rusted and neglected armour plating protecting various body parts. An array of weapons was used by those raiders; clubs, swords, shields composed their main arsenal, which they used clumsily. But what they lacked in skill, they made out in brute strength.
His hand was encircling the mid section of the girl's body. Viana was screaming insults to the Ogre from the top of her lungs and only stopped when she hit the bottom of the cage when the Ogre dumped her unceremoniously. There was already a couple of other Kender kids in the cage, probably captives from other Kender villages who had the misfortune to be in the way of those monsters.
I have to make it quick, thought Loyia. Turning her gaze back to the forest, she made a mental course from where she was to the edge of the town when suddenly a Goblin turned the corner and came face to face with the two Kenders.
The Goblin was quick to react and made a short yelp to warn his partner who was just behind him. Greenish of skin, Goblins were a bit smaller than humans but still larger, heavier and stronger than any Kender. The two Goblins were an over match for the Kender mother, and she knew it.
Nevertheless, her protective motherly instinct took over and Loyia had both her daggers in hands before the monster could even blink. In a succession of quick stabs and thrusts, she was able to make the Goblins backed a couple of steps, more out of surprise than anything else.
"Run Gab! To the woods!" she instructed her son in Kenderspeak. A language she knew very few Goblins talked. Gab was used to obey quickly. The kid dashed, passed the two greenish fiends, escaping a clumsy attempt to grab him from one of the Goblin. Smiling and laughing - it was the best day of his life - the kid ran toward the woods. The Goblin, seeing his prey going away yelled as loud as he could: "Kender kid, here! Quick!"
Loyia quickly looked around and her fear proved to be true: a third Goblin heard the call of his pair and came toward them. From where Gab was, he could see the monster but the newcomer saw him and started right into an interception course.
Forgetting about her two attackers, Loyia tried to scream a warning to her son but one of the Goblins took advantage of her distraction and punched her in the belly.
Loyia felt backward, the wind leaving her lungs. Just before hitting the ground, she saw the Goblin grab the now powerless kid.
With what breath she had left, she screamed: "NOOOOOOO!" her right hand stretched out toward her son as if she could take him back to the safety of her arms.
The other Goblin had slowly placed himself on Loyia's side. When he saw her pinned to the ground, looking away, he raised his club and swung it at the screaming mother.
Loyia saw, out of the corner of her eye, the club coming like in a bad dream. Winded and too shocked to react, she faintly hoped that the hit would wake her from that horrible nightmare.
The Goblins took a screaming, biting and clawing Gab to the cage where the leader of the raiders waited, a satisfied expression on his face.
Massive, even for Ogre standards, the leader measured over nine feet tall. He was wearing a complete set of rusted and neglected black metal armour. The armour had the marking of the black dragon armies on it, identifying the beast as a soldier of the Dark Queen. The full plate armour was so heavy that only few humans on Krynn could even lift it from the ground. Attached on his left shoulder was a long chain onto which Groshlak had impaled several skulls: trophies taken from his most prestigious enemies. On his back rested two long swords placed in sheaths in an X pattern. An important feature of the Ogre was his missing left hand. It had probably been cut-off recently as the bandage covering the stump was mostly covered with blood. Even if he could only use one sword, for whatever reason, he was still carrying the two blades on his back.
"Another vermin, Groshlak!" announced proudly the Goblin. The Ogre took the young captive and ordered in his native language: "Open up the cage!" and with his shoulder, he pushed the Goblin toward the back of the cage.
The Goblin moved out of reach of the large Ogre and quickly opened the cage for him. The Ogre grabbed Gab by the throat and lifted him easily in the air so he could be at eye level with the child.
Gab tried to say something but he could not let any words pass the Ogre's grip. After a few heartbeats, the Ogre threw the kid inside the cage with much force. The young Kender boy went flying all across the cage where it hit the wall before dropping, unconscious, to the floor.
Groshlak let out a loud laugh and ordered: "We go! Now!" and putting action to words, he started to walk in front of his troops out of the devastated Kender community. The other Ogres followed him in front of the cage while the Goblins took the rear of the grim convoy.
Loyia slowly came back to consciousness. She could hear noise around her. Her eyes still closed, she heard people whispering. She felt more then heard movements around her. Some people mooning in pain, others were talking softly. She felt terrible pain in her head, her heartbeats vibrating through her temples.
Very slowly, she risked opening one eye. Fortunately for her, the room she was in was dark and dimly lit by candles. She saw movements and after some time, she could recognise Owena, the town healer, sitting next to her.
The very old Kender healer was telling something to Loyia. Trying to soothe her by the tone she was using but Loyia could not understand what she was saying. It was like if Owena was speaking a foreign language Loyia did not comprehend. The elder woman gently took back a loose bread of hair from the younger Kender's face back behind her pointed ear. While sadly smiling to Loyia, she warmly patted her on the shoulder, silently telling her to rest.
Confused, Loyia looked around her again. She finally recognised the large hut she was in. It was the small town's community hut, a place where the villagers used to gather to celebrate harvest festival, weddings and other joyful occasions. But right now, the big hut was turned into a shelter for the wounded; a makeshift hospital. There was a lot of people going about; most of them laying on mattresses, like Loyia, recovering; others going about trying to ease the pain from the wounded. Loyia could see that some Kenders were in very bad shape. Two males were also taking a dead friend out of the hut. When the door opened, the flash of the daylight blinded Loyia and made her head dizzy from the pain.
Her mind clearing up, she remembered the attack on the village. The group of Ogres arriving out of nowhere, killing, burning, stealing...
Loyia tried to rise to a sitting position but she immediately felt her vision dimming and saw black spots appearing. Owena said something that Loyia could not understand and felt back on her mattress. Looking next to her she feebly turned to the healer and asked through dried lips: "Where is Gab?"
Before the old woman could answer, Myrra, Loyia's younger sister, entered the hut. When she saw that Loyia was awake, she rushed to her bed, yelling and waving. Owena casted the young Kender a rebuking look that went completely unnoticed. "Loyia! You are finally awake! Oh-my, oh-my! I thought you would be in lala-land forever!"
"Myrra, calm down please," said Loyia. "My head hurts so much... Where is Gab? Have you seen him?"
"Oh yes, no worries! Last time I saw him, he was alive," replied an overexcited and smiling Myrra
It was hard for Loyia to talk but she had to know: "Where is he now? Where did you see him?" After taking a sip of water offered by Owena, Loyia continued to ask: "The last thing I remember was that awful Goblin taking him away."
Gently combing the hair of her sister, Myrra replied: "During the fight, I saw a huge Ogre taking kids prisoners and putting them into a wheeled cage. Gab was with them."
Loyia sounded very doubtful. "Why did Ogres take a six year old Kender prisoner?" Loyia had difficulties believing that but the news that Gab was not killed in the attack was a relief for the mother. It was possible to rescue a prisoner, but not a dead.
"I don't know," replied Myrra. "There is only one way to find out!"
"We need to leave at once!" Loyia tried to rise again and felt flat on her face, almost losing consciousness again. She was way too weak to stand on her own.
Owena grabbed her by the shoulder "Young one, you have been here for two days! Calm down. You are not fit for travel yet!" With the help of Myrra, she put Loyia back on her mattress.
It took two more days before Loyia was able to walk out of the community hut. With Myrra helping her, she reached the door and was able to have her first look at the village since the surprised attack by the raiding Ogres.
Hidden Pond was located in a small cove on the south beach of the Blood Sea of Istar. The small Kender village got its name because the bay was almost completely closed with just a small opening to the sea. The bottom of the small opening was very high so at low tide, a small portion of the sea was trapped in the bay, thus revealing the Hidden Pond. It was possible for the villagers to walk all around the pond at low tide without wetting their feet. Hidden Pond's inhabitants lived mainly on fishing, with all sorts of sea creatures (and other treasures) getting caught in the pond at low tide. It was easy for the Kenders to catch them with nets or fishing hooks.
The more adventurous and crafty Kenders in the village built boats that served mainly for recreation and exploration along the coast. Those few boats were normally attached to the village pier at the east end of the village.
The village itself was built mainly of small wood huts. The construction made mainly by a wood frame covered with furs and other material and fabrics. The houses were positioned along the side of a hill facing toward the sea with no particular order. The structures were connected by trails with no main roads. People just walked from one hut to another forming then a new trail. After some time new trails appeared and others, losing their fight against nature, faded back to the wilderness. Naming and organising the trails would have been useless and pointless to the Kender villagers who were not interested in any sort of organisation anyway.
People of Hidden Pond were as happy as any Kender community, going about their daily business. Older Kenders waving goodbye to younger ones as they left the village to explore the known world, only to return after many years to settle down, raise children and look at the newest generation going on.
The spectacle that awaited Loyia when she got out of the town community hut was a grim one. At least half of the small village's houses had been burned to the ground by the Ogres. The trail going to the cemetery was now so well traveled that it could be named a road. Sadly, the first road the settlement ever had.
All the dead villagers had been put to the ground, for their next journey, so the saying goes. But Kenders being Kenders, the mourning didn't last long. Loyia could see a group of six adults at work, rebuilding a hut. Right next to it, there were already two new constructions. Loyia could hear from the distance laughers and a song talking about fishing. Turning to the pond, she could see small silhouettes at work, catching the community's night meal.
The song raised the spirit of the mother. Where there was Kenders, there was hope, joy and life!
The springtime sea breeze was gentle on both sisters' face. Looking at the sun, Loyia guessed that they had two or three hours left before nightfall. Turning to Myrra, she said: "Let's go where they kidnapped Gab, please." Myrra smiled and guided her down a small trail leading toward the forest at the edge of the town.
As they walked, they crossed another villager. Smiling at Loyia, he immediately recognised the two sisters. Loyia was born and raised in Hidden Pond so when she became pregnant, she decided to return to her parents place to give birth and take care of her child. A few years later, her parents died and she promised them she would take care of her sister Myrra, until she was old enough to travel; so the three of them settled down in the small community. An accomplished adventurer in her younger years, she still preserved her hunter skills by returning for all sorts of small games to the village. Her sharp eyes have been the bane of many wild animals. Her aim with the small bow was famous in Hidden Pond. At the harvester festival, she was now forbidden to participate at any shooting contest; out of fairness to the other villagers. Like every Kender, she respects all living things. She would never take a life, be it a squirrel or a thief, if she could avoid it.
At first glance, it was hard to tell that the two girls were sisters. Just turning twenty, Myrra was smaller and thinner than her sister. While teasing her, boys in the village used to say that if she would fall off a cliff, her body would whistle on the way down. The acrobatic type, there was no cliff or tree that could resist her climbing skills. Fast and nimble, a mouse among the Kenders, she was a champion at dodging tag games. Always smiling, always happy, her good humour was contagious. It was impossible to stay in a bad mood while Myrra was around. Overactive, her auburn hair fashioned in two long braids never stays immobile for long and barely touches her back as Myrra was always in motion. Myrra's skill at crafting wood was well renowned in the village. Toys, baskets, furniture, everything that could be made out of wood were within her reach of skills. The small hut the two sisters shared along with Gab was always overcrowded with unfinished – or ongoing, as Myrra would say – projects.
A couple of months ago, Myrra felt ready to go out adventuring. She asked Loyia many times for tales of her travels in the large world. She would never get tired of listening to her older sister about the marvels on the road. With Gab sitting on her lap, Loyia was all too happy to tell the two youngsters of her adventures. Myrra made Loyia promise that when Gab was a bit older, the three of them would go out and discover more places and meet more people then Loyia did before. So they decided that next summer would be the time to go out.
"Isn't it great sister? We are finally going out adventuring! We just have to retrieve Gab on our way and from there we can continue on the road!" Myrra was supporting her sister while they walked toward the edge of the forest.
"Yes, well, we need to focus on retrieving Gab first. I'm afraid of what those big brutes might do to the village kids." Loyia was sad and furious that she let those monsters kidnap two town's kids.
"You always worry too much sister! Relax." Replied a smiling Myrra. "If they wanted to kill them, they would have done so in the village. No worries!"
While walking, they approached the location where Loyia was attacked. From their vintage point, Loyia could see the trail leading to the village.
Loyia walked to where she last saw Gab during the attack. Bending down, she could see the marks on the ground as the Ogre had dragged the small boy in the dirt. Looking at the marks, something caught Loyia's attention: a half buried toy. Gently removing the dirt from it, Loyia recognised Gab's small wooden dragon. She remembered that he was playing with it when they left the hut just before the attack.
The toy was broken in two. She gently took the two pieces in her hands and, pressing them against her breasts, hugged them. A deep sentiment of sorrow and despair engulfed her. Feeling Myrra's comforting hand on her shoulder, Loyia fought back tears and carefully put the broken toy inside her pouch, vowing to whichever gods might listen to her that soon she would give it back to her son.
"Don't worry sister, Gab is not far away. We will find him soon! I swear!"
"You are right sister. Let's get our stuff ready. We will leave in the morning and walk fast, following the tracks of those fiends." Resolve now replacing despair in the hearth of the young mother.
Shoulder to shoulder, the two sisters walked back to their small hut just before the sun settled down.
In the morning, as soon as the sun started to give some sign of light, the sisters were ready to travel. Loyia had still some stiffness in her legs but nothing a good walk would not correct. They packed everything the night before so both had a small backpack filled with provisions, a bedroll, flint and tinder, some length of rope, water skins, and of course, weapons. Loyia was equipped with her 2 daggers, one on each side of her waist, and her short bow slung on her back with a quiver full of arrows. Myrra was walking with her hoopak in hand. Both spear and slingshot, the small weapon was a Kender trademark.
"Ready sister?" asked Loyia.
"I was born ready!" replied Myrra, making a fierce looking face.
"You were born naked and crying, like the rest of us; I know because I was there!" smiled back Loyia. It was good going back on the road, even if she would have preferred going under different circumstances.
"I'm very happy that you are here to help me out Myr," Loyia gently squeezed Myrra's shoulder.
"No problems sis. Can we talk while walking? I will explode if we don't leave like RIGHT now!" giggled Myrra.
With those words, the sisters left Hidden Pond just as the sun showed some rays above the eastern mountains, leaving behind them the still sleeping village.
The tracks from the wheeled cage were very easy to follow in the muddy trail. Even a blinded gully dwarf could have followed them, remarked Loyia. It was obvious that the Ogre party was not relying on stealth but mainly on brute force. They expected no resistance from people from this part of the country.
"Do we have some sort of a plan, sister?" asked Myrra.
"A plan? That would be a first for the Kender nation," replied a smiling Loyia. Actually, after thinking about it, we do have a plan. We are going west, following the tracks and if I'm correct, they must be heading to the next Kender village along the coast. After that, they will probably be going to Flotsam or Port Balifor, the two major human cities in this region."
"I remember somebody saying that the black and white dragon armies control these two cities. I hope we can visit both?" asked Myrra.
"I would not be surprised if those Ogres are actually part of one of those two armies. We will find out soon enough," assured Loyia.
On Krynn, the continent of Ansalon was in full war. A year ago, the evil forces of the Goddess Takhisis launched an attack to seize control of the whole continent. Secretly waking up her dragons, which had been placed in a magical sleep at the end of the dragon war some centuries ago, the Goddess then formed huge armies known as the Dragon Armies. Lead by fierce and loyal Dragon High Lords, there were five of those armies. One for each color of the evil dragons it composed. The White Dragon army who controlled the white snow desert wastelands in the south beyond the ice wall. The Black Dragon army, whose vicious black dragons liked to live in swamps, already controlled the east part of the continent and major cities like Port Balifor and Flotsam. The Red Dragon army was the strongest of the five. Larger and stronger, the Red Dragon reigned supreme and was feared even amongst the other dragon armies. The Blue Dragon army lead by the Blue Lady whose tactics on the field gained her many victories against impossible odds. And finally the Green Dragon army was amongst the cruelest creatures who ever walked on Krynn.
Recently, the Queen Takhisis convoked the leaders of her armies to a meeting at Neraka, her capital, to witness her entry into the realm of mortals. Once in a physical form, she would be unstoppable and would win the war.
Opposing the Dragon armies, the Knights of Solamnia forged a fragile alliance with the elves and the dwarfs called "The Whitestone Council". Helped by the metallic colour dragons, they battled the evil dragon armies all across the continent.
The region of Goodlund, where Hidden Pond was located, was now an occupied territory. The Black Dragon army captured the two major human towns of the region and established its base of operation there. After several unsuccessful attempts to impose themselves in Kendermore, they decided that the effort was not worth whatever slaves, taxes or goods they might get from the Kenders. They had such a hard time trying to control the irrepressible and fearless Kenders that they mainly gave up and pretty much left them alone. So, to many small Kender villages, most of the people there hardly even knew about the war going on. On Krynn, news travel slowly to those isolated from the capitals of this world.
In Hidden Pond, the Ogres' attack was a surprise to them and only few could understand why they were being attacked in the first place.
The sisters continued their chat as they walked westward on the trail of the wheeled cage and the assailants who kidnapped the kids from the village.
Loyia set a fast pace for both of them. She really was hoping that they could catch the Ogres before they arrive to a big city. She knew it would be easier to steal back the kids during a night operation in the forest or in the wild, compared to a human city where Kenders are almost always restricted to enter in the first place. She also knew that during war time, those cities always had slave markets. She feared that the group they were following was in fact slavers. If they sold Gab to somebody else, it would be much more difficult to find her son after. Haste was very important right now. The slavers had four days of advance and if she remembered correctly, Flotsam was about six days of travel. She could only hope that they would walk slowly and maybe rest somewhere on the road. She sadly thought that the longer they would stay in the next Kender villager, the more it would help her get Gab back…
At night, they made a small camp, close to the road. Loyia felt her strength coming back to her legs. They made good distance today so she thought that tomorrow night they should be able to reach Twin Oak, their neighbouring village.
As the sun was starting to go down over the horizon, they decided to stop for the night. They found a spot close to the road but not visible from it, where the lower branch of a huge pine formed a small, natural shelter. After a quick meal composed mainly of dried fish and fruits, the sisters went to bed. They installed their bedrolls next to each other, face to face.
Without any reason, Myrra started to giggle, looking at Loyia. "What is it sis?" asked a puzzled Loyia.
"I don't know. I'm just happy to travel with you. I didn't have the chance to travel much. Well, not as much as I would have liked to."
Seeing Myrra's happiness eased the pain and worries in Loyia's hearth. They talked about wonders they would soon see and visit.
Tired of the day's walk, Myrra slowly fell asleep.
Loyia opened her pouch and retrieved the broken toy dragon.
Putting her weapons close at hand, she hugged the toy and fell asleep too, silently wishing Gab a good night, where ever he was.