The March of the Rose
Chapter 19

Copyright© 2015 by R22CoolGuy

Teleportation platform at the Temple of the Chosen, Thangdaemon Forest, Andor.

The adventurers found themselves completely surrounded by Warrior Brownies riding red tailed stags. Each Warrior was equipped with a glaive that was lowered and pointed forward like a lance.

"Lower your weapons," Beriwen commanded, dismissing her stone and staff.

The rest of the party complied with her command but did not put them away as Beriwen had. It was Tristan and Graydon who recognized the little beings.

"Warrior Brownies," they announced in unison.

"Indeed," a Brownie replied, urging his stag forward two steps. "And who do we have here? Trespassers?"

"I am Beriwen, Brown Witch of the Woods." Beriwen introduced herself. "We were not aware that we were trespassing."

The apparent leader did not respond, instead he urged his stag back in line. It seemed that the Brownies were waiting, but for what the adventurers did not know. They stood looking at the Brownies, when the path that Beriwen was trying to expose appeared in front of her. Three stags stepped back as a huge red tailed stag stepped into the clearing.

The stag was old, with a silver mane and silver velvet on his massive crown of antlers. The other stags dipped their heads in respect and the brownies dipped theirs as well.

"The Hart of the Forest," Beriwen whispered with respect.

"The heart?" Tristan replied.

"No, H-A-R-T," Beriwen replied.

"I am not so sure that Master Tristan does not have the right of it, Princess Beriwen," Brother William replied. "Either way it is a great honor to be in its presence."

The hart studied Brother William for a moment before nodding, seemingly in response to his comments. The hart slowly approached Anastasia and sniffed the air around her. He lifted his head and looked her straight in the eye and pawed the ground twice before dropping his head and bending a front knee. The hart then lifted its head and looked around at the other adventurers.

"Princess Beriwen, why are you and your party here?" the Brownie Warrior asked, the same one as before.

"I am Lady Anastasia Whiterune, Marquise de la Rose, and this is my party," Anastasia interjected. "Before any more questions are asked and answered I would like to know who you are and why have you detained us?"

"I beg your pardon, Lady Whiterune," the leader replied, leaning forward and sweeping his hand back. "I am Major McFinn, Commander of the 17th Lancers, of the Second Brigade of Warrior Brownies. How may we be of assistance?"

"Thank you, Major, we need to get to the foothills above Dria, without being seen by either the Dria defenders, or the Orc attackers. Can you help us?"

"Yes, we can be of assistance," Major McFinn nodded as he replied, after sharing a look with the Hart. "I could dispatch a squad of scouts to lead you and the Hart will open a path."

"That would be most welcome, Major," Beriwen added.

"Think nothing of it, Princess," Major McFinn replied. "It was the Hart's decision to lend aid to the King's Ward."

"King's Ward?" Tristan asked, looking pointedly at Anastasia. "You are King Dorian's ward?"

"No, we have a kinship of sorts, but I am not his ward," Anna replied and then looked to the major. "He lives then?"

"I did not say that, Lady," Major McFinn replied, and then nodded as if replying to an internal conversation. "The Hart believes so, though."

"Then what king?" Tristan asked, pressing for answers.

"No one you would know and a king of a long ago dead kingdom," Anna replied, tersely.

"When can you provide the escort?" Beriwen asked, moving the conversation back to the matter at hand.

"They have already been dispatched and should be here shortly," the major replied and added. "I must caution all of you to not stray from the path. The Hart is providing safe passage only as long as you stay within the path's confines."

"We will adhere to those restrictions," Anna replied for the whole group, after looking at each one and receiving their nods of approval.

Everyone looked up to the sound of whistling in the distance. Graydon and Tristan knew what the tune signified and perhaps Beriwen did as well. Brother William had read about Warrior Brownies in several older tombs while at the monastery but had never encountered any, though the ancient writings did include references to a certain song.

Six Brownies appeared from the forest in single file, whistling their signature tune, and swinging their off hand in perfect time with their step as they approached Major McFinn. The Brownie in front of the column turned his head slightly to the left and commanded 'Halt'. The squad stopped perfectly in time, right in front of the Major.

"Second squad reporting as ordered, Sir!" the leader proclaimed, hopping up, stamping his foot, and saluting with his palm forward. "Corporal McCarthy at your disposal, Sir!"

"Very good, Corporal," the Major replied, returning the salute. "You and your squad are to provide escort services for Lady Whiterune and party."

"Sir, yes Sir!" Corporal McCarthy replied, again performing a little hop, and stamp of the foot, followed by a salute.

He turned his head again and commanded, "Second Squad, at ease!"

McCarthy marched over to where Anastasia was standing and stopped in front of her, performing the same saluting ritual everyone had seen previously.

"Corporal McCarthy and Second Squad at your disposal, Lady Whiterune."

Anastasia nodded and then looked to Major McFinn.

"When can we leave?"

"As soon as you are ready, Lady Whiterune," Major McFinn replied and then pointed to where Tristan had found the path.

The all watched in astonishment as the brush retreated revealing a stone walkway leading into the forest. The pathway was wide enough that two could walk side by side comfortably.

Anna looked at the others and then thanked Major McFinn and the Hart for their help. She retrieved her hobbled horse and waited for the rest to do the same before telling the corporal that they were ready to leave. The corporal dispatched two of his squad to take up the rear and then added one on each flank and one to take the lead. He bowed to Anna and swept his hand back and waited for her to start. She led her horse forward and McCarthy took up station at her side and then Tristan fell in behind. Dunin and Beriwen followed after, with Graydon and Brother William behind them, and finally the two Brownie scouts bringing up the rear.

Tristan was just following along not really paying much attention to anything in particular when he happened to look up to where Anastasia was walking. He watched the rhythmic movements of her stride as his mind wandered. Many thoughts flitted around in his head: her beauty, her voice, the way she cocked her head when examining something. Her smile, sense of purpose, and the way she handled a blade were additional examples. One thing, however, kept percolating to the top of his musings and it confused him. He thought that Aaron was her guardian but if that was true then who was this King? She definitely said her guardian was a King but then who was it? And another thing, neither Beriwen nor Dunin even batted an eye over that revelation. He needed to figure out what was going on. What he did not realize was that his gaze did not go unnoticed.

Graydon had noticed the direction of his gaze and after excusing himself from Brother William slowly, but purposely increased his gait until he was alongside Tristan.

"Why do you not just go and talk to her?" Graydon whispered in his ear, causing him to jump.

"Damn it, Graydon, do not do that!" Tristan exclaimed in admonishment, causing everyone to look to where the two were walking. "You startled me!"

"Everything all right back there," Anastasia softly called out, eyeing Tristan curiously.

"Yes, everything is fine," Tristan replied, glaring at Graydon.

The party continued on and Graydon waited until everyone had settled back down to continue the conversation.

"You like her, admit it," Graydon softly accused.

"We have been over this already," Tristan replied with a hiss. "She is out of my league."

"And I keep telling you that it is all in your head," Graydon whispered back.

"Her guardian is a King!" Tristan retorted, trying to keep his voice down.

"I thought you said you knew her guardian?" Graydon replied. "Besides, have I not told you that that does not matter?"

"Yes, yes. The Code of the Lawgiver," Tristan replied. "That might work amongst the Dwarves but not in this instance."

"I disagree completely," Graydon countered, shaking his head. "The code works for all instances, even yours. But I digress, if you do not tell her how you feel you will never know if it is reciprocated. I am done talking. I will leave you to your self-torment."

Graydon just shook his head and slowed his gait until he was back in step with Brother William. Tristan looked back and slowly shook his head as well and continue forward, alone.

Graydon was not the only one who noticed Tristan's preoccupation with Anastasia's posterior.

"I wish he would just approach her and tell her how he feels," Beriwen declared, shaking her head.

"Who, Tristan?" Dunin asked.

"Yes," Beriwen replied. "He is probably the only one outside of Anastasia who does not know how he feels."

"Well, I do not know him well enough to say anything," Dunin countered, and then added. "And neither do you. We should just mind our own business."

"I suppose, I just want everyone to be as happy as we are," Beriwen replied and leaned into Dunin's side. "How about we talk about your sight gift and why you chose not to share it earlier?"

"It is a gift from Kalaban and allows me to see things as they truly are," Dunin explained. "As for why I did not share it earlier, well, I am really not sure. Maybe I am just cautious by nature."

"What do I look like when you look at me?" Beriwen asked, batting her eyes before chuckling.

Dunin took the time to look at her again before answering.

"First of all your beauty takes my breath away," he began and then leaned over and kissed her. "I see you outlined in emerald green with ribbons of browns mixed in. I can see a darker brown band around your right ring finger. And finally I see a tiny silver thread emanating from your chest and terminating at mine."

"Wow! You see all of that?" Beriwen replied in astonishment. "Even our bond?!"

Dunin nodded which prompted Beriwen to smile even brighter and kiss him even harder.

"What do you see when you look at ... say, Tristan?"

"You understand that this is just between you and I?" he asked, concerned. "The things I see are private, like knowing someone's secrets."

"I understand, really," Beriwen replied. "I will not repeat it to anyone."

"I see an aura of dark grey, with many specks of blue twinkling like little lights. Within the dark grey aura are many ribbons of black and only one or two of white. I also see a dark outline of a sword at his hip."

"Well, most of that I understand, except the twinkling specs of blue," Beriwen replied. "The emerald green you see in me is Eldritch. The three elder races; Elfen, Tarran, and Thangdaemon all manifest Eldritch in different colors. It is because of our different physiologies. Blue is the color of a Tarran which makes Tristan's specs unusual. Does anyone else have unique coloring?"

"Well, Anastasia also has specs of blue, but not as bright as Tristan's" Dunin replied. "What do you think it means?"

"I do not know, but I would wager that it is certainly unique amongst humans," Beriwen replied. "Have you ever looked at yourself?"

"No, have never been in front of a mirror," Dunin replied and shrugged. "I am really not sure what I would learn."

"I do not know either, but I was just curious," Beriwen replied. "The sight is how you found the path, is it not?"

"Yes, Kalaban says that there are very few things that can elude my sight and his as well."

"It will surely come in handy before this quest is finished, I would wager," Beriwen concluded.

The two continued talking about mind and things as their bond deepened.

Tristan was still watching Anastasia every now and then but he was also watching the forest to his left and right. It was several hours later, although since the forest was in perpetual twilight he had no real way to mark the passage of time. Anyway, he had been walking along just letting the scenery pass when he thought he saw a flicker of something to his right.

He started paying more attention to the trees to his right and only occasionally checking his forward progress. There was that flash of movement again. He looked intently and finally saw what had been moving from tree to tree pacing the party's movement: a vision of loveliness wearing a flowing diaphanous shift. She was not very tall, shorter than everyone in the party, pointy ears, small button nose, full red lips, pale creamy skin. She shyly smiled at Tristan as she flitted from tree to tree.

Tristan was mesmerized by her and slowly, unknowingly, started moving closer and closer to the edge of the road. As he drew closer her smile grew larger and she began batting her eyes, and beckoning with her finger. Tristan broke into a large smile and consciously angled toward the tree line.

One of the flanking Brownies noticed Tristan's movement and increased its pace until it was just to Tristan's right rear.

"That would be most unwise, human."

When Tristan did not respond the Brownie shifted its glaive and stamped the haft down on the outside of Tristan's right foot.

"Hey! That hurt!" Tristan exclaimed hopping up and down.

"You were not listening to me," the Brownie replied and shrugged.

"Tristan, is everything all right?" Anastasia turned and asked from the front of the column.

"Yes, everything is fine," Tristan replied, blushing with embarrassment because the entire party had stopped and was staring at him.

"McGinnis?" Corporal McCarthy called out in question.

"Nothing, Corporal. A misstep of my glaive haft," McGinnis quickly replied. "My apologies."

Anastasia and the corporal nodded and the party started forward again. Tristan waited a moment and then addressed the issue.

"What was that all about?" he asked, pointing to his foot.

"You were not listening and very close to make an error, a very grave error," McGinnis replied. "She is not what she seems. Look!"

McGinnis pointed with his left hand to where the lovely young thing was looking out at them from around a large tree trunk. McGinnis then closed his hand and opened it, splaying his fingers apart, and her image wavered and changed. There before them was a creature straight out of Tristan's worse nightmare.

The creature's face was more angular and sharp, pointy ears laid back flat against the side of skull. Stringy, greasy, tendrils of hair hung from the sides of her head where flowing blonde locks once were. The small delicate mouth was now a wide maw, open and exposing rows of sharp pointed teeth, capable of rending skin and flesh from the bone. Tristan shivered and looked away.

"She is a Wood Nymph and time spent with her would have been at first joyous but ultimately deadly," McGinnis explained. "Do not stray from the path. Ever!"

With that last pronouncement McGinnis slowed his gait and drifted back away from Tristan. Tristan took one more look at the nymph, who smiled, back now in her fetching guise, and shivered before turning his head forward.

Old Kings' Highway, just west of Castle Daemongurd, Thangdaemon Forest.

The Orcs were having their own problems staying on the road. Every few moments a cry would go up as an Orc was sucked into the forest screaming before going silent. Maoauk was marching up and down his lines forcing them onward while Tsor was whipping with tendrils of rock magic any that lagged behind.

Lord Ragnar, and the rest of the Vanguard were constantly being held up as the army foundered like a ship caught against the rocks.

It seemed as if the forest had risen up and was fighting a delaying action, slowing the army's advance.

Tsor ordered several sorcerers to flank the army on each side to provide protection. This maneuver seemed to help since the army began to gain ground with minimal interruptions. The Vanguard pushed forward clearing the road in front and giving the army a clear path to the small mining town of Dria. Ragnar had scouts out in front to prevent the Vanguard from walking into a trap and was waiting for word back when the town was in view.

Lord Ragnar watched as two of his scouts came down the road toward the Vanguard and pulled up in front of them.

"My Lord, the outskirts of the town is just around the bend there," one of the scouts reported, pointing to where the highway disappeared around a bend to the left. "The forest ends there and the defenders have set up a blockade to hamper our dispersal."

Ragnar's plan had his Vanguard fanning out when they came out of the forest, advancing on the town. He planned for some resistance but did not expect it to hamper their taking of the area. The fact that a barricade had been erected to prevent them from achieving their formation spoke of some fighting knowledge in the town.

Ragnar slowed the advance of his men so that he could see this barricade and determine the best course of action to overcome the obstacle. What he saw impressed him. If nothing else, these humans were resourceful.

The barricade spanned the entire roadway from side to side. Thick trees had been used and were anchored into the ground on either side of the road. The trees were banded one to the other on both flanks of the road but never quite touching it. Whoever had engineered it had knowledge not only of fortified construction but that the roadway was enchanted to keep itself clear. The fact that the blockade never actually touched the road was ingenious and circumvented the road's power. The barrier was also constructed just at the border of the forest preventing the army from going around either side. They would have to assault the barrier from the road and jammed together. Yes, whoever was in charge knew what they were doing.

Ragnar stopped in front of the barrier and began to gather Eldritch. His men stood waiting in an arc behind him. There were archers on scaffolding behind the barrier raining arrows down on their heads but none were getting through because of the protection Ragnar had put up.

Ragnar released a beam of crimson Eldritch directed right at the middle of the wooden barricade, which exploded in a shower or wooden shards. When the dust settles there was a gaping hole in the middle of the barricade. Ragnar's ground troops lowered their pikes and ran toward the opening before it could be reinforced.

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