The autumn rains rolled into the duchy of Westmark the day following the confrontation with the bandits, causing everyone to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary. The Knights and ducal guards had caught one of the two remaining bandits, but he had decided to die in a hopeless struggle rather then face justice back in Westmark that would have probably resulted in the same fate. The other bandit, apparently blessed with a supernaturally strong running horse, escaped to the south and Aurei sent out several patrols in the rain to search for him, but he had left the duchy.
All that day she had met with the Knights (minus Eleazar who had been put to bed and had drifted into a very deep, nearly coma-like sleep as soon as he had hit the pillow), Brother Darv, Thorm and some of the Dwarven leaders, and many townspeople about the recent events and what they meant. After many hours of discussion and debate, they all agreed that the Necromancer's Guild was undoubtedly behind the various dangers they had faced the past several months. It was decided that the patrols would be doubled and that a midnight curfew would go into effect until it could be determined where the Guild had secreted a base from where they were launching the attacks.
"It could be quite a distance away." Sir Alvis had told them, "The reports of an Airship should be believed, for they use several in the southlands."
"How far would you say?" Aurei had asked him.
"Duchess, in the southlands, they usually keep their bases two or three days' ride away from the area they are trying to influence. Their Airships can usually cover that distance in a day, or rather in a night, for the airships usually travel by night, though they sometimes travel on dark, cloudy days, concealed within the clouds. Their bases are always in desolate places, or at least in areas where no-one can see their coming and going. I would expect the base would be toward the south, to facilitate retreat to the southlands if needed. It will take some time to determine where they have their base of operations, but that would be my recommendation, that we find it, and then mount a force to strike them and eliminate them."
Aurei had agreed (as had everyone) and small, discrete scouting missions were set up to try to locate approximately where the Guild was sailing from in their magical craft.
It was an hour after midnight when Aurei had finished cleaning up the Muddy Boot (she found the quiet time late at night to be relaxing to her, so she kept the duty for herself) and she quietly went up the stairs to the room where they had placed Sir Eleazar, hoping that the warmer, quieter room in the Inn would enable him to get his strength back quicker than the Barrack-like facility of the Blood Knight's Keep. She knocked quietly on his door and nearly jumped back in surprise when someone opened the door. It was Siris, the Orc wife of Lute the Blacksmith. She held up a finger to warn quiet and slipped out into the hallway.
"Hello, Duchess, a bit late for a visit, isn't it?"
"I was just going to look in and see if he was awake yet before I went to bed."
"Brother Darv asked me to sit with him tonight until Lute finishes his patrol. I don't mind, it's very quiet."
"Has he stirred any?"
"No, but he seems to be dreaming, for I can see his eyelids move and he seems to frown some. If he came to with me sitting there, I'd probably scare him to death!"
Aurei smiled at the gentle-natured Orc woman, so amazingly different then the stories of Orcs that she had heard over the years.
"He's pretty scary himself." Aurei commented, "Not that I can say anything, as I've scared a few patrons over the years walking down this hallway at night!"
"So he's a Drow like you?" Siris asked.
"Half-Drow, half-Faesidhe Elf." Aurei explained, "At least that is what I've been told."
"Not a good combination, I'd say. He probably doesn't fit in anywhere."
"Something we'd understand." Aurei said with a sad smile and the Orc lady nodded, for both women had shared their feelings of alienation with each other many times.
"His eyes are like yours, Aurei."
"I know - he's the first Drow -or half Drow-- that I've ever met. But I make him very upset, I think his mother was the Faesidhe Elf and she was killed by the Drow -- which were his father's people, so I remind him of them. Which is sad because I'd really like to see how he handles being different. Anyway, I think I'll go in and sit there for a while if you don't mind."
"Fine by me, Lute has second watch tonight, so he'll come by as usual and get something to eat."
"Okay. There is some chicken left in the cold box, tell him to eat what he wants and you guys can take the rest home - it's not enough to serve tomorrow"
"Thanks, Aurei, we appreciate you feeding the on-duty guards and their families - most nobles I've ever met wouldn't think to do something like that. Yet you even trust your guards with a key to the Inn. I'll have Lute lock up when he's done.
"Fine, Siris, and thanks for watching Eleazar."
"No problem - he's kind-of like Lute - probably feels like he doesn't fit in, so he needs some kindness, I'd say."
The Orc lady left her and Aurei quietly went into the room and sat down beside the Knight's bedside. He laid there unmoving except for steady breathing and Aurei could not help but revisit many an evening seated next to her dying father's bed. The thought made her suddenly feel very lonely and sad.
She sat there and stared at the Drow/Faesidhe man and wondered if his life had been so horrific - at least in part- that it had hardened him to others. She pondered this while she listened to the rain, suspecting that Siris was right about the knight.
Downstairs, Siris was eagerly awaiting her husband's arrival. She took it upon herself to heat up the leftover chicken that Aurei had so graciously given to him and so a few minutes later when the front door of the Muddy Boot unlocked, she was ready.
The Half-Ogre turned and bid goodnight to the three other townspeople who had completed their shift at guard duty, and careful to duck his head coming through the door, Lute quietly entered, using the Guard keys to lock it behind him. With a sigh he pulled his soaked, heavy cloak off his massive shoulders and began to trudge toward the bar area where he usually sat to eat something. Halfway across the dark room he suddenly made out the tall form of his wife standing there and a huge grin crossed his face.
"Hey you!" he said in a low voice so as to not disturb the sleeping patrons upstairs.
"Hi! How was your shift?" She came forward and wrapped her arms around him, stretching up to kiss him passionately on the lips.
"It was wet." the Half-Ogre replied following the kiss. She led him over to a place close to the dwindling fire in the fireplace and Lute was very pleased to see a plate of food at the table awaiting him. Carefully he sat down in one of the chairs, the wood of the chair fortunately strong enough to sustain the seven and a half foot tall Half-Ogre. Siris stood beside him, her yellow eyes sparkling in the firelight as she eagerly waited. Lute took a bite of chicken then with another smile, swooped her up with one strong arm and sat her down on his lap. It was their usual custom, he would eat and she would snuggle up next to him, nibbling playfully on his ear with her small tusk-like canine teeth. It would always seem to do the trick, leading to a wonderful night of passion once they got home that they both greatly enjoyed.
In spite of their enthusiasm, they had not been able to conceive a child, something that greatly grieved the couple for nearly 10 years. Perhaps it was their mixed races - human and Ogre on his side and arcane engineered Orc on her side- that prevented them from having a child. She hated her own ancestry - being an Orc was tough enough, but her tribe had been part of Soric Potollis' army - at least the living part of the army-
but mere Orcs had not been good enough for the Necromancer.
Instead, his wizards had used sorcery to change, mutate and breed Orcs to suit his desire. It took them many years, even with accelerated processes aided by arcane spells. The result was a hybrid sub-race that was slightly more intelligent and taller with a somewhat more human form about them, but bred with more aggression and less cowardice in battle. Their lifespans were the same as Ogres, which was one of the races the wizards had infused into their sub-race.
Siris had been taken - along with Lute- from the breeding cages beneath Potollis' castle, after a massive raid by the Bitter Dregs, many years ago. Both she and Lute had been young children at the time of their liberation and they had been given as trophies of war to King Brax III of Northmarch, who very wisely realized the potential of the duo as spies amongst the troublesome humanoid clans that bordered the southern part of his kingdom.
They had gone in as such, along with 6 others liberated from Potollis' castle, posing as survivors of a raid that had been attacked by the Bitter Dregs. For seven years they worked as Blacksmiths and had sent back reports of the activities of the Orc and Hobgoblin tribes in the region before the four of them that had survived the assignment were recalled to King's Reach. Three years later they had come to Westmark, hoping to find no prejudice against their race. There had been some at first, but the town had needed blacksmiths and they had purposely kept their prices extremely low, so that after five years they were now mostly accepted. Aurei and her elderly father had been especially kind to them and they both felt a certain bond to the Drow as she also felt she was somewhat of an outsider. Thorm had been another friend, the dwarf travelling merchant finding a common bond in their love of crafting weapons and armor.
But she had Lute, and the two had grown up together and had fallen deeply in love at a young age that surprised those who did not feel as if Orcs or Ogres could feel any 'human' emotion. In fact, their tendency toward passion had got them in trouble once when they were discovered together in the Mill Pond late one night, much to their embarrassment. But both had a very strong attraction to each other and even as she sat with her arms wrapped around her husbands' neck, her sensitive Orc nose caught his pleasant musky odor and she felt her pulse race at the thought of his strong embrace.
"We did see something odd." Lute's voice broke her romantic daydreams.
"What did you see?" she whispered in his ear, caressing his rain-dampened black hair.
"Well, it wasn't something we actually saw- it was something I smelled."
"It was ghouls."
Siris sat up slightly in his lap, "Ghouls?! Here in town?"
"No, no. They were not close by - over the wall toward the west a-ways, but with the moist wind blowing in from the west I could smell them, though the other guards couldn't. They thought I was crazy, but Pectros believed me."
"I didn't hear anyone sound an alarm."
"No - they were out there in the rain, probably searching over the place where Aurei and the knights killed those bandits. Probably rummaging through the burnt bones for flesh."
"Did Pectros think the Necromancer Guild was behind them?"
"Yes, he thought they were using them as scouts to lurk as close as they could to town to see what we were doing. Don't worry though, the third watch has been doubled and they will watch for them."
"They're really interested in Westmark."
"They're up to something… something sneaky, I'll bet."
"I don't know, but I'll bet it's not as simple as it looks. The Necromancers usually have complicated schemes."
"I just wish they'd leave Westmark alone. I'm tired of battle, I want to raise a family."
Lute stopped chewing on the chicken leg and glanced down at his wife, hearing the usual pain in her voice."
"Don't give up on it. I haven't."
"It'll have to happen soon, Lute; we aren't getting any younger."
The Half-Ogre smiled, "It's just like crafting a sword - it takes practice until you master it. We need more practice, that's all."
Siris' eyes sparkled in the firelight, "I'm a firm believer in practice."
The Half-Ogre pushed his plate aside and took his wife gently in his arms, "Well then, let's go home and 'try, try again'.
The Orc woman needed no further persuasion, and a minute later they had locked up the Muddy Boot and were hurrying through the rainy streets with a new determination.
Aurei kept watch over the weakened Knight until dawn, and he did not stir at all. Before she left, she took his hand in hers and spoke briefly to him.
"Eleazar, I don't know if you can hear me, but you need to fight what has overtaken you. Don't give up - you have more friends than you know. That includes me, if you'll allow me to be one. I'm praying that Yesh will restore you to health and grant you happiness. You deserve it, I think. I've got to leave now, but please think about what I've said to you." After squeezing his hand, the Drow girl quietly left the room and hurried off to bathe before beginning another day's work. In the dim room, Eleazar opened his eyes, relieved that the girl was gone. As he lay there, he pondered what she had said and wished that he could obtain happiness. But how could he? All that he had prided himself on achieving had been a sham and instead of serving Yesh, he had unwillingly been a puppet for a demon. What good could he possibly do now? The thought filled his mind as he closed his eyes and sank back into sleep.