Dusk and Auraus and their band, the Grey Riders, have been trying to determine what is happening to travelers disappearing in the Garrend Mountains. Unfortunately, after being captured in a raid, it looks like Dusk and Auraus might be the ones disappearing. This is the first in a series of Mist Gate Crossings Novellas to chronicle some of the events that occurred before Lise and Jason cross over from our world.
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The Grey Riders' Search
A Mist Gate Crossings Novella
By Susan Bianculli
Children's Brains are Yummy BooksCopyright © 2015 Susan Bianculli
All rights reserved.
It was early Spring, and mid-morning sunlight lit the Garrend Mountain range trail. The Grey Riders, a well-armed mixed group of horse-mounted Surface-elves, Gnomes, and Dwarves were traveling a part of the range that none were familiar with. They were on a mission to find out why travelers had been going missing, so they rode cautiously. But perhaps they rode a little less watchfully than they might have otherwise done due to the presence of their Wind-rider fellow overhead.
Auraus Berize, flying scout above the group, knew that they relied on her eyes and her magic. She took her commission to aid and protect them very seriously, and was diligent in her duties as both scout and Priestess to the Goddess Caelestis. Below her, the Grey Riders entered an unknown, twisty mountain pass. Auraus flexed her huge white and gold wings and swooped up to a higher vantage point. What she saw beyond the other end of the short passageway made her spiral back down. The horses, accustomed to her presence, did not react to either the sound of her loudly flapping wings nor to the powerful gusts of air they created as she approached. The Riders, however, tensed because they knew something was wrong.
"Grey Riders! Dusk! I see something up ahead off to the right. It may be a hunting party that ended up being the hunted instead," she called down as she slowed above them.
Dusk Velamn, the half Surface-Under-elf/half Surface-elf who was the leader of the Grey Riders, relaxed a little at her words.
He waved and shouted back up, "Then we will need to go and take care of them. Where are they?"
Auraus picked up speed and flew up and ahead of the group just above the passageway. She left the passage behind when it opened up into a pretty little mountain plateau. She landed next to four Surface-elf bodies that looked like they had been mauled by a pack of mountain wolves. One mountain wolf body, a hefty-sized one with obvious battle wounds, lay nearby. Blood and bits of flesh and viscera were everywhere in the orange-striped grass — a sure sign of animal attack.
Dusk ordered some of the Grey Riders to keep a lookout while Auraus, he, and a couple of the other Riders gathered the bodies together for the Rite of the Dead. The Wind-rider directed that the remains were to be laid out side-by-side; but before she began the Rite, Auraus looked at the bodies with a puzzled expression on her face.
"What is it?" Dusk asked her.
"I am not sure, Dusk," she replied. "These bodies do not — feel — right."
"What do you mean?"
She sighed. "I can see that there are teeth marks in the bones and the flesh has been bitten and chewed on, but I am not sure that those were the original causes of death."
"Oh?" asked Dusk, intrigued. "What was?"
"I do not know. I have no evidence; only my gut feelings." Auraus drew what was left of the hunters' cloaks over the mangled corpses in preparation for the Rite.
As a priestess, part of Auraus' stock in trade was going on her feelings. Dusk's amber eyes turned thoughtful. Could this be the first sign of our elusive bandits? he wondered.
Since coming to the Garrend Mountains in the last seasonal, the Grey Riders had found and put down a couple of bandit groups in other parts of the range. But, since coming to this new area, they had not seen any traces — they had only heard stories of mysterious disappearances. The Grey Riders had put it down to banditry, and so had come to take out the outlaw group that was operating in the area. Dusk chose to take her words as a shaky confirmation that the Grey Riders were finally in the right place.
When Auraus was ready to perform the Rite, the rest of the Grey Riders — minus the ones on lookout — came to stand around in respect as she knelt down before the dead. She pushed her golden hair back out of her grey eyes and prayed for the gift of the Goddess's divine power; then she chanted the short ceremony from her Handbook of Caelestis. As usual, the Rite concluded with the appearance of the silver souls rising out of the bodies and arrowing away to whatever afterlife awaited them. The empty bodies collapsed into ashes under the cloaks.
Dusk respectfully offered the Wind-rider a hand up. "Auraus, once you are ready, fly scout in this area and see if you can spot anything unusual. If your gut feeling is correct, I want to know if there is something more serious for which we should be on the lookout."
Auraus nodded, took a deep breath to re-center herself, and launched herself into the sky. Behind her, the Grey Riders collected the equipment that the unfortunate hunters no longer needed. The Wind-rider circled in an ever-widening pattern around them, but saw nothing to be alarmed about. When the Riders mounted up and took to the trail, Auraus resumed her customary forward scout pattern. About one degree's rise of the sun later, she spotted what looked like a merchant caravan on the trail heading towards the Grey Riders. But something seemed off about it, so she circled out to get a better look from behind them. As soon as she was close enough to see more details, she was glad she had taken the precaution of coming up from behind the carts. She flew swiftly back to Dusk and the others as fast as her wings would take her. The Grey Riders were about to enter a scrubby woods, but they stopped when Dusk signaled a halt at her appearance.
Landing next to Dusk's horse, Auraus said breathlessly, "There is some sort of caravan coming, but it is not an ordinary one. One of the carts is made up of nothing but metal bars, and I swear I saw beings inside it!"
Dusk grinned fiercely as he looked over his shoulder at his followers. "Hah! You hear that, Riders? The Divine just may have finally smiled upon us!" Cheers rose from the others which were silenced when Dusk held up an authoritative hand. "Grey Riders!" he commanded, "fan out to your ambush stations here. Hold yourselves hidden until I give the signal!"
The Riders eagerly dismounted and disappeared among the trees. Auraus gathered all the horses together and used her training to quiet the mounts. She picketed them and camouflaged them in some bushes a distance away from the road. In short order the woods looked empty of beings and beasts. The Wind-rider then flew out of the woods to hide up on a huge rock further up the road so she could give advance warning of the suspicious caravan's approach.
Soon Auraus saw the caravan's lead outrider on the road. She used a little mirror, held just for this purpose, to flash reflected sunlight back towards where the Grey Riders hid. She knew that Dusk would now be readying the Riders to attack, so she turned back to the mismatched collection of carts. The caravan consisted of two carts: a flatbed wagon with crates and barrels tied together on it, and a metal-barred cart. Inside the barred cart a Dwarf and a Faun sat with bowed shoulders on the bottom of the cage floor. Goblins and Ogres escorted the carts. Four Ogres rode huge horses, with the one in a different helmet probably in command of the entire outfit. A dozen Goblins walked in two lines alongside the carts. But what united them was that each of the Ogres and Goblins wore a light blue tabard with a dark blue wave design on their chest.
Perhaps Dusk was right to hope the Grey Riders are about to get some needed intelligence at last, Auraus thought.
It was not until the rear outrider was beyond her position that she silently glided into the air in the opposite direction, so that the sound of her wings as she rose into the sky would not alert the caravan to the fact that it was not the only company on the road anymore.CHAPTER 2
As the caravan came into view down the leaf-shadowed lane, Dusk could see that what had to be the fore outrider had fallen back to join the caravan. That meant to him that the aft outrider would have caught up with the tail end behind the cage.
Not bad, he thought with begrudging approval. I would have done the same.
The Miscere Surface-elf also noted the matching designs on all the beings outside the wheeled cage, and furrowed his forehead.
Is this some sort of official prisoner transfer or something between settlements? he wondered.
A moment later he threw out that thought. It was a Dwarf and a Faun on the inside of the cage instead of other Goblins, and if it had been a legitimate prisoner transfer, the prisoners would not be in a cage. They would be restrained on horses. Therefore these were the actions of bandits and not settlement Elders, which meant the Grey Riders were free to act. There would be plenty of time for answers from the defeated when the fighting was over.
When the bulk of the grunt Goblin guards were in the middle of Dusk's ambush, he leapt to his feet and bellowed the signal. With a great hue and cry, the Grey Riders attacked from all vantage points — from charging out at ground level to dropping down from thee trees. The Goblins panicked and tried to scatter instead of fighting, including the ones driving the wagons, and to a one they were all killed fairly quickly. The Ogre riders shouted in anger and tried to trample the raiders, but their huge horses shied at the smell of spilled Goblin blood and they had their hands full trying to get the mounts under control.
Dusk ran out, leapt up to the nearest horse, and used his momentum to shove its rider to the ground on the other side. The Ogre, landing at a bad angle, stunned himself. As the now rider-less chestnut gelding bucked away, Dusk yanked the dazed Ogre to the side of the road so he could get into a position where he could finish his opponent off. Wings overshadowed Dusk, blotting out the indirect sun, and a javelin spearing down from the sky made him flinch a little as he stabbed the fallen Ogre through the neck.
"Hey! Watch it!" exclaimed Dusk.
He turned to scramble to his feet and leap for the reins of the Ogre's horse. Dusk nearly tripped over another Ogre that bore Auraus' javelin in his eye.
"Watch, yourself! Just offering you a helping hand, Dusk!" Auraus called down with a smile. She swooped back up into the sky, her eyes already scanning to make sure no further reinforcements for the caravan came.
Dusk quirked his face. He turned to see how the battle progressed and was not too surprised to see it was over. His eyes swept the trail, and he relaxed when he saw no more enemy movement. He tensed again when he heard both the Dwarven healer's name, Soloug, and Auraus' name being shouted urgently. Homing in on the calls, he spotted two of the Surface-elf Grey Riders seated on the ground to the left of the battle, leaning against a scrubby tree. One Rider was staunching a wound to the left side of the other Rider by pressing a cloth to it, but the makeshift bandage was rapidly being stained with blood. Dusk hurried over.
"Hah! That was an easy fight!" called Festille to Dusk. She was the one holding the wadded up fabric to her brother Geldorin's side.
"Easy for you to say. You did not get hurt," groaned Geldorin, eyes closing against the pain.
The sound of wings flapping heralded Auraus' arrival, and Festille got out of her way so the Wind-rider could see to the wound.
Auraus pulled a corner of the cloth away and probed carefully around the wound, assessing it with gentle fingers. "It is not so bad, thankfully," she said.
"Ouch! Ouch! Hey, careful!"
"Oh, Geldorin. Do any of you ever hurt for long when either I or Soloug are around?" Auraus admonished with a smile.
She put Festille's hands back over Geldorin's wound to hold it together and closed her eyes. Dusk watched with a small smile as he knew she was sending up a prayer to Caelestis to draw down power enough to heal the wound — a giving for a getting. Opening her eyes, she released that divine power into Geldorin's side to heal the deep slash. No matter how many times he witnessed a magical healing, it never ceased to awe him.
A good thing, I suppose, else Mother would probably give me what for over it, he thought with a half-smile to himself.
The blood slowed to a mere drip and then stopped flowing altogether. Geldorin sighed in relief as the pain disappeared, and Festille removed her hands.
"There! All better. Unless a kiss is also needed to complete the healing process?" Auraus teased as she stood up and accepted the wet cloth Festille hastily wetted with her waterskin to wipe their hands.
"Thank you as always for the healing, Auraus — and what would you do if I said 'yes'?" Geldorin replied with a grin.
She swiped cheerfully at him with the bloodied cloth before tossing it back to Festille.
"You are welcome for the healing as always, and do not ask about the kiss unless you mean it," she grinned back.
Auraus looked about for other Grey Riders to help and headed off to another Rider further down the trail.
"Hey, Dusk! Stop loitering about and come and help us free the prisoners, eh?" a voice shouted from behind them.
Dusk headed over to the barred wagon where Tricoth, a blond haired, green eyed, unusually burly Surface-elf stood. Dusk saw with approval that the rest of the Grey Riders were cleaning up the carnage in the routine way they had developed over the last year or so. Some gathered the bodies and stripped them of their clothes and armor and weapons, so that Auraus would be able to give them the Rite of the Dead. Other raiders gathered the horses and checked them over, or rooted through the supply wagon to make a pile of what was useful. Still others assembled a warning pyramid of broken armor and things that would hopefully unnerve any other bandits that came this way.
Dusk shook his head as he picked up one of the matching tabards already stripped from the fallen. He had never seen a blue wave design or blue wave heraldry like this before.
Who does this belong to? What is going on here? he wondered as he tucked it into his belt. And is it connected to the bodies we found earlier?CHAPTER 3
Once at the wagon he could better see the cloven hoofed, blonde-furred female Faun and the short, brown-haired, intricately bearded male Dwarf inside. They were dressed in the respective clothes of their races, but they wore identical stiff leather collars locked around their throats.
"Are either of you injured?" asked Dusk.
"No, neither one of us, Leader," replied the Faun in a faint, trembling voice that was still high and sweet. She darted her widened eyes from one Surface-elf to another.
"We understand from your friend here that we have you to thank for our rescue," added the Dwarf in a gruff, gravelly tone.
"I may be the leader of this little group, but we all are responsible for your rescue," Dusk replied as he indicated with a sweep of his arm his fellow Grey Riders behind him. "However, no thanks are needed, and you may both call me Dusk. We are looking for the keys to your cage right now. I assume you were captured by these brigands, but this is the first time that I have heard of bandits taking prisoners with such — interesting — preparation." Dusk eyed the slave-like looking collars around their throats. "Is there anything you can tell us about all this?"
Just then a female red-headed Gnome ran up, shaking a ring of keys and yelling, "We found them! We found them!"
"Good work, Telsori," said Dusk. He took the keys from her and turned back to the cage. "My dear beings, we are the Grey Riders; a fellowship of comrades who are out to stamp out what banditry we find," he said as he ceremoniously unlocked the cage door and opened it. "Let me be the first to welcome you back to freedom."
With a slight bow he held the cage door open. The two now ex-prisoners did not need to be asked twice and eagerly jumped out of the wagon. Dusk hunted on the ring for the keys that would work on their collars, and he soon had the leather pieces lying on the ground. Telsori scooped up the collars and took them to where the warning pyramid of useless items was being artistically assembled. She added them to the top after jamming the locks with gravel and then smashing them with a heavy stone.
The Dwarf caught Dusk's hand and shook it. "Dusk, huh? Unusual name for an unusual looking Surface-elf."
"That's not all that is unusual about him!" said Tricoth with a grin.
Dusk shot him a warning look, but the recent prisoners rose to the bait.
Excerpted from The Grey Riders' Search by Susan Bianculli. Copyright © 2015 Susan Bianculli. Excerpted by permission of Children's Brains are Yummy Books.
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