No wind blew through the hot summer air. The stillness made for a stiflingly hot ride through the grass-covered hills. Whitlock and Melann could see the Thunder Peaks rise higher and higher before them as they approached, yet no pace they kept could satisfy their desire to reach their intended destination. Melann was quiet, but she gave Whitlock the impression she was very pleased with all that had happened. Obviously she was still confident that her god was guiding them.
Whitlock, however, grew ever more pensive as he rode. The mountains ahead would be dangerous-he remembered clearly what they had heard about an amassing of gnolls. Further, who could guess what other sorts of dangers might lie there? He knew he was up to the challenge, but he also knew that the coming days might require him to use every bit of his skill and experience to insure that both he and his sister survived.
The sea of green and brown grasses occasionally broke on rocky islands that seemed to grow in frequency as they approached the mountains. Birds occasionally flew across the virtually cloudless blue sky. By midday on their first day out from Tilverton, they were covered in sweat as they stopped for a noon meal. They ate dry bread and even drier venison purchased way back in Essembra. The harsh sun would soon scorch their skins, so Melann took the time to mash some herbs she brought, mixing them with water to create a thin paste to spread over their exposed flesh.
"We should have remained in Tilverton, at least long enough to obtain more information about where we're headed," Whitlock said between careful swallows from his waterskin to wash down the dry lunch.
"And waste valuable time?" Melann countered, finishing her herbal mixture.
"We could have at least confirmed what he told us," Whitlock said. "Further, we could have restocked our supplies a bit." He tore at the dry bread with his teeth like a dog, shaking his head back and forth before gaining a crusty mouthful. "Not that we have much in the way of gold left."
"Once we get into the mountains, there will be wild game, and Our Mother will provide berries, roots, and other things to collect. I'm not worried."
"Of course you're not worried!" Whitlock suddenly-exploded. "I have to worry for the both of us. You're so busy praying and thinking about your god that I have to work twice as hard to keep us safe, provide food, and find our way. Don't you realize the responsibility that is placed on me? The burdens I must face?"
Melann sat in stunned silence, staring at her brother, which made him feel guilty and self-conscious. He brushed bread crumbs out of his beard and took a drink of water-anything to divert his gaze from his sister's wide-eyed stare.
"Is that really what you think?" Melann asked quietly.
Whitlock said nothing.
"You think I don't worry?" Melann asked.
“All I do – worry. I worry that when I spend all my time used on my religious duties I neglect you, and Mother, and Father, and even myself. I worry that then I do what I personally feel compelled to do what I am not truly as devoted as I should be to Chauntea. I worry that I'm not worthy to be a priestess, or that as a priestess, I make a poor daughter-or sister. Don't tell me I don't worry. If it seems I let you take care of things like navigation or keeping watch at night, it's because I trust you and now how capable you are."
She added, after a moment's thought, "Besides, if we need food, the Mother of All can grant me the spell to create it. You know that."
Whitlock wasn't an eloquent man. So many things jumped to his mind to say, but the words to explain them escaped him. Instead, he stood and began to gather up what they had unpacked for their meal.
"I'm sorry," he said finally, glancing only momentarily at his sister.
Melann sighed softly. She smiled a little and helped him pack their things into saddlebags so they could continue their journey.
By nightfall, Whitlock and Melann were well into the rocky, mountainous region known as the Thunder Peaks. Night in the mountains came quickly once the sun disappeared over the mountains, and it came with an utter darkness for which neither Whitlock nor Melann was really prepared. Tall peaks to all sides blocked out even most of the starlight, which encouraged them both to huddle even closer to their campfire. The darkness carried a chill with it, as well as an utter silence.
Neither sibling spoke. Instead they simply ate their small meal absorbed in their own thoughts. Whitlock's heavy eyelids bade him to lay back on his bedroll as he ate. His sister stood, mumbling softly something about checking on the horses before going to sleep.
Thunderous sounds rent the silence of the cool evening, and Whitlock sat up only to see two large shapes looming out of the darkness toward him. He grabbed his broadsword and held it in front of him as the two figures-massive, hairy creatures standing upright like men-lunged at him. One carried a short spear and a shield. The other wielded a huge flail in both of its hispid claws. The musky, animal scent that clung to these intruders brought visions of kennels and caged animals to Whitlock's mind.
The first creature lunged with its spear at Whitlock, who blocked the blow with his blade. Following its initial attack, the canine-faced assailant jabbed at him. It forced him back and off-balance. Whitlock attempted to regain his footing just as the second beast charged at him, howling, with the flail held high over its head. Whitlock held his sword up to counter the blow, but his feet failed him, and he tumbled backward over his bedroll. The flail barely missed his head as he fell, his fortune owing more to luck than skill. The second creature stabbed with its iron-tipped spear, but it glanced off the mail on Whitlock's chest making a resounding ringing noise. Whitlock would probably show a bruise there later, but if he'd not been too tired to yet remove his armor, he would probably be dead.
Knocked off his feet, Whitlock only managed to yell out briefly to Melann as he fought off his attackers.
Where was she? If he was attacked, certainly she was too.
The growling, bestial figure with the flail brought it down at Whitlock, but he managed to roll out of the way. The flail struck the ground next to him with a dull thud. The warrior rolled again and half regained his feet, keeping out of reach of the spear-wielder. Still unsteady, he realized that he stood next to where he'd placed his shield by the fire and grabbed it. The gnolls charged at him as he pushed his left arm through the shield's straps. Brandishing the metal shield with his family crest emblazoned on it, Whitlock threw himself at the advancing foes. With his shield to parry the spearman's jabs, Whitlock thrust his blade at the other gnoll. The blow slid along the creature's leather-armored side, but he drew blood. The monster howled in pain. Sidestepping the campfire, Whitlock positioned himself where the wounded gnoll couldn't get at him without first going around the fire. With that in mind, he broke the other creature's spear with two mighty hacks on its haft and slashed at the creature's arm, driving it back so that it cowered behind its own shield. Unfortunately, his attacks had taken too long. The flail-wielder had already gone around the fire and came up behind him. All Whitlock could do was bring his shield around as he turned to face the flanking foe and even that came too late. The flail crashed into his side, sending him sprawling toward the fire.
Fortunately, Whitlock hadn't lost his wits, despite the terrific blow. He drew the shield underneath himself, so that it not only protected him from most of the flames but gave him an instant leverage point to fling himself out of the fire. Unfortunately, he inhaled a lungful of smoke and lay hacking and coughing on the ground as both gnolls rushed toward him. Through teary eyes, Whitlock saw his foes advance and raised his singed shield arm to protect his battered body. "Melann!"
He still heard no answer. Gods help him if anything had happened to her. He realized then that while he fought these gnolls, he had no idea how many might actually be out in the darkness around the camp.
Whitlock slashed at the approaching gnoll. His blow sent the creature toppling to the ground. The other beast-man, still weaponless, paused just long enough for Whitlock to stand again. It bared yellow, pointed teeth as it stepped forward. It raised its clawed hand like a weapon. The gnoll blocked Whitlock's sword blow with its wooden shield and lashed at him with its claws. Again Whitlock caught a good whiff of its animalistic scent, but it actually helped clear his senses. His second thrust caught the creature on its exposed, shieldless side, and it crumpled as the blade slid into its flesh.
The other hirsute gnoll regained its feet, but its crooked stance betrayed that it was obviously quite hurt. It dropped its heavy flail and backed away, but Whitlock charged. He bashed into the creature with his shield, knocking it down again. A sudden chop from his sword made sure it wouldn't rise again. A small, greenish stone rolled from its dead hand as it fell to the ground.
Whitlock breathed deeply, trying to expel the last bit of smoke and soot from his lungs and mouth. His shoulder ached from the heavy blow he'd suffered from the gnoll's flail, but he pushed that from his attention. "Melann!" he called into the ink, black night. Whitlock stumbled to where they'd put the horses. They were gone. He found no sign of Melann either. The dark night kept its secrets well hidden.
Whitlock saw a dark shape near or on the ground, farther into the darkness. "Melann?"
No answer. Whitlock ran back to the fire. His scuffle through it had scattered the wood, and the separated flames were dying quickly. He grabbed a flaming brand, its end unburned but painfully hot. Whitlock returned to where he'd seen the shape. It was a body. A gnoll. Further, the beast-man still lived, though the sounds of its breathing were heavy and thick, as though it had suffered a wound against its chest. Sure enough, a closer look revealed that its crude leather armor was stained with dark blood.
"Where is my sister?" Whitlock demanded. The creature turned over to face the warrior. Its large, brown eyes showed only incomprehension and pain. A snarl escaped its bristling, bloody snout.
Whitlock placed his booted foot over the creature's chest and pressed down. "Where… is… my… sister?" he said, each word forced through clenched, bile-coated teeth. The creature didn't reply.
Perhaps, he thought, Melann managed to run into the woods. Maybe when the gnolls appeared, she saw them coming and slipped away. It seemed too much to hope for, but Whitlock looked around him, wishing to see her come out of the darkness unscathed.
How was this gnoll injured? Whitlock looked down at it and saw that its wound might have been inflicted with a blunt object, like a club. Melann carried a small baton to use in self defense. She must have fought them. Perhaps she drove them off, as he had done, but then where was she?
His mind searched for an answer when, just a few feet off to the gnoll's side, Whitlock saw a bit of cloth lying on the ground. It was a small piece torn from Melann's traveling cloak.
He brought his sword down on the neck of the dying gnoll.