After he made a more usable torch from some cloth wrapped around a small piece of wood, Whitlock examined the area near the camp. He'd been able to determine that there were at least a dozen gnolls here, even though he'd only seen a few. Broken branches, trampled grass, and footprints scattered about led him to the conclusion that these gnolls had taken the horses. Worst of all, however, they had taken Melann. He had no idea, if she was alive or dead-only that she was gone and that they had carried her away.
The gnolls would be difficult to track, Whitlock figured, particularly in the darkness of the night. The horses, however, might be easier to follow. Obviously the beasts weren't happily led away. Signs of struggle here and there provided a path of sorts for Whitlock to follow even in the darkness. He pushed into the woods. The torch was in one hand and his sword in the other. His shield rested on his back, but he'd left the rest of their equipment back at the camp. There was no time to worry about that now.
Whitlock could think of nothing other than finding his sister. She was out in the forest, helpless, in the hands of monsters. It was his fault-it had to be. It was his responsibility to watch over her.
Wet grass made for slippery footing as he ran through the darkness. Whitlock's eyes never stopped scanning around him, looking for signs of the horses' reluctant passage through the brush. His makeshift torch began to die as he reached a narrow creek babbling against rounded stones through the tumbled terrain. He could hear insects chirping around the water but still found no sign of his quarry.
Whitlock allowed himself to think only that Melann was still alive. She obviously put up a struggle. The dying gnoll he finished off lay in grisly testament to that. Yet there hadn't been enough blood to suggest that they had killed her. He found no trace of her at all but for the torn bit of cloth.
Whitlock followed the creek for a short distance, then splashed across it in his heavy leather boots. His brand flared, then died. Whitlock glanced around, hoping his eyes would adjust to the absolute darkness around him. The chill of the night bit into his wet legs, but he ignored the feeling and walked onward, into the pitch darkness.
Unsure how long he'd been searching, Whitlock heard low growls and snarls and a slight rustling through the undergrowth. The noise seemed to come from one direction, then another. He tried frantically to follow the sound, but no matter which direction he started, it faded. Whitlock stood in the darkness, alone and confused. He couldn't determine which way he heard what he thought to be the gnolls. He wasn't sure how to get back to his campsite. His body ached from the blows he'd taken, and he was exhausted.
Like a granted wish, a cry cut through the night. A snarling bellow of pain rose up, passing through the trees to Whitlock's eager ears. As the warrior followed the sound, more bestial shouts joined the first. Whitlock himself yelled out, "Melann!"
This time, an answer came.
"Whitlock?" Melann's voice came through the darkness. "Whitlock, I’m here!"
"Melann, I'm coming! Hang on!"
With renewed fervor, Whitlock charged up the darkened, forested hillside away from the creek and the previous path of his search. Melann had to be at the top of this hill, as did a number of gnolls, by the sound of it. Branches and growth from the forest floor lurched at him as he ran through them, tearing at his clothes and flesh. Leaves battered his face and eyes. He held his free arm in front of his face as he ran. He pushed himself through it all, wishing for a path up the hill. Dark trees loomed at him from all sides, their branches waving at him, clawing like barely seen monsters. Still he drove himself onward. The trees seemed to thin as he worked his way through them, but as the hill grew bald, the surface sprouted rocks and bare stones that he would have to clamber over or move around, slowing him down even more without light to help him.
But then, as if by an act of a god, light came. Ahead of him, higher on the hill, a brilliant display of light appeared suddenly, shining down toward him. It cut through the night, dispelling the dark and allowing Whitlock to see, at least a little. The sudden flare of illumination caught him off guard and ever made him stumble, but he was apparently not that only one, for with the light's flaring came more beasts cries of surprise.
Guided by that beacon, he moved faster and more determined than ever.
Climbing over a large, irregular boulder, he reached what seemed to be the top of the large, bald hill. In nimbus of light without source, he saw a number of tall, massive shapes moving about a smaller one.
Screaming a hoarse, incoherent wail, Whitlock charged into the scene, his sword raised high above his head. He'd slung his shield over one shoulder by its strap, but now he brought it down to use in battle. Melann held a small, crude mace with a wooden haft and a lead-covered head. Her free arm hung limp and bloody at her side. Near her, at least nine gnolls bared their teeth and lunged at her with spears and clubs and maces of their own. Whitlock noticed as he drew closer that three of the creatures didn't move at all-they seemed to be held utterly frozen in place. Further, one gnoll held no weapon but instead clamped his hands over his eyes. That one stood within the center of the globe of light, and Whitlock realized that he'd been the focus of Melann's spell, or rather his eyes had been.
As Whitlock approached, the remaining five gnolls turned toward him, as did his sister.
"Praise to the Great Mother!" Melann said. Whitlock said nothing as he threw himself into battle. Three of the musky gnolls met his charge and engaged him. Another continued his attack on Melann, which she fended off with the mace. A fifth attempted in vain to shake free his companions held motionless by Melann's priestly powers. The blinded gnoll fell to his knees and howled skyward like a wolf. Long, houndish snouts snapped at Whitlock, and spears lanced in, seeking his blood. His shield turned away the first few attacks long enough for him to bring his already bloodied broadsword down on the head of the foe to his right. As the gnoll fell, he turned to see how Melann fared.
Whitlock saw Melann pound her foe with the mace, but her well-placed blows only made the brute cringe. It stabbed at her with its spear, forcing her to step back. Whitlock knew that if the gnoll kept her at a distance, the longer spear would always win out against the short mace. Two gnolls rushed him, and Whitlock threw his weight into a swinging blow with his sword that broke both spears as they jabbed at him. He snarled with rage, shaking both his sword and shield above his head. Whitlock stared into the eyes of the pair of gnolls, baring his teeth, his eyes wild with rage.
With roars that sounded almost like shrieks, the gnolls turned and fled. Whitlock ignored them and stepped over the felled creature to get to Melann's side. Her foe, seeing him chase off the others, also ran into the darkness.
"Are you all right?" he asked, looking down at her bloody arm.
"I will be," she said in a half whisper, obviously exhausted. "I was lucky in that I got the opportunity to call on Chauntea. Her power allowed me to hold a few and blind one. That gave me time to grab a weapon and free myself."
"I feared you were…" Whitlock couldn't finish, perhaps because of her, but more likely because of himself. “I’m fine, really," she said more forcefully, more reassuringly. "I feared for you, too."
Whitlock turned, his sword held in front of him. His wounded shoulder could no longer support the weight of the shield on his arm, so he let it drop. The light began to fade. The blinded creature ran down the hill, its hands still clutched over its magically bedazzled eyes. The gnoll took the light with him as it fled. The thought of giving chase burned it Whitlock's heart, but his body begged him not to go. Every muscle screamed with exhaustion.
He turned toward the unmoving gnolls, standing like statues in the quickly fading light. Each was captured in a pose of savagery and fierce attack. He raised his sword, but Melann put a hand on his shoulder.
"No. Let's just go," she told him. "Let's just get out of here. We're alive and we're free. They left the horses tied up at the bottom of the hill. I think they were trying to decide whether to use them or eat them. I think that they were definitely planning on eating me. Luckily, they thought they'd hurt me more than they actually did. By the time they carried me here, I was able to call on Chauntea for aid. Praise Our Mother."
Whitlock noticed for the first time that a thin trickle of almost dried blood marked the side of his sister's face. They must have clubbed her in the camp and dragged her off, thinking she was dead or dying. "All right," he said, clasping his hand around hers. The light was completely gone again. "Let's go."
The unmoving gnolls, with their outstretched claws and snarling mouths, remained like standing stones at the top of the hill as Melann and Whitlock made their way slowly down the slope. They found their horses tied to a tree just as Melann had said.
Whitlock didn't even try to lead the horses or Melann back to their original camp. It would be difficult to find it now, but in the morning they could retrace their steps and gather up the equipment and food they'd left behind.
The two pushed themselves to move at least a mile away from the gnolls' camp on the bald hill, following the stream. At that point, Melann once again called on Chauntea's granted magic and healed her brother's wounded shoulder with a cool, soothing touch. He smiled in appreciation. When she finished with Whitlock she mended her own injured arm with magic, then her head wound, which still bled slightly.
Now that his head had cleared slightly, Whitlock realized he'd left his shield on the hill. "Damn," he said softly. No way were they going back. Always keep your wits about you, his father used to tell him. Damn.
"The gnolls had a small bag of green stones with them," she told him, still rubbing her arm. The leather armor had been cut away by a gnoll's weapon. "They seemed to really value them. The one next to the brute that carried me away from our camp kept checking the bag."
"What were they, gems?" Whitlock asked, distracted with thoughts of what to do next.
"No, I don't think so, but I’m not sure what they were."
"Well," he said after a moment, looking her in the eye, "I hope we never find out." Melann smiled and nodded.
Whitlock was more concerned with the practical matters at hand. It seemed that the gnolls would return. It was only a hunch, but somehow he felt they still watched from the darkness surrounding them. Behind every boulder or tree, in any hole or cranny, they might wait. They now knew he and Melann could defend themselves, but did that mean they would only return next time in greater numbers?
The fact that his shoulder now felt both pleas antly warm and cool at the same time, rather than stiff with an aching pain, renewed Whitlock Something within him begged for sleep, but he knew it would be better if they put even more distance between them and the gnolls. Once Melann had exhausted her power by healing the worst of her wounds, he put his arm around her for support, and grabbed the reins of both horses. He led all of them even farther away into the night. Less than four hours before dawn, they foundered into a dry gully near the stream. They lay down close to the horses, without a fire. Both collapsed into sleep almost immediately.