Before the afternoon shadows were long, all save the two sentries were asleep, stomachs full, dreaming whatever dreams each held within the limitless expanses of his own mind. Gord was one of the two standing watch, and it was he who first saw the two riders heading directly for the copse of trees that sheltered the band, following the faint tracks the riders had left behind when they came to this place.
"Patrick, hsst!" Gord called softly to alert his fellow guard to the approaching pair. "See there! Rouse Curley and Gellor – quick now!"
In a minute the whole party was awake and alert, watching as the two riders came ever closer. They were but a bowshot distant now, and Gord could discern that one was a woman, the other a man. Oddly, the former wore armor while the latter was garbed in nondescript robes. No amount of observation could discover any others with the two. They were alone, evidently – not the advance scouts of some larger body of tracking foes. Gellor and Greenleaf held a brief, whispered conversation, and then the druid grinned and nodded.
"All of you, be ready. I shall cast a spell to disguise us all as trees. Circle round our clearing here, and leave the horses be. We shall see what the wolves on our track think when they discover no one save some nags at home for their call!" So saying, the druid motioned them to places he felt perfect for his purpose and then began his dweomer.
This was all new and strange to Gord. One minute he was himself – and the very next he was a tree, but one that could somehow see! He felt his arms, legs, and body – yet he had roots and leaves too! He sensed other human-trees also, and could actually observe such growth where once Incosee and Gellor had stood. A bird fluttered its way onto one of his outstretched fingers, perched, and twittered its little song. Gord wished to smile, but the hard bark of his skin wouldn't allow such freedom. This was a perfect disguise beyond all of the arts he had ever learned. The pair of horsemen – horsewoman and horseman, rather – entered the now-smaller glen and reined up short.
"This is a strange rede, Oscar."
"Nay, Deirdre, not strange at all… I sniff a dweomer druidic."
"At them!" shouted Curley Greenleaf, suddenly changing from an ash tree to his own true form even as Gord was watching.
Feeling instantly enlivened and free, Gord sprang forward, drawing his sword in the same smooth motion, which brought him to a position ready to attack the interlopers from their flank. The others of the little company were likewise freed, and began whatever actions they deemed best to overwhelm these two who sought to prevent the party from succeeding in its quest. The young thief was, in fact, almost at the point where he could strike the robed man – a magic-user, judging from die motions he was frantically performing as the disguised group suddenly changed from harmless trees to armed warriors before his startled eyes. His female companion was also readying her own defenses, shield before her, lance lowered, when another shout rang out.
"Hold!" It was Curley Greenleaf once again, only this time he was frantically attempting to stop the attack he had just precipitated.
"Stop!" echoed the one-eyed bard as he too recognized the emblems that the two displayed openly at their breasts. Gord saw that both wore the silver unicorn horn of the goddess Ehlonna, and the green of an oak to symbolize a unity with nature. These were the two sent from the Circle of Eight to assist them with their quest for the second part of the evil artifact!
Although the horsewoman was in motion, her lance leveled and her horse urged to a canter, she managed to control the animal and come to a sudden halt at the combined cries of druid and bard. Likewise, her associate did not continue with his spell casting, but at the call for a cessation of attack, simply ducked and avoided Gord's faltering blow.
All in all it was a near thing, but no harm was done. Curley and his one-eyed friend were quick to make amends for the near-fatal encounter, explaining that they had been beset in Badwall and were now doubly wary and perhaps a bit too ready to defend themselves. The magic-user, Oscar, was not impressed by the whole matter, but his female companion seemed totally relaxed and unaffected once it was called to a halt.
"You chubby trickster!" she cried to the half-elven druid. "That little enchantment you pulled on the two of us nearly did for me… and Oscar too, only he won't admit it. You are pretty good – for a man!"
Gord disliked this brash woman instantly. Girl was more like it, and a very pretty one at that, not that it made any difference to him. She was too big, too much like a man, and too loud and sure of herself.
"Well, let's not stand around with our thumbs up you know where," she said sarcastically. "I am Deirdre, a knight of Hardby and minion of True Womanhood. Despite that, I serve the Circle of Eight this day, as does my boon companion, Oscar, a wizard from the Gynarchy's good lands as well." Here she proceeded to clasp each of the company's members' hands, one after another, bidding each greeting and success. Deirdre came to Gord at last.
"Well done, little man!" she said as she grasped his hand in a powerful grip that would have made a man less strong wince. "You were near to striking poor Oscar a heavy blow when you recovered and held that stroke." She was at least an inch taller than Gord, even though he wore his high-heeled riding boots. Her cool, green eyes and tanned face mocked his challenging stare as she looked down at him.
"You are a tough one, no?" she added. "Well, one day after we have done with this matter perhaps we'll meet on another ground and see what shall be seen."
"Charmed, m'lady," Gord replied with all the mockery he could muster as the girl knight turned and strode over to Curley Greenleaf and Gellor.
"Let us hold council, us three," she said, "while Oscar makes his peace with your fellows and we become one company. There is much to discuss if we are to succeed in this mission."
Both the druid and the bard seemed to be somewhat at a loss as to how to deal with a woman such as this one. If one of their fellows had acted this way, either man would have managed the upstart easily. But she was female, and obviously a puissant fighter as well. Confident and condescending, this lady knight of the female-ruled free city of Hardby was dominating otherwise capable men simply by virtue of her sex!
Females in any profession – thief, fighter, cleric, magic-user, whatever – were not uncommon. They were accepted and given equality and full respect as a matter of course. Here, though, was a woman who was condescending to accept men as near-equals, rather than expecting that males recognize her as one of them. It was indeed overwhelming.
Oscar was a likable enough chap, Gord grudgingly admitted to himself, even though he seemed to accept his associate's superior role with bland equanimity. When Jokotai made rude suggestions as to their relative positions after dark, the magic-user merely laughed deprecatingly and went on to other matters. Gord shook his head in disgust. This fellow was no man at all!
When Incosee noticed Gord's reaction and asked the young thief if he wouldn't willingly take a turn on the bottom for a woman such as Deirdre, Gord hawked and spat his rejection. Even the taciturn Moon had to guffaw at that, for he knew his own desires as well as those of the disapproving young thief – his protests notwithstanding.
That made Gord do a bit of thinking. What did he actually feel about the tough female knight? She was good-looking – in a hardened, sun-browned way. Her hair was light brown and streaked with highlights the color of the morning sunbeams as they lanced through the foliage of the forest. Her complexion, tanned as it was, still showed fairness and a scattering of tiny freckles across her nose and cheekbones. Despite her obvious ability, her familiarity with the outdoor life, and her muscular development, Deirdre was a desirable woman. Her armor could hide neither her prettiness nor the form that bespoke her sex. The hard steel had been shaped to conform to her curves, and imagination could easily fill in the rest, that which the metal actually concealed. No matter; Gord had seen far more beautiful women – courtesans, daughters of rich merchants, even mere trollops.
"I can get a piece of ass in many places," Gord said then, looking Incosee squarely in the eye, "and without the bitch supplying the favor demanding she be dominatrix in the bargain!"
All of the rest laughed at this, and Gord thought it was more because they doubted than believed his remonstration. He started away angrily, only to bump into both Deirdre and Oscar standing and waiting for the group to stop their banter and notice them.
"Druid Greenleaf and Lord Gellor have asked that you all join in a conference," the girl said icily. The disdain on her face was plain evidence that she had heard the whole exchange.
Gord remained quite composed. "Please inform our comrades that we will be there momentarily," he said without a trace of embarrassment.
When Deirdre turned and went back to where the two men waited, her face was flushed, but whether from anger or shame, Gord couldn't tell. The slight magic-user grinned at the assembled adventurers, bowed slightly, and then followed his companion.
Blonk made the number of the party thirteen. Nobody liked that much – not even the rugged mercenary, from what he said. Still, he was committed to the quest now, having left Badwall in somewhat of a questionable situation. They couldn't ask Blonk to return there now; whether from town officials or pursuing foes, his life would be in definite danger. So eleven had suddenly become thirteen, a dozen men and one woman – all seasoned adventurers and veterans of many a tight situation.
This group was to pierce the trackless tangles of the heart of the Suss Forest, find a lost ruin there, recover a bit of some strange and occult object of eldritch origin, and carry it safely into the hands of those who fought against Evil. Very well, they would do it or perish!
Deirdre and her associate Oscar had managed to traverse the woodland often, journeying between parts of the Wild Coast and Celene on affairs upon which neither party elaborated. Blonk too had had some experience in the Suss, traveling and hunting it frequently during the past years. That was sufficient when coupled with the information Curley said he would furnish when the time was ripe. After a brief discussion as to how to array themselves for the coming trek, the party ended their council. Next morning they would begin the most trying part of their quest.
The usual watch was kept that night, with two sentries rather than one because the party was now relatively large. Curley Greenleaf was quite concerned about their tracks, for Deirdre and Oscar had managed to follow without difficulty. One sentinel was posted to observe there, while the other guarded the horses and watched the other perimeter of the small encampment.
The druid made a point of assigning duty so that from midnight on, first Gord, then Curley himself, would stand watch along their backtrail. Gord was trusted, of course, but Green-leaf also knew of the power that his sword bestowed upon the young thief. Between this special vision and the elven sight that Greenleaf possessed, it would be nearly impossible for attackers to surprise the party in the dark. This meant that Curley expected trouble, and that it would come from adversaries able to see in darkness, and Gord was speculating as to the nature of possible attackers throughout his two plus hours of standing guard. Nothing of unusual nature occurred, however. At the end of his period of sentry duty, he awoke the druid and headed back to his own bedroll to finish off the night with a couple more hours of sleep.
Gord saw his old friend alert the three apprentices – he couldn't ever recall their names – and then awaken the magic-user, Oscar. After a whispered conference, the apprentices fanned out along the edge of the copse as Curley and Oscar stole out of the camp eastward, surely going back over the route they had followed to gain their current position within the stand of trees. Gord was tired, but he stayed awake to learn what was going on. About half an hour later, the pair came back to the encampment. Oscar and the fledgling druids said nothing, simply returning to their places and going back to sleep. Mystified, Gord decided he'd ask about it in the morning and settled down to sleep. Full sleep would not come, but the young adventurer remained quiet and dozed off and on for about an hour, possibly longer, until he heard a distant but loud voice that sounded much like Oscar's. This was followed immediately by yells and shrieks coming from the same direction. He sprang up to learn what was happening, and in a moment everyone in the small clearing was awake and arming.
"Curley!" Gord demanded in a low voice so pitched as to carry only as far as where the druid stood. "What's going on?"
"Got the buggers!" Greenleaf replied, chortling with glee. "I thought some filthy humanoids would be used to dog our trail! Did you hear 'em howl? That was 'Uroz' they were shrieking… ores they are!"
Before Gord could reply, the wizard from Hardby began an incantation that drew the young thiefs attention. Outlined against the red glow to the east – the light of a spreading grass fire, not the rising sun – was a swarm of dark figures. Even as they ran toward the copse that sheltered the party, Gord saw a faint flickering emanate from Oscar's fingertips. The phenomenon disappeared instantly, and suddenly a burning sphere appeared in the midst of the onrushing attackers. It was nearly three hundred yards distant, but the globe expanded and burst with a roar, the blazing light nearly blinding Gord in the process. There were more cries, and the survivors of the fireball's terrible destruction ran right and left.
All thought of making an attack upon those within the grove of trees was certainly gone. The grass and scrub growth was blazing now – two walls of flame moving outward and toward each other. Gord was glad not to be on the receiving end of whatever the druid had done, let alone Oscar's deadly blast of magical fire. The wizard loosed a pair of lightning bolts in quick succession for good measure. These, however, came from a stubby wand Oscar had drawn from his wide sleeve.
"Hurry!" Gellor called. "Ride west quickly! Don't you think there'll be retaliation coming soon as those dogs' masters can manage to come up and deliver it?" The bard was already mounting his stallion as he spoke. Gord ran to join him, as did Oscar.
The others had saddled the mounts, and all of the party's gear was ready as well. In seconds all thirteen were in the saddle and urging their horses through the stand of timber toward the opposite side. As they broke from the copse and trotted westward, a veritable storm of fire and flashes of lightning broke out among the trees behind them. Gellor had been right, of course.