Jurgon led Tarid along a wide, cart-rutted road that cut neatly through the forest for a few miles until they reached Wetzlar. Along the way Jurgon told him about the ambush on the logging camp, sometimes with tears in his eyes and at other times with stony, haunted stares out into the surrounding woods.
"My team and I were getting to work when that pair of monsters
came out of nowhere, cackling like mad witches as they attacked us. They laughed
while tormenting those folk, while sending some of us running into the woods like foxes before hounds; like it was all a game to them! Stringing up my neighbors like-" he stopped to brace himself with an angry shake of his head.
"You know, I've heard the tales of the Valenwood since I was a lad. The scary creatures said to prowl around the deepest woods, the blight... it's one thing to hear the stories. It's another thing altogether to live through them."
Birds sang a dirge from somewhere in the trees as the slowly sinking afternoon sun drew the shadows ever longer; shadows that Jurgon would occasionally glare at with deep suspicion. But with his story told, the logger kept his thoughts close to him until they reached his village, though he'd respond to anything Tarid would say with terse but honest answers.
Wetzlar was a compact village, built similar to the style of many settlements
within the Valenwood - with as little impact on the surrounding ecology as possible. Houses of stone and wood and were built upwards and close together with small paths linking them to common areas. Most of the homes were surrounded with trees and shrubs kept tidy by industrious hands. It gave the illusion that the buildings simply melded into the greenery.
There was only one main road that ended at a larger building that probably served as a town hall. This was where Jurgon went first.
"Before we do anything, I think we need to tell the town council," Jurgon explained with a resigned sigh. He knocked on the building's large door, which had a hound carved on it. After a few moments, they could hear shuffling from the other side as someone meddled with a lock.
With some effort, an old woman with soft features shakily opened the door. Jurgon caught the door and held it open for her.
"Yes? How can I help you?" she asked with a friendly, if not slightly confused, smile before she saw who was at the door.
"Marina! Please call the council immediately. It's an emergency," Jurgon said urgently. The old woman frowned and looked at his wounded hands.
"Jurgon! What has happened to you?"
"Please, we must
speak with the council."
"Come in, come in!" she backed away from the door and beckoned for them to enter. "I'll go get Sten and the doctor for you."
The interior of the town hall looked to be more of a public gathering place. A wide stone hearth took up the center of the room, its edges surrounded by benches for at least twenty people. A long table adorned with one brass candleabra occupied the far end of the open chamber.
The hearth held some smoldering embers that radiated a gentle heat - all that was needed on a rather warm autumn day. Jurgon sat down on one of the benches, though his boots twitched as if his feet were loathe to sit still after wading through so much tragedy in one day. Marina brought them some chamomile tea.
One by one, the town council assembled in the hall. First came a portly and bespectacled young man who looked every bit like a clerk who took his job very seriously. Then came the doctor with his medical kit. The clerk introduced himself to Tarid as Sten, and got right to the business of interrogating both him and Jurgon about the attack as if he fancied himself to be a detective. He was quickly interrupted by Marina, who insisted that he wait until everyone had gathered before asking questions.
Six more people showed up in a hurry, all humans
but a mix of ages
between maybe nineteen or twenty and Marina's age. Once brief introductions had been made, the council invited Tarid and Jurgon to the large table to tell their accounts of what had befallen the logging camp.
Silence fell over the room as the men told them of their experiences with the spriggans. Grief, rage and helplessness circled the room like vultures, diving down now and again to peck at the expressions of the group.
"We've always been staunch supporters of the Knights of Anathaeum
," Sten said matter-of-factly at the mention of the Knights' involvement, and several times afterwards in the course of the meeting.
It is said that tragedies have a power to unite former enemies - even politicians, from time to time. To the credit of these office holders, they quickly and efficiently formed a plan of action. All work was to be suspended to allow able-bodied volunteers to help with however much of the burial efforts remained, and to allow friends and family of the deceased to hold a vigil. Undoubtedly, they would also be motivated to meet those who had put an end to at least one calamity. The matter of the threat behind it, they agreed, was a topic for a later session; one they made clear they hoped the other Knights would attend.
"I hope your friends will join us. In the meantime, my home is your home... as long as you don't mind the little ones bothering you a bit. My boys have heard too many stories of brave heroes with swords," Jurgon said with a faint chuckle to Tarid after the meeting adjourned. "Of course, I'm sure my wife will insist you stay for supper. Speaking of which, I had better go see her before word gets around of what happened - if it hasn't already. You're welcome to join me, although you may want to wait a bit... unless you are keen on hearing a lady saying some very unlady-like words."
With that, Jurgon held out his bandaged hand to shake Tarid's, gave a nod of respect and left. Several of the council took their leave with him, except for a couple who were huddled in a secondary meeting of their own. Standing to one side, Sten was giving Tarid a very political smile.
The road between Wetzlar and the lumber camp was filled with a chorus of voices raised in sorrowful song and weeping. It appeared a bleak pilgrimage as young and old trudged along, adults out front wielding shovels and picks, elders bearing candles yet unlit, mothers carrying babies or holding the hands of older children. The villagers carried offerings of bottled spirits and food for both the dead and the Knights who had stayed behind to look after their burial; and all along the way they sang:
Cloak of mist hath passed away,
Which has veiled the heights all day,
See, the sun shines clear and bright,
Gilding all the hills with light,
To the arbour let us go,
Closely clinging, sweetheart mine.
But winter soon will be,
Lone and drear, bereft of thee,
I shall hear thy voice no more,
Never see thee cross the moor,
With thy pail at morn or eve
Tripping gaily, sweetheart mine.
Tarid Ra’leem Gromat N'Daego Josai