For orcs, this crew had an amazing amount of gold and silver. Alfred laughed and laughed when Scarlet showed him a handful. It was from the giant’s stash, the one they had given us as part of the parley. Just Jacob checked around and each of the brigands had looted similar money, so much so, that they couldn’t realistically carry it all. In the end we agreed to keep ten gold coins each, and bury the rest under one of the more distinct trees in the glade. If it was there when they returned, it would be wonderful, but they could not risk being so heavily weighed down. The iron, boot shods, shield rims, swords, and armor would all be removed from the glade as to not offend the dryad who protected it. That would wait for another day, however. Today they wanted to return to the camp at the top of the cliff, gather their personal possessions and contemplate the next move.
We made it back to the switchback trail and wended our way upward. The broken chest was where we expected it to be, with wooden slats scattered about. I could’ve repaired the chest with my mending powers if the orcs hadn’t smashed it to bits. I guess they were looking for hidden compartments or something.
I had to check with Alfred at that point, and no, there were no hidden compartments. That would have been a waste if we lost something really cool. What was surprising was that by the time we got to the top of the trail, the camp topside had not been touched. Apparently the orcs were not sure if the place was defended or not. At least that was Just Jacob’s supposition. The other chest remained hidden behind some stones and the bedrolls and such were as we left them.
They got the fire going again and set a watch rotation, debating on their next move. It would be nightfall before they could get back to the glade and no one wanted to travel the battlefield at night. Knowing our luck, it would be filled with skeletal and zombified orcs.
One surprise for me was the white dragon cloak that had been part of the reparations for Baithor’s inelegant end to our parley. It was folded neatly and tucked under my bedroll. I did not recall doing it, but when I looked around I could’ve swore Scarlet was hiding a smile.
I stood and unfurled the cloak. It was huge, made for a giant who topped even Alfred by a head. It would more likely make a tent than a cloak for me, but it was soft and supple. Alfred told me it would keep me warm on even the coldest nights and hide me from all but the most observant eyes when I was moving in snow and ice. If I held still, only magic could discern my position in the same environs. Of course, in a place normally devoid of the purity of snow, it would more likely cause me to stand out. Regardless, it was a treasure that I was very thankful to have. Even if I could make half a dozen cloaks out of it.
“This is from one dragon?” I asked Alfred once I had it folded small enough to lay over my legs when I sat away from the fire. He was not comfortable sitting to close, preferring the cold. It was definitely magical since it took nearly no space and kept me toasty warm, despite the frigid temperatures. Quite handy that.
“One dragon, aye,” he assured me. “An ancient and revered wyrm my people named Inamorata for she was the spirit of the ice, and ice is what we love above all things. She embodied the heart of it to our people.” There was bitterness in his voice, and a hint of shame. “Baithor slew her, or so he claims, during an expedition when he was young. He left the holdfast with twenty of the my grandsire’s best warriors and returned alone with her hide. Her treasure was never recovered, nor were the bodies of the other warriors. That deed earned Baithor irrefutable rule of the holdings at Icewrack. My father died shortly thereafter, but Baithor kept me as his own, having no children of his own.”
He was not happy about his relationship to this Baithor cretin and yet, no happier that he was dead.
“Who will rule Icewrack after his death?” I asked when he grew silent.
“Not I,” he said, holding his head up. “It took four of the strongest warriors to subdue me and shear my beard,” he ran a hand over the stubble on his chin. “If I was deemed a youth still, I could not claim the holdfast and it would fall to the high king to appoint a new Jarl.” He grew silent again, but I let him stew. “Madoc was chief among those who sheared my beard, and it was he who I loved most among my people.” His face was hard but his eyes were clear. “He is right, I know now that I have seen the far country. But it does not make the taste of it any sweeter.”
“What is this far country?” I asked, not wanting to assume too much on his mythology and beliefs.
“The place beyond,” he began, puzzled. “The strongest warriors, those of keenest minds and stoutest heart go to the far country to battle amongst the heroes of all time. It is a great honor to be chosen by the winged maidens. It is a great and terrible honor,” he trailed off. “You called me back from that place, friend. You allowed me to see the visceral reality of death and brought me a second chance to live this life. I want to thank you for that gift.”
This time there were tears in his eyes, and he did not dash them away as many of us would. Tears were not things of shame in his culture, he later explained. A man must experience all emotions to rule others, for how would he understand the plight of his people, their joys and their suffering if he did not also experience those things.
He is quite insightful, this hulking brute of a man. Like Just Jacob and myself, Alfred was barely a man in the eyes of his people. And now, he chose to stay, to delay the orcs so he people could make their way home. This was the honor his truest friends gave to him to spare him the humiliation he would face otherwise.
So many lead ugly, harsh lives. Codes and rituals can cut as well as guide. something for me to remember. But that cloak was very, very warm.