Flern pulled her cloak tight against the cold. They sheltered against the rocks, with fir trees to block the worst of the wind. The fire stayed good and high because people got up in the night to add a log or two. Around four or five in the morning, Flern heard some rustling in the nearby leaves. She sat up and saw that Boritz came awake as well. Moriah started coming around. Flern heard it again after a minute. She had heard Jaccar warriors in the bushes, but this sounded nothing like that. This sounded more like something on the prowl, and it did not care who might be listening. Flern’s first thought was night creatures, but she quickly rejected that idea, knowing that the night creatures would not stop to rustle the leaves. Her second thought was ghouls, or whatever might have set that trap, but Laurel dissuaded her from thinking that way.
“Not ghouls,” she whispered, but it came clear as a bell in Flern’s mind. “They would be on us and already building the fire for the feast.”
“That’s where I left the remains of our supper.” Moriah said, but she spoke a bit too loud, and the rustling leaves stopped all at once.
“Bear.” Boritz whispered, and then “Bear!” He said it again with some volume as the creature came right into the camp and stood up. It looked like a big one, too. It growled as Moriah screamed, followed by screams from Flern, Andrea, Elleya and Wlkn. Badl threw a log on the nearly dead fire and waved his hands over the top with a bit of dwarf know-how, to bring the fire to new and roaring flames. Boritz screamed as well, but directed it at the beast, and surprisingly it came out something like, “Shoo! Go away!” This bear, one that obviously liked the taste of meat over the herbs and roots most bears ate, looked too startled by all the commotion and screaming to know what to do. To be honest, it struck out of fear. Flern got knocked back by one sweep of a tremendous paw, and she only got saved from death by her armor. Boritz waved his weapon at the beast, still hoping to drive the creature off without having a battle.
“Horses!” Flern yelled, and Wlkn, Badl and Moriah went quickly to try and calm the horses while Andrea and Elleya continued to scream. The bear turned on Boritz as Flern drew her sword with a speed difficult for a human eye to follow. She struck the beast hard on the top of its head, stung it with the flat of her sword, and she let herself shoot up out of reach as the bear turned around. When it looked up at her, she looked down at it and she growled “Grrr!” Boritz threw his hands up and hollered at the same time, and at last, the bear chose discretion over valor. It howled, fell to all fours, and scamper away as quickly as it could.
Flern came back to earth with Boritz’s words. “You are full of surprises, Red.”
“My ribs hurt.” That was all she could say, and she rubbed them a little as Badl came rushing up, to interrupt them all.
“Laurel has heard them, and Moriah confirms, so they can’t be too far away. No time for breakfast. Ghouls on the horizon.” He waved his hands over the fire again and the flames died instantly to their former red ash state. Then he and Boritz peed on it to finish it while Flern looked away. She stepped away from the smell of bear and whistled. Thred came right up. She removed his elf made hobble and then helped Andrea with hers since Andrea still shook from the bear.
“Up,” she said, and added, “Boritz!”
“But in the dark, on the cold and wet and ice it will not be safe.” Wlkn helped Elleya mount his steed.
Flern just let herself start to glow, and she turned in the general direction and let her eyes shoot moonlight ahead, like two headlights on a big rig. “Laurel. You need to be with me to lead. Everyone else, single file and follow my light. Laurel brought Brmr’s horse up without hesitation. They all understood that Badl and Boritz probably knew the territory and the ford better in this place than Laurel, but the elf maid was still new at riding and Flern felt she needed to be where she could be watched.
They trotted at best, not daring to ride full out like they wanted, even with Flern’s light. In this way, they soon came down to the Swr River and found it iced in places.
“Cold going.” Flern warned the others as she and Laurel entered the frigid water. Andrea shrieked when the cold and wet hit her legs. Wlkn shivered himself half to death. Only Elleya appeared unaffected by the cold, but then she kept busy saying that her people don’t swim where the ice runs thick in the distant north and the more distant south. They mostly stayed in the warmer waters of the Mediterranean, though some had gone beyond the pillars to the islands in the North Sea. They were her North Sea cousins; she said, when Badl shouted back.
“Tell her to clam up. There is no reason to tell the ghouls our exact location and there won’t be any talking them to death.”
“Clam up.” Elleya said. “What a lovely expression…” Wlkn eventually managed to quiet her.
Flern kept the glow going for nearly an hour, not that the ghouls could not find them by the light, but they needed it, or they certainly would have ridden into trouble, and likely would have crippled a horse or two. After that time, the sun began to rise, and Andrea suggested they stop to catch their breath. Flern completely agreed. She felt exhausted and terribly drained. She had used flight and speed and strength, all gifts that took something out of her to activate, and then all that moonlight became almost too much; but Badl insisted.
“We must get to the village before they catch us. When they are this close, they won’t stop just because the sun comes up. These are creatures of the darkness as I told you, but they are not night creatures to be afraid of the sun.
They rode on, and Flern hung on to Thred, and only thanked God when it became bright enough to ride more swiftly. Of course, she made the mistake at one point of looking back. She saw them, and it looked to her like more than ten. They were cruel looking, greenish, covered in long black hair, teeth like a saber-tooth in the front. “Or a vampire.” She said to herself.
“No!” Laurel heard and looked back. The ghouls were at the top of the hill, a good half-hour behind. “They are just ordinary ghouls.”
“But I thought you said around ten.” Flern protested.
“Loki.” Badl spoke up from behind, and of course that had to be it.
The group raised the alarm in town as soon as they arrived, but the village people were not quick to do anything until they saw what approached from the valley floor; then they hardly had enough time to drag out every wagon they could find to build a barricade.