Dragon Hunt - Part Three
Throughout that day there were only two occasions where the carpet outdistanced the pegasus; even then, the animal and its rider would reappear from behind a hill a short while later.
At one juncture the pegasus overtook the carpet; subsequently Burrhus was spied having dismounted from his steed to engage not one but two ogres in hand-to-hand combat. He appeared to have taken a pummelling but was giving as good as he got, and it was nothing he could not handle. Indeed, he had cast his sword and other weaponry aside and was fighting barehanded. He seemed to be revelling in it.
Lana brought the carpet to a halt thirty feet above where the pegasus was waiting obediently on its rider.
“Do you require assistance?” she called in the direction of the melee.
Burrhus leapt into the air, grabbed the sides of his opponents’ heads and slammed them together with force. He turned toward the carpet and flashed a smile at the females. “I’ve got things under control, thanks all the same.”
“I imagine he perfected that smile in the arena,” Brunnhild commented.
“Are you sure?” Lana called back. “I can blast them with my magic, it’s no trouble.”
“No, stay and watch or clear off!” One of the ogres was getting back on its feet.
“Suit yourself.” The carpet continued on its way leaving Burrhus to conclude his wrestling without an audience.
Within an hour Burrhus’ pegasus caught up with the carpet and as the sun began to set Lana realised they would face a second night camped alongside him. It was her advert which had prompted his departure, she felt certain of it. Perhaps it was true that he learned about the dragon threat before her, but he mightn’t have set off for weeks had she not been doing the same. He was pursuing her and it didn’t seem fair. Why couldn’t he be on a mount which couldn’t fly? She thought about performing acts of sabotage to get rid of him - Slowing or Polymorphing his pegasus might do the trick...
Her thoughts were disrupted when the air filled with shrieks and a cluster of winged forms rose out of nearby woodland to make a beeline for the carpet. They were hideous birdlike creatures with bare, exposed upper bodies which Lana identified from her trip to Alfheim - harpies .
Brunnhild stood firm and hefted her hammer, intoning a prayer which caused the weapon to reverberate while Lana drew the carpet to a halt. There would be no hope of outrunning the creatures therefore a standoff was inevitable. Lana spread her hands and surrounded the flock in a shimmering aura as it closed; two of the creatures lost focus and began laying into one another with tooth and claw. One other paused in mid-air and began lowering itself to the ground. Five others came on toward the carpet.
There came a cry and Burrhus appeared from a short distance to the west, astride his winged mount. It half-reared, the setting sun silhouetting the combined outline of rider and steed.
"Fear not damsels! I come to rescue you!"
"Mighty Thor strengthen us…" Staying calm, Brunnhild swung her hammer at the nearest harpy's face while Lana waved a hand, causing three replicas to appear by her side. Just in time, for in the instant that followed a harpy sank its teeth into a phantasmal neck which would have been Lana's own had she not cast her spell. A moment later the harpy found itself bombarded by glowing missiles, and keeled backward off the carpet.
A crossbow bolt whistled right between the two females where they stood on the carpet.
"Too close for my liking," Brunnhild muttered.
"Agreed," said Lana, before shouting in the direction of the pegasus: "be more careful!"
Brunnhild's hammer connected with the harpy a second time, caving in its skull. From her time spent with clerics Lana could recognise an enchanted weapon when it was empowered with the might of an Immortal and that was precisely what Brunnhild was using to great advantage. The doughty old Patriarch had given Lana a fair exchange for her payment after all.
Her thoughts were interrupted when a second crossbow bolt grazed one of her phantasmal images and disrupted it. That was no mishap, she realised. In the closeness of fighting the harpies which had reached her carpet she looked around and saw the two Confused harpies rolling in the dirt with one another, screeching an unholy racket, while a third had detached from the group and was flapping its wings very slowly behind Burrhus' pegasus which he had reined to a halt. Rather than attacking, the harpy was murmuring to Burrhus whose crossbow was aimed at Lana.
"The damned creature has bespelled him!"
Brunnhild was too engaged in holding off a pair of flapping adversaries to respond; she pummelled one in the face with her shield then attempted to block the other’s claws before returning a hammer blow. As Burrhus reloaded his crossbow with practised efficiency Lana could think of nothing else but to point at the fighter and cast a Dispel. Despite the distance she saw him blink as the effect took hold and his expression registered confusion. The harpy which had subjugated him continued its whispering in his ear and was surprised when the man hefted his sword from across his back. In one fluid stroke he hewed the flying creature apart. The severed halves of its body fell to the ground in a mess of blood and ichor.
Lana's mouth fell open. She didn't think she had witnessed such a devastating blow since Eruul Zaar despatched Hel's assassins on that fateful night in Helskir, months before. As boorish as Burrhus was, he could handle a blade and had no difficulty doing so from a saddle. "Impressive…" she murmured. Somehow the gladiator heard her and gave a mock salute, before closing on the pegasus to engage the Confused harpies which, now that Lana had cast a Dispel in the area, were no longer disorientated as they had been.
In the intervening period Brunnhild had managed to dispatch her second opponent. Lana summoned a swarm of two dozen amber motes which blazed their way into the flesh of a third, causing the harpy to drop lifeless to the ground, then she drew her dagger and engaged the remaining creatures in hand-to-hand combat. It occurred to her that it had been a while since she last stabbed anything. After a couple of strokes and the same number of hammer blows from Brunnhild, all of the winged threats were despatched.
"Let's see where they made their nest!" Burrhus called, his steed wheeling in mid-air.
"You're welcome," Lana muttered. "Really, no need to thank me."
"Is what you're doing sensible?" Brunnhild called the question. "There could be many more of them."
"Nothing ventured," was the man's answer, "that's always been my motto."
"I suppose there could be treasure…" Lana said softly. She bid the carpet float after the departing pegasus, leaving eight harpy corpses where the battle had been fought.
The copse from which the creatures had risen turned out to shelter a dense thicket through which Burrhus' sword cleaved effortlessly, exposing a nest at its heart. Human and animal bones were strewn throughout, in what looked like equal quantities. Burrhus whooped with joy as he picked through the detritus with his sword, exposing several pouches stuffed with coins and gems. Going by the volume of accumulated material, the harpies had been waylaying travellers for some time.
"Here," he said, offering a crumpled ball of parchment which he had extracted from inside a hollow skull. Lana's eyes lit up at the sign of a scroll, but it was to Brunnhild that it passed. "You're the only one who can use this."
Brunnhild reviewed the contents of the scroll before nodding favourably. "Thor smiles upon us." She folded the parchment and stowed it below her mail. It was then that Lana noticed blood had welled up between the links of her companion's chain sleeves.
"I'll heal it at sundown, provided you sustain no injury beforehand."
"Please," Lana gestured for the cleric to pull up her sleeve. She did so, revealing long lacerations from the harpies' claws. "I can bandage those. And I'm happy for you to heal yourself."
"You're kind, milady. But I'll manage just fine with your bandages."
First Vasily, Lana thought, now you. Why was 'cleric heal thyself' such a difficult request to fulfil?
The day was drawing to a close when a farm came into view in a dip between two hills. The trio made their way to the palisade wall which surrounded the smallholding and Burrhus rang a bell at the gate. After a minute a middle-aged woman's head appeared tentatively atop the wall. Burrhus greeted her heartily and made introductions, asking whether he and the other travellers might stay the night. The woman was hesitant but finally let them in. Her eyes roved up and down Burrhus' muscled frame and she blushed, smiling at him as she opened the gate to allow the travellers entry. She murmured a question which the man answered in positive terms. The pair withdrew into the farmhouse, leaving Lana and Brunnhild to roll out their bedrolls on the floor of the adjoining barn.
"The only reason she let us inside was because we're both female," Brunnhild remarked. "If he’d been on his own he'd have never got in."
Lana nodded. It had been a risky decision for the woman. There was no indication that anybody other than she was at home - no farmer nor any slaves were to be seen.
"Assuming she's married, her husband must be away."
At that moment, sounds began to be heard through the barn wall. It was if furniture was being thrown about inside the dwelling.
The two women exchanged looks of concern while they strained to listen. After not very long, the sounds which Lana had taken for a scuffle were added to by moans and groans.
"He's not paying coin for us to stay here," said Brunnhild, unfazed.
Lana blushed and set about smoothing her bedding while the noises grew louder and louder.
"Do you think she's alright?" asked Lana.
At that very moment, a howl of pleasure escaped through the wall.
"I'd say she's more than alright."
The sounds reached their crescendo less quickly than Lana would have liked, then a short while later Burrhus appeared in the barn’s doorway. He threw himself onto a pile of clean hay and sighed contentedly. His face was flushed from exertion.
"You certainly look pleased with yourself," said Lana, in a tone intended to sound disapproving. She rose to close the door which Burrhus had carelessly left open.
"You better believe it," he boasted. "Burrhus' prowess is legendary and is not confined to the arena." He tossed a small sack onto the ground beside Brunnhild. She opened it and brought out half a wheel of cheese, some unleavened bread and salted beef.
"Forgive me if I eat my own provisions," Lana said sardonically, "rather than the fruits of your labour." She rummaged in her own bag though she knew whatever rations she carried would be less appealing than the farm produce.
"It's all the same to me," Brunnhild said, tearing a strip of beef. "Food's food."
They ate in silence.
"This can't continue Burrhus," said Lana eventually. "Our paths must part in the morning, you can't keep following us."
"That's rich!" The man responded as if the comment was unjustified. "It's you who are heading the same way as me. The dragons are meant for to me to slay. And I'm capable of doing that on my own.” Something in his attitude seemed to harden; the jovial edge was gone, replaced by something more menacing. “You can clear off quietly or we can do things the hard way, but I'll be damned before I let a pair of females steal my glory. I don't care if you cast spells or say prayers or whatever it is you do to pass time but let me make one thing clear -"
"Enough," Lana said tiredly. A beam of magic struck the man full in the chest and filled the interior of the barn with dazzling brilliance. When it cleared, a dairy cow lay atop the pile of straw.
"Thank you. Perhaps now we'll get some sleep."
Brunnhild brought out a wineskin which she informed Lana was full of mead. The two enjoyed a relaxing drink together, sharing stories and passing the skin between them until Lana was feeling really rather merry.
While it was her turn swigging from the skin, Brunnhild brought out a small leather bag and emptied its contents into her lap. Lana looked on with interest.
“What are those?” she asked, slurring just slightly.
“Rune tiles,” Brunnhild replied.
“Fascinating.” Lana leaned in for a closer look. “Are they… goat ankles?”
Brunnhild nodded. The bones bore a variety of symbols; some were painted while others had been carved.
“The Traladarans of my homeland have similar methods of divination.”
“These are attuned to Thor’s will,” was Brunnhild’s response. She sounded unimpressed.
“What can they tell you?”
“They let me ask for guidance. I’m going to check which direction will be best for us to head on the morrow.”
She tossed the bones high in the air and they landed in her lap, some falling on top of others or at funny angles to one another. Lana leaned in even closer and scrutinised the sigils, though as much as she might have tried to discern the stones’ meaning it was clear Brunnhild’s eyes saw what she could not. She mouthed silent words of prayer; clearly a spell was required to interpret the stones’ meaning.
“What is the response?”
“We should keep going as we have been doing.” Brunnhild returned the bones to their pouch then resumed quaffing from the skin which was close to empty.
Vague as the response was, Lana took satisfaction from it. They were on the right track. She drifted off to sleep without much of a care about anything. The remainder of the night passed in blissful quietude while the cow and pegasus chewed calmly on hay.
The following morning Lana and Brunnhild did not hurry to leave. They thanked the farmer's wife for the use of her stable, led the cow into the yard and mounted the carpet. The farmer's wife was dismayed when it was explained to her that she would not be able to keep the cow. Nor, said Brunnhild, would it be advisable to milk the beast despite, no doubt, the farmer's wife having good experience in that regard. From fifty feet up Lana cast her Dispel into the farmyard and the two set off without so much as a backward glance.
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