The next day dawns bright and clear, one of those perfect days that seem to be made of endless sunshine. As I emerge from the tent and take a deep breath of the rarefied mountain air, it seems to infuse me with limitless energy. I have a good feeling about today. The plan is to head through the woods to Shor’s Stone in order to deliver the satchel of letters from Sylgja’s parents, and hopefully find a cave bear pelt along the way.
But as I contemplate our arrangements, I have to admit to a slight feeling of disappointment that our plans are so modest. This day seems made for grand adventures, daring quests, amazing acts of brilliance and bravery. Hopefully we’ll run into something exciting… well, except dragons. I don’t want to see any dragons. Dragons are scary. For that matter, so are trolls. And giants. On second thought, never mind. Forget I said anything.
After a hearty camp breakfast in the open air, Jenassa helps me break down the tent — very decent of her, I’m sure, since I had to set it up by myself last night. Mind you, that was my own fault, although I don’t regret visiting that cave. It felt good to rescue that caged spriggan. Makes me almost forget the distinctly homicidal spriggans that we’ve met in our travels. Almost.
Once everything is packed and ready to go, we mount our horses and head back on the road. We plan to follow it until we’re past a massive outcropping of granite that’s blocking the most direct route, and then we should be able to cut straight through the forest to Shor’s Stone. We should be able to find a cave bear along the way, and then — wait, what’s that guy doing on the side of the road?
Clutching his side as if in pain, the seated figure utters a truly wretched-sounding moan. My own side gives a jab as if in sympathy. He’s dressed in the typical gear of a traveling merchant, and around him are scattered crates, barrels, and sacks, as well as an overturned cart.
Glancing back at Jenassa, I get down from my horse and walk over to him. He gives me a wary yet hopeful look, and I hold out my empty hands so he knows I’m not a threat. He looks pretty beat up, so I ask him if he’s all right.
The poor bastard tells me that bandits attacked him and made off with his goods, and if we help him back to his camp, he’ll make sure we’re rewarded. Don’t be silly, that’s not necessary! Glad to help! I reach out a hand to support him as he slowly rises to his feet. He seems rather unsteady at first, but then he appears to shake it off and walks across a nearby bridge without even a limp. Hmm. That’s… interesting.
Jenassa and I follow him a few paces behind. I’m expecting him to stumble, or even wobble slightly, but nothing like that happens. I glance back at Jenassa, and she’s watching him just as closely as I am. Maybe even more so. I notice her hand slowly drop to the hilt of her axe, almost casually, as if she’s just idly running her fingertips over the handle. However, I’ve seen that gesture enough times to know what it means.
As we reach the other side of the bridge, he tells us to wait until he comes back with our reward. He then heads up a narrow path between two cliffs and disappears around a corner. At the top of the hill is an ancient tower overlooking the path and the bridge. Jenassa mutters something about the perfect ambush site, and I find myself instinctively flexing my fingers.
Jenassa and I exchange glances, then we start slowly backing up toward the bridge. Suddenly we hear a loud war cry that makes us both jump. That sounded way too close. Sure enough, in seconds a gang of armed bandits appear in the narrow gap between the cliffs, roaring threats and howling for blood. I raise my hand and summon Barbie just as Jenassa dives into the fray, then I pull out my bow and start firing.
I manage to land a couple of good shots before one of the bandits gets past Barbie. He rushes me down just as I pull out Dawnbreaker and raise my shield. He seems somewhat agitated — no doubt related to the fact that until a moment ago, he was on fire. Somehow I find it hard to work up any sympathy for his plight.
As Barbie and Jenassa cut a swath through the bandits, I bash my attacker in the face and follow up with Dawnbreaker. He screams in terror when he realizes he’s on fire again. I take advantage of his consternation by repeatedly hacking at him until he stops moving.
I reach for my bow again when I realize that my troubles aren’t over yet. Out of seemingly nowhere, an arrow flies through the air and strikes me in the shoulder. Ow! That really hurt! I wince, then break into a grin as the archer suddenly lights up like a torch after Barbie chucks a fireball at him. Well well, look who it is.
The so-called merchant and I exchange arrows, but Barbie’s contribution takes its toll and I can see him start to panic. Not wanting him to disappear up the hill again, I pull out Dawnbreaker and rush him down. My sudden charge takes him off guard and he falls off the rocky outcropping, tumbling down the side of the cliff. I follow and finish him off before he can rise to his feet. In moments, it’s all over.
The remaining bandits meet their untimely deaths soon afterward. I rejoin Jenassa, and we make our way up the narrow trail. Halfway up the hill, we discover the main area of the bandit camp. Tables and chairs surround a central campfire, several containers are scattered around, and there’s a chest containing some potions, bits of armour, and a decent amount of gold. There are also a few extra weapons lying around. Clearly they’ve been ambushing innocent travelers here for some time.
We collect everything worthwhile, then pull out our bows and proceed up a set of stone steps toward the tower. The sight lines are atrocious from our angle, and we half-expect to be attacked again at any moment. Alert to the slightest sign of danger, we make our way up the steps as carefully as possible.
Surprisingly, we reach the top of the steps without incident. Lowering our weapons for a few moments, we have a good look around. The tower overlooks a lake as well as the hill we just climbed, and on the other side the land falls away into a deep rocky valley. Whoever built this tower certainly knew what they were doing — it has a commanding view of the land on all sides, and with a small contingent of trained soldiers, it would be almost impossible to invade.
We cross a stone bridge and reach the tower entrance. This place has definitely seen better days, but the wooden scaffolding, stairs, and interior are still in reasonable shape. Fortunately, we seem to have defeated most of the bandits in the initial rush, as we don’t meet any others at first. As we reach the second level of the tower, I take a moment to gaze out over the rocky valley bathed in sunshine.
Inside the tower on the second floor, we surprise a lone bandit sleeping on the floor, partially hidden behind a table and a stand of barrels. Startled, he rises to his feet and fumbles for his weapons, but Jenassa and I quickly convince him to lie back down… permanently.
After looting the interior, we head up the final flight of stairs to the top. There’s a chest on the roof of the tower, no doubt filled with valuables, but I take a few moments to appreciate the real treasure up there — the beautiful, breathtaking view of the sparkling lake and surrounding mountains.
Now that the tower is cleared of enemies and loot, Jenassa and I make our way back down. It’s still relatively early in the day, not even noon yet. We’ve been remarkably productive, but we still have a long ride ahead of us before we reach Shor’s Stone.
Fortunately the weather is still bright and clear, with hardly a cloud in the sky. As we cross the stone bridge just outside the tower, I watch the sunlight dancing through the trees, and confess to Jenassa that I’m rather looking forward to our planned trip through the autumnal forest. Then I break into a grin as I realize that the day gave us an adventure after all. No trolls, giants, or dragons required. Not bad. This really is turning out to be a splendid day.