We later heard where Branden had disappeared after the siege by the Hillpeople. A strange tale if I ever heard one…
After the battle Branden was sitting at the keep’s doorway. He was amazed that they have survived against the hillpeople horde. He was viewing the bloody aftermath of the battle his eyes came across a raven. It was standing in the middle of the yard looking straight at the ranger. The bird seemed to stare at Branden and begun pecking at the ground. It flew out of the fortress, landed outside it repeating it’s strange pecking, as if to invite the man’s attention to itself.
The ranger had always respected the raven for its relationship with Morrigna – the goddess his father had taught his sons to serve and follow. Branden stood up with haste and followed the black bird outside. It flew further away from the fortress into the woods near by. Branden followed the black bird to the forest without hesitation.
After a short walk he came to a small pond in the middle of the woods. Branden could see a lone woman standing at the pond staring into its calm waters. Every branch of the nearby trees was full of ravens, all staring at Branden. A chill ran through ranger’s spine. Surely this could not be Her? Branden walked slowly closer, the hair on his neck standing up. He was standing several steps from the dark haired woman. She looked strangely familiar for some reason.
The dark haired woman turned slowly towards the ranger. Branden’s eyes widened as he saw who she was. This could not be. It was impossible. But something told Branden that it was so. Somehow Branden knew that this woman was Aileen – his mother, even without any real solid memory of her.
For a while she didn’t seem to be aware of Branden, seemingly gazing through him as if he wasn’t there. Then she slowly seemed to come to her senses, smiling sadly at Branden. She looked at him as if trying to remember who he was. Then she started speaking softly, sounding like she was reciting something from memory almost forgotten:
”The mother of crows sent me here for a brief moment. I am to speak Her will. There is a mare within these forests. Many covet her for their selfish desires. The mother of crows needs your services. Find the mare. Take it to safety at the Black Shores. The latest robbers of the mare are close-by. (she gestured towards on old campsite beside the pond) Go alone. You must not fail.”
Aileen fell silent for a moment. Then she looked at Branden as seemed for the first time to recognize him. ”I can almost recall you father and our children. I wonder if the northern roses still bloom this time of the year?”
Suddenly Branden heard noises from the bush behind him. He turned sharply to see what was making the noise: it was just a porcupine sticking its head through the undergrowth. Branden turned back to his mother but there was no-one there. All the ravens had vanished without a trace. It was like he had just woken up from a dream.
The ranger tried to comprehend what had just transpired. His mother had just been standing at the shore, but now she was gone. She had just disappeared. No tracks, nothing. He tried to calm his racing thoughts. He had seen and experienced many things after he joined Magnus and his other companions, but never had he believed he would see his mother again.
For a short moment Branden dwelt in this memory, before turning his attention to the camp nearby.
There was a mare to be found.
Tracks of three people were easily found at the scene, no more than a few days old. They led south-west. There was little time to inform his friends of his departure. He decided against going back to get horse as it would only slow him down in the rugged northern terrain.
The tracks were easy to follow and after a day on relentless pursuit he reached his quarry. He spotted them in the distance resting among the rocky terrain. Two of them could easily be identified as hillpeople, the third apparently a small woman. She was wearing filth covered clothes that would have made a dirt farmer look like a noble. Even under all the muck and dried blood Branden could see her long hair was ashen blonde. Apparently she was a prisoner: her hands were tied behind her back.
This didn’t make sense to Branden. Could this dirty and poor creature be the one Branden been sent for? Had his mother been talking in metaphors? Nevertheless he stalked them until nightfall. Finally the hill-men set up a campsite within the dense woods.
Could this really be the fair mare that his mother was talking about. He knew that days of doubt could be costly. These hillpeople clearly had a purpose – they had traveled into the same direction the whole day.
Branden knew that hillpeople were excellent trackers themselves, so escaping with this captive woman was out of the question. Sometimes in life, you cant finish something without violence.
This woman was somehow important to these savages. They would not let the archer take her from them without a fight.
Branden started preparing for a fight. He chose a tall tree to make his stand. The ranger sharpened wooden sticks and half buried them erected in to the ground near his tree as traps.
These hill-men were always ready for a fight but so was Branden.
After his preparations Branden climbed into a tree that gave him a clear sight at the camp. The campfire perfectly illuminated his targets. One of them was clearly a berserker that Branden had seen in the siege couple days ago. Luckily the brute was asleep next to the fire. The other was leaning on his spear, keeping watch over his companion. Branden said quick prayer and readied his bow.
Two arrows hit the spearman. He screamed in pain and surprise. Sleeping berserker immediately jumped up like a spring – clearly these people are accustomed living in constant danger – only to witness two more arrows hitting his companion and silencing him forever. The woman also woke, trying to make sense of what was happening. The berserker didn’t waste any time grabbing the woman and hurrying away from the direction of the incoming arrows. Now it was very clear for Branden. She was very important to the savage, for the ranger had never seen a berserker running away from a fight.
Two more arrows flew in the air and struck the berserker in the back before he and the woman disappeared in the forest. Branden was worried about hitting the woman. He knew the danger of his actions, but losing these two in the dark and thick forest would not be acceptable. Arrows didn’t kill the savage but now there would be at least a trail of blood to follow.
Luckily for the archer, berserker and captive woman made enough sound to follow them possible in the dark. Branden was chasing them at their rear flank, knowing that the tables could turn quickly if the savage would get too close to him. He didn’t need any reminders what those axes could do to a person.
He closed in from the flank, going in for the kill. Branden got close enough to see the badly bleeding savage and the scared woman. Two expertly placed arrows pierced the savage’s throat, finishing him off.
Woman was clearly fearing for her life, watching in anticipation as the ranger stepped in the view from the darkness.
Branden could now clearly see her. She was young, perhaps of his own age, and perhaps attractive enough even under all the grime. She was trembling as Branden moved close behind her but was visibly surprised when Branden cut her bindings. She took several steps away from this unknown archer.
The ranger didn’t let her out of his eyes as he was searching the berserker for clues as to why they were “escorting” this woman. Besides random loot there was nothing to be found. Branden stood up and took a long look at the young woman. Was this the fair mare he was after? There was a moment of silence as the two were measuring each other.
“This had to be the it“ Branden thought. The fair mare was fair human woman. Branden lift his flagon as an gesture of offering. She hesitated for a moment and then stepped forward to grab the flagon and took a careful sip.
“Poor thing” Branden though. He knew that he had to eventually talk to her, so after a moment of hesitation ranger asked with an undertone:
“Who are you and where were you captured?”
Judging from her blank stare she didn’t seem to understand anything Branden just said. She replied something in the guttural language that the Hillfolk use. It seemed there was a language barrier.
“Blessing in a disguise” Branden though.
Branden led her back to the camp where the other hillman lay dead next to the fire. He searched the other corpse as well, but not founding anything that would give him knowledge of this woman. He shared his rations with the woman, who thanked the ranger in thickly accented Cernish. Laying down by the fire he gestured her to sleep. She was sitting across the fire and gazing at the ranger. Branden closed his eyes knowing she would not try to run or kill him in his sleep.
His gut feeling proved to be true in the morning – she had fallen asleep next to the fire in a sitting position. Now he only had to figure out what these ”Black Shores” were. In the hope that maybe Devin magh Keeth would possess such information he plotted the fastest way to Faerndull. Branden asked the woman to follow him with gesture of extend arm. Like last night she followed the ranger, always keeping her distance.
They traveled west, exiting the forest and continuing south by the road for a few days until reaching Faerndull in the late evening.
Branden was planning to ask the guard at gate if he had seen his companions, but discarded that thought quickly as he saw the guard was leaning to the wall with his head and muttering something about city being a giant dung pit eating away at his soul. He didn’t seem to be interested in anything, least of all his job. Instead they headed straight to Devin’s longhouse.
Guards recognized him, and despite their puzzled looks at the dirty woman, led them into the thane’s hall. Just as they entered the empty hall Branden heard a familiar voice behind him.
“Oh, the woodland creatures are back. The smell did gave you away.”
It was Enid, Ross’ spellcaster and undercover agent.
“Your new girlfriend?” She asked belittling the girl next to Branden.
Whether she was jealous or just playing a bitch, Branden couldn’t tell.
“Still the same old chatterbox, eh? So where’s the rest the merry band? You know: meathead, choirboy, grunt and the homeless guy?” she asked with a crooked smile.
“They’re not here?“ Branden grunted.
“No. What happened? How did you screw up this time?” Enid asked caustically.
Branden just took a cold look at her and then avert his eyes without saying anything.
”Be it as it may, Devin isn’t around. He was ordered by the high king to participate in the emergency meeting all the way at Caern Môrn. Ross was also ordered there by his brother. My job was to let you know to bring the prophet, if there is one, safely there. Ross thinks there’s a information leak in his network, so the old boy’s rather paranoid. You can wait here for your friends. Just make sure to clean up smelly thing over there (pointing at the girl). Last time I checked this isn’t a bloody barn.”
And with that she left the hall. Servant came in and informed of a chance of bath and a change of clothes. Branden was not about to leave this fair “mare” away from his sight, but bit shy as he was, he was willing to stand outside and guard the door as she bathe. New clothes were made available for her. On the way to their rooms, she stopped next to the large polished copper mirror surprised. Observing the expression on her face it was clear to Branden that she was most likely seeing her own image at the first time. At least without the dirt and wearing decent clothes.
Both had their own room, next to each other. Branden was easing up a little. Who could hurt her in this place. Still something in his mind said to be aware. Despite the nagging feeling he soon fell asleep. He would go after his friends in the morning. All was well for now.
The ranger woke up suddenly as a huge black raven was pecking at his chest. Branden shuttered, he should have trusted the earlier feeling. Before the raven had a change to leave his chest Branden was up and running to the next room and bashing in. The bed was empty. The window had been forced open. There were no chance that anyone could break in without this mystery woman or him waking up. There must have been a spellcaster involved.
Branden leapt outside from the broken window and quickly started looking for tracks and leads. Many lesser trackers would have missed the marks left on the pavement by a horse’s shoe. There have been six riders bearing heavy loads. The tracks were leading outside of the yard of the estate.
Outside Branden found a nightwatchman who had been run over. He was still conscious and was able to confirm what Branden already knew. Six riders, each wearing heavy armor and carrying weapons. One was also wearing priests symbol and most important fact of all, one was carrying young blonde woman with him. They were heading west. Branden started running towards the western gates.
The same guard was still standing there in the same position. Branden ignored him and kept running. Luckily the tracks were easy to follow on the dirt road. Branden was on a hunt. Several days and nights the ranger tracked on the run, nonstop, resting only if it was absolutely necessary. He was determined not to fail.
The capturers were still heading to the west as he reached the province of Manaaw. Branden was staying right behind them, hoping that they would have to rest their mounts sooner or later. Stamina of their horses was impressive. Carrying men wearing heavy armor and weapons and not needing much rest was a great feat in it’s own.
Branden was cursing this cleric in his mind. No normal horses could do this without magical help.
The damn priest would eventually run out of spells and that would be the time to strike.
The chase continued all the way through Manaaw to the border of Dùn Èiden. Branden was pushing his strength to the limits, but the last thing on his mind was to stop.
He needed to find this mystery woman. He needed to fulfill his task.