Inside the longhouse, the human visitors felt even more uneasy. Basilisks, the latest trophies of the lagano hunts, hung from the ceiling on hooks, their blood pooling in cauldrons below. More than once, the ranger realized that he had missed bits and pieces of the conversation to observe that gruesome display.
“We try not to waste any of vile creatures, since they are so rare, and so deadly,” Serathsus revealed after the first time Steel Tip apologized for his slip. “If nothing else, we’ve found that in death, they are worth the dangers of hunting or capturing them. They make for good armor, they fill our bellies, and we use them for potions.”
“And for poison,” Thrissus said. “And we use that on interlopers who threaten our way of life.”
The lagano chieftain blew a sigh through his fangs, but did nothing to placate his officer then. “You’ll have to excuse this one. He’s long sought to control the tribe, but he’s yet to properly depose me. He does not yet see that wisdom is as valuable as strength.”
“You took control of our people when you were just a youngling,” Thrissus snapped. “Back then, they called you Serathsus the Bold. That chieftain would have marched to the elves and made them regret pointing their bows at us.”
“That chieftain would have seen his entire tribe wiped from these swamps, and perhaps even the forest itself. There are times to be bold, and times to be wise. I’ll not send our people to their dooms just to satisfy your foolish pride. Neither will I suffer your presence unless you learn your place.”
The lumbering lizardman crossed his arms over his chest, and looked away.
“Go on, lad,” Odere said, urging the ranger on. “Tell him what you know.”
Steel Tip nodded, aware that his story would earn him the ire of the lagano that surrounded him and his companions. With his weapon on the far side of the room, he knew that he had to choose his words carefully. “I am not from these woods, but I was sent here to train with the elves. But when I arrived, it was clear that my presence wasn’t going to be a comfortable one.
“For a few weeks—maybe even months—there have been odd goings-on across the forest,” the ranger went on. “A band of gnolls managed to dam one of the rivers southeast of here, stopping the flow to those who needed it in the south. Another river to the northeast was tainted, and it has been hobbling the elves. They used to have a much grander presence in Cefen’adiel, but they’ve been too sick to do anything about the darkness that’s come to this place. And make no mistake, there is a darkness hovering over us.
“I travelled with several of the elves throughout my journey here, and we happened upon some strange happenings. The equipment you’ve been getting has been coming from the east. We were investigating everything, and it seems as though bandits have been floating the gear down the Volga River, so that they can avoid suspicion. From there, they’ve been bringing the goods, by carriage, to the west, where they meet with the gnolls and the goblins.
“This cooperation isn’t something that we would normally think to see,” Steel Tip said. “And we’ve heard rumblings and seen the shadow of a figure that we think is binding this odd alliance together. We’re not sure what this is supposed to accomplish, but it does not feel as though it bodes well for Cefen’adiel.”
Serathsus braced himself against the long table, bowing his head as he took in the newfound knowledge. “The goblins are offering us a means to protect ourselves against a threat we’ve seen. You’ve asked us to denounce that aid—to trust the very beings that made an attempt on our lives.”
“I cannot speak for the elves of Lyllandria,” the ranger conceded. “I’ve never met them. But I do know Tarenda’s elves. They would never think to offend the sanctity of one’s home. They believe that Cefen’adiel is a living, breathing entity, and as long as you don’t harm it, I cannot see why they would attack you.
“I suspect that these elves are being manipulated, maybe by the same forces that have been harming the forest that we’ve seen so far. The goblins may have protected you from an attack once, but they’ve already shown themselves to be untrustworthy in the way that they’re trading with you. And if that wasn’t enough, your way of life is in direct conflict with them. The goblins—and the gnolls—are destructive forces that have just torn through the forest, and it looks like they show no sign of stopping. You have respect for this place. It’s your home. How long until the goblins or the gnolls decide that they need more lumber, or grow hungry enough to hunt the last basilisk you depend on?”
The chieftain sighed, his body bent forward onto the table by the weight of the revelations. His clawed fingers were outstretched, looking as though he would tear into the wood beneath him. “You would have us bring our weapons to bear against the very people who saved us. We are not—”
“We don’t need you to fight beside us,” Odere interrupted. “We just need to know that you’re committed to remaining outside of the conflict. The goblins believe that they can depend on you as an ally when battle finally comes to the elves. We can only expect that we’re next on that list if their conquest is left unfettered. We’d rather it not come to that.”
“Our numbers are thinner than any of the other inhabitants of this place. That much is true. If what you’re saying is true, then the goblins intend to make what’s left of this tribe into fodder for their army.”
“That would explain the stringent equipment they’ve been allowing to make it through to you.”
“We would not stand by idly if your suspicions were true,” Serathsus bade. “Thrissus would be able to whet his appetite for battle, but it would be against the goblins.” That tall officer in the corner narrowed his eyes and let his arms fall to his side. Before he could speak though, the chieftain looked to the humans in attendance. “But neither can we take you at your word.”
“Then we are at an impasse?” Odere asked.
Serathsus rose from the table, pressing his seat backward. “That is not necessarily true.”
The ranger and his allies felt the tension in the room then, and even Yazara reached for weapons that were no longer on her person. As the chieftain passed them, their apprehension subsided slightly, before dissolving fully once Serathsus stepped through the hide-laden doorway. “Come, my guests. We still have much to talk about.”
* * * * *
Still without weapons in their hands, the human visitors fell in steps with their hosts, who marched deeper into the marsh. Odere grimaced against the pain in his leg, but went along without complaining.
“Does anyone get the feeling they’re planning on putting us right back in that pit?” Penaud said.
None of his companions said anything as the mire bubbled around them. Serathsus kept a steady pace, and only a few of his officers remained with him. It was Thrissus, the perpetually aggravated lagano giant, which worried them the most.
“As I said, we would not stand by while war was being waged around us,” the chieftain said. “As your young ranger mentioned, Cefen’adiel is our home. There is much at stake here, and we will play our part in it. The lagano people may be wiser than days past, much to the chagrin of our more eager hunters, but we will not hide while the fate of the forest is at stake.”
They walked for what felt like miles, trudging through the slime and the muck. All around them, the trees seemed scarred, damaged by some kind of scouring or stabbing weapon, as if those once verdant sentinels had waged a war of their own in Cefen’adiel. Just beyond the thick copse of trees, a clearing showed another score of combatants, all sparring one another or sending javelins soaring through the air.
All of those lagano surrounded one towering tree that had long before lost its greenery. Struck by lightning or torn asunder by a strong wind that had somehow whipped through the marsh, the top was shorn off, leaving only a sharpened trunk in its place.
“We call this place the Spear, and it is where our hunters and warriors train,” Serathsus said. “It takes great foresight and reflexes to hunt a basilisk. If they catch you in their gaze, they can freeze you in your tracks. If you’re unable to break free from that stare… well, some think that you’ll turn to stone.
“My tribe hasn’t lost a single soul to the basilisk in years,” he went on. “I’d like to think that it is because we are prepared for battle with those creatures. Sure enough, there are worse things in this bog, and further into the woods, but the basilisk is our prey. No longer do we bow to it.”
They continued into the training ground, where more solid footfalls were beneath them. Those exercising and sparring worked till their muscles were raw. Most had the discipline to ignore the strange visitors among their people, and those who did not fell to a powerful swing of a weapon. A basilisk would not allow them a curious glance. Why should their sparring partner?
When Serathsus stopped, he called out in his unfamiliar tongue. With so many of the lagano surrounding them, the humans once again felt bare without their weapons. At any moment, those foreign words could be a call to pounce upon the intruders to the mire. Those lizardfolk formed a line, helping those that had grown weary to their feet, and stood at the ready.
“As I said before, I cannot take you at your word,” the chieftain reaffirmed. “But I will not stand idly by if war is brewing in the place that I call home. We will investigate with you, and if we find that these elves to the southwest are ailing from something beyond their control, we will do what we must to sever our ties with the goblins. We will know our enemies by the full moon, and we will know our allies as well.”
“Not to offend you, Chieftain,” Odere said, “but a group of this magnitude would surely be spotted long before we could gain any meaningful information. We need to be a little more clandestine in our search.”
“That is just what I had considered. I shall send with you one of my hunters—one of my sons, in fact. He shall be my eyes and ears, and what he discovers will establish you as friend or foe.” Serathsus turned to the line of lagano, and stood straighter than he was comfortable with. “Hissith, step forward.”
The quartet of humans stared down the line of lizard warriors, their muscles bulging with the stress of hours of training, their eyes gleaming with the promise of duty to their tribe. They wondered which of those hardy warriors would be travelling with them to assist in their search.
Toward the end of the column, a lean, short lagano stepped forward, clutching a spear in his hand. Planted firmly atop the ground, it almost looked like he was leaning on the weapon for support. He shared a few words with his father in their foreign tongue, before turning to the humans. “Hello,” he said, gesturing wildly with his free hand.
* * * * *
Serathsus had travelled with them through the mire without his entourage. Only Thrissus and the sinewy lagano hunter walked beside him. The chieftain rested his hand upon his son’s shoulder, sharing words of encouragement in their language.
They reached the edge of the mire’s south side, far enough, Serathsus assured them, that the goblins would not be aware of their presence. If they gave the encampment a wide berth, they could remain undetected.
“Hissith, you have a great task ahead of you,” the lagano chieftain said in the common tongue. “These people have come to us because they claim the fate of the forest hangs in a precarious balance. The elves that attacked us may have been under duress that we are not aware of, and they seek to prove it to us. You will travel with them, to see if there is merit to their words.”
Steel Tip understood that Serathsus was speaking more to their benefit than his son’s. Hissith had surely been told what he was meant to accomplish while on the long trek south—a hike that had seen Odere stumble more than once. But in the chieftain’s words, there was an underlying message: if their claims could not be substantiated, the lagano would fall in beside the goblins, and the war for Cefen’adiel would grow even greater. And by his promise, Serathsus had made his intentions clear. The lagano would fight against whichever enemy truly threatened them more.
“I will not disappoint you, Father,” Hissith replied. Despite his sinewy, slender build—not to mention the leather armor that looked too big for him adorning his shoulders and upper torso—that lizard man’s voice held a deep timbre. At first, Steel Tip thought the youngling was sent almost as a spit in the face, the weakest of his tribe, by a first glance. But his voice also held in it conviction. Hissith was sure that he would complete the task set upon him by his father. And the warm embrace that they shared demonstrated a real concern for his child’s well being.
“And you four,” the lagano chieftain said to his departing guests. “I’ve a mission for you as well. Hissith here is my youngest son, and after the passing of my mate, it is certain that he will be the last of my immediate successors. His safety is of the utmost importance to me. While all these other warriors and hunters would let battle and glory taint their view of this world, this one sees it for what it is. If there are transgressions occurring that the goblins are responsible for, Hissith will spot them.”
“I pray that we can convince you that we are not your enemies,” Odere said.
“Let us hope that you can,” Serathsus said with a nod.
At that, the troupe departed, with one more member among them as they headed south. Hissith only turned once to his father, who kept his hand up and outstretched, their farewell bittersweet and worrisome.