On the morning of Myransday, 10 Lastreap, the PCs awoke, rested and refreshed, in the bunkroom of Bellik’s Rest, and decided to get an early start on the day.
But first, some notes on the calendar.
I’ll be posting the Erutreian Calendar in due course. But for the time being, it might help to know that there are seven days in the week, and that these are: Myransday, Tîansday, Vorwennasday, Tîorsday, Freasday, Sîan Baraj, and Sîan Vara.
For those of you who have read up on the Ancient History and some of the deities of Anuru already, many of these names will be familiar to you. Tîan, Vorwenna and Vara should be familiar to you, and anon you’ll meet Myran, Baraj, and Feynillor Freagan (after whom Freasday is named). And further along you’ll meet Tîor, called “The Mighty”, or Tîor Magnus in Elvish; the greatest arcane magister and High King the Elves have ever known.
“Sîan”, of course means “day of rest”.
(In case you hadn’t noticed, the first letters of the seven days of the week correspond to our own calendar in English. This is entirely coincidental. No, really!)
Not surprisingly, there are also 12 months in the year. Beginning with the New Year in the depths of deepest, darkest winter, the months are: Efterjule, Vintersdyb, Forars, Gron Forars, Sowing, Er-Sommer, Heit-Sommer, Firstreap, Heitreap, Lastreap, Ars-Waning and Jule. The decidedly Scandinavian flavour of some of the month-names reflects the fact that the Yonarri (of whom more later), who were the forerunners of the Jarlin peoples in the far north of Erutrei, were the first professional navigators; and since accurate navigation requires accurate time-keeping, they were the first, apart from the Elves, to develop a calendar well-adapted to marine navigation. Also, because the Yonarri were responsible for colonizing most of the human areas of Erutrei, the vestiges of their culture – including elements of language – remain visible across the known world.
Anyway, where was I?
Oh, yeah: the Party awoke on the morning of Myransday (Monday), the 10th day of Lastreap (October), and treated themselves to a hearty breakfast at Bellik’s board. They then set out to try to find out what was going on in Bornhavn. Breygon and Alric visited the smithy for weapons and armour, while Gwen, Qaramyn and Joraz spent the day wandering around town and chatting up its denizens. With her silver tongue, Gwen managed to pry a little bit of background information out of the normally taciturn Halfelven leatherworker, Sharoom Pardo.
Around about noon, they met for luncheon at the Rest, and noticed that the Swiftkeel had set sail; and about the same time, Breygon sent Private Gambrik back to Fort Ryker with the wagon, with orders to inform Castellan Lalagor that the squad was going to remain in town a little while longer to try to figure out what had happened to Olem of Barg.
More poking around later in the afternoon led Gwen into the company of one Seel Trask, an elderly bard, once a backup singer at the Grand Duke’s court in Aeryn (see the Bornhavn key), now enjoying a quiet retirement in a small town in the Bjerglands. While Gwen was enjoying a glass of wine, a commotion arose in the town square, immediately in front of the Rest, when a large, blackhaired and blustery human rolled up in an enormous wagon, and announced – in a very unconvincing Transylvanian accent – that he, “Baltun Cicero the Mighty”, had captured the creature responsible for gutting the town’s sheep. Sure enough, the back of the wagon held a cage containing an enormous grey wolf.
(At which point, the guy playing Breygon started singing “I’m getting an animal companion, I’m getting an animal companion!!!” Jeez, was it THAT obvious? Anyway...)
Things smelled a little funny to the PCs. For one thing, it was a REALLY bad accent. Another clue was the fact that Cicero’s sidekick was a Goblin, which put Breygon’s Dirty Harry tic into overdrive. What pushed the ranger over the edge, however, was the fact that the wolf was communicating with him empathically, emphasizing its innocence. Despite being shy of Cicero by one foot of height and about 100 pounds of mostly bicep, Breygon braced him up and told him to release his prisoner. It didn’t work. So Qaramyn uncrated his 10 charisma, and scored a natural 20 on his Intimidate check. Cicero released the wolf (not without some grumbling) and he and Patchkin moved on. The PCs retired to the Rest, where Breygon got to know his new friend a little better by feeding him half a cow’s worth of flank steak.
Talk flowed into dinner, which was going nicely until it was interrupted by a woman’s piercing screams. The Party piled out of the Rest and into the town square, where they immediately spotted a commotion on the steps of the Shrine of the Allfather. Not surprisingly, they intervened, only to find more of what they had already run into: five ghouls, attacking a young man and woman, both of whom had been paralyzed. Battle commenced. A moment later, they were joined by a woman wearing a long, dark robe, and carrying a long staff topped with a blackened metal raven. Working together, they dispatched four of the ghouls in short order, Breygon noticing that there seemed to be a lot of blue sparking every time the wolf bit something.
The fifth ghoul ran off - with Breygon, Joraz and the wolf in hot pursuit.
The newly-arrived woman doffed her hood and introduced herself as Viloriannis, "Hand of the Allfather", and Whitefist’s principal assistant in Bornhavn. With the help of Qaramyn, Alric and Seel Trask, they managed to get the two paralyzed townsfolk into the manse. Gwen followed along with an arrow nocked, in case the drooling badness decided to come back.
Meanwhile, the ranger, the monk and the wolf tracked the escaping ghoul, following its trail through the Storskov and into the festering, putrid wreck of the Great Swamp. A half-hour’s work led them to a low, tree-covered mound in the middle of the swamp, on the west side of which was a shallow cave opening, some six feet wide and half as high. This led into a surprisingly dry tunnel that twisted and turned through the clay, trending ever downwards into the blackness (solved by Joraz lighting a torch), and the intrepid adventurers followed it up – until a dozen red pinpoints pricked the darkness, resolving into a wall of grim, walking skeletons and shambling corpses, and a half-dozen spiders the size of a Smart Car. The intrepid trio took down the first rank, then realized that they were badly outnumbered, on enemy ground, and sans more than half of their party – so they beat a strategic retreat, escaping through the forest, and linking up with their comrades back at the manse.
Here, for your reading pleasure, is a synopsis of the events of that busy day – up until dinner time, that is.
* * * * *
Seel Trask sat cross-legged on one of the pilgrims’ cots, fingering an old and well-used mandolin he had found hanging above the mantle of the heavy stone fireplace that dominated the far end of the long room. It was not his first visit to the Pilgrims’ Hostel; in the five years since Whitefist had completed the Shrine, Trask had woken up in one of these cots on more than a few occasions, his head ringing like Turgo’s anvil, and with a strategically-placed bucket standing on the floor beside him. Any chanter worth his salt, he mused, plucking at the strings and tuning the instrument almost absent-mindedly, never strays too far from the cup. In a moment the strings were well-set, and his old but talented fingers teased out the first measures of a mournful Elvish tune he had first heard decades before, many long miles, and long years, from the little bend in the river that would one day become the town of Bornhavn.
A lifetime of performing before beggars and kings had left Trask accustomed to studying his audience while he played. This time, though, his their attention was understandably focused elsewhere, which was fine with him. You learned more watching men in ten minutes of crisis than in ten years of prosperity. After the brief battle on the steps of the Shrine (which Trask, being unarmed, had decided to watch from a safe distance), Viloriannis had Healed the victims of the night-demons’ attack. These had turned out to be two of the townsfolk known to the Chanter: Ulfgar, a sheep farmer, and his wife Benjiis, who, rumour had it, had come to the Shrine to beg the Allfather for a son.
Viloriannis had then led the group behind the Shrine to the Hostel, carrying the stricken townsfolk; though healed of their wounds, the priestess had been unable to break the enchantment that held the couple rigid. Trask had followed almost automatically; there were few new stories to be found in a sleepy backwater like Bornhavn, and he wasn’t about to miss out on a new one. Indeed, this tale promised to surpass many of those he had seen, or even heard told, in his long and checkered career.
As he watched, Viloriannis organized the group’s activities with quiet efficiency. Under her direction, the motionless villagers were tucked into cots, heavily swaddled in the hostel’s coarse woolen blankets, while the mailed warrior (Alric, Trask reminded himself), at a word from the Deacon, built up the fire. As the lithe, dark-robed woman bustled about the chamber, Trask grinned despite himself; he had made his trial of her virtue when she had first arrived in town three winters past, and had got no reward for his efforts but a bad case of frostbite. Memories of the chill whip of her tongue always caused him to wince. You’ve no sense when it comes to women, my lad, he thought as he played, nor ever had, neither as a young buck, nor as a greymane. In the years since, though, he had come to admire the Deacon instead of lusting after her; she had relieved the aging and infirm Whitefist of most of the burdens of running the Shrine and the Manse, and had proven a true guardian of their shared flock. Priest Ullet was one of the fixtures of Bornhavn, a townsman from the day of its founding, and the building of the Shrine had been one of its greatest tales thus far. Trask was still trying to condense it into song. One day, perhaps.
When all were settled to her satisfaction and a kettle of mulled drink was hissing at the hearth (Trask’s nose twitched at the familiar scent of cider and spices, although his fingers didn’t miss a note), Viloriannis disappeared through one of the doors athwart the fireplace, leaving the rest to their own devices. Trask watched and played quietly as the Watchmen sorted themselves out. The mailed warrior took one of the benches from a trestle table, dragged it over in front of the doors, sat down heavily on it, leaned his enormous, iron-banded club against the wall, and began honing one of his daggers with a flat stone. The Halfling, whose name Trask hadn’t caught well enough to remember, was poking about the room, glancing under cots and tables, eventually dragging a three-legged stool over to the fireplace, clambering up onto it to inspect the various candlesticks, incense boxes and roughly-made religious knick-knacks scattered across it. Trask had met many Halflings in his long travels – including, he recalled with a wry smile, a troupe of traveling acrobats that had performed at the Court of the Grand Duke in Aeryn, and had managed to nearly strip the palace bare before leaving in haste after only a week. Thirty years ago, he mused, fingers pacing methodically across the strings. Time is a river. Halflings...reflexively, he glanced down at his belt to reassure himself that his pouch was undisturbed.
The other fellow, the mage, had settled himself on one of the cots, one of the hostel’s tallow lamps close by. Propped up by a couple of blankets, he was engaged in that most characteristic of wizardly pursuits –nose-deep in a book, muttering under his breath. Trask shuddered slightly, remembering how the slender fellow had caused one of the ghouls to turn itself inside-out with only a few words and a touch. Although barely man enough for chin-thatch, this one lacked nothing in confidence or power. While enjoying his customary evening libation at the Rest, he had witnessed the confrontation with the trapper Baltun (“The Magnificent”, Trask recalled with a snort) Cicero, and had thought the wiry, black-robed fellow a fool for challenging the hulking woodsman, who was well known around town as a braggart and a ready-fisted bully. Trask had been astonished when Cicero had backed down; perhaps he had seen something in the young fellow’s eyes that had frightened him. After a lifetime of mixing with the mighty, though, nothing about the magi surprised Trask anymore, and he had developed a habit of simply staying out of their way.
The song ended; Trask’s fingers ceased their familiar dance. Alric glanced up from his dagger, and Gwendilyne (There, thought Trask, that was her name) stopped rifling the contents of one absent traveler’s trunk long enough to shoot the singer a long look as well, as if pleading for more. Even the wizard withdrew his beezer from the tome he was perusing intently and gazed closely at the old chanter, as if noticing him for the first time.
“Don’t stop,” said Gwendilyne, clapping enthusiastically. “You’re very good.”
“My thanks, my lady,” Trask replied with a courtly bow. Gwen beamed at him.
“Yeah,” growled Alric. “Sweet tunes for a dungheap like this. D’ya know any Dwarven pub songs?”
“My friend,” replied Trask with a smile, “I know them all. Any one in particular?”
Alric put his dagger away and ambled towards the hearth, chainmail jingling, and poured four cups of mulled cider. He left two on the table, passed one to Trask, and took one for himself, draining half of it at a gulp. “How about ‘Durin’s Mountaineers’?” he asked.
“Nothing easier. I’ll begin, and you can follow along,” Trask replied, putting down the mandolin. “Won’t need this. It’s a capella, as I’m sure you know.”
“I thought it was a shanty,” Alric grumbled, looking confused. Gwendilyne tittered; the wizard sighed, and turned back to his book.
Trask merely grinned. “With me,” he said. “One…two…’Oh, the year was thirteen seventy-eight’…”
“ ‘How I wish I was in Moria now…’,” Alric joined in, smacking his tankard on the table in time with the beat, while Gwendilyne looked on in delight, and the wizard began pulling bits of wool from the blanket, stuffing them rather ostentatiously into his ears.
Viloriannis paused outside her master’s bedchamber, loathe to wake the frail old man even for so dire an emergency. She was Deacon of the Shrine of the White, and the Hand of the Allfather in Bornhavn, but even the Hand hesitated before disturbing the Fist. Especially when the old man was so ill, and needed his rest.
Behind her in the hostel, she could hear Trask’s clear tenor reciting some sort of chant in the guttural Dwarven tongue, and winced slightly as the warrior Alric joined in, roaring along in a tuneless bellow. The adventurers would’ve been surprised to see her smile, but she did anyway. Singing – even bad singing, and perhaps especially bad singing – was far preferable to moping and the night terrors after a close encounter with the denizens of clay. She had been gratified by the strength the Watchmen had displayed and the fearlessness with which, even though taken by surprise, they had stormed to the rescue of the newlywed couple. At the same time, she had been astonished at the sudden departure of their leader and the silent, weaponless warrior (whom she assumed was a monk, although his order and habiliments were unfamiliar to her), both of whom had raced off into the woods after the retreating monster, and the wolf that had appeared to be following it. While concerned and a little appalled at their sudden disappearance, she was pleased at their pluck; perhaps they would finally locate the creature’s lair, and together they would be able to put an end to the peril menacing Bornhavn.
She tapped lightly at the door, and was unsurprised when a faint voice invited her to enter. The master had been sleeping less and less lately; she supposed that the long pain of his illness (which she had tried without success to Heal on many occasions), exacerbated by his extreme age, was at last catching up with him. She opened the door and slipped into the room. Priest Ullet was propped up in his bed, surrounded by voluminous pillows. On a table beside him were a variety of potions, unguents, salves and poultices, along with gifts both rich and mundane from the townsfolk. She smiled to see him, as she always did, for even frail and debilitated, his presence comforted her. It evidently comforted the citizens of Bornhavn as well, for although he had not offered a service in more than a year, still the well-wishes and offerings came. It was more than gratitude for the building of the Shrine, she thought; the people genuinely loved him. To them, he was not Ullet, or even Priest Whitefist; he was simply “The Priest”. She doubted that they would ever love her the same way once he was gone.
She realized that she had been staring silently at her hands, and glanced up quickly at her superior. He merely raised his bushy eyebrows. Viloriannis wasted no more time in reverie. “Master, there’s been another attack,” she said, moving to the bedside. “On the steps of the shrine. The filthy creatures are growing bolder.”
Whitefist clenched his jaw; his eyes squeezed shut involuntarily in pain, but whether spiritual or mortal, she knew not. “How many were lost this time?” he asked, his once-powerful voice ground down by pain to a harsh whisper.
Whitefist’s eyes flew open in surprise. “None? Then, you arrived in time?”
“Not I,” the deacon replied. “A patrol of the Watch arrived yesterday from Fort Ryker. They were in Bellik’s when the creatures attacked Ulfgar Tanner and his wife, and they intervened immediately. Two of the beasts were slain; a third escaped into the woods. Half of the Watchmen went in pursuit.”
“Are they well?” asked the Priest.
“Those who remained behind were not injured,” she answered, “but of the pursuers I know nothing, for they have not yet returned.” She paused, debating whether to tell him the rest. When he spun a finger impatiently, she blurted out, “But Ulfgar and Benjiis both suffered from the unclean touch. They are not in danger of death, but are frozen in rigor. I Healed Ulfgar’s wounds, but I...I lack the power to free their spirits,” she finished softly. They both understood the import of what she asked.
Ullet nodded soberly. “Be of good cheer, child,” he said with a weak smile. “And help me up. We are fortunate; the strength of the Allfather and his mighty Servants is with me tonight.” Pushing back the bedclothes, the elderly cleric slid unsteadily to the floor, grasping one of the bedposts with a palsied hand.
Viloriannis fetched a heavy cloak from one of the garderobes. “No,” said Ullet, “my chasuble, if you don’t mind. We are on the Allfather’s business this night.” Obediently, she replaced the cloak, instead retrieving a folded garment from the surface of the small altar at the far end of the room. She unfolded it, revealing yards of heavily embroidered white and gold silk, and held it up for Whitefist, who took the hem in his palsied hands and touched it briefly to his lips before allowing her to drape it across his shoulders. He leaned heavily on her outstretched arm as she led him towards the chamber door.
“Swiftly, child,” he said, his faltering steps belying the urgency in his voice.
He was tired – tired and filthy. It had been an interesting day, to be sure, but for all that, a long and exhausting one.
He recalled waking at first light, still caged like one of the mandogs, with bits of foul straw clinging to his fur. He had drunk eagerly from the clay pot in the corner of the cage, but wrinkled his nose in disgust at the foul, burnt-smelling hunk of meat flung him by the goblinthing, pushing it back through the bars with a quick motion of his nose. He recalled being amused when the goblinthing, which evidently was less particular about its diet, snatched up and devoured the repulsive morsel itself.
His embarrassment at being taken like a pup knew no bounds. He had been hunting in the clean mountain woods near rushingriver, not far from highwalledmanvillage, taking special care to avoid the trails used by the trollbeasts, when he had come upon the carcass of a fallen broadhorn. It had been poorly killed, not by one of the people; partially disemboweled, its entrails scattered across the earth. But it was not putrid, and he had been so hungry that he had fallen to with a will - without, as was customary among the people when dining alone, taking the elementary precaution of inspecting his surroundings for enemies. And so he had been taken, for the meat had been tainted with something that tasted of the tallmanvillage. After his meal he had slept, and had awoken in the cage, being prodded with a stick by the tiny goblinthing. One growl had put an end to that indignity, but it was a growl only half in earnest, in part due to his mortification at being captured, and in part because not even the direst pangs of hunger could have enticed him to so much as nibble on so unappetizing a morsel as the goblinthing.
He had endured his captivity with all of the stocicism demanded of a hunter of the people, so that its end had come as even more of a surprise. For two days and a night he had been confined in the cage at the tail of the tallman’s rollingden, wallowing in his own filth and lacking even sufficient room to work off his self-disgust by pacing. On the second day he succumbed to appetite and ate the food offered him, choking it down with distaste and long gulps of water, and salving his conscience with the promise that soon he would dine on the tallman’s liver. And even if he could not bring himself to eat the goblinthing, he was certain that he could tolerate the creature’s stench long enough to tear out its throat.
But then it was over. The arrival of the rollingden at the tallmanrivervillage had been sudden, as had the tallman’s exchange with the other tallmen (all of them newmen, as he tended to think of anyone he had not smelled before). And then the door to his cage had fallen open. This had been so surprising a development that he had hesitated, interested to see what would happen next (he had had no fear that the cage would be closed again; he had little knowledge or understanding of the manthings’ toys, but he knew from the smell and the shape of the metal bars that some work would be required before they could once again close and entrap him).
Then a third surprise - the elfwoodsman had spoken to him! Not in the manthings’ words, which he found maddeningly incomprehensible, but with his eyes and posture, a few motions of his paws here, and a tilt of the head just so, almost as though he were one of the people. It was as surprising as his sudden freedom. And then the tallman, the goblinthing and the rollingden were gone. He sampled the scents of his deliverers and found them not unpleasant (although there was a lingering odour about the brightmetaltallman that reminded him of a hotspring he had visited in the mountains, where the water was warm and pleasing, but the stench nigh unbearable). The shortshehalfman seemed almost afraid of him, which amused him greatly; he would never attack one of the halfmen, for they were always kind to the people. The darktallman seemed indifferent and incomprehensible as well, and he decided to stay out of that particular tallman’s trail. Confidant, though, that they meant him no harm, he had returned to the side of the elfwoodsman, curious to see what would happen next.
A place of brightness and noise and fine, fresh meat; and then a sudden battle on the steps of a great stone house against foulthings that stank (and tasted) of bad meat and flesh long buried. And then a swift run through the forest, the elfwoodsman seemingly relying on his nose to follow the trail of the foulthings (a puppy’s chore, as one of the people could not have lost the gut-churning stench of the foulthings even in sleep). He had been loathe to enter the deathstinkingswamp, and even less enthusiastic about venturing underground, but the elfwoodsman – whom he had come to think of as the leader of this pack of manthings – had gone forward, followed by the quiettallman. And was it not the law of the pack that where the packleader chooses to lead, the people must follow? And so he had followed, only to find more terrors in the dark, and rotting deadthings of bone and decaying flesh, and great insects even larger than he, with bright eyes and clacking mandibles, smelling of poison and mourning. The packleader had wisely decided to retire, and they left the foul-smelling cavern behind, and fled the swamp for the town.
The packleader and the quiettallman had rejoined their companions at the longhouse. The other packmembers were happy to see the packleader, but complained loudly about his smell. His own fur was caked with the mud and filth of the swamp, and the stench of death and decay seemed to hang about him. So, while the others drank the fiery noseticklingwater of their kind and cleansed themselves, he slipped away. For he had smelt a river below the tallmanvillage, and was determined to cleanse himself in the manner of the people rather than submit to an ignoble scrubbing by one of the tallmanthings, which – all good intentions aside – would surely have ended in someone getting bitten.
But he would be back. The need for clean fur was momentary and easily satisfied; but obedience to the will of the packleader was absolute and not to be long denied.
Viloriannis pulled the blanket up under her master’s chin, then bent and blew out the single candle. Whitefist had exhausted himself lifting the curse of immobility from the stricken townsfolk; his eyes were sunken behind closed lids, his face gaunt, and his breathing, as she bent and put an ear to his chest, seemed shallow and laboured. The deacon clasped her tarnished silver pendant in one hand and placed the other softly on her Master’s brow, her smooth white skin against his, wrinkled and age-mottled, and whispered a brief prayer to the Allfather. The Healing force flowed through her as it had so many times in the past, at once exalting and weakening her. But this time, as had been happening with depressing frequency, she felt no culmination, no sense of achievement or completion. The energy of her spell ran into her Master’s body and seemed to flow out as quickly again. She had no power against this wound, and no name that she could give to it, save Time; and it was more powerful than she.
She left the priest sleeping deeply and padded silently into the dining hall, closing the door to his chambers quietly behind her. Belmina, one of the volunteers of the Shrine, looked up from a kettle of something that she was tending at the hearth, a question in her eyes. Viloriannis put a finger to her lips, shaking her head, and the woman subsided again, returning to her stirring.
The Deacon of the Shrine gathered the folds of her dark robe closely about her and walked softly back down the hallway towards the pilgrims’ wing. The appearance of the men of the Watch, and the news, delivered by their Sergeant, one “Breygon of the Woods”, that they had discovered the lair of the creatures plaguing the town, had filled her with a mixture of anticipation and panic. Ever since she had guessed the nature of the attacks with the horrid death of the woodsman, Bas Kelbor, and the subsequent disappearance of his body from its cairn, she had been concerned that unnatural forces were at work in the town.
Unlike most of the townsfolk, she had believed Trask immediately when he had stumbled into the Shrine two weeks past, babbling about having seen Kelbor alive and well at the Rune Stones. There had been for her no question of doubting his tale, for although he had likely since forgotten it himself, Trask had that night told her and Whitefist a tale of cold mists, cold hands, and blank eyes radiating a terrible lust for the blood of the living. She recalled exchanging glances with Whitefist; they had both seen such things with their own eyes before. Viloriannis had herself once been beset by fell creatures from beyond the grave, damned souls wrenched from their enclosing clay by the foul magicks of a sorcerer and set against her and her friends.
Even the almighty power of the Allfather had been insufficient to hold them back, and they had won their escape and their safety only through hard handstrokes, and through the willing and courageous sacrifice of Orkregis, a mighty warrior of the White that she had known almost from childhood. At length the sorcerer, Calpurgnis of Aeryn, had fallen to an archer’s shaft, and Viloriannis had herself dispatched the last of the shambling horrors he had summoned from beyond the grave. So much her knowledge and experience of the fruits of the necromancer’s art, the crime and perversion of Undeath; but even these horrors were minor compared to the nightmares recounted to her by Whitefist, who, in his younger and healthier days before coming to Bornhavn, had stood eye to eye with fell and powerful demons of unlife, and faced them down, the power of the Allfather ravening from his eye, hand and heart. Poor man, she thought, to survive such nightmares only to be felled at last by the one truly implacable enemy.
She paused at the heavy wooden doors that separated the pilgrims’ wing from the rest of the Manse proper. After a moment’s hesitation, she slid a hanging torch bracket to one side, revealing a tiny hole in the wall to which she put her eye, giving her a view of the length of the Pilgrims’ Barracks. She saw immediately that Breygon and the quiet monk were still with their comrades, and still filthy and caked with mud. Although she could not hear what they were saying, their gestures were easily readable. Clearly they had followed the creature into the Great Swamp that lay beyond Storskov, the Greatwood, and had found not it, but something else entirely. Trask, for one, was hanging on their every word. As well he might, she thought grimly, given that he alone amongst the townsfolk has witnessed what they have seen. Except for Ulfgar and Benjiis, she corrected herself mentally, noting that the two appeared to be sleeping quietly at the near end of the barracks, now that their psyches had been released from the paralytic bondage of the ghouls’ touch. And the wolf is gone, she thought, wondering where it had got off to.
Viloriannis slid the sconce back into place, then drew the bolt and entered the barracks. Conversation ceased immediately, and every eye turned to her. She noticed that Alric had moved his bench back in front of the door and was perched on it, watching the conversation with furrowed brow, and she nodded approvingly at his precaution. A diverse group, this, and prone to rash judgment, but at least some of them had a grain or two of sense.
“Welcome back,” she began. “First, are you well?”
“Well enough,” Breygon answered. “We didn’t find the creature we sought, but we found plenty to keep us occupied. All of us,” he emphasized. “But we’re not wounded.”
“The Allfather be praised,” Viloriannis said, making a small gesture over her heart and then folding her hands in her sleeves. “Their lair is in the Great Swamp then?” she asked. Breygon nodded.
“It is, and it seems that we have a larger problem on our hands than merely a single ghoul, or even a nest of them. We found a lengthy tunnel and a building of sorts, buried far beneath the swamp. We descended the tunnel, and were set upon by a trio of walking skeletons. These we dispatched without much difficulty; but then, in a larger chamber, were confronted by enormous spiders and a party of shambling, scarlet-orbed corpses.” He paused, shuddering at the thought of what they had stumbled into.
“And you withdrew,” Viloriannis said. “It was the wiser course.” She walked to one of the nearby trestle tables and sat wearily on the bench beside it. “Do you plan to return tonight?” she asked.
“Hardly,” said Breygon. “Night probably isn’t the ideal time to assault a stronghold filled with creatures of darkness such as these.”
“It is not,” she agreed. “What, then, do you intend to do?”
Breygon appeared about to answer, and then stopped himself, and looked around at his tiny command. “Thoughts?” he asked.
“We have an appointment to keep,” said Qaramyn, closing his book and stowing it back in his pack. He stood and stretched the gathering kinks out of his neck. “And we’re late. Moreover, we are woefully ignorant about that which we face. Although,” he added with a nod towards Joraz, “less so than if you two stout hearts had not decided to take on the foe single-handed.” Joraz smiled back serenely, ignoring the wizard’s jibe. Qaramyn shrugged and continued. “Still, if dinner at the House of Sieur File is to be as well-attended as we’ve heard tell today, we may increase our hitherto scanty understanding of the evil that assails this town.”
“As concise as ever,” replied Breygon. “Gwen?”
“I agree with Qaramyn,” the Halfling replied. “There’s not much here to stea…I mean, see,” she said. “Maybe we can find something at Trader File’s that will turn to our prof…advantage.” She fidgeted for a moment, shifting from foot to foot, hands in her trouser pockets. “Anyway, let’s go to dinner!”
Bregon smiled, tugging at one ear. “Gwen,” he asked, “what have you got in your pockets?”
“Nothing!” piped the Halfling. “Nothing at all! Well…nothing but my hands,” she corrected herself with a smile.
“Keep it that way,” Breygon said. “Joraz?”
“The fates will place your feet upon the path that leads to your destiny,” the monk replied steadily. “Choice is an illusion. Man’s destiny lies not in choosing his fate, but in how he meets the fate that has been chosen for him.”
Breygon stared at the monk for a moment. “And that means…?”
“If trouble is coming,” Joraz explained, “it will come, whether you climb a mountain, dive to the depths of the sea, or hide in a cave. If we wait here, trouble will surely find us here. It will find us wherever we go.” Then the monk smiled. “But if we keep our appointment, we may enjoy a good meal before it does.”
Breygon and the others laughed. “Well said,” he chuckled. “And what say you, Alric?”
“I’m hungry,” the warrior said simply. “I fight better on a full stomach. But,” he added with a scowl, “any more chestnuts and I’m liable to turn into a squirrel.”
“I heard that,” Breygon agreed with some feeling. He turned back to Viloriannis. “My lady, it’s been a busy night, and some of us are unfit for dinner at a wealthy man’s house,” he said, nodding at himself and Joraz.
“Fitness lies in the heart, not in the raiment,” she replied with a grin, “but I too am invited, and you both smell...unappetizing. You can bathe and change your clothing here. But I warn you,” she added, “the robes of a pilgrim are unlikely to flatter the eye of a discerning man like the Sieur File.”
“I’m not much for flattery,” Breygon said, “and I share your ideas about fitness. And simple garb becomes simple folk such as we. We are indebted to you for your hospitality and for the care you gave to those poor people.”
“I did little,” the cleric replied. “The Allfather sent you to them in their need. Yours was the deed of valour. Their care, in truth, is nothing more than my duty, for I am the Hand of the Allfather in Bornhavn.” Viloriannis stood and nodded towards the door. “It is late, and time presses. We will speak more of duty later, I have no doubt.”
Another solemnly-clad woman had joined Viloriannis near the fireplace. “This is Belmina,” the Deacon explained. “She will show you to the bath-house and provide you with clothing. Your own garb will be laundered tomorrow.”
Breygon glanced at Alric and Qaramyn. “Keep an eye on the door. Gwen,” he added, “take care of the young couple.” All three nodded. “Joraz,” he continued, “it’s bath-time. Unless, that is, you have something profound to add about how we smell?”
Belimina beckoned, and Joraz and Breygon fell into line behind her. “The nose,” Joraz expounded as they walked, “is the most discerning of the body’s senses. For the blind man cannot see riches, but he can smell corruption; the deaf man cannot hear the speech of the fool, but he can smell his folly; the handless man…”
“I liked the ‘inscrutable silence’ thing better,” Viloriannis heard Alric growl as she closed the door.
Despite the gravity of the situation, she could not help a wry smile. These Watchmen were unlike any others she had ever met. She hoped that their obedience to the Code matched their bravery.
She walked back to her simple cell. Once there, she lit an oil lamp and doffed and folded her robe, washing quickly and brushing out her hair, all the while trying to decide on appropriate attire for File’s banquet. The man was a toad, but he was one of the powers in Bornhavn, and even the Hand of the Allfather did not dare make too many enemies in the mortal realm. Normally, knowing that Fellikartus and Beal Trite, Bornhavn’s Reeve (and File’s man, bought and paid for) would be at hand, she would have preferred to wear something womanly in order to loosen their tongues – but tonight was different. In her heart, she felt that action, too long delayed, was coming at last – a clash of powers, a true reckoning between the Light and the Dark. And with her Master too weak to stand before all and lead the charge, the oldest duty of a Priest of the Allfather fell to her.
She was about to whisper a prayer for guidance, but the words faltered on her lips. Could her indecision be nothing more than cowardice? Was she hiding behind her lesser duties to her flock and ignoring the first calling of the faithful? Was she using her Master’s infirmity as an excuse, refusing to acknowledge that which she had known to be true almost from the moment these attacks had begun – that after four all-to-brief years, her time as the Hand of the Allfather was nearly at an end?
So be it. She shut her wardrobe firmly and threw the latch, and strode instead to a dusty wooden chest standing under her cell’s sole high, narrow window. With a whisper and a wave she released the locks, and the lid lifted in the darkness with a rusty creak of long-disused hinges. A jumbled mass of oiled leather and polished steel gleamed in the lamplight. Almost reverently, she removed the trappings of her past, hidden away since her arrival in Bornhavn and her pledge of service to the master: a heavy, padded gambeson, complete with leather skirts and cuisses; a gleaming steel breastplate of ancient design, with faded runes and whorls cut into its scarred, polished surface; a heavy iron mace, with cruel bronze studs set into the ball atop the leather-wrapped handle; an elaborate, pointed helmet she had taken from the body of an incautious Northern raider, furred and bearing the dried and waxed wings of a raven on either side of the crest; and lastly, a broad, heavy metal shield bearing upon its whitened surface the symbols of her faith: an adamant raven poised atop an anvil of silver. The sigil of the Allfather.
Hardly noticing the cold night air penetrating her shift or the icy stone beneath her bare feet, she slid her left arm into the shield’s straps and hefted the mace in her right hand. It was as though she had doffed them only yesterday instead of nearly four years ago. These, she mused, these are the true vestments of a servant of the Light: the hauberk my chasuble, the helm my veil, the arming coat my priestly robes, the mace my rod of office...and my shield, she thought, the face of my Master, the Mikkelseggr, All-knowing, Lord of Thunder, and the Scourge of Heaven.
Viloriannis settled her shield more tightly against her left arm, and with her right, swung the mace in a broad, hissing arc. It left a trail of silvery sparks against the darkness of her cell.
For four years I have been the Hand of the Allfather, she thought with chill contentment, but no longer. No longer.
She swung the mace again, and it whined as it cut the cold night air.
No longer. Tonight, I am his Fist.