25 August 2007

The Priest and the Princess

Players come and players go. As I mentioned below, Alric’s Player found that combat in the Dungeons & Dragons world moved a little more slowly than in the uber-hack universe of Diablo, where the game code can be summed up as:

50 GOTO 10

Anyway, Alric’s Player’s departure coincided with the arrival of a new Player who was keen to join an ongoing campaign; while at the same time, the DM who had begun our campaign (and for which all of the foregoing nauz was merely supposed to be a side adventure) asked me if I wanted to take over on a permanent basis. So I did (retiring Qaramyn to NPC status), and he rolled up a new PC for insertion into the campaign.

This required that I find a means of integrating two new PCs into the campaign. There are two options in such a case:

OPTION 1: Come up with something original; or

Sadly, I chose Option 1, which meant that I had to do some thinking and writing. The new PCs were rolling up at one level below the existing PCs (so 4th level, rather than 5th). The new Player decided to run a Half-Elven Rogue 1/Sorceress 3 called Lyra Alyra, and the former DM decided to go with a Jarlin (i.e., Viking) Fighter 2 / Cleric 2 named Bjorn Guthbrandr.

Coming up with a backstory for Lyra was relatively straightforward. Given her nature and alignment (Chaotic Neutral, a true challenge for the Player, on top of the fact that he was playing a girl), it made sense to start her off as a bit of a party girl and ne’er-do-well in Ellohyin, a large city about a hundred miles north of where the Party was currently located. The Player advised me that he was going to use her high Charisma, the usual array of charisma-based skills, and her quirky alignment to play her as something of a mercurial and capricious flirt, using her looks to get what she wanted. This initially weirded me out, but I've gotten used to it - more through consistently deft and in-character role-playing by Lyra's Player than due to any psychological adaptation on my part. Sometimes you just have to roll with the weirdness, and enjoy it. Anyhow, I decided that she would end up hitting the road in order to escape the vengeance of a wronged nobleman.

(Yeah, I know I said “something original”. Sue me.)

Lyra had spent a couple of weeks hiding in garbage heaps to stay out of sight of the nobleman’s marauding and bloody-eyed henchmen. During this low point in her life, she was approached by a tall, stunning blonde in impractically skin-tight plate armour. Cymballa offered Lyra induction into the Brotherhood of the Wyrms and a fast horse, and Lyra, who preferred ritzy hotels to dumpsters that an otyugh would turn up its nose at, agreed. Given her nature, she might also have agreed if the offer had been extended by some warty, slavering, cannibalistic minion of Demogorgon...but hey! That’s our Lyra.

Anyhow, once she had her brand new brand, Lyra was informed that she was being assigned as mage to a party of other newly-inducted Brothers of the Wyrm, who were even now about to set out from Bornhavn for the town of Ganesford, where the Sweetwaters River enters the Stjerneflåde. Lyra said, “Whatever, gorgeous,” took the horse, and hit the highway in a welter of flying fetlocks and rancid apple cores.

A day’s travel took her south along the Nordvej, crossing the Crystalsheen River (which runs parallel to the Sweetwaters River) at Erdallen, and stopping for the night at Dolin’s Pit, a dingy mining community on the banks of the Stjerneflåde about 40 miles south of Ellohyin. She enjoyed her first bath and sound night’s sleep in a couple of weeks, and awoke to a sunny autumn morning. Riding out of the inn’s stables, however, her horse slipped on the wet cobblestones and broke a leg. Fortunately (!) a priest of Esu, the Allfather, was exiting the same inn at the same time, and stopped to render assistance.

Enter Bjorn.

Bjorn’s backstory was a little more challenging, complicated by the fact that I had to explain how (and why) a warpriest of the Allfather had come down to the southern part of Erutrei from his island homeland a thousand leagues to the northwest. The “why” was fairly easy; for some reason, he had shared the same dreams as the original members of the Party after the Battle of the Sea Wyrm, but for him the dreams had begun several months earlier. Consulting his mentors back in Jarla, he had decided that doing Esu’s will meant that he had to travel south, find the “great river of stars”, and travel along it until he met “a man of Harad, a man of Esud, a woman of the Holbytlan, and a silver wolf”, and support them in their struggle against "the growing darkness". The journey took him most of the summer and involved a lengthy sea voyage and a lot of hard riding through valleys and mountain passes. Not surprisingly, it put him into the same inn that Lyra was staying in in Dolin’s Pit, on the same night that Lyra was staying there.

(Something I have to emphasize: the first coincidence is NEVER a coincidence, let alone a deus ex machina; it is simply a random event which makes a SUBSEQUENT identical event a coincidence. Think about it this way: is it really a massive coincidence if you roll a pair on two six-sided dice? A lot of people think it is, but it's not. While there are 36 possible combinations of two d6's (six different possibilities for each of two dice, or 6x6), there are six possible “doubles” – 1 and 1, 2 and 2, 3 and 3, etc. So the actual chance is 1 in 6, because if all you're looking for is a pair, it doesn’t matter what you roll on the first die; it only matters what you roll on the second one. In other words, Lyra and Bjorn staying in the same inn on the same night was just life; it wasn't significant until they teamed up. If it happened again later on, of course, it would be a huge coincidence.)

(Except there’s no such thing as coincidences when the DM runs a nice, tight railroad plot. All aboard!)

Anyhow, because I enjoy the writing thing, I decided – once I had watched these two play and knew a little more about their characters – to try to visualize what their meeting might have been like.

And since I liked how it sounded, I extended it a little bit to bring our two new PCs up to the point just before they met the rest of the Party.

(N.B. Lyra's not really a princess; that's just what Bjorn calls her. It's a term of "derisive endearment". They've had a difficult relationship and are the only two members of the party to actually come to blows, which is a little incongruous given that Bjorn is about 18" taller and outweighs her by at least a hundred pounds. But that's how we pass the day away, in the merry old land of Oz!)

(N.B.B. Lyra calls Bjorn lots of different things, from "Big Fella" and "Brother Bear" to - I swear - "Hairy Britches". He'd probably level a charge of sexual harassment against her, if (a) Jarlin types knew what that was, and (b) they weren't usually more preoccupied with a different sort of "hostile workplace". Also, the following imaginary tale of how they met includes a lot less in the way of sexual innuendo, double entendres, and "I'm not bi, but I'm curious" commentary than Lyra normally indulges in at the gaming table. I guess I haven't learned how to roll with the weirdness THAT much yet.)

* * * * *

The Priest and the Princess

He was tightening his mount’s girth straps when the unruly beast reared and nearly kicked him in the head. Straightening, he grasped the bridle in one hand and cuffed the wretched creature genially between the ears. The blow steadied the stallion, and it stood stock still, its knees trembling oddly. Bjorn was wondering whether he had struck the poor thing too hard when the first tremor hit.

The ground dropped out from beneath his bootheels faster than the halfdeck of his father’s longship in a heavy sea. Caught entirely off guard, he stumbled, and would have fallen unceremoniously on his fundament, had Sleipnir’s harness not still been grasped in one fist. The great, shaggy wagon horse braced its knees, and Bjorn hauled himself vertical again, tense and wary, expecting the inevitable aftershock. None came; and after a moment, the chirping of birds and the impatient shuffling of his mount’s hooves in the dirt signaled that the crisis was past, at least for the moment.

“What in the name of the Three Houses was that?”

Bjorn turned. While he had been keeping a weather eye on the hills, his traveling companion had come out of the tavern’s stable door, saddle bags slung carelessly over one shoulder, and was greeting her own horse, a sleek, mild-tempered mare, making embarrassing clucking and cooing noises. The girl was a sweet sight, of that there was no doubt, and Bjorn was surprised once again to be able to look upon her with appreciation, but without lust. No doubt, the Allfather’s service had changed him. For the better, he added to himself. Absolutely.
“Earthquake,” he rasped. “Did it knock you down too?”

“Goodness, no,” the woman replied. She threw her saddlebags across her destrier’s withers, tightening the buckles with a practiced motion, and then swung herself easily up into the saddle – an impressive feat, given her tiny stature. “You?”

“Damned near broke my a...my axe,” Bjorn finished lamely. The woman’s laughter tinkled prettily.

“You needn’t curb your tongue for my sake, Brother Bear,” she said with a smile. “I’m used to rougher company than you might think.”

Bjorn glowered at this, disliking the teasing, even from one so decorative. “It’s more than a simple matter of propriety, my lady,” he answered. Placing his left foot firmly in the stirrup, he levered himself into his seat. Sleipnir uttered a resigned whoof and turned a reproachful eye back over one shoulder. “I am bound to raise my voice in praise, in prayer and in battle. Raising it in needless blasphemy is the mark of a weakling.”

“You are new to your vows, Brother,” she replied, serious for a moment, “and the furthest thing from a weakling I’ve ever met. I’m certain the Powers you serve would be willing forgive these minor transgressions.”

“The Allfather forgave much when he called me, lady,” Bjorn said with a wry grin. “I’m afraid I still owe many years of good behaviour to clean the slate.”

“Well, then,” the woman answered, “wipe a part of it this morning, and tell me a tale as we ride.” She heeled her mount lightly, and the creature wheeled obediently towards the stable gate. After much encouragement with the spurs, Sleipnir lurched into motion and followed.

“I’m not sure I know any that you might find amusing, lady,” Bjorn said as they cantered out into the square. “If I exclude tales of women, wine and war, I exhaust my repertoire.”

“Don’t exclude them, then,” she called back over her shoulder. “Two of those are my favourite subjects.”

As they rode southwards out of town and down to the ford, Bjorn was left to wonder what, precisely, that meant.

* * * * *

Bjorn had met Lyra Alyra the preceding morning under virtually identical circumstances. He had stayed the night in a small but comfortable inn just off the Nordvej, in a non-descript town called Dolin’s Pit, a few miles south of Ellohyin. In a journey that had thus far lasted more than a season there had been many such towns, and in Bjorn’s travel-fatigued mind, they had all begun to blur together. An infinity of poor meals and bad ale, an endless succession of weevilly loaves and vermin-infested straw ticks, and an unending nightmare of saddle sores and damp clothing had inured him to the drabness of his surroundings. He had seen nothing to differentiate "The Pit", as the inhabitants called it, from any of the infinitude of similar demesnes through which he had passed...until the girl hove into view.

Dawn had found him blanketing Sleipnir for yet another endless day in the saddle. The inn-yard had been quiet, and he had been enjoying the blessed interval between cock-crow and the first appearance of water-drawers and wood-hewers, when the stable doors had sprung open, disgorging a small but fine-boned roan mare cantering swiftly out into the courtyard, bearing a maiden of startling beauty.

Bjorn had been entranced, and had dropped Sleipnir’s bridle, standing paralyzed with wonder at the vision before him...until that vision had gone crashing to the courtyard flagstones in a tangle of girl, gear and thrashing hooves. And then came the fatal snap and anguished whinny. Even Bjorn, a poor horseman at the best of times, recognized those sounds for what they meant.

He hurried over to the fallen pair, and was relieved when the woman extricated herself easily from the mess of saddle and gear and stood, evidently unharmed. Her horse was a different matter; it thrashed about in agony, and Bjorn marked the injury, bright blood spurting from the torn flesh surrounding the protruding bone, just above the fetlock on its left foreleg.

Bjorn knew instantly what he intended to do, but hesitated for a moment; he had healed many a grievous injury in the course of his brief career as an instrument of the Allfather, but he had never yet applied his gifts to an animal. Indeed, he had no idea whether...

Nonsense, he told himself, dropping to one knee and grasping the beast by the bridle. A horse was one of Bræa’s creatures, a living being of sense and feeling; and a wound was a wound. “Steady him,” he rasped over his shoulder. Closing his eyes, he attempted to gather his concentration, and felt, rather than saw, the woman kneel next to him on the hard flagstones. He heard her begin to whisper to the stricken horse, soft, sibilant syllables that held no meaning for him...and then all worldly sounds faded.

As his focus tightened, the horse’s heartbeat grew louder, and louder still, thundering in his ears, pounding with an intensity that was as marvelous as it was frightening. Bjorn felt his chest and shoulders tighten as the might of the Divine General swelled within him; but where once the sensation of being filled to bursting with the glorious strength of the Powers had terrified him, now he knew it for what it was, and he was exalted. He heard his own heartbeat accelerate, racing and deepening until it matched that of the creature now lying, quiescent, before him, and he opened his eyes.

The mare’s life force was glorious, incandescent, shining bright and inviolate through the thin flesh of the animal’s corporeal being; but it contained a flaw, a pulsating, dripping incarnadine blot spreading from the site of the injury, oozing agony and corruption. It was no different, really, than had a man been lying leg-broke before him, inviting him to become the conduit for the divine flux. And yet he held off a moment longer, savouring the electrifying sensation of healing ecstasy unto the last possible instant, until he could contain the power no longer.

The moment came and went. Bjorn laid his right hand upon the iron head of the great sledge at his belt, and pressed his left firmly against the mare’s heaving barrel, and intoned a word that rang with all of the authority of the Light. A rushing, crashing wind, like fire and stones caught in a whirlwind, filled him and flowed through him, hammering down his arm, knotting the muscles, locking his elbow, and causing his fingers to clench against the soft hair of the mare’s chest. A pure white force, the irresistable ethereal breath of the Allfather, blasted through the frail outline of the mare, lighting it from the inside, limning the creature’s natural aura with an unnatural argent blaze. It seemed impossible than any mortal flesh could contain such power. Before his eyes, Bjorn saw the threatening blood-blot on the horse’s aura erased, the injury wiped away by the unstoppable, all-consuming, healing wave of the Allfather’s might.

And then the power was spent; the gale of wind and fire gone, the horse’s divine aura vanished. Bjorn leaned forward, panting slightly; the ecstasy had departed as quickly as it had come, and he was as blown as if he had run a mile, armed and armoured, wearing waterlogged boots. Eyes closed, he rested a moment on his haunches, hands on knees, willing his heartbeat to return to normal.

Something damp touched his cheek. Bjorn looked, and saw that the mare had righted herself, and was nuzzling him affectionately. He chuckled weakly, then grasped its bridle and pulled himself erect. The mare followed him with her muzzle, whickering softly and snorting in his ear. Feeling his strength return, he laughed, and glancing over at Sleipnir, said, “See? This is how a proper horse behaves.” The enormous stallion hung its head and stamped impatiently, managing to look sheepish and offended at the same time.

A soft, musical voice broke into his reverie. “I owe you my thanks, stranger.”

Bjorn turned and regarded the woman whose horse he had healed. “My duty, madam,” he began. Then his voice trailed off. At a distance, he had thought her beautiful; close up, she was devastating. Pale skin, honey-coloured hair, a high-arched brow, and pearlescent emerald eyes were mated to a form as exquisitely proportioned as anything the Divine Sculptress herself had ever achieved. After a moment, Bjorn realized that he was staring as impudently as any slack-jawed backwoods lad, and stammered, “Your pardon, my lady.”

The woman laughed merrily. “I’ve lived among men long enough to take stares as a compliment,” she said with a roguish grin. With a graceful, practiced gesture, she flip a fall of hair back over one shoulder, revealing a delicately-pointed ear, and Bjorn mentally kicked himself. Elf, he grumped to himself, disgusted at his lack of perception. I might’ve noticed that she only comes half-way up my brigantine.

It was a mark of Bjorn’s peculiar character that he found it far easier to gather his concentration to wield and shape Allfather’s divine power than to speak coherently in the presence of a pretty girl. Shaking his head slightly, he replied, “You owe me nothing, my lady. I am a servant, and this was my duty. I seek no recompense. Indeed, it is I who should be offering you thanks.”

“And why is that?”

“Because,” Bjorn answered, “until just now I’d never healed an animal. Didn’t know if it could be done, in fact.”

“Then fortune has served us both,” the woman said, still smiling. “I saw you arrive yester-eve, from the north. If you travel south, we can ride together. The road is more bearable with one to tell tales, and one to listen.”

Bjorn smiled broadly. “Mine has been a long and lonely road. I accept, with thanks.” Sleipnir grunted heavily as he hauled himself up into the saddle. Belatedly remembering his manners, he raised his right fist, and made the sign of the Hammer over his heart. “Bjorn Guthbrandr, your servant. A lesser brother of the Great Hall, and a humble acolyte of Esu, the Allfather.”

The woman had grinned mischievously at this ponderous formality. “Nice horse, Brother Bear,” she said with a laugh. “Can it run?”

And so saying, she dug her heels into the mare’s flanks, and galloped out of the innyard, hooves sparking against the cobbles of the Great North Road.

Sleipnir turned his mighty head, glancing back at his master with an almost accusatory look in his eyes. “I know, old friend, I know,” said Bjorn, patting the big black between the ears as it lumbered heavily after her.

* * * * *

Her name, he found out later that same morning, was Lyra Alora. It was musical, like her voice, which, as they rode, rose and fell delightfully, at times child-like with wonder at the magnificent vistas of the river valley, and at others, husky and seductive, as rich as the honeyed timbre of the most practiced courtesan. She even sang for him, a lilting, syncopated melody in the Elven language, a tongue unfamiliar to him, more like the trilling of some exotic songbird than any human speech. He recognized the soft accents of the tongue of old Harad in her words, and although he did not understand them, he was struck silent by the throbbing sense of ancient glories and equally ancient sorrows that her gifts conveyed. Even their horses seemed to be listening, harking to the power of her words and the almost mystical potency of her voice, plodding with lowered heads when the phrasing lagged, and breaking into a spirited canter when her voice evoked drums and horns and the battle-calls that had rung out, clear as glacier water, when the world was young.

She had accepted his enthusiastic applause with a smile and a nod, and asked him to tell her about his journeying.

“There’s not much to tell,” he replied with a sour grin. “A long and busy sea-voyage, followed by day upon day in the saddle. My blisters have blisters.” He shifted his seat slightly, causing Sleipnir to snort resignedly at the new distribution of weight. “My people are a sailing folk. I’d rather deal with sea-serpents than saddle-sores.”

“Surely you can do better than that,” she chided gently. Bjorn eyed the girl enviously; either she was an accomplished rider, or possessed a sufficiency of natural grace to convince her horse that she was. Probably hasn’t been a month in the saddle, either, he groused to himself.

“Very well,” he replied. “But be warned, I’m not much of a teller of tales. My father’s skald wore out more than one birch cane trying to teach me the Deed of Mottaccho.”

“But did it work? Did you learn it?”

“Not completely,” Bjorn said. “He eventually gave up. He told me he had better things to do than waste our people’s glorious legacy on a brainless, bloody-fisted lout.”

“That sounds like a quote.”

“Word for word,” he replied with a chuckle. “It was my nickname for a while. But my brother always insisted that Herukastr stopped trying to teach me because father’s lands were running short of birch trees.”

Lyra laughed her gentle, tinkling laugh. “I knew you could tell a tale if prodded,” she said merrily.

Bjorn shrugged his shoulders, easing them against the weight of his mail. “All right, then,” he replied, “but remember that you asked.” He paused for a moment, considering where to begin.

“We left Ulborg at the end of spring, the morning after the Feast of Olgarssen,” he began. “Bjarni Helgrimsson signed on as helmsman, but he fell to an ague within a week, and I ended up at the tiller. Boring work, but a damned sight better than being at the oars in a foul wind…”

* * * * *

His first day in Lyra’s company passed with astonishing rapidity. She proved a good listener, deft at drawing him out on subjects she found interesting, and equally adept at causing him to shift to a different topic when he strayed into too much depth on the battles he had seen, the ships he had handled (and mishandled), and the ale he had consumed over the course of his life to date. As the Lantern sank towards the Dragonspine Mountains, far beyond the heavily-wooded hills of the western branch, he found himself regretting the coming night for the inevitable loss of pleasant conversation. No man, no matter how devout or reticent, tires of talking about himself to a pretty girl.

Dusk came on. As Chuadan and Lodan rose over Ryker’s Range, far to the east, they passed a walled tower on a high motte overlooking the river, just where the road turned westwards, inland and away from the Stjerneflade’s tumbled stony banks. Bjorn suggested that they approach the keep and seek the lord’s hospitality for the night, but Lyra demurred, informing the puzzled northerner that the town of Ganesford lay only a few more miles on, with inns and taverns sufficient for their needs. Bjorn shrugged, disappointed at the thought of missing an evening at a knight’s board, but he acquiesced gracefully. He found it increasingly difficult to refuse the stunning Elfwoman anything. Dedicated though he was to the service of the unseen, he was yet a man, and the Allfather, bless his iron arse, had never yet denied his servants the pleasures of beer, board or bed. Probably explains why we still worship him, Bjorn thought with a chuckle, then cursed himself, mortified at his blaspjemy.

And so they continued on, riding another hour, as the moons rose in the sky, and a chill mist crept from the bracken along the roadside, swirling around the fetlocks of their mounts. At length they topped a low rise, and Bjorn saw that a valley lay before them: broad and shallow, with a wide river ford meeting the road, just south of a modest cluster of buildings.

After the cheerful, bustling squalor of the cities of the Northlands, and the orderly splendour of Bitterberg and Ellohyin, Bjorn found the town of Ganesford squalid and unpleasant. Although cobbled where it ran through the town’s centre, the Nordvej was banked with mud clear down to the ford, and it was with no little distaste that he shook the clinging goo from his boots when he dismounted. Lyra had led them unerringly to one of the largest buildings – the Gane’s Tankard Tavern, from the weatherbeaten sign hanging over the door – and Bjorn was more than content to give his outraged posterior a rest. Even Sleipnir, no weakling, heaved a great sigh of relief as he tumbled gracelessly out of the saddle.

They secured their mounts in a fenced paddock and entered the inn. Bjorn paused at the threshold and tried vainly to scrape the mud from his seaboots, but Lyra strode directly into the building, and Bjorn noted, much to his consternation, that she somehow seemed to have avoided being soiled by their travels. He shook his head in wonder. Witch? Or just one of those beautiful types who never seemed to dribble gravy on their tunics? Maybe both, Bjorn thought. He considered testing his surmise by lobbing a horse-turd at her to see if it stuck, and grinned at the thought.

A few moments later, Lyra had secured a pair of rooms, ordering food and wine (“Beer!” Bjorn had corrected automatically), turned, and handed her companion an ornate iron key. “The best chambers are at the front of the inn,” she said, “but I’ve selected something upstairs instead.” She paused for a moment, then added by way of explanation, “I don’t like ground-floor windows.”

“Whatever you think best, lady,” Bjorn answered. “I’m in your hands.”

“Not tonight, Brother Bear,” she said with a roguish smile. “And in any case, not until after you’ve bathed.”

And with that final sally, she undulated her way up the stairs, leaving Bjorn to carry both sets of saddlebags. Bjorn sighed, slung the saddle-bags over his shoulder, and followed.

* * * * *

Somehow he ended up paying for both rooms.

* * * * *

They came upon the landslide the following morning, less than an hour after they rode out of Ganesford, up and out of the Sweetvale River valley. The southern valley wall had been steep and stony, and south of the Valley, the precipice crept gradually eastward, crowding the roadbed against the bank of the Stjerneflade. Soon it seemed to loom over the road itself, flecks of granite, alabaster and mica glinting in the cliff face. Bjorn admired the visual spectacle, but remained vigilant; such cliffs had claimed the lives of his friends and family before, and he didn’t trust them.

With good reason. It appeared that the morning’s earthquake had vented much of its force on the hillside. A wide section of the cliff face had collapsed, and had come crashing down the slope, tearing away stone, earth and tree cover, burying the Nordvej for hundreds of paces, and forming a precipitous and shifting ramp of earth, rocks and debris that carried all the way down to the river bank, projecting far into the flow. Bjorn could see the fast current eating away at the long, brown tongue of dirt, breaking off fragments of logs and bits of stone, and carrying them away downstream. “Nasty,” he said calmly.

Lyra seemed perturbed by the prospect of wending their way across the tumbled maze of earth and stone. “How are we supposed to pass that?” she squeaked, a note of fear in her normally musical voice.

“Shouldn’t be too hard,” Bjorn replied. “I’ve seen worse back home. We’ll rope ourselves together and lead the horses. If one of them gets carried off we won’t be lost ourselves. It should work unless…”

“Unless what?”

Bjorn pointed to a dark mass of cloud advancing from the eastern horizon. “Unless it rains,” he said grimly. “If this becomes a sheet of mud, whatever’s holding the fall will melt away, and it’ll be lethal.”

“So we have to cross now?” Lyra asked.

“If we’re to cross at all. Come on.” He kicked Sleipnir into a canter and started down the hill towards the fall’s edge.

By the time they reached it, they knew they were not alone. Bjorn had been hearing something odd on the wind, like the call or cry of an unknown animal, but evidently Lyra’s ears were sharper. “It’s a woman,” she said simply.

She was right. As Bjorn dismounted at the edge of the slide (up close it was much, much larger than he had previously thought; stones the size of houses were tumbled about, and trees thicker through than he was tall had been snapped like kindling by the force of passing debris), he heard a shriek.

“Aid!” It was without doubt a woman’s voice. “Aid and succor, travelers!”

Bjorn saw nothing until Lyra pointed into the fall. One of the lumps that Bjorn had taken for one of the smaller stones suddenly moved, and stood, and resolved into a bipedal shape. It staggered towards them, black and forbidding, and Bjorn momentarily clutched at his hammer’s haft, before realizing that what he saw was not some grim specter, but rather an ordinary human being, covered from head to foot in thick, clinging mud.

Lyra leapt forward. To Bjorn’s eyes, she seemed to dance across the clumps of earth and shifting, unsteady logs, and in a moment had reached the woman’s side. “Softly, sister,” she said in a soothing voice, taking the woman’s filthy hand. “What aid do you require?”

The woman gasped, taking in air in a deep, sobbing breath. “They are gone,” she said, chest heaving as she collapsed into the Elfwoman’s startled embrace. “All of them. The miners. Our servants. My master! All taken by the earth.”

“Where?” Bjorn shouted. Sinking knee-deep into the clinging muck with every step, he picked his way carefully forward, until he stood beside the two women. He noted that the newcomer was taller than Lyra, and not nearly as pretty – although to be fair, it was hard to tell under the filth.

“Here,” the woman said, pointing at the ground. “There.” She waved indiscriminately, indicating an area roughly the size of a churchyard. “I cannot tell. Our camp was among the trees, and the trees are gone.”

“How many?” Lyra asked quietly, holding the woman gently, glancing at Bjorn over the top of her filth-bedaubed head.

“Threescore miners,” the woman answered, giving an exhausted sigh, and sinking to a sitting position on a nearby mud-covered stone. “A score of servants and bearers. Two apprentices. And Magister Rathorn, my master.” She choked back a sob again, and slumped forwards, her face buried in her hands.

“Take heart,” Bjorn said, feeling awkward. “The Allfather has vouchsafed you your life.”

The woman sobbed bitterly. “Am I then to rejoice?” she asked bitterly. “All that I owned in the world is gone with them. Steed, money, tools and all. My wealth lies before you.” She spread her hands, indicating her filthy garb. Bjorn could not help noticing a slender rapier and dagger, both clotted with earth, depending from an equally wretched baldric.

“Still...” he began.

My books,” the woman cut him off, hissing through clenched teeth. She looked pointedly at Lyra. “Surely, sister, you comprehend what that means?”

Lyra nodded slightly. “I am not of your breed of magi, but I understand your loss.” She glanced at Bjorn. “What aid can we offer you?”

Bjorn nodded his agreement. “Anything, lady,” he said. He was perversely satisfied to note that Lyra’s impeccable dress-front was besmirched with mud where the other woman had grasped her.

The woman glanced from Bjorn to Lyra, and then back to Bjorn, as if assessing the strength of his monstrous thews. She asked simply, “Will you help me dig?”

* * * * *