05 August 2007

Synopsis II - Night-time in Bornhavn

Earlier on, I related what our intrepid adventurers saw when they crested the rise in the Great Road and first laid eyes on the town of Bornhavn. You, gentle reader, now of course know a heck of a lot more than they did when they first rode into the place.

Upon their arrival, the High Elven warior/mage Orkarel Hax took her leave of the party, advising them that she intended to spend the night at Bellik’s Rest, and continue northwards in the morning. The PCs watched her depart with a certain wistfulness (especially Breygon), but were swiftly summoned back to business when they espied a crowd of farmers gathered in one of the sheep-fields. The crowd was glumly examining the remains of a dead sheep. Ever curious, the Party stopped to find out what was going on, and Breygon took a moment to examine the animal. He was forcibly reminded of the dead messenger they had encountered on the road; the sheep had had its throat torn out and its viscera partially consumed. What was worse, however, was the fact that maggots were proliferating in its shredded flesh, an unusual development given that the animal had been alive the preceding evening.

Unable to determine the cause of the attack, the Party continued on into town. A brief dispute erupted when Alric wanted to stop at the blacksmith’s shop to sort out his kit, while Breygon insisted that they make some headway on their assigned duties. Gwen and Qaramyn were dispatched to secure lodgings at the Rest, while Joraz and the two warriors carried on with the wagon, first to deliver Howell to Captain Allen aboard Swiftkeel (and good riddance to the sot), then to discharge their cargo of ammunition at the tower. They met Captain Fellikartus, and managed not to form much in the way of a positive opinion of him or his troops; then returned to Bellik's Rest (see above), where the wizard and the rogue had secured the bunkroom at the eastern end of the building as their lodgings for the night.

The following synopsis should give you a sense of what the PCs were thinking at the end of their journey.

* * * * *

Despite the aches and pains of combat and the exhaustion imposed by a long and active journey, none of the members of Breygon’s band found it easy to get to sleep on their first night in Bornhavn. Even the heavy meal, heady cider, and comfortable straw ticks furnished by innkeeper Halgor Bellik failed to do the trick, and the party lay wide awake – all save Gambrik, who was sprawled like a corpse across one of the further bunks. A twitching, snoring corpse that had, from the smell, attempted to drown itself in a barrel of cider.

Gwendilyn had difficulty even closing her eyes, and Gambrik's snoring wasn’t helping. She had gotten over her embarrassment at having put an arrow into the mysterious Elven warrior that had joined their fight against the ghouls, and although the woman had been gracious enough (“Think nothing of it,” she had growled in response to Gwendilyn’s stammered apology – all the more alarming, as elves rarely growl), the knowledge that the warrior/mage was spending the night somewhere in the same inn did nothing for the Halfling’s peace of mind.

Her principal problem, however, was the knowledge that right next door to Bellik’s Rest lay the enormous mansion they had descried on their entry into town, with its pillared walkways and tall, square tower. Even in a backwater like Bornhavn, such a house fairly screamed “money!”, and Gwendilyn found her fingers itching. Eventually her nature got the better of her, and she crawled out from under her rough woolen blanket (fully clothed, her normal precaution when sleeping in strange places) and shrugged into her cloak. She was halfway to the door, sword-belt in one hand and a coil of rope in the other, when a dancing spray of sparks erupted in front of her eyes, and she jumped in alarm. She shot an accusing glance at Qaramyn's bunk. The wizard, watching her from the shadows, merely raised an eyebrow, and whispered, “Midnight stroll?”

Joraz noted the interplay between his team-mates, but ignored it. Deep in the contemplative trance that he found more restful than actual sleep, the night sounds outside the open window and even the grunts and snorts of his colleagues washed over him meaninglessly. He replayed the battle with the denizens of clay in his mind, recalling each blow and imagining how it might have been better lplaced. He recalled the momentary flash of fear that had gone through him when the chilling power of the creatures’ grasp had clutched at his heart; it was one thing to fight another man (or indeed, giant wolf) fist to fist, but to go barehanded against monsters from beyond the grave was an unwelcome novelty. While he had no desire to learn any new skills beyond those demanded by his art, the pale, stinking monsters they had encountered at the abandoned farm had definitely given him a new respect for archers. He found himself wondering whether it might not be prudent to invest in some means of keeping similar opponents at something more than arm’s length in the future.

Qaramyn smiled to himself as Gwen climbed sullenly back into her bunk. Not that he had any moral qualms about her larcenous tendencies (so long as she kept her fingers off his spell components); indeed, he himself had noticed a high window in the neighbouring tower with a light burning brightly, and had caught the characteristic loom and shadow of his favourite type of furniture: bookshelves. He wouldn’t mind paying a visit to the mansion, if circumstances offered an opportunity, but he was fairly certain that burglary was not the best means of gaining access to the proprietor’s library.

To distract himself from fruitless speculation, he lay back and tried to sort through his initial impressions of the town. The place seemed to to him to lie under a pall of fear. There should have been more activity in the market square; more farmers in the fields (harvest time was nearly come, after all), more wagons and horsemen on the road, more children driving the sheep and cattle. Indeed, there should have been more faces at the bar; if nothing else, the presence in town of a patrol of the Watch would normally have been expected to bring out half the townsfolk out in hopes of hearing a good tale or two. Instead, there had been fewer than half a dozen souls at Bellik’s table, grimly pounding back their host’s cider, and eating in silence. Not a normal night for the inn, Qaramyn thought, nor even a slow night.

A dead night, perhaps, he thought with a grim smile.

Most telling, however, was the fact that Captain Allen of the Swiftkeel had kept his men at their stations for nearly two weeks now, ever since the pilot Olem had disappeared. Threescore thirsty sailors with full pockets confined aboard; that must have been a sore blow to Bellik. Of course, now that Howall was safely aboard, the ship was free to leave, and therefore so too were Qaramyn and his companions. Indeed, the wizard had already overheard their half-elven leader instructing Gambrik to return with the empty stores wagon to Fort Ryker, and Qaramyn knew that Breygon was wrestling with his worries over whether to split his party and assign the lone soldier a co-driver and protector. Even Qaramyn was uncertain whether Breygon would decide to return to the Fort, or remain and, as Castellan Lalagor had ordered, attempt to ascertain what had happened to missing pilot. And for that matter, would Breygon want to seek out Telvor?

Despite having known his half-elven colleague for hardly a fortnight, Qaramyn suspected that he understood the man well enough to guess what his decision would be. So be it. With a grimmer smile, he conjured a small ball of flame and set it to burn by his right ear, then pulled out his spellbook, flipped to a page that he had only recently come to understand – one illustrated with a shrieking figure writhing in tongues of flame – and began to mutter the arcane words of magic over and over to himself. [Note the wizard is memorizing his spells. I hadn't yet brought the new rules for spellcasters into effect at this point.]

Alric saw the tiny, floating fireball appear, and rolled over to face the wall. He was a man with a problem. The previous night’s battle had not gone at all well for him; after landing a few telling blows against the terrifying, putrid grave-monsters, one of them had slashed at him with its jagged claws, and he had fallen, cold and numb, to the ground - still aware of the ongoing fight, but unable to twitch so much as a finger. As his lungs laboured for air, the fight continued to rage around him, and he recalled his terror as one of the beasts had stood over him and paused, slavering and drooling its foul and festering spittle onto his face, as if considering whether to dine on him, until a well-placed kick from Joraz had sent it back to the abyss that spawned it. It was not a happy memory for Alric.

Nor was Breygon’s cavalier treatment of his desire to halt at the smithy on the way into town; that, too continued to rankle. What was wrong with a quick stop? Surely that blasted greatsword they had dragged out of the mound of the statues was worth a little tender treatment if it improved Alric’s ability to hand out lacerations. But no-o-o-o-o! They had to deliver the pilot and the cargo RIGHT NOW! Alric had had a good idea of discipline beaten into him by his father, but while he understood the need for obedience, he had never come to like it much. That point had been driven home earlier in the afternoon when the group had met Captain Fellikartus at the Bornhavn Watchtower. Now, that was the life for Alric – command and responsibility shared in equal measure with comfort and the respect of one’s compatriots. If you had to be in any army at all, the Bornhavn Militia certainly had a better row to hoe than the bloody Men of the Watch, chasing hither and thither, getting bitten by wolves, chased by brigands, mauled by walking statues and snacked on by undead nightmares from the grave.

Alric sighed, and thought to himself, At least Grant wasn’t kidding when he told us there’d be ‘No life like it’. He found himself wondering, How do I get out of this chicken-dung outfit? Not for the last time.

Breygon heard Alric’s sigh and ground his teeth in frustration. Morale in his little group had bounced back somewhat after the battle at the farm (as it always does after a successful engagement), and yet his troops still seemed restive and half-mutinous. Keeping Gwendilyn away from other people’s valuables (to say nothing of keeping her from shooting unexpected allies) was a full-time job in itself, but Breygon had the others to worry about as well. Qaramyn, although useful in a fight (and handy at cremating corpses after the fact), seemed bemused by the half-elf’s leadership, and affected a cynical and disinterested demeanour, as though obedience to orders were a favour he accorded, rather than an obligation. Alric had become sullen, and although Breygon regretted his abrupt treatment of the man earlier that day, he suspected that the fighter was taking the fact that he had succumbed to the ghouls’ deadly touch a little harder than necessary. Not everybody had elven blood, after all.

Joraz, not surprisingly, had proven to be a reliable and trustworthy companion in battle – but he was the only one of their party who was not officially one of Breygon’s warriors, having declined to enlist in the Watch. Gambrik was hardly worth mentioning as a fighter, although Howall, while old and a sot, had proven remarkably tenacious and agile in a fight. Of course, he was gone now. Furthermore, Breygon was still no closer to figuring out what had happened to Telvor. And now he had to decide whether to remain a day or two to try and figure out what had happened to Olem. It would certainly be nice to report back to Fort Ryker with the answer to THAT question, especially after all that had gone on.

This chain of thought brought Breygon back to the battle at the abandoned farmhouse, and to the sudden appearance of the warrior calling herself Orkarel Hax. Although his upbringing had deprived him of many of the benefits of Elven culture, Breygon was familiar enough with the customs and lore of his mother’s people to recognize both names. “Orkarel”, he remembered from childhood tales, was the surname of Elder Fineleor Orkarel, the great elven warrior that had led an ancient army to death and glory against the demonic hordes of the Balor, Gryshgranax. “Hax”, on the other hand, was not so much a name as a suffix meaning “noble blood” (it would be the equivalent, he mused, of a human named “miller”, “tanner” or “tinker” going by the surname “Er”). It was simply never used alone, which made Breygon wonder whether the dark and mysterious maiden was travelling under a deliberately obvious pseudonym – and why she would choose to do so. Yet if she was indeed a scion of one of the noble High Elven families, she would hardly be caught dead alone and without attendants, garbed so drearily, and acting like a common human mercenary. The half-elf smiled to himself. Hax was a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a delightfully snug elven habergeon...

...his ears pricked up at the sound of stealthy movement outside the bunkroom door. Breygon glanced around, shaking his head to clear it of visions of their rescuer, noticing that while Alric seemed to be dozing and Qaramyn remained immersed in his spellbook, Gwendilyn’s and Joraz’ heads had come up, too. Breygon was gratified to note that the halfling and the monk both glanced his way, as if for direction. In response to the question in their glances, he shook his head and put a finger to his lips for silence.

There was a brief scraping noise as something was slid under the door, and then the sound of booted feet moving away, accompanied by a brief tinkle of metal armour. Breygon caught Gwendilyn’s eye and nodded toward the door. The halfling padded noiselessly over, listened briefly at the wood, and returned with a folded bit of parchment. Breygon swung his legs out of bed, took the paper from the rogue, and walked over to where Qaramyn squatted crosslegged on a bottom bunk, book in hand. In the flickering light of the wizard's fireball, Breygon saw a heavy red wax seal marked with an impression that seemed to be formed of two faces – a gleeful, smiling face superimposed upon a glowering, frowning one. He glanced at the wizard. “Any thoughts?” he whispered.

Qaramyn took the letter in his hand. “Good parchment,” he muttered. “Very nice. Expensive.”

Breygon saw Gwendilyn’s lip twitch and eyebrows go up, and rolled his eyes. “And the seal?”

“I’m getting to that,” Qaramyn whispered back. “Impavidus in consectatio fructum. Elvish for ‘Fearless in the pursuit of profit.’ A merchant. Or a thief, if there’s a difference. And the device...two faces, a smiling face hiding a frowning face...” Qaramyn stopped, tapping his lip with a finger.

“What is it?” Breygon asked after a moment.

“The smiling face hides the frowning face,” muttered Qaramyn. “The velvet glove conceals the iron fist. A monster behind a mask.” The wizard glanced up. “Whoever owns this seal is both a brutal enemy and a treacherous friend, and doesn’t care who knows it.”

“Who do you suppose sent it?”

Qaramyn shrugged. “Break the seal and find out.”

Breygon did so, unfolding the rich, creamy parchment and holding it up to the light. “More Elvish,” he muttered. “Ab Breygon, centurio Advigilum regalis... ‘To Breygon, captain of the royal watch...humble and...’ what’s this word? Fraternus?”

“‘Brotherly’,” Qaramyn translated.

“Shouldn’t that be 'consanguineus'?” Breygon asked.

“Only if you and the author had the same parents, which doesn’t seem likely,” Qaramyn replied with a smirk. “You’ve been living among the round-ears too long, my dear sergeant.”

“No argument there,” said Breygon. “All right, ‘Brotherly greetings’ it is. ‘It is my honour’,” he continued, “‘and pleasure to invite you and your...turma...'squad', I think...to dine at my humble home as soon as it is convenient to you. In addition to fine food and drink, I can...promise you other things for which you doubtless hunger and thirst. I look forward to...” He looked up again. “Novitas cognitio?”

“‘New acquaintance’,” said Qaramyn. “He looks forward to making new acquaintances. It’s a standard formulation.”

“After the past few days, I’m not sure I need any new acquaintances,” Breygon muttered. “It’s signed ‘Clammet File, Trader and Mercantilist’.” He paused. “So, what do we do?”

Qaramyn stared levelly at him. “That, my dear sergeant, is up to you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Breygon asked testily.

“Nothing more than what I’ve said,” the wizard replied. “The decision is yours. I’m sure you’d like to get back to the fort as soon as possible. I’m sure you’d like to look for poor Telvor along the way. And I’m sure you’d rather go to a dwarven well-digger to fix a toothache than to allow darling Gwendilyn into some rich man’s mansion. But unless you feel like spending the next few nights knocking on doors or hanging around the bar asking inane questions and swilling Bellik’s apple-flavoured horse urine, then dinner at the House of File is probably the fastest way to find out what’s going on in this town.”

Breygon smiled. “I think that’s the longest speech I’ve ever heard you make, wizard.”

“Then be glad you missed my oral dissertation in ‘science of rhetoric’.”

“Trust me, I’m glad. Very well, then,” Breygon continued, “dinner it is, at Master File’s residence, tomorrow night. I’ll have Bellik send word that we accept, with much pleasure. That will give us a day in town to get ourselves squared away, ask around, and find out anything we can about what’s going on in this one-horse dungheap.” He glanced around at his squad mates. “There’s plenty to do, and we’ll probably want to visit as many of the local notables as are prepared to talk to us.” He paused for a moment, then noticing that the fighter was stirring, added, “At the very least, Alric will probably have to go visit the smith.”

Alric, awake now, gazed steadily at Breygon, then smiled. “Good thing, too. I’ve been itching to get my sword polished ever since we got here.”

“That’s all good,” Breygon replied, “but that’s not why you’re going.”

Alric raised one eyebrow, and even Qaramyn looked curious.

Breygon smiled. “If I have to take Qwen to a dinner party at some rich trader’s mansion, we’re going to need a stout pair of manacles and no more than ten feet of very strong chain.”