04 November 2007

Bymill (III) - The Harvest Festival

It’s pretty much inevitable; autumn comes, the farmers are bringing in the last of the onions and winter squash, the herders are slaughtering all but the hardiest of beasts and salting the meat ‘gainst winter, the days are growing short – and folk everywhere mark the success of the season with a party of sorts.

In the Bjerglands, it’s called the Harvest Festival, and it takes place on the 17th day of Lastreap. There’s no apparent significance to the date; the solstice is still a few weeks off, and there are no historical events of any importance to commemorate – but people still like to party. In a small village, the ale and cider flow, songs are sung, and the scent of roasting meat fills the air; but in a large town, things get downright uproarious.

That’s what woke the Party on the morning of 17 Lastreap – drunk people singing in the bar downstairs. At sunrise. You see, the days ARE getting shorter, after all, so there’s no need to waste valuable imbibing time just because Bræadan is still a-bed.

As usual, Breygon and Joraz were first up, the former walking the trails and the riverbank with Greywind in the early morning haze, the latter kneeling on the south porch of the adventurers’ suite, awaiting the dawn and centering himself for another day. They were still outside when Gwen tumbled out of bed; the raucous singing downstairs had woken her, and she stumbled out of the suite and down the stairs with a dagger in one hand and murder in her eye.

Fortunately, upon entering the bar that eye fell first on Bjorn. The priest was seated behind a massive platter of sizzling pork ribs, with a towel tucked into the neck of his jerkin and a bucket-sized flagon of ale close at hand. Spying her, he raised a greasy paw in greeting, then gestured at the seat next to him with a half-gnawed bone. Shaking her head in solemn amusement, she joined him, and they broke fast together.

They were still eating when Lyra – who had obviously spent some time on her toilette – danced lightly down the stairs. Her sudden appearance startled the drunken choir of ne’er-do-wells into respectful silence, causing her to smile happily as she slid onto a stool next to Bjorn. When she asked the barman – who had obviously been up all night – for tea, he sighed, nodded, and put an iron kettle on the fire to simmer.

When the gang of drunks resumed their chanting, Bjorn stood up, walked over, and glowered at them. At the look in his eye, four of the men stood, abandoning their half-full pitchers, and left abruptly. The fifth (whose back was to the enormous priest) kept singing until Bjorn tapped him on the shoulder. This fellow half-turned, said “Just the people I wanted to see!” and passed out face-down in a trencher full of gravy-sodden potatoes and half-congealed grease.

Some gentle persuasion brought the fellow around. It transpired that he was one Wulfstan Varlgant, a minor rake-about-town, and that he was in need of some assistance. Seems that, in order to settle some gambling debts, he had pawned a rather valuable necklace belonging to his father, and destined for his sister’s dowry – and two nights ago, the pawnshop had been broken into and ransacked. The necklace, amongst other things, had been stolen. Wulfstan, having heard about the fate of Glaive Ballock at the hands of this hardy band of adventurers (here he gestured vaguely in the direction of Bjorn, Gwen and Lyra), was hoping to employ them to find the necklace before his father – “Sieur Rale Varlgant, perhaps you’ve heard of him?” – staked him out for the crows.

While Bjorn sighed at the ham-fistedness of so obvious a plot hook, Gwen came right to the point, asking Wulfstan how he expected to pay them if he’d had to pawn the necklace in the first place. Wulfstan answered (somewhat sheepishly) that he’d managed to get his hands on some money and would be happy to pay them for their trouble. Then he threw up and passed out again. Bjorn grabbed the drunken nobleman by the collar, dragged him upstairs (while the bartender, who knew the Varlgants quite well, stood behind his bar muttering, “I see NOTHING!”), and tossed him into the unused sixth room of their suite.

The appearance of Varlgant’s son reminded the party that they had unfinished business to attend to, so after breaking fast, they split up. Bjorn went to the Great Hall, where (in accordance with the previous evening’s arrangement) he linked up with Father Hardfist and the battle healer, Jurgen Wyekart, and spent the day ministering to the townsfolk, healing the sick and what-not. Breygon, Gwen, Joraz and Lyra crossed the square to Varlgant Manor, where they met Rale himself, as well as his daughter Ariella, and arranged for the purchase and stabling of the horses that Marlyn Olgin had assigned them to acquire. After sorting this out, they spent the rest of the day circulating through the town, with special emphasis on the market square, where hundreds of commoners from outlying towns had collected to celebrate the Festival. By late afternoon, Bjorn and Hardfist were done with their duties, and Bjorn met his colleagues in the square.

They were still there when a motley caravan arrived from the east – a wagon-train of refugees and wounded from the town of Lucky Lode, which was another of the tasks that Olgin had set them. While Bjorn did his best to heal the injured civilians and town militiamen, Breygon and Lyra questioned the refugees closely, learning that the town had been invaded by “towering giants”, and “swift-running warriors” with heads like dogs, who communicated by some sort of hoarse barking. Breygon recognized the latter description as suggestive of Gnolls, and told his comrades precisely that.

While this was going on, Gwen, as was her custom, was circulating through the crowd, looking for anything interesting. She saw something very interesting: a tall, heavy-set fellow in fine (if food-stained) clothing, bearing a rapier and dagger, and wearing a magnificent feathered hat – a hat that fit precisely the description of the third of Glaive Ballock’s henchmen, the rake Owen. Gwen pointed the fellow out to Bjorn and Breygon, who swiftly cornered him. Words were exchange, and the cleric ended up laying the fellow out with a fist to the jaw.

When Owen came to, he found himself bound and in the presence of five angry adventurers, engaged in an argument about what to do with him. He interjected, telling them that he was glad that they had done for Ballock, and happy to be free of him and his oppressive rule; and that, if they would release him and trust him, he would be happy to work for them. Lyra accepted this explanation (somewhat sceptically, but willing to give the fellow a chance), while Bjorn was less charitable, and announced his intention to drag the fellow off to Hardfist, to occupy a basement chamber alongside his former employer, Ballock.

The disagreement over what to do with Owen got ugly. Harsh words were exchanged, and a moment later, Bjorn swung on Lyra, cuffing her and splitting her lip. Lyra cast sleep on the cleric, who made his saving throw – and then Gwen was between them, three feet of Totally Pissed Off Halfling shoving a six-and-a-half-foot Viking away from a five-foot half-elf. She gave them a Costco-sized piece of her mind (in which the phrase, “Jeez, guys!” featured more than once). At the end of her tirade, Bjorn turned and stomped off towards the Great Hall; and the rest of the party repaired to their suite at the Stag’s Head.

Which sort of left your friendly neighbourhood DM wondering how to Bostitch a bunch of fractious adventurers back together again. Fortunately, a means lay close at hand. But before I get onto THAT topic, here’s the “synopsis” that followed this segment of the adventure. Well, not so much a “synopsis” as a bridge between the events of the evening, and the following day.

Incidentally, this wasn't the first time I’d ever branched out into interpolating what the PCs would likely say and do in between big adventure moments, but it WAS the first time I'd ever done it in order to give them a way out of a role-playing nightmare consistent with their character's motivations and behaviour. I’m never really sure whether I get it right – but it does help flesh them out a little in my head.

For what it's worth, enjoy.

* * * * *

“Is there anything I can do?” Wyekart asked. He twitched his surcoat out of the way and settled gracefully to his knees beside Bjorn, placing his oddly-shaped hammer on the flagstones within easy reach.

“You could leave me alone,” the larger man muttered.

“What kind of priest would that make me?” Wyekart asked with a smile. “Come, pray with me, brother. ‘Esu, Allfather, Fist of Heaven’,” he began.

Bjorn said nothing.

“ ‘Master of Air and of Fire, Guardian of the Gates of the World…’,” the younger man continued, shooting an elbow painfully into Bjorn’s ribs. Bjorn raised his eyes and turned to face the other priest with a jaundiced squint.

Wyekart’s head was down, his left hand on his breast, his right fist clenched before his forehead. Sighing, Bjorn imitated his reverent posture.

“ ‘Spear of Righteousness, General of the Walls of Eternity, Hammer of the Justice of the Light…’,” Wyekart intoned solemnly.

Bjorn joined in, speaking in a low voice. “ ‘…Justice of the Light…’,” he mumbled.

“ ‘Protector of the Weak, Revenger of Wrongs…’ ”

“ ‘Revenger of Wrongs…’ ”

“ ‘Chastiser of big, hairy bullies who assault those smaller than themselves…’”

“ ‘Chastiser of…what?” Bjorn’s head came up suddenly. He opened his mouth to make an angry retort, but with a struggle that was obvious in his face and posture, mastered himself. He took a deep breath. “I see there are a few minor differences in the Allfather’s catechism here in Bymill,” he said sourly.

Wyekart ignored him and continued remorselessly, fist clasped tightly before his face, his eyes screwed shut. “Almighty avenging patron of the Universe’,” he intoned in a loud bellow, “ ‘who can always be relied on to mete really, really nasty justice to his disobedient and recalcitrant sons, especially when they hit little girls…’”

Bjorn burst out laughing. “All right, enough, brother. You’ve made your point.” He turned and sat on the altar step and looked appraisingly at his counterpart. “You’re a perceptive one, aren’t you?”

Wyekart settled himself as comfortably as possible on the hard stone. “When you stalked off towards the Hall after your little confrontation in the market,” he said, “I thought maybe it was because you needed to talk to the Big Man,” he said, pointing upwards. “I know I would have felt the same.” The younger priest was silent for a moment, staring at the floor, his hands clasped before him. “Let me speak plainly, brother to brother. I know not how the Allfather’s will stands in your lands, for I have never yet left this valley, so I speak without knowing the customs of your people. But striking the lady…that was ill done.”

Bjorn sighed heavily. “I know,” he said quietly. “My people are not renowned for their calm and reflection, but even among them, I am counted as bad-tempered.” He shook his head. “We men of the north settle our disputes with our fists, and our women do too, so we do not consider it a crime to strike one another in the heat of debate. But when the other is half your size, it’s not deemed the deed of a brave man.”

“We here in the south follower a similar code,” Wyekart said, nodding. “There is no glory in striking the weak, no matter how great the provocation.” He paused again, as if thinking deeply. “Evidently there is some undercurrent of ill-feeling between the members of your company. If the advice of a novice is of any use to you, it is something that you will need to resolve before you face another foe.”

“You’re going to quote Alecto at me, aren’t you?” said Bjorn, grinning sourly.

“ ‘The soldier who carries strife in his pack…’,” Wyekart began, smiling.

“ ‘…needs no enemy to work his ruin’,” Bjorn finished. “The Book of Deeds, fourth quatrain,” he added.

“You see?” Wyekart said happily. “Our catechism is not so different from yours after all.”

“Not in respect of theology, anyway,” Bjorn rumbled. The temple was silent for a moment as he stared at his clenched fists. Outside, he could hear the roaring babble of the festival crowd in the market. It was nearing the noon hour, and the smell of fresh bread, roasting meat and newly-broached ale casks came wafting in through the open shutters.

Wyekart watched him quietly. “So we are agreed,” he said softly, “that an apology is due?”

“Why do you think I’m here?” Bjorn growled.

“I didn’t mean to Him.”

“Neither did I.” With a grunt, Bjorn levered himself to his feet and retrieved his hammer from where it lay on the flagstones. “Look, could we talk about something else?”

“Delighted.” Wyekart stood as well. “Anything in particular?”

“Well, you could tell me how you came across your persuader, there,” Bjorn replied, indicating the younger man’s oddly-shaped hammer.

“Oh, that is an epic tale,” Wyekart laughed, “long and complex, replete with deeds of valour and tales of the might and madness of men, beasts and the Powers.”

“Sounds like listening to it would be as dry as telling it,” Bjorn remarked with a wink.

“That it would, my friend. Thirsty?” Wyekart asked.

“Always,” said the giant cleric. Wyekart chuckled, and led the way back towards the Hall’s kitchen.

♦ ♦ ♦

“There are no names in this one,” Joraz said, puzzling over the pages Breygon had pointed out in the massive tome. “Why do you find it so disturbing?”

The pair sat quietly in the common room of their hostel suite. It was mid-day, nuncheon hour, and the monk and the ranger had retired to their quarters to escape the maddening throng infesting the marketplace. The crowds had only grown thicker as the day advanced, and with the Lantern at zenith, the ale-casks had been broached, adding a measure of well-fuelled levity to the festivities. Greywind had begun to grow uncomfortable, whining as the swarming crowds intruded upon his delicate sense of wolfish propriety.

Like their lupine companion, both men had quickly reached and surpassed the limits of their tolerance for jostling and elbowing, and so when Bjorn had stomped off towards the Hall of the Allfather after his altercation with Lyra, Breygon and Joraz – deeming scholarly pursuits the better part of getting their toes stepped on by drunken revelers – had decided to retire to the Inn. Joraz led the way through the crowd, deftly cutting a path through the citizenry with subtle, well-placed nudges and jabs, while Breygon, Lyra and Gwen followed, bringing their prisoner-cum-employee along with them.

Once back at the Stag’s Head, the two women took the swordsman to the bar for a chat. Judging that they had a better chance of prying information out of them with their wiles than he did with his glare, Breygon had checked to ensure that their wagon remained undisturbed, then ordered food and wine, and returned to their suite. Joraz had retrieved the heavy tome of Elvish poetry and was marveling at the elaborate gold-leafed inscription on the cover – Palmarium Canto Elvii, “Masterworks of the Elven Chanters” – when Breygon arrived. The two had settled down with bread, cold meat, cheese and wine to peruse its contents. Greywind spread himself across the carpet before the low fire, gnawing contentedly on a large mutton shank.

“I don’t understand what bothers you,” said Joraz, idly turning the book’s other leaves. “Apart from the limping scansion, pedestrian phrasing and childish imagery.”

“Poetry lover, are we?” Breygon asked. “Well, it’s not the quality of the prose that concerns me,” the ranger replied, “but the subject. How much do you know about the Fall of the Houses of Harad?”

“Not much,” the monk replied. “Ancient Elven history was not high on Master Tyrellus’ syllabus. For some reason he thought that the ‘Griffon Claw Ripping Throat Technique’ was more important.”

“He was right,” Breygon acknowledged. “Nevertheless, historical ignorance serves us ill, given the nature of the many challenges we’ve faced and the peculiar things we’ve come across thus far.” He paused. “No doubt Lyra could tell you more about it than I, seeing as how she was privileged enough to be raised as one of the Ciivus. And Qaramyn; I suppose he might have given us a good deal of information as well, if we could’ve kept him from his incendiary pursuits for a minute or two.”

“Information seasoned with a liberal helping of mage arrogance,” Joraz said with a smile.

“Indeed. For the nonce, however,” Breygon went on, “my own small knowledge will have to suffice. Briefly then.” He took a sip of wine. “As you doubtless know, Braea created the Kindred long ago, in the lost depths of time, and they spread throughout the world. The Elves were eldest and undying. After an age of peace and light, Braea decided that unchanging bliss deprived her progeny of their just inheritance, keeping them in the estate of children, preventing them from realizing their full potential as she had intended, and taking their place as the inheritors of the world. And so the Powers of Light came to live among the children of Braea, to teach them. Thus began the Age of Wisdom, the third age of the world. And each of the Powers took one part of the Kindred as their special charge. Hara took the Elves under his tutelage; and therefore they became known as the Haradi, and their kingdom, as Harad.”

Joraz leaned back, listening quietly. He had heard some of this before, of course, but was enjoying the half-elf’s uncharacteristic loquacity.

“The Third Age truly began, however,” Breygon continued, “when Braea took a husband from among the firstborn of the Haradi, and Hara a wife. Their offspring fathered the great Houses of Harad, whose lineage continues even unto this day. I don’t know the exact relationships,” Breygon admitted, “or even most of the ancient names, but first and eldest among the Houses were the Wanderers. Tall, fair and full of power, they walk the world even today, although they are seldom seen. Next came the Second House, the Grey Elves, who retired to contemplation, and the study of stars and of magic; and they also are few in number, although revered. Then came the Third House.”

Breygon paused for a moment, then leaned forward and refilled their glasses, his with wine, and Joraz’ with the tepid well water he inevitably requested in lieu of stronger drink.

“The tale of the Third House,” he continued, “is not a happy one. I won’t go over it in detail, but it is fraught with war, murder and betrayal. Braea’s decision to leave the fate of Anuru in the hands of beings blessed with free will and enormous power, but little sense of responsibility or restraint, had grave consequences. As you probably know, the ancient Empire of Harad was first drawn together under Tior the Mighty, a descendent of both Braea and Hara, the highest king ever to rule the Elves. He was mighty in magic and majesty, but a poor parent, for in the end he was overthrown and cast beyond the walls of the universe by his son, Xiardath, first of the Wizard-Kings of Harad. Xiardath heaped evil upon evil, for after levying war upon his father, he, although unknowing, took in concubinage his father’s sister; and of that wrongful union was spawned Biardath, called the Wrong-Born, the Dark One. Xiardath attemped to slay the infant, but he was rescued and raised by Kankallanach, the grandfather of the white wyrms.”

Joraz held up a hand in interruption. “Only the foolish man attempts to dam a river in full flood,” he said, “but even you must stop for breath.”

“Let me cut the history lesson short, then,” Breygon said. “Briefly, just as Xiardath waged war upon his father and defeated him, so was he in turn defeated and slain by his son, and Kankallanach feasted upon his bones. And though Biardath was married to a maiden of the Third House, and had a daughter by her, his wife was slain by one of his minions, a demoness, upon whom he got another daughter – Maerglyn, who later herself made war upon Biardath, and cast him into the void after his grandfather, Tior. But Maerglyn’s means were foul; she was allied with the Powers of Darkness, and brought the demonic hordes of the Uruqua to Harad. When Braea could stand the violation of her children’s lands no longer, she gathered the Anari, and fell upon Harad in wrath. She smote Maerglyn down, sending her and those few who would follow her into darkness. And so Maerglyn became the mother, and at length the Queen, of the Fourth House of Harad – the Shadelven, those who, in the common tongue, are called the Drow.”

“This,” Breyon finished, tapping the page they had just read, “would appear to be a plainsong penned in commemoration of the fall of Maerglyn before the might of Braea and the Anari. It may interest you to know that, among the Elves, Maerglyn is known as Filia Eiectio, the Daughter of Exile.”

“A sad tale,” Joraz commented mildly. “Your people have a violent and bloody history, my friend. But it is long past, and you do yourself no service by dwelling upon it.”

“On the contrary. If there is anything the Elves have learned,” Breygon said with a frown, “it is that we, more than any of the Kindred, are prisoners of our past. The deeds – and the misdeeds – of the fathers have ever haunted their sons.” He sat quietly for a moment, fingering his goblet. At his feet, Greywind snorted loudly, then rolled over onto his back, enormous paws windmilling gently in the air.

Breygon turned to Joraz with a smile. “Well, at least I didn’t put you to sleep as well,” the half-elf growled lightly.

“My will is strong because my mind and body are one,” the monk replied enigmatically. “That, and I love a good story.”

“Come,” he added, standing. “Let us go down to the taproom, and see whether Gwen and Lyra have managed to pry anything out of our new henchman.”

♦ ♦ ♦

“I was born not far from here,” Jurgen began, “in Orogeylan, a tiny farming village in the Trollfells, north of Ellohyin. Don’t bother looking for it on any maps; it was never much, and in any case it’s not there anymore. My father was a smith, and as soon as I as tall enough to reach the tug-ropes, I spend my days at the forge, pumping the bellows for him. Boring work, as you might imagine, but a good way for young lads to build muscle. I learned my first lessons in the smith’s trade at the same time.

“My thirteenth summer,” the younger priest continued, as Bjorn took a long pull at his tankard, “was followed by the worst winter the Bjerglands had seen in a generation. It brought the wild wolves down out of the mountains, and worse things as well. One day, when the snow let up a little, I was out in the wilderland, following an old track through the hills, taking a sledge-load of iron billets from my father’s forge to a neighbouring farmstead. It was a full day’s journey in that kind of deep drift, and I had been planning to stay the night before coming back; so I had my pack with me, and Grip, my father’s boar-hound.

“I’d gotten a little more than half-way, and was taking a rest on a fallen log; pulling a sledge-load of iron, even in packed snow, was no small matter for a young and scrawny lad like I was. Anyway, I was taking my ease and having a bite of biscuit, when I heard a disturbance in the underbrush. Two children burst out of the trees alongside the trail, both of them crying and panting as though they had run a race. Which, I suppose, they had.

“I was about to ask them what they were running from, when Grip suddenly went down on his belly, growling, his fur standing up in little spikes. That alarmed me; I’d seen him take a full-grown forest pig by the hindquarters, so I knew this couldn’t be any normal beast he smelled. I wasn’t armed, so I stooped to the sledge and pulled out one of the billets I’d been lugging – a ten-pound iron rod three feet long, more than any young lad could swing. And I waited.

“I didn’t have to wait long. After a moment the trees began shaking, with little tufts of snow falling all around us, and there came a bellow that set my teeth on edge. Grip hugged my leg, and I gathered the children behind me, hefting my iron bar, and watching the trees.”

“It was an ogre, brother.” Wyekart paused for a moment, addressing himself to his mug. “Not a pleasant sight for a young lad. I could’ve walked between his legs just by stooping slightly. He was dressed all in foul furs, taken mostly from the winter wolves, and mostly uncured, from what I could smell. And he had a…well, a club of sorts, I guess – a tree limb wrapped in chains, and studded with fragments of metal and rock. There were little bits of frozen flesh caught up in it, as well as bits of bone. And even a few teeth.

“I ducked under his first blow, stepped in, and cracked him two-handed on the knee with my metal staff. He didn’t like that, and backhanded me halfway across the clearing. I landed softly in a snowdrift, but his blow had taken the wind out of me, and I looked up just in time to see his next swing strike Grip. My poor hound was crushed, killed instantly, his body torn open and slammed into a tree with terrific force; and his backswing took the older of the two children, a girl, alongside the head, and laid her out with a deathly crack. I never knew her name.

“I remember shrieking something, fumbling in the snow for my weapon, as he reached for the younger child. I recall lunging forward, swinging the iron bar wildly, and then nothing but stars. He must’ve struck me again, for I collapsed, and sky and snow faded.

“I couldn’t have been out long,” Wyekart continued. Bjorn, enthralled by this tale (elements of which reflected his own busy youth in Jarla), leaned forward with the pitcher and refilled his companion’s tankard. “When I came to, the creature was tearing Grip’s carcass apart with its teeth. I looked around, and found myself lying near the two children, both of whom were bloody and still. I crawled to the younger, and then the older. They were both dead, their heads crushed, and their eyes lifeless.”

“Something broke in me than, and I howled in rage and terror, and threw myself at the monster bare-handed. It paused in its gruesome feast and stared at me, fangs parted, and emitted a horrific, deep-throated barking. It was laughing at me, brother. It struck me with its fist a third time, and I fell back, head ringing like a bell; and stepped forward snarling, its club raised.”

“And then it happened.” Bjorn leaned forward; Weykart had fallen silent, eyes fixed on something that only he could see. The northerner waited a moment, then spread his hands and beckoned in a gesture of invitation, prompting the younger man to continue.

“What?” Bjorn asked. “What happened then?”

Wyekart smiled. “Why, then, brother mine, the skies opened, and the storm parted. The air flashed with all the fires of the sun, and the Allfather cast his spear down from heaven, like a bolt of thunder; and my enemy vanished in a mighty burst of flame, consumed by the wrath of the almighty General.”

Bjorn stared in amazement. This was nothing like his own experience. “And then?” he asked, spellbound.

“And then, nothing,” Wyekart replied. “The ogre was gone. Vanished. Disappeared. Not a trace of him remained. The entire clearing was bare of snow, save a patch beneath me, shaped like my body, even to the outflung arms; and even that melted quickly. Water dripped from the needles of the trees, and at my feet lay a pit of bare earth, ten feet across, and half that deep. I looked up; the skies had closed again. The great, flaming light was gone, and the snow began to fall again.” He smiled and stared directly into Bjorn’s eyes. “It was a miracle, brother. Esu cast his mighty spear, and slew my foe, and saved me.”

Bjorn shook his head in wonder. “It certainly sounds as though you were greatly favoured, brother,” he said softly. “But what of the poor children?”

“What indeed?” Wyekart chuckled. “I turned to look, and they were gone. But where each of them had lain, the grass was stained with blood. I looked closer, for against the blood lay a black, fluttering substance, almost like small bits of parchment.”

“Was it parchment?”

“No, brother. It was feathers. Black ones. Raven feathers.”

Bjorn whistled softly. “Well, that’s pretty clear then, isn’t it?” he said.

“As clear as it is to me today,” Wyekart answered, “and it set my vocation in stone at an early age. But wait a moment, for I still haven’t answered your first question. In the newfound silence of the clearing, I could hear something hissing in the bottom of the earthen pit, so I climbed down to take a look. It was a stone; a little smaller than a man’s head, elongated, and white-hot, as though fresh from the crucible. I think it was His, brother. The point of Einenpik, the Allfather’s Spear, melted into slag by the ferocity of the cast.” His smile was proud, but not possessive; Bjorn was struck at that moment by how blessed his younger colleague had been. Not at all, he thought sourly, like carrying a great, sodding anvil…he choked that thought down. It was unworthy.

“What did you do then?” he asked.

“What would you have done? I prodded it with my iron bar…and it stuck. The tip of the iron melted like wax on a hot stove, and ran into the cracks and pits of the stone. I tried to pull it away, but it was stuck fast, and I only succeeded in pulling the stone out of the charred, smoking earth in which it lay.” He fell silent.

“Well, what happened to the stone?” Bjorn asked after a moment.

Wyekart patted the peculiar hammer with it’s lumpy, pitted, oblong head, laying on the scarred wooden surface of the table beside him. “I still have it, brother. I still have it.”

♦ ♦ ♦

“I handled the protection side of the business. I didn’t have much to do with the brigandage, or the…the other things.”

The taproom in the Stag’s Head was all a-bustle with the coming and going of tipsy revelers. The town square was packed to bursting with jolly party-goers of every description, and much of the overflow had ended up in the taverns and inns bounding the square. Lyra and Gwen sat at one end of the bar, flanking the flamboyantly-garbed swordsman who had recently been recruited to their cause.

“What other things?” Lyra asked, focusing her gleaming eyes and sultry gaze on their guest. She had wiped the blood from her mouth, but her right cheek was purpling, and her lip was swollen. Despite these marks (which she intended to mask with the right cantrip, as soon as she had a moment), she still attracted more than her fair share of attention from the men crowding the tavern.

If anything, Owen seemed disturbed rather than flattered by her close attention. “Well,” he began hesitantly, “you’ve met Ballock, so you should have an idea of the kind of man he is. Ruthless, you know – knife his own mother for a copper, or even for turning an unkind glance his way. Ran the outfit the same way, he did. Anyone who gave him lip…schhhk.” And he drew a thumb across his throat.

“You don’t seem to think much of him,” Gwen said. “How did you end up working for him?”

“Not much choice, really,” Owen replied, taking a long pull at his tankard. “I’m not from around here, see. Just a soldier of fortune, out for a little derring-do. Came upriver on a trading ship about a year ago. Captain hauled in at a little pisspot called Bornhavn a few days from here. Dreadful place. Nothing to eat but apples and chestnuts. Ship was staying a week, so I took my leave and came North to spy out the lay of the land.” Another pull. “I ran into a spot of trouble in Søby, a little further up the Star River, not far from Ellohyin. Horse threw a shoe. Was getting it replaced when a group of thugs took a liking to my cloak. Not this one,” he said, glancing down at the drab, non-descript garment draped across his shoulders. “Used to dress like a gentleman, I did. When I still was one.” He paused for a drink.

“Any road,” Owen continued, “these boys set upon me in the stable yard outside the smithy. Clumsy lot of sods. Seemed a shame to blade them, but they had blood in their eyes and clubs bristlin’ with rusty nails, and I’m not that fond of bleeding myself, so I walked it right to them. Took down half a dozen before one o’ the buggers planted his cudgel in me side. That took the wind out o’me, see.”

“What happened then?” Lyra asked, as fascinated by the fellow’s odd manner of speech as by his tale.

“Well, I ran the barsterd through,” Owen replied, “and then I went down hard. Not too displeased, really. Worse ways to go out than pillowed on a heap of your enemies, no? Any road,” he continued, “this big fella comes out o’ a tavern by the smithy. Fancy clothes, two swords. Gold braid on his boots, even. He hoofs the corpses out o’ the way and kneels down beside me in the muck. ‘My boy,’ sez he, ‘I need men who fight better than these clumsy dungheaps. What say you?’”

“Well, I’m no cut-throat,” Owen went on with another pull at his tankard, “so I tells him to sod off. ‘That’s not one of the choices, my lad,’ sez he with a laugh. And then he pulls out a little bottle, and a dagger. And he says something to me in Elvish, which, I mean…look at me, my ladies. D’you suppose I talk Elvish?”

Lyra and Gwen shook their heads in unison.

“So he laughs again, and sez, ‘Silver or steel, my boy, silver or steel.’ And I looks up blankly at him. ‘Cause by this time I’m coughing up blood, see. And he sez, ‘That’s your choice, laddy buck. Take my silver, or taste my steel.’ And he shows me the dagger. So I sez, ‘Silver’, like anyone would, and he opens the little bottle and gives me to drink, and my wounds, they close right up, just as sweet as never-you-mind. And he tells me to ride out at sunrise and meet him here in Bymill. So I done suchlike, and here I been ever since.”

“So why the protection angle?” Lyra asked.

“Well, I’m quick with a blade, see,” Owen replied, blushing a little, “but I’m not much for the nasty work, if you know what I mean. Ballock moves in dangerous circles, and some of his bully-boys like the rough stuff. Me, I’m more of a people person. Ballock sends me in when there’s coin to be got by jollying folk along, not hurtin’ them. When it’s hurtin’ that’s needed, he sends Blaine. Or Targus.”

“That’s a name we’ve heard before,” said Gwen with a glance at Lyra.

“And you’ll hear it again,” Owen replied with a warning glance. “I’ve no reason to miss Ballock, and I’m in your debt for relieving me of my obligation to him. The bugger can rot in gaol for all of me. Or swing. But Targus was just as devoted to the barsterd as I ain’t. And Targus’ boys…well, let’s just say that they’ve got a lot in common with Targus. Parentage, like. They’ll follow him. He’s most likely to take over the outfit now that Ballock’s put away.”

“Not this ‘Blaine’ fellow?”

Blaine’ll be halfway to Vejborg by now,” Owen snorted. “Big man, big fists, but no balls.” He blushed again as Gwen’s eyes widened, and Lyra chuckled. “Sorry, my ladies. Not used to polite company.”

“We’re not all that polite,” Lyra answered. “What concerns me more is how you see yourself fitting in with the post-Ballock shakedown of your ‘outfit’, as it were. And how you see the part your men might play in it. Can we trust them? Or for that matter, you?”

“Aye, well, that’s the question, ain’t it?” Owen replied, tapping a gloved finger against the rim of his mug. “I can answer for my men. Ballock made me captain last spring, and my boys seem happy with me. I treat them fair, cut them in on shares, and take care of their families. I’ve had to get between the boss and one of the boys more than once, and I’ve the scars to show for it. That sort of thing makes a man loyal, see?

“As for me…” he paused. “Well, I suppose you’ll just have to trust me. Or not. As you think best.” He stared at his tankard for a moment before adding glumly, “I used to be the sort of man what people could trust.”

Lyra’s gaze remained stony, but Gwen eyed the fellow with something akin to sympathy. As far as she could tell, he seemed sincere. “Well, I suppose we can start out slowly and work our way towards trust,” she said. “Don’t take this as an impoliteness – but I’ll be keeping an eye on you, and if you cross us, I’ll finish you in a way that makes a gut-full of rusty nails feel like a whore’s buss.”

Owen smiled. “That’s fair enough. Where do you want to start?”

“Outfitting your troops. Can we find armor and weapons in this town?”

Owen thought for a moment, then said, as if considering carefully, “Well,” he said, “there’s Farrak. He’s just a blacksmith, but he’s competent, and I’ve gone to him for repairs and suchlike. Good enough for simple stuff. And Telrod of Old Forge makes bows and fletches arrows; his shop isn’t far from here.. Then there’s Paskwin of Underdarrow – outstanding quality, Dwarfmake you know, but he charges a kidney and a half. Then…”

He was still going on, with Gwen furiously taking notes, when Breygon and Joraz came down the stairs.

♦ ♦ ♦