From Distant Shores

The Festival

Omen shifted her weight on Gyles’ arm, causing the smuggler-turned-sophisticate to look down at the falcon. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the nearby nobles whispering and motioning to the bird. A quick glance revealed some faces etched with interest and others with disdain, among them the Roger’s mother, the Duchess of Summerfield.

She sat unmoving, her face a mask of detached interest but somehow, Gyles could tell she disapproved of his pet’s presence. He realized that Roger was speaking to him.

“…is from the mainland. Oh! Did you see that Gyles? That was barely a knick and he fell off!”

Gyles resumed his conversation with the Heir of Summerfield, discussing each pair of contestants as they were announced.

  • * * * * *

Alistair tapped his index finger against his moustache. His eyes watched the knights thunder back and forth across the tournament grounds but his mind was oceans away. He fit the various pieces together, looked at the sum total of his plan, and then took them apart. Over and over, he refined, twisted, altered…and then it was complete; beautiful in its circuity.

Varley shouldered in next to him at the fence, adjusted his sweat laden tri-corn hat and nodded. It took Alistair a moment to realize it was his companion.

“How are the lists? Anyone any good? Did Ser Aedan win?”

Alistair nodded absently, “Save my place. I’ll be back.”

The steward opened his mouth to respond, but the Alchemist had already moved off into the crowd. He threaded his way through the noontime press and made his way back to the moneylender. Knowing now that his plan would occupy him through the night and the next day, he instructed the man to take whatever winnings he had and place them repeatedly on Aedan; first in each round of the joust, and then the melee.

With the first of his many tasks complete, Alistair moved from the moneylender to the market. Like some kind of discerning grocer, he moved from stall to stall, smelling this herb, holding another up to the sun, and rubbing leaves between his forefinger and thumb. When he was satisfied that he had replaced everything that had been lost upon the road, he hurried back to see how Aedan would fair in his next pairing.

  • * * * * *

Separated in age by only two years, neither Gyles Sett nor Roger Winton could claim their twentieth name day. Seated next to one another, they spoke eagerly about whatever topic was at hand: the current knights on the field, nearby noble families, how they had each passed recent weeks, and the return of the crossbow. A dozen knights had taken the field and half as many had been unhorsed, when a murmur of silence rippled through the crowd. It caused the two young men to stop their discussion of Iron’s Bay and look up to see the heralds hoist up the blue shield and white swan of Ser Kelson. At the other end of the grounds, Aedan’s own black shield was lifted and his name called.

Roger motioned with his head ever so slightly towards a woman seated in the center of the gallery, “That’s Baroness Mercia’s son, Kelson.”

Her chair was more of a throne with great blue and white banners on either side of it. Gyles guessed she was in her fifties, her once blond hair now a platinum mix of gray and gold. She smiled and lifted her hand in acknowledgement of her son. He nodded his helmeted head to her in return and then a second time to a woman at her side.

“…and that’s her daughter, Briony.”

Roger gave Gyles a moment to absorb the young woman’s beauty. It was not hard to imagine what the Baroness would have looked like thirty years earlier. She was the very image of her mother, beautiful in white and blue, her gold hair shimmering in the sunshine. She too lifted a hand to her brother.

“She is…”, Gyles exhaled conspiratorially, “…beautiful.”

Roger looked over at her, “Yes, she is. The Baroness would like me to take her as my wife….but the Earl of Northridge also has a daughter…Ariella – though I have not seen her since we were children. He is also pressing his case for a marriage; I am not sure what will happen.”

There was a momentary flash of helplessness on Roger’s face before it was replaced with a wicked grin, “I’ll bet Aedan smashes him.”

At the other end of the field, Aedan nodded his head and the two horses raced towards one another. There was a crunch as both men shattered their lances on the other’s shield. Aedan thundered on, but the impact had shifted Kelson’s weight in his saddle; he tumbled from it uncontrollably as his horse galloped forward.

Aedan wheeled his horse around as Kelson walked over to the end of the lists, removing his helmet. He had a broad, bittersweet smile on his face, “It seems the Vigil steeled your nerves and stilled your hand, Ser Aedan; it was an excellent pass. A victory well won.”

Aedan pulled his own helmet free, “The chaos and luck of battle is the same in the lists, it could have just as easily been me that fell to your blow.”

“You are kind, Ser Aedan. Perhaps I will get just that chance when we see each other in the melee.”, Kelson extended a mailed hand.

Aedan returned the gesture, “I would very much enjoy that.”

  • * * * * *

Alistair smiled distantly and slapped the top of the fence.

Next to him, Varley grinned broadly, “Seems like Ser Aedan’s reputation is well earned. At this rate, we should have the money for the mining company by the tourney’s end.”

“Concerns for another day, Kaleb. I leave it in God’s hands for the time being – I’m sure he’ll understand. I have more pressing business.”

Varley waited for him to continue but Alistair had returned his attention to the lists, so the steward did as well.

  • * * * * *

Sixteen more knights took to the field, then only eight, then four. Roger and Gyles continued their conversations, moving seamlessly from the action on the field to stories far from it. In particular, they had been discussing the other mysteriously, unidentified knight. She, like Aedan, bore a plain black shield and had demonstrated excellent command of both horse and lance. As they spoke, she unhorsed the last of her opponents. The final tilt would be between her and Aedan, two knights without house or sigil. The Duchess motioned for her son and Roger went to her side.

Gyles wondered what people made of such an event. Baroness Mercia was now surrounded by both her son and daughter, all three wearing tight-lipped smiles. They did not appear to be happy with Kelson’s performance in the lists. The Duchess, still speaking with Roger, seemed completely unconcerned with the events on the field. At the far end of the gallery, Gyles could make out the Earl of Northridge, and his son Rhys, both with scowls on their faces. Lord Rhys had been unhorsed during his first pass of the morning, robbing his family of the opportunity to impress the Summerfields.

The trumpets blared, quieting the crowds. At each end of the field, plain, black shields were held aloft.

“Ser Aedan Hammerhand!”, the herald shouted, sliding the shield into place on Aedan’s outstretched hand.

“The Black Knight!”, came from the other end, and her shield, too, was slid into place.

There was a flash of sunlight as the helmets nodded to one another and the horses exploded into action. Each lance found its mark and each shield moved to block it. Both riders struggled to stay in their seats despite diverting the force of the blow. New lances were placed into expectant hands, horses turned in tight circles and they once again faced each other.

One nod, then another. The horses charged forward. Aedan felt her lance shatter against his shield, but it was the shudder of his lance, as if it had struck the trunk of a tree, that caused him to grit his teeth. Across the fence, the unnamed rider had taken Aedan’s hit so squarely that while she remained in the saddle, it had sent the horse stumbling sideways. As Aedan raced towards the end of his lane, the black knight’s horse fell onto its side, tossing her into the sand.

The crowd exploded with cheers and chants of “Ham-mer-hand! Ham-mer-hand!”

Roger leapt to his feet, stomping and taking up the chant. Gyles saw the Duchess flick her eyes in his direction, and then return them to the field. Aedan turned his horse in time to see the other knight dust herself off and approach.

Trumpets blared again and the Baroness stood as their sound died away, “Knights, please come forward.”

With Aedan on horseback and the mysterious woman on foot, they approached the gallery. When they stopped, Aedan pulled his helmet from his head. Next to him, the woman did as well. A wash of black hair fell free and framed one of the most beautiful faces he had ever seen. A quiet murmur rifled through the crowd. The Baroness seemed to pause for a moment before continuing.

“Ser Aedan Hammerhand, you have won the day and in doing so, earned the right to name the Queen of Love and Beauty.”

The Baroness produced a thin, gold circlet and held it aloft. Aedan swiveled a fresh lance through its center, picking it from her fingertips.

The chant re-emerged, “Ham-mer-hand! Ham-mer-hand!”

In that moment, Gyles saw a path forward. He too took up the chant and waited for Aedan’s eyes to meet his own. When they did, he pumped his fist in the air like everyone else except he did so in the direction of the Duchess. And in those few brief seconds, Gyles saw her eyes catch his motion and realized those close to him, had also noticed it.

Aedan waited for the chant to quiet, “Baroness, thank you for this day and for your hospitality. I must speak truthfully. My heart knows that there is but one answer to whom the Queen of Love and Beauty is this day.”

He turned his horse to face the beautiful woman clad in mail, “It is my opponent, though I do not know her name.”

Still gripping her helm in one hand, she guided the lowered circlet onto her head with the other and beamed, “Thank you, Ser Aedan. I am Lady Ariella of Northridge.”

The crowd exploded into a fresh set of cheers and whistles.

Beside him, Gyles’ watched Roger’s eyes widen, “That’s…Ariella?”

The young smuggler exhaled again, “It seems so. Two very beautiful choices.”

Roger fell back into his chair, “She’s…she’s…unbelievable.”

Gyles glanced over to where the Earl and his son were sitting; where scowls had been only a few minutes ago, there were now a pair of very smug grins.

  • * * * * *

As the men and women around them cheered, Alistair produced a small, folded note he had written at the moneylender’s. He extended it to Varley as they tried to make their way out of the press of onlookers, “Can you see that Gyles gets that?”

The steward nodded, trailing Alistair by only a step or two among the thickening crowd. Alistair’s head was turned sideways, speaking over his shoulder, “When you’re done, meet me back at the inn. I need-“

The Alchemist collided with the unforgiving shoulder of another passerby. His head jerked forward, and he stared into the stern features of an Oscallian man dressed in leathers. Just beyond that man’s face was another more familiar one – his sister’s.

“Alli?”, the woman said incredulously, “Alli, is that you?”

A thousand stars burst in his mind; lightning bolts that left him unable to do anything except flee into surging crowd, leaving both his sister and Varley behind.

  • * * * * *

“…and did you see the way her hair shone?”, Roger motioned with his hands.

Gyles smiled and nodded, taking in everything around him. For the Summerfields such an experience was commonplace but Gyles was having a difficult time paying heed to both his friend as well as the goings-on. Around them, servants came and went – some placing tables, others silverware, and then eventually food. Great platters piled high with delicacies from both sea and field.

“I mean, Brie is beautiful, but I…I mean, I would have never guessed that the little girl in my memories grew up to be….”, he motioned to where she had stood before the gallery, “…her. She can ride, and, by God, fight…she traded blows with Ser Aedan! She’s magnificent.”

Gyles clasped his friend on the shoulder, “Then we should do something about it. Are you planning on attending the hunt?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Good. I’d bet she plans on doing the same given her skills. Perhaps we can arrange for the two of you to run into one another.”, Gyles grinned.

Roger grinned back and said softly, “More sage advice from my old friend; I missed having your ideas so close at hand.”

“Excuse me, Lord Gyles.”, Varley stood a few paces behind their chairs.

Gyles did his best to hide the strangeness of the title, “Yes, Varley?”

“A message from Master Alistair.”, he offered the note.

“Thank you.”, Gyles plucked the small, folded paper from Varley’s fingers and opened it.

Stay with Roger; inn suspicious.

  • * * * * *

By the time that Alistair had reached The Sword and Crown, he had regained his wits. He did not have time to consider his sister’s presence, there were specific steps to his mayhem and he was constrained by time.

His first order of business was to root though Gyles’ things until he found Ambassador Yoreck’s journal and one of the strange Norn-wands. With them in hand, he sat down at the desk in his room and, after a few failed attempts, penned a complete letter in Kargish. He had used the Ambassador’s journal to ensure the proper selection of words and that their shape of their letters were accurate. On the back of the document, he sketched out a rough map of Caravel, marking the residences of both the Baroness and the Summerfields with their respective sigils.

When he had finished, he folded the letter crisply, then repeatedly crumpled it up by jamming it into a spare belt pouch. When he thought it looked sufficiently worn, he moved on to his next order of business. He could not afford to sleep tonight, so he set a small fire in his hearth and began brewing a strong tea laced with stimulants from the North.

Varley arrived in the midst of Alistair packing his things back into his satchels, the tea still bubbling in the fireplace. The steward’s face contorted in confusion, “What’s all this?”

“That’s what I was telling you before we…uh, got separated. I think that some old enemies are sniffing around, so we need to change where we’re sleeping.”, Alistair looked up from his satchel, “Do you think you can get us rooms down by the docks?”

“For The Alchemist and his steward?”, Varley waved a dismissive hand, “Without a doubt.”

“No, no. Not The Alchemist, just you and a crewmate.”

“What about Gyles?”, the steward jerked a thumb towards the other room.

“You’ve seen to that with my note. We’ll bring his horses with us and leave his things, he’ll send for them.”

Varley shrugged and joined in the efforts to pack up their remaining effects, “Who was that woman?”

Alistair froze momentarily then resumed packing, “Uh, what woman?”

“At the tournament grounds, looked Oscallian. She called you something for short.”

“Wha- what?”, Alistair shook his head over emphatically and tipped over the bag he was working on, “I.. I didn’t see anyone; I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

Varley purses his lips and nodded slowly, unwilling to push Alistair into lying anymore then he already had. Instead, they worked in silence until the packing was complete. Alistair carefully transferred the tea to an empty wine bottle, corked it and stowed it among his things. Then, draped like porters, they made their way through the common room and retrieved their horses.

Leading four horses laden with bags through the crowded streets of a city flushed with tournament goers was a slow business. At one point when Varley indicated the fastest way to the docks was in one direction, Alistair insisted on another route. Before long, the crowds in the streets had thinned and the buildings that surrounded them were far past their glory. Many were abandoned, pock marked and ruined by time and vagrants. In what seemed to be nowhere in particular, Alistair stopped abruptly.

“Do you think you could find this place again?”, he said without taking his eyes off of a building far down the street.

“Not a lot of landmarks but…”, Varley looked around and nodded, “…I’ll look for this strange house here with the faded yellow roof. Should be easy enough.”

“Good. When Gyles asks about me tomorrow, I want you to bring him here. Tell him to consider bringing a swordhand who knows how to look the other way…but not Aedan.”

Varley’s mouth opened, the first word of a question perched inside of it.

Alistair raised his eyebrows, “Are you willing to do that?”

The steward nodded, “I know your reputation, Alistair, and I know better than to ask questions.”

“It’s better for you this way.”, Alistair slowly pulled his eyes off the building to look at the other man, “You don’t want to know any more details.”

  • * * * * *

The archery contest had been placed a short walk from the tournament grounds, shaded against the afternoon sun by the great trees which grew along the shore. Popular for drawing participants from both the common and noble classes, the number of onlookers rivaled that of the jousts. The watching nobles stood under the thickest blanket of shade while the common folk found their places where they could. A number of straw men had been constructed at various distances, awaiting the participants.

Aedan had made his way down from the tournament grounds with many of the other knights who had found in the lists. He had received just as many congratulatory slaps on the shoulder and back as he had dagger-like stares from those that he had unhorsed. As the nobles drifted in to find places for themselves, Aedan found himself standing next to Ser Kelson.

The knight from Aerondel followed Kelson’s gaze to the field where his sister, the Baroness’ daughter, was stringing her bow. Her long, golden hair had been pulled into two delicate braids which had, in turn, been wrapped around her head like a crown.

“Honorable competition must run in the blood of your house.”, Aedan said as he stepped up beside the other knight.

“Hmm? Oh yes, she has a good eye.”, Ser Kelson smiled proudly, “Perhaps it will fare better than my lance.”

“May I ask you a question?”, Ser Aedan followed the friendly jest with his usual sobriety.

Ser Kelson let the smile slowly fade, “Most certainly, Ser Aedan. What is it?”

“Kargs, Ser Kelson. Have these lands had any trouble with the Kargs?”

The blond, broad-shouldered knight sighed, “Oh yes, it seems to be the only thing we speak of. They have taken up residence in the Dunlad Forest and scared the commoners away. That means there is less game, less wood, less herbs…less everything. It feels as if we do not do something, we will become like our fallen neighbors in Aerondel. Do you know it?”

“In fact, I do.”, Aedan crossed his arms across his chest, “I earned my spurs there.”

Ser Kelson nodded approvingly, “That is good, there are not many of their people left, and those there are have been scattered. I am afraid we will suffer the same fate. Not long ago, they struck Alport from the sea; burned the entire navy in the dead of night. Now they skulk up and down the southern coast, harrying anyone and everyone. They will either burn our lands to the ground or watch us starve as they block our tradeways.”

Aedan nodded solemnly, “I know well their villainy.”

“You strike me as an honest man, Ser Aedan…”, the blond knight looked around and then lowered his voice, “…so I will confess that my Mother was hoping to impress the Summerfields with the tournament. She would very much like to see a marriage between our two houses. With the Summerfields as cousins, we might be able to shake off our Kargish ghosts. So worried about some injurious accident was she, that the hunt will take place in the tamest of our lands. We might strike down a deer, but nothing more; it is neither a true test of faith nor skill, I am afraid. ”

The first of the archery contestants stepped forward and fired into the closest target, causing the crowd to erupt into applause. The two knights paused to inspect the shot and join the clapping. When everyone had quieted, they continued.

“Perhaps you and I should bring boar spears just in case we should end up hunting more dangerous prey.”

“I would very much like that, Ser Aedan, and, after seeing you ride today, I feel poorly for whatever beast or man finds itself on the other end of your spear.”, Kelson grinned.

The soft twang of a bow filled the air, then silence and applause. Again, the warriors stopped their conversation to observe the shot, then resume.

“And now, as my Mother tries to focus on my sister’s marriage, she is pressured by merchants from the Sparrow Isles. Somehow they avoided the Kargish ships to the south and wish to see her. They could have some valuable secret or be in league with the pale-skinned devils. I am afraid our worries are many, Ser Aedan…”, he paused awkwardly, “…but I thank you for listening to my woes.”

“No gratitude is needed, Ser Kelson. I hope that I can find some way to aid your lands and your family.”

“By the grace of He Who Is Holy, an honest friend would be a welcome sight indeed, Ser Aedan; a welcome sight indeed.”

  • * * * * *

“Well, Ser Kelson didn’t win earlier, so I suppose his sister had to win this….in order to keep themselves in your eye.”, Gyles glanced over at Roger.

The two of them were in a loose crowd of nobles who were making their way across the grassy fields under the late afternoon sun. Many were returning to the castle within Calavel’s walls where they had already been provided quarters.

“Yes, I suppose so. It seemed unfair to have her compete against her own subjects but I saw many smiles; I think they are well loved by their people.”, Roger lifted a hand in greeting to another man too far away to exchange words, “I’ll have to speak to him at the banquet later. Are you going to the banquet, Gyles?”

“Banquet? My invitation must have gotten lost in all the business in Iron’s Bay.”

“You have to come! I’ll speak to someone at the castle and make arrangements. Speaking of which, where are you staying?”

“I have rooms at an inn on Wheel Street.”

“No, no, that’s too far away. You’ll stay at the castle with us, I’ll see to it.”

Gyles shrugged and smiled, “If you insist, Roger.”

  • * * * * *

There was comfort in the familiarity of air filled with the smell of water and creaking wood; in taverns where men seemed louder but more true to themselves; where places aboard vessels were earned through skill and not birth. All over the known world, in every port Alistair had been in, he felt safest by the docks. Here, everything was as it seemed.

It had not been difficult for a couple of seamen, tattooed with ships and speaking the jargon of sailors, to find rooms in such a place. Their horses had turned out to be more of a burden, but friends of friends, they say, solve problems. Their horses were stabled up the street, nestled among the others of their kind which pulled the wagons to and from the docks.

Their rooms were small and simple, and there they unloaded their baggage, save two satchels which Alistair set aside. As he readied himself to leave, Varley’s face flickered from confusion to conclusion, “You’re not staying here tonight, are you?”

“No, I’m not.”, Alistair put a satchel over each shoulder, “I have things to do in the dark. Will you give Gyles my message?”

“I will…”, Varley paused then grinned, “…if you agree to introduce me to that woman from the tournament grounds. She was beautiful.”

“Uh…I….can’t introduce you because I…eh…already told you, I don’t know who you’re talking about.”, Alistair made his way awkwardly to the door as he spoke, “I will…I….find us a mining company, will you?”

And then The Alchemist was gone.

  • * * * * *

Upon arriving at the castle, Roger had insisted on dispatching someone for Gyles’ effects at The Sword and Crown. He had followed that with the insistence that quarters be found for his good friend, and so they were. Small and insulting to many nobles, the apartments to which Gyles was led were larger and more opulent than any quarters he had ever called his own. He found his things waiting for him.

He was in the process of trying to decide which clothes were most appropriate for the banquet when there was a knock at his door. A page, dressed in Summerfields livery, bowed, “My lord, the Duchess of Summerfield invites you to be her guest as your earliest convenience.”

Gyles took only a moment to understand the meaning behind the words and nodded to the page, “Give me a moment.”

He closed the door, counted to sixty, and re-opened it with a smile, “Let’s not keep the Duchess waiting.”

He was led through what felt like a great distance of turns and stairs; the journey made Ironbark Keep seem so small in his mind. When at least they arrived, the door was opened before him to reveal a private sitting room. A great window, paned in glass, was open and overlooked the crystal blue expanse of the lake. The Duchess of Summerfield was already seated, “Please come in, Lord Gyles. Thank you for accepting my invitation.”

“Most certainly, Duchess. Thank you for extending it.”

She inclined her head as the smuggler-turned-sophisticate settled into a nearby chair, doing his best imitation of Roger’s sitting posture.

“I understand that you played a critical role during the events at Ironbark Keep. That is was your bravery and wit that allowed Roger to weather it as he did. That you were there both as a wise counselor but also as a brave rescuer.”

“I was there but it was Roger who led at Ironbark when the moment was darkest. It was Roger who struck the Norn with his last weapon, unwilling to be captured without a fight.”

The Duchess reclined with a coy smile, “This tournament seems to be one of surprise. From your unexpected presence, to the final combatants in the joust. For your part, you certainly seemed to have made an impression today with your bird, as well as your apparent relationship to Ser Aedan Hammerhand. But remind me again, what lands do you call home?”

Gyles smiled, “Your Grace, you honor me with your words but today is not about me, it is about your family. It is about Roger’s future and the two beautiful women struggling for his attentions.”

“Indeed, that seems to be the very crux of this festival, doesn’t it? What do you know of these lands and their labors?”, the Duchess sipped from a slim glass.

“I know that many of these lands are struggling against the Kargs. While some of the Kargish tribes come in peace, there are others that come as warriors and traitors. Their ships have been seen off the southern coast and, if the rumors are true, they have ruined the fleet in Alport.”

“Those are just the affairs of war. What of Lady Briony and Lady Ariella? What of their families?”

Gyles shifted in his seat, “For what it is worth, I believe Roger is quite taken with Lady Ariella.”

The Duchess pursed her lips in annoyance, “Yes, it seems everyone at this tournament is smitten by her. Do you know the Earl of Northridge?”

A handful of memories flickered in Gyles’ mind; past deliveries made on behalf of the House of Northridge.

“I have done business with Lord Northridge several times and it was he, in fact, who introduced me to Lord Humphrey – which is how I ultimately came to meet Roger. He is…”, Gyles paused to take a drink from his own glass which had appeared, “…he is an ambitious man who would try hard to either please your family or revenge himself upon it, depending on the future of his daughter’s hand.”

The Duchess sat unmoved by his words, “And what of the Baroness and her family?”

“I think these are wonderful lands and gracious people but I do wonder about their future. Kargish marauders to their west and south, their navy destroyed. Without the right support, I think there may be long, dark days in store for their family.”

For the first time in their conversation, the Duchess’ posture seemed to relax. A very slight smile crept into her features, “You seem remarkably well informed, Lord Gyles. Roger tells me that you provided wise council and valiant help in his hour of need.”

She paused to take another drink, “I could use a man of your talents in the upcoming days. Momentous decisions approach and I too will need sage council of my own; the same that you rendered to my son. I would ask you to keep an eye open as these days pass. I would like to know what it is, exactly, that the Earl and Baroness would have from my family. A counselor who could answer such questions would be well rewarded.”

“Duchess, it would be my great honor to help you, and Roger, with this duty.”

“Then I consider the surprise of your presence here a pleasant one, Lord Gyles. Now, if you will excuse me, I should prepare for the banquet.”

“Yes, Your Grace.”, Gyles stood and made his way to the open door. As he stepped through into the hallway, the voice came over his shoulder.

“Know that you did not answer my question, Lord Gyles; serve faithfully and much can be overlooked. Serve with infidelity and one’s own secrets may become the price.”

The door closed behind him with a soft click.

  • * * * * *

On the street where he had led Varley earlier that day, Alistair picked out a crumbling two story building and made his way inside. The sun had partially slipped below the edge of the world, painting the streets in dim red-golds. On the second floor, amongst the ruin, he discovered the view of Rogosh’s building was a clear one. This would do for his temporary roost.

With concerted effort, he moved what remaining furniture there was to his liking, fashioning a makeshift desk with a crate to sit on. Onto the table, he unpacked vials and jars, tinctures, powders, liquids and mixtures of all kinds. Then, able to glance up and see Rogosh’s abode, he began his work. Two mixtures, one that would light with great ferocity and whose blaze would be the color of emeralds. The second would be applied to a rag, then held over a mouth or nose, so it would be inhaled. It would need to bring on a deep sleep in fast order without having to be ingested. As his mind worked through the attributes, his fingers danced among the containers set out before him. He tapped, he measured, he mixed and waited. The sun disappeared, and the moon crept into the night sky.

The Alchemist continued to work and watch.

View
The Keeps' End

As the sun’s light crept deeper and deeper into the courtyard, Roderick’s men pushed deeper and deeper into the keep, aided by the knight and the smuggler who were already inside. By the time that dawn had become morning, the keep had been retaken. They found the Moirai sitting passively on the edge of his cot in what had once been the Ambassador’s rooms; his caretaker, Rogosh, missing from the both the living and the dead Kargs.

Gyles oversaw the binding and gagging of both the surviving Norn and the Morai.

“The gags are not to be removed for any reason. If they must have water – and I mean must – it will be done only with a knife to their throat. If either make so much as a grunt while they drinking, you must cut their throats. Their words will twist your mind and bend you to their will.”

The would-be jailors, selected from among Roderick’s men-at-arms, looked at the young smuggler with wide eyes and blank faces as they nodded and carted the strange Kargs away. Aedan and Gyles delivered Roger into the care of the Keep’s healer, an older man who had taken refuge in the kitchen by pretending to be one of the cooks and then went to find Alistair.

The Alchemist was staring idly off the courtyard walls in the direction of Edmunton. Not far from him, Lord Roderick oversaw the remaining men-at-arms as they gathered the dead for burning. A wagon had been placed sideways across the damaged gates, ensuring that they would stay closed despite their damage.

“Ser Aedan, Master Gyles.”, the Baron nodded, “I am afraid to ask but…did you find the Heir of Summerfield?”

“We did, just in time. The Kargs were torturing him.”, Aedan glanced at the men working.

“Ser Aedan, modest again. Lord Roderick, Ser Aedan challenged the Kargish warchief to combat and skewered him like a spit on feast day.”

Aedan inclined his head.

“It seems as if your reputation as the Hammerhand is well earned, Ser Aedan. My thanks to you yet again, and to you Master Gyles and Master Alistair. Master Alistair’s….device….was a strange thing to behold but powerful. It did as he said it would and blew open the gates with a great thunderclap.”

Alistair cast a sidelong glance at the smuggler and smirked but did not turn to face the conversation.

“Baron, I hate to burden you with more news but we have captured one of their….sorcerers, and another creature they call a Moirai. I believe the sorcerer, they call him a Norn – that he is able to weave his sorcery through the eyes and mouth of the Moirai, even when they are separated. So, in some ways, they are both sorcerers. We captured, bound and gagged them both. What is it that you would have done with these men? They are very dangerous.”

Alistair made a fluttering motion with one hand and then rolled his eyes in silence.

“You seem to know more of them then I do, Master Gyles. So as any good captain might, I would have your counsel on the matter.”

Gyles inclined his head in gratitude, “With some help, I would like to put questions to the captured Kargs and determine how they managed their escape. If my thoughts about the Moirai are proved true, I would say they should be executed as soon as possible. Should it be public, Baron?”

Now it was Lord Roderick’s turn and gaze out into the misty distance. He thought for a moment, “No, I should think everyone has seen enough bloodshed in these past few weeks. Do it privately, if your inquiries lead you to such a decision. I trust Ser Aedan can assist you in such matters and will swear for your findings.”

Both the smuggler and the knight nodded, bid farewell and descended the stairs to the courtyard. The Alchemist peeled himself off of the walls and followed quietly in their wake.

It took Gyles only a few hours to find a handful of kitchen staff who pieced together the tale of the escape. It turned out Marissa was the source of their knowledge.

She had arrived to pick up the dishes from the evening meal, chatted with the jailors and was just ascending the stairs when it happened. There was shouting behind the thick wooden door, and the two jailors quickly threw it open to investigate. Peeking around the corner of the stairs, she had seen the Moirai standing on its tiptoes, body taut, shouting in a voice that was not its own. The guards had drawn their weapons just as the cell doors had flown open. The Kargish bodyguards had been ready and they charged out. Marissa had not stayed to watch the end of the tale but others confirmed that the Kargs had crept out and opened the gates for their waiting companions.

From there, Gyles and Aedan had recruited Soren and Alistair for another venture into the dungeons. As he had done before, Gyles had a table and chair placed in a nearby room and then asked that Kargish soldiers be brought there one by one. Each Karg arrived to a crowded room of unfriendly faces – Aedan held the dead warchief’s axe, Alistair stood with arms crossed and narrow eyes, and the youngest of them all sat across the table and would not take his eyes from their own. Their former ally barked sharp questions at them in their own tongue, demanding that they break one of their most sacred taboos.

It was the seventh Karg who bent to their will and answered their questions. Among other things, he told them that it was not just Yardros that could weave his magicks through the Moirai in their dungeon, but that any Norn could do so. Gyles ordered the jailors to give the man extra rations and to make sure the other prisoners saw as much.

When Alistair and Soren departed, Aedan and Gyles shared a long look of understanding. Without speaking, they wound their way up to the courtyard and secured one of the small sheds used to store wood and hay.

“How should we do this?”, Gyles said aloud without removing his gaze from the floor of the shed, “I have made the sentence, so I should deliver the punishment….but I am afraid I do not have the skill for it.”

“There are no crowds to see this so there is no need for something fanciful. Make it simple. Draw your knife across their throats like you are slaughtering a pig.”

The smuggler exhaled forcefully, “I have not done that either but I get your meaning.”

They returned to the dungeons – in what had become a familiar journey – and spoke with the men-at-arms there. The Norn was given over to them, and the wizard was marched up through the stairs and out into the woodshed, where he was forced to his knees by Aedan. Gyles produced a long knife, and let loose a slow breath.

“Yardros, Norn of the Kord, you are found guilty of theft, torture and waging war against the Barony of Irons Bay….”

“And the murder of Lord Humphrey.”, Aedan added flatly.

Gyles glanced up and then back to Norn, “Your sentence is death.”

The young smuggler moved swiftly. The tip of the blade drew blood on the side of the Norn’s neck, and Gyles’ will washed away with it. His hand froze and the sorcerer, knowing now his fate, began to howl behind his gag and struggle beneath Aedan’s grasp.

Aedan drew his own knife with his free hand, “This is how you do it, lad.”

He drew it across the sorcerer’s throat in a sudden wash of blood that splashed across their boots. The wizard’s legs twitched between Aedan’s own feet before settling into stillness. They repeated their grim business a second time, this time bloody-booted and retrieving the Moirai. In the dimness of the woodshed, Gyles repeated the charges, his findings, and the punishment but he did not attempt to mete it out himself.

For a second time, Aedan’s knife did its work.

  • * * * * * *

By sunset, the keep had regained some sense of order. The courtyard still bore the marks of last night’s battle but the bodies had been disposed of and things put back in their places. Lord Roderick’s dinner table was a motley assembly – a battered Heir of Summerfield, the merchant Soren, the three companions, Roderick’s own captain, and a handful of knights that had performed admirably in the battle. He thanked the assembled men for their efforts in throwing down the Kargs, raised his glass in a toast and the meal commenced.

Among the quiet clinking of silverware and conversation, Gyles raised his voice, “Lord Roderick, I have news from the prisoners.”

The noise around the table slowed and stopped as the knights and captain turned to face the young smuggler.

“We questioned several of the Kargs earlier today. Our guesses were confirmed, it was the Norn and the Moirai who used their sorcery to escape the jails and open the gates. They were too dangerous to have among us….so they have been executed.”

Roderick nodded slightly among the murmuring of the table, “I trust in your decision, Master Gyles.”

“The Kargish fighters also told us that a larger force has already been summoned to aid them here; they have already sent for their people.”

“Their messages fly faster than any birds.”, Aedan said flatly.

“Indeed, they do, Ser Aedan.”, the young smuggler agreed.

“How is that, Master Gyles?”, Lord Roderick’s brow furrowed.

“Yes, how is that Master Gyles?”, Alistair said as he lifted his cup.

“The men known as Norns…the twins…enter a waking sleep; it allows them to communicate with one another across great distances.”

Alistair rolled his eyes and the knights around the table continued to murmur.

“Such insights will aid us in our battle against them. Thank you, Master Gyles. We have long known that the Kargs have their run of Eastvale so it would not surprise me if their allies came from there. We will dispatch scouts tomorrow.”

“My lord, I would like to continue questioning the prisoners with your permission.”

“Of course, Master Gyles. Your work has already yielded benefits, I would welcome more of it.”

“Thank you, my lord. Maser Soren, has been very valuable to us and to the Ironbark’s cause.”, the smuggler motioned to where the merchant was seated, “He told us much of what we know and he speaks their language. We would not have been able to question the prisoners without him”

“Yes, Lord Summerfield has mentioned him. It is the Heir’s opinion that Master Soren receive particular rights to the iron ore of the mine. If what you are saying is true, I am inclined to grant them.”

“Very much so, Baron. While the mines are reopened, we could make use of his skills and knowledge of the Kargs here at the keep.”

Lord Roderick nodded.

Soren lifted his glass, “My thanks to many of you at this very table. Baron Roderick and Lord Summerfield for your trust in me and the honor of houses. And Master Gyles, for showing me that I had chosen poorly.”

Roderick, Roger and Gyles lifted their glasses in return.

“Gyles has reminded me of something that Soren said.”, Alistair sat back in his chair, shortened finger tapping on the arm, “He said that he has never seen a Kargish crossbow, and that mail, even among their best fighters, is rare. I think that tells us something very special about them.”

“What is that?”, Aedan asked his friend.

“It tells us that they cannot construct the same things that we can. Perhaps they cannot properly build a mine shaft, or the pulley of a crossbow. Perhaps they have lost that knowledge, or never had it. Perhaps the only way they have ever acquired such things is by force.”

“It explains why they fought so desperately for the mine and its iron.”, Aedan offered.

“Yes, but the crossbow is the secret.”, Alistair smiled devilishly, “If they have no crossbows, they have no siege equipment. No knowledge of how to build such mechanisms.”

Confused looks surfaced around the table.

“I would think if you built two trebuchets within the safety of the courtyard, the Kargs will not only be terrified of the destruction they cause, but they will have few ideas on what to do about them.”

The confused looks turned into smiles and chuckles as Lord Roderick responded, “A fine idea, Master Alistair. We should embark upon it. Ser Aedan, while you recover from your injuries, would you be willing to lend us your mind? I would appreciate having someone who knows the enemy as well as you do at our counsels.”

Aedan inclined his head, “Of course, my lord. Thank you for the invitation.”

“Lord Roderick, what will become of the villagers? They have no homes or fields to return to – could they not be given duties here in exchange for shelter? Perhaps they could aid Alistair’s efforts; I am sure more than one of them can put a saw and hammer to use.”

Once again, the Baron of Ironbark nodded in contemplation, “I had overlooked them in the business of retaking the keep but you are correct – you have a wise and thoughtful mind, Master Gyles. Are you sure you are not from some lost, noble lineage? You would make a fine lord.”

The nobleman smiled warmly, which elicited good cheer from the men gathered around his table – all of them, that is, except for the man known as The Alchemist.

  • * * * * * * *

When dinner had finished along with the conversation, and men had drifted off in their separate ways, Alistair found himself facing the familiar door to the keep’s solar. I am sick of being in noblemen’s solars. The thought flashed across his mind as he knocked and was admitted.

He found Roderick seated at a desk, a great map of the Ironbark lands unrolled before him. He looked up, “Master Alistair, have you come to discuss your plans for the courtyard?”

Alistair smirked, “Of a sorts. I am afraid we are not all men of means, here, Roderick. I am not Aedan of Aerondel, or Roger Winton. A month ago, my good friend asked me to help him and I agreed, without any thought of wages.”

The Baron of Ironbark shifted in his seat, his lips began to purse.

“We have done good work in good faith. But I am a tradesman, not a man of wealth and what you ask me to do here, is the very nature of my craft.”

“And you wish to be paid for it?”, Lord Roderick steepled his fingers.

Alistair ran the fingers of his left hand over his mustache and beard, “If sellsword captains and bands of treasure seekers are capable of paying my fees, I expect you should be as well….so, yes.”

Roderick’s eyes narrowed in a flash of anger. He inhaled sharply, “These are special days, Master Alistair. I would urge you to remember that. The House of Ironbark will pay you for your work and in exchange for those wages, you will oversee the repair of the gate and as well as the construction of two trebuchets…”

Alistair let a smile creep across his face.

“…and you will address me by my God-given title from now on.”

  • * * * * * * *

In the days that followed, the keep buzzed with activity. The villagers of Edmunton were assigned duties; some to replace men and women that had been killed and others to the construction efforts. Alistair oversaw the selection of trees and their preparation for use in both the gate and trebuchets. Scouts were dispatched to spy along the Eastvale borders. Gyles took over a small room on the main floor of the keep where he and Soren would question Kargs. Preparations were made for the Heir of Summerfield to travel to the Duke’s Court in Iron’s Bay. Aedan drilled the fighting men of the keep, offered his thoughts to the war council, and conveyed messages between Alistair and Roderick after the cooling of their relationship.

On the eve of Roger’s departure, Gyles found him preparing for the journey. The young smuggler held a familiar crossbow by its middle.

The Heir of Summerfield smiled; a single cut had been stitched shut across his check and the bruises had begun to yellow, “Two of my old friends.”

Gyles smiled warmly in return, “Well, much like you, one of them must go home.”

The smuggler extended the crossbow to Roger’s outstretched hands.

“It belongs to a man named Cole, he sought sanctuary at the Church of St. Taegon. They will be able to find him and return it. Tell them it has new stories – it was repaired by The Alchemist, slew the manticore that ravaged their village and struck down a Kargish sorcerer. And now it is coming home to serve them once more.”

Roger smiled as he looked down at the weapon, “It seems a fearful thing when you say its lineage like that; a weapon meant for adventurers and conquerors of lost lands.”

“Don’t even think about keeping it.”, Gyles grinned.

The two men broke out into laughter.

“If your travels bring you to the Summerfields, Gyles, the doors will be open to you and yours. Please do not hesitate to make use of our hospitality.”

They clasped hands and said their farewells. Roger would venture into Iron’s Bay, relay the events at the keep, and then head west to return to his family’s holdings.

In the wake of his departure, efforts went into full swing. The courtyard was filled with the noise of hammer and saw, alongside the shouts of men as they battled each other under Aedan’s watchful eye. Gyles woke and lived each day speaking nothing but Kargish and with Soren’s aid, they worked their way through each of the prisoners, questioning them about war efforts and the traditions of their people. At mealtimes, Alistair would join them and the entire affair would be conducted exclusively in the foreign tongue of the invaders. Aedan was absent from such proceedings, preferring, instead, the company of fellow knights and the talk of war.

Messengers arrived a week after Roger’s departure, and the troops that they had spoken of, a week after that. Scouts came and went, relaying the movements of Kargish fighters in Eastvale. Soon, the trebuchets towered over the walls of the courtyard and Gyles did most of the talking when they questioned the prisoners. Their mealtimes had gone from stilted, stuttering affairs to smooth conversations. The war council had less and less to speak of, their best ideas and plans already decided on. And each night, in the quiet of his own room, Gyles would sit, eyes closed, on the floor or in his chair, trying desperately to find that state of waking sleep described by the Kargs. And each morning, he would awake, stiff necked and none the wiser for his efforts.

It was on one of those nights, after the arrival of the Duke’s troops, that the trio found themselves together in one of the side halls, discussing the progress of their various ventures. The scouts had most recently reported a large Kargish force moving decidedly towards the Ironbark lands, and so, the discussion had turned towards what would clearly become a siege.

“What should we do?”, Gyles asked as he refilled their cups.

“The only way I’m part of a siege is when I’m out there.”, Alistair jerked a thumb towards the window, “I didn’t agree to stay holed up in this keep like a rat. I have a trade; there’s thieves and sellswords out there that are waiting for my help.”

Aedan chuckled, “I agreed to help Lord Roderick with his mines and that has long been done. His preparations are coming to a close, and he has not offered me a position in his household guard – not that I would take it. There is little one more sword here would achieve. Besides, the ghost of vengeance has made me restless; I think it is time to find Ydreck.”

“Didn’t the Kord say that the Malagor were in the Duke’s Court? Perhaps we could go there and lure the Malagor into revealing his location.”, Gyles settled back into his chair.

Alistair made a wry face, “That seems very risky; things would have to go just right for us to get what we wanted. I have a different idea.”

Aedan sat forward and returned his cup to the table.

“We know the Malagor colors and we know where they were last. I say we head into the Bay, and find someone who’s seen those red flags somewhere recently. I’m guessing they’re somewhere around Aerondel still, so we stop and see if your woodsmen would lend us a hand and then we go apply some…. pressure to the Malagor.”

“And make it look like the Kord did it.”, Gyles smiled innocently.

Alistair raised his hand, palm up, in Gyles’ direction, “See? Everyone wins. We get one step closer to Ydreck, you get to put a few more Kargs to the sword, and we make them even madder at one another.”

Aedan inhaled and the hint of a smile ghosted onto his face, “Yes, that’s a good plan. Are you sure you can find someone in Irons Bay who will have seen them?”

“If we can’t find someone in the Bay who’s seen the red-cloaks somewhere, then they’ve gone back to wherever it is they call home.”

  • * * * * * * * *

April had come and gone when their work was done. The trebuchets were complete, stone shots carved along with a handful of glass globes filled with flammable liquid. Every Kargish prisoner had visited Gyles no less than three times, and the defenses planned for the keep had long since been drilled into its fighters.

The trio made plans for their departure and there was, once again, a terse exchange between the Baron and the Alchemist, this time over horses and debts owed. But with assistance from Aedan and Gyles, the dispute was settled without harm and the three men left the keep astride mounts.

They were not a stone’s throw from the gate, when a distant voice grew louder and louder, “Master Gyles! Master Gyles!”

They slowed their horses and looked back to see one of the Edmunton villagers chasing them, a large burlap sack clutched to his chest. He arrived, chest heaving, “Thank you… thank you, my lords for… for stopping.”

Alistair opened his mouth to correct the man but Aedan shot him a sidelong look. Alistair made a disgusted sound.

The man straightened up, recovering from his chase, “Master Gyles, you nearly forgot this. I almost forgot it myself what with all the work in the keep and the catapults. I finished it some time back.”

He put the burlap sack on the ground, reached inside and pulled out a leather hauberk the color of soft gold. Its front was a series of four overlapping layers of riveted leather and over each shoulder, a single piece of sand-color chitin acted as a pauldron. The golden fur of the manticore surrounded the chitin, buffering the wearer against its hard edges.

Gyles took it gingerly from the man’s hands and held it up before him, mesmerized, “It is… magnificent. My gratitude is not payment enough for such handiwork.”

“But saving my family, and my village and my home…. it is. Thank you, Master Gyles, and Master Alistair and Ser Aedan.”

They tied the bundle to the back of Gyles’ saddle, exchanged mutual gratitude a second time, and then resumed their journey.

The return to Irons Bay passed without incident, and although much had changed in their own worlds, the city itself was exactly as they had left it. It seemed blissfully unaware of the blossoming war just beyond its walls. Aedan’s wounds had recovered greatly but not yet completely, and so he made his way to his cousin’s home for more reasons than one; to retell the story of the mines, warn about the war and make use of his spare bed.

And while the landless knight enjoyed a respite from revenge and fighting, Alistair and Gyles spent their days pouring over the dead Ambassador’s journal. Their earlier attempts had left their heads swimming, but now the words on its pages were familiar sounds. For a week, they pieced together its once-secret messages.

The Ambassador, it seemed, had been fascinated by the sorcery wielded by the Norns and, despite cultural taboos, had recorded every thought, rumor, and tale he had heard. He had gone so far as to describe the power of the metal wands wielded by the twins, a metal tube with a crystal atop. The book claimed that the Norns could feed their energy into the wand and that it would produce a great gout of flame, consuming the crystal in its process. Alistair seemed to grow more and more impatient, the more they discovered – it was, effectively, one man’s musings about sorcery and the distinct lack of any science. In the end, it was decided that Gyles should take the book and use it as motivation to continue his studies. He did his best to hide his excitement.

And each night, when Gyles returned to his own apartments, Alistair ran errands of his own. First, it was to find the man that financed merchants and trading vessels – a man known as “Sterling”. He had curiously welcomed The Alchemist and even more excitedly agreed to the loan that had been proposed.

With Sterling’s livres in hand, along with money from both Gyles and Aedan, Alistair had spent the following nights visiting the back alleys and hidden shoppes scattered throughout Irons Bay. In each place, he obtained only a handful of ingredients – slowly rebuilding the selection of poisons that he had drunkenly dumped into the wind at the Ironbark Keep. It took him ten night and all the cash that he had begun with, but his satchel had finally been refilled with small glass vials and jars.

And throughout it all, Gyles and Alistair pressed their friends and contacts: Had anyone seen the red-flagged Malagor recently? Had they heard or seen a man who’s war sigil was a pair of crossed swords and wolf’s head? Nearly two weeks after their return to Iron’s Bay, someone had an answer. The crew of The Lonesome Jewel had come ashore talking about the very same flags.

It had not taken Alistair long to track down the crew of the ship, or its purser – and sometimes navigator – Kaleb Varley. Once, long ago when they were both fresh faced and young, they had crewed a ship together; the engineer and the bookkeeper, two educated men surrounded by chaos and curses.

Aedan, Gyles, and Alistair strode into dockside tavern called The Bookseller & The Nun. The shingle outside had long since been eaten away by salt and time, but the remains clearly depicted activities that no nun should not be participating in.

There were a few sidelong glances at the man with a warrior’s gait wearing mail in a dockside tavern, but those eyes were quickly returned to their cups. Alistair led them as they approached a man seated at a table with few other sailors.

“Kaleb Varley, we’re from the Harbormaster’s Office, here about your taxes and port fees.”

The man sat upright and twisted in his chair to find the Alistair grinning from ear to ear.

“Alistair? Is that you?”, the man scanned Alistair from bottom to top, taking in the tattoos and shortened fingers.

“Oh yes, it’s me. Kaleb, these are my friends, Ser Aedan and Gyles.”, Alistair turned his head towards his companions, “This is Kaleb Varley, the man with the money aboard The Lonesome Jewel.”

Kaleb rose to his feet and the men exchanged handshakes.

“I have to say, Alistair, I didn’t ever imagine that you’d count a knight among your friends.”, he paused realizing what he had said, “Uh, no disrespect to you Ser Aedan….I meant all of it towards Alistair.”

Aedan slapped the man on the shoulder and settled into a chair. The others followed. The fellow sailors decided that they wanted nothing to do with the strange reunion and relocated to another table. Drinks were brought as Alistair and Kaleb swapped stories about the intervening years.

“So we’ve heard that your ship has seen the Kargs with the red-flags recently?”, Gyles started gently.

“Oh aye, but you see them…the Kargs, I mean…more and more all over. A whole band of them have set up as merchants in the Sparrow Isles, just as plain as you and me.”

Alistair and Aedan exchanged glances. Alistair’s family had made their fortune on trading in the Sparrow Isles and his mother was from one of the few noble families who claimed it as their lands.

“But did they fly red flags?”, Gyles asked again.

“Hmm, hard to recall. I’m not sure I saw any flags in their shop, but maybe. Why the interest in those Kargs?”

“Those Kargs are called the Malagor.”, Alistair took a swig of his tankard, “And let’s just say we have.. business with them.”

“What Alistair means is that they have destroyed my family and my home, and I mean to have my revenge upon their captain. A Karg named Ydreck.”

Alistair rolled his eyes and slapped the table with an open palm. Gyles smirked from across the table.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”, Kaleb paused to lick his lips, “They were talking about some kind of gathering on Elinore for their captains….called it a…versammlug… or something like that.”

Alistair glanced at Gyles, “A gathering…to count voices?”

“You speak…Kargish?”, Kaleb stared at the two men.

Alistair shrugged, “Have you seen them anywhere else that you recall?”

Kaleb started to shake his head and then stopped, “Yes, they were crawling all over the Driftwood Strands…out in Avanale. Had their boats beached there and a camp just inland. Half expected them to come out after us as we went by. You know, the word is that they burned the navy in Alport? Sunk the whole lot of them.”

“That sounds promising.”, Alistair raised his eyebrows and looked across the table at Aedan, who nodded ever so slightly.

“Kaleb, we need your help. How do you feel about horses? Or Avanale in the Summer?”, Alistair grinned wolfishly, “Or how about a large sum of money?”

View
Bells, Battles & Bats

The two men stood there staring at one another as the gate’s echo faded away into the pre-dawn light.  Around them, flames licked at the Kargish tents and wisps of ash floated in the air like gray snow.  They cut curious figures.  One holding a long knife with a gambeson unmarred by use, the strange curving contours of a Kargish helm on his head.  The other, dressed as if he had ambled off the streets of Iron’s Bay save for the thick, castle made sword belt, dented helm and the blade he held awkwardly in his hand.  Each of them were half one thing and half another.

 

“They’ll be looking for us.”, Alsitair said, returning his knife to his belt.

 

“Do you think they’ll…”, Gyles attempted to the slide the sword back into its scabbard and succeeded after a moment, “…do you think they would weaken their defense by sending men out?”

 

“No, Gyles.  I mean they’ll be looking for us.  You and me.  The man who murdered their Ambassador and the man who investigated it…..and when they don’t find us among the living or the dead, they’re going to start looking for us.”

 

“What then?”

 

“Well, we’ve no food or water or shelter and we don’t have the skills to get it.  I’d say we go to Edmunton and hope that Aedan is close…..besides, I need their church bell.”

 

“What?”

 

“Come, I’ll tell you as we go.  It seems like my daydreams weren’t wasted after all.”

 

They walked east into the face of the rising sun, Alistair excitedly explaining how he planned on using the church bell to hold a mixture that would be capable of blowing open the gates of the keep.  The man known as The Alchemist explained the physics, how the mouth of the bell would be placed against the gate and create the only direction that the explosion could go.  Gyles did not understand much of what his companion explained but it was clear that Alistair believed his own words.  He grew more and more animated as he spoke, gesticulating with his hands and eventually ending his tale with a loud clap of his hands.

 

By the time they reached Edmunton, they had a plan.  They would collect the church bell and prepare Alistair’s device while watching the road for Aedan and Roderick; from there they would join the returning party and return to the keep.  They wondered how long they would have to wait for their friend’s return.

 

The villagers greeted them with enthusiasm which transformed into confusion and then concern.  What few people of Edmunton that remained, fed the returning “heroes” and listened to their advice to bury their valuables and run at the sight of the Kargs.  Then the villagers had scattered.  With Gyles’ help, Alistair brought the bell down, dug a small hole to keep it upright and set up shop on the steps of the church.  With little to do but wait Gyles went off to sleep within the church.

 

The sun rose, reached its peak and then started its descent into the afternoon while Alistair worked, adding pinches and shavings to the growing mixture in the bell. 

 

And then the dust cloud rose in the west.  The cry went up among the villagers, “KAAAARGGS!”

 

Gyles had just made his way to the church’s open door frame; he pulled his arms down mid-stretch and raced back inside to collect their things.  Alistair did his best to return the glass containers to their places in his satchels before hurriedly slinging them over his shoulders.  He dug his hands into the dirt and lifted the bell from the bottom, taking off in a lurching run after the villagers.  Gyles stayed ahead of him but never far as they crossed the fields and followed the people of Edmunton into the safety of the treeline.

 

Out of breath, they watched the small figures of the Kargish raiders become recognizable silhouettes, then watched those silhouettes go from house to house with nothing to show for it.  When they had made their fruitless search of the buildings, patches of fire burst into existence among the faint figures.  And as the Kargish raiders returned in the direction they had come, the people of Edmunton watched what was left of their village burn.

 

Their dinner that night was a mixture of berries, bushy green leaves and the scraps one family had brought from their home.  Afraid to light a fire, the group ate and sat and waited in growing darkness.  There were few words, children were hushed when they spoke and the single baby was almost continuously rocked to avoid any crying.  The men drew lots using sticks and a watch was set.  Alistair slept heartily for the first time in nearly a week, unbothered by guilt or drink.

 

In the morning, he returned to his work on the church bell while Gyles’ stood his watch in addition to his own.  By mid-morning, uncertainty and quiet panic had begun to set in among the villagers.  Gyles watched it and thought about how best to choke it out.  He did not want to interrupt Alistair’s work so his mind turned it over and over again while he watched for any sign of the Kargs or Aedan.

 

Fortune smiled on them.  Before the young smuggler needed to act, a dust cloud – meaning only one thing – rose from the south.  Before long there was a strange reunion on the road; some dozen knights and their men at arms, Aedan, the Lord of Ironbark, Alistair, Gyles, and two dozen villagers mixed chaotically.  The events at the keep and village were retold to Baron Roderick, who cursed the invaders.

 

“My lord, their villainy is now on display for all to see but I have always known it.  It is the same evil that slew my family and ruined our lands.  I will not let the lands of the Ironbank share the same fate as Arondel.”, Aedan scowled, “We will return the keep to you.”

 

“If we lay siege or act against the keep, they will use Roger against us.”, Alistair said flatly.

 

“Roger?”, asked Baron Roderick.

 

“Roger Winton, my lord – the Heir of Summerfield.”, Gyles explained, “He is one of many friends that I have inside the keep.  Is it possible to sneak in and rescue them?”

 

“Yes, my lord, it is your keep – do you know of any hidden passages intended as an escape route?”

 

“Yes, there is one but it is small and would accommodate no more than a handful of men.  I did not think to mention it because it would be almost impossible to cross the courtyard and open the gate from where it enters the keep.”

 

“There is no need to open the gate from the inside.”, Alistair’s eyes glittered as he smirked, “If you use the passage, Aedan, you and Gyles can concentrate on your rescue.  We can open the gate when you are ready for us.”

 

Aedan and Roderick paused to look at Alistair.

 

“The mixture in the church bell; in simple terms, when it is set alight, it will create a great push of force – think of a battering ram but one made of fire.  That push will break open the gates.”

 

“Forgive me, Master Alistair, but that seems the stuff of children’s tales.  I have never, in all my years, heard or seen such a thing.  I cannot trust the retaking of my keep to such a…a…gamble.”

 

Aedan placed a hand on Alistair’s shoulder, “Baron Roderick, I know my friend.  If he says it will open the gates, it will open the gates.  I give you my word.”

 

Alistair carried on without waiting for the Baron’s acceptance, “When you and Gyles are ready for us to attack the courtyard, send Omen into the sky.  When she shrieks, I will open the gate and Roderick’s men can charge in.”

 

The Baron was taken aback; in a single exchange Alistair had made an impossible promise, refused to recognize his title, and ordered his role in the attack against his own keep.  As the Baron drew in a breath to protest, Aedan looked at him.

 

“As I said, my lord, it is your keep.  Do we have your agreement in what we have proposed?”

 

What had started as a protest, came out in a sputtering agreement to the man that had saved Edmunton.  What food could be spared was handed out amongst the villagers, and a pace was set that delivered the group to the keep just as the sun was setting, ensuring that no formal parley could begin. 

 

Roderick’s men began setting up their camp, while Aedan selected two of the knights to accompany Gyles and himself.  When they were ready, Baron Roderick took them through the woods in a wide circle around the keep.  Fifty paces from a creek, he swept foliage away from a large collection of boulders, revealing a small square door nestled into the ground.  He passed a large iron key to Aedan, explained the passage, wished them luck and returned to his men.

 

One by one, the four men squeezed into the passageway beneath.  Deformed from lack of use and the shifting of the earth, what had once been a simple walkway had become a twisted tunnel.  They were forced to turn sideways, duck, bend, and crouch in order to reach the iron door that lead to the keep’s mausoleum.  The lock of the door protested the key’s turning but Aedan’s strength prevailed, and the door opened to reveal the inky darkness of the tombs beneath the keep.  The torches they had lit seemed so small in the vast darkness, marked by the ends of coffins and stone plaques.

 

They moved through the crypts as quietly as they could, each jingle of mail or slap of harness seemed to echo endlessly.  When moonlight began to filter into their vision, they doused their torches and moved on – now, even more slowly.  When they reached the open mouth of the tombs, they let their eyes adjust and surveyed the scene.  Aedan knew that sixty men had arrived with the Norns and not all of them were fighters.  They had likely lost some in taking the keep, some were needed to monitor both the still working servants and the jails, and even more were sleeping.  That did not leave many Kargs awake for patrol duties.  Those that they could see stood atop the walls, laughing and jeering in the direction of Roderick’s camp.  None patrolled the courtyard or manned the main doors to the keep which could be seen from their vantage.

 

They hatched a plan in whispers and then slunk out of the tombs, clinging to the shadows of nearby walls.  When they had almost reached the servant’s door to the keep, a Karg turned to face the courtyard.  Aedan held a clenched fist up and the line behind him came to a halt.  The Karg faced down, ensuring that nothing was beneath him before loosening his breeches to relieve himself.  They waited while he finished, the only difference between being seen or not was whether the Karg looked up.  He did not.  He finished and turned to resume his conversation with his companion.  The group slipped into the servant’s door.

 

Aedan let Gyles overtake him in the lead and the young smuggler led them down one hallway then another, and eventually to the tightly wound staircase that he had now traversed multiple times.  When they reached the jails, a quick glance around the corner revealed a pair of Kargish guards engrossed in conversation.

 

Gyles and Aedan exchanged a series of hand motions and mouthed words.  The two knights retreated up, far enough to be hidden by the curve of the stairs.  Aedan pulled his shield and sword into place but stayed where he stood.  Gyles, Omen still on his arm, stepped off the stairs and into plain sight of the Kargs, doing his best to act surprised.  The two invaders jerked their curved swords from their scabbards and rushed at him.  Gyles dashed up the stairs, passing Aedan and the knights.

 

The first Karg took Aedan’s shield in his face when they rounded the corner.  He collapsed backwards onto the floor, his nose a bloody ruin.  Aedan descended and turned, poking with his blade and forcing the remaining guard to turn and back up the steps.  Aedan followed, drawing the Karg’s attention to him while the two knights descended from behind him.  He was captured before he had time to understand what had happened.  They gagged and bound the Kargs, took their keys and opened the door to the cells.  Within they found a bedraggled Father Mattias and a bruised Soren.

 

“What happened to your allies?  What are you doing down here?”, Aedan eyed the merchant suspiciously.

 

“They are trying to decide if I am still useful now that the idea of trade is off the table.”

 

“I promise you, Master Soren.”, Gyles spoke while unlocking the cells, “If you continue to aid us, we will make sure your claims are honored.  Have either of you seen a red-haired scullery maid?”

 

“She talks a lot?”, Soren asked as he stepped into the hallway.


“Yes, that’s the one.”

 

“She brings the food to the guards and picks up their dishes.  She’s probably in the kitchen.”

 

They had a brief discussion about what Mattias and Soren had seen, their understanding of who was where and ultimately decided that they would bring them to the kitchen, leaving the knights there to defend them in case of their discovery.  When they had seen to that, the knight and the smuggler made their way to the second floor, and then followed the sounds of raised voices in the otherwise quiet keep.

 

The door to the lord’s solar was slightly ajar, lamplight spilling out into the dim hallway.  Without servants to light them, only a handful of guttering torches remained in the passages.  Gyles pressed tightly to the wall, craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the scene within.  Roger Winton had been loosely tied to one of the plush chairs; both he and the furniture were spattered with blood.  One eye was swollen shut, bruises covered the opposite cheek and his lips were split and bleeding.  A massive Karg, dressed in gray leathers, paced back and forth, uttering broken questions to the Heir of Summerfield.  One of the two Norns looked on impassively, a metal wand thrust through his belt.

 

Gyles motioned for Aedan to look for himself.  The knight peered inside and then nodded at the hooded hawk clutching Gyles’ arm.  The young smuggler nodded back, slid close to a nearby window and gave Omen her wings.

 

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

 

Lord Roderick returned to camp, gathered his men and did his best to prepare them.

 

“There will be a hawk’s cry – that is your signal to ready yourselves.  Throw off your blankets and ready prepare to charge at that moment.  Then there will be a…”, the Baron looked at Alistair, “a thunder clap and the gates will open.  When you hear that sound, we take the main gates.”

 

There were mutterings among his men but they nodded and prepared for the night’s work.  Some ate, others pretended to sleep.   And while the Kargs along the ramparts watched what was happening in the camp, they failed to notice the single figure carrying a church bell, who crept up to the base of their walls.

 

When Omen’s shriek came, Alistair heard the Kargs shuffle on the wall; he moved.  He put the simple wooden tripod down into the dirt, kicked its feet apart with his own and then settled the bell into its resting place.  He pulled it forward so that the mouth of the bell set flush against gate, lit a wad of oil-soaked wool with his flint, and jammed it into the hole he had made in the bell.  He smiled in satisfaction and then realized he had not thought about his escape.  He ran.

 

Kargs shouted behind him and the muted thumps of missed arrows echoed from either side as his breath echoed in his ears.  Somehow, above it all, he heard the hiss of pressure fighting to escape through the small hole.  He knew what that meant and threw himself forward, flat against the ground.  There was a muffled whump and a terrible cracking sound that followed, then a single distorted gong of a church’s bell.  He felt as if someone had slapped him, open handed, over both ears.

 

He rolled over.  The Kargish bowmen looked around in confusion and those few who had regained their senses had shifted their attack to the stream of armored men who poured towards them.  The gates creaked slowly open, a barrel sized hole missing from their center and the beam that held them shut.  He had done it; the mixture had worked. 

 

The bell was nowhere to be seen until Alistair twisted and realized that it had blown backwards, passing over him and felling a nearby tree with its impact.  Still lying flat on his back, he pulled his tattered tri-corn hat to his head and began to laugh hysterically as the sounds of fighting filled the air.

 

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

 

Aedan watched the hawk disappear out of the window, heard its shriek and began to count.  1…2…3.  He unslung his shield…9…10…11…and slowly pulled his sword from its scabbard…17…18…19.  He looked again into the room…22…23…24.  The giant Karg walked in the same half circle…28…29…and then backhanded Roger Winton…30.  Aedan pushed the door open with the back of his shield and stepped into the light.

 

“You’re time here is over, it is time to pay for what you have done.”

 

The hulking Karg pivoted easily, an elaborately decorated handaxe appearing in his grasp.  His eyes were endless pits of black, with skin the color of fresh fallen snow.  The bone ridges of his skull were pronounced and almost graceful.  When his lips parted to utter a counter-challenge in his own tongue, they could see his teeth came to points.

 

The Norn reached for his wand….and then a muffled thunderclap and distant shouting.

 

The two warriors surged forward at one another; warchief and knight colliding.  Gyles flitted across the distance where the Norn was bringing his wand to bear in what seemed like slow motion.  Suddenly, the young smuggler was there, knife pressed to the Norn’s neck, the wand still half way between his belt and the warriors before him, “No wand, no talking, or you die.”

 

The Kargish warchief loomed over Aedan, bringing his axe down in quick, terrible strikes.  Aedan caught them on his uplifted shield, each one pushed him further back.  The feeling in his shield arm faded away with the blows, rendered numb by the punishment.  When he could spare a strike with his sword, the Karg nimbly batted it away with a backstroke from the axe.  The head of weapon was covered with intricate swirls and its top shaped like cresting waves.  It hammered Aedan’s shield again but this time the knight let the blow carry him down quickly to one knee.  He jammed his blade straight forward, below the Karg’s defenses, into his belly.  The blade bit deep and kept going.  The giant gurgled and gave one last chop with the axe before reeling backwards onto the floor.

 

Roger twisted and turned his head in the chair, trying to see through his single eye, “Ser Aedan?  Gyles?  Gyles, is that you?”

 

Aedan glanced up to make sure Gyles had the Norn in hand before untying the Heir of Summerfield, “Yes, you should be safe now, Lord Summerfield.”

 

“Roger, did this one do anything to you with his…words?  His sorcery?  Did he need his wand?”

 

The battered face nodded, “He doesn’t need the wand.  His words hurt your ears, they make your stomach turn over.  Don’t let him speak.”

 

“Aedan, can you…knock him senseless?”, Gyles said from behind the Norn’s ear.

 

As soon as the words left his mouth, he felt the Karg struggle beneath his knife.  The first syllables of Kargish words washed over Gyles like nails on a chalkboard and then stopped.  Aedan smashed his helmeted head into the Norn’s unprotected face and the sorcerer went slack into Gyles’ arms. 

 

The young smuggler lowered him to the ground, “Roger, where is the other Norn?”

 

The Heir of Summerfield licked his bloody lips in what passed for a smile, “I shot him with the crossbow, like you said Gyles.  He was resting in the other room; they didn’t like to be far from one another.”

 

Roger motioned to a closed door, another chamber attached to the solar.  Aedan’s blade re-appeared in his hand and Gyles unbuckled the sword belt and offered it to the heir, “Take it, you can use it.”

 

The battered young man buckled it into place and drew the weapon, hanging back from his rescuers as they quickly moved to the door.  When they reached it, the knight and the smuggler paused, listened, and nodded at one another.  Aedan threw the door wide, leaping through it, Gyles following.  The other Norn was frozen mid-step between his makeshift bed and where they stood.  He was shirtless, his abdomen wrapped in tight white linens but the blood had begun to seep through. 

 

The Kargish sorcerer turned and ran towards the window, speaking words aloud as he went.  His voice seemed to vibrate the air and scratch at the insides of their ears.  Gyles pushed past Aedan, throwing his knife at the fleeing figure in a desperate play.  It went wide, bouncing off the window casing as the Karg dove through its opening like into a child into a pool. 

 

As he went, his body rapidly shifted and changed – arms shortened, torso shrinking – and where there should have been a man falling to his death, there was instead there was a bat.  It flapped its wings and began to glide off.  Gyles raced to the window, looking frantically into the sky, and then shouted the command word. 

 

Omen dove, hitting the unsuspecting bat with a downward dive that broke bone and rattled the wizard’s senses.  In one smooth motion, the hawk continued the pair’s descent, driving the bat into the stone of a nearby balcony before landing atop it.  Talon and beak tore at the bat’s flesh until suddenly, it was no longer a bat but a man – his lifeless body ruined by long bloody rents and torn holes. 

 

Omen shrieked and returned to Gyles’ outstretched arm, awaiting her reward.

View
Kargish Surprise

The following morning Gyles was pleasantly surprised to find Soren at Lord Summerfield’s breakfast table. The young smuggler had planned on tracking him down today but instead he had been delivered over eggs and bread. They exchanged pleasantries and bantered small talk amidst the soft clinking of silverware of plates; the two young men and the merchant twice either of their ages.

“My Lord Summerfield”, Soren wiped his mouth with his napkin, “I understand there has been an investigation over these last few days and I heard a rumor that poison had been found in the Ambassador’s chambers. Is that true?”

Roger’s lips tightened.

Soren continued, “I had hoped that the entire business was some kind of accident…spoiled food, perhaps, or that another party was responsible. That seems to be further and further from the case.”

Gyles cut in before the Heir could say anything, “I probably should not comment with the investigation still ongoing but I will say this: I am with you. I had also hoped for some other explanation but everything has begun to add up. The only thing that I can think of is that some other tribe is trying to make trouble for the Kord but we don’t know enough about the Kargs to figure that out. Perhaps you could share what you have seen in your travels with them.”

“Certainly, certainly.”, the merchant nodded, “But as I hear you now, our plans still proceed as agreed?”

“What plans are you referring to, Master Soren?”, Roger shifted in his seat.

“The manpower for the mines and the cartage, Lord Summerfield. If you believe that the Kord may not be the guilty party, our plans should proceed. Should they not?”

“Yes, I think that makes sense.”, Gyles interjected, remembering the Heir’s outrage at the poison, “You should continue to honor your words.”

The merchant seemed pleased; Gyles wanted for it to settle in before continuing, “When we have finished here, perhaps we could walk the walls. I am very interested to hear of your travels.”

Soren agreed, and when Lord Summerfield had concluded the meal, the two men – one merchant, one smuggler – took to the ramparts, wrapped in their cloaks against the brisk Spring morning air. Gyles questions began simply, designed to invoke trust; all men liked to speak about their own successes.

Soren had run trade routes between Iron Bay, through the Isle of Elinore and into the east beyond. The Kargs had approached him during his time on Elinore; they needed someone who understand the markets and the men involved in the iron trade because they had come to participate in it. He had agreed to aid them because he saw a road to wealth, prosperity and powerful friends – both human and Kargish.

Slowly but surely, Gyles began to ask for details; follow on questions from a rapt listener, trying only to better imagine the scenes. Facts began to emerge: Kargs had no crossbows, only bows and arrows. Mail was uncommon, most warriors wore leather and furs. Their ships held no secrets beyond their curved shapes, and the Norns carried metal sticks with a crystal on its end.

“And what does the metal stick do?”

Panic flashed across the merchant’s face. He had been speaking freely, lost in his own retelling and had stumbled into a conversation that he should not have, “I…I shouldn’t discuss this any further. They seem tight lipped about the Norns, such discussions are forbidden by the Kargs.”

Gyles stopped and turned to look at him, “Listen, if you want to help get to the bottom of what has happened here, I need to understand how and what the Norns do.”

Soren leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “If I reveal what I know, it could cost me my standing with the Kargs. I want assurances from Lord Summerfield that he will grant me the same kind of preferred access to the iron ore that the Kargs have agreed to…then I will tell you what I know.”

“Lord Summerfield is a good man looking for the truth. He will be happy to reward those who are loyal to that cause. Besides, I am sure when Lord Roderick arrives to rule on this, it will be better for you to have acted on behalf of your people.”

The merchant licked his lips, “Fine. Agreed. Let us go to the Heir now. I would have his word before we speak any further.”

And so they did. Lord Summerfield received them in his solar whereupon they explained their conversation and assurances Soren sought.

“You are the investigator and your words have been wise since the…. Incident, Gyles. I will do what you ask. I will speak with Roderick when he arrives about protecting Master Soren’s rights to the iron ore.”

Once again, the men exchanged pleasantries and parted. This time, they withdrew to Gyles’ chambers where Soren barred the door.

“I have observed a number of customs related to the Norns.”, he removed his hat and took a deep breath, “All Kargs treat twins as but a single person and there is one name shared between them. It is said that all twins, all siblings born at the same point, possess… powers.”

“Sorcery?”, Gyles prodded.

The merchant shrugged, “I have not seen such a thing, nor have I seen what their metal rods will do. I have seen…. I was not supposed to be listening, you understand? I speak a little of their tongue. When we travelled, deep in the night, one of them would be into a trance and the other would speak to him. The twin in the trance would answer back but it was…. not his voice.”
“What do you mean, not his voice?”

“It was not the sound of his normal voice, the words were slow….deliberate, as if he were concentrating but speaking at the same time. I was not supposed to be listening, I said that didn’t I? That is how they speak over impossible distances. I believe the creatures called Moirai can do this as well. This is how they were speaking with the Ambassador here at the keep. This is how they knew you before they arrived.”

  • * * * * * * *

Alistair eyes slowly opened, revealing the darkness of his room set against the blazing sunlight peeking out from beneath his closed curtains. He rolled over to face the interior wall. His head throbbed in a combination of confusion and pain, as he exhaled and threw the covers off.

He shuffled to his desk, shaking out a combination of powders and leaves into the remains of a parchment. With shaking hands, it took him several tries to complete the rolling of the homemade cigarette. He cursed himself for not having better foresight, lit the end of it from a nearby, guttering candle and collapsed into the chair. He exhaled a cloud of hazy green smoke, while his eyes lingered on his notes from the last few days; shaky scrawl that not even he could read.

Gyles has the bloody book and he can’t even read…or put ink to paper. Who made him my wetnurse? Telling me when I’ve drunk too much when he wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for my good graces. I was studying at Laewes when he was in his crib.. I’ve broken forts and sunk ships and he thinks he can keep a book from me? Ungrateful, arrogant….now where’s that wine….

  • * * * * * * *

Aedan had lost the better part of yesterday to Branmore’s scheme; between the duel itself, returning the woman to the village and then finding men to bury him, Aedan was behind. He urged his horse on but the second horse, unused to him as a master and laden with wargear, complicated the matter and prevented him from fully galloping.

He should have reached the bridge today but instead it would be tomorrow, and beyond that another day and more’s ride to the Lord of Ironbark’s manor. He did his best to keep it from his mind, but wondered: just how long would three dozen Kargs sit on their hands when their jailed companions were only a stone’s throw away.

  • * * * * * * *

Gyles was chatting with Soren and Father Mattias over lunch when Alistair stalked into the room, taking long draws off of his homemade cigarette. He moved in a direct line towards the smuggler but Gyles hopped to his feet, excusing himself from the conversation. He met Alistair halfway to the table.

“Ah Alistair! Good to see you. We should speak in the hallway so we don’t interrupt the others.”, Gyles said with forced cheeriness.

Despite his mild scowl, Alistair let the young smuggler guide him out into one of the side hallways.

“What do you think you are doing, Alistair? Walking around like some wild animal, drunk or high or both.”

“Nevermind that, Gyles. I have been thinking about the book.”, he took a long inhalation from the cigarette, and exhaled the smoke, “And I want to look at it.”

“And you will… as soon as you are in your right mind and I can be sure you won’t use it for smoking or cover it with spilled wine.”

A servant passed them and Alistair leaned forward to hiss, “I’ve sailed on four of the world’s seas, drunk stolen brandy on a beach at the edge of the world. I’ve been in bars and seen things that would ruin other men and you think I can’t hold my wine well enough to read the bloody book? You and I both know I’m the best chance we have to make heads or tails of it. You can’t even read, Gyles.”

Gyles refused to rise to the bait, “I know that you’re one of the smartest men I’ve met. I know that we need you….the real you, the real Alistair. We need your mind…to be….to be sharp.”

“It is sharp, I’ve dreamt up a….a device like no one has ever seen before. I have drawings and notes.”

“You can’t read them, Alistair. They’re drunken scribbles, your idea is going to be lost because you can’t shake…whatever this is…off.”

Alistair clenched his jaws, knowing that every single word from Gyles’ mouth was the truth. He was out of control, his dream was drifting away – further from recollection – each day. He exhaled, shoulders slumping, “Fine, Gyles. Fine. I’ll…stop.”

“And when you do, we can look at the book together.”

“My word is not at question here. If I say I’ll stop, I’ll stop; let me have the book now.”

“Fair enough. It’s good to have the real Alistair back.”, Gyles whispered, “I’ve become fast friends with Soren. I spent all of yesterday with him.”

“And what can he tell us?”

The two men walked towards Gyles’ quarters as the young smuggler retold everything that Soren had imparted to him.

“So he has no idea what they are doing with the iron or their interest in it? He just saw a road to wealth?”

Gyles nodded as they stopped outside his rooms, “Precisely, which is why I asked the Heir to protect it and he told us everything.”

“Well, that means he can be bought back by the Kar-“, Gyles knocked the cigarette from Alistair’s hand as he moved to put it in his mouth.

The two men stared at each other for a long moment.

Alistair cleared his throat, “…that means he can be bought back by the Kargs.”

“Yes…”, Gyles turned to open his door, “…unless someone poisons him first.”

  • * * * * * * *

The guards at Baron Roderick’s gates informed Aedan that was expected; a hawk or falcon had arrived before him detailing his impending arrival. They took his horses without question, a second mount with a matching set of wargear could only mean one thing and the knight did not look like he was in a mood for retelling the tale.

With four days of dust and dirt still clinging to his surcoat, Aedan was taken directly to the Baron’s solar. The Lord of Ironbark all but beamed upon the knight’s arrival.

“Thank the Father you have made it safely, Ser Aedan. It is hard to imagine that we spoke only a fortnight ago.”

“Indeed, my lord, things have been strange. It began with the mines. A terrible creature, the locals called it a Manitcore, had ravaged Edmunton and devastated the countryside. It has slain horses, and many of the villagers and trapped the miners within the safety of their halls.”

The Baron sat numbly, “Ser Aedan, would you believe if I told that such a creature was almost our family crest…before choosing that of Ironbark instead? The Manticore is a thing of legend.”

Aedan nodded, “Yes, my lord, but it is no more. Thanks to the ingenuity of my companions, Alistair and Gyles, we managed to put the creature down but there have been other….complications.”

“There is more?”

“Yes, Baron Roderick, I am afraid there is. The miners while safe from the Manticore in the tunnels, were slain by some kind of…sorcery. When we discovered that, we went to the keep to inform your noble cousin, Lord Humphrey.”

Baron Roderick sat expressionless, unsure of whether the worst news had already been delivered or was yet to come.

“We found Lord Humphrey negotiating with a group of Kargs. They had offered to provide men and wagons to get the iron ore flowing again, in exchange for control and access to the mines. Lord Humphrey was inclined to bargain with them but we…my companions and I…argued against it. He agreed to seek your decision…and then he was struck down by the same sorcery as the miners.”

“Is he…is he alive?”, the Lord of Ironbark sat forward in his chair, gripping the handrests.

“No, my lord. We were all affected by some kind of poison or sorcery but he took the brunt of it and the Kargish Ambassador was slain when he tried to kill Alistair. The rest of his men have been put in the dungeon but now three score more Kargs have arrived; the men intended to help at the mine and some kind of…sorcerers…as he described them. They are now camped outside of the keep.”

“They…why…are you….”

Aedan held up a hand, “My lord, the Kargs have a merchant among them and they wish to press their case for this bargain. I was clear with your cousin and I shall say the same thing here: the mines are the lifeblood of Ironsbay and should not be under the control of anyone not sworn to our crown.”

“I…I…agree, Ser Aedan. I am guided by your words because I share their roots. We must go and… deal with this situation. We must secure our mines and open them for commerce.”

“One last thing, my lord.”

“Still more?”

“By your own words, Baron, these are strange days. Your cousin’s Captain, Branmore, was in league with the Kargs in some way. He ambushed me on my ride here and though it was not my intent to do so, I slew him in the exchange. Things seem…not as they appear at the keep; I would urge you to haste, Baron Roderick. I do not know what the Kargs will do or how patient they will be.”

Baron Roderick rose, face lacking color, and pulled the nearby cord, summoning his servants, “I will give instructions now, we will take tomorrow to prepare and gather what is necessary and leave on the following morning at dawn. Please, Ser Aedan, see to yourself and your comforts. I owe you much more than either of us could have known.”

  • * * * * * * *

For two days, Alistair and Gyles tried to make sense of the Kargish language and entries in the book; all without success. Each night, after hours of fruitless attempts to piece together patterns, Gyles would retire and Alistair would seek any part of the keep where people were still awake and socializing. He dared not be alone with his thoughts so he would force himself to stay awake until he knew that sleep was assured by exhaustion. It was on the second night that it happened.

His exhausted dreams were sprinkled with violence, Kargs climbing impossible walls, men on fighting on the decks of ships, the sharp clang of metal clashing. Far away voices screaming, “The Kargs! The Kargs have are coming. The Kargs have taken the keep!”

The slow dawning that they were not sounds from his mind, but from the hallway. The Alchemist sat bolt upright in bed, met with the distant clang of metal on metal, the smell of smoke and shouts just beyond his barred door.

He cursed his weak will as he pulled his clothes on and then his gambeson over top of it; how could he not have seen this coming. Kargs stewing outside the wall, all but watching Roger ready the fire for their burning. Alistair pulled the vial of Manticore venom from his satchel, upended it over one of his rags and ran it along the edge of his blade before sliding it into sheath. The venom had just dropped back into the satchel when the knock came from his door.

“Alistair, wake up, we need to go.”, it was Gyles’ voice.

Alistair flipped the bar off with one hand while jamming the rest of his tools into his bags. Gyles entered with the crossbow, locked and loaded, and his own backpack slung into place.

“I’m ready. What have you seen?”, Alistair said, throwing the satchel over his head and shoulder.

“We have to get to Roger, then the prisoners.”

The two men made their way through the halls. No fighting had made its way to their floor but people ran up and down the hallway, clutching clothing and keepsakes to their chests. Roger Winton, the Heir of Summerfield, was standing in the doorway to his quarters, flanked by guards.

“Gyles! What has happened? What should we do?”

“You should take your guards, go inside, bar the door”, Gyles handed the crossbow to the young man, “And shoot the most important Karg that steps through your door.”

Panic flashed on Roger’s face but he nodded, and ordered his guards inside. He uttered a ‘good luck and godspeed’ before his face disappeared behind the closed door.

“Well if they are here, perhaps we should be there. What we set their tent city alight?”, Alistair said as Gyles drew his knife from his belt.

“You do that.”, Gyles thumbed the knife’s blade, checking its sharpness, “I’m going to take care of the prisoners.”

“But…you…what…”

“I’m going to take care of the prisoners. Now go.”

They clasped hands briefly and then went their separate ways.

Gyles made his way down the tightly curling staircase, deeper and deeper into the bowels of the keep. The sounds of fighting grew louder as he descended and then faded as he made his way into the earth. At one point, a dead guardsman had fallen onto the staircase through an open doorway, freshly defeated from some unseen Karg. Gyles pressed himself against the stone, praying that his opponent did not come to ensure the job was finished. He did not, and the young smuggler continued.

Right down to the very doorway he had used only a few days earlier to access the jail cells….except this time it swung open on its hinges. The jailors’ corpses were scattered, left where they had fallen in bloody pools and the cells were empty. Gyles cursed and started back up the stairs.

  • * * * * * * *

Alistair slid his back along the wall as he descending the gently curving staircase into the main hall. Kargs and Ironbark guards fought here and there, bodies littered the floor. For a split second he thought he saw a lighting strike’s flash from outside. He stepped off the last step as a nearby Karg put his curved sword through the guard’s neck he was fighting. The guard’s collapse left Alistair directly in the Karg’s line of sight.

The Alchemist burst off into a run, racing out of the main doors of the keep. He ducked around the corner and skidded to a stop, ready for the Karg to come barreling out after him. True to form, the swordsmen came around the corner and found himself too close to bring his sword to bear. Alistair made a quick flick of his wrist, slicing the Kargish man across his cheek, and then pushed backwards to give himself distance.

The Karg growled, inhaled and took a single step before screaming in pain. His free hand went up to clutch as the seeming innocuous slash and in a moment more, he was on the ground writing in pain. Alistair kicked the man’s helmet free, slid it into place on his own head and did his best to walk like a Karg across the courtyard and out of the main gates. He breathed a sigh of relief as he reached the tents without drawing any more attention. A quick search told him that the Kargs had thought ahead, there was nothing that they would miss. He emerged from a tent, cursing and then suddenly drew his knife as a figure appeared.

Gyles put his hands up, “They already freed the prisoners.”

Before Alistair could respond the pre-dawn air boomed with the sound of the main gates closing, and rattle of chains being locked into place.

  • * * * * * * *

The hawk’s shriek forced Aedan to look up from his saddle. Aedan could not, truthfully, tell the difference between Gyles’ bird and any other hawk but he supposed only Omen would land if given the chance. Aedan slowed his horse and slid from the saddle, walking some distance away from the horses.

He wrapped a saddle blanket around his mailed forearm, then made the particular clicking sound that Gyles’ had taught him. The silhouette in the sky banked, then descended in a frightful dive that ended with a bird standing on his forearm. He united the small piece of parchment wrapped around the bird’s leg and then flung his arm skyward, launching Omen back into the air.

The bird circled once or twice, shrieked and flew off. Baron Roderick appeared at Aedan’s shoulder, “The same bird. What news?”

“That we are too late.”, Aedan looked up from the childlike drawing of a burning tower and curved swords, “The Kargs have attacked.”

View
Session 7

That evening the Heir of Summerfield spoke to the gathered people of the keep about their departed lord. Gathered around a great bonfire in the central courtyard, he took them on a journey of Gyles’ design. He told them of Humphrey’s fairness, his loyalty to both liege and land and eventually detailed how each of those qualities had been passed on to him, as the ward of such a man. When he finished, many heads nodded in solemn agreement and those bold enough thanked Roger for taking on lordly duties despite their burden.

The following morning, the funeral procession made its way into the bowels of the keep, where Humphrey was ensconced alongside its other lords. Father Mattias blessed the proceedings and read a short passage from the Book of Eveniss before releasing the attendees back out into the morning light. There, in the courtyard, Alistair found Gyles; a faded green smoke wafted from what appeared to be a cigarette cut from parchment.

“Gyles”, Alistair inhaled deeply and breathed out a cloud of emerald smoke, “you must speak to… Robert… Roger. I cannot conduct the investigation.”

“And why is that?”, Gyles cocked his head slightly to one side, reminiscent of Omen.

“Well, you see”, another cloud of green haze, “I’m not quite used to being murdered over breakfast. I’m not….uh…uh…objective on the subject.”

“Well, I don’t know how to conduct an investigation.”

The end of the cigarette blazed brightly, “Neither do I Gyles… I’m an engineer. I’m sure one of the guards had done that kind of thing before…. or or…take Mattias. No one will argue with the priest.”

Gyles nodded slightly, “Not a bad idea, Alistair.”

Alistair’s smirk was obscured by escaping smoke, “Besides… I’m sure the Heir would rather hear from you instead of me.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the great clanking of the portcullis and the lowering of the bridge. They watched in silence as Captain Branmore, followed by a handful of guards, rode out without fanfare.

Alistair shrugged and ground the nub of his cigarette out beneath his boot.

“I should talk to Roger.”

  • * * * * *

Aedan watched Branmore’s departure from the window of his rooms, where he had just finished packing his things for the ride to Iron’s Bay. By the time he reached the stables, their dust clouds had gone as had their shapes on the horizon. He too left without fanfare, and kept sharp watch on the road for their tracks. He gave them only a little thought, knowing that Gyles had already sent Omen with the truth of what had transpired. He was unconcerned about whatever Branmore was about.

He rode east along the rode that Mattias had taken to reach the keep; in the distance he saw the ruined shapes of Edmunton. He stopped at midday, more to give his mount a break than himself, and it was not long thereafter that he passed the wagon, ruined by the creature some weeks ago. Those cares seemed ages ago.

A woman’s shriek broke his reverie. He pulled his war horse to a stop and waited until a second scream urged him into action. It had come from behind the tree line, so the knight hopped from his mount and pulled his sword from its scabbard. With one hand on his weapon, he lead his mount with the other, and they picked their way between the trees.

He emerged into a small clearing where a woman had been tied to a tree. Clothed, and seemingly unharmed, her eyes widened when she saw him arrive. But Aedan was focused on the figure standing nearby. Dunsten Branmore stood with a morningstar held loosely in one hand and a shield in the other, he wore his mail and the surcoat of the Iron Barks.

“Arondel! True to form, as always. I wondered if such a plea for help would draw you from the road and here you are.”

“True to form yourself, Branmore. Here you are disgracing both yourself and your liege lord again.”

“My time after your exile has not been kind, but with Humphrey I had position and a life. We were going to do business with the Karg; we had a good thing here…. And you’ve ruined it. I don’t think the Kargs poisoned anyone. I think you and your.. your.. companions did something to Humphrey and I intend to make you answer for it.”

“You abase yourself by taking captives, then accuse me of treason and betraying my honor? What do you think I will say?”

“You will say yes, hand over your weapons and submit to me… and this woman lives. Otherwise”, Branmore gave the morningstar a twirl and led its head thump into the nearby tree, “I will kill her, then take you into custody for her murder.”

Aedan launched himself forward as did Branmore, their shields crunching together. Aedan hopped back as the chain from the morningstar tried to wrap itself over the top of his shield. Aedan sword slashed and prodded, looking for an opening but his former friend’s shield was there at every turn. The morningstar smashed against Aedan’s shield over and over; the knight knew that even a small mistake would mean the weapon would make its way around the shield. What seemed like long hours was the space of moments as the two mailed men traded blows and circled one another. The morningstar finally succeeded in its design, snaking around the shield and landing heavily on Aedan’s shoulder. But its weight had forced Branmore to commit in his step and in that moment Aedan drove the tip of his blade up. It pierced Branmore’s coif, then disappeared into the underside of his jaw.

His arms went slack and he gurgled violently, gently pulling in a dying attempt to extradite himself from the blade. Aedan pushed forward, sending his opponent sliding off the blade and onto his back.

“Who are you? Where are you from? Where did he find you?”, Aedan wiped his blade clean on the dead man’s surcoat and used his knife to cut the woman free.

“My name is Gwen, m’lord. I had… I have a flock… I was outside the village when he took me.”

“And he was by himself? No others?”

“No, m’lord. Just him.”

“Come with me.”, Aedan swung up into the saddle and pulled her up behind. He followed her instructions, returning her to her now scattered flock. Afterwards, he rode into the center of Edmonton and paid a few man to bury Branmore.

“You will find him in a small clearing… not far from a ruined wagon on the road. Bury him, but there is no need mark his grave. He is a traitor.”

  • * * * * *

Alistair put a hand on his desk to steady himself, intending on collapsing into the chair. Instead the hand brushed sideways, knocking one of his satchels onto the floor and sending its contents, small glass and ceramic vials, rolling every which way.

Alistair cursed, drank what was left in his cup and tossed it into the chair before making his way down onto his hands and knees. One by one, he recovered the small containers, muttering first about the tight quarters and then about being trapped. It was when his hand landed on the container of saltpeter, not but a few fingers from the powdered sulfur that he chuckled. With a little fire, that could have gone poorly.

He froze. A dozen other ingredients flitted through his mind, things that could be used to amplify such a reaction or shape it, or make it burn even hotter. He scrambled to his feet, leaving the remaining jars where they were and threw himself into the chair. He cursed again, and dug the cup out from underneath him, flinging it to the side. With clumsy fingers, he pulled out one of his journals, flipped to an empty page and started to sketch and scribble.

  • * * * * *

“My lord?”, Gyles said softly into the library.

Roger Winston looked up from whatever he was writing and smiled, “Good morning. Yes, Master Gyles?”

“Ser Aedan left for Iron’s Bay this morning. I saw Captain Branmore leave as well.”

“He did?”, Roger sat back in his chair, “He’s not happy with the turn of events here.”

“Understandable, but you did the right thing, my lord. The people here are the better for it.”

“Thank you, Gyles.”

The young smuggler inclined in his head, “I always wanted to say that Master Alistair cannot conduct the investigation.”

The young lord’s eyebrows furrowed, “Why not?”

“He is… unwell, my lord. The poison, his near encounter with the Ambassador’s knife, he is in a dark place; drinking heavily.”

“I see. Well, he was your suggestion, and a good one at that, do you have another?”

“I believe I could see to it, my lord, if I were to borrow a few people. Do you have any guards that are versed in investigation?”

“I doubt it but I will ask the Sergeant.”

“I would also like to ask Father Mattias to help.”

“Another fine idea.”, Roger stood to shake Gyles’ hand, “I will send the Sergeant to you and good luck in your hunt.”

On his way through the great hall, the young smuggler ran into the priest. He relayed the turn of events and asked for Father Mattias’ help.

“Most certainly, Master Gyles. What would you have me do?”

“Search. Look in the Kargish quarters, and the halls and the kitchens. To be fair, I suppose we should search a few of the guests’ rooms as well.”

Father Mattias nodded, “May I ask… what precisely is Master Alistair’s trade?”

“He is an engineer, a maker of devices, schooled at Laewes. He once restored a family heirloom of mine, tiny intricate pieces, with simple things that he had found. He is skilled at his craft but his manner is sometimes…”, Gyles smiled wanly, “..difficult.”

“Yes, he seems a learned man but should seek to control his anger. May God bless him and relieve him of the darkness on his heart.”

Gyles smiled and nodded, “Let us meet here before supper and share our findings.”

  • * * * * *

When Gyles went down into the dungeon, he took with him the largest, most unintelligent guard that he had been able to find. In case something unplanned happened, he did not want the extra burden of having to fool a smart man. The dungeons were a simple affair, three cells and an antechamber with a door and a desk, manned by a jailor. At Gyles’ instruction, they re-arranged the furniture and planned to bring out one prisoner at a time so that he could speak with them.

The Ambassador’s bodyguards came first, but their visits were short lived. Neither of them spoke the Common tongue, instead only snarling in whatever language it was that the Karg’s shared. It was not long before Rogosh was led to the chair across from the young smuggler.

“You are Rogosh?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“And you know why I am here?”

“I think so, my lord. You have been sent about the deaths of my master and yours.”

“That is right. We have these mysterious deaths both here and at the mines. We know these twins, the Norns as you call them, have powers as does your cellmate back there. Help me understand why their powers could not have caused these deaths. Dispel my fears that it was their sorcery.”

“My lord, the Norns would not act on their own and my master did not order them to kill anyone, let alone with poison. This is a lie and I do not know why it has happened except to stop the bargain at the mines.”

“And what about your cellmate.”

“The Moirai? He will not speak to you, he does not speak.”

“At all?”

“Think of him as a child, my lord. He speaks as such, just to say that he is hungry or thirsty, no more. His mind is… not like ours. He cannot hurt you. I will take care of him, he will not trouble you.”

“Because he speaks his words through magic?”

The Kargish man’s lips became a taut line.

Gyles changed his approach, “What can I tell the Heir to prove your innocence?”

“You must find the real killer, my lord.”

“What if the real killer were Kargs from another clan?”

Rogosh’s features crumpled in confusion, “There were only Kord here. No others. The guards, the Moirai, we have all served my Lord Yoreck for years.”

“What if the Norns from another clan did something from afar?”, Gyles raised his eyebrows.

A look of panic flashed across Rogosh’s face, “Yardros would have known.”

“Even if they were more powerful than Yardros?”

“You would have to ask them, my lord.”

“You think your Norns would receive me?”

“Most certainly.”, Rogosh licked his lips nervously, “I am sure they are eager to resolve the situation.”

They returned the man to his cell and the furniture to its place. Gyles was making his way through the courtyard when Father Mattias nearly ran headlong into him. He was clutching a ceramic pot, decorated with Kargish swirls and a book to his chest.

“Master Gyles! I found these in the Ambassador’s rooms! This is… this is the poison, I believe. I have done some simple tests and I think this is what was used to slay Lord Humphrey. And this book, I found it behind one of their dressers. It is written in their tongue but since it was hidden, it gave me pause.”

The two men went directly to the Heir of Summerfield. This time, they found him reading in a small receiving room near his quarters. When they shared their discovery of the poison, he exploded in a rage.

“Get rid of that foul work! I cannot believe they would do this. Poison? Murder a man that did not give them what they wanted. We will make sure Roderick hears of this when he comes.”

When they had finished, Gyles took the book and the priest went to dispose of the poison.

  • * * * *

Alistair answered the knock on his door, “What Gyles?!”

Gyles entered to find his companion in much the same place he had seen him before. A half-empty satchel lay on the floor, its contents still laying where they spilled. His desk was covered with sheets of parchment torn from his book, all in various states of destruction. Many were crumpled balls, others with lines drawn through the original writings. Even now, Alistair scribbled maniacally on a sheet before him. But, to Gyles’ astonishment, not a single letter or sign was legible on any of the sheets; all of them reflective of his friend’s drunken state.

Gyles’ stepped forward, his boot sending one of the container rolling across the floor, “Alistair, what is all this? None of the writing is legible. You can’t read any of it.”

Alistair looked up, his bloodshot eyes a mix of confusion and annoyance, “They’re numbers, Gyles. You don’t… don’t read numbers.”

“And that’s.. that’s…”, he stabbed a misshapen circle with his finger, “a..sffffeeearr.”

“A sphere isn’t a letter.”

“I know that! It’s a shape! Don’t be a fool, Gyles! You can’t read shapes!”

“Alistair, no one could read any of this. You’re too drunk to write clearly.”

“Pfshah.”, Alistair waved an ink-stained hand and whispered loudly, “_I’m close, Gyles. I’m close.”_

“To what? Close to what? You need to get yourself together, Alistair.”

“No, I need to get out of this keep.”, Alistair hissed and slapped his half-full wine goblet from the desk, “I need to get out of here!”

“Roderick will bring his men, kill all the Kargs and we’ll be on our way. But in the meantime, look at this.”

Gyles produced the book and held it arm’s length from the Alchemist, flipping through it’s pages one by one.

Alistair licked his lips, his eyes trying to adjust to the foreign language scrawled on the pages, “Wait, wait! That’s a drawing! Isssa… it’s a wizard’s pipe. One of the them has one in his belt.”

Gyles looked down at the page and its depiction of some kind of wand, then slammed the book shut, “You can look at it as soon as I can be sure you won’t vomit on it or stain its pages with wine.”

The drunken man growled as Gyles made his way to the door.

“Alistair, listen to me – the wheel turns, we need your help. Clean yourself up.”

View
Session 5 & 6

The knock on his door was not so late that it would arouse suspicion but late enough that it conveyed a certain sense of privacy. Aedan opened the door to his quarters to reveal a Kargish man he had not yet seen within the castle walls. He had Kargish features but a build more like a human man than the Ambassador’s bodyguards.

“Good evening, Ser Aedan. I apologize for disturbing you so late. My name is Rogosh; Ambassador Yoreck has sent me to extend an invitation to his apartments.”

“Now?”

The Karg smiled, “Yes, my lord.”

“Give me a moment.”, Aedan closed his door, slid his mail shirt over his head, followed by his surcoat. He cinched the well-worn, wide leather sword belt into place and re-opened his door.

The Kargish man nodded and smiled, “This way, Ser Aedan.”

The keep was not large so with only a few turns, they arrived at doorway flanked by the Ambassador’s bodyguards. A long, curved sword hung from one’s hip and the other had a pair of sickles that swung from his belt. Rogosh stepped neatly between them, opening the door and gesturing Ser Aedan into the room.

Inside, the Ambassador sat in one of several chairs that faced a low table.

“Ah! Ser Aedan, I am so please that you accepted my invitation. Please, come in and sit.”

Ser Aedan moved a few paces inside the apartments and Rogosh followed him, closing the door behind them. As the knight moved to sit, the Ambassador did likewise and Rogosh opened the door which led to the bedroom. For a brief moment, Aedan glimpsed yet another Karg. This one sat motionless on a cot, his features and eyes both blank. Then the door closed.

“It is late and you are a serious man, Ser Aedan, so I will come to the point directly. As you can tell, we are very interested in securing a partnership with the Iron Bark family. We believe that both of our peoples could gain from such an arrangement. But I am afraid that the….discussion…at dinner tonight has introduced some doubts into Lord Humphrey’s mind.”

Aedan shifted in his seat.

“So now the matter will be decided by Lord Roderick, a man we barely know beyond his name. By contrast, you know him very well and your presence here indicates he not only trusts you but that it is well placed based on your skills. Lord Roderick likely takes your advice very seriously. In light of that, I would ask that when you bring this offer to Lord Roderick, you argue our case for this partnership. Such an alliance would bring the ore back into Iron’s Bay and provide my people with new industry.”

“Ambassador, you are asking me to argue your case to Lord Roderick after I clearly sided with Lord Humphrey’s concerns at dinner? I thought diplomats would be better judges of men then that.”

The Ambassador smiled and chuckled, “That is true, but I have been thinking about your question at dinner as well. I believe that if my people were allowed to work the mine, and thereby stay nearby, I would be able locate Ydrek directly for you. I would be able to leave out the Malagor ambassador from such a meeting.”

Aedan did his best to stifle his body but he knew that he had shifted again at the mention of the red-cloaked Karg’s name, “I appreciate your offer but my duty as both a knight and to Lord Roderick prevents me from accepting.”

“I understand, but perhaps I have another choice that would aid us both. As I have said, a group of my people are making their way here now, led by my Norn. With them is a man, a business partner, one of your people, named Soren. If you would take Soren with you when you go to see Lord Roderick, and allow him to argue our case, then I could take that time to locate Ydrek for you.”

“An interesting offer but before I can answer, Ambassador, you must know why I seek him. He –“
Yoreck held a hand up, “Your business is your business, Ser Aedan.”

“It is not business, he –“

“I do not care for what reasons you seek him. I care that my people are given work and that the Iron Bark family seeks our friendship. All I ask is that you escort my man to see Lord Roderick. Surely, that breaks none of your oaths?”

Ser Aedan nodded lightly, “I will consider it.”

The Ambassador stood, “I had hoped as much, but please decide quickly, I expect them tomorrow.”
Rogosh emerged from the side door, made his way past them, and opened the door to the hallway for Aedan.

The knight nodded at the Ambassador and returned to his rooms.

  • * * * * * * * *

Rather than risk oversleeping, Alistair had drawn open his shades and avoided his bed. He had fallen asleep at his desk but it was uncomfortable and so it ensured he woke periodically. In the early morning, as the pinkish hues of dawn crept through his window, he made his way out of his room and down into the kitchens.

From his previous visit, he knew which portions were intended for each guest and so, with that knowledge, he tapped the poisonous powder into place. Unaccustomed to such sneaking, with each breath he waited for someone to discover him; to ask him what he was doing, or simply notice him hovering around the breakfast. No such things occurred. And when he was done, he returned to his room, wiped the venom from his knife’s edge, washed his tired, sweaty face and changed for breakfast.

  • * * * * * * * *

The various guests of Lord Humphrey filtered into the room for breakfast; Father Mattias and a handful of the villagers, the Heir of Summerfield, no older then 16, a handful of travelers previously stuck at the keep by the beast, and the Kargs.

Alistair took a seat to the right of the Ambassador. He glanced over the man’s belt, no knife.

“Ambassador, I believe we got off on the wrong foot last night. I hope there are no hard feelings.”

Yoreck turned to face his new neighbor, “Many things were said last night, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt. However, if you are to do well in business, you must learn to control your passion and your tongue.”

Alistair half-smiled, shrugged, poured himself a full glass of wine and swallowed deeply from it. Breakfast was served, people bantered and laughed. The Ambassador, thinking Alistair’s apology genuine, forced him into small talk. Alistair drank, and tried to share as little as possible with the man he had called a liar the night before. Then it began.

It started with coughing, coughing that would not cease. Slowly but surely, conversations dwindled as everyone looked to the end of the table where Lord Humphrey could not seem to catch his breath. His outstretched hand knocked over his goblet, while the other pulled at the collar of his shirt. When he looked up, rivulets of blood ran from the corners of his eyes. The whites themselves were already deep maroon. Alistair looked to the traveler on his right. She stared back at him with blood speckled eyes of her own.

“Lord Humphrey! Kargish treachery! It’s the same thing as the men in the mines!”, Alistair screamed.

Less than a foot from the Ambassador, Alistair watched incomprehension take hold of the man. Yoreck sat frozen, unable to understand what was happening. Alistair’s left hand slammed down on Yoreck’s right; the hand with which he held his table knife. Then with his free hand, Alistair pulled the knife from his belt and buried it Yoreck’s ribs, the motion hidden below both the table and his left arm.

The Karg’s eyes went wide. His bodyguards launched into motion from their places by the door, sickles and sword in hand. Aedan launched from his seat across the table, first to the bloody-faced lord and then to interpose himself between the Ambassador and his bodyguards.

“Sorcery! Poison! Flee!”, Gyles stood, gesticulating to the doorways and trying to impede the Kargs’ progress with fleeing guests.

Alistair’s knife bit deeply a second time as he heard metal on metal collide behind his chair. Aedan traded sword blows with the first bodyguard to reach him. Metal rang on metal in hurried blows as the Karg desperately tried to maneuver around the knight. He stepped sideways, bringing his sword ever so slightly out of line and Aedan moved. His own sword flicked sideways, leaving the Karg defenseless for Aedan’s headbutt which followed. The Karg’s nose flattened and his eyes rolled back into his head; he flopped headlong onto the stone floor.

A third time with the knife and Alistair felt Yoreck’s arm go limp under his left hand. Gripping the Ambassador’s hand with his own, Alistair slashed the table knife across his own face as if grappling with the Karg. Gyles watched the “attack” and the aftermath; Alistair tumbled backwards from his chair, clutching a napkin to his face. The other Kargish fighter, gripping a sickle in each hand descended on Alistair but was intercepted by the ends of two halberds. Men from the keep’s garrison kept the Karg at bay, ordering him to drop his weapons.

All around the room, the guests of Lord Humphrey streamed pink tears, the whites of their eyes speckled with blood. Everyone save the Kargs.

“Everyone, stay calm. Whatever it is that the Kargs have done, it has been done to all of us. Do not panic, there are learned men among us who will see to it.”, Gyles motioned downwards with his hands.

Silence and labored breathing overtook the sounds of chaos.

“Take these two to the dungeons.”, Ser Aedan had sheathed his sword, “Alistair are you hurt? I saw you and the Ambassador struggling.”

Alistair’s voice was muffled beneath the napkin, “I am fine. What of Humphrey?”

The two men joined the circle of onlookers and Father Mattias who prayed for Lord Humphrey’s everlasting peace.

“That’s the best you can do?! That’s all you have for him?”, Alistair shouted, “Save him!”

Father Mattias shook his head, “He is passed, Master Alistair.”

“Everyone, please stay nearby so that Father Mattias may tend to you.”, Gyles said above the murmurs, “Father Mattias, can you help?”

While the priest wiped away tears and inspected eyes, Alistair said softly to Aedan, “We must go to their quarters; we do not know what other treachery they have planned.”

Aedan motioned to a handful of guards to come with them as they proceeded to the Kargish apartments. There, they took Rogosh and the slackjawed Karg into custody without issue.

“What…what has happened, Ser Aedan?”, Rogosh asked. He had been seated on a sofa next to the other Karg. The four guards kept their halberds pointed at them.

“What…who is this?”, Alistair hissed, pointing to the blank-faced Karg.

“That is…that is Ambassador Yoreck’s Moiray.”

“And what does that mean? What does he do?”, Alistair pulled the napkin from his face, revealing a long thin cut across his cheek.

Rogosh looked at the Moiray and then back to the men, without a word.

“Take them away.”, Aedan said, “While we are, let us see what clues we might find.”

The two men picked their way through the Kargish quarters, revealing nothing of interest beyond a small satchel of monies and a collection of letters. In a nearby trunk, Alistair found the makings of a broth including spices, and a handful of herbs. Aedan took the letters and coins from the trunk, “I am giving these to the Castellan for safekeeping. Meet me in the dining hall.”

Alistair nodded and when his friend had gone, he took the sprigs of rosemary from one of the small jars and poured the remainder of the poison into it. He stuffed the rosemary into another container, alongside of lavender. Then he replaced the jars where he had found them. He would have to “discover” them at a later date.

He hurried back to the dining hall in time to see some kind of commotion. Through the windows, he could see a caravan of four wagons arriving in the courtyard, flanked by men in the keep’s livery as well as Kargs. He had enough time to relay the information to Aedan before a man dressed in mail with a captain’s brooch burst into the room.

He scanned the room, his eyes settling on the two figures beneath sheets and then finally on Aedan.

“You. What are you doing here? Where is Lord Humphrey?”

Aedan recognized him in an instant despite the many years lost between them. His name was Dunsten Branmore, a childhood friend and fellow squire until he was caught with Aedan’s sister. His Father had exiled the young man and his family from their lands.

“Lord Humphrey has been murdered by Kargish treachery.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“He was poisoned; we were all poisoned.”

“It’s the same sorcery that was used to kill the men at the mines.”, Gyles added over the knight’s shoulder.

The young smuggler took a few steps to stand beside the Heir of Summerfield, Roger Winton. They were separated in age by only a few years and had spoken at length over breakfast. Winton was used to being courted by those around him and Gyles was happy to do the courting and call such a man his friend.

“Roger, you are the most blooded noble here. You must act now or these military men will seize control of your keep. They’ll run roughshod over you and undermine your authority.”

Roger nodded but said nothing.

Captain Branmore looked once more around the room, trying to absorb the scene and the accusations. Through the doorway behind him, came a pair of Kargs. Tall and lanky, dressed in green robes and strange, tall hats – all adorned with the swirling patterns associated with their people – with matching faces. Identical twins. In one man, the right eye was solid black, the left white with a blue iris while his twin had the same eyes but reversed. They too turned and surveyed the scene.

“The Ambassador poisoned no one.”, one of them said, his gaze settling on Aedan, “Why would he do such a thing when he had already bargained with you Ser Aedan?”

“Courtly intrigue runs in all peoples, I assume yours is no different. I cannot tell you how a man would think or make up his mind. We struck no bargain.”, the knight said.

“Even so, why would the Ambassador act now when he knew we would arrive shortly? With more men, more leverage if that is what he desired.”

“Oh, so you had a plan?”, Alistair grabbed a goblet that had been knocked over and filled it with wine.

“Are you threatening us?!”, Gyles took a half-step ahead of Roger, “Have you come here to threaten us with your…your sorcery and your sword arms? After your people have murdered Lord Humphrey and tried to kill the others?”

“Where is the Ambassador?”, said the other twin, staring at one of the sheeted figures.

“He was killed in combat by my companion, Master Alistair.”

Alistair took a long draw from his cup and looked up.

“But it was Ser Aedan who stopped any more blood from being shed; the rest of your people have been sent to the dungeon.”

“Enough, enough!”, Captain Branmore stepped forward, “Enough about secret bargains and sorcery. We must have order and I will have it. I will take charge until Lord Roderick can see to these affairs.”

“See”, Gyles whispered without looking at Roger, “…it is already happening. Speak now.”

“Ser Dunsten”, Roger’s hands trembled slightly as he hid them behind his back, “I am the most..uh.. blooded noble here and…and…as such, I believe I should shoulder Lord Humphrey’s mmm….mantle.”

“Oh, he’s not a Ser,” Alistair took another swig from his cup, “He’s just a Captain.”

Color rose in the Captain’s face as he attempted to keep his composure, “My lord, you are young and not ready for such a heavy burden; these affairs are dark and complicated, not something you would wish to be part of.”

“I should think that Lord Summerfield would be precisely the person suited for such things; he loves his foster family but he has also been tutored for rulership. This is, truthfully, what he has been born to do.”, Gyles gestured towards his new friend.

“Yes, forgive me Captain, but in our lands, military men see to military matters. We let men raised to lead, deal with such things.”

“Yes, I believe my foster-father would very much like to see me rise to the occasion, and see that he not only has peace but justice.”

“I…yes, of course my Lord. What are your orders?”

Roger exhaled, “The Kargs have travelled a long distance but it is not safe for them to reside in the keep. They will make a camp beyond our walls. Their men in our dungeon will remain there while we make sense of what has happened.”

“Perhaps we should assign a learned man to perform an investigation, my Lord? Someone like Master Alistair?”, Gyles said quietly.

“Agreed. Master Alistair will conduct an investigation into the events of this morning while we await Ser Roderick’s word.”

Alistair lifted the half full cup towards the young Lord.

One of the twins spoke, “We will abide by your words, Lord Summerfield. An agreement, temporary but binding, was reached last night at this very table. We should expect it to be honored but understand that both your people and ours need time to grieve for what has happened here this morning. We have a man with us, Soren, of whom the Ambassador spoke. Would you like him to stay within the keep’s walls or in our camp? He is one of your people.”

Roger looked to Gyles, who nodded, “He may stay within the keep as a show of good faith.”

The other twin stepped up besides Aedan and said ever so quietly, “You know the Ambassador did not poison anyone. Just think of who you know that uses poison….and know that Yoreck’s bargain still stands. Ensure that Soren can make his case to Lord Roderick, and we will find Ydreck.”

The twins nodded at the room and exited. Roger gave instructions to the Captain, and urged the remaining guests to rest. Slowly but surely, people drifted away and when they had gone the three companions retreated to Lord Humphrey’s library.

“Well, what are we supposed to do now?”, Alistair dropped into an armchair, wine spilling over the edge of the cup.

Aedan inhaled deeply and looked at his friend, “Alistair, one of those Karg twins said that you poisoned Lord Humphrey.”

Alistair took a drink, “And…..I am supposed to respond to that?”

“Only if you want to. We have been friends a long time.”

Alistair’s comfortable demeanor changed, he shifted in his seat, “It’s not… how do you deny such a charge and not sound guilty? I… there’s no…. I did not poison the entire breakfast table, Aedan.”

Gyles interjected, “What of this midnight bargain that they brought to you, Aedan?”

“The Ambassador wanted me to make his case to Lord Roderick in exchange for finding the man with the red cloak. Once I said no, he asked me to take his man to see Roderick, so that he could make the argument. I told him I would think on it.”
“See? So there you have it. We spoiled their plans at dinner, then you rebuked them again. Then they…then they murdered Lord Humphrey.”

“But the twins have told me that the bargain still stands. If I place Soren in front of Lord Roderick so he may plead their case, they will find Ydreck. The offer very much moves me.”

“Deliver their serpent to make his case in front of Lord Roderick? That seems very risky.”

“I can handle Soren. During the time on the road, I will sway his mind.”

“And if you can’t?”, Alistair cocked his head sideways, “If you can’t corrupt a mind that’s already corrupted?”

“Then I will understand his argument and have counterpoints ready at every turn.”, Gyles snapped his fingers.

“If we leave, however, they may take the keep by force.”, Aedan said thoughtfully.

“Why not bring Lord Roderick here?”, Alistair shrugged, “Soren gets his audience, and Roderick will bring a large force when he hears of the creature and murder, won’t he Aedan?”

“He would.”

“There seems to be some truth that the different Karg tribes do not like each other. We might be able to use that; get one to war against the other.”, Gyles sat down nearby.

Alistair’s features wrinkled incredulously, “Are you talking about wars on the world stage?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s just focus on getting a few Kargs lynched in the back alleys of Irons Bay while they scramble for their ships. Let’s just start there. Besides, the only way you trick them into fighting each other is to be among them and be trusted.”

“Soren is trusted; perhaps I can learn something from him.”

Alistair rolled his eyes, “Let’s just send for Lord Roderick and get this over with. He’ll come, see the truth, deny them the mine and hopefully purge them from his lands. It won’t hurt to have an entire city on our side, looking for Ydreck.”

“That would be good. I will ride to him and ask him to come.”

“And I will stay with Gyles.”, Alistair smirked.

“You have an investigation to run.”, Gyles said, “…at the new Lord’s behest.”

  • * * * * * * * *
    In hours after mid-day meal and the evening memorial planned for Lord Humphrey, Gyles found himself alone in his chamber. He had already visited several times with Lord Summerfield, making sure things stayed firmly in the young man’s control and now he sat at his own desk.

The borrowed book of sonnets from Alistair sat on one edge, while the secret letters penned by Lord Humphrey occupied the space beneath his hands. He drummed his fingers on them, weighing first one argument and then it’s counter. Eventually, he took the knife from his belt and cut open the one addressed to Marius Bellson.

Gyles worked hard to put the basic message together; explanations of the creature and the delays in delivering the ore. Then a hastily added update about the arrival of Ser Aedan and the creature’s death. It had taken the young smuggler some time to get through the letter but he smiled with satisfaction at his own success.

The next letter, to Lord Humphrey, robbed him of his smile. Its language was flowery and indirect, filled with long words and inference. He sighed. He had been prepared for this, for the letters to be too complex but he had an answer to that.

A knock on Alistair’s door produced a shouted ‘Enter!’ and he found The Alchemist sketching at his desk. A bottle of wine with a dwindling cup stood near his off hand. As Gyles approached, he could see numbers and measurements, strange codes and mathematics sprawled across the page. Alistair drained the cup and looked up, “Yes….Gyles?”

“You can help me now. I have some letters that are beyond my skill. Can you read them?”

There was delay as Alstair’s drunken brain proceeded the request, then he waved his hand onward, “Yes, yes. Let’s have them.”

He took the letter to Roderick first, half-mumbling as he read along, his finger trailing on the page. Several times, Gyles saw him have to re-read sentences, “Uhh…this letter says…that… the creature is here and that… he bloody loves the Kargs. Next!”

Alistair went to fling the letter into his fire but Gyles moved so that his outstretched hand slapped into his belly, “Here.”

The young smuggler exchanged the new letter for the one in his hand.

“Ohhhh fan-shy.”, Alistair slurred as he drew the letter to the Exarch close, “This is to the Exarch? The Duke’s court.”

Again, he read the letter half aloud, half mumbled. When he finished he looked up, “Humphrey is trying to separate his title as Guardian of the Mines from Roderick’s lands; Roderick’s an absentee landlord!”

Alistair started laughing and once again went to fling the letter in the fire but was blocked by Gyles’ body. He took the letter from Alistair’s fingers, “We’ll not be delivering either of these. Seems like you have some wine left in the bottle, perhaps I should drink it for you.”

“Drink it for me? Why…why would you do that?”

“So that you don’t drink it; you might be drunk at Lord Humphrey’s rites tonight.”

“Oh, I’m fairly certain I’ll need to be drunk at his rites tonight.”

“Well, you’re only playing into their hands. If you’re drunk, the twins sorcery might work more easily on you.”

“Pfshah, magic doesn’t exist.”

“They know everything we talked about with the ambassador; they have something, they have magic.”

“They have birth defects, they don’t have magic.”

“Well, whatever it is. I don’t want them to be able to fool you, so consider some water.”

Gyles filled the wine goblet from a nearby pitcher and left the Alchemist to his scribbling.

View
The Toast

Glasses and goblets were raised to Gyles’ words. Alistair stared on in mirth that the implication had passed by most of the guests save for Lord Humphrey and the Ambassador himself. The Karg stared flatly back over the top of his raised glass at the young smuggler before raising it to his lips in recognition.

As Gyles sat, the Ambassador stood, “Indeed, and in that vein, I would like to offer a toast to Ser Aedan who I understand slew the creature. A powerful deed and we thank you.”

Glasses were raised and drinks taken. Aedan inclined his head, “It was not my sword alone, but the craftiness of my companions as well.”

When the Ambassador sat again, Aedan turned to face him, “Do you know many of the Ship’s Captains of your people?”

“I know a fair number, yes.”

“We are seeking a captain who flies a red banner with crossed swords beneath a wolf’s skull.”

“Ah yes, the red banner belongs to the Malagor.”, the Ambassador sneered out the word, “And the sigil itself belongs to Ydrek, one of their warlords. I could…make an introduction to their Ambassador, but I warn you, Ser Aedan, they are savages.”

“Perhaps, let me think upon it.”

Food followed and polite conversation on its heels. The heir of Summerfield held a form of court, sharing news and humorous tales while Father Mattias spoke of the steps it would take to restore Edmunton to its prior state. It was this conversation which led the Ambassador to speak while the servants were clearing the dishes.

“Lord Humphrey, perhaps this is a good time to conclude our discussions on the mine.”
Lord Aedan quickly looked to nobleman, “The mines, My Lord?”

Lord Humphrey nodded as he sipped from his desert wine, “Yes, Ser Aedan. Ambassador Yoreck, hearing of our troubles at the mine, has agreed to provide men from his….tribe to work it and wagons with which it transport the ore. He wants to see the flow of ore return to Iron’s Bay.”

“But those mines belong to the Duke, and by right, the King; they should not be seen to by peoples not sworn to the Crown.”, Ser Aedan set his goblet down.

“It will take time to find men to work the mines and build new wagons. Time that Iron’s Bay does not have, Ser Aedan. Ambassador Yoreck has those things at hand and has already called for them.”

“Indeed, Ser Aedan. Already the Malagor, another clan of my people, court the Duke directly but they are animals; incapable of the discussions that Lord Humphrey and I have already shared.”

“Humphrey.”, Alistair swallowed the contents of his goblet and refilled his cup, “It seems wise that we should determine what happened at the mine before attempting to work it again.”

The Ambassador clicked his tongue against his teeth, “Yes, we will. As Lord Humphrey has said, I have called for one of my men to come with the wagons. His name is Yardros, he is a Norn. Even now he journeys to us.”

Alistair drank deep from his cup, “And what, exactly, is a Norn?”

“Ah yes.”, the Ambassador said, “I forget there are no such men in the East.”

Alistair rolled his eyes.

“Lord Humphrey uses the word Sorcerer to describe the Norns and their skills; he is very powerful and will see that the mines are safe.”

“Too bad that he is not powerful enough to defeat the beast that stalked Edmunton, and harried the Keep.”, quipped Gyles.

“There was no way to send for him once the beast had trapped us here. Upon Father Mattias’ news of its destruction, we sent word.”, the Ambassador turned to face his host, “Lord Humphrey, while I have great respect for your hospitality and guests, I dare say that this is a matter of trade, a subject in which these men have little experience. It is clear that at least some of your guests believe me to somehow be in league with the creature, which is not only untrue but muddies the discussion at hand.”

“Actually,” Gyles shifted in his seat, “I have quite a good deal of experience with trade and Alistair has dealt with a number of mines in the past. As to your claims about the creature, I think it is you trying to muddy the waters here.”

“Or just airing a guilty conscience.”, Alistair said from behind his raised cup.

“So how is it that you and your men would see to the logistics of the mine and ore?”, Gyles asked.

A fox’s grin crept onto the Ambassador’s tattooed face, “I am so glad you asked, Master Sett. Allow me to explain how such things work.”

The Kargish Ambassador proceeded to explain, in great detail, how they would organize the mine workers, teamsters and usage of the wagons, along with an extensive plan for its distribution. By the end of his answer, many around the table were nodding, including Lord Humphrey. Gyles realized he had given the man the exact opportunity he needed to highlight how helpful the Kargs would be.

Aedan interrupted, “My Lord, I know nothing of the operations of mines but I do know that these mines are the lifeblood of Iron’s Bay. We cannot entrust our livelihood to outsiders, no matter how excellent their plans may be.”

“Strange isn’t it?”, Alistair reached for the bottle of wine again, “That Ambassador Yoreck has wagons and men at the ready; that he would know exactly what was needed at the mines in this time of confusion.”

Ambassador Yoreck ignored Alistair’s barb and looked at the nobleman, “Lord Humphrey, by his own admission, your knight knows little of business or mines. You have heard my plan and agreed with it yourself, and the resources we need to restore the flow of iron ore have already begun their journey to us. Might we just move to conclude this discussion?”

“Economy and trade are important, yes.”, Gyles turned his own gaze to Lord Humphrey, “But it is equally important to perform our duties to the kingdom and to its subjects; it is important to find justice for the men and women murdered in Edmunton and this requires caution in these days. We must not do anything that might bind us to an alliance which we later regret.”

“My Lord,” Aedan followed Gyles words before anyone else could speak, “The iron that comes from these mines not only sustains us but keeps us safe, gives us purpose and defines the very nature of who we are. We cannot hand over something so important for others to safeguard.”

“And…he’s probably lying.”, Alistair raised his cup to the Ambassador.

“I have heard enough from commoners, and tradesmen and warriors! This is business and trade, let these men do what they were born to do and likewise us, Lord Humphrey.”

“I agree.”, said Lord Humphrey, “I do not wish this conversation to stir any more blood than it already has. There are merits to all the words spoken here. It occurs to me that such a decision might not be for me to make but for Lord Roderick. Therefore, I shall write to my cousin and ask for his decision on this matter. In the meantime, we will proceed with the plan that Ambassador Yoreck has described.”

Ambassador Yoreck inclined his head in recognition, “As you wish, Lord Humphrey. We wish only to see a strong partnership between your people and ours.”

The Kargish Ambassador stood and excused himself, along with his bodyguards. Lord Humphrey followed but not before requesting Ser Aedan’s presence in his solar. The other guests drifted off in the wake of their host’s departure. Unwilling to discuss anything where hidden ears might overhear, the three companions bid each other good night and went their separate ways.

  • * * * * * *

Ser Aedan was shown in to Lord Humphrey’s solar, where he found the nobleman hunched over his desk with a quill in hand.

He looked up, “Ah, Ser Aedan, thank you for coming. I confess, time runs against us. I do not wish to let others work in the mines but larger still is the need to get the iron ore flowing again. I would do almost anything to see that happen. In that regard, Ambassador Yoreck’s offer is the best chance for our people to survive and prosper. I have made just such an argument in this letter to Roderick. Would you see it delivered to him and put your word behind mine?”

Ser Aedan took the offered letter, sealed with wax and the sign of the Iron Bark, “My Lord, I will see your missive delivered to Lord Roderick but I do not agree with you. You must know that. I will make my own case to Lord Roderick to deny such an alliance.”

Lord Humphrey sat back in his chair, his shoulders sagging, “Well, I applaud your honesty, Ser Aedan. I know that you are injured, so if you do not feel that you can deliver such a letter quickly, I would be willing to send it with Master Sett if you desire.”

“No, My Lord. My injuries are not a concern. I will deliver your letter.”

“Very well, my thanks, Ser Aedan.”

  • * * * * * * *

Gyles had abandoned his cloak, hoping to appear less like a guest and more like a working member of the keep. He milled about the stables, then the smith, the battlements, and a handful of other locations, all without much to show for it. It was in the kitchen that he struck gold. Her name was Marissa, a young cook’s apprentice with a loose tongue and the ability to wag it while still working.

“Quite a supper tonight, huh?”, Gyles asked, testing to see how much she might have heard.

“Oh yea’.”, she paused long enough to cast a sidelong glance at him, “I ‘eard words were exchanged, wiv’ you in’a heart of it.”

“Me? Those rumors might be exaggerated. Just talk of the mines and what is best for them.”

“Mmm, hmmm.”, she continued to roll the dough in front of her, “You’va hawk? Christa told me you’va hawk an’ that you carry secret messages.”

“I do have a hawk; her name is-“

“Did Lord Humphrey give ya’ any letters? What kind of messages did he give ya’ to deliver?”, she stopped and stared at him directly.

“Letters from Lord Humphrey? That would be spicy!”, Gyles turned, dipped his finger into the garlic butter and tasted it, “What do you think of the Ambassador? Do you trust him?”

“We’d an idiot a years ago, when I was just a girl, but he died. When you talked to ‘im, ‘is face would get all twisted up…like he couldn’t understand ya’ but ya’ could always tell he was tryin’ to understand.”

Gyles, confused at the relevance, let her continue.

“Well, when they come in the Keep, there’s four of them. The three that are about all the time and fourf’ one who looks like an idiot, ‘cept he don’t make no faces at all. He’s got one eye that’s all black and the other that’s like a man’s ‘cept its red.”

“Two different eyes, aye?”, Gyles tried to appear unimpressed, “Did they call him a Norn?”

She bit her lip and narrowed her eyes, “Nah, ‘eard one of ‘em say something like moran or moreray or something like that. But they keep ‘im all shut up in their quarters. We have to bring food for ‘im but they don’t let ‘im come to the door. They always take it and bring it to ‘im. What do you think they’re about?”

“That’s a good questions, Marissa. If I hear anything like that, I’ll make sure you know; will you do me the same favor?”

“Alright.”, she said with a sly smile, “Secret courier.”

  • * * * * * * *

Alistair knelt down in the alcove dedicated to Mother Melora in the chapel; candles in various states of life burned on the small shelves below her image. He had come from the kitchens and the hallways that served it like the arteries of a heart; he knew now how the food would come, and the portions would be dealt, how the guests’ plates would be prepared. Now, his knees pressed to the prayer stool, he folded his hands and closed his eyes.

“All-Father, bless me and forgive me for what I am about to do. I see now that it falls to me; that Aedan is bound by oaths which have no hold over me. I may act freely out of love for my friend and his family and so I do. You have given me your wisdom to see this moment, and now I must ask for your bravery to see it through. _ In nomine patris, et matris, et sanctum iucidem dimitte me pro peccatis meis.”_

View
Dead Men & The Karg

“We both have codes that keep us from certain paths; his tongue cannot shape an untruth, whereas my knees refuse to bend. There is a certain kind of bounty in such a friendship.” —Alistair DeVere speaking on his friendship with Ser Aedan

They shared their already thin supplies with the villagers who had created a communal cooking pit in front of the church. While Gyles worked to strip the strange creature of its hide, Aedan wandered about looking for any he could aid; and after several extended, sidelong glances from his knightly friend, Alistair too offered his services to the villagers. He mended fences, reset doors and brewed simple elixirs to blunt the pain of both body and soul.

They spend the remainder of the day, and the one following it, in such a fashion. As they gathered at the firepit against the setting sun on their second day, the conversation turned to the future.

“The crops have been ruined and already the people of Edmunton starve. Let alone in a few seasons when the snow falls.”, Father Mattias spoke between ladling the stew, “I believe we must go to the keep. We must beseech them for aid, to release some of the grain they have stored away.”

Aedan nodded, “I could not agree more but duty takes me to the mine. I am honor-bound to see what has happened there. Then we will go to the keep.”

“Then our delegation shall wait for your return and go with you.”

“Ah yes, a strength of yours.”, Alistair looked up from his spoon, “Waiting. You seem very good at it. But perhaps in this instance, if your people need aid so badly, you might actually take some action? Does not the All-Father reward those who seek?”

“We were not waiting, my friend”, Mattias filled another bowl, “We were beseeching God for aid, and he sent you to deliver us from the creature.”

Alistair huffed, “I seem a strange kind of deliverance.”

“I always said you were a gift, Alistair.”, Aedan said loudly and clapped his friend around the shoulders, gently bringing the exchange to an end.

“I will leave in the morning with a few of the villagers. We will go the keep ahead of you and state our case. I am sure your words will bear more weight than ours, so I would ask that you join us when you can.”

“We will.”, the knight said solemnly.

At dawn the next morning, they set out on the well-worn dirt road that ran north out of the village. They watched as the priest and his companions headed west. Aedan rode his warhorse while Alistair and Gyles led the smuggler’s pack horse behind, loaded now with three horses worth of supplies and baggage.

After some time on the road, Alistair broke the silence, “This thought is probably nothing but I cannot shake the idea that the Kargs have somehow brought that creature here. It is a beast out of folklore, not so different from them. I am afraid that the creature was their distraction and we will find the mines overrun with them.”

“But the stories say such creatures roamed here once; there is no mention like that of the Kargs.”, Gyles offered in response.

“Fair.”, Alistair shrugged, “but what if their presence awoke it? Or called it from where it had vanished all those ages ago?”

The two men bantered on for a while but without a word from Aedan who rode ahead of them. Then slowly, but surely the end of their road came into the sight. The mountain peaks had grown close, their bellies lost in clouds and there at their feet was the gaping maw of the Iron Bark mines.

All was still. There was no chirping of birds, or the pinging sounds of picks on stone, or the gruff laughter of an off color joke. Corpses were strewn about the miner’s camp, half-eaten and rent with the creature’s claws. It’s giant paw prints evidence of its passing.

“Good news, I guess – my fears were misplaced.”, Alistair smiled weakly, “No Kargs.”

They let Aedan control the pace, slow and steady. They readied their weapons and Aedan slid from his saddle as their approached the dark opening. Just beyond, they found a lantern and lit it, Alistair volunteering for the duty so that Gyles could work his crossbow if need be. Just inside of the mine’s entrance was a large, circular room with tunnels branching off in many directions. Again, stillness reigned as they moved carefully some distance down each tunnel before returning to the antechamber. Finally, they found what they had been looking for…corpses.

Within a room strewn with equipment and tools, a dozen or more men lay sprawled in various poses. But as the lantern light fell on them, they found that not a single man bore any wounds. Many of their faces were wracked in fear and the whites of their eyes were marred with the red of blood.

“This was no fight.”, Aedan said quietly, “And the hallway is too small for the creature to come this far.”

“Maybe they dug too deep and released some kind of….vapor?”, Gyles suggested.

Alistair shook his head, “I know my vapors and there is not a natural one that would do this to their eyes. They breathed in something terrible, something that ruined their insides – the vessels in their eyes have burst with the pressure.”

Gyles immediately pulled flung his cloak across his face and over his opposite shoulder, creating a mask, “And we are standing here discussing it?”

The smuggler edged towards the doorway, trying to pull his companions with him.

Alistair turned slowly in a circle, “But where is the broken glass? How did they get the fumes into this room? There should be broken glass or pottery.”

“Perhaps we should look for it outside?”, Gyles took another step towards the darkness of the hallway.

“He has a point.”, Alistair shrugged, “There is little to be gained from here except being poisoned ourselves. Let me just look quickly.”

Alistair rummaged through the various tools and equipment while Gyles grabbed two pick axes in a single hand, using the other to keep his makeshift mask in place. When Alistair came away empty handed, they made their way back outside.

Emerging into a pleasant Spring morning from darkness seemed strange; stranger still that they were surrounded by ruin and death despite the bright sun and warm air.

“I have never been to a mine.”, Alistair smiled, “I usually get involved with their goods once they’re on a ship, but wouldn’t they store the ore somewhere?”

“Where are the wagons?”, Gyles asked suddenly, pivoting on his heel.

“Ahhh, so they have either fled east to the water with the ore, or the Kargs I imagined have overtaken the Keep and store it there.”

“Seems like a dark day. Your second choice seems the worst, so I’ll go with that.”, the smuggler said as he shielded his eyes from the sun trying to see further.

“So what do we do now, Aedan?”

“We go to the Keep, we know what has happened here now; onto our other promise.”

They started off cross country, moving southwest through fields and light copses of trees. The keep was a functional one, simple and strong without many of the decorate niceties others might have. The three men stopped as it came into view, moving forward only so much as to be able to see who manned its battlements.

Men in leather jacks and the livery of Iron Bark paced back and forth, Lord Roderick’s flag still flying from the highest points of the fortifications. They breathed a collective sigh of relief as Aedan motioned them on. As they approached the main gate, they found the ruined remains of several horses and mailed men, more proof of the beast’s passing. The bite and claw marks had become familiar and they were somewhat shocked to see that they also marred the underside of the raised drawbridge.

“Halt! Who are you and on what business?”, two men appeared above the gate.

“I am Ser Aedan Hammerhand, a knight of the realm. I have been sent by Ser Roderick to see what has happened at the mines and we have news for Lord Humphrey.”

Alistair and Gyles winced and waited for the sound of crossbow releases; what if Humphrey had betrayed his cousin and they had just revealed themselves to be his agents?

Instead of the thwacks of crossbows, they were met with the rattling chains as the drawbridge lowered and the portcullis raised. Two more guards brandishing halberds appeared, “Quickly, quickly Ser! Before the beast returns!”

As the gates closed behind them and Aedan slid from his saddle, the captain of the guards approached, “Very glad to have you with us, Ser.”

“My thanks but you have nothing to fear now. The beast has been killed.”

The man nodded, “Father Mattias told us as much, it is music to my ears to have you repeat it.”

“We are here to meet with Lord Humphrey and Father Mattias. We have news from the mines.”

“Page! Oliver! Step quickly!”, the captain shouted and then returned his attention to Aedan, “They are meeting now. Father Mattias had to wait when he arrived, the Karg Ambassador was meeting with Lord Humphrey.”

The three men did their best to appear unbothered by the mention of the Kargs and a young boy soon appeared.

“Take Ser Aedan and his companions to Lord Humphrey and Father Mattias.”, the captain nodded at Aedan and walked off.

When he was out of earshot, Alistair produced a the largest coin he could find in his purse, “You’re a page, is that right? On your way to becoming a knight?”

“Yes, my lord.”

Alistair sucked in air past his clenched teeth, “Not all of us are nobles here, lad.”

“Yes, my- Master.”

“What is it? You can’t just wait to spend your life taking orders from a man born with a title?”

“Oh no, Master. It would be an honor to be a knight of the realm and fight bravely.”

“And nobly serve your country.”, Aedan said over The Alchemist’s shoulder.

Alistair held up his shortened index finger, “Not your country, a man. A single man’s wishes.”

The boy’s features scrunched up in confusion. Gyles slid between the two friends as they continued to trade barbs over noble service, “Just let them have their game. They argue like this, but if you play things right, you’ll end up on top.”

“No matter.”, Alistair turned back to the page and pressed the coin into his palm, “why don’t you take us the long way to Lord Humphrey. We would like to see the keep.”

Gyles silently mouthed the word, “See?” to the boy and rubbed his thumb and index finger together with a wink.

Oliver gave up trying to understand what these men were about and, instead, acquiesced to their request. He showed them around the courtyard, stable, smithy and finally the sally door where he explained the corpses out front.

“It was the day after the Karg ambassador arrived; the beast came. Lord Humphrey set out two of his best knights – Ser Kay and Ser Dunstan – out this door to fight it. It was terrible, it tore them to pieces while we watched from the walls.”, the boy’s eyes went wide with remembrance.

“And the ambassador is still here?”, Alistair asked.

“Oh yes. They were trapped here by the beast. It tried to climb the gate into the castle!”

“Well, fear no more.”, Alistair said dryly, “Ser Aedan, here, killed it two days ago.”

The boy’s features went from fear to awe, “You…you killed it? How?”

“With help from the crafts of these two.”, Ser Aedan said, “And sword work. We should see Lord Humphrey.”

The boy, willing now to do anything that Ser Aedan requested, took them directly to the small library where Lord Humphrey and Father Mattias were speaking. Three villagers stood nearby and smiled wanly as the three men stepped in.

“My Lord, my apologies but the Captain directed me to bring these guests to you.”, the Page bowed, “Announcing Ser Aedan Hammerhand, and his companions Master Alistair Blackwood and Master Gyles Sett.”

Mattias beamed at Aedan, “We were just discussing the needs of the village.”

Lord Humphrey made a calming motion at the priest, “I have already ordered the release from our stores. We must see that the villagers do not suffer any more than they already have. I understand it is you we have to thank for the creature’s demise? My cousin sent you?”

“He did, My Lord, and yes, we have slain the creature.”

“Well, it is a tale we must hear; may I ask you to tell it over the upcoming meal? Will you do me the honor of staying on as my guests until we make sense of things?”

“Of course, My Lord. We graciously accept your offer.”

Alistair rolled his eyes and rubbed his tattooed hand across his mustache and beard.

“You will find other guests here as well – trapped by the beast. There is a Karg ambassador as well as the Heir of Summerfield. They should prove a fine audience for your tale. Let me have quarters prepared for you, so that you might have a few moments of respite before our meal.”

“My Lord, before we go, there is news from the mine. The men there are dead.”

“Killed by the creature?”

The three companions relayed the details of what they found; missing wagons, blood in the men’s eyes, a tunnel too small for the beast to kill them. When they had finished, Lord Humphrey had called for servants to show them to their quarters.

Once inside his rooms, Alistair immediately barred his door, unpacked half a dozen vials, and immediately set to work. A short while later, there was a knock and a voice that belonged to Gyles, “It’s us.”

Alistair opened the door to reveal his two companions; both men glanced at the work in progress and Alistair re-barred the door.

“I am assuming at some point Aedan will want to put the Kargs to the sword; consider it spice for their food.”

Gyles nodded, “Aedan, do you think that there was anything strange about the knights who were sent out to kill the beast?”

Aedan’s brows furrowed, “In what way?”

“Do you think it was Lord Humphrey’s way of dealing with two knights that were his enemies or perhaps not loyal to him? Or does that seem a reasonable thing to do?”

Aedan narrowed his eyes, “Well, they had not seen the creature fight or move really. I suppose it was reasonable to think that two trained knights would be able to slay it….but there is a way to find out. If there was bad blood between them, it would be well known among the fighting men.”

“So you do not think that Humphrey acts against his cousin?”

“I doubt it. Humphrey has a prestigious position as castellan to the mines which give Iron’s Bay it’s name. There is not much more he could ask for but again, that would be known if he has some hunger.”, a smile crawled across Aedan’s mouth, “Alistair would you take a walk with me?”

Alistair stopped mid-measure, “For what?”

“There are a handful of men-at-arms, foster children, and knights here. Perhaps we will recognize one from our youth.”

Alistair groaned and let the measure spoon collapse back into the jar, “You cannot be serious. You are asking me to try and befriend some priggish ass I knew two decades ago?”

“You know that is the most reliable way to make sense of what is happening inside this keep. Did you not always try to find at least a few men you had crewed with before on a new vessel?”

“Gaaahhh…yes.”, Alistair seemed to summon all of his strength to stand from his chair, “Let’s go and get this over with.”

Aedan recruited the page for another tour but this time, stopped here and there to speak a few words to the men they saw. Neither Alistair nor Aedan saw a face or name they seemed to recognize. By the time they had finished, they had just enough time to wash their faces, straighten their clothes and head down for the late lunch.

They were the last to arrive. Formal introductions were made to the Heir of Summerfield as well as to the Karg Ambassador, Yoreck of Clan Kord. He was tall, but no larger than any other man with skin the color of bone. Swirling Kargish tattoos covered his face and neck and disappeared beneath his collar. He had both hair and the eyes of a man, a rarity among his race. It was clear to see why he had been chosen as a diplomat – he looked as much like a man as his race could. At the wall, directly behind his chair, stood his bodyguards – two Kargs that could not look more different then their master. Hulking, bald brutes with eyes of solid black and the faint lines of swirling bone ridges beneath the skin of their faces.

As everyone settled into their chairs, Gyles stood with his goblet in hand, “I wish to propose a toast. To Master Yoreck, it is fortunate you arrived when you did for the beast seemed to be at your heels.”

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Poison, Punctures & Priests

Gyles did his best to still the horse while Aedan and Alistair smeared the poisonous paste across its underbelly. It’s nostrils flared and it’s eyes flickered back and forth but the smuggler managed to keep it from kicking his companions.
When it was done, they looked at one another. Alistair and Aedan, wiped their hands clean on patches of nearby grass and Gyles handed the reins over to the knight when he was ready. He pulled himself smoothly into the unfamiliar saddle and urged the beast forward.
The knight did not want to move quickly for fear of the creature hearing or feeling the hoofbeats; Gyles and Alistair watched from the treeline as Aedan and his mount plodded forward in a slow, steady walk. The minutes stretched on into centuries, each moment filled with the terror that the strange human like face would peer around some building and spot their companion.
And then, in the ruined remains of a garden, Aedan pulled the creature to a stop and slid from its saddle. They watched his helmeted head pivot back and forth, the well-worn sword slowly emerge from its scabbard. It glinted momentarily in the sun and then in one motion, drew a straight line across the horse’s throat. Before the creature had even begun to crumble, Aedan was in motion. Arms pumping, one hand still clenching the bloody sword. He felt his hauberk rise up off his shoulders and then crash back down with each step.
Behind him, the horse had collapsed, head and feet thrashing wildly in confusion. Gyles and Alistair watched the strange picture; their companion growing closer while the horse writhed in the background….and then the terrible face. Like a cat peeking around a corner, the creature’s face appeared from behind a barn. Its strange maw lifted into the air and bobbed, taking in the new scent of blood and horse. And in a moment, it sprang – covering the distance to the dying beast in only a few strides, it bit deeply in the still-pawing legs and belly. Over and over, revealing rows up on rows of strange, triangle-like teeth. Aedan breathing came in great heaves as he did his best to look on with his companions.
It did not take but a few moments for the creature to reduce the horse to ruined shreds and when it probed the ruin carcass with its nose for any last morsels, the poison seemed to take effect. The creature looked up suddenly, as if realizing something was amiss. Its great head shook back and forth, spraying blood and carnage to and fro. It meant to move forward but instead stumbled diagonally, it’s form crashing into the side of the barn. The slats and corner gave way, and the building slowly slid to its side and collapsed with a crash. Again, the strange elongated head continued to shake violently back and forth.
And then, it’s eyes seemed to catch those of the men hidden in the treeline. The head stilled instantly, the head pulled back into the shoulders and the fur on the back of its neck bristled. Gyles and Alistair realized that Aedan was between them, already astride his warhorse with his lance in hand. He kicked the horse forward in the same moment that the gigantic creature lurched forward in an unbalanced run of its own.
Gyles burst from the treeline, making his way towards a shack where he could brace his borrowed crossbow for some kind of strike. Alistair, unsure of what use he might be, clenched his knife and ran in an opposite direction, loosely following Aedan’s path.
The two rushing adversaries looked as if they would collide but in a strange instant of grace, the creature leapt diagonally, separating itself from striking distance of the lance. Aedan stood in his spurs, twisted at the waist and launched the now useless weapon like a spear. He saw it strike the beast’s hindquarters before being jolted back into his saddle.
Alistair watched the creature pivot faster than Aedan’s horse could hope to; he began shouting at the beast, hoping to distract it.
“How was your feast you fool cat!”, he waved his hands frantically.
The scorpion-like tail moved with alacrity, seemingly unaffected by the poison that had numbed the creature’s other reflexes. It struck the knight square between the shoulder blades, popping rings and throwing the knight forward against the horse’s neck. Somehow, Aedan managed to hold on to the sword he had just freed from its scabbard. Alistair continued to run at the back of the creature, shouting whatever foul-mouthed insults he could improvise.
Gyles had reached his shack and begun shouting at his companions. In a flash of insight, he saw how his companions might move to pin the creature in.
“Aedan, drive him to me! Alistair block him in on this side!”
The crossbow felt strange in his hands as he pointed. The giant humanoid face snapped in his direction and it sprang. However, its poisoned body betrayed its hunter’s mind. One paw collided with the other instead of crossing over, and the creature slowly stumbled in Gyle’s direction. Aedan recovered and turned his mount and following Gyles’ direction, began slashing loosely as the creature’s hindquarters.
Gyles watched the creature get larger and larger as it stumbled on towards him, rocking this way and that before recovering its footing. He could see Aedan, who seemed so small somewhere distantly behind and he felt the vibration of the crossbow before he realized he had pulled loosed his shot. It struck the creature high in the cheek, above its strange maw but below its eye. The tail continued to harass Aedan, seemingly independent from the rest of the creature. It darted down and smashed against the knight’s shield.
And then as it recoiled, and the creature turned its head in fresh pain from the quarrel, Aedan saw the moment; the moment where the enemy’s body is out of alignment, where his shield is not quite square, where his sword is just out of line. He opened his hand and let the stinger knock the shield from his hand, dug his spurs into his mount, surged forward and gripped his sword with both hands. He rifled alongside of the creature in a split moment, and brought the blade down on the back of its exposed neck. The blade bit deep, rending flesh and muscle and leaving the cat shaped head attached only on the opposite side. Gyles had been staring into the creatures eyes when the blow struck and only know recognized a strange sensation. He looked down to find his left sleeve in tatters and three long bloody grooves in the length of this forearm.
Alistair arrived as Aedan dismounted and drove his sword through the beast’s chest for good measure, “Do be careful Aedan. That pelt fetch quite a price, or make us some fine armor.”
This close, Alistair could see the ruinous puncture wound in his friend’s back, “Both of you stay here, let me get my things.”
As quickly as he could he fled back to their hiding place and returned with one of his leather satchels. His companions had moved away from the corpse, and settled with their backs against the ruined barn. He tried to look at Aedan’s wound first but the knight firmly insisted that Gyles be taken care of. A quick paste of indigo and yarrow went onto the smuggler’s arm, followed by a bandage fashioned from his ruined sleeve.
“Now let’s have a look at it.”, Alistair turned his friend who groaned inadvertently, “I’ll be honest, Aedan. The wound is beyond me.”
“It seems to have gotten revenge, its own poison courses through my veins now.”
“Ah! Now that I can help with!”, Alistair rummaged through the satchel, coming away two or three shimmering liquids. Portions of each went into another vial which he handed back to the knight. He gave it a momentary glance before shooting the contents.
“We’ll have to get you to a surgeon. I know enough that we can’t leave that be.”
Aedan nodded and Alistair did what he could to fashion a makeshift bandage that would stay in place.
He handed both of his companions their wineskins and whatever he could quickly find from their foodstuffs and went to inspect the creature. It was simultaneously horrifying and majestic to his eyes – the way that skin seamlessly gave way to fur, and fur to chitin, the beautiful golden fur and the teeth that he had only ever seen in sharks when at sea. With his gloves on, Alistair did his best to drain the stinger of whatever venom remained, and took samples of the creature’s fur and claws. He even managed to extract one of the teeth.
Gyles appeared, “Alistair, just don’t ruin it the pelt.”
“I have no intention of opening the creature up.”, he put the tooth into a vial with a clink, “Just imagine what kind of properties the creatures bones or teeth may have.”
They helped Aedan to his feet and made their way to the church, all the while shouting that the beast was dead and that whomever was hidden could emerge.
When they were within shouting distance of the church, a head emerged from one of the windows, “Quiet fools! You’ll draw the creature down upon us!”
“The-“, Aedan had to clear his throat and draw a fresh breath, “The beast is dead. It is safe to come out.”
The speaker disappeared back inside and the murmur of conversations drifted to them as they neared the church’s stone steps. A different person stuck their head out of the window, “Who are you to claim the beast is dead? Are you from the keep? Did Lord Humphrey send you?”
Aedan went to speak but the wound robbed his wind, he inhaled and tried again, “We have been sent from Baron Roderick, Lord of Iron’s Bark himself, and the creature has been slain on the word of a Knight of the Realm, Ser Aedan of Arondel.”
The head darted back inside and more conversation commenced.
Alistair rolled his eyes at the mention of all station and ceremony and began to pound on the great wooden doors of the church, “Open these doors and see to the wounds of the man who killed your beast! Open these doors!”
The scraping sound of heavy objects came from beyond the doors and went on for several minutes. The three men could only imagine just how many objects had been used to block the door against entrance. Eventually, they swung open revealing a gaggle of gaunt, bedraggled figures and a single man dressed in priest’s robes. The others wore peasants’ clothes, now seemingly giant on their emaciated frames.
The men and women began to thank Aedan, showing him with honorifics and bows, and the holding of hats over hearts.
“Stop it, stop!”, Alistair waded in amongst them, “And go eat for the Mother’s sake!”
The small crowd poured out past them into the village and it was then that they saw families carrying their dead from the church; they were not much more than skeletons with flesh still on them.
Alistair narrowed his eyes, “Father, did God’s love not keep your flock sustained?”
“We prayed for someone to rescue us and God has sent you.”
“No, the Lord of Iron’s Bark sent us.”, Alistair retorted quickly, “You led these people into starving.”
“What we were to do?”
“Go with Cole and Alwin? It is because of their courage we knew what we would meet here. They are fed and now on their way to the city and refuge… because they took action for themselves. Does not All-Father tell us that he will help those who help themselves?”
“Yes, but he also tells us that in the darkest hours, when we are beset by horrors that overcome us, he will be our savior and rescuer.”
“That’s funny, I don’t recall seeing him in the fight earlier; it seems the creature’s death was the work of mortal men.”
“Alistair that is…”, Aedan coughed and staggered forward, “…enough.”
Alistair nodded, “My apologies. I did not mean to come between you and the healer’s needle. Can you at least see to your rescuer’s wounds?”
“I will do what I can.”, the priest wrung his hands as he guided Aedan inside.
“Well, that doesn’t fill me with much hope.”, Alistair followed them into the depths of the church.
The priest worked to suture Aedan’s wounds, simultaneously aided by Alistair’s knowledge of herbs and harried by his insults. Eventually, the work complete, Alistair left Aedan to recover and found Gyles in the midst of a small group of villagers.
“They’re going to help me skin the creature. There’s even a tanner who has agreed to treat it for me. Can you believe it?”
“Good fortune, it seems.”, Alistair said flatly as the smuggler and his cohorts wandered off in the direction of the beast.

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Gyles 3

…From behind one of the cottages, a shape emerged….

“No.”, Gyles whispered and then collapsed backwards into the dirt.

Darkness.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Hrm? What?

Knock. Knock. Knock.

Who’s there?

Wham. Wham. Wham.

Ow!

Gyles’s eyes opened and his falcon hopped off his face and onto the ground.

Shaking his head to clear it, Gyles got to his knees and looked around. They were in some sort of clearing. But it was dusk, and getting dark. Omen gestured her beak to the side, and Gyles looked.

A shadow moved, just beyond the edge of the clearing. No, not one shadow: they were surrounded.

“Where are the others?” Gyles whispered.

Omen shook her head, disapprovingly.

They’ve abandoned me to this fate.

The shadows moved in unnatural, swirling patterns, not like men.

Gyles and Omen surveyed the clearing, assessing their options. The shadows moved closer, not directly, but like circling wolves. Only, these weren’t wolves, either.

“Save yourself, Omen. There’s no exit.”

She shook her head side to side, and landed on his left shoulder. The shapes were close enough now that Gyles could make them out. They all had eyes as black as night, were almost entirely covered in tattoos, and had swords shaped in impossible curves.

Kargs. Figures. I didn’t think they could even get this big.

Gyles started frantically darting as they came closer, testing his reflexes with prods and pokes from their wicked weapons.

It’s fine, just have to stay ahead of them and find an exit. You can do this. Right spot, right timing, right move.

A hand grabbed his shoulder from behind, and he screamed.

The scream never made it out. A hand was over his mouth.

Gyles opened his eyes. He didn’t even remember closing them.

“Quiet. You will attract its attention!” a familiar voice whispered.

There was more light. His surroundings had changed. Gyles looked around.

“Now get up and let us move.” Aedan said.

Gyles saw Alistair. The beast! He nodded, and quietly got up.

They fled backwards into the forest, retrieving their mounts and ensuring that the creature had neither seen nor followed them. When they had gone far enough, they unpacked provisions and ate them without ceremony or conversation; staring numbly at one another…..

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