Storms Over Kelerak

Part Three

By R. Krommydas

PREVIOUS PART

"Aidan, sweetheart, darling, light of our lives, heroic champion of the gods. Will you kindly stop that godsawful humming before I have Embla use your hammer to fashion you a woman?"

The half-elf allowed a wounded expression to escape him. "Isolde, really! A little music is good for the soul, and the elf in me does grant some artistic talent. Besides, as someone who has been here before, I would have thought you`d enjoy a reminder of Kelerak`s more elegant culture."

DnD Centaur by Lady of Hats

"Elegant?" Isolde scoffed in disbelief. "What have you been drinking behind our backs? For one thing, you and elegance have never crossed paths, and for another, Below The Spur has nothing to do with culture, elegant or otherwise! Brokk, you`ve forgotten more history than the rest of us could ever learn, tell him that age is not an automatic indication of quality."

Brokk shook his head stoically and with deliberate slowness, turned his chair to one side to get a better view of the impromptu wrestling match that several of the tavern`s more muscular patrons were losing horribly. Two of these, orc-blooded brutes in the black-and-green of the city`s famed Standing Battalion, struggled futilely in the crushing embrace of a massive bronze-skinned arm, much to the hilarity of the others, who wore the royal blue of Osbern`s own Spur Elites. They clearly did not mind defeat nearly so much as they enjoyed the humiliation of their rivals.

Exasperated by the lack of support, Isolde quaffed the rest of her ale-- Napier`s Sevenhill, a true Kelerite brew, none of that vile Davenian rubbish-- and nearly swung the tankard at Aidan when he cheerily began to sing:

Morning has come and a new sun shines down
On the homes below the Spur
The fisherman fishes, the bakerman bakes
On the streets below the Spur
From the towers seen piercing the heavens
To the walls that are girding its heart
All gaze up at the soul of our city and feel pride
From their place below the Spur

Though not the worst rendition that had ever been heard, it did give many of the others a fair run for their money, and even Brokk grimaced. Whatever Aidan`s other talents, a musical voice was not among their number. Fortunately, before he could start on the second verse and either its 'ladies of night' or 'sellers of lotus', depending on which of the more popular versions he knew, he was interrupted by a cacophony of cheers and hoots.

"How upset do they look?" Aidan asked, and Brokk grunted noncommittally in response. "All right, so that`s not dangerously upset. Progress, I suppose. I really did not want to be responsible for a fifth catastrophe. Don`t frown at me Isolde, it would be my fault. I did tell her to go and enjoy herself. I swear, that woman deliberately misunderstands me whenever it suits her. Heshtail`s mercy, her Kelevan is nearly better than my own, and I`ve spoken the language for twenty years. As for her Kingdom Common, I blame your wizardly wiles for everything, Brokk."

The dwarf spluttered in protest, but Aidan overrode him: "Last night she spent an hour with a merchant caravan out of Or City, debating the role of transnational economics in the elective formation of a plutocratic empire and so far as I understood it, she beat them. Are you really going to sit there and tell me you have not been adding to her vocabulary?"

"She broached the subject first," said Brokk defensively. "Apparently one of her duties back home is the overseeing of trade delegations, and she wanted to get an idea of how we did things for future reference."

Isolde rubbed her temples. It was a struggle to reconcile the Embla she knew, a frenzied and terrifying berserker, with the Embla that she apparently was among her own people, a priestess and an upholder of laws. In fact, it was such a struggle that the ever-practical halfling abandoned the effort almost immediately to fetch more ale. Sobriety was no friend when waiting for the wheels of government to turn, and Brokk`s old correspondents were now firmly embedded in its spokes.

♢♢♢♢♢

The first few days in Dragonspur had been the most trying, as was often the case. Upon their arrival, Isolde had promptly sequestered herself in her room and refused to leave except via the window, darkly citing her prior visit to the city as having left her with several enemies, particularly in the crime-ridden Open Town just outside the city proper, and in the borough of Westcheap that their present finances forced them to stay in. It was only on the sixth day that she was partially mollified, when a note was found pinned to her door that enigmatically read: "Even he who slew death may die." Though Brokk had his suspicions as to whom that strange note referred, he respected Isolde's need for privacy and did not mention them to her or the others. The recently deceased crime lords of Dragonspur were best forgotten by all who knew them. Instead, he alternated his efforts trying to penetrate the barriers of bureaucracy between him and the people they had come all this way to speak to, and trying to work out what had changed in his relationship with the graven tablet he carried with him. Neither task seemed likely to be resolved soon.

In the latter case, he knew this was because the punishment for his hubris had not yet finished, though perhaps by having willingly offered himself as a sacrifice to save his friends during the encounter at Fisherman`s Solace three weeks earlier, he had taken a significant step towards absolution. This was not a guarantee, but the thought gave Brokk some hope that the end was not quite so far as he had believed.

The former case, however, was infinitely more infuriating to the wizard, as the major obstacles before him were Brokk`s own peers, who he felt should really know better. The responses to his queries were usually curt and dismissive, or even outright rudeness at his last attempt. Looking at the half-sneer of disbelief forming on the clerk`s face, Brokk, who had never had much patience for wilful stupidity, had only just refrained from fixing the expression there permanently - a petty curse if ever there was one, but highly effective as a young Brokk had experienced after talking back to one of his more short-tempered tutors.

What baffled him most was not the layers of protection he had to get through, but that they were almost entirely secular. He had spoken to three true wizards (only one of whom looked sufficiently educated to tell apart a wand from a quill pen), five impossibly smug bards, one particularly overworked sorceress, and a single Kantori cleric obviously of no real influence outside his own congregation.

"Of all faiths, they send a Kantori to delay me!" Brokk had loudly complained to Aidan after that meeting. "Is that an insult? It is, isn`t it? Am I supposed to make a scene at that and get myself thrown out? To give up in disgust? What, exactly? Merciful heavens, I`m trying to speak to one of Heshtail`s faithful, for... for Heshtail`s sake! Isolde, shut up, or I`ll see you laughing on the other side of your face. I don`t mean that, I`m sorry."

"Before you ask, no, they won`t give me an audience either," Aidan said. "The only other paladin in the city is a Sir Kelvin, or Kelphin, or something like that, and unfortunately, he is very, shall we say, enthusiastic about his duties. Since taking the oath, nobody gets through him without express permission from above, which your struggles are closer to getting us than any argument I can make."

Brokk continued to grumble, but persevered. Finally, just over a month after arriving in Dragonspur, he received the letter of invitation that he had been waiting for. More importantly, he also received the seals that proved this letter was no clever forgery-- the first, the official sigil of the Dragonspur Church of Mercy; the second, the personal mark of High Potentate Burcan the White.

♢♢♢♢♢

To her credit, Isolde took nearly three whole seconds to panic. "I thought you said this was a private reception!" she hissed at Brokk, staring in wide-eyed terror at the milling masses of nobles and merchants (and heavily armed bodyguards). "Everyone who is anyone in the city must be here. I can`t be seen here, don`t you understand? I. Have. History."

"Funny how crime can come back to bite a person when they least expect, isn`t it?" Aidan mused with remorseless glee. "Almost enough to make the most sticky-fingered of halflings wish a decent, law-abiding paladin had arrested her as he had first intended to. Ooh, will you look at the finery on that one, he must be very important. And very wealthy. Isolde, I bet you twenty silvers he would skewer any thief that tried to rob that hideously obvious pouch on his belt."

"Make it thirty-five, and it really is genuine, the dud is stashed in his left breast pocket," she countered instinctively, then glared at him.

Fortunately, before the vitriolic pair managed to escalate this old argument any further, Brokk spotted the man they had come to see, and hustled everyone over with haste. Burcan the White, High Potentate of both the Church of Mercy and the Reeannic Temple of the Undrowned, stood at ease in the centre of the square, smiling contentedly up at the dark clouds scudding by overhead, as if he knew no storm would dare break over this assembly.

True to his name, the priest was dressed entirely in white robes beautifully embroidered with the holy symbols of all the gods-- barring, of course, those three left unnamed among decent folk. And if perhaps the mark of Heshtail was just a little larger and more prominent than the others, it was a bias easily forgiven.

He was far younger than many thought him to be, having not yet reached his fiftieth year and with a full head of rich chestnut hair to prove it, and for one of such political and clerical power, his brow was remarkably unlined by worry. Indeed, as Brokk drew closer, he became aware of a palpable aura of optimism and goodwill surrounding the priest. The weight of the world seemed to lift from Brokk`s shoulders when those gentle eyes turned to him and that all-encompassing warmth grew to outright joy upon recognition.

Priest and wizard stood before each other in silence for a few seconds, appraising and fixing each other in their memory. With ceremonial gravity, they bowed and shook the other`s proffered hand with all the respect of two masters meeting for the first time. Burcan was the first to break from this stoicism, a deep laugh bursting free as he knelt down to embrace his friend properly, and Brokk did not hesitate to return the favour.

"Gods forgive me, I should have come long ago," Brokk said, his voice catching in his throat. "This is a meeting twenty years overdue. There is no excuse for that. The fault is mine."

"Gods forgive me," Burcan emphasized. "I did not believe it could be you. That you could still be alive after...what happened. I could not believe the rumours. I never listened to them, followed up on them, looked for you. Brokk, my friend, I am so very sorry I left you alone out there. The fault is mine." Brokk shook his head vehemently. "Never believe that! Not for a moment, or for half a moment. I forbid it, Burcan. I hid in shame from anyone who might know me, or what I did. If even the gods held back forgiveness, why should my friends and colleagues? I should have known better. The fault is mine."

"It sounds to me like both of you were stupid and wrong and deserved everything you got," Embla broke in sharply. "Good, now we all agree this should have happened long ago, so can we sit down and talk over the food I smell, or is it some strange perfume everyone here is wearing? Would not surprise me. Most of your leaders have already been very disappointing. You seem less bad than most, priest."

Burcan pursed his lips, very nearly frowning as he digested the outburst. Then he shrugged. "As long as we`re all being honest, I`ve heard less accurate criticism from my own congregation. Follow me, I will arrange everything."

♢♢♢♢♢

The next hour was spent in conversation, most of it consisting of an exhaustive detailing of the events of the last year to a captivated Burcan, from their initial meeting in Ettinrun and the group`s narrow survival at Mavarra, to the desperate struggle below Arden that had nearly killed Brokk and the most recent encounter at Fisherman`s Solace.

"I am certainly on the road to recovery now," the dwarf reassured Burcan. "I needed to be carted most of the way here at first, and slept for perhaps twenty hours each day. Still, it wasn`t until I gave myself up to the will of the gods, working through their relic, that I began to heal properly."

Burcan`s eyes asked a wordless question and, hesitantly, Brokk gave him the stone tablet for examination. The instant he touched it, Burcan ceased to see the mortal world, and felt as though he was falling into an infinite abyss, inhabited by creatures and powers beyond his wish or ability to understand. A short eternity later, the priest returned to himself and snatched his hand away as though stung, and leaving Brokk still holding the tablet and very confused.

"This is not something that I can help you with," Burcan said with a firmness that could silence a king`s protests. "Some burdens may not be shared, and that is one of them. I will pray for you, my friend, and if the wound in your soul is one that the magic of men can cure, I will try my hardest to heal it. But under no circumstances shall I touch that... that thing, again. It is forbidden to the servants of the gods."

Brokk frowned. "I would never disbelieve you, but that cannot be the whole truth. Here, look at this."

With notably less hesitation than before, he passed the tablet over to Aidan, who held it as gingerly and unhappily as he might a screaming baby, but crucially, held it. Burcan breathed in sharply, more than a mere gasp, his eyes wide and glittering with fascination.

"I told you that Aidan is a paladin," said Brokk. "He is a true servant of Heshtail, as are you. He even woke up half of Arden when he renewed his oath to the Merciful One. So why can he touch it? Keep touching it, even, not just for a few moments? The whole truth cannot be that no servant of the gods may handle that relic."

Burcan stayed silent, deep in thought, for close to a minute. From time to time, his eyes flicked between Aidan and Brokk, and once over to where Isolde was effectively hiding herself by being extremely small next to the eye-catching bulk of Embla. For most of that time, he seemed to be arguing silently with himself. Brokk waited patiently, and once he had returned the stone tablet, so did Aidan. Then Burcan came to a decision.

"I have a favour to ask," he began, then held up his hand to forestall Brokk`s immediate acceptance. "Think carefully on this. If you do this for me, it will have consequences that only a prophet could see. Not just for you, or for me, but for all Kelerak, and perhaps the lands beyond. It is the reason that I am here today, along with everyone else."

He indicated the surrounding crowds of nobility, and merchant princes, and priests of note from every faith. "This is not the first time this assembly has been called, even this month. It has been proposed that a new barony be created in the south. Everyone here is making and breaking alliances and deals with each other to ensure that their own power is strengthened, or at least unaffected by whatever decision is ultimately made. Once enough of them are convinced they can emerge on top, they will go to Lord Osbern with their official proposal."

"I have been trying to keep the peace, but there are storms brewing in a dozen noble hearts. Storms that may well lead to civil war when Osbern makes his judgement, no doubt based on claims that the decision is unfair or invalid. However, with your help, we can forestall this. I can demand that such a momentous upheaval of the country`s political geography requires the presence of every existing baron in order to validate. Most are already in Dragonspur, but there is one who would claim that he has no reason to be here, being but a mere duke."

There was a surprised squeak from Isolde`s direction and Burcan nodded at her understanding. "I need you to go to the Eaglesreach and fetch me that deranged trollson Marius Sonnesberg. I need the Silver Duke. Bring him to me and for the rest of your days, the Church of Mercy will be at your side. Officially. Whatever help you need, you will get."

Brokk smiled broadly, still needing no time to think about his answer. "I would do this for you without the promise of reward, Burcan. We shall leave immediately."

"Hold on a moment, Brokk!" Isolde exclaimed, forgetting her desire to stay unnoticed. "Do we not get a say in this?"

The dwarf just rubbed his forefinger and thumb together at her, and she got the message: church-backed coin was a rare and valuable thing indeed. She still muttered foul things to herself for the rest of the day.

♢♢♢♢♢

It was Isolde, still hiding practically underneath Embla and trying to look in all directions at once as they made their way out of the square, who first noticed that Aidan had dropped to the back of the group, and then disappeared into the crowd. It was also Isolde who made the connection between this sudden absence and the fervent preaching that had been going on in the background, but which they had so far tried to ignore-- such doomsaying madmen were to be found in every major town and city, and Dragonspur was no exception to this rule.

However, for all that Isolde had not been here in many years, and the borders between Kelerak and Zeland, between a free and an enslaved realm, were watched closely, there was still enough trickle of news that seeped through to reach her ears. She worked it out quickly enough.

"Oh Bunga help us!" she gasped in true prayer. "We must get him back now! NOW! Follow me!"

Steeling her will, the halfling leapt out of cover and plunged into the masses, without care for who might see her. Embla thundered after her a second later, hand on the hilt of her sword, and forced her way through. Cries of surprise changed to anger and fear as she passed by, and the numerous bodyguards began to ready their weapons, placing themselves between the Erunian and their charges, and resisting the urge to pursue as Embla hurried past them.

Suddenly her path was blocked by a great shield slamming down in front of her, in its own way as battered and grizzled as the swarthy warrior who held it there. He was shockingly tall, nearly able to look her in the eye, and there was not the faintest hint of fear about him. Unlike that of the ordinary bodyguards about him, his mail was unpolished and bore only a single coat-of-arms, almost invisible under the accumulated dust and dirt of years of hardy service. Even his hair was cropped close to his skull in the historic fashion of the Farlandish battle-masters.

Embla felt the rage growing in her, but the aura of competence this warrior projected gave her pause. Unthinking fury would not help her if she had to fight this one. Slowly and deliberately, she angled herself towards him so that he could best appreciate the size of her weapon and her arms both. He matched her dance with a step of his own, adopting one of the classic combat stances pioneered by the legendary troll-hunters of ages past. As a space cleared all around them, and he drew his own sword from its scabbard, the pair carefully closed the distance between them.

"Let me pass, brave one," said Embla in a stern voice, and as he made no move to allow this: "You stand between me and my friends. I give you this chance to save your life."

"As my lord Neltak commands, I do offer you the same chance," the warrior countered formally. "Surrender your blade and you will live to be judged fairly. You have the word of Sir Kelphin of the Spur, as the gods do witness and we mortals do attest."

Embla considered this for a moment. Then she smiled. "I like you. I will let you live. You move or hurt. Five. Four. Three."

Before she reached 'two', she threw herself forward, ramming her shoulder into Kelphin`s shield. He had anticipated the attempt and braced himself against the charge, but even so the sheer force behind the impact nearly knocked him down. Kelphin could feel his opponent`s strength pressing against him and knew that any attempt to resist it in this position was doomed to failure. Instead, he allowed himself to be moved aside, returning the favour by heaving against his shield and using the warrior woman`s own inertia to push her away from him.

She recovered her footing cat-quick, though thankfully her monstrously oversized blade remained out of her hands. Kelphin readied himself for another clash, only for it not to come, as several soldiers of the Spur Elites emerged from the mass of onlookers and stood between them, dressed in their eye-catching royal blues. The most senior of them offered up a quick half-salute.

"Matthias ack-Baldwin, 3rd Division Archers," he spoke hastily, trying to calm the situation. "Hile Sir Kelphin, noblest defender of the Spur. May I present milord, and hile to you, friend Aslaug, she who wrestles the Battalion and Elites both. And guardian of master Brokk Loreseeker, companion of His Grace Burcan the White."

Kelphin frowned. "You do not suggest I permit her to pass by unhindered, purely due to whom she travels with, and their unproven connection to the Potentate? This... your 'friend Aslaug' disturbed the peace. At any moment, she was ready to draw sword and spill blood. She made a threat on my life. These are snubs to the sanctity of the laws of Keler that may not be brushed aside so easily."

"Valid points all, Sir Kelphin," Burcan`s voice reached them, a little breathless as he hurried up, a worried Brokk following as best he could. "And I assure you, recompense will be made for the insult made here to the laws. You have my word, as the gods do witness, and we mortals do attest."

That seemed to satisfy Kelphin and he relaxed his posture somewhat. "Thank you, Your Grace. You know where to find me when you need me."

"I do indeed," Burcan said, audibly relieved. "Now then, you two, we had best be after your friends before it is too late for at least one of them. If we are not too late already."

♢♢♢♢♢

They arrived to the sight of a makeshift podium surrounded by dozens of people, Aidan among them, standing enraptured by the preacher`s words, nodding in agreement at almost every other word. Isolde was tugging at the paladin`s sleeves and kicking him in the shins, trying to draw his attention away, but to no avail. As her efforts became more frantic, he simply waved her off without taking his eyes off the preacher, who-- despite all the commotion mere feet away-- had continued his inexhaustible exhortations and was clearly reaching a climax:

"Here in ourselves do we behold the chaos born of that blackness in the East! Insidious some call it, yet these are blinded by their own corruption. With every spoken word of foolishness and through every act of ignorance, the Darkest God recruits us to war against those who ought be our allies. Under a thousand crests do our houses stand, under a thousand banners do our forces march, and against a single unyielding adversary are we arrayed."

"A night, black and storm-lashed, has befallen our world. Yet just before the dawn is when the night is darkest, and the hottest flames of purification must be born as ember and spark. We must ignite torches of such brilliance that the sun itself shall rise to greet them! The long night shall pass and never return! Only in unity shall we have this strength! Only together shall we vanquish the foulest of our enemies! Hearken to me, friends, and together we shall cleanse the world of Sin! To me, to the Spur, and to a new, pure, glorious Kelerak!"

A great cheer rose up and the preacher finally rested his voice. The faintest of frowns passed briefly across his face, as if he was reviewing his speech and found some aspect of it wanting, but the thunderous applause from nobles and merchants and guards alike clearly went a way towards mollifying him. The expression returned, for longer this time, when he saw Burcan approaching.

"Good day, Your Grace," he announced loudly and boldly, not intimidated by the High Potentate of the two strongest churches in Kelerak. "What an honour it is to be graced, ah forgive me, blessed by your presence at my humble stand, here. Have you come to be enlightened, seared by the truth of the Ineffable Flame? All are welcome into the ever-burning embrace of Flamgart."

Burcan gave the preacher a look that could wither a forest. "The day I abandon the path of mercy for that of immolation is the day that Asmodeus is granted redemption."

The preacher did not seem remotely offended or surprised by the rejection. Instead, he turned his attention back to his enthralled listeners and raised his hands in thanks for their time, stepping down from the podium. As the crowd began to disperse, reforming into the smaller separate groups they had been in before he started speaking, he walked over to Burcan with a polite smile on his face. At the same time, Isolde finally broke through to Aidan, who looked especially contrite as he realised how he had been acting.

"All right Burcan, what do you want of me now? There is neither a legal nor a moral injunction against my bringing over people to my point of view. Especially not when it comes to a matter quite so important as the one we are all here to discuss."

"I want Kelerak to remain at peace with itself," Burcan said firmly, soft eyes now hard and unblinking. "And if anyone can keep that from happening without truly wanting to, it is you, Lord Starsul. Do not forget that when there is nothing left to burn, fire will die as well."

♢♢♢♢♢

Whilst the two Kelerites bickered, Aidan listened carefully to Isolde as she explained to him about Russel Starsul, a matchless demagogue and effectively the leader of the Flamgartian faith in Kelerak. As Aidan had experienced, his voice had a quality to it that demanded attention, a quality so potent that it bordered upon the supernatural, and only seemed to grow stronger in the presence of adversity. The rumours that had crossed the border in Zeland had certainly not done his charisma justice.

"If anything," Isolde added thoughtfully. "They undersold him as 'just' an unusually good speaker. By Bunga, for a moment I thought I`d start listening to him as well, and I knew what was happening! Thought for a bit I`d lost you to him. We. We`d lost you to him."

Aidan knelt down to meet her gaze, and smiled with genuine affection. "Aww, you do care. And Embla bet me a whole gold piece you tag along only because of a certain pair of dice."

Whatever Isolde was about to say to that was lost as a barely-choked-back howl of outrage reached their ears: "If you dare bring that madman here, I swear to Flamgart, your white robes will be stained red by day`s end, be it by my blood or his! None try the patience of others more than he, and next to me all others are as his dearest companions. You want Kelerak to be at peace with itself? Burcan, you naive old fool, he will have us at our own throats! Even that Moon-kissed Felmund has more sense than to summon that walking insult."

"Sun and Flame! Pray your god shows you the mercy he professes to embody, and you die before you see what your schemes have wrought of our nation! I shall pray you live instead, that I may set a fire in your flesh, and avenge Kelerak of your reducing her blazing heart to cold and windswept ashes."

With that dire pronouncement, Lord Starsul turned on his heel and strode away. In moments he was swallowed up by an admiring group of younger, "new money" nobility unashamedly seeking to ride his coattails (or more accurately, his ostentatiously plain and humble preacher`s robes) further up the political ladder. A more obvious dismissal was difficult to imagine, and even the calm, pale face of Burcan the White darkened in anger at the insult.

Aidan fought back his shock to voice the question: "Did...did he just threaten to burn you alive?"

Burcan nodded slowly, his breathing deep and measured as he strove to master his feelings. "I could never admit it to his face, but I feel such pity for the man. He has such a strength in his convictions and such a love for our country that he might unwittingly crush her in a heartfelt embrace. He would skin himself for such a deed, of course, and devise worse punishments for himself besides, but that would not undo the death of Kelerak."

"The wars to come must rise in the East, can he not see that? Such a fire he carries in his soul, ignited in but a tenth of the hearts of the faithful, could carry us to victory over the darkness. Nothing could withstand such a fervour, not even the blackest minion of the Dark Walker. Starsul is blessed, I truly believe that, by the Everflaming Lord, and I also truly believe his fire will burn us long before it does the enemy."

"Be that as it may, we may be able to delay that for a time. Bring me the Silver Duke. He is mad indeed, but he has wisdom enough to douse a flame that threatens to escape its hearth. Kelerak needs him, she will fall without him. And with Kelerak gone, how soon will Daven and then Kale follow her into darkness, and the monstrous days of Occupation return?"

Once again, Brokk reassured his old friend that they would do this for him, and hurriedly led the others in the opposite direction that Lord Starsul had taken. Just in case.

♢♢♢♢♢

Keenly aware of the need for haste, the group did as Brokk suggested, marching north out of Dragonspur immediately, though Brokk continued to ride in the cart to save his strength. They reached Eagle Grove a very impressive two days later, though even Embla was visibly flagging as they entered the city in the morning of their third day out from Dragonspur. In fact, it had become clear to everyone that something was troubling her above and beyond the growing chill in the air.

She had become sullen much of the time, even snapping irritably at the slightest comment that might concern her, and periodically slapped at her muscles as though trying to crush a particularly troublesome biting insect. The final straw came on the second night when Isolde had, in complete sincerity, suggested the two of them take a few minutes in private to talk about whatever it was.

Only the halfing`s reflexes had saved her from a concussion, fully leaping clear of the cart as Embla lashed out with clenched fist and bared teeth. After that, Aidan had told her to range ahead and find something else to kill, or else ride the rest of the way with Brokk holding a magical leash to her throat -- metaphorically speaking-- and she had disappeared into the night without another word.

The paladin had cursed himself for a fool, wondering if his words had inadvertently doomed some hapless traveller or local farmer, but whatever ailed Embla had yet to drive her completely over the edge. They came across her about an hour after waking, silently resharpening and polishing her sword over the shredded corpse of an owlbear.

The battle seemed to have calmed her somewhat, and they had pressed on to Eagle Grove without further issue, although Isolde had kept a prudent distance nonetheless. Meanwhile, Aidan let his healer`s eye examine Embla as they finished this part of their journey. What he saw both did and did not make sense.

It did make sense, because her behaviour was what he would have expected of someone suffering the earliest symptoms of a nervous-muscular disease, such as rabies. It did not make sense, because he had been standing right next to her as the priest of Fisherman`s Solace had healed the injuries inflicted by that terrifying dire wolf. Yet despite knowing this, a little voice of doubt spoke to him, asking if he had actually witnessed that healing. At that time, had he not been venting his anger at the blind prophet Tarsus? Might something have gone wrong, and they left before any lurking sickness in her veins was purged? But if that was the case, he asked himself, then why had she said nothing?

She cannot have been so arrogant as to think she could just throw off such a disease, he debated with himself. I saw in her eyes the understanding of how terrible it is. She is wild, not stupid! Foolish and impulsive, at times, yes, but not outright stupid! No, it must be something else.

He resolved to deal with the matter during whatever downtime they had whilst in the Eaglesreach, or at worst on their way back to Dragonspur. They would find out what was wrong, and how to fix it, and would do so. First, to find the Silver Duke, and second, to convince him to return with them to Dragonspur. Had Aidan but known the consequences of delaying, he would never have done so.

♢♢♢♢♢

Brokk looked aghast. "Please tell me that that babbling eyesore up there is a different local lunatic than the one we`ve come to collect."

"Oh no, that is the Silver Duke himself all right," Isolde confirmed glumly, remembering the face well enough. "I get the feeling you are about to learn exactly why he is considered a madman by the rest of Kelerak. I dread to think what he`s thought up now."

The four friends, along with a considerable gathering from all walks of life, stood watching the balcony of the Eagle Grove city hall, where stood an elderly gentleman with an oversized Kalais moustache and clothing garish enough to blind a bat. He was muttering to himself, as though trying desperately to recall exactly what he was going to say. The other onlookers were waiting with extraordinary patience, even a degree of eagerness in some faces. Whatever Marius Sonnesberg XII, the Silver Duke, as beloved of his people as loathed by his peers, had to say, they wanted to hear it.

"Right, or maybe left, depending on which way you stand," the Silver Duke began his announcement, his voice clear and strong despite his obvious age. "There was a reason I asked myself here today. Does anyone remember it? I had it written down, but in the early hours I pulled it from the mouth of one of my hounds in my nightclothes. How it managed to fit itself into those I will never know."

The assembled townsfolk snickered at the ancient joke and Brokk buried his face in his hands. "Kelerak is doomed."

"Just wait until he gets to the point," Isolde said. "Sounds like he`s really lost it."

There was an overlong pause as the Silver Duke considered his next words, having obviously actually forgotten whatever it was he had come to say. Suddenly, his face lit up as it came back to him, and he leaned forward, perilously close to falling straight off the balcony.

"Of course! I have decided that the sacred institution of marriage here in the Eaglesreach is to receive my personal blessing. As of this very day, all new brides are to spend their first wedded night in my own bedchamber."

The Silver Duke furrowed his brow, thinking on this, then nodded, satisfied. With a cheerful wave at his citizens, he stepped back from the balcony and walked into the city hall proper. Aidan nearly bit his tongue, teeth gnashing in outrage, but stopped himself from roaring his fury when he realised that something strange was happening around him. There was a silence from the crowd around him that was not hostile to the proclamation, nor even disbelieving, but merely anticipatory.

A few moments passed, then the Silver Duke reappeared, flustered and red in the face. "I should have said, new brides should also bring their husbands to spend their wedding night in my bedchamber, whilst my wife and I sleep elsewhere. Thus on this most special of nights, they shall have the most comfortable bed in the land to themselves."

Now the crowd pressed forward, cheering and applauding with enthusiasm enough to nearly knock Aidan off his feet. As he steadied himself, shielding Brokk from the surging mass, he tried to convince himself he had heard exactly what he just had, and felt his mind buckling under the strain of doing so.

"Well, in a sense I was right," Isolde commented, trying to make light of her own shock. "No other nobleman would dream of making such an offer. So, what do you think of Marius Sonnesberg, twelfth of his name, and twelve times as crazy as any twelve lords put together? Take your time. I`ve had years and I still can`t come to a decision."

♢♢♢♢♢

Much to everyone`s relief, getting an audience with the duke proved to be immeasurably simpler than it had been to meet with Burcan the White, and turned out to require nothing more than waiting in line with the other supplicants looking for ducal justice. As most of the cases were read out to him, the Silver Duke waved a hand or his cane to one of his aides, indicating which of them was to take responsibility for achieving a settlement in the matter.

With a very few, all of them children who had heard their parents talk of how they had been helped by going to the Silver Duke, and who bravely thought he could do the same for their own insurmountable problems, he fully rose from his chair and knelt down beside them. So made smaller and safer in their eyes, he listened to their halting speeches, encouraging with soft words and softer pats to the head or shoulder, and when they had finished, whispered his secret advice into their ear and sent them away smiling and hopeful.

Aidan had never seen anything like it in his life, and Brokk, who had for a time tutored the spoilt sons and daughters of nobility, wondered that anyone who ruled could be so compassionate. Then at last it was their turn. Though Brokk had argued he should speak their case, as it was he of whom Burcan had asked this favour, Isolde overrode him with a simple and compelling argument.

"The last time a man asked the Silver Duke to leave the Eaglesreach, it was an unusually proactive agent of Sloth hailing from the Havenish isle of Macadeimon. When the Silver Duke found out, before he killed the agent he cut off his... well, you know what they grow on Macadeimon. Better that a woman makes the request."

So, even taking the time to splash some water on her face and wash the hard travel away, Isolde mentally rehearsed what she was going to say. It would need to be exactly the right mixture of honesty and intrigue to compel him to leave this sanctuary and rejoin the turbulent world of the Kelerite barons and merchant princes. She was a quick thinker, but the importance of this was not lost on her and so Isolde took care to review everything several times as she waited. Naturally, the plan all fell apart almost as soon as she stepped forward and attempted a curtsy, as the Silver Duke`s eyes lit up in recognition.

"Well now, if it isn`t the young missy with sticky fingers and unlucky friends," he exclaimed jovially, clapping his hands. "These ones you have now look much better than the last one you visited me with! All that skin on them still, and every bit inside or out as it is supposed to be."

Isolde winced at the return of unpleasant memories. "Milord Sonnesberg, Silver Duke of the Eaglesreach, Beloved of Bestra and Restorer of Her Faith, I humbly come before you-"

"Koorlsh was a naughty boy back then," the Silver Duke interrupted, a faraway look in his eyes. "Probably still is, actually. I sent him east after that affair. Raving about filthy little hositan stealing his precious rings all the while. Had a real bee in his bonnet. Very difficult to get him to wear a bonnet, you know. He looked ridiculous until I had it painted to match his skin tone. Quite fetching then, in a strange sort of way."

"Gracious Duke Sonnesberg XII," Isolde pressed on desperately. "I am here by request of Burcan the White, High Potentate of Heshtail and Reannan, who wishes to..."

"Last I heard my old seneschal was spending unseemly amounts of time in noctician company. You know, those night giants out of Old Cadez? Dreadfully boring creatures. I hear they can spend ten hours a day just talking about rules and laws and protocols, trying to understand them perfectly so that they can bring them down more easily. As if the quickest way to getting what you wanted was not simply going after it, but instead dancing around your question and never drawing closer to anything resembling a point. Planning for a future without leaving the past is one way to go."

Isolde sighed, suddenly seeing through the mad duke`s coded words. As he paused to take a breath, fully intent on continuing his verbal avalanche, she straightened up, inclined her head back just enough to hint that she was looking down her nose at him, and stared him insolently in the eyes. As the final touch, she threw off the adopted accent of a decent education and good breeding, and reverted to the true tones of a Zelish hositan gutter runner.

"Why don`t you just shut your backside and give your mouth a chance to talk, prune face!"

For the space of a heartbeat, there was a horrified silence. With a sudden, fluid movement that belied his age, the Silver Duke rose to his feet, unaided by the cane that he now held as he might a fencing foil at rest. He glared down at the halfling. Then he let loose a single, sharp bark of laughter.

"That there`s the sweet missy who visited me last! A joy to see you again, my dear. This time, you and your friends will be actual guests. Just between you and me, and the fifty other people listening in, I still have some of Old Norey`s Eastern Blend in dire need of pipe and flame, hmm?"

♢♢♢♢♢

"It`s a leaf. Gold and silver, spent on two caravans of leaves. You do know that come autumn...?"

Brokk and Aidan looked at each other wearily and, for the umpteenth time, attempted to explain to a disturbingly calm Embla about the multitude of uses for pipeleaf, and especially its most popular and profitable one, whilst Isolde and the Duke and Duchess Sonnesberg looked on in amusement. No matter how many times or how simple an explanation was given, the Erunian seemed utterly incapable of grasping the concept.

"You can just chew the leaves? Then spit out the mash. That last part I understand. But then you chew more leaves!"

Following the first meeting with the Silver Duke, the four had been escorted to his estate, where Isolde had preemptively warned against the other three from attacking the orc-blooded guards on sight, in case they thought them to be brigands in the middle of raiding the place or something similar.

"Yes, I can see that sticking it in your nose would make you sneeze. Why do you want that again?"

The Duchess Brigid Sonnesberg, already informed of their arrival by a runner, had taken charge of them immediately, and even Embla had gone along with her orders without argument ("Teach me," Aidan had begged only half-jokingly). Once she had deemed them suitably rested and presentable, the duchess had personally ushered them to the dining hall to eat their fill before the Silver Duke returned from his more usual duties and their own request could be discussed with the time and care it deserved.

"So you set fire to leaves, and breathe in the smoke. Why not just stand in front of a fireplace?"

It had surprised all of them, even Isolde, to learn that the duchess was so very much younger than her husband, enough so to be his granddaughter, but the news that she was no Kelerite, but a Anarian of the Rindar, the Bear Tribe, had truly shocked them. Another sign of both the Silver Duke`s madness and his genius, in that he had married one of the ancestral enemies of his people, and in doing so secured the northern borders against them. In hindsight, both the breadth of her wrestler`s shoulders and the shortness of her bear-black hair ought to have clued them in to her heritage far sooner.

"Who thought to, wait no, wrong question. How did they convince anyone else to stick burning leaves in their mouth?"

That evening, the duke and duchess entertained the four friends privately. They had made it quite clear that rushing this matter was not an option, and so the day neared its end in a far more sedate fashion than had been envisaged at its start. And since whatever plagued Embla had apparently receded upon encountering the duchess, there was nothing to fear from her either, beyond infuriating ignorance.

"Next you`ll be rolling these leaves into little pieces of parchment for convenience. Keep an unlit one behind your ear until you want it."

As had already been demonstrated, the Silver Duke was a good listener, and genuinely interested in hearing what other people had to say. One of the things he was most interested in, he confided, was what had happened to 'the dear girl' after he had arranged her escape, and how she had met with her current companions. Isolde leaned back in her chair, half-smiling, half-frowning, thinking back to that meeting. After a short while, she knew how she should begin.

"Well, as you can probably guess," she started the story. "It was my sticky fingers that got me involved with that motley bunch over there...."

♢♢♢♢♢

FOURTH INTERLUDE

There was always a need for more money in the gutters of Zel City. Always there were more bribes that needed to be paid, and always did these bribes tend to become more expensive and more dangerous. The chaos resulting from the collapse of the Association and the subsequent purges of its remnant components by Orlander drow sensing opportunity had given the Ballussia clan more breathing room than they had any right to hope for. They knew better than to assume that it would last.

Ironically, with all this having been brought about by his daughter, it was Panta Amero Ballussia, who had survived being a freelancer during the days of the Association only by virtue of being married to one of its most feared guildmasters, who now held much of the power and retained most of his connections in the criminal underworld of the Twin Kingdoms of Zeland and Orland.

One of these connections now sent word of a potentially very lucrative opportunity just over the border in the Disputed Zone at Rochehome. There, a half-elven mercenary leader who was quite clearly a paladin in disguise-- and given his offensively red hair, clearly a Zelish one at that-- was putting out a call for adventurers to join him in a warlock hunt, with the local authorities supporting this endeavour on the grounds of any discovered coven being an illegal organisation and therefore treasonous.

All that was needed, so the message read, was for a skilled agent to be embedded in the party sent after the coven, or at worst to tail them. After that, it would be a simple matter to pilfer whatever riches were uncovered, and then reveal the so-called "mercenary" as a paladin to the garrison commander at Fort Zel. The reward for that "good" deed alone would certainly open up many future doors in the Rochehome region, and current evidence suggested that it might even grant some access to the uncharted reaches of the Greatkin Quarter down in Old Cadez.

When this last part was queried, it emerged that the half-elf paladin was often seen in the company of a barbarian woman of tremendous size and ferocity. As she was plainly inhuman, and trying to treat her elseways would be far too much effort for the languorous officials of Sloth, there was the distinct possibility that she might even end up becoming sponsored by a bazok or even an ogre war-caller looking for some added muscle to advance in the ranks.

It went without saying that if this was to be encouraged by, for example, a well-placed hositan infiltrator on good terms with this gigantic brute, the benefits could be extraordinarily long-lasting. It also went without saying that the best person for such a job was the last one that Panta wanted to place in such a dangerous situation. Oluks and bazoks, drow and duergar, corrupt officials and rival career criminals, bounty hunters and mercenary leaders-- all these were unpleasant, but manageable natural predators of hositan in the Occupied Kingdoms. Adventurers, especially paladins, were a vastly more unpredictable threat.

Not that, realistically, there was much of a choice here. Isolde was the best suited to this job, and it was becoming ever more necessary to secure new and improved sources of funding to keep everyone at least in the pretence of safety. So within a week, she was dispatched south to Rochehome, and to a destiny she could not have imagined.

♢♢♢♢♢

The usual selection was on display. Vagrants and fools most of them, seeing only the promise of coin at first, then fleeing when hearing what was needed to earn it. Isolde despaired of anyone worthy approaching the half-elf, and began to foresee she would have to apply for a position herself in order to get this expedition moving.

The only individual that had thus far stayed long enough to be accepted was a withered husk of a dwarf that claimed a nebulously unspecific "considerable skill with the art of magic" as the talent that he could bring. Less encouragingly, his whole demeanour was that of a death-seeker, and when Isolde ventured to speak with him in the guise of a curious onlooker wondering what his reason was for volunteering for such a mission, he had looked at her with such bleakness in his eyes that the halfling had shrunk back in genuine dismay.

"What does it matter?" he had asked, a question to which she could find no answer, and so crept away with shivers trickling along her arms.

She had feared the whole thing was going to be called off when the half-elf was accosted by a group of drow in the town square, no more than petty thugs, but still enough of them to kill a lone warrior before anyone could help, though nobody would because that would only have been suicide. That was her first, and mistaken, reading of the encounter.

As Isolde watched the half-elf wait for the brutality to begin, she noticed how calmly he stood, as if unconcerned by the prospect of his immediate death. He exchanged barbs and taunts with the drow, drawing it out as long as he could, and by the way he kept turning his head as if to look at one of his enemies in particular, Isolde realised that he was actually checking on the approach of an ally, and that he had been waiting here in order to meet with them.

The would-be ambushers did not, however, come to this same realisation. They were nearly as surprised as Isolde was when the huge warrior woman and the withered dwarf entered the square, sized up the situation, and promptly waded into the group, fists and spells flying. Mordularian curses and more prosaic screams filled the air as the ambush was turned against its makers, and magical flames seared those whose bones were not broken by savage blows.

One of the drow, too confident to realise his own stupidity, drew a sword against the woman. Her hand closed upon his before he could raise the blade to strike, and there was a moment of unimaginable pain before the blessed release of death as she gripped his shoulder and tore his entire sword-arm free from his body. Whereas the dwarf`s expression had been as bleak and empty as a winter famine, Isolde noted that of the woman was a joyful rage, delighting in the spray of blood and the crack of bone, as she used the severed limb to beat a second drow into the ground.

Most of those who had been in the area when the violence began had fled, of course, but a few stayed. Most of those had vested interests, and they recognised Isolde watching the unfolding battle the same as she recognised them. Wordless communication of eye and gesture asked them to run interference when the city guard came to investigate, and then Isolde burst out, daggers at the ready, to slice and carve and tear at the terrified, fleeing drow.

"Nothing but an impulse I`ll come to regret," she would say to the half-elf afterwards. "Enough of them got away to be able to pick me out of a crowd and get revenge. I have to leave, go back home to Zel City."

Then, though it hurt her pride to do so, she gave the half-elf an awkward hug and deliberately failed to lift his coin-purse at the same time. A simple ruse that only a paladin would fall for, and this one did not disappoint. He grabbed her arms, angered by the 'attempted' thievery, and threatened to turn her into the authorities for it.

She pleaded with him, hating every aspect of this feeble role she had to play, and it did not take more than a few minutes for him to 'suggest' that she could earn redemption by joining him and his companions on their quest. Naturally, since it was precisely what Isolde had intended, she accepted.

♢♢♢♢♢

The next two months had been life-changing, of course. Even discounting the horrific experience of capture and near-sacrifice or worse at Mavarra, Isolde could not have gone on as she had previously. The pay was erratic, to say the least, but far greater than anything she had earned as a common thief, and the option to travel almost wherever she chose had its own appeal. More importantly, however, was the rush of power she felt. Suddenly the danger posed by adventurers was her danger to impose on others.

Bandits threatening a crossroads? Kill them, take their coin, get praised for it. Monster terrorising a village? Kill it, loot the remains of its victims, get paid and praised by those who had escaped being its next victims. Hints of corruption (in the Occupied Kingdoms? Oh, surely not, say it is not so)? Kill the corrupt, take their coin, and seek out a wealthier wretch whose death would be just.

It would be entirely fair to say that Isolde, upon realising the perks of her new life, reacted in exactly the same way as many of the adversaries she had already or would later face when they had first found themselves in her position: by indulging every appetites she had once had no chance of enjoying, from the mundane pleasures of food and drink, to the more lasting of the exercise of power.

Unlike many before her, however, Isolde had a moral compass to steer her away from the excesses that sought to bind her to Sin. Her three great friends, and the shared nightmare of Mavarra, served as a constant reminder of what in her heart she did not want to become. It was a struggle to change her ways, of course-- the nationwide curse of the Lord of Sloth, encouraging the eternal absence of change or effort, and of the enjoyment of whatever pleasures came easiest to you were hard to throw off.

Perhaps what saved her in the end was the very notoriety the four were beginning to amass. The Occupied Kingdoms were no place for heroics, after all, and travelling with a paladin only seemed to ensure that heroism was a daily obstacle for her to face. The word from the Ruin Wood in the far west of Daven had come at exactly the right time for them. Indeed, they later learned that they had departed Victoria barely a day in advance of the troops sent to arrest them for a variety of offences, some of which were even genuine and included the all-time favourite, aiding and abetting a servant of the outlawed gods.

As with any such endeavour, almost as soon as the first effort was actually made to change for the better, it began to get easier day by day. Her tendency to gamble increased somewhat, especially with her favourite pair of dice-- that is, until Aidan confiscated them for the first time following an especially unfortunate roll-- but she no longer actively stole or cheated, and she put aside ever more of what she earned to send back to her family and ease the struggle she had all but escaped.

It was not a perfect life, but it was certainly one she could live with.

♢♢♢♢♢

The story told, Isolde sighed contentedly as she looked back at her three finest and dearest companions, still arguing over the merits of pipeleaf (this time restarting from "But why chew it, spit it out, and then chew more?" and so it went on and on), and then back to their hosts.

"You said Burcan wants me to silence the barons," the Silver Duke suddenly said. "Because a whole new barony may be created and thus set them all to feuding more openly over it."

A little surprised by the change in conversation, Isolde took a moment to recall the basics of what she had originally wanted to say to him before agreeing. The Silver Duke was silent, deep in thought, for nearly a minute.

"Starsul is gathering support, is he not? And even Felmund is attending the meetings? I see. This is very interesting. But not enough. Not yet. You, my dear, I understand. Your short and tall friends, from what I hear of them, I understand as well. That paladin however, requires an education greater than any he has received so far."

Aidan looked over at that remark, frowning. "I want to prevent a civil war as much as anyone else here. Is that not enough for you, Duke Sonnesberg?"

"For me? I never said 'for me'. There are others I must consider if I am to leave. I know what people say of me. I have even understood it for longer than you have lived. I do not understand you, though. Not yet. Again. I must see what you think of what you see first, or maybe second, before I can decide if I will come at all. You see, there is a matter of great importance I must see resolved before I could possibly make the journey to Dragonspur."

"Just a little further to the northeast are some of the richest pastures in the Eaglesreach. Hositan pastures, mostly, though you would not know it to look at them. Some human villages help to keep things going as they ought to, but, if this means what I think it does to you, little missy, the region is sometimes called Hynaphlund."

Isolde nodded. "Centaurs. A respectable arrangement between their people and mine. They work our fields, protect us from enemies, and in return, we pay them in food and stabling, and various other services. Most dark folk are too stupid to see that centaurs would never work their own fields! The pact has certainly held for hundreds of years, thousands even."

"But it is straining ever closer to the breaking point," the Silver Duke said. "And since the centaurs suddenly disappeared from the farms over the same three days that followers of the Dark God attacked the villages and killed or carried off a great many people, only to return after the attacks had ended...."

"That`s your price for coming with us to Dragonspur?" Aidan asked in surprise. "Find out what a bunch of centaurs were doing whilst their neighbours were being butchered? I hate to say it, but I wouldn`t be entirely surprised to find out they were involved. Centaurs hate being tied down to one place. Making them farmers is a terrible idea. Some of them would snap under the pressure eventually. Obviously, we`ll do it. We, Burcan, Kelerak, all of us, need you at Dragonspur soon."

The Silver Duke said no more, but appraised Aidan closely. Whatever thoughts passed through his head then, he kept to himself.

♢♢♢♢♢

Shortly before noon on the following day, the four disembarked the carriage provided them for a swifter journey to the farmsteads, and almost immediately saw the extent of the problem facing them. The hamlets here had been devastated by the raids, and none of the buildings above ground were still standing. Many of the hositan burrows had clearly been dug up as well, leaving the survivors with little in the way of shelter of any kind.

The fields were overgrown with weeds, the few remaining crops being strangled by grasses and ivies, and most were left untended. Those few that still had any attention paid to them was by small groups of exhausted humans and halflings fighting to make use of equipment made for creatures far larger than themselves. Much larger groups of centaurs, of all sorts and breeds, could be seen sunning themselves on the hillsides, watching their former employers struggle, and making no move to help.

"Typical hynaph behaviour," Isolde sneered, upon taking in the sight. "Abandon everything the moment things become difficult and don`t shift a hoof to put things back together again after. Having these farms revert to wilderness would suit their lazy selves right down to the weed-choked ground, it would. They could go back to being grazers. Ugh."

"We need to track down the raiders and get back whoever is still alive. Bolster the locals` numbers and get these feckless brutes back to work. Maybe then things can get back to normal around here. Look there, perfect example! That`s a man shackled to a plough! You don`t shackle people to ploughs, you shackle animals. Centaurs if you can get them, obviously, at least that way you can explain what needs doing and leave them to it."

Brokk glanced at her in surprise. "Your entire life has been spent in the hustle and bustle of cities, or as a vagrant in search of gold and silver. And yet, you speak as though you and your family have been personally wronged by centaurs for the last ten generations!"

The halfling continued to scowl in the general direction of the centaurs as she answered: "My people have lost nearly everything. What little is left us is remembered, and remembered well and long after. Even after all we have done for them, the hynaph look down on us, like they`re better than us. As if they could be happier without working our farms, or joining our feasts, or taking advantage of our smithies for their shoes and weapons! They get fed, and paid, and armed, and sheltered, and still they complain or shy away from their duties? Theirs is a better life than any they would have without us! They`d be no better than those wild herds that the dark folk hunt for sport!"

"Arguments for another time," Aidan interrupted hastily, taking charge. "But you are right that we must try to hunt down the dark folk that did this, if they are still in the area, and rescue any of their prisoners. And we must make that a priority, else we risk having fewer prisoners left to save, and more bodies to give a proper burial. First, tracking. Embla, physical tracks. Brokk, divinations, if you have the strength. Isolde, just be polite, and take me to whoever would be in charge now."

So with something akin to a plan, they divided and began the search. Surprisingly, the route taken by the raiders on their way out of the farmsteads was not only quickly found, but actually pointed out to them by the survivors. None had pursued, in part because most of the first few brave souls that had tried were cut down by arrow and spell, and in part because any further sign had resulted in one of the prisoners being killed and dumped on the path as a very effective warning.

It was this last piece of information that caused Embla to snap again, screaming insults at the cowardice and weakness of these traumatised farmers before Brokk, not even waiting for Aidan`s command, took her voice away-- and then had to immediately bind her to stillness as she turned on him in a silent fury. It took nearly an hour before her heavy, wrathful breathing returned to something approaching normality, and the wizard cautiously returned her voice to extract a promise of self-restraint.

After that, Aidan was convinced that she had indeed been infected with rabies by the dire wolf, and that the disease had absolutely not been cleansed from her. Under normal circumstances, he would simply have sent her back to Eagle Grove to receive the necessary healing spell. Unfortunately, he did not have that as a choice at the moment.

The reports from the survivors were unequivocal in the number and strength of the raiders, and Aidan knew that they would need Embla to defeat them and rescue the prisoners. The longer they delayed, the fewer would live to be returned to their families and what remained of their homes. The paladin consoled himself with the thought that in her current state, Embla would likely be even more dangerous to the enemy than usual. Of course, he also suspected that he would regret bringing her along for this mission.

As things turned out, he was absolutely right on both counts.

TO BE CONTINUED