Session One Hundred and Fifty - February 16, 2019

Wherein the ongoing story of the FtF campaign may be found ...

Session One Hundred and Fifty - February 16, 2019

Postby Matt » Thu Apr 11, 2019 9:48 pm

Kelen 17, 733

“In The Hall of the Mountain King”

The Palace of Tasokin vibrated with tension. Lord Ewen and his retinue spent the morning spit-shining greaves, brushing velvet, cleaning teeth with sticks, doing whatever they could to idealize their appearance. That day they would dine with the King of Azadmere.

Ewen frowned, trying to discern the finer points of diplomatic haberdashery. He had been informed that armor was acceptable at Khuzan banquets. Did that mean it was therefore de rigueur? If he were to wear his Sindarin armor, would the dwarves be impressed by the craftsmanship or offended by its fey nature?

In the end, Ewen decided to wear the mail. Its shimmer gave an air of resplendence to his movement. The effect was worth the risk. Sir Baris and Goreg were similarly ordered to don armor, although it was made clear Baris should leave his boar helmet in his chamber.

Cekiya, unconcerned over her appearance or what might await them in the Inner City, decided that as everyone else had busied themselves with a task, she might as well too. She waited for Lord Ewen to leave the room and then she sidled over to Goreg who was polishing the peer’s mail. “Er, I’ll be right back,” said Goreg, a bit unnerved at the Adder’s proximity and intense curiousity.

“Take your time,” she said affably. That should have alerted him.

On the far side of the room, Qorsad the Swift dozed on the mantle. Cekiya ambled aimlessly about, looking at this item and that. Circling, and gaining a bit on the little serpent with each pirouette. All at once, she darted out a hand, but the amphitere was not so easily fooled. Unable to take wing on the small space and elude her at the same time, he leapt to the floor, only to have Cekiya somersault over him. There she crouched, and there Qorsad squatted. For a moment, they faced off, and then the amphitere feinted left to dart under the bed to the right. Such an obvious maneuver was child’s play to the Navas-Kara, and she easily grabbed hold of the serpent’s tail. Stricken with terror, Qorsad invaded her mind telepathically only to be repelled by the morass of impulses. A gigantic flash of light separated the two, Qorsad fleeing to the safety of the bed while Cekiya was left holding aloft her prize – a single scale from the amphitere. She stashed it in her pouch as the door opened and Lord Ewen returned. “I shall see if there are seed cakes,” Cekiya announced, and slipped out the door just as Goreg came down the hallway.

Precisely at noon, a blare of trumpets erupted at the door of the palace. Lord Relkazan admitted a squad of six heavily armed dwarves, each carrying one of the shortened halberds they had seen Sergeant Kelak use, escorting a herald, whom they remembered from their entrance to the city.

The herald banged his staff of office and shouted “The Baron of Ternua is invited to attend the King’s Grace!”

“I stand ready to accept the King’s hospitality.”

The honor guard pivoted 180 degrees and marched from the palace. The party fell in among them, with two guards in front, two to the flanks, and two behind. Lord Relkazan brought up the rear. Goreg, proudly and carefully, carried the fine chest containing the royal gifts, the Queen’s letter, and Ewen’s personal gift for the King.

The party proceeded through the ring of structures that included the Tasokin Palace towards the northwest, towards the mountain. Upon reaching the place where the canal from the lake met the Inner City, they found a staircase, curving up around the rock face. Up, up, up they climbed, as high as a castle roof. Finally they reached a line of battlements guarding the Inner City, each merlon carved with an individual dwarven face. A catapult waited at the ready. Standing at the top of the staircase were more armed dwarves, dressed in purple livery, guarding an entryway into the living rock of the mount. The portcullis stands open, inviting.

Goreg hoped it would not be too much further. His arms were feeling the weight of his responsibility.

Tall, thin windows lined the face of the entrance to the Inner City. In places the rock was left unworked, natural; in others the surface was ornately carved, the work of centuries of dwarven sculptors. The corridor widend. Stairs led up to the left and down to the right. Then they met another group of dwarves: four more dwarves-at-arms wearing the same purple livery and an older dwarf in fine clothes. The latter had a broad gold belt, from which hung a warhammer.

“Welcome to the Inner City of Azadmere, honored guests from Kaldor. I am Prince Darthil, Steward of Azadmere.”

Ewen bowed. “We are grateful and honored by the privilege of entering the Inner City.”

The prince bowed in return. “Welcome. Come this way.” He turned left to a corridor, down which the party proceeded about fifty feet. On yet another archway, heavy brocade curtains had been drawn aside and tied. Beyond that, they entered the Hall of the Mountain King.

None of them had ever seen a larger chamber. One hundred feet end to end, thirty feet across, twenty-five feet high. You could fit a street block from Tashal in the space. Yet no pillar gave support to the massive chamber, only buttresses elegantly implanted in the walls, the epitome of dwarven art and architecture. Stained glass window stood in ranks along the sides, throwing brilliant colored rays onto the tiled floor. In the intervals between the windows hung immense tapestries, depicting scenes out of history and beasts both true and legend.

Ewen was careful not to gape. The remainder of the party could not do likewise.

The hall was filled with dwarves, sitting at large, long tables, all up and down its immense length. At either end was a dias. The one of the left was raised and flanked by burning braziers; the one to the right A group of Khuzan musicians, bearing horns, lutes, and some sort of bagpipes sat in the middle of the room, but did not play.

Prince Darthil led the party towards the raised table on the far left. Just before the dais there was an empty table. When they reached it, the prince gestured to Ewen’s retainers should sit. The Baron himself was led up to the High Table, where waited Lord Relkazan and--the only human besides the party in the room--the Baron of Habe.

“Well met, Lord Ternua.”

“And you, Lord Habe. Very good to see you again.”

Ewen was given the seat to the immediate right of the King’s empty chair.

Prince Darthil faced the room. The butt of his staff boomed through the hall. All rose to their feet.

“All hail his Grace, King Hazmadul III of Azadmere!”

The musicians blew a fanfare on their horns. At the far end of the hall, a pair of Khuzan entered the Great Hall. One was older, gray haired, and bore a heavy crown upon his brow. They proceeded down the center of the tables. The dwarves shouted as they passed, pounding their tankards like thunder. The King smiled, seeming to enjoy the adulation of his people. When they reached the dais, he mounted the steps slowly, with great dignity. He turned toward the cheering masses, raised his hands, then let them drop.

You could have heard a mouse scuttle in the corner.

The King took his seat, with the younger dwarf who had escorted him to his left. Two guards slipped behind him, their halberds sharp enough to cut stone.

“Your Grace, this is the Baron of Ternua,” Darthil said.

The King looked up at Ewen. Ewen bowed.

The King gave a slight recognizing nod. “From Kaldor, are you?”

“Yes, your Grace.”

“New queen, you have.”

“Indeed yes, your Grace. Chelebin IV is her name.”

“Hmm. Chelebin IV? I remember Chelebin III. I never met her, but she was queen when I became king.”

“Her memory is held in great esteem. She was a paragon of chivalry.”

“Lucky name, then.”

“We all so believe, your Grace, and we thank you for saying so. Queen Chelebin gives greetings to you.”

“Does she?”

“She extends her warm hand of friendship, and ongoing fraternal comity.”

“Well said! Did you practice that?”

“A little bit, your Grace.”

“It’s important to do that.” The King conversed in flawless Harnic.

Darthil pounded his staff to alert the hall. “You may be seated!”

The chair immediately to the left of the King sat vacant. “You must forgive the absence of my Queen. She has been feeling under the weather of late, and avoids any situation that might prove taxing.”

“I understand and regret to hear that her Grace is not feeling well. I hope she is restored to health swiftly.”

The King grunted his thanks as servants swarmed the table, pouring libations and setting hors d’oeuvres in small bowls and on trenchers.

“By your speech, you are a western man,” the King said.

“Your Grace is perceptive. I was born in the west of the island, and am a relative newcomer to Kaldor.”

“And yet you are also of Melderyn?”

Ewen managed not to betray a hint of reaction to this casually-tossed conversational grenade. “Your Grace is correct. My heritage is that of Melderyn.”

“A cosmopolitan fellow. An interesting choice of ambassador for your Queen. I’m going to have to be on my toes with this one!”

A dwarf at the far end of the table chuckled.

“That is my son, the Crown Prince.”

Ewen bowed. “I am greatly honored.”

“I always have to watch my step when he comes here. I keep him in Zerhun so he doesn’t have a chance to poison my wine!”

“Father ...” The prince was obviously discomfited, but still tried to take it as the joke, if a joke in poor taste. Ewen chuckled a bit, to show savoir faire in the face of patricide.

“So I imagine you have a whole list of things you want to talk about while I will no doubt--” The King’s voice was cut off when the minstrels suddenly launched in song. Darthil banged his staff until they stopped. “Where was I? Oh, right. I’m sure you have a long list of things you want to bore me with. Please just give it to Prince Darthil. If there’s anything I need to worry about, he’ll tell me.”

“As it please your Grace.”

“Just so you know, the answer to everything is ‘No.’ At least that’s where I start. Sometimes I can be persuaded to a ‘Maybe,’ rarely to a ‘Yes.’ It’s the only way to king, you know,” he finished with a wink.

“I understand, your Grace. Your Grace will understand that the Queen has bid me present you with this letter, and these gifts as a token of her esteem.”

Goreg, hearing his cue, carried the casket containing the royal gifts up the dais. He bowed, demonstrating fine form, placed the casket on the table opposite the King, opened the lid, and, head bowed again, placed the letter on the table.

Prince Darthil produced a small silver rod from his sleeve. With a flick of motion, it telescoped to several times its original length. Ewen was astounded at the craftsmanship; he couldn’t see a hint of seam on the thing. Darthil used the extended tool to grab the letter and pull it to his hands. He scanned the missive, then placed it and the re-collapsed rod back into his tunic.

The King nodded. “Now, what about the gifts? This is my favorite part!”

Inside the casket was a slip of parchment with an inventory of its contents. Ewen leaned over and removed it, in order to present the gifts in sequence.

First came spices: cardamon, cinnamon, saffron, pepper, and cloves. They had made the long journey from unthinkably distant lands. The King sniffed appreciatively at each in turn.

Then a box of pearls, each individually wrapped in a twist of silk, about two dozen in all. They ranged in width from no bigger than a few grains of sand to the size of grapes. Some white, some blueish, some pink, a handful of yellow, but the largest ones were black, shining jet, and the grandest of all was a ebony orb that Ewen swore must have been a full six carats, a gem with which a man could purchase a kingdom.

The King picked out one of the blue ones, about four carats. “Put that aside,” he said to Darthil. “We shall have it set for the new queen of Kaldor.” Then he held up the giant black pearl. “And this for my Queen.”

The next prize seemed humbler: a large bag of leather, sealed with wax. When the king broke the seal, a warm brown aroma enveloped the table. The bag was full of the finest Thardan pipeweed, blended by Master Tobacconist Parmen of Merros.

“Wow!” said the King, a boyish joy in his eyes. “Let’s give it a try! Darthil leaned in toward the bag, but his King waved him away.

“Do you employ your relatives?” he said, leaning in toward Ewen.

“Yes, your Grace, in a manner of speaking.”

“It’s hard to fire them.”

“I understand the conundrum, your Grace.”

Each table setting included a rack of pipes. Darthil filled the bowls with Parmen’s handiwork and passed them to his liege and Ewen. “You may indulge,” the King announced. Soon every guest had a pipe in one hand and a tankard in the other, and ale flowed enough even for Baris.

“Now the minstrels!” the King ordered. Darthil pounded his staff once more, and music filled the hall.

Ewen leaned over to the King and said “If it please your Grace, I hope your Grace will as well accept these several containers of brandy from my personal estate, as a humble token for the hospitality shown us in this your kingdom.”

“So you didn’t think we’d have enough to drink and you brought your own!”

“Not at all, Your Grace.”

“Then I shall have to try it.” The King gestured toward a page. “Pour this out to everyone.”

A measure of the brandy went to everyone around the royal table. Ewen took a sip. It was smoother than he recalled. The journey must have helped it.

The King evidently liked the brandy, because he gestured for more. After a heaping snort or two, he nodded to Darthil. The steward reached under his chair and produced, from a hidden compartment, a small, elegantly carved box, which he handed to the King to open.

Inside the box were rings. Hazmadul sorted through them. “Ambassadors get so little reward,” he said.

“Service to my Queen is the highest reward,” Ewen replied.

“Then this will have to be a close second.” The King handed Ewen a heavy gold ring set with a two-carat purple stone. Even to the untrained eye, it was obviously worth a small fortune.

“A very close second, your Grace. I very much esteem and thank you for this signal honor.”

“Are those your retainers over there? Hmm—two, three ... My Lord of Habe, could I press you into service as a pack mule?”

“At any time, your Grace.”

The King selected four more rings and sent the baron over to the table where Baris and the others sat. He addressed Cekiya first, then Arva, Goreg and Baris in turn: “A gift from the King of Azadmere.” Each received a ring, lighter than Ewen’s and set with smaller green stones, but still extremely valuable.

Darthil’s box disappeared back into his chair.

Now came the first course. A horde of waiters appeared, depositing in front of each guest a covered goblet. What could wait inside?

The lids were removed to reveal a grayish domelike substance. Lord Ewen’s retainers looked back and forth at each other, all bewildered as to what kickshaw they were being offered.

The dwarven guard seated next to Baris picked up a large spoon and wolfed into the gray mass. Seeing the human’s confusion, he announced with pleasure “Ah! Chilled Gargun brains!”

The King, watching Baris, remarked “Is your man going to be sick? There’s a lavatory in the back.”

Goreg whispered “It’s a mushroom. They’re having us on.” After which Baris managed to choke the thing down.

Fortunately the next dishes to emerge were good, wholesome meats. Venison, pheasant, some sort of grouse, goose. No beef, which seemed odd to the humans, but everything was delicious.

The Lord of Ternua was immensely pleased with himself. He was intoxicated, stuffed, with treasure in his pocket. He seemed to have made a good impression on the King. He surveyed the hall. Relkazan was present, though he didn’t appear to be doing much. All the merchants with whom he had met in recent days were in attendance, except Hraldan—though Ewen spotted his nephew Baladan. Once spotted, it was hard not to watch him, because he was talking the ear off an obviously suffering neighbor. Lord Esatol and his niece Sigum could be seen.

Yes, all was going splendidly.

“Darthil,” said the King, “Have that fellow with the axe come forward.”

Ewen couldn’t imagine how, in room full of dwarven cutlery, any one person could be identified as ‘the fellow with the axe.’ Then he noticed Darthil heading for the table where his retinue was seated.

The Lord of Ternua resisted shrinking into his seat.

“The King would speak with you,” said the steward to Baris. “Bring the axe.”

Baris swelled with honor. He stood at the point indicated by Darthil, right in front of the royal dais, and bowed.

“You are part of the Baron’s retinue?” the King asked.

“I have that honor, your Grace.”

“What is your name, large burly human fellow?”

“Sir Baris Tyrestal, Lord of Selepan.”

“Hmm. A landed knight.”

“I am a vassal of my lord the Baron.”

“Tell me—are you married?”

“No, your Grace.”

“I’m not surprised!”

“Er—I have only recently come into my land ...”

“That has nothing to do with being married, son. Do you indulge in this sort of activity?”

Trying desperately to make sense of the proceedings, Sir Baris’s brain fell on an idea: is he trying to stick me with his daughter? At first the prospect filled him with panic, but then he realized that a princess was a princess, even if she was only four feet tall ...

“Uh—yes,” Baris said.


Prince Darthil was by this point staring resolutely at his own feet.

“I mean, son, that’s unnatural!”

“Am I doing it wrong?”

“I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to do it! Lord Ternua, surely you don’t condone this sort of activity? This isn’t something that goes on in Kaldor, is it?”

Ewen tried to find his footing. “I confess, your Grace, that I had no involvement in Sir Baris’s procurement of this axe. I assume you are referring to the inscription?”

“Of course I am! He been brandishing it about since he got here!”

“I further confess to your Grace that not only does the meaning of the runic letters escape my poor perception, but that they certainly escape Sir Baris’s as well.”

“But he just said he indulges in this!”

“I thought you were discussing whoring ...” Sir Baris whimpered.

“If that’s what you want to call it!”

Arva shared her knowledge of the name of Sir Baris’s axe with her tablemates, and soon she and Cekiya were struggling to keep from collapsing to the floor in laughter. Goreg doublechecked his new sword to make sure the inscription was in plain Harnic.

The King of Azadmere fixed Sir Baris with a steely glare. “Now I’m going to say this only one time, because I can’t allow this sort of thing in my realm. In my seventy-five years on the throne, I have never seen the like. And I have to tell you that if you were to indulge in this behavior in the sight of anybody, I would have to have you exiled—and maybe neutered!--to make sure it never happens again.” The monarch leaned forward and shouted, “Buggering orcs is wrong.”

Sir Baris opened his mouth, shut it, then opened it again. “I think there might have been a mistranslation, your Grace. I meant it to be something else ...”

The King turned to Darthil, only to find the prince incapacitated in hysterics. He then summoned a guard. “Relieve him of that. Do something with it.”

Baris gave up his proud blade. He could see the money he spent evaporating.

“Now go sit down!”

“Yes, your Grace.”

Baris returned to his seat, downed a tankard of ale at one draught, and began muttering “This isn’t my fault. I didn’t know ...”

Oddly enough, the Naked Knight found himself the most popular man in the hall. A parade of dwarves came up, slapped him on the back, and saying with a leer, “I believe you.” Though the humiliation still burned, Baris found himself laughing along with the situation, if only to protect the embassy.

After about an hour, a page returned with his axe. The runes had been polished off, ruining the balance, but erasing the taint of gargun-buggery.

The King burped. “I need to visit the privy. Darthil, chat with Lord Ewen while I’m gone.”

Ewen saw the time for serious diplomacy had arrived. “Her Grace the Queen wishes to ensure that relations between our two peoples continue uninterrupted with her ascension. There is also some concern about the upcoming caravans, that they arrive safely. We have had the opportunity to meet with a number of the mercantyler clanheads to discuss what they would believe to be the best approach to the caravan route, to ensure there is no repeat of last year’s unfortunate losses.”

Darthil considered this. “We know that several of the clans are considering changing their routes. That’s up to them. The crown will not interfere. What we will do is provide a stipend to each to augment their own mercenaries. His Grace does not intend, under any circumstances, to send royal troops past Naniom Bridge.”

“That would be perfectly acceptable. Our concern is for the clans and their goods, that they have sufficient manpower to ensure safe arrival at the market, unimpeded.”

“We’re at ‘Maybe’, then,” Darthil said.

Ewen nodded. “On our departure, I’ll be happy to convey any message from you to the Queen.”

“I’m sure we’ll send a letter, if only a card to the new Queen.”

When the King returned, Darthil took him aside. There was whispered conversation, but Ewen could overhear Hazmadul said “Then we’re at ‘Maybe’.”

As the King sat down again, Darthil boomed out. “Let the heads of the mercantyler clans stand forward!”

Bilbur Garibath, Balavan Tharin, Eiki Rakin, and Hloin Horik approached the dais. Not Hraldan, Ewen noted.

“What are your plans for this year’s caravans?” the King inquired.

Garibath, Tharin, and Rakin indicated they were bound for Kiban. Horik stood by Gardiren.

“Perhaps I will increase the size of my contribution, just so Gardiren doesn’t suffer too much,” said Hloin Horik.

Darthil proclaims “The crown will reimburse the mercantyler clans an additional twenty-five percent of the usual amount paid for mercenary guard expenses, with the understanding that said clans will hire more guards, not simply pocket the difference.”

“If they pocket it, they won’t have any pockets left,” the King growled.

“Has a departure date been fixed?” Darthil asked in a low voice.

“Yes, your Highness.” Bilbur spoke for his group. “We will leave on the 20th, assemble at Zerhun, and proceed. The Guthe is clear.”

“All right. Then we understand each other.” The King turned to Ewen. “Well, I don’t know what’s in that letter you brought, and I don’t care. Has your mission been successful?”

“Yes, your Grace. Kaldor greatly appreciates your additional surety.”

On Ewen’s words, something seemed to occur to the King. He turned back to the mercantyler heads. “How much space are you providing?”

The quartet looked sheepish.

“How much space are you providing?” The King used his growl again.

“Um—a mule, your Grace?”

The King pointed at Garibath. “Four percent from you.” And then at Rakin. “Four percent from you.” And finally at Tharin. “Two percent from you. Don’t make him pick the goods. Just give him the ten percent.”

Ewen realized the King had just ordered him given a tenth of the caravan for his personal profit—another small fortune.

The King waved the mercantylers back to their seats.

“There, that’ll pay for your expenses.”

“Thank you very much, your Grace.”

“Now, one unpleasant bit of business. Let’s get this over with.”

For the first time, Darthil pounded his staff twice. Two guards entered the chamber, dragging Vigdas, bound. Darthil banged his staff once more and pointed to Baladan Tharin, who approached the dais.

“Read it out,” said the King.

Darthil unrolled a scroll and read “Vigdas of Roin, you stand accused of two charges of attempted murder. The charges are duly witnessed. The principal victim has asked you to be hanged by the neck until you are dead.”

The King of the dwarves turned to his visitor. “How would such a crime in Kaldor be handled?”

“The sentence would be carried out, your Grace,” replied Ewen.

“No one is dead. Your servant wasn’t even hit.”

“My servant was unharmed, and I myself ask for no retribution. But I was there to witness a rather grave injury delivered to the head of Clan Tharin.”

“Balavan Tharin, will your uncle recover?”

“They say he’ll be good as new any time soon. It might act up in this weather, which would be really interesting--”

The King cut him off. “Yes, yes. Balavan, will you take exile? Just nod.”

Showing some evident strain, Balavan silently nodded.

“Very well. Vigdas of Roin, I, Hazmadul III, King of Azadmere, sentence you to exile for the rest of your life, from our lands and anything close to our lands. If you are caught within the boundaries of the Kingdom of Azadmere, the sentence will be reinstated, and carried out in full. This is my doom. Now I would send you with the first caravan, but Balavan there will be going with it.”

Balavan opened his mouth to speak, but Darthil banged his staff, and the dwarf was again silent.

“Instead you will go with the second caravan. Until it leaves, you will be held at Zerhun.”

Vigdas was carried away. Darthil ordered Balavan back to his seat.

The King sighed. “If she’d said a word, I’d have strung her up myself. Smart girl.”

“A merciful sentence, your Grace.”

“I hate hanging. Now a good beheading, that’s a different story ...”

The feast was winding down. A haze of pipe smoke obscured the room like mist. Eventually the King said “Well, that’s about enough for me. Gonna go visit the little woman. Interesting meeting you, Lord Ternua.”

“Thank you, your Grace.”

“You have permission to return to my kingdom.”

“Thank you very much, your Grace. My attendance here has been a signal honor, one I very much esteem. Thank you for your hospitality.”

“You can thank me by penning a letter to Darthil from time to time. Include events, things going on, important people, people you think are important—that sort of thing.”

“I will be sure to do so, your Grace.”

“Good. You there—those bottles of brandy—gather them up and bring them to my chamber!”

And so the Mountain King departed his hall, followed by Prince Darthil.

That evening, back at the palace, Lord Ewen and his retainers indulged in some delightful bookkeeping. By his eye, Ewen had about 25.5 Khuzan crowns to invest in the caravan about to leave, or 8,480d. He reserved the bulk of it personally, for 15 crowns, but allowed Baris to invest 6.5 and Arva 4.

Ewen’s ring was appraised at 4,725d. The rings given to his retinue were lesser, but still impressive at 2,900d apiece.

On the way out of the Inner City, Ewen had been given a box made of stone, decorated with the royal arms of Azadmere, to take back to Kaldor as a return gift for Queen Chelebin.

Kelen 19, 733

On their last day in Azadmere, everyone had something they wished to do.

Baris returned to the weaponcrafter that had sold him the axe. When the smiths saw him enter, they stood and applauded.

“IT’S THE ORC BUGGERER!” they cried laughing.

“I think there was some mistranslation ...”

“Oh no, there wasn’t, ya filthy bugger!”

“I meant it to say something that messes up orcs!”

“Oh, that’ll mess’em up all right!”

Baris decided to let it go. “My other problem is that King had the axe fixed, but now the balance is off.”

“That’s because you gotta hold on with both hands!”

Baris guffawed, then slammed down the axe. “I expect you’ll be able to rebalance it?”

“Stand back, big fella.”

The master took the axe and made some adjustments. “The King’s weaponcrafter did a good job. No problem at all.”

Baris hefted the axe, slicing the air. It was back in fighting trim.

“Very well, then.”

“Anything else, buggerer? Here, you were a good sport about the whole thing. How about a dagger on the house?”

Baris felt better then, like he finally came out on top—although he was careful not to phrase it that way out loud.

Arva went to the city’s Harper Hall and presented her guild credentials. As she had hoped, there was a music library there, where patrons could copy songs for tuppence apiece. Rifling through the sheafs, she found several promising tunes.

Goreg was first dispatched that morning on a special errand for Lord Ewen. After that, his time was his own. He spent it purchasing a gift for his mother. He had previously traded Sir Baris 60 Kaldoric pence for 50 Khuzan pence. With the local currency in hand, he found within his means a silver ring of eight drams. He had the jeweler engrave his mother’s name on it—in proper Lakise and Harnic. His witnessing of Sir Baris’s predicament had given him a permanent suspicion of runes.

In his private chambers, Lord Ewen waded through the paperwork involved in his caravan allowance. So deep in the thickets was he that when Cekiya passed, headed out to stalk with crossbow in hand, he almost didn’t notice the luminescence radiating from within her belt pouch.


“Yes?” She swung around, the muzzle of her crossbow pointing directly at Ewen’s face.

Ewen moved the weapon to a safer position. “Cekiya, would you pray show me what you have in your pouch?”

“Nothing ...” She reluctantly raised the pouch—and then she noticed it too.

Then the whole scene changed for the Little Adder.

She could see through two sets of eyes, hear through two sets of ears, could see Ewen from two separate angles. A shadow Cekiya had coalesced across the chamber, some eight feet away, not quite translucent, but not fully there either, fuzzy around the edges, grayed out in color—and luminescing, the same as the mysterious object in her pouch.

Ewen saw the new Cekiya as well. He reached out with his Deryni powers, trying to object-read the strange form.

A leathery flapping sound came above them. Qorsad the Swift settled on the back of a large chair.

Hmm. That’s probably my fault. Ewen heard in his mind.

What have you done with my little adder?

She was chasing me.

Cekiya began playing with her shadow. She found she could control the form. It had no consciousness of its own, but was hers entirely: a true bilocation.

I have no doubt, said Ewen to the amphitere.

It was unnerving.

She does that.

So I figured I would control her to make her go away. That was a mistake. It unsettled me. Erratic, a mass of conflicting impulses. I had no choice—I had to push it away from myself. In my moment of hesitation, she snatched one of my scales, and I think all that power went into the scale. I can’t read her anymore.

Very interesting.

I think part of problem is the way she conceives the world.

That’s been a longstanding issue.

I’ve never experienced anything like it. Nothing like this has ever been told.

The shadow moved toward Ewen, reached out to touch him.

Ewen spoke out in rapport to Cekiya. STOP!

The shadow halted in place. Cekiya broke from her reverie, and the form vanished. The scale in her pouch ceased luminescing.

“You broke my toy!” Cekyia pouted.

No, that’s not possible, Qorsad told Ewen.

“Make it come back, Ewen.”

Qorsad, will this happen again?

I can’t say. That’s up to her. But you can’t break it. That’s not possible. The magic is in the scale. It responds to her ... vision of the world. When she’s in the world, it’s not here. When she’s out of it, there it is.

“It may still work,” Ewen said. “But of course, it must only be used for my purposes.”

“All right!” chirped the Adder.

Ewen returned to his parchments and Cekiya resumed her mission.

“And Cekiya? No more tormenting Qorsad.”

Yeah! The amphitere silently added.

As he walked back from the weaponcrafter, Sir Baris’s thoughts turned to the caravan journey ahead. He was reminded of the cold, dangerous fording of the Guthe. As he recalled the river threatening to pull him under, he saw again the vision of Lady Meleine that had given him the strength to carry onward.

Meleine! He could purchase a fine Khuzan gift for Meleine!

But what would she want? He had no idea. It seemed like something for which he could use a woman’s advice. Did he know any women? There was Cekiya—no, not Cekiya. Arva. Definitely Arva. He found her in the palace, practicing her new songs.

“Arva, I need your help. I need to buy something pretty, for a woman. But I don’t know what. I’ve been asking Goreg for help, but he’s no use. I need a woman’s touch. What can I do?”

“What woman?”

“Lady Meleine.”

“Have you considered that the Earl of Neph holds her in reserve for a possible political alliance?”

“That’s why we need to get married now, before he does that. I wrote her several letters.”

“Have you considered he screens her mail?”

Baris gaped in epiphany. “No! So that’s why she hasn’t written back! She must still love me, and he’s in our way. I need to get past him. Oh—then she doesn’t know any of this, so I’ve got to make it up to her by getting her something very pretty!”

Arva gave in. “All right, let’s go shopping.”

But when they entered the shop of the finest jeweler in the city, they were greeted with cries of “ORC BUGGERER!”

Sir Baris fled.

That evening Lord Ewen rapported with Rahel, his sister in distant Tashal. Their conversation was meant to revolve around weighty affairs of diplomacy and trade, but the scene with Baris before the King at the feast kept welling up in Ewen’s mind. Eventually Rahel demanded the entire story, and then there was no more serious talk—she was laughing too hard.

Kelen 20, 733

The evening before had been spent in packing. After a few fitful hours of sleep, the alert woke the house. The moonless predawn was darker than Cekiya’s assassin heart, and just as cold.

Lord Relkazan and all the staff stood in the foyer of Tasokin to see them off. One last bottle of Imbernel brandy had been kept in reserve, in case those intended for the King broke. Ewen now presented it to the steward as a parting gift.

“I thank you, milord. We never know what to expect from our guests, infrequent though they may be. But I can say, milord, that your stay has been both a pleasure and unexpectedly entertaining. Should you return, we look forward to serving you again.”

The staff bowed in unison. Ewen thanked them, and bid them good health.

“One last thing, milord,” said Relkazan. A servant came forward with a bulging leather bag. “Some delicacies for the road.”

“Many thanks, Lord Relkazan.” And then they were gone.

The caravan was mustering on the common outside the Outer City wall. Any number of king’s wagons, built according to statutory width, waited alongside troops of horses. Clan Rakin has hired a mercenary company as escort on the first leg.

The ostler brought the party’s horses, saddled and ready. As he handed over the reins, he said “I’ll miss them. We have so few horses in the city. They’re such fine steeds. I-I love them.”

“Er—they look very well cared for,” said Ewen.

“I LOVE HORSES! I promised myself I wouldn’t cry ...”

“Yes, well-goodbye!”

With all preparations complete, Ewen unveiled the object of Goreg’s special errand the day before: a leather vest studded with silver buttons, suitable for Qorsad to use as a perch. Sitting high in the saddle, the amphitere rampant and screaming upon his shoulder, Ewen pointed southwest and ordered the return journey of the Kaldoric Embassy of 733 to begin.

The caravan was scheduled for a hard day’s ride: Habe by noon, Zerhun after dark. The Baron of Habe rode with them as far as his stronghold, chatting with Ewen. The lords expressed their mutual gratitude and admiration, and exchanged hopes to see each other again someday.

All day long, the mountains followed them. The lake peeked in and out of view along the way.

Even by lanternlight, the party could tell Zerhun had changed since last they passed this way. The empty fields surrounding the town were filled with a city of tents. Trains of mules brayed. Caravan men scurried about. Mountains of goods waited under tents, watched over by guards.

As the party arrived at the Inn, Sir Ritzar emerged, a girl on each arm.


“Seems like you’ve kept yourself busy, Sir Ritzar,” said Ewen drily. “Be prepared to leave first thing in the morning.”

“I don’t think so!” the knight bellowed smiling. Then some iota of thought penetrated his ale-befogged mind. “Wait—I mean—Yes, Milord!”

Sir Reklan, not quite as drunk as Sir Ritzar, pulled his companion aside. “We’ll be ready, milord.”

By contrast, the Thardan lads were coming in from drill. Sergeant Denyl approached Lord Ewen.

“Reporting back from patrol, milord!”

“Very good, sergeant. Anything to report?”

“No, milord. I will say, however, that if Sir Ritzar is here much longer, a committtee of husbands is likely to string him up.”

“Just as well we’re leaving.”

“Several women in town are almost certainly in the family way, sir. We can’t be sure—it’s only been a month—but it’s not looking promising.”

“I see.”

“Milord, I can’t stress enough these people are all the same family.”

“A mite unusual.”

“That’s one word, sir. Will we be killing any gargun on the way back, milord?”

“Gargun, perhaps. Other things, not.”

Denyl looked puzzled.

“Don’t worry, sergeant. Someone will explain it to you.”

The Thardan veteran stared after the Baron, wondering if the new ‘pet’ had something to do with the strange remark.

Pedwar is active that night. Arva goes to the common room of the inn, sings a few songs, and receives all manner of pertinent information:

This will be the first caravan of the season, but others will follow over the next three months. The town of Zerhun strives to send out two a month. All four Khuzan mercantyler clans are represented in this first caravan, but four of those remaining will be for a single clan.

The other joint caravan is the second Silver Caravan—for this first caravan is a true Silver Caravan, in direct contradiction to what the party was told back in the city. That was a cover story. Loose flagons sink wagons, or something like that. Being so valuable, there’s a sizable escort force. In addition to Lord Ewen’s retinue, they will have a company of Khuzan medium infantry and a squadron of the Baron of Habe’s cavalry. Each clan has brought along a full company of security. Once past Naniom Bridge, the Order of the Lady of Paladins will send troops to join them—or will they? This year, no one’s sure. It’s an unusual situation.

Arva got a double earful of the goings-on of Sir Ritzar and Sir Reklan. Apparently they have secured interest in the caravan. Sir Ritzar had been making himself very unpopular among the townspeople—except for the loose women and habitual drunkards of the inn, who think him a prince of a fellow.

Kelen 21-Kelen 28, 233

The caravan departed on a overcast morning, heading down through the wild lands. They were a large, lucrative target moving at mulespeed, but the beauty of having 120 armed troops along was that the gargun kept to themselves.

The party found that their old friend Jorlak of Falesh was one of the caravan masters. He rode close to Ewen, and gave much valuable information along the way.

It seemed like long before that the party had made such a perilous crossing through this very country. The caravan made their first camp at the Long Stair. Then on towards the gorge, where again they camped near Bungalek. The next day they arrived at the Guthe, but the river, so fearsome on the way out, was now so shallow a horse could trot across. The mules didn’t like it, but the muleskinners forced them across.

Mules made the backbone of the caravan. The caravan breed, Sorkin Blue, were noted for their carrying capacity and temperament. There were 240 of them along, bunched into three groups: the front, the back, and a middle group that milled about. The beasts were roped into teams of six. The teams were experienced together, and worked in cooperation. Each mule carried over 150 pounds, but that wasn’t pure goods—they had to carry along their own fodder as well.

As the caravan passed the Guthe Gorge, where the party had met such a fierce battle before, they could see gargun watching from the ridgeline. Jorlak told Ewen the foulspawn always did that, but would never attack such a large group.

Qorsad flew up and screamed at the savages. A few of them fled, holding their ears – or was it something else?

Near the ford, Lord Ewen saw a large body of water he had not noticed on the way out. A Khuzan caravan master told him it was Tontury Lake, and that it was inhabited by creatures dragonlike, but not dragons.

The weather was good, with no rain worth mentioning.

They arrived at Kazona lodge, where the party had been snowbound. The stop this time was shorter and more pleasant. Continuing, they passed the old bridge and approached Three-Valley Gap, where the Yelgri were. Baris visited Khalas’s grave, but was distressed to find it open and empty.

Eight days passed on the trail without appreciable incident. Late on Kelen the 29th, the caravan reached Naniom Bridge. On the common south of the small waystation waited tents and horses on a string. The Order of the Lady of Paladins had followed tradition.

Kelen 29, 733

The entire way back, a worry itched at Lord Ewen. As ambassador, he had performed his task, convincing three-quarters of the mercantyler clans of Azadmere to ignore generations of precedent and shift their interests to Kiban. Now the question was: would there be enough barges to take them there? The matter was out of his control; he was depending on the Queen or Balim or someone to ensure sufficient craft had been dispatched to the bridge. If there weren’t, he would look a complete fool.

In accordance with tradition and protocol, the captain of the Paladins greeted the leadership of the incoming caravan. The commander of the Khuzan company formally handed off his responsibility, and the Paladin accepted it in turn.

After the brief ceremony, Ewen, accompanied by Sir Baris, Goreg, and his other knights, approached the captain.

“Who are you, knight?”

“I am Sir Luisan Kelic.” The Paladin did not look pleased at this unexpected greeting. “Who are you?”

“I am the Baron of Ternua.”

That brought a reluctant salute. “Milord. We had been informed you have gone to Azadmere and might turn up.”

“Turn up I have. I am pleased to find you and your men here. Tell me, what is our barging capacity? We have a larger contingent going to Kiban than normal.”

“Barging capacity is not my brief. Security is.”

“Who’s your logistics officer?”

The knight shook his head. “Milord, barging is not my responsibility. Though there are quite a few barges tied up along the docks.”

“I understand. We will appraise the situation in the morning. Clans Garibath, Tharin, and Rakin will be going to Kiban. Clan Horik will be going to Gardiren.”

“I see. Milord, I will tell you plainly. I do not know your authority in this matter. I know my orders. I will carry out my orders. If some number wish to go to Kiban, that is not my concern. I will not impede them in any way. My company will go to Gardiren.”

“In that case, since it appears this conversation is minimally productive for either of us, I will bid you good night.”

“Milord.” The knight saluted perfunctorily and rode away.

“Jackass …” Ewen muttered.

Jorlak was more helpful.

“I tell you, milord, I was a little surprised. There is substantially greater barging capacity than normal. At first I thought they’d be at odds and ends, but then I remembered I was told several of the clans planned to go by Kiban. How the bargemen knew, I can’t figure.”

“Good news,” said Ewen. Balim had come through. “Is it your sense that we may be able to barge the majority of our Kiban-bound freight?”

“I can’t tell you, milord, as I’m not a riverman. We won’t know until it’s stowed.”

“Thank you, Jorlak.”

“One more thing, milord. There are few diversions here at Naniom Bridge. But if you’re interested, I could make sure at least one of them found her way to your tent.”

“It’s been a long journey. I will take you up on that offer.”

Kelen 30, 733

The next morning the Lord of Ternua was awakened not by the lass in his arms, but by shouting nearby.

Cekiya stuck her head in the tent and said “Milord, I think you might want to look into this.”

Ewen wrapped a length of cloth about his naked middle and stepped out to find a man with a fringe of hair stalking about the camp pointing at things, shouting “You there, go there! You there, go over there!”

He seemed to be attempting to direct the merchants toward which barges they should board. But his manner was such that some of the Khuzan mercantylers were fingering their axes.

Voldran Rakin approached Ewen. “We agreed to go to Kiban, but not with this fellow.”

Sir Luisan was standing nearby, a smug look on his face.

“Here, here!” said Ewen to the shouting man. “Who are you?”

“No one who needs to mind the likes of you!” replied the shouter. “Get back to your mule!”

“Is this the manner in which you address a baron?”

“A baron? Get back, you saucy fellow! I am Unniso of Azam, mercantyler to the Earl of Balim and factor here.”

“I am a peer of the Earl, the Baron of Ternua. Who else is here who can take charge of the loading?”

A seasoned man stepped forward. “Milord, I am Dorrall of Dalgla. While I cannot claim to be the factor, I am a mercantyler of Kiban, a competitor of Unniso. If need be, I shall assume responsibility as factor.”

“I thank you, and would ask you to supervise the loading of these barges. Sir Baris place this man under arrest!”

Sir Baris grinned. “Gladly, my Lord.” And he firmly took Unniso by the arm and led him away, the mercantyler sputtering imprecations.

Dorrall smiled as well. “I do believe my Lord that I would be loath to encounter you in ‘full kit’.”

Over the course of the day, the caravan sorted itself out. Three clans loaded the barges. The amount of cargo fit neatly. Clan Horik shifted their goods from the mule trains to wagons. When they were done, it was apparent there was a great oversupply of wagons, and of Paladins to guard them. Sir Luisan was clearly put out, to Ewen’s amusement.

That evening, Dorrall came to Ewen. “The loading is complete, milord. It’s been a busy day. I know my colleague Unniso was planning on taking most of the custom from this caravan, but he is now indisposed, isn’t he?”

“Is there anyone who might be able to take up the slack?”

Dorrall smiled. “Oh, I think I can stretch to take it in, milord.”

Nolus 1, 733

The small wagon train departs for the west. The barge fleet departs for the south, and the party goes with it. The journey is not long. As the boats wend their way down the river, words spreads through the countryside that an unusual sight is in the land. Many folk come to the river bank to watch the merchant flotilla – few had seen so many craft together at once. By the time the first caravan of 733 arrives in Kiban, a large and enthusiastic crowd has formed to greet them.

Among the welcomers on the dock is a one superbly attired jowly man with a weak chin: Troda Dariune, 20th Earl of Balim, grinning from ear to ear.
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