Kel looks up at a knock on the shattered frame of the door. He sees a human face peering in with shock at the carnage and destruction. “Hallo, there,” says the man conversationally, “do you need a, a hand?”
Several expressions war for control of Kel’s face, and confusion wins out. “Who – no, that will wait. Have you any skill with herbs, friend? My companion and I are sorely wounded, and I fear he might not last much longer.” He winces as the adrenaline in his system begins to subside and the pain of his wounds begins to take on new dimensions.
The man steps into the room, dressed in what looks like new leather jerkin and cap, the clothes beneath well tailored, with an arming sword riding his hip and hunting bow and quiver draped almost casually over his shoulder. His face is broad but unremarkable. The man looks about the room sheepishly, “And which of these,” he motions to the strewn and obviously dead figures, “is, uh, your friend?“
Kel moves wearily to Wolfgar’s side and tosses aside the useless table, revealing the ugly headwound leaking blood from the tall forehead of the barbarian. “Ah,” says the man. His wound looks deep.” He moves closer to examine the deep cut, and kneeling, probes the depth. “It doesn’t feel as though his skull has caved, but only by the barest of margins. I can suture the wound, but he’ll need a healer’s art, and that’s beyond my skill.”
He wipes his hand carefully on a silk kerchief and stands, offering the same hand to Kel for a friendly shake. “Evinarus,” he says cheerfully.
Finding that he already likes this strange little man, Kel grips the offered hand in his own massive paw. Gasping slightly as the motion of the handshake opens one of his wounds, he introduces himself and Wolfgar. “Do what you can for him then. If you can keep him from dying until we reach the village, I am sure we can find a healer.”
While Evinarus begins his work, Kel begins searching the corpses for anything that might be worth trading for services rendered. He gathers the tulwar, the various clubs and javelins, a crossbow, and one of the most beautiful and well balanced broadswords he has ever seen; though most is too small or too poorly made to be of much use, he gathers useful looking armor, including a scale corselet from the corpse of the beast with the fine broadsword, and a few leather and quilted jerkins. The acid splashed and arrow punctured body who had previously wielded the crossbow carries a bag heavy with silver and copper pieces, as well as a small key on a piece of twine about its neck. The other bodies give up a small amount of coin.
Once all of the loot has been collected from this room, Kel gazes at the blood spattered pile. Evinarus whistles as he bends over the now groaning Wolfgar, working deftly with his long fingers. Aside from the whistling dandy, the room is eerily silent; stepping to the ruined door, Kel finds the hallway much the same: nothing appears to stir in the slaughter soaked hall.
After a few moments, Evinarus rises from his labor and wipes his hands clean and stows his sewing kit. “It’ll be getting late,” he says, “if we’re to get back, we ought not get caught in the woods after dark.” He wafts a hand in Wolfgar’s direction, “This one won’t be walking, we’re going to have to rig something to carry him, unless you want to let him ride piggyback.”
Suddenly wanting very much to be rid of this place, at least for a little while, Kel wordlessly kneels beside Wolfgar. Grunting under the strain, he lifts the big man across his shoulders, then struggles to his feet. Gasping slightly as newly formed scabs crack and bleed, Kel nevertheless begins striding confidently forward. “He has carried me many times. I can carry him this once.”
Kel emerges from the ruin of the barracks into the hallway, Evinarus following behind with a bundle of loot wrapped in a fetid sheet under one arm, and holding up a torch with the other. The hallway glistens with a slick wetness that comes from no creature’s spilled vital fluid, and the smell of ozone is thick. The stairway is thick with congealed blood and limbless bodies. A rough path appears to have been cleared through the carnage. The eerie silence lasts until the trio emerges into the light of the early afternoon. The woods lead off to the north, and civilization, and together the barbarians and the dandy make their way into the wilderness.
Kel is very quiet on the hike through the woodlands, lost in his own thoughts. What manner of vision had come upon him during the battle? Had he seen a goddess, or had some other entity taken an interest in him? Whoever she is, she wants him for some purpose. What could it be? Glancing at his new travelling companion, more practical questions swarm through the barbarian’s brain. Who is this Evinarus? How had he come to be at the fortress? For that matter, how had he dispatched or chased off the creatures in the hall without gaining so much as a scratch? Kel begins to suspect that some sort of magic was involved, and the thought makes him wonder if he has trusted this fellow too quickly. At length, Kel snaps from his reverie and turns to Evinarus. “I am grateful for your assistance, friend. Do you hail from the village?”
“No, no, friend, I hail from a city far to the south, a sprawling place beside the wide blue waters of the opulent sea.” The reedy man clutches the stinking sheet with its gory prizes closer as the unwieldy bundle begins to slip away from him. “Cassiopei is the name of my home,” he adds, stopping to adjust his load. Kel walks on, and the small fop hurries to catch up.
“I wonder if I might ask you of your home, wanderer, where it is, and whom you’ve left behind to wonder how you fare in the world?”
Kel stares straight ahead as he talks. “My village was called Caer Callan. It lay many days to the north, on the shores of crystal clear Loch Callan. The lake and surrounding woods were bountiful, and the laughter of children filled the air…” The barest hint of a sob catches in the barbarian’s throat before he angrily continues, “There is naught left there now but ash and scorched earth. All of the menfolk except for those few of us who were away hunting were slaughtered by the evil creatures that even now lair in the ruins behind us. The women and children were taken; they languish in that dank fortress, being used for the gods only know what evil purpose by that foul wizard.” Completely overcome by his emotions, Kel falls silent again.
Evinarus is quiet for a long time. The sounds of the forest and the afternoon light fill he forest with the colors of autumn, leaves turning gold, amber and earth-tones as the wind stirs them gently. They crest a rise and see the smoke from cookfires and hearths in the rising beyond a few distant hills.
“Brindenford is a nice place. Not quite as bustling a place as Cassiopei, but the people are kind at least. I can sing for my supper, and a bed too, which is nice since I have little coin much of the time.”
Startled out of his dark thoughts, Kel turns a bemused gaze at Evinarus. “What is it that brings you so far from your home?”
“My father is a rich merchant in Cassiopei, an importer of goods from beyond arid Orad. My brother, Fervinious, younger than me by just a few years, was chosen to inherit everything on my father’s retirement (or death, which will be more likely, the old bastard.)” Evinarus shifts his load again. “I’ve traveled ever since my father chose his successor. He had always insisted that his children should be fluent in music and art, better to round out the best qualities of a business man, to hone the senses when looking or a good investment. When I set off as a vagabond, singing and playing where I wandered, that must have angered him for sure.” He laughs, but there is no hard or bitter edge to it. “What I understand now, and failed to understand before, is this: that it’s better to live well with less, than to have more and live like a slave to your possessions. That’s something neither my father nor my brother ever understood.”
The town has hove into view as Evinarus speaks, and together, the trio wends through the slick mud of the thoroughfare and ends up before the door of an inn. A sign above the door labels the big, well built, three story building as “The Lost Shepherd”, and Evinarus holds open the door for the barbarians to pass. The warm smell of cooking meat, the clink of crockery and silverware, and the hubbub of voices comes from within.
Adjusting Wolfgar’s weight so that a passing glance might mistake him for a drunk leaning on his companion’s shoulder, Kel enters the busy establishment. He and his mentor are covered in too much drying blood, their own and that of others, to truly pull off the ruse, but there is no sense in making themselves too easy a target. As he passes the threshold, Kel’s eyes are already searching the crowd for the innkeeper. He wishes to spend as little time in this packed common room as possible.
Leaning against Kel, Wolfgar begins to come to, groaning in pain and confusion. Kel comforts the big man, and stumble with him through the crowded common room to the bar, where a short, wide set man, his black hair only just starting to gray, is tending bar. He smiles, revealing a gold tooth in his wide smile. As Kel approaches the bar, the man turns to him, and his friendly expression doesn’t change at all, as if the sight of two blood spattered, near dead men approaching the bar were an every day occurrence.
“Silver for a room, mate. Same for a plate, and half a silver for a pint of Brindenford’s finest, of which we have plenty. What’ll it be?” He slaps the towel draped over his shoulder on the counter and looks eager to serve. Kel turns to ask Evinarus what he plans to do for the evening, but set by Kel’s feet is the grimy sheet, with no sign of the fop. He turns back to the bartender and orders.
Kel fumbles in his pouch, eventually drawing out the coins to pay for a room and a meal and slapping them on the bar. As the coins disappear, he asks, “Where do I find the nearest healer, good man?”
The bartender wipes up a spill with his towel, says: “Looks like the healer’s headed over for a refill right now.” He nods, indicating a middle aged man weaving though the crowd dressed in faded robes, of white and blue. In one of the man’s hand is an empty wineglass, in the other, an empty carafe. As he staggers up to the bar, the bartender says, “Another tall one for ye, Father Tipple,” as he take the empty carafe from the drunk priest, who offers a drunken salute as the short man disappears towards the cellar for another bottle of vino.
Father Tipple drums his hands absently on the bar, and it takes him a moment in the hubbub of the tavern to notice the gory warriors standing next to him. “Oh, children,” he exclaims, dancing back from the bar on unsteady feet. He regains his composure and comes close, laying a hand on both Kel and Wolfgar, his tone very serious, says: “You’ll give an old man a heart attack, sneaking up on him like specters from beyond the grave.”
The sutures in Wolfgar’s forehead begin to bleed a little as he groggily raises an eyebrow, and seeing this, Father Tipple reaches for the bartender’s rag and dabs at the blood. “Come sit down and we’ll take a look at you,” his eyes run over both of the battered men hunched against the bar. “Both of you,” he adds.
Though the shock of seeing the barbarians appears to have jolted the priest into something resembling sobriety, Kel is pensive as he and Wolfgar follow the man. He resigns himself to accepting the drunkard’s care, however, recalling the ugliness that can result from an untreated wound. Hoping to engage this Tipple’s mind even more in his task, the big man asks, “What payment do you require for your services, Father?”
“Vune does not accept payments, only donations,” the priest says, his tone bordering on petulant, until he chuckles a little and continues: “though the bigger the donation the better looking your scars will be.”
Kel nods understandingly and, as they sit, removes his and Wolfgar’s coin pouches from their belts. Placing them on the table before him, he portions coins from one into the other until he is satisfied with the amount. Pulling the drawstrings tightly closed, he returns one pouch to his belt and tosses the other to Father Tipple, before whom it lands with a satisfying clank.The drunk priest’s hands produce grim looking tools from the folds of his robe, and begin working quickly and skillfully to seal up the wounds of both warriors. He clucks a little when he sees the poorly sutured gash in Wolfgar’s forehead, removes the clumsy sutures and replaces them. Only after both barbarians have been seen to does he even look at the money left for him on the table. He thanks both men with a gesture of finality that even the uncouth barbarians understand and they rise from the table to eat and drink a bit before bed.
The barbarians settle into trenchers of roasted meat and steamed vegetables, Kel eating the lion’s share, while Wolfgar manages to eat a bit himself.
“So a man appeared just as you ended the fight, and you let him stitch me up? This man you’d never met before?” Wolfgar asks, incredulous. “Not only that,” he continues, his voice sounding smaller than normal, “but you used him as a mule to carry back all of the things we scavenged?” Kel nods. “Then where is he, boy? Did you get hit on the head too?”
Keen eyes search the faces in the pub, but find none familiar, save the priest who is asleep at his table, head resting on his arms. Wolfgar slaps at the tabletop with his enormous hand, says, “I’ve had enough for one day, I’m going to bed.” Wolfgar troops up the stairs, dragging the loot behind him.
Kel goes up to the bar for another mug of ale. It has been a long day. As the bartender draws his drink, Kel looks down the bar, and is surprised to see Evinarus hunched over a strange looking brew. Only it looks as though he’s aged some, his hair is longer and their are crows feet around his eyes and mouth. Drunk, he seems to harbor a deep sadness that permeates not only his face, but the area surrounding him at the bar. Kel recognizes his equipment, but it’s seen the kind of wear and tear that he appears to have suffered.
Kel moves down the bar and takes up an empty stool next to the fop. “Evinarus, here you are, I’ve been looking for you!” Kel sits and slaps his friend on the back, “Don’t you want to be paid for services rendered this afternoon? Ho, ho, Wolfgar will be glad to know that I didn’t dream you up in a fugue state. I guess I’m glad too.” He laughs.
Evinarus turns his sour face toward the barbarian. “Evinarus is my name, friend, but I’ve been in this pub all day. I’ve never seen you or your friend, and although I’ll take your money, I rendered no service to you or your friend,” he says and turns back to his drink.
Stunned, Kel says, “That’s impossible, you helped us out of that hellish pit, you carried the gear we took from the dead, and stitched my friend’s head wound closed. It was you, it had to be!”
“That pit,” Evinarus says without turning from his cup, his voice choked with bitterness, “took both my father and brother, the beasts who lived there stole them from a caravan, and I came to find them, alive or dead. I went down into that pit and found my father’s body, half eaten by those beasts. I found my brother, too, and freed him. Only he wasn’t my brother, but another of those monsters, and they’d stolen his face somehow, and they’d tortured him for information so that their deception would be harder to detect.” His sentence ended in a sob, and it took him a minute to continue, and Kel flags the bartender to refresh the man’s drink.
“It worked, too, for a little while. We were almost out when their was an ambush, more of the foul things rushed us from a side passage. Their spears slew what I thought was my brother, but he changed, and I swear, I saw this with my own eyes, he almost melted into this gray shape, this other foul creature. I knew then what had happened, and I ran for my life.” Evinarus looks up as the bartender sets his new drink before him, then looks over at Kel, “They knew plenty about me, and made up the rest I’m sure. From the look on your face, I’d say they know plenty about you now, too.”
Kel looks confused, almost frightened, by this revelation. “But… why would these foul creatures save me and my companion from almost certain death? Why would they allow us to return here to regain our strength? That makes no sense, man.” Suddenly, the barbarian looks sick. “If what you say is true, is the creature with your face still here?”
“If it came in with you, then there’s no telling who it might be. Hell, there’s no guarantee that you would know if he were to stand right next to you. If I were you, I’d lock my door up extra tight tonight.”
Kel makes it up to his room, finds Wolfgar snoring soundly in his bed. Kel locks the door to his room and drags a chair from the small desk over and wedges it beneath the door handle before sinking down onto his own bed and falling fast asleep.
The next morning, Kel awakens to the wound of Wolfgar cleaning their captured gear. The scale corselet is in good condition, as are the leather and quilted jerkins. Wolfgar pulls one of the leather jerkins from the pile and starts cleaning it, removing old blood and grime. He already has the masterwork broadsword laying alongside him on the bed. Kel retells Evinarus’ tale from the night before.
“So it can look like anyone? Does it sound like them too?” he asks, but Kel shakes his head. “I don’t know, Wolfgar,” he says.
Together, the barbarians make their way down the stairs from their room, carrying their loot. The bartender is a young, harried looking woman, not unattractive, who, when asked, gives the duo directions to the smithy and to Fascher’s Supply. She eyes the blood spattered barbarians, and especially the nicked and chipped tulwar carried across Kel’s back, with suspicion.
The morning dawns gray and cool, and wispy stands of mist snake through the streets and about the sandaled feet of the barbarians. The shopkeep pays half price for the corselet, the quilted jerkins for a few silver apiece. Everything else beside the tulwar sells for half price, the tulwar for a third. Loot sold, the barbarians return to the tavern for a hot meal, eating stew and gulping ale. After sating themselves, the barbarians ask the harried bartender about the sheriff. She directs them to the Gathering Hall, where all the functionaries of the town are headquartered, though she says that the Sheriff is commonly out of town “on patrol.”
The two make their way to the Gathering Hall, which lies in the middle of the town. The central market square, anchored by the Hall, is filled with farmers selling what little produce they can spare , merchants hawking paltry wares, and townsfolk going to and fro on their daily errands as quickly as they can. The building itself is both tall and long, and though it looks like it has been painted and otherwise freshened recently, the building looks old, sagging in places and almost ragged in others.
Upon entering, the barbarians find most of the local constabulary cloistered around a big table playing cards. They look up suspiciously at the filthy duo, but turn back to their game after a few more seconds of surly glances.
The Sheriff, evident by his confident gait and obvious charisma, steps out of what appears to be the Mayor’s office, a smile on his lips, the scar on his jaw stretching with his winning smirk. He catches sight of the barbarians and approaches, giving his deputies and other constables a dirty look. When he’s close enough, he extends a hand in friendly greeting: “Sheriff Erro Mansan.” Wolfgar takes the offered hand first, and then Kel. “What can I do for you, gentlemen?” he says.
Kel gets down to the business, telling the story of the shape-changer. When he’s done, the Sheriff’s jovial look has turned considerably gloomier. “There’s been a lot of bad news and rumors of the same lately. I’ll keep an eye out, but I don’t want to alarm the people of the village unnecessarily. Don’t you alarm them unnecessarily either, if you please.” He thanks both of the men sincerely and returns to his office, closing the door behind him. The constables play on.
Exiting the Gathering Hall, Kel spies a house on the edge of the square, a newer building, that has a sandwich board out front advertising the services of a master sage. Kel beckons to his friend and they make their way across the square.
En route, the two men are accosted by a beggar child, dressed in formerly sturdy coveralls that have been worn thin by time and the elements, and look a bit too small for the child, a young boy with piercing blue eyes. “Misters, if you could spare a coin, any coin, this one would be grateful,” he says, his hands held outstretched and cupped together, “Really any coin at all.”
Wolfgar sinks down on his haunches and asks the child’s name. “Pol,” says the child. Wolfgar fishes for his coin purse and drops a few copper in the lad’s hand, much to the child’s delight. “Oh, you are right masters, you are, the both of you! Thank you, sirs!” and the child darts off around a corner and is gone from sight.
Pushing open the door to the Sage’s house, a bell gently rings overhead. A small man emerges from behind a desk, his fingers ink stained and his glasses slightly askew. The every wall of the house has a floor to ceiling bookshelf overflowing with dusty tomes and scrolls, and piles of the same make walking a bit of an adventure, pilgrims in a strange land of vertical pillars and huge dunes made of rolled paper.
“Welcome to the offices of Master Sage Felstor Knoveli. My name is Gildern, what can I do for you today?” says the small man brightly. Kel asks to see the Sage,and the man, ostensibly his assistant, says, “Before I can take you back, first we should discuss his rates. Master Knoveli charges a base rate of 50 silver per hour, for questions he can answer immediately and anything he can look up quickly. Any further required research and the master requires 100 silver a day, plus expenses.” The little man trails off and looks at the two expectantly, rocking up on his toes a little as he does so, clasping his hands before him (like a used car salesman).
A voice calls from the second floor: “Gildern! Times are hard enough without you driving off potential customers with our regular rates. Bring them up and we’ll see what we can do for them!” and Gildern, scolded ushers the two barbarians up the stairs (and around piled manuscripts and loose papers) to the door of a small study. He beckons them to enter.
The barbarians come within, the room packed with texts, and lit with several oil lamps givingthe room a soft golden sheen. They immediately notice the writing desk and the thin man bent over it, quill in hand. “One moment, please take a seat,” he says. The barbarians look about but see no chairs, until of course Kel recognizes a stool weighed down with a pile of books and papers, and setting those gingerly on the thick rugs that cover the floor of the room, rests himself. Wolfgar does the same and sits on and ottoman he’s cleared of papers. The bent man’s hairis white and square cut. His form is almost gaunt and his skin is the color of his hair. where it can be seen protruding like sticks from a fine silk robes.
After a moment, the man turns. “Felstor Knoveli, Master Sage” he says. “You may address me as ‘Master Sage.’” Kel and Wolfgar both introduce themselves, but the man does not appear to care about these formalities and would like to get back to his work. His smile is thin, as appears is his patience. “Please,” he says, “what can I help you with?”
Kel begins by asking about the ruins. “Ah, yes, the Fallen Keep, but even that is a misnomer – there is much below the keep that has very little to do with the structure above it, at least that’s what my records show. You’re in luck, and not in this instance – The Keep is the reason that I’m here in Brindenford, as it is a keen interest to me, however, very little is known about it, and especially what might lie beneath it, or even why exactly it was razed.” Kel relates to him their adventure so far within what Felstor explains must be a lower level of the old fortress. “So some part of it still stands, and nearly intact, you say! Well, this is heartening, indeed, except for the part about being filled with murderous beasts.” Kel offers to bring back anything that might be of interest to the old man, and the man beams. “I’d have to give you a discount on your next visit as well, then,” he says.
Kel next asks about shape shifters, and the sage shakes his head, “I’m not one for collecting monstrous lore, my interests lie in archeological endeavors, but I can send some mail off to a colleague of mine or more information if you desire.” Kel relates to him his own experience with the shape shifter, and the sage blanches even paler. “That’s awful, young man.” Kel asks him if he might discern a reason for the shape shifter’s rescue, “Beast with a heart of gold?” he shrugs. “Could have been pumping you for information it could use to trick others. In that instance you might have been worth more alive than dead. That’s just a guess, mind you.”
Kel gives the Sage a description of the woman from his vision next and asks who she might be. “Well, in centuries past, there was a cult to a minor goddess of the moon, Glarias, whose cult is mostly extinct now. There are supposedly shrines to her littered about the countryside, but they’re overgrown or desecrated by the beasts like those that have taken control of the ruins. As to why you might have been contacted, I have no idea. I could look a little more deeply, if you wish.”
Grumbling a bit over the high price of the sage’s services, but not enough to give offense, Kel dumps most of the coins from his purse onto a clear spot on the desk. “We will return when we have found something to show you.” As the duo rises to leave, the sage tells them to check back in a few days for any new information he might have unveiled. After this, the barbarians find their own way out.
As they leave the dwelling, Kel turns to Wolfgar, says: “I have very little coin remaining. If we are to buy any salves from the temple, I am afraid that payment must come from you.” Wolfgar points to the stone dome of the temple of Vune rising just off the main square, and the two make their way like others in the street, in a hurry and without making much eye contact with others. The temple is white marble with columns supporting the dome, and the inner sanctum is lit with braziers of coal, keeping the interior warm. The sky has become cloudy while the barbarians chatted with the master sage, and the pleasant afternoon has turned chill.
Within they find a helpful novice, who offers to sell them healing draughts and poultices, and Wolfgar turns over the contents of his coin purse, keeping the copper for himself, but the rest he offers for services and as additional thanks for the priest stitching him up the night before. “Vune be praised,” says the novice brightly, giving the weathered man a wink that sets him to smiling.
Anxious to be off Kel insists that they be off before the storm hits. Both men put on their leather jerkins and adjust their weapons for easy access. They’re stopped in the street by the boy Wolfgar paid the copper penny to earlier. He is dressed in several layers of clothing, mostly thick, dirty sweaters, with an adult coat tossed over the top and dragging behind him. On his head is a battered copper pot, and in his one hand is a homemade shank the length of a poniard, and in the other is the lid of a crate decorated with the chalk of a skull. Athwart the path of the barbarians he stands.
“I am Pol, a brave adventurer, and I wish to join your adventuring band,” he says, his falsetto sounding very serious.
Kel looks askance at the child but mutters out of the side of his mouth to Wolfgar, “I would wager that he follows us on his own if we turn him away outright. Besides, another set of hands, however small, could be of use at the campsite. We can send him back to town in the morning, when he has tired of ‘adventure.’” Finally speaking loudly enough for the boy to hear, he continues, “Well, Pol, we have two rules in this ‘band’: do anything either of us tells you without question or complaint, and do not take more than your fair share at mealtimes. Follow these rules, and you may join us. What do you say to that?” Despite himself, for the first time in years, a smile that has no hints of pain or malice in it breaks through Kel’s sour demeanor as he talks to the eager beggar.
“Certainly, fellows. Now, to adventure!”
The trees seem to hold their breath, and when a breeze picks up, it’s like a collected gasp amidst a gathered crowd. Together the trio sets out into the woods, pulling cloaks close about them as a chill wind picks up ahead of the storm. The forest, which had looked so lovely the previous afternoon, is shorn by the wind, and leaves twist and fall in droves before the adventurers.
They make their way quickly through the woods, and aren’t slowed by the child who isto hustling harder than he has probably hustled in his whole life, but whom manages to keep pace with the fit pair. The ruins rise from the dome of a hill, a dome they know full well to be hollow and filled with death. Kel shudders at the sight of those fallen stones, worn smooth by wind and rain, and mutters a prayer to Bori, the god of his people, that he keep those taken safe within that hellish catacomb.
Camp is erected under an overhang made of leaning marble, and dry wood gathered for a cook fire. The boy sets about making the site his own, and rigs elaborate traps with cans and string around the perimeter of the campsite. “No one will sneak up on us tonight!” he crows. Kel elects to take watch, as a precaution, and Wolfgar readily agrees.