By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 20 - Death and Beauty
Berdusk, 1371 DR, Eleint, 9th day, early breakfast
With most of the breakfast gone, everyone is sitting or standing quietly; as if waiting for something to happen, or someone to speak. More moments of silence pass, only to be broken by the sound of hooves outside. The horse, it seems to be only one, stops. Marc stops walking and eating as he hears the horse outside and listens intensely; a glimmer of hope in his eyes. A few moments later the front door opens, Mumadar’s voice can be heard: “Welcome to my humble establishment again Milady. Your friends have gathered in the private room. Please allow me to take your coat.“
“That would be nice. Thank you good saer.“ Ditalidas replies and lets him help her out of her coat. At the word ‘Milady’ Marc runs to the door and disappears out of sight. Marc runs to the public room and towards the door. When he sees Ditalidas he runs towards her, immaculately clean. He looks very pleased to see her and, looking at her eyes, he asks, “Good to see you! Ehm… How are you?“
At Marc’s words she slowly turns around and regards him for a moment. Then she shakes her head but says: “I’m okay Marc.“ A little smile touches the corners of her mouth. “It’s good to see you too. I see you had your bath. I hope you enjoyed it. You look good.“ Marc looks at the lady carefully and says, “You’re okay? Great!“ But softly he mumbles, “…are you quite sure?“ Then he bows his head modestly and apologizes for his behavior that night. With a last nod towards Mumadar, Ditalidas lays a hand on Marc’s shoulder. “Come, let’s go to the private room and find out if there’s any news.“
“There isn’t. We’re just sitting and eating, while Calathra… well look for yourself.“ He and Friend follow the lady back to the room. On the way he adds, “Well… Matteo seems to have some news about an escape or something.“ When arriving in the private room she gives a general nod. “Good morning everybody. I hope you all have slept well.“ For a moment she regards everybody in the room. “We don’t have to wait for Telsom. I doubt he’ll show up. He left me a note saying that he fears that his presence will put me in harm’s way.“
Marc looks unpleasantly surprised. “He’s not gonna come? But… Ehm… I wanted to apologize to him as well… And, ehm, will he be safe?“ Then he sees the look on her face and silences. Her eyes show pain and her voice has a tone of anger in it. “I am not feeling flattered.“ Abruptly Ditalidas walks to a chair and sits down. There is a certain change in Ditalidas’ attitude. Though pain and sadness still linger in her eyes she seems to have found an inner strength and she seems more stable than last night. Marc, standing behind his mistress – eating again, looks at her and slowly shakes his head. He sighs relieved.
Immerine rubs her chin behind her veil and a deep look of concentration crosses her upper face. “Would Telsom go to the site of the attack by himself, Lady? If so, he could very well be in danger.“ Immerine falls silent to hear what everyone else has to say. She also returns her gaze to settle on Kalil and a faraway look returns to her eyes.
Ditalidas regards Immerine while she thinks about her question. “I really don’t know where he’s at. He didn’t mention anything in the note he left me. But if he went for the spot an placed himself in danger, he did that willingly and knowingly.“ Despite her words a concerned tone can be heard in her voice.
Kalil seems to have escaped from his thoughts. As Ditalidas enters, he regards her as if he had never seen her before. “Welcome, milady. Join our breakfast. We’ve got a lot to discuss. There’s a lot to be done, today. Let’s decide here and now what we will do, and how we will do it. For myself, I’ve got a lot of questions; I would like to have some answers.“ That said, Kalil nods to Ditalidas and the others assembled at the table.
Slightly rising from the man’s lap, Calathra looks him in the face and raises an eyebrow. “Not interested in a poor halfling maiden, eh merchant? If you have other business then goodbye and don’t let anything curl your hair!“ She stares at his face patiently while still capable of jumping out of Kalil’s lap in a blink of an eye.
Nodding to Ditalidas Matteo sets aside his breakfast, still largely untouched. “I have little to add from last night except that we are now unofficially reporting to the guard. Or rather, I get to write reports to the guard of what we do. The city will be covering expenses relating to accommodation and refreshments here at the Stag, so you need have no concerns about that.“
“Now, that’s golden“, Kalil murmurs… “As for what we do today, we have two avenues of action to pursue.“ Matteo looks around the room. “We know Lohgran has past ties to the Zhentarim and, thanks to Marc, that he and his other friends frequent the docks. Someone should go to the docks and attempt to discover more or even try and trace Lohgran. Hopefully he will lead us to those responsible.“
“Our other task is to investigate the site of the attack on Lady Jalarghar last night. Perhaps those responsible left clues that were missed in the poor light.“
“Essentially we are looking for information today. I suggest that we divide our party in order to cover more ground, so to speak. At the very least, I think that the ladies Jalarghar and Immerine should visit the sites of the attacks on them and should be accompanied by others for protection. Outside the city the chance for attack is significantly greater. I myself intend on visiting the docks to try and trace Lohgran. The rest of you should divide yourselves as you see fit.“
Immerine shoots a frosty gaze to Matteo. “You are too kind, Saer Ashgale. However, my attack was not within the bounds of the city and was a half-day’s ride from here along the river shore. I doubt we would choose to waste time on it. It cannot truly be labeled as an attack as no blows were struck physically. I drove the beast off before it came to that. I will attend Lady Jalarghar, though. But before we leave, I will be changing into my armor. So unless anyone has more information I should hear, I will return in a few moments.“
She waits to see if anyone has anything to say to her, and then leaves the room to prepare herself for the journey. “I think I want to join Jalarghar and Immerine, for I can be of use to gather information. The protection sounds like a good idea. Who volunteers?“ Kalil adds to Matteo’s words. “I do.“ Marc stands up, looking intently at Ditalidas.
Matteo looks towards Kalil and says, “The scrap of paper you were interested in contained details of a divine magic known as unholy blight. I informed the Captain you wished to study it but she has had it destroyed.“ Kalil responds sadly to this news. “Too bad. Blessed are the times that people can set aside their fears to fight the very thing they are endangered by. Alas, it is thus. It cannot be helped, although lady Immerine and I could have learned a lot from it. It takes fire to fight fire, after all…“ He cheers up and continues, “Let’s get on our way. When do we meet again? I propose here in this room at Sun’s peak.“
“Or water“ Marc states softly. Then he silently takes a few steps towards Kalil and speaks softly to Calathra. “I don’t know what your aim is, woman, but… Ehm… I don’t think jumping on laps will add to it… And ehm… Well, personally I think kissing and all that is, well… more like a private matter… I think it has to be a mutual thing.“ He shake his head, “Do what you think is right, but as you were friendly to me yesterday, I felt I had to tell you this as well.“ After that he grabs another slice of bread and returns at his previous position.
Listening to Marc whispering to her Calathra nods and mutters to Kalil “Ignore me all you will, merchant, I see you now for what you are. Goodbye, Kalil.“ At that moment with cat’s grace Calathra jumps from the merchant’s lap to the table.
“I will assist Saer Ashgale in his investigation in Berdusk.“ Druth sets down his mug of tea and rises from his seat. “Though I like to be out in nature, I feel my expertise and knowledge are better suited for the investigation in Berdusk.“
Still staring at Kalil Calathra says: “I don’t go if the merchant goes.“ With uncanny speed she jumps from the table and fixes her hair, her feet firmly on the ground. Marc’s eyes follow the actions of the small woman.
“Sun’s peak seems a little early. Even if we could make it easily within that time, and I doubt that, I think it wise to take some time in case we run in some kind of delay or if we want to investigate something further. If we meet at sunset we might not have to hurry.“ Nodding, Matteo replies, “Very well. Let’s make it dinner here at the Stag at sunset. We can share anything we might have discovered then.“
Turning towards Ditalidas, a faint look of unease crosses Matteo’s face and he asks softly, “I realize it is an uncomfortable subject for you, my lady, but I was wondering if you could answer a question of mine regarding the attack on you last night? Were the undead focused on killing you or might it have been an attempted abduction?“
The small reassuring smile Ditalidas tossed Matteo to ease his discomfort is lost in a blink of an eye. Startled by the question she looks at him with widened eyes. Than her expression goes blankly as she recalls and relives the events of the previous afternoon. Moments seem to pass and all the color in her face disappears. Staring to a point somewhere behind Matteo she shakes her head slowly. “I don’t know. At first they didn’t seem to want to attack. There was this woman, with my family crest on her tunic.“ Her eyes descend to the table before her. Marc puts a hand on Ditalidas’ shoulder.
“She… she called me daughter. It wasn’t until she reached for me, and Vidya attacked her that they actually attacked me. I don’t know if they wanted to take me with them.“ Ditalidas looks back up, straight into Matteo’s eyes, pain and sadness clearly present. “I believe that if Telsom and Druth had arrived later than they did, I, at least, would have lost my consciousness. What would have happened after that? We will never know. They could have abducted me… they could have killed me…“ Though she outwardly seems relatively calm a single tear escaped her and drops on the hand that thoughtlessly plays with the small locker adorning her chest. “Did I answer your question? If you have other questions please ask me. I want to see, who ever did this, brought to justice.“
Seeing noblewoman’s tears Calathra ‘tsk tsk’s’, still brooding upon the way Kalil treated her. Still she remains silent for some time. Marc hears Calathra and throws her a very irritated look.
Flinching at the pain in her eyes, Matteo glances away briefly before wordlessly extending a clean handkerchief to Ditalidas. “Yes, my lady, you did answer my question.“ He replies softly. “I’m sorry to have caused you pain.“ Taking a step backwards he quietly adds, “I’ll leave you now to prepare for your journey outside the city.“
Ditalidas accepts the handkerchief. “Thank you.“ She doesn’t use the handkerchief yet though. “Why did you want to know, Matteo? What do you suspect? If you have any ideas or clues, please share them with me?“ Waiting for his reply she wipes away her tear and regards him with an almost begging look in her eyes.
“I do not know anything, my lady.“ Matteo replies. “I am trying to determine who might have been responsible for the attack. We know Lohgran has ties to the Zhentarim. After a rather unimaginative threat was eloquently delivered through my window this morning they may be the most likely source. But others exist; another of the First Families may have orchestrated it. An attack seeking your death would indicate a desire to hurt your father whereas an attempted abduction would indicate a desire to extract something from your father. The scrap of paper we had mentioned utilizing bones for something and mentioned dragons. The Cult of the Dragon may be worth considering as well though they are less interested in aimless killings. An abduction may have been more in keeping with how they operate… unless your father has earned their enmity somehow.“
Speaking to Matteo but more like thinking to herself aloud Calathra says: “I seem to remember there was this TallMan who found the true meaning in an ancient riddle and discovered the future of our world having to do with bones and thrones… or was it something else? I’m confused. Matteo, can you leave me out of this? I can’t go if Kalil is with the group and I really can’t see what Velsharans have to do with Zhentarim and the Dragon Cult.“
“No one here is going to force you to do something you don’t wish to do Calathra.“ Matteo replies softly. “Remain here if you wish.“
Nodding to Matteo Calathra shrugs and says: “I’m sorry that I may miss the adventure but Tallman Kalil’s complete ignorance at my person and humiliation makes it impossible for me to follow. Be, as it may, I see a few solutions, one being you leaving me here and later coming to get me. The other would be me getting back to Corm Orp after all. I had my share of the adventure. The moment I saw that man in the tavern fall dead, I know that I can kill nobody, and what kind of adventurer would a poor halfling be if he can’t kill a wandering monster or two? I see no satisfaction in it. Unless anybody has something to note, I would retire to Corm Orp. Yes, that would be for the best. Settling down, this adventuring business seems way too strange for me and I better quit while I am still ahead. If not then I’ll bid my farewell to Matteo, other Tallmen lords and ladies and Marc. Ditalidas, send my regards to the paladin, he was most kind.“
Nodding, Matteo murmurs quietly in halfling, “Follow your heart Calathra. I hope Corm Orp is everything you would wish it to be.“ Calathra smiles and says: “Oh, I grew up there, Matteo. I know it’s nothing I want it to be, but it’s home.“
Marc looks at the halfling and says, with a smile, “You _are_ full of surprises, that’s for sure!“ He shakes his head in wonder. “Yes, you truly keep me puzzled.“ With a sigh he adds, “Well, my mother told me that everyone has at least one hidden talent.“ He sniggers, “Well, hidden…? Anyway, I’d suggest you stay with Druth. I’ve discovered he’s a friendly man… A good listener too.“ Marc nods friendly at the elf. With a wink to Calathra he adds, “I suppose your height – or lack of it – may be of good use in his quest for information… But… well… as Matteo said, it’s up to you… Ehm… how do you say…? Fare thee well.“
Calathra stares sadly and says: “Thank you TallMan, but I don’t want to bother the elf. Know that you have an ally in Corm Orp you can count on any time. Fare thee well.“ Calathra kisses Marc on the mouth. “You’re going to grow up into a fine man and a great adventurer, boy.“ She shakes hands with the rest of the party and waits for a second longer to hear if anyone has anything to say to her before she leaves.
Shrugging his shoulders Matteo adds, “I am fishing for indications and half-clues to fill out the picture. If possible, it may be a good idea if we could speak with your father.“ Ditalidas nods shortly. “If needs be I’m sure my father would be willing to talk with us. I already asked my father if he had trouble with the Velsharans. He said he’s not aware of any.“ She shrugs her shoulder. “That’s all I know.“
“Ahum… Milady…“ Javroun stands in the doorway, coughing politely trying to get attention. “… Lady Jalarghar. Lieutenant Aluar sent one of his guards back from patrol. He has an urgent message for you.“ Javroun motions for the guard to step into the room. A young man in the uniform of the guard steps into the room. He seems a bit embarrassed at all the eyes looking at him. Recognizing Ditalidas, he salutes her, “Milady. On patrol this morning to investigate yesterday’s ambush, we came upon two horses grazing near the edge of the forest: a black and a white mare. Both were saddled, and the black horse was branded with the mark of House Jalarghar.“
The young guard pauses for a moment. “Lieutenant Aluar thinks the white horse, belongs to the young paladin who was escorting you yesterday. He ordered me to take both horses back to Berdusk and to inform you of the find.“
Ditalidas greets the man with a nod. “Alana. The black mare could be Alana, my horse.“ Her eyes shimmer with hope to see back her trusted mare. Marc stiffens and stares to the opposite wall. “No!“ He utters, “This just can’t be true.“ Immerine looks across to Matteo, “Well, Saer Ashgale – do you still want to split up?“
“Why not?“ Matteo replies as he turns to Immerine, his face smooth and emotionless. Shrugging, he adds, “I asked Telsom not to run off in the pursuit of his own personal self-interest. If he refuses to work with us, why should we exert ourselves on his behalf? Possibly risk our lives for his?“ Surprised Marc looks at Matteo. He opens his mouth as if to say something, but doesn’t.
“Very true, Matteo. But you forget – there were two horses.“ She rubs her chin in thought and murmurs softly. “If I were more advanced in my studies, I would be able to talk directly to them and find out what happened to our wayward companion. I wonder why there are two horses.“
Looking back at the infuriating Sembian she speaks coldly, “Carry out your plan then, Sembian. I have my own duties and heart to follow. Even if Telsom did ignore your words, he might be in danger. I, for one, will not abandon him to a fate, which is possibly worse than death. I will attempt to return here at sundown and speak to you regarding my findings. If I do not, then consider your advisor – dead.“ She holds his gaze calmly. Marc’s wonder is visible in his eyes as he stares startled at this woman.
Matteo holds her gaze for a long moment, only a brief tightening around the eyes betraying his unease. Abruptly shrugging a shoulder he gives a twisted half-grin. “I wouldn’t want to deprive your people of the blessing of your presence, my lady.“ He murmurs, a trace of bitterness lacing his voice. “We might as well all go and rescue our dashing hero.“
Listening to the conversation, Kalil suddenly nods. “I’m in favor of rescuing our friend. It’s the question how to do it. I do not think it’s wise to rush off together and walk in whatever trap has caught Telsom already. I suggest we send some scouts and keep some others in reserve.“ Immerine turns from Matteo at Kalil’s words. “I agree with the wisdom in your words. Not all should plow in. I will be one of the fore-scouts.“ She responds quietly, her anger seemingly directed only at Matteo.
“There is a five man patrol investigating the ambush site Saer.“ The guard says to Kalil, “My orders are to return there and if you decided to have a look, to escort your group.“
“Thank you good saer for bringing the information. I’ll gladly accept your escort.“ Ditalidas rises from her chair. “Who will come with me and who will stay? I agree with Kalil, we shouldn’t go all together.“ It’s clear that she’s in a bit anxious to leave.
“I will come with you, naturally“ Marc says hastily. Then he pauses to think for a second and adds, “At least, I surely want to… But only if you don’t mind of course.“ Sneakily he grabs a few boiled eggs and puts them in his pocket. Friend, who was lying down quietly, stands up and looks up to his boss. Ditalidas tosses a quick smile towards Marc. “Of course I don’t mind. I would be glad to have you around.“
Matteo shakes his head and exhales sharply. “No. We all go and we go now. The guards are already at the site and we are unlikely to be walking into an ambush.“ Shooting a hard glance towards Immerine, he adds, “Let’s not split ourselves up unnecessarily. If any of you need armor, weapons, or anything else I suggest you get them. Now.“
Raising an eyebrow Immerine’s eyes flick back to Matteo, “For nobility you certainly are insufferable, Lord Ashgale.“ She walks to the door and pauses next to Matteo and curtsies low. When she stands back up she turns sharply to the door and whacks him in the shins with her staff. Outside the room they can hear a low chuckling as she moves off to her room to get her armor.
Wincing at the pain in his shins Matteo swears softly while glaring out the door towards Immerine’s fading chuckles. Shaking his head he mutters, “I suppose I deserved that.“ Straightening, he gingerly takes a step towards the door. “Lets get the horses saddled and people mounted so that when her Ladyship is ready we can leave.“ It is clear that he is not referring to Ditalidas.
Limping slightly, Matteo leaves the room and heads out towards the stables. “Wait for me“ Kalil says smiling. He jumps up the stairs to his rooms. He reappears shortly after wearing his leather armor and carrying his small chest. “Let’s go to the horses!“ With that, he runs off to the stables.
Grim watches the somewhat heated conversation unfold without getting involved in it. As soon as the topic shifts to galloping off to the sight of a possible ambush facing who knows what he suddenly shows a lot more interest though.
“If you all don’t mind I’ll keep myself busy with walking across town a bit, maybe I can catch a few rumors here and there.“ and he even manages to look very resolute with that. “You’ll be surprised about the amount of information you can find in the streets in a city this big.“
Ditalidas smiles at Kalil’s almost boyish enthusiasm. Then she turns to Marc. “Let’s go and see if there is a horse for you too. You can ride don’t you?“ Marc has a tinkle of a giggle in his eyes as he watches these men leave the room. He answers the lady “Ehm, riding, yes… ehm… only on an occasional Wetland pony! Well… I think I’ll manage, but…“ He blushes slightly, “I’m not afraid of heights and I rode before… ehm… you see… but I have to get used to this combination.“ He smiles disarming at the lady about his own shortcoming.
Marc swiftly collects his crook and walks up with Ditalidas towards the stables, telling her he hasn’t got a horse and telling some friendly trifles in an attempt to cheer her up a bit. Friend snatches a piece of bread from underneath the table and follows them. On his way to the stable Marc greets Javroun and Elisa and thanks them for the food and all.
When they reach the stables Marc will help saddling, he’s accustomed to do just that. And of course he will be kind enough to give anyone a hand in mounting the animals.
There are two white horses in the stables; one of them matches the description Matteo got from Mumadar. As Matteo approaches the horse, he can see the two stable boys looking very interested at him and the horse. Catching the interested looks of the stable boys Matteo pauses and sighs aloud. “Let me guess, he has a temper? Can one of you pass me some sugar or salt cubes?“
“Sure, I have some.“ One of the boys answers, and he tosses Matteo a chunk of salt. Murmuring warmly, Matteo steps slowly but smoothly towards the horse, letting him see him approaching. As he gets near he extends a hand containing the cube towards the horse’s nose so that it can get used to his scent as well as enjoy the proffered sweat.
The white stallion looks at Matteo, making no move towards the man’s hand. Continuing to murmur softly Matteo says, “No mistaking whose horse you are. Just like your mistress, stubborn and bull-headed. Beautiful too. Come on then boy, let’s go collect our lady shall we?“
The stallion remains still – until Matteo gets close enough almost to touch the magnificent horse – then the horse reaches his head over the half door and bites the hand offering him the salt while taking the snack. Throwing his head high and back, Matteo can almost swear the horse is laughing.
Glowering at the horse Matteo mutters, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re enjoying this.“ Matteo moves closer to the horse, lightly stroking the side of its neck. The horse’s skin twitches beneath the unfamiliar man’s hand and his eyes begin to show white. The great beast steps from hoof to hoof in nervousness.
Keeping up a steady, smooth murmur Matteo continues to lightly stroke the horse’s neck, allowing him to get used to his scent. “You really are just like her, aren’t you?“ He whispers softly, “Temper and power and spirit all mixed together and yet vulnerable and scared on the inside.“ Leaning forward, Matteo tries to kiss the horse on the neck. With his hand he motions for one of the stable boys to throw him another lump of salt.
“No! Don’t…“ The stable boys almost yell in unison, genuine unease clearly visible on their faces. At the same moment the horse lunges forward. With a loud crack the horse bursts through the door, throwing Matteo aside. Ears flattened and the whites of the eyes clearly visible, the horse steps nervously through the stable, looking for a way out.
A bale of hay and a bucket soften Matteo’s ungraceful fall to the floor. Trying to keep his balance, he places his hand to the side, yet retrieves it almost as quick as the surface his hand lands on is soft, warm and squishy; horse droppings. The other horses in the stable begin to whinny nervously as the see and sense what’s happening. The two stable boys rush over to try and calm the white stallion.
Swearing softly under his breath Matteo washes his hands in a nearby bucket of water and stands up, brushing hay from his clothes. “Damn, you *are* just like her. More prickles than a hedgehog.“ Straightening his jacket and adjusting his sword, Matteo takes the long way around the startled stallion and leaves the stables for one of the horses tied outside the Stag.
When Kalil makes it back to the stables to saddle his horse, he sees a very nervous white stallion being led back to a stable by two stable boys. A nearby stable has its door partially missing. The remains of the half-door are more or less hanging from the hinges of the box. Both stable boys look almost as nervous as the horse. The other horses seem nervous and eager to get out, including Kalil’s own horse Corundum.
When he is finished saddling up his own horse, Kalil sees Immerine entering the stables…
Kalil almost does not recognize the regal and imperious woman. Immerine wears full studded leather, including a soft leather facemask. She carries her staff easily, but it seems truly a deadly weapon in her hands rather than a prop as she has used it previously. She also carries loaded saddlebags and wears a leather backpack. Her cloak is a mottled forest green and brown and the armor is a serviceable brown with black studs. She seems more at home in this garb than in the dresses he has seen her in. Kalil indeed is impressed. “Wow!“ He stutters, baffled by Immerine’s appearance. “You seem more like a warrior than a witch like this…“
Immerine’s eyes take in the stable and the animals within. She drops her pack and saddlebags and moves to her white stallion’s side. She murmur’s softly and takes Qwenta’s head. The noble beast tosses its head a few times whinnying in earnest then lowers his head to his mistress’s shoulder and nuzzles her ear. Still holding his beloved Corundum, Kalil smiles gently at Immerine’s familiarity with her horse.
Immerine turns to the stable boys, “What has happened in here?“ The stable boys begin babbling in nervous voices and tell Immerine what happened. Luckily the facemask prevents the sight of her face; unfortunately it is still thin enough so some rather sharp phrases in an odd rolling language flow forth. She checks Qwenta over and the stallion remains docile beneath his friend’s hands. She makes sure his shoes are on securely and runs her hands over his withers. A soft neigh accompanies another toss of the stallion’s head.
“Ah, my great beauty. Are you ready to run from this city for a time? Unfortunately, I have to again place the trappings of civilization upon you. Patience my friend, you know I would not ask this if it were not needed.“ Qwenta seems to understand his mistress. He neighs, tosses his head and stamps one foot in response. She gently places the blanket across his back and saddles her horse. Then she carefully positions the saddlebags and lowers them slowly. Once everything is arranged she pulls the saddle cinches firm but makes sure they do not pinch. She adjusts the bridle and does not use a bit. Once everything is secure she picks up her pack and leads Qwenta from the stable.
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