By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 50 - Twilight hall
Berdusk, 1371 DR, Eleint, 10th day, mid-morning
Having finished his obviously somewhat awkward conversation with Elisa, Nik walks slowly back to the table. A dazed and slightly stupid smile is plastered on his gaunt face, his eyes those of a man dreaming. He manages to make it back to his seat without running into anyone or anything and sits down, sighing and absently patting the neck of his yarting. Turning that bemused, hazy smile on those still at the table he asks, “Where were it we were going again?“
“Twilight Hall, the Temple of Deneir.“ Ditalidas answers Nik as she turns her face from the door through which Telsom and Matteo just left. “While Matteo and Telsom are going to the Crystal Mansion, we’re going to see if the Deneirrath can translate some texts Emlyn found, and I have two items, recovered from the site where we met you, that need more investigation.“ She rummages in her pockets and produces the two items. “Here, maybe you know something about these.“ Carefully Ditalidas places a ring and a piece of cord in front of Nik.
Marc returns Telsom’s nod, smiling friendly. His smile slowly transforms into a more pleased look as he sees Nik returning. He smiles with a look of understanding at the bard, one corner of his mouth rises even more while his gaze shifts to Elisa. When his eyes meet hers he throws her a meaningful wink.
Nik shakes his head sharply, as if to clear the fog from his brain. He gives Ditalidas an embarrassed smile, and says absently “Oh, that’s right. How stupid of me to forget.“ When Ditalidas places the items on the table Marc glances at her for a moment. Then he examines the objects a while, frowning lightly before shrugging once. He looks at Nik and Emlyn, wagging his mouth before saying, “Hmm… Can’t make much sense of it… can you?“
The bard stares at the ring and cord lying before him. His eyes glitter with curiosity and the strange eagerness that he had shown when looking at Kalil’s small chest. He licks his lips and swallows as if his mouth is suddenly very dry, and as reaches for the ring he hesitates, his hand trembling slightly as it hovers over the ring.
Suddenly he draws his hand back quickly, and rubs it on his pants leg as if to wipe the sweat from his palm. Instead of picking the ring up, he leans over the table, muttering soundlessly to himself as he stares at the ring. His high forehead is creased with concentration, and he shakes his head sharply again and turns his attention to the cord, still muttering distractedly to himself.
His expression brightens suddenly, and a small grin of triumph flashes across his face. Without pausing to tell the others what he has found, he abruptly snatches the ring off the table, holding it up to his face and peering intently at it. He turns the ring over delicately in his long fingers, mouth moving soundlessly as he ponders the ring. Finally he sets the ring down again, his hand hovering over it for a long moment as if he is reluctant to part with it.
Then Nik clenches his hand into a tight fist and leans back, grinning at the others, his eyes glowing with satisfaction and no small bit of pride. “That’s a cord for holding a headcloth, like the southrons of Amn, Tethyr and Calimshan wear.“ He says, nodding at the bit of cord. “And that ring has on it the dragon of Cormyr, the heraldry of royal House Obarskyr.“ His triumphant expression is clouded with confusion as he adds “How odd that it would be found on a reanimated corpse…“
“Now that you mention it…“ Emlyn studies the objects more closely, a frown on her small face. “How strange… this too is out of place.“ She touches the holy symbol she has fastened, with some hesitation, around her own neck. “But not more so than a Janessar warrior, I imagine.“
Ditalidas leans forward looking attentively how Nik investigates the items. As Nik grins but doesn’t tell anything she asks impatiently: “What?“ She bites on her lip, trying to keep a little more patience as Nik investigates further. When he tells what the items are she frowns and sits back in her chair again.
“Odd indeed.“ The frown deepens, as she isn’t able to see the logic of it all. “The oddest part might even be that they radiate magic.“ for a moment Ditalidas shakes her head. “Why should anyone, apart from raising a corpse at all, give it a magical item? The only reason I could think of that the items cast an illusion. The corpses sure looked different when they attacked me as they did yesterday… but I guess that makes no senses either, for if the items were cause of the illusion, than the illusion should have still been in place when I found the items… shouldn’t it?“
She runs a hand trough her long black hair, disappointment visible in her eyes. Then the disappointment disappears and she smiles one of her warm smiles. “Oh well, maybe it makes more sense when we know what the nature of the magic is.“ She faces Nik, still smiling and says: “Thank you Nik, for your help. Though we don’t know it yet, it might be an important key to this mystery.“
“I do not know.“ Emlyn replies, “But maybe they belonged to the poor souls before they were raised from their rest? Even if so, every scrap of information could be used to identify those who might have fallen prey. It may lead us closer to them causing all this pain and sadness.“
The confusion fades from Nik’s eyes, replaced by interest and the hard glitter of what can only be greed. He licks his lips again, and says softly “They’re magic, are they? Why didn’t I think to look…?“ He blinks and the greedy gleam is gone from his eyes, leaving nothing but curiosity and excitement at the mystery. “Well!“ He says cheerfully. “I guess I’m not done looking at them after all, am I? Give me a few moments to concentrate, and let me see what other secrets I can make them spill.“
The tall bard begins to sing softly, his words the barest whisper of breath as if he is afraid to call attention to himself. His long fingers move restlessly in what at first seem the random fidgets of a nervous man, but on closer observation are purposeful and deliberate gestures. Obviously he is used to casting at least this spell unobtrusively, and the flash of greed in his eyes at the mention of magic offers a ready explanation for his well-practiced secrecy. After a few heartbeats Nik sees vague aura’s forming around the two items on the table… from the corners of his eyes, Nik also sees an aura forming around Emlyn’s beltpouch… After another couple of heartbeats later, Nik is able to discern four different auras pulsating in the rhythm of the bard’s singing. A somewhat mixed aura on the ring, an aura on the cord and two auras are around Emlyn’s pouch.
Again several heartbeats or so later, Nik is able to tell the strength of the auras: The ring has a dim aura that resembles a swirling mist of white and red, those are probably some elements of divination and some of evocation. The cord has a dim red aura that is distinctly evocation. Around Emlyn’s pouch there is a faint gray/black aura of necromancy and a faint greenish transmutation aura. After several moments, the bard’s spell-song ends and he sits very still indeed. His eyes are bright with avarice, a twisted smile of mingled greed and eagerness pulling at his mouth as he stares at the ring. Suddenly he looks up, his glittering eyes fixed on Emlyn – or something on her person. For a long second he looks at her, then his hands clench into fists and his eyes fill with fear. He wrenches his gaze from the halfling to the table, and he clears his throat nervously. A flush of shame colors his high cheekbones, and he fidgets with the ring before realizing what he’s doing and dropping it like it was hot.
He leans back, arms now crossed on his narrow chest, face filled with mingled chagrin and fear. “I… ehm… heh…“ He stammers, offering them a weak smile that does nothing to hide the fear that has replaced the greed in his eyes. He clears his throat and starts again, staring at the table and saying mildly “All I can tell from this minor study is the type of magic they hold. The cord has relatively weak evocation magic on or in it, and the ring seems to have a similar strength of both evocation and divination magic. I can’t tell what the specific spells are or what they do, not without a whole day’s study, that is.“
Nik looks up; his eyes wild even though his face is carefully blank. “I shouldn’t think you’d be wanting ME to do that though. Someone else should hang on to them. Not me.“ He returns his stare to the table, although he carefully avoids looking at the items on it. “I’m sure someone in Twilight Hall will be better suited to the task than I am.“ He mumbles bitterly.
Marc follows Nik’s actions with growing interest. When the bard’s singing Marc looks intrigued at him, his attention grabbed fully by the hands and gestures of the man. Thoughtlessly he lowers his left hand under the table, naturally seeking comfort with Friend’s head, but not finding the dog that is sitting closer to Ditalidas at the time. Marc’s fascination is interrupted suddenly as Nik looks at Emlyn. In wonder Marc follows his look and gazes at Emlyn some time until Nik’s narration brings him back on this earth. He blinks his eyes, smiles humbly at the tiny woman and swallows. He returns his attention to the items on the table briefly, frowning. “So… these really ARE magic items then… ehm…“ He looks at the black haired lady beside him and asks to no-one in particular “… but what do we learn from this? …I mean… are we more prepared for another attack now we know?“ He grasps the last biscuit from the table. While chewing it he examines Nik from the corner of his eyes while he adds, “And… IS all magic evil?“
The tall bard doesn’t look up from the table, arms hugged tight across his narrow chest. He seems unaware that Marc is speaking, until the young man’s final question. Then he sighs, his face bleak, and says softly “Magic isn’t evil of itself, my boy. It’s what one does with it that makes it evil. Or good, for that matter.“ Nik glances up at Marc, a thin, rueful smile on his gaunt face and his eyes filled with bitter self-mockery. “A bit like life, really.“
At Nik’s glance Marc nods and answers thoughtfully, “Hmm… that’s what the witch told me too.“ Then he answers the bard’s smile and conclusion with a frugal smile, “ehm…“ He utters, starting to formulate another question, but before that his attention is pulled to his patroness.
Ditalidas nods at Nik’s statement. “I agree with Nik Marc, I think magic in itself is not evil. It can be a bit frightening though.“ For a moment her eyes seem to loose their brightness as she remembers how the sheets of fire shot from her very own finger tips. “I think it is wise to have at least some idea about what you’re doing when dealing with magic.“ It seems she is more talking to herself then to Mark, Nik or Emlyn. Then the brightness returns in her eyes and she looks back at Nik. “I don’t see why I wouldn’t trust you to investigate the items Nik. If you want to you can see what they do. If you have use of them you can have them. If you have no use of them, give them to somebody who has.“ A small smile crosses her face. “But I would understand it completely if you don’t want to waste a day on investigating these items. You decide…“ Suddenly she turns to Emlyn “What was it that you were saying just now? What does a Jannesar Warrior have to do with all this?“
The bard straightens up, and then leans forward as Ditalidas talks. His haggard face is filled first with confusion, then bewilderment as she tells him she trusts him. He rubs self-consciously at the scar hidden under his sleeve, fear back in his sunken eyes. Nik stares at the ring for a long moment, then he looks up at his companions, the fear in his eyes now replaced by determination. He offers them a smile that is the ghost of his old manic grin, and says softly “It’s been a very long time since anyone trusted me, especially once they know about my… problem. While I can’t ever promise I’ll be able to control my wandering fingers, I can promise I’ll try damned hard. I also promise that whatever skills or knowledge I have are at your disposal. I’ll gladly spend as long as it takes to tease any more information from these items. And once we know what they can do, THEN you can decide who gets them.“
While the tall man speaks, the fear and bitterness that have been all too visible seem to recede, ebbing like some noxious tide. It is as if Ditalidas’ confidence in him was the last tug he needed to step back from the abyss of his troubled past. Nik smiles at his new friends, genuine happiness dropping years from his craggy face. “I’m sorry if I’ve interrupted your thoughts, Emlyn. Please, if you would explain about the Janessar warrior? I’m deathly curious, and who knows what scrap of knowledge might be prompted to stir forth from the rubbish heap I call a mind.“
“Well…“ Emlyn begins, before Marc proceeds to tell their story, in full color and probably with lots of gestures. After he has started she lets him continue with a smile on her face, actually never interrupting his story except for an addition here and there, as for the mysterious symbols she has found and written down.
Marc nods when Ditalidas mentions it to be wise to know something about magic. He listens eagerly to what she has to add, but his attention is brought back to the brave bard and his difficulty and he smiles reassuring at him. Marc looks at Emlyn and in his own way tries to help her by beginning to explain extensively and colorfully – but for some reason with little ehm’s – to Nik and Ditalidas what they found in the little house in the forest yesterday. He emphasizes on the bravery of his companions – and their apparent knowledge – and the terrors of the undead creatures. From time to time he throws a glance at Emlyn for confirmation.
He tells how they found the house, the attacking farmer, the kicking pony – showing his bruises – and the animated corpse and the runes they found in the first room. Then he continues describing the knight hanging from a tree inside the house and he tells them what Emlyn and Matteo thought of it. He looks at Emlyn, “For some reason this Janessar-guy seemed of big importance to you, didn’t it?“
“It was very strange… I know *I* am far from home, but what this man… or… or maybe this man’s remains have come here for, I cannot guess at all.“ Emlyn touches the simple holy symbol, which rests on her shirt someway halfway down her chest. “The Janessar are warriors, dedicated to the order of Tyr, Torm and Ilmater – if coins had three sides, we would see them as three sides of a coin. Like I said, the Janessar help free Calimshan’s slaves.“ She sighs. “I have taken the symbol, not even in the first place for divinations, though – “ she looks a bit helpless to Nik and Ditalidas, who seem the only ones having some experience with the arcane – “it may be used so…“
A look of reverence enters her deep brown eyes as she continues. “It did seem as though there remained a portion of Ilmater’s holy power instilled in it, no matter the desecration – or maybe *caused* by it.“ She pauses to think this over for a while, then adds: “I don’t know if I’ll be able to recreate the force of that one moment, but I do think that with the proper… practice, I may do it *again*.“
Elbows on the table again, his sharp chin resting once again on his joined hands, the bard listens attentively to Marc. A bemused smile is on his face, his eyes bright with curiosity and amusement at Marc’s unique story-telling style. “Fascinating.“ He mumbles, seemingly unaware that he is thinking aloud. “The trouble you folks get into is just astonishing. I do hope that I don’t find a year in a Waterdhavian prison preferable to aiding in this mystery.“ His eyes cloud at the memory, and then he blinks and smiles again.
Marc smiles gratefully at the pose and thoughts of the bard. “Yes! She was great! Gee! You should have seen her!“ Marc nearly interrupted the brave halfling in his enthusiasm, “Fierce as a statue, no matter what dangers crawled up to us!“ Marc looks at the small warrior and shakes his head slowly with admiration and then turns to Nik and Ditalidas. “I know, she may look modest enough, but – gee – you should have seen her.“
He beckons the Elisa for some drinks while he continues, “You see… well, first Matteo was brave enough to cut the rope of the poor fellow and put the dead knight at rest. We carefully walked deeper into the frightening building… Matteo held the torch up high and the wavering of the flames against the walls was all the light we had. We knew evil was around but we had to try and finish our quest, so we swallowed our fear away and went forward. Even Emlyn had to bend to go underneath the scary rustling branches of the fallen tree into the black space behind it. We didn’t know what to expect, but… a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, hasn’t he?“ Marc looks with sparkling eyes at Ditalidas.
Elisa has reached the table and collects orders for drinks, seemingly coincidentally softly touching Nik’s shoulder with her hip. When she retreats to get the ordered drinks Marc continues, “It really was dark in there, not a glimpse of the light of the day could penetrate this deep into the wrecked dwelling. Death and pure wickedness surrounded us. The bittersweet smell of decay was thick as water in the musty air – we had to stop from time to time to suppress the urge to vomit – we held our breath stepping over the lifeless corpse Matteo had cut loose, leaning on the tilted tree-trunk and bending to pass underneath at the same time.“ Disgust is in Marc’s eyes when he thinks back of yesterday’s horror, “The torch-light flickered as I went past the Jannesar… I was *this* close to his face.“ Marc shows with his hands, indicating a distance of just over a foot length. “I looked the poor man straight in the eyes.“ Marc swallows and sees that not everyone enjoys every detail. “Ehm… well, anyway… we passed the tree and found ourselves in a narrow part of the same corridor.
And it appeared there was another room indeed. The doorway pitch dark, gazing at us, promising more terror, seemingly prepared to swallow everything that dared to pass the threshold.“ Elisa has put the mugs and glasses on the table and lingers opposite Marc’s seat, listening to his story. Marc nods at her, proud with her attention – although it’s not too sure she’s standing there on his behalf – and takes a large swig. He gestures at Emlyn. “And this brave woman didn’t hesitate long but entered the black hole in front of her. Matteo stood behind us, so she hardly could see what she stepped into, but still she did.“ Marc’s fingers are slightly trembling. “She disappeared in the darkness and I followed her, warily and foot by foot. One can’t tell whether the creaking wooden floor would bear our weight, can you? There was a mourning sound, coming from just the direction in which we saw Emlyn disappear. But it wasn’t Emlyn’s voice!
There was something terrible waiting for us, just in front of the small and… barely armed woman. But even before Matteo closed in I could a shade of a bed in the blackness of the room. And I saw something moving towards us on the bed. I could see little of it, as Emlyn stood in front of me, but it was another rotting corpse, crawling to grab Emlyn with bony fingers. The awkward sound I heard came from the partly ripped throat of what once was probably a normal peasant woman… I tried to put an arrow on my bow, but in the narrow space between the branches of the tree and the doorway I couldn’t do it fast enough. I stumbled forward as I could feel Matteo pushing himself forward in a brave attempt to confront the creature and save Emlyn and me.
But as I tripped beside her Emlyn stood next to me… And how! There she stood, fiercely straight up, holding something in the air, illuminating the room, and raying confidence and goodness into the evil chamber. She spoke to the assailant with authority in her voice. Her eyes were as friendly as they are now, and yet there was a deep strength inside her. And her sway was so pure and so powerful… well… something happened with the light and the corpse started shaking and wriggling. I held my breath and still tried to put on the arrow again, to shoot the being – as we did before – but the nasty thing fell on the floor. I bend to pick it up, but by the time I had it ready on my bow the creature grew transparent and just disappeared like a fog in the morning sun. Only her smell remained, proving us it hadn’t been a dream.“
Marc sits back a moment and puts his mug to his mouth again. Admiration is glimmering in his eyes while he looks at the brave halfling. As he takes another swig his eyes wander to the left to sense Ditalidas’ opinion about his story, his part in the story and his storytelling.
Emlyn looks around, a bit nervous. She has watched Marc narrating for a while with a smile on her face, seeing how he has a public to impress. As he goes on however, she looks a bit confused and uncomfortable with all the praise and tales of heroism. “Well, like I said…“ She begins. “I’m not sure I can strike down another just exactly like that, but now I know how it feels, I think I know how to do it again.“ She looks around. “And, maybe Marc is exaggerating a bit.“ She says finally, but not wanting to seem disloyal, she adds with a wink: “Well, only a tiny bit, mind you.“
Marc, who was just about to swallow a well deserved and therefore large sip of beer, hears Emlyn’s reaction and… well he manages to keep the fluid in, but it certainly gives him a hard time. His cheeks are red and transform into the shape of an apple for a moment, while his eyes nearly grow out of their sockets. Friend sees the awkward situation his boss is in and looks up to him, her look can be interpreted as worried. Marc swallows at last and, although his face is still red and his eyes wet, slowly he pulls himself together. He carefully places the mug before him on the table and swallows again.
“So those are the writings you need translated at Twilight Hall?“ Nik asks his companions, the curiosity feverish in his green-flecked brown eyes. “May I see them?“ “Sure.“ Emlyn reaches into one of her pockets and produces the smudgy writings. “We didn’t have a lot of time, nor proper material.“ She explains. While Nik asks Emlyn for the writings, Marc, smiling, silently winks at Elisa. The red-haired barmaid gives Marc a loving and warm smile back, glancing at Nik, she returns to the bar.
The bard seems oblivious to everything but the prospect of studying the writings, barely acknowledging Elisa with an absent shake of his head when she takes drink orders. The brush of her hip doesn’t even merit a blink from the suddenly focused bard. The curiosity in his eyes is matched by an eagerness that seems just a step short of obsession. With a crooked grin, Nik takes the evidence from Emlyn with a care approaching reverence.
“No matter.“ He tells her absently as he peruses the writings. “One must make do with what’s available.“ His former awkwardness is gone now and his careworn face seems almost childlike, filled with excitement as he sifts through the smudged papers.
With the back of his right hand Marc strikes his forehead. He shakes his head twice, making his curly hair dance around his head and he lets go of some air between his lips, making a hissing sound. Then he dries his eyes with the same hand and addresses Emlyn: “You really ARE modest, aren’t you?!“ Admiration for the brave halfling and pride for parting this adventure with her are evident in his eyes while he throws a glance at the disappearing Elisa, Nik and the noble lady beside him. “It’s all true you know… ehm… didn’t exaggerate a single word.“ There’s an unspoken but eager request in his eyes as he adds, “Honest!“
Then he returns his attention to the tiny woman at the other end of the table and cocks his head in wonder, “Or… are you used to this kind of thing…? Are you a wandering… ehm… adventurer, who thinks danger is as normal as eating or drinking?“ He shakes his head in disbelieve, “Nah… you too were scared in that next room, weren’t you…?“ He touches his squeezed lips with his forefinger and frowns, still shaking his head slowly, “You know, I was SO afraid then…“
He turns to the others and seems to be ready to continue his vision of their experiences in the woods. Seeing no-one’s intending to leave Marc swallows and sits up straight again. “You know, with the corpse gone we had time to examine the room… Well, to be honest, Matteo did. He was the first to get hold of himself after this intriguing phenomena Emlyn brought about… Anyway, he opened a chest that was standing there and evoked some interesting and handy bits.“ Mark turns his shoulder and pulls out a few arrows from his quiver and shows these to his companions. “You see, like these. Matteo said I could keep them and they’re much better than orc-arrows for sure!“ While he puts the arrows away he continues, patting the hilt of his sword, “In fact it’s there were this sword came from… We found a few sheets of paper as well I think. Paper with writing on it an some kind of map as well.“ He looks at Nik, who still pays little attention to Marc’s story, investigating the runes as he is.
Marc clears his throat and continues, a little louder, trying to get Nik’s attention as well, “But if you thought that this was scary, just wait until I tell you about what happened after this! Really made my hair stood an end!“ There’s a serious and eager look in his eyes. He pauses briefly to emphasize the upcoming tension before he adds, “We left the room shortly after, it was getting darker outside, let alone here inside this old farmhouse. And we already had encountered some of the dark hearted residents of darkness… We could see the gray color of incoming clouds through the broken roof, where the tree fell in. So we knew we had to hurry a bit, ‘course rain – or possibly even snow – would come up soon, but we also knew we had a task to fulfill. Matteo ran past us and walked into the next room. He was brave enough to enter it on his own, while neither he nor we had any idea what he’d find over there. It could be even worse than what we’ve met thus far…“
Marc throws a pensive look at his mug, swallows once before deciding to have another pull. His forehead is frown as he relives yesterday’s thoughts and fears. Carefully he places the mug back on the table. Then he looks around at the gathered friends and nods. “He really is a brave man, this Matteo, entering the dark and obscure room so valiantly! It soon turned out that there were no dangers in there, but he couldn’t have known, could he? In the meantime Emlyn and I walked on to the last room. The dark doorway could reveal anything. Soon it was apparent how true this idea was!“ Marc pauses a moment
“And who, do you think, entered the most horrifying room first…? Again…? Yes, it was this small and humble woman who entered first.“ Marc shakes his head and smiles at her. Then he turns to Nik and Ditalidas and points at the modest halfling at the other end of the table. “‘Marc is exaggerating a bit’, she said.“ Marc shakes his head again and sighs with mirth in his eyes, “Nah, don’t believe her, she’s just too lowly to admit her valiant deeds.“
Marc picks up his mug from the table but he’s too eager to continue and doesn’t drink. “So she entered that wicked room and I followed hesitantly. It was so frightful!“ – The word ‘so’ comes out nearly squeaking – Marc puts the mug back at the table. His shoulders are a bit lower as he’s not too proud of what happened in that room. He swallows twice at the remembrance. “Well… you wouldn’t want to know.“
Marc bends aside and downwards to squeezes Friend’s fur for a breath or two. When he sits straight again his face is red – which just might have been caused by his bending.
“Anyway.“ He hastily murmurs, “We left the house soon after that. We dragged the poor farmer in the house, while only…“ Marc smiles at Emlyn again “…you know who – was brave enough to remain a bit longer inside the house to copy the runes of that first room.“
Now he sits back and some of his pride returns. “Well, when she was ready Matteo set the house afire, so eventually the corpses could find their rest… And while we stood there gazing at the burning dwelling I noticed something at the muckheap. It appeared to be another corpse, be it less decayed… ehm…“ Marc looks at the lady on his right, “Well… I mean less rotten… ehm…“ Marc whispers something inaudible, before addressing her, in a lower voice, “sorry for that“ He raises his voice again and continues to all of them, “With some help of Friend It turned out to be that poor fellow Tharkas Lhun…“ Marc looks at Nik, squeezes an eye and looks at Emlyn too. “Don’t think you know that part, do you?“
Without waiting for an answer he explains a bit: “This Tharkas-fellow was supposed to meet our Matteo the day before, aiding the noble man in some secret investigation, but was brutally murdered in front of the eyes of a number of our friends. When we found him he still had a crossbow bolt piercing from his forehead. A villain called Lohgran with some companions killed him and for one thing we are trying to locate this man, put him to justice and find out what the killing was for… As far we know this killing could have to do with a nasty attack on my mistress here, “ Marc nods to indicate he’s speaking of the lady Ditalidas, “Who was attacked by a huge numbers of undead creatures right at the spot where we rescued Telsom and met you two. As the findings point out, that location pointed us toward the clearing where we found the undead farmer and such, as well as the kidnapped dead body of Tharkas… I’m quite sure the two incidents are linked.“ With a serious look on his face he stares at the table a moment, then he nods, “So that’s what we’re looking for: Lohgran and his companions, someone who puppeteered these creatures and perhaps some secret evil fellowship behind it all.“ Marc looks at Ditalidas with concern and lays his hand on hers, “We still don’t know *why* you were attacked either…“
After a short period of time Marc takes the sip he planned to take earlier and finishes his story: “So we examined the man, found nothing on him and made sure his body wouldn’t be used for some foul goal; put his corpse to rest.“
“By that time gray clouds were overcastting the sky and Matteo suggested wisely to return to the city. Even before we came to the spot where we found the track earlier – and this lady so abruptly was taken away – the icy wind brought us wet snowflakes and by the time we eventually left the woods – near the ambush-site, where some city guards were waiting for us – the three of us were soaking wet and freezing. There we looked each other in the face, unsatisfied, as our quest was interrupted halfway as it seems.“ Marc shrugs. “But we had to find our way to the inn again, – we promised to do so and I for myself was worried of course – so we climbed the wet horses and discovered we were even wetter and colder than we thought we were.“ Marc sighs and shrugs his shoulders once again, lifting his eyebrows, “Nothing more to add to this, I guess… the snow was falling in large flakes by then, gracefully covering the remains of the two battles that took place there and in time blocking our view. We hardly noticed the city until the gate above us darkened the road.“ There’s a naughty gleam in his eyes as he continues, “I myself didn’t like the ride back for a third reason… riding a horse is less fun with a bruised behind.“ With a smile he looks at his friends.
The tall bard has been absorbed in the smudged writings, totally ignoring poor Marc’s animated storytelling. Nik seems to be having trouble figuring out what is written on the papers, however. His high forehead furrows in annoyance and frustration, and he turns the papers around several times, as if he isn’t sure which side should be the top. The whole time he mutters soundlessly to himself, but occasional words are audible – mostly frustrated denials peppered with the odd curse. Finally he slams his clenched fist on the table, shakes his head sharply and leans back, his eyes dark with irritation and even anger at his futile attempt to decipher the writings.
“Damn!“ He snaps, crossing his arms across his chest and scowling at the papers before him on the table. He seems to be still unaware of the others at the table as he continues furiously “If I’d known I’d be called upon to understand a written language I’ve never seen before – without the resources of the University’s library – I would have paid more attention in class!“ His deep voice is full of the bitter frustration etched on his craggy face, and he adds under his breath “Julia always was better at this than I.“
Nik fumes in silence for a long moment, then he looks up at his companions, a twisted, bitter smile on his face. “Well, I’m about bloody useless, aren’t I?“ He waves a dismissive hand at the papers, continuing “I can’t be sure I understand a damn word of them. They seem to be religious texts, possibly pertaining to rituals or somesuch, but then again they might be some old biddy’s shopping list.“ He crosses his arms again and glowers at the papers, the very picture of annoyance.
“Oh yes, I was afraid. It’s a healthy reaction; it keeps you alive and sometimes can make you do amazing things…“ Emlyn frowns. “I’m wandering, but I am not an adventurer by nature. I have left the monastery not too long ago.“ Her frown disappears as she looks at Nik. “No, you’re not ‘bloody useless.’ Neither of us can read those things, I believe. We will ask another – I believe that at least some of us know some trustworthy people.“ Nik looks up from the papers, the bitter half-smile still pulling at his mouth. He looks like he’s about to launch into another tirade when Marc speaks.
Marc looks at his friends, a twinkle in his eyes, “Well, I guess we should be going shouldn’t we. I mean I didn’t mean to hold us up, but it was so interesting and such and… Weren’t we going to Twilight Hall? To see if someone can read those papers.“ His eyes going from one person to the next, Marc stops his talking, but his eyes remain full of expectation.
“Yes, perhaps we should be off.“ Nik says, his eyes still dark with frustration. He adds bitterly “I’m sure there’s someone in Twilight Hall who actually paid attention in class, rather than wasting an expensive education writing love-sonnets.“
The tall bard hands the papers back to Emlyn, almost shoving them at her in his haste to get them out of his sight, and pulls his guitar onto the table where the papers were. He occupies himself with putting the battered oiled-leather cover back on the expensive instrument, still muttering angrily to himself under his breath. Marc, after giggling at Nik’s remark about paying attention, gets distracted when Nik mentions love-sonnets. Marc’s giggling stops suddenly and Marc closes his eyes for a breath or two.
During the entire conversation, underneath the table leaning against Ditalidas’s legs and enjoying the lady’s absentminded stroking, Friend has been as quiet as a mouse. From under heavy eyelids she occasionally gazes at Marc, and from time to time lifting her head to look at the lady stroking her head. When something in her master’s actions seemingly has some meaning to the dog, she looks up at Marc and stands up. She puts her front leg as far as possible in front of her, leaving her slowly wagging tail as the highest part. With a squeaking yawn she stretches her muscles. Taking a few steps towards Marc, she stands and gazes at her master and his companions in turn, clearly expecting further action.
Thankfully by the distraction offered by the dog’s behavior, Marc throws a glance to his right and reaches over to gently pat the dog’s head. Expectation is evident in Marc’s eyes as he returns his attention to his friends.
“A good idea. So this Twilight Hall…“ Emlyn says hesitantly, “Is it something like the residence of Berdusk’s rulers? I… have never been this far North, well actually, this is my first day.“ It seems that only now it becomes clear to her that she doesn’t know anything about this fair city, except for some of its surroundings and the recent trouble with undead. Ditalidas has been listening to the conversation going on at the table, smiling friendly now and then; nodding when she approved. At Emlyn’s questions she answers: “It’s the Harpers headquarters, but in one of its buildings is the temple of Deneir and that’s were we are going for the translation.“
Her gaze falls on the items still on the table, with a nod of her head she points them out and faces Nik. “I suggest you take those with you to the temple. You might want to change your mind about spending a day on figuring out what they do and leave it to the priests in stead.“
As the door opens to let another wet soaked guest in she scowls at the moist and cold weather outside. “I don’t know about you, but I’d like to get there without getting wet if possible.“ Continuing she turns to Marc. “Marc, would you be so kind to arrange a carriage for us?“ She slips a ring from her finger and hands it to Marc. “Find one of the boys here and tell him to order a carriage for us at the Jalarghar Spire. Give him the ring so they’ll know at home he’s carrying orders coming from me.“ Pulling a coin out of her belt pouch she says, “Promise him this silver if he hurries and returns the ring. I might have further need of it today“ She gives Marc a warm smile.
The tall bard looks up from his guitar as Ditalidas speaks, frustration still boiling in his dull hazel eyes. He opens his mouth, obviously to snarl something sarcastic or self-mocking, but he, too, is distracted by the door opening. His head whips around to see who is it, the frustration in his eyes replaced by terror. After a long moment of staring at the now-closed door with the fear fading slowly from his face and eyes, the bard turns back to the table, narrow shoulders slumped, and runs one long-fingered hand across his face as a deep sigh shakes his gaunt form. He seems unaware as Ditalidas asks Marc to arrange for a carriage, staring fixedly at the tabletop.
He finally looks up at his new friends, the fear still lingering in his sunken eyes, and hurriedly scoops up the ring and bit of cord in his left hand, which immediately closes in a tight fist around them. With an embarrassed cough he stands abruptly, saying “Ehm, I’ll investigate these myself, if you don’t mind.“ He offers them a crooked smile as he continues “I’m not without skill and knowledge. I’m just a little out of practice, is all. Please let me try and prove my worth.“ His smile turns bitter, desperation harsh in his eyes as he adds softly “Humor me. Please.“
Anyone glancing at his left fist will notice that his hand is clenched so tight that the bony knuckles are white, and the ring is doubtless biting into his palm with the force. “I’ll be right back.“ He says, the bitterness gone from his face – but not his eyes – and adds “I’ve left my backpack in my room, and I’d rather not leave it behind.“ He starts to reach for his guitar with his free hand, but then hesitates. Swallowing hard he says “Keep an eye on her, would you? I’ll be right back.“
The tall bard backs away from the table slowly, face filled with mingled fear and concern. It is obvious he doesn’t want to leave his precious instrument there, but also plain that he feels he needs to – perhaps as a sign of trust, or a test. He whirls around suddenly, and marches to the stairs leading to the rooms without a single glance back, his back rigid and steps too quick.
Marc follows Nik’s and Ditalidas’ look at the wet customer entering as he walks towards a table nearby. Marc nods at her mentioning getting wet and turns his face towards her when she mentions his name and asks to arrange someone to arrange a carriage. Marc nods and replies, “Certainly, ma’am!“, holding his right hand open in front of her to receive the ring and coin.
His eyes grow wide while he rises, his look fixed on the contents on the palm of his hand. When he’s erected he hesitates: “Ma’am…? Gee… I mean… My!“ Marc swallows as he looks back and forth from his hand to Ditalidas. Then he mumbles, “Are you sure…? I mean… well, it’s a silv’, not a copper“.
Marc clenches his fist around the valuables, nods at Emlyn and Nik before walking towards the door to the hallway, mumbling something, but it’s not sure he can be overheard at the table. When Marc sees Friend is following him with wagging tail, he turns shortly to address her, “No, Friend, stay! I’ll be back real soon.“ The dog seems to understand and returns to her spot near the merchant’s daughter where she sits down again. Nodding a smile at Elisa, Marc leaves through the door leading to the stables.
Elisa sees Marc coming from the table, obviously holding something small in his clenched fist, mumbling agitatedly “…Says she’s not a princess.“ Marc shakes his head, “Should have seen her house, a real palace it is!“ Marc stops to send back his dog and winks at Elisa with a smile and a nod as he passes her. Elisa acknowledges the nod with a smile of her own as Marc walks through the door and turns into the corridor leading to the stables.
Walking to the stables, intending to ask the other Marc or one of the other boys, and be fierce in his asking the ring back. Marc considers the ‘one of the boys’ – bit of her highness’ request, thinking of the coin that burns in his hand. “A week’s wages for a silly message like this!“ He even considers to hand the other Marc a copper for the job, or even two… but then he thinks that would not be fair to either the other Marc or the ladyship.
When Marc enters the stables he greets the other Marc, proud to be part of the larger world, and after a word or two he walks to the door, opening it. Again there’s a short wavering when he sees the cold drizzle, during which he looks over his shoulder at his mate, but he huddles in his cloak, putting his head between his shoulders and steps outside. Quickly closing the door he runs fast to the same spot he went to this morning.
When he arrives at the gate of the Jalarghar Spires, Marc walks up to the guard and says, “Goodday sir!“ Marc smiles friendly at the guard, water running from his hair on his wet shoulders. “Believe it or not, but her ladyship Ditalidas sent me to ask for a coach… ehm… a closed one… you see, this weather…“ Marc offers the man his most disarming smile, “…and she shouldn’t get wet, should she?“ Marc looks disorientated at the gate and the house beyond.
The guard smiles at the shivering go-getter and replies, seriously but amused, “Well, lad, of course she shouldn’t, but how can I tell it was she who sent you?“ Marc swallows, still looking disorientated – droplets are rolling from his eyebrows down on his cheeks – “Ehm… well… yes!“ He opens his fist and takes the ring with his left hand, showing it to the guard. A proud gleam is in his sad brown eyes when he states, “She asked me to show you this as a proof.“ Marc straightens his back and adds in a secure voice, “She’ll want the carriage near the main entrance of The Running Stag…“ – Marc pauses for a heartbeat or so to emphasize the next part of the message – “… as soon as possible.“
The guard looks at the ring and nods, “Hmm… I this is the Lady’s ring. A carriage at the Running Stag you said. I will pass the message and you can tell Lady Jalarghar that a carriage will be there shortly.“ A proud gleam comes to Marc’s eyes and he bows his dripping head to the guard, “Thank you sir.“ With renewed vigor Marc turns around and dashes back to the Running Stag, skirting the biggest puddles and weaving through the few people on the road. While returning, the rain has abated some again, a slow dreary drizzle is falling from the gray sky with no sign of clearing anytime soon.
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