Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 16

Sacripant stared at the impromptu barricades that had been put up. “Have to admit, they work fast,” he noted to Grizzel.

The Serjeant spat. “That’s the Butcher Birds for you. They may not be nice--but they are professional.”

The Marsh Erl blinked. “Butcher… Birds?”

Grizzel pointed towards a standard displayed on one of the barricades that showed what looked to Sacripant’s eyes like a very badly drawn red eagle. “That’s their nickname. Their real one is the Scarlet Shrikes. One of the Companies from Across the River that signed up with Shaddad when he was winning, then crossed over with us when it turned out he wasn’t. They’ve been bouncing around the Lands of Night ever since.” The Goblin shrugged. “They aren’t the best, but they’re far from the worst.” He sighed. “Really, this is probably about the best help Vathek could have hired, so… not good for us.”

Sacripant nodded. “How not good?”

“Not much chance of us losing--though more than there would be--but this--this could let things get very ugly,” replied Grizzel. “These are professionals. They know how to hold a place like this. That wouldn’t worry me by itself--professionals usually behave professionally. But they are working for Vathek. And Vathek is a crazy, vile bastard.”

“So, who knows what he may do?” said Sacripant quietly.

“Exactly,” noted Grizzel, with a shudder.

Sacripant felt a tugging on his sleeve. Turning, he saw that Quiet standing there. The Marsh Erl smiled at her. Truth be told, after quite a few months of knowing her, he still wasn’t used to how… silently she could move. “Umm, so… what…”

Hagen Greatthews lumbered into view. “Her Excellency is plotting something. Quiet got sent to find to you two.” He spread his massive arms in mild bafflement. “Personally, think I was better choice, but, what can one do about whims of great folk, eh?”

“You seem extra-Trollish these days,” muttered Sacripant as he fell into step behind his fellow Guardsmen.

“If so, it’s because you are getting to know me better,” said Hagen. “Learning what Trolls are. Exciting lessons for country boy. Probably should move on to our women next. They are especially exciting!”

Sacripant and Quiet both gave the Ogre offended glares. Hagen simply laughed. Grizzel sighed. “Let’s go, people. Her Excellency doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

The quartet of Guards moved swiftly through the impromptu camp that was being set up around Tolometto. Morgaine was in a small crowd that had gathered at one of the clearings, standing on a small foot ladder, and glaring at the barricades. As he saw her, Sacripant wondered who had brought the ladder, then decided that the Dark Lord had probably brought it herself.

“Serjeant, Fenswater. Just the guys I wanted to see,” noted Morgaine. She clapped her hands together. “Good work, Il’Mok. And you too, Greatthews.” She cracked her knuckles. “So--got a bit of a barrier problem. Now, I’m a woman who likes things simple. So, we’re going to smash through the barriers, overwhelm the mercenaries fast as we can, and take care of things. How’s that sound?”

Quiet stepped forward and nodded emphatically, drawing her swords. Morgaine smiled at the Ghoul skeptically. “Il’Mok, I’m guessing you’re volunteering to be first over, and…” Quiet stared at her pleadingly. “Oh, damn it.” She got off the ladder, and patted Quiet affectionately on the veiled cheek. “You know I can’t resist those puppy dog eyes.”

Sacripant stepped forward. “Where Quiet goes, I go.”

Morgaine grinned at the Marsh Erl. “Ahh, that’s just sweet.” Her amber-colored eyes simply glowed with amusement. “Okay. You two are on point. Because, I just ooze niceness…”

Palamedes Woodash coughed politely. “Umm… this is all very… nice, but still--there are walls up here…”

Morgaine turned to the chubby Erl. “You’ve never seen me in action, Woodash, so I’ll forgive that comment of yours.” The Dark Lord trotted off. “All right people! Get ready! There’s going to be fireworks! Metaphorically speaking.” She put her hand on her chin. “Though I probably should have brought some. For the celebration once we kick these bastards’ asses.”

Palamedes watched her go off, then glanced at the others. “So what did she mean about the whole ‘sweet’…?”

“Quiet and Sacripant are lovers now,” said Hagen casually.

Palamedes’ eyes went wide. “Wha…? They’re…” He looked apologetically at Grizzel. “Not that there’s anything…”

“No, Quiet is girl,” noted Hagen. Sacripant and Quiet both turned to stare at him. Hagen spread his hands, and smiled at the Ghoul. “You walk like woman. With everything else--the truth is fairly obvious.” He shrugged. “Didn't mention it, because I didn’t want to be rude.”

Quiet bowed her head. “Well, now I just feel like an asshole,” she muttered.

“As well you should, as well you should,” noted Hagen.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 15

Menelaus Fairwind watched as they put up the barricades on Grand Street, fiddling idly with his walking stick the entire time. Tolometto wasn’t a very large town, so it wouldn’t take very long to secure it, or a great deal of materials. The Shrikes had taken every wagon they could get their hands on, and put them into place, upturning them or breaking them down when they had to.

It was almost inspiring, watching them work so quickly, but ultimately the fact that he and his fellow citizens were their victims rather then their charges made the whole thing rather frightening.

Naturally, this was when Cassandra came out. “Grampa?” she asked in a querulous voice, “what’s happening?”

Menelaus looked at his young granddaughter, her eyes bright and sincere, her long wavy black hair trailing down to her back, and for just a second, he was looking at his dear little Lydia again. Perhaps that was why he patted her kindly on the head and said, “Oh, nothing really, my sweetness. The Cthonique Guard has come to deal with these men. That’s all.” He forced a smile to his face. “Go back inside.”

Cassandra’s eyes went wide. “They aren’t going to kill Mr. Gregory, are they?”

Menelaus shook his head. Cassandra was horribly fond the young mercenary, a fact that Menelaus found both infuriating and amusing in equal measures. “Oh, he shall be fine, my dear. Now--inside.” Cassandra gave an eager nod, and darted back in. Menelaus took a deep breath, and then walked towards the Traveler’s Friend.

Tyne was standing in front of it, along with several others, shaking the hand of Bald Ben Braddock eagerly. “…a miracle,” said Tyne, a broad grin on his face.

The old mercenary whose name Menelaus never did catch slapped Braddock on the shoulder. “Didn’t I tell you, lad? Bald Ben’s got a charmed life!”

Ben laughed. “I wouldn’t go that far, Ancient. Just that the Black Bitch and I have an understanding. She’ll get me when it’s important. Not before.” Suddenly, the flabby bald head swiveled to look at Menelaus. “Mr. Mayor!”

Menelaus forced himself to nod. “Braddock.” He smiled. “I would like to see the Captain.”

“And I’ve no doubt he would like to see you,” said the Shrikes’ Master of Horse. “So, let’s facilitate things, shall we?” Braddock broke free of his admirers, and joined the Erl. Menelaus glanced away, and saw Diogenes and Medea staring at him worriedly. He gave the most confident nod he could manage, as they headed into the inn.

“So--I assume you’re going to try and make sure you’re people are safe?” said Braddock.

“Mmmm,” replied Menelaus. While he didn’t dislike Braddock the way he did Cyrus de Sang, Menelaus didn’t like talking to him. The Master of Horse was too clever by half, and chats with him tended to become elaborate contests wherein Braddock tried to get him to reveal things.

Braddock nodded. “Been in this situation before you know.” He looked away from the Erl. “Both sides, actually--trying to hold a town, trying to get in. It never goes well for the people caught in the middle.”

Menelaus frowned. “I suppose not.”

“Of course, if you’d told us where the damn Skull was, it would never have come to this,” noted Braddock.

Menelaus stared at Braddock. “There is no skull.”

Braddock smiled, as they headed up the stairs. “Oh, there’s a skull. I wasn’t sure about it--but everyone here seems as scared of Vathek finding what he’s looking for as they are of the troops being here in the first place. And that makes me suspect that the skull exists--and it’s here.” He looked at the Mayor. “Is Vathek getting his hands on it that bad?”

“If we had it, then it would be,” answered Menelaus. “You remember what it was like during his uprising. This would be worse. The Heath, the Waste, and the Plains would run red. And that red would stand a good chance of spilling over to the Marsh, and the Mountains of Sorrows.” He shrugged. “If we had it, of course. But we don’t.”

Braddock gave a rueful smile. “Of course not.” He shook his head. “You know, Fairwind, I think the worse part of this job is that if we had met in any other circumstances, we would probably be friends.”

“Well, we didn’t,” noted Menelaus.

Braddock nodded. “We most certainly did not.”

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 14

Mador Spidersilk and his friends were singing, as they rode. “Oh, how you did aim to bring me to shame, as you did proclaim slander to my friends,” sang Mador, as his friends hummed a tune. “My own sire said be done with the liar--the world shall not come to its ends.”

“He said it,” chimed in Garm in a deep bass.

“Walk like a man, talk like a man, walk like a man, my son!” sang the quartet together. “No woman’s worth crawling on the earth, so walk like a man, my son!”

Justinian sighed. The worst part of it all was it was so horribly catchy.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Balthazar Subtle, as he pulled his horse beside the Sacristan’s. “If you weren’t opposed to the Lands of Night conquering your folk before you certainly are now.” He shook his head, rolling his eyes in frustration.

“Oh, it’s not that bad,” said Justinian to the Goblin chirurgeon. “I had to go through choir practice with startling regularity at the priory. Sometimes for hours at end.”

“Then I applaud your spirit, Squire,” said Subtle. “Yes, I applaud and celebrate it. I am both honored and humbled to know you, sir.”

Justinian stared at the Goblin. “I’m being mocked, aren’t I?”

“Only slightly, Squire,” noted Subtle. “Only slightly. And with a dash, I must note, of genuine admiration.”

Justinian was puzzling out how to reply to that when he heard the whoops. He was puzzling out what they were when a large man rode by screaming like a maniac, then turned and rode off towards the hills. Morgaine wheeled around on her horse, staring around frantically. “Wha--who--somebody! After him!” At which point, a dozen men rode off after the mysterious rider, Justinian among them. As they left, Morgaine turned around and glanced at Serjeant-at-arms Greedigutt. “Did we just get razzed by a giant baby?” she asked.

Justinian and the rest followed the rider as hard as they could, but he traveled fast--after ten minutes, they lost track of him, and their “following” transformed into darting in various directions looking for some trace of the man. As they gathered back together, Justinian glanced at the others. “So--what just happened?”

“By my figuring--we just got took,” answered Sacripant. Quiet nodded in agreement.

Bolekiz sighed. “I am filled with sorrow and tears, much like the Bitter Lake.”

Justinian nodded. “You’re not the only one.” He shrugged. “Well--let’s rejoin the others. Hopefully, we haven’t delayed things too much.” As they turned around, Justinian thought he saw a figure on a horse waving from off in the distance.

But he might have been mistaken.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 13

Gregory Tyne generally enjoyed riding.

Oh, riding a horse had jostled at first--the sons of public house owners didn’t generally ride in Tintagel--but he was a tough able young man, and he got used to it. And now he found it relaxing, provided the horse he was riding wasn’t too much trouble, something he made sure of by buying the best steeds he could, and treating them very well.

But riding in late winter, as quickly as he could, with the additional danger that people who might just want to kill him could be out there--that just wasn’t fun. But one did what one had to in the end.

Gregory’s reverie was broken by what most people would have thought was a bird call. Ancient Evreux galloped to his side. “They’re up ahead.”

Gregory nodded. “Well, let’s go then.” He spurred his horse into a gallop. He’d been rather worried when he discovered Ancient Evreux was attached to his patrol, but the old solder had been quiet and obedient, if he anything increasing his authority with the men. He suspected a bit of help from the Captain and Braddock, and if so, he was thankful.

As Bald Ben came into view, leaning against a tree as he fed his horse an apple, Gregory debated thanking him somehow, but decided against it. The Master of Horse would just find some strange little way to deny he’d done anything of the sort.

Braddock glanced up as Gregory‘s horse came to the center of the little cluster of men in the grove. “Anything to report, Gentleman?”

“Nothing, sir,” said Gregory. “It’s been quiet.”

“Heh,” laughed Fadrique Mosca. “I’m starting to think that this has all been a wild goose chase.”

Braddock turned to the Talossan. “The Muster’s coming, Fly. And when they do, you’ll be damned glad we’ve taken the time to track them.”

Mosca gave a dismissive wave. “A farmer’s militia, Braddock? I’m no young fool just Across the River. I know the Nightfolk die the same as we do.”

Braddock crossed his arms. “Then you haven’t been Across long enough, Fly. The Muster isn’t some levy of scared peasants. These are freeborn men, sworn to protect their home and their neighbors. Some of them are even retired soldiers. They know what to do, and they don’t hesitate to do it.” He shook his head. “And the Muster isn’t even the worse of it. There’s a good chance that the Cthonique Guard will be following close behind. The Black Dragon has spent the last ten years turning them into the largest, most professional fighting force on both sides of the River. When the Black Cloaks come in force, a wise man gets out of the way.”

Odon Quince glanced up. “I thought Vathek said they wouldn’t bother us.”

Mosca gave a bitter laugh. “Come on, Odon. I think we all know how reliable our employer is.” He scowled. “How many weeks have we wasted looking for his damned imaginary skull?” The Talossan struck a pose, imitating the Ghoul. “‘A fortune of jewels cover it! It is made of solid gold! The Skull! The Skull shall be your pay!”

Gregory glanced at Fadrique. “So you think it doesn’t exist, Fly?”

“Gentleman, take a good look at Tolometto,” said Mosca. “If it ever did exist, it doesn’t now. Those folk would have melted it down and sold it all long ago.”

Bald Ben stroked his chin. “Don’t be so sure,” he noted. “They’re a funny folk, the Erls. Especially the Southerners. A Goblin I knew once told me that he thought they were the only people he knew who’d rather starve than steal bread.”

Fadrique raised an eyebrow. “I’d say that tells you more about Goblins than Erls.”

Braddock was about to reply when the sounds of hooves clattering as fast upon the ground as they could drowned out all hope of further conversation. Byron Matafol came, his men behind him. “The Muster’s coming--from the South!” he panted. “And they’ve got Black Cloaks with them!”

Everyone stared at him in disbelief. “That’s impossible!” declared Gregory. “The Guard would have had to pass one of the other patrols to get there. And the Muster would have had to send someone to meet with them. It…”

Bald Ben raised his hand. “No, no. You hear stories about this. The Guard… the Cthoniques can get it to move in ways that don’t make any sense when they want to. At least--enough of it to put the hurt on their foes.” He looked at Byron. “So--how far they?”

“A few miles!” said Byron. “We have to move.”

Braddock’s eyes spread wide. “Oh, my.” He did a quick count on his fingers, then nodded, and glanced at Gregory. “Gentleman, I want you to get the patrols back to Tolometto. I am going to provide… a distraction.”

Gregory blinked as Bald Ben got on his horse. “Sir, I…”

“Relax, Gentleman. These old bones are bit too fond of living to die just yet,” said Braddock with a laugh. “I’ve done this before, and come out all right. The important thing is to get as many men back to the base as we can, and make sure that the Captain knows to prepare for company in a little while.” And then with a yell, he was off.

Gregory took a deep breath, then nodded. “All right. You heard the Master of Horse. On your steeds. We move out NOW!”

Ancient Evreux smiled as the men scurried to their horses. “Wouldn’t get too worried, Gentleman. If any man’s got a charmed life, it’s Braddock. You ever hear how he got his nickname?”

Mosca gave a laugh. “I always thought that was pretty damn obvious.”

“You would, Fly,” said Evreux with a scowl. But the scowl quickly turned back into a smile. “We were fighting the Vultures on the Deinre. Someone dropped the standard. Braddock ran back to get it. He had to fight his way through the Vultures, coming and going, but he got it back. And took their standard to boot. Boys took calling him Bold Ben, after that, but Braddock didn’t cotton to that. Said that if they had to call him something, it should be Bald Ben.” The old man shrugged. “He was a bit thin on top then, but hardly bald as he is now. But still--the name stuck.”

As the horses started to rush off, Evreux glanced at Gregory. “Betwixt you and I, Gentleman, I suspect he shaves it to make the name fit better.” And then they were on the move.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 12

“So--you’re from across the River?” noted a rather jowly Erl whose name Justinian hadn’t quite caught, in tones that mixed interest with suspicion.

“Yes, sir,” said Justinian looking around Haken’s Mound. The name, he’d found, was somewhat deceptive--Haken’s Mound was apparently a rather spacious hall, surrounded by a small town. Presently, the Guard, and the Kizaks were sharing drinks with the Muster, a sizable collection of individuals apparently comprising anyone within a unspecified radius who possessed something that could be considered a weapon.

They were a strangely intimidating bunch, actually.

“I hear it’s very strange over the River,: said the jowly Erl. “I hear some of your folk worship bones, like the Ghouls!”

Justinian frowned as he tried to find a polite way to say to this man that he was an ignorant fool. “I believe you are referring to relics. The remains of saints, and people of especial virtue are honored--not worshipped--for their connection to those who lived…. worthy lives.”

The Erl laughed and raised his hand in mock defense. “Now, now, young sir--I find no fault with it! There are many paths to Mother Night, and all folk walk the ones they’ve been set on.”

Justinian considered telling this man that he didn’t honor Mother Night at all, but decided against it. The man clearly meant well, and there were three Erls approaching him at this very moment, one of whom was holding what looked like an oversized cleaver. “Mador, you old rumsack!” said one, a slender Erl with a drooping eye, wearing a red cap.

“Dinadin!” laughed the apparent Mador. “It’s been--what--ten years?”

“Since after the rising,” agreed Dinadin with a nod.

The four Erls nodded together. “We are True Folk!” they shouted.

Mador slapped Justinian on the back. “This is Just Sinin. He’s from Across the River! A religious expert.”

The other three Erls turned towards him, looking at Justinian with unabashed curiosity. “Is it true that in the Easter Kingdom, you can have as many wives as you like?” asked one with a bald head.

“No but some of our nobles like to pretend it is,” he stated.

“Mmmm,” muttered Mador. “Like the Kizaks. Only--more Milesian.”

Dinadin shook his head. “No, no. The Kizaks believe you can marry up to six women.”

The bald Erl rolled his eyes. “But who but the Erls of the Waste would want to? Look at the troubles I have with just one!”

“Speak for yourself, Garm,” said Mador, slapping his chest in satisfaction. “There’s enough Mador for as many women as want him!”

Dinadin snorted. “Well, as none do, that’s certainly the case.”

The other Erls laughed at that. “A touch! A touch!” cried Garm, slapping his knee.

Mador seemed about to reply, when Hagen and Palamedes walked by, each holding a mug of beer. “--you’re on death’s door, you’re in the middle of nowhere, there are no goats, no pigeons, and no mice, and you’ve sprouted a beard. What then?”

“You must cut in your heart,” said Hagen. “If you do that, Darksome Lady will understand.”

“Well, I’ll be the Lord of the Cobbles!” said Mador. “Hagen Greatthews!” He threw his head back and laughed. “I don’t believe it! You’re still in the Guard!”

Hagen turned and grinned. “Mador Spidersilk! I’m surprised you’re not dead!”

“You know me, Hagen! I live hard, and I’ll die hard,” replied the Erl. He looked at the Ogre. “How’s Eire?”

Hagen shrugged. “All right, I suppose. But she and I moved on. I am seeing hostess, named Meg now.”

“Always the heartbreaker,” said Mador. He gestured to the Ogre. “Now, there’s a man who could use six wives!”

“So small a number?” replied Hagen. He stroked his chin fondly. “With face like this--world is my truffle.” He gestured at Justinian. “Squire Sigma knows of what I speak!”

Justinian blinked as all eyes turned on him once again. He coughed. “I believe I should check on Her Excellency.”

As the Milesian inched away, Hagen laughed. “See? Such modesty? Sign of true master!”

Justinian shook his head as he walked away. Sometimes the difference between a crowd of Nightfolk and a crowd of his brother Sacristans enjoying a few drinks were rather hard to spot. And other times, they were impossible.

“Well, aren’t you a gloomy Gustov?” came a slightly inebriated voice. Justinian turned to see Morgaine sitting by herself, with several empty tankards in front of her.

“Your Excellency,” said Justinian with a bow. He frowned slightly. “I see you’re enjoying yourself…”

“Just a little…” declared Morgaine gesturing with her fingers to show just how small an amount she meant. “Got to move tomorrow. Big things.” She looked over the crowd in Haken’s Mound and shook her head. “It all started here, you know that?”

Justinian puzzled that remark over, and decided to try for further clarification. “What started here? If I may ask?”

“The Plains,” said Morgaine. “The Erls. Our general tendency to kick ass.” She smiled slightly, her eyes misting over slightly. “When we crawled out from the caves--yes, we used to live in caves--well, at first, all this space, and sunlight--it terrified us. So we just--gathered in small groups, and looked out for each other.” She clapped her hands together. “Those were the first freeholds. And living like that--it made us different. We worked together, but there weren’t any rulers. Every Erl was his own king. And when the Ghouls and the Devs came up from the south, and tried to break the Plains to their will--well, we showed them what that would take.” She nodded to herself. “Of course--we’ve changed a lot since then. And those who’ve traveled farthest have changed the most. We do that, you know. That’s why Marsh Erls and Kizaks are so--different. And--hell, some folk say the Ghouls, the Ogres, the Goblins--even the Devs were Erls once.”

Justinian glanced across the room, where Quiet and Sacripant were walking side by side. “I can see that about the Ghouls,” he muttered. “I mean--aside from the blue skin and the… little fangs, they look just like you…”

Morgaine raised a hand. “Don’t forget the hair. You can’t forget the hair.” She sighed. “Not that we’ll ever know the truth. Damn Sutekh! So much lost!” She shook her head, then slumped forward on the table. “I should probably stop drinking for now. I’m getting maudlin about stupid things.” She glanced up at Justinian. “Did you say goodbye to Eurydice?” She looked at him intently. “Again?”

Justinian crossed his arms. “I really consider that personal.”

“Heh,” said Morgaine. “I’d ask you for your secret, but really, it’s pretty obvious. A handsome face.” She smiled at him. “Honestly, if you were a girl, I’d have made a move on you myself.”

Justinian attempted to keep calm, while his mind screamed in utmost horror. “If I were a girl, I would have joined the Sisters of Mercy, instead of the Sacristans. And I’d never would have come here.”

Morgaine chuckled. “And wouldn’t that be a shame?” She yawned. “I think I drank a little more than I should have. Just give me a--” And then she pitched forward, her head striking the table with a thump.

“Oh, thank goodness,” said Justinian.

“If I were you,” came the spectral voice of Nerghal, “I would never, ever remind my grandniece of this conversation.”

“That was roughly my plan,” noted the Sacristan.

"Wise man," stated Nerghal.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 11

Mayor Menelaus sighed as he headed up the steps, walking stick clomping against the wooden stairs. In the past, he’d always enjoyed popping into the Traveler’s Friend for a drink, and bit of chat. But then--that was before it was taken over by a group of Milesian mercenaries and their lunatic Ghoul employer.

A squat, thick man stood in the doorway. Menelaus stifled a frown. He couldn’t say he was particularly fond of any of the Shrikes, but he separated them in his mind into the ones like Bald Ben and Gregory, who were men trying to do a job, and the men like Cyrus de Sang, who seemed to enjoy the job. Colin Dupre was one of the latter--in fact, he seemed to be the Lieutenant’s right hand man, though the Mayor had only a vague inkling about the Shrikes’ internal politics.

Menelaus gave the slightest of bows. “Master Dupre. I’m here to see the Captain.”

Colin glared at him, but then moved out of the way. As Menelaus walked past, he spat. “No tricks, Erl. Anything happens, you know what we’ll do.”

Menelaus forced a smile to his face. “You may trust me, sir. I am after all, a reasonable man.” Colin nodded at that, though his scowl only deepened. Menelaus took a deep breath, and then headed towards the Captain’s chambers. The door was open when he got there, and Eirene Briarbramble had opened the windows as well. Captain Brand lay on his bed, his eyes closed.

“Captain,” said Menelaus, with a bow. “I believe you asked for me.”

Brand’s eyes cracked open. He regarded the Mayor for a moment, then smiled. “Yes, I believe I did.” He leaned back on the pillow. “I--find it’s getting harder to be sure about these things.”

Damn it. Menelaus had been lying to himself. There was a Shrike he was particularly fond of, in his way, and it was this poor bastard dying in this little room, leagues away from any place he could truly call home. “Allow me to say sir, you’re looking well today.”

Captain Brand chuckled weakly. “For a dying man?” Menelaus considered denying this, but then simply nodded. The Captain smiled, and then was silent for a moment. “Mayor Fairwind--you haven’t been trying--to get help?”

“No, sir,” said Menelaus. “We… appreciate how--reasonable you’ve all been.”

Brand laughed at that. “That… is--one way to…” And then he began to cough. Eirene stepped forward, but he waved her away, and recovered. “Put it,” he said, as if there’d been no interruption. He looked at Menelaus pointedly. “There’s a Muster forming.”

Menelaus shrugged. “This isn’t the old days, sir. The Shire Reeves and Castle Terribel keep a much closer eye on things.”

Brand bit his lip and nodded. “And you have… no idea where… the item is?”

Menelaus shook his head. “None sir.”

Brand put his head back on the pillow and was silent for a long time. “Our employer is… suggesting we take drastic action to recover… his possession. The Lieutenant agrees with him. But if a Muster arrives--well, they will probably have their way.” He shut his eyes. “If you persist in your present course, I am all that lies between Tolometto, and ruin. And I am a slender thread, Mr. Mayor.”

Menelaus smiled, and took a seat. “I think you underestimate our little town, Captain. The south section of the plains breeds a hardy sort, sir. We survived Magnate Astyanax. We’ll survive you.”

Captain Brand gave the faintest of smiles. “Are you sure of that?”

“Towards the end of his rule over this village, he was considering a plan to use it as living esches board pieces,” said Menelaus. He looked at Brand and raised an eyebrow. “I won’t bother you with the exact details of what he was planning to do to pieces which were taken in a game. I think you can imagine.” He stood up, and took a step towards the Captain’s bed. “Now, a few questions for you, Captain. Suppose you help Vathek find what he’s looking for? Do you realize what will happen? And are you willing to take responsibility for that?”

Brand was quiet again for a long time. “The Shrikes honor their agreements, Mayor. That’s how we get paid.” With that he gave a low groan.

Eirene darted forward, and felt the Captain’s forehead. “Maybe you should leave,” she said softly. “He needs his rest.”

“I think I shall,” said Menelaus, turning to leave. “A pleasant day to you both.” As Menelaus walked out of the Traveler’s Friend, Colin scowling at him as he did so, it occurred to him that he really was quite fond of the Captain. He was almost sorry to lie to him.

Almost.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 10

Justinian took a deep breath as the mist finally cleared, and they came into a small grove, though as it was apparently night, he couldn’t tell much else about it. As he inhaled, he realized that the air in the… living world was fresher than--wherever it was they’d just been. Which was another reason to not want to go back there.

Morgaine looked the group over, and nodded. “Well, that seems to have gone pretty well. I mean--by the standards of these things;” She looked at Grizzel. “Naturally, I’m counting on you to do a real head count.” The Serjeant-at-arms nodded briskly, and began to wonder back over the line.

Justinian turned towards her. “I thought you said it was safe.”

“It is. Mostly,” said Morgaine. “But if people aren’t careful--bad things happen.”

“What--sort of bad things?” asked Justinian.

Morgaine scowled at him. “You want to talk about that now? In night? As we prepare to go off to fight a crazy Ghoul and whatever army of desperate hardcases he’s managed to hire?”

Justinian ruefully scratched his head. “Ummm… I guess not.”

Morgaine nodded. “Damn straight.” She looked towards the horizon, where a rather lowly mountain stood. “Okay, there’s Mount Cthonique. We’re in the right place.”

Justinian stared at it for a moment. “So--your family… named a mountain after themselves…”

Morgaine shook her head. “Nope. Other away around. We’re named after the mountain.” She rubbed her chin. “Sort of. It’s a long story. But a cool one. With sword fights, and giant rats, and our ancestor Marduk riding a monoceros into battle. Also, there’s an evil sorcerer who turns into a really big snake.”

Justinian stared at her. “That’s all you’re going to say about all that, isn’t it?”

Morgaine nodded. “Yep. Leave them wanting more. That’s my motto.”

There was a flash of light a short distance away. Justinian glanced towards it and saw a dim shape that looked like a man on a horse. “Your Excellency!” came a clear, ringing voice. “Is that you?”

To Justinian’s surprise, Morgaine smiled, and cupped a hand to her mouth. “Well, I said I’d be here, didn’t I, Rollo?”

“That you did, that you did!” said the speaker, revealed to be a slender short Erl. He smiled fondly at the diminutive Dark Lord. “And never let be said you weren’t a woman of your word, Dark Lord!”

“Damn straight,” drawled Morgaine. “Because if it was said, I make the sayer regret it. And that’s a promise.” Rollo burst out into laughter at that, and Morgaine joined him. “Ahh, damn it, Grassgrown, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” she said shaking her head.

Rollo grinned, glancing at the party. “Likewise, Your Excellency, and let me say, it’s a pleasure knowing we’ll have the Guard backing…” His eyes stopped on the grisly form of Nerghal. Rollo coughed politely. “Ahh… Is… the Sir…?”

Morgaine looked at the ghost. “He’s getting right back in his little ghost trap.”

“Are you sure, grandniece?” asked Nerghal. “I could be useful.”

“Back in the trap,” said Morgaine.

Nerghal sighed. “It’s just--I find myself enjoying not being in it.”

Morgaine stared at him. “Yeah. That’s pretty normal. So do Jespeth the Mauler, and Fat Lorenzo the Eater of Babes. I don’t let them out just because they’d rather not be there.”

“I am kin to you,” said Nerghal quietly.

“Not very close kin,” noted Morgaine. “And honestly--blood alone doesn’t buy you many favors in my book. You know that.”

Nerghal looked away. “A year of leal service, on my part. I will do as you ask, without any hesitation. If I may walk unhindered for--a little longer.”

Morgaine thought it over for a moment, then nodded. “That sounds doable. But first--go incorporeal before we head into Haken’s Mound.” She looked at the ghost seriously. “And if I see any--ANY--sign of treachery on your part, back into the ball.”

Nerghal nodded, and then faded from view. Morgaine glanced at Justinian. “He’s still around you know. Just invisible.” She turned to Rollo. “I guess introductions are in order. Squire Sigma--may I present Rollo Grassgrown, Shire Reeve for the Southern Expanse. Rollo--Squire Justinian Sigma, general factotum.”

The skinny Erl nodded. “A pleasure, sir.” He glanced back at Morgaine. “So--Haken’s Mound, Your Excellency? We’ve broken out the good malt, in your honor.”

Morgaine smacked her lip in delight. “You freeholders sure now how to treat a lady. Lead on, sirrah.”

Justinian glanced at her. “Will all this make sense soon?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Morgaine. “This is freehold country. The fun part of the Lands of Night!” She threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, you’re going to love this!”

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 9

Sacripant shuddered as they made their way through the misty landscape. It was unsettling to look at, formless and changing, with strange hints of--things out there. “You know, I’d heard the stories, but damn it, they don’t prepare you for how creepy this is,” he said quietly.

Grizzel snorted. “Lad, during the Rising, we wound up using the Paths of the Dead more often than I care to remember. They may be creepy--but they’re safe.” Morgaine coughed. “If you have Her Excellency with you.”

Morgaine gave a satisfied nod. “Thank you, Grizzel. I appreciate it when people acknowledge the sheer barrage of wonderful awesomeness that is me.” Nerghal gave a dry wheeze that might have been a laugh. Morgaine glared at him. “Yeah. That’s a good way to make me want to let you out of the ghost trap, Nergy. Sarcasm.”

Nerghal shrugged. “Honestly, grandniece, if it’s a choice between the trap and listening to you brag--I’ll take the trap. It’s boring--but it’s not painful.”

Morgaine pouted. “Oh, you are just asking for it. Three months of solitary, once we’re through. Bet you’ll beg to hear me boast after that.”

Nerghal snorted. “You may assume whatever you like, grandniece.” He cleared his throat. “That said, there were certain promises made…”

Morgaine nodded. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll look for freakin’ Deidre. Then--three months in solitary.” She shook her head. “Lady’s Love! You know I’m good for this! I keep my word!”

“Except when you don’t,” said Nerghal.

Morgaine frowned. “Name…”

“Stairway incident on your and Manny’s twelfth birthday,” replied Nerghal.

“You put me up to that!” snapped Morgaine, pointing an accusing finger at the ghost.

“Didn’t exactly have to drag you into it kicking and screaming now, did I?” noted Nerghal.

Morgaine crossed her arms. “Yeah. You know what? Screw this. You are the worst ghost to deal with. The worst.”

Sacripant couldn’t help but sigh at all that. He glanced back at Hagen and Palamedes.

“--So let’s say you’re stuck out in the middle of the woods, you’ve lost your razor, and there’s no way for you to get back to civilization and a new razor anytime soon,” said Palamedes. “What then?”

Hagen shrugged. “Then, yes, you may let your beard grow,” the Ogre stated flatly. “But, you must shave it off as soon as possible, and you must sacrifice a goat for every three spans it has grown.”

“What if it’s just five o’clock shadow?” queried Palamedes.

“One goat,” said Hagen. “Always round up.”

Palamedes stared at him for a moment. “This has all happened to some poor Troll, hasn’t it?”

“Sometimes, to many poor Trolls,” replied Hagen. “Good chunk of our holy books are Gothi debating cases. Strangely fascinating actually.”

“Feeling more comfortable?” whispered Quiet, sidling up next to Sacripant.

Sacripant shook his head. “Not really.”

“Want me to hold your hand?” she asked, with just a hint of amusement.

“That does sound nice,” said Sacripant.

Quiet snorted. And then she pressed a blue-skinned hand against his.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 8

Bald Ben Braddock was waiting at the door of Tolometto’s lone inn when Gregory arrived. The Shrikes’ Master of Horse was a bulky, florid man who was, just as his nickname suggested, bald as an egg, and in fact looked rather like someone had enlarged a baby and dressed it up as a man-at-arms. “Oi, Gentleman,” said the old soldier. Gregory looked away. ‘Gentleman’ was a nickname he’d acquired among the Shrikes when it was discovered that his father had been a property owner, and that he could read. It stung--even coming from Braddock, whose family were old Leonais armigers with sizable estates near Hautclaire, and thus could have been called “Gentleman” himself, with a great deal more justification.

Though as he watched Braddock rub his naked scalp, Gregory realized that no one would ever do that when there was a more obvious thing to call the Master of Horse. “The Lieutenant sent me,” said Gregory. Cyrus had arrived back from his talk with the Captain looking even grimmer and more ill-tempered than he usually did, and had insisted that Gregory needed to see the Captain as well.

Braddock merely nodded, a smile lifting up his plump, rosy cheeks, and stepped out of the way. “Well, it’s good to see he still follows the Old Man’s orders,” he noted, chuckling to himself. He gave an exaggerated shrug. “At least, some of the time.” As Gregory stepped through the doorway, Braddock fell in behind him. “So--how’s the Aspiring Prophet?”

“About the same.” Gregory frowned. While he could say with some certainty that none of the Shrikes liked Vathek, for the most part they at least afforded him the respect owed an employer. Braddock was the exception to that. He treated the Ghoul with a mixture of contempt and amusement that worried Gregory. Largely because it was fairly obvious, and because Vathek was the sort of person who eventually responded to such treatment in as brutal a fashion as they could.

Braddock shook his head. “You know, the last time the Shrikes crossed paths with him, he was on the other end of our swords. He and his followers were ambushing Emporium caravans in the Heath and the Waste.” He gave a rolling chuckle. “Amazing that the man can lose everything but his pretensions.”

Gregory snorted. “In my experience, that’s the last thing to go.”

The Master of Horse shrugged as they reached the Captain’s room. “Depends on the man, I suppose.” He sighed. “Still you wish the bastard would acknowledge that he lost…” He knocked gently on the door. “It’s Bald Ben. The Gentleman’s here.”

Eirene Briarbramble opened the door a crack. The witch regarded the pair balefully. Gregory noticed that her long black hair seemed especially disheveled. “Come in. But make it short. He needs his rest.”

Gregory bowed, and then walked into the room. He made his way to the Captain’s bed, and saluted, clicking his heels together sharply. “Gregory Tyne, sir. As you requested.”

Carloman Brand, the Fifth Captain of the Scarlet Shrikes, opened his rheumy eyes, and propped himself up from his pillow weakly. “Very punctual, Gentleman. Very punctual.” He smiled at Gregory weakly, then leaned back. “Ancient came back this morning.” Gregory nodded. Ancient Evreux was a long-time Shrike member, who specialized in scouting. “The Shire Reeve’s been calling a Muster.”

Gregory blinked. “But--how… we’ve been keeping…”

Captain Brand shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Let’s be honest--they’re the ones who know the ground and the ways here. There’s a thousand ways they might have found out. What’s important is, they did.” He paused for a moment, as if out of breath. Gregory waited for him to recover. “I’m sending horse squads out to watch things. At the request of our Master of Horse, you’re being put in command of the Eastern squad.”

Gregory’s eyes widened. “I… Captain…” He turned to Braddock. “Sir, I’m…”

The Captain raised an unsteady hand. “Don’t try to argue this one. I know it’ll be your first command, Gentleman, but--we figure your ready.” Gregory nodded. “Bald Ben will give you the rest of the details. I just wanted you to know--this had my back--” And then Brand began to cough. He coughed continuously for several minutes, hacking up something that looked rather like blood to Gregory’s eyes. Then Eirene stepped forward and pressed a goblet filled with some greenish liquid to Brand’s lips.

“You mustn’t overtax yourself, dear,” she said, placing a kiss on Carloman’s forehead. “Now--drink it down, and get your rest.” The Captain swallowed her potion, and shut his eyes. After a moment, he began to snore.

Braddock looked at Eirene. “How long…?”

“Not long at all now,” said the witch quietly. “He’s dying, Ben. We all know that.”

Gregory looked at the Captain’s form--so thinner than the man he’d met when he’d joined the Shrikes. “Is there anything you can do for him?”

“Yes,” snapped Eirene. “And I am.” She shook her head. “I’m not the Badb or even the Nemain. Just an ordinary Hedge Witch. Don’t expect miracles from me. When the Breath of Death reaches this state, common witchery is limited to making the sufferer… die peacefully, with as little pain as possible.” She looked at the floor. “I wish I could do more. I really do.”

Gregory nodded. “I know.” He glanced at the door, and then at Braddock. “I guess we should… get going.”

Braddock stepped towards the door. “Sounds like a plan.” He paused to regard Eirene for a moment. “You know, Madame Briarbramble--we all appreciate your--looking after the Captain.”

Eirene smiled ruefully. “Except for those that don’t.”

Braddock crossed his arms. “They aren’t here right now.” And then he stepped through the door.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 7

Justinian shivered slightly in his saddle. Just back from one journey out into the cold, and he was already starting another one--and this one was probably going to take longer. The Sacristan shook his head. He’d have cursed the circumstances that lead to him serving the Cthoniques, if that were allowed to a member of his order. As it was not, he wished he could, and then wondered if that were an attempt to circumvent the ban.

He glanced at Morgaine, who looked as self-assured as always. True, she was holding the glass sphere before her, and chanting under her breath in the performance of a strange ritual he didn’t understand--but as Morgaine managed it, you’d think blasphemous ceremonies that pierced the veil between life and death were just simple matters you’d do between meals. Admittedly, this one didn’t seem to be doing much--she’d been chanting for the last few hours, with no apparent results…

Morgaine suddenly stopped chanting. Then she put the sphere away.

Justinian gulped. “Umm… are you…?”

Morgaine hissed at him, then gestured ahead. Justinian glanced ahead and saw it. There was a man on a horse before them on the road. Which wouldn’t have been odd, except that he hadn’t been there a moment before. And as they got closer, the oddness grew greater.

The man was clad in armor--dented, ruined armor that was covered in rust and dried blood. The man’s body was a mass of old wounds, as if he had taken his deathblow--several deathblows, actually--and kept going. And then Justinian saw his face, and he realized who this was.

“You called me from rest,” said Nerghal Cthonique, his ruined face trying to approximate a smile. “And I have come.”

“You don’t rest, Nerghal,” said Morgaine bluntly. “You sulk and you plot. There’s a difference.”

The ghost looked away. “Even I tire, grandniece. All I hoped to build for me and mine lays in ruin. The only joy I have is that the man who took it all from me is dead. And for one such as I that is a poor joy indeed.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” muttered Morgaine. “I get it. You’re a very tragic figure. My heart would bleed for you if I still had it. And if you hadn’t killed my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my two uncles, and--how many other great-uncles was it that you took down? I lose count.”

Nerghal was silent for a while. “I had four brothers.” He sighed. “Do not make me dwell on these matters, grandniece. I did what I did for love, hard as you might find that to believe.”

“Yeah, just like you were trying to help me when we first met,” snarled Morgaine. “Words have funny meanings when you’re involved, Nerghal.”

Nerghal raised a hand. “Enough, grandniece. I am a man prone to plot for his own advancement, and dress it up in necessity’s clothes. I admit it. I even regret it. And I regret that it is too late for my regret to do anything constructive. But this discussion is not why I’m here. You wish to travel the Paths of the Dead?”

Morgaine nodded. “Yup. I most certainly do.”

“And I shall be your guide, oh, grandniece,” said Nerghal, pulling on the reins of his horse. He turned, gesturing for Morgaine and her troops to follow.

Morgaine looked at Justinian. “He’s always like this. I think he figures if he makes me feel sorry enough for him, I’ll let him go.” She shrugged. “Well, hey, a man can dream. Even if he is a dead asshole.”

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 6

Gregory made his way to the town green, where his employer was in the middle of his meditations. Vathek yn Baurbur, the self-proclaimed Prince and Prophet of the Ghouls, twirled in the center of the field, his silver robes and cloth-of-gold turban flashing in the morning sun, while his small collection of followers played their instruments and chanted.

It was an eerie thing, the Milesian had to admit, watching the Ghoul at his exercises. Vathek moved as if the world depended on him performing just these motions--and looking at him, you almost imagined it did. But Vathek wasn’t what had brought Gregory to this location. It was a tall, handsome blonde Milesian standing nearby, taking in the whole scene with an almost ironical air. Gregory reached his side, and bowed. “Lieutenant de Sang,” he stated. “The Captain wishes to speak to you.”

Cyrus de Sang yawned. “Does he now?” He shook his head. “Did he say what about?”

“I gathered it was security matters,” said Gregory. “But you can ask him to clarify when you go speak to him, sir.” Cyrus stared at him fixedly. As he did so, Gregory was reminded that he was much younger than this man--over a decade. Cyrus had also belonged to another Company before joining the Shrikes, but the one he’d belonged to--the Loyal Friends--had a significantly higher reputation than the Blue Banners. They’d worked for the Flamens, across the River, and then when they crossed over--Gregory had heard a story about a town getting sacked that either hadn’t been supposed to, or had been done so viciously the Faith needed a scapegoat--they’d worked in the Fangs, sometimes for the Throne of Flame, sometimes for the Thorne of Ice. But the last few jobs had been grinds, and then the Fangs had gone peaceful on them. So what remained of the Loyal Friends came down to the Shadow Woods, and joined the Scarlet Shrikes. Cyrus had been their leader. He had a reputation in the Company as a hard man, and nothing Gregory had seen suggested it was a lie.

“So--he expects me to leave our employer unattended?” asked Cyrus, with a nod at Vathek, still intent on his exercises.

“I’ll take over for you, sir,” answered Gregory.

Cyrus nodded. “Very well then.” And then the Lieutenant walked off towards Tolometto’s lone traveler’s inn, where the Captain had made his quarters. Gregory shivered slightly as he left. Somehow, you always seemed a bit colder in Cyrus’ presence, though you often only noticed when he was heading away. Gregory wasn’t that fond of the man--no one was, really--but he had a certain intensity that was hard to resist. It occurred to Gregory that was probably why he didn’t like Cyrus. A man shouldn’t be so intense and withdrawn, focused only on his rather grim job. He should laugh, and joke, and make merry on occasion. But then--what did he know? Cyrus’ fellow Loyal Friends almost worshipped him--though their numbers had been steadily falling over the years, he gathered. When the Captain died--and that was coming soon--Cyrus would probably step easily into his place, and that would be that.

Gregory suddenly wished he was fit for some other employment.

Vathek’s exercises were coming to an end, his followers playing their music rather frantically as they wrapped things up. The Ghoul looked them over confidently, a smile on his weathered, blue-skinned face. “Who is the Prince?” he shouted.

“Vathek, Vathek,” they answered.

Vathek frowned. “Who is the Prophet?” he asked.

“Vathek, Vathek,” came the reply.

The Ghoul gave a satisfied nod, and then turned towards Gregory. “Where is Lieutenant de Sang?”

Gregory looked away. Vathek was as intense as Cyrus in his own way, though his way tended towards a fiery heat, instead of an icy chill. “The Captain wants to speak to him.”

Vathek nodded, and looked away. “An old, sick man, ordering around a healthy young one…” The Ghoul scowled. “Reminds me of Irem.” He chuckled. “Really--your Lieutenant should take care of matters. That’s what we used to do. And what we shall do again, when I have been restored to my proper place.” He looked at Gregory again. “Have you found it?”

Gregory shook his head. “No, sir.” He bit his lip, and decided to venture the question he felt sure most of the Shrikes were asking. “Are you sure it’s…?”

“It is here!” snapped Vathek. “Believe me! The Skull is hidden in this town!” He leaned forward. “The remainder of your pay lies in that skull, Milesian. Of solid gold, and laden with gems. The Skull shall be the coin that returns me to Irem in triumph.” He clapped his hands together. “Both Prince and Prophet!”

“Prince and Prophet!” shouted his followers.

Gregory nodded in agreement. He’d heard that often enough over the last few weeks. It occurred to him that he’d worked worse jobs. But not many.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 5

Palamedes looked at Hagen as they headed towards the Great Gate. “So, the priest let you off the whole--festival thing…?”

Hagen raised a correcting finger. “Gothi. And no. I must sacrifice an extra goat. And make a pilgrimage to Kitvekh.”

Palamedes stared at him. “That sounds a bit stiff.”

The Ogre shook his head. “Oh, no. I’ve been planning to go for some time. As Skalds of my people sing, ‘Kitvekh, if I forget thee…’” Hagen sighed fondly. “I shall go by the lake, look in the water, and I shall weep manly tears of sorrow.” He smiled. “And then I shall come home, make love to beautiful woman, and if my seed should quicken, have child, who one day, shall go by the lake, look in the water, and weep.”

Palamedes nodded, while thinking to himself that it was remarkable, in some ways, that Mother Night could inspire devotion as different as that of Hagen, Sacripant, and Quiet.

And of course, Vathek.

Palamedes looked at the Ogre. “You--served during Vathek’s uprising, right?” Hagen nodded, his expression grim. Palamedes gulped. “So… was it as bad as they say?”

Hagen bit his lip. “It was… worse. That is why I have chosen to foreswear Lammath this year.”

The chubby Erl winced as he heard this. But then--he’d chosen to wear the black cloak. This is what came with it. The pair reached Morgaine. The Dark Lord of the Blasted Heath was seated on a skeletal pony, dressed in what was by her standards a fairly casual outfit--a simple black breastplate engraved with a broken heart and a black coronet. Serjeant Greedigutt, Justinian Sigma and Bolekiz sat on horses next to her. Palamedes saw that Justinian still had Eurydice’s scarf on his arm. He took a deep breath, and reminded himself that this wasn’t going to bother him. Breus le FidelĂ© stood near the gate, a pair of Understewards by his side.

Morgaine looked at the pair. “So, you two ready?”

Grizzel snorted. “They better be.”

Hagen and Palamedes saluted. “We are prepared as polecats, Your Excellency!” said Hagen cheerfully.

Morgaine frowned to herself, then shrugged. “I’m going to assume that’s a good thing. Get in line.”

The pair fell behind Quiet and Sacripant. The Marsh Erl glanced at them. “Polecats?” he asked.

“They are very wily creatures,” said Hagen with a nod. “Always ready for things.”

Morgaine glanced at the assembled force of Kizaks and Cthonique Guards by the Great Gate. “You know, we really need more Ghouls,” she said to Grizzel.

Quiet turned towards the Dark Lord, and shot her a wounded gaze. “Hey, I’m not saying you’re not an awful lot of Ghoul in a small package, Il’Mok,” noted Morgaine. “Just that I’d like a few more.” Quiet quirked an eyebrow. “Hey,” said Morgaine. “What can I say? I like you guys. Especially the whole ‘worshiping me’ bit. It’s just--neat.”

Quiet sighed, with an exasperated shake of the head. Grizzel gave a throaty chuckle. “Well, Your Excellency, we try, but--well, the Ghouls are like the Kizaks. They stick to the old way.” He coughed. “No insult meant to your worthy self,” said the Serjeant to Bolekiz.

“None taken,” replied Bolekiz. “To state the truth is an insult only to those who believe in a lie.”

Morgaine nodded. “Okay. We’re moving out.” She glanced at Breus. “Chief High Steward--the Castle is in your care!”

“And safe in it!” shouted back Breus. “For I am faithful!” He nodded at the Understewards, and the Gate swung open.

As the small force filed out, Morgaine reached into her saddle, and produced a large glass sphere. Justinian stared at it, fascinated. “Is that…?”

“Great-Uncle Nerghal,” answered Morgaine with a nod. She gave the sphere a pat. “He’s going to do a little favor for us. In a while.”

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 4

Gregory Tyne poured himself a small glass of wine, and nodded to himself. He had to admit--the Nightfolk had some of the finest vintages he’d ever sampled. And he said this as the son of the man who ran the largest public house in the city of Ardenna. As he sipped his glass contentedly, it occurred to him that in his many years serving his father as a pot boy, he’d never imagined he’d wind up not only on the Continent, but across the River, sipping Nightland wines.

Especially just how he’d come to be there, the young man thought with a reproachful look at the crest of his shield. It showed a small, slightly misshapen bird colored a very dark red. The sign of his Free Company, the Scarlet Shrikes.

The Free Companies were mercenary bands, most of whom roamed the lands of the Free Cities and the Compact, and fought battles for coin. Gregory had found himself joining one called the Blue Banners after the--unpleasantness that had cast him out of Ardenna, and eventually, of Tintagel. The Blue Banners had drifted up and down the Light side of the River--and eventually had to cross it when a former employer had been especially displeased with their performance. The Banners--or what was left of them--had wound up in the Shadow Woods, where’d they been quietly absorbed by the Shrikes, a Company that had been over the River since the days of Lord Shaddad’s Retreat.

Gregory raised his glass, sipped, then shook his head. And somehow--somehow--all that had lead him to a little town called Tolometto. Doing a job that left him feeling very uneasy. His hand went to his neck, on a reflex, but then reminded himself that he has sold Gwen’s miniature a long, long time ago.

Of course, if he’d refused to do jobs that left him feeling uneasy, he’d have starved to death years ago.

He heard the sound of the house’s front door opening, and nodded to himself. “Have a pleasant walk, Mr. Mayor?”

Menelaus Fairwind walked into the small kitchen, and glanced around it quietly. It occurred to Gregory--as it always did when he saw Tolometto’s Mayor--that the old man resembled a prosperous grocer more than a Nightfolk, with his lined face and heavy white muttonchops. Only his ears gave him away as an Erl at a glance. “Aye, aye,” Menelaus said at length. “Had a pleasant chat with a few--friends.” He forced a smile on his face. “How has Cassandra been?”

Gregory gestured to the young Erl, sleeping on the chair across from him. “Quiet as a mouse.” Menelaus nodded to himself. Gregory sighed. “Lieutenant’s orders, sir. I follow them, but I don’t like them.”

“But you would follow them,” said Menelaus as he took a seat across from the younger man. “If it came to that.”

Gregory looked at glass. “Let’s hope that it doesn’t.” He smiled at the Erl. “I’m sure our employer will find what he’s looking for in a day or two. Then we can leave, and you can all get on with your lives.”

Menelaus stared at the young man for a moment. “You honestly believe that, don’t you?” He shut his eyes, and shook his head. “You have no idea the hell your ‘employer’ would unleash.”

“I’m starting to,” said Gregory. “But I’ve taken his coin. And if that doesn’t count for something, even for a man like him, then nothing counts for anything.” He shrugged. “At least--that’s how I see it.”

Menelaus looked at him, then laughed. “You’re a touch philosophical for a sellsword.”

“I face death a lot,” replied Gregory. “It brings it out in you.” He sipped his drink again, then smiled at Menelaus. “Once again--thank you for letting me sample your wine cellar.”

The Mayor gave a dismissive wave. “Don’t mention it. To me, company is company. Even when it’s holding you at sword point.”

“A worthy attitude,” commented Gregory, who looked at his crest again. Company legend went that when the First Captain had split off from the Golden Eagles, he’d wanted to his company to be the Scarlet Eagles. But he gave a confused description to the artist he’d gone to, and that resulted in a much smaller, distorted bird that people took to calling ‘the Scarlet Shrike’.

Gregory shook his head. It was a hell of a banner to be killing people under.