“Have to admit,” said Gregory, as he walked down the steps, “it’s always interesting, meeting someone else from Across the River living here.” He laughed as he looked at the Sacristan. “I tell you, sometimes I swear this place collects all the stray odd bits of the Lightlands, and gives them a home.”
Squire Sigma didn’t seem to appreciate this comparison. “I have to admit nothing,” he noted calmly. “Now, please let us be off, sir.”
Gregory sighed. “Have you no kind words for a fellow Milesian?”
Justinian winced at that. “Human. We are humans, sir.”
“True,” said Gregory. “But so are the Nightfolk. People are people, I’ve found. No matter what side of the River they’re on. Or the number of fingers they have.”
The Sacristan didn’t answer that--merely pursed his lips, and walked on to the little cluster of people at the village green. “Did you see me, Dinadin?” said an older Erl to another. “I’ve still got it.”
“Never said you didn’t, Mador,” muttered Dinadin with an indulgent grin. “Never said you didn’t.”
Gregory and Justinian moved on by, passing the old Kizak, the Goblin Serjeant, and the Shire Reeve, all placidly smoking pipes, to reach Morgaine, Menelaus and Braddock. Eirene was standing next to the new Captain, resolving a question that had been on Gregory’s mind--the witch was coming with them.
“…keep your weapons. If you get out of here as quickly as possible,” said Morgaine. “House Cthonique isn’t very fond of armies on our lands we don’t control. And as I think we’ve just demonstrated--we are very good at acting on this lack of fondness.”
Braddock nodded. “Oh, we definitely understand that now.” He coughed. “Now--if I could… just have one… request…” The Dark Lord raised one thin, dark eyebrow. “The Skull, Your Excellency. I’d… like to see it.”
Morgaine narrowed her eyes. “If you think I’ll let my guard down now…”
Braddock shook his head. “I… it’s not anything like that. I’ve buried quite a few friends here. I’d like to see… what it was all about.”
Morgaine glanced at Menelaus, who gave a quiet nod. “Fine. Come with us.” As Fairwind and the Dark Lord turned, Braddock gestured for Gregory to follow him. Gregory fell into step behind the group, with Justinian, and two Cthonique Guards--the Ghoul and the tall Marsh Erl--following him.
Menelaus lead them back to his house, and then down to the wine cellar. Gregory blinked in surprise. “What… it was here…?”
Menelaus shifted a wine barrel, and pulled some of its staves aside. “I find being too clever in where you hide things makes them easier to find. So, I made a little hiding place in a spot that people would look in first, then ignore because they’d already looked there.” He pulled out the Skull. “Here it is.”
Braddock shook his head. “So, that’s it? A… skull? No jewels. No gold. Just old bone…”
Suddenly the Ghoul spoke. “That is the skull of Pallas.” Gregory realized that this Ghoul was in fact a woman. “He who saw that Light and Dark are wed, and brought the true faith to my people.” She performed the Obeisant Gesticulation. “It is more valuable than any precious stones, or rare metals.” With that, she knelt before it.
Morgaine nodded. “Il’Mok puts it best. Vathek was being all--metaphorical on you. It’s something of habit with folks in Irem. If he’d gotten his hands on this--well, there are plenty of Ghouls who’d have risen for Vathek in that situation who are presently lying low, and declaring what loyal subjects they are.”
Braddock laughed. “Still--all that for bones.” He turned around. “Well--thank you for that. I don’t know if it made anything better… but…” He laughed once more, than sighed. “Well, if you ever need to hire a few blades…”
“House Cthonique, as a rule, does not hire mercenary bands,” replied Morgaine. “Still--I’ll keep you on the short list…”
Braddock, Eirene and Gregory filed out of the wine cellar, shaking their heads. “What do you think they’ll do with it?” asked the witch.
“Probably hide it somewhere else,” said Braddock quietly. “The way I hear it, matters in Irem are still pretty tangled.”
“Mr. Gregory!” came a child’s voice. Gregory turned and saw Kassandra standing there, smiling at him. She stepped forward eagerly. “I want to say goodbye.”
Braddock chuckled to himself. “I’ll leave you to your lady friend, Lieutenant,” he said, before he and Eirene walked off.
“Grandpa says you were very brave,” said Kassandra, looking up Gregory with adoring eyes.
Gregory looked away. “He’s flattering me. I did what had to be done. That’s all.”
The young Erl nodded, clearly not believing what Gregory said. “Are you married?” she asked.
Gregory shook his head. “No. No. But I do have a fiancée. Gwen Laodegan.”
Kassandra’s eyes went wide. “Oh.” She looked away. “She’s very lucky.”
Gregory swallowed and then forced himself to nod, even as his hand went to the miniature that was no longer there. “Some might say that.” He wondered to himself what Gwen was doing now, after so many years. It had been madness, he knew, for the two of them to plight their troth. The sons of public house owners don’t marry the daughters of earls. And they most certainly don’t get away with killing the son of said earl, even if said son ambushes them in the road with half a dozen friends to ‘teach the uppity commoner a lesson’.
Gregory’s eyes were watering, he realized. He was starting to think he’d never be free of that moment, the moment he looked down and saw Lafallen’s body lying on the ground, the sword that did it still in Gregory’s hand and still dripping blood.
“Said your goodbyes, Lieutenant,” asked Mosca when Gregory joined the remaining Shrikes at the village limits.
“More or less, Master of Horse,” answered Gregory as he got on his steed.
Braddock turned and looked at his men. “I’m saying this now, because I’m probably not going to get a chance to say it later. I know this wasn’t one of our more profitable endeavors--in fact, it was pretty much a disaster. But we’ll survive. Because that’s what the Shrikes do. We go through all the blood and killing, and we come out on the other side. Usually, we’re battered. But we’re still here.” The men nodded, and Braddock nodded back. “Well, let’s go then.” And with that, the Scarlet Shrikes rode off.