25 September 1380 C.E.
“Rhoswen, are you alright? Are they treating you well? Are you a prisoner?” Nyleth said, very quickly, in Faerie, and mostly to the side of her cousin’s head.
The elf girl blinked and stared at the adventurers in disbelief. “I am well, cousin,” she said in Faerie. “The Hrutka people are very … hospitable.” She turned to Moria, looking at him with increasing excitement. “Ecoriel! How did you find us?”
“The Akaarur Tan,” he replied simply.
Rhoswhen’s lips drained of color to match her alabaster skin. “Did they … did they take you as well?”
“Nay, we found the wreckage. They’ll slave no more.”
Rhoswen cocked her head to the side, looking confused. She turned her quizzical glance on Nyleth. “Then … did you come for us? How did you know what happened?”
“We discovered it on the ship, cousin,” said Nyleth, voice strangely calm.
Moria glanced sidelong at her. “In truth, we did not learn of your situation until we happened upon the ruin of that ship. The logbook pointed us toward Port Crorbak.”
Rhoswen looked at Quinn and Nima. “But, I don’t understand. If you were not captured … where are the others?”
“We had hoped you could tell us that,” said Nyleth. “And,” she sighed heavily. “Why? You knew there were other ways.”
Rhoswen’s eyes glistened, and her composure began to crumble. In a hollo voice, she said, “Then this is only unhappy chance that brings us together in this accursed hell.” Quinn exchanged a look with Nima, looking very suddenly uncomfortable.
“Sssh,” said Nyleth. “I did not mean to upset you, but…” She held her cousin close. “I wish you’d told me. I could have helped somehow.”
“You have no rangers. There will be no rescue. My brothers and sister are lost!” cried Rhoswen.
“And I thought I was negative,” muttered Moria.
Nyleth ignored him. “No, but we do have me. Rhoswen, look at me,” she said, holding her cousin’s head up. “This is not my first time to Malecor.”
Dropping heavily onto a chair, Rhoswen’s delicate shoulders heaved with every sob. “I thought it was Angrael … that he h-had changed his m-mind and sent a rescue! OH, NYLETH! IT WAS ALL FOR NAUGHT!!!” She wept.
Nyleth held her closer. “Tell me everything, Rhos. We can make it well.”
“I sent word to my brother, at the least,” Moria said quietly. Nyleth smiled at him and mouthed a thank you. “We have the assistance of the Hrutka. They hate Yorba and we have promised to work against his interests.”
Rhoswen too up a half-full chalice of wine with a trembling hand and drank deeply, swallowing hard and making a sour face at the mortal vintage. “W-we set out nearly three moons ago. Edana had instructed us in the rangers’ ways to move silent and unseen through mortal realms. We had difficulty finding our way to the coast, but the earth-people… uh, the large ones who live in the north hills… with the firey hair on their faces and chequered skirts, they did not hunt us.” Nyleth gave Quinn a small smile, and the Dalesman nodded but said nothing as Rhoswen continued her tale.
“Edana had convinced an ally to take us by boat to the Stormy Isles, but the winds were not with us and we were becalmed at sea for weeks. We finally were put off on an island shrouded in fog, cold and rocky, where we attempted to take on provisions. We had almost lost heart and wished to turn back, but Edana gave us heart. She hunted game for us and found fresh water.” She smiled. “She was our courage Nyleth! It was you who inspired her Ecoriel, with your own tales of bravery in the Dying Lands. Because you left and returned to us, Edana knew we could survive, as well. It was so hard that first month! We all felt sick, Kaldar thought he might die.”
Nyleth gave Moria a wink. “Bravery, huh?” The wizard looked down with a frown, his expression strangely … guilty?
“Dyin’ Lands?” Quinn wanted to know.
“It is so cold in the lands of men,” said Rhoswen. “The ground is harder beneath our feet, the air hurts our throats, the sun burns hot in the day, and the night is darker than in Faerie. We could not approach the ports of men in our eagle galley, so we paddled to the shores of a place Kaldar called ‘Protea’. It was a terrifying place. Wild and filled with dumb animals who could not speak. At night we would hear the sounds of horrid creatures wailing and rutting. But Edana urged us onward. Kaldar and I met with some men who cast nets in the sea by the sand. Kaldar enchanted them and they agreed to take us to the realm of Kane, to a safe place, secluded, a forest perhaps.”
Her eyes became haunted, and she began to tremble anew. “On the second night… they c-c-came upon us.” Tears rolled down her milky white cheeks. “I remember so little of what happened. They came upon us so fiercely and so quick!”
“Settites? Or slavers?” Nyleth asked.
“I remember their sails … so black and ragged. They were monsters with grey skin and cruel teeth. They fell upon the mortals with curved black swords and burning brands screaming like animals! They found us below the deck, and Edana fought them like she was possessed by a demon! I cannot remember how many fell to her, but Kaldar drove some of them back with his magic. Amquis harried them with his bow, and I ministered to our wounds, invoking the blessings of our Holy Mother, but I do not think she can hear me so far away from home.” She choked with a terrified sob.
“Her grace extends to the bounds of our lands, and little farther, dearest,” Nyleth said quietly.
“But something else was with them, some great demon from hell. I did not hear it, nor see it approach her, but suddenly there it stood behind Edana as she cut through the monsters. She struck at it too late, and it seized her … lifted her up into the air with but one hand. Amquis shot it with his enchanted bow, but his elf-shot had no effect. Kaldar cast enchantments on it, but the creature ignored him. It finally cast Edana aside as she struggled when Angonal charged.
“The demon seemed no match for Angonal’s strength, but it had fell sorcery. I remember it wielded a weapon like a serpent of iron, which bit deep into Angonal’s flanks, drawing blood and making him weak. The demon was quick and stayed out of reach of Angonal’s spear. But Angonal could not avoid the iron snake. Finally, it struck the noble centaur down, but Edana rallied only to fall before the hellspawn. The Kannites had us by then, and we were taken… to…to their ship…” she resumed crying, then drank heavily from the chalice, attempting to calm herself.
“Rhos,” Nyleth said quietly. “It’s all right. We’re here now.”
“Easy, there, lass,” said Quinn.
In a barely audible whisper, Rhoswen said, “I do not care to recall what they did to us aboard that horrible ship. Edana fought back the fiercest, so she was the most ill-used. They brought us here, to this awful place.” The spellknight paled visibly.
“You need not tell,” said Nyleth. “But I do wish to know, are they ill-treating you here?”
“The Hrutka people rescued me, after we were taken to the beast pits.”
“I am glad to hear of that, at least,” the bard said, rather firmly.
“Kaldar said that they were taking us somewhere far from here. We saw them prepare the cages. We were to be taken someplace else with those monstrous beasts they keep. In cages, like dumb animals! But, as we were being loaded into the wagon-cages, one of the men seized me. He spoke to me in a language I did not understand and threw his cloak about me. He took me away from there, away from my brothers and sister. He brought me to Lada, who gave him coins. I have been here ever since, learning their queer language.”
Nyleth hugged her cousin very tightly, and Rhoswen sobbed into her hair. “I wish you had told me, cousin,” the bard said very quietly, almost to herself. “There is so much to tell…” her voice trailed off. “Things are better. We will make things right.”
“But … HOW?” Rhoswen cried. “Edana and Angonal are taken east in cages!”
“Ah, well, you would be surprised how much can be learned by simply asking the right questions.” She smiled warmly at her cousin. “Besides, between Ecoriel, Quinn, Nima, and myself, we have many ways to find the trail.”
“Strewth,” said Quinn.
“We found a missing girl with less to go on than this,” said Moria.
“An’ we found ye,” said Quinn. “Anythin’ kin happen.”
“You … you intend to rescue them?” said Rhoswhen, incredulous. “But, cousin Nyleth … you were never a warrior!”
“Was I?” Moria asked her quietly.
Rhoswen looked up at him and seemed heartened. “Yes! Yes, that is true, Ecoriel. You did not need a sword. And you have survived for years on the outside!”
“Mostly due to Quinn,” he said, gesturing at the big Dalesman.
“Thaht’s what I’m here fer.”
Nyleth hugged her cousin close. “Perhaps I am not a warrior, but my feet have tread the mortal soil for many years, and my eyes were always open. I still do not understand why you did this thing, nor will I, I fear. Why did you not ask for my counsel?”
Wiping tears from her face, Rhoswen said,” You were not in Faerie! We were by ourselves and Angrael was so wroth with me. I never should have told him of our plans. He would have told the Tuatha Ben Kesir, so I said that we must move earlier than we had planned, before we had gathered more of our brethren to our cause.”
“Oh dearest,” Nyleth said, shaking her head. “I wish you had waited. I would have returned … but there is little that can be done now. By the way, cousin … these are Quinn and Nima, both worthies from outside and within. It is due to their help and friendship that Ecoriel and I are here.”
She stood abruptly and unsteadily, for an elf, looking to the others. “Oh! Forgive me, mortals. I am distraught and did not greet you. I am Rhoswen O’Gairbhin na Bail Atha Cliath, of the Tuatha Sylva Gleann.”
“‘Mortals’ is an odd choice of word for one who has left the safe confines of Faerie,” Moria said softly.
“Think nothin’ of it. Ser Quinn Mac Teague, at yer service.” He tipped his floppy hat.
She beamed most disarmingly. “Oh, how gallant you are! And you speak our language, as well! How remarkable.”
Quinn blushed a bit. “Thass all on these two.” He indicated Moria and Nyleth.
Rhoswhen nodded, then turned to greet Nima. “And you … you have a fey face, but you are dressed as a mortal.”
The priest bowed. “Abd-Al-Azhar Nima Ibn Ni’ad wa-al-Ashar, at your service, Sayyadati.”
“Are you of Faerie?”
“My father only, Sayyadati. My mother is Human.”
Rhoswen looked momentarily surprised, then blushed ever so daintily. “Oh! Oh, I am sorry. I did not mean to…” she giggled, embarrassed.
“You need not concern yourself,” Nima assured her.
Rhoswhen regained her composure and curtsied. “Thank you, good men, for finding me. And thank you cousin Nyleth! I just know that all will be set aright now that you are here.”
“It will be well,” said Nyleth, smiling at her cousin warmly. “If we must travel away from the port, will you be safe here?”
The sound of the lock on the door clicked once again, and Lada entered, closing the door behind her. The Fomoraig woman regarded them all curiously. “I trust you have become acquainted with our little guest?” she asked in her own tongue, eliciting a scowl from Quinn.
“Indeed,” Nyleth said with a smile. “Thank you for intervening on my cousin’s behalf.”
Rhoswen cleared her throat and said, “Ahoj, Lada. ďakujem Vám za láskavosť.“
“Ste vítaní. Budem vidieť, že máte viac vína, Rhoswen,” Lada said
“ďakujem, Lada,” said Rhoswen, sounding grateful.
Lada turned to the adventurers and spoke once more in Lavinian. “So, do you have a plan, then?”
“We are hoping to form one soon,” said Nyleth. “I am curious about many things, as you would imagine.”
Lada spread her hands to the sides. “Well, may I be of assistance?” she asked, raised robust eyebrows.
Nyleth smiled broadly. “I hope so! Do you know where they might be taking Rhoswen’s company?”
Lada looked to Rhoswen and asked her something in Fomoraig, speaking very slowly. Rhoswen’s eyes widened and she said, “Kaldar overheard the men speaking. We were to be taken someplace called … Barad Golodhel.”
Lada nodded smugly, like she was showing off a well-trained bird. “Barad Golodhel is the secret fortress of Dominak Lukil,” she explained.
“Ah, Shadow’s Death,” Nyleth said thoughtfully. “Not many people know where it is … besides Kannites.”
“Sounds like something I would have written,” Moria murmured.
“Well, it’s supposedly pretty large,” said the bard. “Legend has it, it is the final resting place of one of the five dragon scions.”
A servant brought in a chased pitcher of wine and five cups. Quinn tried to make himself comfortable as he signaled for a cup. Rhoswen filled her chalice and the spellknight’s cup eagerly. He caught scent of the sour wine before tasting it, and his nose wrinkled. “I think this’s turned,” he said, setting the cup down.
Nyleth sipped delicately at her own wine and continued. “I believe that one’s name was Umbrae.” He expression turned stormy. “Ah, yes. Umbrae was the one who led the attack during the Demon Wars. Umbrae led the charge that took Grandfather.”
Lada nodded sagely. “Just so. The site is supposedly sacred to Kane and his issue. I know not where it can be found. Dominak Lukil is notoriously paranoid, especially after…” She looked meaningfully at Nima, who smiled disarmingly at her. “Well, after all who would threaten him. We have heard, however, that the legion accompanying the caravan of flesh set out on the road for Detva.”
Nyleth nodded. “I must ask, your ladyship, two more things before we take up the road to Detva. Will Rhoswen be safe here while we go? And,” she set the wineglass down, “what do you hope to gain from this?”
Lada’s full lips pressed together tightly as she eyed the bard warily. Then, her mouth slowly spread into a wide grin. “A fair question. And wise to speak so plainly. Since we are alone, I will tell you this. My mother is no friend to Yorba LeJantre, and he is favored of Dominak Lukil. We do not wish to see any harm done to anyone, for that would be too dangerous. But someone wishes the Dominak dead. Someone besides his known rivals…” She looked at Nima again. “Someone foreign.”
“Not I or anyone that I know of,” said the priest. “You have my word.”
Moria gave Nima a look, then turned backed to Lada. “I think I take your meaning.”
Lada’s smile faded a bit. “A pity. We would be most interested to learn who the foreign player is in this game.”
“If we … over hear anything, your ladyship,” said Nyleth, smiling and winking slyly, “we might be able to pass that on, as thanks for the hospitality you’ve shown my cousin.”
Lada looked piteously at Rhoswen, who was refilling her chalice and twisting her face with every sip. “Ah, the poor magnificent creature. We acquired her at great expense in the vain hope that the Fey were the foreign assassins. But, she seems only a frightened child to our eyes. We keep her here at great peril to our house. If any were to know we protect her, it would mean our destruction.”
“Ahh. No one steals from Dominak Lukil,” Moria said sagely.
“Perhaps, then, we could broker an agreement,” said Nyleth. “It is too dangerous for us to bring her along the road, I fear.”
“Of course. What do you propose?” asked Lada.
“We would be willing to eliminate LeJantre from Port Crorbak’s intrigues permanently in exchange for Rhoswen. And if we need to do it via a foreign agent, then it will be as such.”
“Nyleth, we are foreign agents,” Moria said in Faerie.
She looked at him then squinted. “OH! We are, aren’t we?”
Lada’s eyes sparkled with amusement. “We do not wish LeJantre dead. Far from it. My mother would have far worse visit the scoundrel. We would have him live long and in disgrace. But, if he were to die untimely, we would prefer it if he were put to death by the Dominak. As in, we would be unsurprised if LeJantre were in league with these ‘foreign agents’, and had some hand in the assassination attempt on Lukil.”
“Ah, now, disgrace is much easier,” said Nyleth with a laugh.
Quinn began to squirm, and Moria placed a hand on the paladin’s arm. “If we stage an assassination attempt and implicate Yorba…” he said in Faerie.
“It ain’t exactly … gallant, izzit,” Quinn replied in kind.
“Let us amend the terms,” Nyleth said. “We shall bring back as much information as possible and do what we can to aid your cause.”
Lada stared hard at the bard. “We would know who the assassins are, and if Lukil is led to believe that LeJantre is one of them … so much the better.”
“I understand,” said Nyleth.
Moria frowned at the Fomoraig woman, and continued speaking to Quinn. “Although now I’m getting the impression that there are already assassins in play. But gallant, it is not. Dark shores, dark means.”
“Thass how it’s gotta be, then,” said the paladin, sounding resigned.
Lada raised her cup and said, “Should you or any of your countrymen seek safe shelter, come to the side gate after midnight, under cover of darkness. Be in disguise and you will find empty wine bottles nearby, throw them over the wall, and you will be granted entry.”
“We will do what we can, Lada,” said Nyleth, raising her cup as well. “And I trust that you will hold Rhoswen safe until our tasks are complete. You do us a great service, and at great risk to your house. We will not betray that trust.”
They drank deeply to seal the bargain.
Nyleth glanced over at her cousin, who was more than a little into her cups. “Lada, has she been drinking like this the whole time she’s been here?”
“She seems to have taken a fondness for Dimgrit Sour,” said the Fomoraig. “She has been through a terror, poor creature. It seems to help her sleep.”
“Ah, I see. We faerie are … a little more delicate than others in some respects.” Quinn grumbled, and Moria smirked at him.
Lada nodded. “It was difficult at first to make her eat, but she seldom retches her supper any longer.”
Nyleth pulled Rhoswen’s hair back over her shoulder and tried to make her a little more presentable. “That is good news, at least. I thank you for your kindnesses to her. We will work on her sleeping without wine later, yes? When the terrors have faded.” Lada nodded politely.
“Rhoswen? Cousin?” said Nyleth, making sure she had the girl’s attention. “We will be back soon, dearest.” She pulled a very delicate gossamer blanket from her bag and placed it over her cousin.
Rhoswen kissed Nyleth enthusiastically. “You will save them! I know you will!”
“Of course, dearest.”
* * *
After Moria and Nima were given Fomoraig cloaks to cover themselves, Lada had the monstrous bodyguard, which was called Bolga, let the adventurers out of the stable gate. By way of farewell, the monster breathed heavily on the back of Quinn’s neck as he passed. The Dalesman paused long enough to uncurl his fists, then pressed on without a backward glance.”
Nyleth’s face was a twist of emotions. Around the corner from the compound, she stopped. “Should we leave now? Or wait?” Her arms were folded tightly across her coat, and she shifted idly from foot to foot.
“I cannae see nae reason t’tarry, lass,” said Quinn.
“Are we ready to travel, or do we need anything from here?” asked Nima.
“Let’s go,” said Moria.
The set out immediately on the east road across Dimgrit Fen. There were cottages on stilts, as well as the occasional flooded field house. Stands of cultivated rice could be seen in the distance, as well as fisherman poling on flat-bottomed boats in the deeper ponds. They walked for about two hours, swatting at midges and noting the occasional serpentine movement in the stagnant pools that flanked the road.
“‘Ware. Predators about,” Moria warned the others, pointing at the water of one of the larger ponds, some fifty feet from the road.
Nima tapped the paladin on the shoulder. “Ghazi Quinn, you may wish to be more alert.”
With a nod to both men, Quinn slid his falcata from its sheath, interposing himself between the group and the pond. Nyleth readied her bow, just in case. Ripples emanated from the point in the pond where the reptilian eyes Moria had spotted disappeared below the surface. The wizard saw the priest watching the trees and said, “Nima?”
“My attention was caught by the web in the cypress over there,” he said, pointing out a huge spiderweb joining a small stand of stunted cypress trees in the middle distance.
“This’s more like Blackmarsh than I thought,” said Quinn. He led the group forward, with an eye for avoiding the natural hazards.
They carried on for another couple of hours before they came upon a trio of ragtag Fomoraig men who wore thick layers of hides from a myriad of scaled and furred beasts. They sat on a rare dry patch of ground beside the road, twisting shriveled dry black sausages over a campfire. The men stared at the adventurers curiously as they passed, but they made no move to waylay them.
Another couple of hours passed, and the sun cast their shadows out before them on the desolate road. In the far distance they espied hills rising up out of the murk. The ground rose and became drier, and they could see more and more trees emerge as the terrain became gradually hillier. They took their rest where they could on knolls rising above the marsh.
The road became increasingly windy, and as the environment became less swampy, the trees grew thicker. They climbed higher and higher into the hills as the sun dipped lower and lower on the horizon. “We should probably find a safe place to spend the night,” Nyleth said, almost to herself.
“Right. This place’d swallow us whole in th’ dark,” said Quinn.
Moria pointed into the far distance. “I see smoke. Cookfires, I assume. See that ridgeline?” The others saw what he meant, a place no more than five miles ahead. They could not make out the course of the road to determine if it led there, or how directly.
“Do you think we can make it before the sun goes down?” asked Nyleth. “I will admit, I’m not a good judge of distance in places like this.” Moria shrugged.
“I’m game if you are,” said Quinn.
“Nima, what do you think?” asked the bard.
“Let’s be about it, then,” said the priest.
They continued on the road, which wound into the hills through narrow defiles and farther toward the cliffs. As the waning twilight pierced the half-denuded tree cover, giving the woods a red-orange glow, they saw better the village on the ridgeline ahead. It appeared that the road would lead them there, and this close they could clearly make out high-peaked rooftops above the treeline of the ridge.
Nyleth tucked the tips of her ears under her hat and pulled her braids up to cover the lower parts. Quinn noticed what she was up to and nodded. “Aye, that might be best. Won’ be long now, friends.”
The road hugged closely to a steep rocky cliff face to their right and sloped precipitously off to the left through thick stands of thin birches. They all heard the sound of twigs breaking and a deep-throated growl from up ahead. Quinn drew his sword, and Moria evoked light for his companions. An amalgam of fur and feathers, a bizarre half-bear, half-owl monstrosity hauled itself up the slope onto the road in front of them.
“Welp, thass jist greet,” said Quinn. “Git b’hind me.”
“Fascinating,” Moria said sincerely, following the order, while Nima uttered a prayer to augment the paladin’s already impressive strength.
“Whassat?” asked the paladin.
“Owl … bear?” the wizard offered uncertainly.
“Bearowl?” suggested Nyleth.
The creature looked at them all with enormous unblinking raptor-eyes and gave its great ursine body a shake before lazily advancing. Its feathered head did not move while it walked, staring steadily at the adventurers. Then they heard another growl approaching on the road behind them.
“I dinnae think we’re gettin’ out of this wi’out a fight,” Quinn said grimly.