26 September 1380 C.E.
The adventurers awakened the next morning to the smell of freshly baked bread wafting from the commons of the Harfeník Dáma, which Nyleth translated as “The Harper’s Lady”. The old babushka is right where she was when they’d retired, as if she hadn’t moved all night. Short, black-crusted loaves baked on the hearthstones, their tops split and crusted with nuts. The crone brooded over them like a hen as the boys approached, waiting for permission to grab a plate.
She glanced up at him for only a moment before taking a wooden spoon and carefully ladling five eggs from a boiling kettle hanging over the fire into one of the wooden bowls off the stack. She then took one of the round loaves and cradled it in her hands, scrutinizing it carefully. She seemed to weigh it, thumping the bottom close to her ear, then nodded satisfactorily before handing it over along with the eggs.
As they took their seats in the drafty common room, the halfling innkeeper brought four tankards of the house ale. The bread was fragrant and moist inside, with an almost painfully hard-baked crust, filled with dried cranberries and bits of pumpkin. The eggs were boiled overhard. “Aye, thass wha’ I’m talkin’ ‘boot,” said Quinn as they dug into breakfast. “I reckon it ain’t too early,” he said with a grin as he took a tankard.
The commons were mostly empty, except for a half-dozen local men, breaking their fasts in similar fashion. After a minute or two of eating, Quinn said, “Well, I like the food here, a’least.”
“We should try to see the richter this morning,” Moria said in Faerie. “Then we decide whether to pursue the escaped Fey or continue following the caravan.”
“Agreed,” said Quinn. “We willnae tarry here o’erlong.”
Nima nodded. “But I am thinking that any information our escaped friend has would only be to our benefit.”
The locals seemed to have a similar sense of purpose, finishing their meals shortly before the adventurers and hefting well-used wood axes to go about their morning. They were quickly replaced by additional hungry timbermen. Moria got the attention of a local to ask where the richter might be found. In his rudimentary Fomoraig, he managed to yield information from a local fellow, who said, “Big … Big house. High! Go up … Up! Big house.” The wizard thanked the man, paid for breakfast, and shared the directions with the others.
The mountain air was crisp and bracing, causing them to pull their cloaks tightly about them. The village seemed alive with activity at that hour. They weaved in and out of women and older children leading goats and oxen up the mountainside. The only men out appeared to be timbermen, hefting their tools as they moved downslope along the road from which the adventurers had entered the village.
“Not quite as barbaric as I had imagined,” Moria confided.
“Nay, not a’tall,” agreed Quinn. “Suren they ken there’s owlbears aboot.”
They continued to thread through the tall, peaked houses, always moving uphill until they reached the only path in town not full of people. The largest building in town, dominating the stony northern bend of town, was the village hall. A steep flight of stairs was cut into the rocky slope before the hall, which overlooked Detva Village from a natural outcrop flanked by wooded mountain slopes. Three falconer’s posts were erected at the entrance to the limestone long-hall.
“All right,” said Quinn. “Lessee where th’ door’s at.”
As they approached, they found one of the aged and weathered pinewood doors was ajar. Moria peaked inside and called out in Fomoraig. “Hello?” It was quite dark inside, but he could hear sounds of conversation deep within. He shrugged and entered, the others following behind.
The village long hall was almost cavernous. It was high-ceilinged and decorated in stuffed beasts along the walls and rafters, including bears, dire boars, wildcats, owlbears, and giant spider carapaces. At the head of the long-hall was the hearth, and over the hearth was a gallery where the greatest trophy of all hung: a dragon skull, as long as a pike, snarled down from above a dusty ornate ranseur mounted above them. “Well, will ye lookit thaht,” said Quinn.
“Must have inherited it,” said Moria. “The dragons have been dead for ages.”
“They must have had a might hunter indeed, to bring that back,” said Nima.
“Or an army,” said the wizard.
Four men sat at a long table by the hearth, sipping black ale over a half-eaten rack of boar ribs, empty clay soup bowls, crusty bread loaves, and pale wedges of cheese. They all appeared to be men of higher birth but wore stiffened leather jerkins over their clean tunics and long daggers at their hips. A short athletic man with silver hair and bright brown eyes was discussing counts of stored foodstuffs with another silver-haired man with a balding pate and a sallow complexion. The other two were smoking clay pipes: one a younger man with black hair and a coarse beard that seemed to grow from half his neck as well as his face, while the other was a tall, aging man with a scar and braided dark red hair. The last man, they surmised, was the village richter, and across the back of his chair was draped a finely woven woolen cloak lined in ermine fur.
“Probably very rude to interrupt their meal,” said Moria dubiously.
The man with the ermine cloak glanced up at where the adventurers loitered in the hall and called out. “Ahoj! dobré ráno!”
Moria returned the greeting in Fomoraig. “Good morning. I am Moria, and these my companions. We hear of bounty for Hammaddi magus in Kamenar’s Rift. Told you know more?”
All four men paused to casually look each party member up and down appraisingly. The richter then asked, “Hovoríte Fomoraig?”
“Poorly,” Moria said modestly.
The richter glanced at his companions and then looked back at the wizard quizzically. “Lavinian? Nordetong? Catonii?”
In smooth Lavinian, Moria said< “I am better versed in Lavinian, yes.”
“Oh, thank th’ gods,” Quinn muttered in Icatian. “As’m I, sir,” he said in Lavinian.
All four men quietly nodded. “Ojai!” and in Lavinian, the richter introduced himself.
“Greetings to you traveler! I am Bomir Bardejov, village richter. Won’t you share bread and salt with us?”
“Gladly, sir, and with thanks,” said Moria, introducing his companions before taking a seat. The other three men half-stood and bowed ever so slightly. They introduced themselves as Zdisla, Vata, and Mila before returning to their own seats.
Bomir sucked on his pipe and said, “You spoke of a bounty. You do not have the look of corsairs, however. Why seek you the magus?”
“Actually, we were hoping you knew more of the man,” said the wizard. “His name perhaps. A Hammaddi magus wronged a friend of ours, and we hoped by happenstance they were one in the same.” The young man, Vata, snorted and took a long swig of ale. “A longshot, I know,” said Moria, spreading his hands.
Bomir appeared unsurprised. “Indeed, we hear about much and more from traffic from Kamenar’s Rift. But, most of our more queer visitors of late have been going toward that town.”
“Oh, aye?” said Quinn.
“Perhaps you might tell me from where you come, travelers?” Bomir’s demeanor was relaxed and friendly, but he also seemed wary.
“Mystral, by way of Icatia,” said Moria. “And then, of course, a sea voyage. We have adventured in Lavinia and Hammaddi, as well.”
Vata whistled appreciatively, and Bomir said, “You are well traveled, then. Perhaps we might barter your knowledge for mine. What news of import do you bring us in our remote mountain fastness?” He grinned.
“I have heard that outlander assassins plot against Dominak Lukil,” said Moria. “Our band also seeks truth to the rumors that Jorba LeJantre is involved.”
All four men leaned in to listen more closely. The two older men spat at the sound of Lukil’s name. “Truly?” asked the richter.
“So we are given to understand, aye,” said the wizard.
Bomir nodded appreciatively. “That is interesting. We have heard much and more of Lukil’s hob-men on the move north of Kamenar’s Rift. We had heard stirrings of war.”
“War against whom?”
Bomir shrugged and opened his hands. “We know not, but patrols are doubled on the roads beyond the Rift. And … other foreigners have passed through this mountain of late. Know you anything of why so many from your realms are so interested?” He looked at the adventurers intently.
“I kin only speak tae our own innerest, which has tae do wi’ some Faerie folk that’ve gone missin’,” said Quinn.
“In truth, these wayward Fey are fools who came here to ‘save’ this land,” said Moria.
The other three men muttered quietly amongst themselves, nodding to one another. Bomir said, “Indeed, the Dominak’s column encamped here on their way to the Rift. They lost a slave who fled into Drakles Valley and asked me the lay of the land. We heard the escapee was a fairy-folk from Midhjard.”
Moria nodded. “We heard a bit of that tale from some of the men who … used to be part of the column.”
Vata pipped up, “And there was talk of assassins, too. They arrested the blacksmith and questioned him, as well.”
“The blacksmith?” asked Moria and Quinn at the same time, curious and puzzled.
The athletic man, Mila said, “Mad Zoila was going on about foreigners, as well. Overheard them talking.”
Moria exchanged a glance with Quinn, who shrugged. “Mebbe we should talk to ‘im, too,” said the Dalesman. “If’n they cut ‘im loose a’tall.”
Bomir nodded. “They released him after he’d told them what they wanted to know. You’d have to ask him more about that. And Zoila will go on and on if you lend her an ear.”
“An’ she’s…?” prompted Quinn.
The men chuckled. Bomir explained, “She’s a woods witch who lives here in the village. The villagers rely on her as a diviner and as a healer. They say she has the ‘sight’. She usually can be found at the crossroads on the road to Hropka Tozka.”
“She may, indeed, be very helpful in our quest,” said Nima.
“If Zoila tends ta haver, mebbe we should talk to ‘er after we look fer th’ man in th’ woods,” said Quinn.
“Best take her a skin of wine,” Bomir advised. “She will be quite helpful in that case.”
“Well, then,” said Moria. “You gentlemen have been most helpful, and I appreciate your information and hospitality.”
Bomir halted the wizard with a gesture. “You wished to know of the bounty, you said. I owe you the news, remember?”
“Oh, aye,” said Quinn, as if he had forgotten.
Moria nodded. “I do.”
“He was a magician in business with Yorba. They were supposed to deliver some great ‘prize’ to Dominak Lukil in exchange for a legion to fight the tribe of his enemies.”
Bomir’s dark-haired friend chuckled, “Ojai! Well, I guess that venture did not work out for LeJantre, because he’s put a price on the Hammaddin’s head in Kamenar’s Rift. One thousand gold dinars for the head of the magus!”
“Does th’ name ‘Amirandi’ sound aboot right?” asked Quinn.
Vata nodded. “That sounds like it. Yes.”
“Excellent,” said Moria.
Bomir tapped out his pipe on the table. “You say you are planning to search for the escaped slave. You intend to go into Drakles Valley, then?”
“Aye, we probably will,” said the wizard.
The richter cleared his throat. “Then, I will confess something to you. A hunting party went into the valley several days ago, but only a handful have returned. I do not expect the rest will, however.”
“We have heard the valley is haunted. I suspect a more corporeal threat exists there.” The greybeards nodded.
“Have the hunters spoken of what they have seen?” asked Nima.
Bomir shook his head. “We don’t refuse the Dominak’s legions seeking provision, but they overstayed their welcome. The villagers were terrorized for five days while they lingered. When the captain told me of the escapee, I told them how large Drakles Valley was, and how best to enter, but I didn’t tell them of the dangers. Bears, boars, and wildcats are common predators, but not the most dangerous, by far. At the bottom of the valley there are walking dead that hide amongst the muskwort. Even the beasts avoid that place, all except the crows. And, some days, when the mist rises up, we can hear the screams of Her children.”
“Haunted corporeally,” said Quinn. “Got it.”
“Her?” Moria prompted.
The short, strong man glanced up at the dragon skull overhead. “The children of Ilis. Stizla slew her, but he never found her clutch. They been in that valley for seven hundred years, now … growing fat off the flesh of the dead.”
The wizard’s expression was unsettled. “Is Ilis wha’ I think she is? Was?” asked Quinn.
Bomir nodded gravely. “Bride of the Scion. Terror of Strazke Cliffs. Ilis was a devourer of men.”
“Then the valley is dragonlands.” Quinn’s voice carried every emotion there is in it. The Fomoraig all nodded silently, in awe. The spellknight performed a blessing gesture over himself.
“Suddenly wishing I’d picked up a fireball spell somewhere along the way,” Moria said in Faerie. “Fool that I am.”
“If’n ye had , it’d just be th’ fire-breathin’ kind,” Quinn told him.
“I thought I was the cynical one.”
“Kin ye tell wha’ color she was by th’ skull?”
Moria answered the question with a shake of his head. Then he switched back to Lavinian and said, “Many thanks for the news of the magus and the warnings concerning the valley.”
Bomir raised his cup. “I pride myself on knowing my village and my valley. If you should need any further information, we will trade news again.”
* * *
As the adventurers descended the path from the Village Hall, they espied Nyleth chewing on a dry red sausage. Moria waved to her and she smiled at him as she approached. “Oh! There you all are! Would you like a kolache?” she asked.
“I … am not sure,” said Moria.
“Suren I would. What izzit?” asked Quinn.
She held out a basket of jam-filled pastries. “This one has creamy cheese in it, and this one is full of bacon!”
“Bacon!” said Quinn, swiping one.
“Quite the variety,” said Moria, hiding a smile behind his hand.
“It’s my favorite part of Malecor!” declared Nyleth. As they walked, they brought the bard up to speed.
“So,” Moria began. “We learned a few things from the richter. Nice fellow; you’d like him.”
She gave him a raised eyebrow and a sideways smile. “Like, really like him, or ‘have to choose my words carefully’ like him?
“Ah, a shame. We’ll meet him later, yes?”
“More’n likely,” said Quinn.
“He is always keen to hear important tales,” said Moria.
“Fantastic! Let’s make one of those!” said Nyleth, taking a bite from both the sausage and a bacon pastry at once, happily chewing.
“If’n what he said aboot the valley is true, then aye,” said Quinn. “We’ll be in a legend soon ‘nough. One way or t’other.”
Moria nodded somberly. “Here is what we learned. Yorba put a bounty out on Amirandi. Apparently, the magus was supposed to deliver something important to Dominak Lukil in exchange for soldiers. And failed.”
“I hope we can claim responsibility for that,” said Nyleth.
“Indeed. The other thing, the escaped Fey ran into the valley. Those hunting him have not returned, and several have been killed by the local wildlife … and possibly something worse.”
“Oh? That sounds promising!” said the bard.
“Quinn, do you want to tell her?” asked Moria.
“Dragons, Nyleth. Dragons,” said the spellknight, and Nyleth stopped chewing. “There’s a dragon skull inside the Village Hall, an’ the one who slew ‘er ne’er found ‘er clutch,” explained Quinn.
“Best case scenario – they’re also undead,” the wizard added. “I do not wish to consider the alternative.”
“That’s…” Nyleth seemed at a loss for words.
Quinn rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, aye. But we gotta go an’ see,” he said. “I gotta go an’ see.”
“That is not in question, no,” said Moria.
“Well, of course, but … I hope our kinfolk are safe,” said Nyleth.
“The huntin’ party what went in after ‘im had hardly nae survivors,” said Quinn.
“The rest are in the column headed for – or possibly already in – the Rift where this warlord dwells,” said Moria.
“‘E also said tha’ th’ blacksmith an’ a witch might know some things,” Quinn added. “But … dragons.” His eyes practically glistened with awe.
“I’m torn,” Nyleth admitted. “If our kin are in the valley, they might be safer there than anywhere else, depending … on things. But the ones in the column, they are also in danger. The Rift is the last human settlement in the valley before hobgoblin territory.”
“It is only one man in the valley,” said Moria.
“A ‘jann man’ was the entirety of the description we received last night.”
“That isn’t exactly helpful, but it’s something.”
“Kaldar Rythen Santhil Cill Daram, if I had to guess.”
“So, if’n we chase th’ column, we’d still hafta come back this way, aye?” said Quinn.
Nyleth nodded. “Indeed, and I feel I would be remiss as a mistress of lore if I didn’t at least look into stories about dragons.”
“Welp, in th’ end, we’re ‘here tae find yer people, Nyleth. So, it’s kinda yer call,” said Quinn. Moria gave him a look. “Well it ain’t mah call.”
“I think your reasoning is sound, Quinn, and I fear less for Kaldar tucked in the woods than for the others in the column,” said Nyleth. “Our people can be quite resourceful.”
“Yes, they managed to get capture quite handily,” Moria deadpanned.
She laughed, a little ruefully. “You will admit, we’re better in trees than in boats.”
“Oh, I do not know. I am quite taken with life at sea, now,” said the wizard. Quinn groaned.
“True, it does grow on you,” said Nyleth. “Though if there were more flowers, that would make it even better.”
“The sea over the woods, and the desert over all,” intoned Nima.
“I hadnae thought o’ that,” said Quinn.
“You’re quite right, Nima,” said Nyleth.
“This is why we keep him around,” said Moria.
“I thought it was for my charm and exceedingly fine beard,” said the priest.
“Those are part of the package, right Nima?” said Nyleth, smiling at him.
“As my charm is in born, and I shall be very reluctant to shave, we shall assume you are correct, Sayyadati Nyleth.” She laughed and handed Quinn the last bacon kolache.
Moria brought them back to the point. “If we leave Kaldar to his fate, it will likely be a grim one. The others are at least among … humanoids? Not that that carries any kind of guarantee.”
“True,” Nyleth conceded. “If we chase the one, he may be able to tell us about the column and thereby aid our rescue of the others.” She furrowed her brow in thought for a long moment. “Let us go to the valley.”
“Right,” said Quinn. “We ready, then?”
“Let us speak to the smith and the witch before we head out,” suggested Nima.
“So, who is the blacksmith?” Nyleth asked as they walked.
“I do not know, but the men from the column saw fit to detain and interrogate him,” said Moria. “Also, do you still have a bottle of wine? The richter suggested it might loosen the witch’s lips.”
“But not more than one bottle or her lips will be exceedingly loose,” said Nima.
“I always have a bottle of wine,” said Nyleth. “Do you think a red or a white would be more appropriate?” Moria shrugged, bemused.
“We’ll ask ‘er?” said Quinn.
“I will, perhaps. The škrata are usually herbalists, midwives … hedge wizards, really.”
They wandered the small village until they heard the sounds of hammer on anvil. The smith was a balding man who wore only woolen breeches and a leather apron. His feet were black almost to the ankle from the soot and ash blanketing the floor o fhis smithy.
“Good morning!” Nyleth called out in Fomoraig.
“Ahoj!” he said, eyes on the forge.
“Do you happen to speak Lavinian?” she asked in that tongue.
He glanced up and shook his head. “Fomoraig … wa al-Hammadi.”
Nyleth switched to Hammaddi for the benefit of her companions. “Few on these shores know such a tongue – how delightful!” The blacksmith wiped his hands on his apron and gave them all a slight bow.
“Well met,” said Quinn. “Kin we trouble ye fer a minute o’ yer time? We’ve jist come doon from th’ richter’s place.”
The smith nodded, grim-faced, as he placed a finely wrought spearhead on a workbench and began honing it. “Oh, that’s lovely!” Nyleth complimented him.
“He tol’ us,” Quinn continued, “that some of the men … detained ye recently. Kin ye tell us wha’ that was all aboot?” The smith paused, scowling at the workbench, then nodded sharply as he ground the whetstone against the rippled steel fiercely.
“Oh, goodness, I’m sorry,” Nyleth said gently. “I can’t imagine that was very pleasant.” The smith sighed and placed the spearhead down, relaxing his large muscled shoulders a bit. “Those men couldn’t have been up to anything good,” the bard added quietly.
“An’ we’re lookin’ fer ‘em,” Quinn said, as softly as he could manage.
Frowning over his workbench, the smith kept his eyes cast downward, idly rearranging his tools and wiping down the beaten oak surface. Through gapped teeth, he recounted his experience. “Two lobber-men come for me, says that I must come with them. I’ll not be a lobber’s stew, so’s I did as I’s told. To their lieutenant, they brought me. A hob-lobber as big as an ox, if I’m any judge. He throws this curved dagger at my feet, where it stuck fast. I’d seen its like before, recognized it at once.”
He met their gaze for the first time since they’d entered his shop. “You see, I was a journeyman, once upon a time. I traveled to the south, to learn brazing and steel-weaving from the alchemists. I learned their makers’ marks, and the lieutenant knew of my travels. He asks me, in that guttural accent they have, the lobbers … he asks me if I recognize it. And I did, so I told him. It were the mark of the ‘Ad-Dawa al-Jadeed’, those they put on their assassins’ knives. “
Nyleth held his gaze and nodded slowly. “I believe I know of whom you speak.”
“I’m glad someone does,” Quinn muttered.
The blacksmith leaned on his bench for a moment, recalling. “I heard stories, you see. I heard they do not fear death, and that they can sneak anywhere. Anyone might be one o’ their assassins, they say in the Hammaddins’ lands. One day your most trusted friend saves you from a charging camel, and the next he slays your son with one o’ them daggers, just to send a message. Just to frighten their noble ladies. Not many left, I had heard. Most were wiped out a generation ago, but a rival tribe, the Ad-Dina tribe, put them to the sword, it was said. Some battle over a castle, I think. I never knew the details.”
Quinn stroked his beard in thought. “We are acquainted with the tale in parts,” said Nyleth. “And I can imagine this would be the last place you would expect to see such a thing.”
The smith shrugged. “All the talk on the road is of war. Dominaks raising banners, sellswords coming from all over to fight for coin. And there’s been foreigners here too. Maybe it’s the easterlings they’re to fight. Who knows?”
“I hope that whatever is happening finds you safe,” she said. He nodded appreciatively and stoked his forge. “Thank you,” she added quietly, leaving a tiny Hammaddin pin on his anvil then quietly withdrawing.
“You are truly a master of a smith, sir,” said Nima. “Many thanks.” The smith carried on with his craft.
“Mebbe Amirandi sent the assassins after the hob boss?” suggested Quinn, speaking Faerie.
“Perhaps,” said Nyleth. “There seem to be many shifting alliances at work here.”
“Perhaps he wanted to secure the armies without having to make payment,” said Moria.
They returned to the crossroads with the great monolith. They heard the sounds of rustling in the undergrowth a moment before a pile of rags stirred from behind the standing stone. The figure awkwardly rose to reveal a stunted, bent-backed, toothless Fomoraig crone, leaning shakily on a twisted tall-briar walking stick. One eye was cataract-white, staring blindly ahead, while the other was steely grey and shifted to and fro nervously. Sparse white hairs tumbled messily from under her tangled babushka as low as her bent knees. The old woman muttered to herself in her own tongue.
“Blessings, škrata,” Nyleth said. The crone nodded vigorously at her.
Quinn and Nima bowed. “Respectful greetings, ‘ushti,” said the priest in his own language. The old woman stared at him, shouting something at him in Fomoraig.
“Her name is Zoila, Nyleth,” Moria informed the bard.
Nyleth pulled out a bottle of white wine, and the crone steadied herself, licking her toothless lips greedily. She blurted out another bit of gibberish. Nyleth opened the bottle and produced glasses from somewhere, pouring wine for everyone. Zoila gulped down her glass at once, beckoning for more, and Nylth obliged.
The crone finished off the wine again eagerly and then wiped her mouth, looking at each of the adventurers hard. Quinn smiled at her, without flashing his teeth, in case her animal instincts got the better of her.
Mad Zoila’s good eye began to steady and lose focus. Her shaking and fidgeting subsided and she stared into the middle distance. She began to murmur eldritch verses in lofty tones, clutching her throat and making wafting motions with her other hand. Finally, she took a pinch of grey and white dust from a bowl and cast it into the air, where it dissipated as she took a long, drawn out gasp of air.
She then looked at each of them in turn, speaking in perfect unaccented Faerie, Icatian, and Hammaddi. “Greetings, travelers of distant lands! Come ye to have your fortunes told by Mad Zoila?” Moria’s eyebrows ascended his forehead.
“If Mad Zoila would do us the honor?” Nyleth said in Faerie. “Then we would be pleased to hear them!”
“I’d be … honored, Mad…ame Zoila,” Quinn said in Icatian. “What must I do?”
“I would be honored, Sayyadati Zoila,” Nima said in Hammaddi.
Moria held his tongue.
The crone settled herself on the overgrown mound and took a brown leather pouch from under her ragged shawl. She shook it vigorously, clattering the contents within. She poured out a pile of finger-bones etched with runes and stared at their arrangement with her steely grey eye.
“I see … a journey, a winding path … forked, but both ways lead to the same destination. You must choose … the longer, safer path, or the short path fraught with peril. I see … an evil, a horrible darkness…” she said, her voice quaking. “This evil looms over and surrounds a victim wearing the guise of an adversary, a hapless pawn of its dark gods, this one.” Her voice sounds sad.
“I see an obstacle on your journey … but it lies before the evil … and the victim, barring them from their desires. To achieve what you wish, you have two patrons available to you. You may call upon an old god … or a new one.”
“Your words are wise, Madame, and we will meditate upon them,” said Nyleth. She handed the old woman the bottle and bowed to her. Zoila gathered up her runes, placing them carefully back into her pouch. Quinn looked around at his companions, not sure if they were finished. Moria merely looked skeptical.
“Come ye for any other service?” asked the crone. “Mad Zoila knows much and more!”
“There’s somethin’ I’d know, aye,” said Quinn. “But there’s more pressin’ questions at hand.” Moria gazed at him steadily.
“We would talk for a moment, if you have time,” said Nyleth. “We are not the first foreigners to come this way, I fear?”
Zoila sucked at the wine bottle, releasing the lip with a wet slurp. “Nay! Nay! Two men there were before. They spoke within Zoila’s hearing, yes they did!”
“Tell us, Wise Mother, what did they speak of?” asked Nima.
“Foreigners they were, but they wore the guises of our people. BEAR BAITING!” Zoila suddenly shrieked. “I saw through their masks. Zoila sees through the mists and fog … she does! They spoke in strange words, like a thousand black ants swarming about the grass. But, to have sight one sees the patterns of their scurrying. Words they make in the dirt, words Zoila can read.”
The old crone rocked back on her heels, muttering to herself. “The innkeep will hang, oh yes he will … oh yes!” She broke into a fit of cackling that ended in ragged, wet coughing. Coming abruptly to her senses, Zoila recalled the details. “They were speaking of someplace far away … someplace in the west, across the salt seas. They spoke of a woman they were meant to seize. They failed, and their masters were wroth. So they fled, they fled here. They fled from their wrathful masters, because they failed to get the woman. They took her prize, though. Something valuable, something precious to her. More precious was it to their wrathful masters, though. A ‘key’ they called it … a key to a mountain. The ‘Mount of the Seven’, they said.”
Quinn looked to his companions for any sign of recognition, then asked the crone, “Did they say where they was goin’ Madame Zoila?”
“Heheheh! Spin, you fool! Spin round and round amongst the pines, else you wish to be deceived? SPIN DAMN YOU!!!”
Nyleth began to spin, and said “Whee!” Quinn’s expression was mystified. Zoila’s attention seemed to have turned to pulling at weeds from around the standing stone, and Quinn moved to help. Moria’s dubious expression condemned everything in the immediate surroundings.
The bard stopped spinning, pulled out her lute, and began to pick at an old Fomoraig tune. She gave Quinn a prompting glance, and he nodded. “I had one more question, Madame Zoila,” said the Dalesman hesitantly. “Iss aboot a girl.” The crone’s good grey eye flicked up at him.
Moria muttered in Antiglot, and Nyleth scolded him. He looked up at her in surprise.
Quinn hadn’t looked away from the crone. “I jist wanna ken if we’ll be t’gether, or if I’m jist … wastin’ mah time.”
Zoila patted Quinn’s cheek with a gnarled hand. “Lovestruck this one is, oh yes! But, he brings flowers to lay at her dainty feet … such fools men be! Love finds its own, it does … Mayhap love looks for him, while he runs and runs. Stand still, brave lad! Love finds its own.”
The Dalesman grinned. “Aye, Madame Zoila. Aye! I Cannae thank ye enough.”
“A destrier is a mighty beast indeed, my lad! But see how the elk run free and joyful together in the wild. Be wild, my boy. Be wild and love will find its own!”
A weird glimmer found Quinn’s eyes. “Wild! Aye.”
Then Zoila fixed her gaze on Moria. He gave her a level look. “No.”
“You will come back to Zoila, anon,” said the crone. “I have seen your queer eyes in my dreams of late.”
“They are lovely eyes, though,” Nyleth said kindly.
She pointed a gnarled finger at the wizard. “See how they run! See how they run! Run while you can jann-man. Your accounts will be settled soon enough!”
“Enjoy your drink,” Moria said coldly, spinning on his heel and stalking away. Zoila resumed her “gardening”.
Nyleth watched the wizard go. “Thank you, Zoila. Your word were most appreciated,” she said. The others also offered their thanks, then followed after Moria.
“So, uh…” said Quinn when he’d caught up to the wizard. “D’ye ken which way we’re goin’?”
“Down the mountain. Into the valley.” Moria’s tone was clipped, and he waved vaguely in a direction.
“We are ready to go, then?” said Nima.
* * *
They found the warg-riders’ trail with little trouble. It meandered into the valley at a precarious slope, but in their haste, the men had left behind quite a clear path. They hacked and pressed their way deeper and deeper into the woods, and the chalk maples gave way to tall, proud soldier pines. They came across the remnants of a campsite, and Quinn went to have a closer look.
It looked like animals had rolled in the underbrush and humanoids had laid out bedrolls. They found the remains of a campfire by a large tree with exposed roots on a bank along the road near some berry bushes. Water flowed from a small stream.
“Do not eat those,” said Moria, pointing at the berries. He seemed to have calmed down.
Quinn asserted that about eight wargs and a dozen small humanoids had made camp there, along with half a dozen “regular-sized” humanoids. However, fewer tracks left the site and made way deeper into the valley. He found a tiny cold-iron cage in the underbrush nearby and freed it from the brush.
“Brutes,” Moria commented.
“Perhaps we should follow the trail until nightfall?” said Nima.
“Right,” said Quinn. “We kin find a better spot that dinnae smell like wargs.”
“Stay close to the stream if we can,” said Moria.
They pushed deep into the valley and found that the sun was setting as they entered a narrow defile. They made camp and settled in for the evening.
* * *
In the dead of night, Nima nudged the others to attention. “We are beset. Rise and ready!”
They could all hear the cawing of crows above their heads and the sounds of rustling in the bushes around their camp. Shambling into the dim firelight came the corpses of wolf and goblin, shuffling forward. From their bodies, wet vines have sprouted, their flesh rotting off their bones as they stumbled forward, arms outstretched.
“So, thaht’s wha’ happened to’m…” said Quinn.