Bandits Rock

We return to the Winchester Family’s adventures in Northumbria!


Background:

Sir Garrett of House Winchester and his retinue are in the small village of Lakesend at the southern tip of Blackwater Lake.  Having recently explored Wycliffe Island twice, they fought a number of desperate battles against creatures that they called goblyns, but these looked little like the creatures of myth that they were expecting. The nearby keep, under the command of Lord Balin Blackwater, is preparing for a massive goblyn assault, though the enemy army keeps vanishing in the rugged hills. For the moment, the Winchester retinue has decided to rest and refit for a number of days, and some members are also training. Ninth Moon is ending, with autumn hard on its heels. At the end of our last session, the companions were outside the Welcome Wench Inn at night, talking cheerfully when someone spotted what seemed like a human silhouette, peering at them from behind a copse of trees.

From the DM:

This was the session that almost wasn’t. Everyone has probably had a time when half the group is missing and you have to decide whether or not to play. We eventually decided to play, and it was a good time. The three players are strong role-players, which helped. Yet, I knew we needed some action (the last two sessions had been pretty cerebral). The players threw me a curve ball by deciding to investigate an area that I had not yet fleshed out. I had to come up with something quickly. We were glad to have played for another reason too. Two of our players were moving out west for college so this would be our last session with them until they return. I had to come up with a satisfying way for their characters to leave.

Cast of Characters:

Active characters from this session are in black, while other party members are in gray:

Maggie: Fighter, Odo’s sister, ward of the Winchester family
(think of a young Sigourney Weaver in Alien)
Cousin Modrak: Thief, Garrett’s distant cousin (think of Adam
Driver in The Force Awakens)
Ragnar Fjordbottom: Ranger, recent Winchester family ally
(think of Karl Urban as Eomer in LotR)
Hugh the Porter: NPC, hireling to the party (think Christopher
Lambert in Highlander)
Miles the Minstrel: NPC, bard who is seeking stories to tell
(think Eddie Redmayne as Jack Builder in Pillars of the Earth)
Sir Garrett of Winchester: Paladin, Head of House Winchester
Lady Alinachka: Magic user, Garrett’s widowed sister-in-law
Brother Rolf: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, Garrett’s younger brother
Odo: Fighter, Garrett’s friend, ward of the Winchester family
Master Magnus: Illusionist, Garrett’s butler/steward
Yeoman Guilliman: Ranger, longtime-servant of the family
Master Gimlet: Fighter, dwarven friend to Sir Garrett

Narrative:

NINTH MOON, DAY 32 (Continued)

The sun had already set in Lakesend, and twilight was fading to darkness in the small village. At the Welcome Wench Inn, the usual lot of tired laborers, off-duty soldiers, passing pilgrims, wandering peddlers, and local trappers drank and sang in the common room. Ragnar, Maggie, Modrak, Hugh, and Myles were talking outside the inn’s worn front doors, for the night was cool and peaceful. Clouds obscured much of the night sky, but the cool air was refreshing—a nice break from the recent summer heat. A dozen large piles of wooden boxes, crates, and barrels lay on the ground outside the front door, where workers from the inn load goods onto a wagon. There were also clay pots, jars, and urns of all sizes, plus blankets and bundles of linens. Maggie asks Hugh about the piles, and he mentioned that the innkeeper was sending dry goods and other supplies to the Keep in preparation for the coming siege.

Myles and Maggie were composing a song on the wide granite steps that led to the front doors. Ragnar, Hugh, and Modrak were discussing the human silhouette that Modrak had spotted less than an hour ago, looking at them from a nearby thicket of trees. Ragnar spent the next hour searching for tracks or any signs of the strange man, and he found some, but they simply led him back to the hard-packed earthen road.

While no one was looking, Modrak began poking through the largely unwatched pile of goods, looking for a container of mead. Much of what he saw or smelled was wine. He was sniffing at a bunghole when Ragnar returned from the road and quipped wryly, “The noble Modrak of House Winchester, sniffing at bungholes?”

Modrak ignored the barb as he continued searching, saying, “Sir Agravaine… that blasted drunk of a porter at the Keep… has a fondness for mead, I hear. We may find ourselves in need of bribing him. A cask of this size might buy a sizable favor.”

Ragnar responded, “I can buy you some ale. It is not worth being hanged for theft.”

Still looking at the various containers, Modrak mused, “It is only theft if you are caught. Besides, ale is expensive here.” After one last sniff, he finally stood up, defeated for the moment.
A trio of off-duty soldiers emerged from the inn, gossiping loudly about current events. Maggie could not help but overhear them, and she approached them cheerfully. The most talkative one, a longbowman named Lothar, his eyes heavy from mead, clearly became enamored with her, and he elaborated on his earlier comments. The talk of the garrison, it seemed, was the reemergence of the dreaded ‘black bolt of Maglubiyet’, an ancient weapon supposedly forged to slay elves and men. Lothar explained that the black bolt slays anything that it strikes, making it a perfect tool to kill skilled knights and powerful barons alike. Worse, he related that the bolt melts after striking home, reappearing in the quiver of its owner. Such a weapon could leave the garrison leaderless in the first few hours of a siege. Tasilio, a hulking halberdier and one of Lothar’s companions, added that any soldier is a potential target, and with hundreds of arrows and bolts flying through the air, every soldier will think twice before standing bravely in a breach.

When Lothar’s eyes grew heavier, his companions tried to drag him off. He only consented after confirming that he could find Maggie at the inn on future nights. Blushing, she politely confirmed that she was staying at the inn, and he eventually stumbled off, arguing and laughing with his companions.

A few moments later, Odo exited the inn and joined the companions. He shared that he, Sir Garrett, and Master Gimlet would be away for a few days, accompanying Lord Balin. He explained that Lord Balin had asked for Lord Garrett’s counsel. He also added that Lady Alinachka and Booj would be spending much of the week at the Keep, as she would be studying with Master Percard. he noted that Yeoman Guilliman was off training with Master Reece Hawthorn, and Master Magnus would be training with Tyrell the Troubadour. Brother Lambert and Brother Rolf would be assisting Father Godfrey at the shrine in Blackwater Keep. Thus, Ragnar, Modrak, Maggie, and Hugh found themselves with a few days to themselves.
Modrak asked Ragnar if he would be able to help him find some mountain lotus. He had heard rumors that a certain sergeant in the Keep was desperate to find more of the stuff. Perhaps it could be traded for some useful information, he wondered aloud. Ragnar readily agreed and added that he wanted to scout out the east side of the lake, climbing to one of the heights. From there, he hoped to survey the land and gain some insight into the enemy’s strategy. Modrak and Ragnar agreed to go in the morning, and Hugh and Maggie decided to accompany them.

Using a scrap of parchment and a quill borrowed from Brother Rolf, Modrak spent an hour that night by candlelight making a rough copy of a strange sketch that they had found among the goblyn corpses at the dry dock facility on Wycliffe Island. It depicted an old obelisk of sorts, adorned with primitive-looking pictographs and carvings. The image had been bugging him for some time now, and he had even dreamed of it on a few occasions, though the dreams seemed to have no meaning.

Bandits Rock

TENTH MOON, DAY 1
Morning: 37+, Avg.: 54, High: 70, Night: 42
Overcast, Wind 3-8mph, Visibility 10 miles
Arcanus 1 (new), Entropa 11 (waning crescent)
Dark—Arcanus new and Entropa almost new

The four companions awoke after sunrise and slowly filtered into the common room to break their fast. Master Emery bid each of them a good morning as they entered, happily announcing the morning’s fare. A homely but friendly brunette named Joan brought them generous helpings of large goose eggs with spicy pork sausage, as well as bowls of steaming wheat porridge with honey butter, crusts of fresh rye bread, and wild berry tarts with heavy cream. The four inhaled the food, noting that the quality was excellent.

Modrak mused thoughtfully, “It is a wonder that the food here, given its quality, is not as frightfully expensive as everything else in this area.”

Hugh provided a quick explanation, saying, “The late baron took note of the rising prices and created a list of maximum prices for all food items, lest his people starve.”

Modrak quipped, “I wish he had done that for all goods in this place. Most prices are outrageous.”

Hugh replied, “The baron had no qualms with his merchants and craftsmen making whatever profits they could get. Food is essential though.”

Modrak shrugged and pulled out his sketch from the night before, depicting the strange obelisk. He gave the copy to Myles, asking him to make discreet inquiries about the meaning or nature of the obelisk. Ragnar also asked Myles to keeps his ears open for anyone that may be looking for the Winchesters.

After some discussion, they decided to secure a pilot to ferry them across the lake to Belcastro’s Landing. From there, they would climb Bandits Rock. From its lofty crags, they planned to survey the surrounding land and perhaps find some mountain lotus. Hugh mentioned that an old pilot named Torstein has worked the lake for decades. They agreed to hire him if he were available.

Suited up for battle and carrying light packs, they proceeded to the docks at the southern limits of Lakesend. The sun was slowly rising in the clear blue sky, burning away the morning chill. A host of insects sang unseen from the long grass, and the humid aroma of algae and lake water lingered in the air as they neared the docks. A few fishermen sat in their small boats, tending to their nets, while a few others prepared their ropes and bait buckets.

Hugh looked around for a moment, but finally said, “I see no sign of the old man. Perhaps he has a charter.”

Hugh then walked to a fisherman and asked about the pilot, at which the fisherman pointed to a young woman, sitting in a rowboat about 30 yards away.

They walked toward her, curious at what they saw. She had copper skin and auburn hair, pulled back in a simple braid. She was comely—not strikingly beautiful, but alluring nonetheless. She seemed to be of average height and slender build, but her clothes stood out most of all. Instead of a wench’s simple dress or a lady’s elegant gown, she wore men’s clothing—buckskin breeches, a simple linen undertunic, a snug leather jerkin, a thin leather belt, and knee-high black leather boots. The clothes themselves were unremarkable, but a woman wearing such attire in Frangia would likely find herself charged with ‘crimes against nature’. They had heard in recent weeks that such customs were greatly relaxed on this wilderness frontier, and the girl seemed a case in point.

As the group approached her, she stood up, gave a slight bow in the rocking boat, and said, “May I take you somewhere on the lake?”

Hugh smiled, saying, “We were looking for Torstein, but I guess any pilot will do.”

The girl replied, “I am Torstein’s daughter, Marin. Father is sick so I pilot his boat now. I can take you wherever you want to go.”

A brief discussion ensued, and then they decided on Belcastro’s Landing. As the four companions rowed, Maggie struck up conversation with Marin, asking about her father’s debilitating illness. After an hour of idle chatter, the young pilot finally warmed up to Maggie, sharing that her father had a strange flesh ailment and that she was afraid to take him to the shrine or the temple. Neither she nor her father worship St. Cuthbert, and she was afraid that a priest would only burn him to death, if only to contain his sickness. She had heard rumors about the intolerant new curate, Father Talbot.

Ragnar inquired about the exact nature of her father’s sickness, but the girl seemed reluctant to share any more. Maggie finally mentioned that they have a friend that might heal her father. At this, Marin became noticeably curious, but she remained cautious. Maggie decided that it was best not to push.

Three hours later, with the sun overhead in the clear sky, they approached a long and deep sandbar on the east side of the lake—Belcastro’s Landing. Though it provided plenty of flat sandy areas to land a small boat, the sandbar was littered with dozens or scores of large boulders, which must have tumbled down the hillside over the centuries. Even a few large fallen trees littered the landing, looking as though they had tumbled some distance. A few puffy clouds wafted overhead, while small waves lapped the rocky shore in rhythmic cadence.

As the four companions disembarked from the rowboat, Ragnar announced that they would walk back to the village. At this, Marin grew alarmed and begged them not to stay, saying “You stand no chance out here at night! It is not safe! Between cutthroat brigands, packs of wild wolves, roving bands of Picts, and now goblyns, you will perish for sure!”

Ragnar assured her that they would be fine, but when she begged anew, he relented a bit. He explaining that when they reached the top, they would signal with one fire arrow if they intended to stay. Two arrows would mean that they were descending to return to the village.

Standing at the edge of the sandbar, the four companions peered around at their surroundings. The landing was mainly sand and rock, though some tall grasses grew in spots. Boulders were strewn everywhere. The landing was mainly flat, though there were gentle rises in some spots. A few hundred yards inland, wild grasses covered the gently rising terrain. About a half-mile from the shore, the grassy slopes began a steep incline, and a thick cover of trees blanketed the hillside. The slopes rose to perhaps a thousand feet or more, covered mostly with elm, spruce, oak, beech, and pine trees. In a few places, limestone crags peaked through the trees. Two or three hawks circled high above.

Marin sat dejectedly in her rowboat, whittling a branch with an old knife. Ragnar finally broke the silence, announcing that they should eat a long lunch before ascending. He invited Marin to join them, and she did. They quickly built a fire from nearby driftwood and set about preparing a quick lunch. Ragnar roasted two skinned rabbits that he had purchased from the innkeeper that morning, while Hugh added apples and blueberries. Maggie produced two loaves of crusty bread, and Modrak shared a cured log of spiced pork sausage that he had ‘acquired.’ As they ate, they sharpened their blades and checked their tinderboxes.

After adjusting their straps, the four companions finally set out, leaving Marin in her boat, looking dejected once again. They made their way up the steep forested slopes in a serpentine fashion to give them better traction and to reduce the chance of slipping. Modrak was soon sweating profusely and wondering aloud what he had been thinking when he proposed this trip.

Maggie, controlling her breathing, laughed aloud, “You are wearing virtually nothing compared to the three of us, and still you complain?”

Modrak chided, “I chose not to encase myself in a heavy shirt of iron rings. I call that wisdom, my dear… though my wisdom seems to have failed me when I decided to make this trip. Alas, no one is perfect. I should have just hired Ragnar to get the mountain lotus for me. Be a good lad and go fetch that for me, will you, Ragnar?”

Ragnar simply scowled at him in derision, and Hugh laughed quietly. Modrak muttered to himself, “No sense of humor.”

Over an hour passed, and the group had climbed about three-quarters of the way up the slope. They stopped at a point where there was a gap in the tree cover, allowing them to look down on the lake, though they could not see Belcastro’s Landing directly below them. The lake looked bluer than before, reflecting the sky above. The sun was hiding behind a clump of cumulus clouds, and a cold breeze blew from the west. Up on the slopes, it was stronger and colder than at water level, and the wind moaning through their helms made hearing a touch difficult for Maggie, Hugh, and Ragnar.

They began moving again, and not long afterwards, Ragnar called out, saying, “Here we go. You owe me an ale, Modrak.” As Modrak came up beside him, Ragnar offered him three bluish-white blooms, saying, “Mountain lotus.”

Modrak took the blooms, asking “Are you certain?”

“Of course, I am certain”, replied the ranger in a grim tone.

As Modrak placed the blooms in his pouch, Hugh said aloud, “We should be at the summit soon. From there we should get a good view of the center of the lake.”
They continued to climb.

A short while later, they neared the summit. Hugh judged that they were about a hundred yards from the top. As they prepared to make the last leg, Ragnar called out, “Hold up! What have we here?”

He picked something from the ground and held it up for closer inspection. Modrak moved closer, as did Hugh. They looked at him curiously.

Ragnar responded, “Mountain lotus. I am sure of it.” The look on his face said otherwise though, and Modrak soon produced the three bluish-white blooms from earlier, holding them next to the blooms in Ragnar’s hand. They were not the same.

Ragnar looked a bit sheepish, saying, “Well, one of these is mountain lotus. I am sure of it.” He handed the blooms to Modrak and moved on, and Hugh laughed quietly to himself. Maggie came up beside Modrak and looked closely at the blooms, saying, “Someone in the village can probably tell us which is which.” She smirked as she walked off, saying, “I am sure of it.”
Just then, Hugh whistled to the others, causing all to stop in their tracks. He pointed laterally to a spot about ten yards away and then walked toward it. Ragnar and the others followed suit. Hugh walked towards a large copse of magnificent blue spruces, easily 40’ high. They grew along the ridge of the hillside—majestic but not uncommon. Then they saw what Hugh had spotted.

Behind one of the trees was a black shadow in the shape of an oval, perhaps 6’ high by 8’ wide. Slowly, they realized that it was a cave mouth, hidden behind the row of thick spruce trees. Thick spider webs adorned the top of the opening, but Hugh cleared them with a few sweeps of his hand axe. He looked pointedly at the others, asking, “What do you think?”

Ragnar was quick to respond, saying, “We should investigate this before going to the top. As much as I want to view the lay of the land, this might hold more important secrets.”

Maggie added, “It could be an old bandit lair. After all, this is Bandits Rock.”

Modrak quipped, “It could also have bandits in it, which is a fine reason to leave it be.”

Ragnar persisted, saying, “Whatever it is, it is interesting. I will go in front.”

Looking inside the dark opening, Maggie felt her chest starting to constrict. She looked away, closed her eyes, and breathed deeply of the chill mountain air.

Hugh, Ragnar, and Modrak plopped their backpacks near the opening, and each began to ready his weapons or adjust his armor. Maggie was still breathing deeply. Hugh was the first to notice. Moving next to her, he said quietly, “I think that one of us should guard the entrance so that nothing surprises us. Do you agree?”

She looked at him knowingly and gave him a grateful smile. “I shall stand guard here,” she said, unsheathing her longsword. “Be careful,” she added.

Ragnar had already unpacked his tinderbox, and he used the blackened iron loop to strike the piece of flint, sending burning sparks onto a small piece of charred cloth. It caught fire within a few seconds, and he touched a pinewood torch to the small flame. As the torch came alive, Ragnar stomped out the embers on the ground. Modrak used the torch to light his hooded oil lantern, and then he gave the torch back to Ragnar. Hugh pulled his small wooden shield off of his back and pushed his left arm through the leather straps. Ragnar then flipped the torch into the cave mouth.

In the bright glow of its flames, the companions saw a narrow rocky tunnel, only two or three feet wide. It seemed to continue some 20’ or 30’ past the torch, disappearing as it bent gradually to the right. No sound came from within the cave—only the wind blowing across the hillside. No smell came from within; they smelled only the aroma of tree pollen and smoldering grass.

Clutching his Varangian bastard sword, Ragnar nodded at the others and then crouched down to go in. Modrak followed, recurve bow in his left hand and hooded lantern in his right. He had an arrow already nocked on the string. Hugh followed next, round wooden shield before him and his hand axe resting comfortably in his right hand.

Ragnar entered and found that the ceiling of the cave was no ceiling at all. The narrow rocky sides sloped upwards and narrowed further until the ceiling was a mere fissure that disappeared in the darkness overhead. He saw nothing overhead until he stood up. Immediately, unseen things were in his eyes and ears and nose and mouth. Shaking his head reflexively, spitting, and crouching down again, he noticed that the entire top half of the tunnel was filled with a cloud of gnats or other tiny insects. In the darkness, they were invisible. Then he noticed a few darker, bird-sized shapes flitting about erratically in the shadows of the torchlight. Bats, he thought, feeding on the gnats. He looked down and spotted signs of guano, though not in large amounts. This is not their lair, he thought.

Still crouching, he shuffled down the tunnel towards the torch. He reached it without a problem and flipped it even further down the tunnel. Seeing nothing of consequence, he continued forward, and Modrak and Hugh followed slowly, crouching just as Ragnar had.

As Ragnar moved towards the torch again, he noticed a large fissure on both sides of the tunnel. It was almost two-feet-wide at its base, and it yawed like an evil grimace in the shadows. Too small to hide a man, he thought as he continued forward. Similar fissures appeared as he delved deeper into the hillside. They followed no pattern; some were on the left and others the right. All too small for a man, he reassured himself.

He reached the torch again and judged that he was now about 60’ to 80’ into the tunnel. The oil-soaked pine torch now flickered from an unseen breeze, blowing from deeper inside. The burning torch, the gentle moan of the breeze, and the sounds of his companions moving towards him were the only sounds that Ragnar could hear. He flipped the torch one more time, and this time it landed at the farthest extent of his vision, where the tunnel seemed to disappear as it bent to the right. As he moved toward the bright orange flame, he heard an occasional drip, but nothing that would indicate an underground stream or pool. Shuffling toward the torch, he felt a cold dampness in the air and saw his breath in the glow of the torchlight.

As he reached the torch, Ragnar noticed that the narrow rocky corridor, which had been bending to the right, then bent sharply to the left, widening slightly. He threw the torch again and then saw that it landed in a small natural cavern, perhaps 20’ wide. He could not see the far end, but he could see in about 30’. The ground crunched beneath his boots, and he looked down to notice that small pebbles littered the ground here. Ragnar’s back began to ache from the constant crouching, and he thrust his hand above his head to test the air before standing up. A cloud of gnats swarmed his hand, and he withdrew it quickly.

Modrak and Hugh followed slowly and cautiously. From the cave mouth, Maggie saw the dim golden light of Modrak’s lantern moving further away from her, but she could no longer see Hugh or Ragnar because of the bend in the tunnel.

Standing at the edge of the small cavern, Ragnar spotted a narrow tunnel at the far end, leading sharply to the left. “The tunnel continues,” he said aloud.

Upon entering the small cavern, he found that the ceiling here was higher, and he stood up with great relief. Looking at the tunnel at the far end of the room, he noticed that it was much like the one that he just navigated—about two feet in width, with the ceiling narrowing to a fissure. Torch in hand, he crossed the small cavern and began down the new tunnel. However, he soon stopped, judging that he would get stuck if he went too far, for it seemed to narrow to less than two feet. He then withdrew to the small cavern, which Modrak had just entered.
Suddenly, Ragnar heard something from the unexplored tunnel that he just exited. It seemed to be a scurrying sound of something small, like the clicking of insects, but the cave had a way of echoing the noise and making it sound like an avalanche. His mind raced. Did we stumble into a giant ant nest? he wondered. Hugh, who just entered the small cavern, heard the sound as well, but he heard it through one of the many fissures on the side of the tunnel. Seeing Ragnar and Modrak in the small cavern he turned around to watch the exit and to guard their backs.

Maggie could no longer see any light within, and she was growing nervous. “Great,” she mused. “I am alone on the side of mountain. What happened to your friends? A mountain swallowed them. Did you help them? No. Why not? I could not see for one, and I could not breathe either,” she thought. Finally, disgusted by her lack of action, she dropped her backpack and fished out her tinderbox. If I need to go in, I’ll need light, she thought. Just moving with a purpose made her feel better.

Torch still in hand, Ragnar looked around the small cavern, searching for any signs of habitation. At first, he saw nothing but jagged walls of rock. This is not limestone, he thought to himself. Looking more closely at the rock wall, his thoughts continued, Yet, these tunnels and fissures are certainly natural. There is no volcano in these parts.

His thoughts trailed off, but then he spotted something in the northeast corner of the cavern, about two feet from the ground. On closer inspection, he saw over one hundred small scratch marks—small parallel lines, less than an inch long—scrawled into the rock, as if someone or something had been counting. His fingertips slowly swept across the marred surface, and he noticed that the smooth rock was somewhat moist. He looked about for any signs of manacles or chains, but saw nothing.

While Ragnar was investigating the cave wall, Modrak paced over to the northwest corner to look down the narrow unexplored tunnel. He held his lantern up to allow its rays to shine as far down the black tunnel as possible. He judged that it ran more than 40’ into the rock, for the rays of lantern light died before they found the tunnel’s end.

Then time began to slow for Modrak. His eyes wincing from the bright glare of his lantern, he thought he saw something move down the unexplored tunnel. He bent forward slightly, straining to distinguish a shape in the shadows. Then his mind slowly discerned what he thought to be a pale humanoid figure, crouching on all fours, looking straight at him. He doubted his eyes for a second, but then the figure stood up abruptly, still staring at him. His mind had no time to process details, for the thing began to creep toward him, becoming a touch clearer in the darkness. On seeing this, violent images from recent weeks flashed through his mind—images of such creatures in the cursed warehouse on Wycliffe Island.

Only a second had passed, but it seemed like minutes to the young nobleman. Panic welled up in his breast, and he seemed frozen in place. He desperately wanted to reach for his sword or dagger, but his limbs would not obey him. His right hand only clenched the hooded lantern tighter. It was the voice of Sir Garrett in Modrak’s mind that finally prompted action. Almost as if he had been standing next to him, the knight’s voice seemed to say, “Do not stand there like a statue. Withdraw and tell us what you see. Speak up, cousin!”

Modrak’s legs slowly began to move, and he crept backwards, one step at a time. Finally, he found his voice, saying in a calm and even tone, “Ready your weapons. There is something coming towards us in the tunnel.”

Ragnar dropped his torch, stood up, and whirled about, bastard sword in hand. He saw Modrak moving backwards toward him, and he rushed toward the young nobleman. He stopped abruptly, however, when Hugh, standing about 30’ to the left, at the entrance to the cavern, began to scream.

Ragnar shifted his feet and raced through the gloom towards Hugh. Hugh was at the narrow entrance to the cavern, his round wooden shield held up before him and his hand axe in his right hand. He struggled violently against something before him, but Hugh’s body hid its identiyy from Ragnar. Just paces away, Ragnar lifted his bastard sword with two hands, looking for a target. He then noticed pale, clawed hands, ripping at the ranger’s shield, while others clung to the shaft of his hand axe. Still others ripped at his face, while Hugh groaned and yelled with exertion as he tried to wrench himself free.

Modrak finally overcame his panic and instinct kicked in. The pale creature was rushing toward him, only 20 feet away. Modrak lifted his lantern in his right hand and hurled it to the ground with great force, right at the opening of the unexplored tunnel. The force shattered the wooden frame and smashed the clay oil lamp within, creating a pool of burning oil on the floor. Modrak backpedaled quickly and drew the bowstring back to his chin. For a second, he saw nothing, but as the flames died down, the pale figure leapt over them, making straight for Modrak.

Wide-eyed, he released the string, and a goose-feather shaft seemed to sprout immediately from the creature’s pale bony chest. As it tumbled to the floor, it let loose a hellish noise, something between a shriek and a raspy gurgle. Black ichor sprayed from the wound as it fell, splashing Modrak’s hands. The thing writhed spasmodically on the floor, leaving greasy black stains as it flopped, the arrow still protruding grotesquely from its chest. Horrified, Modrak dropped the bow and grabbed for his dagger, sliding it from its leather sheath in a smooth motion. He then lunged forward and drove the steel blade into the creature’s bony back. The dagger cut into the vertebrae, causing more black liquid to spray across Modrak’s hands. The creature screamed anew, jerked twice, and then lay still. The smell of raw sewage filled the nobleman’s nostrils, and he gagged. Hearing clicking and scurrying from the tunnel, and seeing other shapes coming toward him, Modrak hastily slid his dagger into his sheath and spun around with all speed, grabbing his bow and the torch that Ragnar left on the cavern floor.

Outside, Maggie heard the screaming. For just a second, she paused, listening intently. However, her ability to keep her head under pressure—something for which she was known—did not fail her. She already had the tinderbox out. Now her hands moved at a breakneck pace. She ripped open the lid of the tinderbox and grabbed some wood shavings and pieces of a bird’s nest, her hands shaking. She then grabbed the ear-sized chunk of flint and the ring of carbon steel, and began striking them together desperately to make sparks. “Come on, for the love of God!” she cried to herself.

In the gloom of the cavern, Ragnar rushed just behind Hugh. Two or three things were still clawing violently at him, trying to tear the shield and axe from his hands. When Hugh wrenched himself to the left, Ragnar saw an opening and brought the bastard sword down hard. It cut through something, and he heard a scream that sounded like a wounded animal, but he could see little in the gloom. The flickering torchlight at the back of the cavern created a web of deep shadows around Hugh, and the pale creatures darted about in the narrow tunnel with incredible speed.

Ragnar brought down the sword again, and the pungent smell of sewage became overpowering. For a fraction of a second, he gazed at his blade, now stained black. Something unseen then reached under Hugh, grabbing Ragnar’s leg and causing him to stumble backwards.

By then, Modrak had the torch and was running toward his companions and the entrance. The clattering and scurrying sound from the tunnel was growing louder and louder, and Modrak was ready to claw him way over his companions to exit the dark cave. He shouted to Ragnar while running, yelling, “Let us go… now!”

Still gagging form the smell, Ragnar realized that they had to move. Hugh was desperately wrestling with two or three creatures, but they blocked the exit tunnel. “Come on, come on,” the Varangian yelled impatiently, looking for an opening to strike again.

Hugh finally whirled himself to the left, pinning a horrid-looking creature against the cavern wall with his shield and pressing with all his might. The act opened a narrow passage for the others, and he yelled, “Go now! Move! Move!” Another creature wrapped itself around his legs, grabbed the bottom edge of his shield, and bit into his chain leggings, while still another savagely pulled on his hand axe. Hugh screamed, releasing the axe and punching the creature before him with his steel gauntlet. Still screaming for his friends to move past him, he pounded the pale bony skull until it audibly cracked.

Ragnar squeezed past Hugh and ran about 20’ down the black tunnel, realizing instantly that he could not swing the bastard sword in such tight confines. The shadows seemed to flee before him, for Modrak was right behind him with the torch held high. As they charged forward, both of them groaned aloud as the cloud of gnats engulfed their faces. Inhaling gnats, Ragnar choked and coughed, but still he pushed forward, eyes sealed shut. Modrak was coughing as well, but he crouched low to avoid most of the insects.

Ragnar’s blind charge came to a sudden halt, as he ran headlong into more of the creatures. They slashed at his face and legs and chest, and he could feel the knife-like claws catching on the iron rings of his hauberk. A fury rising inside him, Ragnar grabbed his blade and pommel and turned every part of his sword into a weapon. Eyes still half-shut, he smashed the pommel into one creature’s face, struck another with the quillons, and thrust savagely with the steel tip. Using his bulk, he threw back the few creatures before him, plowing a path for Modrak behind him.

Sensing a void to his right, which had to be the niche where the tunnel widened a bit, he slammed the creature before him into the cavern wall to the right. It writhed and slashed at his face, but he pressed it home with all of his might, allowing Modrak to pass behind him. Hell-bent on getting outside, Modrak raced down the tunnel, past Ragnar. As Modrak darted past, carrying the torch, the blackness in the rear of the tunnel seemed to grow rapidly, threatening to swallow Hugh. The thought of being left alone with whatever these were inspired terror in the ranger, and he turned his steel gauntlet on the head of the creature still wrapped around his legs. It finally released its grip on his shield and slid away from his legs.

“Damn it!” cried Maggie in frustration, but at that very moment, a spark fell on the char cloth of her tinderbox, and it burst into flame. Like a cat, she tossed the bird’s nest on it and grabbed immediately for a torch. Touched to the small fire, the oil-soaked head sputtered for less than a second and then ignited, blazing brightly. Maggie jumped to her feet, crackling torch in her left hand and longsword in her right.

From the yawning black tunnel, she heard a mix of screams, yells, and snarls. “It had to be a cave,” she thought. Adrenaline coursing through her veins, she rolled her eyes and then plunged into the opening, racing toward her friends. The torch sputtered and crackled, causing shadows to dance and retreat from her as she hurried forward. Then, before she could react, she ran headlong into a mob of disgusting, gaunt pale creatures. One launched itself at her arm, trying to rip the torch from her hands. Another slashed at her face, while another wrapped itself about her legs and tried to chew through her greave. Instinctively, she screamed, but she did not withdraw. With all of her strength, she jerked the torch back and forth fitfully with her left hand, causing shadows to dance madly upon the walls. The creature grabbing for the torch slipped and fell, and she pressed the torch to its flesh. It shrieked in pain, thrashing about like an animal.

Filthy long claws almost took out her eyes, and she screamed anew as another creature tried to crawl its way up her chest. Leaning back to escape its claws, she lowered the tip of her sword and thrust it through the creature’s ribs. Black ichor spewed forth, spraying her cheek and filling the humid air with a vile odor. As it slid off her blade, the sensation of burning daggers shot through her left thigh. She had no time to look, for in the flickering shadows, she spotted additional forms emerging from the fissures in the side of the tunnel. Maggie’s jaw dropped as she saw some scurrying along the walls like spiders.

Modrak, torch in one hand and bow in the other, ran straight into this scene. He saw creatures emerging from a fissure and scurrying along the walls. Many were fleeing the light of his torch and that of Maggie’s just 15’ before him. Still bent on reaching fresh air, he raced desperately past them all, jumping past Maggie and the few creatures that clung to her, and striking the side of the cavern wall to avoid their claws. He landed roughly but rolled to his feet, adrenaline pumping. Frenzied, he clawed open a small sack hanging at his waist and grabbed for the clay pot of oil within.

Sensing the confines of the tunnel, Maggie used only the tip of her sword, thrusting savagely at anything before her. Though she did not see him pass, she heard Modrak behind her. Her heart pounding in her chest, she screamed down the tunnel at her friends, “Make for the entrance. Come on! Come…”

Her shout was cut short as one creature hurled itself at her, grabbing her shoulder and springing up upon her chest. Its slashed wildly at her face, and tried repeatedly to sink its fangs into her neck. Its ferocity terrified her, but her chain aventail deflected most of the bites. Gritting her teeth and breathing hard, she drove her sword upward, plunging it into the creature’s soft underbelly. Black ichor poured forth like afterbirth, spilling onto her chain hauberk and spraying her face. The spray struck her left eye, and she winced, shutting it immediately. The creature slid down and struck the tunnel floor, but still others raced at her from the shadows. She could feel her thigh throbbing with pain, and she staggered. Yet, she met the new charge with a ferocity born of desperation. She thrust, over and over, while waving the torch at the screeching horrors.

Ragnar gutted the creature that tore at his face, and relief washed over him, as he realized that he was finally free.

But Hugh had not passed by him. From deep in the tunnel, Ragnar heard Hugh screaming in the blackness. Without hesitation, the Varangian rushed back in. Blackness engulfed him, and he stumbled blindly down the tunnel, shouting, “Hugh! Hugh!”

The scene was not one that he could see, but rather one that he could hear and feel. He collided unexpectedly into a writhing mass of claws and gaunt bodies, and he heard Hugh yelling just a few feet from him. His bastard sword before him, jerking wildly back and forth to deflect unseen claws, Ragnar sensed a half-dozen creatures pulling Hugh down the tunnel. With a throaty scream, he charged blindly and plowed into the creatures. The darkness took its toll though, and he lost his footing, sending everyone sprawling to the rocky cavern floor.

Modrak, grabbing the clay pot of oil and the torch, rushed back into the tunnel, slipping past Maggie again. Seeing one of the demonic creatures emerging from a crack in the north side of the tunnel, he dumped the oil all about the opening, splashing the ground and walls, and then lit it with the blazing torch. Bright orange flames leaped from the pool on the ground, spreading immediately to the walls, and casting a dim light further down the tunnel onto the pile of writhing bodies, wherein lay Ragnar and Hugh.

A half-dozen creatures rained blows upon Hugh, and one tried to rip his helmet off, but his frenzied motion caused most blows to glance off of his chain armor. Hugh tried to rise, but tangled bodies pull him back down. He howled as something bit into his side. Ragnar, punching and kicking as he struggled to get to his feet, choked up on the grip of his bastard sword and began thrashing about at the many bodies, hoping not to hit Hugh in the blackness. Ragnar at this point was virtually blind, his eyes still half-shut from gnats. Hugh tried to rise again, but slipped in the expanding greasy pool of black blood. The stench was overpowering.

Modrak, his mind racing, grew wide-eyed as a creature emerged from the crack, engulfed in flames and screeching. Fortunately, it turned away from his torch and fled down the tunnel towards Ragnar and Hugh. Instinct took over, and his hand grabbed the handle of his dagger. In one smooth motion, he pulled forth the bloodstained dagger and lunged forward, just quick enough to catch the creature before it took three steps. He drove the dagger into its back, just below its head, causing black ichor to spatter across his nose and mouth. Jumbled thoughts of horror raced through his mind faster than he could process them: Oh-God-disease-need-help-vile-filth-vomit-death-decay-vomit-sewer-nauseous-rot-vomit-maggots-pollution-vomit-putrid…

Maggie’s shouts, echoing down the tunnel, finally penetrated his consciousness. “Get Ragnar the torch! Go!” she yelled. Modrak sprang forward and threw the torch down the tunnel, right at the jumbled pile of feral bodies. It landed in their midst, causing inky shadows to withdraw instantly and the terrible creatures to scurry like rats. As they fled deeper into the tunnel, toward the blackness, Ragnar struck one and then two, cutting them down with his bastard sword. The Varangian grabbed Hugh’s jerkin and heaved him to his feet, dragging him along as they raced for the entrance. When Hugh recovered and found his feet, Ragnar released him. Hugh raced behind the Varangian, shouting, “Keep going, keep going,” until he swallowed a mouthful of gnats and began choking as he ran.

Seeing them coming, Modrak turned and fled back towards the entrance. Maggie, still half-blind, downed the last fell creature just in time to see her friends racing for the entrance.

The four companions spilled forth from the cave to find themselves blinded by the brilliant daylight. Though the sun still lay hidden behind a large cloud, the light was a hundredfold brighter than the blackness of the tunnel. All four of them instinctively collapsed to their knees upon reaching the fresh air outside the cave. They gasped and strained for breath.
Ragnar realized giddily that he was unhurt and that all three of his friends were alive and with him. However, seeing their condition, his joy dissipated. All of them were splattered and smeared with a nauseating liquid black filth that looked like pitch, and the smell of raw sewage was overpowering. Modrak, on his hands and knees, was spitting and coughing incessantly. Retching, he finally vomited in the weeds, long spindles of yellow spittle hanging from his open mouth. Maggie, her left eye still closed shut and splattered with black ichor, grabbed calmly for her waterskin and pulled out the stopper. Groaning in pain, she poured fresh water on her face and wiped at her eye repeatedly in a vain attempt to clean it. Blood ran freely down her left thigh, where the chain links were split. Hugh lay on his back, his hands clasped against his right hip, where blood was pooling and staining his gambeson a bright crimson. At his side lay his small wooden shield, but the leather and iron edging had been pulled half off so it now stuck out at an odd angle like an antenna.

Ragnar suddenly realized that they had been very lucky. “Fharlanghan’s Feet,” he muttered to himself.

Hugh rolled onto his hands and knees and muttered, “We should get clear of here. We are not safe.”

Ragnar readily agreed, but a look of alarm and realization then washed over his face.

“What is it?” asked Hugh.

“I forgot a goblyn head! I want proof for any doubters at the Keep.”

Still wincing in pain and holding a water-drenched rag to her eye, Maggie muttered, “You have to be kidding.”

Ragnar sprang to his feet and said, “I shall be right back.”

Modrak, spittle still dangling from his bottom lip, said weakly, “I am not going in there again. Not today at least.”

Hugh regained his feet and bent down the mangled edging of his shield. He picked up his hand axe and moved toward the cave entrance. Fortunately, Ragnar emerged a moment later, dragging a goblyn corpse. They took a moment to look closely at the foul thing.

The pungent stench immediately filled their nostrils, and Modrak shrank back in disgust. The creature was perhaps three feet tall. Its pale skin was almost translucent in places, almost like that found in animal entrails. In other places, the skin was thicker, wrinkled, and sagging. The thing was gaunt, with vertebrae protruding grotesquely from its back. Its head was bald and bony, and the pointed ears were bony and oversized, like those of a bat. The nose too resembled that of a bat, its wide nostrils seemingly crushed up against its face. Hugh lifted its dead lips with the tip of his hand axe, revealing yellowish teeth and bat-like incisors. Tufts of black coarse hair protruded from its skin in several places, but overall it looked hairless.
For a few seconds, a scurrying sound seemed to come from inside the cave, causing all to look up in tense anticipation.

“We really should go,” muttered Hugh.

Ragnar nodded and said, “Stand back.” Placing his bastard sword upon its neck, he then sliced off the corpse’s head. Black ichor spilled from the neck, and the smell worsened, causing Modrak to begin his descent immediately. Ragnar placed the head inside a large burlap sack, and that inside of another sack.

The sky was growing darker, for it was late in the afternoon. Still holding his side, Hugh looked skyward and said, “We have perhaps an hour before sunset—maybe two. If the girl waits for us, we shall be rowing back to the village in darkness. If she left…”

His voice trailed off, and they all imagined walking back in the blackness.

Maggie voiced what they were all thinking, saying “She had better be there or we are in serious trouble. There is a new moon tonight, which means that it will be all but black out here, and the terrain is unfamiliar. It will be slow going, and whatever those things are, they probably see perfectly in the darkness. They will swarm us long before we reach the village.”
It was agreed. Modrak sent two flaming arrows arcing over the lake, a signal to Marin to wait for them. “I really hope she waits”, he mumbled, spitting into the weeds once again.
Morosely, he added, “I am definitely infected.” He continued with sarcastic resignation, “It was only a matter of time. I travelled all this way, only to die of a strange disease on top of a mountain. Modrak of House Winchester seeks his fortune and instead finds the plague. It seems terribly unfair.”

Walking behind him, the laconic Hugh muttered, “Then kill yourself and get it over with. My ears hurt from your whining.”

The group made its way down the hillside, winding back and forth along gentler slopes. When they emerged from the tree line, the sun was already hidden behind the hills to the west. Standing in the rowboat, oar in hand, Marin shouted aloud, “I was just about to go when I saw your arrows.”

As the group neared the boat, Marin asked, “What is that stench, and what is that sludge all over you?”

Maggie, still holding a wet rag to her left eye, explained, “Blood from some creatures—goblyns perhaps. It matters not what they are called.”

Marin stood firm at the bow, baring Hugh’s way with her oar, saying. “You are not coming aboard like that! You can swim back before I allow that filth on my boat. The smell is wretched!”
Ragnar pulled the head from his sack, asking with a smirk, “I guess this is out of the question?”

Maggie was the voice of reason, saying sharply, “Put that foul thing away. We all need to wash this stuff off of ourselves, or in my case, out of my eye.”

“Why bother?” asked Modrak. “In all likelihood, we are already infected. It is likely terminal, but first we must rot away for a few weeks.”

Unbuckling his chain hauberk, Hugh asked aloud, “Why did you have to get him going again?”

All four removed their armor, scrubbing the metal with handfuls of wet sand. Modrak burned his linen overtunic, fearing it could never be washed properly. Maggie flushed her eye in the clear water, but it was still bloodshot and her vision blurry.

One by one, they climbed aboard the rowboat. Marin naturally asked what happened, and in piecemeal fashion they relayed the tale. Only then did each of the four learn what each of their companions had seen or done.

Ragnar concluded, “The creatures must be using the natural caves in these hills as lairs as they move south toward the Keep. Either that or the caves are somehow connected, meaning that they can move underground, hidden from our view until it is too late.”

Addressing no one in particular, Marin asked, “Have you faced these things before?”

Ragnar answered, saying, “They have. I heard all of the stories as a youth, but these things were nothing like I expected. These were feral and filthy, much less human than I imagined.”
Modrak mused, “Yet, on Wycliffe Island, we saw them attack with incredible shrewdness, as if something else were directing them.”

As they continue to discuss what they had seen, Maggie quietly spoke with Marin, asking about her father and his illness.

“How long has he been ill?” Maggie asked as she rowed.

Marin sat beside her, looking across the calm, dark waters of the lake. After a pause, she said, “He stopped working the lake about a month ago, but he has been growing sicker for some time now, maybe six months. He was once the healthiest man on the lake—never sick… unstoppable really. His health declined suddenly, ever since he stopped attending the hilltop services.”

“What services?” Maggie asked.

Marin answered, “Me and my father are not very religious folk, but being a pilot and sailor, he liked to give occasional devotions to Celestian, just like his father showed him when he was young. He used to meet with some neighbors on the hills at night to watch the stars. I went with him a few times, but he never made me go.”

Maggie asked, “Why did he stop going? Did his illness make it too painful to climb?”

The girl responded, “No. He was not sick until he stopped going.

Maggie replied, “Did he say why he stopped?”

Marin shrugged, saying, “He said something about foreign astrologers, who arrived one by one over many months until they held some sway over the small group that met on the hilltop. When the presiding priest of Celestian noticed their sway, he tried to banish them, but instead they ousted him. My father disliked their ways and feared them. Several times, I asked him what exactly he feared, but he would usually become irritated and shout at me, changing the subject.”

Intrigued, Maggie asked, “Did he ever say anything else about these foreigners? Did he ever mention from whence they came?”

Marin sighed and looked out across the black water, saying, “Not much. Once he said that they came from the swamp on the west side of the lake, but while the lake people are a different breed for sure, they are hardly foreign. Yet, there was one night, before he became sick, when father was up late, speaking with a neighbor. I was supposed to be sleeping, but I overheard some of their conversation. Father was agitated and nervous. He said something about how the foreigners came to the lake region from across the sea, back in the time of his grandfather. He said they spoke the ancient tongue from Aklonia, or something like that. He said that they knew mysteries from ancient days, and that they learned stuff from some dark creature from beyond the stars. The neighbor warned father that our small group of Celestian devotees did not hold to the same ideas as those that had been stargazing on these hills for over a century. He said that there would be trouble unless our group accepted the older ideas. Father grew agitated, and they left the house so I heard no more.”

Modrak must have been listening, for when Marin stopped speaking, he added, “We found many references to the stars on the bas-reliefs and statues on Wycliffe Island. They were strange—wrong even—but the sculptures seemed original, dating back many years. I wonder if there is a connection.”

Marin stood suddenly, looking ahead at a tiny pinprick of light in the distance—a guard’s lantern on the docks at Lakesend. As she stood, she said, “Better not to get involved. Nothing good will come of it.”

Then she turned to Maggie and Ragnar, with intensity in her eyes, saying, “I would be terribly grateful if you could speak to your friend about healing my father. He grows sicker each day, and I fear the worst.”

Digging into her pouch, she pulled forth a handful of silver and copper coins, thrusting them at Ragnar, saying, “Take back the coins that you gave me, and take whatever else I collected. It is too little, I know, but I can find some way to pay your friend.”

Ragnar closed his hands over hers, saying, “Keep your coins, lass. They are no good with us. Besides, you may need them to care for your father. We will speak to our friend, and he will likely pay you a visit in the coming days.”

Still unsure, she turned to Modrak and held the coins toward him, her eyes pleading with him to take them in return for aid. Shaking his head in mock disbelief, he then look into her eyes and said softly, “Do not tempt me. Our friend will come to you. There is no need for payment.”

She seemed deeply grateful. Soon after, the group tied up their small boat and climbed onto the docks, where they met four baronial guardsmen in the glow of a hooded lantern. A dozen moths flitted about the lantern, while one guardsman with quill and ink scrawled their names in a leather-bound journal. Ragnar triumphantly showed them the creature’s head, saying, “There should be no doubt hereafter that these foul things are on the move and much closer than we thought. I plan to warn Lord Balin immediately.”

Modrak and the guardsman responded in unison, saying, “The gates of the Keep are closed until sunset. No exceptions.” Modrak also muttered under his breath a few less-than-complementary words about the porter, at which Maggie elbowed him. Marin, still in the boat, threw off the mooring rope, planning to return to her father, when Ragnar asked her to accompany them to the Inn for a meal and a drink. Though worried about her father, Marin agreed to stay for an hour.

The small group slowly returned to the Welcome Wench Inn. They had donned their armor again while approaching the docks, for wearing it was easier than carrying it. Maggie held aloft a torch as they walked. The still air was chill, and the companions could see their breath in the glow of the torchlight. The clink of chain and the creak of leather sounded overly loud in the night’s blackness. Dozens of crickets sang together until the group came near, at which they fell silent for a time.

“The nights grow colder; autumn is upon us,” noted Ragnar.

The five of them returned to the inn, where a robust crowd made merry in the common room. The four companions quickly stripped off their armor and then rejoined Marin for a late supper and drinks. After a while, she thanked each one again, saying that she could be found at the docks until sunset on most days. If she was not present, they could simply leave word for her.

As Marin left, Myles cheerfully joined the companions at their table. When they mentioned that they had fought creatures in a cave on Bandits Rock, he grew excited. He bought each of the companions a drink and asked for every detail, stressing to Maggie that this might be perfect material for her first epic poem. The group shared their recollections, laughing and razzing each other at points, while Myles, wide-eyed, struggled to retain it all. In the midst of their banter, Ragnar and Modrak noticed a young man making straight toward their table, which was against a wall in the rear of the Inn. Ragnar’s hand moved instinctively for his bastard sword, but he realized that it was in his room. The innkeeper routinely asked all patrons to keep weapons out of the common room ‘lest beer beget blood.’ Modrak had the same instincts, but his hand slid to his dagger—and daggers, being eating instruments, were permitted.
The young man, who had seen about twenty winters, was dressed in clean, well-made, linen clothing. Well-groomed and polite, he bowed slightly when those at the table finally took note of him. His voice strained a little to overcome the cheers, chatter, and music that filled much of the common room, saying, “A hundred pardons, m’lord, but I have urgent news from your father.”

Confused, Ragnar looked behind him and then at his companions. “M’lord?” he wondered. Then he realized that he might be speaking to Modrak, who hailed from a noble house. Yet confusion danced on Modrak’s face as well, for he knew not this man, and his father had been dead for some time. Only after a second or two did each realize that Myles, the wide-eyed young minstrel, had his eyes closed, with a look of resignation on his face.

Myles opened his eyes and motioned the young man to sit, saying, “Have a seat, Peter. You have come a long way. Sit and drink with us after you relay your message.”

By now, Modrak, Maggie, Hugh, and Ragnar were all staring at Myles, eyebrows cocked in disbelief. The young man hesitated and whispered into the minstrel’s ears, but Myles only motioned again, saying, “You can tell me in front of these four. They saved my life in recent weeks. I doubt that any news from my father is unfit for their ears.”

The young man cleared his throat and said, “Very well, m’lord. I bring tidings from your father. Your grandfather is very ill, and his time nears. You must return home to see him and to pay your respects. You can return to your… studies… when your have fulfilled your family obligations. That is all. I took the liberty of booking passage on a small ship heading downriver. It leaves for Yarrvik in two days.”

The four still stared at Myles, while the minstrel thanked the man, tossed him a coin, and instructed him to procure himself a meal. When the man had bowed and left, Myles turned back to his friends with a look of embarrassment on his face. He sighed and said, “I have not told you everything about my family, for it had no bearing on our travels together. I am the fourth son of Lord Spencer of West Farthing. Our family estate lies southwest of Yarrvik. We trade in various goods, mainly between Yarrvik and Carolton to the south. My father’s father currently runs the family, but he is very ill. Upon his death, my father, being the eldest son, will likely assume lordship over the family. He is not terribly fond of my interests, but as he has my three elder brothers to help him, he allows me to ‘play bard,’ as he calls it. It appears that I must leave you for a time, but I have every intention of returning.”

Ragnar did not miss a beat, saying, “I just want to know why I am buying supper when you could probably buy this inn.”

Myles smiled, saying, “You overestimate my means, but the meals and the drinks are complements of the Spencer family.”

At this, the companions, still surprised, broke into two or three simultaneous conversations, asking questions, making comments, and laughing aloud. Maggie, however, asked if indeed he would be leaving so soon.

He responded, saying aloud, “Maggie, I have greatly enjoyed my time playing and composing with you. I would miss it greatly. I wonder if I could persuade you to accompany me on my travels that we might continue to compose and play our songs. I promise to return so you would not be away from your brother and friends for more than a few months.”

Maggie surprised herself by responding without hesitation, “I would love to go. I am as good as on the boat, provided that Lord Garrett does not object. I am certain my brother will object, be he will relent if Lord Garrett gives his permission.”

Myles then turned to Modrak, saying, “I had another thought involving you, my friend. I mentioned that my family trades various goods, largely to the south. I also know that we have talked for some time about expanding our business ventures northward, beyond Yarrvik. I have no taste for it, and my brothers will be busy maintaining our current operations. However, you had mentioned that you were interested in trading up in these parts. I would like to introduce you to my father. With his permission, perhaps you could serve as Guild agent for both the Spencer and Winchester families. The fur trade in particular is lucrative in this region. A joint venture would earn income for both families. My father might even view my ‘studies’ more favorably if my contacts, meaning you, start earning the family some coin. Is this something you might find interesting?”

Modrak’s eyes narrowed, and he smiled, saying, “I have been thinking of trading for many days now. This arrangement might provide us with capital we need to begin. I would love to come. Besides, someone has to keep an eye on Maggie.”

Maggie and Myles smiled at this. As for Ragnar, he raised his ornate drinking horn for all to see, saying, “Tonight we drink to lasting friendships and new opportunities. May Fharlanghan guide your feet and lead you back to us safely!”

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