At the Dorella Inn
Mordraith travelled up the old Verentian highway and passed by the familiar places: Groploch, Echaed, Dorella. The peasants worked all day this time of year, weeding and fallowing.
The day was pretty toasty, though not quite as hot as the day before. There was an occasional slight breeze from the northwest. Dorella was a cluster of thatch-roofed peasant houses at the intersection of the highway and the short trail to Druglan. Its inn, which serviced travellers from Stade, was the only remarkable feature. Suddenly, memories of porridge were buried by the onslaught of happier aromas: the kitchens at the inn were awake and Mordraith realized it was getting close to lunch time. Of course, Druglan was mere minutes away and no doubt the cooking fires were lit there too, but the temptation was strong. Could that be ... rhalberry pie?
At the prospect of rhalberry pie he hesitated. His stomach though, was in no doubt about what it would like and started up a campaign to help him make up his mind. Ever the nice guy he obliged and headed off the road and into the yard mindful to keep my gardell away from the others there. There were several tarp-covered wagons and a pair of pack lizard teams hitched inside. A half dozen or so men armed with curved blades kept watch over the goods.
With his stomach sounding like a battle scarred gardell on the attack he didn't dare come near the other beasts with his. They might take offense and his trusty mount would be only too happy to defend his honour. It would not be pretty.
Pies, however, and in particular those of the rhalberry variety, were definitely pretty, as was one of the serving wenches at the inn (and not adverse to a bit of cuddling when dad's not around, or so they say). Mordriath tied his gardell up and with a stern command to behave himself Mordraith entered the inn. He often stopped here on his way both to and from 'Drig and knew the place well.
A quick scan of the room revealed a typical pre-noon crowd (near empty) except for the group of strangers hogging up the large tables in the middle. A pair of them, armed, are standing, and they look Mordraith over when he enters. Rianna, the flirtatious serving wench, doesn't seem too impressed by them, but lingers near the bar, bored. When she sees Mordraith she perks up and waves.
“Hi there, 'Raith! The usual?” Gurhas, the inn's owner, gave her a look of disapproval, as usual not pleased with Rianna's use of a familiar tone with his guests. He followed her into the backroom.
Mordraith didn't manage any response before she disappeared. So he looked for an empty table and planted his ample self there.
When he was in Stade as youth, he remembered encountering men like the patrons of the Dorella Inn. They were Ralubian merchants, conversing with each other in their native tongue. Ralubians are short, wiry, dark-haired, and notorious hagglers. It was said that a Ralubian would do anything for monetary profit. Living on a manor had sheltered Mordraith from conditions in towns like Stade. There it was said the Ralubians had practically taken whole quarters of the town for themselves — immigrants seeking a better life following the draining of the Phirine Sea.
Mordraith counted about a dozen Ralubians in the room, more than half of whom appeared to be armed guards. He watched them quietly, occasionally hearing the sound of Rianna arguing with Gurhas. A few moments later she came out with some sort of drink. She rolled back her eyes when she finally reached his table.
“I am so sorry, this isn't what you wanted is it?” she looked back at the innkeeper, biting her lip. “Er ... good sir. I'll take it back. Umm, did you want something special?” She said the last with a look that nearly turned him red. Rianna was a few years younger than him, with a color hair that brightens in the summer, warm hazel eyes and a sensuous pair lips that curled seductively when she smiled. She wasn't as elegantly pretty as Ansia, of course, and she was a bit on the thin side, but something about her being so close at hand made it easy to forget anyone else.
“We've got org in the pot and gluck in the oven,” she said after an embarrassing pause.
He couldn't quite make up his mind if he should have something more than the pie. A bit uncomfortable around pretty girls (he never could manage that bantering flirtatious tone of voice he'd see others use) he ordered a plate of roast gluck, some of that fine white wine they had before and some pie for afters. With that done, he sat back and waited for the food and looked at the patrons more closely.
She brought the wine rather quickly, before hustling off to appease the Ralubians' demands for attention. The Ralubian giving the orders spoke Saerish with a lilting accent and pronounced his 'R's weakly.
Conversation suddenly stopped as a trio of men barged into the inn. Two were knights, the third was a wide-eyed peasant lad. Mordraith recognized both knights. The largest of them slipped off his helm and came charging across the room.
“Mordraith!” he shouted happily. All eyes turned to the knight as he bounced across the room in full battle dress, helm under one arm. It was Mordraith's older brother Gaidrach.
Last he knew Gaidrach was at Riudsech Castle, and expected to stay there the whole summer, at least. And behind him was Sir Ennemath, a knight of Sollorhalm whom he'd met. Mordraith recalled that Ennemath was married to Sir Tirrian's oldest sister; Ansia is Tirrian's youngest sister.
Encouraged by Mordraith's look of shock and silence, Gaidrach took a seat and pounded on the table.
“A keg of ale for us!” he shouted to the barkeep. He sniffed the air a bit. “And we'll have whatever it is you're cooking!”
Ennemath sat himself down next to Gaidrach. “Good plan, Gaidrach. Make them think we're just travelling.”
Mordraith's brother looked over at him and grinned. He said in a low, coarse voice: “We're on a mission. We're investigating certain vile crimes that took place on the Tanhalm road from Riudsech.”
“Aye,” said Ennemath, in the same low voice. “And circumstances have thrown considerable suspicion upon these so-called merchants from Ralubia.”
The peasant, still standing, addressed Mordraith:
“Pleased to meet you, sir. My name is Tamhan of, uh, Sioncarwood. Your brother and Ennemath are training me to be a knight. You haven't, er, perchance seen that bandit Bruehan have you?”
Gaidrach, taken aback, exclaimed, “Did I forget to introduce our trusty man-at-arms? Only reveals the lack of gentlemanly training I received in my youth. Mordraith ... Tamhan, Tamhan ... Mordraith. Tamhan is brave and trustworthy I have discovered.”
“He can turn gold into smoke,” said Ennemath.
“Aye, and he slays dragons with faggots,” said Gaidrach, with a wink.
“Scared Bruehan off with but a single fierce glare.”
Mordraith took a good look at Tamhan of Sioncarwood: his limp, mousey-brown hair, defiant brown eyes, and a frame strong from labor, though he's almost a foot shorter than you (you can tell by comparing him to Gaidrach's height when they first entered) and probably not older than seventeen.
At first a bit stunned by his new companions' enthusiastic chatter Mordraith quickly recovered and gave Tamhan a friendly nod and a hand to shake. His brother, the rogue, was rewarded with a disapproving look at his rudeness.
“Good to see you guys, but tell me; were you planning on taking on a dozen guards by yourselves?”
“I see your point,” said Gaidrach. “There's only a dozen of them. Not very fair. Perhaps we should let them call some reinforcements?”
“And how do you know these are the ones you're looking for?” Mordraith's expression froze in cynical disbelieve. The whole idea of the pair of these conducting an investigation was to him, well let's just say that Gaidrach was not the brains of the family and judging by this conversation he seemed to Mordraith to be in good company with Ennemath.
“They're Ralubians,” said Gaidrach. “And since the bodies we found were Ralubian, they must have been involved.”
“Aye,” nodded Ennemath. “They had just passed through at about the time we surmised the murders to occur.”
“How about you tell me what's going on, and if you plan on doing any investigating today you'd better go easy on that ale.” Mordraith couldn't help but smile at their outraged expressions. He leaned forward a little over the table, “And keep your voices low but normal.” He had a sinking feeling that this was not going to go well, and that he would have to get involved.
“We encountered a traveller in the tavern at Riudsech village. He told us about a spectacle that had scattered his wits a bit. So we went to investigate.”
“Aye, and that was after the tangle we had with Bruehan,” added Gaidrach.
“So we went to investigate,” continued Ennemath. “We found three bodies, one with his head missing, the others with their skulls split by some kind of axe or greatsword.”
“They were Ralubian knights,” said Gaidrach. “Of the Order of Rangers of the Marsh.”
“These Ralubians had passed through Riudsech but never did we hear any mention of marsh rangers or murders,” said Ennemath. “And the bodies were left in a ditch. We took the trouble to cart them to the temple at Riudsech, where they could be properly treated.”
Mordraith gave the Ralubians a quick glance to see if they were eavesdropping. He held up a hand. “Okay, wait. Let me see if I got this straight. You were in a tavern in Riudsech village and met a traveller who pointed you to the place where you found the dead Ralubians. You took them to a temple. One of them had his head hacked off.” He paused a moment, “Did you find it, or didn't you think of looking?”
“Good Tamhan here searched all around for it,” said Ennemath. “Which was the best we could do given the light we had.”
“Aye,” confirmed Gaidrach. “I reckon it was fast approaching midnight when we headed home.”
Mordraith was not really sure what to think of all this and begin to wonder if it might not be a good idea to go back to the monastery to get some more help. With enough men there might not have to be a fight if we decide to try to capture these Ralubians. Knowing how these two would react to a suggestion like that (What, no Glory, no Fun!?) Mordraith decided to wait a bit before he told them what he thought.
“Okay, you then discovered that these Ralubians had passed through the area and went after them. So, you don't really know a thing about what happened, do you?” he give them a stern look, the one he usually employ when he tried to keep Gaidrach out of trouble, he thought it actually worked once.
Gaidrach and Ennemath stared at him blankly. Then they looked at each other, each expecting the other to give an answer. Ennemath took a quick glance around the room and frowned.
“Well, no actually.”
“As I see it there are several possibilities, the Ralubians were all one party that was attacked or attacked someone else, the Knights attacked the ones here or vice versa. The Knights could also have attacked a third group or been attacked by it. The latter seems most likely. If three knights attacked these merchants I'm sure they'd get in a few blows at least before being killed, and I can't see any wounded here and, come to think of it, no great swords or axes. By the way, did you see if the Knights had been looted?”
“Well,” said Gaidrach. “They had no weapons, but their armor was relatively intact. You could still recognize where they came from. But, yeah, they were looted. I mean, they carried no wealth or travelling gear. But it could have been a hasty job.”
“There was no sign of their mounts,” added Ennemath.
Mordraith held up a finger. “And if these guys here did kill those knights without getting even a scratch I'd advice against going after them without a lot more men.”
He paused to let them think that through and then asked, “Now, tell me about this Bruehan.”
Tamhan remained fairly quiet for the time being. He was rather worried that, if these Ralubians were guilty, they outnumbered his side considerably. He kept an eye on the Ralubians to see if any of them possessed weapons like greatswords or two-handed axes or the like.
None of the Ralubians inside the inn carried heavy weapons. They wore mail armour and wielded curved swords that look flimsy compared to the straight blades carried by Ennemath and company. A few had short bows slung over their backs. Satisfied that none of these were suspiciously armed, Tam wandered outside, muttering something about checking on the riding animals. He was pretty much ignored.
In the inn's yard, he counted a hand and a half men, with shields and spears. They guarded two wagons, laden with goods. Tam also noticed more shields and weapons laying about with other gear beside the wagons.
Tam took a closer look at the pile of weapons, but he dared not touch anything — he didn't expect the guards would appreciate him rummaging through their armoury.
Tam had never been so close to such weapons. They were quite impressive. The blades on the spears make his pitiful knife seem dreadfully inadequate. The spear shafts were of solid arach a thumb's length thick. The shields were also made of iron. The arm straps dangling from inside the shields are made of from the hide of some scaley beast. All the gear is in good condition and kept well-polished. Not a sign of a greatsword or two-handed axe.
When he was finished looking there, Tam wandered over to one of the guardsmen. He noticed that the one he approached had been keeping an eye on him. He seemed friendly enough, however, and open to talk. Tamhan wasn't sure whether they spoke the same language as him, but he'd soon find out. He at least tried to appear like little more than an annoyingly curious teenager.
“Excuse me sir, where are you from?”
“I'm from the mighty city of Vathir,” the guard said proudly in his strange accent. “Once the glorious capital of Ralubia.”
“Is that far away?”
“It's pretty far ... about ten days on the road; and you have to cross Somberwood to get here.”
“What do you do?”
“It's my job to protect the wagons from theft. You aren't thinking about stealing anything are you? I noticed you looking at those weapons.” Though there was nothing menacing in his voice, Tam noticed his hand straying to the hilt of his curved sword. Surely only by habit?
“Ah. Ha-ha, no ... er ... I'm training to be a knight, and I was just curious about what sort of weapons you use in Ralubia. They're very impressive. I bet they take a lot of skill to use.”
Taking his leave, Tam headed back inside the inn, intending to tell the others what he'd found.
“Bruehan!” spat Gaidrach. The sudden change in his demeanor came as a surprise. “Pah! The coward! The childslayer! When next I meet him I'll spit him on my blade and roast him over a slow fire.”
“Alas, poor Raeglin,” said Ennemath. As Gaidrach simmered under tears of anger, Ennemath turned to Mordraith to explain.
“We were part of a hunting party with the Baron — Gaidrach, Raeglin, and I — when we split off. In the excitement of the chase, any kind of noise can send a gardell off who knows where, as well you know. Let's see ... I split off on my own — it was meant to be only for a moment — when I saw a figure draped in red robes. I thought it was Crohelm! Aye, Crohelm returning to ascend to the throne at Welgonell! I went to investigate and to my dismay it was not Crohelm after all, but Bruehan in disguise! I attacked at once! We fought long and hard and I swear I laid a few good blows, but he overwhelmed me and threw me from my mount. Then he captured my beast and fled like a coward!
“Then, in my injured state, I rose to follow. But my wounds were great, and I fell. But then, with the sheer power of my will, I rose up again and bit back the pain. But alas, it proved too much. Even for me! Ennemath, knight of Sollorhalm, fallen! I felt the call of Drunolon, the maidens of death beckoning me forth! But no! It was not my time to bed in the halls of the departed yet! Even as I fought the temptations of those dark spirits, a light shone forth, a sign from Lidach herself, granting me favor! Then two spirits of light appeared, and bore me back into the world of the living. When I awoke, these spirits had taken the form of two peasants: Rueren (whom we left behind) and Tamhan (whom — now, where'd he go?). I was saved! They built a litter for me and were carrying me home when we met up with Gaidrach and Raeglin.”
Gaidrach was taken aback. “All of that happened and you never told me?”
Ennemath shrugged. “It takes time to sort out all the details of such a great adventure.”
“Well, then,” said Gaidrach. “Perhaps I should let the story of my encounter with Bruehan simmer a bit longer. Else I might not tell it true.”
“That's reasonable,” said Ennemath, nodding agreeably. “And since I was not in a position to actually see what happened, we'll just have to make Mordraith wait. I'm sure your brother won't be too disappointed. Of course, we wouldn't want to do Raeglin a disfavor, delaying his claims to honor and fame.”
“Oh no,” said Gaidrach. “Raeglin was the finest knight-to-be that there ever was.”
“That's it?” asked Ennemath.
“Aye,” Gaidrach whispered morosely. “The more I think about the tale, the harder it is to tell it.” You've never seen your brother quite this overcome with grief. The closest was when you were younger and Gaidrach's favorite gantach was put to sleep.
“Your brother spent many hours vigil in the temple at Riudsech, guarding Raeglin's spirit from harm. He is lucky your sister was there to comfort him. She's a fine young lady. I'm sure Gaidrach will be able to tell the story later. Let's just say that Bruehan committed some rather despiccable deeds and were it not for Tamhan and Rueren, we might not have fared so well. As it was, we managed to make it home without further loss.”
Mordraith remained silent for a while, unsure of what to say after the story. The sharp contrast between Ennemath's story-telling and his brother's anger and grief was unsettling. Mordraith lowered his voice unconciously and looked at Gaidrach.
“I'm sorry. I promise you with all my heart that if I can help in any way to avenge Raeglin, I will stop at nothing.”
Again he paused a moment before continuing in a subdued tone of voice. “However much it grieves me I doubt there is much to be done about that at the moment. We have this other matter, though. Only, I'm not sure what you should do. Perhaps you could go to Goerbest, there's a large meeting there so you should be able to find help. Then you should be able to question these Ralubians without incident. I think Sir Brismath is still there. I have to go home as I have some important news for Father (I'm joining War in a couple of days) but we could all meet here first thing in the morning if you wish. The Ralubians will probably stay the night. What do you say?”
Before anyone could answer, Tamhan returned to the table. Everyone just then realized that he'd been gone. He explained that he had found no heavy weapons carried by the Ralubians.
“Perhaps it was an accident after all,” said Ennemath. “Come to think of it, none of these rabble look like they could take on a Ranger Knight anyhow. Funny, Mordraith, as soon as you start talking some sense things seem more clear. You take all the fun out of life.”
“Bah!” exclaimed Gaidrach, “What is this sense you are speaking of? If the souls of all these murdered innocents appeal to Drune for justice, then it is not sense that will be the vehicle of that justice. Aye, it might very well be the hand of Gaidrach that delivers it.” He abruptly rose from the table and advanced on the Ralubians.
They were startled by his appearance — Gaidrach drew his long knife and held it to the throat of one of the merchants before anyone could act.
“When someone who has lived barely a year pass his age of reckoning is taken from us, we weep for what could have been and demand that justice be paid, so that the natural order of things may be set right. When, on the same day forthright men lose their lives in senseless slaughter, the balance is thrown so far askew that all of nature cries out for justice. You,” he addressed the victim of his choke hold, “you are a wealthy man; tell me this: how many lives will your death pay for? How much justice are you worth?”
The merchant was pale with fear. The mercenaries were taut, hands to their weapons, which they feared to draw for the sake of their employer.
Glancing at his companions, Mordraith saw that Ennemath looked ready to draw his sword and step in, but was waiting. Tamhan, looking a little pale, merely uttered, “Uh-oh.” He looked around for exits and or some cover to duck under.
Across the room, another of the merchants, clasping his hands together, said to Gaidrach, “Please, sir knight, we are humble merchants of Vathir, we don't want any trouble.”
Gaidrach released his captive, throwing the small man off the bench. The mercenaries instantly responded by drawing their weapons and holding them menacingly. Gaidrach stood on guard. The second merchant rushed to the side of his prone companion, then begged the mercenaries to lower their weapons.
“We don't want any trouble, please put your weapons down!”
“He cut me!” complained the merchant on the floor. He was rubbing blood between his fingers. He gave Gaidrach a dirty look.
Released of his paralysis just as his brother let go of the merchant, Mordraith slowly stood up. Gaidrach was sometimes impulsive and even violent, but he'd never seen anything like this and it had him worried. As he approached the unfortunate Ralubian and spread his hands in apology, Mordraith gave his brother a sour look. “I think you'd better sit down again before you do any more harm.” Mordraith had never before given him an order, but this came close.
He turned back again to the victim. “I apologise for my brother's behaviour, all I can say is that he has had some very bad experiences lately, possibly involving someone from your country. I'm sorry. May I offer you a drink?”
Thankfully, the Ralubian was somewhat mollified by the offer of drink.
“Very well,” he said. “A round of drinks. For all of us.”
The other merchant appeared relieved and sat down, fanning himself. Ennemath drew Gaidrach back toward the table.
This situation had him decidedly uncomfortable, trying to appease complete strangers for something his brother did. Still, with as much grace as he could muster, Mordraith offered them some of best the house could deliver (silently praying that he had brought enough money) and tried to strike up a polite conversation, asking about their journey, etc.
The first merchant simply sniffed.
“We are not interested in your conversation. It would be best if you took your barbaric brother out of here and left us in peace. Good day.”