"No, your grace. I have not been lost. I've always known precisely where I am. And I know where I have been." She gives him a wry, unamused expression. She pauses for a moment and then continues.
"And where I have been... is traveling across the lands which you reign. And I have seen common folk and innocents being accosted by goblins, kobolds, hobgoblins, werewolves, horrors from the spirit world, and even elves. Our citizens, who look to you for protection, are dying and their blood is staining the land. An entire settlement has been wiped from the map, every single soul dead or displaced. A dark tide of monsters and goblinoids comes from the north, intent on washing us all into the sea. This is not hearsay, I have seen it with my own eyes. I have been there. I have seen the death. I have seen the destruction. I have seen our enemies."
"But all this, I am sure you know. What may be unknown is that these individual attacks and tragedies are no mere happenstance or coincidence. These are not small, independant raids. This 'Berger Cole' treats with the Unseelie Court and conspires with them to rouse the clans of the mountains against us. The goblins and their kin have stopped warring each other and unite under an unliving king, who is intent on taking these lands. We do not have scattered, insignificant enemies. We have one. One who is united, strong, and clever."
She points back at Avar, "And why I do not agree with the Imperial's suggestion, his other words are true. I do agree with you, Your Grace, that the forces of the Empire should not be in our lands. The Empire senses our weakness, they see how others encroach upon our territory, kill our citizens, and burn our towns. Sir Avar provides proof of this, as his words show us how they see us as too feeble to mount our own defenses. With our state appearing so fragile, it will only be a matter of time before Imperial legions come, not to defend us, but to add to our troubles. But we ARE strong and it is we who should be defending our own lands. Call your banners and defend our citizens. Call them and march north. Call them and put down this goblinoid rebellion. Call them and banish the fey back into their own world. Call them and slay the were-wolf who conspires against us."
Avar waits until Alannah finishes her call to arms and adds, calmly yet loud enough for all to hear, "May I remind everyone that there is an Empire based infantry unit currently contracted to protect Golden Sheaves at this very moment?"
Avar shakes his head side to side and finishes,"The Empire is not the enemy. They are not here to invade but to help. The Empire can help Your Grace."
The Duke is just opening his mouth to say something in reply to Alannah when Avar's outburst forestalls him. Whatever he was going to say, the city's ruler instead directs his attention back to the aasimar, now visibly annoyed. "You will not interrupt this court without leave again, Sir Avar, unless you wish to be removed from the palace grounds."
Returning his attention to Alannah, the young ruler continues, much more courteously, "Forgive me, Lady Alannah. It has been a considerable time since last we met, and I did not recognize you. I hope your father the Count is well. It's been some time since I've seen him at court."
Having dispensed with the formalities, he goes on, "You spin a fantastical tale. Let me begin by asking about this Cole person, since the name has come up several times in this hearing. I gather that he's the werewolf with whom your company has been at feud. What's the substance of your quarrel with him?"
Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold
She nods to his acknowledgment, "There was no affront and nothing to forgive, Your Grace. I have been absent for some time, but it is in this that I have been able to discover much."
Alannah takes a breath and addresses his question, "I admit the tale does spin a bit like fantasy, but it is the truth. I know a bit of his biography and pedigree, but don't wish to add adjunct details at this time. I personally had little quarrel with him, until his machinations obliterated one of our settlements from the map and murdered most of its citizens. It has also become evident through our surveilling that many of his actions were not merely part an insignificant feud with a small group of adventurers, but rather part of a larger plot by the Unseelie to throw our region into war and chaos. His feud, it appears, is not only with us, but now also with the throne. I could, if necessary, produce other credible witnesses to corroborate if anyone finds fault with my own testimony."
Garren steps up. "The church of Derena is a recognized expert regarding the curse of lycanthropy. Cole has always been a problem, but it was clear he was building toward something when he encountered Master Chuul. 'The Bastards' defeated his pack and one of his lieutenants was hung in Golden Sheaves. If anything, Cole's enmity distracted him from even worse villainy, if that is imagineable."
Alannah looks at Garren with eyes like daggers when he speaks out of turn without being recognized first.
Qistis is still holding onto his decorum, but it's obvious that at this point the halfling is regretting his willingness to do you a favor.
The duke seems to have noticed his mortification, quipping, "Not how you pictured this going, eh, Lawkeeper? Chin up, man. At least you've managed to be ecumenical." With a sort of resigned sarcasm, he looks to Garren, and asks, "And YOU are?"
"Moonguard Baur of the church of Derena, your grace." It is a direct question which invites a direct answer.
Alannah bows her head slightly after the Dukes attention shifts, acknowledging the nonverbal and steps back into the group.
"I will return to you momentarily, Moonguard. Until then, refrain from interrupting me again, or I shall take up the matter with Burke."
He beckons to Alannah. "My lady. I would like you to elaborate upon the Unseelie. I'm hardly a naturalist, but I am enough of a woodsman to guess that they're a kind of fey. What leads you to believe that this werewolf is—" he gropes for the right word, "—is collaborating with them?"
Chuul does not speak. Instead, he looks to each person in turn as they speak up, then to the next and the next. He looks as though he suddenly feels this entire exercise is a waste of his time.
Avar looks at the Lawkeeper and shakes his head slightly. Frowning, the paladin says nothing but instead continues to listen to the presentation. It's clear he is frustrated but the aasimar also appears to be mournful at the same time.
Alannah takes a step forward again, "Certainly, Your Grace. You are correct, they are fey, but more of a sect than a strict kind. Some fey organize themselves in a court hierarchy, ruling over portions of the spirit world, which is a rough mirror of our own. The Unseelie Court nobles exist to feed on chaos and the suffering of others. They are the evil tricksters of myth and legend, the bargain makers who always get the better of others in the end."
"The were-wolf Berger Cole vanished from this plane when Morville was destroyed. I have faced him and using that familiarity I can divine his presence when he is on this plane. I surmised that he passed through a rift created by his atrocities at Morville. With the aid of the Church of Derena, we have scryed and located him and confirmed my suspicions. He treats with the Lady Nicotiana, an Unseelie noble whose domain in the spirit world would likely be close or even overlap some of your own. Through our arcane sensor, I've heard them plot to bring war to the Valley."
"Where do the goblins fit into this tale, then?"
"Of course, Your Grace. The goblin threat is something beyond the one that usually plagues our borderlands. The goblin clans have been united under the leadership of a high king. After interrogating prisoners that we captured after an unsuccessful raid, we confirmed this high king exists and united the other goblinoids through fear and domination. From his description, it's quite possible he is undead... a vampire I believe. We've run into vampires and hobgoblins in the area and I do not believe their odd alliance to be a coincidence given the descriptions of this high king. The clans desire to reclaim the valley, but I believe they are being manipulated by Cole or Lady Nicotiana so that they are more dangerous than ever. Their high king could be a pawn or could be an equal collaborator. There are many restless factions in play, but they are by far the greatest threat at this moment. The Unseelie may desire only chaos, pain, and bloodshed, or their game may be something that I've yet to divine. However, the united goblin clans are a threat regardless. Cole desires revenge, the goblins wish to take our land, and the Unseelie will revel in our destruction. Their conspiracy is logical."
Hope ponders this for a moment, then asks, "Where does the dragon come into the matter, then? I've been told that they're more than simple beasts. Are you proposing a fourth side in this already very elaborate conspiracy? If not, then the creature must be some kind of thrall to one of the powers you already have discussed. Again, I'm not expert, but one doesn't often hear about a dragon being forced to do something it doesn't want to do."
She shrugs, "It is believed that the dragon came from the spirit world. Through a rift that was torn when the were-wolf completed a ritual sacrifice. Whether it was summoned, and thus compelled to obey, or a complicit ally, I do not know. Perhaps it is the master in all of this and is manipulating everything and everyone. Perhaps it was happenstance that it was nearby the rift at the right time."
She sighs, "Your Grace, there is much we do not know. We do know, however, that the goblin tribes are gathering for war and there's a homicidal demon of a werewolf bent on wiping out entire villages. The rest we can continue to discover, but on the first two points, we must prepare and act."
"Thank you, Lady Alannah. I think that's all for now." Hope rubs at his temples; he's likely tired from doing this all morning. But he soldiers on, directing his attention to Chuul. Uncertainly, he asks, "You speak Common?"
Chuul looks levelly at the man for a moment, not long enough to be outright insulting, but just long enough to let him know the question was insulting. "I do, Your Grace," he says. "Tyler Kane. Chuul to most."
Forthrightly, the duke replies, "I see that I've offended you, Master Kane. Please accept my apologies; you're only the second orc I've met, and the first didn't speak Common. Most don't, at least that I know about. But that may just be a peculiarity of the clans in the central hills and northern mountains. In any case, I truly meant no discourtesy; I was ascertaining whether we would need an intermediary to translate for us."
"As you say, Your Grace," replies Chuul. "Most of the orcs I have met have been largely... lacking in couth. What answers might I have for you, Your Grace?"
"I would like to know about the circumstances under which the late Templar-Errant Wyther hired those mercenaries. They marched out of Port Hope almost a month ago. About five hundred of them. Quite an army, and most of them went to Winterhome. As of a week ago, they were still there. I imagine that you would have passed them on your way to Port Hope." Thoughtfully, he continues, "But not all of them. Some of them went on to Golden Sheaves, at least according to the reports I've received. I'm painfully aware that they're of Imperial origin, quite aside from Sir Avar's reminder of that fact. Did your company hire them, or was it the villagers?"
"It was us," replies Chuul, maintaining appropriate eye contact with the duke as he speaks. "On behalf of the people of Golden Sheaves. After the trial and execution of the outlaw werewolf Marcus, Berger Cole and his pack made it a point to terrorize the locals. To punish them. People were dying. Homes were put to the torch. We could not both hunt Cole and his pack down and also stay to help guard the town, so it seemed prudent to hire some help."
Chuul sighs. "That the company in question is Imperial means nothing to me, Your Grace. I care only that they have been an effective deterrent, and have preserved the lives of the citizens of Golden Sheaves."
Hope nods, seeming to take Chuul's explanation in stride, and follows up, "Did Wyther ever talk about his political beliefs?"
"Not in my hearing, no." Chuul pauses for a moment, obviously considering his next words. "Your Grace, may I speak candidly?"
"I see no reason why Lawkeeper Qistis should be the only man at court to regret his decisions today," agrees Hope. "Please do."
Alannah also looks like she may regret her decision to come to court today and not because she's been discovered.
Avar, on the other hand looks to Chuul expectantly. One might consider the look to be hope.
"Your Grace," begins Chuul, "I do not claim to have any head for politics, but I believe you are asking the wrong questions. Whether these mercenaries are of Imperial origin or not obviously has some relevance to you. But the questions I would hope you might ask are 'why would a motley group of itinerants spend the lion's share of their money to hire them?' and 'have they been effective at their job?'"
Chuul looks around briefly, as though considering whether he should continue. In the end, he does. "Your Grace, I do not care about the Aureshan Empire. I know you do, and I do not dispute that your concerns must be well-founded. But my eyes are on the people, not the crowd. And people are dying. Golden Sheaves was terrorized. Helpless farm hands murdered in their beds. I saw an infant on a spit roast, Your Grace!" Chuul has until now managed to keep his tone level, but a bit of impotent passion shows through at this. "And now Morville has burned. Goblin tribes move openly, speaking of their chakka returning to lead them. Away from yopur city, bandits watch the roads, preying on those weaker than themselves."
Chuul pauses and his eyes find those of the duke. "Your Grace, this valley is a hornets nest, and someone is shaking the tree. It would be well to know that you recognize this, and are willing to help do something about it."
The orc is obviously done with his speech, though he keeps his eyes locked with the duke. Rather than being a hard challenge, his expression is almost one of pleading, as though he is saying 'please, Your Grace, read the truth of my words in my eyes.'
Hope looks genuinely saddened by the time Chuul finishes his speech. The young ruler of the city hesitates, then replies, "It isn't always a matter of willingness, Master Kane. I am extremely well aware that this valley is a hornets' nest. There are potential crises everywhere, and one of my responsibilities as the ruler of Port Hope is to . . . calculate which ones are likely to do the most harm to the people under my rule." He lifts a hand to forestall any answer as he collects his thoughts and continues, gently, "If I do something, I'm sending the men and women of Port Hope off to die. I think you look like a fighting man, so I expect that you recognize that this is a fact. As Duke of Port Hope, I'm obliged to be extremely cautious in how I spend the lives of soldiers under my command. Without promising any specific course of action to you, I will go so far as to reassure you that I am taking your and your companions' comments seriously."
He flicks a meaningful look towards Avar and Qistis, then returns his gaze to Chuul. "All of them."
Avar looks at each party member and, perhaps because he knows it looks foolish but apparently took the mans threat to heart, raises his arm slightly as if to offer something to that last statement made by the duke.
Chuul simply nods.
It may be that the duke has a professional teacher somewhere in his line of ancestry (maybe on his mother's side, since we know all about his paternal descent). Certainly he displays a schoolmasterly inability to see Avar's raised hand as he looks to Garren and beckons the priest forward.
"Does the Temple of Derena have anything to add to my deliberations in this matter, Moonguard?"
Avar sighs quietly and politely lowers his hand.
"Your grace, the Temple of Derena remain your devoted servants, and will support any action you choose to take. Master Burke is well acquainted with the evil that is Berger Cole and has allowed me significant discretion in efforts to put him down. It certainly appears that he has stirred up such a hornet's nest that even dealing with him will still leave a lot of pieces to pick up. It was vital that you were informed. As the rightful ruler you will take that information and decide how to proceed. I do not envy you your rule."
The duke inclines his head to Garren, apparently somewhat mollified by the priest's show of deference and good manners and willing to overlook a relative lack of substance behind the comments. He redirects his attention back to Avar, and invites, "You were going to say something, Sir Avar?"
None of you can read thoughts, but from the look on Qistis's blindfolded face, you can still tell that the halfling is hoping in vain that Avar will decide that he was just stretching and didn't want to say anything after all.
Avar nods, and begins slowly, " I do, your Grace."
The paladin steps forward again, and stops, seemingly toeing an imaginary line.
"I wanted to add that those at the at the Golden Sheaves requested aid in the form of ruby dust. Perhaps your Grace can donate that to the cause? The thought being that they can use a local magic user to create permanent light sources to aid in repelling any possible night attacks."
Avar looks to the Bastards briefly and then stares squarely at the duke.
The aasimar picks up steam a bit, "While I want Berger Cole, I admittedly do not have the history with him as the others do. And while we may never agree on the methods your Grace I vow to you that I will do everything in my power to aid in his capture or death, the defense of this town, and that of the Mereflow Valley. While I will always serve the Empire first, you have my oath to help in any way you see fit."
Avar offers a salute, "I will await and respect your decision your Grace."
Hope seems pleasantly surprised at Avar's suggestion regarding the ruby dust, and calls out, "Groat!" The courtier immediately presents himself, and is dispatched with a brisk, "I know I saw Varlit around here a few minutes ago, so he can't be far off. He knows about magic. Get him back here, will you? Tell him I have questions for him."
As Groat bustles off to do his lord's bidding, Hope asks, "How much ruby dust are we talking about, here?"
Avar scrunches his face a bit, looking to pull up a memory.
"It was quite a bit your Grace. If I recall, Mayor Farfilla and the constable estimated over six thousand crowns worth. The wizard, Master Lydus if I recall correctly, would cast his magic on crowbars placed in cement to form a ring. I would imagine that they would take what they could get, however. Weapons and armor would be helpful as well."
At this point Avar pulls a small bundle of letters from a pouch at his waist. Holding them up to be collected, "From the Mayor. She is an honorable woman as far as I can tell. She offered services or items, I do not recall which, from a Master Brewster if my memory serves. These letters are for you your Grace."
Pausing a few heartbeats, "I told the Mayor I would deliver her request. It has been done. Unless I am dispatched elsewhere, I am happy to help in delivering whatever Port Hope can spare."
One of Hope's guards collects the packet of letters, as the duke replies, "That will not be necessary. Lady Alastar, did you have anything to add?"
Alannah shakes her head, "Only that you take our words and story seriously, Your Grace. People of the valley are dying and many look to the throne for help. And everything that has happened so far is likely only the beginning of what is to come."
Afterwards, she pauses before stepping back, "Actually, Your Grace. I did have an additional request that is somewhat related to the matter at hand." Sensing that perhaps the Duke has had a long day and would rather her not pause for acknowledgment, she continues, "I have been conducting research into several matters which tie into our current investigations. I would like access the ducal archives and, with your blessing, some of your family's private archives and artwork. I will be happy to share any of my findings with you."
"The ducal archive is open to anyone who wishes to consult its records. For the rest, direct a letter to the attention of my secretary, explaining the details of your project," replies the duke. "I will try to accommodate you if I see nothing objectionable about your plans."
Alannah nods, "Thank you, Your Grace."
Hope nods to Alannah, and turns his attention to Chuul.
"Master Kane, is there anything you would like to say before I declare this business finished?"
"You have been gracious enough to let me say my piece, Your Grace," responds the orc. "Thank you for that. I will hope that wisdom guides your hand in however you act on our words."
"As do I, Master Kane," replies the duke, before he continues, "The last bit of information I'll want from you today is regarding the numbers and tactics employed by the raiders you've encountered, as well as your nearest estimate about where you encountered them."
After the Bastards finish giving him a detailed account of the raiders they witnessed on their way south, the duke thanks them, adjourns court, and departs the courtyard.
Quite a few of the courtiers who were on hand today look as if they're curious about you, but none approach to try to strike up a conversation. Not even the young lady who speculated earlier about postern gates and orcs.
Qistis undoes his blindfold once the duke has left, his fingers trembling and his face still a little pale. The halfling doesn't look good. Or happy.
"Avar, that was excellent acting. You almost had me thinking you were really trying to convince him to let Imperial troops into the Valley and reclaim it," Alannah says idly. "I'm not sure we would have been able to convince him to do something about the troubles with the goblins had you not presented a ridiculous suggestion first that I could offer a counterpoint to."
Groat, the courtier dispatched to find Marin Varlit, returns to the courtyard, although really he's just passing through at a brisk walk. Varlit is with him, so it's clear that Groat was successful in catching up to the lordling.
Avar watches the duo crossing the the courtyard, attention fixed on the two as they exit the courtyard. Saying nothing, the paladin turns slightly to look at Qisit briefly before leveling his eyesight and Alannah. "My apologies for grabbing your hand earlier. I was trying, and hoping, to change the ridiculous conversations whispered throughout the court."
The aasimar shifts his eyes at the assembled group and offers levelly, "But I don't apologize for what I said. It's a numbers game Alannah. I do not know your history so I will not presume you do not know about war. But I do. And I know men like the Duke. His loyalty lies with this town and I have no doubt that he will try to save it."
Avar points behind him to the now empty courtyard, "But that was no act. I believe that the Empire will help with what may be forthcoming if the elves, the goblins, the fey, and even one Berger Cole get their way. Do you think Port Hope has enough defenses to help everyone?"
The paladin stands tall and closes the distance between himself and the bard looking down to her, "The Empire is already here. While you may not agree with it I would bet some who heard my words are considering more of a presence. If not now, they will be when more than a few evacuees from a border town come walking to to their gates." The paladin steadies himself, "By the scales of Agon I will pray for that to not happen. I hope that it does not happen. But if it does Port Hope will need more than speeches."
Avar stands back and finishes, "I get the feeling the the Duke will do something, I am just not sure what. Question is, what are we going to do now?"