Dalvar returns from his business with the drunkard, as this is coming up, and comments, "The Baron of Mutton is named for its best dish."
Without waiting for a reply, the wizard addresses the blind count, "My Lord Count? If you hunger, I think that inn is likely to be the best the town has to offer on short notice. If not, then it may be best that we speak with the mayor directly. Perhaps Semheis, as well."
Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold
Lyntern straightens himself in his saddle. "Yes, now that we have arrived I believe I am racing against word of mouth. It would be better if I arrive at Mayor Carman's front door first. Once we have made our introductions, I am confident I will be well looked after; I am sure you are all quite busy."
His face softens as his head drops. "I am forever in your collective debt. You risked your lives, truly, in pursuit of an unspeakable villain and spared no expense in saving my life. I will not forget it. Haranshire will not forget it. But once we arrive at the Mayor's estate, you are free to do as you will, of course."
"Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats." - H.L. Mencken
Werner steps back. "I did not realize you were on an errand. Forgive me for delaying you. Perhaps I can meet you at the Baron of Mutton when you've finished making your way to the mayor?"
Diffidently, the wizard notes, "We will, in all likelihood, be headed southward next. Time is . . . not quite of the essence, but it is important. Nevertheless, if you require escort to meet with Tauster and the Circle it may be that we are the best option at your disposal." He makes a face, as if he cannot believe that he's volunteering for more nursemaid duties, but continues in the same tone of voice as before, "I think it best if you undergo your investiture as Count with all possible haste while you are here in Milborne, but after that it would be wise to surround yourself with advisors from the Circle. Mayor Carman has been assisting the people of the county with difficulties due to the flooding, and was already reaching the end of his resources. The Circle is needed now more than ever."
"I recognize that the Circle has been convened in the Thornwood, and it may be some time before they are all in one place again." Lyntern leans forward in his saddle. "The traditions involved in a new Count claiming his seat are up to my discretion, mostly. But it will still take some time. Five days," he holds up an outstretched hand. "The fifth of Qaden. After that, I will be Count Parlfray in word and deed, and the sovereign of Haranshire. I can make the trek east, then south, through the Thornwood to meet with Tauster and the Sylvan Circle."
Lyntern shrugs. "You all must have a great deal to do in the meantime. Shall we reconvene later this week, then?"
"As you will, my lord," agrees Dalvar, easily. "We will take you to the Mayor's house directly."
"I'm told that the law ain't there yet, and the ones who tried are dead/But if the lawman comes to find me, I'll make that river red" Goodnight, Texas, "Tucumcari"
The party prepares for the last leg of their trek, turning south to ford the river at The Folly and then on to Milborne proper. Even with the recent rainfall, crossing here is easy enough for those on horseback (though it is rather slow-going, especially with a blind man in tow). For his part, Werner knows from prior experience an hour or two past that a raft makes the crossing periodically and anticipates he should still be able to meet back up with the Heroes at the Baron of Mutton after they have finished their current errand.
Emerging from the river on the other side, the party reforms their column with Argus wrangling the train of riderless beasts in the back. Leaving the new Count with Mayor Carman is the first order of business, but relieving themselves of the extra horses and tack before end of business today should probably be their next highest priority.
The townsfolk are bustling to finish their work at the end of another long, balmy day but most are not too busy to offer a friendly greeting or wave at the sight of the Heroes. It looks like the gallows being constructed on the village green is undergoing renovations, having only just been completed since the last time the party rode through. Garyld's woman Capella is busy with several laborers expanding the structure; they have taken down the framework the nooses are to be strung from and are widening the base, ostensibly so that more condemned souls can be executed at once.
The party turns left to ride past the new construction and the town's granary on their final approach toward the hill where Carman's family built their estate. Half a dozen armed men man the gate, and with so many security personnel the gate sits wide open. Although Dalvar & Co. have never personally interacted with any of the hired muscle, their descrptions must be widely known and they are waved through; but there isn't anywhere at the top of the hill where they can leave their horses, so dismounting here is probably the best course of action.
"And oh, the hopelessly tender-hearted tend to sing the loudest of love; but my sweet temptations turn their songs into a lie/Everything is not alright; you hope, you pray, you love the light of day/But there's no one up there listening tonight" - Brown Bird, "Blood of Angels"
It takes a minute or two for everyone to dismount and stretch their legs after a long day in the saddle, but eventually everyone is ready and congregates around Lyntern to help him up the hill. It is not terraced deliberately but there is a ring of level ground about halfway up, and this is filled with yurts of various sizes. As the party passes through, they see it is not just the wild men of the Plains who have come but their whole families. It is as if an entire tribe of barbarians pulled up stakes and moved here to Haranshire, although their timing really could not have been worse. There must be something even worse for all of them to have run from if they didn't just turn right back around and go back the way they came after seeing the devastation wrought by the New Mire.
Still, everyone seems to be in relatively high spirits. It doesn't seem as though many people from town come up this way; the children are all very curious about strangers. The general vibe in town is that the only men and women from the Brightspear tribe who venture beyond Carman's gates are those working as armed guards and there isn't a lot of mingling that goes on. That doesn't seem practical in the long term, but it's only been a week or so since they arrived.
Flanked on all sides by a gaggle of chattering, laughing kids, the party eventually finds themselves at Carman's door. His man holds the door open in the entryway and the mayor himself has emerged to greet them as they approach. "Good evening; truly, it is a relief to see all of you again. After we received word of what happened in Thurmaster, when no one saw you again it did not bode well."
Carman looks like he's probably burning the candle at both ends these days. He could use a good shave and a full night of uninterrupted rest, but the logistics of keeping the town afloat in these troubling times are probably too much for a single person to be responsible for. Still, he looks a hell of a lot better than Lyntern.
"Gods." He stops short after spotting the young Count. "Lord Parlfray? What in the Hells happened?" Carman looks horrified as he shoulders through the group to take Lyntern's hand. For his part, the boy flinches when he is touched unexpectedly, but offers a smile meant to reassure the man.
"I am alive, and... that is more than I can say for others. My father is dead, and Gideon is to blame. It is a long tale, and things are going to be different now, Darius. My family and yours have not always seen eye to eye but I must beg your indulgence now. Haranshire's survival is at stake." Lyntern clasps a hand over Carman's shoulder, who responds by turning and leading the Count toward the door.
"Please, please. If you're all staying, let us go inside where we can have some privacy."
Thunk moves inside, looking forward to the customary offer of refreshments and food usually given to weary travelers.
Party Like It's 412 RY
"When you lay me in that cold, hard clay, won't you sing them hymns while the banjo plays/We could tell those ladies that they ought not frown 'cause there ain't been nothin' to ever hold me down/Lawmen, women or a shallow grave, same old blues (just a different day)" - Tyler Childers, "Whitehouse Road"
Meanwhile, Werner finds the ferryman and shares a ride with Balford, Bill and the two Brightspear lads. "Spot o' trouble, that almost was," Balford mutters absentmindedly about halfway across the Churnett. "But what luck, with the Heroes n' all," continues Bill. Werner gets the impression that these two spend a great deal of time together and they often finish each other's thoughts, which comes easy because it is always what either of them would have said even if the other had said nothing at all.
Once on the other side, the pair shows Werner to the Baron of Mutton. It is a raucous place, with the evening crowd coming in from their daily labors to spend some coin and blow off steam. The front porch is sparsely populated but inside almost all of the tables are already occupied. The lowdown is that the place is technically owned by an incredibly old gentleman by the name of Dirkaster; old enough to have reached adulthood and married by the time the Mindwar began 70 years ago.
Tragically, Dirkaster is survived only by two great-grandsons, Andren and Barthelew. Andren is betrothed to Jelenneth, the daughter of the miller and town baker, but left town shortly after her abduction. Barthelew has thus assumed both duties of running the inn and the kitchen; it is a marvel he has time to sleep, and that the place is still operational is a testament to his keen business acumen and ability to delegate responsibility. Worse still, Dirkaster has recently taken ill. Where once he could be seen each day in the common area, eating his kin out of house and home, he now spends most of his time in his bedchambers. It seems likely the ancient patriarch has seen his last winter.
If Werner is interested in securing lodging, it will cost two gold coins per night. This includes a small, private room with a lock on the door as well as tomorrow's breakfast and a hot bath either tonight or in the morning. 5 silver will get you dinner and lunch tomorrow, if you're still around; it includes a tankard of ale and as much water after that as you can drink to wash it all down. Further refreshments are about 5 copper per mug, but Bill hints that Barthelew keeps "the good stuff" behind the counter. Tonight, dinner consists of a potato nearly as big as your head, just out of the oven; served open-faced and smothered with cheese, sour cream, chives, shredded bacon and chopped sausage in some kind of brown sauce. If it tastes as good as the aroma wafting through the front room (a nearby patron insists that it does), Werner is in for a treat.
Dalvar speaks up, somberly, "We will not be staying for long. Perhaps the night, but certainly no longer. With the permission of Count Parlfray, it may be that we should discuss a few matters while we are here." He pauses, deferring to the blinded aristocrat.
At the bar, Werner begins making the rounds from table to table, introducing himself to the locals, glad-handing and generally just taking the room's temperature. A round of drinks for everybody certainly helps to break the ice, and after about half an hour Barthelew emerges from the kitchen during a lull in the dinner rush. Wiping his hand on his apron, he extends it to the newcomer. "Welcome to the Baron of Mutton," he offers. "this is my place. Just passing through, or are you thinking of staying awhile? Whether you're looking to catch up on current events or just want a bit of gossip, you came to the right place."
Carman leans around the crowd and raises a hand, gesturing to the throng of youngsters who followed the Heroes up the hill to his front door. Turning to Dalvar, he says, "Very well. Pavi will attend to your needs while I make arrangements for that train of horses down there at the gate." The butler bows and gestures through the door, leading the party into the foyer where Dalvar recalls first laying eyes on the displayed statuette of The Dead Jester. In its place, some kind of totem carved from petrified wood and painted in garish red now rests on the pedestal.
Escorting the Heroes up the winding stairs to the second story, Pavi eventually takes them into a study large enough to accommodate everyone where he instructs them to wait. Closing the door behind him, it takes a minute or two for Carman to open it and take his seat with the others. "Your animals will be looked after at Nafton's stables. I can pay for their care tonight and you can decide how to proceed in the morning." Taking his seat, he stands right back up again when Pavi opens the door to wheel in a tray of hot tea and honeyed cakes. Carman nods to the help after the refreshments are set in place in the middle of the gathering, then serves everyone himself before sitting again.
"Well, then. Let's start from the top - young Lyntern is in your care. Did you find him at Parlfray Keep, or somewhere else? I note you did not ride into town leading the other half of Thurmaster's refugees to safety."
Lyntern wipes the corner of his mouth with a napkin. "No, there were no survivors. Gideon and his ilk seized control of the Keep and killed my father. The refugees thought they would find refuge under our roof, but were burned alive for their trouble. The Keep is lost to us, either as a symbol of power and stability or as a strategic location worth defending." His face darkens and he falls silent, and Carman is speechless as well. He looks suitably horrified.
Dalvar takes up where Lyntern left off, "I propose to reclaim Broken Spire Keep, provided that my companions are willing to undertake the task with me. If we succeed, it will solve a few problems at once. The Count will regain a much older ancestral seat, and to boot, it is one that has immediate strategic significance for the county. There is a passageway to the Night Below, and it is critical that we gain control of it. Gideon and his new allies use it heavily. Once it is cleared of threats, refurbishing the keep will require considerable labor. Refugees will do; the longer they sit idle outside of Milborne, the more likely they will riot, turn to crime, or provide a toehold for pestilence to break out and spread to the rest of Haranshire. Food and supplies will be a challenge, but they can trade useful labor for a chance to start over."
Werner shakes hands with Barthelew. "Werner von Hirch of the Southspear von Hirches. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Your establishment is highly praised by the Heroes of Haranshire who asked me to meet them here. I think I have a few days to while away and a few nights to indulge. In a sense, I'm both passing through and I'll be here a bit."
Taking a moment to think, Werner continues. "Do you know anyone who could use some assistance while I'm here? I've got capable hands and nothing makes me as happy as making life a little bit easier to endure."
Feruq nods as Dalvar speaks, adding his own support to the idea. "It is being to hunt two birds with one stone."
Barthelew nods at Werner's reference to the Heroes, then frowns, looking pensive. "Well..." he begins, helping to clear a table with one of the servers to make room for the next guests. "I don't know if labor is really in short supply. There are plenty of folks with nothing better to do right now because their lands have been swallowed up in the New Mire. That might not be the kind of problem you can fix with your bare hands, though."
At Carman's estate, the mayor looks concerned. He is about to say something when Lyntern interjects. "I will be staying here in the short term, if you would be so gracious. I will retain the name of Count, but only because that's what these folk are used to hearing. The throne in Blackstar has never and is now longer capable of rendering aid in Haranshire. We're on our own and must pool our resources; to that end, I would have Semheis perform the ceremonies and keep it local. When I've been sworn in officially," Lyntern tilts his head in Dalvar's direction, "I agree with the Heroes that it would be best if I went back east at least as far as Kuiper's farm. The Circle has extended its offer of protection and I expect them to withdraw from the Thornwood soon enough."
At this, Carman speaks up. "Yes, of course, you can stay here as long as you wish, my Lord," waving absently. "You should be in very safe hands indeed under the Circle's protection at the homestead. I hear Tauster is with them; he could likely look after all your needs by himself. The cult would need to press hard indeed to challenge him and the Wild Woman of the Woods at the same time."
He drains his cup of tea in one slow pull then clears his throat before continuing. "In other news, the population of Milborne has nearly doubled since the first of the month. The New Mire hasn't gotten much larger since we spoke last," Carman looks around at the gathered Heroes, "but some families who had been juggling dwindling resources in that time have given up the ghost. The destruction of Thurmaster didn't help matters, of course. Capella is drafting plans now for a new sanitation system. Building it in the camp will give them something to do, which is as important as food, shelter or clean water to drink; and will expedite the process dramatically. We're projecting a turnaround of a week, two at the most before concerns of filth fever have been adequately addressed."
He stands and refills his cup at the platter in the center of the room. "The Brightspears from the Wild Plans are here under my protection, cashing in a favor first sold by my grandfather during the Mindwar. While they're here, they have offered whatever aid they can in exchange for my hospitality; to that end, I have put many to work to bolster local security. If you have no need for some of the horses you brought with you today, that should increase the range of patrols this far north and beyond. Many will be relocated to Harlaton, to the south; I want to start sending scouts into the New Mire and it will be easier from there than here. Since you last ventured down there and barely escaped with your lives, two more parties of sellswords tried and failed. Well, we assume they failed; they never came back. When Garyld returns, construction of a fleet of small watercraft will begin in earnest to make exploring that much easier for the wildmen. But if the marsh expands, Harlaton will likely go with it. Accommodations will need to be made for those people when they flee north."
He sits again and sighs. The man looks exhausted, physically and emotionally. "This all costs a great deal of money, of which I have precious little remaining. Grizzler bought the rights to Garlstone Mine and expects to open its doors again by the end of the week. When construction in the refugee camp ends, many of those men and women can be sent to work there. Even if they and all of their families pick up and move right away, the infrastructure north of the river will be necessary if Milborne expands further. I am in talks with the dwarf now to finalize an agrerement for the Carman Mines; both of them; to be signed over by the end of the month. That money will go toward whatever is most pressing; likely materials for new houses for all of these damn people who never stop coming."
He shrugs. "And when all of that is said and done, it is my intention to retire. Far from here. I see one way, and only one, to prevent the cabal of other cutpurses at the Exchange from seizing control of Milborne. That is for you to make your new seat of power here, Lord Parlfray, in this very house. Mind you - these are not villains. They just worship coin above all else. Milborne continuing to exist and thrive economically is in their own self interest. But I can guarantee charity will cease immediately when I raise the white flag. A peaceful, formal transfer of power to the recognized Sovereign of Haranshire likely won't sit well with them, and may even provoke some kind of response; but they'll calm down eventually."
"Bah," he shakes his head finally. "But that is all some time in the future. The plan to reclaim Broken Spire Keep is a good one. The Heroes holding it in your name will send a strong message and, as you all said, putting people to work is no small thing."
Werner frowns. "Skills then? Medicine? Culinary arts? Hope?" Werner notices that his volume is rising with each word spoken and visibly calms himself. "Forgive me, but I see the way that people struggle here and I'm reminded of the squalor I saw in Southspear. There are some who live very comfortable lives in the city and some who could live comfortable lives if someone would simply make it so. Surely, my friend, someone with determination can make things better for these people?"
"I am prepared to deal harshly with anyone who challenges the Count's rights as sovereign. As dire as the situation here may be, Haranshire has much to recommend it as a place where law-abiding people can expect to prosper if they are willing to work hard and do right by their neighbors. If the Count stands by those principles, then I am his man and I shall do everything in my power to ensure that his rule endures without regard to the petty interests of a crowd of venial merchants." The wizard's expression hardens as he adds, "Haranshire must not become another Karrvale or Northreach. To this end, I shall offer my fealty as soon as Count Parlfray formally takes on the burden of office. If he will accept it."
Barthelew considers Werner's remarks. "Culinary arts. Well, tell you what. Come back with me to the kitchen and take a look at what we have going on this evening. I'll put you to work and maybe in the meantime, we can get to know each other. You'll be paid for your trouble, of course; maybe there's a room in it for you for your trouble. If it works out, maybe in the morning we can work on something else I've been brainstorming. A mobile kitchen for the refugees north of the river might make feeding them a little easier, no?"
Lyntern is visibly moved by Dalvar's statement of support but says nothing. Carman smiles and offers, "Loudly and unequivocally saying so will accomplish a great deal all on its own. Moving forward, a strong relationship with Jelenneth's parents - Haldelar and Parella - will ensure the Heroes and Count all continue to enjoy support from the townspeople. Her father speaks on behalf of Milborne in general whenever a conflict arises with either the Count or myself."
Thunk's attention is drawn to the window in the library. A fat black crow is squatting on the sill outside, and when it makes eye contact with the half-orc it starts tapping on the window. Eventually, Carman stops talking and glances back over his shoulder. The crow doesn't really let up, and seems more insistent as more people in the room take notice.
Sighing, the mayor gets up and moves to open the window. Argus saw a bird very much like this one when the party camped at the Reflecting Pool with Oleanne the druid, and thinks they are probably common in the Thornwood. It isn't looking at Carman at all, now that he has cracked the window; it doesn't enter the room, but it is peering around the mayor and staring directly at Argus.
Casually, Dalvar tells Carman, "I have something for Haldelar and Parella. I think it would be best if I waited to tell them before anyone else learns of it." He regards the crow with some perplexity.
After a moment, the wizard frowns, and offers, "Shiraz sends a messenger, I think. She sent a raven like this one to speak to Garyld, once. An interesting variation on a more common spell that is used to pass notes."
Argus steps toward the open window. "Hello, friend," he offers as greeting while looking at it quizzically.
Argus thinks Dalvar is right on the money. The crow, which he recognizes as a neverweep (so-named because their call is exceedingly rare) begins to flap its wings and hop in an agitated fashion once the ranger approaches and verbally acknowledges it. Then, it starts croaking and cawing, which Argus recognizes as speech even if no one else in the room does. The sound is godawful, and perhaps it is best that making such noises does not come naturally to them.
Eventually, it stops, and doesn't wait for Argus to reply or even acknowledge that he understood the message. The fat bird hops around to face the window and takes flight.
Thunk looks quizzically at the spectacle and doesn't quite find the words to express his confusion. Instead, he makes a grunting sound that ends in a higher note, denoting a questioning articulation.
"I am thinking the bird is being magical and is having talked to Argus," says Feruq in a low voice, trying to clarify for Thunk.
Argus seems surprised that nobody else seemed to understand the bird, but he translates. "It was from Garyld. rgus. The Circle has finished its meeting. Tauster is moving to Kuiper's homestead for now. He wants us to keep Lyntern safe. He said nothing is happening around Broken Spire Keep." Argus continues, "There was one part I didn't understand. The raven instructed me to 'Ask them about the Rosestone'. I don't know who he meant I ask."
Thunk's eyes narrow at the crow and his hand reaches for his crossbow. "Magic talky bird?" Thunk questions suspiciously.
"No, the bird is not magical. Someone put magic on it. It will go away on its own soon, Thunk." Dalvar grimaces, and adds, "Unless the Count knows something of the Rosestone, or Mayor Carman does, then I think we shall have to leave that part of Garyld's somewhat elliptical request to itself."
Thunk's eyes light up and simply states, "Oh, mean ask orcs. Orcs know bestest."
"I asked the orcs already," grouses Dalvar. "G'haz-khul does not trust the Rosestone, I share his skepticism about it. It may be intelligent and working toward its own purposes."
Lyntern looks pretty confused, as if he is still trying to visualize what everyone in the room is describing about the bird's behavior. For its part, the neverweep doesn't have much else to contribute, and swoops down out of the window before ascending and veering toward town. It must have been flying for hours to get here so will likely roost on some roof or another in Milborne before returning to the Reflecting Pool.
Carman shakes his head. "I don't know much more about it than what Semheis won't stop prattling on about. He is convinced it is a relic sacred to his church, or a precursor to the church as it exists today. It predates the reign of the first queen. But I also don't think everyone in the church is on the same page with things like this. Semheis isn't shy at all about requesting town resources be allocated to the Rosestone's excavation and transit, but doesn't seem interested in asking anyone else in the church hierarchy. Either no one else agrees with him or he has doubts about it ending up at the temple here in Milborne if he used their help to make it happen."