"Aye, and I think some company would do the old badger some good. He isn't taking well to bedrest, you understand." Barthelew hands off what he was showing to an employee and gestures for Dalvar to follow him, wiping his hands on the already-dirty apron. The innkeeper escorts his guest upstairs to the third floor, which consists of family quarters for Dirkaster and his kin as well as a large suite. "Doesn't see much use," he offers absentmindedly. "I suppose it would work well as a sort of office for scholarly types." Continuing down the hall, Barthelew arrives at Dirkaster's door.
He places a hand on the knob and turns to Dalvar. "You've shared words with him before, so you know how he can be. It's just worse now." He opens it and peeks in to make sure Dirkaster is decent then swings it wide for Dalvar. "Gods, boy. Who raised you? Doesn't anyone knock anymore? And who the hell is this?"
"You raised me, you damned fool. And this is Dalvar. He's with the Heroes? The ones looking for Jelenneth?" Barthelew gestures to the wizard, then motions toward a chair by the bed. The room's decor is opulent for a backwater businessman. There are relics and trinkets on display of some historical note and artistic value. It makes sense - Dirkaster was widely regarded in his day as the preeminent broker of information in this region, a living repository of legends and rumors. He would have been just coming of age when the Mindwar began; and even granting Haranshire's relative lack of activity during that conflict, there's no telling how much this man has seen.
The four poster bed in the center of the room has its veils drawn up to allow its occupant a full view of the chambers around him. He is propped up comfortably on pillows and appears to be well cared for, with clean sheets and fresh clothes. He doesn't seem any worse for wear; this must be one of the lulls between whatever flare-ups his illness can bring to bear.
Dirkaster's eyes regard Dalvar keenly. "Master Dalvar. Of course I remember you. The boy dotes on me like I'm addlebrained!" he laughs, coughing a little and already waving away Barthelew's concern. "I have it. I'm fine. Ice chips, though. I'm out of ice chips."
Barthelew nods. "Yes, da. Supper is on its way as we speak. I'll be back shortly." He takes a pile of crumpled clothes and linens from a wide desk in the corner and backs out, closing the door as he goes. Finally, the venerable old sage turns back to his guest. "You surely have better things to do than get your ear talked off by an old fool. What brings you here?"
"Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats." - H.L. Mencken
Dalvar seats himself in a chair near the old man's bed, and replies, "We discovered something unexpected at Parlfray Keep. You seem like the most likely man to know something of the matter, so I have come to ask you questions. And I have news." Without waiting for Dirkaster's reaction to this, he goes on, "One of my comrades was attacked by a strange creature, a thing called a dyprekke. It had tentacles, and had hidden itself in an ambush to try to strangle him. It nearly succeeded, but fortunately another of our number was nearby, and realized something was wrong. Have you ever heard of something like that happening in Haranshire? It needn't have occurred in or near Parlfray Keep."
Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold
Dirkaster considers the question for a long, silent moment, then begins, "Did you know that Grizzler and I knew each other? I mean, from before. Way before. He spent some time adventuring here and then continued on his travels before eventually settling down in Milborne. Leastways, that's what he thought; now he's in charge of the mines and will likely never get a moment's rest until his last breath. Carman's grandfather ran with him, too, and Krynen's mother. Ah... maybe you don't know Krynen, Kuiper's neighbor? His mother was a bear of a woman, you might say. Ho, ho!" he laughs to himself at what he thinks is an inside joke.
Clearing his throat, Dirkaster continues. "I wasn't like the others. I mean, I had a real job. I wasn't a rebel or a sellsword. Maybe a scoundrel, but I would only let my close friends call me that. But every now and then I found myself tagging along with the others on this or that mad caper. Pillars of the community must sometimes put their best foot forward, you understand."
"Now, this would have been... oh, 65 years ago or so. Biddlegapp, that harebrained gnome, the one who tried to build a bridge across a river even he could wade across if he were standing on his tippy-toes; he has a sister. She went missing around this time of year, when the weather can turn unpredictable. It's not the best time for anyone to be alone away from town, and she wasn't from around here so she didn't really know the area. The work her brother did excavating the tunnels in Garlstone Mine, and rigging all of that heavy equipment up? They worked together. But she must've got turned around during a midday storm in the hills and never came back," Dirkaster trails off as Barthelew returns with his cup of requested ice chips.
"This would be the Blanryde hills?" Dalvar prompts.
Dirkaster takes a draw from his cup of chips, nibbling briefly before nodding, "Aye. It took us four days before we realized she must have crossed the river; Kyra gathered that she must have slipped down the bank during the storm and fallen in, only to come ashore on the other side further downstream near the Eelhold. When we found where she ended up..." he shrugs, saying nothing for a moment. He purses his lips, looking for the words.
"It was a dark place. The Sprockets had been surveying the area for some time, mostly looking for any old cave they could expand later on. This one, though? It was full of things like the one that attacked your friend. And worse. Yes, I think if you dig deep enough in Haranshire, in enough places, eventually you'll find more than you bargained for. She was alive, somehow. She had holed herself up in some little nook the beasties couldn't get to, and used some of her equipment to set traps and the like. But Drizzle was never the same. She went home to the Red Hills after recovering at the temple."
Swallowing some of his water, Dirkaster nods to Dalvar and gestures at a large bone, bleached white through alchemy to reveal black, spidery streaks throughout its surface. "Now, it was supposed to be sealed up tight. The cave she fell into to get out of the storm, I mean. But wouldn't you know it? A generation later, the ogres are all in an uproar. Saying they're missing people, kids, accusing the miners of foul play. Only miners don't make a habit of dunking people in vats of acid for the hell of it. Garyld took the case. He hadn't joined the Circle yet and was still proving his mettle."
The old man shrugs and smiles. "He did, and more than that. That there is one of the ribs from the dragon that took his leg. Same cave, isn't that something? Biddlegapp never got around to sealing it proper after all, and a black wyrm's youngling made its nest there. But it wasn't a dragon for much longer. Something wicked and sickly overtook it. The air down there made it bestial. If the tunnel hadn't collapsed, nobody would have made it out alive."
"This one was inside the keep, hiding in a pantry. I know that there is a passage to the Night Below under Broken Spire Keep. But this was unexpected. The long-standing presence of so many people, many of them armed, ought to have kept the dyprekke well away. But I know that there is something under Parlfray Keep. The centipedes in the ventilation system under its foundations behaved very strangely. And we had strange dreams. All of us, at the same time, had the same dream."
Dirkaster shrugs. He does that a lot; it's one of those things that gets you through the days when you've seen as many days as he has, sort of a resignation that the world doesn't make sense and that it never will. His face is full of laugh lines, like the pathways of a river tracing back to time immemorial. "Things go awry when one goes a-delving, I know that better than most. But if it wasn't one of your boys, it sounds like someone else must have disturbed whatever it is down below. That bit about the dream is interesting, though." The old man struggles to sit up, scooting and fidgeting to find a comfortable spot so he can lean forward comfortably. "Now, there haven't been many over the years who have had cause to spend the night under Parlfray's roof against their will, if you catch my meaning. This just isn't that kind of place; I suppose they have a jail because every stronghold is supposed to have somewhere to put people who make fun of the man wearing the shiny hat. But some of the ones who have been down there and lived to tell the tale said something similar. Like the Keep was trying to tell them something while they slept. Except none of their dreams are anything like what a Keep would want to talk about. All sorts of nonsense about other times and places. Strangers wearing familiar faces."
He frowns. "I mean, it's an odd coincidence, to be sure. But spending the night alone in the dark can play tricks on your mind. And maybe a few of those folks had heard the stories before they got locked up and that helped tilt the scales. But you say there's something down there. I take you at your word. Is it good or ill? Will you leave it where it lies?"
Dalvar considers Dirkaster's answer, then replies, "I have reason to think that someone already has gone in search of what lies below. One of my former companions, Gideon, was hit by lightning near Kuiper's farm, and afterward he behaved oddly. It worsened until he murdered a man, tried to kill Kuiper and left him for dead, then murdered another man at the farm, burned the ferry, and went to Thurmaster to kill again. He joined the people who took Jelenneth, but we also have some evidence to suggest that he had a falling-out with them at Parlfray Keep. I believe that whatever sleeps below the castle called out to him and found him susceptible to its allure."
After a moment, he admits, "Things have gone badly. There was a tornado at Thurmaster after we left. The survivors are camped outside of Milborne for the moment. Another group went to Parlfray Keep, but Gideon beat them there. They were massacred, as were all of the Keep's inhabitants except for Lyntern Parlfray. He is blind now, but I expect him to rule as Count of Haranshire as soon as Semheis can carry out the ceremony. But we know of a pathway into the Night Below. And we know that our adversaries used it to transport Jelenneth. So we have a trail to follow. There is still hope."
Dirkaster laughs again. "Bad, yes, that's a fine word for it. But these are a young man's cares. You will find, I think; if your line of work does not lead to an early grave; that as you get older, it is easier to be hopeful. Mostly because less and less seems worth fretting over."
Barthelew arrives with Dirkaster's dinner on a small tray meant to be placed over his lap in bed. It looks like Semheis has instructed the cantakerous old man to scale back dramatically on his food intake; a bowl of freshly chopped fruit, a bowl of soup and a chunk of bread are all he has to look forward to this evening. The look on his face makes plain that he would have chosen a different meal for himself but was vetoed by his caretakers.
"I'm afraid I was not much help," Dirkaster apologizes. "I don't have any special knowledge about whatever it is that sleeps in the hill below Parlfray Keep, but I am almost certain it is not a living creature. It's just been down there so long, you know? I will also say that while it is true there are stories of people behaving strangely in these parts after being caught out in violent weather, usually they go missing. If you didn't lose sight of this Gideon for any length of time, maybe something else happened. Or maybe he was always a villain and knew these scoundrels from before you met him."
"Maybe," Dalvar agrees, adding, "I shall be certain to ask him, if he survives whatever he is doing under the keep. If I were to bring you a map of Haranshire, do you think you might be able to mark the approximate location of the cavern you mentioned before, where the dyprekke attacked your gnome friend?"
"I can, yes. You might try Carman's family records or Grizzler's old notes, or you could ask Garyld. He likely isn't too eager to give you a guided tour; you understand, of course. But he knows it well."
As Werner watches Thunk devour the potato and associated trimmings, he considers. "Thunk, my friend, what's the best thing you've ever eaten?"
Thunk pauses midbite and his brows furrow as if he is in great thought. Werner can almost see the wheels of his mind turning. After a long, long moment, Thunk looks down at his plate. Replying hesitantly as if he is testing Werner for the correct answer, he says, "Potato?"
Werner laughs. "That's amazing! I love potatoes as well. Can I get you another one? Do you want anything to go with it?"
"You howl like a wolf in the night, you prowl where you once saw the light/you can pray for the rain, for the sun; but that crop won't ever come" - Robin Loxley & Jay Hawke, "Crop Won't Ever Come"
Dalvar says his goodbyes to Dirkaster, who is eager to dig into his supper (such as it is). Downstairs, Feruq is making nice with the locals, uncustomary for the monk but a task he seems to take to naturally. Whether they regard his strange dress, speech and customs as a novelty or they just genuinely enjoy his presence, he seems to be making headway. Thunk is trying as hard as he can to make similar progress with his dinner.
Eventually, the party retires for the evening, too exhausted after a long day in the saddle to reconnect with Werner. Argus would probably prefer to be present for that sort of thing anyway, especially if the kind of help the stranger is interested in providing the locals is of the adventuring variety (which would probably entail joining the Heroes). However, he also has a room here, so they can just as well break bread in the morning before running errands ahead of hitting the road again for the turn-around to Kuiper's place.
The night passes uneventfully, despite misgivings that this represents only the second night in a warm bed, pillows and a lock on the door in a row (and only one more to go, if all goes well on the way to Kuiper's homestead, before journeying south to assault Broken Spire Keep). The sun rises over Milborne on the first day of Qaden, named after the uncle of Damark's first queen, Gabriella I. One hopes that the month that follows brings better fortune to the Heroes than it did for Lord Qaden.
Downstairs at the Baron, breakfast consists of flatcakes with butter and drizzled in a sweet syrup, with as much bacon as one can consume on the side as well as slices of garlic bread fresh from Parella's oven. The apple juice and milk are both chilled by means that Werner isn't quite certain of, but he suspects it is magical and not alchemical in nature. Presumably, Argus will be along shortly, but he may be an hour or two after sunrise to allow time for Dalvar's morning studies.
Feruq wakes early, enjoying a bath before breakfast and generally taking the opportunity to detail groom his beard and to generally preen in ways one can only do with a mirror. Before too long, he's in the common room of the Baron, putting away enough breakfast to possibly even earn a raised eyebrow from Thunk. He really seems to like the syrup. Once his companions -particularly Dalvar- arrive, he slows down enough to converse between mouthfuls.
"I have been asking after items that are being having a magical nature." He takes another forkful, chewing and swallowing completely before continuing. "We are having been finding much coin recently, and with our plans..." He raises an eyebrow and shrugs, in a clear gesture of 'it only makes sense.' Then he shovels in another forkful. After swallowing, he lays out his findings for the group.
Werner takes his breakfast wearing coarse grey pajamas. His feet are covered in slippers that match his pajamas and appear to be designed for a noble's nightly excursions to the study or the lavatory rather than the common room of an inn. Both the pajamas and the slippers are embroidered with a sable 10 point buck.
Werner chews thoughtfully on his breakfast before asking: "What plans do you have?"
"We are going to speak with the members of the Sylvan Circle, and then we are going to travel into the Thornwood, storm a fortress, and execute a coup d'état against a hostile sovereign to install a new ruler more sympathetic to the counts of Haranshire," replies Dalvar, breaking off a muttered conference with Feruq concerning the aforesaid magical items.
Werner laughs at what he assumes is a joke and waits patiently for the real answer.
Dalvar does not appear to be planning to furnish the real answer. He concentrates on finishing his breakfast, eating with the voracity of a lumberjack despite his wiry build.
Werner holds up a hand in apology for prying.
Thunk adds, between mouthfuls of food, "Thunk be king."
Werner shrugs. "If you're going to install a sympathetic ruler, Thunk would make a very good king indeed."
Werner raises a glass of chilled apple juice toward Thunk. In Goblinoid, he salutes: "Long may you reign, your highness." Werner drinks the glass dry and makes his way back toward the kitchen in hopes of getting a refill.
Dalvar peers at Werner's retreating back, and comments in Orcish, "A strange man."
Thunk shrugs and comments back in Orcish, "Thunk would be good king."
"He is wanting to be traveling with the Heroes of Haranshire," says Feruq, stating the obvious.
"Yes," agrees Dalvar, still in Orcish, "Thunk has the correct temperament for kingship."
Switching back to Common, he says to Feruq, "Apparently. Do the Heroes want to travel with him?"
Argus enjoyed working with the horses. Their needs were simple, and it was easy to form a bond with them. They weren't subtle creatures, virtually incapable of duplicity if you knew what to look for. In many ways they were better companions than people. But they also needed him less. Hard times were coming and he still had a hope of making a difference. For Jelenneth. For Jugg's cousin. For the people of Milbourne. When he had finished tending to the horses he mounted Puck and returned to the Baron of Mutton before the last of the bacon had disappeared.
"I'm not too late for our plans for the day, am I?" He joins the table with the heroes, munching on an apple he hadn't given to Puck.
"You are not being late," confirms Feruq. "We were being talking about that one." He inclines his head in Werner's direction. "He is being the latest in wanting to be joining us on our travels."
"Well, if he's like the others, he'll be gone in two or three days because life on the road is not nearly as much fun as anyone thinks it will be. If he's not dead. Really, as long as he doesn't betray us and go on a murder spree, he's welcome to join us in my opinion."
Dalvar makes a noise of agreement. "I wish I felt surer that he is a known quantity. Gideon's betrayal has left me anxious at the prospect of infiltrators." He finishes the last bite of his breakfast, and decides, "If the three of you wish to accept this odd fellow's presence in our company, I shall not object. But we shall have to watch him carefully, in case he proves treacherous, a fool, or both. Now, I am going to peruse the magical goods Feruq just mentioned. It will not take long."
With his plate clean and every drop of syrup mopped off it, Feruq finally seems to have taken his fill. "I as well," he says. He stands and pauses for a moment, seeming to let the unusual amount of breakfast he's eaten settle before trundling off with Dalvar to do his shopping.
Argus finds the stranger. "My companions and I have discussed it. You'd have to be daft to want to travel with us and we're pretty sure you are. You're welcome for as long as you care to stay as long as you know it's unlikely to be comfortable and definitely won't be safe. Not sure if I introduced myself before. Argus."
Werner shakes the proffered hand. "You are right, I am daft. I left a life of luxurious privilege to wander the world and make it a better place. What is your excuse, and who should wear this?"
With his left hand, Werner holds aloft a platinum ring. There are little engravings on it in the shape of the same ten point buck embroidered on his pajamas. He wears an identical ring on his index finger holding the ring aloft.
Argus takes the proffered ring, recognizing its significance. He rubs his chin as he thinks of each companion in turn. Thunk is likely to get hurt, but Werner didn't look like he could handle too much of that. Dalvar might be the most vulnerable, but he was smart as a whip and took pains to avoid physical harm. Argus himself was usually on the front line, and now that his gift had grown he could provide some healing to others. "Perhaps I should wear it until we have talked more with the others." Argus pulls off a glove and slides it on the same finger that he wears a worthless bronze wedding ring. In response to the question Argus adds, "I lost everything. It didn't seem fair, but what's done is done. I want to save others from that if I can."
Werner nods. "I'm sorry for your loss. True nobility doesn't come form a family name or an estate - it comes from the determination to make the world a better place no matter what monsters exist in it. I'm looking forward to working with you in that endeavor."
Werner looks around. "So, truly, what efforts are we making next? Dalvar's deadpan humor was amusing but uninformative."
"I don't think I heard what he told you. I've never known him to attempt a joke; whatever he said is probably the truth without consideration for human emotions. He seems to dislike those."
Werner considers this. "He said you're going to attempt a coup and install a new leader who is amenable to Haranshire."
Thunk nods and repeats again, "Thunk be king too!"
Werner looks to Thunk, then looks to Argus. He tilts his head slightly to the side, inquisitively.
"It's a long story. The short version is that we fought and defeated a lot of orcs. Enough to weaken them sufficiently that the leader has lost the support of his followers. But they respect nothing more than strength and Thunk is strong. If we head below ground, where we know all of these problems are connected, we'll take out the current king and give Thunk the throne. And maybe find clues to the true nature of the rest of the problems like the rising water and the crazy weather and maybe a few other mysteries."
Werner looks taken aback. "You do this, just the few of you? You overthrow governments and institute acceptable heads of state? Thunk is going to be king of the orcs, someone else will be king of Haranshire? You don't even have an army backing you up? I'm impressed. There must be tyrants everywhere for you to fight."
"Do it? Not sure. Try? Why not? I didn't see an army available to do this, but trying isn't succeeding. We can't be everywhere at once. While we were dealing with orcs a former companion was tearing through the countryside on a murderous rampage. Hopefully when it's all over we'll have made enough of a difference that not everyone is dead. Or worse."
Werner considers. "Would an army help?"
"If you have one, I wouldn't say no." Argus chuckles. "The truth is we're not all as altruistic as I might make it sound. I think we all have our own reasons and at least for some of us there is a quest for personal power. Even those of us that aren't looking for that have been hailed as heroes. So whatever your personal reasons, you're welcome to join for as long as you like and help in whatever manner you think you can. Just be warned that not everyone we've traveled with has survived. Some died before I joined, but not all. The last one died trying to expel a devil from the ruins of the castle. He died alone, hopefully with his soul intact and in peace. Another of our companions, a dwarf named Jugg'r barely survived that expedition and is recuperating and might be retiring."
Werner nods. "Such is the way of the world." He tuts, softly.
"My horse and some other personal effects are in a burned out barn about ten miles from here. Would you and Thunk like to give me a ride? We may be able to get out and back before Dalvar and the mustachioed gentleman return from their shopping."
"Thunk? Feel like some fresh air?"
"Or, if Thunk wants to stay here, we can go. Then Thunk could tell people we'll be right back." Werner adds.
Thunk narrows his eyes at Warner and answers suspiciously, "Thunk go."
Werner smiles. "Great. Let me get dressed and I'll be right down so we can go."
Werner disappears back into his room for a moment. He returns clad in his grey robes and wearing a traveller's backpack.