Mid-morning, 6 Verdil, 973 IR
Main Peristyle, the Temple of Agon
Port Hope, Mereflow Valley
Now that the sun has climbed some distance into the sky, its light falls through the cupola surmounting the temple's domed roof, and reflects off of the white plaster of the dome's underside. A diffuse luminance fills the peristyle beneath the dome, falling in particular upon a simple, unpadded stool of ebony inlaid with pristine white satin spar. Columns support the circumference of the dome, and a dais is framed between two of them. Ensconced on a heavy ivory chair, nearly a throne, sits a halfling whose eyes are swathed by a bandage of opaque black silk. Despite the blindfold, he doesn't hold himself like someone who is unable to see. The way he holds his head still instead of turning it this way and that to try and catch noises that may betray the sound of a new arrival is subtly wrong for a blind man. Although he's physically unprepossessing—not especially tall, even by the standards of his short race, unremarkably light brown hair, light build with a slight softness about his middle—he nevertheless bears a naked sword across his lap, and his middle-aged body is clothed in vestments of heavy, luxurious scarlet samite.
Shortly, a dowdy-looking woman in similar red vestments, albeit not so elaborate or luxurious, comes to stand next to the seated halfling. After a few heartbeats of silence, he raises his voice to call out, "In the name of Agon, the Celestial Judge, I call this spiritual court to order. Let the record of the day show that this is an inquiry into the claim and witness of Jalen Hope, a half-elf. He appears before the court to submit to the ordeal of truthsaying in the matter of his claim to be the legitimate son of Merenstone Hope the First, General of the Imperial Legions of Auresh, founder of Port Hope, Imperial Satrap of the Mereflow Colonial Province, and later Duke of Port Hope. Swordfather Arlov, bring forth the witness and let him take the seat of review." In response, a young half-elf, possessed of a frontiersman's sun-darkened skin and slim but wiry build, enters the peristyle through a narrow door to one side. In stark comparison to the priests, he is clad in a plain robe of bleached wool, and appears unadorned except for a heavy golden amulet on a thick chain. He is followed by a grim looking old half-orc in a suit of polished banded mail under an ephod of coarse black cloth. Arlov is white-haired, heavily bearded, and his left eye is covered by a black leather patch.
Once Jalen is seated on the stool, the half-orc comes to stand behind the young man and instructs him, "In a moment I will cast two spells. You will feel a sort of tingling sensation after I cast the first, and a sense of pressure or heaviness. Yield to it. Likewise, yield to the second spell when I cast it. After that, I will direct a series of questions and requests toward you. Answer my questions immediately and truthfully. If you are unable to comply with one of my requests, you are to say so immediately. Is this clear?"
After the half-elf nods his assent, the half-orc proceeds exactly as described. The second spell leaves Jalen with a strained, almost pained look on his face, but the grizzled half-orc doesn't wait for him to recover. Instead, he asks, "What is your name?"
"Jalen Hope," replies the young woodsman without hesitation.
"Thank you. State that the sky is red."
Jalen opens his mouth, closes it with a frown, and then replies, "I tried. I can't do it."
Arlov seems pleased by this answer, and announces, "I have established that the witness is compelled to utter only factual statements. May it please the court to proceed."
Immediately, the halfling speaks up, "Jalen Hope. Please state your age, and the names of your parents."
"I'm twenty-eight years old. My mother is Evalla, Priestess of Leroe, an elf woman of the Tallwood," answers Jalen, immediately continuing, "My father is a human, known to me for most of my life as Meren. I knew of him only as an itinerant bard."
The halfling barely pauses at this, and queries, "To the best of your knowledge, your parents are monogamously wed according to the customs of the Tallwood barbarians. Is this correct?"
"That's correct," agrees Jalen. "I am under the impression that they have been married for at least fifty years. I am of legitimate birth, and it can be verified by correspondence with the elves of the Tallwood, if necessary. My mother is well known, especially in the vicinity of Aspenstar."
Arlov remains stone-still behind Jalen, even as Lawkeeper Qistin directs, "Please explain, in your own words, what evidence leads you to the belief that your father, the human known as Meren, is in fact Merenstone Hope the First."
Jalen takes a deep breath, and begins, "I was not raised with the knowledge that I am the son of Merenstone Hope the First. If anything, I believe that my parents and the other adults in my life deliberately kept it from me. I pieced it together after I left the Tallwood. The first hint probably was during an encounter with fey on the road between Golden Sheaves and Morville. My friend and associate, Chuul Kane, had both taken work as guards for the merchant known as Gester Farn, who was murdered in his room at the Pickled Troll Inn in Golden Sheaves. We had reason to believe that the murderer was a human named Eamon Thrush, who had fled from town. We followed his trail, and stumbled into the teeth of a party of faerie hunters. One of them commented upon my physical resemblance to my father, but referred to him as Merenstone Hope."
Qistin listens in silence, so Jalen shrugs, and goes on, "I thought it a case of mistaken identity. Later, I encountered a bard at Morville, who was singing a ballad about the manner in which my parents met. I recognized it because it was something I'd encountered as a boy; my mother had been wooed by a faerie knight, one Pulegius by name. Father convinced her to abandon her lover in preference to him. But in the bard's version the lovers were a nameless elf woman . . . and, ah, my father. Merenstone. I still thought it was coincidence but a later incident near Morville also turned upon the similarity of my appearance to his. Chuul was present for this, as well; our traveling company fell into a skirmish with a group of ogres. We took them for bandits because they were hiding near the road, but it was a misunderstanding; they had been hunting for bison in the area, and had been making camp in the ruins of a farmhouse. Once hostilities were cut short, our groups had a discussion. The ogre introduced himself as Deopmynd by name. I replied by giving my name as Jalen, son of Evalla and Meren. He remarked on the similarity of the name by which I knew my father, Meren, and his true name, Merenstone Hope. Deopmynd went on to indicate that when he was a young ogre, he was in service to the hobgoblin kings. Chaka was the word he used. He fought on their side against the Aureshan Legion, and said that . . ." Jalen swallows, "He said that Merenstone Hope was cursed when he struck a killing blow against the night hag known as Zoratadya. Cursed him to an eternity of loneliness, far from the city he founded."
This causes a bit of a stir. Arlov's eyebrows rise a little, and he glances down at the back of Jalen's head. The woman on the dais next to Qistin also looks intrigued.
Jalen clears his throat uneasily, and continues, "I've also encountered some other hints that my father has continued to engage with concerns that are consistent with my belief that he and Merenstone Hope are one and the same. He introduced me to the late Templar-Errant Ryster Wyther, and warned us to be careful of lycanthropes. At the time this advice seemed rather odd, because we'd had no dealings with any sort of were-creature. But soon we became embroiled in a feud with an evil werewolf, one Berger Cole by name, and his pack. My companions and I have since discovered reason to believe that Cole is the descendant of one of Merenstone Hope's boon companions, a scout and tracker named Vergil Cole." He looks uncomfortable, and adds, "I think that Cole is under the impression that I possess a fragment of a magical necklace held by his ancestor, and that his decision to pursue a feud with us was touched off by the death of a pack member whom he may have sent in search of information about us. It's difficult for us to be certain, an associate of mine recalled a description of Vergil Cole and his necklace in the personal journal of one Heather Smallfinger, a halfling who also was associated with my father during the early history of Imperial-Mereflow relations."
He's about to go on, but Qistin signals for him to stop, and asks, "I wish to establish your reasons for bringing this claim before Agon's court. Is it your belief that you have a claim upon the ducal coronet of Port Hope?"
"No," Jalen replies immediately, and looks like he wants to go on. Once Qistin signals his assent, the half elf continues simply, "I'm seeking to confirm my lineage because I would like to use it to gain a platform from which to bring greater attention to several related problems that face Port Hope in particular and the Mereflow Valley in general. I suppose that technically this would place me somewhere very far down the line of succession, but I sincerely don't wish to become duke, and I don't think that I'd have any claim over whatever estates or wealth may have passed to my father's heirs. He was generally believed dead, and it seems as if that was a belief he encouraged."
Qistin's look of relief is obvious even with a blindfold obscuring half of his face. "Is it your belief that your father is cursed?"
"Yes," the half-elf answers, immediately.
"If he sired you twenty-eight years ago, that would seem to indicate that he has been granted immortality, and some degree of eternal youth to go with it," comes the halfling's mild reply. "Surely that isn't a curse."
Jalen hesitates, and answers, "I think that my father today is a very different man from who he was when he conquered what used to be hobgoblin territory and founded this city. But from the way that his fate was discussed by the ogre Deopmynd, I'm inclined to think that it really was quite a cruel punishment. I'm his youngest son. His first wife, as well as his sons by her, all thought him dead. They mourned, and then moved on with their lives without him. All his closest friends are dead. And he was a politician and general as well as a nobleman, but I've never known him to travel to any place with a municipal wall or palisade. I suspect that he cannot, and that his immortality was intended to deprive him of Aureshan society while forcing him to witness its struggles and triumphs."
Qistin opens his mouth as if to reply to this, but then reconsiders whatever was about to say and closes it. After a moment he says, "I am satisfied that this truthsaying has uncovered all pertinent evidence that it is likely to obtain. Master Hope, you may go. I will deliberate on the testimony you've provided, and inform you of my findings within a few days." He nods in the direction of Swordfather Arlov, and the old half-orc escorts Jalen from the room.