Leland signals for Raksha to heel and, drawing Horace the mule by the reins, he steps toward Mbali. "Your tribesmen fought well," he says to her, "All of them. The way you all fought together saved lives, I have no doubt." The druid offers, "Shall we make camp and tend to the wounded today and tonight?"
Mbali snaps out of her reverie at Leland's suggestion, and replies, "No . . . no, all of us who are still alive can still march. We should continue to the estate of Sir Wenton Delavee. We have another three hours, if we move briskly. Even delayed as we are, we can arrive by dark, and there is no sense in spending the night in the open if it isn't absolutely necessary."
Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold
"Not unless we want to risk more of..." Johten winces as he watches Vandersrike work. "...those."
Rasnak listens without involving himself in the conversation. He does an excellent job of escaping notice.
Erivenel says calmly, "All the fallen are regrettable this day." He pauses and asks, "Is it usual for these creatures to be this close to the road and the farmlands? And to attack so large a party? They do not seem to be the unforgivable spawn of wizards."
"They were clearly mad," Rory offers, wiping the sweat from her brow with the back of her arm as she returns from the group of hobgoblins cutting wood. She retrieves her waterskin from her pack and takes a long, slow pull from it before capping it and slinging it over her shoulder. "Perhaps driven out of their wits by whatever devilry created them. Perhaps they were born mad. This is an awful place." Without waiting for a response, she walks back into the woods to continue her work.
Vandersrike begins making neat piles of the various Owlbear scraps. Skin and fur, bones and beaks, meat and sinew - all segregated and stacked on the roadside. He carves off a lump from the beast's sirloin and stuffs it in one of his bags. Vandersrike takes the top beak from the Owlbear and sizes it to his shoulder. Finding it too large, Vandersrike places the bottom beak on his shoulder like a morbid pauldron. Satisfied with it's fit, he leaves it next to his things and begins butchering the second corpse.
Before the party gets ready to depart, Vandersrike has three new Owlbear skin bags. One contains the bottom beaks from the beasts that he intends to use to ornament his leathers. The second he offers to Mbali. Inside, she can find each claw from the owlbear's paws, each picked and licked immaculately clean. The third he offers to Leland and Hendrik. It contains four Owlbear eyes.
"Take this juice. May it make our tribe strong."
Leland regards the pouch curiously, but demurs to Henrik. "You're the senior member; it's only fitting that you take the spoils."
"Thanks", Henrik observes sarcastically. Then realizing that it was certainly meant as a kind gesture Henrik pops one in his mouth and begins chewing. "Delicious", he observes, again sarcastically, "I insist you try one, Leland".
The druid sheepishly admits, "You'll have to forgive me, my Lord and my dear dwarf. I come from a family of leaf eaters, with perhaps the occasional grilled fish." He nods once to Raksha. "She might try one, though, if you've caught her in the right mood."
"My people have learned that leaves are good for one thing...wiping your arse."
Mbali's expression is hard to read, as she looks down into the bag. Finally, she inclines her upper body in a shallow bow toward Vandersrike, and says merely, "My thanks."
Close on the heels of this exchange, Uluwasi appears out of the brush, followed by the other hobs and Rory, who are carrying a pair of crude stretchers made of saplings lashed together with creepers. They converge on the dead hobs, and disappear back into the rain forest with their corpses.
Leland laughs quietly and remarks, "I'm sure if I were a dwarf, I would feel the same. Alas, I am not, and so I don't. I'm in good company, though." He nods once at Horace the mule.
Evrinel says calmly, "This is a grave concern. The purpose of creatures like this", he gestures at the owlbears, "is to help curtail overpopulation and expansion of invasive creatures. This is wasteful."
He pauses, looks over the group, and then rephrases, "If they are sick, then it is just one of those things. If they were maddened by magic, or worse, pushed out of their range . . . what are we walking into? If none of us has sufficient local knowledge, we need to press on and ask around."
"I'm glad you see it that way. I also see my purpose as to curtail overpopulation and limit the expansion of invasive creatures. And the owlbear population is too high when there are one or more of them where I intend to go."
Mbali directs a reddened eye towards Evrinel, and comments, "I cannot think that such beasts are common along what seems a relatively well-used trail. So your concern is pertinent, and we will ask such questions at Sir Wenton's estate. It's another three, maybe four hours' march from here. We leave immediately when the funeral party returns."
As if this is a cue, the Rory and the hobs reappear from the forest, and Mbali calls out, "We march! Uluwasi, take a rearguard. Madam Greenbarrow, please return to scouting duty."
Rory stows her gear and retrieves her bow, hustling back to the front and some distance ahead. She is bolstered by how successfully the hobgoblins mustered to action and feels willing to venture a little further ahead of the party than before, but still within sight of the front of the column.
The rest of the day's march goes relatively smoothly over increasingly hilly terrain, and it's nearly dusk when the trail breaks out of the woods, then widens and firms up, becoming a packed road of stone fragments and gravel.
With better visibility, it's clear that you're now in wine country, as most of the hillsides around you are lined with neat rows of trellised grapevines. This early in the year, none of them are in fruit, but it's still a pretty, almost idyllic picture. A few peasants watch you here and there from stone-walled paddocks filled with sheep and cattle, their eyes fearful.
The road doesn't take you any closer to them, and you and the hobs are content just to look back at them, so things stay quiet as the road mounts towards a large, rustic-looking manor house at the top of a particularly tall hill. Mbali comments after a bit, "This must be the baronet's house. Maeric Dorn said we are to call for Sir Wenton Delavee, the baronet. Which I guess means the chieftain here. Or we can talk to his household seneschal, which is evidently his chief servant. It is best if you speak when spoken to, and we are to address this chieftain as 'Sir Wenton,' or simply as 'Baronet.'"
"La-de-da," comments Johten sardonically.
Rory waits for Mbali & Co. at the foot of the hill, unstringing her bow and splashing the last of her waterskin over her face and hair to wash away the day. She nods at the nearest peasants, if she has caught their eye, and leans on her halberd, digging its butt into the dirt idly as she watches the party approach. Remembering her bulla, she retrieves it keeps it handy in the event she is questioned by a servant of the house before Mbali catches up.
"They kill over that sort of thing here, Joe," Mbali warns, although she doesn't actually sound angry.
The manor house, as you get closer, is obviously some kind of overgrown combination of a farmhouse and a fortified tower. The ground floor windows are basically arrow slits, as are those on the second floor. It isn't until you reach the third and highest floor of the structure that its walls open up significantly and feature windows that allow light and air into the structure. It has a fine slate roof, so despite the fact that it isn't a real castle, it would be virtually impossible for raiders to set the place ablaze. It looks, in a word, defensible.
Someone up there must have been notified of your approach, because a group of hard looking men-at-arms comes boiling through the main doors and spills onto the gravel drive in front of the house. They're all armed to the teeth and clad in heavy steel armor, and none of them seem flustered or rushed. There's an older, gray-haired human with them, who is clad in simple robes of lightweight brown fabric. From the chain gleaming at his neck, he seems likely to be either an official of some sort, or the baronet himself.
Rory nods to the group. "We are sworn to the service of the Marchioness, and come here by way of her Master of Horse." She produces the bulla in one hand, the other casually clasping the halberd propped against her shoulder. The dwarf hopes Mbali makes it up the drive before she has to continue.
Mbali moves forward as swiftly as possible without seeming to hurry, and produces a number of documents from underneath her chain shirt, as well as a bulla of her own. "Good evening! I am Mbali, Chaka of the Clan Nkonkoni and commander of this expedition, and per my commission under Master of Horse Maeric Dorn, I would present my compliments and credentials to Sir Wenton Delavee, Baronet of Vine Grove, or to his seneschal."
She approaches the group, extending the bundle of papers towards the man in brown, to whom she continues, "From your appearance, I take you to be Seneschal Beel. Greetings."
For his part, the man in brown seems startled to be addressed by an admittedly barbaric-looking hobgoblin woman, but he covers his surprise with an officious demeanor, and takes the offered papers and bulla.
"I am he. Please excuse me for a moment; I must examine your diploma. Your . . . ah, men . . . may stand at ease, and avail themselves of the well yonder, around the corner of the manor house," he replies, waving one arm off to the left.
Mbali clenches her fist and presses it to her heart, and then calls out, "The company is at ease. Uluwasi! Rory Greenbarrow! Send the rest to the well in turns. Two at a time. All to refill waterskins and drink their fill."
Rory replaces her bulla in a small pocket and, leaving herding the column to Uluwasi, opts to stand at the corner of the house, signaling when each pair has left the well for the hobgoblin to send the next two.
It seems that Mbali's credentials must be fairly extensive, because the seneschal takes a good five minutes just to read through them, during which time the heavily armed thugs who accompanied him out of the house seem increasingly bored. But finally, after poring over the documents and examining her bulla, the human nods, and says, "Everything seems in order. We were told to expect ten to twenty mercenaries, and possibly baggage. It looks as if Master of Horse Dorn is his usually meticulous self."
He looks around for a groom, spots one at the corner of the building opposite the well, and gestures for the man to take Leland's mule, continuing, "Be welcome to Vine Grove, ah . . . Chaka Mbali." Blinking his close-set, rather beady brown eyes, the seneschal continues, "Supper will be served in the great hall, but it will be an hour or so before it's ready. I will have the kitchens heat water for your troop to wash up beforehand. If you and the lady dwarf would like privacy for your ablutions, I believe the scullery can be spared."
Mbali gives her assent, and the seneschal dismisses the baronet's other men, beckoning instead to a couple of human and halfling servants who are instructed to see to your comfort. They begin by providing directions to a large, enclosed latrine, and then show the way inside the manor. Your entry brings you directly into the aforementioned great hall, which turns out to be a cavernous room that takes up nearly a third of the manor's ground floor. It is dimly lit by a fire in the sizable hearth at one end, but servants are adding torches to sconces in the walls even as you enter, considerably brightening the room.
Aside from them and a handful of the baronet's soldiers, the hall is empty of anything but furniture, which consists mostly of long trestle tables and benches. There are some nicer padded chairs and a table on a dais next to the fireplace, probably for the use of the baronet and the higher-ranking members of his household.
"Nice digs," comments Johten to no one in particular as he looks at the sheer space of the room.
For his part, Vex is staying pretty quiet, just observing everything. The formality of the whole ordeal leaves traces of a smile on his face, though.
A couple of floppy-looking hunting dogs make their presence known from next to the hearth, which has a small fire smoldering in it to help drive out the pervasive chill of the stone walls--it's only mid-spring, and the nights are cool enough that a fire still makes sense for heat.
The dogs don't seem particularly bothered by visitors; they just pick up their heads to see what's going on, find it unexceptional, and droop back to the floor.
Leland encourages Horace to go along with the grooms and follows the group along. Raksha, for her part, pads along beside him. When they notice the hunting dogs, her ears slide back as she tenses. The druid reassures his lupine companion, "I doubt they're after you today, my dear. Let us be in the habit of minding our own business."
Henrik offers the hunting dogs the owlbear eyes that Leland declined before searching out the promised hot water for washing.
Evrinel is quiet and withdrawn, following behind the group to wash up.
The dogs sniff at the eyeballs, but only one seems interested in doing more than gumming at them. It eats two, leaving the last one glistening in the dwarf's hand.
In the event, the hot water comes to you, rather than you having to go to the hot water. A couple of frazzled-looking servants bring in a number of clay ewers filled with steaming water, as well as several large basins of hammered copper, cakes of soap, and a couple of tall stacks of towels. They come from one of the doors behind the main hearth, so perhaps that's where the kitchen/laundry/scullery is set up.
One of them beckons for Rory and Mbali to follow her, and leads the way to a scullery where the two women of your group can have a little privacy to wash, and Mbali, at least, does so, saying only, "Uluwasi is in charge while I get cleaned up."
Despite their savage looks, all of the hobs seem very pleased at the prospect of hot water and soap.
"I'm going to scrub myself until I'm as orange as they are." Henrik indicates the hobgoblins that make up half the company. "As for the rest of you, I'm sorry that I'm going to have to disabuse you of any notion you've maintained that dwarves are short of anything but stature."
Vandersrike takes his opportunity to wash his morbid pauldrons thoroughly, removing each bit of flesh and sinew by soaking the beak and scraping away with his claws or his fangs. When he's finished his gory work, he dunks his head in the water as an afterthought, as though propriety demanded hydration. The water runs in rivulets down his scales, lightly soaking his cords and trousers. He presents himself for dinner thusly.
Rasnak watches the others, keeping any eye on them without seeming outright creepy. As a reptilian humanoid, he didn't sweat, didn't exude body odor, and his scaled skin didn't need water and scrubbing to remove sweat caked road dust and grime as his warm blooded companions.
Rory takes the time for a quick scrub in the tub, letting her hair down to wash it as well. The road takes its toll and it is good to relax, and she only regrets she doesn't have longer to soak. When she is finishes, the dwarf dresses again and turns to Mbali. "Your brothers died well today. I'm honored to fight with you."
She doesn't wait for a response before she returns to the great hall and gives it another once-over. Rory nods to herself, satisfied with the defenses, then turns to the hunting dogs. The ranger kneels and extends her hand to the hounds, letting them familiarize themselves with her scent. Only then does she reach further to pat one on the head and scratching the other behind its ears.
Joe moves to wash himself, but pauses when Vandersrike takes up his gristly work. After a moment of indulging in the morbid scene, hechooses a basin and positions himself where he can wash without having to watch the kobold. Quietly mumbling something about "floor show during a hooker's bath," he washes his face and hands thoroughly, choosing not to undress in the circumstances.
Once all eighteen surviving members of your party are as clean as hot water and scrubbing in a basin can make them, there's not much to do but wait. A look at the arrow slits that pass for windows in the cavernous great hall is enough to show that it's now dusk outside.
Shortly after Mbali and Rory come back from their washing up, the aroma of roasting meat, garlic, and onions wafts from the kitchen. The two women know that the kitchen staff is hard at work, scrambling to put together meals for . . . actually, you don't really know how many. But probably at least as many again as your company's number, once you count the assorted service staff, the guards, and the baronet's family.
While you are waiting for the sources of those pleasant aromas to make an appearance, a pudgy, red-nosed dwarf comes wobbling in from the kitchen. He's wearing a patchwork cloak and clutches a nine-string lute, making it seem likely that he's a bard. Or at least, some kind of entertainer. The fact that he's already shitfaced is not encouraging.
When he realizes that he just walked into a roomful of armed men, he stops, swaying in place for a moment, and then offers a nervous grin. "I . . . urgh, t-t-that i-i-is . . . fuck FUCK SHIT . . . I'm the-the-the-the COCK evening's fuck-fuck en . . . nuh! Nuh! NUH! ter-t-tainment."
Joe snerks lightly to himself. "Good job," he offers the dwarf.
Twitching slightly, the dwarf sketches a bow in Joe's direction, flourishing his cloak so that the patches flutter with the movement, and replies, "Thanks thanks thanks-fuck-FUCK. You're a really tall COCK big fuck . . . FUCK drink of CUNT PISS water, aren't-aren't you?"
He makes his spastic way over to the dais, and sits down on the top step so that he can start tuning his lute, although his incessant twitching and spasms don't make it look easy.
Evrinel, well scrubbed but back in his scruffy robe, watches the new dwarf intently. Its the first thing in the hall that appears to have drawn his attention beyond a glance for threat assessment
Leland's eyes briefly widen at the dwarf with the apparent. . .speech impediment? Noticing that Evrinel studies him as well, the druid remarks to him, "I wonder what the previous one must have been like."
The dwarf's assorted tics ease after he spends a few moments holding his lute and strumming it very gently, so he tunes the instrument. That only takes him a moment, and then he begins to play quietly.
The music seems to wash away the worst of his twitching, leaving him with only the occasional spasm of the neck or face to deal with. He continues to grunt softly, so it's clear that this isn't some sort of miracle cure.
During the bath, Vex rinses his hair, then is careful to make sure no soap touches his dreads as he cleans himself. Now, relaxed, he sits off to the side during the...performance, only half watching as he meticulously rolls each lock between his hands as if they were putty and he were trying to shape them into snakes.
As it turns out, the dwarf is a pretty fair lute player, so you listen to him play for about twenty minutes. During that time, Rory has a word with one of the servants. Money changes hands, and then a bit later the servant comes back with a couple of stacks of silver coins. Evidently the dwarf woman wanted to get change made before her trip into the woods continues. For shopping, or something.
As the jongleur's musical set draws to a close, you find that your group and various servants are no longer the sole occupants of the room. The interior door opens, and several of the baronet's guards come in. They're no longer in armor, but all six of them are armed. Still, they look like they're in a good mood, and they brighten noticeably when they see who's playing the lute. It seems like he must be known to them.
The three humans, half-elf, half-orc, and elf all settle down together at one end of a trestle table, keeping well away from you and the hobs. As they're getting situated, the same interior door lets out another couple of guards, both of whom are well armored in chain mail. They look around, beckon, and then a man and woman, both human, step past them into the room.
The woman wears a gown of blue velvet, along with several pieces of golden jewelry, so it's obvious that she is the lady of the house. She's young, and pretty but not beautiful, with mousy brown hair and fair skin. Her eyes, alone of her features, are arresting; they're a deep chocolate brown, and they give her the look of a wounded fawn. She has a pleasant figure, too, once you get over the evident but not advanced pregnancy that bulges her midsection.
She is somewhat overshadowed by her husband, who grips her firmly (and a touch possessively) by the arm. Sir Wenton is a human male of average height, bald as an egg except for the fierce-looking blond mustache on his upper lip, and he looks weathered as only a middle-aged soldier or outdoorsman can. He's probably in his early forties. Several whitened scars pucker his face. He's lean and muscular, especially in the limbs, and has garbed himself in a crimson doublet and blue hose that show off his physique to advantage, and incidentally help to minimize the beginnings of a gut. Blue eyes fix like gimlets on Mbali, and he leads his wife over towards the nominal leader of your expedition.
The jongleur plays more quietly so that it will be easy for the master of the house to speak, and as a result his music nearly drowns under the boom of a voice that is clearly used to speaking outdoors, pitched to carry.
"Good evening, Chaka. I trust you and your people have been made comfortable," the baronet greets Mbali, before saying to his wife, "Merdith, I present Chaka Mbali of the Nkonkoni hobgoblins."
Mbali presses a fist to her heart as she nods to Merdith, who replies, "It is a pleasure, ah, Chaka. Will you join us at the high table for supper? I believe that the kitchen is nearly ready to serve us."
The hob woman acquiesces, and the three make their way onto the dais, passing the jongleur without comment. The baronet's armored guards trail them, and assist Meredit into a chair at the table there, before taking up positions flanking the baronet's chair from behind. Mbali is placed opposite the two, and they soon fall into a murmured discussion.
Meanwhile, the servants discretely tell the rest of the expedition that if they will take seats at the lower tables, dinner service is indeed ready to begin.
Evrinel seems genuinely enthusiastic at the prospect of food, and looks to find a seat at one of the low tables with a good view of the entire room.
Rasnak climbs into one of the seats, finding that he can more comfortably eat at the table if he stands in his chair rather than sits. This suits him fine, as being able to bolt from the chair quickly gives him a measure of reassurance in what he finds to be a very odd place.
Once all the diners are settled on the benches, servants begin to make their rounds. The high table gets its meals first, with the service on polished silver platters. The seneschal apparently doubles as a butler, since he pours wine for the baronet, his wife, and Mbali, and he seems to be directing the servants around that table.
Down on the main floor of the hall, each diner gets a wooden trencher plopped down in front of him. There's a split loaf of brown bread, piled with slices of some kind of meat (mutton, by the aroma) that has been stewed with onions, garlic, and some kind of spicy pepper, until it is nearly falling apart. It's good, but somewhat alien to Johten and Leland, neither of whom are familiar with Enteran cuisine. Henrik knows the dish, although he grew up with more typical dwarven fare that avoids the peppers; Rory feels right at home, since this is exactly the sort of thing that was served at table when she was a guard in Quar.
Further, there's some kind of bitter steamed green, with what appears to be chopped boiled egg mixed in, and a wedge of pungent cheese (probably sheep's milk). It quickly becomes evident that the peppers in the stew impart a slow, tingling heat, and that a bite of cheese helps considerably with the burning.
Wooden tankards full of dark, malty ale complete the meal for those at the lower tables.
Up on the dais, you can see that a roasted hen and a platter of sliced fruit has been added to the meals you've been served, and that there's no ale. The baronet's wife is drinking something that looks like watery ale; probably it's small beer, which is safer than water and less likely to get her drunk. It's the kind of thing that is given mostly to children and pregnant women, so she's definitely not just sporting a potbelly.
Once the initial uproar of dinner service has died off, the jongleur begins playing more loudly upon his lute, and the overall character of the music becomes more ambitious—it's clearly meant to entertain now, rather than as mere background noise. Despite his obvious difficulties with regard to talking, the dwarf is a gifted lutist.
Henrik has no trouble putting it away. He'd have left out the peppers if given a choice, but left to his own devices he'd probably have gone hungry. And there probably won't be a meal half as nice again until they loot the larder of the necromancer they were planning on dealing with - assuming he survived that long. "Master Dwarf, play us a song of my homeland," Henrik calls, without regard to whether that is proper for the setting.
As far as may be ascertained, Hendrik's request is appropriate to the venue. Or if not, it's at least close enough to the norm that it raises no eyebrows. Not even from the jongleur, which is saying something indeed, given how much he twitches.
Instead, the dwarf looks over his shoulder to the baronet, who raises his glass in salute, looking amused. His young wife looks . . . resigned . . . as the lutist finishes up his number, and then calls out to Hendrik, "And what-what-what will you be FUCK wanting to hear, Goodman? Fuck off! An amusing little ditty? ASS! ASSCHEEKS! Perhaps perhaps a COCK ballad to warm the lady CUNT SHIT dwarf's heart? Buttpussy! Butt! Cheeks!" By the time he gets to the end of this utterance, the baronet's men are giggling like schoolboys.
Without waiting for an answer, the jongleur continues, "Pah, fuck-fuck it. I'll play something. ASS! And do my best, Goodman COCK! SUCKER! But you have to fuck off! Have to realize that I've got issues. Fuckoff! I don't want to shit! Bitch, TITS! Don't want to disappoint you. Aaaah, you cunt! Have we an understanding?"
One of the off duty guards, the half-orc, is choking on his ale. In a good way.