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The Beginning of the Auldvoron Campaign:
PART 1 - THE JOURNEY
Aelyra trudged over the snow-covered ground – well, maybe trudged is the wrong word, for the way Aelyra moved could never be called ‘trudging’. It would be better to say that she glided through the snow, pushing tufts of dead grasses aside with a graceful swish of her booted foot. Every one of her movements were very graceful, something that one would expect of an elf, but hers were particularly so. She was lithe and moved with an almost feline grace.
She puffed a breath of frosty air out between her curled lips, causing a frosty tuft to float gently out into the breeze. She pulled her dark woollen and fur-lined cloak about her a little tighter. Aelyra normally didn’t mind the cold, and she was warmly dressed. In fact as a child she had often found this time of the year to be quite pretty and satisfying, particularly apropos to its name – Lacysnows.
No. Sunsebb – that’s what the humans called Lacysnows, the month leading up to the week of Needfest and the winter solstice. She had to begin remembering her lessons in what the humans called things. By Sehanine’s eyes, she had often wondered how she had ended up on this errand. After all she was not just any elf. She was from a prestigious family of Grey elves, well respected in Celene. More than that she was one of a rare breed – a bladesinger! What was somebody as traditionally reclusive as her kind, of her station, with her rare talents, doing on what might well turn out to be a fools errand?!?
She remembered back to that day about a month ago when her feet got set on this path…
It had been in one of the off chambers in the Guildhall of Magic that four people had made the decisions that led her to the road she now walked. One was her teacher Celebglin, one of the half a dozen bladesingers in the Great Guild of Magic in Celene. She was second only to Brilthor the Blade Master, but he rarely took students these days being well advanced in years. Celebglin herself was no spring gamecock and two of the other people were Aelyra’s other teachers. And what had been the source of argument was the current disagreement over Aelyra’s current task.
“I feel that she should stay and learn more of the blademagic. She is barely out of her apprenticeship!” said Celebglin with an air of concern in her voice.
“And I,” said Narlaure, the swordmistress, “feel that our lordship is right in that we should know more of what is happening beyond our borders. Aelyra is the only free agent we have available. Remember that there is still much happening here at home that is tying up our resources…”
“I know. I am well aware that we are still minority. But her studies…”
“…could just as easily be carried on during and after she performs this mission,” finished Narlaure.
Celebglin and Narlaure stared at each other. Normally great friends, when they disagreed they did so strongly and with emotion. Aelyra stood to the side waiting. She felt that she was ready to leave the protective wing of the guild but didn’t know if this ‘mission’ would be one that she would desire in favour of putting off her studies.
Celebglin had taught her the spellcraft of the sword – the blademagic. Narlaure had taught her the proficient use of the blade – so much so that she had shown a unique talent, mastering a level of skill that was unheard of in one of her young years. Surely these two knew her talents better than most. She would wait to see what her elders decided – and what was this mission?
Then the third member of the party spoke up. “Ladies, I agree that her studies are extremely important but then so is our gathering the knowledge we seek about the situation to the west.”
At this both elves turned and looked at the white-haired half-elf.
Celebglin spat out, “You may be her singing tutor but may I remind you that you are still technically just a guest here?”
“Now Celebglin, that tone is not necessary. Darwyd is just trying to be the voice of reason.”
“And if he thinks this mission is so important why doesn’t he go?”
The half-elf Darwyd calmly leaned forward, “Because I am heading east into the Lost Lands to see if I can determine whether S’ealaraq is indeed held by Turrosh Mak… And that is something she is definitely NOT ready for.”
“I’m sorry,” said Celebglin apologetically. “I showed disrespect to you and your family’s honour and I apologise heartily for that. But I’m just concerned for the girl’s studies…”
“I know. And I took no offence. You were a dear friend to my mother before she married outside her race and I know you hold her memory dear.”
“Besides,” said Narlaure, “the girl can still learn on her travels. You’ve taught her well how to perform her focus exercises and I have never seen one so natural with a blade.”
Celebglin looked at the floor and then raised her head. She was just about to say something when the fourth figure interjected, “And what the realm needs more than anything else right now is a picture of the wider world. Although all seems quiet, evil is still afoot in the world and we cannot afford to hide in our holes like groundhogs hoping it all ends well. That is the problem that my cousin seems to not be able to get around.”
It was then that Aelyra recognised the fourth figure. It was Prince Melf, cousin to Queen Yolande of Celene! She’d seen him at court and occasionally at special functions at the Guild but had never been that close. She was somewhat stunned that her future would be of interest to someone as important as his highness. The prince continued…
“Now, we have decided that we must send someone on this journey. Darwyd Kenneth has suggested Aelyra. Narlaure seems to agree. They have the confidence in the girl, why don’t you, Celebglin?”
“It’s not that I don’t have confidence in her, she is quite a good student – one of the best I’ve had in years. It’s just that…” and Celebglin trailed off, she knew she had lost the argument. All she had left was however many days there were to prepare Aelyra as much as possible. “I will see that she is fully prepared your lordship.”
Aelyra perked up at this. Whatever it was – she was going on her first mission!
Prince Melf turned to Darwyd Kenneth and asked; “Now Kenneth, you were mentioning an old acquaintance that might be a good contact for Aelyra to meet.”
“Yes, your lordship. There is small barony on the western border of Keoland, a week or so from both Geoff and the Hold of the Sea Princes, that belongs to a friend of mine. His name is Sir Chester Fielding…”
And that was that! She had left within a week. Darwyd Kenneth had already disappeared on one of his adventures into the Lost Lands of the Pomarj but both Celebglin and Narlaure were there to see her off. Narlaure had presented her with a fine longsword, engraved and filigreed with a beautiful sculpted hilt – “A gifted talent as yours deserves a gift such as this,” she had said. Celebglin had been quiet when she presented Aelyra with a fine fur-trimmed wool cloak.
“It’s black as I know it’s your favourite colour and it will be cold,” she had said, her eyes shining. Then she had clasped Aelyra warmly to her, whispering in her ear, “Be careful my child.” And then she turned and returned inside the Guildhall.
“May your blade always sing true!” called Narlaure as Aelyra disappeared through the courtyard gate and then she too turned and went back into the guildhall.
Aelyra paused at the top the hill; her cloak pulled about her against a sudden gust of wind that sprang up out of nowhere.
Here she was in the middle of nowhere about to ‘observe’ on what these humans were doing. She gazed down at the small village clustered around a small castle. Why, there couldn’t be more than a few hundred people in this village. And this was supposed to be an important nexus of activity?
She shook her head and shrugged. Much as she respected the wisdom of her elders, she couldn’t help but think that someone had goofed in this instance. Probably that womanising half-elf bard.
She sighed and began trudging – yes, trudging – down the hill towards the village.
PART 2 – FIELDING BARONY
In a community of some four hundred souls it was easy to know everyone. It was also easy to know pretty much everything. What was difficult, especially in midwinter, was to remain above the level of boredom that would normally drive one to distraction.
Fifty or so outbuildings making a small village surrounded the castle of the Baron Fielding. It was a normal village for a community based on farming and livestock. Farmers and peasantry bustled about doing their normal business even though the weather was slightly grey and overcast. Cows still had to be milked; chickens fed and so forth.
The two taverns that were the next to largest of the buildings stood roughly across the lane from each other. The other larger building, set somewhat off down the lane, was a temple where the locals worshipped and prayed for good weather, healthy animals and a good life for their families.
As people passed each other going about their daily business they greeted each other amiably and occasionally stopped to catch up on local gossip – who was expecting babies, what was so-and-so going to wear to the Baron’s annual party four days hence, what would the new year bring…
The beginning of Needfest was a time for lightening of loads, a warm time of celebration in the middle of the winter so that people could look forward with hope for a good year and a good season for their farms. While celebrations were nothing so extravagant as those that were said by some to take place in the grand City of Greyhawk, every year on the winter solstice the baron held a grand party for the entire village where all could relax and make merry.
In general, despite the weather, the long winter, and the long years of strife that people were finally beginning to put behind them, this was a happy time.
So one might well wonder why two young men sitting on a bench outside one of the taverns were in what seemed to be deep discussion, one of whom appeared very put out and frustrated…
“I am SOOOO bored,” the brooding young man said, raising a leather gloved hand to brush a lock of chestnut brown hair from one eye. “Nothing ever seems to happen here, especially in the winter.”
The other man smiled benignly and looked at his companion. Both wore thick woollen cloaks hanging open from their shoulders, as the day was not too cool. One could see that while the first speaker wore a set of hunting leathers, this young man wore a simple tunic and trousers with a long checked scarf hanging loosely about his neck. From underneath the scarf could occasionally be seen the glint of a medallion in the shape of a Maltese cross, identifying him as one of the clergy of St. Cuthbert of the Cudgel.
He raised a meaty hand to his head and removed his woollen cap, running his other hand through his sandy blonde hair and over his tonsured scalp, sweating even here in the middle of winter. “Now Gareth, that’s just not true,” he said in response to his friend’s exclamation. “Why just the other day Brigid was telling me that old Dermot thinks he’s found a new plant that doesn’t seem to be bothered much by the cold.” Then he chuckled, “Although if that’s the case, I don’t know why it has taken so long to find it here. You think someone would have stumbled over it before now. Don’t you?”
“That’s not what I mean, Brother Larkin,” said the brown-haired Gareth. He took out his dagger and began to idly impale it in the bench repeatedly and absent-mindedly. “There may be things happening in the village but there’s NOTHING HAPPENING!” at which he flung the dagger point first into the ground, stooping to withdraw it.
Gareth sighed. “I am to be sworn into the Order of the Knights of the Watch in the spring. Do I have to wait that long before my life gets interesting?”
“Your father would think that that is a fine time for your life to, as you put it, ‘get interesting.’”
“My father is an old stick-in-the-mud that thinks too much on the old ways and would like to see me do the same. Sometimes I feel that he is trying to make me live his life instead of my own – or he is trying to live it for me.”
Brother Larkin frowned a bit, “Now that’s not entirely fair. Your father is the baron and does have responsibilities. On top of that he is hosting the annual dinner on the solstice and you know that’s always a rough time for him. It’s hard to look down your family tree and see the fruit so widely and wildly scattered. Of all his sons you are the one that most carries his hopes for the barony’s future.”
“Speaking of which I wonder if any of my brothers will show up this year,” said Gareth, partly because he was interested and partly to keep Brother Larkin from going down the path that he seemed to be heading. If it’s one thing that Gareth didn’t need at the moment it was a lecture.
At that moment a young and fairly pretty woman came out of the tavern with two mugs, each trailing a waft of steam lazily in the winter air. Her clothes were fine – maybe a little too fine for this village – but her apron told that she was a woman who did an honest day’s work.
“Here you two! If you’re going to waste the day out in front of my tavern I won’t have you sitting idle. Here are two mugs of warmed cider… the least you can do is advertise. After all, the Black Traveller Meadhall likes to take care of its custom. Even the likes of you two,” she said smilingly as she cuffed Brother Larkin on the shoulder. “Will you be staying for dinner or are you going home? If you’re staying I’ll get Mary to put another chop or two on the fire.”
“Thank you, Linette,” said Brother Larkin. “We just might do that. Eh, Gareth?”
“I think so, Brother Larkin.” Gareth smiled up at Linette and winked. “We can’t have you doing any more exercise than necessary for your dinner, what?” At this both Gareth and Linette chuckled. Brother Larkin just smiled and sipped his cider. “Is it my fault that the good Saint himself has seen fit to grant me a discerning palette? Why – I could always cross over to the Hawk and Vixen. I’m sure Skelly would not mind feeding me… and maybe that maid you liked so much – what was her name? – Jocelyn would be free to join me.” Linette laughed harder at this. Gareth just shut his mouth and blushed slightly. “Yes. I’m sure that would make your life get a little more ‘interesting’ for awhile.” He couldn’t resist joining in with Linette’s laughing.
Another voice spoke up, “Well put friar! But aren’t you supposed to be counselling the lad on the right paths to take in life? Not the right tables?” The approaching speaker was a smallish woman, dressed warmly but plainly. Her hair was long and loose and seemed to just be beginning to show streaks of grey at the bangs. Cradled in her arms was an old racoon, nestled in the crook of an arm and watching with obvious disdain all that was happening in the lane.
She approached and sat on the bench beside Gareth and the cleric, putting the racoon down beside her. He stretched, arching backwards, and when he decided he wasn’t going to be petted seemed to say “all right then,” and jumped down and walked into the tavern. Linette followed saying. “Come along then Samson and we’ll see if Mary has anything for you in the kitchen.”
“No cream,” their visitor cried after them. “He’s been putting on a little weight lately!”
“Probably because you spoil him, Brigid,” said Brother Larkin.
“That I do. But he’s been a loyal friend these past years and I care for him.”
Gareth sheathed his dagger and picked up his cider. “So what brings you out today? Surely not the weather.”
“As a matter of fact it did in a way. Today’s the first day of Needfest and I always like to see what this day has to offer. I’ve often felt that it holds an indication of how the year is going to be ahead of us.”
“I can tell you how it’s going to be,” said Gareth, staring blindly off across the lane. “Boring! Boring! Boring!”
“How can you say that?” asked Brigid, taking a third mug from one of the wenches from the tavern and waving to Skelly Aelfsig, proprietor of the Hawk & Vixen Resthouse across the lane, who had just come out to sweep the snow from the paving stones in front of his inn. “I thought that you were joining the knighthood this spring? Won’t that be good?”
“That’s in the spring. I’m bored NOW!” Gareth heaved an exasperated sigh. “Besides, the wars have been over for years and there doesn’t seem to be anything happening out in the rest of the world either. And father is a member of the Knights of the Watch and look how exciting he is.”
“Don’t sell your father short, dear. He may be getting on in years but he can still bear a sword for a good cause. Didn’t he go off to fight in the Kettish War in the Gran March? And besides, there is still evil afoot in the world. Geoff still has to be reclaimed.”
“And remember,” Brother Larkin added, “there are those in the Watch who would take a more active role and not sit to wait for the enemy to come to their gates.”
Gareth sighed again, “I guess you’re right. I just wish something would happen now! Here!”
“Be careful what you wish for,” smiled Brother Larkin as he finished his cider and waved for another, “you might just get it.”
The three of them laughed at this and sat back to finish their cider, the talk turning to amiable village matters once again. That is until the stranger approached from the heath along the far side of the lane.
Gareth was the first one to see her, a slim woman with long dark hair spilling from under her black fur-trimmed wool cloak. She moved with a dance-like grace, her boots seeming to slide across the surface of the slight dusting of silvery snow. At her side hung a delicate scabbard from which a finely crafted and gilded hilt to a longsword appeared. She looked about her, at the same time appearing to be looking both in curiosity and interest, at the villagers busy at their chores.
She nodded to those that greeted her with pleasantries but didn’t say much in return. She looked at the three of the party seated outside the Meadhall. As she approached Skelly, she stopped and slung her haversack off her shoulders, moving languidly yet elegantly.
“Excuse me good sir,” she addressed Skelly, her slightly accented voice of low timbre yet having a most musical tone to it, “Could you tell me where I might find the Baron Sir Chester Fielding?”
As Skelly leaned forward to give her directions to the castle, Brother Larkin leaned forward, “Allo! It looks like life might just be getting a bit more interesting. Shall we repair the Great Hall?”
Gareth smiled. “I think we shall,” he said, and then turned to Brigid. “Could you please tell Linette that we have decided to sup with father tonight? I’ll stop by tomorrow to pay for the cider.” And he and the cleric dashed off into the gap between the buildings to jog up to his father’s castle.
For Brigid’s part she felt that this might be the beginning of an interesting year at that.
PART 3 – GATHERING
The servant had been a little startled when she had appeared at the gate requesting an audience with the baron. She wasn’t sure whether it was from her appearance or that people didn’t usually ask to see the baron. Maybe they didn’t get many visitors? Either way Aelyra stood in an antechamber warming by the flames of a small fire burning in the hearth. It did little to take the chill of the hall out of her – she didn’t much care for the way the humans used stone so much, too dwarfish – but it did warm her enough to begin drying her boots. The servant had gone off to see if the baron would receive her.
He returned shortly and directed Aelyra to the great hall. He pushed open the wide double doors and Aelyra entered the Great Hall. The baron and his party sat at a long table set across the far end of the hall. As she walked towards them she cast about, looking at the hall itself. It was indeed large, with hearths set about the walls and other tables and chairs pushed up against those walls not in use.
Behind the table, one on each side of a large chair in the centre, were two fireplaces where fires were doing their level best to warm this huge hall. Tapestries about the hall did their best to keep in what little heat there was but there was still a damp mustiness to the air.
On the walls about the room were various banners, swords, axes, and heads of animals – a wild boar here, an impressive stag there. She never could understand the humans’ penchant for mounting the heads of those animals that they hunted. How ostentatious! Or at least prideful.
Aelyra walked towards the table looking at the party that sat behind it.
Sir Chester Fielding, Baron to the Realm of Keoland, sat beside his friend and lieutenant discussing important matters.
“Bored! Bored! Bored! I tell you Neville I’m bored silly. What say we go on a boar hunt tomorrow? A good way to usher in the new year, what?” As he spoke his walrus moustache, dark brown peppered with grey, flapped like the wings of wayward stork trying to take off from his face.
Sir Neville, his feet on the table and leaning back in his chair, said airily, “I guess so. We’ll find the little rotters out looking for whatever sparse winter fare they can find, no doubt. What say you Marion?”
The woman seated on the other side of the baron looked at Sir Neville. The knight was still robust and healthy, with a ruddy complexion and a large toothsome grin. If she hadn’t known them for years, she would almost swear that he and the baron were brothers.
“I say that we probably won’t find any – let alone many,” said Marion. She was a middle-aged woman who wore her hair cropped short and was dressed in a leather tunic and trousers. A pair of gauntlets hung from her belt and she was playing tug of war with one of the three hounds that lay about the table, either under it or curled up by the one of the fires. She smiled, “but then I am always up for a hunt of any kind! You know that.”
Sir Neville chuckled.
A young woman seated next to Marion was working on an elaborate piece of embroidery. She looked up at the baron. “Father, if you must go hunting I say bring back some deer. I much prefer venison to roast boar.”
“Ah my dear,” growled out the baron, “I shall endeavour to meet your demands. Does your brother, just returned from a day of lounging about the village no doubt, care to join us?” He looked past Neville down to where Gareth and Brother Larkin were sitting, having indeed just returned.
“We’ll see, father,” said Gareth, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the visitor.
“Well Gwynneth, I will see what I can do. Now why don’t you be a dutiful daughter and ask cook how long until we sup…”
Gwynneth put aside her embroidery just as one of the doormen approached her father. “Yes papa,” and with a swirl of her gown she walked off to the kitchen.
“Pardon me, your lordship,” interrupted the doorman, “but there’s a lady outside who says she needs to see ye. Got a letter she do, says she.”
“Very well,” Sir Chester said, nudging Neville back upright. “Show her in, Thad.”
“Oy your lordship, I shall.”
Gwynneth returned, brushing her hands through some of the errant auburn curls that hung across her shoulders. “Cook says dinner shall be ready soon, father. Oh!” she exclaimed as Thad opened the doors to the hall and ushered in a slim young woman, “We seem to have a visitor, How nice!”
Aelyra stopped just in front of the table and bowed gracefully to the baron who was seated in the large chair at the centre of the table.
“Greetings, your lordship, from my homeland Celene, Emerald Jewel of the Flaenness.”
At the mention of Celene Sir Chester’s mouth drew a little tighter. He felt that Celene’s severe neutrality had been a major flaw in the recent troubles. Besides, he wasn’t too fond of the olvenfolk anyway… All a little to high and mighty for his tastes. Still this woman had travelled far to meet him.
“Welcome Mistress Elf,” Gareth and Gwynneth both perked up at this, “to my humble home. What deeds bring you forth from your pastoral fortress of solitude to mix with us lower races?”
Aelyra let the jibe go unanswered. She was well aware that many of the humankind in the Sheldomar Valley bore some measure of ill will towards her countrymen due to Yolande’s policy of strict neutrality during and since the Greyhawk Wars. She felt the same. She just couldn’t let these humans know it.
“I bear a letter from an acquaintance of yours as an introduction.” With that she produced the letter from her bodice and handed it across to the baron. As she did she saw Sir Neville looking at the hilt of her longsword, measuring it up as well as her. A true soldier to the end!
Sir Chester read the letter:
I hope this missive finds you well. Indeed I have need of a favour from you beyond the hospitality that you usually extend to me on my visits.
The bearer of this letter, one Aelyra, has been selected by some of my associates here in Celene to discover news from the westerlands. As you’re barony lies strategically in this area I suggested that she contact you so that she could be at the seat of things to happen in the new season.
She is quite talented and handy. Please help her however you can in her mission. My friends and I hope that we may soon be able to pry apart the barred gates of this land so that the olvenfolk can once again take an active role in the alliance against evil.
Yours in gratitude,
“So… You’re one of Kenneth’s brood are you? Student?”
“He was one of my teachers, yes,” said Aelyra, somewhat annoyed that Sir Chester didn’t seem to take the news of her mission with as much propriety as she thought was proper.
“Bard then, are you?”
“What? Well, yes I do sing. But…”
“Stay for dinner, what? Maybe a song later? Catch as catch can, I dare say, but you’re welcome. It’s a long trip from the elf lands but that white-haired old bastard was never one for worrying about inconveniencing others for his own ends, what. Where is that old cockscomb? Snogging it about with the ladies of Yolande’s Court?”
Chester sniggered at this as did Neville and Marion both. They all three knew Kenneth’s penchant for falling into ‘trouble’ with the ladies.
Aelyra stiffened up a bit and coolly replied, “Actually he was off to the Pomarj to find Turrosh Mak last I know. Retrieving an elven blade.”
Chester calmed down at this news. “The Pomarj, eh? Mmm… Not a good show that. Still, he always was good in a fight. I’m sure he’ll take care of himself.” And then under his breath he added, “The Saint watch over him and grant him the sense to see his way through.”
Gwynneth regally stood up, frowning prettily at her father. “I’m sorry for papa’s boorishness. He doesn’t spend much time at court anymore and is becoming more rustic as the years pass. My name is Gwynneth and I am the lady of the manor. As such I welcome you with warmth and the best of the season. If you would care to stay and dine with us I will see to cook. There is a spare chair by my little brother there… He’s not nearly as cloddish as father – you might actually be able to have a decent conversation with him, at least while Brother Larkin is around.
“Let me introduce the table to you. This is Marion de la Foret, our huntswoman. My father you’ve met. Seated beside him is Sir Neville our constable, then my brother Gareth and his confessor Brother Larkin of the Order of Billets.
“Please be seated and I’ll see to dinner.” She then turned and left for the kitchens.
Chester harrumphed, “Yes, well – no harm no foul, eh? Didn’t mean to offend. Please make yourself comfortable.” Once Aelyra sat down he turned once again to his conversation with his two compatriots.
As she sat, the young man she had seen with the friar at the tavern in the village stood and extended his hand. “I’m very pleased to meet you,” he said warmly. “My name, as my sister said is Gareth. What’s yours?”
She leaned forward taking the offered hand and grasping it. He had a good grip and his eye had a mischievous glint about it. “Aelyra. I am Aelyra of Celene of the family of Widfara.”
Brother Larkin passed her a glass of water from a pitcher on the table. “You’ve come quite a ways. Here, this will help clear the dust from your throat as they say. Tell us about your travels.”
And, as servants brought in platters of food, Aelyra told Gareth and Brother Larkin a little about her travels over the past month.
PART 4 – THE VILLAGE
The next few days were spent with Gareth and Brother Larkin introducing Aelyra about the village and acquainting her with her surroundings. She seemed a bit of an odd fish as while she was evidently interested in learning more about how life about the village unfolded, she still maintained somewhat of a detached air about her. For her part Aelyra was intrigued and occasionally pleasantly surprised. There was the day they happened to passing Goody Smith’s cottage just as she was baking pies for the Midwinter’s Eve dinner. The smell wafted out her door on a gentle breeze, catching Aelyra unprepared.
“My! What is that lovely aroma?” queried the girl.
Brother Larkin chuckled and then, leaning back, drew in a huge lungful of air that would seem to denude the immediate vicinity of oxygen. “Ahhh! That’s Goody Smith’s baking. It is a well known fact within a day’s ride and more that Goody Smith makes the best pies in the county.” He licked his lips and smiled, “And perhaps we can sample her wares early.”
Just then a plump and pleasant peasant woman appeared at the window. “And ye’d best not be thinkin’ anymore along those lines friar,” she said with a smile. “Oy think ye’d be tired o’ me bakin’ by now… and we DO want somes to be left for the dinner.” Goody Smith smiled benignly at the cleric. She was an older woman, a wisp of grey hair just escaping from beneath a scarf tied about her head.
“I think that Brother Larkin will be patient and wait for a taste,” laughed Gareth. “But as you know Goody Smith your pies are fit for the king!”
“Why, your lordship does me fine honour ye do,” the goodwife replied, although she couldn’t help smiling, a rosy blush touching upon the crests of her round cheeks.
Gareth smiled and then turned to Aelyra, “Allow me to present a visitor to our shire. Goody Smith, this is Aelyra. She has travelled far from the elf lands to visit us this season. Aelyra, may I present Goody Smith – the finest baker in all Keoland if I had to put money on it!”
Aelyra smiled courteously and nodded, but Goody Smith brushed a light dusting of flour off her hands with the end of her apron and extended a plump little hand out the window. Aelyra, somewhat startled, took the proffered hand, finding it warm and gentle to the touch. Indeed the warmth of the woman’s smile seemed to transmit itself down into the handclasp and Aelyra relaxed and smiled in return.
“Well!” Goody Smith said with some amazement. “We oft’ have visitors of your kind, but none so pretty as ye lass!” She turned to Brother Larkin, who was leaning over smelling the pie cooling on the sill – dangerously close to poking his nose in the crust! Goody Smith softly pushed him back and admonished him, “’Ere! Being a follower of the good Saint himself doesn’t allow ye to poke yon nose in other peoples’ tasties!” She paused and turned into the kitchen. When she turned back she had a platter with a number of small tarts on it. “But as Oy thought ye might come by Oy made some samples for ye. Tis never a good idea for menfolk to be teased without some hope of samplin’ the wares.” She winked at Aelyra, “’At’s how Oy kept me man happy all the years we shared our bed. May the Good Saint bless and keep ‘is soul safe and sane til Oy’s be joinin’ ‘im.”
Brother Larkin took one of the proffered tarts, “…Which I hope will be none to soon Goody Smith. Why, your pastries are so fine I might marry you myself!” which made Goody Smith burst out laughing and playfully slap him.
“Here,” said Gareth to the young elf, “You really must try one of these.” He passed a tart to Aelyra as he took one himself.
Now Aelyra was used to pastries. She’d even had tarts before. But when she bit into this tart her eyes opened in surprise. This was delicious! She could not remember when she’d had something so delicious before! Surely, Goody Smith had to be part elvish to make pastry THIS good.
Her taste buds sang with delight as the warm berry filling filled her mouth, tasting both sweet and tart at the same time. She savoured the way the aroma seemed to follow the fruit as it swirled about her mouth and, once she had swallowed the first bite, she took a second without almost eager anticipation. This was heaven!
She stopped chewing just long enough to look at her two companions and the goodwife. All three were standing, watching her with small smiles playing about their mouths. Aelyra stopped and, swallowing the bite she had just taken, somewhat embarrassed said, “Goody Smith, this is absolutely the best sweet I have ever had! What is this fruit?”
The peasant woman smiled the satisfied smile of craftsperson taking pride in their work. “It’s a local berry we ‘ave ‘ereabouts. Called Ermineberry. Grows like weeds it do.”
“But surely the fruit is just the beginning. What is your secret?”
A smile danced across the plump cook’s face, “Now dear, one can’t be givin’ away all me secrets now, can one?”
And as Goody Smith smilingly returned to her baking, humming happily, the trio continued on – Brother Larkin having taken another tart in each hand which, when Gareth looked at him, he sheepishly raised them up and said, “For the road!”
Most of the people Aelyra met in the village were of the same ilk as Goody Smith. Pleasant and generally intrigued to meet her. All except Linette Hrothwic, the proprietress of the Black Traveller Meadhall. Her reaction puzzled even Gareth and Brother Larkin.
The three had stopped in for lunch one snowy day, just the day before the great Midwinter’s Feast of the baron’s. As they brushed and stamped the snow off themselves Linette came and told then to warm themselves by the fire and she would fetch some ale.
As Gareth and Brother Larkin sat at a table close to the fire, Aelyra stood in front of the hearth and warmed herself. Linette came out of the kitchen with a tray of three mugs and a jug of ale and a loaf of black bread and some butter.
“Here’s something to keep you warm on this fine winter’s day,” she called out cheerily.
Aelyra turned and drew the hood of her cloak back and brushed a hand through her hair. As her eyes met Linette’s she noticed that the tavernkeeper had stopped dead in her tracks and was shaking.
Aelyra stepped toward the woman, “Are you all right?”
Linette started and with a small yelp dropped the tray and rushed back into the kitchen. Aelyra looked at the two boys and they looked at each other.
“Well! I wonder what THAT was all about?” Gareth asked nobody in particular.
A moment later Stephanie, one of the serving girls, came out with another tray, occasionally glancing back at the kitchen with a confused expression. She placed the tray down beside Gareth and apologised. “I’m sorry milord, but Mistress has seemed to suddenly come over all queer. There will be no charge for the ale.” She curtsied, smiled and then went to clean up the spilled tray of ale and bread, looking at the kitchen with a curious look on her face all the while.
The three looked at each other. Then Gareth shrugged and poured three mugs of ale. “I guess that there are interesting stories in the oddest places. It is queer though.”
“Why is that?” asked Aelyra.
Brother Larkin took a swig of his ale and broke off a piece of bread, “It’s odd because Linette has an almost passionate curiosity for strangers. It’s why she became a tavernkeeper in the first place.”
Aelyra took one of the offered mugs and took a bite of the bread. As she chewed she wondered what curious beings these humans were sometimes. What she didn’t know was that Gareth and Brother Larkin were thinking the same thing.
On the Midwinter’s Day another interesting person arrived at the castle.
As Aelyra was doing her morning exercises in the courtyard, to the amazement of the two stable hands getting an early start on their chores, a gentleman approached. Two stalwart types, obviously soldiers or guards, accompanied him. He was well dressed; his cloak of very fine fur and trimmed with gold brocade. A shortsword hung limply at his side and to her trained eye it appeared that it was just for show. As he and his party rode into the courtyard the stable hands ran forward to take the horses (did every human in this forsaken country ride the beasts?) the man dismounted and as he turned to stride into the castle Aelyra saw that he was the spitting image of Gareth, only with a smattering of grey in his hair.
As he walked past her with his two men, stripping off his riding gloves, she heard him mutter to one of them. “Now, let’s just see what kind of mess father has made of the books this year…” and they disappeared into the hall.
Aelyra resumed her exercises where she had left off. To herself, or to the two grooms that turned to watch her again, she said, “THAT must be one of the brothers I’ve heard so much about. Now, ONE and two three – sweep – pivot – one – thrust…”
PART 5 – MIDWINTER’S EVE
Finally Midwinter’s Eve arrived. The great hall had been decorated and plank tables crowded the room. Almost four hundred people would eventually fill the hall and the surrounding chambers. All were in good spirits.
As the villagers filed into the hall small groups broke off and many conversations could be heard running about the rafters high in the ceiling and swirling about the pillars separating the side chambers from the great hall.
Midwinter’s Eve was quite the holiday about the land and, while the village was not so grand as the Free City of Greyhawk, Baron Chester held a feast for the entire populace as a holiday and in thanks of their efforts over the previous year. It was also a time to express hope for a good next season and coming year.
Everybody came and all had a good time. The baron usually dispensed with the traditional litany of ancestral lineage – some said that this was due to some rather colourful episodes by the baron’s siblings – and then a look forward to the new year was delivered. Platters of food were served, Goody Smith and some of the other villagers providing victuals for the feast as the castle’s cooks could not handle the size of the party on their own. Kegs of ale and wine were consumed, or mead if ones tastes ran to that. Then, after the meal, everyone made merry with dancing and songs til the wee hours of the morning – and quite often into the next day!
All the village clergy were there. Dylan and Evan, both priests of the church of St. Cuthbert, the God of Common Sense, Honesty and Discipline, were – as usual – in deep philosophical discussion on theological points with Kili Nithibrim, the dwarven cleric of Pelor, God of the Sun, Strength and Healing. These discussions could last a long time and most of the villagers joked that you could measure how long the discussions lasted not in hours, but in kegs of ale consumed during them. Some who joked this way said that that was why there were TWO clerics of Cuthbert to the one dwarf, the prodigious abilities of the dwerfolk to consume alcohol being well known.
Tara Dunhere, the leader of the Temple of St Cuthbert, had found Gwendolyn, the priestess of Phyton, God of Nature and Farming and such, and Brigid, whom most people avowed to be the “village wizard”, and was talking about trivial things. The three women got on easily and well, although many conversations found Gwendolyn playing the peacemaker to the argumentative wizard and the opinionated follower Cuthbert.
Across the hall the village warder, Farell Holdstan, chatted about the trade in travellers with Skelly Aelfsig, proprietor of the Hawk & Vixen Resthouse, the village’s inn. Linette was helping to organise the serving staff in between conversations. Both the staffs of the Hawk & Vixen and her Black Traveller were assisting the castle’s serving staff to cater to the hundreds of people milling about.
A rather studious looking woman was off in one wing talking to the baron’s huntswoman, Marion, and some of the village youths. Brenna Erkenbeorn was an excellent archer, having won the archery contest at the annual baronial festival three years running. She and Marion were discussing techniques and telling stories, the youths were listening raptly.
Perhaps the oddest pairing was the rather finely dressed man talking to Dermot, the raggedly clothed old man who puttered about his gardens at the edge of the village. Dermot appeared to be ancient, some claimed he was over a hundred years old, others claimed even Dermot wasn’t sure how old he himself was. On the other hand his conversation partner, Trevor Calearn, was always finely dressed and carried himself well anywhere he went. He was quite a lady’s man in his younger days. Both he and Dermot were chatting over to one corner, each of them smiling and glancing at the serving girls as they went past.
Dermot may have been old but, as he was wont to say, “I’m not dead yet!”
Gareth and Brother Larkin wandered in and spent most of their time talking with Brenna and Marion. Hunting was an abiding passion with them all. Well, at least Brother Larkin liked the results. Gareth’s older brother Arthur, after a hard day going over (and straightening out) his father’s accounts for the year chatted with various townspeople, occasionally catching the eye of the serving wench Stephanie, each time both of them smiling at each other. Rumour had it that the two had had a brief romance just before Arthur left for the capital and became a grand merchant. Apparently absence did make the heart grow fonder.
People had started to file to their seats as the baron and his party entered the hall. Sir Chester was dressed in all his finery. A large black brooch with a silver owl displayed on it, the badge of the Knights of the Watch, was on his chest holding a fine cape of a bluish silvery material about his shoulders. His entrance was regal and splendid.
What actually made it that way was that his daughter was on his left arm. He was always proud of his daughter, she being his pride and joy. And when she wanted to, she could be a jewel. Gwynneth was dressed in a flowing red silk gown trimmed in gold lace. Her auburn hair was loose and flowed about her shoulders in waves, kept in place only by a small gold circlet about her brow. She moved gracefully and smiled with sincere warmth at the assemblage. On the whole the village liked the Fieldings, the baron highest among them, but most held a special place for Gwynneth. As a child she had been a stricken with a bad illness one year, even losing the ability to walk, and the whole village took a hand in helping her to recovery. Since then most looked upon Gwynneth as holding a special place in their hearts. Her kindly spirit and warm and compassionate personality only endeared her to them more. Some of the young men about the village even tried to woo her and when asked about this she only smiled and laughed… but she always evaded answering.
Then the entire hall filled with one communal gasp of breath. The villagers seemed to freeze and stared at the entryway behind the baron and Gwynneth.
Sir Neville had followed the baron and his daughter in and, as she was a guest at the castle, on his arm he escorted the elf maiden Aelyra. Even Gareth and Brother Larkin who had been squiring her about the village for the past two days stared. They had seen her doing her exercises and knew she moved gracefully with her sword. She wore her tunic and leggings well and her cloak flowed about her as if it was natural. But now…
She was dressed in a long flowing gown, black as night. Small delicate silver lace trimmed her bodice and flowed down the sleeves to swirl gracefully like a spray of water about her cuffs. At her breast was a delicate silver brooch, an intricately designed and beautifully crafted silver longsword. A delicate clip kept her hair pulled from one side of her exquisitely lined face, her raven tresses then falling to almost the level of her knees. A small silver necklace graced her swan-like throat; a simple setting holding a small emerald whose glittering matched those of her green somewhat-slanted eyes. As she moved to her place beside Gareth and Brother Larkin her gown seemed to flow with a rainbow of hues and colours flowing about her like a river. She moved to her seat and looked at the baron. Sir Chester was sitting and watching her with a somewhat bemused look on his face. Then he gestured to the crowd.
Aelyra turned and saw that all eyes in the hall were on her. She looked down at the table and sat down. ‘These humans are so odd,’ she thought. ‘You’d think that they’d never seen an elf before!’
As the general flow of conversation returned and people began to take their seats Gwynneth caught Aelyra’s eye and smiled at her and winked. Aelyra was surprised but, much more to her own surprise, smiled and winked back.
Dinner progressed normally and, except for the occasional glance at the elegant visitor, all seemed to be caught up in the spirit of the evening.
After the meal had started to be cleared away, Sir Neville stood and cleared his throat, tapping gently on the flagon sitting beside him. The villagers quietened down so that he could be heard.
“Gentle ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of the baron I would like to welcome you to this years festivities. If I could but have your attention for a short time – if Dylan and Kili could hold their theological debate for awhile.” There was a chuckle of laughter throughout the hall at this. The priest Dylan just smiled and looked at the knight and Kili the dwarf tried to look serious (if he hadn’t chosen just then let out a large burp it might have worked), Evan was already nodding his head droopily beside them.
“Good people of the shire we have been blessed with a good year and, Gods willing–” as he nodded to Gwendolyn seated down the hall, “–we shall have another one this coming season. The barony has been without problems for some years now–” Some murmuring had started off to one side, a group of farmers muttering to each other. “–and since the wars we have prospered. Trade has begun to flow in larger quantities–” Arthur looked pleased at this but the farmers kept muttering. Others among the villagers began to glance over at them. “–and we should see a good season ahead of… What IS it Thomas? What ARE you muttering about down there?”
One of the farmers stood. He was a simple man, simply dressed, yet he carried himself firmly and proudly. The barony was a place where a good man doing good work could stand beside even the nobility and hold his head high. “Beggin’ yer pardon, yer lordship, but we’s here was wonderin’ what if the bandits returned?”
This question started a general run of murmuring throughout the room. Gareth’s ears perked up and he leaned forward in his chair.
Neville glanced at Sir Chester. “The bandits haven’t been heard from in four months. I think we can assume that they are gone.”
“Aye, mebbe we’s can. But it weren’t through none of our doin’ and we don’t rightly know as to WHY they stopped. Mebbe they’s be layin’ low for the winter?”
By now most of the villagers were quietly debating the options.
Neville sighed. “I agree, Thomas. But we can’t spare the men to hunt them down now. We have no idea how long that would take or even where to begin. Spring is a month or so away and planting will begin…”
Sir Chester stood up. “I understand your concerns, Thomas. I just cannot rightly see to mounting a large expedition at this time. Maybe in the spring we can free up the men to hunt them down. Or at least find out what happened to them. I suggest we all just calm down, relax, and enjoy the evening.”
Thomas sat down, but those near him heard him mutter under his breath, “I still thinks we’s should do somethin’.”
“Father,” Gareth said, leaning forward, “Perhaps Brother Larkin and I could go out and look things over. After all, at least we’d be doing something. If I am to join the Watch this spring, wouldn’t it be a good idea for me to get some experience first?” There were noises of agreement and support from the assemblage. Chester looked a little cross at first but then relented.
“That might not be a bad idea after all. I personally think that there will be nothing to find, but why not!” A small cheer ran through the crowd, led by Thomas and some of the other outlying farmers.
Gareth sat back smiling warmly to himself. Then he suddenly started and looked at Brother Larkin. “I’m sorry my friend. I was speaking for you as well. Will you join me?”
Brother Larkin took a swig of his wine. “You have to ask?”
“Good then. The sooner the better.” He turned to Aelyra. “Would you care to join us for some excitement?”
Aelyra smiled slightly and said, “Well, I am supposed to be learning as much as I can about goings on in this part of the land. Why not!” The three raised their glasses and toasted their endeavour.
Brigid leaned forward from her seat beside the Baron and said, “When do you plan to start this grand expedition?”
“Tomorrow,” said Gareth confidently.
“Perhaps you might stop by my cottage,” she said and then, looking at Aelyra, “We might have a little chat.”
END OF CHAPTER ONE
CONTINUED IN CHAPTER TWO – THE LOST TEMPLE