We tasted victory that day, but the taste of it was bitter. The courtyard of Caern Coeth was filled with cries of woe as the surviving townsfolk saw the butchered remains of their loved ones. The Hillfolk had not been gentle with the ones they had maimed and many of the dead were near unrecognizable. The nuns from the monastery tried their best to comfort the survivors and helped them to gather the dead. Brother Castan, who realized that the Hillmen might regroup and launch another assault, began immediate preparations for a hasty departure. Their homes burned, the locals had little choice but to follow Brother Castan south.
We gathered ourselves up and began to further question Davy and the mad man called Ferdiad. Davy explained that he had written down some of Ferdiad’s ramblings. It seemed that Ferdiad had lucid moments that only lasted for a few seconds, and during these lucid moments he talked. Davy, who was still rather shocked and confused of all the things that had happened, showed us the texts he had recorded:
Six swords taken out of their sheaths
The messenger is amongst us
Lo, he enters the place where dead gods once kept their court
The larks guide him into the lost glory
The great eye opens
A red sea covers the earth
Blood fills the Gaedil
The sons of Aern fall
The end arrives
We all read the text and looked at each other. None of us had any idea what the words meant, but nonetheless they bode an ill future. We discussed on what we should do next and decided that we should take Ferdiad and Davy with us and return south to meet Ross magh Connacht like we had promised. Ross had the best informants and a network of advisors who might offer more insight on Ferdiad’s omens.
Our discussion was interrupted by a guard who yelled at us. It seemed that there was a living prisoner. We followed the guard and found Brother Castan kneeling beside a badly wounded Hillman. Brother Castan asked several questions from the savage man who was so badly hurt that it was beyond my powers to save him. The language Brother Castan spoke with the man was something I had never heard. Apparently Brother Castan had learned the language of the Hillpeople. It was not uncommon for the more martially oriented clergy to learn the languages of their enemies.
Despite the fact that I couldn’t understand what they were speaking, I could tell that the Hillman was repeating the same words over and over. It didn’t take long for the man to die.
‘’He kept repeating the same thing: Drahtyra has awakened and it will devour the Earth,’’ Brother Castan said.
‘’Drahtyra, what’s that?‘’ I asked the Shield Brother.
’’I have studied the Hillpeople a little and interrogated few prisoners. From what I have learned, Drahtyra is somekind of a mystical beast or a monster in the Hillpeople folk lore. Their language consists largely of metaphors and references to their history so it’s hard for an outsider to tell what he really ment’’
‘’Maybe he meant the wyvern creature we saw, or the undead knight we bested,’’ I replied.
‘’I hope you are right,’’ the Shield Brother said and stood up. He nodded at us and returned to help the nuns to get things ready for departure.
As we gathered our gears we realised the day was beginning to come to its end. We decided to rest in the keep for the night and leave in the morning. Brother Castan had decided to do the same thing.
We gathered at one of the keep rooms and began to plan our coming trip.
‘’Ok, we have two route choices to pick from: the safer, yet a bit longer, route by the roads going through Ystrod, or the straight path through the Blaenau Highlands,’’ I asked my companions.
‘’Someone sent the dark rider to fetch Ferdiad from us. The same someone surely knows by now that the dark rider failed,’’ Grzegorz quietly whispered under his hood.
’’I’m sure you’re right and that could mean that someone might try to attack us again. Maybe ambush us? Aeran you have worked as a body guard. What would you do if you expected to get ambushed while escorting important people?‘’
’’I would most likely try to pick a route my enemies would not expect me to use,‘’ the mercenary said. He was still a bit pale from the blows he had taken earlier. I had seen him face near-death twice this day only to be saved by my healing spells. Such near-death experiences were always exhausting.
’’Then the Blaenau Highlands would sound like a good choice. Do you know anything about those lands?‘’ I asked the mercenary.
’’Just that they are told to swarm with all kinds of deadly creatures. I wouldn’t normally recommend going even near it.‘’
’’Let’s take the route through the wilds. I’m sure there’s nothing worse there than we have met here,‘’ Camil said. He was eating a large piece of dried ham he had found from the storage rooms. Brother Castan had said to us that we should take everything useful from the keep and leave nothing to the Hillfolk.
’’That’s probably the safer route after all. Who knows what we might have waiting on the roads. It’s the most obvious route we could choose. Alright! That’s decided then. We’ll go throught the Blaenau Highlands!’’
We set out to leave after dawn. Brother Castan was still making last preparations for their departure and trying to save everything valuable from the monastery and the keep. Their convoy of refugees would leave at noon.
Just as we were getting our eguipments packed on our horses, came the realisation: Branden was nowhere to be seen. One of the surviving villagers said he had earlier seen the ranger going to the nearby woods. We tried to find him for a while, but came up with nothing. I knew he was most comfortable within the winderness and the druids would keep him safe if anything would happen. This wasn’t the first time he went on his own way without letting his friends know. I had known the young ranger for years, but still there were times when I quite couldn’t make out what he was thinking. I trusted my friend to have good reasons for his sudden departure. I only hoped he would meet us at Faerndull as he knew that was our destination.
We said ourfarewells to the survivors and went out on our own ways. I had hoped to have Branden by our side while travelling through the wilds. Second thoughts about going through the dangerous Blaenau Highlands began to rise in my mind, but I kept them to myself.
The rest of the day was spent travelling. An old road guided us south and we estimated that we would arrive to the Blaenau Highlands in few days.
Just as we were about to stop for the day, Aeran hears sounds coming behind us. We quickly hide into the bushes near the road to see what’s coming at us. We soon hear the rumbling noice of dozen horsemen riding from the way we came. They rode with great haste and passed by without noticing us. From the looks of them they looked a bit like soldiers of guards, but not the ones we had seen earlier. We wondered whether they were after us.
We slept in the forrest trying to hide from our possible followers. The night passed without any incidents and we continued our journey south. The hasty riders had left clear tracks on the road.
The day slowly passed as we rode forward. After midday we arrived at a roadside inn. It was a fortified bastion in the middle of nowhere. There were few visitors staying there at the moment. We stopped outside the walls and decided it might be best if only one or two of us entered and bought the necessary supplies for the rest. We did not want to risk sleeping in the place.
Leaving the rest of our group hiding outside, Camil and I stepped through the wooden gates into the inner yard. Inside we could see that there were just few buildings inside the wooden palisade walls. We guided our horses inside the stables and entered the tavern house. We were greeted by a jolly bartender who immediately asked us what we would like to have. I stepped forward and was just about to say that we need journey rations when I saw the rest of our group step inside. I was confused, they should have stayed outside. What was this?
‘’I need travel rations for twenty days. Same for my friend,’’ I said to the bartender and tried to ignore the sudden entry of my friends.
‘’Sure thing, laddie!’’ the bartender said cheerfully.
‘’The riders just rode in,’’ Grzegorz whispered to me as he walked next to me. The bartender gave the hooded wizard a curious look and disappeared into the back room.
‘’They are gathering our horses and forming a half circle in front of the door. They have crossbows ready. Ten soldiers, one priest and a heavily armored knight,’’ Aeran gave us an update on the situation outside. He was peeking out of one the windows next to the door.
‘’What are you going to do now?’’ Davy asked us and holded Ferdiad‘s hand. The lunatic was looking at the roof and repeated the word ’’blaa’’ silently.
’’Don’t worry Davy, we’ll sort this out,’’ I calmed the novice bard.
‘’Throw down your weapons and surrender the prophet to us!’’ the priest shouted.
‘’We are following a strict order by the Crown and we are not allowed to give away the prophet,’’ I shouted back through the closed door.
‘’Your orders are trivial and have no legimacy to us. We are the Servants of the Virtues of Corwynt and demand you to surrender the prophet to us!’’ the priest replied. A shock run through me as I realised that these men were part of the same organisation that had allegedly murdered my true mother and done Teutanis knows what to my father.
‘’If you won’t surrender, we will kill you,’’ the priest shouted with a zealous vigor.
‘’Alright guys, we can take them. I’ll go first and draw the attention of the crossbows. Then we’ll strike hard on the leaders. Grzegorz, show them hell with your spells and we’ll hack them down. Ready?’’ I whispered to my friends and grabbed one of the tables from the bar. I picked the heavy table easily as I imbued myself with divine strenght.
Without giving a warning we barged out of the door. I held the large table as an improvised shield and caught several bolts in it. Few bolts scratched my legs and from the grunts I heard behind me I knew that few bolts had hit Aeran and Camil. I threw the table away and casted an thundering boom straight into the center of their formation. The blow hit them bad and stunned few soldiers. Grzegorz shot burning rays straight into the armored knight nearly striking him down.
As Grzegorz’s and my spells hit them, Aeran and Camil charged them fearlessly. They outnumbered us three to one, but the mere ferosity of our sudden charge seemed to shock the soldiers, who quickly threw their crossbows away and rised their spears to meet our attack. Another blast of fire from Grzegorz struck the armored knight down, only to be healed by the priest who seemed to lead the group. Camil began to cut down the soldiers on the left side while Aeran chose to charge at the center and the two leaders. I saw the soldiers trying to flank Aeran from the right and quickly cut their attacks short. I enlarged myself and sunk my hammer deep between the shoulders of one of the guards.
The battle was fierce, but our enemies had trouble coordinating their attacks. While their weapons caused damage, they couldn’t strike us down, while we concentrated on taking them down one by one. I joined Aeran at the center and we joined our attacks to take down the priest who tried to support the soldiers by healing spells. After the priest fell, it was only a matter of seconds the rest of them fell. We found strange necklaces on the priest and the knight: they resembled normal holy symbols of Corwynt but had a symbol carved on their backsides: six eyes in a circle.
One of the soldiers tried to run away, but we caught him and tied him up. I healed our wounds and began to interrogate the man. He told his name was Harry and that he was a mercenary working for the magh Talgarth family just like the rest of the soldiers. He showed us the magh Talgarths coat of arms on his armor. He told us that he had been ordered to follow these two men, who we had slayed. He did not know who they were, but knew that they followed an albino priest called Rhoderick. This Rhoderick had arrived into the magh Talgarth manor few weeks ago and worked as an advisor for the head of magh Talgarts, Arthos magh Talgarth. Or at least that was what Harry had heard. He had heard these priests refer to themselves as the Servants of the Virtues of Corwynt, but he had no idea who these people were, nor had he ever heard of such an organization.
I promised Harry that we would spare his life, but that we would have to take him with us and release him later when we had gained enough lead on our followers. The soldier understood that and asked where we were heading. He paled as he heard we were going to take a shortcut through the Blaenau Highlands.
We restocked our rations, took the magh Talgarth horses with us and left the tavern. The bartender was relieved to hear that we were not going to stay there any longer. He had enough trouble with dozen magh Talgarth corpses on his yard.
After riding for few hours we camped out for the night.
We spent the next day travelling hastily. We soon entered the Blaenau Highlands as we headed straigth south. The faint remnants of an old path guided us through the barren steppes and wilderness. In its harshness the highlands were rather beautiful, but it wasn’t hard to imagine all kinds of horrors lurking within its vast uninhabited areas. We slowed our pace and moved forward with our guards up.
After a long day of trecking, we made a camp in the wilds and slept nervously. We were not sure what to expect from the Highlands.
We continued our journey. During the day we found bear tracks on the path.
Our night was interrupted by unknown monsters. They looked like a horrific mixture of bear and owl. Four of these creatures rampaged our camp killing four horses and nearly killing us all. Davy released Harry, who helped us fight the creatures. The battle was indeed bloody. What seemed first like an ordinary combat turned into hell when the monsters began to wrestle us down to the ground. I was beaten unconscious by one of them, but luckily Camil healed me. With sheer luck we managed to kill all of them.
As we crawled back to our resting places, torn with severe wounds, I saw Grzegorz collecting blood from one of the dead monsters. I wondered what dark ritual the necromancer was planning.
When we woke up we ached all over. Our wounds were still bleeding and our limbs ached. I did my best to heal our wounds, but we were still quite badly beaten. We continued forward, but moved with a slighly slower pace.
Luckily we didn’t run into anything nasty during the day and our next night passed peacefully.
We set out to continue forward with our wounds now fully healed. At noon we arrived to an abandoned settlement. It had probably been a small village very long time ago. Ruined stone houses stood here and there and we could see the foundation stones where the wooden buildings had once stood. In the middle of the ruined village there was a small stone tower, probably an old mill or something similar. Suddenly Camil raised his hand and shouted: ‘’I sense that which is evil inside that building. It hides there!’’
’’He’s right, there’s something in there,‘’ I said as I began to feel the area for magical auras. There was something with a distinct magical aura inside the building.
’’Let us go in Magnus,’’ Camil said to me and I followed him inside.
At first we saw nothing inside. Interiors had collapsed and there was just an empty round room with nothing significant to look at. There were no hiding places for anyone nor did we saw anything that might cause the aura we sensed.
Suddenly I saw Camil’s shadow move and strike him in his back. The large paladin swayed from the impact, but stood his ground.
’’It’s the shadow, Camil!’’ I shouted and directed positive energy into room. I felt the shadows around us shrink as I caused damage to their unholy substances. Camil shouted a prayer to Nimue and struck a smiting blow on one of the shadows creeping behind him. Aeran looked inside the building, but saw nothing to attack. I blasted the undead apparitions again with positive energy and Camil struck the shadow again.
Just as soon as we were attacked they were gone. We felt the absence of evil inside. Whatever had caused the shadows to manifest, it was now gone.
Later in the evening, as we continued forward, Aeran saw what he thought to be torches somewhere behind us. They were still far away behind us, but we still decided to hasten up.
We freed Harry in the morning. He ran away grateful to us for sparing his life.
At noon we passed by a village called Ammonforth and we saw roadsigns pointing the way to Faerndull. In the evening we arrived to the city. We immediately rode to Devin magh Keeth’s long house to meet him. However, we were greeted by Enid who told us that Devin had left to Caern Môrn to an emergency meeting called by the king himself. Enid tells us that that is where Ross magh Connacht was also heading. I asked her whether she has seen Branden as we were meant to meet him here. She told us that Branden was here few days ago but had suddenly left in the middle of night, travelling east with great haste.
We didn’t know what to think of these new events. Apparently something drastic had happened since the king had summoned his most trusted advisors so hastily. Why had Branden left ahead of us and not waited? We decided to rest at Devin magh Keeth’s place and continue our journey towards Caern Môrn in the morning.
At the end tof the day we found a roadside inn to lodge in.
We travelled by the main road. The day passed without incidents and we ended up in another roadside inn.
We reached the border of Manaaw during noon. A toll of one copper piece for each leg crossing the border was paid.
Near night fall we arrived to Dinaes Powys, the capital of Manaaw. Tired from a long day of travelling, we sought shelter in a decent tavern near the center. The night was still young and there were quite lot of people in the tavern. Davy played his lute and entertained the audience with his music. I met a former soldier from the Grendir’s Spear, the company that had garrisoned near Clydewell when I was young. I talked with him about Onslow, the old warrior priest who had found my magical abilities. He told me that the Grendir’s Spear had scattered after the captain leading the company had died. Onslow had gathered the most fanatic soldiers and a group of zealous warrior priests with him and ventured north. Noone had heard of him since.
I told the soldier of our great adventures and gathered a small audience who listened in awe. I kept my stories simple so that they could not be connected to the conspiracies going on. I told them about the monsters we had slain in Blaenau Highlands and the Hillpeople horde we had fought against.
We were having a good time drinking ale and talking with the locals when Aeran suddenly nudged me with his shoulder.
‘’I saw a glimpse of a robed man leaving the tavern. He was a pale fellow. Like an albino,’’ the mercenary said.
’’Where’s Davy?‘’ I said quickly coming to my senses. I had not paid attention to the young bard who had stopped playing not long ago. Ferdiad was upstairs locked into a room we had reserved. We saw no sign of Davy.
’’Hey, did you see where the bard who just played went?‘’ I asked the bartender.
’’Yea, he left with a bunch of men just few seconds ago,‘’ the grimy faced bartender replied.
’’Ferdiad is alright,‘’ Grzegorz whispered. He had just checked that the lunatic was still where we left him.
’’Let’s go!’’ I said to my friends and we barged out. We saw nothing on the street. It was completely deserted. They could not have stayed on the main street, otherwise we would have seen them. We looked around and saw two alleyways. They must have gone through one of them.
After running for a while, we arrived to an empty square. In the middle of the square was a small fountain and a statue. Right next to the statue stood three figures. We could not see Aeran or Grzegorz, but saw that a street continued right from the square. They would most probably end up on that street eventually.
We hastily approached the three men standing by the statue. As we came closer we began approaching slower. The men looked really suspicious: hiding in the shadows of the statue and wearing dark cloaks. Before I could do anything, Camil yelled at the men ‘’Ho there! Reveal yourselves!’’.
The men didn’t seem to react much other than turning to face us. We walked nearer and one of them drew up the hood covering his face. We saw the face of Davy looking at us. We were awfully confused and stunned for a second. What was Davy doing with these guys. Was this really Davy? He was wearing different clothes and something in him didn’t look familiar.
Just as I was about to open my mouth and ask what was going on, I heard noise from the street right from us. Aeran and Grzegorz I thought and looked there. I saw a carriage parked by the road and figures fighting there. I turned my head back to the mysterious men by the statue when I was suddenly hit by a sticky web that pinned me to the ground. I had seen this thing before: it was similar to the web spell Grzegorz had cast earlier, but this was not Grzegorz’s spell. The web nearly covered the square and I saw that Camil was tangled as well. The three mysterious men began to run towards the carriage untangled. Me and Camil began to struggle our way out of the web and towards the carriage.
As we moved a bit forward, I could see that there was a combat by the carriage. I saw people that looked like common thugs fighting these mysterious dark cloaked men with raven beaked masks covering their faces. From what I had heard from Branden these men were clearly members of the Sons of Morrigna. Amidst the battle I saw Grzegorz and Aeran as well.
It took us a while to get out of the web and the battle had continued while we had struggled. We met one of the thugs near carriage and crushed him. Aeran and Grzegorz had beaten the raven beaked assassins. Only few thugs remained and they were trying to escape with the carriage. Grzegorz cast his web spell to slow the thugs down. Me and Camil met another thug at the back of the carriage while we saw another one of them climbing on the roof of the carriage. The web covered both of them and we had to plunge inside the web to get to them. A slow cat and mouse game began as we tried to catch them. The first on failed to get anywhere and was killed by Camil. The other one managed to climb on top of the carriage.
‘’Take him alive! Don’t let him escape!’’ I yelled. I wanted to know what the hell was happening here and who where these men.
We eventually catched the thug just as he jumped on the reins of the carriage. We knocked him down and tied him up. We found Davy inside the carriage bound but unhurt. Seeing that we were surrounded by dead bodies we saw best to move out of the area. We walked for a while and began to interrogate the thug on a small alley.
Unfortunately he knew little on the motives behind the kidnapping, but revealed that they were supposed to bring Davy to a pub called Bleeding Pig where they were originally hired by an albino priest. The same man I thought. It must be the same Rhoderick who had sent the soldiers after us earlier. We decided to believe the thug and asked for directions to the pub. We let the thug go and immediately walked to the Bleeding Pig.
The pub was in one of the poorer parts of Dinaes Powys and the patrons inside all looked like they could be plotting murderous kidnapping plans. I walked to the bar and asked the bartender whether he knew where this guy Rhoderick was and that we had something for him. At first the bartender had trouble remembering anything, but after getting the hint I bribed the rot-toothed bartender handsomely. He turned out to be extremely helpful once his pockets were filled with sufficient coins. He told us that the albino priest was residing in one of his rooms upstairs, but was not here at the moment. Had said that he would return later. He agreed to rent the opposite room and another one next to the opposite room. After few more coins he even gave us the spare key to Rhoderick’s room.
We walked up and stationed ourselves inside the rooms. We put Davy in one of the free rooms to hide. After that Aeran and Grzegorz hid inside Rhoderick’s room and Camil and I went inside the opposite room. My plan was that once Rhoderick arrived and opened the door to his room, Camil and I would barge out behind him and push him inside his room where we would tie him up.
Few hours passed and I began to think that maybe we had been cheated. Just then we heard steps on the hallway. I peeked out of the keyhole and saw a man dressed in priests robes walk to the door infront of me. He indeed had a strangely pale complexion and disturbing black eyes. He searched his pockets for a while and pulled out the key to his room. Just as opened the door Camil and I barged out as planned. Our stunt, however, didn’t work as well as it should have and the albino priest managed to hold his ground. The priest was confused as we plunged at him. I stepped right towards the staircase he had arrived. There was still room to run past me just as long as he could get past my hammer. The priest tried to cast a spell at us, probably to stun us, but none of us were affected. Furious that he was surrounded and his spells failed him, he tried to run past me. I replied by enlarging myself so large that there was no chance to get past me. The priest looked around to see whether he had any place to run to. He was just about to begin to shout for help, when I grappled him and quickly pinned him to the ground.
It was almost too easy, I thought. We must have gotten really lucky. This man must have been a powerful cleric. Despite his spells he had not managed to resist the four of us as we joined together to tie him down. I held his face and throat to prevent him from casting any more spells while Aeran tied him down and gagged him with a piece of cloth.
We dragged the bound priest into one of our rooms and waited for a while. After we were sure that no-one else was coming, we tried to interrogate Rhoderick. This, however, did not produce anything worthwile. The priest remained stubborn and refused to tell us anything. He threatened us with the curse of the church and warned us that he was an important person among the clergy. Unsure what to do, we tied his mouth again. We wondered our situation for a while and decided to bring this man with us to Caern Môrn and let Ross magh Connacht interrogate this man. He was, after all, part of an attempt to kidnap the prophet, even though he had mistaken Davy for one as we had at first.
We decided to split. Few of us stayed in the Bleeding Pig and guarded the plotting priest and the rest of us went to guard Ferdiad at the original tavern we had lodged.
The next morning I went out and bought a small cart. I brought it to the side alley next to the Bleeding Pig and lowered the tied up Rhoderick through his room’s window. After that we hid him under our gear and left the city. Luckily we didn’t face any problems while smuggling the albino priest out.
We spent the day travelling. I’m having bad feelings about the albino priest. What if he isn’t the one behind the kidnappings? What if we have mistaken him for someone else? I try to get these thoughts out of my mind.
I’m starting to get weary. We have traveled for nearly two weeks without good rest. Tomorrow we should reach the border of Dún Éiden.