The tale of Ziedon's adventures held Sahlman's full attention. The desert dweller listened in awe to the recounting, his craggy face fully expressing his astonishment at many of the story's details. His mind fairly boggled at the idea of spending so much time under the ground, closed in, surrounded and trapped. 'Agh, this Ziedon, he is a brave one, and no mistake,' he thought. As Sahl continued to listen, his belief grew stronger and stronger that, had it been Sahlman el' Musafir in place of Ziedon, things would have gone much differently. Colorful eastern exclamations and expletives rolled freely from Sahl's tongue, expressing his appreciation of the tale and of the courage exhibited by the teller.
The sun, or what little of its light could be seen through the unrelenting clouds, was disappearing from the sky by the time Ziedon finished relating what had happened to him. Ziedon then asked what had happened during his absence. Ardith told Ziedon all about the interaction with the little people, and about her dream. Both events had been given a deeper meaning since Ziedon's return, but Ardith could not guess about the possible implications of that meaning.
Ziedon stroked his growing beard. “But it was my voice that you all heard that day. I called each of your names. Why does this apparition say that I am the voice of the Zioth?”
Ardith did not accept Ziedon's explanation of her dream, and said so, but did admit that the voice they heard when they were with the little people may have been his, distorted through whatever door he was partway through.
Ziedon answered in a matter of fact tone. “The voice was mine. What I wonder is why you were told in your dream that it was 'The voice of the Zioth'. Perhaps I have a greater mission.” Ziedon shook his head in thought as he quickly pulled out a small orb from his pouch and glanced at it, then returned it to its resting spot.
“How are we to know, wizard, what role any of us are to play? I will pray to Andritha for guidance in interpreting her response.”
Galgewe listened to Ziedon's words with no expression on his face other than a respectful stare. When Ziedon mentioned how long he had been away, a look of concern appeared on Galgewe's face. Glancing at Galgewe, a thought came into Kay's mind, but she held her tongue until Ziedon and Ardith were finished. “Ziedon, you say you studied for three weeks, but it's been less than a week since you left. Are you sure you kept track of the days?”
“Kay, not only did I study for three weeks, but there was also the travel time involved in reaching my Master's tower and then finding you,” Ziedon's harsh voice stopped with a slight cough. He pulled his cloak tighter around him to ward off the damp and coldness, and continued. “I cannot easily explain the reasons for the time difference, other than to say that they are magical in nature. If you think about it, it will make sense.”
Again Ziedon paused as his ravaged face turned towards Galgewe. Raising his bony hand, the cloak parted enough to reveal Ziedon's arm. His skeleton-like hand reached up to the hood of his cloak, and the sleeve pushed up to again reveal the mass of bandages and burns that covered his arm. He pulled back his hood, and slipped his hand back under his cloak. Again, everyone was surprised at the changes that had occured in Ziedon's features after so short a leave. His skin looked a pastier shade of white and his eyes had receded to the point that his head gave the impression of a rotting skull. His month's growth of beard made him look even more sinister. It was clear that he had seen and experienced things that would snap the fragile minds of lesser men and those things had clearly left their mark on him.
Ziedon looked at Galgewe with a detached gaze and asked, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
Galgewe was surprised at the sudden gesture, but he answered after only a moment's hesitation. “I am a servant of Townsman Balban, sent to aid this group in its travels.”
The tight pale skin around Ziedon's mouth was not totally hidden by his beginning beard as a small frown worked its way upon his features, “Really?” Ziedon's face slowly turned to embrace the entire scene and then slowly turned back to Galgewe, “Well servant, why don't you aid us by gathering firewood? I think a double armful will suffice.”
Galgewe looked hesitant for a moment, as if unsure as to whether the pale robed man was in a position to give him orders, but he soon answered politely. “Immediately, m'lord,” and walked out into the rain.
Ziedon looked to the people that he had already had several adventures with, and asked, “What of Balban? Is he corrupt? What of Galgewe?”
Sahl finished making himself as comfortable as he could be while soaked through and wearing chain mail, then looked over to where Ziedon was sitting. “The rain, will it not make the wood useless? Well, no matter. Of Balban, I can only say another time that his talk of harsh taxes makes me to wonder. Of Galgewe, well, this man, he has given none present any reason to say ill of him. Perhaps it is that he is Balban's man. That is to be expected, I am thinking. It is not a bothersome thing to me, if he is or is not.” The bedouin puncuated his next comment with a pointed stare. “_I_ will not be badly treating him without reason.” Sahlman then resumed his attempts to fashion his oversized mustachios into something that would at least vaguely resemble their normal shape.
At first, Ziedon sighed at Sahl's apparent denseness, but he paid close attention to most of Sahl's words. Ziedon's attention wandered with Sahl's last sentence. Eventually, Ziedon nodded slowly and raised his left hand to stroke his bearded chin. “So you have learned nothing new. Has anyone voiced doubts against Balban within Galgewe's hearing?” During the silence that followed his question, Ziedon thought about what could be done to ensure that Galgewe was not a hindrance or a threat to the group. After discarding several ideas as being too bloody or time-consuming, Ziedon was left with only one avenue.
While Ziedon thought, Ardith added her own answer. “We are still disturbed at some of his words, words you heard with us, but we have no evidence one way or the other. We journey on our mission both to deliver his message, and to determine for ourselves what is afoot here. Galgewe seems a good man, though he is probably making his own notes about us to report back to Balban. It would be wise to treat him as one of us, except as concerns our looking into the affairs of Balban. He has been nothing but a help, so far.”
Galgewe returned before long and silence fell over the group. While he set on the impossible task of burning the soaked, muddy branches he had gathered, the others searched their bags for something to sleep on, and spent several minutes squeezing out the water from them.
Suddenly, Ardith realized why her spell on Kay had failed. “Kay! You became visible to the wolves when you began your attack! I'm sorry, I should have remembered that and told you about it.”
“No wonder. All was well until – OK, Ardith. Just next time, please try to remember the gotchas in your spells, OK?”
Ardith laughed and gave Kay a hug. Then, on impulse, she reached for Ziedon, who stopped her before she got close enough with a bony hand to her chest and a distinct shaking of his head.
“Sorry, Ziedy,” she said, backing off. “I'm just glad to have you back. May I make some herb compresses for your wounds? They will heal faster and better with them.”
“I have already applied herbs and salves. The only thing that now will cause the wounds to heal faster is a clerical spell.”
“My friend, thinking that we had more need of woodcraft and waycraft, I did not ask my goddess for healing spells. Would that I had! But I have herb-craft and more ordinary skills. Please let me prepare poultices for your wounds. Whatever your mission in this quest, it is better served with you healthy!”
Ziedon again slowly shook his head and rose a bony hand in a gesture meant to ward Ardith away. “I too have such simple skills and have used them to their fullest. Your offer is noted and appreciated, but unwarranted and unnecessary.”
Sahlman was happy to see the bond of friendship growing ever stronger between Ardith and Kay. The two were very different, but seemed to share a great many traits as well. More importantly, Sahl had determined that each of the women fulfilled a need for the other. Ardith found pleasure in being as an elder sister to Kay, nudging her in the right direction just when needed, while Kay seemed to thoroughly enjoy drawing that nurturing attitude out into the open, much as Ardith might try to hide it. The resulting interplay rarely failed to bring a smile to a face long unused to smiling.
Ziedon's terse refusal of contact did not alarm Sahl. While he might wish it were otherwise, it was the reaction he expected. Ziedon may have been heroic in the eyes of others, but Sahl believed that the pale thin man doubted himself too much and drove himself too hard. Also, it seemed possible that the man had not had companions before. Loneliness is a cruel taskmaster, as Sahl knew all too well.
Seeing the look in Sahlman's eyes, Ardith hugged him as well. To rebuff the offered gesture did not occur to Sahl. Indeed, he was surprised to find himself enjoying it, while at the same time blushing furiously. Apparently, thought Sahlman, she mistook his considering gaze as something else. Perhaps there was some hidden quality in it that the priestess managed to decipher. Ardith whispered in his ear, “Sahl, you were the hero of last night. Thank you.” The whispers heightened the feeling of embarrassment in the easterner even more, and then it was over. Relief flooded through Sahl, leaving him quite weak, but the feeling was tinged, however slightly, with regret at the brevity of the hug.
The watery-kneed warrior mumbled some platitude in his native tongue as he ventured out into the downpour, his purpose ostensibly that of seeing to the horses.
“Galgewe,” Ardith said as she turned to the odd-looking red-haired man, “you were a solid support last night. Thank you.” She then hugged him too. He was surprised at the gesture, but tried to hide his emotion, respectfully restraining a comment about the inappropriateness of the cleric's action.
The joviality of the scene was not consistent with the surrounding area. The sky continued to darken, while the level of the coarse mud full of rotting leaves rose slowly. The floor of their shelter was still six inches above the mud, but no one could guess how long it would be before the area was flooded.
The cold rain soon dampened the heat that had accumulated in Sahl's cheeks. The man stood with his faced turned toward the heavens, water dripping freely from his nose, his chin, the lobes of his ears, and the tips of his fingers. He made himself breathe in deeply, exhale completely, and take in another long breath that was expelled in an abrupt sigh.
'What was that?' Sahl wondered. He did not recall making such an idiot of himself before. 'It is these western women,' he decided to himself. Such a thing could never have happened … in the desert. He caught himself just before the words “back home” could embed themselves in his train of thought. That place, for all that he spent a great deal of his life there, was certainly no home. It was home to Saladin al Hakariim, perhaps, but so far Sahlman el'Musafir had found the wetlands to be much more to his liking. 'Wet lands, indeed, this night. Ah, well, half of the solution is awareness of the problem, eh?'
Sahlman sloshed across the short distance to the mounts and proceeded to check them over. They seemed well enough, under the circumstances, though Kay's horse would be unable to bear a rider for some time.
Considering himself to be recovered from whatever madness overtook him a little while before, Sahl screwed his courage to the sticking place and returned to the warmth of the fire under the rotted tree trunk.
“Sahlman, my friend,” Ardith said as privately as possible, “are you all right? Does something trouble you?”
Despite his emotional shakiness, Sahl found some hidden reserve of fortitude, and was able to address Ardith as, more or less, his normal self. He drew the priestess to one side, knowing full well that he would be completely unable to talk about this matter in the presence of the others. “Arditta, you must know this. For very long have I been alone. When I have been among other people, it was not as their friend. Another face, another sword, perhaps a one to watch the back while eating or sleeping. Nothing more. If it is a trouble that I have found,” Sahl paused, searching for words, “well, perhaps it is that I should have solved this problem a long time ago.” A wide grin grew out of the wasteland of Sahl's face.
“It's all right, Sahl. I also know of loneliness. Be lonely no more, for here you have friends. I am your friend, Kay is your friend, and for all his standoffishness, I think Ziedon is your friend. Sahl, you are a stranger in a land strange to you. Let us – me – in as a friend.
“What do you make of this dichotomy in time, that Ziedon has seen almost a month, but we but a week? This seems a twist in time that may not save our stine. Oh, sorry.”
“I fear it is not Sahlman who can make the truth of Ziedon's puzzle.” The man looked apologetic. “I am not the knowledge at all of the er, mahjyk. My sorry.”
“We had better get back to the others, now.” On impulse, she planted a kiss on Sahl's cheek, then hurried back under the fallen tree.
Despite the endlessly pounding rain and threatening signs of a flood, everyone managed to sleep after hanging their important belongings on the underside of the log. At least one member of the group remained awake at all times to watch the level of the water. Fortunately, the rain was only slightly cold, so no one had to fear that they would freeze.
Dusk came, and the sky became so dark that not even Halkak, almost a full moon, could be seen through the thick clouds. Millions of raindrops prevented the horses from being seen, but every once in a while, one whinnied or sneezed, so the party knew they were still there. After a time, the watchmen could no longer see the water rising beside the log, and they had to reach a finger down and touch it to measure its level. Time seemed to extend endlessly for the watchmen, who had nothing but their ears and fingertips to sense their surroundings. Each watch was shorter than the one before it, but each one seemed much longer. After a dozen watches, Galgewe arose and stood guard for the rest of the night, feeling it his duty to allow the others to sleep.
By dawn, the water had risen slightly above the muddy floor the party was sleeping on, and those near its edges were soaked. Sahlman woke to see Galgewe return from feeding the horses. “M'lord,” he said when he saw Sahlman's open eyes, “the wounded horse is dead.”
The rain rose and fell in strength for the rest of the day, but all the group could do was stand in the ever-deepening mud and watch. Beside the log, half a foot of rain-water floated on several inches of mud, and there was no way anyone could travel far through that, at least not while the rain was still pounding on their heads and blocking their vision. They could only hope the rain would stop soon, and that, when it stopped, there would still be a path to follow to Maelbourg.
It was not until evening that the rain lessened significantly in strength, and it was sunset before it stopped. They slept on top of the log that night, as it was much drier there. Ziedon and Kay, once each during the night, fell off into the mud below and had to climb back up.
The morning was warm, and the party was able to travel again before the day was over. Three of the five horses were hearty enough to survive the flood; Balban had lent some fine animals. The horses walked unmounted for the rest of the day. Early in the evening, they came upon a wide river. Fortunately, an ancient bridge crossed over it. Perhaps the path had once been a road, but had been overgrown through years of neglect. The bridge, however, remained intact and strong enough to hold up against the weight of horses' hooves. In any case, everyone was thankful that they would not have to ford the river. Ardith sighed when she looked at her map. They left Grenzig eight days before, but they were not halfway to their destination.
For the rest of the journey, each day was more pleasant than the next. Leaves, loosened by the recent storm, came down in thick showers to complement a strong pine smell in the air. The ground dried up quickly, and was wet again only by short drizzles.
Thirteen days after they left Grenzig, the group arrived at the walls of Maelbourg. With a scoff at the tattered, muddy clothing on the adventurers before them, the guards at the gate admitted the group.
The group of adventurers received innumerable strange looks. Five dirty travelers leading horses was not a common sight. Many had their eyes on Kay's bow, which she carried in plain sight. They also noticed the various other weapons that would not fit in the adventurers' packs. Others looked at the unusual clothing that Ziedon and Sahlman wore and wondered what they could mean.
Maelbourg was bigger than Grenzig. It was not a market day, but people still roamed the streets in large numbers. A peddler or two worked on the side of the roads, and several shops were open. There was a relatively large number of horses on the streets, carrying townsmen or the baggage of travelers. There was more sign of human habitation in Maelbourg than any of the adventurers but Sahlman had seen in one place. From the small shacks of artisans to the elegant mansions of townsmen, houses lined every street. In the center of the town, on a hill, was a House of Morenth*, surrounded with bath houses and Purification Rooms*.
As many houses as there were, there seemed to be twice as many dirty beggars wandering about. There were actually very few of them, but they made themselves seen. By night, they would likely be joined by thieves and prostitutes. Fortunately, there were several inns and taverns in the town where adventurers, with their weighty pouches, could easily find a place to stay.
There were, however, several hours until sunset. The primary problem facing the group was where to start looking for Townsman Ulan. As Balban had said two weeks before, Ulan was a suspicious man, and would have made himself hard to find.
House of Morenth: Morenth is the town's local religion. Morenth is pretty much neutral toward Andritha. They probably won't hunt you down, but it may not be worth the effort to ask them for special treatment either.
Purification Rooms: Morenth requires its adherents to undergo several hours of ritual purification before they can enter the House.
I just noticed that I changed the spelling of Uhlan to Ulan. The second one is the correct spelling.
Ardith: Your fall holiday is in three days, on 9/1, the middle of fall. Also, if you wanted to do something before reaching Maelbourg, you missed your chance. I had to get the turn out. Sorry.
All: I hope you enjoyed the turn. This was by far the longest that's come out. I purposefully left your options in Maelbourg ambiguous, because almost anything can happen in such a large town. I expect this turn will be put together from many small segments, so please respond as soon as possible. Feel free to ask me any questions about Maelbourg. If you intend to write up a long response based on the success of an action, you may want to tell me the action first, because the options were so vague.
Standing Orders: 1) Feel free to ask me about anything your character knows. If I can't answer, you might be able to make up a bit of the history of my world yourself in order to answer the question. 2) A copy of all public ZIOTH-related messages that you use the internet to send should be posted on Fidonet. A copy of all private ZIOTH-related messages you send to each other should be sent to me so that I know what's going on.
Kay: 6/6 Ziedon: 4/4
Since this turn is so long, experience awards are larger than usual.