'Good,' Ardith thought as Ulan signalled his men. She had no desire for an armed conflict, or any other type for that matter.
Ardith's plan was to use Ulan's plight to gain information – information she desperately wished to have – about Balban and his motives, how Ulan became Balban's agent in Maelbourg, and what he, Ulan, had promised Balban.
Above all, what were Balban's objectives? Did he plan to create for himself a barony – or perhaps even a county? Maybe even depose the King? Or was he, as he purported, really trying to organize the chaotic state of the towns in this region?
Although she enjoyed her role as adventuress, Ardith still was a priestess, and was concerned primarily that she work for the right side. She vowed that she would pray for guidance. Yes, the power of prayer was mostly in self hypnosis and self examination, but then amazing things had come of prayer in her own life as well as the lives of the Saints of Andritha.
Meanwhile, to the task of befriending Ulan, and gleaning what data she could.
'A townsman,' thought Korisca. What could he want? Korisca had committed more than one crime in Maelbourg. Had he found out? What had she done that would warrant the town sending a townsman? He was probably there for other reasons, but one didn't live to twenty-three years without being careful. Without anyone noticing, Korisca crept backwards until she was no more than a foot from a thick bush. If she had to, she could jump the bush and run before anyone knew what was happening.
The soldiers tied up one of the horses and let the others graze around it. Then, they watched Ulan. The townsman twitched slightly when Ardith took his arm, but otherwise did nothing. The soldiers interpreted his actions as best they knew to, and placed their swords under a bush, covering them with leaves to keep the shiny metal hidden. Defenseless to all outward appearences, the soldiers followed far behind Ulan, watching both him and the group of adventurers.
Ziedon smiled in self-congratulations when he finished working on the spell. He then leaned over his book a second time and studied the spell again. 'The final test will be the casting,' he thought.
“Away from Balban, Galgewe has immense power. With Balban, the man is little more than a well-liked servant. The servant carries with him the strength of his master. That is why I need you to go back to Grenzig. For Balban to have sent you here with an important message, he must trust you and value you as allies.”
“It may be so, Townsman,” Ardith replied. “We assisted him in Grenzig. One of our company, not me, probably saved his life!”
Sahlman remained back a little way while Ardith and Ulan walked. When they reached the encampment, Sahlman positioned himself inconspicuously by a thicket and squatted down, remaining watchful of Ulan, his 'unarmed' guardsmen, and the surrounding area. Without looking, the gnarled man removed a strip of cured meat from his supplies. His eyes never even blinked as he slowly, deliberately used his teeth to tear off a salty morsel.
As he surveyed the scene, his gut feeling about it became worse and worse. Where was Ziedon, anyway?
“Please make yourself comfortable,” Ardith said, seating herself on a rock. “Will you join us in our breakfast?” Ardith offered Ulan a piece of bread, with promise of better food if he accepted. In Ardith's background, breaking bread was a sign of trust and truce.
For a few moments, Ulan seemed not to know what to do, but he then accepted the bread, nodded his head, and took a bite.
“As for your request that we bring your message back to Balban in Grenzig, I fear that is a problem, for we have another mission to accomplish, and we must rejoin ourselves with a friend. Neither of these tasks allow us to return to Grenzig for some time; perhaps as long as several weeks. Surely you could dispatch a courier to Grenzig with a letter, under seal, of course, and write Balban of your request.
“Balban spoke well of you. He referred to you as… as… let me see if I remember his exact words… yes, he said, 'He has been a close ally of mine for several years.' Surely he would honor a request for just a little more time?”
Sahl performed an automatic check on the readiness of his weapons while he chewed. This he did with the same amount of conscious thought that other men might exhibit when adjusting their hats. His vigil was unwarranted thus far, and it was his sincere hope that it would remain so. Still, as he listened to Ardith in action, he could not help smiling around his mouthful of dried beef. The people of the desert were surely cheating themselves of an invaluable resource by repressing their women to such an extent. He was becoming more convinced of that simple fact by the day.
Kay worried about the soldiers hiding their swords for some time before she thought to bring it to Ardith's attention. She walked around behind Ulan, gestured to Ardith and mouthed the words “soldiers hide their swords.”
Ardith, without taking her eyes from Ulan's face, nodded her head almost imperceptibly. She touched her eye as though to remove a mote of dust. Kay nodded back in response and wandered off where she could watch the soldiers.
“Who can say what Balban thinks? We have been allies, but would he take me over his personal representative? What if Galgewe were to request my position? I have always been Balban's connection to Maelbourg, but who is to say he would keep me if he found another, more controllable connection? I think he would be making a grave mistake if he allowed his servant to rule this town, and only word from Balban himself can force Galgewe to stand down.
“Balban trusts you. I could send a courier, and will if I must, but I cannot expect a common messenger to change Balban's mind if he refuses my request. That is why I need you.” The townsman took another bite of his bread.
Ardith motioned to Kay. “Kay, have we brought any eggs? If so, please fry up an egg for each of our company and one also for Ulan, our guest this morning. My stomach cries for some food more hearty than bread, and so, I expect those of our comrades.”
“I do not know, but will check our supplies.” Kay put a finger to her eye as Ardith did, as though to remove a cinder or mote, and tossed her head back as though a question.
Ardith nodded and rubbed her own eyes. “A pestilence on these no-see-ems!” she cried.
“Ulan,” she resumed, urgently. “There remains the question of our commitment to make another rendesvous. We have a commitment senior to your request. We have taken a charge and been paid for it. And our way lies far from Grenzig. If we break our oath to carry out this mission, then we are no more than thieves. How can we honor your request, yet still carry out our mission?'
Ulan closed both eyes and put a hand on his forehead. After a few moments, he looked up at Ardith. “I am lost without you.” He paused and thought. “Once I regain power in Maelbourg, I could pay you for the service…”
“Well,” Ardith said slowly, “perhaps there is a way. We are six in number. We do not need all to make our rendezvous. If one or more of us volunteered to return to Grenzig, with some of your soldiers, perhaps – I would not wish anyone to make the trip alone – and take your message, we might serve both our commitment and your request. I cannot promise anything, but I will ask the members of our company.”
Kreemon answered immediately. “I'd be happy to help in any way I can, but the person you're talking about has never seen me.”
Kay returned from her rummaging in the company's packs. “Ardith, I'm sorry. All the eggs are gone. We do have strips of meat – bacon, I believe it's called – and much bread. Shall I fry up some for you?”
She sidled close to Ardith and whispered, “I will go with you – or anywhere you send me. If you need me to go back to Grenzig, I will go, but I prefer to stay with you. This…” she nodded toward Ulan, ”… this excrement is not worth your concern – unless you know otherwise.”
Ardith first grinned, then sobered at Kay's words. Carefully, she answered aloud, “Yes, fry up some of the meat, and warm some bread. And ask the soldiers what they need. If indeed they _are_ soldiers they will have have brought rations, but they may require water and fire to make their 'mess.'” Ardith laughed. ”'Mess,' indeed. For the eating in a military unit is indeed a mess.
“But, for more serious matters. Kay, I would not have you return to Grenzig. I want you with me as we go to –” Ardith saw how close she was to Ulan and the others, and decided to be evasive. ”– our next objective. Perhaps one of the others will volunteer. If not, too bad for Ulan.”
After seriously considering Ulan's request, Sahl still had misgivings about his conclusion. Unfortunately, is was the best he could come up with on short notice, so it would have to do. “Arditta, Keh,” Sahl beckoned to the women, motioning for them to approach when they looked over at him.
Once the three friends were gathered, Sahlman paused. He looked from one woman to the other, stroking his massive moustaches. Then he spoke, “If Ulan lies, I am not telling so.” The wiry man gave a wry grin, as if what he was about to say was perhaps a little bit humorous. “Bahlben must know of Gahlguu, so two of Ulan's men will go with me to tell him.”
As he rushed the uncomfortable words from his mouth, Sahl braced himself for the objections he felt would be forthcoming.
“Oh, Sahl,” Ardith sighed. “I had not had _you_ in mind to be the one to leave the company. I will miss you sorely, yet, I must admit, you are the natural one to go. You were the one that saved _his_ life; you know him, as Kreemon does not, and he will likely trust you better than any of our company – save possibly me – and even more likely you than me.”
“It is making the most good to me,” explained Sahlman. “I having spent time with Bahlben. My thinking he would trust me. My thinking, also, that you all together can defend if Ulan makes trick, and my being able to defend for two of these.” He waved a casual hand toward the small clump of men-at-arms. “Not to like leaving. Keh, my trusting to you the care of Arditta,” he finished, hoping that the dark magnificence of his handlebars would mask the spreading blush on his face.
“Yet, your going alone, even with Ulan's guards, or perhaps because of them, has me uneasy. Uneasy for you as well as for those of us who will remain. My thoughts are:
“Ulan – I do not trust him, nor his soldiers.
“Kay – I trust her completely.
“Kreemon – he seems fair, though he leaves no lasting impression.
“Korisca – she is street-smart, but can she handle a task outside her city alleys? I know not.
“And Ziedon,” she looked over her shoulder, “our wizard – he seems distracted lately. I would not wish him to be the only one at my back if a fight were to break out.”
Ardith sighed, ate another strip of meat, then leaned back. “Much as I will miss you, I think yours is the best plan we have.
“Go, then. choose among the soldiers two who seem honest. Then hie to Grenzig with all speed. Deliver Ulan's message. If there is a return message, have it written on a scroll, sealed, and returned by the soldiers. Return not to Maelbourg. Join us again at the Baron's holding as soon as you can.”
Ulan thanked Sahlman profusely for agreeing to help him, and was more than happy to offer two of his soldiers. His mind still mostly occupied with all of the ramifications of what he was about to do, Sahlman gave a preoccupied nod to Ulan, then headed for a certain bush. From beneath it he retrieved the swords belonging to the men from Maelbourg. The beduoin moved rapidly to the small cluster of soldiers and let the weapons fall to the earth with much clanging and rattling. The blades were quickly collected by their respective owners, who then peered expectantly up at the odd-looking man. One of the men appeared to be angered by Sahl's actions.
“You,” Sahl pointed directly at the man with the piqued flush in his face, “and you.” The second man selected was quite the largest and fiercest-looking of the four. If they did have treachery in mind for the group, Sahl planned to do his best to ensure that the difficult ones were away from Ardith. And Kay, Ziedon, Korisca, and Kreemon, of course. Since he felt that his friends could handle themselves in the event of mishap, Sahl considered the soldiers and Ulan to be most likely source of problems.
Confident that Ulan's men would do as told, at least for the moment, Sahl proceeded to his mount. Just as he was about to vault into the saddle, Ardith ran up to him and kissed him goodbye.
“I know not of your gods, Sahl,” she said, “but may they protect you. I will pray for the protection of Mother Andritha for you, and pray her to ask her consort, Hartung, to grant you speed, so that you may return to us soon. As they say in the village where I grew up, 'Go, and come back again.'”
Sahl's face reddened, and he allowed himself a light smile at Ardith's affection. Hastily brushing her cheek with the back of his hand, Sahl whispered, “Aye. Come back again.” He then took his leave of the company, and headed down the road back to Grenzig. The pair of soldiers raced along behind.
Ziedon finished at last. The mild pain in his leg, and frequent thoughts about its origin, had slowed down the memorization many times over his usual pace, but now he was done.
Ziedon carefully and quietly closed his book, and replaced it in his backpack. He then stepped out of the bushes, with the intention of returning to the group.
The noise of hoofbeats startled him, but he realized they were coming from the camp. It sounded like two or three horses, which meant that either Ulan or Ardith was leaving in a hurry. Much quieter, another set of hoofbeats could be heard in the distance. Whoever they carried, Ziedon would be the first to see them. Returning to the camp now would be dangerous and useless.
Ziedon went back into the trees.
“Damn him!” shouted Ulan, jumping up from his rock. The whole of both parties could hear the oncoming horses now. The remaining soldiers lifted and sheathed their swords from where Sahlman had left them, and ran to the their mounts. One was ready to help the townsman onto his own. “Do not tell him I was here!” Ulan yelled, as he rode off in the wrong direction, away from Maelbourg.
Sahlman's horse reared at the approaching party. Five of them were there, all in the uniform of soldiers of Maelbourg. The two soldiers with Sahl raised their hands in greetings, and were the first to be addressed when the new group was close enough. “Where is Townsman Ulan?”
All: Before I make any turn-related comments, I'd like to thank Darrell Bowman for taking over Kreemon. Darrell, you are officially in the game as of now, so feel free to respond to this turn. If you haven't read the World and Rules supplements and the Kreemon-related turns yet, please do so soon. I hope to see you around for many turns to come. :)
I should also note to any non-Zioth players (the players already know) that Julian (playing Korisca) dropped out of the game without responding to this turn. Julian, may you have many more games in your life, and may the hair on your toes never fall out. :) Pending the requests of a player or two who already expressed possible interest, Korisca is available for the taking. My waitlist is currently empty, so it's going to be best-come, best-served. :)
As far as responses go, I think the options are pretty clear. Sahlman is with the new arrivals, and everyone else (including Ziedon) sees them. By the time anyone can figure out what's going on, Ulan is out of shouting range, especially with all the hoof-beats to confuse any noise any of you might make.
Ziedon: Sahlman left the camp on a path that did not come near you. You can decide whether Ziedon sees Sahl now that the newcomers are here, and you can decide whether he sees the newcomers at all, or he'd rather just sit and hide for a while longer.