In his hurry to get as far away from Osander River Village as possible, Kreemon rode in the lead, and enforced a rapid pace, riding long into the night until the others convinced him that both they and the horses would collapse.
The next day, the party was passed by two trader wagons going in the opposite direction, one in the early morning and another a couple hours later. The latter was led by a knight in full armor. Both were wary when they saw the band of four well-armed travelers, but when they realized the group was friendly, they hurried on, avoiding chatter.
By the third day, the land had become more populous. They were entering the most fertile regions of the barony, those around Andan Huerten Lake, or Horn's End as it was called outside the barony. The hornblow river emptied into the lake, and, since it was a relatively straight river with few tributaries, it deposited all of its accumulated minerals into that one place. From there, the enriched water was directed through innumerable irrigation channels to scores of farm communities which fed villagers, foreign traders and the ten thousand residents of the city of Huerten.
Forest rapidly gave way to cultivated farmland as afternoon progressed toward evening. The road passed through some villages, and others could be reached by way of dirt paths flattened by horse hooves. Occasionally a manor-house or a small castle could be seen far from the road, where one or another of the king's or baron's knights lived and ruled his small plot.
The party spent the third night in a village inn, which, fortunately, was far more ordinary than the one in Osander River Village.
Early on the fourth day of travel, the seventeenth day of Farinon, another party could be seen in the distance. The glint of sunlight soon identified them as a group of four knights in armor and their squires.
Kreemon muttered, “This should be interesting.”
Korisca looked at Kreemon, glanced over at Ardith and Kay, then looked back at the approaching party. She stuck the tip of her thumb in her mouth and gnawed on its nail.
The knights continued to approach, and stopped ten yards from the party, arrayed in a diamond formation. Each knight and his squire stopped at one of the diamond's corners, and after a moment, the lead knight took a few steps forward.
“Good sir,” the knight said to Kreemon, “we are patrolling these roads for a party of four – a man robed in white and a man robed in black, a woman soldier and a priestess of Andritha. Have you seen them?”
Kreemon responded with a tug on a forelock. “I think I saw some people matching that description in Maelbourg when I passed through there. I haven't seen those four since. If I might ask good knight, what have these four done that warrants such a heavy patrol?”
Ardith kept her mouth shut and signaled to Kay to do the same. She barely suppressed a grin at Kreemon's easy misdirection.
“Baronial business is not for the public ear. Suffice it to say they are traitors, and we are to escort them to the Baron.”
Kreemon bobbed his head down in deference to the knight's words and replied, “Of course Sir Knight, I did not mean to pry.” Kreemon then asked tentatively, “Are these traitors considered dangerous? I mean, should I try to capture them if I come across them?”
“The knights of King Diure and Baron Huerten will capture them when first they are seen. Your help is not needed.”
Kreemon knuckled his forehead. “Most excellent good Knight, we will be able to travel the roads with the knowledge that we are safe and secure. Are there more patrols out, so if we see these traitors we can report them, or are you fine knights the only patrol?”
“There are three other patrols, if the Baron has not sent more.”
Kreemon knuckled his forehead again and moved his horse off of the road to allow the knights to pass. “With such vigilant knights, I am sure these traitors will be quickly caught. Please don't allow us to detain you from your duty.”
The knight nodded and their party moved on.
As the knights rode off out of ear shot, Kreemon said, “Well then. That is interesting. Now why would the Baron be looking for you all?”
Ardith finally allowed herself to chuckle. “Kreemon,” she said, “that was quite a performance. It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud. But, seriously, I have no idea why the Baron would send out his men to apprehend us. I didn't think he even knew we were coming! We must be careful, now. Let us proceed to Huerten, find an inn and see if we can overhear some conversations or question someone about this turn of events. What do you think?”
“Maybe the Baron has heard about how you assisted in the overthrow of a local government and is worried that you are coming for him next.”
“Mmm, possibly,” Ardith mused. “But, I still think if we can get into Huerten without being recognized, we can possibly find out what's going on.”
“Or we will be walking straight into the Baron's arms and guards.”
“But,” Ardith said, “they are looking for 'a party of four – a man robed in white and a man robed in black, a woman soldier and a priestess of Andritha.' We are no longer a party of four, and if we hide our identities, we can most likely slip into Huerten without being recognized.”
Kreemon shrugged. “I guess we will see. Let's get moving then.”
The remainder of the day passed uneventfully. As the group approached the city of Huerten, the population became more and more dense. Soon there was no forest at all – just miles upon miles of farmland and orchards, punctuated by villages and the occasional castle or manor of a knight or baronet. At this distance, some villages were large enough to have their own small markets, and it was in one of these that the group spent the night.
In the early afternoon of the eighteenth, Ardith, Kay, Kreemon, and Korisca arrived at the gates of Huerten. The city walls were high, about twenty-five feet, and innumerable guard towers were spaced about. There were four gates, to the south, south-west, north-west and north- east, and Andan Huerten, a lake whose dimensions put the Black Lake to shame, formed most of the south-east wall. The slight fog made it impossible to see all the way across the lake, though innumerable fishing and trading craft were visible even through the fog. One enormous ship was docked in the distance. Its flags were lowered, so it was impossible to tell whose it was.
Even from outside the south-west gate, the city looked large – larger than its population of ten thousand would require.
The group approached the gates slowly to see what awaited them. A man and wife led their wagon past them to the gate, and, although there was no toll as there was in Dunweig, the guards asked for their names, their origins and their business in the town.
Ardith gestured for the group to move away from the gates for a moment, and whispered.
“I believe it were best we enter the town separately, or perhaps two at a time. That we use false names (although I hate lying and that Andritha considers it a sin, but in the case of self-preservation, or prevention of unnecessary violence, excusable) and give our destination as the Inn of the First Knight. Remember Johannes said he would meet us there? It is the only inn I know here. If they ask our business, we are merchants looking to increase our commerce with merchants of Huerten. As merchants, it would be best not to be too well armed… Oh, wait. Kreemon, if you are a merchant, then you probably would have hired a bodyguard! Kay, you could be that bodyguard! Then I, using a different name, could remain a priestess – or perhaps better, an acolyte of Andritha, and Korisca could be a recent convert, come to the Temple at Huerten to take vows. We could enter the city separately, and actually go to the First Knight (I know of no other, after all) and, having seen some of the city with our own eyes, plan further from there.
“If we adopt this plan, we must be careful, at the inn, not to seem to recognize one another, but rather to be forced to share a table.
“Is this plan agreeable?”
Kay responded, “I do not like leaving you unguarded, my Priestess, my friend. Kreemon can take care of himself. Let him go into the city as a merchant, as you said, but let us three women enter as a party… as you suggest, a priestess or acolyte, a new convert, and their bodyguard!”
Ardith thought a moment, then said, “Your plan has merit, Kay. The party of religious pilgrims is believable. But it leaves Kreemon without a human at his back. I will leave it to Kreemon to decide which plan we will follow… unless he has one of his own?”
Kreemon shrugged. “Whatever you think best. I don't think such subterfuge is necessary but I will abide by your decisions for now.”
Following Ardith's plan, they entered two by two. First Gudrun, a young acolyte of Andritha, entered with Kanthra, a recent convert. They were asked where they came from, and Gundrun named the village where they'd slept two nights before, just as Kanthra opened her mouth to say “Critzig.”
“I'm surprised you'd come here,” one of the guards said to Gudrun. “I've heard they're performing miracles over in Dunweig.”
Then Meernok, a merchant from Elgony, entered with Clarisse, his bodyguard. Although the guards found it strange that a man who held himself as a fighter, and who was so well-armed, would hire a woman as a bodyguard, they let him pass without too much trouble. After all, Clarisse was young and pretty, and merchants had been known to travel with such “bodyguards” before.
Meernok furthered their disguises by giving the guards a wink when he introduced Clarisse as his bodyguard, and cemented the ruse as he patted Clarisse on the bottom. “Let's go, we'll have an inn bed tonight,” he said as the two entered the walled city.
Once in the city and out of sight of the guards, Kreemon smiled. “Sorry about that, but a little pat is better than a jail cell.”
“Clarisse” grinned and answered, “Was avoiding jail the only reason?”
Kreemon replied with a wink, “Maybe not the only reason, but the offer of an inn bed is always open.” Kreemon turned solemn for a second. “Unless you don't like men, I've seen that you and Ardith seem very _close_.”
“Oh, yes,” Kay said with a wide grin, “we have become close. Ardith is my friend and my… religious advisor, but we are not 'close' in the way you imply, sir. I like men in general, and some in particular, if you catch my drift, 'Meernok.'”
Although Huerten was large for its population, that did not make it look any less crowded. Trader's booths lined the main streets, even spilling into a few of the residential areas. Shops had their doors closed against the chill afternoon, but it hardly seemed worth the effort, since they were constantly swinging open and closed as customers and traders went in and out, and it was not even evening, when the town would be at its busiest. The streets were full of people; walkers, runners, cart-pushers and horse-leaders, wagons, coaches and trains of servants. A goodly number of knights in and out of armor rode on well-groomed horses, with their ladies before them or behind them, and numerous small patrols of guardsmen kept watchful eyes out for trouble. In sum, Huerten exhibited all the sights, sounds and smells of a market day, even though it was the middle of the week.
The size of the town was not an indication of sparseness. There were gardens and areas of undeveloped land here and there, but mainly, the town was packed full of businesses and public buildings. An almost absurd number of inns, taverns and lodges were set up for the benefit of traders, many of which were named after (and, most likely, run by), some knight or other. Others had more generic names, like “Second Inn” or “Bull Tavern.”
There were also a lot of temples. Two large temples sat in the center of town, to Andritha the Mother and Andritha the Fighter, but there were also dozens of smaller temples, some little more than private homes converted by the affixation of a symbol of Andritha above the doorpost. Were it not for the Signs, it would have been difficult to tell that these were temples at all.
It took quite some time to find the First Knight. Both pairs got lost once or twice based on incomplete directions, and many people they asked had not heard of the inn. Finally, someone responded with “Oh, you mean 'Sir Jerenil!',” and directed them to the right place. When Ardith and Korisca arrived at the inn, Kreemon and Kay were already there, and had been waiting for half an hour.
When the door swung closed behind them, Ardith and Korisca were struck suddenly by silence. They'd gotten used to the noise of Huerten, and even such a large inn, at three o'clock, was not well attended. A tall man in his fifties with broad shoulders tended the bar, and nearby, standing on display, was a well-polished suit of plate armor, which wore an elaborately-hilted sword at its waist, and a shield strapped to its wrist, emblazoned with the form of a snake twisted around the perimeter of an ellipse.
The common room was spacious, and was full of empty tables, including two long rectangular tables and a large number of round ones for smaller groups. Only four of them were currently occupied, including one of the long tables, which had a single man sitting at its end. The middle of the common room devoid of furniture, possibly for use as a dancing space, and a raised platform took up most of one side of the room.
Kreemon motioned for the others to join him and asked, “So, now that we are here, what do we do now?”
Ardith sat down and whispered her reply. “Sit back, listen to the conversations around us. See if anyone is speaking about the search for the 'group of adventurers' the soldiers on the road were looking for, and why.
“We are honor bound to deliver our message to 'His Nibs,' but we need be cautious lest we be arrested. We need to know why the Baron sent soldiers out to find us…
“Suppose the Baron has deemed us persona non grata, as has been suggested, because he heard of our involvement in the affair with Ulan. And if he would have us arrested and thrown into a dungeon at sight? No, no. That would not do. So, I think we must, so to speak, take the pulse of what has been the Baron's thoughts; and in my experience, conversations in a public house tend to reflect the conversation of the leadership. So let us lean back, enjoy the hospitality of this adequate inn, and LISTEN. After we have heard what the local gossip is, we can then meet, perhaps in my room, to plan our next step.
“Korisca, have you a way to contact the thieves network in this burg? If so, please do so, and find out what we need to know.
“Has anyone another suggestion?”
“What message are we supposed to give?” Kreemon asked. “Is it verbal or written? I ask, because no one is looking for me. I can just drop the message off and not have any problems with getting thrown in jail.” Kreemon paused thoughtfully. “Unless the Baron doesn't like the message, that is…”
Ardith signaled a serving wench for some more ale, then leaned toward Kreemon, speaking very quietly. “It is a scroll. The instructions we were given along with it were to 'explain as well as we can.' None of us got to read the contents of the scroll, so I can't guess what explanations might be required. Balban sent us to see Ulan, and gave us a scroll for Ulan and this scroll for the Baron, and warned us that Huerton might have troops or cavalry out to intercept strangers. So, when the Knights met us on the road, I became suspicious… Balban also sent along with us an emissary named Galgewe, whose actions were sometimes… strange. I do not know whether to trust the intentions of any of the parties involved here. But, we have made a promise to deliver this scroll, and 'explanations as may be required.'”
The barmaid returned with fresh mugs of excellent ale. Ardith leaned back while she served, then tossed her a copper.
“Thank'ee,” she said to the girl.
When the serving girl was out of earshot, Ardith continued. “I think a better plan is for me to go see Huerton.”
“No!” Kay interjected. “Too dangerous!”
“Calm, my friend. Think. You could be my guards – hidden, disguised – whatever is needed. To make this work, we would need to find out how the Baron holds court… I'm not making myself a sacrificial animal, Kay,” Ardith responded to Kay's dark look. “Only, if it will be necessary to give 'explanations,' then one of us who was there needs to be the messenger. I deem that should be me. I'm not looking to be tossed in prison, or to be cut down – in fact, Kay, would you teach me swordplay? You are so good at it.”
“Ardith, it would be pleasure to teach you, you who have been my teacher in – how can I say, another way to be? Another – can I say it? – another place to come from?”
Kreemon looked at the two, from one to the other for a second, before returning to his drink.
Ardith smiled. “Kay my great friend, thank you. I am only glad that you have found the Way of Andritha. And I deem that Andritha smiles upon your choice.”
Ardith took a long pull on her ale, then continued. “So, what do you think of my plan? Er, given we don't know enough yet about the logistics of the Baron's court?”
Ardith and Kay both leaned back and enjoyed their ales, but Kay gave Kreemon a wink. Ardith had a faraway look in her eyes
Kreemon said, “It seems silly to take such risks. Give me the scroll. I'll take it to the Baron and state that it was given to me to deliver. I stand a better chance of getting in and out without as much hassle.”
Kay nodded her agreement. Clearly to everyone (except perhaps to Kay herself), she wanted only to protect her friend.
After thinking a moment, Kreemon added, “Your descriptions have already been passed. I wouldn't doubt it if the Baron had sketchings of you. He certainly will be harder to fool than some wandering knight patrol. Why take the risk when we don't have to?”
Kay nodded again, and whispered, “I agree. Surely the Baron's guards will have your description, if not, as Kreemon has suggested, a sketch!”
Kreemon said, “I think Balban is the one that let the Baron know about the group. That is why the Baron has patrols out looking for the original four members. May I see the scroll please?”
Ardith hesitated, then said, “It is sealed. I don't think it wise to break the seal. If you promise not to do that…” She drew the scroll and exhibited it, holding it such a way that it could not be seen by others in the inn.
Kreemon took the scroll and said, “The quicker we take care of this, the quicker we can get out of here.” He slipped the scroll into his belongings and rose. “I'm going to listen to the local gossip on the way to the Baron. I doubt if it will be easy to get to see him but who knows, maybe I will get lucky.”
Kreemon motioned for his wolf-hound to follow him and left the inn.
Now everyone's waiting for me. I need to respond with what Ardith and Kay hear in the inn, what Korisca does, and the events that occur to Kreemon.
Due to Real Life, Jesse has dropped out of the game this turn. Korisca has been demoted to NPC (for the third time!) I'm not sure yet whether I'll be recruiting another player.
This turn, we converted to D&D 3.5E. Here is the new progression, which will slowly migrate your characters to 3.5E experience. Once you're on 3.5E progression, you need (current level)*1000 experience to go to the next level. Ardith and Johannes are already on 3.5E. Korisca: 3=2600, 4=5800, 5=10000
Sahlman: 4=7500, 5=11000, 6=15000 Kreemon: 3=4500, 4=7000, 5=10500, 6=15000
Ziedon: 4=8000, 5=11500, 6=16000, 7=22000, 8=28000
Your Bill, Sir: 1at each, for nights in two villages.