Before dawn, the pair packed up, ate a brief breakfast and were on their way. The sky was clear and the weather was warming up, and a pleasant breeze blew between the trees. Shortly after noon, Sahlman spotted the Black Lake in the distance. Hebabelt explained that its name came from its dark sands and thick under-water growth, and that it was known to catch foreigners and even the occasional local by surprise in the night. More than one person had fallen into the water before noticing it was there, although on a clear, sunny day such as this, Sahlman had difficulty seeing how anyone could make such a mistake.
A wide river wound in front of the town, and a single bridge crossed it. The near side was the post of two lightly armed guards, one of whom was sitting on the ground and resting until he saw the two men approach. The other guard said, “One aglar to a head, three for a horse.”
Sahl paid the guard for one horse and rider. “This is for me. I will see if my friend will cross bridge.” Turning away from the guard, Sahlman unhooked Hebabelt's weapons from his own saddle, and looped them over Hebabelt's saddle. “I keep my word. You are free now. You are good boy. Stay out of trouble. If you want to enter town, then you must pay guards.”
Hebabelt looked surprised. “You're a fairer man than I was led to believe.”
Turning back towards the guards, Sahl crossed the bridge. Hebabelt wordlessly paid the toll, and followed after him.
Although it was only early afternoon, the large gates of Dunweig were closed, and four soldiers stood outside them. Three were well- armed and identically uniformed, and seemed the types who were always itching for combat. The fourth had only a long rapier with a silver hilt, and looked stern, but far calmer than his companions. “Your business?” he asked when Sahlman and Hebabelt approached.
“I am a fighting man”, said Sahl. “Maybe I find work here, maybe guard work, maybe I move on after few days rest. Tell me friend, who you think I could work for here?”
“I see you've heard then. Trying to pick up some of the slack?”
Sahl snorted back a laugh. “I have not heard of any trouble here, but there is always a needing for good fighting men. Tell me, what is the trouble, and who is needing fighting men?”
One of the lower-ranking soldiers looked at his captain. The captain sighed. “No use hiding it; word will get out soon enough. There've been seven murders in the past five days. One was a town guard – a friend of mine – and just yesterday, the best saddle-master in town was murdered in his own shop.”
“Some sorcery,” mumbled the soldier who had looked up.
“People are talking. You'll find that a great many of them believe there's some kind of evil magic about. All that kind of talk does is add to the panic. This may not be the best time to look for a job in Dunweig.”
Hebabelt looked nervous, but said nothing.
Sahl smiled a small smile. “Danger is good. My wages go higher. And evil sorcerers can die by steel or fire.”
“I can't guarantee you'll be allowed to leave Dunweig either, with the town being locked down and all. But if you're so insistent on working here, you can stop by the Constable's office, or keep an eye out for one of the townsmen who are recruiting private bodyguards. You'd best leave your weapons at the gatehouse inside; there's no end to the harm paranoia can do.” He signaled to the other guards. One pulled on the end of a long rope which fed through an arrow-slit high up on the wall. Shortly, the door was opened from the inside.
Sahl thanked the officer and passed through to the gatehouse. On the way, Hebabelt removed his quiver to one of his saddle-bags, discreetly slipping the vials of what he thought was poison out of the secret compartment and into his own pocket. At the gatehouse, both men surrendered their swords and bows, but Sahl kept his ghurka sheathed by his side. When the gatekeeper glanced at Sahl's ghurka, he explained that he could hardly do much damage with such a small weapon and that every man was entitled to some means of self defense. The gatekeeper let it pass. Apparently, there was no actual law against carrying weapons in Dunweig, but leaving the weapons may have been a good idea anyway, as one of the first things Sahl noticed when leaving the gatehouse was a guardsman eyeing his ghurka. There were quite a few guards about, almost as many as there had been in Grenzig on the day that Sahl had helped conquer it for Balban, only two months past.
Sahlman asked directions to the largest inn, which, as it happened, was easily visible from the gatehouse. Inside, he bought a drink and talked to the innkeeper. Ranes was a rotund and exceptionally short man, with a mostly bald head of light brown hair. He wore uniformly brown clothing, and over that, a gaudy, multi-colored vest. His eyes gave him away as someone who smiled often, but he was not smiling currently. In fact, he had a ragged look to him that seemed totally unnatural on his friendly, happy face.
Sahl considered how best to get information from Ranes. He desperately wanted information on Ardith, the only one among the adventurer company that he considered his friend, but he did not want to claim close friendship with her until he knew whether or not she was in favor in this town. He chose to use the same story as he had at the gate. It was close enough to the truth in any case. “Hello friend. I am Sahlman, a fighting man who needs to find work. This is Hebabelt, a forester. It looks like plenty trouble in Dunweig. The gate guards said killings and sorcery. But I am not afraid of death or sorcerers, so tell me what has happened?”
“Take a good whiff and you'll know what happened. Smell that? It's spoiled mead. Business hasn't been this bad since… well, it's never been this bad. First the butcher – the only butcher in a town of some thousands – is killed, taking away my primary source of income. Then everyone stops coming because they say it's safer indoors. I say, safety in numbers! Oh, listen to me complaining. There are seven people in this town a lot worse off than me.” He formed a wide smile, giving a far more natural look to his face. “What can I get for you?”
“Ale,” said Sahl, easily. “What seven people?” he continued, in a mildly interested tone.” What are their troubles?”
Ranes laughed, while he filled a mug from a barrel. “Haven't been around much, have you? There have been seven murders in five days. That's a lot for a town of four thousand. That's…. I can't figure out the percentage – never was very good at arithmetic.” he laughed again. “I'm sorry, that's nothing to laugh about, but you have to have some humor at times like these.” Ranes placed the mug in front of Sahlman, letting a few drops of ale splash onto the bar from the impact. “First the butcher, white as bone, people said. Then Rosteral the bathmaster with his chest caved in like no weapon could have done, and his wife and apprentice, all in his own bedroom.” The innkeeper sighed, and wiped his forehead with a dirty rag, which he then used to clean up the drops of spilled ale. “Then two days ago, a gatekeeper, and yesterday, the master saddlemaker and the servant of a townsman going to pick up a saddle.” He dropped the rag, and Sahlman could smell an acrid odor coming from it, more powerful than that of the spoiled mead. “You'll find more shutters closed than open these days, and it's not just because of the snow. Add all that to stories of people going into the Temple with fishing injuries that should have taken weeks to heal, and coming out good as new in a day…. Even if all this stops and fades into memory, it will be years before Dunweig is the same again.”
“Hm…” said Sahl, nursing his ale. “Hm… Why no survivors? They should have run if faced with sorcerer or blood sucking demon. Tell me Ranes, I once worked for woman called Ardith, a priestess of Andritha. She said she was coming to this town. Do you know where I can find her? Maybe she will hire me as guard, or maybe she can bless my weapons to fight evil.”
The innkeeper's face lit up. “You know the priestess? Why, she was a guest in this very inn. Checked out two days ago, in the morning.” He sighed. “In normal times, her presence would have been a boon to business.”
“Then I must find her. She will know what to do. Do you know where she is?”
“I can't be sure, but she and her friends looked like they were ready to leave town.”
Throughout the conversation, Hebabelt stayed close, paying perhaps more attention than he had a right to.
“Bad news”, said Sahl. “I must find her…. Tell me… who was with her? I will need to know so I can follow her.”
“She didn't leave word for you, and I wouldn't break her confidence, even if she weren't a priestess. Why would you go through so much trouble, just to be hired as a bodyguard?”
Sahl motioned to Hebabelt to move out of hearing. “I have something private to speak with this man.” He waited for Hebabelt to withdraw and then spoke to the innkeeper. “Ardith is not my mistress, she is my friend, and she will need my help to fight against the evil. I have no proof of this. You must judge if I am honest. In any case I will find a way to follow her… but if you have some secret to tell, then tell me so that I can find her quickly.”
“I'm sorry, but if she didn't leave word for you, there's nothing I can do.”
Sahl nodded and then moved over to talk to Hebabelt. “Why do you still follow me? You have run from the anger of your old master, now you are free to go anywhere.”
Hebabelt was caught off-guard by the question. After stammering meaninglessly for a second, he answered, “You're looking for work, so I might as well come along. I'll need some way to survive here too.”
Sahl leaned back, and looked Hebabelt over in an appraising fashion. “This is not a simple thing you ask. If you travel with me then there are many things you must know, and things you must agree. Let me tell you what is needed…. First I must trust you. You must swear an oath to be a loyal friend to me, and I take no friends that do evil. Then you must know that I travel with the priestess Ardith and other companions. Many times we travel into danger. Maybe you get rewards for fighting or other work but your share may be small because you are follower, not leader. Even if you agree to this then tell me why I should take you with me? What are your skills? How will you help me?”
Again Hebabelt looked surprised, but it was hard to tell exactly why. Then he came to a conclusion, and smiled. “That all sounds fair. For my share, I'm a skilled archer – the best in Maelbourg if you believe the results of formal competitions – and I've spent a few years as a tracker. Um… I was hired as a pathfinder once…. You won't go hungry or get lost with me around – I know every trick the forest offers….”
Sahl gazed at Hebabelt for a few seconds, as if measuring the worth of his words, then he held his hand out and the two men solemnly shook hands to seal the agreement. They then had a meal at Sahl's expense and Sahl paid for stabling for the horses and a room for the night, for they had traveled several days in the wild with little sleep or rest, and they needed at least one night in a bed to recuperate. After the meal Sahl spoke again to Hebabelt.
“First we must find Ardith, the priestess of Andritha. You go to all city gates, ask guard if she has left in last few days, and which direction. Stay away from trouble. If you meet any danger then run. I will go to temple to ask if they know where Ardith is. We will meet at inn in a few hours. And also, I filled your arrow vials with water. Any questions? Any ideas?”
Hebabelt started when Sahl mentioned the vials full of water, but he said nothing about it. “You said that Ardith traveled with other companions. What if I spot them? Who are they and how would I recognize them?”
Sahl thought back to the last time he had seen Ardith. She had been traveling with Kay, Ziedon, Kreemon and Korisca. Sahl described her and her companions, their physical appearance and equipment. Then he added some items of advice. “Kreemon and Kay are tough, and I think honest. Korisca is too frightened, I do not trust her. Ardith is special… you will see… she can be trusted. Ziedon is clever and learned, but he is dangerous and corrupt. Stay away from him. Avoid talk with him. Never anger him.”
“That's quite a warning,” Hebabelt said with wide eyes. “Why should I fear him? He doesn't sound very threatening from your description.”
Sahl's face hardened. “Then you were not listening,” he said, “but there is more. I do not like to accuse with no proof. But I have seen him do strange things. Once he struck me with his hand and I felt the life leave my body. Once I saw him speak to a man and the man obeyed like he was under a spell. I think he is a sorcerer, but I cannot prove it. But sorcerer or not, take my advice and avoid him.”
Hebabelt smiled distractedly. “I'll keep my eye open. A band of armed travelers with a priestess and a suspected sorcerer can't be too hard to find.” With that he finished his ale and headed out.
Sahl asked the barkeep for directions to the temple, then left the inn and headed for the temple, whistling cheerfully as he walked. The Temple of Andritha the Healer was an enormous, ornate building in the center of the town's crossroads. Steps as wide as the Temple itself were hewn from red and gray stone, and rose six feet off the ground. At the top was a set of double doors carved from oak and embossed with the Sign of Andritha the Healer. Above the doors was another Sign, at least a body-length wide. A priest opened the door and left hastily, nodding absently to Sahl as he passed.
Sahl called to the priest before he could depart. “Wait brother. I have come long way to seek priestess Ardith. Is she in temple? Do you have news of her?”
The priest turned around suddenly, and returned to Sahlman. “You seek the priestess. Are you injured?”
“No, I am her friend, Sahlman. I think maybe I find her at temple? If she is here then tell her Sahlman is here. If she is not here, then let me speak to those in charge at temple.”
“The priestess has left Dunweig on business of her own,” he said in an unemotional monotone, which seemed to be the only sound which he was competent to make. “The Healer is quite busy, but you may direct your questions to myself or one of the other priests.”
“I only want to join her company again. If no one at temple can tell me where she has gone then I will leave.”
“The priestess left through the east gate two days ago. The Healer would know where she went. You can leave word for him with an apprentice.”
“Thanks be to you priest. I must speak with the healer.” Sahl bowed his head courteously and stepped through the temple door. Inside, he saw a skinny looking apprentice. “Boy! Tell the healer that I would like to speak with him. I am friend of the priestess Ardith. I must ask healer where she has gone.”
One look at the intimidating foreigner sent the boy flying out of the room. Several minutes later, a different, older, much less timid apprentice came in and asked for the visitor's name, then left.
After nearly half an hour of waiting in the entrance room (Sahlman had not been invited into the main sanctuary), the second apprentice returned, and gave Sahlman a sheet of parchment. It was a note, signed by Ardith, explaining that she would be leaving Dunweig shortly, and thanking the Healer in a reverent fashion for allowing her to stay at the Temple. When Sahl looked up from the note, the apprentice said, “She left by the eastern gate two days ago, to fulfill an obligation. That is all the Healer knows.”
Sahl smiled at the lad in a friendly fashion. “Please say my thanks to the healer.” He then left the temple and proceeded towards the inn at a brisk pace. When he got there he left instructions that when Hebabelt returned, he should seek Sahl in his room. He then took a meal and asked about a hot bath. The bathhouses, besides being on the other side of town, were currently closed, so Sahlman forwent that luxury. Before sleeping, he took his usual precautions, laying his ghurka close to hand, and balancing a bottle upside down on its neck, touching the door. If the door was opened from the outside, it would cause the bottle to fall and roll noisily.
Sahlman woke several hours later, as the sun was beginning to set. He packed his gear and left the room, heading downstairs to find Hebabelt, but the man had not returned, and Ranes had not received word from him.
Troubled by Hebabelt's absence, Sahl strode swiftly out of the inn, across the cobbled courtyard, and into the stables attached to the inn. Zephyr was still secure in his stall, but Hebabelt's horse was missing.
Sahl entered Zephyr's stall and checked that the horse had plenty of grain and water. He talked softly to the horse for a while, building up the bond of familiarity and trust with the animal. Finally, as the last light left the sky, he walked back into the inn and sought out the innkeeper.
“Ranes,” he said, “tomorrow I will try to find the lady Ardith. Wake me at dawn, and have my horse ready.”
Sahl spent the rest of the evening at a table in the inn, nursing a drink and watching the customers. There were very few of those, though two or three braver types came in after their fishing catch, drank down an ale or two and left. One man started out in the corner with a full dinner of fried fish and vegetables. Each time a new person came in, he picked up his plate and mug and carried them to the newcomer's table, and talked and laughed with him until he left. The man was missing an eyebrow, possibly from some fishing accident. Conversations centered around the most recent murders, of the soldier, the saddle- maker and the servant. Gelib – that, Sahl found out quickly, was the talkative man's name – did what he could to change the subject, moving to fishing stories and such whenever possible. Sahl didn't learn anything new from Gelib's conversations.
During a quiet moment, Sahl asked Ranes, “why does everyone talk with Gelib? Is he some important man?”
The innkeeper smiled. “No, he just talks a lot.”
Sahlman sat back down and continued to listen. The inn was almost clear, though Gelib's plate was still full, when a member of the town guard came in for a drink. Gelib was at his table before he sat down.
The soldier seemed already to know the man. “Did you hear about the murderer?” the soldier asked.
“Maybe. What's the news?”
“We caught him and locked him up. An hour later, he was gone.”
“Wasn't he guarded?”
“Sure. One of our best men stood guard, but he left the room to go to the Temple. Who knows why? When he came back, the prisoner was gone.”
“So you lost your sorcerer?”
“Why says he's a sorcerer? I hear there was nothing special about him, and he didn't try anything – just let himself be taken.”
“Then how did he escape?”
“Andritha only knows. Not through magic, I can tell you that.”
“Relax. I was only joking. There isn't a man who comes in here besides you and me who doesn't think that killer's a magician of some kind.”
“Well now we'll have the town in even more of a panic. Word's spreading, and I know it won't be long before everyone in Dunweig thinks a ball of flame enveloped the prisoner and melted the bars of the cell, or a giant eagle swooped down from the sky, broke through the ceiling and carried him to safety.”
“Those are some pretty creative ideas. I didn't know you had it in you, Klamor.”
“Children's stories. I didn't make them up.”
“I didn't think you could remember that far back.”
The conversation devolved into jokes and banter from there.
Sahl moved over to Gelib and Klamor. “Greetings, he said. I am traveler, much worried about murderer. Can I buy you drink and talk about this murderer?”
Klamor looked nervous, and ready to draw his weapon the moment it became necessary, but Gelib smiled. “I always say, never refuse a free drink. Ranes! This guy's buying. Klamor here will tell you anything you want to know.”
While Ranes filled three mugs and brought them to the table, Sahl asked “What did murderer look like? And how do you know he was murderer?”
Klamor glared at Gelib, but answered anyway. “He was dressed like a townsman ready to go to a party, but he wasn't any townsman we'd seen before.”
“And how do you know he was the murderer?” Gelib asked with a malicious grin. “I'd like to know that too.”
“I think he was seen leaving the saddle-maker's shop and was tracked down from there. I haven't seen him myself.”
Sahl grimaced. “Problems in this town keep getting worse. First one problem, no one can solve it. Then another problem. Then another. Today I sent my companion out for errand. He has still not returned. I thought maybe he was the one arrested maybe by mistake, but he is a forester, not dressed like a rich townsman. I must look for him now. Good day to you.”
With that, Sahl left the table and headed out, get Zephyr from the stables, and headed for the east gate. The guards in the east gatehouse had not seen Hebabelt, and they, in turn, questioned Sahlman about the recent murders, about which he could give no information. They had seen Ardith, however. She'd been traveling with two women and two men, one of whom they called a “king's man.” The party had left on the thirteenth, two days earlier, through this gate, right around the time the gatehouse guard was murdered.
“Did she say her destination?”
“There weren't any witnesses left alive, and the logbook was stolen.”
“Thank you for your words. They bring me hope now I can find my friend Ardith. I am sorry for your loss. These are bad times when murderers can kill even the brave town guard. I go now to gather my weapons from the west gate.”
With that Sahl swing round and went back through town. It had been dark for a couple hours already, so it was far too late to start a journey. Sahl did have time, however, to go to the west gate to ask about Hebabelt. The guards there had seen the tracker leave town, nearly three hours ago.
Sahl grunted in exasperation. He had no idea why Hebabelt should depart on his own initiative, but he didn't have time to pursue and question the forester. Instead he spoke to the town guard. “Friend, tomorrow I leave town through east gate. Let me have my weapons now so I don't have to return here tomorrow. I swear I will keep weapons covered in blanket in town and not wear them.”
“It'll be a sorry day when a man can't protect himself in Dunweig. I hear there are towns and cities in the north where, emergency or not, you can't carry a weapon of any kind in any way. Here, I'll fetch them for you.”
Your bill, sir 28ag: toll, meal+rooms for two, dinner, bath, stabling, drinks
After this turn, we switch to 3.5E. Sahl's new level progression is:
Level 3: 7500
Level 4: 11000
Level 5+: 3.5E-experience