Jereld walked quickly as he spoke, and Daluar followed, bewildered and trying to keep up with the tornado of words flying from the Captain's mouth. “I usually like to meet new recruits in a more relaxed setting, but with half the taverns knocked to the ground, here will have to do. I prefer a relaxed setting, because I run a relaxed company. I don't mean the work isn't back-breaking hard, and I certainly don't mean there's any lack of discipline when on the job. What I mean is, I don't go around shouting orders and then walking away. The Baron's Guard is nothing without its men, and these are some of the finest men you'll find anywhere. When they have an opinion, I listen. When they don't like a plan, we work out a better plan. That's all there is to it. We're allies, fighting as a team. And I don't make any effort to keep aloof, like captains are expected to. If my men can't respect me as a person, what's to make them respect me as their captain? I've dug more than one of them out of a hole that had nothing to do with work, and they've done the same for me.”
The Captain picked up a piece of rubble left over from the earthquake, aimed with one eye closed, and threw. The rock flew arced high and landed with a tiny sound on the top of the castle wall. “Like I said, you've earned my men's respect. And that's no easy task for a Terradian. I trust my men, Salangin.” He suddenly started walking again, at a pace that was hard for Daluar to match even though he was two inches taller than the Captain. “I trust my men, so you have my respect, right off the bat. Not a bad thing to have, or an easy thing to get. Just ask around. I heard about the trails you made during the fog. Fine idea. Do you have experience as a tracker?”
They were in the jousting field now, behind the castle. It was empty except for a broken shield lying on the ground, and a thin coat of snow that crunched under their feet. “Now these knights… We're an elite group, Salangin, but they have birth over us. Some of them are the Baron's family, some are the great-grandchildren of old defenders of the barony, people who no doubt spent a lot of their time killing your Terradian ancestors. A lot of them, or their parents, were sent by the King. What I'm saying is that we don't touch them. We can't touch them. Now you show deference to a knight, but don't let him order you around. They have their high birth, but at the core the knights are a bunch of tavern keepers. Most of them don't have a lick of experience. They tell you what to do when you're on the job, you just nod, agree with them, and then go off and do what you were going to do before you saw them. Most of them won't remember you. If they do, they'll have to take it up with me and the Baron.”
“Now I don't accept unwilling recruits. My men want to do what they do, or else they go to some other division. They like the danger. They like the responsibility. Maybe some of them just like me. Whatever. But all of them are here by choice. I know, the Baron said you're in, and what he says goes, right? Wrong. He trusts me to choose my own men in my own way. So are you in or not? If you're in, we'll start talking about your skills, and where you can best be put to work. The Baron had some pretty good suggestions of his own. Well? Speak up. Are you in?” Finally, Jereld stopped talking.
Daluar eyed the captain for a long moment, to see whether he was really done. At length Daluar nodded once and took a deep breath.
“It is said Su-lan-guan, sir,” he began slowly, enunciating his name for the captain. “I am … not sure. I have not stayed here much time, but already have friends like Sahlman, Ardith, and Kay. I have promised them to help them investigate the Zioth. But,” Daluar made a short, emphatic chopping motion with one hand, “maybe that is a fight you want to fight. Maybe I can help you and help them also. And yes, I have military experience, am good tracker and am decent….” Daluar faltered. He glowered down at the thin covering of snow, searching for the right word, but the snow had no answer. “I have a hawk,” he explained, holding up his arm as though Vanatra were perched on it.
“You're a hawker. Can't go wrong with that. And don't call me sir. You're not from around here, so I'll tell you – sir is for the knights, maybe the Baron too, but you call me Captain, or just Jereld if you like. I'm not above first names off-duty.
“Hawker, tracker and soldier. I can't say I'm disappointed – or surprised. And this Zioth idea of yours. I think it's all hogwash myself, but don't let that stop you.” Daluar looked a little lost here, and would have asked what clean pigs had to do with anything, but since Jereld just kept on talking, he let it go. “The Baron thinks it's worth something, and that's what matters more than what some poor shmoe like me thinks. Some of his ideas might be just what you're looking for. I can see that you and Sahlman work well together, and I'd like to see more of that, not less. Even if he is a knight now, I know a good man when I see one, and I want to keep good men together.
“Your first duty will be to me, Su-lan-guan. That right? Sulanguan?” Daluar nodded once, mildly surprised and amused that Jereld would pause even long enough for him to get that in. “That doesn't mean we're going to sleep together. It means we're not like the rest of the guard. You won't be patrolling the walls, or standing outside the door of some random guild master all day. We spend time on solid projects. Sometimes one of us goes weeks outside the city. And if my guess is right, you'll be spending more time with your buddy Sahlman than you ever have before.
“Hey, no need to decide now. Sleep on it. I'll give you until tomorrow morning to make up your mind. After that, I have better things to do than wait around.”
“Thank you, si– Captain,” Daluar replied. “I will tell you before that.” Daluar went off in search of Sahlman to talk to him about what Jereld had said.
“You'd better be careful, Sahl,” Redbelve said. “A lot of these knights aren't afraid to cross the Baron. They know they're untouchable. And until Benet leaves town, be doubly careful. The Baron wants to make you a knight-captain, you know. He's hoping the less experienced knights will follow you and me. I can't guess where he'd get that idea. Forget your lack of a birthright, your foreign appearance and your accent; you're not even Andrithan.”
“You are correct Redbelve. No matter what I achieve, I'll always be a foreigner. I may become popular with some knights and soldiers but I can never be Rouche enough for some people. This is where you could be very useful if you are willing to become my lieutenant. You have an easy way about you my friend, and I see that the younger knights follow your lead. With your popularity, and my head, we could be a strong team.”
Redbelve rolled his eyes. “My popularity and your head. If I wasn't your friend, I'd take that as an insult. But hey. I know the Baron wants you to outrank me eventually, and I don't want this job. Anything I can do to help, I'll do.”
“There is also one more thing that I can do,” Sahlman said. “I already wear the clothes and bear the weapons of a Rouche knight, but I can also become an Andrithan. By nature I am not a strongly religious man, but the faith of Andritha seems close to my own ideas of right and wrong, so I am willing to accept her faith.”
Sahl turned to his right. “Ardith, what do you say? Will the goddess accept an old sinner like me to her worship?”
“Of course, Sahl,” Ardith said. “Our Mother Andritha accepts everyone who petitions her. And you're not as much of a sinner as you think. You're a good man; that's the most important thing.”
“Then I am ready to become an Andrithan. Now that I have decided, I do not want to delay. I would consider it an honor if you could perform the holy rites of conversion for me.”
Ardith took Sahl to the temple. With the reverence in which Ardith was held, the ceremony was begun immediately. Within half an hour, Sahlman was an Andrithan. He walked out with a tiny copper coin, on which the symbol of Andritha the Healer was stamped on both sides. It had a hole through the top and another through the bottom, so that one could wear it as jewelry.
When the ceremony was concluded and the friends of the quest regrouped to return to the inn, Kay whispered to Ardith, “Did you see that young Captain of the Guard? The tall blond one with a mustache?” Ardith admitted she had. “Well,” Kay said, “he asked me if I was the archer firing from the fallen tree. I told him I was. He complimented me. He said it was a miracle I could hit anything in that wild and changing wind. He was really nice to me - the first Huertonite that hasn't treated me like some freak because I'm a fighter and a female.
“I like him, Ardith. Do you think I should accept his invitation?”
“He asked me to dinner tomorrow night.”
Ardith smiled. “Why do you ask me? I'm your friend and your priestess, not your guardian! Of course, if you like him, and trust him to be a gentleman, go! Enjoy the dinner and his company. We both have had little opportunity to relax and enjoy a social life for a long time.
“Just between you and me, I have been considering inviting Sahlman to dinner with me, to congratulate him - and also to enjoy his company. Yes I know, in this society men invite women, not the other way around, but in my Order we learn a more egalitarian way of life - indeed intended for members of the priesthood, but I don't mind applying it to members of our group.”
Ardith paused a moment before going on. “Didn't the Baron pull a coup this evening! It was all I could do to keep from laughing at the look on Sir Benet's face.”
Kay laughed and answered, “Oh, yes. And Sahlman's look of shock at being knighted. Oh my!”
Ardith laughed in return. “Let's share a short ale before bed and discuss what we will do about the sh'kurdaru and the creature or creatures behind them. There must be something we observed last night that we can use, that helps understand this threat.”
“Good. I could use an ale, or perhaps given how cold it is, a mulled wine.”
“Hah! Mulled wine it is! Let's go!”
The morning brought a messenger from the Baron, instructing Sahl and the others to pay him a visit in half an hour's time. When they arrived at the Baron's office, they found that it had been cleaned up. While the damage from the earthquake was still apparent, someone had made an effort to make the room more presentable.
“There you are,” the Baron said, motioning his knight guards away. There was another man in the room, older, with greasy black hair and the clothing of a commoner. He stood quietly in the corner, a heavy sack at his feet.
“Sahlman,” the Baron said, “I hope you haven't had trouble with Sir Benet yet. Good. I'm sure you'll be able to handle yourself when the inevitable happens. In the mean time, I would like to ask a service of all of you – with Andritha's blessing, of course,” he added, nodding to Ardith.
“We must know more about the sh'kurdaru. Have we depleted the bulk of their force, or is Huerten still in danger? Many of the knights are saying that we have already achieved victory, but I cannot be sure. If they have more power than we have already seen, I will have to send a request to Duerstadt for assistance. Otherwise, we can handle the matter ourselves.
“Sir Sahlman, I would like you to undergo another expedition into the Rift, for which you will be supplied as you need. A pair of master climbers will accompany you.”
“I agree with you, Baron,” Sahlman said, “and I want to go down there, but its not going to be easy. We need a good, long lasting light source to drive off the sh'kurdaru. And the leader thing seemed to take no damage from anything but fire, so we need a way to throw fire at it. Does anyone have any ideas?”
When no one answered for a long moment, the man behind the Baron stepped forward. “Are you certain that only fire can harm it? Some creatures merely have tough skin. Take any manner of shell-fish, for example. A light poke from a knife will do no damage at all, but a solid hammer blow will shatter the shell.”
“Melinebdin,” the Baron said. “He is a master alchemist, visiting from the Marquisate of Ohels.”
“Yes. Thank you, Baron. I have come to Huerten to study some unusual flora that is known to grow in the inner reaches of this barony. While I wait for it to be found, however, I have concerned myself with the problem of the sh'kurdaru.
“As I was saying, this 'leader thing' of yours may not be as resilient as you think. In addition, substances other than fire may harm it. I believe the barony has a supply of an acid much like that used by forgers to treat paper and give it the appearance of age, but far more concentrated. Additionally, there may be some disteloitte in the stocks, a highly flammable substance sometimes known as 'alchemist's fire,' since it is exclusively in the domain of alchemists like myself to produce it.”
Sahl appraised the newcomer, then offered his hand. “Melinebdin, as you say, I am not sure if heavy blows can hurt it. What I do know was that arrows made no damage to it, but it was afraid of fire. But I have heard legends of creatures who are immune to even sword blows, so when I go down there I want to be sure that I can hurt it. This disteloitte sounds interesting, but how would it be used? Thrown by hand, by arrow, or as a burning flame?”
“Why, any way you want to use it. In a fragile container, it can be thrown, and it will usually ignite spontaneously when the container breaks. The alternative, I suppose, is to ignite it and then throw it. Both methods pose some danger to the thrower, but if the goal is to carry simple-to-use sources of fire in incremental units, disteloitte is ideal.”
“I think that you could aid in this task, and also create more of this disteloitte. And the light source is just as important. If we have strong lights we need not fear the sh'kurdaru. I have heard this of some holy sun priests in my land, that they can create a bright everlasting light by the power of the sun. Can Ardith do this for us, by the power of Andritha?”
“Truthfully, Sahl, I don't know,” said Ardith. “I used to have dreams where I learned what powers Andritha would grant me, but lately I've had to figure it out on my own. I will pray to Andritha for guidance.”
Sahl turned to the Baron. “I would also wish for a stout warrior or two to join our band. At this time I could almost welcome the mage Ziedon to join our ranks… maybe not… I feared him more than the creatures of the Rift.”
“I've seen plenty of magic in my time,” said Baron Huerten, “but being of a noble family has its advantages, when it comes to making people talk. It's all illusion. Balls disappearing, coins found in your ear, even the mystical art of levitation – when you know how it is done, it is hardly impressive. I would not fear this mage of yours more than necessary. I also would not count on him being useful in the Rift, simply because of an illusion or two.
“As for your two warriors, that will not be a problem. I will send them along with the two climbers, who themselves are not incompetent with a sword.
“Now Melinebdin, here, has not come for the purpose of advising you on a portable source of fire. Melinebdin?”
“Yes, of course not. Disteloitte is an old trick. A master alchemist like myself concerns himself with greater things,” he said, turning towards Sahlman, “such as a protection against the sh'kurdaru.” He paused for a moment. It was clear that he'd practiced this, complete with dramatic pauses. “Using the bodies of the sh'kurdaru, I have, with remarkable rapidity, developed an ointment that can completely nullify the anesthetic effects of their bite.” He paused again, watching the expressions on the faces before him. “The ointment requires as its principal ingredient, a gland at the base of the sh'kurdaru's neck. Unfortunately, many of these glands were lost when the heads were thrown into the Rift, and two full glands are required to make one dose.”
Melinebdin reached into the sack at his feet, and lifted out a sealed metal canister, about a pint in volume. “I have produced ten doses so far. Each should last a couple days, provided it is not washed off. It is to be applied directly to the skin, along the entire surface of the body, except the face or near any of the body's sensitive orifices. It will numb the skin slightly, but it will also allow one to feel the bite of the sh'kurdaru, before any significant damage is done.
“In time, and with the proper resources provided by the Baron, I may be able to produce a sh'kurdaru repellant.”
“Excellent work, although a repellent would be better. We should test it with the few sh'kurdaru that we have in captivity. But I repeat that without an adequate light source we cannot proceed. If sister Ardith is unsuccessful, then Melinebdin must provide. With your permission Baron, I will use your weapon makers to alter two light crossbows to fire bolts made of pottery that are filled with disteloitte. We should aim to leave in two days time.”
“That sounds like an excellent plan. Melinebdin?”
“Yes, I believe such bolts could be constructed. Pottery should be able to insulate the disteloitte, if it is properly sealed. As for a light source, there are phosphorescent materials, but none are readily available in Huerten which would frighten a sh'kurdaru. I would suggest simple torches over any alchemical substance.”
“Daluar,” the Baron said, “Captain Jereld told me he would send a messenger to you this morning. What decision did you give the messenger? Have you decided to join the Baron's Guard?”
Daluar nodded once.
“Very good. I am sure you will make a satisfactory contribution. Captain Jereld agrees that you would be a valuable addition to this venture. He has requested that you offer whatever assistance you can.”
Daluar nodded a second time, and actually spoke. “Was Captain Jereld who asked to me work with Sahlman, Baron.”
“Priestess Ardith, I would request that you accompany them as well, valuable though you are to this city. Your presence is, of course, completely optional. As is yours, Kay.
“Well,” said the Baron. “I have many more things to do today. I trust that you will work out the remainder of the details. The castle armory already knows to cooperate with you.”
The Baron picked up a roll of parchment, broke the seal, and paid the party no more heed.
Karl played Ardith and Kay only for the “captain of the guard” discussion.
Character sheets are updated with Sahl's coin and Daluar's pin.