When he was still a hundred yards or so distant, he heard an unfamiliar voice far behind him call “Ziedon?”
Ziedon casually looked over his shoulder as he walked to see who called him, and more importantly, who knew his real name, which until now he'd kept secret in Dunweig.
The man was tall and lanky, and wore a hooded cloak. The hood was lowered, revealing a long face, with a straight brown beard and thin moustache, and squinted eyes. When he saw Ziedon turn his head, the man jogged towards him. Ziedon slowed down but kept walking toward the gate.
“Ziedon!” the man called again. When he caught up, he said “I'd like to talk with you, if you have a moment.”
Ziedon looked over at the man and replied, “I'm sorry, do I know you?” He took a closer look at the fellow, but could not remember having seen him before.
“Hebabelt Forester,” he said with an abrupt bow, “and I doubt we've ever met. I am an expert tracker, though, and I thought you might need one.”
Ziedon frowned. “And how do you think you know me, or why I would need a tracker?”
“I saw a soldier running from you, hugging a book to his chest. I might be able to get it back.”
“That is an interesting offer, but how do you think you know me?”
“I've never met you, but I've heard a lot about you. Like how you saved Townsman Ulan from capture, and how an aquaintance of yours thinks you are a sorceror.”
“And what is the name of this aquaintance?”
Hebabelt hesitated for just a moment before he said, “Sahlman. I met him in Maelbourg.”
Ziedon nodded. “Sorry about the questions, I have just grown a little paranoid as of late. I would appreciate it if you could track down the individual and retrieve my book. He is a corrupt officer in the town guard, as a matter of fact, most of the guard is corrupt; so you will need to be a little sneaky and careful in the recovery. He is also responsible for the murder of at least two townspeople, something that he was trying to pin the blame on me. He just tried to kill me now but I got the upper hand on him.”
Hebabelt smiled and nearly laughed, but caught himself. “I'll do what I can,” he said.
“As you can imagine, I am leaving town. You should be able to track me easily. I will be in the woods outside the city.”
Ziedon continued towards the gate, and, to his surprise, was allowed to leave unmolested and unrestrained. After that, he rode hard until the bridge, paid the toll and kept going until the road turned. Barely visible from the town gate, he moved off into the woods so he could watch it without being seen. While he waited, he dismounted and rubbed his horse down, then relaxed and fixed himself some food.
No one entered or left the town for hours. The sun was nearly set when the gates finally opened and Hebabelt rode through on a fine, slender horse. When he was near enough, Ziedon called him, and he dismounted and walked his horse into the woods. He stopped about ten feet from the wizard.
“I would have come earlier, but the watch had changed, so the guards didn't recognize me. They asked a lot of questions before they'd let me go.”
Ziedon nodded his head. “There is definitely something strange going on in that town. So what happened about the book? What questions did the guards ask?”
“The standard stuff – where I'm going, where I came from – then it sounded like they were trying to find out if I knew anything about the escaped murderer.”
Ziedon nodded again. “And the book?”
Hebabelt took a step back. “I followed him as far as one of the public meeting houses, but the door was guarded, and there was no other way in. I watched the building for two hours before he came out again without the book.”
“And who else entered the building during that time? Who left after the guard? Who was carrying an odd package that looked like a book?”
“A few townsmen came and went. None of them had any packages.”
“I see. Evidentally, your services will not be required after all.” Ziedon began packing his things into saddlebags, making it evident that he was preparing to depart.
“Wait… Are you headed for Maelbourg?”
Ziedon finished packing and mounted his horse. “I am not sure where I will go to from here. If you see Sahlman again, tell him I said hi.”
Hebabelt mounted his own horse. “I heard about the way you rescued Townsman Ulan. You sent Townsman Galgewe's soldiers running home like children afraid of a shadow.”
Ziedon looks over at Hebabelt, “Really? I guess that is one perspective.” He urged his horse forward and slowly cleared the woods. “Have a nice journey.” Ziedon turned his horse away from the town and began to ride.
Hebabelt followed. “It's getting dark. Will you ride through the night?”
Ziedon reined in his horse and turned to Hebabelt. “Enough of this banter. What do you want?”
Hebabelt kept his distance, and hesisitated before he answered. He looked quite unsure of what he would do next. “Do you… do you remember Forgolon Deepthroat?”
Ziedon's eyes narrowed and he spoke very slowly, each word pronounced with precision. “You are not listening, no more bantering. If you know of me, you know what I can do, I do not suffer fools. What..do..you..want!”
The fear was so plain in Hebabelt's face and actions that it was hard to see it as real. “F-Forgolon…. He sent me.” Hebabelt took a breath and tried to calm himself. “He heard about how you rescued townsman Ulan, and… he's interested in your services.”
“I see. What exactly did Forgolon hear about how I rescued Ulan?” Ziedon placed a slight emphasis on the word “I”.
“That you convinced a man of Galgewe to tell you secrets that he was sworn not to tell, that you frightened away four more soldiers without so much as a word, that you convinced all five that some sort of ancient magic was involved. And that you sent one soldier back to work against what was happening in Maelbourg.”
“And how is Ulan's health now? Is Grigree still in charge of the town?”
“You mean Galgewe? He was never in charge, though he tries. Townsman Ulan has not been seen since you last saw him.”
Ziedon sighed and then asked, “what does Forgolon want, exactly?”
“Exactly what you seem to want yourself, since you sent Waylad in to undermine Galgewe. He wants to ensure that Gagewe's hold on Maelbourg never strengthens.”
Ziedon replied harshly, “do not presume to know what I want.” He paused to let his words sink in and then continued. “What is Forgolon prepared to offer for my services?” While he spoke, Ziedon watched the town gate to be sure no one came out looking for him.
“He… An official position in the town administration… Or he could pay you by the job… I don't know how much. A few hundred aglars at least.
Ziedon arched an eyebrow and asked, “how is Forgolon going to give me an official position in the town administration? Does he plan on taking control of the city?”
“I don't know. But a lot of positions have opened up lately, and Forgolon has connections. A lot's changed since you sent Waylad two weeks ago.”
“When you speak of 'by the job'. Just what exactly are you refering to? Describe one of these hypothetical 'jobs.'”
“You should talk to Forgolon about that. I don't know exactly what he wants you for.”
Ziedon nodded. “What changes have happened since Waylad returned to the city? How is Waylad by the way?”
“Maelbourg has been turned upside-down. I can't keep track of which townsmen are imprisoned and which are missing, the list changes so fast. I'm not sure about Waylad. I think he's in jail.”
“Do you know any townsmen who are loyal to the King?”
Hebabelt looked surprised at the question. “I'd think they all are. What could anyone do against the king?”
“What are the different factions in the town? Who does Forgolon support, who supports Galgewe?” Ziedon pumped him for all the information he could gather concerning the political climate of Maelbourg, using intimidation and browbeating liberally.
Maelbourg, until recently, had been run by five or six townsmen, of which Hebabelt could name three – Silnquost, Ulan and Orfort. Since Ziedon had sent the enchanted Waylad to run amuck, Ulan and another townsman had vanished, and Orfort was in jail, along with dozens of minor townsmen on either side of the conflict. Townsmen were jailed, not just in the middle of the night like Ziedon had assumed, but even in broad daylight. They were afronted by large numbers of guards accusing them of treason or more trivial crimes, and taking them into custody.
The main factions trying to gain control were led by Galgewe and Silnquost, though Hebabelt couldn't list the other members. He seemed to think that the majority were with Silnquost, but he also spoke of the large number of Silquost's men who had been imprisoned. No matter how severely Ziedon threatened, Hebabelt could not say which faction Forgolon belonged to. It wasn't clear that he was part of either. Ziedon asked whether the factions had any distinguishing marks, and was told they did not. Furthermore, most townsmen didn't even say in public which faction, if either, they belonged to.
One major player had not yet taken a side. The most important influence in Maelbourg had always been, and would always be, the House of Morenth. The Morenthian religion, Ziedon learned, was limited to Maelbourg in Huerten and Haelbourg in Elgony. Andrithan rulers had long restricted the religion to those two towns, though Hebabelt did not know for how long or why. The Morenthian priests had the first and last say in every matter, though they had so far stayed out of the current conflict. Since the majority of the population would cow to the merest hint by the House, their power far exceeded that of the townsmen, who only controlled the town and its businesses.
Ziedon went on to ask for some details on the population of Maelbourg. There were about six thousand people living in the town, all of them Morenthians. Their primary exports were coal from some nearby mines, wool from the large number of sheepherds who lived in the highlands near Maelbourg, and textiles from the town itself.
The town protected itself with a large compliment of soldiers – fifty to a hundred of them controlled by the townsmen, and another couple dozen by the House. Although, theoretically, the townsmen were jointly in command of the guard, in reality each townsman had his own group of guards loyal to him. That normally wasn't apparent, but these days, the guards were a major component of the power-struggle. No physical fighting had broken out yet, although there had been a couple injuries related to the conflict.
One detail that surprised Ziedon was that the general populous wasn't much affected. Most of the people didn't even know what was going on, though many seemed quick to flock to Galgewe's side when he arrived. Hebabelt did not know how they knew about him in advance, but Ziedon had a pretty good idea.
By the end of the interrigation, Hebabelt was thoroughly intimidated. The two men were at least a dozen yards from where they'd begun, and throughout, Hebabelt had been slowly backing off with Ziedon in casual persuit.
Ziedon nodded his head at Hebabelt's final answers. “I believe I can see my way to visiting Maelbourg again. When I arrive, I will leave a note outside the tavern where I first met the Ministrel. Let him know. He can then leave any desires or information on jobs in the same location.
“I can't say when I will arrive but it will be soon. I think you should ride ahead and announce my coming to Forgolon.” Ziedon looked at the messenger and added, “I shouldn't have to say it, but I believe I will. I will hold you responsible for any poor reception I receive upon reaching Maelbourg. If I walk into some sort of ambush or trap, I will find you and make you regret the day your parents even thought of siring a son. My wrath will descend upon you and follow your line for five generations. Do I make myself clear?”
Hebabelt was shocked. Although he had already been cautious and frightened, nothing had prepared him for this extreme threat. Before Ziedon had finished ordering “now, begonne!” Hebabelt was on his horse and riding off toward Maelbourg.
Ziedon watched Hebabelt ride off with a look of disgust. “Should have just killed him. I just know I will regret letting him live.” With a look over his shoulder, Ziedon rode away from the town and kept going until he found a suitable location to rest for the night. He moved off the trail and into the woods. After carrying for his horse, Ziedon set up camp and went to sleep.
In the morning, Ziedon studied his spellbook and changed into his newest merchant clothing. Ziedon then ate a light breakfast while he cared for his horse. Shortly after, Ziedon mounted up and rode for his master's tower.
While riding, Ziedon rethought his decision to go straight to his master's tower and instead decided to visit Maelbourg. Since he would have to pass by the town anyway on the way back to the forest path, his change of mind didn't lose him any time. “Maybe I can fix things up a little in Maelbourg,” Ziedon thought. With a twisted smile, he began to think up ideas for innovative uses of his spells and how to set things amuck in that unsuspecting town.
Your bill, sir: Toll: 4ag (toll)
After this turn, we switch to 3.5E. Ziedon's new level progression is:
Level 4: 8,000
Level 5: 11,500
Level 6: 16,000
Level 7: 22,000
Level 8+: 3.5E progression