43. A long way home
21st of Neth – Wealday – 60th day in Varisia
We rode for ten or so hours and our backs and bottoms ached when we clambered down from our mounts. But we wanted to gain ground as quickly as possible. If not for our own sake then for the Sandpointians. Night fell as we struck camp. Harsk magically created food and water for the party – majority went to the mammoths I learned ate and drank copiously. But then again, each weighed around 18 000 pounds – they needed a lot to sustain themselves.
The weather had been gracious to us. Light snow covered the plains. The temperature fell well beyond freezing point but thankfully there was no wind to mention. We let the women sleep in Harsk’s little tent while the rest of us sheltered at the warmth of the resting mammoths.
Alfred constantly bickered about the stench of mammoth manure.
Following the Lampblack River south-west we reached the outskirts of Ravenmoor as the sun was going down on the 22nd. Our arrival stirred up the little village that was preparing to lay to rest, and we were greeted with watchful gazes, torches, pitchforks and rusty blades. They looked suspicious, and I couldn’t blame them. Maybe the giants had visited them too.
I was at the lead, riding the oldest cow. “They don’t look too friendly”, Vin said with a low voice behind me, nodding at a group of peasants and villagers before us, standing in a crowd before the town limits. Shayliss was between us, and she had not said much during our voyage. Just held her arms around me tight, really.
I let the mammoth take us closer towards the people and the little township behind them. A few of them, carrying old weapons, started towards us. Five men, the boldest. Unnoticeably I reached for my pocket.
“Halt. Who are you, and where do you come from”, the old man in the middle shouted at us, trying to appear confident. The leader, a mayor perhaps? He had thick arms from working the fields and no hair.
“We are riding from the Storval Plateau back to Sandpoint. We wish you no harm but ask for a place to stay for the night”, I answered coolly. I threw a purse of gold coin at the man, and he caught it nimbly, making the coins chink within. I guessed it was around 25 gold, and I guessed that was what he earned in a half-a-year. The man opened the purse with wariness, but his face hid nothing when he saw the gold. “And a stable for the mammoths, with hay and water.”
The man looked at me, then his companions, and then at the rest of the villagers who were standing still, clutching their pitchforks and torches. He was lost for words for a moment. Then he turned back to me, his lips slightly parted.
“We don’t have a stable big enough for your beasts.. but we can manage food and water”, he began. I shrugged. “Good enough. They can sleep outside.”
“..And we have a tavern, with rooms and beds, for you and your friends”, the old man added. “We’ll need at least five rooms,” I told him with a smile under my hood.
We dismounted and with the tension released, people began to murmur and move about. Still, some strange gazes remained, of men I knew hid secrets. But there was no real hostility in the air, so I let it pass. Children, the most curious, came by to ogle at the mammoths. I gave instructions for feeding our beasts to a few helpful farmers, and told Dûath to wait here. “Approach the panther at your peril”, I said simply to the townsfolk, who looked suitably intimidated by my black-furred animal companion.
Harsk led Ven, Ameiko and Shayliss to the town general store to pick up new, proper clothing and other gear the Sandpointians would require on the way back. Alice and Alfred exchanged some words with the old man who had led the welcoming party, and their friendly manner made the man much more at ease. With a laugh he led them to the tavern, called Raven’s Draw.
I tried to pass into the town without being seen, failing miserably. Arriving on a mammoth and throwing around gold like it was grain did not help with maintaining a low profile, I noted. A group of youngsters followed me wherever I went, asking me to tell who I was and where we had come from, and how we had got the mammoths. I told them nothing and found what I was looking for, the town blacksmith. He had closed his shop hours ago, but the commotion our arrival had created piqued his interest as well. And I was a paying customer anyway. Two gold pieces bought me three dozen arrows, and I let out a relaxed sigh as I refilled my magical quiver, feeling that much readier to take on the world again.
My walk-around the town took me some time, and eventually I was the last one to arrive to our inn for the night. Wealday was no day for celebration, but somebody had found a lute and given enough beer for Alfred, and that kind of was enough to start ad hoc festivities. As I walked in to the town’s largest tavern, I was greeted by singing and dancing folk. It was like the entire town had come for a party. A local lutist, an untalented bard, was playing, cheering up the crowd. “Innkeeper, one more round”, Alfred hollered from his seat at the end of a long bench. He was tipsy – that is, he had drunk one local man under the table already – and bouncing a plump if comely enough blond on his lap to the beat of the music and the stomping feet. The woman was laughing her heart out and her ample bosom like two soft pillows bounced in rhythm, barely staying under the fabric of her tightly laced dress. Alfred laughed too, stuffed his reddened face into her cleavage and let out a tit-muffled roar.
“I see Alfred is enjoying himself”, I grunted as I threw my backpack to the side of an empty stool and joined the others on another table, next to Harsk and Alice, before Ameiko, Ven and Shayliss. The women had found new clothing and freshened up, and Harsk had spared no expense – they looked stunning, Shayliss in particular. She was feeling better by the day, but she radiated still little if any of her usual confidence. I guess for her finding new, beautiful and colourful dresses served as a sort of recuperation. As for Ameiko, I think she had chosen her less utilitarian dress just as a show of support to encourage the younger woman.
The Tian-min spared one glance at the sellsword. “Just cooling his nerves”, she said. She had seen it a few times before, I assumed. “Is everybody all right?” I asked, looking at the Sandpointians. Shayliss nodded, handling an empty cup of wine in her hands. Ameiko shrugged and Vin cleared his throat. “You’ve been very generous to us”, he started, trying to find the words. Or trying to overcome reservations. He was looking at me. He had got simple clothing to replace his torn rags, nothing expensive. He was too proud to ask for more.
“We came for you”, Harsk answered simply and took a swig of ale from a wooden tankard, as if that settled it. For me it did. We had come for Ameiko and all the other Sandpointians that had been taken as prisoners. Ending the reign of Mokmurian had been a side quest for us – a side quest that seemed to lead to something much, much bigger. But the important thing was that we had gotten them out alive. Ven opened his mouth to speak but then closed it, frowning.
I tasted the house wine as Harsk went on, changing the subject somewhat. “Poor Gaven. My heart aches for the fact we did not make it in time to save him too. But there might still be a chance that I can bring him back to life”, he said, to no one in particular. The house wine was awful, to my surprise. I had seen plenty of vineyards when we approached, now leaveless and dead of course as it was winter, but still. Maybe they reserved the best for themselves, or for trade in bulk. I asked a passing serving maid to bring me cider. “I’m praying for my lady Iomedae to grant me the power to resurrect him”, Harsk went on, twirling his beard.
“That, and the diamond dust you’ll need”, Alice added pointedly, making it painfully obvious it was not going to be a cheap trick. Harsk sighed and nodded. He knew, of course. I knew too. That was why I carried a strawberry-sized diamond in a sewn-shut pocket of my bandolier.
“Maybe the Cathedral can help? And maybe the Deverin family has the gold required”, I suggested, trying to cheer up the dwarf, and raised my eyebrows questioningly at Ameiko who knew these things better as a local. She just shook her head. Oh well. My smallish pint of cider arrived and I downed it in one go, which was unbecoming of me. I was cooling my nerves too, and my eyes fell to Shayliss as I wiped my lips with the back of my hand, and I remembered the night we had spent together when I had got back from the near-death experience in Thistletop. I killed the idea before it could properly form in my head. You might be an asshole but not that kind of an asshole, I told myself. That and I really didn’t want another showdown with her father.
Instead, I reached into my backpack and immediately found what I was looking for at the top.
“I was sparing this to the victory celebration at Sandpoint”, I told the others as I placed one of Aldern Foxglove’s atrociously expensive red wines to the table, “but hell, we might enjoy it now. Let’s not have the sellsword have all the fun.”
My suggestion received nods and light laughs. Ven on the other hand was almost drooling. “Now what is this..” he started, not letting his eyes off the green bottle. I opened it with a screw and started filling glasses. They had pulled out the glassware for us. Ven took his, and smelled the aromas, letting it all in with eyes closed. I faintly remembered seeing a lot of different wine bottles stored in his cellar beneath the general store in Sandpoint. I looked at Shayliss again. Faintly.
“For victory”, I raised my glass for a toast. “For being alive”, Ameiko responded. “For friends”, Harsk added. Then we drank. I heard Alfred’s drunken voice boom over the bawdy music and laughter. He was telling a story to his new friends at the other side of the inn’s main hall.
Ven smacked his lips and regarded me. “You must tell me where you get this wine, this is exquisite!”
I regarded him back under my hood and smiled mischievously. “Well, we found it during one of our many trips. I have more bottles left, don’t worry.” That lit his eyes up. “Really? I must have them! I’ll pay anything!” I cocked my head to the side, uncertain. His act was not only about the wine. What was up with the shopkeeper? “Do you agree?” He asked, almost rambling, from Alice, Ameiko and his daughter. Harsk pulled my sleeve unnoticeably and I lowered my head so he could whisper to my ear.
“I think he’s trying to save face, and repay us for his and his daughter’s rescue.” Harsk knew what was going on. I didn’t answer him, but nodded. “I’ll have to get back to you on that offer”, I told Ven as diplomatically as I could. He was still eager, and was about to say something when we heard an axe hit a wooden table, splitting it, followed by a woman’s shriek and Alfred yelling: “-and that’s how I killed the giant!”
He started to guffaw, and we all turned our heads to his direction. The entire inn had went silent. Even the music was dead. Alfred was standing up with his hands in the air, balled in fists, the blond big-bosomed wench was down on her ass and the sellsword’s mighty battleaxe was stuck on the table, half its blade jutting out from the bottom. His guffaw died. “What?”
“We’ll pay for that”, Harsk said soberly to the shocked innkeeper looking at his ruined table from behind his counter. The music returned, and so did the heartfelt, happy commotion.
Ameiko played some lute later, to everybody’s enjoyment, and Ven kept rambling about the wine. I made no promises. Eventually, we withdrew to our small, if comfortable and warm rooms to sleep.
We did not linger in Ravenmoor and left early in the morning. The weather was as fine as before, and now better stocked for the travel, our mood was up. We rode all day, along the Lampblack, and reached the outskirts of our next village, Wolf’s Ear, situated by the river, just before dusk.
This time, we were met by a lone man instead of a suspicious crowd. But the welcoming was just as strange. “Get away!” The man yelled. A scrawny, loony person, I figured. But he was frightened of something. He was waving for us to continue, to move along. Weird. He was clearly anxious of something.
“Don’t stop here! Keep going”, he urged us, pointing with a spear towards south and south-west.
I had dismounted when we saw the village, to stretch my back and legs. “What’s wrong”, I asked him and stopped the mammoth I was walking. The Vinders on its back eyed the lone man suspiciously.
“There is nothing for you here!” The man rambled. He had gone mad, I decided.
“Well, I can see there are lights in the town and we were planning to stay the night”, I told him blankly. “No. No-no! The place.. it is cursed”, the man said, whispering the last words as if someone was listening to our exchange. I gave him the look. Alfred led his mammoth forward. He had his wench-smile on, the one he used when he tried to sweet-talk people. “What do you mean, a curse? You need to be more specific, old man.”
The village idiot looked around nervously. “It is.. a sickness. A blight of Wolf’s Ear.”
“A sickness you say?” Harsk had ridden closer and I could how the man’s words had piqued his interest. He was thinking of curing them in the name of his goddess, most likely. “Don’t you have a cure?”
The old man shook his head almost violently. “No. No cure. It cannot be cured. It is a curse.” He was talking in circles, and being obnoxious and ambiguous to boot. I didn’t like it.
“Hey, I remember”, Alfred said suddenly with a smile. “I heard from some old drunken soldiers that Wolf’s Ear was considered a safe haven for lycanthropes in ages past, but these days lycanthropy is considered just a malady. They don’t actually have werebeasts here anymore. Or that’s what I was told.”
I spat to the ground. I’d seen werewolves and werebears in action. The Imperial Army of Molthune fielded a special Company of their kind, pitting them against the toughest units the rebel Nirmanthasi could throw at them. Their engagements got ugly quick because the enemy rarely thought to bring along silver weapons. I was a cold bastard but even I considered them nasty, to say the least. Alfred turned to the old man. “Have you seen any werewolves or wererats or similar lately then?”
“Be honest”, I snarled, implying my patience was wearing dangerously thin. I wanted some rest, not a werebeast hunt in the middle of the night.
The old man evaded the question, and drew a deep breath. “My little sister.. got lost, five years ago. Without a word. Without a trace.” He had a glassy look. Maybe he was seeing her with her soul’s eyes. “It had to be them.”
“Has anyone else disappeared”, Alfred asked the follow-up question. A silence ensued.
“No”, the loon finally managed, and his shoulders sagged. “How old was your sister?” Alice had woken up. “Twenty-eight”, the man replied, almost whispering.
Alfred kept his sweet-talk tone. “Well, have you seen anything weird lately?” This made the man give up. “No.. not really.”
I had had it. “You’re delusional. Out of my way, we’re entering the town”, I snapped and led my mammoth with the Vinders past him. Dûath growled in empathetic irritation as he paced at my feet, and the man wisely gave way. The others followed, and we left the old man to his own devices.
Wolf’s Ear was smaller than Sandpoint but larger than Ravenmoor, and had just one main road, the town built at its sides. Here, no-one came to greet us or ogle at the mammoths. The town inn was still open, and we got hay and water for the animals, and beds and supper for us. Alfred asked about the man who we had met, and the few tavern customers snorted and laughed. The man was a village idiot, and had apparently gone mad when his sister had ran away with another man, afraid of her crazy brother. But otherwise, according to the customers, he was harmless.
I watered and fed the mammoths while Harsk, Ven and Alfred had a modest drink. Shayliss and Ameiko went to sleep, and Alice stayed up reading her spellbooks, sipping water. We decided to continue as quickly as possible, at first light.
The next day we reached the shores of Ember Lake and arrived to Galduria, a decent sized town like Sandpoint with a population of roughly one thousand and five hundred. Galduria, as I came to know, was full of people too damn prim and intelligent for their own good. It was renowned for and characterized by its arcane college, or school for wizards and magi like our Alice, so these types flocked the streets, looking down their noses at us. But the place was rich and that meant we could begin selling our loot, starting with books of Lamashtu Harsk had reluctantly taken from the foul shrine under Jorgenfist. The magic-types sure loved their books, and were eager to get their hands on anything special and new. In addition, shopkeepers relieved us from some unusual magical items we were carrying.
I even finally let go off the Syrpent’s Tane, the tome I had picked up from late Justice Ironbriar’s belongings. I had read the book from cover to cover a couple of times, and making sure there was nothing on Xin-Shalast or the forces Alice had told us Karzoug had fielded, I sold it for good amount of gold.
The last leg of our journey began on the morning of 25th of Neth, and we took the Lost Coast road south-west. On the late afternoon, we halted for a break. I recognized our surroundings.
“Hey Alfred”, I called out to the sellsword who was helping Ameiko down from the mammoth, “we’re close to the farmhouse where we left all those riches looted by the giants from a noble house. Want to go have a look if they’re still there?” I was not being serious of course, just ruffling his feathers, but Ameiko shot a questioning glance at me. Alfred just grunted, not wanting to talk about it. “Don’t worry Ameiko, the people in the portraits weren’t Tian-Min”, I replied to the woman’s unvoiced query. “How about you Harsk?” I turned to the righteous, god-touched cleric.
“Too many bad memories there. We should move along and let the dead rest.” The dead we left there for the vultures, I thought to myself. Fine, I shrugged. It meant we could reach Sandpoint sooner.
It was past midnight when the Northern Gate came to view at a distance. Ven woke up his daughter who had been drowsing, and I felt her begin to sob behind me at the sight of her home town. The mammoths strode past a trio of giant cadavers, rotten and gnawed by corpse-eaters, the ones I had hastily slain on my way back during the assault. Their leering skulls welcomed us back.
The town was silent, its inhabitants gone to bed, gates closed, and a few torchfires burned along the towers of Northern Gate.
Time for the people to know their lost ones had come home, I thought to myself, and tapped my mammoth on the side of its head, just like I had seen the giants do. The mammoth reacted and lifted its long trunk before trumpeting, letting out one long sound like a bellow.
Suddenly, there was life at the towers and walls, a lot of shouting and running around.
“Is he always like this”, my keen hearing picked out Ameiko’s question to Alfred at the second mammoth. “Yup”, the sellsword answered.
I just smiled.
The guardsmen had been quick and woken Sheriff Hemlock as he came to meet us at the gate. I thought his black skin had turned a bit ashen, maybe thanks to all the hardships the town had faced under his protection. But he was happy to see us.
“By the good gods, you truly are a blessing for our town”, he gasped as we presented the Vinders and Ameiko and very briefly told him about our journey to Jorgenfist and back.
“How was the aftermath”, Alfred asked, unusually worrisome. It was his home town too, I recalled. The Sheriff pursed his lips but nodded. “We got the fires in control eventually. A lot of the normal folks were able to reach the safety of the Glassworks and the underground just as you planned, so that saved many lives. We lost less than ten to the attack. But I lost too many good soldiers, especially in the south, where we had none of your party to help us.” That remark stung me, even though Hemlock did not direct it at me.
The clear, high voices of children interrupted our discussion. “Master Harsk, Master Harsk!” The orphans, all wearing the red cross emblem, swooped through the opened gates, their eyes sleepy but still very much alive and excited. Harsk laughed and opened his short arms in a wide embrace, and the children flocked around him, everybody talking at once, everybody demanding to know where he had been. “Children, children”, Harsk calmed them with a big smile, taking his fatherly tone, “we have just returned and are weary of our adventures. Go back to sleep, and I promise I’ll tell everything about our journey tomorrow.” The childred voiced their complaints and dissappointment, but their spiritual father had none of it, and eventually they left in a big group.
Harsk yawned before asking the obvious question. “Now that the Rusty Dragon is out of commission, where are we going to sleep?”
“Let’s go to the White Deer. It’s right behind the walls. The innkeeper, Garridan, is a sour Shoanti bastard but the place is nice enough”, Alfred suggested. No-one had any other ideas, so the decision was made.
The Vinders said their last goodbyes and thank-yous, Ven shaking hands with each of us and Shayliss hugging us one by one. Harsk took the linen-covered body of Gaven Deverin down from the mammoth and was preparing to carry him to the Cathedral. He wanted to begin the resurrection attempt immediately. Ameiko wanted to join us at the White Deer for some reason. Everybody was going in.. except me. I was gazing at the Northern Gate and realizing the mammoths would not fit in through it. Dammit.
“I can’t get the mammoths into town”, I cursed aloud. Alfred chuckled and Alice smiled. “Ha-ha. Laugh all you like”, I said bitterly to them both, “but I’m not leaving them out.”
“Well, see you in the morning”, Alfred said as a way of good night, lifted his bag of holding onto his back and disappeared through the gates, Alice right behind him.
I could wreck my way in, I thought just for a second, and one of the guardsmen on the wall caught my eye and looked frightened. Maybe he was reading my mind. Ultimately, I decided to circle the wall, get over the river and enter from the east, near Rovanky’s tannery. Maybe I could even leave the beasts to graze close to his shop, I thought.
An hour later I led the mammoths over the shallow stream and into Sandpoint proper. Rovanky was sound asleep, all lights dead, and I didn’t have the heart to wake him up. So instead I decided to head out to the White Deer. I strolled with the mighty beasts through the empty roads, passing Das Korvut’s and Savah Bevaniky’s workshops, making my way to the Cathedral’s plaza. There, my path crossed with Harsk’s, who walked out of the holy place with a serious face.
“How was it? Did you manage to resurrect Gaven?” I asked the cleric, probing his mood.
“The priests found a diamond required for the ritual and started the preparations for his resurrection”, he began, clearly relieved. “The process has started, and some life returned to him. He is breathing.”
“But that is good news”, I commented, surprised my friend wasn’t more excited.
“Yes, it is”, the god-touched said, before casting his eyes to the star-filled sky as in a prayer, “but his soul still has a long way home.”