Thorn's Chronicle continues...
The sky kept its gray mantle, but though low and forbidding, the clouds did not drop any snow over the course of the day. The previous night’s snowfall had been steady, but light, so we were able to make good time through the remainder of the Gap. We made it to Highdell while there was still a bit of light left in the day.
To call Highdell a town would be a disservice to towns all across the Known World. A gathering of farmsteads, Sir Reynard’s stone keep and manor house, and the mining compound make up the bulk of this wide spot along the trail into more civilized lands of the Grand Duke.
The miners’ mess hall had become the closest thing to a tavern, or inn, or waystation. We were greeted warmly once Old Seth produced a baron’s writ of expense.
“Well now, weren’t expecting any more company to come through here, what with the snows starting so early and all,” said the cook as he set steaming bowls of goulash before us. He paused, apparently waiting for one of us to ask about these other travelers. When nobody did, he wrung his hands on a rag he wore tucked into the front of his spotted apron.
“So, here on the Baron’s business? How goes it?”
“Thats the Baron’s business,” said Old Seth, picking up his spoon. “Wine all ‘round. Hot water in a kettle. Then a nice long space of quiet, if you please, and you can double your petition to the baron for recompense.”
The man nearly cracked his head on the table with his bow.
After he’d left the wine and Durin had brewed Silva’s tea, we ate in silence for a time. The girl picked a bit at the vegetables, went after the dumplings with glee, but did not touch the meat. Sitting at her other side, I traded her my dumplings for a few bits of meat, as I hadn’t seen her eat more than a few bites of trailbread over the course of the day’s journey.
Kuric pushed back his empty bowl, and drew out a long-stemmed clay pipe, which he prepared and lit. After a few puffs, he cleared his throat, and began.
I pause here to note that though I worked knots as fast as I could while listening, I did not catch Kuric’s tale word-for-word, and thus can impart the spirit of the tale, rather than its full flesh. Alas, neither Kuric nor Durin’s spirits responded to the tolling of Chardastes’ bell, so I have but this one account to go by.
The brothers, Kuric the elder and Durin the younger, would not say from which town they hailed. It did not matter they said, because it and everyone in it was gone. As with every dwarven family, each had a role in the family business, theirs being seller and crafter of fine goods, respectively. Durin had been apprenticed to a magewright, and had some of the knack for aligning the qualities in metalworks. Another few decades and he would have the lighter metals mastered, and could then move up to irons and steel.
Kuric had the duty of fetching the best prices for the family’s best works, and it was that pursuit that had cost him half a day of bargaining. Rather than take the congested tunnel roads back to the village, he instead took a disused surface road. It had been blocked by rockslide for some years, and so nobody used it. Kuric laughed, telling us he had sold statuettes and ornaments made from those very stones to dwarves too lazy to move those rocks themselves for a quicker route.
The evening was cold and clear -- Matera crested the tips of the Makkres, and shone down brightly into a small spring-fed pool, turning its surface to molten silver. Just as suddenly, a mist arose, as thick as it usually did on late spring and summer mornings. Yet it was barely autumn, the conditions all wrong for ground fogs.
The fog had taken alight from the moonlight above, and from the surface of the pool. There arose a thrumming, rhytmic as if from a beating heart, rising and falling as if a breath, that could be felt in the rocks, through the frame of the cart, in the very fog itself. Violet lights streaked within the fog, from the direction of the moonlit pool, and the air took a scorched, acrid smell of freshly struck lightning, though there were no clouds above.
The brilliance of the fog flared, and a howling of wind arose, the fog spinning as though caught in a vortex, tearing itself to shreds along a circular corridor, as if becoming a great pipework made of the swirling fog. And from within the tunnel of cloud, running as though from a great distance, was the girl.
The howling changed, then. Or rather, it became not just the howling of the vortex, but also the howling of beasts -- bone-chilling howls as those of mountain cats and diving birds of prey.
The girl ran, looking back over her shoulder at something, then tripped. Yet when she fell, it wasn’t to the floor of the tunnel of fog and light, but into the surface of the pool. As the moon’s reflection shattered into ripples, the howling faded, the tunnel swirling smaller and smaller in an instant, until it disappeared completely, taking the wind and keening with it. The fog lingered for several minutes, but was gone by the time Kuric had reached the edge of the pool.
“It wasn’t that deep, but it was cold like a slap in the face,” Kuric said. “We nearly both drowned, trying to get her out of there.
“So we bundled up and made for the village, her yammering at me in her nonsense-speak the whole way. Don’t suppose the chattering of every tooth in her head made things any more understandable, but still.”
“It was quite the scene, Brother mine a-galloping into the estate shouting for a bath.” Durin chuckled. “We thought he’d fallen off the cart and hit his head on the way home at first. But he and that girl were positively blue.” He hugged himself, shivering and making a “brrr!” sound in his throat, and the girl -- who gathered they were telling the tale of her arrival -- mimicked Durin, holding her arms and nodding.
“Eiao risi!” she said. “Brr!”
We all stared.
“Eiao risi,” she said again, her voice faltering a bit as she looked from one of us to another, but finding no real comprehension staring back at her.
“Cold,” I said. “Thats got to be it. Let me try...”
I pointed to her steaming mug. “Risi?”
She scowled, then sighed, shaking her head. “Nieah. Etah firni.”
I’d heard those words before, or words like them.
And apparently I wasn’t the only one. A shadow crossed the table, and we stared up at a tall, thin-faced man. His black eyes flashed, and something about his slow, easy smile amidst the carefully trimmed brown beard seemed... predatory.
“Pardon me,” he said with a slight bow at the waist. “I could not help but overhear your fantastic tale. You see, I am a bard, and --”
“Whatever you’re trying to sell, we don’t want,” snapped Old Seth.
Ana was staring intently at the tall man, her hands clasped tightly before her on the tabletop.
“Selling? Goodness, no I wanted to --”
“We’re not interested,” said Gilliam, making a bit of a show of cleaning his fingernails with the blade of a long knife he’d made appear as if by magic.
The man’s eyes went from Gilliam’s knife, to Silva, back to the knife, and then took in the measure of the dwarves and Varis as well, who’d adjusted the swordbelt at his waist, making it readily apparent that the hilt was well within reach.
“Apologies,” he said with another slight bow. “Please, allow me to at least pay for one last round of drinks before I go.” Two gold coins spun across his knuckles from out of nowhere, and he sent them spinning to the table with a flourish.
Silva clapped, and the man nodded towards her with another smile before turning and returning to his table at the far side of the hall.
Three guesses who the tall stranger with the oily smile is.... the players hadn't guessed upon this first appearance.