A line of green!
The party has their evening meal together and packs up camp. The marching is easy. Previously, going southeast, they would continually have to cross the ridges and bluffs running north-south. Now, moving mostly south, they can stay in one valley. This appears to be a wadi, or dry riverbed. It is after dark but well before midnight when they start coming upon greenery (shrub bushes and palm trees), and can see a series of lights in the distance. Poncherius, whose questions about the light void had mostly petered out after two days in the desert, now begins anew at seeing plants for the first time.
Approaching close to the lights, they find it is a small village. Ember calls a conference. She explains that in traditional Ylauri culture, women cover their heads and do not speak in public. Modesty and courtesy are the highest cultural values. They will need to tread carefully. Morgan looks incredulous. “I didn’t leave the pyramid to be treated like that,” she mumbles, but Ember’s words echo what Haldimar told her weeks ago so she does not disagree. Bhelgarn and FluffyKitten remember how often Hazrad explained to them that as non-humans, they could not receive the light of Al-Khalim. Most of the Ylauri people believe that dwarves, elves, and halflings have no souls, and many believe that they are desert demons incarnate in flesh. Approaching this village at night would be a bad idea.
The party makes camp within sight of the village but approaches no closer – except for FluffyKitten, who decides to test her new cloak and boots. Silently and unseen she creeps into the village. There are perhaps six or eight cloth tents, and four mud-brick huts, centered about a well. Only two of the buildings have lights burning.
The “village” of Alwulsul at the edge of the desert
Suddenly there is a savage bellow, and she freezes. It is soon followed by more, as if of a great fierce beast. Fluffy remains terrified in place, until gradually she remembers the camels that traveled with the caravan. Creeping still closer, she comes upon a pen with four of the large, lanky animals. They continue to bellow and snort periodically, but it does not seem particularly directed at her, and the people of the village are not reacting.
Stealing up to a window in one of the lit huts, she sees a young man squatting on the floor by an oil lamp. He is working by lamplight, doing some sort of leatherworking with a sharp knife. Behind him in the darkness his family sleeps in bundles on the floor, in the single-room dwelling. Fluffy is reasonably sure the family includes children. She returns to the camp, making her case that they should visit these children in the morning.
After an uneventful night, those not on watch are woken even before dawn by the calls of the goatherd boys. Young boys call to their goats and call to one another as they leave the village in the pre-dawn dark and chill and disperse to find vegetation for their animals. The party breaks their fast within clear sight of the village but no one approaches them, even as the sun comes in to view. Shortly after dawn the village becomes much more busy – older boys lead the camels out, women and children fetch water from the wells. There is a conspicuous absence of adult men.
To be sure, the party is seen – many children turn and point at them, only to have their hands slapped town and then be hurried off by their mothers and older sisters. FluffyKitten is in favor of engaging the children right here, right now, but Ember and Morgan think that this village is too small and too provincial to be of use. They are more likely to be driven from this village than find help here, at least in their opinion. Fluffy grudgingly goes along.
By the light of day, the party can see settlements like ochre pearls on a necklace of green. This tiny community is followed by another, and another. Then this line of green running south meets a much larger line running east west – could it be the caravan trail? To the south are clearly irrigated fields and orchards, gardens and oases. They head south. There are no roads until they meet up with the main line and turn east – then they are on a clearly-marked trail. Even between settlements the trail is just mud and packed dirt, but that is better than shifting sand. The villagers along the way stop and stare at them, but no one engages them. The trail is well-traveled, and they pass men with laden camels and donkeys traveling either way, but they all look away as they pass.
It is early afternoon and they are all hot and tired when they approach a small fort. There is a watchtower, sandstone at the base with a mud brick turret. Not long after that they can see a group of men on horses approaching. A trader on the road gives the horsemen way as they ride by, approaching the party at a smart trot.
A rough fortress
There are five horsemen in colorful uniforms, with great recurved bows and small scimitars. One additional horseman wears silk tabards over his armor, obviously an officer.
Cavalry from the fort
An officer speaks with the party
The men ride up alongside the party, but do not draw their weapons. The officier speaks to them in a thickly-accented Common, asking them who they are and what they are doing. Ember whispers to Thrud while Morgan scowls. Thrud explains that they were caravan guards but they became separated from their caravan. The soldiers begin to talk excitedly among themselves in Alaysian until the officer barks at them. He establishes that they are from the caravan, the one that was lost to the desert some five weeks ago. They ask whether there have been other survivors, and he replies, “Yes, I am being told there are some others, but not many.” He does not offer specifics. Abruptly, he ends the conversation with “You will be allowing us to escort you to Sulba, yes?” His tone implies that they do not have much choice.
It is just a short distance beyond the fort that the fields start, and Sulba is not far beyond that. This is a large trade center of several thousand people, a walled city, the largest they have seen since leaving Parsa over a month ago. The buildings are rough mud-brick but two and three stories high. As they approach they can see the great white tower of the mosque, sacred to the faithful of Al-Khalim.
The fields outside the oasis and trading center of Sulba
Sulba, with the white minaret of the great mosque of Al-Khalim
Traffic is backed up outside the western gate of Sulba, with the guards checking the bundles on donkeys, camels, and in wagons. Men in dark robes question the traders and make notes on scrolls. One man in silks holds a leather bag – he is surrounded by a half-dozen guards and is collecting money from a merchant at the moment. Despite the queue, when the cavalry officer rides up, he has only to speak briefly with the gate captain and the party is waved through. Heads turn and stare at the party, and continue to do so as they enter the crowded streets of the city.
They pass several open-air markets, some selling household goods, some livestock, and a large central one that is obviously a traders’ market for caravan goods brought from afar. Turning up a side-street they pass many inns and ascend a slight hill. Morgan notes that men in uniform patrol the rooftops, perhaps one or two per block. The smell of cooking meats, exotic spices, and fresh fruit in the marketplace is a sore temptation for the party that has lived on mushroom-meal and cricket-jerky for a month.
They arrive at the “Spreading Palm”, an inn indistinct from a dozen they passed, but tucked discreetly away at the end of a quiet residential street. The innkeeper emerges and has a brief conversation with the horse officer. Bhelgarn strains to understand them, but while modern Alaysian shares many sounds and written characters with Cyndician, a thousand years of divergent evolution has left little to no overlap in meaning or comprehension. At the conclusion, the officer tells them, “Do not worry about the charge, after your ordeal in the desert, you are guests of the city.”
The innkeeper smiles broadly and bids them enter. They find no one else in the common room. “Are there no other guests?” asks Morgan, forgetting that she is not supposed to speak – or does this not count as public? The innkeeper does not seem to take offense, and smiles again.
“Just you, just you, verry comfortable, verry good dinner!” he assures them, then shouts to the kitchen in Alaysian. He ushers the party upstairs and shows them two rooms, “One for the men, one for the women and girrrel, of course.” Each bedroom has a window fitted with a wooden lattice screen, so that the breeze can enter but they cannot be seen from the street – or the rooftops?
From the courtyard below comes the bleat of a goat being killed. “Mmm. Dinner,” says Morgan. “Best thing that’s happened all day. Let’s order some beer…or palm wine, I guess.”
Ember shakes her head, then explains that the Ylauri don’t drink, or smoke, or gamble – at least in public, and she doesn’t know whether the inn is considered “public”. Morgan curses. “I don’t know what’s worse – that they are obviously keeping us prisoner here, or that we have to follow their stupid religious laws.”
She shakes her head to clear it, then whispers. “OK, they intend to hold us hear, but are going through a facade of courtesy. So we play along. Unpack your things, but not too well. We’ll have dinner, then talk more.”
It is agreed that Bhelgarn and Thrud will go to the market while dinner is being prepared – ostensibly to buy head scarves, but more to test the limits of their hosts’ control over their movements. FluffyKitten is already gone – but is later spotted playing with the children in the kitchen.
Bhelgarn and Thrud go downstairs, and announce that they will be headed for the market. The innkeeper makes no move to stop them, but does send a serving boy with them, “to carry anything they buy, and to help them returrn to the inn, should they stay out afterr darrk.”
In the kitchen, FluffyKitten tries to play with the children, but the women yell at them. Then she promises to help prepare the meal, and gets the children to show her their duties. In a short time she is both helping them and picking up words in Alaysian and is permitted to stay. Fluffy does not speak any language but Halfling well, but she has an incredible ability to rapidly acquire a smattering of phrases in any tongue.
The smell of dinner cooking wafts up to the party in their rooms above, making it hard to wait. Servants bring in heavily-sugared mint tea. Finally, shortly after Bhelgarn and Thrud return, dinner is served in the common room below. The food is placed on a low table surrounded by stuffed leather cushions – there are no chairs. There is seasoned goat meat, rice wrapped in fig leaves, couscous with nuts, copious amounts of tea, small round unleavened bread, humus, and a tabouleh salad. Everyone eats with gusto. Bhelgarn has asked the innkeeper to eat with them, and Ember makes sure to let the head serving woman know how much the food is appreciated. There is no need to dissemble there – everyone relishes the meal and eats until they are uncomfortably full.
After the meal the party relaxes on the cushions, with Bhelgarn plying the innkeeper in conversation. Ember and Fluffy make a show of helping to clear the table, but once in the kitchen Ember speaks with the head serving woman while Fluffy helps the children in their chores. Morgan discusses, loudly, with the rest of the party preparations to return to Parsa, and thence to Selenica.
Bhelgarn tries to get the innkeeper to talk about the caravan, but he is politely evasive, saying only that most of the people and all of the goods were lost – a few survivors did make it to Sulba weeks ago, but he has no idea where they are now. When Bhelgarn comments that the party is getting a lot of strange looks in the streets, he is happy to change the subject. He tells Bhelgarn that the people are surprised to see the dwarf together with the nordic people, Thrud and Ember, as there are rumors of difficulties between those people in the north. When Bhelgarn presses him for details, he says that he does not know much, only that the dwarves of Rockhome are rumored to be growing increasingly hostile with the human nations of the north.
Ember has more luck with the head serving woman. She mentions that the survivors of the caravan were all quartered at this inn when they arrived in Sulba many weeks ago, including a great merchant captain. She does not remember his “funny foreign name” but admits that it might have been Haldimar when Ember suggests it. They stayed here several days, before being taken away by soldiers of the Emir. When Ember says that the loss of the caravan seems to be a great tragedy, the woman opines that surely Al-Khalim was punishing the caravan for containing so many infidels. When asked why the party is receiving all of the strange looks, the woman suggests that Morgan with her arms and armor, shockingly tall and with flaming hair, is attracting too much attention.
Fluffy asks the children where they sleep – and most reply their mothers’ houses but there is one urchin among them who tells her he sleeps on the rooftops – that all the orphan children of Sulba do so. It is easy, he says, you just have to know which rooftops are patrolled and which are not, when the families of the houses below go to bed, and so forth. Some of them even have gardens and the urchins can find food! The children ask Fluffy whether she is an infidel, and she asks them to tell her about their faith. One of the girls says that the party, like everyone else in the caravan, is being punished because they refuse to acknowledge Al-Khalim as the One True God. Fluffy extracts promises from the children that they will come early in the morning to play with her, and bring her some token of their faith.
The party retires upstairs as the call to prayer goes through the city. They listen to the sounds of conversation below as the servants clean the kitchen and prepare to leave. At one point the innkeeper is heard shouting heatedly at the head serving woman. Gradually people leave and the sounds die down – the innkeeper and his family retire to the private rooms across an interior courtyard at the back of the inn.
The party holds a hushed conversation; Bhelgarn, Fluffy, and Ember sharing what they have learned. It is agreed that they cannot stay here – they could be turned over to the forces of the Emir in the morning – for what, they don’t know, but don’t intend to find out. Morgan and Wolfbane have rested enough since arriving at the inn to memorize spells, and both of them select invisibility. The plan is to render everyone in the party invisible, then slip out one at a time over the next several hours, make their way through the night streets to the east gate, and wait for it to open at (hopefully) dawn. They can make four people invisible to start, and then rest until after midnight to do the next set, with themselves being last. FluffyKitten refuses, saying that she is meeting with the children in the morning, but will find them. Ember warns her that if she is not at the east gate when it opens, they are leaving without her, and Fluffy agrees. Everyone packs as silently as possible, and Fluffy’s gear is divided between them.
At one per hour, invisible party members slip out of the inn throughout the night (around 10pm, 11pm, midnight, 1 am, 2am, 3am, and both Morgan and Wolfbane together at 4am) The door exiting the the common room to the street is locked, but it is an easy climb through the window that opens from the kitchen on to the interior courtyard, and there is a gate next to the stable that is bolted on the inside but not locked. Poncherius waits outside the gate for Bhelgarn, so by ones and twos all of them find their way through the streets to the east gate. Soldiers still guard the rooftops, fewer at night but present, but they are not heard. FluffyKitten bolts the gate behind the final pair of Morgan and Wolfbane and then returns to bed.
In the morning, Fluffy is woken before dawn by the sounds of the kitchen staff arriving and she goes downstairs to play with the children. One of them has a set of prayer beads for her, but has only taught her the first few lines of the prayer in Alaysian when there is the sound of many booted feet in the street. A squadron of soldiers is outside the inn, blocking both the common entrance and the courtyard gate. Their officer calls out, summoning the innkeeper.
Soldiers surround the inn
The officer speaks with the innkeeper
The innkeeper hastily unlocks the front door, and soldiers fill the common room downstairs. Fluffy can hear the heavy tramp of boots going up the stairs, and knocking at the door of the party’s rooms. When there is no response, the knocking turns to pounding and shouting. Fluffy asks the children who can hide her at their home, but their eyes grow wide with fear and a few stammer that they cannot defy the Emir. Fluffy nods, and tells them to play tag with her outside. The children leave the kitchen in a swarm, open the courtyard gate. The soldiers swat playfully at them, but do not seem to notice Fluffy among them in her local robe. The men move into the courtyard and bolt the gate behind them. Fluffy runs with the cover of the pack to the end of the street, then tells them to go back to the inn. As the sky turns gray, she makes her way to the open plaza in the center of the city. A caravan is assembling, but its destination is Parsa – and there seem to be no other caravans forming. Fluffy travels to the east gate. It is not open, but travelers are assembling outside of it already. There are no large caravans, but many individual traders, a few men leading groups of four or five camels or donkeys at most. The route from Sulba to Ylaruam City is in the heart of the Emir’s realm, well-patrolled, and free enough of bandits and raiders that such “small-time” travelers feel safe, even those without hired guards.
As FluffyKitten wanders about those preparing to depart, she hears Morgan. “Ssst! Fluffy! Get over by that wagon!” A large family group, several men and even more wives, are forming up near the gate, and one more child may not be noticed with the number running about there – hopefully each family will think Fluffy belongs to a nearby group.
Shortly after dawn the gates are opened. Soldiers wave the people through – apparently much less interested in what is leaving the city than what is coming in. Groups of soldiers form lines outside, preventing the entry of those who arrived after the gates closed the previous night and had to camp outside. The party members are unseen, but not unheard, and all are in danger of tripping over one another. Each one selects a creaky wagon or bellowing camel to walk behind, so as to cover the noise of their clanking armor and clinking coins.
The first half hour of travel is a sea of people and beasts, but slowly the travelers sort themselves out, the faster pulling away from the slower, and the gaps between groups increase. It will not be long before Fluffy is seen as not belonging to the group that she is with. At the first village they pass, there is a well and a small market, including a place selling camels. Odleif waits until Fluffy is under the awning of a stall, then holds her there. When he thinks no one is looking, he shakes her, shouting at her, “Girl, girl! I told you to wait for your father!” He is now visible, but his sudden appearance does not seem to be noticed by those around, busy haggling over market goods or jostling for position at the well.
The pair of “father and daughter” take their time looking over goods in the market until most of the travelers have left, then steer their way to the camels. In a mixed babble of Alaysian, Common, Darokite, and Cyndiciean, Fluffy explains to the owner that she will negotiate on the behalf of her poor, mute father.
The camel vendor showing Odleif and Fluffy his animals
Fluffy explains that they will be requiring four camels, and pack saddles, and enough grain for the camels to make it to Ylaruam City. The man is happy to oblige. Once the beasts are picked out, Odleif shows the man a small handful of gems, and then the haggling begins. The price is finally set at either three of the gems, or two of the gems and 50 coins of gold. Odleif elects the three gems and the trade is made.
Odlief sets Fluffy on the back of one of the camels to test how docile they are, and they seem accustomed to being ridden. He makes sure they have drunk their fill from the trough next to the well before leading them out into the desert on the trail.
Once they believe they are alone, the party begins to speak freely. They plan on buying another four camels at the next possible venue. Everyone sorts through their gold coins, most of which are Cyndician, and trade the Darokite and Alaysian ones to Ember for her party Cyndiciean coins on a one-to-basis, until she has a pool of coins that can be spent without arousing suspicion.
It is supposed to be a two-day journey to Ylaruam City, but with the time spent haggling over camels in the two villages on the first day, it is midway through the third day when the walls of the great city can be seen. The party has long since run out of their own waterskins, and has been living off of Odleif’s stockpile. Even this would not have lasted another day, however, so they are happy to find the city. The trip from Sulba was uneventful. Certainly there were lots of soldiers riding up and down the caravan trail, but none bothered to stop the old mute man and his daughter leading the camel train.
As they approach Ylaruam City, everyone is impressed by the size. Thrud and Ember have been here before, but the others are unprepared for the massive city surrounded by green fields in the middle of the desert. The size rivals that of Darokin City, the point of reference for most of them, and it is certainly far larger than Selenica.
Ylaruam City, the jewel of the Alaysian Desert
As they pass through the outlying villages on the trail leading to the city, the number of foreigners, both soldiers and merchants, grows. At the point in which Morgan feels that they will not stick out, the party drops their invisibility. There are even a few female mercenaries among the foreigners, though with headscarves. Certainly this seems like a much more cosmopolitan place than Sulba.
Ylaruam City has a large foreign quarter, and they head directly there, finding the “Weeping Camel”, a comfortable inn with two private rooms and stabling for their beasts. Morgan strides into the common room and yells for ale. When a serving wench brings her a flagon without anyone staring or batting an eye, she smiles. “Yes,” she says to the party, “we stay here.”
Immediately after unpacking they begin to discuss their next move, and FluffyKitten disappears. Bhelgarn finds “Little Dwarfton” and inquires about the rumors of hostility with the northmen. He has a quick dinner upon his return, then he and Thrud are dispatched to try to find an appraiser for their gems. Morgan hangs out in the common room all afternoon, drinking and listening to conversations. Fluffy has recruited a group of beggar children to show her over the rooftops to the business office of Hallonica Trading House, and given them a gold for their trouble.
In Dwarfton, Bhelgarn learns that the “human troubles” are confined to the nation of Vestland, and the Duchy of Rhoona at that. Rhoona has long been friends and allies with Rockhome. There is a young, new duke, “Stefan Rhoona” on the throne, and when he ascended, he began an ambitious program of civic improvements, utilizing dwarven engineers and workers to construct bridges and foundries. However, some months ago he stopped paying the workers. The dwarves have remained in Rhoona, hoping to negotiate payment, but tensions are rising. Rockhome has been putting pressure on the other nordic nations to sanction Rhoona until the duke pays his debts.
On Jeweler’s Row, Thrud and Bhelgarn find an old man whose shop is still open, even after others are closing in the evening. He agrees to look over their gems in return for 11gp. They start with five gems, and after he has looked at them, they show him a lot of twenty. His eyes go wide, and he clears his throat. He speaks loudly, so that the folk still passing by in the street can hear. “Given your armaments, good sirs, doubtless you are adventurers. I am happy to appraise your treasures, be let it be known that I will not buy anything unless you can show me you have paid the Emir’s tax.” They take their leave.
The city at sunset
At Hallonica House, Fluffy argues her way past a guard and speaks to a merchant. Learning that they are from the caravan, he is most interested in meeting the party, and asks her to bring them at once. She claims not to remember where they are staying, eats honeycake and drinks wine, and when she leaves takes to the rooftops until she is sure she is not being followed.
In the common room, Morgan overhears one man say to another, “So, how long do you suppose old Haldimar can hold out?” She tries to insinuate herself in the conversation, but receives a “This is a private conversation – who the hells are you?”
“Someone with a fat purse who prefers not to drink alone.” The men begrudgingly allow her to join them, so long as she is buying. They are taciturn at first, but their tongues become more lively with each round. A month ago, she learns, the caravan arrived in Sulba – or at least what was left of it. Haldimar, a few merchants, and handful of guards, and no merchandise. It was a total and complete loss. After a few days in Sulba, all of the survivors were taken to the palace of the Emir. Most of them have been released, but Haldimar remains. Rumors are that he has something the Emir wants, some kind of information, but is refusing to turn it over. Most people believe that he is now held in Ylaruam City, but even that is not certain.
When FluffyKitten returns to the inn, well after dinner and near dark, she tries to get Morgan to come with her to merchant house. Morgan is angered that the halfling went off by herself. She is also too drunk to want to leave the inn tonight. Fluffy is incensed that she has set up an interview and Morgan refuses to leave. Ember has to intercede to calm things down, explaining to Morgan that Fluffy took steps to make sure she was not followed and making Morgan promise to go first thing in the morning.
After breakfast the next morning, Morgan goes to Hallonica House. She is received cordially and speaks privately with the ranking house head. He explains the situation thusly: Hallonica House pays the Emir to protect their caravans from bandits. Haldimar alleges that it was not the sandstorm that disrupted the caravan, but a bandit attack afterwords. If that was true, then the Emir is responsible for the loss and will have to make restitution to the house – which will be tens of thousands of gp, perhaps approaching a hundred thousand if the beasts are included and pensions for the men who perished are paid. If, on the other hand, the caravan was destroyed by the sandstorm, that is an “act of the gods”, and Hallonica House must eat the loss. Obviously each side has a huge financial stake in the issue. The guards and merchants released all swore that it was the sandstorm, and Haldimar’s failure in leadership thereafter, which resulted in the loss. However, several of them later recanted in private to the House, telling tales not only of a bandit raid, but that the bandits were not human. They claimed that they were short, bipedal but tailed, creatures who rose up from the sand during and after the storm. They say that their public swearing to the contrary was the condition of their release.
Hallonica house is confident that if Haldimar is allowed to testify at a trial in Selenica, they will win a judgement in their favor, but they cannot do so as long as the Emir holds him at an undisclosed location. They have tried asking the Darokite national government to force a trial, but the central government is dominated by the Mauntea House, which does not have a strong incentive to compensate the Hallonica House at the expense of their relationship with the Emir.
The merchant master pleads with Morgan for information about the fate of the caravan, but she can only say that they were separated from the caravan just before the sandstorm struck, so they really do not know the truth of the matter. However, Remmy the caravan guard claimed that he witnessed the bandit attack. The merchant is keen to find Remmy, who could corroborate Haldimar’s claim. Morgan provides a name and description, but can only say that the party is interested in reconnecting with him as well.
Morgan asks him about what is going on in Rockhome. He says that there is some sort of local disagreement between the Duke of Rhoona and the dwarves of Rockhome. The dwarves have been threatening the Vestland with an outright boycott and the other nordic nations with price increases if they do not take their side against the Rhoonese. The situation is one of increasing tension and insecurity. Morgan comments that both the situation with the Emir, and the situation with the Dwarves, is leading to a disruption of trade, and the merchant agrees.
Map of Ylaruam City and surroundings