Secrets of Mystara

Post 41 - Feints and Parries

Feints and Parries

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Ninmonth 19 (second full day since the expulsion of the dwarves)

Morning
When Morgan and Thrud arrive back at the barracks, Morgan gives the briefest of reports to the Captain of the Day – “Patrolled the whole city, no citizens in non-compliance with the edict.” The Captain can see how exhausted she is, and tells her to go get some sleep and come back later in the day for a debriefing. He mentions that she will likely be leading a patrol again this night as well, so aside from the meeting in his office at her convenience, she and Thrud are off-duty for the day.

By the time they get back to the tavern, Dahlia is already busily at work on breakfast. While Thrud undoes his bedroll in the common room, Morgan drags herself wearily upstairs. Wolfbane and Ember are both awake; Ember kneeling in fervent prayer (having inexplicably woken visible), Wolfbane trying to memorize spells from her spellbook balanced precariously on top of a tiny end-table that Dahlia must use as a vanity (to judge by the basin she has set aside and the piece of burnished metal hung nearby that serves as a mirror). Morgan strips and tries to climb into bed but becomes entangled with Fluffykitten and has to waste several minutes sorting out whose side of the bed is whose with the sleepy halfling.

Downstairs, Thrud is sleeping and only Odleif and Poncherius are awake and visible. Odleif takes it upon himself to both pay Dahlia for the day and keep encouraging her to increase the portions for breakfast, assuring her that some of the others are upstairs, and some are already about town on errands. “Yer hain’t found nuthin but empty pots, have yer?” he says to clinch his argument. After she leaves, everyone but Morgan and Thrud set to breakfast enthusiastically. The rest of the morning is spent in quiet conversation and tending to gear.

It is nearly noon when Morgan comes down the stairs, to be greeted by everyone tucking in to the cold lunch Dahlia left out. She fills her trencher but hasn’t even sat down yet when an aged, quavery voice comes from outside: “Alms, alms for the poor…”

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Ember flies to the window and opens one shutter just enough to see the street. While there is plenty of foot traffic in sight, the only person close to Dahlia’s is an old beggar man, stooped and leaning on a staff. “Alms!” he cries again, to no one in particular, while shuffling down the street.

Ember opens the shutter all the way, but Morgan goes to the window and takes a silver coin from Ember’s hand. She holds out the coin and beckons the man closer. “Hey gramps, what say you tell us about the duke?” she calls. As he hobbles closer, she watches carefully, with the practiced eye of caravan guard master. She’s had plenty of experience separating actual beggars from thieves playing the part. Morgan notes that while he is dirty, his robe tattered and foul-smelling, his posture stooped, he seems hale and hearty enough – his eyes are bright, his teeth stained but intact, his face neither gaunt from hunger nor puffy from drink.

“Oh, the new duke, he’s a fine young man, upstanding like his late father,” the beggar says in a loud but quavering voice. “Worldly, well-read, always the best interests of his people at heart.” The man holds out a chipped wooden bowl expectantly, but he is looking in Morgan’s eyes, not at the coin.

Morgan lowers her voice so it does not carry. “And what about his recent edicts – has he been acting odd of late, or has he always been like this?”

The man leans in close and takes the coin from her, whispers in a breath that reeks of fish, “Seek your answers in the lair of Draco.” With no further word he turns and shuffles off down the street.

Morgan closes the shutter. “Lair of Draco, huh? Now would that be the palace, or the guard barracks? I guess Thrud and I have the barracks.”

“I’ll go to the palace!” squeaks invisible Fluffy, mouth full of cheese and sausage.

Over lunch the plan is made. Morgan will report to the barracks for her debriefing, while Thrud and his “thrall” Poncherius move his things into his new room there. Bhelgarn, invisible, will follow them, and see what he can find in Draco’s private quarters. Meanwhile, Ember and Wolfbane will seek more assistance in the Temple of Forsetta, FluffyKitten will continue to poke around the palace and hopefully confirm whether the duke is actually there, and Odleif will visit the wharves, scouting for a ship that could get them out of the city, fast, if they end up kidnapping His Grace. After she has finished eating, Wolfbane casts invisibility first on FluffyKitten, and then on herself.

Afternoon

Thrud, Morgan, Poncherius, Bhelgarn
Thrud and Morgan make their way across the street to the barracks, Poncherius behind them carrying all of Thrud’s gear, and invisible Bhelgarn last. Morgan seeks admittance to the office of the Captain of the Day (25), while Thrud and Pocherius go to a room (23) across the hall from the Captain that an officer indicates to them. They find the room bare except for an undyed woolen blanket over a wooden bed, and a simple table, and chair.

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In the captain’s office, Morgan is unnerved to find Wyman once again in attendance. He listens patiently while she gives a more complete report to the captain, saying nothing but casually stroking his thin mustache the entire time. When she has finished responding to the captain’s questions, he begins.

“As valuable as your services are in guiding our patrols on these lightless nights,” he says in gilded tones, “it is time to begin planning the defense of the city. Your magic may prove key. Can you give us some examples of what spells you can cast?”

Web,” mumbles Morgan reluctantly. “Magic Missile.”

“Indeed!” enthuses Wyman. “Those will certainly be of great use in defending a fixed position. What of spells that might be used for scouting?”

Morgan shrugs. “I’m not that accomplished, actually – I’m far better with a blade than I am slinging spells.”

Perhaps growing tired of the dance, Wyman locks eyes with her and asks directly, “Can you cast invisibility?”

Morgan nods.

“Excellent,” Wyman beams. “My Lord Draco will be most pleased to hear this. Perhaps you will accompany me to give him the news in person?” Morgan’s stomach is saying “no!” but her head reminds her that she is supposed to be seeking answers in the lair of Draco. She nods again.

“Excccelent,” preens Wyman. He stands and carefully adjusts his cloak while murmuring to the captain. Morgan exits between him and the Captain, and calls for Thrud. At this point, having few things to unpack and fewer places to put them, Thrud is sitting on his bed, and quickly gets up to follow. Poncherius has been led away by Bhelgarn to the entry room (12) to stand in front of a door he wants to slip through. As Morgan and Thrud approach, Poncherious looks nervously between them and the door he is guarding.

Morgan hisses to Thrud, “tell him to stay.”

“Thrall!” bellows Thrud in Common. “Stay here until I return.” He points to the floor.

“Yes,” says Poncherius amiably, his voice muffled by his bronze mask.

When Morgan and Thrud emerge with Wyman to the courtyard below, there is already a double-squad assembled – over a dozen men and two sergeants. At a word from the captain, they form into two groups, one in front and one behind, and march thusly with Morgan, Thrud, and Wyman out of the southwest gate and toward the palace.

Bhelgarn and Poncherius
Once Poncherius has carried all of Thrud’s gear to his new room, Bhelgarn pulls him aside and whispers in Cyndician, “come with me”. Morgan learned on the previous day that the east door off of the entry room (12) leads to the Lord High Commander’s chambers. Positioning Poncherius in front of the door so as to block the sight of it opening and closing, Bhelgarn tells him to stay there as he slips through.

The room beyond (30) is sparsely furnished and contains only a table, four chairs, and two benches. A tapestry depicting a longship riding out a stormy sea hangs on the outside wall. The shutters are closed, but there is enough light for Bhelgarn to see clearly. There is one other door, at the far end of the room, and Bhelgarn listens at it, but does not hear anything.

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Swallowing once, Bhelgarn eases open the door and slips through into the much larger room beyond (31). A long table with fourteen ornate, straight-backed chairs occupies the center of the room. Six soft armchairs are in the corners, a buffet with a collection of fine silver and crystal tableware stands against one wall, and a long trophy case is opposite it. To the north is an open archway leading to a kitchen area, and Bhelgarn can now hear low voices there, speaking in Nordic. From where he stands in the doorway, he cannot see anyone, so he trusts that they did not see the door open and close, either. Near the door he entered through, on the same wall, is another door, though that one is likely within the view of the kitchen.

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Bhelgarn moves slowly across the wooden floor, hoping he is not betrayed by a creak or groan. He stands in front of the trophy case. There are five bottles, presumably of wine, four paintings, and two exquisitely crafted rugs that look to be of Alaysian origin.

Bhelgarn moves to near where the archway opens on to the kitchen and listens. Though he does not understand the words, he takes the tone of the speech to be that of idle conversation, involving at least two older men and a woman. Taking a deep breath, he looks into the kitchen (32). Around a large, worn table sit two old men and two women in the garments of servants – drab and worn, but respectable. Behind them is a large pantry tucked into an alcove. An oven and a water hand pump are placed around the room.

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Bhelgarn crosses the open space of the archway and moves along the wall to the door. The archway completely blocks the sight of the door from three of the servants. If he opens the door, it could be seen by one of the men – if he were looking that way. Since the man appears to be involved in the conversation, Bhelgarn decides to chance it. Heart pounding, he opens the door and slips inside, but leaves it slightly ajar behind him.

This room (33) has only interior walls, no windows, and is unlit. Bhelgarn gives himself a minute for his eyes to adjust and use his infravision. The shapes of two large chairs, a desk with a simple chair, and two bookshelves come in to view. A cold strip at the base of the wall indicates another door. Bhelgarn cautiously tries the door, but finds it locked. It is wooden and could easily be dismantled, but not without making enough noise to be heard in the kitchen.

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Bhelgarn hesitates, then goes back to collect Poncherius. Slipping out of the office and back through the dining room and reception room are easy enough. He eases the final door open and whispers, “Poncherius?”

“Yes.”

“Slip inside – but only if no one is out there to see you.”

Poncherius enters and follows Bhelgarn to the dining chamber, waiting for him to give the go-ahead when the man in the kitchen is looking away. This time Bhelgarn closes the office door behind them and lights his sword. He quickly explains that the other door of the room is locked, and he needs Poncherius to open it. Poncherius examines the lock, frowning underneath his mask. The door is wooden, but the strike plate is of heavy metal and has multiple cylinders inside. He turns back to the desk, sifting through the mess of papers until he finds a short, thin blade – probably for cutting quills. Poncherius is unhurried in his work on the lock, guided by feel, as Bhelgarn guards the door to the dining room, sweating. Finally there is a soft snap, followed by a curse in Cyndician that Bhelgarn does not yet know. Looking over, he sees the door open, but Poncherius holding the blade and handle, irreparably separated from each other.

“You know, this would be easier if you would get me these [lock picks] you talk about,” Poncherius says in Cyndician except for “lock picks”, for which there seem to be no words.

Ignoring him, Bhelgarn shines his sword into the long hall (34) beyond.

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The unusual room has a lush layer of furs on the floor. White and black bearskins, dire wolf hides, and the skins of all of the great cats have been piled throughout the room. Along one wall, posed so as to almost appear real, is the skin and mounted head of a red dragon. Along the opposite wall are mounted the heads of wild boars, a giant, several dwarves, some sort of great black cat, and an individual owl bear, troll, unicorn, and woolly rhinocerous.

Bhelgarn crosses the room – his fear at getting caught replaced with terror at the sight of the severed heads of his kinsmen. The way their twisted faces are lit from below is not helping, nor is the soft, yielding furs under his feet that make him feel unsteady. The far door is locked as well, and Bhelgarn resolves not to look up on the way back. He again stands guard at the door to the dining room while Poncherius goes over the desk – this time opening drawers. “No more knives,” he says at the end, “but perhaps we could use this?” He holds forth a black iron key retrieved from the bottom drawer.

The key fits neatly in the far door of the trophy room, and it opens upon a bedroom (35).

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The large bedroom contains a huge and richly quilted bed, a table with four chairs, a number of tapestries, and a large wardrobe closet. On the table is a full bottle of wine and two crystal goblets. The tapestries illustrate battle and sailing scenes in great detail, and feature prominently the exploits of a tall, black-bearded warrior with a “D’ emblazoned on the front of his tunic.

Poncherius searches the wardrobe while Bhelgarn looks over the outer room. The closet contains a full suit of plate mail, leather armor, and a dozen ornate robes. All of these are emblazoned with an elaborate “D". Bhelgarn finds nothing in the room, so he bids Poncherius search the walls for secret doors while he does the same.

Behind a tapestry on the far wall, Bhelgarn feels a curious loose knot in the pineboard. When he presses it, hidden catches release, opening a small door. He has to step over a high threshold into the small, secret chamber beyond (36).

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Three chests with heavy iron padlocks are stacked at one end of the narrow room, and a small writing table and chair are at the far end. A piece of parchment is on the table. Bhelgarn examines the parchment and finds it covered with a curious, indecipherable code. Folding the parchment and tucking it inside his shirt, he pulls on Poncherius’ sleeve. Poncherius gestures at the chests. “Not today,” says Bhelgarn, shaking his head. We are here for information, not wealth, and I’m not spending a minute more than we need to. If that parchment don’t have what Morgan and Ember are looking for, I’ll eat my boots."

Bhelgarn tries to hide any trace of their presence. The key Poncherius carries is used to lock the bedroom and office doors, then returned to the desk, the broken pen knife hidden under the papers. They make it back out to the entry hall without being seen by the kitchen servants, and Poncherius is halfway across the courtyard outside the barracks building before he is stopped by a guard.

“Din master er på slottet. Skal du tilbage til Dahlia værtshus?” the guard asks.

“Yes,” replies Poncherius.

When Poncherius and Bhelgarn enter Dahlia’s, they are the only ones there.

[Note: this is the end of the play session on 9/30/16]

FluffyKitten, Morgan, and Thrud
Fluffy leaves the tavern at the same time the others do, but goes directly to the palace. Invisible, she has no trouble arriving there – but how will she get in? There is enough of a lip to the gutter at the roof line that she should be able to catch her grappling hook on it, so she goes to the rear of the palace where the fewest eyes are, since her hook and rope will be visible once thrown.

She climbs to the roof easily enough, just in time as the sound of marching boots on the stone courtyard informs her of a patrol passing below. She decides to wait and count muffins in her head and is at more than 50 dozen when the boots come by again. It seems the patrols are passing every ten minutes today – more frequently than yesterday. She begins to scrabble up the back roof slope, but it is hard going. The slates are new and slick, and the roof itself steep. She climbs up to the peak without mishap, but has a scary moment after going over as she slides uncontrollably down the front slope, catching herself on a sea serpent gargoyle head at the lip just before falling over the edge. Looking over, she finds the window to the mistress’ room, so she takes time to set her hook well, and then lowers herself down to the sill. She finds the window latched from the inside, even though they deliberately left it unlatched when they used the window as their exit yesterday. She pulls herself back up to the roof and moves her hook over to Mr. Duke’s room, then lowers herself down again.

The large room (107) is messy and dirty inside, with clothes on the floor. The door to another room across from the window stands open, and there are two closed doors on the side walls. A bare writing table is against the wall and an overturned chair is next to it. The bed is against the wall of the window. A bedraggled figure is visible on the huge bed. He is not confined in any way that she can see, but is mostly under the covers with his knees up against his chest, trembling. His hair is matted and messy.

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Fluffy tries to open the window, but it is latched from the inside. She raps on a pane, and he turns to look, but does not leave the bed. Remembering that she is invisible, she wonders how she can get him to come to the window and then convince him to open the latch. Won’t the others be impressed when she manages to kidnap Mr. Duke all by herself! She is struck by an idea – who wouldn’t want to rescue a cat? She opens the sack she keeps her cat in and pulls Mr. Scruffy, Jr., out, helping it find a place on the sill next to her. She raps again on the glass. This time, when the duke looks over, there is a shock of recognition in his eyes. He throws back the covers (revealing that he is clad in a dirty nightgown) and dashes over to the window. Pawing and scratching at the glass, he barks ferociously at the cat, but ignores the latch. Mr. Scruffy Jr. arches its back and hisses, with all its hair standing on end. At this, the duke barks even louder, and now Fluffy can hear the harsh Nordic voices of men calling from outside the room. She forces the cat back into her sack and quickly climbs up the rope, pulling it up behind her even as someone else comes to the window to see what Mr. Duke is barking at.

Fluffy sits with her bum in the stone rain gutter and her legs dangling over the edge, kicking at the air as she thinks. Far off by the fountain is another guard patrol, but this one is larger, and at least one of the people in it is not a guard. As they approach she can see that the not-guard is a tall man in black leather. Next to him, though, are Thrud and Morgan! They have tried to fool her by dressing in the tabards of the guard, but she sees through their disguise! She waves frantically at them to let them know that she sees them, but they don’t look up – or maybe it is because she is still invisible. Drat. Anyway, she has to find a way inside.

She climbs back up to the roofline. The back half of the roof has three big brick chimneys. When she first came up, all three were putting out smoke, so she did not even consider them, but one of them now is not. Well, it worked in the temple…

Even before she enters the chimney, just looking down inside, she can see the problem. This chimney is much bigger the one at the temple, and she will be hard-pressed to stretch across and push on both walls. Fluffy asks herself whether she has any better ideas, and is not surprised when she answers no. Checking that all her sacks are on tight, she lowers herself into the hole. By stretching way out, she can touch both walls, but only with her hands and feet. The walls are slick with soot, and halfway down she slips and falls, all the way down to the smoke shelf, landing with an “oof!” and a big owie. She takes just a moment to sniffle. Ember isn’t here to look at the owie so she will just have to keep going. From the shelf she can see a bit into the kitchen and hear more. There are lots of cookie men there and they talk to each other as they work. It will be hard to slip out of the hearth without being seen. She needs a distraction.

Fluffy opens her sack and takes out Mr. Scruffy Jr., who seems to be working hard for dinner today. She lowers it down off the shelf, then lets it drop into the ashes of the hearth. Scruffy immediately wails, for underneath the ash the coals are uncomfortably hot, and its paws are burned. The cat dashes out into the kitchen, still wailing, as Fluffy drops down into the hearth, scattering a big cloud of ashes. Fortunately all three cookie men are yelling and chasing Mr. Scruffy Jr. She is almost to the door of the kitchen (84) when one of them turns and points at her. Well, not at her, but at the clear boot-prints in ash she is leaving across the clean kitchen floor. The cookie men drop their pursuit of the cat and rush at her, but she is out of the door before they can grab her.

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Morgan and Thrud are marched through the city to the palace. All the way, Wyman is making ingratiating conversation with them, as if they were not surrounded by guards. Walking across the plaza in front of the palace, Morgan catches sight of Fluffy’s grappling hook sticking out of the gutter at the roofline, but she makes sure she does not look up, so as not to alert anyone else.

On the porch, one of the squad leaders steps forward and knocks three times on the secret door. There is a muffled voice from inside, and he leans forward to whisper a password. Morgan strains her ears but does not hear it. The door opens.

Both Morgan and Thrud have carefully studied the floor plans of the palace drawn for them by Ember, so they are not surprised as they move into the guardroom. Wyman leaves half of their escort there, then continues through the servant’s corridor with them and just five guards. They pass out into the main palace, up the grand staircase, and pause outside what Morgan knows is the duke’s private dining room. Wyman excuses himself and enters the dining room while they wait in the hall. Morgan looks around casually, checking what she sees against her mental map. She recognizes the library door, the door to the mistress’ chambers, the (locked?) door to the room Fluffy and Bhelgarn explored the night before.

Several minutes later Wyman emerges, inviting Morgan and Thrud inside while the guard remains outside. They pass through the dining room and into a room (103) Ember saw but never entered.

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The comfortably furnished room is the height of royal luxury. A dozen soft chairs are placed around the room, and a small gaming table with four finely carved wooden chairs is in the middle. A plush carpet covers the floor, and three chandeliers hang from the ceiling. An ornate tapestry hangs across one wall of the room, depicting an earlier Duke of Rhoona’s victory over a tribe of hill giants many years ago. The bards still sing of that Duke’s victory – Thrud has heard the song. Besides themselves and Wyman, the room is empty except for a solitary man sitting at the table. He is a huge, bull-like figure, even sitting down. His black beard is parted by a wicked slash of a mouth, and an evil gleam is in his eyes. With no tabard or surcoat, a scarlet “D” can be seen emblazoned on his chain mail. This must be Draco.

Fluffy dashes out into the ballroom, the cooks close behind. She runs in broad loops and circles until her ash-tracks fade into nothing against the polished marble floor. Then, as the confused cooks give up pursuit and begin talking to the guards in the entrance hall, she throws her hook up to the balcony and climbs up to the second floor.

Wyman gestures magnanimously at the table, and Morgan takes a seat, followed by Wyman. Thrud stands impassively by the door of the room, and Draco give a grunt that Wyman interprets as acquiescence.

“My Lord Draco,” begins Wyman, “is very pleased with the two newest members of the Ducal Guard. It is unfortunate that you could not join us in better times. My Lord has asked you here to discuss a matter of national security.” Draco grunts again, and Morgan nods.

“I’m sure you will agree that our paramount concern is the safety of the Duke,” continues Wyman, and Morgan nods again. “This is why my Lord has moved his base of operations from the barracks to the palace – to stay close to His Grace and protect him at all times in this regretful war. Yesterday, we received several reports of suspicious activities here in the palace, perpetrated by one or more invisible individuals. Obviously this represents a grave threat to the safety of His Grace, and my Lord Draco has wisely instituted a number of counter-measures. However, as members of the Ducal Guard, we are charged with investigating the origin of this activity.”

Morgan has a sinking feeling in her stomach, but she forces herself to smile and nod in agreement as Wyman goes on.

“In all of Rhoona, there are only three people capable of casting invisibility. My Lord Draco keeps meticulous records on these matters, I can assure you. One of those casters is a member of the Ducal Guard – the other two are upstanding members of the community, and have independently corroborated accounts of where they were for the entirety of yesterday. And that is, of course, where you come in.”

Morgan has not practiced looking innocent much, but she does her best and says, “I don’t understand.”

Wyman sighs regretfully. "You are new here, an “unknown element”, as it were. And you told me not an hour ago that you can cast invisibility. Of course we don’t doubt your loyalty to the Duke, but it is precisely because of this loyalty that I am sure you will understand how your duty lies clearly in eliminating yourself from suspicion in this matter." Morgan looks at Wyman blankly. “We will go to where you and your companions are quartered, and you will turn over your spellbook to me. You will pass the evening – or longer – in the holding room at the barracks until we can determine who these intruders are in the palace.”

Now even Morgan cannot pretend to not understand. “Well, you can look at my spellbook,” she says, “but you won’t find invisibility there.”

A hint of a frown tugs at the corner of Wyman’s mouth, fighting with the ever-present smug smile. “But you said you could cast…”

“Oh, I can cast it, have cast it,” agrees Morgan. “I didn’t say I have it. Scrolls, you know. Things like that.”

“Nevertheless,” says Wyman resolutely, and Draco grunts. Wyman rises from his seat, and Morgan matches him.

FluffyKitten moves out into the second-floor hall. There are a number of guards about, including five standing in front of the dining room. From down the stairs come the excited shouts of more guards, and one of them is dashing up the stairs.

In the sitting room, everyone present can hear the commotion outside. Draco stands up abruptly, his chair falling over behind him on the carpet. He strides to the door, throws it open, and demands to know what is going on, the first words he has spoken. The single guard in the dining room says he does not know, prompting Draco to go to the far door, leaving Morgan, Thrud, and Wyman behind. Draco pauses at the far door, listening to reports. Everything is now in Nordic – Thrud tells Morgan later that he heard Draco say “sweep each room with buckets” and “bring me the cooks”.

Fluffy can see that the tall dark man in the doorway is a big meanie. All of the guardy men stand well clear of him – no one wants to be close. She can use that. She gets as close as she can to the doorway, to him, and then when he turns around she dashes through just before he slams the door. She follows in his wake across the room but then a silly guardy man collides with her and starts shouting.

Her? Bring flere spande!” bellows the meanie man.

There are two doors in the sitting room, Morgan can see – the one they came in, and one on the other side of the room. When Draco starts yelling, Wyman moves to the other door, blocking it with his body. The dining room door opens, and the squad that was waiting outside runs in, each grabbing at the air around them. Draco is blocking the doorway to the sitting room.

Into the chaos of the dining room scene arrives one servant, bearing a steaming, bubbling bucket of pitch, and a large brush. A second later, two guards come in, shoving a cook roughly before them.

“Pitch?” asks Morgan incredulously. “Do you know the mess that will make?”

Draco answers in Common. “Of course it will make a mess, woman, that’s the point. Whoever walks through it will leave messy sticky tracks until we can find them.”

Morgan swallows her pride for a moment. “My lord,” she says, laying one hand gently on Draco’s bicep, bulging beneath his chain. “Let me through for a moment. I will cast dispel magic on this hall, removing any invisibility. Then you won’t have to ruin the fine floor.”

Draco harrumphs. “Won’t ruin the floor, it will just need to be cleaned. That’s what servants are for.” But he gives way partially, and allows Morgan to slip by him, grinning lecherously as she is forced to press up against him. Fortunately for everyone involved, Morgan is distracted as she distinctly feels something small slip by her, on her way through the doorway.

A second later Thrud feels a tug on his breeches, then a small body ascending his massive frame like a child climbing a tree. “Iz Fluffy,” says a small voice in his ear. “You iz me new hidey-spot.”

Draco moves back to blocking the doorway while Morgan “casts” the spell. True, she does not know dispel magic, but she has seen it cast before and is pretty sure she remembers a few of the words, and even more confident that no one present will know the difference. When she is done, she peers about carefully. “No one invisible here,” she reports.

Draco scowls and orders the dining room cleared, the rest of the palace searched, but the cook brought in to the sitting room. He and Wyman resume their places at the table, while Thrud and Morgan stand nearby. Wyman’s place at the far door has been taken by a man in full plate and shield with a guard officer’s tabard, longsword drawn.

The cook explains in Nordic how a cat appeared in the kitchen, and following that, ash-prints in the kitchen and ballroom. He followed procedure in pursuing the prints and alerting the guards. Wyman asks him what the prints were like, and he says small, like a child’s.

“Or like a dwarf’s!” spits Draco. “Som jeg formodede – usynlige dværg snigmordere!”

After the cook is dismissed, Wyman and Draco continue to receive reports on the search of the palace. When nothing more appears to be happening and no intruders are found, Wyman gathers up Thrud and Morgan, several guards, and leaves.

Ember and Wolfbane
Before setting out from Dahlia’s, Ember takes quill and ink, and composes a message. “To the wise servants of Forsetta the Just – we continue our investigation, but are hampered by a lack of knowledge of the history of Rhoona. Can you tell us when the Temple to Cretia was built? Who is its head priest? What is the nature of its god? Is there a relationship between the church and Draco? How did Draco become the leader of the Ducal Guard?” When she finishes, Ember signs the paper by putting the single rune for Glöð.

After the ink has dried, Ember rolls up the paper and gives it to invisible Wolfbane. The two then leave the tavern and walk the block and a half to the Temple of Forsetta, all the way under the walls of the guard barracks.

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The plaza around the great temple is crowded with people. Several makeshift smithies have been set up, and the air is full of smoke. Townsfolk are bringing in their brassware plates and the smiths are folding and hammering them into service as braziers, or they are handing over copper pots and the smiths are fashioning lids. The wealthy are donating bags of coal for the temple to distribute, and poor families are lined up to receive their ration. Priests and priestesses of Forsetta are everywhere, helping with the distribution, and blessing those who are donating their goods or services so that all might pass the night warm but without open flames. Ember works her way slowly through the crowds toward the Temple proper, Wolfbane in her wake.

Ember waits outside while Wolfbane slips in. She finds the temple even more crowded – the faithful fill the pews and spill over into the aisles as they pray for peace, for mercy from the dwarven army, and for the health of the duke. There is no one unoccupied to speak to, but Wolfbane slips the roll of paper into the vestment of a priest as he leads the congregation in prayer.

Ember and Wolfbane wait outside, watching the entrance to the temple for over an hour. The faithful come and go, acolytes and priestesses enter and exit, but they all have their duties and no one approaches Ember. They are about ready to quit and give up when a familiar voice carries across the plaza.

“Gather round, gather round!” it calls. “A story, a story for my dinner? Alms?”

Eric the beggar is surrounded by children, bored of waiting in line with their families. A few of them have even placed crusts of bread in his bowl. Ember walks closer, but at a tangent so she is not directly approaching.

“Our story begins five summers ago,” says the venerable man in his quavery voice, “when the old duke, Hrothgar Rhoona, gods rest his soul, passed from this world and his glorious son Steven, gods preserve him, ascended. Now His Grace Steven was a young man, but wise enough to know that he needed strong allies and good counselors to help him rule. While he invited many godly men and women into his confidence, he also made overtures to a recently-retired pirate – a freebooter and blackguard named Stormsailor, who sought to buy his way into respectable…oof!” The old man staggers under the blow of a strapping smith’s prentice.

“You watch your tongue, you crazy old man,” says the youth, hooking his thumb to point to a squad of soldiers helping to keep order around the Temple. “Slandering Lord Draco is treason.”

Eric bows his head and gives no response. He shuffles off, to the plaintive complaints of the children. He is almost to the edge of the plaza when he settles heavily onto a bag of coal, head down and looking into his lap, dejectedly. A man in expensive furs frowns sourly, but then returns to his conversation with a temple priest, who is praising him for every bag of coal he is giving over.

Ember moves closer to Eric, dabs a cloth with water from her skin, absent-mindedly cleans the faces of some of the poorest children who have persisted in following Eric when their betters left the old man. Suddenly Eric looks up, a twinkle in his eye. He sets his bowl at his feet. “Of course, I have another tale,” he says, in a voice that is hushed and conspiratorial, and the remaining children giggle and applaud. "This one is not about Duke Steven, no, but his ancestor Stefen Rhoona! Young Stefan, at the beginning of his reign, was approached by a huge, black viper! The viper spoke kind words, but there was malice in his heart. “Let me help you, your grace,” the viper said, “for I know the seas, and I know men, and I can guide your ships and lead your armies,” and the young duke agreed, for he wanted only to serve his people and the viper promised to help him do just that."

“Some three years after the duke had accepted the viper into his counsel, there arrived in the duchy horse-men.”

“Centaurs?” asks one of the children.

“Indeed, just so,” replies Eric, and continues. “Horse-men. The duke and the people accepted them, for they brought many good things – goats, and cheese, and fermented milk and such. But now, the viper saw his chance. He went in secret to the leader of the horse-men, a priest name Thonaxan, who served a dark god of wickedness and deceit. Thonaxan had already used dark magic to raise a great temple for his people. Together, Thonaxan and the viper hatched an evil scheme to trap the duke!”

“Oh no!” cries one young child, and the others laugh but press Eric to continue.

As the beggar continues his fanciful tale, Ember and Wolfbane return to the tavern.

Odleif
Odleif leaves Dahlia’s and heads for the wharves. Most of the ships lie idle, but several are busy, taking on loads of supplies, mostly food and drink. He spots an unusual sight – two well-dressed children on the deck of a small longship, flanked by a pair of guards in the uniform of some private house. The children’s faces are resolute, but they do look as if they have been crying recently. A third uniformed guard stands next to a woman on the docks in expensive furs. She does not call to the children, but mouths words as if praying.

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Odleif listens to as many conversations as he can, but all are in Nordic. Free from the party, his tanned and grizzled face and worn travel clothes help him blend in to the crowd – when people address him in Nordic he smiles and they smile back. But he knows he will stick out as soon as he opens his mouth.

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After spending a great deal of time walking up and down the wharves and learning nothing, Odleif decides to go in to the customs house. True, he will be noticed, but he has learned nothing so far anyway. In the customs house he finds a minor official and explains that he and his party are looking for swift passage out of Rhoona and wonders if the man knows of any ships or captains for hire. In thickly-accented Common, the official explains that all ships of importance have been provisionally requisitioned by the ducal guard to use in the defense of the city. Although they do not have duties yet, they are not permitted to leave the city. If Odlief is looking to leave, the man suggests that he hire the east ferry, which has not been requisitioned for the moment, and leave by the overland route.

Odleif thanks him, and adds that he “couldna help but notice” that many of the ships are laying in supplies and one even had children aboard – this seems strange if none of them will be allowed to leave Rhoona. Before the man can answer, his question is overheard by the Master Customs Officer, who speaks to his functionary in Nordic. What follows is a very animated discussion in Nordic, accompanied by many hand gestures and a few curses that Odleif recognizes from his time with Thrud. At the end, the minor official turns his back and departs, and the Master Officer smiles warmly at Odleif.

In much clearer Common, the man tells Odleif he must be mistaken, that “nothing odd is happening here – everything seen is just part of normal customs and preparations for war.” Without waiting for follow-up, he takes his leave but moves quickly about the office, until he has spoken with every other official present.

Odlief smiles ruefully and heads back to Dahlia’s. On his way out he passes by the ship that had the children. The woman and her guard are no longer on the dock. Two men are on the ship that might be the guards, but they now wear no colorful tabards, just plain traveling clothes. The children are nowhere to be seen and the longship has no below-decks, but there is a small foul-weather hide tent up on the deck now.

Morgan, Thrud, FluffyKitten – Ember, Wolfbane, Bhelgarn, and Poncherius
Thrud, Morgan, Wyman, and their escort arrive at Dhalia’s. The lead guard tries the door but finds it barred from the inside, at which point he begins pounding. Wyman stills his hand, tut-tuts, and looks expectantly at Morgan.

Morgan tries to remember who is currently visible. “Ember?” she calls. “Let us in. I need to pick up my spellbook and supplies.” She hopes that Ember can take a hint from her tone.

In the tavern, Ember peers at the group outside through the shutters. She quickly tries to remember who the guard does and doesn’t know about. She whispers to Wolfbane, “You need to hide your things, quick – and Bhelgarn’s, too. Get your packs and sleeping rolls, everything – especially the spellbooks – but leave all of Morgan’s things in plain sight.” Wolfbane starts grabbing Bhelgarn’s things, hissing for his help, as Ember moves to the door.

“Just a minute!” she calls, looking over her shoulder to the floor of the tavern, where Bhelgarn’s packs are disappearing one by one. When she finally hears footsteps on the stairs, she draws back the bolt to the door, as slowly and noisily as she can, then welcomes the group into the inn.

“Ah, Delightful Dahlia’s” sighs Wyman as he crosses the threshold. “It has been quite some time indeed since I have been in here.” Looking around, he sees just Ember and Poncherius. “And where is the proprietress, I wonder?”

Ember moves to the kitchen, calling out “Oh, I’m sure she will be here soon to begin preparations for dinner. In the meantime, would you have a cup of tea, milord?” Wyman leans over to one of the guards and whispers. The man nods and leaves the tavern. Ember rattles the grate on the hearth while building the fire, knocks about as many pans as she can while looking for a cup, and hopes she is covering most of the noise that Bhelgarn and Wolfbane are making upstairs, rapidly packing.

“Oh, I’m no lord,” purrs Wyman, “not yet, certainly,” and Ember joins him in his laugh. “You may call me Wyman.”

“Wyman is special attaché to Lord High Commander Draco,” says Morgan stiffly. “He is here to collect my things, as I am being held overnight in the guard barracks.”

Wyman shakes his head lightly. “Being held? Nothing of the sort,” he demurs, “you are availing yourself of the opportunity to serve national security by proving your loyalty to your liege lord, the duke. In fact,” he says, his gaze sweeping the room, “you are all going to have that opportunity. How about that?” Ember looks quickly at Morgan, her hand reaching for her mace but shielded from sight by the counter of the bar. Morgan silently mouths the word “no.”

When everyone is silent, Wyman grins broadly. “No objections? Fabulous.”

The guards pack up all of the bedrolls and other gear from the floor, and then a pair are dispatched upstairs to the garret bedroom. They quickly return with Ember and Morgan’s things. Ember wonders but does not voice her question as to how they were able to maneuver in the tiny space with both Wolfbane and Bhelgarn present without running into them. Wyman personally takes Morgan’s spellbook but seems unconcerned with the mundane gear, which he lets the guards carry as they leave the tavern and cross the street to the barracks.

Soon after the door closes, Wolfbane begins speaking.

“Bhelgarn.”

“What?”

“C’mon, we have to go after them.”

“No thanks, you can go.”

“I need your help – our friends need your help.”

“Nope, I’m staying here.”

“But why?”

“Because I’m a dwarf, and I like my height and my beard just fine the way they are, thanks.”

“But Bhelgarn…”

“Besides, someone has to wait here for Odleif and Fluffy, and tell them what happened.”

Wolfbane growls in frustration and slips out the door, then hurries across the street to catch up with the rest of the party. Bhelgarn sighs heavily and sits down at a bench to wait.

By the time the party has crossed the inner courtyard of the barracks, Wolfbane has caught up with them. They are headed for the heavy iron door at one end of the large barracks building – the single-story, stone portion that looks like an afterthought to the large two-story wooden structure. She manages to slip inside as they enter. They are in a plain, stark room (3), barren of any amenities. Five metal-barred cells, a table, and a chair are the only objects in the room. Two of the cells seem to be occupied, but there are no windows and the only light comes from the open door and a wan candle on the table, so whatever occupants are present are obscured by shadows. The room smells faintly of sweat, piss, and mouldering straw, but there are no instruments of torture about. All of them have seen the dungeons of Zargon, and these cells are not intimidating.

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Under Wyman’s watchful eye, the party members are, one at a time, each in turn, searched and all their items put on the table. They even find Morgan’s boot knife, which earns her grudging respect. When the guards try to take Poncherius’ mask, he gasps and resists, and two of the guards raise their clubs.

“Please, please,” calls Ember in Nordic, “it’s a religious totem.”

Wyman holds up his hand and the guards back off. He carefully inspects the mask without removing it, running his fingers over it in a way that makes Morgan’s skin crawl, before finally agreeing that the oddly pale man can keep it. “Yes,” whimpers Poncherius softly to himself.

Once all their possessions have been collected, they are led to their cells. Wyman specifies that Morgan and Thrud are to be kept together in one cell, and Ember and Poncherius in another, and that seems to be a source of some private amusement to him. As Thrud walks to his cell he hears “takki-takk” whispered in his ear and FluffyKitten slips to the floor and away. Both she and Wolfbane are paying close attention to the man with the keyring.

“Well now,” Wyman says cheerfully as the guards pack up all the party’s items. He still personally carries Morgan’s spellbook. “Do make yourselves comfortable. I’m sure they will be along with dinner soon.”

While the cell doors are securely locked and checked, they note that the man with the key ring does not bother to lock the iron door as he exists the room. There is a second door, this one of stout wood, on an inside wall, but Wolfbane can hear dozens of voices on the other side. “We don’t want to be caught in the middle of anything,” says Morgan. “We’ll wait until after dinner – but one of you should see if you can track down those keys.”

Wolfbane slips outside. There are plenty of guards in the courtyard, but none appear to have noticed the door open and close. She follows a group of men around the side of the barracks and into the open doors of a huge mess hall (6). There are many long tables with benches on either side of them, slowly filling with soldiers as more and more come in. A stairway at the end of a hallway leads to an open, dark space above.

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Wolfbane makes her way around the mess, carefully avoiding people when she can, and when she can’t, making sure she bumps into two closely together so they will each assume it was the other. She finds the man with the keyring, but he is sitting down at the table, tightly flanked by other guards, with the keyring at his belt and out of view beneath the table. There is no way she is getting to that. She returns to the prison cell and tells her tale.

FluffyKitten listens carefully to her description of where the man is sitting and sets out. Once in the mess, she easily slips under the table. They are serving now, and the man has received his dinner. She wrinkles her nose in disgust. Weak soup and old, burned meat. Blech! No wonder these people put her friends in cells. They are probably jealous of Dahlia’s cooking.

Careful to avoid all of the feet and legs, Fluffy creeps closer until she is standing by the keyring. It is a heavy iron ring, and she will not be breaking it, nor twisting the keys off. The ring runs through his leather belt. She could cut the belt – but with the speed at which he is eating his foul dinner, he would certainly notice before she could get to her friends and back. Maybe, if she was very careful, she could unbuckle his belt and slip the keyring off – but she would still have the problem of time. No, there’s not much she can do here.

She comes out from under the table and looks around. The men are eating the meat and bread with their fingers, the soup with shallow wooden spoons. A few have their own personal knives out for cutting, as there are none on the table – that is the extent of the utensils. That gets her thinking about her own personal camp kit, where she has a nice pewter fork. She grins thinking about the merchant house she took that from. Now they had good food! What was she thinking about? Oh, yes. Forks. Why, if she had a fork, she could open those locked cells. Maybe. Where is her fork? The guardy-men didn’t bring it to the prison, but does that mean it is back at Dahlia’s? Why did they leave it there?

Fluffy moves across the mess, drawn to the kitchen. She bets they have forks, there. Passing through the open doorway, she finds the room (5) contains several large clay ovens, and some stacks of pots and pans. A pair of closed doors covers a cabinet on one of the room’s walls. Huge pots, kettles, and ladles are all about the room, and four cookie-men move furiously about. There! On the wall, Fluffy sees a number of wrought iron meat forks. Those are coming with her! She slips them off the wall without anyone seeing and returns to the prison.

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When Fluffy opens the prison door she is surprised to find two guardy-men already there. One, holding a torch as it is now quite dark in the room though only dusk outside, turns to look suspiciously at the door, and she makes it open and close more, as if blown by the wind. There is a chill night breeze coming on, and the man scowls and moves to close the door fast.

The other man is ladling the same foul soup as is in the mess from a large bucket into four small wooden bowls. He gives these to Morgan, Thrud, Ember, and Poncherius, the small bowls barely passing through the bars at an angle. He waits patiently for them to eat, and even accedes to Thrud’s request for seconds. Fluffy wants to whisper to the party not to save her any food, like they do for Bhelgarn at Dahlia’s, because she is not interested in that nasty soup!

Once the party has all eaten, the man ladles the last of the bucket into two bowls, and approaches the dark cells. “Dinner,” he says in Nordic, “you just have to come and get it.” There is no response. “What?” he asks mockingly, “can’t crawl over to the bars? Oh, well, NO SOUP FOR YOU!” As he yells this last part, he flicks his wrist, showering the occupant of the nearest cell with the liquid contents of the bowl. There is a weak curse from the cell, then a groan. Both the bucket man and the torch man laugh heartily and pack up the bowls, ladle and bucket. In a completely different tone, he tells the party that their chamber pots will be emptied in the morning, and bids them good night. After he and his companion have left the door, everyone hears the click of the outer iron door being locked.

“Wolfbane!” says Morgan.

“I didn’t see keys!” she says hurriedly, “not on either of them! He must have had a single door key in his pocket.”

“Mhmm,” grunts Morgan. “Yeah, the kitchen knave wouldn’t have had the cell keys, you are right.”

Wolfbane listens at the doorway to make sure they are long gone, then Ember summons forth her essence flame, creating a small fire in the palm of her hand. Wolfbane holds forth the candle from the table and lights it, then she goes to the other two cells. She sees one person in each – a badly injured dwarf. They have been clean-shaven, but by the number of cuts on their faces none too delicately. They are naked except for their small clothes. Their purple, swollen shoulders indicate that their arms have been pulled from their sockets. The ankle of one of them looks equally bad off. Wolfbane doesn’t think she can reach them from outside the cell, or more to the point, that Ember can. “Can you move?” she asks them. “I think my friend can help you, but you need to be near the bars.”

One of the dwarves opens an eye and groans. He sees candlelight, but no candle, hears the woman’s voice, but sees no woman. “Be ye will o’ wisp or human, why would ye be helpin’ me, lass?”

“Our friend is a dwarf,” Wolfbane says. “I’m sure he would help you…if he was here.”

“Well, lemme kin when he gets here,” says the dwarf, and closes his eye.

Meanwhile, FluffyKitten has been fumbling with her forks, sticking them into the lock of Ember’s cell and wiggling them around to no effect. The sound has brought Poncherius over, though, and he asks “May I try?” in Cyndician. Fluffy recognizes “I try” and cedes him the forks. She is, after all, his Princess.

Poncherius takes his time, carefully bending the tines of the forks on the stone cell floor to different lengths, then trying them each in turn in the lock. He has two in at the same time when he gives a little twist and the lock clicks. He swings the door open and turns to Ember. “Yes?”

“Yes, Poncho. Good job,” she agrees. She sets him to work on the lock of Morgan’s cell while she crosses the room and kneels by the first dwarf’s cell. “Edel dverg,” she says, and he opens his eye again, then both eyes in shock. She still has the flame in her hand, and it lights her features intimately. “Our friend and boon companion is a prince of your race. He has saved us countless times. Out of love for him, please allow me to heal you.”

“Holy mother of fire…” the dwarf stammers. Summoning his strength, he uses his legs to push himself, sliding on his back over to the bars.

Ember reaches forward into the cell, touching the dwarf lightly on his chest, then both shoulders, then his forehead. " Hjerte bedringens vei ” she says. The angry purple swelling in his shoulders fades away, and he sits up, surprised.

Dolzekh menu” he says, simply, “Boldo thanks you.” Then, “A weapon. Priestess, grant me a weapon, I beg you.” Carefully he stands. “I would die in battle against these swine. There, look!” he points across the room, into the darkness. “My hammer still hangs on the wall. They hung it there to mock me.”

“I will return your hammer to you,” says Ember. “But first, quench your fire of vengeance. You will not need to die in battle if we can free you.” She looks over at Poncherius, but he has had no luck getting Morgan’s cell open.

“Just as well,” says Morgan. “Have him try the dwarves’ cells. If we can get them out of here it may be better for us to stay locked up.”

Poncherius is able to open the first dwarf’s cell, and to everyone’s surprise including himself, the iron exit door. He holds up his set of bent-tine forks appreciatively. “Don’t let Bhelgarn know,” he says in Cyndician, “or he will never get me [lock picks].” Unfortunately, he is not able to open the second dwarf’s cell. Once Ember has healed him though, he tells his companion to go. “Molvo, I’ll not leave without you,” says Boldo. “I’ll go back to my cell and we will die together.”

“Enough with the dying already!” says Morgan crossly, from her cell. “Look, you can use the hammer to break open your friend’s cell…”

“We’ll never make it across the courtyard, and they will fall on us in number,” interjects Boldo. “If we wait in our cells, we can take them out one at a time and make them pay more dearly.”

“Hey! Focus!” says Morgan. “As I was saying, if you can bust your friend out, I can cast invisibility on both of you. Much as you want to die, that actually gives you a shot at getting out of here alive.”

There is a long silence, then Molvo nods at Boldo from inside the cell. By the light of the candle, both dwarves carefully examine the ironwork bars and the surrounding stone into which the bars are set. They quickly reject the lock and eventually both agree on the bottom hinge of the door. Boldo raises the hammer over his head.

“Wait!” calls Morgan. “Ember, get Poncherius to lock both of you back in your cell, hide those forks, and put out the candle and your flame. Sorry, your holy flame. Wolfbane and Fluffy, get as far away from the rest of us as you can.”

Once everything is set, Boldo brings his hammer down on the hinge, Molvo slamming his shoulder into the bars at the same time from the inside to multiply the force. It is gods-awful noisy, and not long before a guard tries the outside door and finds it open, peers into the darkness inside, then dashes off shouting. By the time both dwarves stand before Morgan there are shouts in the courtyard and the sound of running boots. Morgan finishes the second invisibility spell and immediately begins a Sleep, dropping Poncherius and Thrud with the first one, Ember and herself with the second.

Several minutes later the door bursts open, and they are woken by guards, who shout at them in Nordic, then, that failing to wake them, prod them with sheathed swords. It is not long after that before the Captain of the Night is on the scene, bearing in his hand a strange orb that emits a cool light without heat or flame. Morgan repeats her story for him, with the others corroborating. A bunch of dwarven wizards entered the prison, using magic on the door – they broke the two dwarven prisoners out of their cells. The party objected, started to raise a hue and cry to bring the guards, but they were struck with a magical sleep. They never left their cells. The captain examines the cell doors carefully, all of them. He orders a pair of men to pass the night in the prison, and another pair on the door outside.

In the courtyard, in the streets of Rhoona, the guard searches desperately for the dwarves. The dwarves have an initial advantage in that the guard bear no light sources, and they are several blocks away by the time the hound-master is awoken and his dogs are ready. The dogs pick up the scent soon enough, but it leads them only down to the waters of the fjord and no farther.

Odleif and Bhelgarn
Odleif has arrived at the tavern, but Bhelgarn hasn’t even finished telling him of the day’s events when Dahlia enters. In broken Common, she asks Odleif whether he knows that her place is being watched – both from the barracks, where the guard almost never patrols the parapets, and the street, where guards she knows far too well pretend not to be guards and move about in civilian clothes.

Odleif says he knows, thanks.

Dahlia starts to make dinner, but asks if it will be just him. “Better make it two’er’tree” he says, “Ahm sure summin will be along raight soon enough.” She casts a quizzical eye on the common room floor, where there are no bedrolls or gear left, but says nothing.

She points out, reluctantly, that she was paid in the morning for the lot of them, and now…

“Ye can keep alla today’s” he says, “we’ll jess haveta see ’bout tomarra when she comes.”

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