Ninmonth 18 (first full day since the expulsion of the dwarves)
The party is awakened early by the pre-dawn entrance of Dahlia to the inn. Some of the men sleeping in the common room groan and roll over for another chance at slumber. The Rhoonan woman lights a candle in the kitchen and sets to work making the dough for breakfast rolls. After it has risen she puts it in the oven, and the scent of the baking bread brings a yawning FluffyKitten down from the upstairs bedroom. She has been wakened from a dream in which she, as a brave halfling, was defending the rest of the party against a super scary monster.
Fluffy’s dream. The captions read: “Super Super Scary Monster,” “FluffyKitten the brave halfling,” “The rest of the party,” “Convenient Hiding Rock,” and “Morgan the ‘few too many sips.’”
Standing beside Dahlia, Fluffy asks when the bread will be ready, at which the woman starts and looks about her, for the halfling has forgotten that she is still invisible from the day before. “War ar yu, barn?” she calls nervously, eliciting more groans from the common room as the men are awoken, again.
Fluffy backs up a few steps, then answers, “Don’t look – not dressed yet!” and Dahlia laughs.
“If yu can keep quiet until it is ready, I’ll put honning on yours,” she says, and the prospect of honey rolls enables FluffyKitten to let Dahlia finish without asking every five minutes whether it is done yet.
Once the clatter of pans and plates begins, those downstairs give up any pretense of sleeping and begin to ready themselves for the day. Morgan told them, the night before, not to discuss anything important in front of Dahlia, so they just make small talk through breakfast and washing up. Finally she empties their chamber pots and announces that she will be going to the market to get things for their lunch and dinner. Morgan pays her for the previous night and she leaves, seemingly quite content with her lodgers.
With Dahlia gone, they begin to plan the day’s true activities. Morgan and Thrud will cross the street to the barracks of the Ducal Guard, to make good their pledge to join the defenders of the city. Ember, Odleif, Bhelgarn, and Fluffy will head for the palace, and attempt to gain entry and see what they can suss out. Poncherius and Wolfbane will remain at the inn. Before they part ways, though, Morgan casts an invisibility spell on Ember, and Wolfbane does the same on Odlief, so that all four members of the palace team will be unseen. Morgan also returns the wand of paralysis to Wolfbane, on the off chance that she needs to use it.
Morgan and Thrud are immediately recognized when they stride into the Ducal Barracks, and promptly surrounded by a squad of guards. One of the guards looks vaguely familiar to them, except for his huge black eye. The sergeant of the squad informs them that they are under arrest.
“What for?” demands Morgan, and she is told sedition, and assault on lawful representatives of the Duke.
Morgan laughs, trying to hide her nervousness. “Oh, you mean last night? That wasn’t anything. We told you we were joining the Guard. We just wanted to see what the Guard was like, was all, who we would be signing on with. It was a friendly scrap, no blood spilled.”
The sergeant looks doubtful, but has his men march Morgan and Thrud into the compound. They have their hands open and in the air, but have not relinquished their weapons. When he tells them that he is going to take their arms and put them in a cell, Morgan shakes her head. “No, you don’t want to do that, lad. How can we help you fight the dwarves if we’re locked up in a cell? You do understand that there is dwarven army coming, don’t you? Why, Mistress Ember made an appointment for us with your captain a day ago, lad! You best be getting him, now.” Both Morgan and Thrud now lower their hands to their weapons, but don’t draw them.
Given the choice between disarming what are obviously two seasoned adventurers with just his squad, and getting his captain, the sergeant doesn’t take long to send for his superior. When the captain arrives, Morgan repeats her story about how the events of the last night were just a friendly test to make sure the Guard was worth throwing in their lot with. Perhaps the captain is less confident about their chances in the upcoming war, for Morgan’s point about not being able to help them fight from inside a cell seems to convince him. “They may keep their weapons,” he tells the sergeant. “And set them up an ‘interview’ with Weapon-master Vidar.”
The sergeant withdraws with his squad, and the captain takes Morgan and Thrud up a rickety wooden staircase on the outside of the main barracks and into a door on the second floor, which leads to a bare entry chamber (12). There are three other doors out of the room, one on each wall, as well as an open trapdoor to the floor below. The room may also double as a foul weather cloakroom, for there are dozens of pegs along the walls, but they are currently empty.
They pass through the western door in to an officers’ mess (13). This room has four tables and several dozen benches in it. An open doorway at the far end leads to what is apparently a cooking area. Each of the tables is covered with a white cloth. The captain mentions that the first floor of the barracks is for the common soldiers, while the second is restricted to officers and support staff. While he doesn’t know yet what their particular talents are, he is wagering that as adventurers, Morgan and Thrud will likely be commissioned as officers. A few other men are in the room, and the captain introduces them as they sit.
The men are careful not to discuss any military matters, even when Morgan asks oblique questions. Some time later a huge bull of a man strides into the room. He is clad in plate and bears a shield; a longsword is at his side. “Vidar!” says the captain enthusiastically, but his salutation is met with nothing more than a curt nod. “Take these two to the practice room and put them through their paces. I want to know if they will have any value to the Guard.” Another nod, and the man turns and strides away. “You’d best be off,” the captain tells Morgan and Thrud, as the weapon-master disappears behind the door of the mess.
By the time Morgan and Thrud are in the entryway (12), the man is gone, but the door to the north is still swinging closed, and they manage to catch up with him in the hallway beyond, and enter the training room (29) with him.
The room is mostly empty, save for a few open-topped barrels. The wooden walls are covered with nicks and gouges on all sides. The man gestures at Morgan and Thrud to move to the center of the room, while he stands with his back to the door. “So, is this individual duels, or both of us at once?” says Morgan nonchalantly, as she stretches and loosens her muscles.
“Duels?” scoffs the man incredulously, the first word he’s spoken. “Don’t waste me time, ootlander.” He draws his sword in a single, fluid motion.
“You take his left, I’ll go to his right,” whispers Morgan to Thrud, and the two begin advancing cautiously.
[Note: The combat runs with subdual rules, since the participants are trying not to kill one another. One quarter of damage is real, three-quarters is temporary, and will go away after a short rest. A character brought to exactly to zero hp is forced to yield, at less than zero s/he is unconscious but automatically stable).]
The huge man stands unmoving, but in a slight crouch, taught and poised, as Morgan and Thrud approach. When they are within striking distance, Morgan yells “Now!” and thrusts with her sword at the same instant that Thrud is cleaving with his axe. With breathtaking speed and coordination, the man simultaneously parries Morgan’s blow with his own sword while raising his shield to block Thrud’s axe. He then immediately spins, giving Morgan his back, but is already steps away before she can strike. He rains blows down mercilessly on Thrud, forcing him to retreat quickly and thereby keeping ahead of Morgan. When a wicked blow of his sword knocks Thrud to one knee he is forced to pause, allowing Morgan to catch him with a strike across his back.
He pivots, putting his back to the wall and his sword to Morgan so that she is forced to pause as well. Thrud staggers to his feet, then bellows as he charges the man, raising his axe completely over his head with both hands. Just as Thrud is about to land his blow, Morgan lunges as well. As if he anticipated her move, Vidar backsteps at the last second, so that Morgan has to pull short on her attack to avoid Thrud’s axe, which sinks deep into the floor. Then, before Thrud can pull his axe out, the weapons-master rushes him with a shield-bash that knocks the barbarian to the ground. This time, Thrud does not get up.
[Thrud started the combat at 26/26 and ended at -5/26. Total of 31 points of subdual damage, 8 points real damage, Thrud will awake at 18/26]
Vidar now advances on Morgan and she changes to a defensive posture. The two of them trade dozens of blows, nearly all of them parried. Every so often one of them manages to land a telling hit, and it is Morgan as often as Vidar.
[Note: This is the first time Morgan has used her “deflect” ability that comes with Skilled longsword use. Vidar is deflecting as well, but his longsword use is ranked higher than Skilled.]
Although the fight is even, Morgan can quickly tell that she will exhaust her stamina before this man does – he is not even breathing heavily! If she is going to win, she will have to do it soon. She launches a series of rapid, risky attacks, and one of them gets through his defenses, driving his shoulder back with a thrust that does not penetrate his armor but which will certainly leave a bruise. Even he looks surprised as he yields back then sweeps forward with a blow that starts low but ends high before she can raise her shield. He clouts her on the side of her head with the flat of his sword and the room goes black.
[Morgan started the combat at 22/22 and ended at -11/22, with his last blow hitting for 15 damage when she was at 4hp. Total of 33 points of subdual damage, 8 points real damage, Morgan will awake at 14/22]
In the blackness, Morgan hears a great splash of water and then Thrud sputtering. She forces her eyes open and sees Vidar approaching her, a large jug of water in his hand, just drawn from one of the barrels. “I’m good, I’m good” she protests weakly, and rolls from her back to her belly, manages to kneel.
By the time Morgan and Thrud are on their feet, the man has his breastplate off and is carefully appraising the dents in it. Seeing them up, he turns wordlessly and leaves the room and they are forced to follow against the complaints of their bodies. All the way down the hall Morgan is reflecting. She has had no respect for the guard so far and she thought this job would be as simple as confronting Draco. But if this weapon-master, beholden even to a captain, could best the two of them so handedly, will they be able to take Draco in a fair fight? How strong is he? Vidar has stopped outside a room, knocked on the door, and is waiting for permission to enter. Only that allows them to catch up to him and as they do Morgan notes with satisfaction the sweat marks on his chest and under his arms.
“Enter!” calls a muffled but familiar voice, and Vidar opens the door to an office (25), gesturing them inside. This room contains a desk and chair, a bed with several blankets on it, and a large chest. The captain is seated at the desk, but quickly rises to his feet as the door opens. He has apparently been working on a carving of a longship, and a pile of wood-shavings covers the top of his desk.
“Well,” he asks the weapons-master, “what have you to report?”
“They’ll do,” Vidar says, and then closes the door as he exits, leaving Morgan and Thrud standing in front of the captain.
Morgan looks at the closed door incredulously. “We’ll do? What kind of…”
“Actually,” interjects the captain, “that’s the highest praise I’ve heard him give anyone. You two must be skilled, indeed. At ease, please.” The captain sits.
Morgan and Thrud attempt to look more relaxed, but there is only one chair in the room, and it is occupied.
“I’ve spoken to the commander,” the captain says, “and with Vidar’s approbation you will certainly be commissioned as officers. As you are foreigners, you will not be given command of troops – at least not until our men know you better and would take orders from you. But you certainly will have plenty of opportunity for dangerous scouting missions, disrupting supply lines, counter-intelligence and such. Don’t worry, we respect your abilities and will put them to good use.” The captain addresses Morgan specifically. “If I may say so, you have the look of the nisse about you.”
“Can you cast spells?”
“I’m sure that will be useful as well. Our first task for you both will be a simple town patrol this afternoon. It will give you a chance to get to know the town, get to know the men, and for them to know you. Why don’t you get yourselves cleaned up and be back here after lunch? Of course, you can eat in the officer’s mess if you’d like.”
“Begging you pardon,” objects Morgan, “but our service here would be greatly enhanced if we could know something about the Guard – number of troops, dispositions, chain of command, and such.”
The captain smiles. "Of course, how negligent of me. This is a small town, and I am used to assuming that all our men know such things as they need to. Troop numbers and lesser commands are, you understand, matters of high security. I won’t tell you them but I am sure an astute observer like yourself will pick them up soon enough. Here is what you need to know: both Master Thrud and yourself have the rank of Special Officer. As I said before, that doesn’t give you any command privileges, but it does mean that you are above command by anyone of lesser rank than captain. There are two Captains of the Guard – myself (Captain Yurigan) and Captain Haggar. Currently I am Captain of the Day and he is Captain of the Night, although we exchange after a time. We are in charge of the day to day activities of the guard, which include both town patrols and palace duty.
Above us is Guard Commander Olaf, who oversees our activities and in addition is responsible for all requisitioning and supplies for the Guard. Currently he also is tasked with implementing the defense of the town – planning patrols in the hinterland, fortifications, ship requisitions, and such. Above him is High Commander Sven, who functions as a personal assistant to Lord High Commander Draco. Together the two of them create the policy that keeps our land safe, in support of the Duke. That is your chain of command."
Morgan thanks Captain Yurigan and she and Thrud take their leave. They decide to lunch at Dahlia’s in case the palace group returns before they need to set out for their afternoon patrol.
Ember, FluffyKitten, Odleif, and Bhelgarn, all invisible, proceed from Dhalia’s to the Ducal Palace, pausing only long enough to watch Thrud and Morgan enter the walls of the Guard. As they round the unfinished walls of the palace, they catch wind of a rich, hoppy scent. The fountain, dry on their last visit, is now full. The waters appear golden in the morning light, and bubbles surround the eight fountains that shoot water into the air.
As they grow closer, the smell intensifies – and they realize that the fountain is not full of water, but beer! Before them shoots, streams, and foams all of the beer the duke has collected in taxes since his edict. The quartet stops for a moment, speechless at the duke’s folly. They had been walking hand-in-hand, to stay together. Suddenly FluffyKitten twists out of Ember’s grasp and scampers away. “Fluffy! Fluffy!” hisses Ember, looking about for guards, but the front of the palace appears deserted. A few minutes later, Ember feels a tug on her sleeve.
“I iz back!” Fluffy chirps.
“Ugh! Where were you? We’re holding hands so we can stay together!” says an exasperated Ember.
“Oh, I thought we holdy-hands ’cause we friends,” says Fluffy innocently. “I filled up a whole waterskinny with maltymalt for Morgan!” she announces proudly.
“I’m sure she’ll appreciate it,” responds Ember begrudgingly. “How did you find your way right back to me, anyway?”
“Easy-peasy: you all smell like the fishy-paste we had last night! And Odleif needs a bath.”
“Do not,” mumbles the taciturn woodsmen. Rejoined, the four of them continue toward the palace, three of them hoping that the noses of the human guards are not as sensitive as that of the halfling.
The wide porch is shaded by an overhang from the second floor, supported by ten massive columns. The doors are a pair of huge, wooden slabs. Morgan previously saw from a distance that these were carved, but could not make out the image – from here, the four of them can easily see they are carved with a skillfully wrought image of the Rhoonian crest: a longship, sail spread wide and running before a stiff breeze.
When they reach the palace steps, they try the great doors, but find them locked. Ember and Fluffy begin searching for secret entrances to the right of the doors (one looking high, the other low), while Odleif and Bhelgarn do the same to the left. They find nothing in the inner porch, but when they reach the outer porch, Bhelgarn thinks he sees a thin line, as of the outline of a door, passing through the decorative stonework of the walls. He whispers to Odleif, and the man comes over to look. Just as he is examining the stone, there is the sound of a bolt being drawn back, and Odleif finds himself staring into a single eye. It is all he can do to keep from crying out in surprise, but he manages to control himself and then realize that the eye is looking through him, not at him.
After several tense minutes, the bolt is drawn back into place, and Odleif is looking at a bare stone again. He turns and prepares to make the “cricket call” used by the party, but hears someone already using it. He and Bhelgarn head over to Ember, who points out to them that a group of of guardsmen is approaching. As the tramp of boots across the courtyard becomes audible, Odleif whispers to the others about the lookout hole he and Bhelgarn found.
The squad of guardsmen is marching straight to the palace doors, so the party makes sure that they stand well clear. They continue up the steps and in between the columns, but stop when they are some twenty feet shy of the doors. Then, they turn right, and move to the wall, directly opposite the lookout hole. The sergeant raps smartly on the wall, says a few words they cannot hear, and then a section of the wall opens up, admitting them. The squad of seven men all pass into the wall before the secret door closes.
Bhelgarn hurries to the wall, examining the carved stone. After several minutes, he steps back and whispers to them that he can clearly see the outline of the door, but can’t find any means to open it. Given that it is a guard access, it is likely that it can be opened only from the inside. Ember replies that Morgan said soldiers appeared on the porch – if this squad is relieving another squad, that one may be leaving soon – and perhaps the party can slip in. Bhelgarn says he doesn’t think the four of them can pass through in the time between when the last guardsman leaves and the door closes. He doesn’t mention his own girth. Ember says that she and Fluffy will try to slip inside, while he and Odleif should keep searching for secret entrances – but they should also keep their ears open for crickets and cries for help.
Ember and Fluffy take up position right next to where the door will open, while Bhelgarn and Odleif do the same at the opposite door, just in case one is an entrance and the other an exit. Some ten minutes later, the eyeslit on the door on the right opens, and two seconds later, the door itself. Seven men, different from the ones that went in, march out – and Ember and Fluffy manage to jump through the portal just before it closes behind the men!
The room that Ember and Fluffy find themselves in (87) would be large enough, were it not crowded with guardsmen. Most are sitting on bare wooden benches, but a few are moving about, and there are some close calls as the two women wend their way past them and to the door in the rear of the room, where a pair of torches burn. Once there, there is little to do but wait and hope that that door will be opened as well.
While she waits, Ember listens to the idle banter of the men in nordic. There is nothing out of the ordinary – discussion of the impending war, a debate about whether the honor of palace duty is worth the boredom, a comparison of the merits of various tavern wenches in the town. Fortunately, they do not have to wait long before the door opens. A single serving woman enters, bearing a bucket of water and a ladle. Ember is not able to slip out the door before it closes, but she slides her foot between the door and the frame so that it does not latch. The woman is young and comely, and all the guardsmen’s eyes are on her as she moves about the room, offering them each a drink in turn. When Ember judges that no one is looking, she opens the door just enough to slip through, and a second later feels FluffyKitten press up against her leg, so she lets the door close.
They are in a long, plain corridor lit by the occasional torch. They move swiftly along it and then turn the corner, and Ember’s heart drops. The entire corridor (86) is full of wooden doors – seven on the left side, but two on the right.
Ember listens at the first door on the right. Hearing nothing, she resolutely opens it a crack and looks inside. There is a rough wooden table with some low, guttering candles, and many chairs. She cannot see all of the room in the low light – it looks like it goes back farther.
Ember closes the door and sighs. “Well, we certainly won’t find the duke at this rate,” she whispers, and Fluffy giggles.
“Mr. Duke won’t be in the servants’ quarters, silly-head!”
“Yes’m. This is the part of the palace where the worky people live. Mr. Duke is in some grand chamber with crystalies and rugs and stuff. Look at the torchies! Fine people don’t want smoke in the nice part of the house! Mr. Duke will have candles, or maybe oily lamps!”
Ember is beginning to think that Fluffy has a point, but just to be sure, she asks, “Have you been in many palaces, Fluffy?”
“Ember! I TOLD you! I worked as a cooky person and a sewie person EVERYWHERE. I been in many, many palaces and estates and suchlike that.”
“Alright, alright,” Ember says soothingly, worried that Fluffy will be heard as she raises her voice. “How about you decide where we go next.”
Fluffy takes Ember all the way to the end of the hall, then pauses as the serving woman returns with a near-empty bucket, now entering the room Ember had just looked in. As soon as that door closes, Fluffy opens the last door on the right and steps through, with Ember right behind her.
The wide passageway beyond has a closed door leading off it to the right, a wide stairway leading to the second floor in front of them, and an open archway to their left. A suit of plate mail and a pair of crossed swords hang to either side of the door. Candles burn in wall sconces, polished silver mirrors set behind them to reflect the light. “See?” says Fluffy triumphantly. “This is fine part of the palace, with nicy things.”
Moving further into the hallway, Ember and Fluffy can see that a serving boy sits on the stairs, polishing the wooden banisters. They proceed to their left, which opens into a huge room (80), bare of furniture but having eight stone columns reaching to the ceiling and dozens of tapestries covering every inch of wall space. The tapestries depict seafaring scenes in many different situations – naval battles, clear sailing, stormy weather, great sea beasts, and so forth. The only areas not covered are the opening through which they came, a similar opening across from them, and the massive wooden doors which can only be the front doors to the palace.
In the center of the room is a hunched old serving woman, sweeping the floor with a fresh broom. A large set of keys is visible at her waist, but the ring runs through her worn leather belt. “Fluffy – check behind the tapestries, then meet me in the next room,” whispers Ember.
Ember passes by the doors on her way across the room. There are stout metal braces to bar the doors from the inside, but no bar is in sight – it would need to be a tremendous log to cross the span. She gives a discreet tug, and finds the doors still locked – there is no latch, but a fancy iron locking mechanism requiring a key is visible, accessible only on this side of the doors.
The room beyond (81) takes Ember’s breath away, for unlike Fluffy, she is not accustomed to “nicy things”. The walls rise thirty feet to the ceiling, instead of the fifteen feet common to the rest of the building. The entire floor is a polished marble parquet, more marble than Ember has ever seen in one place. The columns here are the same finely crafted but simple supports that were found on the porch and in the entry room. A curtained alcove extends slightly over the floor of the ballroom from the second floor. There is no way to access the balcony from the floor below, but there are two modest wooden doors on the north wall. The most striking feature, however, is the row of stained glass windows all along the west wall. Starting at fifteen feet up the wall, they run almost to the ceiling. Their panes are a multitude of deep colors. Since it is morning, the exterior sunlight is not shining directly through them, but they are beautiful nonetheless. Ember can only imagine how exquisite the room would look in the evening, with the sun shining through and filling the ballroom with color, or at night, when the myriad of tall, white candles that adorn the columns were lit.
When the sound of chirping crickets tells Ember that Fluffy has entered the ballroom, she sends the halfling to examine what lies beyond the door to the northwest, while she checks the southern wall for secret doors, as they seem to be missing access to that part of the palace. Indeed, she soon finds the outline of a door, but does not locate any mechanism to open it. While she looks, however, the door to the northeast opens, and a servant bearing covered platters passes through the ballroom and entry hall, then up the stairs. By the platters and sounds coming when the door is briefly open, Ember takes the room beyond to be the kitchens.
Fluffy returns and says that the room she scouted (83) was full of tables and chairs, but little else, and seemed to be used for storage. Ember doesn’t dare open the door flanked by the suits of armor at the base of the stairs when both the boy and the crone could see, so she decides they will go up the stairs and scout the second floor.
Fluffy goes first. Since the stairs are wide and the boy is working on the banisters it is easy to slip by him, but two steps past him the stair creaks when she steps on it. The boy turns his head, sees nothing, and freezes. A few seconds later, he returns to his work.
Ember follows, and tries to avoid the creaky stair – but she doesn’t know which one it was, for she couldn’t see which one Fluffy stepped on! She guesses wrong, and there is an even louder creak. This time the boy gasps, starts up, and runs down the steps to the crone.
“Nan, Nan – there is something on the stairs! I heard it but can’t see it!”
“Calm yourself, Ned – it’s likely a cat’s got into the palace again.”
“This was no cat, Nan – I would have seen it – it sounds like something BIG!”
“Boy, you’ve been smelling the wood polish too long – get back to work!”
The rest of their conversation is lost to her as Ember arrives at the top of the stairs. The wide hallway above (92) gives access to most of the second floor. Four slender columns stand at the corners of the opening of the stairway from the first level. Ember and FluffyKitten can see one servant, a young woman dusting and polishing the wood of a door to their right, but the rest of the floor appears empty. There are many candles set in wall sconces, but none of them are lit, for the entire north wall is full of windows, shutters open, providing abundant natural light.
Ember sends FluffyKitten to the left to try the far door, while she moves behind the stairs and to the right. She finds the door locked when she arrives, however. Fluffy’s door is within the line of sight of the serving woman, but so far from her that Fluffy does not hesitate to slip inside. She finds the chamber (100) to contain only four beds, four straight chairs, and six music stands. The windows are shuttered, and there is a fine layer of dust on things as if it has not been cleaned in quite some time. Fluffy does not explore further, as she does not wish to leave tracks in the dust. Instead, she backtracks and tries the other door nearby. This gives way to a curtained room (101) projecting slightly over the ballroom below. Four straight-backed chairs and four music stands are the only things to be seen in there, so FluffyKitten returns to the top of the stairs.
The serving woman has almost finished the door she is working on. When she gathers up her cleaning supplies and moves down the hall, toward the door that Ember found locked, Fluffy and Ember slip into the door she just finished while her back is to them. Several tables and chairs are placed about this room (93), and the walls are lined with bookshelves. A soft carpet is on the floor, and the atmosphere is one of plush luxury mixed with homey comfort. FluffyKitten immediately begins to explore, but she seems more interested in the opportunities to hide under the tables and in-between the bookshelves than she is in the books themselves. For her part, Ember is initially overwhelmed. Of course, the Mother Temple in Soderfjord had a scriptorium, and Ember took her turn copying texts like all the novices, but she never saw anything like this. She has heard tell of the great library of the temple of Kvasir in Norrvik, but she finds it hard to believe that even that famed location has this many tomes. Simply put, she would not have believed that this many texts existed, let alone that they were gathered together in one place. It is obvious that the ancestors of Duke Stephen valued and respected wisdom – that his proclamations now are so bizarre and nonsensical strike her as a cruel twist of fate, indeed.
As Fluffy plays “sneaky-peeky” through the room, Ember moves among the books, pulling some out and reading their runed covers before replacing them. There are histories and geographies of the nordic lands, manuals describing the techniques of all of the crafts practiced in Rhoona, geneologies and heraldries of the noble line of Rhoona and the kingdom of Vestland, studies of all of the different races, and many other volumes besides. Ember can’t help but feel that somewhere in all these books there must be a clue to the affliction of the duke, and maybe even a hint at a cure, but she knows that it would take her hours, if not days, to find it even if it did exist, even if she could recognize and understand it.
Eventually she gathers up Fluffy and gets ready to leave. She listens at the door, says a brief prayer, but can do little else to make sure the door is not currently being observed. She opens the door and she and FluffyKitten step out. In the middle of the hall stands the serving woman, staring at the door opening of its own accord. Ember leaves the door open behind her as she and Fluffy move away as silently as possible.
The serving woman goes to the door, pokes her head in the library, and calls out in a quavering voice, “Tom?” When she is not answered, she closes the door and moves to the top of the stairs. “Nan?” she calls down. “There is something odd here – I was sure I closed the library door well but it just opened by itself.”
“You see!” calls the boy’s voice from below. “I told you something is about! It’s bad spirits, I say!”
The serving woman shudders and makes a sign to ward off the evil eye. While she is looking down the stairs, Ember and Fluffy slip in another door, into what appears to be a private dining room (102). Three gorgeous crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling. A beautiful, dark wood table, polished to a mirror-like sheen, occupies the center of the room, and twelve chairs are placed around it. Four stone columns, one near each corner, support the ceiling. High on a wooden orchard ladder, a young man is dusting the crystals of the chandelier farthest from the door. Looking down at the open door, he calls out, “Who’s there, now?” in a distracted tone.
When no one answers, he calls louder, “I say, who’s there?” Ember and Fluffy move out of the doorway, into the corner of the room. The man sighs and climbs down off the ladder. He sticks his head out in the hall and says, “Knock it off, you guys, quit playing around.”
The serving woman’s answer is indistinct, but not his response, “Don’t open the door and leave it open – you know that’s not good form – just come in and close it or leave it closed.”
At that, the serving woman gives a high-pitched scream, and then there is a thump, as if she has fainted or been struck down. The man dashes out into the hall and begins calling for help.
A moment later the far door of the dining room bursts open. A huge, bull-like figure of a man charges into the room. His black beard is parted by a wicked slash of a mouth, and an evil gleam is in his eyes. He carries a drawn sword, a scarlet “D” is emblazoned on his chain mail, and there is a round shield slung across his back. Behind him comes a man in plate and shield, with a longsword at his belt, not drawn. A third man remains in the room from which the first two came, but Ember does not have a good look at him. She has a glimpse of the room beyond (103), which seems to be a richly appointed entertainment room, but sees little detail.
The man continues on into the hall and demands to know what is going on – the servants address him as “my Lord Draco” in hushed tones. He tells his adjutant to bring some guardsmen, then storms back to the room from which he came, slamming first one door closed behind him, then the other.
For the moment, Ember and FluffyKitten are in the dining room, with both doors closed. A few minutes later, Draco’s adjutant comes in, but he opens and closes the door so quickly that there is no time to get through. Once he is halfway across the room, with his back to them, though, Ember and Fluffy slip through the door back out into the hallway. The servants are gathered at the top of the stairs – the serving woman (Hilda) sitting on the floor, surrounded by the boy (Ned), the crone (Nan), and the man who had been polishing the chandelier (Tom). As Ember and Fluffy slip past them, Ember hears the woman saying – “It is the mistress, the mistress I tell you – she has returned to haunt us all…”
There is only one other door on the second floor, but it is in direct sight of the servants at the top of the stairs. Ember and Fluffy wait by it, until the arrival of a squad of guardsmen coming up the stairs provides a distraction, and then they slip inside. As Ember closes the door quickly behind them, the room becomes completely dark, except for the sliver of light coming from the space between the door and the frame.
Ember and Fluffy wait a moment for their eyes to adjust, and they can see the rough shapes of furniture about the room, but little else. Ember whispers to herself, “Kroppen min som veke, min sjel som olje, min tro som gnist,” and in her palm appears a small flame, as that of a single candle. She holds this aloft as they inspect the room (96). They are in a small sitting room, with several pleasantly soft chairs and some small tables placed tastefully about. Two tapestries, both depicting peaceful woodland scenes, decorate the walls. An elegant crystal chandelier hangs in the center of the room, reflecting myriad points of red light from Ember’s flame. “Ooh…” says FluffyKitten, entranced by the dancing patterns of light, but the deep and gloomy shadows in the room give Ember a sense of foreboding.
As they cross the room, Fluffy stifles a sneeze. “Fusty-dusty,” she sniffs.
There is a single door to the south – they listen at it, then enter. The room (97) contains a large wall-mirror, a delicate vanity table set against the wall and a small, dainty chair. A long wardrobe rack formerly held dozens of elegant evening gowns, but it has been tipped over and the gowns now lie on the floor in unkempt heaps. Ember doesn’t like the dark look of herself with the tiny flame in the mirror – it reminds her too much of the fortune-telling games the novices would play at on stormy evenings in the Temple, a minor blasphemy to the Norns. She likes even less poking through the gowns on the floor, but finds nothing there, to her relief. There are two doors in this room, so she and Fluffy each listen at one, but hear nothing.
Passing through the west door, they find a small room (98) with a tiled floor throughout and a huge, dry ceramic tub at one end. Several racks line the walls, and some of these have thick towels hanging from them. There is little to see here, so they listen at the door and move on.
The final room of the suite is large, with a number of items of interest. Thin rays of light come from shuttered windows. Ember looks outside, and sees no guards in the courtyard, so she extinguishes the flame in her palm, opens the simple latch on the window, opens the shutters outside, and then closes the window again. The room is now filled with light.
The room (99) is lavishly decorated. Several snow white bearskin rugs are placed about the floor, and a huge, feathery soft bed is against the south wall. The covers of the bed are messy, and one of the quilts has been dragged across the floor. A small writing table, a straight-backed chair at the table, and two low armchairs are the only other items of furniture in the room.
Fluffy and Ember check the bed, but find it cold and deserted. The desk has paper, a floral scent still clinging to it, ink, quills, sand, a sharpener, and so forth, but nothing of interest. The door to the next chamber over is locked. Listening at the door, they can hear occasional movement on the other side as if the room is occupied, but do not hear speech. The duke obviously keeps a fine lady – but no one in Rhoona has mentioned a duchess. Who is this woman, and where is she now? Checking the quilt on the floor, they make a chilling discovery – the bottom has a few small but distinct bloodstains. Now even cheery FluffyKitten is feeling odd. “Time to go?” she asks in a small voice, and Ember agrees.
Ember again checks the courtyard nervously. There are still no guards, but she knows they will need to use rope to descend, and that will be visible for as long as they are using and not carrying it. She decides to try another exit.
Fluffy and Ember retrace their way through the mistress’ suite, and slip out into the hallway at the top of the stairs. Guards are everywhere in pairs, swinging their swords about in slow arcs as if feeling while blind. The servants look on nervously. The stairs, in particular, have three guards abreast, marching continually up and down with arms outstretched. With all the people about, they are lucky to have been able to slip out the door without its opening and closing being seen. “We’ll have to find another way down” whispers Ember in Halfling, and she feels FluffyKitten tugging at her hand.
The two of them stick close to the walls, avoiding both the guards and their probing swords. Fluffy brings Ember to a door along the south wall, and when they slip through it, they are on the balcony overlooking the amazing ballroom. There are guards here as well, but it is a huge space and the few men cannot hope to fill it.
Fluffy sets her new dwarven grappling hook on the railing of the balcony as far to the west wall as she can to avoid it being seen by anyone, and first she, then Ember, descend. With a careful flick of her wrist, Fluffy wrests the hook free from the railing with little more than the muted sound of iron scraping stone, and then catches the hook in mid-air, before it can clatter to the marble floor.
Carefully the two of them cross the floor far from the guards, pass through into main hall and from there to the side hall at the bottom of the staircase. Ember is heading for the servant’s quarters, to go out the way they came in, but even as they approach the door it opens and more guards come through. From the top of the stairs a voice calls in Nordic, “Send for more servants!” and a squad of soldiers starts down. Ember and Fluffy are in sudden danger of getting sandwiched between the guards approaching from the door and those descending the stairs, so the priestess grabs the halfling and pulls the two of them through the side door, hoping the twin suits of armor will shield its opening and closing from view.
The room beyond the door (88) is lit by three oil lamps on low tables. The tables are in the corners of the room in sitting areas with a total of eight soft chairs and a couch between them. Multiple tapestries depicting rustic farm and hill scenes decorate the walls, four stone columns support the ceiling, and a thick carpet covers the floor.
There are doors on the north and east walls – Ember tries them, but both are locked. She and Fluffy listen at the door they came in, trying to find a lull in the tramp of boots outside. Eventually they slip out. The flow of soldiers and servants through the servant’s door has slowed, but not stopped. Ember judges that they could get through the door, but don’t have much chance of passing undetected down the narrow hallway to the guard room. They will need another way out – and that means going back upstairs!
They wait for several minutes next to the suits of armor until another squad of guards is ascending the stairs, then fall into step behind them, the noise of the squeaky stair lost in the crowd. At the top of the stairs they pull away from the soldiers, back to the mistress’ suite. Through the dark, spooky rooms they pass until they are again in the bedchamber.
There is just enough of a stone sill outside the window that Fluffy’s hook can find purchase. The problem is that with neither of them holding it, both the hook and its attached rope are visible. Ember lowers herself to the courtyard as fast as she can. Fluffy pauses on the ledge to shut the window behind her, but makes sure to leave it unlatched, and to close at least one of the shutters. Then she, too, comes down. With a neat flip of the rope, she retrieves the grappling hook and then both of them are off across the courtyard.
By the look of the sun it is mid-day, and they have spent two hours or so in the palace. By the time they emerge, Bhelgarn and Odleif have just finished checking the walls of the first floor of the palace, and then the defensive walls all around the palace, inside and out, for secret doors, but have not found anything. When they eventually find one another through their cricket noises they return together to Dahlia’s.
[DM note: completed palace walls are 31 squares x 50 feet x both sides = 3100 feet, plus 650 feet of palace itself less the 360 already checked, is about 3400 linear feet, which is about 11 secret door checks and nearly two hours to search]
By the time Ember, Odleif, FluffyKitten, and Bhelgarn arrive at the tavern, Morgan, Thrud, Poncherius, and Wolfbane have all had lunch – bread, greens, cheese, and cold-cuts of salted-rye sausage, and Dahlia has left again. While the new arrivals eat, they exchange news with the two newest members of the Ducal Guard, and then Morgan and Thrud have to leave for their patrol.