By the time Ember returns to the Crystal Girdle, the sailors are in a good mood, and do not mind when the party withdraws to a corner table near their gear and holds a hushed conversation. They decide to split up and investigate three areas of interest: Morgan and the already invisible Bhelgarn will walk around the Ducal Palace, Ember and Thrud will check out the barracks of the Ducal Guard, and Oldleif and FluffyKitten will examine the Temple of Cretia. In the meantime, Wolfbane and Poncherius will remain at the Girdle, guarding their gear and the camels. They all agree to meet back in the high market around dinner time, giving them several hours each for their respective missions. Morgan casts invisibility on Fluffy before she sets out.
From the Crystal Girdle, it is not much more than a hundred yards to the wall surrounding the Ducal Palace. On Morgan and Bhelgarn’s left as they walk are shops, store fronts and houses, while on her right are the abandoned dwarven barracks. Arriving at the wall, Morgan whistles nonchalently and a second later hears Bhelgarn whisper “Aye, I’m here.” Together, they walk clockwise around the stone wall. It frustrates Bhelgarn that he cannot comment on the wall, the best structure he has seen in Rhoona and obviously dwarf-built – huge stones, cut at perfect angles, with no mortar visible. The wall itself is 20 feet high, but stone towers stick out above it to 30 feet. The towers have arrow slits and crenalated battlements, but the wall is smooth and featureless, lacking slits or any kind of ingress – no gates or sally ports are to be seen. They are three-quarters of the way around the structure, having walked along the high market and a second neighborhood, and rounding to the south side of the complex, before they can see the palace itself. For most of the south face the wall is absent, incomplete, though there are half-dug foundation trenches in some places, and marking rods and strings in others. Morgan has counted a total of eight towers in all, the last standing oddly by itself with no wall nearby.
The palace is two stories, nearly the height of the wall and thus invisible from outside. Between the unfinished wall and the palace is a huge pool, with a line of eight fountains down the center. The pool and fountains are dry, and their marble gleams brightly in the sun.
The palace itself is rectangular, some 250 feet wide and 150 feet deep, though the first floor of the main building is recessed from a great stone porch. Broad stairs ascend to the porch, while the second story overhangs above, supported by ten massive marble columns. The doors to the entry room are a pair of huge, wooden slabs, carved with an image she cannot make out at this distance. The palace appears to be structurally complete, but decorative carvings along the walls had only just begun before being abandoned.
Since the whole complex seems to be deserted, Morgan considers approaching for a closer view, but just then a squad of soldiers appears in the western corner of the porch and marches down the steps. The main doors are still closed, and Morgan is not sure from where the soldiers exited the building. As the squad of six men and officer starts to make its way around the edge of the pool, Morgan continues her casual stroll, taking herself to a point where she is blocked from sight by one of three massive piles of cut stone which lies just outside where the wall should be. She whispers to Bhelgarn that he will need to get closer, but she daren’t. “Aye,” he says simply and moves off.
Morgan crouches behind the stone pile, unlacing and re-lacing her boot, listening for the tramp of the soldier’s feet. They appear to be moving to the west. To the east, she can see the villas of the wealthy, and more than one has a guard on its walls.
She has plenty of time to reflect on the palace as she waits for Bhelgarn to return. It seems odd to her that the palace has its back to the city, and its elaborate front facing the steep and barren hill to the south of town. It is a lovely view, to be sure, of green slopes, tiny goatherds with their flocks, and near the summit pine trees. But it bespeaks of the Duke turning his back on his own people. As she turns it around in her head she considers that it is perhaps more defensive. The buildings of the city press close against the palace wall to the east and west and would provide cover for any attackers, and even the stalls of the high market would protect attackers from being fired upon. If the as-yet-unbuilt gatehouse is to be on this southern side, it will command an open view and have a great field of fire. Still, the gatehouse could be put in “back” of the palace and have the front face the city.
It is a cool fall day and Morgan is glad she is on the south side of the stone pile, in the sun, and not in the shadow of the north side. The sun is much lower here than in Darokin, as low already in the fall as it is in the Darokin winter. Ah! Perhaps that is it. Certainly the front of the palace will have the sun in the winter while the back will be in darkness through the cold months.
While Morgan broods, Bhelgarn approaches the palace. He goes slow and careful, for within the bounds of the walls everywhere is new, hard flagstones and a careless step would echo across the empty courtyard. He walks once around the building for a brief survey. There are windows – some shuttered, some open, but all are on the second story. Around the back of the palace are three large chimneys that extend out from the stone wall. He sees no other obvious means of entry besides the main doors.
Back in the front of the palace, he checks the sun – they are supposed to be in the market in half an hour or so. He returns to the rear of the building and touches the stonework, beginning to push and probe, looking for any secret means of ingress.
[DM’s note: Bhelgarn can thoroughly search c. 1200 square feet in 10 minutes. 3600 square feet in 30 minutes, searching 10 feet high, is 360 linear feet of palace walls, which is all of the north wall and most of the west wall]
After half an hour he has searched less than half of the ground floor, and has found little but his sense of satisfaction at dwarven craftsmenship. He has noted several places in the rear of the palace where the stones are warm, warmer than they should be in the shade, and he suspects that chimneys have been built into the walls themselves rather than being added as structures beyond the walls. He returns to Morgan, and the two of them proceed to the market, casually avoiding a patrol of the ducal guard that appears to be inbound to the palace.
Ember and Thrud have walked from the Girdle, under the walls of the palace, around the edge of the high market, and arrived at the barracks of the ducal guard. The walls surrounding the barracks are as high as those of the palace, though without towers, and the whole complex is equal in size to that of the Duke’s home. The biggest difference is in age – the stones of the barracks walls are weather-worn and covered in moss and lichen. Ember figures the barracks are from the time of the Duke’s father, if not before.
The whole thing is an odd trapezoid shape, with the shortest wall to the north and the broadest to the south, perhaps an artifact of the old city around it, for the neighborhoods crowd up against it on two sides and the Temple of Forsetta looms over it on a third. At the base of the walls is a narrow but deep defensive ditch – not a moat, just a deep chasm that would prevent any ram from assaulting the sturdy gates, of which there are five in all. Thrud and Ember, blending in with the local foot traffic, pass once completely around the walls. Two of the gates stand open, but only one (the easternmost of two on the south wall) has a thick, narrow plank across it so that a person might enter without having to scrabble in and out of the ditch. Nowhere do they see any men of the Ducal Guard, not even at the gate, although they have recently passed patrols of them in the streets.
Ember and Thrud cross the plank and enter into the courtyard, which holds several buildings. Just inside the gate itself is a low, stone, windowless, single-story structure. It looks very solid and strong. Beyond it is a much larger structure of wood, built to two stories and with smoke rising from its stone chimneys. To their right is a large two-story wooden structure that could be a barn – there is a fourth building peeking out from beyond it.
With no one challenging them, Ember and Thrud continue into the courtyard. They can now see that a flimsy wooden 4’ wide catwalk runs around the entire perimeter of the wall on the inside, with here and there a makeshift ladder – but no guards are patrolling there. The gates they entered have braces for two bars on the inside, and the thick logs to match are leaned casually against the inside of the wall.
When they round the edge of the stone building, they have a better view. The wooden structure close at hand is indeed a barn, with a large set of double-doors open and facing them and a loft above. The smell of manure competes with that of roasting meat from the barracks before them. They can see two doors at ground level in the barracks, and a host of narrow, shuttered winders both on the ground floor and a second story above. Their inspection is cut short by the approach of two men, both in boiled leather jerkins with the tabards of the Ducal Guard worn over top.
The men begin by saying that they can’t be in here, and Ember apologizes, explaining that “it was open” and she could not find the guards. With her perfect nordic and a fetching smile, she diffuses the tension of the situation, but the men still insist that they must leave, before remembering to ask them their business. Thrud claims that he wants to join the Ducal Guard, what with the coming war. The men look him up and down, obviously impressed by his size and thick, corded muscles. They say that everyone is at dinner, but that he should return on the morrow and speak with the captain.
“Would that be Draco?” asks Ember, but the men shake their heads. Draco is the lord high commander of the Ducal Guard, but the captain of the guard is in charge of accepting recruits. The men try to turn them around and usher them out the gate, but Ember insists that they entered through a different gate, and walks forward across the courtyard. They protest and try to turn her back, but she strides ahead. The men are upset, but can’t seem to quite bring themselves to lay hands on what is obviously a priestess, and a winsome one at that.
Walking west along the base of the barracks, Ember and Thrud spy a narrow wooden stair rising on the outside of the structure to a door on the second story. On the western end of the building, flush as if a wing, is a one-story stone structure without windows. As they approach the western gate, which stands open, they have a good view of the fourth building inside the walls, small, wooden, and two-story but in need of repair. It is windowless.
“See,” says Ember, and gestures at the open gate, “this is how we came in.”
“I don’t think so,” says one of the guardsmen, pointing at the plank which does not cross the ditch but which instead is inside the gate, “unless you drew that in after yourselves.”
Ember laughs. “Silly me! I must have gotten completely turned around inside.”
Eager to usher them out, the men do not belabor the point but lay the plank down so that they can cross.
“Until tomorrow morning” says Ember, and one of the men repeats it, agreeing with her – but she catches a hint of regret on the face of the other. “Unless we see each other tonight? Where do the soldiers drink?” she asks, and one man smiles broadly, while the other scowls. “Thrud here would like to get to know his new companions,” she says to the scowling man, and after a second to sink in, Thrud nods.
“There’s taverns up and down all the streets around the barracks,” says the scowling man.
“But you can always find us guardsmen at the Laughing Gull,” says the smiling one.
“The Laughing Gull, then,” say Ember. She walks over the plank, followed by Thrud. When she turns to wave, the men are already drawing the plank back and then setting to close the gate. Ember and Thrud make their way up the street and to the market.
Odleif and invisible FluffyKitten walked with Ember and Thrud as far as the high market, then turned west and headed for the foreign quarter. This area is populated by the immigrants from the Ethangarian Khanate. These nomadic steppe dwellers have established their own small community within the town of Rhoona, centered around the huge Temple of Cretia. The homes and shops of this area are arranged in a protective semicircle, with a wide gateway leading to the front of the temple. There are a few twisting alleys leading through the Ethangarian community, but the main street to the Temple is the only one Odleif thinks he can take without attracting undue notice. FluffyKitten practically hangs on his pantsleg the whole time, so he is confident of not losing her.
The poorest people appear to live live on the outer fringes of the sector, in shacks and hide tents, while the wealthiest members live on the inside, facing the temple, in odd buildings that resemble a carpenter’s interpretation of a yurt, with the hide walls replaced by wood. Several shops and stores also face the temple, and Odleif notes blacksmiths, butchers, leatherworkers, wainwrights, and a carpenter, as well as several food merchants. Though his pale skin and odd clothes mark him instantly as a non-Ethengari, there are norsemen come to trade with these people in the crowd with him.
Once inside the Ethangarian sector, much activity is visible – people and animals all about the place. Children, in particular, and dogs are ubiquitous – both of them traveling in small packs. The Temple of Cretia is a massive stone structure, and only three doorways are visible, all on the front wall. All of these portals are made of sturdy wood, and all of them are closed. Children play on the steps of the temple, and there are no non-Ethengari nearby. Odleif will have little luck approaching any closer without attracting attention to himself.
Instead, he whispers to FluffyKitten to do her thing. In the plaza before the temple, an old Ethengari man is exercising, or perhaps training, his horse – running it in circles about him on the end of a long lead while he flicks it lightly with a stiff whip. Odleif approaches and tries to make conversation, but the man knows no Common and he no Ethengari, so he resorts to gesturing in admiration at the horse.
FluffyKitten pulls away from Odleif, at first thinking to join the playing children but them remembering that she is here to scout the temple. She passes all along the low stone wall, all the way back to the shore of the fjord at the rear of the temple, but sees no windows. The building is only a single story, though she supposes there might be an attic under its peaked slate roof.
The Ethangari houses crowd close to the temple along its sides, but at the rear, there is nothing between it and the water. Also at the rear of the building is a single chimney extending out from the wall and rising above the roofline. There is, to her surprise, a window roughly in the center of the wall, and one with panes of glass besides, the only one she has seen in the building so far!
Fluffy tries to climb the wall below the window, but there is no sill and the stones are smooth and without purchase. She continues around the corner of the building, just far enough to see that there are no windows along the entire north side as well, then returns to the rear of the temple.
She puzzles a minute – if she cannot climb to the window from below – perhaps she can let herself down from above? The roofline is not even ten feet above the window at its center, and the window is not in the center of the wall. Fluffy goes to the base of the chimney. Here the stones are rougher-cut, the mortar-gaps thicker, than the walls. She chances a trial hold – the stones are warm and dry. Securing her gear about her, she climbs up and is soon on the roof.
The slates are new and dry, and she easily makes her way over to the part of the roof above the window. Lying on her stomach and peering over the edge of the roof, she finds that the roof itself, including the soffit and fascia, is of wood, although it has been slated over. It is awkward work, but by moving as far out over the lip of the roof as she dares, and reaching out as far with her arm as she can, she is able to drive the blade of her dagger between two boards of the fascia, all the way up to the hilt. It takes her several tries and is quite noisy. She looks around nervously between each blow, forgetting for the moment that she is invisible.
Fluffy tests the dagger, trying to wiggle it, but it seems firmly embedded in the wood. Retreating to the roof, she ties two knots in her rope – a small and self-tightening one for the dagger handle, and a larger, loose one in which she can sit like a swing, and which will keep her from hitting the ground if she falls. It is hard to tie a knot when you can’t see the rope, but she finds that if she lets the rope lie on the roof rather than holding it up, it becomes visible.
Fluffy slides the small knot over the end of the dagger and cinches it. She hesitates, takes a breath, and slides over the edge of the roof. There is the briefest moment of falling, and then she slams into the stone wall – still suspended from the dagger. She grins to herself and begins to hum happily as she lowers herself down the rope until she is sitting in her swing in front of the window.
Through the large, glass-paned window in the middle of the room’s west wall, Fluffy can see that the room (54) contains a large bed, a table and chairs, an open closet, and a colorful tapestry on one wall. The drop from the window to the ground outside is only five feet. The most striking feature in the room is the tall, gaunt, bald man clad in a black robe. He is sitting at the table reading some documents, with his face to Fluffy and using the light from the window to illuminate his papers. Fluffy examines the window carefully, but it is set into the wall without any way to open it besides breaking the panes. After five minutes the man has done little besides shuffle papers, so Fluffy begins an ascent of the rope.
She makes it back to the roof, pries loose her dagger, and goes over to the chimney. Smoke rises, but it is not thick, and carries with it the rich smell of roasting meat. It is a broad chimney, from a large hearth…Fluffy-sized? She climbs up on top and peers down. Less than fifteen feet down she can see the light of the fire reflected on the back of the chimney, and no grate or other obstruction that would block her passage. It is narrow, but that just means she will be able to use her arms and legs to brace herself, rather than her rope.
Fluffy takes a deep breath, then lowers herself, using just enough pressure so that she slides slowly down the walls, stopping when she can stand on the smoke shelf. Just below her, a kid goat on a spit is roasting over hot coals. By now she is out of her saved-up breath and has to inhale. Her eyes water and she fights back a cough. If she can angle it right, she can jump out of the hearth without landing on the coals with her bare feet.
Fluffy tries to maneuver herself into position with her arms, but as her palm brushes against the hot stone of the chimney she burns herself, jerks away involuntarily, and falls. Landing on the goat, she knocks one end of the the spit into the coals, then rolls out into a kitchen, coughing and gasping. She tries to shake the soot off her arms and legs so as not to track it over the clean kitchen floor, smells burning flesh, and turns back to see that one end of the goat has fallen into the coals and is smoking. She raises the spit back into its brace.
Fluffy looks about the clean and well-furnished cooking area (53). Besides the hearth, several wooden counters, a closed brick oven, and a pantry are visible. Long tallow candles provide illumination. She is not looking long before the door bursts open and two Ethangari men – cooks, not guards – come in. One grabs mitts and pulls a covered dish from the oven, while the other starts opening the pantry and begins to remove porcelain plates and silver flatware. When the burned spot on the kid is noticed, the men begin yelling and gesticulating at one another. Fluffy moves to what she takes to be the least-used corner of the room.
Eventually one of the men begins to gather up the table settings and exits the door. He returns for more, and on his next exit Fluffy is right behind him. They emerge into a dining area (52), and a richly-furnished one at that.
The table and chairs are of gleaming dark wood, and have been skillfully crafted. Several paintings hang on the walls, depicting waves of grass below awesome mountain peaks. An exquisitely detailed tapestry hangs on the wall by the kitchen, picturing masses of Ethangarian riders storming through the army of some foe, and a crystal chandelier hangs over the table.
As the man lays the table, Fluffy makes a quick circuit of the room, finding two doors. While the man is in the kitchen, she tries the one leading to a study (51).
In this comfortable room, two low chairs are set around a small table, and a small desk is against the wall. The desk is bare, but there is a bottle of wine and two glasses on the table. Fluffy quickly goes through the desk drawers, but finds only quills, ink pots, parchment, sand, and the like. She makes to slip out the door – but finds it locked.
She returns to the door to the dining room and lays her ear against it. Judging the man to be out of the room, she opens it and is closing the door behind her just as he enters. He sets a bottle of wine and a crystal goblet on the table, but then comes to examine the door, looking about curiously before returning to his duties.
By now the table is mostly set – besides the porcelain and flatware she saw before there are now two linen serviettes. A large silver platter has a great bed of rice with most of the kid on it, less the burned quarter. There is a plate of greens and a thin root stew, and a pot of tea in addition to the wine. Although there are many chairs, the service is set for one only.
Fluffy tries the other door, and finds herself an open hallway leading to the room with the man in the black robes. He is still poring over his papers, but now an oil lamp burns on his table. The door behind Fluffy opens and one of the men from the kitchen enters, bowing low but not speaking as he approaches the bald man. The man says a few words in Ethangari, then begins clearing his table of the documents as the servant retreats. Fluffy’s attention is drawn to the tapestry, which she can see now appears to be a large map, complete with a trail marked in red and a large “X” on the side of a mountain.
Several minutes later the servant reappears, with a laden plate which he sets in front of the bald man. He brings the rest of the dinner in over the course of several trips, pours wine, and otherwise attends the man. Fluffy slinks back to the study, and returns with parchment, quill, and ink. While the man in black robes eats, she makes a copy of the map. The hardest part is juggling the parchment, quill, and ink pot simultaneously, for if she sets any one of them down, it becomes visible, and the servant has been through the door nearing on a dozen times.
The area of land depicted in the tapestry
Near the end of her copying, Fluffy finds herself stifling an ever-more urgent cough. Finally, she is forced to retreat from the room. One of the serving men is still in the dining room, but when his back is to her she is able to slip in to the kitchen, where the other man is washing up. The goat is gone from the spit, but he has revived the coals and is boiling water on the hearth. Fluffy chokes back coughs all the way up the chimney, until finally back on the roof she can let free, spitting up dark phlegm. She climbs down the outside of the chimney and dashes off to find Odleif, who is still watching the horsetrainer at work. He does not see her, but can hear her wheezy coughs from below him. Together they walk to the high market.
Once the half-dozen comrades of the party find one another, they discuss their next move. Morgan wants to go to the Laughing Gull and pump the soldiers of the ducal guard for information. At the same time, she is desirous of finding an inn where they can have a private room. Returning to the Girdle, she asks the bartender about an inn. He says he doesn’t know of any. Rhoona, he says, is the first stop (or last, depending on how you look at it) of the caravan trail, and all of the local merchants have their own warehouses and villas and are in no need of inns. What little traffic there is of foreigners in the city has to content themselves with shared floorspace in the common rooms of the taverns.
Ember uses four orisons on Fluffy, who is still coughing fitfully.
Fluffy unrolls her copied map and they all have a look. Ember and Thrud believe that it shows the trade route over the mountains from Ethangar to Vestland, and next to the trail is a picture of a cave mouth in the side of a high peak. The map has a red blot on it at the crest of the pass separating the two countries.
Leaving Poncherius and Wolfbane to pack their gear and ready the camels, the party goes out in search of an inn. They do not find one, but working their way along the row of shops facing the Ducal Guard Barracks, they come upon tiny Delightful Dahlia’s. The common room barely fits a trestle table and two benches, and would be crowded were it not currently empty.
“No custom today?” inquires Morgan.
“Oh, I do well enough when the ale is flowing,” says the proprietress. “But since the Duke required taxes be paid in beer, I have neither ale nor beer, and my regulars don’t come here for my cooking.”
Morgan says that perhaps the party can help, then asks Dalhia how much to rent out the place just for them, exclusively, as they have ‘private business’ to address. Dahlia considers, then says for 8 gold she will let them have the entire place for the night – the common room below and her private bedroom, at the top of the stairs. She will make them dinner, leave after the washing up, and be back in the morning to make the bread. The party doesn’t take long to decide that is a great deal – the only hitch being she has no stable.
“The women get the bedroom,” declares Morgan in a tone that brooks no argument.
“What about you, where will you sleep?” Ember asks Dahlia.
“Oh, don’t worry about me, I’ll stay at my boyfriend’s for the night,” she says with a gap-toothed grin. “But I’ll be back before sunrise to start breakfast – so just make sure you’re done with whatever ‘private business’ you have before then”, she adds with a wink.
The party splits, half of them to return to the Crystal Girdle and move their gear, and the other half to look for a stable closer to Dahlia’s. A block away, and east of the barracks, they find the Grinning Goblin, with a large, empty stable. FluffyKitten is with the group that goes to the Girdle, but she hasn’t been there five minutes when she says “Boring,” to no one in particular, and is not heard from for a long while. It takes that group a while to realize that she is gone (what with her being invisible), and they are not sure what to do. Finally Ember sighs. “She knows where Dahlia’s is”, she says, “she’ll have to find us, since we certainly can’t look for her.”
FluffyKitten has decided that with the dwarves all leaving Rhoona so quickly, perhaps they have left something of interest behind – and their living quarters are so near the Girdle, she has to explore. If the party is moving to Dahlia’s, it might be some time before she could convince the party to come this way. They don’t really listen to her, anyway.
The Crystal Girdle Tavern (square), less than 50 yards from the nearest former bunk house of the dwarven masons
When Fluffy arrives at the bunkhouses a few minutes later, she finds a patrol of the Ducal Guard. They are going from building to building. From the smattering of words she is able to pick up, Fluffy gathers that they are checking to make sure that all the dwarves have left – since they were given until sundown to make it out of town. Her strategy is simple then. Wait for them to search a building and leave, and then she will enter it behind them – the least likely place for them to find her is where they have just looked.
The bunkhouses are certainly built well, of solid stone, but are cheerless places as befits the sour old dwarves. There is nothing in the way of comfy pillows and thick blankets, pies on windowsills, spinny toys or anything else that by rights one should have in a house, thinks Fluffy. She spends nearly two hours in the eleven different buildings, until she loses the light and starts fumbling around and making too much noise. There is plenty there, but most of it is things that are worn and need to be mended or fixed – things that no one would bother to take with them if they were being marched out of town. She does find a few things in good repair – a grappling hook and a pair of scissors for herself, a bolt of raw cloth which she looks at but decides to leave, some knives which she carries around for a while and then abandons, a handful of bronze beard beads she plans on giving to Bhelgarn, and pack of crossbow bolts for Poncherius.
Gear and camels relocated, the party crowds around the trestle table in Dahlia’s enjoying a filling stew of bulgar wheat and potatoes, as well as brown bread with anchovy paste. Bhelgarn has no trencher set for him, and with Dahlia constantly moving from kitchen to common room, he is forced to eat off the trenchers of the others. He breaks off great pieces of bread when she is not looking, and uses it to sop up the stew from this person’s trencher and then the others. When his grumbles of displeasure grow too loud, Morgan announces to the room, “Boy, I sure am glad I’m not a dwarf in Rhoona right now – I’d hate to be shaved and stretched, you know.”
Ale is conspicuously absent from the table, and Dahlia has neither wine, mead, nor spirits for sale. The party is reduced to drinking boiled water with mint, which Ember assures them is quite healthy but which “defeats the purpose of staying at an inn,” says Morgan. “If I wanted mint tea I could be camping on the caravan trail.”
“At least you get a bed tonight,” rejoins Thrud.
After dinner, when Dahlia is washing up, the party sets a watch schedule, starting at ten. “That gives me time to find a place that is serving something potable and still get back before first watch,” says Morgan, “I believe I will visit the Lucky Gull.” Thrud and Odleif immediately agree to accompany her, and after a second, Ember announces that she should go as well for their own good. Bhelgarn only issues a non-corporal sigh and Poncherius is not following the conversation in Common anyway. Wolfbane sees the chance to be the first person in the single bed the three women will be sharing for the night and retires early.
It is after Dahlia has left but before the foursome has set out when FluffyKitten finally arrives, slipping incorporeally through the front door and yelling “Dinnertime for Fluffy” in her shrill voice. Ember, both angry and relieved, helps her find the leftovers. All of the anchovy paste is gone, but there is nearly enough bread and stew to satisfy her. Through mouthfuls of stew she tells Ember, in halfling, what she found in the dwarven bunkhouses, and Ember translates for the party.
Fluffy wrinkles up her invisible nose when she learns of the plans of the others to go to the tavern, and so she goes upstairs to join Wolfbane in bed.
The streets are dark when the four prospective carousers set forth, but the Lucky Gull is on the same block, a scant fifty paces away and they need pass only three shops, two alleyways, and a different tavern (the Rocky Point) before they arrive. Five members of the ducal guard are there, drinking and laughing. They are wearing boiled leather and have shortswords on their belts, but their helmets are on the table, their tabards off, folded, and placed far from where they might be spilled on.
Morgan strides in first and smells the ale before she even sees it in their steins. “Ale!” she shouts at the barkeep. “How fortunate we are to have found the only tavern in the city still serving ale! Four steins, please!”
The man looks at her sourly. “I’ve just found the one keg in the basement today, didn’t know I had it. It’s for regulars only.”
“That’s alright,” counters Morgan brightly, “tomorrow we four are joining the guard. We’ll be regulars soon enough.”
After a long pause, the barkeep says “It’s five silvers a flagon.” This price seems designed to dissuade her – being about ten times what it “should” be.
Morgan reaches into a pouch, takes out two gold coins, and tosses them on the bar. “Then we’ll take four, for starters. Top off the steins of our friends here,” she says, indicating the soldiers.
Once they are sitting amongst the guardsmen (except for Odlief, who prefers to drink alone), with their steins filled, and Ember and Thrud speaking nordic, the party finds an easy acceptance and relaxes for a bit. And then Morgan starts to probe.
“So, war is upon us, eh? Any of you worried?”
“Worried? Why should we be? We are led by Draco Stormsailor! The Duke sent those dwarves packing, and if they come back, Draco will know how to deal with them!”
“So you want to fight them?”
“Of course, you know how rich dwarves are! Now, there won’t be women or kine for plunder, to be sure, but I bet every dwarf we kill has ten gold rings.”
“Have you ever killed a dwarf before?”
“I haven’t had the chance, but how hard can it be, they are so little and all.”
“Well, you may see them as little ‘cause all you’ve seen is masons and such – have you ever seen a dwarven army, all clad in plate armor with crossbows and war hammers? Are you sure you know what you’re doing? ‘Cause I don’t think your little walls and gates will stand much chance…”
“Walls! What do we need walls for? A chicken fence is higher than a dwarf! Draco faced sea serpents and aquatic ogres and far worse than dwarves in his wild days. He’ll know what to do.”
At this point, Thrud feels the need to interject. “If Draco is so good at slaying monsters, why doesn’t he do anything about the dragon?”
“The black dragon of the Vast Swamp.”
“The Vast Swamp? That’s in Soderfjord – let those squabblers take care of their own problems.”
“Squabblers? What is wrong with Soderfjord?”
“Wrong? Well, nothing is really wrong, I mean they are good nordic folk and all, but they’re not even a nation! They don’t have a king! Just those jarls that fight each other all the time. If they would ever take a break from their bickering with each other, I’m sure they could rout a dragon, and not have to ask our Draco to deal with it.”
“Forget the dragon,” interjects Morgan. “You have bigger problems. ‘Cause the dwarves are coming, and I don’t think you’re ready!”
“You don’t think? Who cares what you think! Some southern half-giant trollop and two Soderfjorders don’t have the right to dictate war policy in Rhoona…”
Who threw the first punch? That’s hard to say, things happened so fast. Morgan and Thrud lept to their feet, to be sure. Two of the guards grabbed Thrud, one on each arm, while a third squared off against him. Ember launched her stein at a guard while Morgan went for another. Thrud grabbed the two men holding him and brought their heads together, and one collapsed, unconscious. Odleif used his magic boots to leap across the room, but didn’t land well. The whole thing was over fast enough. The party members took a few punches, to be sure, but in less than a minute all five of the guards had been knocked out. To their credit, none of them, guards or party, ever reached to draw their swords, and used only their fists (and the stein thrown by Ember).
While Ember watched the street nervously, Morgan propped the men back up on their stools, putting them in suggestive poses. “You need to leave!” hollered the barkeep, but Morgan was in no hurry. “You have assaulted the Ducal Guard! I want you out of my tavern, now!”
Satisfied with her work, Morgan finally turned to address the barkeep. “I am truly sorry…” she said, “…for all the ale we spilled. Such a tragic waste.”
And with that, the four of them left, walking cheerfully back along the night street to Dahlia’s.