Money money money!
Morath allowed his wiry frame to relax as he slumped comfortably against a solid wall in the Karabas Bath-house. Money has been ebbing and flowing in and out of my purse, he thought, but each time a little more ends up in it. This is not a bad job!
It began with an offer of good money to take a message north from Poitain to a noble’s house in Karabas. The money was so good – 300 each up front and 300 each on completion – it was obvious there would be risks: but so far, prudent and pragmatic decisions had avoided any trouble and all they had to look forward to was another fat payout and a quiet exit north or east. In fact, Morath thought as he glanced around the other five, I’m pretty sure if trouble doesn’t find us there’ll be some disappointed faces.
In Poitain: Striking a bargain
“Call me Maldus,” the handsome stranger requested, having courteously thanked Edric for arranging the meeting and paying compliments to Holy Fr Mascus, Edric’s Prior, for permitting the meeting. The observant among the six noted that his clothes were good, though worn, and his riding boots excellent but scuffed and down-at-heel.
“Maldus” explained that he needed a message delivered, by discreet agents who could not be identified with his house, currently out of favor at court. Before agreeing, the comrades asked several pertinent questions, which he answered to their satisfaction save for specifically identifying his house’s name. He passed over a folded parchment and a word-of mouth that would serve to identify the bearer to his steward in Karabas:
“He of the mountain ram bids you fair wind and blue skies.”
The only major risk the group could foresee, based on what “Maldus” revealed, was the enmity of Terentius, a noble high in favor with King Vilerus, should he ever learn of their part. Terentius had also been one of the powers ranked against the Lady of Dimas and allied with Kova. Still, the job as described would not take them into Terentius’ territory, so Edric was sanguine as to their chances.
“Maldus” paid in gold and silver. No-one spent any time contrasting his down-at-heel appearance with the wealth he laid out so readily!
By river to Karabas
Where the mighty Khorotas crooks east before dropping down massive falls in its descent around the Poitainian mountains, is Karaban. Karabas, its principal city, is the staging-port for the falls. Built largely of the native red stone, Karabas perches atop the cliffs next the falls, waxing rich in trade with folk travelling the river or shipping goods down it.
Disembarking, and making for the steep portage ascent, the six comrades congratulated each other – again – on their wisdom in choosing to purchase passage by river barge. On another day and with lighter purses they might have purchased cheap horses and tried the mountain pass, but with a substantial up-front payment, the attractions of not having to work and guaranteed arrival won.
“Ho, Brother! On your way north, eh?” challenged the portage guard in friendly fashion. His fellow guard, less experienced, stared curiously at Edric’s habit and at his five companions.
“Aye, north it is, just planning to stop a short while in your fair city,” assured Edric.
“That’s quite a few of you… well, the rule on weapons is: no weapons drawn in town save in the arena.”
The guards’ attention seemed drawn mainly to Alleto, leading his horse up the steep road. Out of practicality Alleto’s horse wore its full furniture and his fell bastard sword swung in its place before the saddle.
“No secret where they’re going – the war-clouds gather in the north!” commented the second guard.
“Say, you’re one of the Burel Brothers, aren’t you?” the first guard remarked amiably to Edric. “There was another of your crowd through not long ago – a black, he was, beard down to here” – gesturing to show a mid-size beard – “I suppose that would have been last month. Know him?”
“Aye, somewhat. He’d be my senior by some years – I’m still working on the beard,” joked Edric and leaving the guards chuckling, the six entered Karabas to seek accommodation. In fact he could not recall having heard the name of the cleric, though the description sounded right. Edric decided to keep the incident in mind.
As the group hesitated within the city precinct, touts clustered around them, praising their own inn and decrying the others. Eventually, they selected one youngster of about nine or ten, Aracus by name, who assured them of a reasonable fare with stables at Bosso’s Inn.
Bosso’s Inn proved true to Aracus’ assurance: nothing in the way of frills, small private rooms though large enough for two per room, and adequate stables with a reliable ostler, an Argossean named Castor. The Inn boasted one private room suitable for group dining – at a pinch – or business meetings. Bosso, a broad-waisted local full of professional bonhomie, took their fare in advance and saw them quartered. The midday meal was preparing and all of the inn staff, busy.
Morath looked around the skyline. In this part of town, an old and still-gracious area, cumbrous mansions rose amidst ancient parks, crumbling cobbled lanes and decaying monuments. The red stone, so predominant in the city and even here seldom displaced by imported stone, lent a false atmosphere of warmth and health. Spotting a somewhat crumbled stone tower ideal for overlooking the approaches to House Ibex, Morath silently vaulted the low wall around it, slipped through an arched, decorative window, and sped silently up the stairs. Arriving at the top, warm in the midday sun and boasting a fine collection of pigeon droppings and dead leaves, Morath scanned the area; then grinned: another watcher had used this same vantage!
It seemed that Edric, Celo and himself had been right to be very cautious walking from the Temple of Mitra – where Edric had got sure directions from Holy Esorvus – to this area. The Ibex House was being watched, though perhaps not all of the time and perhaps not recently. The marks of a bedroll were clear amongst the dirt and leaves against the most sheltered parapet. Scuff marks on the wall of the parapet nearest the house suggested a single watcher. Morath signaled Celo, waiting below, that all was clear and settled down to observe.
As Edric has hoped, the Steward of the house was the very person to answer the door. It seemed likely, as Esorvus had suggested, that the house was near-deserted. No suggestion of other occupants could be heard as the Steward led Edric and Celo into a servants’ pantry where they slaked their thirst with small beer and began negotiating for the second payment.
Negotiations concluded satisfactorily, the Steward offered Edric the next leg of the mission: to travel to the inn named Gentle Arbor in the city of Sicas, and from there to a nearby estate – or fortress – named Locknotch. At the first or second destination an agent would make himself known, passwords would be exchanged, and the second part of the payment handed over. The agent would very likely have advice as to where to travel next, and the steward reminded Edric – who needed no such reminder – that having completed the mission the best idea would be to keep moving, perhaps east into Nemedia.
Edric took the proposal back to the Inn, where his fellows gathered for a hearty evening meal. “If we agree, we all meet him tomorrow midday, at a bath-house outside the arena,” he concluded. He glanced approvingly at Alleto, the Zingaran soldier. Vorel had recruited him as a replacement for Verus, and of course, given the Zingaran reputation for quarrelling at the drop of a hat, Edric had some doubts. But Alleto had proven a good companion on the road, no touchier than any other fighting man careful of his pride, and most importantly, not given to braggadocio and gossip. He also brought with him some experience with watercraft, and horseback riding.
That afternoon, Bardic Alleto and Vorel had come back after purchasing horses. The horse-trader, a typical Argossean of that trade, had spent a profitable 3 hours allowing them to test-ride various mounts in his large string, eventually selling them five adequate road mounts with full tack. Alleto’s advice had made this an easy business.
Judging by the way Alleto Bardic and Morath were following the movements of the serving girls, tonight would be a new test of discretion. The sooner they moved on, the better.
Preparations for the journey
All were agreed that the new leg was worth accepting, since it took them north, put money in their purse, and as Bardic put it “their word’s been as good as their money.” So the next morning, the group devoted its efforts into stocking up for a journey along minor roads to Sicas, roughly north-east, across the neighboring province of Manara. Edric purchased some dried berries imbued with health through the craft of the herbalist, and the others purchased various dry-goods, tools and stores to last the distance. “No more groping our way through dark tunnels, alleys and trails – I’ve three lanterns between us, and a torch each!” Bardic rejoiced. “I’ve got fodder for a couple of days, in case we can’t find spring grazing,” Alleto offered. “I’ve bought a few more arrows and chatted about the roads – no problems so far,” Vorel contributed. “Morath and I have been shadowing Edric, and as far as we can see we are not being followed,” Celo said, adding, “and I asked about the main road, so spies might just be wrong-footed.”
And so to the bath-house; the front payment the Steward handed over for the next leg was in gems! The instructions for meeting the agent were repeated and the passwords revealed:
The agent would identify himself by the phrase “there are few ibex left in these hills” and the counter-phrase will be “the wily ibex still survives in remote parts.”
Edric marshaled the team: “I think we’re all ready to go: so let’s be moving. We leave quietly, and now!”