Town and Hall
Entering the unwalled town, the six companions paused in the main town square. It was unpaved, and still muddy from the last rain. Over it a large edifice that suggested a public building towered: clearly a Council Hall, though of unusual size for a town. Around the square, armored fighting men wearing a full array of weaponry, gazed on them casually but with cold eyes. Civilian menfolk were to be seen, but engaged in business only. Around the square and connected to the Hall by covered duck-boarded walkways could be seen a well-built guildhall; a sprawling but solid hostel, impressively large stables; and a shrine or temple.
The six divided into three pairs. Bardic and Celo made for the Guildhall to see if they could find a smith competent in chain-mail repair work; Alleto and Vorel made for the stables to enquire about mounts; and Edric and Morath walked round to the shrine.
Bardic was no market-stall haggler, which is why he had brought Celo with him. They learnt that though the Guildhall was primarily a place for merchants to conclude deals with one another, smiths did work out of it and were happy to take on repair work at a good price. Not only was that the case, but armor and weaponry ready to buy, used but serviceable. Bardic immediately purchased a chain shirt and booked in repair work for his own.
Alleto and Vorel discovered that the stables were large and excellent. However, there were no horses for sale since any affordable mounts had already been snapped up. The only mounts left belonged to Vivo’s stud herd. They were magnificent beasts. The groom they learned this from advised them to “get in good” with Vivo if they wanted to try buying one – but scoffed at the idea of being able to just meet the great man.
Through meditation, Edric was convinced that Mitra would restore his blessings and powers at the usual dawn ceremony. He rose and approached the humble shrine attendant, Badderly by name, barber and leech by trade. From Badderly, who was paid a small stipend by the priests of Mitra, he learned that badly wounded sell-swords could be treated in the shrine, though the hostel was the best place to recover; that unguents and potions might conceivably be made by Clampus, Vivo’s mysterious sage-companion; and that the Damsons occupied a monastery in Roaring Pass, to the west of the Gates.
Following the walkways into the Hall, the six spotted one another among a disparate mix of armed men and merchants of the tougher sort. They gathered in the sawdust-covered central chamber and gazed around the interior. It was easily sixty feet across, and longer than it was broad, though the way galleried walls had been built around it, its shape was of an octagonal nature with eight faces. Galleries, each with a view of the hall, lined each face, partitioned from the floor by solid timber half-walls topped with rounded leaning-rails, giving the impression rather of an arena. One end, more ornate than the others, had two tall galleries one above the other, clearly for the elite or town rulers. Serving staff could be seen hurrying food and drink to those seated around the long tables in each gallery. Those seated were all fighting men of one sort or another, the best-equipped toward the high galleries and the least-equipped at the opposite or stables end. Merchants leaned over the rails to discuss matters with the seated men, or entered the galleries by stairs set between each face.
As the six newcomers absorbed all this, the crowd thinned a little, the merchants pressing close in around the walls, and others sorting themselves into two groups: those who were filing out up into the galleries to watch, and a dozen hardy ruffians surrounding the six! They were men of a variety of nations, including some of barbaric mien. Their equipment was serviceable but hard-worn and inexpensive.
Edric sized up them up with experienced eyes. Most bore the brand, scar or notch of sentenced miscreants. Clearly, dealing with this confrontation in civilized fashion would be counter to the group’s interests. He delivered his verdict in no uncertain terms:
“Fill your hands, you sons a’ bitches!”
Arena of Death
At first, a veritable storm of axe, sword and knife blade drummed upon the six companions as they shrugged off their packs, bags, costrels, kits, bows and quivers and brought their own weapons into play. Edric was near to paying dearly for his temerity as a mighty Hyperborean, sounding a weird battle-cry, slammed an arming sword through the scholar’s already-tattered chainmail. Even Morath’s agility was not proof against several attackers. Celo too was suffering but gritting his teeth he held his ground, wielding knife and short-sword like a front-rank myrmidon! Only Alleto, swaying, parrying, laughing and spitting uncouth Zingaran curses at his tormentors, seemed relatively unscathed.
Then the tide began to turn: the sheer numbers of attackers began to hamper them, and a couple of telling blows sent one reeling out of the fight. Edric was able to pull back out of immediate danger and Celo was unleashed to roll, duck and slide behind the ruffians. Once teamed up with Morath, the two rogues wrought terrible havoc. Even as their side of the fight opened up Bardic cut his way clear at the other side, though taking a few hard knocks in the process, and Vorel, broadsword and short-sword thrusting and cutting, worked his way round to co-ordinate with the rogues.
A silk-clad easterner, unable to bring his scimitar to bear on Alleto, cursed in Erlik’s name and stepped back, drawing his powerful Hyrkanian bow from its case. Then his eyes crossed and he dropped, as a heavy mug flung from a gallery rabbit-punched him in the nape of his neck. He crawled away, disgraced, as the audience jeered him.
As even the heaviest-armored and least-hurt surrendered the only ruffian left in the fight was a raging Cimmerian. Celo and Morath mercilessly cut him down, Morath wheeling blade-ready to execute the remainder. But a call from one of the captains near the “top” of the Hall stayed his hand. The “test” was over and the lads took their places next to the lieutenants’ gallery, an honorable position. Celo and Edric, with cheerful assistance from some of the Hostelry staff, bandaged the worst-hurt amongst them.
Bardic’s attention was distracted by a friendly “hail and well-met” from an Aesir with poor command of Aquilonian. It was Gyorn, last encountered in Pellia. His lord was waiting to mop up a few last mercenaries before heading away to war. Gyorn himself, inspired by Bardic’s wanderings, had half a mind to break away and try a life on his own.
Town and Around
A copious guzzle of good food and drink, and a good bed in the Hostelry was the best cure for the hurts of the party. Prices were little short of outrageous but they were in a mood to celebrate, relax and enjoy life. Bardic’s burning gaze rested on a curvaceous serving-woman.
“I’m Bardic, a wealthy wanderer seeking ease from my sufferings.”
“I’m Adela, wealthy Bardic. After the evening meal, I’ll bring you to a bath, and then find some other way to ease you if I can.”
“Aye, I’m sure you can. It’s been weeks since I’ve set eyes on a woman!”
“Just as well you spoke now. We girls are very popular with so many men about to go to war. I fear your comrades may have to make do with Dame Wrist and her five little daughters.”
Wrenching his attention from Adela, Bardic fell to conversation with Alleto. The Cimmerian knew that his past could find him in a hiring town such as this. If Alleto needed to fight on Bardic’s behalf, the barbarian felt he deserved to know why. The Zingaran had proven loyal in every fight: Alleto had earned Bardic’s trust.
Cimmeria is a land of steep-sided valleys, soaring crags, and bitter feuds, usually between clans but sometimes sundering them. Even the lowest-born can be swept into the bloody seduction of a grudge feud. In the ill-starred village of Bardic’s family, a feud erupted between his father and uncle. Owing to the feud, Bardic rode away into self-exile, leaving the two halves of the family without advantage against the other.
With the dawn of another dry day, Edric knelt devoutly in contemplation, and felt blessed Mitra’s power return to him. With voice fresh-mellowed and resonant he sang Mitra’s praises, hurrying to wake his comrades and share the blessings with them. Vorel, Morath, and he himself; and then the other three were all sped on the way to recovery, Bardic kneading a few kinks out of his back and reluctant to awaken so early.
The town was already somewhat familiar to them from the previous day, but busyness, light exploration and news-gathering filled the day until came time for the large afternoon meal that would most days extend to a full evening feast. The six shared notes: replacement armor had been purchased; there seemed little chance of buying horses; Clampus, Vivo’s Kothic scholar, seemed open to selling potions though covertly; and all had heard one or two stories current in the town.
“I was talking to one of the local guides,” Vorel recounted, “yarning about trails and so forth… and he told me about a treasure that got lost over at the Gates: the main pass south from here.”
“I think I heard something like this too, but carry on.”
The Treasure at the Gates
“He said, ‘Not too far from this here town rise the Gates, a hill-and-pass formation which threatens the region; for should an enemy seize them, that same enemy could raid with impunity. The king is not blind to this, and sent a guarded train of treasure to the very gates, to buy the loyalty of local barons and pay for them to build bigger forts. But something went wrong, and the treasure disappeared – still around there somewhere!’”
“Oh, well the story I heard,” countered Celo, “was more about a particular person, not a treasure train.”
The left-behind Envoy
“In a cunning bid to prevent Aquilonia invading and join forces with him against Nemedia, the king sent an Envoy with a treaty offer and golden promises. Boy that was a rich mission! Even the guards were armored in gold scale. Their sword-hilts glittered with jewels, and lance-heads gold! But – they forgot to ask about the road ahead. Seems like there was a wild tribe of Ogres or some such that had camped in the hills and the Envoy’s party ran smack into them!
“The whole lot fled, shucking their armor, weapons, anything that slowed ’em down, and got to Hieratgate.
“Did I say the whole lot? They forgot the Envoy – left him behind, treaty and all. The king would pay real handsome to see that parchment again, because these days he doesn’t want trouble with any neighbor and that kind of evidence could be embarrassing!”
“Seems a little unlikely,” scoffed Vorel, “how would gold scale armor even be possible?”
“Hey, just what I heard,” Celo protested.
The others agreed they too had heard stories along those two lines. Morath, who had become a little abstracted, turned back to them and with serious mien said:
“I don’t know if you remember Kabas the merchant and Sarcol… the assassin? They are here today.”
The meal seemed less appetizing to Morath from then on, and he studiously avoided Sarcol’s eye. Edric however buttonholed Kabas, exchanging news of their journey for the favor of sending a message south to his master in the Sarpedons.
Enter a Flashing Blade
Within minutes of her arrival, the whole town knew that a woman with a sword was in town. There was little delay between rumor and fact: A weary figure in a chain hauberk entered bearing a saddle on its shoulder: dropped the saddle onto the sand of the bourse: kicked it with an oath: doffed helmet, threw head back, shook out luxurious curling black hair, and laughed a rich, womanly laugh.
When the ruffians accosted her in the Hall, it was not clear whether they planned to simply beat her up or had some more carnal plan in mind. There were six to her one. Alleto’s brows rose disdainfully: odds of six to one seemed grossly unfair! Vorel rose too: he and Bardic swung swiftly down the steps to the arena while Alleto vaulted over the rail onto the sawdust. Bardic’s heart sank as he saw that Gyorn was one of the six tormentors! Even as they arrived they saw it was too late.
The brunette seemed untroubled by the approach of six, all much larger than she. Gyorn grabbed his groin suggestively, laughing. Apart from the Aesir, there was a panther-swift Cimmerian, and four agile, tough Hyborians. The brunette looked them over with sparkling dark eyes, said something that appeared to distract them, then moved: rolling through amidst the six, her sword licking out and up like a striking cobra! The onlookers could see that she seemed always on balance, picking each step and thrust as though dancing. As she reached the far side of the six, a short sword appeared in her off-hand and, even as her opponents attempted to react, attacked again. Alleto, used as he was to seeing unorthodox fighting styles along the coast, could hardly follow her attacks. A curly-bearded Argossean spun away, spewing blood; Gyorn dropped, blood pulsing from his groin; the Cimmerian was next, a huge gash in his thigh, and a decisive cut set a Brythunian back, numb-fingered. Letting her broadsword drop point-first into the ground, and spinning around the Brythunian, she grabbed his blonde mop, kicked him down to a kneel, and with a fierce cry stabbed down at his exposed throat – stopping a fraction of an inch from her target! Then laughed, and let him fall.
The others backed down – lucky to get away with what she dished out. She displayed no malice, but took a few trinkets from the fallen – rings, coins, a few gemstones – in a manner that suggested she had played the game before. She was obviously pleased with herself. The captains lost no time in inviting her to sit with them: for this was Cala Atenoel, celebrated in tale and ballad across Hyboria.
That evening, the Mayor and Council turned out almost to a man, occupying the top gallery of the Hall. Even the vaunted Vivo joined the company in the Hall that night, to munch a goat’s shank and ogle Cala. Ageing Vivo might be, but still he moved lightly. He stood well over 6 feet, but was broad enough to look squat. His hair was carefully groomed, falling to shoulder length, and he sported a huge, grizzled beard. Edric, closely observing his apparel, noted that he bore the icons of Bori, not Mitra. The buzz around the alcoves was that he kept a few concubines and by the look on his face, intended to add Cala to the collection! His three closest companions took their seats with Vivo: Clampus the Kothic scholar Edric had already met; then he could name Fastwolf the semi-barbaric Hyperborean ranger; and Zpado the fast, sneaky-fighting Zingaran. Not a one of them looked as though he had won his place by good works and kindness to little children and puppies.
Cala was seated some distance from the six comrades, but she was obviously enjoying the chance to relax and eat and drink well. One of her dining companions nodded over to the six, apparently regaling her with a description of the fight prior to her own triumph. She looked the six over casually, and to Edric, Bardic and Celo, straining to hear, it seemed as though she spoke somewhat slightingly:
“There are those wandering the land pretending to be tough: then there are the really tough.”
A pleasant evening’s guzzle was spoilt a little: they wondered if she had been insulting them, or had in fact been referring to the other crowd? Bardic poured another drink for Gyorn, Edric having helped save the Aesir’s life:
“What were you thinking, attacking a woman?”
“I wasn’t thinking; I was drunk; I didn’t plan on anything serious; I fell into bad company,” the Aesir reeled off. At these glib excuses, some of Bardic’s fellow-feeling for Gyorn ebbed.
Vorel finally managed to find some serious discussion time with Kabas. The merchant was a little cagey with information at first, but at length revealed the baron’s name – Amuran – and a sinister development: Vorel and Edric had been outlawed in Aquilonia at the behest of the Damson Friars!
Aggrieved further by this news, Edric, Vorel, Morath and Celo tossed around ideas of what to do about the treasure; or indeed the envoy. Celo and Morath could not really see this as a serious prospect at this stage: not enough was known about the potential for gain. Agreeing to learn more on the morrow, they wound up for the night.
The King’s Commission
Word arrived the following day that the King, anxious to recover the treasure (or treaty) was offering royal patronage to anyone bringing the heads of the culprits and the treasure (or treaty) and the Envoy if alive.
As Kabas pointed out to Vorel, royal patronage can be worth a great deal, especially to those planning to assail a titled noble!
Immediately, speculation was rife! Who would try for such a reward? And which particular mission? Or were they the same? No-one knew at first, because word of mouth had come from the King’s court, not a written commission. It seemed that King Luchistheyrn (scornfully referred to as King Looky-there in some western towns) was heading away on an expedition into Hyperborea. It seemed to the six companions that Cala might well be planning to mount an expedition. She herself, however, when asked by those around her, merely said that she would try it if she could find a backer.
Edric’s suave diplomacy gained him access to the town Mayor, who proved the best source: the word-of-mouth had come direct to him. He explained that the message only referred to “the invaluable treasure” which could mean either actual treasure or a treaty, or the Envoy for that matter. The heads referred to were of “the despicable enemy” which could be ogres or barons or anything.
For his part, Bardic decided to see if Cala herself, lacking finance, was finding the same hurdles in gaining a remount as they had. The stable-hand confirmed that she had been through, and that Pras Rooduir, richest single merchant in town, was doing the same checking as Bardic. Bardic had not specifically noticed Pras earlier; certainly not up until Cala’s welcome when he, along with most other councilors, stared at her.
Later that evening, the town rocked with sensation when it emerged that Pras had not only agreed to finance Cala’s expedition, but to abandon his counting-house to ride out with her. It was said that Pras would hire the best of everything, and had bought Cala a magnificent Bhalkana warhorse from Vivo’s stud.
But that was not the only sensation: Vivo also offered to abandon his retired life in town and ride with her, taking his three closest companions along. Vivo was not only known to be tight-fisted, he was notoriously reluctant to ride hard trails and live rough, so the conclusion of the whole town was that Vivo was chasing not treasure but a nice pair of legs!