Hieratgate: Towards a Progressive Future
No more timber duck-boards: that was the first and most obvious difference to catch the eye of the five as they entered Hieratgate. Large flagstones had been laid, paving the town square completely. The Council Hall was the same, still dominating the square, and beside it, the Inn’s centuried sprawl could be seen. Bardic headed towards the stables, on the far side of the hall. As he eased his horses through a largely good-natured crowd, he took note of the style and quality of the armed men in town. Though there were a few really well-equipped men of veteran appearance – including one or two really striking, powerful men – the majority had the slack-pursed, down-at-heel look of mercenaries that were far from the pick of the crop. More womenfolk were walking the square than Bardic recalled from old. Some appeared to be townswomen going about their own business, but a large proportion appeared to be doxies.
Edric gazed around, trying to get his bearings. He recalled with fondness that the Inn had been hospitable and with whimsy that the small Mitraeum had included a couple of minor deities. The local leech-cum-lay-priest – what was his name? Something typically Border Kingdom – had steered him towards Clampus to get potions.
Bardic swaggered into the Arena of the Council Hall, Great-Sword over his shoulder and small groom staggering behind him under a variety of spare weapons, and gazed around. It looked a little tamer than last time, though the same types, mercenaries for hire and mercenary captains, could be seen negotiating around the galleries. The sawdusted arena was currently being used by five mounted mercenaries, showing off their mounts’ paces. He grinned: one was an Hyrkanian, riding a pony barely more than ten hands!
“Not too many of the fat-purse captains this time,” Celo commented.
“But we’re being watched. Let’s just keep pushing on through, to the Inn,” Edric said grimly.
Having settled a night’s tariff in advance, not without much grumbling at the steep prices, the four fighting men, now lightly armored and bearing only side-arms, found a spare half-table on one of the lowest galleries, and looked about them with interest. Edric had already excused himself, to seek the Mitraeum.
“Vivo was holding this town back,” Bardic asserted.
“It’s ‘progressive’ I’m sure, but prices have jumped!” Vorel grumbled.
“I hope the food’s still good!” Celo said, waving to one of the serving wenches. Bardic appraised her with a bold and hopeful eye as she took their order: a likely, light-built lass, with a nice straight little nose, smudged a bit by soot… but unlike that round-bottomed lass of last year – what had her name been? Addie? Adel?- this one did not seem to be interested in other duties.
She had originally planned to call herself Penny Bedgood, but her master the Count had laughed and suggested something a little classier. “And not Tuppence Goodnight, either, my dear,” he had chuckled. “Your target is protected by a brainless barbarian it’s true, but the Friar is a clever man, subtle and steeped in treachery. As such, he sees danger in every shadow.”
She hadn’t had a good chance to learn much about their plans since her sneak had alerted her of their arrival. In Aquilonia, Sarcol had warned her about Morath: “He is demon-born, child, not to be taken lightly. With men such as he, be the absence of force.” And sure enough, Morath had checked the room carefully. So until she got to the table, she hadn’t realized that her target wasn’t there. Edric alone? It seemed unlikely. No doubt he had someone minding him discreetly. She needed to flush them out, to assess the true nature of the challenge.
Passing the order on faithfully – the role must be real or the disguise does not work – she changed hastily and slipped out onto the square, her hips swaying now, her head tilted saucily. This role had been fun to adopt: to the mercenaries and local night toughs, she appeared to be a courtesan of high price; and to the well-off merchants, she appeared to be a cheap night-corner doxy. She had only had to kill one man that wouldn’t take no for an answer: drove the spike deep into his brain through his ear and snapped the handle off. His death had been written off as heart failure.
She slipped down one of the off-stable alleys and waited, one hand on aggressively out-thrust hip. A large and ugly man rose from his comfortable stool and grinned down at her.
“Bored with the fat-bellied rich men, princess? Come to get a taste of some real men?” His companions guffawed, but not with any real menace.
“Porter, I have a wager for you.”
“I bet that wandering around town there’s a Friar, dressed in a plain gray robe and carrying a staff, who is carrying at least five pounds of gold in his purse.”
“You’re a marvel, you are, princess. Well lads, let’s see if the princess loses her wager.” Smacking one enormous hand into the palm of the other, Porter slouched out around the stables, followed by a companion only a little less massive.
She slipped easily through the crowd, arcing around the bruisers, watching always. There! Porter and his man had seen their mark: their gait changed, and they spread out a little, ready to cut him off. Edric seemed to be alone: tried to get round them. His body language was submissive. Could he really be alone? Then with the thrill of fulfilled expectation, she saw another staff: another robed figure. It was the southerner, Alkaran! He moved up next to Edric, staff at the ready: Porter and his mate slipped quietly back into their own alleys. The two friars passed into the Hall.
So Alkaran had been an advance agent, all this time! How subtle, how devious, the traitor was! She smiled to herself: this was a new level of the game. And she promised:
“Edric, your death shall be beautiful!”
Morath ducked his head, embarrassed to be sitting next to an employer who blared his business across the galleries. Still, a thousand up front and a thousand on completion was good money by most reckoning. And killing some robber baron wouldn’t take a mastermind – get in there, get out, right? Then he realized that Bardic’s attention had left his food and moved to the arena floor. The Cimmerian rose, vaulted over the gallery rail, and walked purposefully across the sawdust. Morath rose and followed, a pace or two more cautiously.
“Theodora! How is it with you?” Bardic called loudly, watching the antagonists closely. He remembered the man confronting the tall Aquilonian warrior-woman: shaven head, bare arms and legs, twin Zingaran longswords. He had been turned down for duty in the Royal Guard, on religious grounds as far as Bardic could gather. His ability with two swords was undoubted. Theodora was about to get herself killed!
“I’m just about to slice this dog a new one!” snarled the rangy, dark-haired Theodora. Typically, her eyes were black with rage, her otherwise-attractive face drawn into a rictus of fury.
Even as Bardic wondered how to intervene without insulting Theodora, he noted Darius arriving as well, trying to talk her down. Then the other man turned on him:
“I know you – a Royal Guard, so called! Pah! Enrolling a Cimmerian when they could have me! I am Kayan Haduk, and I am the best swordsman in the land! On guard!”
“Nice of you to give me warning,” Bardic rumbled, drawing his arming sword and letting the rage build in his veins. Then with a screaming battle-cry, Kayan launched himself up into a leaping, slashing whirl of edged death!
The onlookers had seldom if ever seen such a duel: neither combatant caring for defense, exchanging blow for blow, leaping at and past one another over and over. The Cimmerian was the mightier of the two: his blows, holding the sword in a two-hand grip, were such that few men could stand against them. But the twin-blade duellist was the faster, his blades deceptive, and for every blow the Cimmerian rang down, he cut twice. In less than half a minute, both were liberally swathed in scarlet gore, the blood running free to soak into the sawdust at their feet. Then Kayan stepped back:
“Honor is satisfied! I will not pursue the matter to the extreme, if you will also step back!”
Returning from his slightly disappointing excursion, Edric introduced Brother Keth Alkaran to the company at table. He greeted Darius and Theodora who had readily signed on with Vorel, and a new recruit, an Hyrkanian named Kuruk. The latter, ornamented with tattoos and crude jewellery, was seemingly from a primitive tribe: but his mastery of western tongues was so rudimentary that little could be garnered about his background.
Keth Alkaran spoke Aquilonian well and his deep, soulful voice was only enhanced by his foreign accent. He blessed the wine, and fell into conversation with Edric about the Hack Brothers and their evil ways.
Returning from bathing the blood off, Bardic looked about for other possibilities. A youngster caught his eye: making running repairs to some metalwork for one of the captains. Bardic made his way over, and brought the youngster back to meet the group.
“Zekias Miclas at your service, cap’n,” the squirt piped. “I can repair most things that don’t need a forge to fix.”
“And, can you re-shoe a horse like a farrier?”
“That I can! I learned all about horses on the road with the soldiers!”
“You’re hired, then, kid! You’ll be my new groom!” Bardic boomed.
“Do we have enough men?” Edric asked.
“Four seemed to work better than three,” Vorel rejoined thoughtfully.
“What about that fellow? The one that looks as though he’s been dragged out of a stable… backwards?”
A Bossonian he clearly was, short on speech, dark of beard, round of head. Hod Hewson had served in a couple of Cimmerian campaign seasons, wielding bow or battle-ax as need be. He took his first day’s pay and a seat alongside the others as plans were discussed.
Vorel summed up the three choices fairly simply. There was a possible northern route, but that would be very long, and involve the uncertainty of Cimmerian forest and hill-country. The shortest route by far lay directly through Roaring Pass, but that would certainly involve cutting right through the Damson Friars’ fortress. Finally, the third route, neither as quick as Roaring Pass nor as slow as Cimmeria, involved infiltrating Aquilonia by way of the Gates, slipping around any official attention, and working through the disputed lands and so up to Amuran’s land. Having kicked these around – with varying levels of candor and volume – Vorel decided on the third option.
“Be on guard,” Edric reminded them as they rode out the following day. “Lord Rooduir’s guilty conscience may incite him to do something rash; the Damsons will be looking for us; and don’t forget: there’s a dangerous assassin somewhere on our trail, sent to kill us.
“Now don’t forget, once we get past Castle Crow I will be known as Roderick, merchant and dealer in bulk metals.”
“Is that like a lie then?” Zekias asked innocently.
“It’s a necessary guise, to ward off evil-doers.”
“So you’re allowed to lie, when you’re a Friar?”
As Bardic chided the boy gently, Edric returned his attention to the road ahead, stretching out south-west towards the Gates. He made a half-promise to himself to return one day and bring justice to the shade of the dead lay-priest Badderly, who seemed to have fallen victim to Pras’ sweeping reforms. Ejected in death from the Mitraeum he served in faithfully while alive, his corpse lay under the clay out in a concealed outdoor shrine where now simple townsfolk came to pray.
Morath returned from a private audience with Sagitus, the grey-beard Steward of the castle, and called a meeting of the “top table.” He explained his business:
“I have a commission from Graf Volan, to let word out concerning a silver mine located in Amuran’s domain. The idea is to puff up talk of its wealth, so that the Aquilonian Court starts slavering for it. Then, once we finish Vorel’s little chore, there’s going to be a vacant barony, see. Then Volan will arrange it so there’s a land-swap, his land for Amuran’s.”
“Sounds easy enough. So, is there a silver mine? Or is this just talk?” Celo waned to know.
“Oh, there’s a silver mine right enough. You remember the silver we got paid with by the Damsons when we tricked them? It most likely came from there.”
Bardic stirred uncomfortably. It wasn’t the multiple duplicity bothering him: it was the news that he had missed out on a fat payment of silver: even the hire of a groom was a measurable tax on his slender purse. Fortunately he’d made sure Vorel agreed to cover costs!
“Here’s an equal share, since we’re all in it: 115 silver each,” Morath concluded. “And the same again if we do the job right.”
Bardic grinned and reached for the wine-jug: that was more like it, by Crom! But he privately vowed to keep ever-mindful of Werhema’s foretelling, repeated now:
“When the moon turns to blood, flee!”
Roderick and his Merchant Guards
Edric drew rein and adjusted his borrowed clothing. Luckily he was about Celo’s size: but after so long in burel and chain, he couldn’t help but feel strange in good clothing. He wasn’t sure that he looked much like a merchant, either. They tended to have a distinctive garb. Still, he thought, glancing around at the eight heavily armed thugs and killers riding with him, at least his merchant guard was convincingly tough.
The journey through the disputed lands had been tough but nothing the travelers couldn’t handle. Even the kid Zekias was well-traveled. The hardest section of the journey so far was the shift Edric had taken with Vorel, Hod and Kuruk, and listening to the silence.
“We head west here,” Vorel called, trotting his warhorse up and drawing rein to make sure everyone got the message. “There’s a road to the north running east-west: that’s the road into Bossonia.”
Both Vorel and Morath rode a warhorse. They had been a little tiresome for the first several days, pushing the newcomers’ horses around and vying for dominance. Kuruk’s pony had showed a surprising level of indomitable viciousness in such herd behavior, and was now left alone.
“Are we still being watched?” Edric asked.
“Pretty sure,” came the response. Exactly who it was watching, locals or otherwise, could not be established. The likelihood was that local rangers were simply shadowing them out of the disputed lands. No-one knew much about this area, other than that both Aquilonia and the Border Kingdom claimed it, and within Aquilonia both Gunderland and Raman. Hod had marched through it, but had only the vaguest idea of the local baron’s name.
“We camp down on the plain tonight. And tomorrow will take us into Amuran’s Realm!” Vorel finished. “Plains!” he repeated happily.