Palena of the Jade Apples
Corinthia is Hyborian, but its Hyborian culture is a canopy spreading over much more ancient roots. Some say the great old gods, which hark back to Acheron and perhaps beyond, are still worshiped in secret conclave here and there. Some say that the Jade Apples of Palena are the gift of one of the great old gods. Others say that the jade apples are simply the work of a renowned sculptor of ancient times, whose artistry cannot be matched by modern hands.
Palena lies in the north-eastern region of Corinthia, not enormously far from the Zamoran border, nor from the Brythunian border. It is one of a number of cities on the easternmost pilgrim trail of Mitran faithful, well away from the Road of Kings but reached from that artery by comfortable roads through relatively peaceful cities, though all rival one another in the timeless dance of jealousy and mercantile competition. A Corinthian City that is not set on a hill and surrounded by at least one wall is a city that has a powerful and widely-feared sorcerer. Palena sits on a steep hill, and has a strong wall around it.
The hot sun beat down on the pair of prisoners sitting in stocks at the main gate. Heat-lengthened shapes emerged in the distance, distorted into monstrous form, then resolving themselves into five riders and a number of spare mounts. Sun glinted here and there from a lance-tip or armor not muffled by a robe or cloak. The prisoners squinted, trying to make out whether these were simple mercenaries or something more. The riders seemed in no hurry. One sidled his horse over to the stocks and leaned over. He spoke, though not in a tongue either understood.
“Help us, kind sir! Water, for the love of Ishtar!” – 1st prisoner
Then seeing his words meant nothing, the rider tried again, in a number of languages.
“What is your crime?” – Bardic, speaking Brythunian
“We uh… we oppressed. Big oppressed” – 2nd prisoner, speaking Brythunian badly
Somehow they know about us
The group of newcomers numbered five, with eight horses: Vorel, riding a fine horse and leading a mettlesome warhorse with lance at the boot; Celo and Morath, each riding a decent riding horse; Cass, riding a very ordinary riding horse; and Bardic, riding a good horse and leading a very fine gelding and a pack horse. The gate of Palena was open, but the watch wary. One of the well-armored guards raised a hand to bar their way.
“We’re wandering mercenaries” – Vorel, trying Brythunian
“Just look for work huh” – Gate watch
“That’s right. Just drifting through, looking for work” – Vorel
The eight steeds with their riders proceeded through a barbican style gate and out under a portcullis into an inner ward. It sloped up to the inner portcullis and inner gate. On the left side of the ward a sturdy sally-port permitted passage to the intervallum section of the defenses. It stood slightly open. Bardic’s keen sense of smell picked up a strange, rank, unfamiliar scent from that direction. The horses tossed their heads nervously. Suddenly Cass, riding at the rear, and Celo, riding at the van, cried in alarm: both portculli were descending!
“We have just got here! Why would they want to attack us?!?” – Bardic
Crossbowmen appeared atop the ward walls, in a scene horribly familiar to the survivors of Baron Amuran’s trap back in Gunderland. Vorel wasted no time debating the point with Bardic. He kicked his feet out of the stirrups, vaulted into the saddle of his warhorse, seized the lance up and leveled it at the sally-port while kicking the steed into a gallop!
Much of Vorel’s recently-acquired gold had been spent on the mount. It proved its worth, hitting a gallop within a few paces. Vorel’s lance smashed the port back through its hinges and away! Strakes of broken gate lay across it as obstacles, but a way clear had opened!
Vorel’s riding horse pulled back on its lead as Vorel leaped his mount over the few odd strakes and gate-beams that might injure it. He drew up with a sharp exclamation, Bardic and Celo close behind. The intervallum was not a clear path or circuit. Instead, it too was walled off, forming a courtyard. Half a dozen immense four-footed, huge-fanged beasts, all spikes and red-scaled skin, were ranged around the courtyard, preparing to pounce! Each was as big as a small pony. A well-armored man at the far end slammed down his visor and called them to the attack!
Morath and Cass scurried and dodged around the horses – which, jostling to pull back, were blocking the gate – as Celo vaulted off his horse and ran alongside Vorel, who was still mounted and cutting about with his arming sword. Off to Celo’s left Bardic, also dismounted, cut savagely into a massive beast as it lunged for him. The great blade smashed rather than cut through the horny hide, but went deep: black ichor gouted and the thing roared with fury. The five other beasts leaped atop horses or hamstrung them. Pandemonium reined. Then Celo caught a hail from the far end, where a knotted rope had been lowered.
“Up here! We’ll save you!” – Voice from far end, in Brythunian
The butchery being done to the horses were distracting the things from human prey. Morath ran along the courtyard under the outer wall, to see Vorel, now dismounted, duck under the handler’s pike-thrust and shoulder-charge him into the wall. Leaping to the man’s flank Morath rammed his short sword up under the man’s brigandine. An inner layer of mail failed to stop the shrewd thrust and the armored figure toppled with a groan. Morath and Vorel could now gain purchase on the rope and wasted no time!
Celo was already up: to his surprise the rescue party seemed to be led by a woman! Her drab outer clothing did not fully disguise expensive silks underneath, and though older than he, her exquisite looks took his breath away.
Bardic and Cass made the corner together. Bardic stretched his mighty brand out as a barrier should any devil-beast try to get past him. Cass flicked her noose-line around one of her own feet, and tossed the other end up so that it looped around a merlon, and started to climb, glancing at Bardic to check that he understood. In seconds she was over the crenellation and in cover from the crossbowmen at the far end opposite. Bardic swarmed up even faster, Cass bundled the line and the pair ran after their comrades and rescuers. Into the city! Behind them, the screaming of horses continued. Bardic cursed: that superb gelding had been his companion for years, and represented a vast sum besides. Someone would pay for this, by Crom!