Chapter Five The Baron’s Guest
After the horses had rested, riders led the way from the village. The men who carried the children rode on ahead to the barony. Two men leading their horses walked with them. They headed up another ridge, challenging the snow and cold at this higher elevation. They didn’t follow a road at all, but hiked though the forest with only the knowledge that their guides had of the area. No one spoke much. The wind seemed to steal the breath away and the cold was enough to keep everyone focused on their feet and hands.
At the top of the ridge, they sheltered to warm and rest a bit, just out of reach of the wind. Oirion eased back against the stone wall, his joints aching from the weather and altitude. He was not used to this. If Jamie were here, he would be close, sharing a shield of warmth and laying a hand on the aches to melt them away. Oirion closed his eyes and tried to not think about life without the only friend he had in the world.
Unable to escape the thoughts with his eyes closed, he looked at the group that was with him now. Not in thirty years or more had he dealt with this many people for so long a time. It was an odd sort of change. He had forgotten all about the night’s highlights in the backyard until he saw Cindie.
She smiled at him, a different sort of smile than she had given him before. She bit the tip of her finger, dropping her eyes a little to look up at him. He was so shocked at her open flirt that he didn’t even know what to think; his brain just stopped.
She laughed at him and ran the tip of her tongue over her lips. He was trying to think how to react to that sort of boldness, and then it was time to move on. They began heading down into the next valley. He was upset about his utter lack of reprimand and worse, the reaction his body had for the suggestions she had made. He wasn’t able to think of anything else.
They hiked the rest of the day before they reached a small rutted road and approached the manor as the sun went below the mountains, leaving them in an early false dusk. They were cold and tired, but picked up a bit of pace to get to the walls as fast as they could.
It was a walled complex – something that was not often seen in any of the cities or villages that were built over the past five hundred years anywhere else. The high walls indicated a preparation concerning this land.
The walls were tall and made of stones that were thickly mortared. In his youth, Shannon had fought and trained against and within many walled structures. He could see right away that the wall would only work against the most crude sort of wars. Any serious attacker with enough men or horses could easily pull the wall down. The gate was weak and wider than necessary. The waste of the people was dumped out into open gutters and the place stank of disease. Shannon noticed Riven’s distaste, as Riven muttered something in Dwarven about it.
Dwarves were a very clean race and this place was surely revolting to him – as revolting as laying rotting corpses in the streets would be to the humans in this company, except Ivan, perhaps.
They moved up the street, if you could call it that, to the manor in the center. The manor looked as if it had once been a barn or warehouse that had been converted to suit the name placed on it. The overall shape was a plain rectangle with a second and third floor. Additions had been built onto it, all of different sizes and peak angles. Some of the additions had windows, but those were open without glass or screen. The yard was unkempt with neither gravel nor grass, but covered in the mud of the area, sticky and red.
There were several weary looking horses in the yard and a collection of farm birds, damp and miserable looking. They scratched at the mud, attempting to find something worth pecking at. A lanky gray pig was napping on the front step. A dozen piglets squealed over which one got to lay on the step and nurse.
For once, everyone had the same sentiment as Cindie as she made a sound of disgust. Kelly, though, seemed remarkably unoffended by the state of the place. She followed the guide without comment. He handed the horse off to the other and stepped up to the door to knock. The man rapped a heavy ring that hung on the center of the heavy, weather-beaten door.
It wasn’t long before an elderly woman opened the old door. She pulled it wide and let them inside without a word, bowing as they passed her. She seemed to be expecting them. The silent big man who served as a guide took them through a labyrinth of dark narrow halls and small rooms.
They went into a larger room; it was thick with the smoke of the fire in the hearth. The torches on the walls also let off their own stinking black smoke. The Lord of the manor stood up sharply from his meal. He was a gaunt man in his late fifties. His gray hair was carefully combed and his clothes were embroidered in bright designs. The color had been drained from his face. They obviously were not who he was expecting.
That wasn’t what Shannon noticed. What caught his eye was the scroll case on the table and the book beside it. He had seen both before. While he couldn’t place where just at the moment, it gave him the definite feeling that they needed to be on their way as soon as possible.
The fact that the items seemed so familiar was disturbing in itself, but more so was the idea that the Baron was expecting important company other than them. It raised a fear in him. The reality that the Baron possessed something that seemed familiar to Shannon felt very wrong. Shannon was ready to go. His plan to let them rest, and even leave those who wanted to stay, had changed. No one would be staying.
If the man dared to refuse Shannon anything, he would have to take steps; steps that would be necessary, realizing the gravity of the situation.
Both of the holy men grabbed for swords, swords that they no longer had. Their hands closed over empty air. They were trained to recognize Bloods and were sworn to destroy the evil creatures – demons who were no longer alive, just devil-possessed bodies, so the Church told them. Shannon glanced at them. At least the two priests could tell the Baron was a Blood… a fact that did not redeem the disappointment Shannon had of them for not sensing the Circle the other night, but at least they weren’t utterly devoid of their training.
The Baron looked at them, a bit scared and nervous, and then his eyes settled on the guide.
“These people aided the villagers in the fight with the Hobs. They got your grandson back. Charlen felt they deserved a reward.”
“Of course, yes. What can I get for you?” he asked in a deep rich voice.
“We need food, baths, new clothes, and weapons. I also require detailed maps of the area,” Shannon said.
The Baron motioned to the table. “Please sit; be welcome. I will see to the food, baths, and clothes myself.” He left them alone, taking the knight out of the room with him using a curt gesture.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Oirion demanded of Shannon in a harsh whisper. The others were sitting and he didn’t want to upset the women. “We cannot eat here, sleep here!”
“Then do not eat,” Shannon said coldly, “but let the others eat.” He picked up the book. It was an old book that had a complex lock on it. It was not something that this weak-minded baron could possibly hope to open, so he had to have a master to whom the book belonged. Setting the old, worn, leather book down, he picked up the scroll case. He suddenly recognized the energy in it all too well.
Good God, it was his! He almost dropped it. How in the Hells had it gotten here? It had been two thousand years since it had last been seen. How had it gotten to this man, in this place, and why? The only man who was still alive and would be keyed into it was Gerome… only Gerome.
Shannon set the case down carefully, trying to hide that he was shaky. His heart was pounding and had his body been able to sweat more easily, he would be doing so. Instead, his skin burned uncomfortably. Energy prickled the skin of his face and his hand hurt painfully as he rubbed at the old scar.
“How can you deal with him? He’s a Blood. I’m sworn to kill him,” Oirion said, turning Shannon by the shoulder to face him. They stood almost toe to toe. The insignificant baron was the least of Oirion’s problems just now, even if he didn’t know it. Shannon would have put him in his place, but he had his mind on other things.
“Not tonight,” Shannon said, grabbing Oirion’s arm as the priest turned to follow the Blood. “If you want to kill him… fine, but not today and not as long as we are all here. You want this whole village chasing us? Sit down and eat. Put your morals to bed.”
His patience was wearing thin. He needed to think and having Oirion on a crusade wasn’t going to help anyone right now. Another time and place, Shannon would have encouraged Oirion to deal with the idiot. After all, as a Hunter on the border of Norwood that was the priest’s job. Even though Oirion didn’t realize it, he had performed that service many times for Shannon before. But right now Shannon needed Oirion to calm down and to get some space between them and this barony.
“You’re defending him!” Oirion accused, almost in shock.
“Shannon’s right,” Riven said softly. “We need to eat, to get supplies and weapons. I don’t like it, but for the lives of the others… You and I can come back after we leave. You’ll surely return with us to eradicate the evil here?” The dwarf’s meaning was clear; he wanted Shannon to come back and prove his loyalty to the group and not to some brotherhood of Bloods.
Shannon nodded slightly. “Of course, Brother. I would be more than willing to remove the Baron.” He pushed Oirion out of his way as he let go of his arm. He needed to get some space between him and those two. The short contact to Oirion’s arm was enough to make his head start buzzing and his chest constrict.
He took a piece of bread out of a basket on his way to the window. The others fell upon the mutton, puddings, and gravy. The greasy richness of the meal appealed to all of them, except Shannon.
The scroll case; where was it last? Had Gerome taken it from the palace in Norwood or had it been with his things in Ulam Bac? He hadn’t thought about it in so long, he was a little surprised that he even recognized it.
How it had gotten here, and why, was more important. It couldn’t have been chance that it was here, where he was at this moment. He knew even before the storm had hit them and had driven them so far off course that it was Gerome’s doing. Is the scroll, here now, some sort of message? Shannon turned from the window, refusing to let questions he couldn’t answer drive him crazy.
He looked at the thing on the table, debating: would he take it back or leave it? Better to deny that he had been here. He would leave it. He wanted nothing that could tie him to Gerome and that scroll case could.
Oirion waited in the doorway of the room that the men were sharing. The bath and meal had helped, but he was still rebelling against being here and not killing the Blood. It was evil men like that who had turned Jamie. Every part of him wanted to hunt the Baron down and rip him apart.
In the hallway, Shannon came around the corner, out of the room where the bath had been. He looked little different from the bath, though his hair was still damp.
The Baron appeared, jumping out of a side doorway in front of Shannon. He bowed, breathless, wiping his boney hands on his tunic front.
“My Lord,” he said, all but panting. “Is all satisfactory?”
“It serves,” Shannon said simply, not slowing for him.
“Is there anything else that I can do to please you better?”
“I require pack ponies and supplies, as well as weapons for all my people. We do have some trade.”
“Of course, but your Lordship does not need to leave. I’d be honored to have you grace my house.”
“No. My companions and I must be leaving… today.”
“I beg you, sire, stay,” he pleaded rather earnestly.
“I expect you to personally see to the packs, Baron, and I will remember you by how well they are seen to.”
The man bowed deeply. “Of course. Forgive me for wishing to keep you. Grand Hunters such as yourselves must be in great demand.”
“Good day, Baron,” Shannon said, dismissing the baron to his task and continuing up the hall to where Oirion waited. The Baron’s graciousness was forced. Shannon was certain they had to leave, and soon.
“What the hell was that about?” Oirion demanded as Shannon entered the room.
“You have your magic, I have mine.” Shannon said.
Riven looked up from where he sat, picking at his beard. Shannon was not in the long robes that seemed to be the style of the men here. It looked rather dramatic and noble on Dave, he noted. It was not so flattering on Ivan. It made him look clumsy and somewhat like an ugly, bearded woman. Shannon wore his black leather, looking as clean and fresh as always.
“He’s a Blood and he’s fawning all over you… Sire!” Oirion spat the last word, throwing it in Shannon’s face.
“He recognized you. He fears you,” Riven added, sticking up for Oirion’s bold challenge of Shannon, more out of curiosity than moral debate.
“So do you.” Shannon turned his cold blue eyes on Riven. The dwarf had to fight hard to not shiver. Shannon smiled slightly.
“You would deal with Bloods?” Oirion demanded, taking the focus off Riven, to Riven’s great relief.
“So will you, if you hope to live” Shannon returned his focus to Oirion, his voice getting an edge to it.
“I don’t think that you understand the importance of the situation. That man is a Blood! He’s no longer human; he’s a monster! He is soulless!”
“Don’t preach to me, priest!” Shannon snapped.
He was angrier than he should have been. There was nothing that Oirion had said that was even remotely worth getting upset over. There was no reason for him to lose his temper, but he was beginning to. Maybe it had to do with the events of the nights before. He could taste the wild tang in his mouth of the orcan woman; no matter what he did, it lingered there. He could also still feel the stink and vile of the goblin’s cave on him. Or, he reasoned, it could be that Gerome had crept into his thoughts.
Still, what Oirion was saying was nothing Shannon hadn’t felt or said at one time. There was no reason for his emotional involvement. He focused on his shields, tightening them a little, blocking out the burning temptation that was Oirion’s nearness.
“You’re defending him again!” Oirion argued.
Shannon forced himself to turn away from the priest and sat down on the bed. He sent his own anger into his shields and forced himself to breathe, steady and slow.
“I will do what I need to, to keep the others alive. If that means that I play mind games with the local lords, then I will, and you will back me. You do not have to like it, but if your rash temper gets those people killed, their blood is on your hands, Oirion. You have no choice.”
“There is always a choice,” Oirion insisted. His strength was unexpected and the other men were slightly impressed by it, as was Shannon, but he was even more irritated by it.
Dave got up. He had seen Shannon kill men for a lot less, and an accent was whispering into Shannon’s words, proving that he was getting rather upset at the man who was challenging him.
“The lines are not always so exact,” Shannon said firmly. “There is more to the world than just black and white. There is not the “right or wrong” that your Church would have you believe.” The fact that Oirion was getting to him at all only made it worse.
“What would a man like you know about the Holy Church?” Oirion said, trying to antagonize him. It hit Shannon wrong. He stood sharply, but Dave jumped in front of him. The young man put his hands on Shannon’s chest, blocking access to Oirion with his body. Shannon used the cool touch, the gentleness of his great-nephew, to keep control.
“More than you think,” he said in a cold voice over Dave’s shoulder. “We need food, weapons, and money. I will see that we get it by whatever means necessary, and it should not matter to you how I do it.”
“It does matter,” Oirion said. “I have sworn to kill all Bloods.”
“Do it on your own time. You endanger everyone with your personal crusade. Keep it up, Oirion, and I will hand you over to the first real Blood that I find. I hear the blood of a wizard priest is highly valued.”
“What sort of man would even suggest that? Or are you a man at all?” Oirion asked, covering his shock with a hateful remark.
Shannon’s cheek twitched as he clenched his teeth. Another time and another place, not so far or long ago, Oirion would have died very slowly for that remark and found out personally just what in hell Shannon was.
“We needed shelter, I got us shelter. We needed clothes, so I got us new clothes. We needed food, so I saw that we were fed. We need weapons and I have seen to it that we will get them. You might not like the way I do it, but so long as you use the shelter, eat the food, wear those clothes, or you are defended by the weapons, you have no right to lecture me.”
Riven narrowed his eyes, trying to see what sort of man Shannon really was. As interesting as this was, Oirion really did have a point. It was time to use means, other than just the naked eye. His Mage Sight met not even a shield, but he knew there must be one. If for no other reason than the fact that Shannon grew no beard, the man had to have some sort of magic.
Shifting his powers from a mere Look to a Touch, the base of all True Wizardry, Riven went to poke through and see the man inside the shields. His light tap on Shannon’s shield was doubled, and tripled, and then reflected back at him. It hit him so hard and fast that he grunted and lost his breath, nearly toppling back off the stool he was sitting on.
“Here and now is not the time or place for moral debate,” Dave said softly, almost pleading. “We need each other and the women need us even more.” He met Shannon’s eyes, his fear evident, but he was testing the promise Shannon had made to him as a child that he’d never hurt him. He looked back over his shoulder. “Shannon said that he would return with you to deal with the Blood, if that’s the problem. If it’s something else, then it can wait until no one else is involved.”
“This will be settled, Shannon,” Oirion said coldly, but he stepped back. “If it were just you and me…”
“But it is not,” Shannon said.
Oirion grunted and turned from him. Dave waited until he felt Shannon relax a measure and then stepped back, actually shaking a little. He looked up nervously for Shannon’s reaction to his bold intervention. His uncle looked down at the shorter man.
“We do need you, don’t we?” Dave asked in a whisper, his voice almost failing him. Like all of Dave’s questions to Shannon, it meant much more. He wanted to know if this place was so dangerous as to require Shannon’s power to stay alive.
“The priests…. maybe not,” Shannon said softly “but the rest of you do.” He understood Dave’s questions; he always had and Dave usually understood the answers.
“What do we do?” Dave asked. But the real question was…. were they ever going to be able to go home. Shannon gave the young man what comfort he could.
“One thing at a time, David.” He let it go at that, grateful for the young man’s bravery and intervention. Shannon was not sure how long he could deal with Oirion. It was bad enough to run into the man at all, and now to have to face him without respite was a constant attack that he was not sure he was capable of dealing with.
“My question is… do we really have to go?” Theo asked no one in particular.
“Yes,” Riven said, “there is something very wrong here.”
“Isn’t it your job to fix it then?” Ivan asked smugly, following with a cheerful quirk of a smile.
“Not at the expense of the lives of the common man,” Riven said calmly. “If it was just Oirion and me, we would stay and cleanse this area, but there are others to consider,” Riven smirked back at the big man.
“Is it that bad? It just looks poor to me.” Theo sat up, a little nervous at the idea of more warped creatures. “If the people knew he was a Blood, they might be grateful for a better lord, and we might be welcome and give them all a better life.”
“The sooner we leave, the better,” Riven said with a finality that ended the conversation. Shannon was glad that Riven felt the same way and had taken up the explanations. If he, Shannon, had made the same argument, Oirion would have fought him and it would have likely divided the group… to the near-certain deaths of most of them.
Not that he cared, he reminded himself, and turned to the window to work on shielding and repairing the damage of the last few nights.
They didn’t have long to wait before clean clothes in their sizes were brought out. The woman was young, her face was gray, and her eyes were cast down, aside from a few quick, fearful looks toward the men. She set down the basket and, without a word, dashed out as fast as she could.
Despite how Ivan felt about wearing peasant clothes, he dropped off his robes and pulled on the new clothes with no sly remark this time. They were neither damaged nor dirty, and he needed them. They were a bit small, but surprisingly they fit him well enough. He imagined they came from some great blacksmith. Shannon alone kept his old clothes. No woolen fabric would do. He simply folded the extra clothes and set them aside to be taken.
“How much are we trading for this?” Dave asked as he laced up the front of the woolen tunic.
“Too much,” Riven grumbled, rolling up the pant legs.
“Not much,” Shannon said. He pointed to the pile of Ivan’s things and shook his head. Ivan looked at the Purtan a moment, almost spoke, then began to pick out his jewelry, knives, and trinkets, replacing them on his body.
“Ivan keeps his jewelry, but Cindie loses her silk?” Theo asked, watching the big man buckle up his studded belt. “Maybe being sparkly is a bad idea when we are in the wild places, you know.”
“Cindie’s silk is a vanity without meaning,” Dave said with a shrug as he dropped back into his chair. “Ivan’s things, he earned with sweat and blood… and besides, they’re worth far more than a basket full of coarse wool and thin threaded leather gear. Look at this stuff; any strain and the seams will burst.”
Ivan gave Dave an odd look for a moment and then grinned.
“Well, how about the weapons you suggested we might get?”
After a short wait, the Baron showed up. He then personally led them to a small, but full, armory. The women arrived from the other direction, dressed in the same gear as the men.
“Practical,” Dave said, pointing at the clothing they wore.
“Sorry it took us so long to get here,” Tavia said. “They thought to give us dresses.”
“Kelly objected to the dresses,” Cindie huffed. “She even made me give back the one for me.” She caught Theo’s arm, making a little pout-face.
Dave muttered something and then followed Shannon into the armory. He could see at once that the weapons were not of the quality that he would have liked, but they were better than nothing. In the doorway, both Ivan and Kelly lit up. They eagerly went forward to find what they thought they needed.
“Help yourselves. Please take whatever you need,” the Baron said. Shannon motioned the others into the room. Oirion was about to object, but Riven moved him along with a grunt and a shove.
“Theo.” Dave handed the young noble a basic sword. It was plain with a simple hilt, but light, well-balanced and strong. It had a double edge and sharp tip, versatile and easy to learn.
“I’d rather not,” Theo said, backing away a little uneasily.
“Take it. You’ll be glad of it. I can teach you to use it, if you like.” Theo took it reluctantly, almost as if it was going to bite him, more out of the hope to make a friend than to have the weapon. Dave took one very similar, but larger, for himself and picked out a few hunting knives, tossing one to Theo.
“David, Theo.” Shannon motioned them over to the racks where he stood, picking out armors for them. Dave led the slim young man over to Shannon. “Hold his hair up, Theo,” Shannon said, taking Dave’s belt and new weapons. The young man, a bit nervously, gathered up Dave’s long sandy hair.
Shannon took a coat of mail and helped Dave into it. He hooked up the front of the armor and handed over the sword and belt. Taking another off the rod, he motioned Theo over.
“I don’t want to…” Theo objected. Dave pushed him over, taking the belt and weapons off of him.
Suddenly, Theo couldn’t breathe. Shannon terrified him and it didn’t help that every time he got emotional, he couldn’t breathe. He struggled to master his lungs, his breath wheezing loudly.
“What’s wrong with you now?” Ivan demanded.
“He has weak lungs.” Cindie dashed over, trying to comfort him, but only got in the way. Shannon pushed her back with an annoyed look. He grabbed Theo by the shoulders and turned him around to face him. The tall man took hold of the wheezing young man by the throat and almost immediately Theo could breathe. Breathing still hurt, but it wasn’t as impossible as it had been before.
“David, hold up his hair,” Shannon said, as if nothing at all had happened. Dave did and Shannon edged the old iron mail up Theo’s arms and onto his shoulders. When it was on, the weight was too much. Theo almost hit the floor. Shannon hooked up the front and then handed the sword back to him.
“You’re a brute,” Cindie gasped at Shannon. She pouted over Theo, making him feel embarrassed and far from being a man. “Don’t you know he can’t wear that? He’s too weak.” Theo hated her for saying that and they all saw it in his eyes.
“David. Get her into something that offers a little protection.” Shannon turned from the young woman as if she hadn’t said anything at all. She huffed, stomping her little foot.
Ivan and Kelly were loading on as much as they could carry. Their greed exceeded their reason, but Shannon let them. As weak as the blades were, they would break and need replacements along the way. Let them use their strength to carry a supply station, if they wanted.
Tavia had put on a hunter’s vest and was testing out the slender bows of the people here. Shannon went to the boy. He picked Travis up and put him on the table. He, as well as the others, needed to be armed and protected a little.
An adolescent hunting vest fit Travis like a long tunic. The tooled leather would protect him better than nothing. Shannon strapped a knife on the boy and strung a wallet across the boy’s chest. He pulled a few feathers from an arrow and put them in the wallet – something for his fingers to play with, at least to keep them off the knife until Dave taught the boy to use it.
Shannon looked around for a weapon he could use. He watched as Theo picked a bow and quiver off of the wall with an almost guilty look. No one but Shannon seemed to even notice. Shannon looked down at the slight blond man and took a bow off the wall for himself, as well as a quiver for one hip and a sword for the other. Theo gave him a wary smile and stepped away, but kept a hold of his chosen weapon.
Shannon scanned the group, was satisfied, and led the way out. The sun was still well up in the sky; they could get a good ways before dark. A sense of urgency was building and he wanted to be on the way so badly that he felt ready to take off at a run.
Five hairy, abused-looking, grey and white ponies waited in the yard, loaded with large packs. The packs were full, but were of worn leather that looked ready to rip apart. Shannon doubted that the supplies inside were any better; hardly worth the silk of Cindie’s dress that was traded for it all. The Baron watched them, nervously shifting his weight. He wanted to talk to Shannon, but he had nothing to say to the man.
Kelly took the lead rope of the ponies and they left the village without any goodbyes or looking back. Once on the road, they picked up the pace and headed south on an only slightly better road than the one they had come in on.
Oirion took the lead. He wanted to get away from the village and didn’t trust anyone else to lead the way. Shannon didn’t object. He needed time, his shields needed work, and the farther away from Oirion and Riven he could get, the better. The back of the line, with the greatest possible distance between them, was the best place in this situation. He tried to push the thought of his scroll case out of his mind and focus on one problem at a time.
He had shields to build, energy to purge, and this unplanned side-trip was getting worse by the day. There was a lot more going on than just another random attack to make his life more difficult. The shipwreck alone might have been bad enough, but one thing after another was being aimed at him and he knew it. They needed to get away from this place as fast as possible. They had stayed on the beach far too long and now they were going to have a hard time making up for it.
They hadn’t gone far, just a few miles, when Oirion pulled them aside suddenly. He had spotted a clearing just off the road. He turned to Riven.
“I think that we need to decide what we’re going to do. We can’t just wander around for the rest of our lives,” Oirion said. It was obvious that he was more concerned with getting too far away to make it feasible to turn back and go after the Baron. Let Shannon try to play his games; Oirion was not about to allow it so easily. Oirion knew Shannon’s skills were needed to keep all these people alive. But there was something that needed to be done first; then they needed to get these people out of here.
Shannon’s unease about this place had not gone away and it was growing with every minute. The idea that Gerome had been here was very unsettling. The more he thought about the scroll case, the less he liked it.
“Why not just stay at the village. I mean, the Baron seemed to like us enough,” Cindie said, taking on a motherly tone, trying to sound adult.
“That’s not an option,” Riven said. “There are two things we can do. One is to split up and seek our lives in the populous, hoping we don’t break any cultural laws, or we could find a place together and work toward making a good life for each other.” Everyone looked around at that. Did they like each other that much? Did they dare break up?
“Or we could go into the cities and find work there and still stay together,” Ivan said, for once sounding like he had some measure of a brain inside that stubbly head.
“Once we split, we’re split. If we stick together, we can always split up later when we know this place a little better,” Theo offered, agreeing with Ivan, displaying an obvious grimace.
“So what do we do?” Tavia said. “We don’t have the money to buy a place and I doubt that we’ll stumble onto an abandoned place that is big enough and in good enough condition to have ready by winter.”
“We could go to the local lord,” Cindie suggested brightly, “explain the situation and tell him that we are really all nobles. Surely he’d let us stay with him.”
“I wonder if there are any slavers,” Theo mused. “Cindie would fetch a good price, I’m sure,” he said, looking critically at her. Kelly had to turn away to hide a smile. Dave caught it and almost laughed. Cindie just tossed her hair with a snort at the comment.
“You met the local lord,” Shannon told her softly. “I was not very impressed with him or his house.”
“Surely there are real nobles around here. That man was just a poor baron,” she said, sounding almost scared that there weren’t real nobles around to save her.
“Is there any place that is marked on the map that he gave you?” Riven asked Shannon.
“Nothing?” Oirion insisted.
“Abandoned places are not commonly put on maps,” Shannon pointed out to Oirion, who had picked up a habit of challenging everything he said. That was going to get old really fast.
“Let’s look,” Oirion pressed.
Shannon took out the map that the Baron had given him. He rolled it out, using a touch of power at each corner to hold it flat. Both Riven and Oirion were trained to hunt blood magic; he’d rather not have to deal with their training right now, but he wanted them to know that he was in control of his power, not just under a shield.
The map was old and the language used was an old form of the continental language, not the common language that all humans and most other races spoke. No one here except for Shannon was going to be able to read it. The names were rather simple and uncreative, but told what the areas were like. He hoped not, but he was sure the names were earned. There were places called The Forest of the Damned and Death Wood. There was The Bog and The Fire Swamp. The grass that they had just passed through was nicely named The Grass Land. He suspected that all the names were mildly put, understatements that were very descriptive if you knew the place.
“I can’t read that,” Oirion grunted. “It does little good.”
“It does not say much,” Shannon said, “and it does not say anywhere: this is a nice abandoned castle, move on in.”
Oirion gave Shannon a withering look.
“I can find a place,” Dave said, trying not to smile at Shannon’s humor, “if that is what we want to do.” Dave knew that Shannon could easily find what they needed, but for some reason, the man wasn’t going to do that. Whatever that reason was, Dave was going to trust that it was a good one and so nervously volunteered.
“Anyone object?” Riven asked. No one did.
“Let’s get off the road and up into the trees,” Riven said to Oirion. “We can go back and see to the Baron’s religious state while the others rest and Dave does his thing.” They climbed up the mountain for several hours and then set up a small camp. The three leaders went left, heading back down the mountain at once. Dave went just outside the camp, sat on the ground, and relaxed.
Shannon had taught him long ago how to look for things magically, how to lift out of your body and seek out whatever it was you were looking for. It was just another application of the same Sight that he used to view the grass. It might take awhile, but he would find something that would work. Surprisingly, no one even asked how he was going to do it.
They reached the village at dusk, ducking in just before the gates were closed. They were careful to not be seen. They didn’t really have to do much to hide from the villagers, but the Hunter and the Cleric were too well trained to be lax, even though it seemed safe. In the backyard of the manor, they tested the kitchen door and found it still unlocked. Slipping in, Riven shook his head at the untidiness of the room, almost questioning the safety of the food they had eaten.
“I’ll check the front hall,” Oirion said softly, not even noticing. He scowled at Shannon who was rubbing his left hand. Shannon hadn’t even realized he was doing it, with all the other things on his mind, but then he did and stopped, very concerned about how badly it ached.
“I’ve got his room,” Riven said and turned toward the stairs. Shannon headed up to the library. He was after something else. He wanted that book or at least to find out what was so important to be so strongly locked now.
Riven followed the hallway up to the stairs and then scanned to find the Blood. A light scan was all he needed to reach the fellow. It was as if the Baron’s power had amplified a hundred times. He wondered if the Baron had known they were priests and had hidden his power and corruption somehow. He expected to find the Baron alone in a study, but found that the man was up on the third floor, in an area more like an attic. It was a large, rather lavish room, filled with a wealth that he certainly hadn’t shown to them. Perhaps the Baron was not as hospitable as he had seemed.
The room was draped in red silk, with large, velvet, cushioned chairs. Gold caught the glow of a mage-lamp light and glimmered in places over the room. Rugs covered the stone floors, the walls were white-washed and covered with tapestries of great battles.
He almost moved in, but the Baron wasn’t alone. Riven ducked into the long folds of a velvet drape at the side of the door. He carefully pulled back a bit of new stiff velvet. It still smelled of the dyes used to get the red color. This wealth was new, and that, immediately, did not bode well with the dwarf. Such wealth was not gained by such men for good reasons or with good motives.
He could see the Baron, but that wasn’t all he saw. His heart stopped in his chest when he saw the one man that he had thought was without sin, but there he was. Why was he here? What was going on?
Was Riven mistaken? He reeled at the shock of it and cringed back into his hiding place. The Holy Pontiff stood in the room with the Baron. Riven closed his eyes and focused on breathing, trying to keep calm and not jump to conclusions.
“Where did they go?” the pontiff asked the trembling Baron.
“I don’t know, Eminence. Please, believe me!”
“Are you positive that there were two priests with him?”
“Yes. Oirion and Riven. I told you all this.”
“Are you positive that the man’s name was Oirion?”
“Yes. They all called him that.”
“How disappointing,” the Pontiff sighed. “We always have such high hopes for our children and yet they let us down time and again. Such is life. He disobeyed orders. He was to stay in Norwood and now he will have to pay the price for his disobedience.”
“Your son, Holy?”
The Pontiff gestured vaguely. “I comfort those on death row as I can. Sometimes it even postpones one’s demise for awhile… nine months or so anyway.” He chuckled softly at some fond memory, “but he is of no moment. I can always have more if the desire ever suits me again. You mentioned that there was a young blond man in the group?”
“He didn’t speak and they didn’t catch his name: Teo… or something like that.”
“Yes, well, it is the other one, the Purtan, that interests me.”
“He is powerful.”
“Yes, I know. He and I go way back. Honestly, the first man that I ever loved. Another disappointment,” the pontiff added bitterly. “He was too attached to that wife of his. I warned him… and he paid, as will Oirion. I don’t take disappointment well.” The man smiled slightly. “Where did they go, again?”
“I don’t know.” The baron was almost in tears. Riven was in shock; the pontiff was insane. Had he lost his mind when he went through the shield?
“Oh, do think. I only have so long before I have to go back to the real world. My little hunting game is on a timetable.”
Riven’s sharp ears heard the man approaching from up the hall before he reached the room. The man smelled so strongly of Blood that it made Riven gag. He knew that the foul taste and gut wrenching sensation of it would surely jar the pontiff back to himself. He was barely keeping from being sick. Surely the pontiff would suffer just as bad, if not worse. How had the people here kept this vileness hidden from them?
“…from the mind of an old server woman,” the Blood was saying as Riven listened again, focusing through the overwhelming nausea.
“And?” the pontiff asked impatiently.
“They headed south. The priest was in the lead. The Purtan followed up last. If he is Tyredelle, he doesn’t seem to be the leader of the group and I can’t imagine the King of Norwood taking seconds to Oirion.”
“It’s him, alright. I’d be able to taste my old partner anywhere. You don’t have a man inside your soul and not feel his presence. South, you say?” The chuckling madness of earlier was all gone now and the man was the serious man that Riven had seen on the holy throne a thousand times.
Riven answered to only one other, but usually to him. He had often knelt reverently at his feet. The idea that there was deception made him feel cold Dwarven anger. Wasn’t his faith tested enough?
“We’ll wait until morning. It should prove an interesting hunt. I went to a lot of work to set this up.” The pontiff chuckled. “I’ve waited a thousand years for this.”
“The men wonder what your orders are about the others.”
“The two priests are for you personally to do what you wish with.”
“Thank you.” The Blood bowed deeply.
“Indeed. Both are royal blood, so enjoy them. As for the others, they are for the men. All except for the Purtan; he is for me. But we will do whatever it takes to capture and secure him. If that requires a broken bone or a few, that is quite acceptable,” he said pleasantly.
“Perhaps we should head out now. Surely he will feel you, as you feel him.”
“I don’t think so. Not after what the demons did to him. They are very good at what they do. Did any of the group seem to suspect who he was?”
“Not as far as I could tell. As I said, he seems to have little, if any, authority in the group.”
“He was ever-humble,” the Pontiff recalled, putting his hand on his chest with a sigh. He laughed softly again. “That will make the hunt easier, if nothing else. I always told him his humility would be his downfall.”
Riven turned, half-blind, and slipped out of the room. With only thoughts of escape, he fled down the hall. On the stairs, he nearly ran into Oirion coming up.
“We need to go now. He has allies with him,” Riven said. Not even waiting for the other man to follow, he ran down the rest of the stairs to the hallways below. Sick to his stomach and his mind whirling in horror, he needed fresh air. He needed to breathe. The pontiff was mad… he was going mad; that had to be it.
Oirion hesitated and then followed Riven back outside. There was fear in the cleric and if that was true, the priest had not the arrogance to assume that he would fare better. In the yard, they waited for Shannon. It wasn’t long before the man came out.
“Let’s go,” Riven said, “we need to get far from here, and fast.”
Shannon didn’t object, nodded, and let the dwarf take the lead.
The others were not at all happy that Riven made them get up and move, but he left them no choice. They headed out at once, deeper into the mountains, due west; any direction but south.
“Riven.” Dave joined the dwarf in the front. “I found a place. It’s some distance, but it’ll work well… I think.”
“Can you lead us there?” Riven asked, knowing that he should ask how the young man had done it, but he was too upset to bother or to care. He just needed to get them away from this area. He was not to be the subject of a hunt without a fight. He knew that there was more that he should be thinking about, other than the fact that the Pontiff was allied with the Baron… something about Norwood. But at the moment, his mind wouldn’t slow enough for him to think.
In Dwarven fashion, survival mode took over, pushing aide everything that wasn’t necessary. It was said in the Nations that whatever didn’t stay with you, when the Rush took over, wasn’t worth worrying about anyway.
“I think so.”
“Is it south?”
“No, it’s northwest.”
“Then do it, Dave,” Riven said. “We need to move fast. We have become the quarries of a very sick hunt. Our lives and our souls may depend on speed.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Dave promised, looking a little sick, but he kept his tone light. Riven noticed Dave glance over to Shannon, but Shannon was busy destroying the evidence of the camp.
“Good,” Riven nodded. He liked the young man, even if he did seem to look up to Shannon as much as the rest of them feared him. Dave didn’t get in the way and when he was involved, he had something to offer. Riven suspected there was more to Dave than anyone had any idea of. He had no doubt that Dave knew more about Shannon than he was telling, at the very least. He wondered what else Dave hid, but for right now, and as long as Dave was on his side, he wasn’t even going to ask.
As Riven fell back in the row, the conversation that he had overheard ran through his mind. There were things that he didn’t understand and others he didn’t want to. He looked back to Shannon who had taken up the end of the line. A fearful chill went through him that seemed to draw the eyes of the man. Riven looked away quickly and followed Tavia, his mouth dry and his thoughts a scramble. It wasn’t like him to get upset. He had trained for years to not go into the Survival mode, but it failed him tonight. A lot of his training had slipped since he had gotten here. He wasn’t sure if it was the pass through the shield or if it was the company.
He refused to look at Shannon and kept marching, pushing those in front of him.
His faith in the Church and the way that it was all progressing had been crumbling for years. Over and over he had asked himself what it was that his heart rebelled against. Now, it was worse. How could God let things get so bad? How could he be true to a faith that let a madman rule it? His stomach rolled and tightened at the thoughts he was having. Fear and repentance rose up in him. Prayers of forgiveness for his weakness of faith replaced thoughts of all else.