Yolanthe and Voltag left the forests and entered the lowlands of the Finger of Torn an hour before dusk. The land had been farmed and used for grazing for centuries, and only a few small copses of trees decorated the landscape. It was after the harvest, so most of the fields lay fallow or newly plowed and seeded for next year’s harvest. Small farms could be seen every couple of miles along the main road and the paths that branched off from it. In some fields, penned by ancient stonewalls, could be seen cattle, sheep, and goats.
Riding towards them on road came three men. As they drew closer Voltag instinctively reached up for the handle of his axe, but Yolanthe stopped him with a glance.
“They are from Seatorn. I can tell by the colours,” she said.
When the riders came within haling distance of the dwarf and half-elf, they slowed their mounts to a trot and approached cautiously. Voltag squinted to make out their features against the setting sun. The lead rider was a human, perhaps forty years old, with a face worn with care. He wore a blue cloak embroidered with silver set in a wave pattern. The other two riders were younger and bigger. They both wore light armor and carried swords on their hips. They eyed the travellers warily as they approached and their hands lay on the pommels of their weapons.
When he was within ten feet the older man reined his horse to a stop.
“Hail, travellers,” he said in a commanding voice. “What news?”
“Daleshire is destroyed,” said Yolanthe. “The mountain roads are controlled by a sorcerer. Monsters and undead attack the unwary traveller.”
The man stared at the half-elf as if hoping her statements were part of a joke and that she had forgotten to deliver the punch line. When it was clear that she was serious, the man slumped in his saddle.
Voltag and Yolanthe sat with the older human around a small fire. The two other riders stood guard in the darkness.
“I am Kerimos, First Scout of the Landguard of Seatorn,” the human said. “I have been sent by the council to find out what has happened to the land trade. We have not had a caravan or merchant through in almost two weeks. Those that have left had disappeared without a trace. And no trade comes from Tzanasport. The council feared an avalanche had blocked the mountain routes, so I was sent to investigate. Another councilor was sent to Tzanasport. It is rumored that he was killed, tortured to death on some fiendish new machine. I don’t know it is true or not, but he hasn’t returned and all other legates have been turned away from the town. There is a sorcerer in the town, Baltrog, fancies himself a lord. He may be behind this.”
“That he is,” said Voltag.
“How do you know that?” asked Kerimos.
“Had some trouble with Bald-rock in the mountains. Heard from the locals. The man is mad,” said the dwarf.
“Mad, but dangerous and very powerful,” said Yolanthe. “He is terrorizing the towns along the trade routes and he has burned down at least one. He seems bent on isolating Seatorn, the whole Finger, from the rest of the world.”
“Why?” asked Kerimos.
“Mad dog needs no reason to bite,” grunted Voltag.
“I have heard,” said Yolanthe, choosing her words carefully, “That Baltrog harbors a great hatred of Seatorn. This isolation of the Finger, the control of the trade routes, may be his way to starve the city.”
“You hear a great more than we do,” said Kerimos suspiciously.
“I’ve been travelling the mountain routes, stopping in the towns controlled by Baltrog. The people talk.”
“That may be, but starving Seatorn is madness,” said Kerimos. “Seatorn is a great port. Even in the winter the ships can make it through. He may cut us off from land travel, but never the sea. And the city walls are impregnable. He could not lay siege to them, a paltry wizard and his band of orcs. He must be mad.”
The dwarf thought of something. “What about drinking water?” he asked. “Many a city has fallen when its aqueducts were cut.”
“We have no aqueducts,” said Kerimos. “Two rivers flow towards the tip of the Finger of Torn, where Seatorn lies. Both enter the ground outside the city. We collect the water in great cisterns beneath ground. There is so much water that we divert much of it to flush the sewers. The water supply cannot be cut off.
“No,” said Kerimos, shaking his head. “If Baltrog is the mad dog you say he is, then he will have to be arrested for his crimes, stopped before he hurts anyone else. But that means a war.”
“War?” asked Voltag.
“Seatorn and Tzanasport are city states. We have existed in peace as neighbors in the Finger for hundreds of years, but we are independent. Fiercely so. The other towns and the roads of the Finger are governed by one or other of the cities. There are elaborate treaties in place to keep this in order. But since the death of Tzanasport’s royal family and the rule of Baltrog, all treaties have been ignored. To arrest him, we would have to enter the city, and that would mean war. But in truth there is little stomach for battle in Seatorn.”
“Why not?” Asked Voltag. “It is a king’s duty to protect his people’s interests.”
“Seatorn has no king,” explained Kerimos. “The city is run by a council of elected officials. Order is kept by the Seaguards and the Landguards. There is no standing army. There has been no need for one. Until Baltrog. The council refuses to believe that one man could be causing all this trouble, but I am sure that he is.”
“What else can you tell us about him?” ask Voltag.
Kerimos paused. “There are rumors that he is not alone,” he said. “He has a gnome by his side, an evil creature who acts as his secretary and torturer. And he travels with an assassin.”
“Assassin?” asked Yolanthe quietly.
“No one has ever seen him,” said Kerimos. “But he is the most accurate, lethal archer in realms. They say he can shoot through the crack in a castle wall and hit a man sitting at his dinner in middle of a great hall.”
Voltag looked at the half-elf, then back at Kerimos.
“Nonsense,” he said.
“Maybe,” agreed Kerimos. “But the assassinations of Baltrog’s enemies were conducted by an archer, or archers, of supernatural skill.”
They sat staring into the fire in silence for a few minutes.
“So how will you deal with him?” asked Yolanthe.
“I have to return to Seatorn and report to the council, but it is in my authority to hire mercenaries to . . . help with problems. If Baltrog were killed by people not associated with Seatorn, then war could be averted,” said Kerimos carefully.
He looked up at the dwarf and half-elf.
“Have I found some?” he asked.
Voltag and Yolanthe looked at each other. Holding the half-elf’s gaze, Voltag said, “I have promised to kill this man. If you’ll pay me to do so, all the better.”
Yolanthe swallowed hard. “Where my friend fights,” she said quietly. “I will fight.”
Kerimos’s eyes darted back and forth between the two adventurers. He didn’t understand their bond, but he recognized its intensity.
“I did not say kill.”
“We’ll help in what way we can,” said Voltag.
Kerimos thought this over. “All right then,” he said as the thrust a stick into the fire. “You’re on the payroll. But if Baltrog is not behind these goings on, then he must be left in peace. If he is, then use your discretion. I shall tell the council that I have asked you look into our problem with the man. Report to me in Seatorn when the problem is corrected for your pay.”