An Old Man's Story
The people of Crooked Tree were a little stunned to see so many people show up at their gates, all of the refugees needing shelter and help. It was spring however, and the planting season to come would need extra hands. And while barrels of wine and other such things had been left on the trail, the refugees brought with them seeds for planting, tools, and their own knowledge as farmers.
They would be made welcome enough.
Misara left Rowan to handle the negotiations that might be needed. A little village like Crooked Tree did not have a proper Inn or tavern, but there were a handful of houses that were larger than they needed to be, and they always had a room or two that could be used by a traveller.
Misara cleaned up, and then bandaged her wounds, none of them serious enough to warrant magical healing of any type. She was pulling on a long shirt when someone knocked on her door and she heard the woman who owned the house say, "Lady Dawntide, there are some men who wish to speak with you."
"Just a moment," Misara said, tucking the tails of the shirt into her breeches and then she reached for her weapon belt. She buckled the belt around her hips before opening the door.
The woman, the local midwife as Misara recalled, nodded politely to Misara. "They are waiting by the door," she said. She was wearing an apron and Misara suspected that the visitors had taken her away from something she considered important.
She preceded Misara, leading her down the stairs to the front door. Misara could see two people standing just beyond the open door. "Lady Dawntide," she said politely, and then walked towards the kitchen.
"Thank you," Misara said to her as the woman left. She turned her attention to the two men. One she recognised, a younger man, one of Crooked Tree's militia-farmers. She had spoken to him, among others, when she had been there before. His name was Fator. The man beside him, perhaps a year or two younger than Fator, was likely another of the militia-farmers that protected the village.
"Lady Dawntide," Fator said, "this is my friend, Yelv Woolsen."
"Yelv," she said, smiling at him.
Yelv's cheeks coloured slightly. "Good evening Lady Dawntide."
"Yelv here came back from patrol after you left the other day. We got to talking about you and the questions you asked and..."
"Well," Yelv interrupted, "I think that maybe my Grand Da might know something. Grand Da used to be an adventurer you know, a long time ago, and he tells a lot of stories." Yelv was speaking fast, as if he wanted to get everything out as soon as possible. "He told me about a buried castle once, an elf castle he says."
Misara wondered if she could be that lucky. She had come back to Crooked Tree only to deliver the refuges somewhere safe. Now it looked as if she might have her first, solid lead on where Grey Mist Keep was. "I would certainly like to speak to him," she said.
Yelv nodded and smiled. "I'll take you," he told her.
"Thank you." She looked at Fator. "Thank you for bringing Yelv to speak with me."
Both men looked pleased at her compliments. Fator told them that he would be going to the smithy, leaving Yelv to lead her.
He took her to the night gate and then led her out of the village.
Crooked Tree, like many of the villages in the Fields of the Dead, had started as a walled compound from which the farmers operated out of. As the village grew it had expanded its walls a little and then had set up its militia-farmers, men and women who learned the way of the sword and bow, as well as the plough. Patrols of militia-farmers ensured that the area outside of the wall was safe enough for the people who chose to live outside the walls.
They walked along a torch lit path, though it was not quite dark, passing several of the walled farmhouses until Yelv reached his home. The gate was barred, but a boy within unbarred it so that she and Yelv might enter. Yelv put his hand on the boy's head and tussled his hair. "Asleep were you?"
"Of course not," the boy said, indignantly.
Yelv smiled and softly punched the boy in the arm. "Good to hear it."
The man and the boy had similar features. Brothers or perhaps cousins, Misara thought. Yelv took her into the big, solidly constructed, two-story house. The house looked recently built and she wondered if Woolsen family might be newcomers to the area.
"Grand Da is back here," he told her, leading her through a hallway that led to the back of the house. They passed an older woman who turned her slightly harried face towards them. "Auntie," he said to her, and did not offer her any explanation for the stranger in the house.
The room he led her into was small, though cozy might be a better word, with a few pieces of furniture, including an overstuffed armchair that was in front of the fireplace. The man who sat in that chair was very old, with thin, nearly translucent skin, busy white eyebrows and not a strand of hair on his age-spotted scalp.
He turned towards them as they entered, and his eyes were like basalt chips, dark and sharp. "Who ya bringing in here this time Yelv?" he asked in a voice cracked with age.
"Da, this is Lady Dawntide. She's a Paladin, a holy knight."
The old man made a sound that might have been a 'harrumph', but it was so soft it was more a weak cough. "Most Paladins I knew were busy bodies who thought their shit don't stink."
"Da!" Yelv said as if he had been scandalized. Misara wondered if it was because the old man had insulted a Paladin, or had sworn in front of a woman.
Misara laughed. "Most of them only act that way because they think that is what everyone wants to see."
The old man shifted his complete attention to Misara. "You brought me one of the good ones Yelv," he said. "Like I always say, curse like a sailor when you meet a Paladin. If you get a lecture, they're not worth the trouble."
"I am Misara," she said, stepping close to the old man, looking at him closely in the light of the fire. He was very old, and she suspected he would not see many more years. His body looked weak, but she suspected his mind was sharp. He sat close to the fire, a thick cloak wrapped around his shoulders. "Yelv said that you had once visited an elven castle. I am looking for a lost keep and I hope that you can help me."
"Might have visited a few such places," he said. "And you can call me Greysom, if you wish."
"Greysom." She nodded politely.
"Pull up a chair, share the warmth of the fire."
Misara was not cold, but she picked up a straight back chair and moved it beside Greysom's. She sat down.
"Yelv, go tell your harpy of a mother that I'd like some of her horrible tea."
"Yes Da." Yelv left the room.
"A good boy that. Has the best of his father and mother." He laughed softly. "And the worst of me."
"He seems quite capable."
Greysom nodded. "Now, what is it you are looking for?"
"A keep. Likely buried. In the Fields of the Dead or the Backlands."
Greysom leaned back in his chair, pulled the cloak up tighter around himself. "There was a place like that, long time ago I was there." He was silent for a few seconds. "Not one of my best stories. Don't tell it too often. Nothing much exciting about it. Always been more about the Baron than the castle.
"Baron of the Backlands they call him."
"Zelarravyan Fangshield," Misara said.
"You've heard of him?" Greysom asked, sounding a little surprised.
"I knew him, not well, but..."
Greysom smiled. "Foolish old man I am. Sitting next to an elf and thinking she can't be older than one of my granddaughters. Getting stupid I am." He said it in an easy way, self-mocking, with no real weight behind it. "I met the Barron shortly after he'd built the Backlands Castle. A grand man he was I always thought."
"I knew him before that. In Amn. Too battle hungry I always felt."
Greysom nodded. "Some said that. Don't know. I was still a lad back then, and he was quite the man in my eyes. He put us up in his castle, treated us like we was lords." He smiled. "Pretty maid that night, poured me good wine and then later took me to her bed. Lot of firsts things that night." His smiled faded. "Damn the wizard who destroyed the castle. Damn his arrogant soul."
Misara did not say anything to that. While Greysom might recall a warrior lord, Misara remembered the mercenary who had put villages to the torch and then later the Robber Baron who caused quite a bit of trouble. She did not say that. What harm was there in letting an old man have the memories he chose?
"We only stayed the one night. I remember the Baron saw us off when we left his castle. Wished us well, gave us each a fine knife as a gift. Still got mine somewhere." He looked about, as if trying to remember where the knife might be, then shrugged his shoulders. "Thallion had heard of a ruin that he wanted to look at. Thallion is an elf, like you. Probably still around, some place. He might be able to tell you why he wanted to go there. Not sure myself. That it might offer adventure and treasure was enough for the rest of us."
He closed his eyes and said nothing for a time. Yelv returned, carrying a tray with a teapot and cups on it, as well as a plate of small cookies. As he filled the cups Misara noted the quality of the tea service. She guessed that Greysom had been successful in his hunt for adventure and treasure.
Yelv put a cup on the arm of Greysom's chair. Greysom did not open his eyes, but he picked the cup up and brought it up to his mouth. His hand trembled slightly.
Yelv handed her a cup. Misara took a small sip and was pleasantly surprised at the taste: A subtle taste of mint, with a hint of honey.
"We travelled north west of Backlands Castle, until we were at a spot between the castle and Chelimber marsh. It was a hilly place, and one of the hills, taller than the others, was marked with a lightning shaped crevice that ran up from the base of the hill to the midpoint." He spoke slowly, as if he was remembering all the facts. He took another drink of his tea.
"Climbed into the crevice, followed it down, into the hill. There was a wall there, and a path where part of the hill's inside had slid away from the wall. We followed it to the gate. Old Genger, our wizard, he said the whole place was warded with powerful magic, but Thallion knew how to open the gate easy enough. Made Old Genger sour as piss, I'll tell you." He smiled and drank more of his tea.
"Inside was a disappointment. No adventure, no treasure. Just empty rooms and corridors. We spent a day exploring, but there was nothing to find or fight. Left it and went looking for something better. Thallion said he was happy to have just seen the place. Guess knowing a place of his people had survived for so long did it." He looked to Misara. "Don't take me wrong. I was glad enough that Thallion was happy. Good friend Thallion." He nodded. "And not all the adventures can be full of great deeds, you know."
He turned back to the fire, apparently lost in his own thoughts.
Misara had what she had come for, a place to start and directions from that place. She should tell Rowan. However she did not feel like leaving. She looked at the old man, sitting in front of his fire, trying to keep warm. She did not feel sorry for him, but instead a certain sense of kinship. It had been a long time since she had met someone who had stayed in the Backlands Castle.
"I'd like to hear one full of great deeds," she said.
He seemed surprised, and turned to look towards her. She could tell he was looking for signs of pity in her face. She knew he would not find them.
He nodded. "Maybe I could recall the time that Old Genger got us all in trouble in Waterdeep. Good story that."
"I'd like to hear it. I know a few good stories as well. Maybe we can share."
"Yes Da?" Yelv asked as he stood up from his seat by the fire.
"Go up to my room. Open that chest at the foot of the bed. Bring me two of the bottles of wine I keep in there."
"And the crystal glasses your aunt thinks are hers."
"Yes Da," Yelv said as he left the room.
"At the table of Zelarravyan I learned to appreciate a good bottle of wine, and a pretty maid to share it with."
Misara smiled and reached out, putting her hand over Greysom's."
"Now the thing you have to know about Old Genger was that he could be the most stupidest man you ever met when someone offered him a chance of learning some new magic."
Crooked Tree did not have a proper tavern. Years before the blacksmith had added a section onto his forge to set up a bar. In the winter the hot forge kept everyone warm. In the summer parts of the walls could be swung up to let out the heat and let cooling breezes blow through. In the early spring they apparently put up with it being too warm or too cool by drinking extra ale.
Rowan sat near the centre of the bar, Olpara perched on a stool beside her, accepting the toasts of the people about her. The refugees had told all who would listen about their loss, and of the Paladins who had saved them. Rowan noted that the story was told in such a way that pushed Misara into the background.
These people might not speak poorly of a Paladin, but they had not forgiven Misara for her actions on the trail, and they would get back at her in what ways they could. She wondered how many times such things had happened to Misara. There had been stories she had heard about Misara and Seomon where it seemed Misara had been a minor player. Perhaps she had just angered those who told the tales?
Rowan did not bother correcting them. She knew that Misara would not care, and most of the people would simply assume she was being modest, or perhaps trying to make up for some fault of Misara's.
Someone pushed a glass of mead into her hands. "Raise your glasses to the Lady Jassan lads," one of the refugees called out. "And wish we had a barrel of the good stuff we left back on the road."
Everyone lifted their glasses and then drank.
"Why'd you leave the good stuff on the road?" a young woman asked.
"Ah," the man who had spoke said, looking uncomfortable. His face was flushed and it looked as if he had had too much to drink. "Well, we had to leave it behind to make better speed."
"The elf cut it from the wagon. Threatened to leave us behind if we didn't keep up." An older man said, one who had definitely had too much to drink. One of his companions tried to quiet him but did not have any luck. "What right did she have? No right that's what. No right at all."
"I'm certain there was a good reason," one of the men of Crooked Tree said. "She does not seem like an unkind person."
"Damnable elf!" the drunk shouted. "Has no idea about common people, that we could have used that stuff she made us leave behind. Must think we can all live in the forest, drink dew from flowers and stuff." He slammed his mug down onto the scarred tabletop. "Damn elf!"
The blacksmith, an imposing man for even someone of his trade, put a large hand on the drunk's shoulder. "You've had too much old man."
"Don't try to tell me I've had to much," the drunk said, and tried to break free of the blacksmith's hand. "Them elves is nothing but trouble. You're all fools if ya think that whore is..."
"Tunkus!" his companion called out as he put his hand over Tunkus' mouth. "Shut up!"
The smith easily lifted the man. "You can go somewhere else to sleep it off. You're not welcome here." He carried him to the door. Tunkus fought, and cursed everyone in the room in general, Misara in particular, before he was tossed bodily out. The man with him rushed out, though whether to help him or keep him quiet Rowan did not know.
"Sorry about that," the smith said to everyone as he closed the door.
"Tunkus don't know what he's saying when he gets the drink in him," said the man who had given her the mead. "You got to forgive him."
"For being a drunk or a man who hates elves, and likely anyone who is not human?" Olpara asked.
The speaker looked away, not answering.
"I hope Tunkus will be alright," Rowan said. "Too much drink is never good. In fact, perhaps I have had too much myself." She stood. "Good evening good people. May Sune bless you with a peaceful sleep." She turned and started towards the door. Olpara jumped down from her stool and followed after.
"I hate people like that," Olpara said a short time later, after they had left the bar behind.
Rowan stopped near one of the village wells and looked about. It was dark, but lanterns hung from poles provided enough light to see by. Most of the houses were dark, the people inside asleep. They had to wake with the sun. She thought that some of the people she had left behind in the bar would regret the evening's revels.
"Some say you should not hate people like that," Rowan told her.
Olpara climbed the low fence around the well and sat on the top rail, so she was closer to eye level with Rowan. "Do you think that?"
"I think it is a good idea that is very hard to put into practice. Misara avenged their dead, saved their lives, and made certain that they got here safely."
"So did you."
"No one was cursing me."
"Only the idiot was cursing her, and that was because he hates elves I bet."
"You could see some of the others agreed with him, to a lesser extent."
"All because they had to leave behind some alcohol and luxury items that would do them little good if they were still out on the road. Idiots."
"That's not charitable."
Olpara made a rude noise. "They are idiots. If they were smart they would be arranging to leave with the sunrise, take some of the village guards with them, and pick up everything they had to drop. Bet you most of it will still be there come morning. These trails are not being heavily travelled yet. Instead they are drinking and feeling that they were mistreated. Idiots."
Rowan could not really refute that, but she did not want to agree, so she said nothing.
"Bet you Misara will want to leave early tomorrow." Olpara jumped down from the fence. "Better get some sleep."
"That sounds like a good idea."
Before Kesk had had his band bypass the villages and towns they had found along the way. It was easier that way and avoided possible complications. The village he had come upon had been different; something about it had caught his attention.
He stood at the base of the hill it was on. Already some scouts had climbed the wall to find the village deserted, as well as signs of combat. Fresh graves dotted a hill not far from where he stood. Something had certainly happened there.
One of his orcs approached him. A wiry brute with yellowed teeth and a heavily scarred face. He was called Jecksra and was the best tracker that Kesk had.
"Ox drawn wagons left, less'an a day. All heavily loaded, people walking long side, mules too, loaded down. Three horses among 'em. The ones we've been following."
Kesk jerked his head to the side so he could look Jecksra in the eyes. "What did you say?"
"The three we've been following, they headed back with the wagons and the walkers."
Kesk felt for a moment as if something was caught in his throat, so angry was he that it was like he could not breathe. "Olgar!" he finally bellowed.
"Sir?" the sergeant asked, running over to where Kesk stood.
"This morning. The caravan. What did you see?" Kesk felt his entire body tremble as he held his anger in check.
"The sentries said..."
"What did you see?" Kesk screamed, spit flying from his mouth and onto the sergeant's face.
"I didn't look," he admitted.
"Hoping that you could raid it?" Kesk screamed. "Wanted to get to me as soon as possible? Couldn't be bothered to even look?" Kesk backhanded the orc, sending him stumbling back. "That cursed elf was with them, and we let them go right by us!"
Other orcs looked on. Olgar was rubbing the side of his face, fear and anger, in equal measure, in his eyes. "I will have the sentries..."
"The sentries share in your stupidity!" Kesk stepped forward and punched the larger orc. "I will not have your greed interfering with my revenge! With the will of Gruumsh." He hit the orc again, knocking him to the ground.
Kesk turned about. "Mount up," he shouted. "We ride."
As the orcs about him quickly scrambled to do as he said Kesk walked to his horse and pulled a long, leather whip from his saddle. Holding the coiled whip in his hand he walked to where Olgar was getting onto his hands and knees. The big sergeant looked up at him, at the whip he held in his hands.
It was obvious that Olgar was afraid.
Kesk dropped the whip in front of Olgar. "The sentries, when there is time" he said, and then turned away from Olgar, fully expecting that the sergeant would make his displeasure known.
Sheepa stood near his horse as he approached.
"What?" he asked her.
"The elf, she may come back this way."
Kesk nodded. "She might."
Sheepa looked back at the walled village. "Could make a good stronghold."
Again Kesk nodded. He had been thinking the same thing. The village could make a good hold, a place to raid from, to gather forces. He pictured the forces he could bring under Gruumsh's banner, and his own. Slaves to work the fields, a growing army, slowly spreading out, putting the nearby villages under his control.
It was a good vision. It was a proper one as well. This land should be taken from the humans and given to the children of Gruumsh. And it would. After Misara was dead.
"She may come back, and she may not. We follow."
Sheepa simply nodded. She had expressed her opinion, but would follow Kesk's orders. Smart and loyal, she might become his most valued follower, in time. He grabbed his horse and pulled himself up onto the saddle. "Mount up," he bellowed, though most of the other orcs were already in their saddles.
Rowan woke early, before the sun rose. She climbed from her warm bed and crossed the cold wooden floor to kneel by the hearth. The fire had burnt down to ashes. She used an iron poker to stir them up, until the glowing embers were revealed. From a pail by the fire she removed a few pieces of split wood and tossed them onto the embers. A moment later the wood caught fire.
She stood up and searched out the chamber pot so as to relieve herself. Afterwards she poured fresh, cold water from a decanter into the washbasin. Rowan had cleaned up the night before, so she simply poured some scented oil into the water and washed her hands and face, as well as using a damp cloth which she used to further clean herself.
She dressed quickly, quietly and then left the room without waking Olpara who still slept. The woman of the home was already up, as were a few others, getting breakfast ready and taking care of other early morning chores. Rowan, not yet hungry, simply left the house.
There was a quiet spot, near the centre of the village, where Rowan knelt down so she might pray.
Several minutes later she stood, feeling good, as she always did after praying. She stood up on her toes and stretched, her armour shifting comfortably on her body. It would be time to head out soon, but before that Rowan would have something to eat.
She was nearing the house where she was staying when she saw Misara striding in her directions. The elf saw Rowan and smiled.
"You are looking pleased," Rowan said. "Good news?"
"Very, I think," Misara said. As she got close Rowan could smell the hint of strong alcohol about the elf and wondered what she had been doing that night.
"You know where we should go?" Rowan asked, guessing that such a thing would make Misara happy.
"Yes. Exactly. We ride for Serpent's Cowl by the most direct route," she told Rowan, dropping her voice slightly. "From there we will travel upriver, into the Backlands, to Yarthrain. Northwest of Yarthrain, perhaps a day's travel, we will find a hill, marked with a lightning shaped crevice. Can you read elven?"
The question, following the directions, surprised Rowan for a moment. "A little," she finally answered.
"Good. There will be wards of sort on the entrance to the keep, but hopefully there will be some clue how to pass through."
Rowan nodded. Now that Misara had shared the knowledge of their next step on the journey both could continue on, even if one were to fall. "Do you wish to leave immediately?"
"Soon. If Olpara is to accompany us we will need a second horse. Iron and Rose Thorn will keep up with the pace we must set, but Berry will not, even as light as Olpara is."
"We'll have to wait until the sun is truly up before buying a horse."
Misara nodded. "Time well spent as we'll easily make it up by maintaining a fast pace."
"Very well. It should give us both time to enjoy a good breakfast as well." Rowan smiled.