Thunderheads rolled in from the west that shook the very foundations of the fortress. Lightning strikes were methodical and violent with each one ripping apart the earth as it exploded into the ground. Soldiers on the western wall watched the storm reach out toward them like snaking tendrils. The sunlight was blotted out by the storm clouds turning the day into a sickening grayish hue.
General Pyrhus leaned against the stone crenel of the 2nd level platform of the tower. The massive battlement allowed 5 trebuchets to launch massive size boulders over 2 miles from the tower’s base. From here, he could see out across the land for hundreds of miles toward the Wastelands. He could see the growing shadow making its way toward the tower; its speed fueled by the dark powers of the storm face.
Pyrhus breathed in deeply the afternoon air allowing the mixture of smoke, sweat, and metal to envelope him. His left arm settled on to the hilt of his claymore, Sundering. Its golden hilt shimmered in the light of a nearby brazier.
He was ready for this battle, he had been itching for it just as much as the rest of his men. The world had been silent in these lands for so long that many of the men were becoming complacent, rowdy, and even a bit violent at times. They had jumped, whooped, and hollered when the call went out for all arms to assemble.
“If only they knew what was coming…” he whispered as he peered into the growing darkness. “If only they knew.” He closed his eyes for a moment, thinking back over the last two days. Tristan had brought a great many things to light, and a growing darkness with him that had only been a nagging feeling to the mages for some time.
“The ‘mages’, Siphidias and Leonidas…” the general shook his head, “Eschrehim under my own roof all these years and no one knew.” He still couldn’t wrap his brain around that revelation. The Eschrehim were supposedly not on this world anymore. “Or so we all thought, funny how things surprise us still.” He said to himself as he surveyed a scroll containing the latest developments of the last few hours. A slight shuffling instead of the usual clanking of metal told him that Tristan was coming this way. “Good afternoon Tristan, are you all set?” He asked nonchalantly without looking up from the scroll.
“Just about set, though some of your servants were not thrilled with feeding Armania these past two days.” He said without missing a beat. Tristan crossed his arms as he looked around the platform. Men were busily loading the catapults, bringing out extra stones, and checking over their equipment. He could see they were both excited and figidy after their long time spent doing nothing, but he could also see their unease as they glanced every so often at the oncoming storm.
“Indeed your friend has ruffled more than a few feathers of my people; to coin the phrase.” General Pyrhus mused as he thought about his servants flinging numerous fish from 10 feet away. Armania snapped the giant fish in half like toothpicks before gulping them down in seconds. The images even unsettled the general, let alone his servants. “Siphidias and Leonidas…” he shook his head, “Evig? And Gammel. That’s gonna take a while to get used to,” the general rolled up the scroll and looked toward the upper tower. “They wish to see you before you leave. Something about some last minute instructions, I guess.” He turned back to Tristan who was gazing up at the tower as well.
Tristan brought his gaze back to the general, “Thank you General Pyrhus, your hospitality has been without equal.” He turned back to the coming storm, noticing a faint light dotting the horizon. “I still don’t agree with leaving you here without lifting a finger to fight.” He gripped the stone crenel tightly, biting his lip in frustration. “That his my brother’s army out there, men and creatures I once fought and trained beside.” He closed his eyes as the memories came back to him, “It’s not right to leave on the eve of battle, I am not a coward sir.”
General Pyrhus came to stand beside him, putting his left hand on Tristan’s shoulder. “No one ever said you were, Tristan. But if that necklace falls into your brother’s hands and he gets the scrolls, everything will be over.” He stared out over the fields before them, the shadow and the storm gaining speed. Like a raging river rushing up to meet them, it came at them with dire purpose. “My men are ready to do their part, you need to be ready to do yours as well, Tristan.” The general turned toward Tristan, “Don’t worry lad, stay the course. Father Alban has put a great burden on your shoulders,” he grabbed Tristan by the shoulders, “but he wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t believe in you.”
“Thank you general, it still hurts but I understand what you mean. I will continue you on.” He shook the general’s hand and then turned to leave.
“Tristan, you may not know it yet, but you have friends out there. People who believe in what you are doing, and people who will believe in you as well, before this is done with.” The General glanced once more at the oncoming storm and then headed for the nearest trebuchet to inspect it and its crew.
Tristan watched the general as he walked away before turning back toward the double doors. He looked up at the uppermost level, wondering what two Eschrehim could possibly want with him. He thought of that, and the fact that he would be flying high on Armania’s back again as he stepped through the massive doors leading back inside the tower.
In a large room below deck Halfgrim, Berwyn, and two other passengers were sitting at a table exchanging stories and tossing back a few drinks. They kept a firm hand on their drinks as the winds rocked the boat back and forth. Halfgrim, an hour earlier found out the hard way as his drink had slid off the table that you hold onto your drinks and your food. He had jumped to save it only to smash his head into another table and have the drink splash him in the face as the mug hit the floor next to him. Everyone busted out laughing as he stood up with foam and ale all over his long beard and face. He had swiped his finger across his beard and licked the ale off of it. He smacked his lips and told everyone it was fine ale indeed. This caused everyone to cheer around him and laugh some more.
Berwyn slapped a traveler sitting next to him on the back as he busted out laughing at a joke the man had just told. “A good one indeed, I will have to remember that one when I get home again.”
Halfgrim sucked back some more ale and burped out an agreement and then laughed as well. He tugged on the dress of a waitress walking by, “Please bring us another round, madam, and make mine a double.” She winked at him and he returned the gesture as she walked off. He watched her leave, eyeing her bright blonde hair. Turning back to the table he slapped the edge and caught their attention, “You know…” He burped loudly, “Excuse me,” he wiped his mouth as the others waited for him to continue, “If more Dwarven women had that ones hair, I would probably have settled down a long time ago with a bunch of wives in me home. Ha!” he burped again, “Ha! Ha! Ha!”
The others around shook their heads and laughed as well. Berwyn saw Brother Thomas and Orin step through a door on the far side of the room. He caught their attention by waving to them. “Mind your manners now, Halfgrim. Brother Thomas and Orin are joining us for a drink, and” he shouted toward Orin, “hopefully with a story or two, eh?” The other patrons around cheered and moved closer to the group. Orin pulled up a chair for the priest and took his staff and leaned it against the wall nearby before grabbing himself a chair. The two gentlemen already sitting at the table moved over for the large man so he could pull his chair closer.
The man closest to Orin spoke up, “the name’s Agnes, and my friend here is Connor.” He motioned to the man next to him who nodded and they both extended their hands in welcome. “We’re merchants out of Aldcross heading south for some business in Abydos.” Orin shook both their hands in turn and Brother Thomas nodded to them from across the table.
“I am Orin, Lord of Helmcross, and this is our friend Brother Thomas, a priest, also from Helmcross.” He sat back down and stretched his arms as he leaned back on the chair. “So what do you boys deal in, if I may ask?”
Agnes looked at Connor for the answer, which then turned back to Orin, “We deal in antiquities. Mostly we search for furniture, jewelry, and weapons, though from time to time a unique trinket may catch our eye as we travel through the cities.”
Brother Thomas nodded in understanding before speaking, “So what do you do with the antiquities after you buy them?”
Agnes cleared his throat before speaking, “We would sell to the highest bidder in an auction or bring them to a museum if it is a rare find with significance. They usually give the best prices.” Agnes smiled at Connor at the last comment who nodded in agreement.
Lord Orin crossed his arms as he relaxed in the chair, “Sounds like a profitable business; I suppose you boys do well for your services?” He waved to the bartender who grabbed two mugs filled them up and quickly brought them over.
“Indeed we do well, but most of the money goes back into the business. We like traveling from town to town finding new items and new adventures.” They both nodded and then took another swig of their ale.
Just then the bartender sat down the mugs of ale and wiped his hands on his grey apron, “If you boys need anything else just let me know. The name is Theos.” He was a stout fellow and his features were manicured and well to do for a bartender.
He turned to leave but Orin stopped him, “Unfortunately, Brother Thomas can not drink ale.”
Brother Thomas looked up at him, “I apologize but I can only drink wine, do you have any by chance?” He politely pushed the mug away as he smiled at the bartender.
Theos blushed and bowed low before saying, “I apologize for the mistake, and I do have a couple of different wines. Any in particular you might like? I have red and white wines, sparkling wines, and champagnes if you so desire good sir.”
Brother Thomas bowed his head in respect, “You seem well mannered for a bartender if you don’t mind me saying so, Theos.”
“I don’t mind at all Brother Thomas. I was a wine taster for a politician in Abydos for 20 years. When he passed away I sold everything I had and headed to my home town of Dushuan. When I got there I found out they were making this ship and so after much deliberation, I established this tavern on the ship.” His face beamed as he told the story, “And so I spend my days running this place and sailing with the crew back and forth from Abydos to Dushuan. It has been wonderful to meet so many people that come and go on the ship.”
“A fine way to live, spending your days around so much fine food and drink, ha ha ha!” Halfgrim chimed in as he waved his mug and then took another big gulp.
Theos turned to the dwarf and bowed, “Thank you kind sir for the compliment. I do indeed enjoy spending my days here.”
Brother Thomas smiled while folding his arms and sliding his hands into his sleeves, “Well then master of the tavern, I would like to try a glass of your best red wine.”
“I have just the thing for a friend of Lord Orin of Helmcross. I have an old stash of a wine that you might recognize sir. Give me just one moment and I will return quickly with a bottle for a table.” Theos quickly turned and hurried through a side door leading into the kitchen behind the bar. The others looked at one another in a confused manner.
Orin turned to Brother Thomas, “What do you suppose he meant by that Thomas?”
Brother Thomas shook his head in confusion and held up his hands in response, “I have no idea what he is talking about. What wine could be so good that he only serves it on special occasions and it is something I have had before? How could he know that?”
Connor took another swig of his ale, “You all have been friends a long time?”
Berwyn chimed in, “Lord Orin is my brother, and our father was the previous lord of Helmcross. Halfgrim has been a friend of the family for longer than even I know.” He chuckled as he turned to the dwarf.
Halfgrim looked up at the comment made, “I may have been around before you grandma popped out your father but I can still lick the both of ya in a fight.” He pointed a finger while eyeing him down.
Berwyn put up his hands in defense, “Just a joke old friend, just a joke.”
Agnes looked over to the priest, “And you Brother Thomas, how long have you known these boys?”
Before Brother Thomas could answer they heard a noise and a bit of racket from behind the closed door Theos had gone through. “What is that boy doing back there? It sounds like he is digging into the bowels of the ship to find that bottle.”
Theos returned a few moments later as everyone at the table were still making guesses to what the fancy wine could be. In his hands was a bottle wrapped in a white cloth lying inside a cherry wood box.
Brother Thomas leaned forward with his eyes beginning to widen. The others took note of his demeanor and leaned forward as well. “It couldn’t be…” The priest whispered as he watched Theos unwrap the bottle slowly and then gently stood it in the center of the table while he grabbed a round of glasses for everyone. Thomas just stared at the amber colored bottle with a golden emblem crafted into one side of it. On the emblem was an eagle, wings stretched, and claws extended, grasping a grape vine. “Where did you get such a kingly gift? Only a few of these have been given out to people in the past 1000 years.” He picked up the bottle and admired the craftsmanship of the emblem and the bottle’s silver leafing.
Halfgrim eyed it for a moment it and then snatched it from Brother Thomas, “Good gracious, this is a bottle of Eglecian Wine. I saw a bottle of this once at the Councilmen’s Dinner in Uruk. It had been a gift from a Priest of Light visiting from the Sanctuary of Nemalia. These are rare indeed.” He gently handed it back to Brother Thomas who examined it once more.
He turned it over a few times and then tried to hand it back to Theos, “This is a kingly gift, and I can not accept such an extravagant drink. I am but a humble man, but may I ask how did you come to have it?”
Theos waved his hands in rejection, “Brother Thomas I have heard of you, and you know and understand the language of the Eschrehim, do you not?”
Brother Thomas studied Theos for a moment before answering, “I am, though not many outside of the village of Helmcross and outside of the priesthood know that. I wonder, how is that you know so much Theos?”
The bartender beamed again, straightened up his posture with some flare, and crossed his arms. “Like I was saying earlier, sir, I was a wine connoisseur for an important person in Abydos for almost 20 years before he passed away. On his deathbed he gave me two bottles of that stuff.”
“And may I ask who your master was for those 20 years?” Brother Thomas asked politely. Orin and Berwyn caught on that Thomas had an idea of who it was that Theos had worked for and both were more interested in this story now.
Theos smiled as he looked around the room with great pride, “Father Alden Menarei. I came into his service after you had left his sanctuary and set out on your own.”
Halfgrim’s mouth dropped open and Orin and Berwyn’s eyes darted toward Brother Thomas to see his reaction. Brother Thomas sat there for a moment.
He said nothing.
He did nothing.
He just stared up at Theos for a long moment.
After a few minutes that had felt like ages to the others, a smile appeared across his face. He closed his eyes and memories of his studies with the old elf flooded his mind. “It has been years since we had last spoken, I suppose now I know why his letters stopped coming. After I had stationed myself at Helmcross we began to write each other in the angelic language about new findings in the language and other mysteries to us. From time to time we would also exchange rare books and writings that needed deciphering. But then one day they stopped. Not a letter, package or anything came from Abydos. That must have been about…oh my, has it been so long that I can’t remember?”
Theos relaxed his posture with humility and just stared at the priest in sadness. “So you are the one the strange notes and packages had come from over the years. All Father Alden would say is that they were from a dear pupil and friend. He would discuss some things with me at night when he had his glass of wine. But most of the stuff I never understood. He would sit in his chair by the fire, sipping his wine and pouring over one of his latest projects or something new from you.” Tears began to well up in his eyes. Theos quickly yanked out a small piece of cloth and wiped his eyes. “Forgive me gentlemen; it’s just that Father Alden treated me very kindly over the years. If it is true then, that you, Brother Thomas, are the one that conversed with him all these years then I have something else for you.”
Brother Thomas, surprised and a little curious nodded his head in agreement. “I am the one, Theos. And you are right; he was indeed a very kind, and a very wise person. I count him almost like a father to me besides being my mentor.”
Theos nodded and smiled through teary eyes. He looked down at the wooden box for a moment and then, after looking around, he reached down and pulled back a velvet cloth that blanketed the bottom of the box. Lying flat on the bottom was an envelope gilded in silver and gold. Theos carefully removed it and then laid the velvet cloth back inside the box and closed it tightly. He looked at the envelope for a moment with a little admiration and then looked up at the priest. “You know I have held onto this for as long as I have had the bottles of wine. Father Alden had said that one day I would meet you, though I never knew what you looked like or what your name was. I have taken good care of it like I had promised him.” With that, Theos gently laid the envelope in front of Brother Thomas.
Brother Thomas looked down at the envelope for a second before reaching and lifting it off the table. He stared at it for a moment, noting the crest with angelic runes on it. His eyes widened as he recognized it as indeed being from Father Alden. He looked up at Theos as he slid the envelope into his robes, “Thank you Theos for taking care of this for me. Father Alden I believe would be proud to see the man that you are today.”
Theos bowed, “Thank you kind sir. Those words mean a great deal to me.” He looked around the table for a moment and then grabbed the bottle. “Now who would like a drink of this fine wine?” He started grabbing glasses and was about to pour before Lord Orin stopped him.
“Good Theos, we are but lowly men. None of us is worthy of such a royal gift. Please sir, it was given to you as a gift, do not waste it on the likes of us.” Orin looked around the table and the others nodded in agreement.
“I agree, Theos. Father Alden gave it to you as a special gift. Please do not waste it on us.” Brother Thomas added.
Theos looked around the table a bit hurt by this, “Father Alden gave it to me to use on special occasions. And to finally find the owner of that envelope after all these years is indeed a special occasion. After all it is mine to use as I will, is it not? Please allow me the honor of sharing this with people who I hope to count as friends.” He watched their faces for any signs of hope.
The others looked at each other and then all turned to Brother Thomas. Lord Orin leaned over to the priest, “Well, what do you think? I would be disrespectful to refuse hospitality from someone who has shown us only friendship.” He sat back up straight and waited for the priest to give his answer.
Brother Thomas looked at Lord Orin and then the others. With resignation he finally spoke, “I agree with Lord Orin and you Theos. It is your gift to do with as you please. We should also not refuse such hospitality from a man whom I would like to indeed call a friend.”
The others around the table cheered, raising their mugs and all taking a long deep drawl of their drinks. Theos beamed with pride and began filling up several glasses of the exquisite wine. As he topped off each glass and passed it around the patrons in turn he waited for everyone to receive one before they would dare take a sip. Agnes and Connor both declined when the glasses came to them.
Lord Orin spoke up, “Drink up boys; it is a rare gift to receive such a drink like this and in such good company.” He nodded to both of them.
The merchants looked at each other surprised and then looked around the table. Everyone there nodded their agreement with Lord Orin. Agnes couldn’t believe it, “But Lord Orin you have only just met us tonight, this drink is meant for close friends and family.” Connor shook his head, agreeing with his partner.
Brother Thomas answered, “You both have been hospitable with us and open about your business dealings. You have shown us that you are reputable men, and from what I have seen I believe that to be true. It would honor us, if you would drink with us.” He gestured towards the wine glasses. The merchants nodded in agreement and then each took a glass. Halfgrim looked deeply into the colors of the burgundy wine as many shades of red swirled around like galaxies far away in the night sky. He sniffed it and tried to guess the sweet aroma that it gave off.
Halfgrim thought about the aroma for a moment and then it dawned on him, “It smells of cinnamon and lavender, that is quite the aroma indeed.” He wiggled his nose as he breathed in the sweet aroma and his eyes lit up again in ecstasy.
After everyone had their own glass, Lord Orin stood up, “A toast,” he smiled as he looked around the table as he spoke, “To, good friends, old and new,” he nodded toward Theos, “and the road before us, where ever it leads us only the Almighty knows. And that is good enough for me. Cheers!” He lifted his glass up in the air.
“Here, here!” said Halfgrim.
Berwyn and Theos echoed, “Cheers!”
Father Alban raised his glass but only smiled at the others as he contemplated over the contents of the last few moments.
Only those who have the scrolls have access to this wine. It was a marker and a gift between the priests and the retainers. So then Father Aldan had the scrolls? No that can’t be right. The others took a sip and he did as well. The contents of the wine washed over him. Its power was both soothing and refreshing. His senses and abilities felt like they had suddenly been struck by lightning. Everything felt new and refreshed at the same time. Father Aldan took the glass away from his lips quickly and studied the wine once more. He couldn’t believe how he felt and he quickly looked up at the others and noted that they too were surprised by the power of the wine.
Theos chuckled as he saw each of their expressions in turn, “I apologize friends, and I should have warned you of the affects of this exquisite wine.” He drank more of it before setting the glass down. He stretched his arms and arched his back, feeling rejuvenated he jumped up from his chair and did a couple of stretches, suddenly feeling restless. “The wine refreshes the mind, body, and spirit of the person who partakes in its delicacy. That is its blessing, and that is its purpose.”
Halfgrim jumped up on his chair and started to dance around, “I feel like I am a dwarf of 50 years. My goodness this feels great, I feel like I could take on a thousand goblins right now. Nothing can stop me.” He swung his fists around and punched the air a few times. His jumping around on the chair kept rocking it back and forth until it tipped too far toward Berwyn. Halfgrim came tumbling down as Berwyn jumped out of his chair, barely dodging the bumbling dwarf. The dwarf hit the floor with a great crash causing everyone to jump out of their seats and see what was going on. Lord Orin leaned over the table to see as well, only to find Halfgrim laughing so loud he could be heard all over the deck.
Berwyn leaned over and helped the dwarf up, “It would seem Halfgrim that with such power comes great responsibility and a need for self control.” He cocked an eyebrow at the last comment.
Halfgrim’s cheeks blushed, “It would seem that it would indeed. Forgive me everyone, it just felt so good to feel so young again; my bones have been aching for some time now.”
Agnes laughed at the blushing dwarf, “I don’t think I have ever seen a dwarf blush before, but your cheeks good sir, are just as red as this wine.” At that comment everyone at the table burst out laughing.