I don’t like words.
The situation was the most bizarre stand-off Dante had ever encountered. Several angry loggers brandishing weapons at a nixie who held two of their comrades thrall with a charm spell. He thought that he probably should have been more pre-occupied with finding a resolution to the dispute as Meric and the others were, but he couldn’t get over how strange this all was.
“The nixie attacked my men unprovoked! How is a decent man to make a living with all of these damnable fairies in the woods?” It was the first sentence spoken by Corax, the leader of the lumberjacks, that wasn’t liberally laced with profanity.
“I politely asked them to leave but, I was forced to charm two of them after he threatened to hang me from the nearest tree to ‘drip dry.’ ” Every time the nixie spoke Dante had to fight the urge to giggle. Her voice was so high pitched that he had a hard time taking her seriously.
“The trees they’ve already cut down had been growing next to my pool for over 200 years and they deserved a far better fate than serving as some grubby peasant’s slop table.” The Nixie was growing irritated.
“Melianse, you need to release those two men before we can resolve this situation. We won’t let them attack you I swear.” Siv said firmly.
The fairy hesitated, but ultimately relented. Meric took the opportunity to reason with the loggers.
“Is there no where else you men can log? The Narlmarches are quite large you know.”
“The coachwood trees here are far more valuable than any other spot I’ve found. We can’t just pick up and move after all the time and money we’ve invested in this location!”
“I am Meric Thorn, Baron of Stormvale. If you are willing to relocate, I would be willing to grant you a favorable deal for your lumber.” Meric continued to negotiate with Corax for several minutes before the situation was fully defused.
“What about my trees! They need to replace them!”
“We will find replacements for your trees Melianse. Just let them leave and we will take care of it.” Siv replied.Dante was impressed by the balance Meric and Siv had reached in their time together. He knew that deep down Meric wished to side with the loggers and Siv wished to side with Melianse. Yet each not only sought a compromise, but expended their effort in talking down the person whom they most agreed with. He thought the two of them might be at each other’s throats by now, arguing about the best uses of land in Stormvale. But each knew what lines not to cross.
With the situation resolved, the group headed off for other unexplored regions of the narlmarches.
“Well I think we’ve had our fill of crazy for today.” Dante offered.
“This guy is completely crazy.” Siv whispered to Asta.
Before them stood an old hermit and his pet puma. Siv guessed by his appearance and companion that he was a druid, but he had hardly spoken a coherent sentence since they encountered him.
“Cat! Ignore those people, none of them are real anyway.” The hermit called out to his animal companion.
“I think he named his cat ‘cat’.” Asta remarked.
“Siv’s got a bear named Barry.” Meric offered.
“Barry is sylvan for ‘steadfast’.” Siv sighed as she spoke.
“Huh. What does ‘cat’ mean in sylvan?” Meric replied.
She ignored him.
“So we are leaving the crazy old hermit alone right?” Asta asked.
“He seems harmless enough.” Crazy, but harmless Siv thought.
“He’s evil.” Dante’s voice startled her. He had been scouting some of the more open terrain of this area on Virgil. She hadn’t heard him return.
“Dante we’ve been over this. We can’t arrest men based solely on your ability to sense evil.” Meric spoke firmly.
“We can’t let him go. He’s hurt people before. He’ll do it again.” Dante’s seemed resolved to not give this one up.
“What did he do Dante? Can you tell us what crime he’s committed?” Siv was losing patience for the paladin’s insistence on applying his views of good and evil to the entire world.
“He hasn’t done anything to us. We have to leave him be.” Asta was almost pleading with him.
“No. Not this time. I can’t ignore men like this anymore.” Dante began to stroll towards the hermit and drew his weapon.
Siv quickly considered her options for subduing the paladin without hurting him. None were great.
As Dante approached the man, his puma reacted by attacking him. Dante blocked the animal with his shield and reached back for an attack of his own. Before he could strike, Skyyd pounced on him and wrestled him to the ground.
The Hermit and his cat left at Meric’s urging, before Asta ordered Skyyd to release Dante. He got up without speaking a word, and began to make camp. Siv tried to reason with him.
“You can’t keep doing this. You can’t attack people unprovoked.”
“You’ll regret letting him go. Innocent people will suffer because of it.”
“I’m judging this man by his actions. He did nothing to threaten us in any way. He ate some bark, pet his cat and went on his merry way. Of the two of you, only one of you attempted to assault the other. Try to remember that Dante.”
“Your judging him by the actions you saw him take. I’m judging him by the actions we haven’t seen him take. So terrible that they have left his soul tainted with evil. If you could see what I see you wouldn’t have stopped me.”
Siv feared for what this would lead to when they returned to Stagsend. They had to find a way to reach him on this issue.
“Maybe. But I’d be just as wrong as you are.”
Dinner was eaten in silence.
Asta struggled to contain her excitement as they entered the boats. For weeks she had stared at the map of the southern greenbelt and looked forward to exploring the island on lake Candlemere. Its location just screamed “magic tower goes here.” She hadn’t mentioned it to the others, but she increasingly desired to establish a school for the magically gifted. It would be a place where young people from the region who discover they process amazing abilities, could go to learn about their powers in safety.
Candlemere was notorious in the Stolen Lands for being haunted. Stories from fishermen, explorers, bandits, and tradesmen alike supported these legends with eerie tales of strange lights dancing upon the waters, blood-curdling cries from what could be lost souls, and mysterious sightings of shapes rippling in the lake’s dark waters.
The rumors did not deter Asta one bit. When the group made camp along the eastern shore the previous night, they had all seen the “Candlemere Lights” for themselves. Flickering spheres of color that danced over the waves and along the island’s shores. Far from fear, the lights evoked fascination in Asta. They were a mystery that she was eager to solve and another reason for her excitement as they approached the island.
The island itself was covered with thick brambles and stinging nettles; moving through it was difficult. After several minutes, the group approached the low-summit where a lonely tower stood. The tower itself was a crumbling ruin—nothing remained but a half-collapsed, 40-foot-tall stone cylinder and a swath of rubble within and without. The stones of the tower were ancient. Asta guessed that these ruins were far older than any others in the area and could even date from the Age of Destiny. Faint carvings of strange symbols were barely visible in some of the tower’s stones. None of the group could identify the language, however the name of the old god “Yog-Sothoth” was found. It sent a chill down Asta’s spine. Skyyd had been on edge ever since they had departed for the island. He often growled while seemingly staring off at nothing. She tried to calm him by petting his head gently.
As the group entered the center of the tower, All but Dante felt as if something unseen was watching or waiting and that intruders to this area were distinctly unwelcome. The feeling was staggering, but each member of the group was able to hold their fear in check. From her periphery, Asta could see the now familiar flickering lights had grown in intensity. She turned and immediately solved the mystery of the Candlemere Lights. The island was covered in willow-wisps.
Sensing its evil aura, Dante smote the creature immediately. Skyyd and Barry pounced. The fighting was over in seconds.
“It could take hours to clear this island of those things. Maybe we should just post a sign for people to stay away.” Siv complained
“No. We are making this island safe.” Asta stated it as fact.
Some looks of confusion were exchanged among the others. Meric, ever the pragmatist, was the first to speak.
“So it would seem.”
That evening, no lights could be seen on lake Candlemere.
The sight of Stag’s End caused Meric to internally cheer. Weeks in the wilds left him constantly missing his bed, baths, and any kind of variety in his meals. The exploration was a necessary but, tiresome responsibility. He hated leaving the city without its leader for so long.
As the party approached the town square, Meric could see a fairly large crowd had gathered there. They appeared to be listening to a speaker of considerable charisma, as well as girth.
“This is the result of gross negligence on the part of your leaders. Abandoning the town to go gallivanting through the Narlmarches on fool’s errands and leaving you exposed to banditry, monster attacks, and worse!”
Meric quickly tried to recall any examples of a monster attacking the populace. He was drawing a blank.
“Unless he’s counting the werewolf incident.” Meric muttered under his breath.
“Only a few week ago, a werewolf murder two citizens, including a child! But your “leaders” could not be bothered to leave their games for two days! And when they did finally respond, what action did they take? They released the creature back into the wilderness!”
Boos and derogatory shouts could be heard. Meric was beyond annoyed. Word of the werewolf attacks had reached him only after both of the killings had occurred. He and the others had left immediately and captured the creature that night, before it could hurt anyone else. Once it was contained, they were able to determine the man was infected with a disease, and had no memory of anything that happened when he transformed into a werewolf. He was as much a victim as the two who had been killed. They had cured the man, and allowed him to go on his way.“I also suspect that their wilderness explorations are what drove the monster into the more civilized areas. Who knows what manner of horrors your Baron will unleash on you as he continues to provoke the beasts of the Stolen Lands!”
Meric had heard enough. He moved to approach the man. As he did, the orator recognized him and began to speak with greater fervor.
“Behold! The baron graces us common folk with his presence. Come to silence your critics my lord? Do you fear the truth being spoken openly? Do not let him intimidate you good people of Stag’s end. Let your voices be heard!”
Many members of the crowd began to shout insults at Meric. He suppressed the urge to pummel the windbag before him.
“Forgive me I am unacquainted with you. May I know your name?”
“Well Grigori, it seems you have been busy.” Meric turned to address the crowd.
“Citizens of Stormvale. Think back on the past eighteen months. Since you came to this land in search of hope and opportunity, have you ever once felt oppressed by your leaders? Are not your taxes the lowest of any kingdom for a thousand miles? Do you not enjoy freedoms that most citizens of our world can only dream of? The city watch is honorable and effective. You endure none of the corruption that plagues other cities.”
“Soaring rhetoric my lord, but corruption takes many forms. You and your cabal have acquired much wealth during your adventures, but you have used it only to enrich yourselves, not to aid the town or its citizens.”
“For the past year and a half, the founders of Stormvale have taken no pay from the nation’s coffers. Virtually all of the money raised by the treasury goes directly back into building your businesses and the roads you rely on for trade.” Meric recognized several shop owners in the crowd.
“You are new to our lands Grigori, so allow me to illuminate your ignorance. Yakim, how did you get the funds to build your tannery?”
The man was surprised by the question and paused before answering. “From you my lord.”
“And Andrei, how did you acquire the funds to build your brewery?”
“From you my lord.”
He was winning over the crowd now and had no intention of stopping.
“Grigori is correct about one thing. My comrades and I have spent a great deal of time in the wilderness battling monsters. Not for wealth or glory, but to ensure the safety of our people. I am your baron, but unlike most rulers I have bled for each one of you. I have faced down the dangers of the Stolen lands so that you and your families do not have to. What would this provocateur have us do? Confine ourselves in this city, with no knowledge of what dangers wait on our doorstep?”
Many in the crowd yelled in agreement with their Baron.
“The people of Stormvale have done nothing to provoke the denizens of the Narlmarches. But you have traveled as much as 60 miles into the wilderness on your little adventures. When the kin of those you’ve slain realize what you have done, how long until they come here seeking retribution?”
Again, many in the crowd shouted in agreement with Grigori.
“And as for your self-lauded generosity, I say that anyone who has seen the opulence of your castle can attest that you are generous with only a tiny fraction of the resources you have at your disposal. The walls and floors of the castle are decorated in the finest tapestries and carpets this side of Taldor. You serve the finest wine, and host extravagant banquets for the eilite of the city. You prosper while your people struggle to put bread on the table each day. I ask you good people of Stormvale, is this fair?”
A resounding “No!” could be heard from the crowd. Meric suddenly realized the disadvantage he was facing. Grigori was using Bardic performance magic to force large numbers of individuals in the crowd to agree with his position. No argument Meric could make would persuade them while they were effectively being charmed by Grigori. He could arrest the man, but he knew it would only make the situation worse. At least if it were done publically. He altered his goal for his next argument.
“I find it interesting Grigori, that you choose to stir this dissent while I was away. I hold open court most days that I am present within the city. If you were to bring your concerns before me then, you would have the ears of the entire council. If your desire is truly reform that improves the lives of the citizenry, it would seem more effect than your present course which is only capable of starting a riot that would cause property damage and violence. Those who you claim to fight for would suffer the worst of it.”
Grigori was clearly irritated.
“I bring my concerns directly to the people because you will simply ignore them!”
“This outsider has no interest in your well being my friends. His only desire is to cause strife amongst us. I ask you to go home and with a clear head, consider all you have heard today. I think you will find his arguments unconvincing after a good night’s rest.”
Grigori shot Meric a dirty look at that last comment. Meric returned it with a smirk.
The crowd slowly began to disperse. Meric knew they were heavily divided. He had to remove Grigori from the city in such a way that it would not point back to himself. He began to formulate a plan.
The city watch kept tabs on Grigori and notified Meric at nightfall that the bard had settle in at the Black Flagon Inn. Meric headed there immediately. He wanted to observe the man and see if he could gather any information which he could use to discredit him. Barring that, he looked for an opening to quietly capture the blowhard.
To this end, he casted alter self before entering the tavern, and found a quiet corner to sit in. He would have to refresh the spell every few minutes, so he chose a table next to a support beam that he could hide behind.
Grigori was clearly already drunk. He spoke so loudly that no magic was needed for Meric to do his eaves dropping. Grigori loved the ladies, but his advances were spurned at every turn. Eventually he had chased away nearly every woman in the establishment who did not work there. One remained at the bar near him.
“Let me buy you a drink my dear.” Meric pitied the woman as Grigori moved in closer to her.
“You’ll lose any part of you that touches me.” Meric liked her already.
“No one should drink alone. Come now, I don’t bite.”
In one swift move, the woman grabbed Grigori by his collar and slammed his head against the bar. With her other hand she had pulled a dagger and jammed it through his tunic and into the bar, an inch in front of his face. He clumsily struggle to stand, but to no avail. Blood trickled out of his nose and forehead.
“I do.” She stood up from the bar moved to an empty table.
Meric had to jump on this opportunity. He swiftly moved to the bar while grasping a dagger in his right hand.
“Come friend, let’s get you cleaned up and taken care of.” Meric subtly slammed the hilt of his dagger into the back of Grigori’s head as he used his other hand to remove the one that kept him pinned to the bar. He tossed a few gold towards the bartender.
“That should handle his tab. Please forgive my friend, he never quite knows when to stop.”
Meric lifted the dazed bard’s arm over his shoulder, and began to lead him out of the bar. He stopped briefly in front of the woman and placed her dagger on the table. Clearly she was a trained fighter of considerable skill.
“I believe this belongs to you. You seem to be a person of considerable talents. I sometimes have work for talented people. Would it be acceptable if I were to come by at some point in the future with a job opportunity?”
“I’ll be around for a few days. I’m sure you can come find me if you look hard enough.” She smiled and returned her attention to her drink.
“I demand you release me at once! I have broken no laws.”
Grigori had sobered up quickly once he had been thrown in a cell beneath the castle. Meric had let him sit for several hours before returning to question him.
“Come now Grigori, there is no crowd to work here. You are no champion of the people. Who sent you?”
“Parties interested in seeing your little nation fail.” Grigori snorted back.
“I trust these parties have names?”
“People do not hire men like me in such a fashion that can lead back to them. I don’t know who hired me. You waste your breathe.”
“I am prepared to stop wasting it. You will be executed in the morning. Good night Grigori.” Meric headed for the exit. It had the desired effect.
“Wait! Surely there is some kind of arrangement we can come to. I will leave Stormvale and never return! I swear it!”
“I think you can do better than that.”
The crowd that had gathered was massive. Word had spread of the public debate between Meric and Grigori from the previous day, and many showed up to see the encore. They were greatly surprised by what they were witnessing.
“My friends, I have made an egregious error. I must beg your forgiveness. For the past few days I have lambasted Baron Thorn and your other leaders for what I considered to be valid grievances. How wrong I have been! Last night, Meric came to me, and we spent most of the night discussing my concerns in great detail.”
Meric stood passively nearby.
“I spoke from ignorance. Your Baron is a good and honorable man. Any doubts I held about his motives and competence have been erased. He acts, always with your best interest at the forefront of his mind. I have stood in the great hall of the castle, where the heads of many of the foul beasts he and his companions have slain are displayed. Ferocious monsters, that would terrify even the bravest of men and that seek only destruction. Your baron has stared into the very face of evil, and did not blink.”
This continued for some time. Grigori spoke as if his life depended on his performance. When he was done, Meric was treated to an ovation. Grigori came over to shake Meric’s hand. Meric leaned over to whisper into the bard’s ear.
“If you ever return, I will have you executed.” The two men exchanged a smile for the crowd.