"At this point, my lady, we're not sure," Terzin said, "but the holy Gabriel has evinced an interest in what is going on there."
"Really. Please, tell me everything," she invited.
"The three of us received a visitation several days ago at our inn in Riseda. He came in the form of a falcon, and inquired as to whether the wizard we were fighting, the Raelite spy, had managed to revive nethermancer that was in the complex. And we said we were not sure, although there was no sign of it, while we were down there. Therefore, it could be that the deity is taking steps to make sure that everything is all right."
"How do you feel that Kenneth will respond to this situation? Just curious."
"Not being privy to the armiger's plans..." Robin said hesitantly.
She raised a brow. "You've known Kenneth for several years, I believe that one of you is even the apprentice of his son...? Do you believe that he will make an expedition?"
"If he sees it necessary," Terzin replied. "He will respond with all his strength...."
"I don't know if he has the men to do that and still keep a guard at the town," Harrick elaborated.
"As far as we could tell, my lady, at this point the dungeon seems more organized for a defensive and static position, we never saw any signs that they were preparing to ravage the countryside or such."
"So there's no sign the situation is critical, on the other hand, it could turn critical at any time," Terzin concluded.
"Do you feel that you are prepared for a life of adventure?" she changed the topic. They exchanged glances.
"Within certain reasonable boundaries... it is supposed to be difficult work, my lady," Terzin said with a nonchalant shrug.
"I believe we're off to a good start," was Robin's modest reply.
"So if I were to request that you engage in a difficult and dangerous mission...?"
"It would be an honor," Terzin said promptly.
"Do you feel that you would survive it?"
"If not, it would be more of an honor."
"You're Terzin, aren't you?"
He bowed. "At your service."
"Terzin, I want to explain something," she said gently. "Subjects such as yourselves, those who are willing to go off, dare to do dangerous things, are a resource, and are not to be squandered. I'm going to ask you, and when I'm finished with the request, you may decide to go, or not to go. If you decide not to go, I'm sure that I can find some other use for you within the county. However, this is something of primary import, and Kenneth feels that you are suited for it.
"You are familiar with Kendall Keep, I assume? It is the northernmost point in the county. Beyond it are lands that no one controls, except Winterkin, who we believe continue to camp there ever since the Winter ended. However, there is a road that runs through it, near the territory of the Republic, and from there into the northern part of the Great Mountains. It is an entryway, an exit point, for the k'D'har Dwarves, who are our trading partners. We maintain the keep as a waystation, and to maintain the security of the area is therefore paramount." She sat back a little as the four concentrated on her words. Problems have been arising lately. Nothing so important that I can give up any of the troops that I have maintaining my borders, but problems nonetheless, and they need to be looked into. I would like for the four of you to head from here along the Old North Road to Kendall Keep. From there investigate and deal with," she paused for emphasis, "by whatever means you see fit, within reasonable boundaries, the situation. If you do a reconnaissance and discover that troops are required, send a message back to that regard. If you are able to deal with the situation on your own, then there will be sizeable rewards. I trust all of this is understood?"
There was a quick chorus of assent.
"And you feel that you are up to the task?"
They looked at one another.
"I think we can handle it," Harrick judged.
"Nothing would give us greater pleasure," Robin told her.
"It will be a glorious challenge," Terzin proclaimed.
Jared, as usual, merely smiled a small smile.
So did the countess. "Good. You are welcome in the keep for another few days. You can stay here, rest up until Terzin is properly healed, outfit yourselves as you see fit, and then make your way north. There is no way you can miss Kendall Keep," she added. "It's on the Old North Road. Just keep going."
"Can we inquire as to the nature of the troubles that have been plaguing the area?" Robin asked, frowning.
"Trade routes are difficult to control," she replied. "There is a certain acceptable percentage of losses. We cannot deal with, with the troops we have available, the situation in which we find ourselves. Sometimes people will be lost. The numbers of losses have been increasing lately, and it's believed that there is a cave complex up there, that the Winterkin have extended down into and claim as their own. You ar to investigate this and if need be, deal with it. It's entirely possible that there might be Winterkin up there and they are not a significant threat," she added. "However... if they are posing a threat to the trade route, or the keep, if they are that militant, then I need to know about it, the king needs to know about it."
"Absolutely," Robin nodded solemnly.
"This could be a vulnerability, a weakness in Mignonet County, and therefore I would like you to keep the nature of your travels as secret as possible from this point forward. That you are travelling to Kendall Keep, that you wish adventure, these are fine. But once you leave this castle, your connection with me should not be brought up as a defense or made public knowledge. Documentation will be provided to you that I will expect you to keep hidden in some fashion. Your existence as one of my emissaries is not a free rein badge."
"Of course not." She looked at her cousin.
"If you are all willing to accept?" They nodded. "Thank you very much for your time."
"It was our pleasure," Terzin declared. He was grinning from ear to ear despite his wound as they made their exit, the audience finished. There was much planning to be done; according to the map they found in one of the libraries, the keep was about two weeks' journey away. The road was dotted with small towns, so they should not have any trouble with supplies on the way, but they agreed that they needed to pick up some new equipment while they were in Briarport, so they split up to get rid of some of their hard-won gold. Among sundry other items, to carry the sundry other items, they each purchased a quarter share in a reasonably placid mule, which Terzin named Francis.
That taken care of, some of them had additional errands they wished to complete before they departed on their mission. Terzin couldn't get the angel out of his head; maybe it hadn't happened at all....
Harrick made a visit to the temple of Gabriel and another to that of Mathelwyn and returned without the serpentine statue, but with a couple of books and the interesting information that as far anyone knew, the lizardmen they had encountered in the nethermancer's lair had been seen only once before, a small group near Kendall Keep, twenty years back when the area had been reclaimed from the Winterkin. There had been a bounty placed, and the lizards had soon disappeared; wiped out, or so everyone had assumed.
The group spent an evening out at the most expensive restaurant that would let them inside, called Valabar's; they got the table near the kitchen, and some briefly funny looks from a cluster of courtiers who were probably wondering where they'd seen the group before and then looked somewhat startled when they remembered, but nothing more. A waiter came by with leather-bound menus, something none of them had ever encountered. No toad was featured, but toad eggs were on the menu as a starter--how gross. Who would eat toad eggs?
Since they had no idea what any of the food items were, they ended up ordering more or less randomly and hoping that what they got would go together. Terzin successfully deciphered the organization of the wine list to choose something of reasonable quality and not too exorbitantly expensive; wine was pretty rare in Crapaud, since it didn't usually survive the journey upriver very well, but they agreed that it was pleasant. Overall they managed not to embarrass themselves, although their waiter had to answer a couple of discreet questions, particularly regarding the proper way to consume the breadsticks that came with the soup course. The food was fantastic. There was no doubt in any of their minds that the adventuring lifestyle had its benefits. It was an expensive lifestyle, though, they noted when the waiter dropped off a piece of paper with a number written on it. He also brought out a segmented orange, which none of them had ever seen before and at first thought it was a flower. It certainly smelled good, and Terzin ventured to taste it. Another delightful new experience.
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Copyright © 2000 Brian Rogers