Seven Kingdoms: Seowyn's Crossing

After Valryke - Return to Seowyn's Crossing

It was the 26th of Delt when the barge the Fire Wasps had hired finally reached Vagabond’s Loop. The weather was cold and rainy and not at all to Ghost’s liking but the sight of the halfling enclave did raise her spirits considerably as it meant that they had finally made it back to Seowyn’s Crossing. All that remained was to get the dragon’s hoard – and head – up to the keep where they could deliver them to Baron Greenfields.

“Tristan,” Kidalis said, leaping onto the planking once the barge had been securely tied up at the dock, “either we will need to rent a wagon or you will need to make a wagon.”

“I can’t make a wagon.” Tristan frowned at the admission, his half-elven features furrowing in thought for a long moment. “But I can make a disc that’s… wagon-ish?” he offered finally, sounding not completely certain about the idea.

“That works,” Kidalis said, turning to the barge men and directing them to begin unloading their cargo onto the dock.

“Let me check Vagabond’s Loop,” Tilly put in quickly, not wanting to entrust their treasure to an untried notion their own wizard didn’t seem too sure about. “There might be somewun there who can lend us a wagon.”

“That would be cheaper,” the young noble acknowledged, thinking of the residuum Tristan’s spell might cost.

“Not as dramatic, though,” Tristan mumbled, disappointed. The idea of carting the hoard through the town on an invisible floating disc had quickly grown on him in spite of his initial doubts.

It did not take Tilly long to find a couple of cousins who agreed to rent him a couple of mules and a wagon. Haggling over the price actually took longer, and by the time they were finishing up the loading a crowd of curious halflings had gathered around the dock, including Tilly’s Aunt Claudine. Tilly waved excitedly from atop the wagon’s driving seat when he spotted her. “Aunt Claudine, yew got to see this!”

“What… what are we…” Aunt Claudine had to push and shove her way to the front of the crowd. “Are yew back?” she asked when she finally reached Tilly, quickly looking him over with a worried look on her face. “Are yew alive?”

“We killed a dragon!” Tilly said, grinning as he pointed to the dragon’s head where it now rested on the back of the wagon.

“Well…” the stocky halfling woman stared at the grisly fanged trophy “…good, then,” she finished finally, completely flummoxed.

“Yew’ve got to come see this!” Tilly insisted as he flicked the reins on the mules and the wagon began moving towards the road that led to the Baron’s keep.

“But Ah’m the middle of a tran…” Aunt Claudine turned to another halfling, a customer of hers who’d gotten drawn along with her and the rest of Vagabond’s Loop. “Will yew excuse me?” she said apologetically, gesturing vaguely at the departing wagon. “Mah nephew…” She turned away from the puzzled patron and hurried after the wagon until she was walking alongside where Tilly was driving. “Yew killed a dragon?”

The news spread quickly and it soon appeared to Ghost that every halfling in Vagabond’s Loop was following the wagon up to the keep. She watched in amusement as a gaggle of halfling children trailed behind the back of the wagon where the dragon’s severed head rested, nudging and daring each other to run up and touch it.

“I guess you’re the local hero now,” Ghost observed as she nimbly leapt up onto the wagon, landing in the seat beside Tilly.

“Well, we all would be..” Tilly began, but the young shifter cut him short with a sharp don’t-give-me-that slug in the upper arm.

“What part of ‘local’…” Ghost gestured expansively at the sea of excited halflings all about them “…are you not grasping?” Seeing Tilly’s aunt hurrying along beside the wagon, she impulsively reached down and gave the halfling woman an arm-up into the wagon. The young shifter then yielded her seat, climbing into the back of the wagon so that Aunt Claudine could sit beside her nephew. The older halfling blinked as a whiff of the perfume Tilly had anointed himself with hit her.

“Why do yew smell like a cat-house?” she asked Tilly suspiciously, leaning in briefly to confirm the source of the scent. When her nephew only laughed, she glared at him. “What have yew done to yoahself?”

“Oh Aunt Claudine,” Tilly said, cheerfully dismissing her reaction. His expression grew smug as he added “It’s expensive.”

“It’s expensive for ladies,” his aunt retorted, planting her fists on her ample hips. “On men it’s… weird.”

It’s worse than weird, Ghost thought, crinkling her nose at the perfume fumes that were now making her nostrils burn. It hadn’t been so bad when she was up beside Tilly on the seat, but now that she was in back of him she was getting the full downwind effect of his excessive indulgence. She quickly traded places with Kidalis to get further away from the overpowering scent.

“I tried to talk him out of it,” Kidalis said sympathetically to the halfling woman, “but you know how he is when he gets his mind set on…”

“Oh Ah know how he is,” Aunt Claudine muttered, giving Tilly a dark look that promised we-will-talk-about-this-later.

As she moved to the rear of the wagon, Ghost found Tristan examining one of the walnuts from a crate that he’d opened, his bespectacled eyes curious as he poked at it with his dragonbone knife.

“You’ve never seen a walnut?” she asked as she squatted down beside him, finding it hard to believe.

“Well, we had some one time,” Tristan said as he probed at the walnut’s shell with the knife’s tip, “but… they’re expensive, and I never….”

“You can do that,” Ghost said, nodding at his knife, “or you can just take a couple of them and…” The young shifter picked out two walnuts and closed her hand around them, pressing them together and cracking the shells neatly “…and just pick the meat out,” she finished, opening her palm to reveal the now-broken walnuts, the meat now easily accessible to fingers.

“How’d you do that?” Tristan asked, his eyes wide with astonishment.

“You put two in your hand,” Ghost said, picking out four more walnuts and placing two of them in the half-elf’s hand “and then you close it.” She repeated the action with her free hand, the fingers closing around the other two walnuts and compressing them against each other until the shells cracked open. But when Tristan tried it, he yelped in pain, and when he opened his hand the walnuts remained completely intact.

“Here,” Ghost sighed, taking the walnuts from his hand and replacing them with the ones she’d already cracked open. “You can have mine.” It was sometimes hard to remember that the hands she had seen hurl magical bolts and blast enemies into pulp belonged to the same Tristan who couldn’t pull the cork from a wine bottle without a titanic struggle, while her fingers could crush an enemy’s windpipe with almost the same ease that she cracked walnuts.

“Thanks,” Tristan said cheerfully, picking out a meat fragment and tasting it.

As they neared the town, it was quickly apparent that the news had already spread among the townfolk, many of whom were already gathered where the road passed by the common to greet them. Seeing his mother and grandfather at the front of the crowd, Tristan climbed down from the wagon when Tilly drew the mules to a halt.

“I was afraid I wouldn’t see you again,” the half-elf’s mother said, fighting back a sniffle as she hugged him tightly.

“It was touch and go,” Tristan admitted, hugging her back reassuringly, “but as you see…” he pointed to the wagon bearing the dragon’s hoard and head “…it worked out okay.”

“I’m just glad you’re back,” his mother sniffled again, reluctantly letting him go, not wanting to embarrass him in front of the crowd. Seeing him as a grown man was hard enough, but seeing him as an adventurer about whom tales were already being told was harder still.

“Make sure to come by later,” Tristan’s grandfather, Master Holdfast said, putting his arm around his daughter’s shoulders. “We’ll all want to hear the story.”

“I’m sure that we can all tell our individual parts,” Tristan said, looking around at the cheering crowd in bemusement, unused to being the object of adulation. Raising his voice to be heard, he shouted “We’ll give you a good story.”

“Excellent, excellent,” his grandfather said, waving as the crowd poured around them to greet the rest of the Fire Wasps. Several brothers came out from the monastery to gather around Eustace, and a number of the Baron’s guardsmen hailed Kidalis, greeting the young noble with enthusiastic good cheer.

Ghost watched the greetings and exchanges with a sense of wistfulness. She couldn’t begrudge her fellow Fire Wasps their good fortune at having friends and family gathering about them, but it did remind her that here, she really had no one. The only family she had were Arun and the other rangers, but they were far away. Still, she would be seeing them soon, now that their business for the Baron in the matter of Valryke had been concluded. And, she remembered, she had a new cloak she was anxious to show them. The thought triggered an impulsive desire in her to find Anil when they reached the keep so she could show off her cloak to the more refined shifter.

When the procession got underway again and finally reached the outskirts of the Baron’s keep, the Fire Wasps were hailed by many members of garrison. “I’ll run for the Baron,” a sergeant shouted to Kidalis, bowing quickly before he disappeared through the keep’s main gate.

A few moments later, Baron Greenfields emerged, wearing warm robes and a fur-trimed cloak with the hood up against the rain. Kidalis bowed politely as the Baron glanced at the Fire Wasps and their wagon.

“Why don’t we all get in out of this rain?” the Baron said finally, inclining his head back towards the entrance to the keep.

“A fine idea,” Kidalis readily agreed.

The Baron’s seneschal, Iartius Fairholme, quickly took charge, wanting to begin the accounting of the treasure hoard the Fire Wasps had brought. Directing that the wagon be brought out of the rain into the shelter of the main gate, he quickly engaged some of the halflings who had followed them up the road to help unload things, paying them from his own purse and taking inventory of each item as it was unloaded.

“If the Baron would like the dragon’s head as a trophy of sorts,” Kidalis offered to the seneschal as three halflings struggled to maneuver it out of the wagon, “he is certainly welcome to it.”

“I think you should at least present it to him as your proof, as it were,” Iartius said, noting the head as one more item in the inventory.

With some reluctance, Tilly brought out the vial of perfume he’d been carrying, handing it to Kidalis. “As much as Ah enjoy this,” the halfling sighed, “Ah think yoah lady friend might enjoy this more.” Kidalis in turn handed the vial to the seneschal, who made an additional note to his inventory before tucking the small glass bottle into a pouch at his waist.

As Eustace and Ghost took charge of the dragon’s head from the halflings and brought it inside to be presented to the Baron, Tilly looked it over thoughtfully. “It would probably look a lot better over the mantle at the Tarry.”

“Yes,” Kidalis agreed, sounding much like a parent exercising practiced patience with an overenthusiastic child, “but then the Tarry would have to change its name.”

“Why?” Ghost asked, looking puzzled.

“For such a monument as this…” Kidalis said, gesturing to the beast’s massive head as if the answer was too obvious to require explanation.

“Well, yew know,” Tilly said, not willing to give in so easily, “it’s up to them. And no offense to the Baron,” he went on, directing his words to the seneschal, “but… we killed it, not him. Again, no offense.”

“I’m quite certain that the Baron will see to a proper disposition of such a trophy,” Iartius replied, unruffled. “He is a hunter himself, you know, and is not likely to want to take your trophy away. But…” the seneschal caught Kidalis’ eye with a meaningful glance, “it’s a good gesture to offer it to him.”

“Anyway, it doesn’t sound as cozy,” Ghost put in. “The Minstrel’s Tarry sounds cozy. The Dragon’s Head tavern?” The shifter scrunched up her face. “It’ll probably get customers but, just, the name’s a little… different.”

“I actually know a tavern called the Green Dragon,” Iartius said absently as he noted down the two crates of walnuts the halflings unloaded. “It’s not bad, actually.”

“What about the Minstrel & Dragon?” Tilly ventured. He grinned, adding “It sounds regal.”

Ghost favored the halfling with a dubious look. “It sounds like one of them’s gonna get eaten!”

“Well,” Tilly shot back cheerily, refusing to be deterred, “Ah’d pay to watch that!”

When the halflings had finished unloading the wagon, they asked the seneschal if he had any further need of them. “No, no,” Iartius replied absently, fingering the pile of bear pelts, “I’m just going to get this accounted and tallied up.”

“If you like, this is what we counted,” Kidalis offered, handing the seneschal the list he had written when they had first loaded the hoard onto the barge, “and of course you can check it against your tally.”

“Very good,” Iartius said, accepting the list with a polite nod, “I shall do exactly that.”

The Fire Wasps were ushered in to the Baron’s personal solar where a fire was already warming the room up nicely. Benches and chairs were already arranged in a semi-circle before a low throne on which the Baron sat waiting. A gesture to a servant resulted in mugs of mulled wine being served all around.

“By all means,” the Baron said, motioning for the Fire Wasps to make themselves comfortable. “What happened? Obviously you triumphed.”

“We present to you the head of Valryke,” Kidalis said formally, as Ghost and Eustace laid the dragon’s head on the floor before the Baron, “the Emerald Death, as it were.”

“The Emerald Dead?” the Baron said with a chuckle, nodding down at the green-scaled head.

“Indeed,” Kidalis said, allowing himself a small smile.

“Not living up to his reputation it would seem.” Rising from his throne, the Baron walked around the head, studying it for a long moment. “Still, he caused enough havoc,” he said finally. He motioned for call for two of his guards to come and carry the trophy away, then returned to his throne. “I’ll have the hunt-master see about having this properly taxidermed for you.”

“Master Eustace, of course, used a bit of his knowledge to preserve the head,” Kidalis said as the guards struggled to lift the enormous head and carry it from the solar, “but that will wear off after a time.”

“Exactly,” the Baron agreed, pleased to be confirmed in his judgement of the situation.

“And besides,” Kidalis went on as he took the chair closest to the Baron, “we wouldn’t want any poison left over in its system.”

“You don’t want it just lying around,” the Baron rumbled affably, taking a healthy swallow of mulled wine, “you want to have it mounted on something.”

“Of course,” Kidalis agree, politely following the Baron by taking a drink from his own mug.

“Fearsome expression,” Tristan offered helpfully. “Mouth open. Rarrrh!” The half-elf mimed what Ghost assumed was meant to be a threatening dragon though to her it looked more like a colicky sheep.

“I believe for dragons the usual is mouth open, tongue lolling,” the Baron mused, “in a fearsome fashion… to suggest their breath. There’s an art to taxiderming different animals. I’ve never hunted a dragon but I believe that’s the… traditional. In any case I’ll have the hunt-master have a look. So…” he gestured grandly to the semi-circle of Fire Wasps “…let’s hear your tale.”

The Fire Wasps related their tale, with Kidalis beginning the recounting and the others jumping in at intervals to pick up the thread, each in their own way. Kidalis’ narrative tended to the formal, while Eustace’s began with piously acknowledging Shadaleen’s protection but quickly evolved into bellowing reenactments when he recalled a particularly enjoyable clash. Tristan tended to downplay his own role and occasionally confused things by recalling them out of order. Tilly’s and Ghost’s recounting on the other hand were highly colorful narratives that tended to play up their own roles and were laden with frequent one-up’s directed at each other that left the Baron raising an eyebrow at Kidalis as if asking ‘are they always like this?’.

“We were lucky,” Ghost acknowledged at the end.

“Well,” the Baron observed, “they say it’s smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart.”

“That almost sounds like a halfling saying,” Tilly said.

“I’m not sure who said it.” The Baron shrugged, motioning to a servant for more mulled wine. He shrugged as he added “Maybe some halfling said it.”

“It’s quite true,” Tristan put in after a moment, looking as if he recalled reading something to that effect somewhere.

“Maybe that’s why you all can avoid the worst of dangers,” Kidalis said, acknowledging Tilly with a raised mug.

“Halfling luck is reknowned,” the Baron agreed, raising his own mug to the halfling.

“At any rate, if you do not have any other requests of us, my lord baron,” Kidalis said, “we actually have word of something else to follow up on.”

“Do you think you can spare three days of your time before you go,” Baron Greenfields asked, “for me to get this properly squared away?”

Kidalis glanced to the other Fire Wasps, then looked back to the Baron, nodding. “I believe three days can be arranged.”

“I will make it sooner if I can,” the Baron assured them.

“It is always good to have a couple of days between forays,” Kidalis said, gesturing with an airy wave of the hand to indicate that it was not a matter of great concern.

“Indeed.” The Baron set his mug aside and leaned forward on his throne. “Have you given any thought to what you will do over the winter?” He gesture towards the solar’s window which looked out onto the courtyard. “Snows are going to be setting in soon and it’s going to be harder and harder to travel long distances. By most conventional wisdom you can either stay in one place, wintering for a time, or you can go someplace warm while things are still happening.”

“There is the idea of going south and perhaps helping deal with the orcs,” Kidalis ventured. “But I do not know if that will be far south.”

“It is fairly far south,” the Baron said. “Winter does not come as strongly down there as it does here.”

“That’s true,” Kidalis acknowledged.

“As far south as the bayous of Dalenshire,” the Baron went on, “winter does not come at all, the way we think of it.”

“Well, warm’s okay,” Ghost said, sounding a bit uncertain. Given her burning desire to go north, all this talk of going south was making her uneasy. “But…”

“It is up to you,” the Baron assured them before she could finish her thought. “In the next couple of days I may have an option for you, which of course you are free to consider.” He smiled and looked to the group in general. “Now I’m sure Master Holdfast that your family will want to see you, so I shall not detain you.” Looking to Kidalis, he inquired “I assume Iartius is in the process of tallying?”

“Did anything of interest happen while we were gone, m’lord?” Ghost put in suddenly, sensing that the audience was nearing an end. Caught in mid-sip however, her ‘interest’ came out somewhat burbled.

“Adventures?” the Baron said, looking puzzled.

Interest, my lord…” Kidalis offered.

“Oh,” the Baron said, apologetic but still puzzled. “Sorry.”

“She needs to work on her proper pronunciation of words,” Kidalis said, giving Ghost an admonishing look, to which the young shifter blinked, then glared back at him.

“Now, now,” the Baron put in, waving back Kidalis’ intervention. “I misheard. Credit where credit and all that.” He looked back to Ghost, shrugging “Honestly, since the soldiers left a week or so ago, it’s been fairly quiet. We haven’t had word yet of what’s transpiring further down south but I’m keeping my ears open, always.”

“Of course,” Kidalis said.

“Wherever it is your journeys take you next,” the Baron went on. “I hope you’ll be back in time for New Year. It’s a month away.”

“It’s… hard to say, m’lord,” Ghost said reluctantly. She had no idea what Arun and the others would be able to tell her when she found them, let alone what their chance discovery might lead her to. But she had to follow it regardless, and even the Baron’s wishes would have to wait.

“Well, if not,” the Baron said, noting her discomfiture, “I’m sure that no one will take it askance.” He paused, then said "It seems to me from your demeanor, if you will forgive me, that you have business of a most personal nature.

“I have had news that I need to go and…” Ghost hesitated, not sure how much she should divulge “…investigate something.”

“Your… elven family?” the Baron ventured. He was not entirely ignorant of the people he had chartered.

“Yes, m’lord,” Ghost said with a nod.

“Very good. Of course.” The Baron turned to Tristan. “Master Holdfast, I’m sure your family would like to see some of you tonight.”

“I’d like to see some of them tonight too,” the young half-elf responded, looking as if he’d only just remembered that he was back in Seowyn’s Crossing. And that he had family there.

“Well, be well,” the Baron said to the Fire Wasps as a group, rising from his throne. “And I shall hope to speak with you again, perhaps later tonight or tomorrow.”

“Please give my regards to Alinora when you see her,” Kidalis said as he bowed for the Baron’s leave.

“I will pass your regards,” the Baron said formally, nodding in final dismissal.

Before leaving the keep, Kidalis sought out the seneschal to discuss the division and ultimate disposal of the hoard, in particular procuring a share of the ale and walnuts for the Minstrel’s Tarry. To which place the Fire Wasps next headed. They had expected a crowd would be waiting but nonetheless were somewhat surprised to find it as crowded as they could ever remember it being with a spillover of patrons lingering near the door and windows. All of whom turned to greet their arrival.

“So where is it?” Master Holdfast asked eagerly when they entered the Tarry, wiping his hands on a cleaning rag as he hurried up. “Do you have it?”

“Have what?” Kidalis asked, unable to resist feigning ignorance to what everyone was gathered for. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Ohhhh, Master Havengard,” Tristan’s grandfather chided, wagging a finger at the young noble. “You are cruel. The dragon’s head! Everyone saw you walking with it earlier.”

“The Baron’s having it prepared,” Ghost said absently, sniffing the air for hints of what the kitchen might be preparing.

“He’s having it properly mounted,” Kidalis explained.

“Ah! Very well,” Master Holdfast said, looking a bit disappointed – along with many in the crowded tavern – that the Fire Wasps had not brought the trophy with them.

“We were thinking it would look quite handsome over the mantle,” Kidalis offered.

“What mantle?” Master Holdfast asked as he cleared a path through the patrons to the table they had waiting for the heroes of the day. “Oh, our mantle!” he said when it finally hit him. Looking over to the wall where the fireplace and its accompanying mantle lay, the old man studied the space thoughtfully. “Well, I suppose I could take down my collection of mugs. A dragon head would be a much stronger conversation piece.” The taverner became visibly fluffed when he pictured how it would look. And how much of a draw it would be for his establishment. “That’d be quite nice actually.”

The evening was a merry one and the Fire Wasps didn’t have to pay for a single drink all night. The ale flowed as once again they related their tale for the enjoyment of the crowd. Shortly upon finishing their tale, the door to the Tarry swung open and everyone turned to see a strange green mist – with the distinct scent of sugar about it – puffing into the tavern. Four men carried in a beautifully done green subtlety made in the image of Valryke. Or rather, as the Fire Wasps thought but were too polite to point out, in the image of what Mother Ableby’s imagination thought the dragon would look like. The real Valryke was nothing like the cutely confectioned creature being presented to them. The carefully crafted subtlety would puff a cloud of green sugar mist out of its mouth when a small button on the tray was pressed and everyone praised Mother Ableby for her creativeness and ingenuity, to which she could only blush with pleasure.

“And how much warning did you have to whip that one up?” Kidalis asked, but Mother Ableby only smiled a bit, not being one to speak in front of crowds.

“You, my dear,” Kidalis said, bowing to kiss her hand, “are a magic in the kitchen.” The praise and the gesture only made her blush all the more furiously.

“I’m glad you didn’t have to prepare the alternative,” Ghost said wryly, envisioning a display of dead Fire Wasps crafted of spun sugar and strewn across a battleground of marzipan.

The cake was quickly sliced up and served all around, with everyone relishing the butter-cream frosting and the marzipan scales with their almond flavoring.

At one point Eustace noticed an old man, a stranger not of the Crossing, studying Tilly intently. The odd embellishments embroidered into his robes – spangles with stars and moons – suggested that he might be a scholar of the arcane, as did the long white beard with silver wire entwined throughout. But the oddest and most notable thing about the man were the very strange pair of goggles he was wearing, an elaborate set of clockwork-ish mechanisms sprouting from a silvery skullcap that every now and then clicked and whirred as a new pair of lenses flexed into place before the old man’s owlish-looking eyes.

The minotaur bent his head near to Tilly’s ear. “Some stranger seems to be quite interested in you.”

“It must be the perfume,” Tilly said with a grin born of the many ales he’d consumed.

Eustace sighed and shook his head, but before he could say anything further the old man rose and, leaning heavily on a staff, made his way over to their table. As he drew near, Ghost noticed he had a small lizard perched on his shoulder, the same color as his robes. A chameleon, she wondered, watching its colors shift as it crawled from one shoulder to the other, flicking its tongue out curiously.

“Excuse me, young man,” the old man said, his goggled eyes staring directly at Tilly. “Your gauntlets. Do they… enhance your strength?”

“Ah…” Tilly blinked at the stranger peering at him through the oddment of lenses, nonplussed for a moment before he finally managed “Yes, they do!”

“Ha!” the old man exclaimed with satisfaction. “My eyes aren’t good but they can still recognize that craftsmanship.” He abruptly grabbed Tilly’s gauntleted hands and began pointing. “You see this intricate curlicue work here? These are Eladrin make, possibly dating back from the time of the Fey War.”

“How can yew tell all that just by looking at the little squiggly things?” Tilly asked, staring at the elaborate designs on his gauntlets that the strange man was pointing out.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” the man said apologetically. Doffing his weird cap, he bowed as politely as his years would permit him. “Allow me to introduce myself. I… am Cornelius Attleworthy. Artificer.”

“Tilly Thistleshanks.” Tilly pulled off a gauntlet offered his hand, not wanting to accidentally crush the elderly artificer’s rather delicate looking hand. “Pleased to make yoah acquaintance.”

“Ah, likewise,” Attleworthy replied, shaking Tilly’s hand with surprising firmness given his years.

“Is…” Tilly hesitated, staring in fascination at the man’s mechanized headgear. “Could Ah try that on?” he managed finally, unable to resist.

“Well, I don’t know that it will fit you very well,” Attleworthy said, looking between his hat and the halfling’s head, “but you can try.”

When the artificer turned his cap around and placed it on Tilly’s head, the halfling almost panicked as the world around him suddenly went bizarrely blurry. But as soon as the cap was securely on, the little mechanical arms began clicking into motion, moving lens after lens back and forth before his yes with whining ‘wheek, wheek’ sound until gradually the world came back into focus. When Tilly could see clearly once again, the adjusting arms ceased their movements and lay silent.

“Oh mah goodness…” the halfling said, looking around the table and the room. Everything seemed… brighter and clearer somehow. And he noticed strange glows and auras about certain individuals and things that he had not seen before.

“I invented these to help both my normal vision and my vision into the arcane,” Attleworthy said, a note of pride in his voice.

“This is absolutely wonderful!” Tilly exclaimed, continuing to turn his enhanced sight about the room. He reluctantly returned the cap to the artificer when he realized that the man was almost blind without the benefit of the cap’s enhancing capability.

“Well, thank you young man,” Attleworthy said as he redonned his headgear. “Oy! Your vision is terrible!” he blurted, staring about in sudden panic, but the mechanical arms once again began switching lenses back and forth before his eyes and his panic quickly subsided. “Oh, no, sorry…” he said as the cap once again adjusted to its wearer. “Very good. Ah, there we are.” His calm – and his vision – restored, the elderly artificer turned his attention back to the Fire Wasps around the table. “I’m going to guess by the way you’re all lit up like New Year’s lanterns that you are adventurers. Also..” he gestured at the celebrating crowd and the remains of the subtlety which were barely recognizable as having been part of a dragon “…the party of dragon-slaying is something of a giveaway as well.”

Turning back to the table, the elderly wizard continued. “As I say, I am an artificer by trade. Magic items are my stock and profession. And those…” he nodded again to Tilly’s gauntlets "…are quite fine, I must say.

“Oh, thank yew,” Tilly replied, flexing his hands and regarding his gauntlets with greater appreciation. “We got them in our travels.”

“Of course,” Attleworthy said. It was common knowledge, after all, that part of the allure of adventuring was the chance to acquire items of an extraordinary nature.

“Yew may have heard of us, actually,” Tilly said, gesturing grandly to his companions around the table. “We are the Fire Wasps. We are an adventuring company.”

The artificer’s eyes looked thoughtful behind their curious lenses for a moment. “No,” he said finally, shaking his head.

“Oh,” the young halfling said, looking visibly deflated. “Uhm, nevermind.”

“You must not be from around here,” Kidalis observed. “Where do you hail from?”

“I’m originally from Estwald,” Attleworthy replied, “but most recently from spending time in Calenmar. And having heard from some stories out here of ruins and such like, some magic banner or something, I thought I might come out and have a look.” The elderly wizard leaned back in his chair. “The secrets of the ancients are fascinating. We’ve forgotten more about magic than we can ever hope to gain in our lifetimes. It’s quite sad. The skill to make these is lost, even to the Eladrin who once made them. And they aren’t even the true gauntlets of ogre power, as they are called. These are but pale shadows of the originals, of which it is said there are only two or three sets left in all the world. But even so…”

“Those originals must pack quite a whallop,” Tilly said, knowing how much his ‘lesser’ gauntlets enhanced his strength.

“I would say so,” Attleworthy agreed. “I’ve never had the pleasure of examining them but I have seen references and illustrations.” He began staring at Tilly’s sharrash, as if seeing it for the first time. His skullcap whirred and buzzed as the little mechanical arms exchanged lenses. “Hmmm. I’m intrigued also by your peculiar weapon.”

“Oh, this?” Tilly looked up at the long-handled weapon where it rested against the wall beside the table, then shrugged. “This is just an heirloom.”

“But… it’s magic!” the artificer said, looking the weapon up and down once again.

“No, it’s not,” Tilly insisted, in spite of a note of uncertainty had crept into his voice.

“I assure you, it is.” The elderly wizard smiled indulgently. “I can see the fire numa within it quite plainly. But magic items – the real sort, mind you, not the baubles an old hack like myself could cobble together – are imbued with the true fire numa. Sometimes they simply… slumber.. until someone with enough fire numa of their own picks them up and wields them. Don’t worry, son. I’m sure you’ll get there someday.”

Ghost had tried to follow the wizard’s explanation but looked puzzled. “So… does that mean it’s magic or not?” she asked, peering at the sharrash as if trying to see what Attleworthy was evidently seeing.

“Ah dunno…” Tilly said, still not convinced.

“It is magic,” the artificer insisted. “It’s just not magic for you…” he hesitated, then shrugged “…yet.”

Tilly scratched his chin as he regarded the pole weapon. “Ah wuz told that it’ll learn to sing someday….”

“Well, see?” Attleworthy spread his hands as if all had just been explained. “There you are.”

“Wait a minute,” Ghost said, her eyes narrowing at Tilly. “That it will learn to sing? Or that you will learn to sing?”

“That it will learn to sing,” Tilly asserted, nodding up at his sharrash

“Well that I can believe,” Ghost deadpanned, her eyes nonetheless glinting tauntingly at her fellow Fire Wasp as she took another drink of ale.

“Give Tilly a few drinks,” Kidalis observed, unable to resist a smirk of his own as he joined in, “and at least he thinks he can sing then.”

“If you have anything else you’d like to have examined,” Attleworthy offered as one of the Tarry’s serving girls refilled his tankard, “I’d be happy to give you my insights on them. I do have some knowledge of things,” he said, trying not to sound as if he were bragging. “And if there’s anything you’re interested in, well, I can’t make anything as fine as your gauntlets…” he nodded towards Tilly’s “…but I can craft magic swords and armor and whatnot.” He shrugged as he took a sip of ale. “Common items.”

Ghost hesitated, chewing on her lip for a moment. “I have something I’d like you to take a look at,” she said finally.

“Alright,” the artificer said, setting his tankard aside and directing his attention to the young shifter.

“…and something I might ask you about,” she added as she reached up and removed the red-stoned earring from her right ear and handed it to the elderly wizard.

“Very well,” Attleworthy said absently as he peered at the small piece, his skullcap whirring as different lenses clicked into place before his eyes. “I sense…. something about it,” he murmured after a moment, “but it’s not a piece I’m immediately familiar with… Ah!” The artificer blinked suddenly, then shivered a bit. “It has an infernal influence about it,” he declared as he handed the earring back to Ghost. “Devilish. I’m not saying you’re devilish,” he added quickly. “I’m just saying that the item you’re wearing has a tiny bit of infernal magic imbued in it.”

“Is it dangerous?” Ghost asked, eyeing the earring in her hand, uncertain if she should put it on again just yet.

“I don’t know,” the artificer said, “because I can’t tell what it does.” The old man stroked his silver-wired beard for a moment. “It may be something as simple as a way for someone to keep track of someone else,” he said finally. “Or to communicate, if they learn the trick of doing so. But probably you would need more than one in order to be able to do that.”

Ghost quickly brought out the matching earring that Shale had given her. “Like that?”

“Well…” Attleworthy peered at the other earring, then shook his head. “No. This one doesn’t seem to be attuned to the other one.”

“Oh. Okay.” Ghost put the second earring back in its pouch, not sure if she should be disappointed or relieved.

“Might be from a different set,” Attleworthy suggested. “Similar, but not attuned.”

“The thing I wanted to ask about though,” Ghost began as she donned her earring once again, “was… you said you can craft items?”

“Well, I mean, I’m not a blacksmith or a weaponsmith,” the artificer said. “I can’t make you a sword, but if you had a sword I might be able to imbue it through ritual magic.”

“Can you put a ritual on it?” Ghost asked.

“Possibly. What is it you’re looking for?”

“Actually, I was thinking, like…” the young shifter hesitated, hoping that she wasn’t about to get laughed at “…you know the ritual of Fastidiousness?”

“I am familiar with that magic, yes,” Attleworthy said with a nod.

“I was wondering,” Ghost went on. “Can you put that on something? It doesn’t have to be anything important,” she added quickly.

“I suppose it might be possible,” Attleworthy mused, sipping at his ale once again. “It’s not a common piece that I’m familiar with, but I’ve heard in the capitol of suits of clothing imbued with Fastidiousness that repel dirt, mostly in the, uhm…” The old wizard frowned as if trying to remember something. “Sorry,” he said after a moment, “my thoughts wandered. In the ownership of nobles and whatnot,” he continued, recovering his train of thought, “who want to be able to make a good impression.”

“Oh. Well, I’d like to know if you think it’s possible,” Ghost said, trying not to sound too eager. “And if so, what it might cost,”

“Oh, it might be possible,” the artificer said, gesturing in an off-handed way. “Unfortunately…” his gesture fell away with a sigh “…I have to admit I don’t know the knack of imbuing an item with that ritual. But as I say, it does exist,” he offered, raising his mug once again for a refill. “Something to look for and strive for. And isn’t that what being an adventurer is all about and whatnot?”

“I guess so,” Ghost replied, her ears drooping in visible disappointment. She didn’t want to strive for it; she wanted it now. Before the next time the Fire Wasps descended into some slimy underground place or some foul-smelling creature that had no right to exist exploded all over her.

“It’s curious,” Attleworthy went on, looking around the table. “I thought as I was looking over here that I saw something else unusual. But now that I’m here I can’t quite find it.”

“Was it on an individual?” Kidalis asked.

“I couldn’t tell,” the elderly wizard said. “I just sensed or saw an odd aura.”

Kidalis turned his gaze towards Tristan, an eyebrow raised in inquiry.

“What, me?” the young half-elf said, not particularly liking the attention he was now getting.

“You’ve always got things around you,” Kidalis observed, eyeing Tristan over the top of his mug. “It’s just that none of us can hear or sense them.”

“Doesn’t mean I’ve got an aura,” Tristan muttered, defensive. He glanced to the artificer anxiously. “Does it?”

“Everyone has an aura of sorts,” Kidalis said, shrugging as he sipped his ale. “Mine is more… wild. Theirs…” he gestured to the crowd around them “…are more mundane and self-powered if you will Brother Eustace’s is….”

“I resemble that remark!” Tilly put in cheerfully, which only made sense when one considered the two empty tankards before him on the table.

“Yes, yes you do,” the young noble said indulgently before resuming his explanation on the nature of auras. “Brother Eustace’s is… part of his connection to his goddess. And yours is… well, we don’t know,” he finished with a final shrug.

“I’m not sure myself,” Tristan admitted. “If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.”

“I’m almost scared of when that answer comes,” Kidalis admitted.

“Me too,” Tristan agreed with a nod, “strangely enough.”

“If you’re ever looking for common magic items,” Attleworthy put in, trying to steer the conversation back to the prospect of doing some business, “do let me know. As I say, I do possess the knowledge to craft them.”

“We do appreciate the offer,” Kidalis assured him.

Tilly expressed an interest in having a short sword enchanted. When the artificer said it was something he could do, Ghost impulsively drew both of her long swords and laid them on the table. “How much would maybe it cost to do both of these?” she asked.

“Both of them?” Attleworthy turned his multi-lensed gaze on the two weapons. “Well, for a basic enchantment that would help to guide the wielder’s hand in accuracy and strength.. for the two of them… about seven-hundred and twenty gold.”

Ghost’s eyes went wide at the cost. “Okay…” she gasped in a choked voice “good to know…”

“I’m sorry,” Attleworthy said, taken aback by her reaction. “Was it something I said?”

“No,” Ghost managed after a moment, visibly embarrassed. “It’s just… I’m not used to dealing with numbers that high.”

“We are not that far along with our adventuring career, Master Attleworthy,” Kidalis put in diplomatically.

“Ah,” the artificer said, understanding. Still hoping to do a bit of business, he mentioned his skill at scriving scrolls and brewing potions as well, suggesting how adventurers are always looking for potions of healing. To which Kidalis, with a neat bit of sleight of hand, produced the ten vials that he happened to have on him. An offer to enhance Eustace’s holy symbol only brought about a polite evasion with the minotaur saying he would consider it. When Kidalis showed him his sword Angtharius and asked what it would cost to enhance his weapon, the artificer glanced at Ghost, who had balked at the figure he’d quoted her for her weapons, then reluctantly informed the young noble that the cost of enhancing Antharius – which already had its most basic magics awakened – with some simple runes would be several degrees greater. It was not that he was trying to gouge people, Attleworthy assured him, only the cost of the amount of residuum needed for the ritual. To which Kidalis could only sigh with regret and say it would not be happening.

As it turned out, Attleworthy’s best prospect was Tilly when he offered to awaken the halfling’s weapon.

“My sharrash?” Tilly asked.

“Is that what it is called?” Attleworthy looked up at the polearm. “Would you want me to awaken your sharrash?”

“What do you mean by ‘awaken’ it?” Tilly asked, clearly puzzled.

“Well, as I say, it has already has plenty of fire numa sleeping within it,” Attleworthy explained, gesturing at the sharrash. “I can’t waken the whole thing, but I can start it waking up, a little bit…” he paused, trying to think of how to put it “…make it more accurate more damaging in combat,” he said finally.

“Bring out some of the latent magic within,” Kidalis offered.

“Exactly!” the artificer said, nodding in gratitude to Kidalis for his help. “Most weapons I can scribe simple runes onto. That is one thing. But I can also awaken some abilities. It would not come into its full potential until your own fire numa matched that of the weapon.”

“Well, Ah don’t know, sir,” Tilly said, looking uncertain. “Ah mean, no disrespect to yew, but Ah think yew might be a little confused. Ah have been told that at some point it will learn to sing, but…”

“Well, there you are, then!” Attleworthy exclaimed, slapping the table with satisfaction.

“…but how it would affect combat?” The young halfling took the sharrash and turned it about, peering at it. “I don’t know what songs I’d teach it, either.”

“I don’t really know what you mean when you say it will learn to sing,” the elderly wizard confessed. “It may refer…” He stroked his beard thoughtfully for a moment, eyeing the blade and then Tilly himself. “There are weapons called song-blades. Are you perchance a traveling bard?”

“Get him drunk enough and he thinks he fares well,” Kidalis snickered.

“Ah. Don’t we all when we’re in our cups,” the artificer said jovially. “Well, I sense that there is more to this weapon than a simple blade.”

“It’d be three-hundred and sixty gold to awaken it?” Tilly asked, chewing on a bit of straw as he weighed the cost in his head.

“To awaken it’s most basic fundamental nature, yes,” Attleworthy said with a nod.

When Tilly did not respond immediately, muttering to himself as he considered his options, the wizard sensed it might be best to let the halfling talk himself into it. “Well, I should be in town for a few more days,” he said, taking a final sip from his tankard. “If you should find yourselves wanting the services of an artificer, I should be most glad to help you.”

“Actually, if Ah may,” Tilly spoke up when he saw the artificer was preparing to leave. "Ah heard once from a magic magicky armorer that it might be possible to take the magic off of one suit of armor and put it on something else?

“Oh, yes,” Attleworthy said eager, resuming his seat. “That’s actually a relatively common ritual. So if for example, if you had a magic sword that you didn’t have any use for and wanted to transfer its enchantment to your sharrash, that might be a possibility. Or to a different sword or an axe. Or if you had a suit of armor and wanted to move that magic to a set of robes or something, these are always possibilities.”

Tilly shows him the chainmail of durability he had acquired. “Could yew transfer the magic from this to a set of hide armor?”

“Oh, yes, most assuredly.”

“How much would that be?” the halfing asked, chewing on his bit of straw once again.

“Oh, nothing,” the wizard quickly assured him. “Well, not nothing…” he admitted as he began figuring the exact cost, drawing numbers in the air.

As Attleworthy pondered the problem, Ghost broke in and asked him about her earring that she had showed him, wondering if it could be used to find any other earring to which it might be linked. The elderly wizard informed her with regret that, while it was indeed possible, it unfortunately involved some knowledge that he himself did not possess. Kidalis then suggested that Ghost should ask Master Benathir if he could accomplish it. Attleworthy nodded, recognizing the name as being a fellow wizard of considerable reputation, to which Kidalis added that he was also Tristan’s tutor in the magic arts.

“Indeed,” Tristan said eagerly.

The artificer peers at Tristan with his multi-lensed eyes. “Maybe it is on you that I saw that strange aura,” he said after a moment. “Something you are carrying that has a strange feel to it.”

“It wasn’t this, by any chance?” The young half-elf brought out his pact-blade and showed it to the curious artificer. “It’s new, so I don’t know much about it.”

Attleworthy blinked as several of his lenses shifted back and forth. “May I?” he asked. Taking the blade carefully, he examined it, turning it over and over again in his hands. “Its design is not familiar to me.” He looked back up at Tristan. “Where did you get this?”

“Well, I carved it, you could say,” Tristan offered, not wanting to sound boastful but not knowing any other way to say it.

“Are you saying you made this?” Attleworthy asked, peering at the blade once again with open astonishment.

“Well, the blade,” Tristan said, nodding at the sharp part. “It’s made from a dragon’s tooth.”

“I see,” Attleworthy murmured, turning the blade over and looking up and down its length. "Well, you didn’t make it without help, that’s for certain. The arts of making daggers like this are…

“The hilt was given me by a helpful halfling,” Tristan went on, trying to be helpful.

“It was given to you?” Eustace broke in, eyeing the pact-blade suspiciously.

“Uhm-hmm,” Tristan said absently, not picking up on the shift in the minotaur’s tone. Or that everyone at the table was now staring openly at his pact-blade which he had for some reason never bothered to tell them about, let alone show them. Ghost certainly had never seen it. She would have remembered anything that distinctive: blade carved from a dragon’s fang, bound to a hilt wrapped in black leather with a glittering purple amethyst embedded in the pommel.

“He… told me that he was supposed to give it to me,” Tristan said uncertainly, his eyes blinking behind his glasses now that he was aware of everyone staring.

“Just like that?” Eustace rumbled darkly.

“Just like that,” Tristan affirmed, wondering why Eustace was acting so strangely.

“Well, ah…” Attleworthy hesitated, wondering what he had inadvertently done that was causing so many strange reactions among the Fire Wasps.

“I think he’s been listening to the same voice I’ve been listening to,” Tristan went on, returning to the topic of his mysterious hilt-donor.

“This… frightens me slightly,” Kidalis said after a moment, exchanging a glance with Eustace.

“A new one of these, coming into existence now…” Attleworthy murmured, stroking his beard thoughtfully.

“You’ve seen these before?” Tristan asked, hopeful.

“Oh yes,” Attleworthy nodded. “I’ve met a number of warlocks in my time. And pact-blades are not so uncommon. But usually they are handed down over years…”

“I hope to be able to hand this down to somebody someday,” Tristan said as he took his blade back. “Sometimes, I guess they have to start somewhere, don’t they?”

“I suppose so,” the artificer said, sounding doubtful. “But you have to understand, young man, that the art of crafting pact blades has been lost for centuries. Since before the alliance of the seven kingdoms, in fact.” He watched as the half-elf resheathed the curious blade. “A new one brought into the world is an interesting thing indeed.”

“Was there a reason that they were lost?” Eustace asked, turning his attention to the wizard.

“Oh, no. The arts of creating many magic items have been lost,” Attleworthy explained. “There are very few these days capable of crafting anything more powerful than, say, the suit of armor your halfling friend is wearing. Or that circlet. Or.. or the sword he carries.”

“I just want to make sure there’s no law forgotten in what he carries,” Eustace rumbled, frowning as he folded his heavily-muscled arms and leaned back in his chair.

“No, no,” the artificer explained, trying to reassure the minotaur cleric. “It’s just that we have forgotten much. Even the Eladrin with their long history and memory have completely forgotten the craft of creating the gauntlets of ogre power that your friend wears.”

“What does it do?” Ghost asked, cocking her head at the sheathed blade that now hung at Tristan side.

“I think it helps me be a better warlock,” Tristan offered, looking hesitant. He didn’t like saying things he wasn’t sure about, but the answer felt right.

“Yes,” Attleworthy affirmed with a nod. “In a way, it acts for him the way a wand would, or the way a sword does in your hands,” he added, gesturing to Ghost. “Adds to your accuracy or your damage. But also…”

“I can’t stab with a wand, can I?” Tristan said, a thought suddenly occurring to him. “I can stab with this…” The young half-elf eagerly mimed stabbing a foe with his pact-blade.

“Yes, it’s true,” Attleworthy acknowledged. “It’s an excellent defense if you are attacked. Also, it helps to protect those who fall under a warlock’s curse. If they dare to attack you, they will suffer for it.”

“That’s what I understand,” Tristan said. “It’s new. I haven’t had a chance to actually try it out yet.”

“Well, I wish you luck of it,” the elderly wizard said. “It’s pretty fascinating.” He went on to relate a bit of history, explaining that many pact-blades were known to have come from Old Falwythe.

“Is this though what you were seeing, then?” Ghost asked, nodding at Tristan’s blade when he was done.

“I think so… I believe so. I wouldn’t bet my beard against it…” Attleworthy glanced down at his silver-wired beard, one hand covering it protectively “…but suffice to say I’m fairly certain.”

“You have accumulated a number of interesting items already in your travels,” the artificer went on, pointing at various weapons and items the Fire Wasps were carrying. “And yet from the few stories that I’m hearing, you’re only just beginning your journeys. Interesting.”

“Makes me wonder what we will acquire by the time our adventures have become much more well known,” Kidalis mused.

“Indeed. I should be curious to know that as well.” The elderly wizard scribbled a note on a piece of a scroll and then handed it to Kidalis. “If you’re ever in Estwald, you can look up myself or one of my colleagues at the Universitas Tamor.”

“We shall,” the young noble assured him, slipping the piece of parchment into his tunic.

“Very good. Well, unless you have any other use for my services,” Attleworthy said, rising to his feet, “I shall leave you to your celebrations.”

“Will you be in town?” Ghost asked. She didn’t want to seem too eager, but there was always the chance she might be able to find some way to raise the funds she needed to have the wizard enhance her longswords.

“Yes,” Attleworthy said with a nod, taking up his staff once again. “I should be around for a few more days at the very least. And then I shall see where my studies take me.” His voice lowered to a more confidential tone as he leaned in. “I’m trying to get in to see the Baron as I understand he possesses a most unusual tapestry or banner or something.”

“That we found him,” Kidalis informed the elderly wizard, with a slightly smug look.

“Oh, truly?” Attleworthy blinked owlishly behind his lenses. “Well then, very good.” He hesitated, then ventured “Perhaps you can… put in a good word for me? I haven’t had too much luck yet.”

“We can certainly mention directly to him that you are seeking an audience,” Kidalis assured him.

“Ah, very kind.” The artificer inclined his head politely in gratitude.

On an impulse, Kidalis suddenly dug into his pack and brought out a suit of old armor, asking the artificer if he could re-size it to fit Tilly.

“Actually, yes,” Attleworthy said, peering at the armor in question. “I believe I could. Once I transferred the enchantment I could then cast the enchant magic item and shrink it down to size.” He looked to the young halfling inquiringly. “It all depends on how you feel about hand-me-down armor.”

“It smells funny,” Tilly muttered, wrinkling his nose.

“Certainly no worse than you after the perfume,” Kidalis shot back.

Tilly only grinned. “Hey, that’s expensive!”

“It’s also not for men, much less for halflings.” Now it was Kidalis’ turn to wrinkle his nose in distaste. “You all seem to have the scent of the bayou about you.”

“We do,” Tilly admitted cheerfully, leaning over to add a confidential “It’s the spice.” Deciding against the used armor, Tilly departed the tavern to see if the local armorer had anything suitably new that he could purchase.

Returning her attention to the mysterious pact-blade, Ghost cocked her head at Tristan, openly curious. “So one of your ‘friends’…” she gestured, waving her fingers in a vague manner near her ear “…told you how to make this?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tristan said, eager to talk about it now that his pact-blade was out in the open. “He gave me some instructions on how to do this.”

“And so he also talked to someone else who also came to help?” Ghost ventured.

“That’s my best guess,” Tristan said, chewing on his lip. “They were a little sketchy about the whole thing. They basically just said that they had to give it to me. So I can’t think of any other reason.” He frowned in thought for a moment, then nodded firmly. “They must’ve been talking to the same person I was.”

“Was there anything… odd about the person?” Ghost asked, curious.

“No.” The young half-elf shook his head. “Just a halfling. Just walked up to me and friendly gave me the hilt. It was kind of mysterious to me too. I guess, uh…”

“Somebody somewhere likes you, I guess,” Ghost put in with a smirk as she lifted her mug to Tristan’s unknown benefactor.

“So far it’s been good, but uh…” Tristan squirmed uncomfortably in his chair. “I’m hoping he doesn’t want to cash in. He’d done a lot for us. He helped you out too,” he added, glancing at Ghost, uncertain how much he should be revealing about what had happened.

“Oh?” the shifter asked, looking puzzled. Then she blinked and her ears seemed to perk up suddenly. “Oh! Was that that thing, that flash?”

Tristan nodded and sighed. “I’m just hoping he doesn’t try to cash in on any favors because I’m not sure what kind of price he’s asking for all these things he’s given me.”

“It’s always good to ask,” Ghost acknowledged. The young shifter looked thoughtful as she took a healthy swallow of ale, then cocked her head, curious. “Do any of the other voices give you stuff too?”

“No, not so much.” Tristan said. “Advice sometimes,” he admitted after a moment. “Nothing concrete like this, though.”

“Interesting,” Ghost said, thinking on just how much Tristan had revealed to her. It was, to be honest, one of the longest exchanges she’d had with the young wizard since their fight with Valryke. She was beginning to understand why he’d been more reticent than usual of late.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Tristan mused, thinking back to when he was young and the voices had been much less… involving.

“Yeah, I have my spirit totem that shows up every now and then,” Ghost offered with a grimace, her ears drooping down the way they did when she was aggravated, “but usually to tell me I’ve screwed up.”

“I get that a lot too,” Tristan admitted.

“From your voices?” she asked.

“Yeah.” The young half-elf scowled, looking like a disgruntled owl behind his glasses. “A lot of them just make fun of me.”

“Oh.” Ghost could help grinning, her ears perking back up again. “Suddenly I don’t feel so bad.”

“But some of them tell me to ignore those voices and… it’s a little confusing up there.” Tristan gestured vaguely above his head as if the invisible voices he heard were circling about him. “This is the only one that’s been really… helpful.”

“Is it like all the time?” Ghost asked, fascinated by how much Tristan was telling her. “Or just now and then? or…?”

“It’s kind of a background buzz?” Tristan ventured, looking hesitant as he tried to find the right way to explain it. “Kind of like walking into a party and everyone’s talking at once? And you just kind of tune it out, ’cause…” He gestured to the crowd around the table as if blocking out the noise they were making “…and then somebody walks up to you and starts talking to you, and you don’t… and all these people are still talking?” The young wizard looked distinctly annoyed, then waved his hand dismissively. “But I don’t listen to ’em.”

“I kind of figured it was something like that because you’re always so distracted a lot of the time,” Ghost said, sympathetic but also smirking a bit.

“Yeah, sometimes it gets kind of loud and people are talking this, this… it gets a little noisy,” Tristan sighed. “But I’ve kinda… I’ve had this my whole life and I’ve kind of learned to tune it out.” His expression brightened as he held up his pact-blade once again. “But when they come and give me hilts and swords and things like that, I listen.”

“I wouldn’t have turned it down,” Ghost admitted cheerfully, toasting Tristan’s new blade.

“No,” Tristan replied, though whether it was to Ghost or to one of his voices, she couldn’t tell.

A short time later, Tilly returned, proudly wearing some new hide hide armor that’d been dyed to match his flame bracers.

“So you can be a flaming streak of halfling,” Kidalis observed wryly as Tilly resumed his place at the table. The smell of freshly dyed leather wafted over everyone.

“You smell like a tannery!” Tristan declared, quickly moving his chair away from Tilly’s.

“Much better,” Ghost observed for her part, making a conscious effort not to breathe any more than she absolutely had to. The grinning halfling still reeked to high heaven, but at least this time it was only of tannin and dye. The smell was strong to be sure, but anything was better than the cloying nose-burning perfume scent Tilly had previously drenched himself with. “Much, much better. That I can stand.”

The party was then interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Baron Greenfields along with his usual escort of guards.

“Please, please… as you were,” the Baron said quickly as the crowd began doffing hats and taking a knee. "I have come to enjoy a cup of fine ale…

“Oh!” Master Holdfast blinked and hurried off to fill a tankard with his very finest.

“…and a slice of cake,” the Baron went on, nodding towards what remained of the dragon subtlety, causing Mother Ableby to go all aflutter behind her fan.

“…and to speak with my friends for just a moment,” the Baron finished. As he made his way over towards the Fire Wasps’ table, the crowd parted before him, eyeing the Fire Wasps with even greater awe at the Baron’s public declaration of them as being his friends.

Once Master Holdfast had brought over the tankard and Mother Ableby had served up the best remaining slice of the cake, the Baron sat down to business. “Iartius has finished the accounting and your numbers and his match up quite well. I wondered if you wanted to discuss the particulars of how you wish to divide salvage. He mentioned something about walnuts?”

“Yes,” Kidalis nodded. “I believe Mother Ableby would put the crate of walnuts to good use. And I can think of no better place for a rare couple of casks of the ale than here in the Tarry,” he added, gesturing towards Master Holdfast who positively beamed at the prospect.

The Baron simply nodded, consulting a piece of parchment he drew from his sleeve. “By Iartius’ accounting, four hundred and eighty-five gold of the treasure is yours.”

“I would also like to possibly take a small amount of that perfume as a gift,” Kidalis went on, “for a few different people.”

“I see.” The Baron smiled, sampling the cake with his free hand. “I’m certain that can be arranged.”

Ghost, however, was wincing. “Not any of us,” she begged, shaking her head in dismay at the prospect of Tilly getting his hands on any more of the dreaded stuff. “Please?”

The young noble couldn’t resist. “Oh, all for you, Ghost,” he assured the horrified shifter. She gave him a foul look when she realized he was joking, and only the presence of the Baron kept her from taking a punishing swing at his oh-so-deserving arm.

The Baron continued down the list, inquiring if they wanted to take any other part of their share in goods instead of coin. The only item of interest turned out to be the bear pelts.

“We are going to need heavier winter clothing,” Kidalis said, looking around the table to the others. “Maybe the pelts would not be a bad idea.”

“A nice winter cloak would be nice,” Tristan put in. “Some of these bear pelts we could probably use, one each. Or at least part of once each,” he added, glancing between Eustace’s enormous bulk frame Tilly’s rather diminutive one.

“Ah probably just need a third of a bear pelt,” Tilly said with a shrug, looking down at his new hide armor and wondering how the bear fur would look adorning it.

“Exactly,” Tristan said, looking back to the Baron. “They can share one.”

“I’m sure Eustace would need whatever is left over,” Kidalis agreed.

“Actually, I would appreciate it if you all would drop by the keep tomorrow morning,” the Baron said affably, visibly savoring the taste of the ale. “I’m certain that I can have my tailor fit you out for winter clothing.”

“That would be most gracious of you,” Kidalis said, bowing his head politely.

“If there’s nothing else in particular you wish, I’ll either give it to you in coin,” the Baron said, consulting his parchment once again. “Or, if you prefer, the gems, because they’re easier to carry.”

“If I can have another cup of this ale,” Tristan put in, sounding hopeful. “And a walnut tart from Mother Ableby.”

Kidalis spared the young wizard a puzzled look, then looked back to the Baron as if no interruption had occurred. “I think the gems would be easier to carry.”

Baron Greenfields nodded, making a mental note. “How much of the perfume do you want?”

Kidalis considered a moment. “Twenty gold worth?” he ventured. It would amount to about a fifth of the vial.

The Baron nodded once again, then went over the agreed division of the treasure to make sure they’d covered everything. When that was done, Kidalis took the opportunity to put in a good word for Master Attleworthy, informing the Baron of the artificer’s desire to examine the banner they’d found. The Baron was agreeable to the idea and said he would send for the elderly wizard on the morrow.

“Please come by for breakfast tomorrow morning,” he added as he rose from the table, prompting the Fire Wasps to rise with him. “I have something I wish to discuss. Well, two matters actually,” he amended with a smile.

“Of course,” Kidalis acknowledged with a polite bow.

“Then I bid you all a fair evening.” With that, the Baron and his guards departed. The crowded parted before him as he made his way out, then resumed their noisy partying, buzzing excitedly about the obvious display of favor the lord had just shown his adventurers.

“Okaaaay,” Ghost said, grinning as she turned a knowing gaze pointedly on Kidalis, “Who’s it for???”

“My mother,” the young noble said simply, taking up his mug once again.

Ghost blinked, her jaw dropping. “Your mother???”

“She’s a very cultured woman,” Kidalis said, utterly unruffled. “She would love something like this.”

“It’s not for Alinora?” Ghost asked. She couldn’t be that wrong about Kidalis’ interest in the Baron’s daughter.

“Well, she might enjoy some of it,” Kidalis mused, swirling the ale in his mug about idly. “I suppose Mother doesn’t need all of this.” He took a sip of his drink and managed to keep a straight face as he suggested “Maybe Anil would like some?”

Ghost’s expression quickly went from baffled to bristling. “Why her?” she growled, though there was a distinct feel of a whine in her tone.

“Why not?” Kidalis went on, barely managing to maintain his bland manner as he continued to rattle the shifter girl’s chain. “She is a very cultured woman. Often times more so than you are.”

“That’s just because she lives up in the keep,” Ghost muttered, slouching in her chair and folding her arms petulantly, her ears sinking down in a deep sulk.

Meanwhile, Tilly had slipped out once again, unnoticed by the others. The halfling was very good at that, it seemed. When he returned, he sat down next to Ghost, a look in his eye that immediately made her ears draw back.

“Hey Ghost,” he said cheerfully. It was his I’m-too-innocent-to-be-plotting-anything look.

“Yeah?” she said warily, her eyes narrowing.

“Ah was speaking with Master Attleworthy,” Tilly said. “Ah’m really interested in finding out what magic is locked in mah sharrash.” He then related to her his discussion with the artificer about a deal they could make that could allow for both of them to get their respective weapons – his sharrash and her two swords – enhanced.

“Yeah?” In spite of the warning bells her instincts were setting off, the prospect of getting her swords magicked up had Ghost curious. “Yeah? How much?”

She ended up returning with Tilly to where Attleworthy was staying. After a brief discussion of what items might be taken in trade and how much would be needed in coin, they reached a tentative agreement: Ghost would give up her healing belt and Tilly his bracers, which, along with forty gold, would be enough for Tilly’s Sharrash and one of her swords. Ghost frowned at the prospect of only one sword getting enhanced, but before she could object, Tilly popped the trap.

“Ah’ll cover your second weapon,” the halfling offered cheerfully. His grin grew slightly wider as he added “Yew’d only owe me.”

Ghost felt the wariness she’d had earlier immediately shoot up again. “What would I owe you?”

“What’s wun enchantment among friends?” Tilly said with a casual shrug, still grinning like a ferret with both ends of a rat hole covered.

“The mind boggles!” Ghost hissed, glaring at her rival’s smugness. He knew how much she wanted that second weapon enhanced.

It was a tough choice, but in the end she knew she had to go for it. The thought of fighting with only one weapon enhanced bothered her. It just felt wrong, out of balance, and balance was very important to her. More than that, where they were about to go, she wanted every edge she could get.

“Oh, all right,” she growled finally. “I’ll owe you.” She almost choked on the word but managed to get it out, largely through bared teeth.

“If you’ll leave your weapons with me,” the artificer said, glancing back and forth anxiously between the grinning halfling and the shifter girl who looked about ready to take his head off. “I should be done in a few hours.”

They left their weapons and returned to the Tarry. Neither of them said anything, but every time Ghost glanced at Tilly and saw that strange grin on his face, a shiver ran up her spine. She’d seen it before, all too often, every time the sawed-off little possum-fucker snatched one of her prey out from under her. Oh, Snow Leopard! she wondered inwardly, invoking her spirit totem, what have I just agreed to?

*

The next morning, after breakfast, Ghost went shopping for gifts she wanted to get for Arun and the others when she met up with them. She purchased some of the fine ale they’d brought back from the Tarry, some of Mother Ableby’s sweet walnut pastries for Vondyr, and finally settled on some raw obsidian pieces for Arun, hoping that maybe he might appreciate being able to use them to make arrowheads or something. The unflappable ranger was frustratingly hard to buy for.

When she rejoined her fellow Fire Wasps and they made their way over the bridge and up to the keep, they found Baron Greenfields already out and about, taking with some of the men of his garrison.

“Ah, my dragonslayers!” the Baron called out with pleasure when he saw them approaching. “Excellent.”

“Are you out for a jaunt?” Kidalis inquired, nodding at the Baron’s riding leathers and the furred cloak he wore, quite sensibly given the overcast sky.

“Well, I am hoping we are out for a jaunt,” the Baron said affably, clapping an arm about the young noble’s shoulders. He gestured towards the stables. “Please, come with me.”

“My ostler can help you pick out an appropriate horse,” the Baron said as they entered the stables. He glanced inquiringly towards Ghost and the others. “You know how to ride, yes?” It was to be assumed that Kidalis, being of the nobility, would have been trained since childhood in horsemanship, but the others were a different matter.

“Yes…” Ghost acknowledged, somewhat hesitant. “Uhm…” Leaning towards Kidalis as they began walking past the stalls, she whispered anxiously “How much do these cost?”

“What? The horses?” Kidalis asked.

“Yes.” Ghost had already pretty much exhausted her funds on the deal with Master Attleworthy – and Tilly, she thought with a shiver – on getting her twin blades enhanced. A horse would almost certainly be beyond her reach.

“Well, these are very fine specimens,” Kidalis said, nodding at the animals they passed in their individual stalls. “I imagine these would be more than normal…”

Ghost stopped suddenly in front of a stall when, to her surprise, she recognized the horse in it as the wild black she had impulsively tried to ride when she was taking lessons from the stable boy at the stables near the Tarry. Apparently the horse merchant had stopped by the keep before he left the Crossing and had sold the animal to the Baron.

The other Fire Wasps continued walking about the stables, looking over possible mounts. Kidalis paused a moment to study each horse, see if it ‘clicked’ as he put it, or not, and then walked on. Eustace settled on a big grey mare, a large draft horse meant for heavy work but that was just the right size for him. At another stall, Tristan found a jet black horse with a white splotch over one side of its face. The horse seemed to be regarding the young half-elf intensely; the splotch around one of his eyes had the effect of making his eyes seem like they were of different colors. Tilly, for his part, picked a goat. A very angry-looking goat it was, with a dirty beige-ish white coat, long chin hair and one horn missing, chewing in an almost challenging fashion as it regarded the halfling standing in front of its stall.

Ghost studied the black for a long moment. It seemed a little calmer than it was when they’d first met. The wildness was still there but it seem channeled now, a swift and good horse for certain. The young shifter felt a pang of envy at the thought that it now belonged to the Baron, but at least it was close enough for her to have some chance of riding it again. As they exchanged stares, it snorted and pawed the floor of its stall as if remembering her, but did not seem intent on killing her. At least, not right away. “Okay,” Ghost murmured, meeting the black’s steady gaze with one of her own. “Round two.” Turning back towards the Baron, she called out “I’ll take this one.”

Kidalis ended up choosing a large mare, a beautiful dappled grey, calm but alert, its eyes a shade of milky blue, very alert to her surroundings, but very calm as well. The Baron came over, smiling at the young noble’s choice. “You have a good eye. That’s an Eladrin-trained horse. From the valley stock.”

“Something seems a little… worldly about her,” Kidalis mused, reaching up and stroking the mare’s neck affectionately.

“I hope you don’t mind,” the Baron said as his ostler began taking the selected mounts from their stalls to be saddled and bridled. “Some of my folk are going to ride with us.”

Ghost watched the black as the stable boy brought it out. The stallion was clearly excited, radiating a lot of nervous energy but it was not a fight anymore. It was like the horse now was feeling “What can we do together?” She instinctively felt that she could now give it its head and it would run fast and swift without trying to kill her.

Once they had gathered outside the stable, the Baron introduced the stable boy. “This is Corran Ostler,” he said, nodding towards a brown-haired, freckled Summerling youth mounted nearby on a pony. “He’s one of the young folk who work here at my stable.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, masters, mistress, Corran said, touching his forelock respectfully as he nodded to the Fire Wasps.

“And this is Kaius Greenglen,” the Baron continued, nodding towards an older man, also of Summerling stock, with jet-black hair swept back from forehead. He was balding but with a full mustache and beard of salt and pepper coloration.

“M’lords, m’lady,” Kaius nodded, equally respectfully, sitting atop a lean brown horse with sleepy eyes.

“He is one of our old family retainers,” the Baron said. Looking around to make sure that all of the mounts had been brought out, he looked to Kidalis and smiled. “We should do a bit of riding, yes?”

“Is Eldrin Nath going to be joining us?” Kidalis inquired.

“Ah. Not today,” the Baron said genially, shaking his head. His smile seemed to widen as if at some private joke. “We’re not hunting today.”

“Ah. I have not seen him in quite some time.”

“I’m afraid I have him working on your dragon head at the moment,” the Baron said. “None of his apprentices are ready to take on such a challenge.”

Ghost looked puzzled when she noticed a saddled goat included among the mounts. Seeing her stare, Tilly walked up and stood beside her. “That’s mah goat,” he announced proudly.

Ghost turned her stare on Tilly, incredulous. “You’re riding a goat?”

“What?” Kidalis asked, looking over at the pair. “Could you see him riding a clydesdale?” The young noble smirked. “In his defense, he has more sense about him than certain other diminutive individuals we know.”

When she looked back, Ghost found the goat was giving her the most evil look an animal had ever given her, as if it understood her every word and hated her with every fiber of its being. Tilly, upon noticing this, locked eyes with Ghost, then took a handful of halfling spice and offered it to the goat. As Ghost watched, the goat ate the offered spice effortlessly, looking distinctly smug. A moment later though, the goat’s eyes went wide and it shivered. Trying to seem nonchalant, it walked over to the water trough, but once there it plunged its mouth into the water, drinking heavily. After a few minutes, it finally returned, trying to act as if nothing were wrong but staring balefully at Ghost as if what had happened were entirely her fault. It chewed desperately on a mouthful of straw, trying to get rid of the horrible burning in its mouth but not willing to give the hated shifter the satisfaction of seeing it openly cry.

“That’s mah goat!” Tilly said once again, beaming.

Mounted on a fine silver palfrey, the Baron watched the exchange with bemused amusement. “Ah, indeed,” he said finally. He looked around at the gathered party. “Are we ready?”

“You might need to give that goat another minute or two,” Kidalis said wryly as he mounted his dappled grey.

“Of course,” the Baron said genially as the goat returned to the water trough for a second dousing.

The Baron led the way north, making small talk about the weather as the party followed the road past the Tarry, beyond the village green, and ultimately out of Seowyn’s Crossing. Glancing up at the overcast sky, he remarked at how Anil had said it would snow soon. Anyone could guess that! _Ghost thought grumpily, glancing skyward herself.

They continued northward, passing beyond the Furrow farm, then turned down a somewhat overgrown lane that hadn’t apparently seen use for several years. When they finally reached the end of the lane, they came upon an old dilapidated manse. Though it was clear even at a distance that the inside of the manse had fallen into ruin, the stone walls and towers had endured in fairly good shape. Two large towers fronted the manse to either side of a wide set of steps that led up to the main doorway. As the Baron led the away around the grounds, they found the remains of a courtyard in back which also had a well.

“This seems like an odd place, m’lord Baron,” Kidalis commented, turning a curious gaze to the lord. “What is here?”

“Well, there is an old manse here,” the Baron said, drawing his horse to a halt when they reached the front of the structure once again. He looked up at the ruin, regarding it thoughtfully. “I’m planning on restoring it. I think that the town can use more land, and I think if there were a manse out here with a population or a guard or something like that, we might be able to reclaim more of the old farmlands and such north of the Furrows and what have you.”

“It sounds like a good idea,” Kidalis agreed, looking around at the surrounding lands, which did have the feel of fertility about them.

“Always looking to expand the borders,” the Baron added, to no one in particular.

“Of course,” Kidalis said, wondering where the lord was heading with this train of thought but knowing it was best to let him reveal his mind in his own good time.

“And this border in particular is a troublesome one,” the Baron went on, frowning slightly. “Gristamere is that way,” he said, raising a gauntleted hand and pointing to the northeast. “Of course, the wall lies between us and the goblins. Still, when they do raid out…” he nodded at the lands that lay between the party and far off border “…this is the way they tend to come.”

“Indeed,” Kidalis said, nodding politely.

The Baron turned back to face the ruin once again. “I haven’t really begun the renovations yet,” he said, “but I am told by one of the dwarves in my employ that the stone itself is still quite sound and just needs some shoring up.” He gestured vaguely at the different sections of the structure. “Some niceties, perhaps some replacement work on the roof,” he suggested, shrugging a bit, “new slate and whatnot.”

“It will be a fine mansion again,” Kidalis agreed. He knew little of the builder’s art himself, but if a dwarf said it could be done, then more than likely it was so.

“That is my hope,” the Baron said, his hand returning to rest on the horn of his saddle.

“Perhaps… a summer getaway for you?” the young noble ventured, hoping to draw the Baron out a bit as to why he had brought them all here.

“I… would want someone who would be able to take care of it properly,” the Baron said affably, waving the suggestion aside. “I have so many other estates that I have to look after. Not only Road’s End but the other places of the barony.” He turned in his saddle to face Kidalis. “My intention is to give it over to some poeple who can keep the northern border of the town safe. Well, at least while they’re in residence.” He gestured over to where the older man and the youth he had brought with him waited on their mounts. “Kaius here is my choice for steward, as I expect that the residents are likely to be gone more often than not. And Corran here does a fine job as stableboy.”

Kidalis blinked as he began to realize what the Baron was suggesting. But before he could ask, the Baron pulled what appeared to be a formal deed out of his tunic and handed it to the young noble.

“Ah, my lord…” Kidalis said after a moment, trying to overcome his unpreparedness as he hesitantly accepted the offered deed. “So far… I can probably count the number of times I’ve been speechless on one hand.”

The Baron laughed heartily. “I’ve noticed that.”

“We all have!” Tilly put in, favoring the flummoxed Kidalis with a cheeky grin.

“Ah, uh, thank you!” Kidalis bowed as courteously as he could on horseback. “I… I hope we can do justice to what will be needed of the area.”

“Once you’re here for a while,” the Baron said, acknowledging Kidalis’ bow with a polite nod, “it is my assumption that farmers, perhaps younger farmers who are chafing against still working for their parents and such, will move north and provide food for the manse.”

“I believe that will be, ah…” Kidalis trailed off, his mind still racing, trying to absorb the sudden change of circumstances.

“But you’ll need a good steward,” the Baron went on, nodding at Kaius who inclined his head. “Because as I say, I assume you will not be in residence for a good amount of time, and he has a fine hand for figuring things out.” He paused as he took the opportunity to dismount from his horse. “He served me at another one of my estates as my steward there, but his son is now come of age and has taken to the family business, so he will run that estate and I thought you could use his experienced hand. And you’re going to need a stableboy.” he added, gesturing at Corran who had hurried up to take the reins of the Baron’s horse once he had dismounted.

Kidalis quickly followed suit and gestured to the others to do the same. “We… of course, sir.”

The Baron led the way about the manor grounds as he discussed the particulars with Kidalis. As he’d indicated earlier, the manse was in decent shape for having been abandoned for so long, a mark of the dwarven craftsmanship at its core.

“I took a look in it earlier,” the Baron said. “The left hand tower.. it looks like there is a decent meeting hall behind it, or will be once it’s furnished. There are bedrooms upstairs, enough for all of you to have your own room, as well as several guest rooms, though you’ll have to argue over who will get the larger bedrooms.” He smiled a little bit. “I believe there is room for anything else you might want: workshops, a chapel, a library perhaps once you accumulate the books for it…”

“I don’t care about larger,” Ghost said, eyeing the towers intently. “I just want the highest.”

“Good luck!” Kidalis snorted. The highest rooms were his by right, fellow Fire Wasp or not.

“What?” Ghost said, looking back, clearly puzzled. Why would a human care about having the highest room? Probably just to get his nose that much higher than anyone else’s, she decided, barely stifling a snicker.

“Ah could have a garden,” Tilly murmured, walking around the overgrown courtyard.

“The courtyard used to have a fine garden in it,” the Baron acknowledged. “But it will need a sturdy hand to tame it back.”

“Maybe Ah can get a spawning pool goin’,” Tilly mused, his eyes lighting up at the thought. “Bring some crawfish up from the river.”

“Only a halfling,” Kidalis sighed. A pool full of crayfish? In a proper courtyard? You can take the halfling out of the bayou, the young noble thought, but you can’t take the bayou out of the halfling.

“Yew’ll be appreciating mah gumbo if Ah manage to get a spawnin’ pool goin’,” Tilly shot back smugly.

“You may need to tone back the spice for Ghost,” Kidalis said, making sure the shifter heard it.

Ghost glowered at the implication she couldn’t handle what a halfling could. “No. Way.”

“Well, this is certainly a generous offer,” Kidalis said, turning back to the Baron. "Of course, I know you will be benefiting from it as well.

“When you are in residence, a strong hand up here to guard the north,” the Baron said, gesturing grandly over the grounds. “A place for you to winter, if that is what you decide to do. I know you must enjoy visiting with your grandfather,” he said, nodding to Tristan, “but I assume also you’ve come of an age now, all of you, when you’re probably starting to think about a place to call home when you’re not on the road. And this should be a good one for a group of your size.” He resumed his stroll about the grounds. “You’ll have to decide on other servants. These two will serve faithfully, but if there are other servants you want, a groundskeeper, cooks…”

“If you would be willing to part with her,” Kidalis put in, “I would certainly appreciate Anil’s hand.”

The Baron frowned for a moment, but then shrugged. “I will leave that up to Anil.”

“I appreciate that, my lord,” the young noble said, inclining his head in gratitude. Ghost, however, narrowed her eyes at him in suspicion, wondering what he was up to. Just because she wears a dress and knows how to talk dainty courtly talk, she fumed inwardly. But can she take down a stag and then gut and dress it? And then drink an annoying halfling under the table? Not likely!

The feeling of annoyance brought a potential problem to mind, however. “M’lord?” Ghost said, moving up alongside the Baron. “one question?”

“Yes?” the Baron replied.

“The Reeve’s… reach,” she said after finding the right word. “Does it extend here?” The shifter could just see the avaricious gnome showing up the very moment the manse was ready for occupancy, armed with all manner of fees that would need paying and liceneses that would purchasing.

“It’s part of the town,” the Baron acknowledged, “but the Reeve is not likely to bother with enfoefed people in my service.” The lord smiled thinly. “He knows his place.”

“Just curious, m’lord,” Ghost said, sounding relieved. “Thank you.”

“Oh, I would have no problem dealing with the Reeve,” Kidalis said, a glint of none too subtle meaning in his green eyes.

“Yes, they are high towers…” Ghost said, grinning with feral glee as she peered up at the manse front.

“He would probably bounce,” the young noble mused, continuing their rather dark-humored speculation on how they could deal with the Reeve if he did show up.

The Baron regarded the pair with a mix of indulgence and reproval. “You’re part of the law,” he reminded them, “not above it.” He then smiled a little, returning to the previous subject. “If your farmers grow grain, you’ll have to have them send it to the mill.”

“Well, it will still take some time before the manse is…” Kidalis began.

“Of course,” the Baron interrupted, holding up a hand to indicate that the point was understood. “I hope to have it liveable within a month or so. So if your journey takes much longer than that, it may be welcoming you on your return.”

“It will be most interesting,” Kidalis said, imagining what the restored structure would be like and the uses they could put it to.

“It feels strange,” Ghost said, cocking her head thoughtfully up at the great stone towers. Permenance, particularly of abode, had become almost an alien concept to the young shifter, what with growing up among rangers and then living the life of an adventuer with her fellow Fire Wasps.

Kidalis took a few discreet steps away, then knelt to feel the land, to get a warden’s sense of it. It had a solid feel, he found, a good feel if a little wild. Though wild is not necessarily bad, he reflected, glancing over at Ghost’s pawing horse. And at Ghost, who seemed just as restless.

“I do not know what kind of journey you have ahead of you,” the Baron went on when Kidalis had rejoined him. “If horses are useful to you, then of course…” he gestured at their mounts “…but if not, you are welcome keep them in my stable until your own is prepared.”

“Again, you are most generous, my lord,” Kidalis said, "although I believe where we will be looking for Arun and his companions, horses may get in the way as much as they help.

“They’d be of limited value,” Ghost acknowledged, “because in a lot of places there are no roads.”

The Baron shrugged and smiled to Kidalis. “I will leave it in your hands.”

“Thank you m’lord,” Ghost said, bowing her head and feeling overwhelmed as the enormity of the Baron’s largesse began to dawn on her. “This is… most generous!”

“Indeed,” Tristan put in, having stayed silent through most of the discussion.

“You destroyed a dragon,” the Baron said, his tone serious. “It is no small feat. And I wanted you to realize that I know it is no small feat.” He then smiled affably as he added “And I imagine that your stuffed dragon head may look good over your mantle now.”

“Kind of hard to sleep with that staring at us,” Tristan murmured, shivering as he envisioned the fearsome head looming above them on some wall, “but…”

“Well, don’t put it adjacent to the bedrooms would be my advice,” the Baron said, laughing.

“Ah, well,” Kidalis said, wondering where some of the odd things Tristan said came from. He looked to the Baron once again. “Uh, you said that there were two matters you needed to speak with us about?”

“Well, horses, the manse,” the Baron said, counting the two items off on his fingers, then looking to Kidalis questioningly.

“Well, you are most generous,” Kidalis said, bowing once again. “I hope that we can do this place justice.”

“We are your loyal servants, m’lord,” Ghost put in, copying Kidalis’ bow.

“You are very helpful servants,” the Baron said, with emphasis. “As I said, I will not forget the suffering that you have alleviated by destroying that thing. If you ever think you need something specific… If there is anything you think you might need, let me know.” He gestured to Corran who quickly brought his horse up. “If it is within my power, I’ll see what I can do.”

“Of course,” Kidalis acknowledged.

“Feel free to look about,” the Baron said as he mounted his horse once again. “Feel free to bring your horses back, for the stables are not ready yet.”

Tilly led his ‘war-ram’ away for a quick circuit around the manor grounds. He was no farmer, but the lands looked good even to his untrained eye, with room for four or five farms between the manse and the Furrow farm, more than sufficient, he thought, to support the manse. “Ah’m thinking we might need a foreman,” he said when he returned. “At least, somebody… a liason between, like, the farmers and us.”

“I think the seneschal would be excellent for that,” Kidalis said, drawing a rough map of the grounds on a piece of parchment.

“Who’s the seneschal?” the halfling whispered to Ghost, not wanting to let on to Kidalis that he hadn’t been paying attention. She smirked and pointed over at Kaius.

“That’s me,” Kaius said, speaking up for the first time. The older man came forward and bowed respectfully. “Steward, technically. Essentially while you’re gone, I will make certain the estate runs smoothly in your absence.”

“And then we will have a stable boy,” Kidalis added, nodding over to Corran as he continued to work on his map.

“Me, sir,” Corran said as he hurried over and bowed. “Aye. I love horses, and that black is a fine one,” he added to Ghost. “I mostly find myself tending a little bit to the ones at the castle…” the stable boy gave a slight shrug “…but it’s gotten to the point where there’s fewer horses than need work.”

“Just be sure to keep mah friends’ horses away from mah war ram,” Tilly instructed the stable boy pompously, calling attention to his chosen mount. “It’s very belligerent. Wouldn’t want them to get hurt.”

“I can see that thing has a feisty temper,” Corran said dutifully, eyeing the goat as if it were indeed a ‘war ram’ and its owner as if he knew what he was talking about. “You need fear not.”

“Fortunately some of our animals aren’t going to need as much attention,” Kidalis observed dryly as he walked inside the ruin, continuing his mapping.

Inside the walls, a number of different rooms were visible, as was a large hall on the left. Out the back door, a passage led into the courtyard. He noted the position of the well, what appeared to have been several outbuildings. He also observed a number of bedrooms in the delapidated upstairs section, some with large fireplaces.

“I will claim the most noble of the bedrooms,” Kidalis said finally, folding up his parchment.

“What does that mean?” Ghost asked, her ears drawing back along her head as she eyed the young noble, wondering if he was deliberately goading her once again. She just wanted the highest of the bedrooms, the one with the best view of the road. It was sheer instinct, nothing more. It’s what she was.

“Can Ah just get somethin’ built above the stables?” Tilly asked. “Ah don’t do structures.”

“I’m certain you could,” Kidalis said.

“What do you mean you don’t do structures?” Ghost asked. First Kidalis and his ‘most noble of the bedrooms’ craziness. Now this?

“Yew ever tried buildin’ somethin’ this size in the swamp?” Tilly said, nodding up at the high stone walls around them. “It sinks faster than a north streams.”

“But…” Ghost waved her hands about in frustration, mostly resisting the urge to just slug the annoying halfling, then finally gestured to the lands surrounding them “…we’re not in the swamp!”

“Yeah,” Tilly acknowledged, “but Ah’m not used to being surrounded by so much rock.”

“What, you have a problem with that?” Ghost stared at her fellow Fire Wasp incredulously. “I’m not used to being indoors!”

“What’re yew sayin’?” Tilly asked innocently. “Yew want to share the stable?”

“No!” the shifter girl shouted. “We’re being given a mansion and you want to stay in the stables?”

“Well, the stable is in the mansion,” Tilly pointed out, managing to keep a straight face.

“It’s on the grounds,” Ghost hissed.

“It’s either that or Ah share a room with yew,” Tilly said with a grin, clearly enjoying how much he was getting up her nose.

Ghost seethed as she felt her fingers closing into a fist. “You can stay in the stables,” she growled finally. “With the goat.”

“It’s a war ram,” the cheeky halfing pointed out, correcting her.

“With. The. Goat!” Ghost said acidly. “Look at its horns. It’s not a ram!”

“It may have been at one point,” Kidalis put in, not meeting Ghost’s glare. It’s just too easy sometimes," the young noble thought to himself with a slight smirk. There was hardly any sport in it at all.

When they finally departed the manse estate, the sky was overcast and cloudy all the way back to town. Tilly, riding on his goat, announced that he was wanting to look into getting barding for his ‘war ram’. Ignoring their insane halfling companion, Ghost and Kidalis discussed whether they should take the horses with them on the journey or leave them in town.

“It would be a good opportunity to test the animals out and get familiar with them,” Ghost suggested.

“I am most intrigued by this one,” Kidalis admitted, reaching down to pat the dappled grey’s neck. She was a very gentle horse.

“Ah am acutely aware of mah war ram’s eagerness for blood,” Tilly said cheerfully.

Tristan took his horse off to the village green, wanting to spend some time getting to know him. Eustace rode his great work horse over to the monastery, wanting to discuss with the abbot about possibly setting up a small shrine at the manse. Tilly departed on some mysterious errand, which once again sent an ominous chill up Ghost’s spine.

Ghost decided to take her horse out in the open land to see just how fast he’d go. She gave the black his head and found that he was indeed quite fast, his great hooves making a deep drumming sound as they flew across the grounds and the young shifter growling and whooping as she urged him on. Kidalis for his part took a more leisurely ride around, looking at potential farm lands and glancing back now and then to check on Ghost as she rode about madly on her black. The two seemed well-matched: deep-rooted wild streaks just barely managed by a modicum of self-control. He only hoped that one of them would keep the other from breaking both their necks.

Before returning to town, Kidalis made a point of dropping by the Furrows, telling them about the Baron’s plans for the manse and asking them to inquire around to see if there were any ambitious younger farmers looking to strike out and start a place of their own. He also gave a vial of the perfume to Brom’s mother who seemed grateful if a bit uncertain as to what she should do with something more suited to court life than to cows.

The young noble then dropped by the keep. Upon finding Anil, he told her about the manse and about his wanting to offer her a position there. Anil was a bit reluctant, not wanting to offed the Greenfields who had been most kind to her over the years, but promised she would consider the offer. He also gave her a vial of the perfume. The shifter girl sniffed at it cautiously, then abruptly sneezed about ten times in quick succession. “It’s… very strong!” she managed finally, choking out her polite thanks before making a hurried retreat to the keep’s gardens, trying desperately to think of some herb that could quell the burning in her nose.

Undaunted, Kidalis thought sought out Alinora, to whom he gave another of the vials of perfume. The princess accepted the gift with perfect grace, recognizing the scent with delight. Her mother, however, looked on disapprovingly, not saying anything but making her view on the subject of princesses accepting gifts from adventurers quite clear.

The next days passed in a hurry as the Fire Wasps prepared for their journey north. Kidalis checked on the distributions from the dragon hoard, making sure the Holdfasts got their ale and that Mother Ableby got her walnuts, and then turned his efforts towards insuring he and his companions had sufficient provisions for their journey.

Ghost, with excitement mixed with a degree of trepidation, accompanied Tilly to pick up their newly enhanced weapons from Master Attleworthy. Picking up her twin swords, the young shifter tested them out, making swings and cuts in the air. She could feel a definite difference. Jariel had always taught her that a weapon should feel like an extension of her own arm. Her swords now felt almost preternaturally responsive to her, seeming to almost seek out the target on their own, surer and stronger. She complimented the elderly artificer enthusiastically on his craft. Tilly picked up his sharrash, and, after testing it out with a few swings, held it to his ear, but no sound was forthcoming. “You can’t rush prophecy,” Ghost reminded the visibly disappointed halfling, assuring him that it would happen when it was meant to happen.

When at least it was time for them to begin, the Baron summoned them to the keep to give them a parting gift: tailored furs, made from the bearskins from the hoard, to go under their armor for protection against the weather. They fit perfectly and all thanked the Baron profusely for this additional show of his generosity.

And so, that morning, the Fire Wasps headed north, with Ghost keeping an eye out for ranger signs that Arun and the others would’ve left to aid in locating them. That they would find, and much more besides.

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