A town. They had found a town.
In the dim moments just before dawn, the Horselords of Eodon sat in a small circle around the embers of a tiny dying fire. Sanna had just finished scouting ahead, for the second night in a row, and they were getting themselves ready. According to her reconnaissance, the town was small- barely more than two dozen buildings in the town proper, with a similar number of farms spread out across the countryside. In all, the settlement would likely have a maximum of four or five hundred people. The town guard seemed non-existent, and no walls or even natural defenses to speak of. It almost seemed too open. As Grash heard Sanna's reports, he couldn't help but feel like they were walking into a trap- even if simply because none of it added up.
It had been months since they reached the Great Forest, which marked the westernmost border of Eodon. Everything beyond was unknown, uncharted- and nobody was proud of the fact that once they reached that border, they had run out of places to turn. No more towns to try and infiltrate. No more settlements to persuade towards their cause. It was just them, and the wild.
The wild. That was perhaps the part of this journey that had eaten away at Grash the most. He was a disciple of Detroia, the goddess of civilization and community. He had spent his life training to lead a town council, or defend his homeland against the uncivilized, or create new settlements in the name of his goddess. And now, because of the death of his king, he was trapped on the outside, surrounded on every front by the chaos of the outside world. Was this why he became a Paladin? Is this why he studied his goddess' teachings about the firm ground of civilization?
But now, they had found one. After months of aimless travel through uncharted wilderness, they found a town. A hamlet, even. Nobody, even the learned Fru’al, knew of any settlements this far from Eodon. What sort of people could live in a place like this? Could this be some unknown country, ruled by its own king and defended by its own force of unstoppable knights? Or could this be some hidden bastion of Eodon, populated by people still faithful to Lainen- or a cache of Galex's thralls? Nobody knew. They couldn't simply run in, blindly, and hope for the best. They had to be prepared for anything.
But they had been traveling, without rest or respite, for so long. Even Grash, who tried to be ever the optimist and the beacon of light for the hopeless, had begun to lose faith in the hope for their survival. He knew that the goddess had a plan for him, part of the grand scheme, but he knew enough to remember that his part in the great plan may never reveal itself to him. For all he knew, his role was to die, alone and forgotten, out in the wilderness, so that someone, some day, might come across his remains and be inspired to continue their own journey. Perhaps the place where he fell would become a great city, and the citizens of that city would declare war on all that is unjust and savage. And through his sacrifice, then, the will of Detroia would be done.
But right here, right now, they had found a town. And even if they were going to be walking into a trap, they were all so tired, so desperate, that they were willing to take that chance. But they were going to be prepared.
Their primary goal was peace- they were, after all, looking for a new home. But while they were still in Eodon, every one of their attempts at finding a peaceful hideout had ended in violence- so they had to be prepared for that as well. Each of them took along their primary weapon, and each wore their standard armor as well. However, they had no way of knowing what sort of allegiances this town would have- whether to a king, some other ruling force, or even to a deity. For all they knew, towns beyond the reaches of Eodon may worship a completely different pantheon completely foreign to any of them. Sanna, lacking theological training, hadn't seen any recognizable symbols over any of the primary buildings.
What this meant, however, was that not only did they have to leave behind anything showing their allegiance to their beloved Eodon, but Grash and Fru’al couldn't bring any symbols of their faith. On some level Grash felt insulted by this- and part of him was afraid that his goddess was testing him, and that he should trust in her to protect him rather than part with his holy symbols. But he had spent the night praying and meditating for guidance, and it became clear to him that Detroia commands all followers to abide by the laws of the land. For the time being, he would keep his faith secret, but only as long as was necessary.
Another unfortunate implication was that of money. All of their coins had been minted in Eodon- meaning that most of it bore the face of King Lainen, and the few coins taken from enemy patrols were marred by the face of that traitor, Galex. Seeing the potential necessity for such currency, Grash had suggested that they keep a few, just in case a need arose. But now, they needed neither- the last thing they wanted was for someone to recognize them by their connection to Eodon. So they had taken a few coins apiece, some copper and some silver, and melted them down into simple slugs of metal, in the hopes that they could use them in place of coins.
Each knight was given a grey cloak to wear over their armor: a poor disguise, yes, but it also gave them a look of uniformity- with the exception of Artemis' sleeves, which were still visible under the cloak. Each had a pack with four days' rations, in case they were separated, as well as a pouch of the silver and copper slugs. Beyond these and their weapons, they each had nothing. The rest of their gear was loaded onto their horses, and, after the break of dawn, Tarrow gave the horses a sharp slap on their sides, loosing them out into the wild. As they had been trained, the pack would travel together around the countryside, and return to this location in two days. They were strong, they were healthy, and they would return. The real question, for the Horselords, is whether they would be there when the horses returned.
The party of five walked together, as a highly trained unit, from the point where the town's main road came closest to the Great Forest. Tarrow walked in front, Fru’al immediately behind him, with Artemis to the left, Grash to the right, and Sanna bringing up the rear, in a diamond shape around the venerable spellcaster, as they had spent months traveling. An attempt was made to look calm and peaceful, but when it came to a choice between focusing on appearances and focusing on readiness, each of them erred on the side of readiness. To a bystander, it would likely look awkward.
They advanced along the road, each of them keeping close eye on their surroundings. After bisecting a small plain, the narrow road wound its way through several acres of farmland, and several barns and farmhouses dotted the horizon. Grash felt a strange comfort seeing these structures, so small, so unassuming, but he couldn't help but feel like their occupants were staring, watching, waiting for the moment to strike. After several fields of healthy crops- wheat, barley, and some young crops of corn- the road came alongside a small stream. Shortly beyond this meeting point, they could see the town, up ahead.
It was so small. It looked so… innocent. But they kept their guard, never once breaking formation.
After stopping for a moment as they crossed into this small town- Kellonville, the sign called it- Grash took a deep breath and his hands itched, his fingers flexing in anticipation of drawing his axe just in time for the inevitable ambush that awaited them. He felt like he could hear, far off, doors and windows slamming their shutters as they walked along the road. Sanna had reported the town's population was mostly human, as is often the case, but he wondered if the people would think he, or they, looked strange. It felt peculiar feeling so self-conscious at a moment like this. But his introspection was cut short, as he noticed a small building, close to the edge of town, that bore recognizable style- it was a temple. It didn't have a specific symbol above its entrance, but its supports all held plant motifs, and vines and branches of nearby plants were woven together along the stone and woodwork seamlessly- which, unless this land's pantheon was completely foreign, meant that it was built and maintained as a place of worship for the peaceful nature deity, Azimuth.
"We're passing a holy shrine to Azimuth. Possibly a good sign, but don't rest just yet," Grash whispered, his flame-like eyes never ceasing to scan the surrounding area for enemies.
The road intersected two smaller roads as they walked, but they kept together along the main path. In the back of Grash's combat-prepared mind, he saw each road as another loose end, just waiting to trip them up. But they continued. Past the temple, they could see a small pond across the stream, and a house up on a hill beside the pond. Further on, a lumber mill- or possibly a grain mill, or both- stood northeast of town square, and from the noise that issued from it occasionally it sounded like business had begun already. As they passed, he couldn't help but notice- one side of the mill was blackened, as if by fire. Why was that?
They reached the square soon enough, and they could all see half a dozen people standing about within sight that were watching them. But by their expressions, their hushed whispers, Grash couldn't tell if they were spying, plotting, or just curious. He felt his hand itching to grasp the haft of his axe, just in case.
Tarrow held up a hand as they came to a large building- possible the largest in town- with a large sign out front, advertising the name "Rusted Drake". They stepped inside, still keeping rank, and Grash felt like he was suddenly hit by a wall of aromas. As they passed the threshold of the building, he could smell- and by the looks of the expressions on the other knights' faces, they could also smell- home-cooked food. Ale. Fresh baked bread. He actually repressed the thought that the smell was the effect of some sort of magical enchantment meant to bring down their defenses, because he was that desperate for real food.
"Find a table in the corner. I've got a barkeep to meet," spoke Tarrow, with the air of someone walking into a party. As the rest of the group walked through the near-empty tavern, the trystborn stepped up to the bar, a sly smile planted firmly on his face. He rapped the side of his fist on the counter, glancing around the room- to a casual observer, it looked like he was simply taking in the sights and sounds after a long journey. But Grash could tell he was sizing up the room. The main chamber of the tavern had three possible points of entry- the doorway they entered, a door behind the bar (most likely leading to the kitchen), and a staircase leading to the second floor, either to rentable rooms or storage space. A few small windows, too small to fit a person, but large enough to fire an arrow through. There were enough tables and chairs for roughly thirty or forty patrons, but besides the barkeep, only three other people- two at one table, and one asleep on a stool by the stairs- were currently present. Tarrow was likely looking for anything about any of the patrons that might betray hidden aggression- a concealed knife, a skin discoloration that may indicate some sort of disguise, or the like. Knowing Tarrow, he was probably even making note of where the building had structural weak points, in case he needed Grash to make an exit where one wasn't.
The barkeep, who had done nothing but turn his head to watch the strangers walk by, walked towards the red-skinned man knocking on the bar. With each step, he made a loud clunking noise on the floor, but otherwise acted perfectly normal.
"Welcome, stranger. Can I help you?"
Tarrow nodded. "Absolutely, my good man. My fellow travelers and I are passing through and wanted to drink some of your ale and hopefully enjoy a hot meal. What do you have available?"
"Our special is braised eel. Caught yesterday, cooked today. That plus an ale is three coppers apiece."
"Certainly, certainly." Tarrow reached into his pouch, and produced two silver slugs, and set them down on the counter. "Food and drink for me and my friends, and keep the change."
The man picked up the small lumps of silver, raised an eyebrow, and shrugged. Without another word, he turned and walked through the door behind the bar, taking his time with each loud knocking step.
As Tarrow walked to the table to join the others, they all tried to look like they were relaxing, but were more alert than ever. Grash once again wondered how they must look to an onlooker. An onlooker that wasn't secretly plotting on assassinating them, that is.
"So," Artemis began, "I suppose this is all going well… right?"
The others all nodded silently in agreement, but otherwise they were still devoting their entire concentration on watching their surroundings. Grash could tell that the boy was trying to seem calm, but inside he was the most nervous of them all. It had been months since the last time he had fought, since the day Meredith was slain. Tarrow had of course been training him as hard as ever, and as a group they would spar for hours every day, but since that day he hadn't had a chance to actually fight to the death. Perhaps he was afraid- afraid that he wouldn't be able to fight, afraid he would fail and allow another one of his comrades to die at the hands of some savage, afraid that he might die pointlessly- or, Grash wondered, maybe he was anxious for another chance at fighting. Maybe he was excited. The boy seemed to never run out of spirit or enthusiasm. It was like war seemed like some sort of a game to him- a game that he was becoming brutally and efficiently good at.
Nobody spoke until the door behind the bar opened once again. The barkeep walked out, his steps clapping rhythmically on the floor as he came around the bar, carrying five plates- three stacked on one hand, two on the other- and set them down on the table. Each one held a pile of meat resembling fish, but sprinkled with spices and giving off a warm, savory aroma that made everyone's mouth water. Once each seat had been given a plate, the barkeep said, "The ale will be right up," and walked behind the bar, his wooden pegleg now visible as the source of the noise.
Everyone stared at their plates, each person likely having the exact same thoughts. But Fru’al cleared his throat, getting their attention, and placed his hand on the top of the smaller wooden walking stick he had brought in place of his Raven-Lainened ritual staff. He spoke a quiet incantation, and moved his free hand over his plate.
Grash knew that preparing for today's excursion was more difficult for Fru’al than for anyone else. His magical ability was limited, and until he could rest and regain his power, he could only manipulate the forces of magic so much. To that end, his power needed to be focused ahead of time- he had to prepare for the challenges he might face that day. He could devote all of his magic to one type of spell, for example, or create multiple different spells, but if he needed something other than what he had prepared, altering his spells on the fly was possible, though it severely reduced their power. For today, Fru’al had to make the difficult choice of focusing on magic that could help influence negotiations, focusing purely on offense in case combat broke out, focusing on various utility spells for unexpected situations, or for some combination. After much weighing of benefits and drawbacks, he had decided to focus mostly on spells to aid negotiation, with some utility spells in case they were needed. One such spell, thankfully, could detect the presence of poison, which he was currently using to study the meal.
After a few moments of Fru’al's hand passing silently over his plate, he stopped, having divined the information he needed. Then, without another word, he grabbed a handful of the braised eel on his plate, and began to devour it loudly. The others followed suit. As the five of them were stuffing their mouths with what seemed like the most delicious meal they had ever consumed, nobody even noticed the barkeep had brought them each a flagon of ale until the watery liquid was pouring down their faces as they drank between bites.
The atmosphere in the group was unlike anything it had been it months- years, even. They had spent so long traveling aimlessly, running from assassins, camping on the hard ground and endlessly training their combat skills in anticipation of some day reclaiming their lost home. While their spirits started high, any of them could tell that as a whole the morale was days from shattering entirely. But now, Grash, Sanna, Tarrow, Artemis, and Fru’al were sitting around a bar table, eating, drinking, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company. After the first round of drinks was gone, Fru’al yelled to the barkeep, "Five more drinks- and five more plates of this delicious braised eel! And I suppose the rest of you probably want some too, don't you?" Even Sanna, who was usually morose at best, had a good laugh.
The barkeep came back with another round of drinks and food, taking their melted-down coins without any objection. Before he left, however, he spoke. "Just so you all know, there's about to be a town meeting here in a few minutes. You're welcome to stay, but try to be respectful." Everyone smiled, nodded, and regained their composure. Grash, however, was curious.
"A town meeting? In a tavern? Is that normal in these parts?"
The barkeep nodded. "As far back as I can remember. This is the largest building in town, and the owner is the closest thing we have to a mayor, so he holds meetings here. Where are you all from, anyway?"
Everyone shifted slightly in their seats, each hoping they wouldn't be asked that question so soon. Tarrow, however, quickly jumped to his feet and reached his hand over the table, cleverly changing the subject. "Say, I don't think we've been properly introduced. The name is Tarrow, and these are my companions Sanna, Grash, and Fru’al. Oh, and this pack mule we picked up is named Artemis. Artemis Redsleeves." Everyone gave a vague salute as Tarrow shook the man's hand. Grash was amused by how Tarrow used such subtle devices even in introductions to distract and disguise meaning- by making such noteworthy mention of Artemis, and his peculiar surname, it served to focus the man's attention on the only member of the group who isn't likely to be known by Galex and his men. That clever trystborn.
"My name is Primm. It's a pleasure to have you here, and let me know if I can get you anything else."
Fru’al, his mouth still full of braised eel, tried to tell him to bring more food, but it got drowned out by the noise of people coming in through the tavern doors. In an instant, a flood of townsfolk began pouring into the room. Each of the Horselords made an instinctive move for their weapons, until they could see the townsfolk were, aside from the expected awkward glances, paying them no attention. Before long the villagers- humans, draconian, some gnomes, a few half-elves, and a single trystborn- were filling the room, taking up every available seat and most of the standing room. They were all talking amongst themselves, most in angry and frustrated voices. After a few minutes, however, a dark-haired half-elf stood up in front of them all, banging an empty flagon on one of the tables to get the people's attention.
"People, people," the man yelled, climbing onto a chair for a better vantage point. "Let's all quiet down and get this town meeting started." There was much grumbling, but the noise level died down significantly. "I think we all know why this meeting was called, so let's just-"
"Something has to be done!" came and angry shout.
"They have to be stopped!" came another.
The Horselords glanced amongst themselves, their grips tightening on their weapons once again. But the townsfolk continued.
"What's to be done about the crops?" yelled another voice.
One woman stood up, angrily, and pointed directly at a middle-aged man sitting across the room from her. As she pointed, her high-pitched voice rang out, "Ben Arons is responsible for it all!"
The crowd erupted in angered conversation again, until the dark-haired half-elf once more began banging the flagon on his table. Once the noise had settled, he walked towards the middle-aged man, placing a hand on his shoulder. "There is no way Ben Arons is responsible for the crops. Isn't that true, Ben?"
The middle-aged man stood up slowly, his mustachioed face turning beet red as he ran a hand through his unkempt brown hair. He took a moment to gather his words, and spoke with a timid voice, trembling with fear. "It… i-it's not exactly true… I mean, I'm not responsible! I just… I tried to warn you all that it would happen! I just heard about it in a dream, and it happened! That doesn't mean it's my fault, is it?"
An extremely work-weary man stood up, slamming his fist down on the nearest table. "A dream didn't burn down half of my farm!" he shouted. "And neither did a dream start that fire at the mill, either!" After saying this, he promptly spat on the floor. Several voices in the crowd shouted out similar sentiments, but the half-elf once again fought to settle the noise.
"Look," started Ben. "I, I just… I had a dream that said we, as a community, would face a 'trial by fire', a-and… I tried to-to warn everyone, and… and I had a dream that winter was coming early- even I couldn't have known that it actually meant-"
The first woman stood up once again, shrieking in her high-pitched voice. "The communal farm's crops were frozen! In the middle of summer! I think you are responsible, you… you… witch!"
The crowd erupted into yells and angry accusations once more, but the noise was cut short- not by the dark-haired half-elf, but by a blood-curdling scream from outside. Everyone in the building went completely silent for what must have felt like an eternity.
Tarrow jumped to his feet, one hand still gripping the pommel of his falchion, and he glanced at each of the rest of the Horselords. Grash, Sanna, Fru’al, and Artemis followed suit, and the five of them ran to the door, pushing their way past several townsfolk standing in the doorway.
Outside, lying on the ground, paralyzed by fear, was a dark-haired human woman in her late twenties. Looming over her, casting a shadow across most of the town square, was a twelve-foot tall dragon, its ivory scales glimmering in the morning sun.