Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 20

Tarrow Sharn walked down the streets of Kellonville smiling, waving to every townsperson he passed, stopping to greet and shake the hand of each one that allowed him. All around town the people seemed to be going about their productive lives- the sound of birds chirping was easily drowned out by the whining of the saws up at the mill, the pungent odor wafted from the tannery with each zephyr of wind, and fishermen readied their boats up at the dock. The bright morning sun had dried up the puddles remaining from the previous day's storm, and a fine layer of dust had caked the bottom of the tactician's boots. He greeted priestess Jael with a friendly embrace, and commended her on the beauty of the tangles of green intertwined in every brick of deity Azimuth's temple. As he spoke with her, he caught the eye of Ben Arons, one arm in a sling, the other dragging a broom across the floor. Tarrow waved a greeting to him as well, and the handyman gingerly gestured in response with his injured arm.

Tarrow remembered, of course, the previous few days' events. After ending the murderous lives of the three witches lying in wait for the villagers to arrive, not to mention their orc thralls, the Horselords of Eodon, with rescued captive Talarin Needlemaker in tow, explored the underground complex in search of an exit. Soon finding a cave opening carved by the nearby river, they hurried to meet Ben and Charles Telstedler before they got too close to the trap that had awaited them. Rounding the hill, they came across a massive crowd- close to every man, woman, and child of Kellonville- scrambling about in a panic. Three appeared dead; one of which- to Tarrow's great relief- turned out to be the fourth witch that Talarin had spoken of. It seemed their operation was ended, though he still remembered the cryptic remark made by a dying orc thrall- the creature spoke of a "Dark One" who was responsible for the orc scourge returning to the world.

Obviously the ravings of a madman, Tarrow once again reasoned.

One of the supposed dead was Ben Arons himself, the self-appointed leader of the mass of villagers, though he was alive, albeit badly wounded. The other was a blackscale draconian that Jael referred to as Lorender, who had apparently died in an attempt to save his fellow townsfolk from being slaughtered by this witch. According to Jael, the crowd had been moving along, almost to their destination, when suddenly this woman appeared in front of them. Nobody was quite sure what had happened, because moments later, Ben was thrown from the path, and Lorender's sword was drawn, but before he was able to stop her, Lyria struck him dead with some kind of magic. She appeared ready to continue her attack, but Ben managed to kill her with Lorender's sword before collapsing himself.

The Horselords helped Telstedler to get the crowd under control, and despite the mass confusion as to what was going on, they were able to herd everyone back to their homes- though it was well into the night before they had returned. Knowing that the last thing he wanted was for the town to panic further, Tarrow took it upon himself to walk around to each and every home, knock on each and every door, introduce himself, assure each townsfolk that everything was under control, and inform them that there would be a celebration the following evening in the Rusted Drake to commemorate the safe exodus and return of each citizen of Kellonville. Nobody seemed to understand what had happened let alone why there was going to be a celebration for it, but it was all part of his plan- as long as he treated each person like their personal safety was important to him, and as long as they each felt like what had happened was somehow a success for their town, then each person would be less likely to panic and cause a riot. As long as they thought there was something to celebrate, it didn't matter what they were celebrating. And besides- nobody was going to turn down a free celebration.

He hadn't finished going round to each and every house until the morning sun had risen, but it was what he had to do to prevent unrest. Artemis had asked if any of the Horselords should help, or Telstedler, but Tarrow had to do it himself- he had to make himself visible to every citizen of Kellonville. The more citizens that knew him, the more citizens that would some day be sympathetic to his cause. Exhausted, weary, still nursing wounds from the previous day's fights, he and the rest of the knights met with Ben in the morning, and were given the greatest reward he could have asked for: A house. Not just a house, but a base. A base from which they could, over time, plan their strike against the false-king Galex.

The lodge gifted to them was, to put it bluntly, a heap of trash that had somehow not fallen over into the river and been swept away. But that did not mean that Tarrow didn't love it. Sure, many things needed to be fixed. Many many. And not just fixed, either. Finished. As if someone began additions to the building and then quit as soon as he was finished hammering the first nail. But it was still better than anything he had expected. Besides- Artemis needed something to keep him busy while they weren't training.

The first evening after Kellonville's exodus, the Horselords met at the Rusted Drake, as Tarrow had told everyone to do. He was expecting a few dozen people, assuming the rest would be too shaken from the experience to want to leave their homes. Instead, to his surprise, close to three hundred people- almost the entire town's population- arrived at the inn to try and cast off the previous few days' fears. Tarrow made a few speeches, played his lute for the crowds, and did his best to help everyone relax. Primm had to dip into the town's winter supply of ale in order to keep the festivities going, but afterwards, people could be heard saying that it was the best celebration they'd had in years.

The next morning, the Horselords awoke before dawn, got their gear together, and slipped out of town as quietly as possible. Once they had reached the forest to the east, they waited. The sun broke over the horizon, just barely visible through the trees, and they waited more. Artemis was afraid that something had gone wrong, but Tarrow silenced him.

Just when it seemed the boy's fears might be realized, the knights heard the thunderous sound of far-off hooves. Off in the distance, five horses could be seen, weaving through the trees, their breath creating clouds of mist in the morning chill. The steeds came to an abrupt stop and bowed down before their masters, each still carrying the gear they were entrusted with two days previous. Grash and Fru’al were certainly pleased to have their holy symbols and weapons back, and even Sanna seemed in better spirits knowing that her four-legged companion was safe. Tarrow noted that his gelding, Firebrand, had a wound on its right flank- a remnant of a run-in with something unwelcome in the forest. But these steeds were the strongest in all the world, and could take care of themselves.

After making arrangements with the town's stables to house their horses until the knights could build a stable of their own, Tarrow began once again making rounds to each homestead, greeting the townspeople and making sure they were safe. He did the same the following day, despite a torrential downpour. Each time, more people smiled. More people greeted him. The ones that greeted him previously were a bit warmer this time. A little attention surely goes a long way.

This morning wasn't any different. After finishing up at the temple of Azimuth, he continued around, greeting everyone he could. Every so often, he'd make notes in his journal- keeping track of who the movers and shakers were in town, how many family members they had, the general size of their property, and so on. All the while, as he greeted everyone to make them feel appreciated, he was learning who the important people were. He was learning just how much pull each person had, just in case he ever needed a favor. Just like a game, he was figuring out how all of the pieces moved and how he could use that to his advantage.

After finishing his rounds, Tarrow had one main goal on his agenda today. He wasn't looking forward to it, but it had to be done. He arrived at the Rusted Drake, still early in the day, and rapped on the bar. After a short while, Primm hobbled out, tying an apron around his waist.

"Greetings, my good man," began Tarrow. "Wonderful morning to you. I trust business is doing well?"

Primm smiled, nodding. "Indeed it is. Meat won't be ready for a short while, but can I get you some of yesterday's bread until then?"

Tarrow held up a hand. "I'm here on business, actually. Is Mr. Telstedler in his office?"

The barkeep nodded again. "Yes he is. Up the stairs, first door on the right. Knock if it's locked."

Tarrow tapped on the counter once more, and began up the stairs. Reaching the mayor's office, he knocked on the door. Hearing the half-elf's voice welcome him from inside, the trystborn entered, seeing the familiar office appointed as usual.

"Tarrow," said Telstedler, a bit surprised. "I wasn't expecting you. Can I help you?"

Tarrow nodded. "I hope you can. May I have a seat?"

"By all means."

The knight took a seat in front of Charles's desk. He paused, trying to gather his words, an unusual action for the fast-spoken trystborn. Once his inner monologue was sufficient, he placed a hand on the desk.

"Mister mayor- Charles, if I may- I wish to make myself completely plain to you. It has undoubtedly been on your mind where we came from, and what our business is here in Kellonville. I wish to dispel any doubt as to our intention by being honest with you."

Telstedler raised his head a bit, his eyes fixed on Tarrow. "Go on," he said in reply.

"As I have told you, my name is Sir Tarrow Sharn. I am a knight in the service of King Lainen Tarithal the second of Eodon, as are my companions Sir Fru’al Ronan, Sir Grash Vesuvix, and Lady Sanna. The boy, Artemis Redsleeves is simply a straggler we picked up along the way that I have taken as my squire."

He paused once again, this time waiting for the hammer that, eventually, did not fall. He hadn't meant to throw on all of that rhetoric at the end- he had meant to simply state his country of origin and leave it at that, but in his haste to get it over with he subconsciously added the rest to try and get his listener to gloss over the uncomfortable details.

"Go on," repeated Telstedler.

Tarrow blinked. Not at all the reaction he had expected. "Allow me to ask… are you… familiar with the nation of Eodon?"

Telstedler shook his head gently. "The name sounds familiar, but I am afraid I cannot place it. I… take it that is important to understand this story?"

Tarrow swallowed silently, taking another moment to gather his thoughts. "Very well. I'll take this back just a bit further. We come from Eodon, a land very far east. Considered by many to be the most powerful nation in the world. Our king, Lainen Tarithal the second, is responsible for the extermination of the orc race over thirty years ago." He waited once again for recognition to dawn on the half-elf's face, but none occurred.

"You will have to forgive me," said Telstedler, "but we receive very little contact with any other nations. Or even towns, for that matter. We have records of orcs dating back before this extermination you speak of, and none in any recent years, so I suppose your story adds up. However, did I not hear that you and your kinsmen killed a group of orcs just a few days ago?"

Tarrow took a deep breath. This was not going as easily as he had planned at all, and the mayor's confusion was justified. He had hoped to simply be in and out, but it seemed this was going to take a while. He cleared his throat, and spoke quickly to keep from boring the confused half-elf.

"Yes, well, that's… sort of what I wanted to talk to you about. Alright, I'm starting over again. Over thirty years ago, our king traveled across the land, exterminating the orc race as we know it. About three years ago, word reached Eodon Castle that somehow, orcs were alive, attacking our nation. The king sent his elite guard, the famed Horselords of Eodon, to investigate and end this threat to royal lands. After a long search, we discovered that, in fact, the orc scourge had returned, and they were responsible for the attacks."

Telstedler nodded to show he was following.

"However," continued Tarrow, "while the Horselords were away from the castle, a traitor to the throne named Galex, the true king's foremost adviser, took the opportunity to stage a coup. He killed the king, took his place, and declared the faithful Horselords to be heretics and conspirators against the throne. Upon hearing this, half of our number made an attempt on the traitor-king's life. Although we do not know the details, we know that this attempt was unsuccessful. After this, the remaining of us were exiled, and our families brutally murdered."

"My gods," said the mayor, his eyes growing wide. "I… I am so sorry to hear of this. I had no idea."

Tarrow nodded solemnly, continuing. "The rest of us accepted our exile, but for many, many months we found ourselves constantly on the run from squads of Galex's men, hunting us like dogs through the land. We traveled, for the better part of three years, looking for somewhere we could live in peace. Every settlement in which we sought refuge, at best, chased us away. Our only option was to leave the nation, traveling as far into previously uncharted territories as we could. It was that search that led us here to your town."

"And so you came here, seeking refuge from a nation- using your own words, believed to be the most powerful nation in the world," said Telstedler. His eyes were narrowing on the trystborn, and he was leaning forward. "Tell me, Tarrow. Where does this put my town? Where do we stand? Do we need fear an army of knights coming to kill me and burn down every building in my town looking for you? You said yourself that every other town chased you away, or worse. Why should I not do the same?"

Tarrow's expression was grim. He had nothing to say in his defense. "I decided it would be better to tell you now than to be a drain on your town's resources first. I apologize. It was never our intent to hurt anyone from this town."

Telstedler balled one of his hands into a fist, held it, and then relaxed it, exhaling deeply. "No. No, you did not. I know that you did not. When you first arrived here, you saved us from a threat that would have come whether you were here to stop it or not. And, even then, you refused payment for our defense. I've been watching you, Tarrow. I can see how much you're trying to help raise morale among my people. Even if you have put my town in danger, you have already saved it from a fate just as bad."

"I am relieved you see it that way, mayor," Tarrow replied. "I do apologize for not telling you sooner. But please understand, we believed that you-"

"Would have you away the moment you got here. Yes, yes, I know. And it is for that reason that I want you, and the rest of your comrades, to keep this between us and us alone. I want nobody else to know about you and your origins unless I give you permission. Do you understand? I highly doubt the rest of my town would be as understanding."

Tarrow nodded. "I agree wholeheartedly." He held out his hand, to which Telstedler returned a blank stare. Tarrow returned his hand to his side, unshaken by the standoffish exchange. "If I may make some requests, mister mayor."

Telstedler leaned back in his chair. "Go on."

"It is very important to me, as well as I'm sure to you, that this town be kept safe. As of right now, this town has no defenses, natural or otherwise, that I or my people have noticed. Is there any sort of town militia that can be put into action if the need be?"

The mayor shook his head. "There was an attempt to create one many years ago, but I am afraid the only result of that is the building you are currently inhabiting."

Tarrow nodded. "Very well. With your permission, I will take it upon myself and my companions to try to organize one. I would appreciate your cooperation and aid once we are able to garner enough support."

"Good luck trying. You have my permission."

Telstedler stood up, and this time held his hand out to Tarrow, who took it after only a moment's hesitation. "I am sure you understand my attitude. I do appreciate your coming forth. I cannot say I would have done the same in your position."

After exiting the Rusted Drake, Tarrow wiped his brow. It was considerably warmer than when he had entered, and by now it was already after noon. By now, Artemis and Grash would be well into repairing the roof. Sanna, ever the self-imposed wallflower, would be continuing to scout the areas around town for possible threats and defensible advantages and disadvantages. Fru’al would be off ogling women and… whatever else he does with his time. Tarrow took out his journal, and, checking some notes, walked over to Oliver's Provisions, the general store, to pick up some supplies.

Walking up to the building, Tarrow noticed the mustachioed halfling owner standing in the door way, broom in hand, staring off into the distance as if frozen mid-sweep. When Tarrow reached him, he looked at the still-staring halfling, then turned and looked back towards where he came, trying to see what it was the short man was staring at. He then turned towards Oliver again, and cleared his throat softly.

The halfling jumped, dropping the broom and almost falling back. "Oh!" he said. "Forgive me, sir. I was just- nothing. Please, come in, come in!"

He gestured Tarrow into the store, and finished up sweeping the doorway, although occasionally pausing. After gathering up what he needed, Tarrow set the supplies on the counter, taking out some silver slugs for payment. Oliver made his way to the counter, and when counting the total cost, Tarrow could tell he was preoccupied with something.

"Mr. Oakenspring, if I may," the trystborn began. "Is there something troubling you?"

The halfling paused, and then shook his head. "No, no. Just a little tired, that's all. Quite a storm last night, eh?"

Tarrow paid for his merchandise, and was about to leave, but he leaned back down towards the diminutive shopkeep.

"Please, sir. If there's anything I can do to help, I would be happy to."

The halfling thought for a moment, then took a deep breath. "I suppose there is something…"

"Thank you for sharing this with me, sir," said Tarrow after Oliver had finished. "Allow me to gather my companions and return tonight. They may have questions of their own."

Stepping back out into the hot midday sun, Tarrow walked back to the Rusted Drake, where Fru’al had been eating lunch the last few days. Seeing him seated with a young man, he greeted the both of them and turned to the mage. "Fru’al, if you may, we need your help. Someone in town has a job for us, and I think you're going to want to hear about this."

Leaving with his elder companion, they followed the path around the mill towards the lodge. Looking up at the roof still in mid-repair, Tarrow noticed that Artemis was nowhere to be seen, despite his strict orders that morning.

"Good," he said to himself. "It's about time he started sneaking out to have fun. I should probably reprimand him when he gets back. Don't want him doing this all the time, after all."

Opening the back door to the lodge, he walked into the common room to find Grash rearranging the furniture.

"Grash," said Tarrow. "Come with me. We've got some business to attend to."

Grash stopped what he was doing, dusted his hands off, and followed the trystborn. "Business of what nature?" he asked as the three of them were walking down the path back towards town.

"Missing person," said Tarrow. "Apparently some woman named Sibyla has disappeared."

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