Elinie Prologue

Act I

Table of Contents
32nd day of Roelir, 551 Michaeline Reckoning. High Summer.
In which gods and realms communicate by visions; royal gifts are exchanged; and a duke-apparent departs his host with many companions.
Before word of mouth, before herald on horseback, before messenger raven, Avril knew he was to be the Duke of Elinie.
In his dream, a great black dragon thrashed and roared, its talons tearing into the soil of his homeland, its burning venom spewing into the air and poisoning the land. Five swords blazed like lightning, striking into its throat, its limbs, its breast, spilling its dark blood onto the rent ground, and then shattered into icy fragments. The dragon's death throes threatened to tear the land its wounded bulk sprawled across asunder, and the ground itself groaned in pain.
That pain gave birth to giants – seven faceless titans arose from the earthy womb of the ground, rising like mountains, towering until they wore the stars themselves as crowns. The soil was their flesh, stone their bones, and ruby lightning flowed beneath their surfaces as blood. As Blood. The seven drew close, bending over the black dragon that was so small and broken before them, and laid their mighty hands upon it. The blackness washed away from its scales like ink, leaving it half-white, and half-red – though which half was which changed from moment to moment.
The seven pointed at the dragon, accusing, acknowledging; and then they were pointing at Avril, for Avril was the dragon in crimson and alabaster. Six fingertips blazed with golden starlight, one with ruby, and the light swirled into a dancing spiral about his head, solidifying into a yellow circlet with a red stone at the brow.
The seven bowed low to Avril. The Land had Chosen.
He awoke suddenly, but not with a start. His heart raced with what in a lesser man might have been fear, and sweat cooled on his skin in the pre-dawn chill of the Binsadan plains. A breeze stirred the silk walls around him, carrying with it the dry perfume of the grasslands; the smell of tea being brewed; the spicy scent of Khinasi cooking; the aroma of horse dung watchfires; and distantly, the plaintive call of the muezzin calling the faithful of Avani to greet their goddess' light as it returned over the horizon.
Outside the pavilion graciously provided for his use by Queen Banira el-Reshid, the Embassy Compound and the sprawling tent and basalt-wall city of Ber Dairas as a whole were stirring to life.
Any other man might think such a dream cryptic to hear Avril describe it, but the heir-in-exile knew immediately that it was neither a fanciful vision from the aether, nor some mistaken night terror. Elinie was calling to him. His father, the black dragon, was dead. Still, one thing puzzled Avril: he was not longer heir. If his father were dead why would Elinie not call upon his brother Aeric?
Concerned, but unhurried, Avril rose and dressed, and stole out of his tent, into the brisk plains air, making for the tent of the Haelynite monk Aedwyn. The youth barely had hair on his chin, but in this foreign land Avril knew that another initiate of Haelyn would be nigh impossible to find, and he doubted that the priests of Avani here would understand the special relationship that the Elinies shared with the lady of morning. Besides, the bells would toll soon, signalling the start of the dawn prayers.
Making his way across the chill dust of the tent-city, Avril could see the women of the royal camp making their way to the wells of Ber Dairas to draw water for the morning, clay jugs balanced perfectly upon their heads, and marvelled at their silent grace, and swaying silhouettes.
Ber Dairas was a strange city - barely a city by Anuirean and even most Khinasi standards, but rather an empty fortress of tapered, monolithic walls defining circular enclosures. A place to for nomads to pitch their tents in safety, exchange news, petition the queen and haggle in an ever-changing bazaar. The Embassy Compound was one of the few places with permanent buildings, simple square things of adobe for those esteemed visitors who, the Binsadans laughed, could not stand living under cloth and stars like true, free people. There were embassies from Sendoure, Zikala, Ariya, and beyond; even a tower without any doors at ground level and an open platform on the top should the Harpy deign to visit, a mark of Binsada's strangely civil relationship with the awnshegh. There was a building set aside for the Elinian delegation, too, but it had stood empty for over ten years. Duraend Elinie had showed no interest in dealing with 'barbarians'.
Passing amongst the womenfolk and servants who were the majority of those about at this hour (the men were either at prayer to show their piety to Avani, or still sleeping off the equally-pious revelry to Leira of the night before), Avril soon reached his companion's place. Brother Aedwyn's tent was smaller, and made of plain canvas rather than the red silk and gold tassels of Avril's pavilion. As he approached the door-flap, Avril saw candlelight flickering within. The young, gawky, freckle-faced monk was kneeling over and squinting at his reflection in a bowl of water as he shaved the top of his head into a tonsure - a mark of his humility before the gods, and a sign that his place was not to wear a crown, but to serve those who did.
Avril was faced with the problem of finding nothing to knock upon to announce his presence. Since the door-flap stood open he took this as welcome enough, and slipped inside. "Brother Aedwyn-" he called softy in his rich baritone "I have need of a few words."
Aedwyn jumped a little as Avril entered, distracted from his intense focus on the watery image. "Ouch," Aedwyn observed as his razor nicked his scalp, and he fumbled for the washcloth to staunch the tiny trickle of blood. He looked up at the knight and blinked. "Yes, my lord? Oh, ahhh, pardon me. Good morrow, ser."
Avril smiled apologetically "I am sorry to intrude at so early an hour holy brother, but I have had a troubling dream and am in need of wise council. My father, Duraend, Duke of Elinie is dead."
Brother Aedwyn went still and wide-eyed at Avril's bald statement, looking faintly ridiculous with the washcloth sitting jauntily atop his head. He pulled it off slowly and dropped it into the bowl, then gathered his robes and stood. He paused for several moments more, considering his words carefully. He did not ask if the man was sure, or give some platitude about dreams being merely games of the mind; Avril was not a one to believe foolish things easily, or to lie. It must be something of the Blood, some unknowable familial connection.
“I… grieve for your loss, my lord. The duke was… an unforgettable man, to be sure.” That had the advantage of being true, but not being a false compliment. Aedwyn reached out awkwardly and patted Avril on the arm.
Avril nodded, his striking features grave. He stroked the neat beard he'd worn since the month of his exile idly, glad the priest had not inundated him with questions. "What puzzles me is why Elinie has called me. I am an exile. My brothers have right to the land, not I. I knew that my father would die soon, he is an old man by now, and war has not been kind to his body, but what of Aeric? What of Ansen?" he paused, confusion and concern in his eyes "Aedwyn, I think that I must return home. Something dire has transpired. I would not break my father's decree, but perhaps if I could take a ship to Ruorven…" he stopped, realizing he was pacing, agitated "I need Haelyn's guidance. Gods know I had only just come to terms with never seeing my home again, and now…"
“Elinie has called to you?” Aedwyn's eyes lit up with wonder and excitement. “The Land's Choice? I've… I've read the historical chronicles, the rites of investiture that speak of this! It is very rare, but sometimes the domain itself will ensure the continuity of regency to the rightful heir, though he be many miles away. Or if the designated successor is unworthy, a usurper…” The young man paused, colouring, and glanced away from Avril. “Not that I would imply any such thing about your own brothers, my lord. Forgive me.”
He watched Avril pace, his own expression more uneasy than the knight's, and fidgeted, wishing he had more time to pray for advice. “Would that you had it, my lord, but I can only offer you mine own,” Aedwyn said self-deprecatingly. He was quiet for a moment, fingering the heavy symbol of the Lord of Justice about his neck, then spoke in measured, thoughtful tones, assembling his argument like a magistrate:
“As you have felt the call, then rationally there can be only two possibilities. Either the duke undid the decree of banishment and appointed you heir apparent in his last days, and word has not reached us by ship or by raven; or he did not, but Elinie itself has invested you with the mantle of responsibility. As the new duke, it would thus fall to you to uphold or annul the decrees of your predecessor.”
Avril stopped. The young cleric's case had merit, but seemed too easy. In Elinie the law was the law, there was no denying it. Even the forests grew like soldiers, ranks up against one another. The land would not come into conflict with the law. Whatever the explanation, it pointed to one thing: he had to find out for himself what the situation in Elinie was, and that meant departing. That day if possible.
"You are right holy brother, you are too modest in your estimation of your own wisdom. One thing is clear to me - I must make haste for home, if I am close by I am more likely to hear word of what has transpired than in far-flung Khinasi. I must make my apologies to the Queen, and be on my way - today if possible. I would be honoured if you would join me Aedwyn. You have more knowledge of my home than I after all, and you prove your worth daily it seems." Avril nodded, convinced of his course.
I will seek audience with the Queen to formally convey my regrets at having to cut our visit short. I will entrust you with making arrangements to leave. Do you think Ruorven wise? I know my family is not well regarded there at present, but surely the Life and Protection will offer us asylum and news."
Brother Aedwyn blinked at Avril's request. Of course, he hadn't expected otherwise - he had been instructed to attend the man by the High Prelate, and he could not imagine Avril would abandon a companion in the midst of a foreign land - yet it was a mark of Avril's sheer force of personality that he still felt honoured by the offer.
"Of- of course, my lord," he said, before pondering the question. "I think, yes… relations between the Aegis and the Life and Protection were good - the last I had heard, at least - and surely the baroness of Coeranys would have no wish to foment a grudge with the duke-successor of Elinie by obstructing his return home…" He sounded more hopeful than sure, however.
Leaving the young priest to pack, Avril stepped out of the tent and strode out of the Embassy Compound.
Reshidia, the Palace of the East Wind was an ugly block of dwarven masonry that dominated what passed for Ber Dairas' skyline and hardly deserved its poetic name. The gates to the Queen's Compound were only a short walk across the marketplace from the Embassy Compound, but even on that brief journey he was hailed several times. "Afril El-Iniya!" they called, their Binsadan accents warping the Anuirean consonants musically. "Zahirmaine!" The Shining One. A name he had been given for his bright shield and gleaming plate armour, as he performed feats of horsemanship in the festival-games that rivalled the best of the local riders. Proud young warriors and the ambitious sons and daughters of wealthy herd-masters raised their hands as they trotted past on their steeds, greeting him and offering their warm respects.
The palace sentries lowered their spears as he approached and bowed, not barring his way. The queen had given him freedom of the city, and he was welcome there at any time.
The airy, bright El-Reshid hall with its tall, glassless windows and angular pillars at the heart of the palace seemed more like a warrior-chieftain's lodge than a royal abode. Weapons of victorious queens past and conquered enemies decked the walls, along with the hides of dangerous beasts - bears, dire hyenas, the leonine monsters that served the Sphinx and scaly skins of Hydraspawn. The fire-shrines of Leira had been lit and shrouded by metal screens with Khinasi letters cut into them, casting flickering prayers against the walls that gave the hall a warm, mystical air. The Red Throne sat like a clot of blood, a horse-hide cloak cast carelessly across it. The queen had told Avril that Binsada was not ruled from the Throne, but from the saddle, and she spent as little time in Reshidia as possible. Only the great horse-fair, the trials of honour and the approaching festival of the Night of Fire brought her back at this time of year.
A servant had gone ahead, and after a few moments the queen walked out of her chambers behind the great hall. Banira bint Hamilah el-Reshid was a tall, handsome woman of an age with the knight, a noble warrior and fierce queen. Her flowing ebony hair was pulled back into a loose horse's tail from her strong, tawny features. She was perhaps not beautiful, at least not in the Eliniean tradition that exalted fair, modest damsels, but she was undeniably striking. While her people tended towards dark eyes, she bore a bloodmark that made hers a deep, rich ultramarine, so blue it almost hurt to look at them. She wore a short tunic and high riding boots that showed her bare, athletic legs to good effect, and carried a goblet of mare's milk.
Her blood called to him, the regal cry of an eagle in his mind, his veins. Avril felt his blood respond with a mighty roar - he had been told it sounded like the voice of a dragonne, a heraldic beast that was a mighty lion with the wings and talons of a dragon. He had Banira had spent enough time together that they were both used to the reflexive recognition of their bloodlines, and she paid it no heed as she stretched herself down into her throne. She took a sip from her goblet and watched Avril warmly over the rim.
"My knight. What bestirs you so early this day?"
Avril dropped on one knee, his hand crossing his breast in supplication and his eyes downcast - he may be a guest, but at present he was no more than a mere commoner "Majesty, I do beg your pardon for this intrusion, but I must act quickly. I fear I am forced to cut my enjoyment of your incomparable hospitality short." As an Elinien, Avril knew the ways of sayim better than other Anuireans, and that the hospitality of their hearth and home was a source of great pride to the Khinasi, even the nomads of Binsada.
"I have come to learn that Duraend, Duke of Elinie and my father, has passed from this world into the arms of the gods. And though I do not know the circumstances of his passing, I feel I must return to be close by my homeland, and render any aid that may be needful." He didn't burden Banira with the details of his prophetic dream, nor his concerns for his brothers. She was queen of a realm after all, and his concerns were those of one man amongst thousands to her.
He paused, lost in his own thoughts, staring down at the dusty flagstones of the great hall. They were so like those of Stormwatch. How old were Aeric and Ansen now? Twenty? They had been children when he last saw them. And his father had been strong and vital, his mother still beautiful. It has been such a long time. He could almost hear his father's court. Could picture the Vermilion Throne. Could hear the ancient banners snapping and grumbling overhead. Feel the oppressive dark of those high vaults pressing down into the chamber.
He longed to see it again.
The queen avoided rolling her eyes at Avril's display of courtly respect, and swallowed a yawn with the practised ease of one who had listened to chiefs and priests bicker in her court for years. He was pleasant enough to look upon, but, by Leira, he was as stiff as a lance. She could think of a few ways to teach him flexibility…
As he continued, Banira set down her goblet, and a concerned look crossed her regal features – tempered with the calculations a regent must always do when confronted with news of a change in power in another land. Who rises from this? Who falls? How does this effect my realm? She stood and stepped down from her throne, reaching down and grasping him lightly by the shoulders of his crimson surcoat, pulling him to his feet.
“A duke does not kneel to a queen,” she chided, studying his face. One finger traced the shape of his chin as she searched his blue-grey and amber eyes. “Yes. I see it. Al-Erbiyah.” Regency. “It is… thin, attenuated. But it will grow stronger. You will feel Elinie as you feel your own heartbeat, know it as you know your own blood.” Banira smiled with a rare gentleness. “Ahh. You do not know the burdens, the glories that await you.”
She stepped back, and turned to stride out of the El-Reshid Hall, outside to the low encircled hill of the Queen's Compound. “My hall will be sadder for your absence, Avril Elinie, and my hearth colder. Will you not stay but two more days, until the Night of Fire, so we may feast in your honour under falling stars?” She walked out into the first rays of dawn stretching over the walls of Ber Dairas, expecting him to follow, but not expecting him to agree. He was not a man easily swayed from love of his home, or from his duty, she thought.
Rising, Avril followed a step behind the queen. Few women had his height, but Banira's blood, her confidence, her obvious, almost sensuous tie to her realm made him feel like a boy. "Would that I could majesty, but I fear that if I do not make haste the cost will be high. To me or my people, I cannot tell." He shivered in the morning wind high atop the fortress of the east wind. His doublet and hose were poorly suited to the Khinasi climes. He gazed over the sickly-hued fortress, so hated to the Binsadans, and wondered at this strange land. And a small part of him truly did not want to leave so soon.
"Once our two realms, Elinie and Binsada, were close. We learned much from one another, shared much. If you are right majesty, if it comes to pass that Elinie has fallen to me, I would like to renew that friendship between our two realms. I know we are divided by land and sea and mountain and plain many times over, and can do little to aid one another directly, but we are akin in so many ways. And I would be proud to call Binsada friend." he looked at the queen with utter sincerity. "But it is Elinie whose call I hear now, and with your leave I would not make her wait."
He reached down and removed his baldric, offering the long, straight, Anuirean sword to Banira formally. "Take this, it is no trophy nor great gift, but hold it against my return some day soon, be it under the crimson dragon banner or merely as a friend."
Banira took the blade with a smile; refusing it would have been a minor breach of hospitality, and she had no wish to spoil this parting. “I shall hang it on my wall along side the weapons of vanquished foes, as a reminder of a far-off friend,” she said, inclining her head slightly. “But, tsh, you pre-empt my gift!” She called ahead to the master of the royal stables, who was just up and about fetching Banira's many horses their morning feed. He bowed and rushed inside with remarkable flexibility and speed for such and old man, and by the time they reach the stables doors he was coaxing a magnificent beast out.
Tall, long-limbed, with sleek flanks as black as ink, the fiery-eyed stallion snorted and stamped as it was lead out, tossing its blue-black mane defiantly. Its anger continued until Banira approached, murmuring for hush, and laid a hand on its nose placatingly. “He is Alelyel,” she ululated softly. “Midnight. I trained him myself, and he will accept no rider but the blooded.” The queen wrapped her arm lightly around the horse's proud neck, burying her face in its mane and shoulder briefly. “I know you have a steed already – that great brute of a thing. Good for riding down men when you wear metal, I suppose, but sometimes swiftness is your friend. Midnight will let you outrace the sun and reach the land where it is always night, and will get you home as quick as wishing. That is my first gift to you.”
The master had slipped back into the stables, and returned now with a pair of woven jute saddlebags. They were decorated with gold thread, and bore an orange silk streamer – the mark of the Flame Arrows, Binsada's elite messenger corps. “I name you an honourary member of the Flame Arrows, and charge you with delivering a message to the realm of Elinie – whatever message you choose,” she grinned. “It is death to impede one of my royal couriers, so this should assure you of safe passage wherever my name is known. That is my second gift to you.”
She held Midnight's head as the master of the stables fitted a saddle to the fine black courser, and looked aside at Avril. Her rippling hair matched the horse's shade almost perfectly. “Have you decided on your path? Through Sendoure and by mountain-pass, or by sea?”
Avril admired the horse with an expert eye. He had spent nearly the past decade of his life in the saddle, and the animal was spectacular. Unlike the massive Eliniens, its graceful contours spoke of speed and agility alongside strength, and its tempestuous eyes showed it had as much spirit as a mustang. In many ways it was like Banira. Strong, beautiful, and self-possessed. And the immense value of the gift shamed his mere cast-off. Still, there was too little time for better. He reminded himself to remedy this as soon as possible. "Your generosity exceeds even your great wisdom and legendary beauty you majesty." he said with a low bow.
"I fear the passes of Chimaeron would waylay me too greatly majesty, and though a pilgrimage down the old road to my home would be a fine symbol of my return, practicality must win out when haste is needful. I have coin enough left to find a ship to Coeranys, and there I shall hope that the welcome my name elicits is not so thin that I am cast out - or into irons." he grimaced at the possibility for a moment.
"I must trust that Haelyn and Avanalae both smile upon my journey, and with their aid I should reach home within the fortnight."
Banira smirked, stroking Midnight's nose affectionately. “Oh? Then in future I shall strive to be more miserly. I like Banira the Generous less than I like Banira the Beautiful.”
The queen considered Avril's words, frowning. “The Sea of Grass is a more trustworthy road than the Sea of the Golden Sun,” she quoted an old Binsadan proverb. “But the choice is yours. You will find no sailors on our coast to take you so far, I fear… we have no harbours deep enough to suit a boat to make that journey. To go west, you will need to go east – to the port-city of Turin in Zikala.” Taking Midnight by the reigns, she smiled at the man. “Go and collect your little preacher-scribe. Midnight will be waiting for you at the east gate when you are ready.”
Avril bowed again, then turned and made for the embassy compound. The queen was right in many ways, but a gnawing suspicion that announcing his return before he knew the situation in Elinie would be foolish, and the land offered many more eyes than the sea. He would make a prayer and offering before leaving port, and hope that the gods saw fit to give him calm waters and easterly winds.
Brother Aedwyn had clearly been busy in Avril's absence; the knight's belongings had been secured in various packs and saddlebags alongside Aedwyn's more modest possessions, the floor of the pavilion had been swept and most of its sparse furnishings stacked neatly to the sides. The exception was one of the small folding stools the Binsadans preferred, which remained in the middle of the tent and housed an unexpected guest, sprawling languidly in it while the monk stood by nervously.
The man rose gracefully, despite his bulk, as Avril entered. He was Brecht, though his unusual height – over six foot – and balding reddish-brown hair suggested some Anuirean ancestry. He wore a travel- and marsh-stained grey burnoose, and had an ill-favoured look. Taken individually, there was nothing exactly wrong with any of his features, but each seemed to have been added to his face without reference to the others, resulting in a wide, sloped brow; plump lips; recessive chin; broad cheekbones; and narrow-set, bulbous eyes.
Aedwyn started at Avril's arrival, and uncrossed his arms from inside the sleeves of his brown sackcloth robe guiltily. “My lord, this is…”
“Ahhh, my lord,” the man interrupted with an unctuous smile and short bow. He placed his delicate hands together, rubbing them eagerly so that the many bejewelled rings he wore clattered richly. “Kort Bregeden, merchant venturer, at your most humble service.” He bowed again. “Let me not waste your time, my lord: I am given to understand you desire passage to the Coeranys? In that, I can assist you.”
"Welcome Kort," Avril smiled cordially, though there was something instantly unscrupulous about the man "I do indeed have a pressing need to reach Ruorven with some haste, but first I would know how you came to know of a journey I only decided to make this very morning? I have not sought passage as yet, nor shared my plans with many."
Bregeden smirked and cast a wry, sideways glance at Aedwyn, who coloured and lowered his head, as if he might hide it in his cassock in the manner of a tortoise. “Don't be too hard on the young brother, my lord,” the man said, his accent the rural burr of Rohrmarch with an odd spice of Khinasi consonants. “He did not spill any secret of yours consciously. I happened to be passing as he was in the marketplace, and, well, divining a man's intentions by what he purchases is a valuable tool of my trade. So when I saw saw him purchasing rations, ginger and mint – herbs used to settle a sea-sick belly – and waterproof leather of the sort one might use to wrap precious documents, well, it was an easy enough deduction to make.”
The Brecht smiled broadly at his own cleverness, tapping his steepled fingers. “And where, I asked myself, would the esteemed Knight of the Burnished Shield wish to go by sea, in such a hurry? Only one place came readily to mind. Thus, I hailed the dear Brother and asked him if he required a fast ship to Ruorvan – that being the northernmost port on the Anuirean shore of the Gulf of Coeranys, and the one closest to Elinie. I must admit, he looked at me as if I was a magician,” Kort gave a burbling chuckle. “But there is no magic to it… just good eyes and a nose for opportunity.”
Bregeden opened his hands and turned his palms up to Avril in a gesture of offering. “My lord, a good fast ship of mine, the Ilsa Dorn, will be waiting at anchor off Laoghaire Point tomorrow. It would be my privilege to lend her sails to speed as honourable – and as wealthy – a nobleman as yourself to his destination.”
Avril nodded "There is no secret here, friend Bregeden, merely prudent caution, and I am well satisfied by your explanation, though your methods are astounding they do not seem unscrupulous. But I fear I am not so wealthy as you presume, and I would not be willing to make any speculative agreements, nor owe unstated debts. It would be neither proper, nor wise, given the nature of my journey. Unless your path also runs through Ruorven, I would know what you stand to gain by making such efforts to court a mere passenger."
The self-proclaimed merchant venturer looked a little surprised by Avril's reticence. “What is the saying, about looking gift horses in the mouth?” he mumbled to himself, then shook his head, making his fat cheeks wobble. “It is a wise man who refuses to barter with coin he does not have,” Kort sighed. “And yes, my lord, you have pierced my ruse: I had hoped a man who is to be duke, perhaps, would have deep pockets for those who helped him on his way.
“Indeed, Ruovan is my destination, but I would be pleased to have such a distinguished passenger aboard for…” he cast an appraising glance at Avril's belongings, and did some quick sums. His eyes goggled unappealing when he was deep in thought. “Twenty five pieces of gold each. And the same for your steeds. I think you'll find that is a fair price for a sea journey of two days – if the weather holds.”

OOC: 25gp a head is not so much 'fair' as 'extortionate' - he's charging at least five to ten times normal rates there. On the other hand, a two day journey across the Gulf is excellent time - sailing from Turin, you'd be looking at a five day trip under the very best of circumstances. I'm assuming that Avril can afford 100-125gp, but that it would almost totally clean him out - you might be picturing him as poorer than that, though, so he'd have to sell or barter something to make that price.

"In truth, good Bregeden, that is near all that I have to my name, and more than twice what I parted with to reach Binsada's shores, and with respect the price is an outrageous one. But I suspect you know that already, and my need is indeed great. And if you believe me to be the future duke, then you know that you could make a powerful enemy to betray me - especially after such generous payment. And with the promise of a mere two days delay I would be foolish not to accept your offer."
Avril hoped he had not caused offence, but he disliked the back and forth of barter, and was eager to be on his way. He reasoned that a man who is given all of your coin freely is unlikely to rob you after all. "Are we in agreement? One hundred pieces of gold for myself, my retainer, and my horses to Ruorven as quickly as the gods will allow?"
Kort Bregeden nodded amiably at all Avril's accusations. He seemed obscurely pleased to have his opportunistic scoundrelry recognised by such an exalted figure. At the warning of what would happen should he betray Avril, he chuckled and held up his hands. “I have seen you ride, and wield a sword and spear, my lord. I hold no illusion any man who wrongs you would live long enough to regret his actions.”
He took Avril's powerful hand with both his smaller, greasier, beringed ones and shook it. “It shall be as you say, my lord. If we ride well, we may make it to the fringes of the Harrowmarsh sometime after nightfall, and would thus have tomorrow to cross it and reach Laoghaire Point at our leisure.” He paused, giving Avril and Aedwyn a squinty look. “Ahah, perhaps I did not mention? Our destination lies on the Asarwe delta, yes, in the swamps of the Harrowmarsh. Not to worry, though… I know the safe paths through that benighted bog, and will see you safe aboard the Ilsa Dorn by tomorrow eve.”
The Brecht moved to the pavilion's flap and inclined his head to Avril. “I shall gather my companions and meet you at the western gate, my lord.”
Avril clenched his teeth and watched the man go. He screamed unscrupulous. He turned to Aedwyn "I think it is a mistake to trust that man, but I need to get home. I'll gladly give you what remains of my coin if you wish to travel to Zikala instead - queen Banira will see to an escort through her lands, I am sure. But if you choose to stay by my side, I will guarantee your safety holy brother."
He looked the Haelynite in the eyes, saw his resolve, then sighed "I suspect that I cannot dissuade you however, and will not attempt it again. In truth another pair of eyes to watch my back would be welcome. In either case, if we are to venture into the Harrowmarsh I shall need another sword. We will fetch one at the market, and then meet with this Bregeden."
Avril was right to expect Brother Aedwyn's refusal: “My place is by your side, my lord,” the monk said earnestly. “If what you say is true, then two pairs of eyes will better watch for any wrongdoing on his part than one.”
With that, they picked up their packs and retrieved their horses from the Embassy Compound stables; Aedwyn's pied rouncey, even tempered and staid; and Corvwyn, Avril's mighty chestnut Eliniean destrier, as big as a draught horse and as fierce as a dragon. Loading the animals up they headed for the east gate, to retrieve Avril's new horse as well.
There was quite a party waiting for them. Queen Banira sat atop a red-brown steed that looked the equal of Midnight in grace and speed, her horse-hide cloak flapping in the east wind, jewels in her hair and at her throat. With her were a dozen riders in purple silk cloaks fringed with deep blue and burnt orange, the colours of twilight; the Lions of Dusk, her personal guard. Though their arms and armour were lighter, in pride and skill they could stand up with the Crimson Dragons on any battlefield. Each bodyguard lead a rope of two spare horses, and more besides for the queen, Avril, Aedwyn, and the woman in a white burnoose that sat mounted near the queen, watching Avril through a thin gap between scarf and veil.
Banira lead Midnight by the reins as she trotted towards Avril, and passed them to him ceremoniously. “Hail, Avril Elinie,” she said regally. “This is my third gift to you: my company as you ride to Turin.”
Avril inclined his head in deference "Hail, majesty. While I have seldom been offered a finer gift than your company, my plans have somewhat changed. A Brecht named Bregeden has offered me a far faster, if more perilous, route to the west. And I have made arrangements to ride with him this day, to cross the Harrowmarsh, and with luck cross the Gulf of Coeranys within two days. I must admit I have little trust for the man, but his offer seems plausible, and I cannot overlook the importance of haste." He felt like a boy admitting to some misbehaviour.
A look of irritation bent Binara el-Reshid's fine brows like a stormhead – queens, as a rule, did not like to be roused from their beds for the changeable whims of others. But her frown turned into a more thoughtful one as Avril spoke. “Kort Bregeden? You see truly. The man is a serpent. And perhaps a many-headed one, at that. If you are to ride with him, you will need a good blade by your side. Lion! Arm this man!”
One of the Lions of Dusk spurred his horse forward and rode to Avril's side. He swiftly threw his cloak back and unhitched the curved scabbard from his belt. “My honour, Zahirmaine,” he said proudly, bowing in the saddle as he presented his sabre to the knight.
The queen also passed the reins for Midnight and another spare horse to Avril, and had a rope of two likewise given to Brother Aedwyn, who looked startled at having so many steeds to control. Bringing her own mount alongside Avril's destrier, she favoured the man with a smile. Speaking in a low, teasing and sultry tone, Binara said: “Are you sure you would ride off so soon to a realm that cast you out, my knight? A king-consort's crown would become you much better than a duke's coronet, I think. You would not find riding at my side, nor sharing my bed, unpleasant, I promise you.” As she spoke she reached across, coiling a lock of his hair absently around her finger.
Enjoying the warmth of her nearness, Avril smiled ruefully "My Queen, in truth there is little I would like better. But I cannot deny my duty - it is in my blood. And you could not accept, nor respect a husband who would turn his back upon his duty. You are worthy of better. Of a man who could devote himself wholly to you, in body, mind, and spirit. And while it pains me more than I can say to be deny the welcome of your bed, no man worthy of you could neglect those things he must do." he looked into her brilliant eyes "You must settle for the knowledge that as a husband I am a ruined man, for now all women must live up to your example in my eyes. I do not imagine in all Cerilia there are any who can best you."
Reaching down, he took Banira's hand in his leather gauntlet, and steering his stallion with practised ease with just his thighs, he kissed her hand "Farewell Banira the Beautiful. I cannot convey how valuable your council has likely proven this day. Your generosity and hospitality will be almost as impossible to forget as your smile. May we meet again soon."
Avril turned to his retainer "Brother Aedwyn, we must make haste before my will fails me and I stay. Come, we must find this Bregeden and ready ourselves against whatever treachery he may have in store, and for the perils of the Harrowmarsh." Turning to Banira one last time he bowed as deeply as his saddle would allow, bracing himself on his lance, which even now sported the symbol of the queen's messengers in place of a pennant, then without a word spurred Corvwyn to a trot.
The queen's eyes stared wide at Avril with indigo intensity, unblinking, for several moments after he spoke. As he began to draw his mount away she threw back her head and gave voice to a rich, throaty laugh at the morning sky, which was beginning to take on the scorched yellow hue of a midsummer's day on the Bair el-Tehara. “Farewell, Avril Elinie. One day, when the standard of Binsada flies from the eaves of the Docandragh to the foothills of Brechtur, and my riders cross the Iron Peaks and sweep through the lands beyond, you will find me at your gates… and then, you shall not refuse me. Hai!”
Apparently not wishing to squander the fact she was already ahorse and accompanied by her Lions, Binara broke forward into a gallop, her steed kicking up dust as it raced through the eastern gate of Ber Dairas. She rode out onto the plains, her men fanning out behind her, their cloaks swirling like a wave of twilight.
Aedwyn nodded at Avril's command, tearing his eyes away from the royal departure and awkwardly manhandling the reins and rope of horses. He fell in beside the knight, casting one last look through the great marketplace. “I had never thought to find a people so like ourselves in a land so far from home, my lord,” he mused. “I shall miss Binsada, I think… but I shall be glad to see Elinie even more.”
They had rode only a few score yards before a voice called out behind them; a woman's voice, clear, sweet and strong. “Ser Avril!” The white-burnoused rider that had accompanied the queen was trotting to catch up with them, and as she drew closer she untied her veil and scarf, letting them pool around her neck and shoulders. While Binara was handsome and undeniably striking, this Khinasi woman was beautiful by any standards. Closer to Aedwyn's age than Avril's, she had cinnamon coloured skin, fine, flawless features and a stormcloud of jet-black wavy hair, barely restrained by a few leather thongs. As she approached he could hear the clink of mail from beneath her plain white robe, see the scimitar-hilt at her side. All her gear was well-made but deliberately simple; the only ornamentation she wore was the golden sunrise medallion of Avani that hung against her modest but shapely chest.
As she uncovered her face Avril felt her blood call out; a piercing cry of Basaia's hawk. He had seen her before; she had competed in the trials of horsemanship that formed an integral part of the Binsadan celebrations before the Night of Fire, and acquitted herself well.
“Ser Avril,” she repeated as she drew closer. Pressing her hands together before her, she bowed in the saddle. Aedwyn watched her curiously; he seemed as impressed by the fact she had the righteous aura of those the gods have chosen as their sword-arms on Aebrynis as by her beauty. “My name is Kalilah bint Daouda. You are travelling west, to Anuire? I wish to join you.”
Avril inclined his head. "Then by all means my lady, you will join us. Gods know I have need of another sword arm on such a perilous crossing. But I haven't the coin for you, let alone these horses, aboard the Brecht's ship. We made a terrible bargain, but a bargain never the less. But I have no doubt something can be negotiated." He inclined his head forward and led the way, drawing the scimitar from its sheath and testing its weight. He looked down the curved blade, trying to gauge how it might be best employed. Then sheathing the weapon again he turned back to his lovely companion "Tell me, Lady Kalilah, if I may be so bold as to ask, why do you travel west? And why with me in such haste?"
The Lion's sabre was a fine, heavy backsword with a well-honed edge, and its metal had the wavy patterns of colour indicative of the best Khinasi steel. Its length was comparable to his own bastard sword, gifted to the Queen of Binsada, but its curve gave a better angle of striking against footmen from the saddle. All Avril felt he would have to remember is that its single edge meant a back-stroke would serve only to hook a foe's limb or weapon or deal him a minor bruise, rather than slashing through armour and flesh like the double-edged Anuirean blades he was used to. Still, it sat easily enough in his hand, and he was sure it would serve him well.
“Be at ease, I have coin enough to pay my own passage.” Kalilah bowed her head in thanks for the knight's welcome, but gave him a faintly bemused look at his subsequent question. “Any traveller would be wise to ask such of his or her companions; no boldness is required.” Still, she hesitated before answering. “Last dusk, as I farewelled the goddess from her celestial seat, I was struck with a vision.” The woman's gaze became unfocused as she recollected it, and she rode alongside the two westerners with an almost dreamy air as she spoke.
“I saw a red dragon, borne aloft on a brazen shield, like unto a Rjuven king of old. I saw him borne into the setting sun, across mountains like teeth of iron, into a land where a two-headed eagle perched atop a ruined castle amidst a field of torn banners. And I knew that this dragon would lead me to where the storm-crow flies.”
"It seems visions and dreams are most fashionable at the moment," Brother Aedwyn said to himself. "I wonder if I shall have one next? I wonder if they hurt. They probably feel like a migraine," he mused gloomily.
The paladin stirred herself from the faintly rapturous memory, and smiled. “It is not often the goddess favours one with so clear a vision, so I thought it wisest to heed her guidance.” She looked across at Avril and Aedwyn curiously. “Do you know of her? The one whom I seek? The storm-crow? They say she is a powerful, but wicked mage, who spreads only chaos and woe where she walks. She is called a wizard – the Wizard,” and here Kalilah's face was lined with fury, though no less beautiful for it. “As if she alone could claim the title of the most honourable of professions. She is an affront to the Lady of Reason, and it is my oath to lay her low.”
Avril cast Aedwyn a quick glance, noting the young priest's sulking wryly, before turning back to Kalilah "Do I know her?" Avril grinned lopsidedly "I think you will find the village of Anuire to be somewhat larger than you imagine, I only know most of my neighbours," he teased. "But in truth, no, our paths have not crossed, but I have heard her name. Some rumour links her to the mage of the Five Peaks, and she appears seldom, but usually she brings calamity with her. Still, the folk of Anuire do not share the disciplined approach to magic with the Khinasi, and many consider her service a boon, regardless of the cost. You may not find so many allies in such a quest as you would here." He scanned the path ahead for sign of the giant merchant.
“Yes, I have heard that the mages of Anuire do not cleave to the Five Oaths,” Kalilah said, disapprovingly. “But at least they use the gift of magic for wisdom and war, noble purposes, rather than selling it in the market as one would a bolt of cloth or a trinket, as do the heathen Brecht. Speaking of whom…” she added under her breath as they approached the western gate.
Kort Bregeden looked more oversized and ungainly than usual on the small, stout horse he rode, waiting placidly for them. A half-dozen men accompanied him, lanky Khinasi with their heads and faces wrapped in black scarves against the sun and dust of the plains, but wearing sleeveless robes, open jerkins or forgoing shirts entirely, their backs and arms scorched ruddy brown from this habit. Each of the men rode a horse heavily burdened with saddlebags, packs and bundles of clinking goods strapped to it.
The merchant shrugged indifferently when Avril mentioned their additional companion, seeming unconcerned. “If they pay their way, bring a whole tribe with you, my lord.” He wheeled his horse's nose out towards the sprawling, golden-grassed flats of Binsada, then looked back over his shoulder. “Shall we depart?”

OOC: Any conversations you want to have or actions you want to take en route, let me know. Otherwise, the next act will pick up as you reach the borders of the swamp.
I think Avril's probably going to want to know what he's riding into, but it would probably be more cinematic if that was done after the location change. He'll want logistical facts, what he can expect to face in the Harrowmarsh, how they're getting to the ship, and be reassured that they can get through the marsh in good time. At the moment I'm reading it as stopping at the border, and pushing to the boat through the day, which seems dubious in swampy terrain.

Act II

32nd day of Roelir, 551 Michaeline Reckoning. High Summer.
In which travellers arrive at the cusp of the Harrowmarsh; prayers are said to the gods of honour and wisdom; and untimely arrivals from the west bring dire news.
Kort Bregeden pushed them hard throughout the day, until dust plumes rose in their tracks like pale brown tails. He clearly knew the Binsadan plains as well as a native, though, as he was able to guide them along almost invisible tracks and dry river beds to save time. The poor, overloaded beasts he and his men rode got the worst of it, as Avril, Aedwyn and Kalilah had spare mounts they could change to to give their main steeds a rest, whereas Bregeden's horses were only changed around noon, when they reached a small outpost for resupply. Midnight turned out to be a royal gift indeed; though the courser sniffed at his weight, it ran swiftly and long, with a gait as smooth as oil.
The outpost was little more than the stump of a tree with a platform built atop it for a commanding view of the plains, with a palisade wall and horse-hide awnings beneath which sat crates, barrels and sacks of all manner of goods. The Brecht dismounted as they reached the depot and spoke briefly with the veiled and dun-robed men who sat vigil over it; clearly more of his 'associates'. As soon as his shaking, froth-flanked horses were stripped of their burden and the cargo transferred to fresh horses, they were off again. Kalilah eyed the men distastefully, her hand brushing her thigh near the hilt of her scimitar, and Avril heard her mutter something about 'smugglers'.
With a crisp breeze in their hair and under the watchful eye of the scorching sun, they rode on, becoming plastered with dust and grass seeds. Bregeden was poor company at the best of times, it seemed, but the heat disagreed with his northern constitution, and the hard pace jostled his gangly frame, making him especially terse when Avril tried to draw information out of him. “There are ways,” he snapped shortly at one point, sucking from his water skin after the duke-apparent questioned him about their route through the Harrowmarsh. “Ways only known to me, my lord. I will get you through the damn swamp tomorrow, as I said. You have my word.”
Some hours after nightfall, they finally came within sight of the Harrowmarsh. In some ways, it reminded Avril of Hope's Demise… but the Harrowmarsh stretched north and south as far as they eye could see, and where Hope's Demise was a chill and misty moorland, the Hydra's abode was warmed by the currents of the Sea of the Golden Sun, and was teeming and foetid. Mushrooms as tall as a man swelled between stagnant pools of water home to oversized mosquitoes, rot-hearted trees loomed at odd angles from the marshy ground, and everything seemed covered in a network of choking creeper vines.
Bregeden seemed relieved to have completed their journey for the day, and swept his arm across the whole rank vista. “Behold, the Harrowmarsh. Nowhere else on Cerilia will you find such a sunken pit of brigands, disease, and awnshegh-spawn!”
Avril eyed the steaming marsh before him. He was filled with a feeling of foreboding, but it Bregeden and not the land that worried him. He would, after all, be putting his life in the hands of a man he already mistrusted, and the golden-haired knight was merely waiting for the trap to snap shut upon him, and hoping he could fight his way out of it.
Kalilah could clearly take care of herself, though Avril felt bound to protect any lady (whether she needed his protection or not) but he feared for Aedwyn - the youth was neither a warrior nor an outdoorsman. Still, on the other side of that stinking swamp, under that thin band of cloud on the far horizon, lay his home. And he could not let his misgivings mar his duty. Since the day of his birth Avril Elinie had never known what fear was - one of many supernatural legacies the dead god Anduiras had left his family - but wisdom and caution were different matters. And his gut told him he should watch his back - in case the Harrowmarsh's brigands and his guides turned out to be one and the same.
Dismounting with the grace of a man whose cradle and hearth were the saddle, Avril began unbuckling the harnesses around Midnight's lean flanks and belly, careful to appear calm and perfunctory. "Tell me, Master Bregeden, what is the worst we should make ready for upon the morn? I wish to be sure that my party are prepared for the dangers of this land you know so well, and I do not."
Spattered with sweat, dust and horsefly bites, the young confessor caught up with the rest of the troupe. Brother Aedwyn swayed in the saddle, looking fatigued but relieved. “An ill-favoured place,” he said, looking across the twisted fens that sprawled ahead of them, to the west and in tomorrow. “But I think I would gladly make camp even on the doorstep of the Gorgon's Crown rather than stay in this saddle any longer.” Aedwyn dropped from his mount with the whimper of a man whose haunches hadn't yet been turned to leather by long riding practise. Kalilah glanced at him with a faint smile, then looked up at Avril and glanced away before slipping from the saddle herself with ease. Her horse was a fine white mare, as proud and strong as any stallion, but there was something uncanny about it; it was said that paladins often rode steeds blessed by the gods, and the way that the starlight caught Kalilah's horse's mane like a silver flame made it easy to believe.
Bregeden's riders dismounted as well, stretching, cursing, complaining and gossiping in rough Khinasi tongues lightly spiced with crude Brecht terms. They tended to themselves first, gathering wood for a fire to brew a pot of tea, wandering over to the edge of a stagnant pool to relieve themselves and wiping the trail-dust from their skins, rather than caring for their overloaded, trembling horses. The merchant himself dropped heavily from the saddle and unplugged a wineskin, rising his mouth with sour red and wiping his wide lips on the back of his hand before replying to Avril.
“The worst, good my lord?” he snorted bleakly. “The worst is old Eight-Jaws himself. Bigger than a keelboat, with eyes that look every which way, and they say he's killed as many scions as the Gorgon. I saw him once,” Bregeden scowled. “Once was enough. Thank the gods he sleeps as much as eleven months out of the twelve in Waterfjord Tower, a ways up north, so the chance of us running across him. His brood on the other hand… wretched, deformed things made of the meals he half-eats and regurgitates, tainted with his blood. Things with too many legs, or not enough… but always plenty of teeth. It's the caracdir that are most likely to give us trouble, though. Hydrakin that breed true, lizards that walk like a man and positively drip with poison.”
The Brecht gave a hollow laugh, and gazed appraisingly at Avril. “Starting to regret coming this way, my lord?”
Avril gazed out toward that single, long strip of cloud - the rain off the Gulf of Coeranys that fed the eastern swamplands of Anuire, unblinking. His twin-hued eyes narrowed to see in the wan, silvery light of night. He knew his home by the skies above it, let alone the land.
"Not if it leads me home good merchant. Not if it leads home."
He turned that gaze upon Bregeden "Just remember, to reach Elinie I would gladly sever all eight of the Hydra's heads from its body-" he kept this tone low, even, calm "-and should you have thoughts of skewed dealings with me, good Bregeden, you have but one - a mere portion of the work."

OOC: Any preparations/actions/conversations you wish to have before hitting the hay? For example, do you want to organise a watch with your more trusted companions, independent of what Bregeden may plan?
I don't know that he has much to gain from just robbing us - he's got most of Avril's gold after all. If the hammer falls it'll be in the swamp, or on the boat. However Avril is a wizard, and on pain of not using him as one, would some kind of magical alarm be out of the question?
Nope, perfectly reasonable. Decide how many dice you want to the Alarm effect to be (it'll roll them against theft/assassination attempts), then roll your College Mage 2D against that number of dice x 3. E.g., if you want to create Alarm 3D, the difficulty will be 9. You can choose to add a Hero Die (of which you presently have 2) to this roll, or any roll for that matter, but this might be a rather trivial thing to do so.
Okay, let's make it 2D, and he'll keep it on the d-lo. Though with a roll dead on 6 things seem like they didn't go great. And 2D from Reaction to keep it stealthy, with an 8.

Avril went about setting up camp, brushing down the horses, and laying out a modest bedroll under the stars with every semblance of normalcy, but when he felt he was unobserved he reached a subtle hand into a pouch concealed behind his scabbard, and with the pretence of examining the camp he circled the bedrolls of his companions, and his own muttering under his breath in the rudimentary Draconic the tutors at the Royal College used. As he passed he allowed his cloak to drag in the chalk line, blending it into the dusty earth.
Glancing back critically, the would-be Duke furrowed his noble brow. Not a neat job, but it would have to do. The spell would hold, at least 'til dawn, and once he was asleep he would know if any living thing crossed it, no matter how crudely ensorcelled. It made little sense that Bregeden planned treachery - not yet at least - but caution was its own reward.
Bregeden's men kept camp discipline that would have shamed common soldiers, let alone the woodsman-knight Guardians Avril had trained with – but perhaps that was to be expected, as they were ruffians and smugglers, not warriors. The men on watch drank and sang and grumbled all night, and with each change-over there was much muttering and cursing. They would have given away their position and exposed themselves to ambush a dozen times over, he thought grimly once or twice when their raucousness roused him.
The night air was thick with thirsty insects, but through some fortunate sympathetic magic the ward Avril had etched into the dirt kept them at bay, so he, Aedwyn and Kalilah enjoyed a relatively unbitten night. When he woke near dawn, the sigils had died down to a faint glimmer in his arcane senses, much as the campfire had burned to embers. The Khinasi paladin had arisen before the sun, and knelt in supplication and meditation as its apricot-yellow rays lit the eastern sky of the plains. Like all of them, Kalilah had a travel-worn roughness to her hair and garb, but one that failed to diminish her beauty – something the few of Bregeden's men who weren't sleeping off their drink didn't seem to have failed to notice. Brother Aedwyn arose a little later, when the sun had mounted the battlements of the heavens to utter a few prayers and oaths to Haelyn.
“Good morning, your grace,” he said, stifling a yawn with his fist. “Will you join me for the morning veneration? Tonight is the Night of Fire… omens abound, it is said. Hopefully we will be aboard, uh, Master Bregeden's ship by dark. To see the falling stars on the open seas would be quite a sight, I imagine.”
Behind him, the Brecht merchant stalked amongst his snoring men, waking them up with snarls and the none-to-gentle caress of his boot.
Avril smiled warmly at the young cleric "Of course." The knight knelt, facing Ansien (or as near as he could approximate) and carefully lifted the symbols of Haelyn and Avani from the velvet pouch he wore around his neck, and taking one in each palm. The Elinie's had long ago cleaved to both faiths of that land, so as not to show favour to one, and Avril had kept that tradition alive, even though the shadow of a secret third faith had haunted his line. And closing his eyes, he lowered his chin to his chest.
Father Haelyn, god of pride and nobility, emperor of emperors, I beseech you. Mother Avanalae, bringer of light, font of wisdom, mistress of forbearance, I beseech you. Watch over my journey this day, as I return to my home. And protect my companions from treachery and the dangers of the marsh. Guide me swiftly to my home.
Avril prayed for a few more moments, his mind upon his faith. Then, his meditations complete he turned to Aedwyn for benediction, and turned to Kalilah "Would you offer me Avani's blessing lady?"
Brother Aedwyn dipped his thumb into a nearly-dry pottle of holy oil he had carried for months, and drew a jagged line across his liege's brow, evocative of the radiance of the Crown of Glory in the heavens. Rising from her kneeling stance, Kalilah shook the mud from her white robes, her maille ringing faintly. She cocked her head at Avril's request, looking surprised and intrigued. "Do the men of Elinie not follow the God of Kings, as do most Anuireans?" she asked, glancing at Aedwyn.
The young priest nodded and cleared his throat, thumbing his sword and sunburst symbol. "In Elinie both Haelyn and Avanalae - as we know her - are widely venerated, my lady. The dukes, in particular, have always sought the wisdom of the Lord of Justice and the Lady of Reason. Ansien is called the City Where the Sun Rose, bringing Her light to Anuire. You will find many of your brothers and sisters in faith there who are sympathetic to your quest, I think."
Kalilah looked pleased at this, and bowed her head to Avril in assent. "I am no preacher, but it would be my honour to share such blessings as I have." The beautiful young woman approached, and placed her palm on Avril's head. Her pleasant voice lowered, and she offered a simple paladin's prayer in Basarji.
"The road is crooked; the rays of the sun are straight. The night is dark and fearful; the day is bright and full of wonders. The minds of men are clouded with mischief; Avani's light makes all things clear."
Her touch left a warm sensation, almost like sunburn for a moment as she withdrew her hand. On the other side of the camp, having roused his men, Bregeden scowled as he loaded up his horse's packs. "No time for piety! I'll pray to Kirche to spare us his storms, Nasri to keep up from her bosom, even Kriestal for fair weather… once we're aboard the Ilsa Dorn!" Both Aedwyn and Kalilah looked offended at such profane words, but moved to resume packing. As Avril set about preparing Corvwyn and Midnight, the woman placed her hand on his wrist and stepped close.
"Ser Avril," she said quietly. "When I knelt in prayer, looking east across the Bair el-Tehara, with Basaia-blessed eyes I beheld two riding hard on our trail." She indicated the direction with a nod of her head. "Their dust will be within anyone's eyesight soon. Are they known to you? Or perhaps to… him?" she cast a glance at Bregeden's back.
Expecting no pursuit, Avril felt bold. He turned and peered back, shielding his eyes against the ascending sun, but the brightness was too much. "I expect no pursuit lady, but if our host planned treachery I think he would not be so foolish as to strike on this side of the marsh, where we could easily fly, and anyone might chance upon him." Avril pondered for a moment "Perhaps we should alert our guide - I am certain he has both friends and enemies in this land, but so far as I can tell his dealing with me have been honest thus far, and so I shall afford him the same courtesy."
Avril turned to the misshapen Brecht "Master Bregeden-" he called, careful to sound casual, but still demanding attention "-I would have a word." He waited until the merchant stamped close "We appear to be followed, with some urgency, by a pair of riders. I am a stranger in this land, so I have little reason to think they seek me, but there are but two men, so there is also little cause to think them foes to such a large party. Would you receive them?"
The merchant craned his neck, peering around the half-arc of the horizon that wasn't encrusted with dank, dying trees and gently steaming bogs. "Eh? Two riders? I see nothing. Asmail, climb up and look!"
The wiry man in question grumbled, but hauled himself swiftly up the bare branches of a daoda tree. Peering out onto the plains, he called down. "I see two tails of dust! A great horse, and a mule, lightly laden!"
Bregeden chewed on his protruding lower lip. "If it were one, I would say it may be a Flame Arrow… but two, and one on a mule? Feh. Let us wait for them, then, my lord. Men! Arm yourselves!"
The ruffians strung their bows, strapped their knives on and drew spears from their saddles, keeping them casually close at hand as the two riders drew close. Soon they were near enough that Avril could pick out the fluttering purple, blue and orange cloak of a Lion of Dusk on the lead rider. The first man, tall and well-built, road a Khinasi rouncey, and was dressed in the loose robes and scarf of a Binsadan rider, though Avril could see the weight of maille beneath. As they reached the party, it was also clear that his eyes were bright blue, and the skin around them tanned rather than dark by nature; he was Anuirean. The second rider, atop a braying mule, was a barrel-chested brute with the red sash of a soldier of Aftane stretched across him, albeit faded and tattered. He had a fearsome double-staved dwarven crossbow slung across his back, and squinted at Bregeden's men with the air of a man calculating how many murders he'd have to commit today.
The lead rider dropped from his lathered horse with a gasp, falling to his knees. Avril felt the call of blood to blood, the faint growl of a lesser lion submitting to a stronger pride-master. "My lord," he rasped, reaching up to pull off his scarf. Avril beheld a familiar face, but one he had not seen in many years - Parniel Terem, knight-errant of the Order of the Tower. "Thank Avani we found you!"
Avril strode towards the man "Hold your men Bregeden, this rider is known to me." he boomed. Then grabbing the sun-touched knight under the arm he hauled him to his feet, and caught the dusty warrior in a rough embrace, glad simply to see someone from his home in such uncertain times. "It is good to see you my lord Terem, well met! But in Avanalae's name, what has caused you to ride so hard on my trail, and what quest has brought a true son of the Tower to these eastern lands?"
Ser Parniel hugged Avril back, a powerful embrace that reeked of oiled steel, leather, horeflesh and sweat. “Not Lord Terem yet, I hope. Unless something has happened to my father,” the knight replied, and there was a streak of tense anxiety in his voice that made it seem like he considered this a possibility. Parniel was a good few years younger than Avril, but the sun-browning of his face and the crow's feet at his eyes from squinting over the plains made them look close enough to of age with each other. He stepped back and turned his gaze north, west and south, looking away from the Hydra's swamp that marked the edge of Khinasi territory with a fond, wistful gaze. “In truth, I would take any quest that brought me back to these lands.”
He looked back at Avril and his expression sobered. “Khalil and I have rode like the Cold Rider was at our heels for a week, my lord.” The Khinasi man had dismounted, and gave a short bow upon hearing his name, before resuming watering and brushing their mounts. Ser Parniel glanced at Aedwyn, Kalilah, and the Brecht merchant hovering just far enough away to seem like he was not eavesdropping, and lowered his voice. “As much as it shames me to say it, ser, there is a plot against your father, the duke. His own lords marshal – his personal Crimson Dragon bodyguards, no less – are planning to strike against him! ”
Avril recalled the vision that had struck him awake the previous day in Ber Dairas the previous morning, and the metaphysical sensation of inheritance. Ser Parniel had ridden swiftly… but perhaps not swiftly enough for his news to be fresh.
Avril's eerie, dual-hued gaze fell to the dusty earth, and he shook his head "Nay ser knight, not plotting, Duraend Elinie is dead. I felt it in my veins two cold desert nights ago, and now I am certain of it. As you find me, I am making haste to cross the marsh, and return by ship to Coeranys to seek news. But now you have come, tell me, what of Nmy brothers? Aeric is heir now I am exiled, by my father's own decree. Do you believe they yet live? Or must I wrest my home from insurgents?"
Ser Parniel looked stricken, his eyes widening and he swayed where he stood. "Then we were too slow," he murmured. "We tarried too long striving with the fhoimorien of the Iron Peaks. Forgive me, my lord… not only am I the bearer of ill tidings, but tidings to old as to be of no worth."
He shook himself, and ran a hand through his longish russet hair, tangled and filthy from the long road. "I know not what has befell Aeric and Ansen, my lord. But if the… the insurrectionists," he picked his word carefully, choosing a path between traitors and liberators, "were ruthless enough to slay a duke… they may well have slain his heirs, too."
With a heavy sigh Avril nodded. When the land called him, an exile, he had suspected. So in one foul night every member of his family was slain. Would he have shared the same fate? There must be great danger in his home now, but Elinie was his by birth, and more, he belonged to Elinie. When it called him he could not conceive of refusal.
"I fear, Ser Parniel, that I return home to a perilous land." he said softly, his voice thick with quiet grief. Aeric and Ansen had been but boys when last he laid eyes upon them, and though they were surely men now, they were his brothers, and it broke Avril's heart to imagine them dead at the hands of treachery. Respect may have replaced love in his heart for his father, but Aeric and Ansen were just spoilt children.
And now he was alone.
And Elinie called him.
Swallowing his sorrow like a stone, Avril stood tall again "Master Bregeden! Let us not tarry here any longer. Ser Parniel, if you will join us I would be glad to have the company of you and your man, but if you have business in the east I would not waylay you further. In any case I fear I must make haste."


Haelyn's Festival, 551 Michaeline Reckoning. Summer Solstice.
Without further delay, the increased party entered the malarial hell of the Harrowmarsh.
Though the morning was still cool, the swamp seemed to be markedly warmer than the surrounding plains - like a feotid compost heap, it generated its own warmth. Avril soon found sweat forming beneath his field plate, soaking the quilted padding uncomfortably. The marsh was a place blooming with life, but unlike the stately beauty of the Erebannien or the haunted mysteries of the Sielwode, it was an ugly, malformed life. Fungus grew pale and bloated on every branch and trunk like sores on a leper's limbs. Crimson and violet and mustard-yellow flowers smelled of rotting meat and dripped poisoned nectar. Giant mosquitoes and ticks the size of Avril's splayed hand flew and crawled in search of blood, human or horse alike, only to be preyed on by dragonflies as big as his arm and spiders that were even larger.
The land itself was treacherous. Mist that stank of decay and stagnant water drifted in murky veils that defied the growing heat of the sun. The ground rose into low hillocks and fell into shallow boggy pools and creeks at random. Gnarled, dead trees twisted across the old smuggler's track Bregeden lead them along, plucking at cloaks and cheeks. Sumps and pits hid amongst the bogs, just waiting to suck at the hooves of a horse, and several times they had to pause while an animal was calmed and freed from a sinkhole - only Kalilah's white mare seemed immune to such traps.
Though the going was slow, it was tiring, and there was little time for talk or even thought as they negotiated the sodden lands. Ser Parniel found a little time to speak to the paladin, purporting himself with a blend of Elinien knightly courtesy and great sayim as he asked of her quest, her family and the faith they shared. His squire Khalil, meanwhile, chewed on a wad of tobacco and watched the smuggler's band unblinkingly, alert for ill-dealings against himself or his master. Brother Aedwyn looked miserable and sickly as they went, but voiced no complaint. Bregeden himself sweated more even than those in armour, and often dropped from his saddle to study the path ahead, muttering and cursing and looking for some secret smuggler's trail sign or another.
When peril did come, it was not from a betrayal - but suddenly and from both sides at once.
From the top of a high ridge to the left came a high, sibilant ululation, followed half a heartbeat later by a matching cry from the high ground on the right. A hail of crooked wooden javelins, tipped with jagged animal fangs and coated with some evil substance rose from both sides, and rained down on the travellers between.
Kalilah's keen eyes gave her time to twist out of the way with a fierce cry, and Khalil threw himself down on the neck of his horse with a bandit's instincts. "My brother!" he called as Ser Parniel was not so swift, and one of the javelins pierced his mail and his thigh, earning a snarl of pain from the errant knight. Aedwyn sat dumbfounded atop his steed, and caught a graze across the brow - a shallow wound, but one that immediately began to blacken in an unwholesome way. One of the smugglers was even less fortunate, and his horse took a shaft in the throat. It began thrashing, foaming at the mouth and screaming, and fell hard - crushing the man beneath its dying body and the weight of its overladen pack.
Gaunt, man-sized shapes began to crawl over the ridges, moving low amidst the bracken to avoid being silhouetted against the yellow sky.

OOC: You've been attacked by two volleys of javelins, each a rank 9 attack - pick and roll two defences against them. Remember that you can only use a given trait to attack or defend or otherwise act with once per turn (unless it has Multi-Use, like armour, in which case you can use it multiple times, but each subsequent time it is used in a single round is at a cumulative -1D). If you roll 9+, you avoid the attack; if you roll 8 or less, you lose 1D from a Resistance of your choice; if you roll less than half (4 or less), you take 2D of damage; if you roll less than a third (3 or less) you take 3D, etc. You can narrate the success or failure of your defense and the effects of any damage you take as you see fit, depending on the Resistance you choose; one of my favourite parts of the system. Although in this case, because the javelins are poisoned, the first D you lose from each attack, if any, must be taken to Fortitude.
After that, roll initiative - Reaction is customary, but anything else you can justify, go for it. This doesn't count as one of you limited rolls per turn with that trait, incidentally. If you score higher than the ambushers, you can also declare and roll an action.
Initiative Order: Avril (19), Kort (17), Kalilah (12), Parniel (11), Ambushers Left Flank (9), Ambushers Right Flank (9), Khalil (7), Smugglers (5), Aedwyn (1).
OOC: Burnished Rampart 4D, 1D Hardened = 16, Fortitude 3D = 10. Initiative with Battlewise 4D = 19.

With a roar Avril raised his shining shield, smashing one javelin to splinters on the rampart's flawless surface, thanking Haelyn and Avani both that it was too cumbersome to hang from the saddle as he would with a more traditional shield. The other struck him across his thick breastplate as he turned in the saddle, making him grunt but doing little else.
Snatching the heavy lance from his saddle, eyes blazing, Avril dropped the reigns. Corvwyn knew what loose reigns meant, and the big white destrier's sides tensed as his master turned him with feet and thighs. The Duke raised his voice, in tones that held not a hint of fright, and were not to be disobeyed "Hold your ground, circle the injured, I'll not have any man charging off and getting himself surrounded. Show steel and ready yourselves!" Then with a sharp kick to his mount's flank he thundered forward the way they were heading, meaning to both draw any further javelins, and come around, forcing the advancing left flank to turn and face his charge.

OOC: Heightened Charisma Leader 5D = 23, Guardian of Mhoried 2D = 8 to ride around them, and if it comes up before they next act Crimson Dragon Jousting 5D = 22 to try to shish-kebab a couple of them.

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