While relaxing after his latest adventures, Svenson Svendohlson, the thick-skulled, wrote a letter back to his home country, Vinland. Or, to be more specific, he wrote his aunt, his only living relative. To be more specific still, he wrote a bragging letter of his exploits on the isle of Volcanis, flamboyantly embellishing his deeds, and urging her to spread word of his daring feats.
Apparently, the old woman succeeded beyond his wildest expectations: he got a letter from his royal majestic graciousness, King Bewuld the Fourth, Supreme ruler of Vinland, grand duke of Westsea Isle, overlord of Iota, et cetera, who stated that he had heard of Svenson's deeds. He further stated that he had an adventure, if Svenson was willing. Svenson could bring some companions and adventurers if he wished. If successful on their mission, Svenson and his friends would be richly rewarded.
Svenson was thrilled. He made arrangements to leave on the next ship for Vinland. "You can all come too," he told his companions. Golian, the wide-eyed priest of Poseidon, Masabeus, the mellow druid; Hroff, the tremendously ugly and repulsive sorcerer; Lady Nyri, the great warrior; and John Westwater of the Isle of Jade, a magician; all of them decided to come, especially when Svenson expostulated at great lengths about rich rewards.
On their long journey, they met Yaraine, a thief, and Ebony Saint Martin,a mysterious fighter, robed head to toe in black, so that none of his skin showed; both of whom entertained notions of someday becoming famous bards. They also met Sardan Nachet, the Cat Protector, a Fighter, and worshipper of the goddess Bast; Menini Alberon a beautiful elven sorceress, Dirf Clearspring, an elven fighter; and Nemithrill, a monk. Svenson invited them all to join ("The more, the merrier!").
Some time after they arrived in Vinland's capital city, Svigenfest, they were approached by a gnome, Chryselum, who had a document written by their old friend Guakussi. It was his will, distributing his possessions to those who know him. Chryselum also gave them a large crate, containing said possessions. Apparently, the gnome had come to see them just after they left, and had to follow them to Vinland.
Eventually, they gained an audience with the King, who was rather surprised to see a dozen of them. He had not expected Svenson to be so enthusiastic about bringing associates. King Bewuld described Svenson's mission.
Many years ago, during the reign of Bewuld III, Olav Samywahd, the adventurer Duke, was assigned the task of extending Vinland's northern borders into the mysterious cold lands of fjords and tundra. Samywahd, who had journeyed far and wide across many legendary realms, and acquired many wondrous and powerful treasures, organized an expedition of veteran adventurers and hardy explorers, and sailed north.
The Duke sent back news that he had located a series of deserted subterranean caverns and dwarven mines which he intended to convert into a base of operations. Engineers, masons, and workers journeyed up north to build an underground complex under Samywahd's supervision. The King was kept informed of progress through the Duke's regular reports.
After a period in which the reports mysteriously stopped arriving, Samywahd sent a message stating that he had crowned himself King of the Northern Realms. Bewuld III sent a party of loyal knights to deal with him, but they never returned. All communications from the North ceased, and Samywahd was never heard from again.
The King looked at Svenson and company. "We want you to journey north, and find out what the situation is up there. What has become of the Mad Duke, and is there any threat from the North?"
"Since there seem to be more than enough of you for this mission, I will be sending same of you on a separate task, that of investigating our neighboring country to the east." The adventurers whispered and mumbled amongst themselves.
"Svenson," continued the King, ignoring the murmuring, "will be in charge of the Northern Expedition. He will, therefore, be invested with the powers and responsibilities of a Knight of the Realm of Vinland. Svenson Svendohlson, come forth." Svenson came forward, and kneeled before the King, who brought out an ornate sword, and dubbed him Sir Svenson, Knight of the Realm.
"Until you are ready to depart, we will assign you quarters in the lower levels of the Palace. Svenson will choose the members of his expedition, and we will assign the others to the Eastern Expedition."
Sir Svenson Svendohlson chose for his mission those he had worked with before (Golian, Nyri, Hroff, John Westwater, and Masabeus), and two new people, Dirf and Nemithrill. When they were finally ready to leave, they set sail on a merchant ship commanded by a captain named Olaf. The ship eventually docked in the city of Port, on the Isle of Westsea (or rather on the southern of the two islands known collectively as the Isle of Westsea).
It was here, I think, that Cload W. Shwepsonburg, a Magic User with a fondness for teeth, joined their party. It was here, at any rate, that Cload and one of the other adventurers helped a spirit obtain peace by completing its mission of revenge against he man who killed it. As a reward, the ghost gave Cload a bag of magical pellets which could become balls of scorching fire.
As the Ship continued its journey, Cload, trying to determine how the pellets worked, accidentally ignited one upon his person, nearly killing himself, and setting fire to a small part of the ship.
They docked next at North Plöttsburg, Svenson's hometown. Things had changed considerably, however, since the last time he was there. A power-hungry magician had found a way of mass-producing many Magic Missile Wands at relatively low cost, and had taken over the city. His troops patrolled the town armed with the weapons, metal rods which shot forth beams of light capable of injuring or killing people.
Svenson's party, in attempting to deal with this, accidentally caused the troops to attack the ship, damaging it further. Olaf told them he could not possibly set sail until the damage was repaired, probably not for another month. But Svenson was in a hurry; not only to continue his mission, but to got out of town before he was shot up with Magic Missiles. They managed to find another captain willing to take them north, a burly man weathered like driftwood, and named R. P. Seadog. It seems someone else had been bothering R. P. to take him north, a sorcerer named Bart, who was seeking a certain magical treasure up there.
They signed up Captain Seadog to transport them the rest of the way, and Svenson sent a message to the King describing the situation in the city, giving it to the captain of a ship headed back south.
A few days later, the ship was overtaken by a pirate craft, with a device of evil eyes over crossed swords displayed upon its sail. There was a fierce battle, but they vanquished the pirates, and set their ship aflame, Cload's Fireballs coming in particularly handy. Golian saw one of the pirates escaping in one of the lifeboats, an arrogant-looking black haired man dressed in red and black. Golian recognized him; he was a man who had tried to run over him in a small sailboat while he was swimming in the Ocean and praying to Poseidon, back at the capital city. He tried to point the man out to the others, but though they looked, they did not see him. Golian prayed for divine wrath to smite the man.
At long last, they reached the unknown Northern Lands, and sailed along the short looking for likely places to search for Samywahd's fortress. Eventually, they came across the mouth of a small river, running down through a valley of pint trees. "This looks right," said John, "The records spoke of such a place."
"This is where I get off, as well," announced Bart, holding a strange divining rod which pointed out towards the shore, The ship came in as close as it could, and dropped anchor. "You wait here for us, as long as it takes for us to get back," Svenson told Seadog.
"Absolutely not!" protested the Captain. "I won't sit here starving to death, in an icy wind, waiting for months and months, for a bunch of landlubbers who might or might not come back!"
Svenson rushed at the Captain, intending to shake reason into him, or perhaps hold him over the ocean until he changed his mind. The old Seadog, however, neatly ducked, and popped up as Svenson was upon him, deftly flipping the massive fighter up in the air to land in a heap upon the deck. The Captain chortled gleefully.
"Well," said Nyri, addressing Seadog sternly, "You should at least wait here for a few days, in case we have the wrong place."
R. P. Seadog sighed uffishly. "Oh, very well. I will wait for a couple of days, at which time, I will head back, with or without you."
"It doesn't matter," said Bart, irritably, "I can got back by myself."
Svenson got up, rubbing his head, and glaring at the Captain. He figured that since he was strong enough to beat anyone in any fair fight, the fellow must have cheated.
Two crewmen rowed a boat to shore, letting off Svenson's party, Bart, and his henchman, Treygon Samilson, a fighter. The boat rowed back to the ship, and the adventurers readjusted to walking on terra firma (not to mention terra incognita). Several more boatloads brought the party's horses and other animals (those that had survived the journey).
"Well, well, let's go, hmm?" said Bart, after a while, and they set off, following the river valley.
By and by, Bart got a tug on his rod, and led them off into a side valley. Here they found what Bart was looking for, a set of magical dimension doors; if you went through one door, you would emerge from the other, no matter how great the distance between. Cload and John imagined all the architectural and transportational possibilities of such marvels, while Hroff pictured the crimes he could commit with portals the likes of those.
After surveying the area, Svenson determined that there was nothing else of interest, and resolved to go on. "We're heading on up the valley, to find the great fortress and underground dungeons of Samywahd. Do you guys want to come?"
Treygon seemed interested, but Bart said "No, no, you go ahead. I gave up dungeons a long time ago."
They continued up the rocky river valley, arriving at the end of the day at a deserted watchtower. They could see one or two other watchtowers in the distance, so they figured they must be at the right place. They set up camp for the night.
The next morning, they tied their horses and mules by the watchtower, and started exploring. At the and of a large cave, they found a passage leading into the hillside. Affixed to the wall of the passage was a hideous mask. "You have now entered the Fortress of Nachasti!!" bellowed the face, "Speak the password or be doomed to certain death!!"
"Password, eh?" said Svenson, "Let's try ... Nachasti?" The Mask said nothing.
"Samywahd?" enquired Nyri. There was still no response.
"King of the Northern Realms!" said John Westwater, but the mask remained silent.
"Oh, well," said Svenson, "let's go in."
"But," protested Nyri, "We haven't given it the password."
"True," agreed Cload, "but we could talk to it for years, and still not come up with the right answer."
They lit their lanterns, and walked down the corridor, entering a large, empty antechamber. Suddenly, the far wall broke open, sending chunks of stone flying, A horde of orcs and hobgoblins came charging through the gap, screaming at the top of their lungs and wielding deadly weapons. The horrified adventurers quickly brought out their weapons to greet the monsters, but as Svenson swung the first blow, all of the creatures and architectural damage vanished, leaving the room as they first entered it.
John whistled. "Some illusion!" he said. The others started breathing again.
Svenson cleared his throat. "Illusion?" he asked, holding up his shield, which had an arrow stuck in it, still quivering. The arrow was real enough, and closer examination of the room revealed several regularly-spaced holes in the ceiling. Perhaps there was a room on a higher level where some guard could look through the floor and fire arrows at them. They quickly departed that area.
The next room they entered was dark, and apparently filled with rows of shadowy pillars. Some evil magic caused their lanterns and torches to shine dimly, only throwing light a footstep or two ahead. Eerie noises followed them; faint evil gigglings, scratchings and scuttlings, and footsteps. Finally, they found a door an a side wall, and exited into another room.
This was apparently some sort of office or reception area. It had been ransacked some time ago, and bones were strewn about the benches and desk. Chairs had been overturned, and there was nothing of value in the desk drawers. Nemithrill pointed out the tapestries and a banner with an elvish 'N' rune on the walls, but the banner was valueless, and the tapestries firmly attached to the walls.
Exiting the back of that room, they were attacked in the corridor by a vicious orc. Killing the foul creature, they examined the alcove it had leapt out of. It was a small guard station, apparently taken over for use by orcs, but human in design.
Continuing onwards, they found more of the same; ruined rooms vandalized by foul creatures, decaying royal chambers and human bones. A hideously overgrown garden, now a breeding-ground for monstrous plants and fungi, and corridors with slimy mosses and orcish graffiti on the walls. Apparently, all the human inhabitants of the fortress had been driven out, or slain, and monsters now ruled Nachasti.
It was somewhere in here, I believer that they met Fred. Fred was a skilled young fighter with a strange and unfortunate curse. At random times, Fred would disappear, and reappear elsewhere; sometimes months in between the shifts, and sometimes only days. He had appeared this time in Samywahd's fortress, and agreed to help the party, and share in their adventures until such time as he might disappear.
They spent several days exploring the various rooms and passages, occasionally finding small caches of coins or other treasurer and frequently fighting off the subhuman creatures that had moved in and made their homes there.
They found an upper level, where there were the Duke's chambers, and a room for shooting arrows through the floor to the entry chamber below. They also found a crypt, with an enormous ornate sarcophagus. Below the main level, was a series of great caverns, and rooms and walls in various states of construction. This level was apparently to be converted into more living space, but was never completed. Here they found a sophisticated digging machine, but it stopped functioning after they used it once.
On the main level, they explored teleporting rooms, jail cells, luxurious bedrooms, and a bizarre temple with a tremendous vulture idol. There was a huge pit, where an explosion had created a tremendous crater, and thrown walls and rubble over a large area. They explored storage rooms of strange equipment, and an eerie art gallery. Hroff tried to destroy an incredibly realistic cat statue in the gallery, but his soul was transferred into the cat, and his former body died. Hroff eventually figured out that the cat was a bizarre lycanthrope creature. He could shift between two forms, a cat, and a cat-like humanoid creature.
While they were doing all this exploring, Treygon joined them, having gotten permission to leave Bart. Also, Fred was trapped in a cave-in, but when they cleared the rubble, he was gone, presumably he had been teleported to safety, and where he had gone was anyone's guess.
Finally, the creatures dwelling in the underground complex got themselves organized, and banded together to drive out the intruders. There was a fierce battle, but the explorers retreated when they saw a dreaded Beholder, a greatly feared magical creature, advancing upon them.
They finally arrived back at the beach, and Seadog's boat was, of course, gone.
"I had a dream last night," said Cload, shivering in the early-morning air, "that one of my relatives has died. I must return to my homeland. I'm afraid I must take my leave of you here. I have a spell for travelling long distances, and I will use it now."
Treygon wanted to go with Cload, so they walked hand-in-hand down the beach, becoming transparent, and then disappearing altogether.
"Don't worry," said John, "I have a similar spell. Everyone gather 'round and hold hands ... "
They returned to the King, and presented him with the Duke's coat of arms which they had taken from the fortress, and told him of their discoveries. He rewarded them each with a bag of coins, and told them to stay, as he might have other assignments for them.
King Bewuld the Fourth, of Vinland, commanded his trusted captain, Sir Yue, to bring the adventurers into his Royal audience-chamber, for a briefing about the mission he had in mind for them.
These particular adventurers had been brought from overseas by the brave knight Sir Svenson Svendohlson, who vouched for their skill and character. Entering the room, they made for a rather colorful spectacle.
Ebony Saint Martin was chilling in appearance, yet benign in spirit, clad head to too in black: black leather boots, black cloak and cape, black gloves, and even a veil-like mask of gauze and silks that covered his face. Beyond his height and build, it was anyone's guess what Ebony actually looked like. In addition to being a skilled fighting-man, he was a musician of no small talent, who hoped someday to become a full-fledged Bard.
Yaraine, the lady thief, kept her distance from this fascinating person, her bright blue eyes constantly moving, taking in every detail of the room. Like Ebony, she, too, hoped to one day become a Bard.
Sardan Nachet, Protector of Cats, dressed in a cloak and kilt of Egyptian style. He was a worshipper of Bast, the Cat-Goddess, and any who mistreated felines would surely feel his wrath.
Menini Alberon, the elven-maid, fair of face, and fair of hair, was a student of the mystical arts of sorcery. She would, perhaps, have preferred to have gone on the King's other expedition, with Sir Svenson Svendohlson's party, exploring mysterious ruins up north, but she had been assigned this mission instead, and it did not sound bad.
The King told them about the assignment. "There have been increasingly mysterious incidents on Vinland's eastern border of late. Villagers have reported sightings of riders in strange uniforms, and royal messengers have seen smoke in the mountains. Weird tales abound.
"To the east of those eastern mountains, lies a formerly inconsequential realm named Buscland. It was, in the past, a quiet country. Indeed, so quiet that we have heard nothing of them for years. Things may have changed during those years.
"Instead of sending a royal ambassador, I am sending you. Diplomats or other official persons would directly involve the government of Vinland, whereas you would merely be travellers - entirely unofficial, you understand.
"Go investigate, and gather information about this kingdom. If they're up to no good, we want to know. If, however, the situation is perfectly normal (and, this is the expected situation, you understand), you are to send a message to the authorities that the King of Vinland wishes greater diplomatic ties with his eastern neighbors.
"Understand that there is no royal protection. You were chosen because of the strictly unofficial nature of the mission. If you fail, and do not return, We will send Sir Yue on an official visit. If you are being held, he will try to secure your release, but we can promise you nothing. Knowing the risks of your task, it would not be held against you if you decided to back out now."
But none of them wanted to stay behind, and they were soon travelling east across Vinland, towards the border mountains. After some days, they reached a village near the foot of the mountains.
As they rode into town, they heard a loud 'bang', and saw a column of smoke rapidly rise from the top of a tall house. Multi-colored flames danced in the upper windows. A villager yelled at them that a magician's experiment had gone wrong, and the laboratory was on fire.
"Come on," cried Ebony, "Who knows what fantastic magics lie within! We must bring out the treasures before it burns down!"
"But that's crazy!" protested Menini.
"Someone might be trapped in there!" cried Ebony, "Hurry!" He grabbed Sardan, and they ran into the building.
"Hey! Wait! Come back!!" cried Yaraine, trying to go in after them, and being met with a sudden spurt of flames and smoke. Choking and spluttering she made her way to safety. "Idiots!" she grumbled.
Yaraine and Menini helped put out the fire before it spread to other buildings, but alas, the magician's house could not be saved. Searching through the ashes and rubble, they could find nothing of value. Moreover, nor could they find the bodies (or any remains) of Sardan and Ebony, or even the magician.
Searching the village did not turn up the Cat Protector or the ebon-cloaked adventurer. After waiting for a day, the women decided that they would have to continue on by themselves, and headed east.
Had they waited a few hours longer, they would have been astonished to see Ebony and Sardan materialize out of thin air in the charred remains of the laboratory. They would have been even more astonished to set a half-dozen other people and two ethereal fish appear next to them. There is an amusing and fascinating tale behind this, but it is a story best left to other tellers. Sufficeth to say that our two wayward fighting-men eventually found out what had happened, and caught up with Yaraine and Menini before they had gotten too far out of town.
The tall mountains loomed above them as they continued their journey, looking like pine-covered walls of stone. It might be wise, they decided, to acquire a local guide with some knowledge of the hills.
At the next village, a small mountain town, they met a magician who called himself Dart, and who seemed to want to join their party. "Listen," said Dart, a tall, dark-haired man in red and black robes, "You take me with you, and you won't have any problems with bandits or orcs. I have more powers than any of you could ever have."
"Yes?" said Menini.
"Yes. Truly. I have many powerful magics, and have ventured far and wide. I have travelled through the dimension of time. Such mundane tasks as dragon slaying are child's-play to me." He took a large, scaly plate out of his cloak, and pushed it across the table for them to examine. It was iridescent white, and scorched around the edges, with a leathery backside.
"A moment." said Ebony. He drew the others aside to discuss whether they should lot Dart join their quest.
"I don't believe half of what he said," declared Yaraine.
"But the scale..." Menini began.
"Perhaps he bought it," said Ebony.
"Well, he probably is exaggerating," said Sardan, "but we could use all the help we can get."
"Does anyone have any reason not to let him came with us?" asked Menini.
"We can't just go adding people to the mission," said Ebony, "The King won't pay for him."
"The King doesn't have to," said Sardan.
"Well, I'm certainly not going to." replied Ebony.
"I thought we were looking for a guide," explained Sardan, "but we could give him a fair share of any loot."
"Loot?" asked Menini, "Like what loot?"
"You know," said Yaraine "Bandit hordes, orcish loot bags."
"Right," said Menini, "that's a good idea."
"Fine. If he goes along with it." said Ebony.
"If he's so powerful," asked Yaraine "Why does he want to join with us?"
"Perhaps he's slumming?" suggested Menini.
"Never mind why," said Ebony, "Sardan's right: we could use his help. But only if he agrees to our terms. What do you think?"
They decided this was a good ideal and Dart agreed. "As a matter of fact, he said, "I think I just might know of a place on our route, where we could find plenty of booty."
"Ah!" said Sardan, "Loot on the route! Where? And what?"
The one who called himself Dart explained that his studies of ancient maps told him that there was a great underground complex of dwarvish treasure-vaults in the mountains above the village, and he had not been able to investigate it 'til now. The others agreed that a short side-trip would not endanger their mission.
The adventurers restocked their supplies, and headed out early the next day.
They were riding through the mountains, up towards the pass, when Dart pointed out a cave up a side gully. "This should be it." They rode up the gully to the narrow opening in the cliff-face.
"I'll tie up the horses," said Dart, "You go in and tell me what it looks like." He took the bridles as the others ventured towards the cave. As they lit their lantern and entered the dark portal, Dart tied the horses to a tree and raised his hands for an incantation of dark magic.
Yaraine, at the rear of the party, had a fleeting glimpse of lightning bolts flying from Dart's hands, before she pushed everyone forward as the roof fell.
The man known as Dart smiled with satisfaction, feeling better than he had in weeks. For him, there was nothing quite like ruining things for someone else. He took the horses and started leading them back down the valley.
"I don't believe it!" coughed Ebony's voice in the darkness "What a bastard!"
"Is anyone hurt?" asked Sardan.
"No," rasped Yaraine, "only in serious pain."
"The lamp's gone out," observed Ebony.
"I think it's buried," said Yaraine.
Some feeling about determined that they were trapped in on all sides, either by solid granite wall or fallen debris.
"No dwarvish treasure vaults," Menini observed, "just a dead-end cave."
"Do you suppose we'll starve to death?" asked Sardan.
"If we don't suffocate first," said Ebony. "What a rotten place to die. So dark and chilly."
"Wait a minute!" said Yaraine "Chilly ...
Ebony snapped his fingers. "You're right! I distinctly felt a cold draft."
"Find the source," said Menini "Where there's a wind, there's a way!"
"Right! And we can't suffocate!" said Ebony. They tried to find the draft.
"I think I've got it," said Yaraine, "It's coming from up here in the fallen rocks."
Suddenly, the cave was lit by a dim light. "Let's see what we're doing," said Menini.
"Ah," said Yaraine,"Magic."
"Merely a cantrip," replied Menini, "I didn't try it before, because I was hoping a dim ray of light might show us a crack in the rocks. I think you've found our way out, though."
"Maybe only the wind can get through," said Yaraine, "I can't shift these rocks."
Sardan climbed up the pile "Allow me." Unfortunately, neither he nor Ebony could budge the debris.
"Damn it to all the hells!" said Yaraine.
"It may not be as bad as it looks," said Ebony Saint Martin, "I have something that may work." He took a mysterious weapon of great power out of his backpack. He called it his Lightning Crossbow, as it looked much like a crossbow, except that instead of a bow, it had a long metal barrel attached to the stock. He had gotten this magical weapon on a mysterious ship of the stars.
"Stand Back!" He warned. As he pulled the trigger, a bright beam of blue light leapt from the barrel with a searing noise, and an explosion sent chips of rock flying. "Now-" began Ebony, but he was interrupted by a great rumbling noise as the pile of rocks fell towards them.
When the dust settled, Yaraine asked if Saint Martin was quite through trying to get them all killed. They were able to move the rocks now, and managed to dig quite a ways towards freedom before tightly wedged debris stopped them again. Another blast from the lightning crossbow, and some more digging through the rock, and they were at last able to crawl out of the cave.
Dusty, tired, and scraped, they were quite disappointed and disgusted to find that their horses had been stolen. The four adventurers bitterly regretted letting the smooth-voiced man talk them into bringing him along. They decided they would rest here, and then continue on foot.
As they trudged along the mountain pass, a short greyish-green creature jumped out from behind a boulder. It growled and waved a spear at them. Two other similar creatures emerged from the shadow of the rock, unsheathing long knives.
"Orcs!" breathed Ebony.
"No, really?" replied Yaraine, sarcastically. They drew their weapons.
With an ear-piercing Yell, the piglike creatures rushed at them. Ebony sidestepped the thrust of the spear, and brought his sword down, wounding the orc. Menini cast a spell at the second, slaying it instantly. Sardan leapt at the third creature, and struggled with it, receiving a nasty gash in the arm before killing it. Meanwhile, Ebony and Yaraine finished off the first orc.
"We're not out of the worst yet," warned Menini. Looking up, the others saw a band of maybe two-dozen orcs coming at them from the edge of the valley.
Unable to flee, they met the first attack of the orc band, and slew two of their assailants, but the tide of the melee soon turned against them. Not only were they outnumbered, but the commander of the orcs was a sly and brilliant tactician. It was obvious from his stature that he had human blood in him. More crafty and clever than full-blooded orcs, he saw and pressed any advantage.
Hemmed in on all sides, and fighting for their lives, the four unfortunate heroes fought back ineffectively, and took one wound after another. Ebony did not have time or space to bring out his Lightning Crossbow, and it would not have been much help anyway, being more suited for long distances than close-quarters fighting.
Suddenly, a trumpet call rang out in the mountain air. The monsters hesitated. With the thunder of hooves, and the lightning of flying arrows, a band of armed men came storming down the valley. Those orcs that escaped the rain of arrows fell under the swords of the grim cavalry.
A few orcs were escaping into the woods, and some horsemen were heading over to cut them off, when a large man yelled "Hold!!" The soldiers turned to face the man, apparently their leader. "Let them flee, but track them back to their lair, and put it to the torch. Let none of them escape - I want them all dead; down to the last piglet!"
"Go, then! Only my best trackers!"
The Commandant swung down from his horse, and approached the four adventurers. He was tall, and massively built. His hair was short, and sandy-colored, and his dark eyes glinted with the cold light of victory. His wide, forked board would perhaps have looked comical on lesser men, but here it only added to his aura of power. He wore a red cape, and leathern armor with a black star upon the heart. This black star insignia was repeated on the red standards and pennants borne by some of the soldiers.
"And," he said "Who might you be?"
"Travellers - most recently from Vinland. I am Ebony Saint Martin, and these are Sardan Nachet, Menini Alberon, and Yaraine."
"I am Commandant Rienhardt of the glorious Western Cavalry of the Imperial Drettsland Army. You will all come with us," announced the Commandant, "The passes are dangerous for travellers." He brought some horses forward for them to mount, and spat upon the corpse of the orcish leader "Halfbreed," he said, "Disgusting!"
Leaving some soldiers to deal with the orcish lair, They rode swiftly eastwards. As the day ended, they were following a track down to a compound of squarish, rather ugly, buildings. "Do you see that, Sardan?" asked Rienhardt, "That is temporarily the westernmost military outpost of the Drettsland Empire."
"Temporarily?" asked Sardan.
"Of course," said the Commandant, "Drettsland will eventually extend all the way to the great Blue Ocean!"
"But, there's already a country there," said Yaraine, "Between here and the sea, that is. We've just come from there."
"Yes, of course," said Rienhardt, "It will become part of Drettsland." Menini throw Ebony a significant glance.
They arrived at the outpost, and soldiers took their horses to the stables. Rienhardt turned to Sardan. I suppose you and your group haven't had a decent meal for a while?"
"Ah, well, I suppose not," answered Sardan.
In the long, low-ceilinged dining hall, they sat with Rienhardt at the head table, and dined upon venison, cooked in a sweet sauce of mountain berries, with heavy bread and strong, dark wine. The soldiers at lesser tables ate a humbler meal of beans and dried meats.
"Well then, Sardan," said Rienhardt, "What brings you people here to Drettsland?"
Sardan sipped at his wine. "Oh, well, you know - adventure, excitement, glory, that kind of thing: we're seeking our fortune in the wide world, you see."
"Travel broadens one's horizons, you know." added Yaraine.
"Well, if it's glory you seek," said Rienhardt, "Then you will join the Drettsland army."
"Ah, well, no," replied Sardan, "I don't think we should join your army."
"Really," said Yaraine, "it's kind of you to offer, but I don't think..."
"You said this country is called Drettsland?" Menini interrupted, "We heard its name was Buscland."
"Yes, tell us about that." said Sardan.
"Ah, yes." answered the commandant, "Well, there used to be a kingdom here named Buscland, before it became a province of Drettsland."
As they continued their meal, Rienhardt leaned forward and looked the Cat Protector in the eye. "Tell me. You just came from Vinland. What is their military like?" How many cavalry units and footsoldiers? Where are their fortresses and garrisons?"
Sardan glared at him. "Even if I could answer your questions, I would not." He looked down at his plate and continued eating, ignoring the commandant.
"I think you know more than you're saying, and I think you will tell me, eventually. I offered you a chance to help with our war effort - I'm afraid you're not allowed to refuse. Even now, we are planning to seize this prize known as Vinland, and you will help, one way or another."
Ebony, who had boon silent up to this point, spoke: "No." A silence fell upon the table.
Rienhardt laughed loudly "Oh, no? You will help, and we will overrun Vinland, and other countries after that!"
"That's ridiculous!" said Menini, "You can't just keep invading new countries - Where does it all end? Where do you stop?"
"Why should we stop? It is our destiny to conquer. Who would stop us? With each conquest, we become stronger - Drettsland is invincible!!"
Ebony stood up. "No one," he said, "is invincible."
Rienhardt turned crimson with anger. "No one will be able to withstand us!" he yelled, "We have otherworldly help, and I assure you I do not speak metaphorically!" His eyes glinted with fanaticism. "We will crush these inferior countries!!" he yelled, bringing his fist down upon the table with a resounding crash. His glass of wine toppled, sending a dark red stain across the white linen.
Sardan and the women jumped to their feet. "Seize them!" Rienhardt cried, and soldiers grabbed all four of them from behind. "Take these spies," he said in a quiet voice, "and imprison them." The soldiers took their swords and equipment, and searched for other weapons and objects.
Rienhardt looked at Ebony. "Disrobe this black one," he told the soldiers, and find out what manner of creature he is."
"If any one of you does as he says," said Ebony in a strong and ominous voice, "you will regret it for the rest of your life." The guards hesitated.
Rienhardt laughed. "Superstitious cowards! Just take him to the cell, and tomorrow I will take care of him myself." He shifted his attention to Yaraine "I will take care of the woman tomorrow as well - tomorrow night, I should think." He laughed. "As for the Elf," he said, barely glancing at Menini, "we can send it south, to work in the mines with the other subhumans."
The guards marched them out into the hallway at swordpoint, and another soldier brought their stuff. "Put that in my office-chamber," said Rienhardt to the soldier, who disappeared into into a side door with the pile as the four unfortunate adventurers were led down the corridor.
The soldiers marched them to an area on the other side of the compound, and threw them into a windowless cell.
"So much for diplomacy," grumbled Sardan, as the door locked behind them.
"Why, that villain!" fumed Menini, "That evil, despicable commandant ought to be disintegrated!"
"What do you think he meant when he said they had otherworldly help?" asked Sardan.
"They've probably got a demon summoned from the deepest abyss, to work unspeakable evil for them." said Ebony Saint Martin.
"How optimistic you are," said Yaraine, "Rienhardt's probably just insane."
"Obviously he's insane," said Menini, "But I think he knows what he's talking about, nevertheless."
"I think we had better get out of here," said Ebony.
"Your wish is my command, sir," said Yaraine, producing a lockpick. "Consider it done." She set to work on the lock.
"There will be a guard, also," said Sardan.
"Yes," answered Menini, "But he'll soon be sleeping sounder than a stone." She began speaking a sleep-charm.
There was a metallic 'click', and Yaraine grinned, holding up the pick. "Good thing you had that," said Ebony.
"Good thing those soldiers don't know the first thing about searching," said Yaraine, "or I wouldn't still have it."
"I think that's what I meant," said Ebony. "Is he asleep, Menini?" She nodded, and they carefully opened the door, and stepped over the snoring guard, into the hallway.
Ebony motioned for the others to follow him, and glided off down the passageway, an almost-invisible phantom in the darkness.
Yaraine, careful not to disturb the sleeping guard, closed the door, and re-locked it, then followed the others.
They cautiously made their way to the stables, where they bound and gagged the lone stableman, and discussed their plans. "Our packs and things are here," whispered Ebony, "but everything they confiscated is in Rienhardt's office."
"I'll sneak back there and got them," said Menini.
"No," said Ebony softly, "Yaraine and I will go, we're better at sneaking. You and Sardan stay here and saddle up four of these horses - pick good ones, and try to got me a black horse."
"All right," whispered Menini, "Just be careful."
"Right. Luckily, it seems everything's mostly settled down for the night." Ebony and Yaraine drifted silently out the stable door.
As they moved stealthily between the silhouetted buildings and through the dark passageways, sudden noises stopped them in their tracks several times, and twice they were almost spotted by patrolling guards, but they made it to Commandant Rienhardt's office-chambers without being seen. Yaraine spotted the door, and tugged upon Ebony's sleeve to stop him from going onward.
They opened the door (how it creaked!), and, hearts pounding like signal-drums, entered. The room was eerily lit by moonlight streaming in the large window: not entirely dark, yet not light enough to search effectively. Ebony picked up a lantern and tinderbox from an immense desk, and, as soon as they had the door closed, he lit it. Yaraine had soon found all of their confiscated equipment, and she motioned for Ebony to extinguish the lantern, but Saint Martin seemed preoccupied with some papers he had taken from Rienhardt's desk.
"What have you found?" she whispered.
"Gold," answered Ebony, so excited that he almost spoke in a normal voice, "Nay, platinum. Do you know what this is?" Yaraine did not answer, so he continued. "These are the Drettsland military plans for an invasion of Vinland: Strategies, troop movements, timetables, it's all here..."
The door swung open with a great groan, and stopped with a crash. "Very good, my black spectre," said Rienhardt, his form filling the door, "very good." He strode in, closing the door behind him. "Too good, in fact. I'm afraid you will both have to die." He drew a sword. "I suppose your companions have escaped as well? Never mind, I can deal with them as easily as with you." He raised his weapon.
As Rienhardt advanced upon them, Ebony Saint Martin raised his gloved hand, and the commandant rocked as if smote. He stumbled backwards, his eyes full of terrible fear. Dropping the sword, Rienhardt crumpled into a heap upon the floor. Yaraine looked in stunned amazement at the motionless form that had, a mere second ago, been about to kill them. Ebony folded his arms, and no one could have been able to tell what he was looking at.
"What happened?" asked Yaraine, "I didn't think you could work magic."
"It's not magic," said Ebony, "At least not as you know magic, nor as Menini would recognize it. The mind has strange powers, of which not many know, and even fewer can use."
Yaraine investigated Rienhardt closely. He was breathing, but his eyes were lifeless. "What happened to him?"
"The demons of his own mind betrayed him," Ebony answered cryptically. He opened the window.
Yaraine closed Rienhardt's eyes, because they made her nervous. "I didn't know you could do that," she said.
"There's a lot about me that you don't know. Lift the commandant through the window."
Yaraine tried to shift the immense man. "He's too heavy."
"Hmmm..." said Ebony. He gathered the plans and their belongings into his cape, and tied it, then he grabbed Rienhardt, and together, he and Yaraine pushed the man out the window. "Let's go now," he said, setting the lantern next to the window, and crawling through. Yaraine followed.
"Good so far," said Ebony, as they shivered in the night air, "We're not dead yet." He reached in the window and grabbed the lantern, which he threw to the far end of the room. The lantern shattered, and the room was lit with a warm orange glow as a curtain burst into flames.
"What was that for?" asked Yaraine.
"To destroy evidence that we took the plans, and, once it gets going well enough for anyone to notice, to provide a distraction for our escape. Quick, help me carry the prisoner." Rienhardt was a heavy burden, but they managed to carry him to the stables by the time an alarm was raised about the fire.
Ebony explained the situation as he lifted Rienhardt onto the back of the massive black horse that had been prepared for him, and Yaraine distributed their reclaimed property.
"Will he recover?" asked Menini, in a tone implying that it would be better if he did not.
"Yes," answered Ebony, "At least, I think he will. When he recovers is anyone's guess, however." He secured the man with a length of stout rope, and mounted the horse.
Ebony Saint Martin and Yaraine rode with all speed towards Vinland, bearing the priceless documents and the captured Commandant. Menini and Sardan had indicated that they would stay and investigate deeper into the country.
Eventually, they arrived back at Seastar Castle, and reported to the King. A week later, the sorceress and the cat protector also arrived at the palace. The King called a meeting for the members of the Drettsland expedition in the royal conference room. Sir Svenson's party had returned from their explorations in the north by now, but they were not invited to the briefing.
Sardan was showing off the latest acquisitions to his large collection of cats, ones that had 'attached themselves to him' in Drettsland, when His Royal Majestic Graciousness, King Bewuld IV of Vinland, entered the conference chamber.
"Greatest thanks to all of you for attending this most secret and confidential meeting," said the King. He greeted them individually, and then went immediately to the business at hand. He started by summarizing the Drettsland military documents.
"According to the papers brought back by Saint Martin and Mistress Yaraine, Drettsland's plan is this: Step one - to capture the mountain passes leading from their country to ours, along with a sizeable portion of Vinnish land and villages nearest the mountains. This would take place at the end of Autumn, just before the snows of winter make a Vinnish counter-attack impossible.
"Step two - at the first thaws of spring, the Dretts army will march through the pass in force, making a straight drive towards the capitol, and ignoring any other strategic targets. If they are unable to take our capitol city with their first direct assault, they will lay siege to us, and their army will sit there as long as necessary, being supplied by pack trains coming through the pass from Drettsland.
"That is the basic strategy, and it is a sound one as far as it goes. Fortunately for us, it relies heavily upon surprise. We haven't much time to prepare, but thanks to you, we have some warning at least." The King smiled upon the four heroes.
"One puzzling thing about the plan," continued Bewuld, "is its several un-specific references to extra-worldly aid. This conforms with Saint Martin's report of Rienhardt's statements. Nowhere, however, is this referred to in anything but the most general of terms, so it may be nothing more than meaningless, morale-boosting talk from politicians in the center of their empire. In the absence of facts, we should view these statements with some concern."
The Four looked at each other uncomfortably.
"Menini Alberon and Sardan Nachet," said the King, "You have some corroboration of the previous reports?"
"Um, corroboration, yeah." said Sardan.
"There is indeed a huge mobilization of military power in Drettsland, Sir," said Menini. "Also, Sir, whatever they're planning looks like it will happen soon. That seems to agree with the schedule you discussed earlier."
Sardan handed King Bewuld a piece of paper. "Here is a report of our observations."
"Thank you, Master Nachet. Have you any other information, on the people and society of Drettsland?"
"Ah, well, yes," said Sardan. "The soldiers and important people we encountered speak the same language as us, but the peasants speak another tongue. I found this out because I was thrown in jail as a suspicious character: I was pretending to be a peasant, but I didn't know the lingo."
"Luckily, I was there to rescue him," said Menini. "By the way, the soldiers we talked with were cavalry - Rienhardt's band. The footsoldiers and such seemed to be of the peasant type."
"Hmm," said the King.
"By the way," said Ebony, "How is Rienhardt doing?"
"Well," replied the King, "He hasn't quite recovered, but hopefully we will be able to get some information out of him soon."
"You have been extremely helpful," said the King, "and will be rewarded." He gave each of them a bag full of extremely valuable coins. "Your services will be needed again, most likely very soon, and you will be rewarded further. Until then, speak to no one of what you have learned here."
To be continued ...
Don't miss the next exciting adventure, THE QUEST FOR THE ANDELIAMBER