Holidays are breaking out everywhere, prompting an unexpected break in my writing schedule. All zero of you who read this, please stay tuned until January.
Snowfall kept the group from traveling at the pace Andrew would have preferred, but they did make progress. Once they reached the main group Curtis, Kern, and Lissa were immediately given horses to travel with the rest of the group. There was a bit of an incident when the horse master refused to give up one of his extra horses for Sorsasta, demanding that the elf walk behind the group or not come at all.
Lissa was horrified beyond words, and Curtis was just about to come to blows to help her when Andrew stepped in and chastised the horse master for slowing his progress. Sorsasta got a horse, along with a sea full of hateful glares from the surrounding humans, orog, and serkethians in Andrew’s little force. The elf was visibly affected, but she kept her posture straight and refused to meet the gaze of anyone in the group. When Lissa rode to her side in support, and Andrew gave the order to move out, the situation gradually dissipated.
Andrew’s small force, not exactly large enough to be an army but big enough to be an issue, headed north along the west bank of the river. At the suggestions of Curtis and a few other locals that had joined the group Andrew steered them a bit away from the water. They reached one of the various tributaries which fed it, and as Curtis had mentioned it wasn’t terribly difficult to cross this time of year. The small river was lower than usual, and most of the water was covered by thick ice. Moving carefully, they crossed without problems and continued on to Cheurshale.
There were no direct incidents with bandits, gnolls, or other roadside dangers as they travelled. A small group of travelers was vulnerable to many kinds of dangers but a force of over sixty armed and armored warriors, accompanied by at least a dozen members of the holy church of Elissah, went unmolested. There were always soldiers on watch at night, and during the day the group was skirted by scouts on faster horses, but they rarely saw anything that might have been trouble. Anyone who might have bothered other travelers wisely kept their heads down, or left the area entirely.
Progress came to a halt at one point when scouts caught telltale signs of trolls in the area. Though the trolls weren’t in their path, everyone knew the vicious beasts would have gleefully attacked them on sight no matter how many of them there were. Unwilling to leave the trolls to trouble others who might pass through the area, Andrew ordered everyone to ready for combat. He circled the group back around to the river, where they met the trolls head on.
It wasn’t much of a battle, really. There were only eleven trolls in all and sixty warriors ready for the fight surged at them with eager ferocity. When it was done, all eleven trolls lay smoking on the ground as fire burned them beyond the point of regeneration. Five of Andrew’s force required medical attention, and two would never see home again, but the thaesians would have done much worse had they ever made it to civilization. Lissa and the other clergy tended to the wounded, wrapped up the dead warriors’ bodies to bring them home, and travel continued.
“It’d be nice if we could have this kind of patrol regularly.” Curtis said absently, late the next day.
Lissa was riding alongside him that day, rather than with the other clergy members, but with her head wrapped in a winter cloak she didn’t hear him well. Kern heard him just fine though, and nodded his head with a chuckle.
“Would take care of a lot.” The serkethian agreed.
“What would take care of what?” Lissa urged her horse a bit closer, pulling her hood slightly back.
“Regular patrols.” Curtis said, motioning to the group of soldiers. “If there was some kinda regular patrol along the roads like this, travel would be a lot safer.”
“And easier, and faster.” Kern added.
Sorsasta, riding alongside Lissa so as to avoid trouble with anyone else in the procession, nodded her head in agreement. “My people have established a few safe travel routes between some of our cities.”
“What, like you’re better than us?” Kern growled.
The elf’s eyes narrowed and she opened her mouth to reply. Her temper, by now, was well known and it wouldn’t do to have her berating Kern in front of everyone else. Both Lissa and Curtis interjected simultaneously; the priestess put a hand on Sorsasta’s shoulder to calm her, and Curtis dropped his horse back to sit between the two.
“She probably doesn’t mean that, exactly.” Curtis said, giving an awkward smile.
“Right?” Lissa asked, looking at the elf.
With a huff, Sorsasta bit back what she might have been originally intending to say. “Yes. I was only trying to give encouragement that it is possible to establish safe routes.”
Kern gave a little derisive snort, looking away as if he was done with the conversation. Such went many interactions that involved both the serkethian and the elf. For the most part things were fine between them, but both were short-tempered and neither one liked the other.
Other than that, the journey was as pleasant as an armed convoy in the dead of winter could be. Curtis and Kern found that they got along quite nicely with most of the other soldiers. They traded stories, talked about places they’d been and things they had seen, and had fun playfully picking on the more inexperienced members of the group.
Lissa went back and forth, spending some time with her brother and Kern, and then to ride with the other clergy for a while. While riding with her brother she would listen to the soldiers’ stories and laugh at their jokes, and while alongside the clergy she would talk with them about what the church had in mind for this expedition. Few of them had any real idea what they would be doing once they reached their destination, but all of them had ideas.
Sorsasta was the only one who had any difficult time beyond that which the weather provided. At first she had attempted to ride alone so as not to bother anyone, but that only left her vulnerable to having random insults or even objects thrown her way. So instead she took to simply following Lissa, staying close by her side under the young priestess’ protection. No one bothered her after that, at least overtly, though the glares never did stop.
At night, the force of soldiers and clergy would make camp along the side of the road. During the day, they made good time on sturdy horses. The journey to Cheurshale took only six days, and the stay was brief. Andrew met with several members of the local church and ended up recruiting two young priests eager to help pacify a new land in Elissah’s name. He and his lieutenants also met with members of the local militia, and when they left the next day they had added eight more loyal blades to their ranks.
From Cheurshale they headed west along a small road. Their going was slow until the road connected to a main trade route. They made good time after that and seemed to quickly pass by small villages locked up against winter and beasts, and they even passed an ancient tower of the old world left crumbling and dark. On occasion they would meet other travelers—merchants, pilgrims, and the like—who were glad for the company of such a large and heavily armed force for part of their journey. Andrew was always accommodating, happy to welcome any who needed protection along the road.
They traveled for several weeks, and they made good time. Not one of them knew, or suspected, they were being followed by a lone warrior from the distant east. Ariste traveled slower than they did, since she was on foot and lacked any knowledge of the area, but all things considered she made good progress. Wrapped in her winter cloak, using her spear for support, she traveled the roads of this strange land in silence.
In Gray’s Ford, once the priests were assured she came in peace they directed her to the Fry farm outside town. There she talked to several nurani, who were delighted to meet a human speaking their native language. She told them her story and what she wanted, and they informed her that Lissa had headed north. So Ariste headed north.
There were difficulties for the young warrior as there were for most travelers. At times she encountered a road blocked by armed men eager to claim her money; some were dangerous enough to pay off, others were weak enough to intimidate. Only once did the situation come to weapons, and when it did she took two of them down before making her escape. Outrunning the rest was a challenge, particularly in the snow, but she survived and continued her journey. She didn’t have the luxury of stopping to rest and recover.
In Cheurshale, they told her that a force of warriors had already passed through and headed west. So she continued, and she dealt with bandits, and gnolls, and kobolds. Steadily, relentlessly, she traveled westward in search of the priestess Lissa Fry. After several weeks of travel, late on a weekday afternoon, Ariste finally arrived in the city of Sepreston.
Sister city to Temborn, on the other side of the land fragment, Sepreston sprawled up and down the edge of the world. At this time of year the city streets were decorated with brightly colored streamers, festive garlands, and candles that made the city glitter at night. The city center, near the docks that stretched into the endless sky, was dominated by a massive diorama that depicted the goddess Elissah making the case to the other gods that the world must not be destroyed in its entirety. This time of year was spent in celebration, to thank her for her mercy and for the future of the world.
Ariste smiled to herself when she saw the diorama. She knew that every deity told the story differently, but even Tharamos taught that it was Elissah who was most adamant that some of the world be spared. For that, she felt it appropriate to stop and pay homage, to thank the forest keeper for a future that might not have been without her. She didn’t kneel and pray—that would have been blasphemy, and Elissah would know who she was—but she lit some holiday incense to pay her respects.
“Merry Yule!” Someone cheerful stepped up to her and she looked to see a grizzled old sailor, a merchant of some type. The man motioned to her incense with a smile. “It’s very kind of you to make such a gesture.”
She returned his smile and nodded. “Thank you. I honor Elissah’s role in our future.”
“And she honors your homage.” The man held his arms out for a moment. “So, I simply must ask. What brings an eastland warrior to our lands? I only assume, from your shield and spear, that you’re a warrior. Please correct me if I’m wrong.”
“You are not wrong.” She nodded, and angled her shield so he could get a better look. “Though my time in the army is done, I still bear my family’s legacy.”
“You bear it well, I’m certain.” He patted her shoulder softly.
Ariste smiled and looked out toward the docks. “What brings me here is a priestess of Elissah. Her name is Lissa Fry, and she can tell me where to find a man I seek. I must bring him to justice, priestess Lissa knows where he is, and she is traveling with a noble named Winter.”
The sailor made an amused face as he listened to her explanation. “So you’re on quite a quest, then.”
“I am. Yes.” Her deep brown eyes took on a hard edge for just a moment. “The man I seek…” She paused, and the old sailor smiled knowingly as he held up a hand to forestall further explanation.
“You needn’t explain. Anybody who chases a man to the other side of the world has to have reason.” He stepped in a bit closer, and spoke softly through the noise of the holiday crowd and his bushel of beard. “It also happens that I know about the group you’re following. If priestess Lissa is with them, she boarded a ship that left here.”
Ariste cursed in her native tongue, and then took a harsh breath. “Forgive me.”
“Nonsense, I understand.” The man said with a chuckle. “Believe me, I’ve said worse.”
“I doubt you know where the ship is going.” She sighed.
“It just so happens,” the sailor replied, taking her arm as he guided her toward the docks, “that I know exactly where it’s headed. Due northwest as the ship sails, to a small fragment called Etraus.”
“Etraus.” Ariste repeated, mulling it over in her head. “If I may ask…who are you?”
“A fellow traveler, interested in lending a hand.” The man smiled and laughed. “I won’t lie, I can’t turn away a face pretty as yours. Besides, I’m just helpful by nature.”
For a time they walked through the crowd, and Ariste was silent as she considered what he said. “I suppose you are offering to take me on your ship.” Her tone was not friendly.
The sailor laughed brightly and held up a hand to protest his innocence. “Not at all! You’d have no reason to trust me. No, you can charter any ship you like. I’m just pointing you in the right direction.”
“Why?” Ariste stopped, and turned to look him in the eye. “I don’t know you.”
“You don’t have to. I’m just passing the information.” He smiled and shrugged.
They came to a stop then, and Ariste looked from the sailor back out to the docks. She took a long breath and exhaled slowly, visible in the chill winter air. “I can at least investigate your claims.”
“Entirely up to you.” He smiled and stopped, giving her a pat on the shoulder before he crossed his arms. “Enjoy your journey, warrior. May the winds fill your sails, and the clouds billow beneath you.”
She stopped as well, and gave him another little smile. “If your information is good…thank you.”
With that she raised her spear to him for a moment, and then turned to head toward the docks. Before the hour was out she had verified the existence of the other land fragment, as well as the passage of a group of soldiers. By the end of the day, she had booked passage after them.
Long after the sun set, Ariste walked through the cold. Snow fell around her with the silence that only comes in winter, and it seemed she was the source of all sound in the world. Her fur-wrapped sandals crunched on the frozen gravel, she shield in her hand clunked periodically against her backpack, and with every alternate step she rested the butt of her spear against the ground for support.
Though she was exhausted, the sturdy young warrior’s steps never faltered and her breathing was steady. Wrapped in a thick fur cloak with a warm hood, she ignored the heavy winter around her. Though winter was not itself foreign to her, the winters of her homeland were nowhere near this cold. The snow was so deep it reached the tops of the greaves on her shins, which was entirely new to the eastlander. Yet just ahead, through the silent snow and the darkening night, she could see her destination.
Gray’s Ford, she had been told the place was called, rested across a river. Much of the town was on the two banks of the river, but a good portion of it was also on the large bridge that spanned the frigid waters. Ariste didn’t remember what the name of the river was, but it was fairly wide and she was impressed at the sheer size of the bridge. Buildings across its length, as well as on the riverbanks, twinkled with warm lights in their windows that urged her on to seek shelter and comfort.
With her eyes on the city and her feet working methodically ever-forward, she reached the walls of Gray’s Ford on its eastern bank. The city gate was shut for the night, and a pair of guards wrapped in winter cloaks could be seen in a small guardhouse atop the wall itself. Situated just to the left atop the gate, the guards commanded a good view of the road on which Ariste was standing. Sadly, they were too interested in their conversation and the warm fire between them to notice her arrival.
She stood silently for a few moments, watching the guards talk quietly some twenty feet above her. For just a moment she imagined sending her spear through one of them, even if only to teach them a lesson about vigilance when protecting the walls of their city. She sighed however, and dismissed the idea entirely. For one thing murder was simply not her way, and for another thing the people of this land just viewed things differently. No one back home would take their duties as gate guard so lightly.
“Hello guards!” She finally called up. Her accent was still rather thick, having only learned the language of Elissah’s lands, so she kept most of what she said short and simple.
Surprised to hear someone speaking to them, the two guards went over to the wall and looked down. Seeing only one low warrior, with a large shield and spear, hidden beneath a thick winter cloak, they were cautious but unafraid. One of them growled at her in a surly tone. “State your name and business.”
“I am Ariste, daughter of Adelfa, Histrian. I need shelter for the night.” She spoke in even tones, her voice carrying easily in the cold air.
The guard looked at her for a moment longer and then motioned to her spear and shield. “It’s smart to travel armed, but where’s that gear from? You sound foreign.”
“I am Histrian, as I said. My city is called Histra, it is in the eastern lands.” Having encountered reactions to her homeland before, and seeing the guards become worried, she raised a hand to forestall any replies. “I am not from the lands of Kaset-mah, but of Tharamos, who has no quarrel with your goddess.”
Though that appeared to ease their concerns a bit, the guards still looked at each other uncertainly. Ariste grit her teeth at their lack of hospitality, and tried to keep her tone even as she spoke to them again. “I am very cold and tired. Would you have me freeze outside your city?”
After another moment of contemplation, the guards finally assented. One of them nodded and went to open a small door in the gate, while the other watched her carefully. The man who opened the door for her looked at Ariste closely, and she stood still while he appraised her. “Just keep out of trouble, alright?” He said flatly.
“You have my word.” She nodded, and then stepped forward as he stood by to let her through. “I do not know people in this city. Where may I stay?”
“Closest in is the Three-Ring, just down that way.” The guard pointed down one of the three roads that merged at this gate. “I don’t think they’ll take eastern money though.”
“I have local coin, thank you.” Ariste gave him a bit of a smile. He was taller than she was, but by the way he carried himself she could tell he didn’t have the same density of muscle. The sword on his belt was short range, and she estimated he would be no challenge.
“Alright, well don’t make us regret letting you in.” The man gave her a look that she guessed was meant to be a hard stare. She met it, unblinking, and after a few moments the guard looked away uncomfortably.
Ariste smiled again, giving him her sweetest smile as he failed to intimidate her. “I will behave.” She nodded and gave him a pat on the shoulder, then looked up at his companion on the wall to give him a friendly wave. With that she turned and headed down the road the guard indicated. Westlanders were all the same, so quick to wield their egos like weapons and so unready for a foreigner to meet the challenge.
She heard one of them say something after her, trying to emphasize that they expected her to be on best behavior, but she didn’t respond. Instead she simply tugged her winter cloak firmly back around herself and looked for the sign of an inn. Though she was learning the language of Elissah’s lands its written form still eluded her, but most businesses used the common worldwide symbols for their service.
As expected, the sign in front of one building sported the symbol she was searching for. Though she could not read the words, the symbol of two moons over a closed eye was all she needed. There was a large shuttered window next to the door, through which filtered warm light and the smell of strange local food. She just looked for a time, listening to the sounds within and calculating what she might encounter. When she felt ready, she walked to the door and pushed it open, entering the bright warm room with confidence.
Her night passed uneventfully, filled with the usual questions with which westlanders always pestered her. Yes she really was from an eastern city-state. No she was not a member of the military, though she had served in it like everyone else. No they may not look at her shield or helmet, they were family items. Yes she could likely beat up the local tough guys.
Though she declined any physical challenges and retired to her room for sleep, there were more challenges the next morning as soon as she entered the common room. Two men who had been among the group to challenge her to contests of strength the night before, one of which was quite certain he could take her. He was certainly large enough he would be a considerable challenge, she silently admitted to herself.
Still she shook her head and smiled, politely declined their offer, and headed out into the cold morning sunlight. The snow had stopped while she slept, and Gray’s Ford had come awake. People filled the street quite well, most of them human but a good mix of other races as well. Though a human city, this place was centralized enough to draw a crowd of many peoples. She found this a bit of a relief, as she would get a little bit less attention, but even in a mix of people an eastlander in the western kingdoms always draws attention.
Following signs that bore the imagery of Elissah’s holy symbol, she gradually headed toward the temple—church, she corrected herself. Elissah’s temples were called churches. However before she could reach the place, there was a rush of excitement amid the crowd around her. They parted a bit, and she found herself suddenly standing alone. Adrenaline spiked and she tightened her grip on her spear.
“Please be calm, eastlander.” A handsome man said, holding out his hand in a friendly gesture. He wasn’t armored in the full-body metal that many western warriors sported. Rather, under the winter cloak he wore, Ariste could see a coat of tiny metal links. His face was stern, but his posture indicated no hostility. Most important of all was the holy symbol of Elissah visible on the pendant around his neck. With a glance, Ariste confirmed there was another on the hilt of the sword at his waist.
For the most part, Ariste did indeed calm down. She gave him a respectful nod of her head and relaxed her posture. “Good morning, paladin. I expected to meet one of you, but the crowd acted strange.”
The paladin looked confused as he stepped forward to a comfortable speaking distance. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you mean.” His posture and expression remained friendly, but Ariste didn’t let her guard down just yet.
“Ah…forgive me I am still learning your language.” Ariste searched her mind for the right words, trying to say what she had originally meant. The words were so easy in her language! Why couldn’t she find them in the local tongue? “I knew a paladin would talk to me. But the crowd…” she sighed in frustration, giving the man a helpless look. For lack of a better option, she just repeated herself. “They acted strange.”
To his credit, the man chuckled and gave a little shrug. “I understand it can be difficult to learn a new language. You say you expected to meet a paladin. Why is that?”
Ariste held her arms out as if she was holding the obvious in her hands, but she did smile. “I worship Tharamos.”
There was a bit of a murmur among the crowd, but it didn’t seem hostile. Rather, it seemed that the crowd was curious and surprised to hear someone openly declare that she worshipped a foreign god. Even if Tharamos was not an enemy of Elissah, he was still different and strange.
The paladin merely nodded and smiled. “I respect your honesty. My name’s Corvin Gray. You know I’m an enforcer of Elissah’s law, and I am only here to determine if you’re a danger to her people. What’s your purpose here?”
Ariste was already nodding her head before Corvin had finished speaking. “I expected you would ask. You will not like my answer.”
Corvin’s face became stern, and someone in the crowd gave a nervous laugh. The paladin’s expression became stern, and his voice took on the tone of a concerned elder. “What is it you have planned, then?”
“I am looking for a priestess of Elissah, named Lissa Fry.” Seeing Corvin’s posture stiffen considerably, Ariste held up one hand in a calming gesture. “I will not harm her. The priests of Tharamos tell me that this woman, a priestess of your goddess, can tell me where is the man I seek.”
“And the man you seek?” The man’s voice was even and stern.
“Killed my grandfather.” Ariste matched the man’s tone, and her eyes never wavered from his.
With a sigh, Corvin shifted posture to cross his arms. “Then I can guess why you’re looking for him.”
Ariste nodded without a word, and the paladin’s expression only grew sterner. She was not surprised, and in fact had expected this. She was, after all, here for no other reason than to attack a man who was very likely still in Elissah’s good graces. Though he may be a drunken murderer, he probably observed his daily prayers like everyone else. This meant that—by divine law—he was under Corvin’s protection.
After a bit of thought, Corvin craned his neck as if he had sore shoulder muscles. “Look, you’ve been honest, I have no doubt that this man did what you claim. I’m sure if I asked Elissah, she’d confirm your story. But she also wouldn’t want you to murder one of her subjects.”
This, among all words that she could string together in Elissah’s language, was what she had practiced for months on end. To get it right, to make sure she was understood so they would let her do it. “Then let me bring him to justice. I will not harm him if he comes peacefully.”
“Justice where?” Corvin asked.
“My home.” Ariste answered, but the man was already shaking his head. Not terribly surprised by his response, Ariste continued on. “Here, then. Elissah is not the keeper of law, but I trust your goddess’ judgment to be fair.”
Corvin took another step forward, and looked Ariste straight in the eye. “You trust Elissah, but can she trust you?”
“Yes.” She didn’t waver or flinch.
He stared at her for a while longer. “What’s your name?”
“Ariste, daughter of Adelfa, Histrian.” She named her lineage and homeland proudly.
Corvin nodded. “Well then Ariste, daughter of Adelfe. I’ll show you trust, in hope you’ll do the same. Find this priestess, then find your man. Bring him to court in a city of Elissah. If I hear word of an eastland warrior who murdered one of Elissah’s own, I—”
“You won’t need to track me down.” Ariste interrupted.
For another few moments, the paladin and warrior said nothing. Finally he nodded. “Then I hope your journey is safe. Someone at the church should be able to help you find priestess Lissa.”
Ariste smiled and bowed her head respectfully. “Thank you, paladin.” He nodded to her, and with that the two parted ways. She didn’t look back, but she could feel him watching her the whole way. Most of the crowd watched her; the foreigner in their city, the heathen among them. To the best of her ability, she kept her posture straight and her held high.