“Whoa, there,” he said in a soothing tone as he pat the neck of the high-strung war-mount. “Don’t like the storm rolling in, do you, Red? Well, neither do I, my friend, so let’s get to some shelter before it arrives in full fury.”
Calming down at the encouraging words from the human on his back, the stallion snorted and shook his head, even as the first drops of a cold autumn rain began to fall around the two. Mordecai stood in his saddle and took in a long look at the valley laid out before them. For the most part the valley was filled with old growth forest, but despite the rapidly failing light he could make out the earthen tor upon which the village of Chelas had been built. It was perhaps a mile—two at the most—distant, nestled snug between the thick woods and a small river.
Will wonders never cease, Mordecai thought with a smile. The map was actually correct for once; which made for a most pleasant change of events. The border lands here in the Timberway Forest north of Marner were not known for ever having been comprehensively mapped, and Mordecai had been more than half certain the map he possessed would prove nigh useless. Being proven wrong—this time—was something that the adventurer was more than happy to live with.
“You ready for a warm stable and some dry hay? Let’s get a move on, Red.”
Moving slowly and carefully down the steep slope, the two avoided taking a spill as the dirt quickly turned to mud amidst the rain that fell heavier and heavier. Surrounded by the heavy branches of the tall evergreens at the base of the ridge, the little light remaining faded away and Mordecai pulled his steed to a halt. Half closing his eyes he focused his will and slowly chanted words in an ancient tongue, a tongue that few living would have recognized. He lifted his leather clad hand and made a single sharp gesture, perfectly timed with the final words of the chant, and then the rider’s vision (and that of the equine beneath him) suddenly sharpened and the pitch black of a stormy northern night became as clear as daylight.
The horse snorted again, but Mordecai gently patted the beast’s neck and the powerful animal once again calmed down—although he still did not trust the magics that now coursed through his body.
The rainstorm grew in intensity, but down here in the valley the tall trees and their widespread branches overlapped the road, diffusing the heavy drops into a drizzle. Unfortunately, the tall pines, spruces, and firs gave no protection from the cold; nor did the padded tunic, shirt of fine mail links, and the leather cuirass and greaves that Mordecai wore offer much resistance to the frozen needles that soaked into his skin. Flicking the reins, he and his mount moved forward through the forest, hoping that the next turn of the road would reveal the wooden walls of Chelas.
At long last, they approached the winding ramp that circled the southern end of the village, and ascended to the closed gates marked by a series of flickering lanterns set on high poles. Naturally, there was no guard present, and the heavy gate was closed. Mordecai rang the bell set to one side and waited. He rang it again, and waited. Leaving the bell, he walked the horse over to the gate itself and pounded against it with his clenched fist.
A small port in the gate opened—finally—and a scratchy voice called, “Here now! No cause for that; it takes these old bones a while to walk out here in the rain and all. Who be ye, and why ye be pounding upon the gate?”
“A traveler seeking shelter from the rain for a night.”
“Chelas be done locked up for the night, stranger, find ye own self a soft bed of pine needles underneath a willow.”
Mordecai scowled, “I’ve ridden hard for four days and three nights, friend. A warm fire and a draught of mead is all that I ask.”
“Are ye deaf? I said go away. No one gets in past sundown.”
“In that case open the gate, the sun isn’t down, it just the clouds have blocked it out.”
A harsh laugh came through the portal. “Aye, and I be the Overking of Aerdy.”
With a sigh, Mordecai fished two coins from his belt pouch. “In that case, perhaps I need to pay my back taxes, my Lord. How much do you think I owe to the crown?”
“Now that is a horse of a different color, stranger. Belike the sun hasn’t quite set after all. I think a silver eagle should grant ye amnesty from the tax collectors.”
Mordecai passed a single silver coin through the portal and slid the gold sovereign he had also pulled out back into the pouch.
“Aye, not a night fit for man nor beast, stranger. I’ll have the gate open right away.”
Within a minute, the well-oiled gate slowly swung open just enough to allow Mordecai and his horse entry, and then the old man pushed the gate closed and slide the bar back to seal it.
“My thanks, friend,” the rider said. “Can you recommend an inn for the night?”
“Aye, but since we have only the one it won’t do ye much good, regardless of what I say. The Wild Geese be down the main street, stranger, on ye shield-side. Good stout building of stone and wood, three stories tall, with a wooden shield over the door showing three mottled geese in flight.”
The old man peered out through the hood that covered his head. “Ye have a good taste in horse-flesh, there, lad. Nyrondesse courser?”
Mordecai laughed. “Bought and paid for.”
“None o’ my concern anyway, stranger. Be mindful of ye actions; we in Chelas aren’t too welcoming to those who raise the Hells in our little town.”
“I am obliged to you for the advice and for allowing me passage. Good night.”
“It be a long night, a-watching a gate I not to be opening.”
And with that, the guard turned around and ducked back out of the rain into a small shack set against the wooden palisade. Mordecai pulled on the reins and sent Red ambling down the muddy street. It wasn’t any great surprise that the thoroughfares were empty; small towns and villages such as Chelas often shut down once the sun had dipped beneath the horizon. But the buildings were well constructed and stout, and showed signs of being well-kept. Unlike many such communities, the houses of one and two stories were roofed with tiles of slate rather than thatch, and the streets were nearly straight and wide. A proud community, even if small, the rider thought.
He spotted the inn ahead of him on his left as he rode, and then he spied the stable alongside. He rode up to the stable door and dismounted, pulling open the door and leading Red into the warmth and dry air within. A young boy came running up.
“Ye want yer horse stabled for the night, master?”
“Aye, lad, and he needs to be rubbed down and his coat combed out; he has been ridden hard these last few days. Good fresh hay in the stall and a bucket of oats—fresh oats, not moldy, mind.”
“I’ll check his hooves as well, master. Ye’ll need to settle up with Ivan, he runs the inn.”
Mordecai fished out a silver half-eagle from his pouch and held it up in the flickering torch light. “You see this coin, lad?”
“I’ll be checking on Red before I turn in for the night; do a good job with him and the coin is yours.”
“Ye won’t have any complaining to do about my work with your steed, master. I’ll care for him as if he were me own.”
Mordecai stripped off the saddle, bags, and blanket, and started to throw them up on his shoulder.
“Here now!” said the boy. “We have no thieves at the Wild Geese, master. Yer stuff will be just as you leave it. I’ll take good care of the livery, I will, all cleaned and oiled and polished up.”
The adventurer smiled and handed the saddle and blanket over, but kept the bags. He also unhooked an iron-shod mace that hung from the pommel by a leather strap, and attached it to a hook on the broad leather belt that he wore. “I’ll need the bags to change clothes, lad. But I’ll trust you with the saddle and other tack.”
Tossing the twin saddle bag over one shoulder, Mordecai opened the door to the stable again and gritted his teeth as he rushed back into the cold rain and slogged through the mud to the doorway into the inn itself. Standing under the eaves, he concentrated on a simple cantrip and felt a wave of magic rush over him, drying his clothing, removing the mud from his boots, and erasing the stench of his journey.
Opening the door, Mordecai walked into the inn, and was instantly greeted by cat-calls, boos, and yells for him to shut out the cold air! The inn was filled with locals, and the packed bodies, along with the two roaring fireplaces, assured that the night cold was quickly dispatched. The heavy door had mostly shut inside the noise of the place, but here, in the interior, it was loud with patrons talking and shouting and laughing. The adventurer made his way over to a man who wore a leather apron and was keeping a close eye on his guests.
“You must be Ivan,” he said.
“Aye. And I am after thinking that ye must looking for a room for the night. The price is a silver eagle for you, and that includes a hot meal tonight, another tomorrow morn, a stout drink, and a comfortable bed. Mugs after the first are extra, and ye want something special extra to eat it’ll cost as well. Ye stabling a horse?” the owner asked, eyeing his saddlebags.
“That’s a half-eagle extra, then.”
Mordecai handed the innkeep a gold half-sovereign. “This should cover my expenses for the night, I believe.”
“Aye, and more.”
“I’m looking for some friends of mine—a Fruztii, an elf, and a priestess of Wee Jas.”
Ivan smiled. “Aye, I know them, they be staying here, but went out a while ago. Would like a room near them?”
“Take a seat, then, master, and I’ll have your food sent right out. Meanwhile, I’ll have me daughter arrange for your room,” he looked over the common room with an appraising eye. Finding what he was searching for, he called out. “Harlan! Ye’ve been taking up that seat by the fireplace long enough—make room for a paying customer to warm his bones!”
A young rascal next to one of the stone fireplaces picked up his mug and left the comfortable chair he had been sitting in at an oak table set next to the roaring blaze. “There you go, master, best seat in the house. Should any of ye friends be after asking for ye, what name shall I give to them?”
“I’ll make certain to remember that.”
Mordecai crossed the common room and deposited the saddlebag on an empty chair before he unhooked his cloak and hung it from a stud on the wall. Then he took a seat for himself, just as a pretty young woman walked up with a platter full of food and a tall mug of mead. “If ye need anything, my Lord,” she said with a curtsey and a wink, “anything at all, my name is Amelia.”
He smiled, taking in the steaming platter of meat, bread, and cheese, the large bowl of stew, and the barmaid’s cleavage. He placed a silver eagle in her hand and shook his head. “Not at the moment, but perhaps later.”
She grinned broadly, and then demurely looked down at the floor before she sashayed away into the crowd.
A short time later, Mordecai pushed the nearly empty platter away from and finished draining his second mug of a very tasty honey-mead. The girl—Amelia—was right there again with a cocked eyebrow. “Another?”
Mordecai shook his head. “No, I think I have had enough for tonight; is my room ready?”
“I’ll check—Sasha should have already finished preparing it.”
Suddenly, the door flew open, and Mordecai grinned as the three people he had traveled so far to meet rushed into the Inn, the cold night air streaming in as the inn erupted in protests and yells to shut the damn door! Ivan walked over to the trio and exchanged a few words, pointing back to the table where he sat. The tallest one of the three, a dark-haired and blue-eyed man with taut muscles and a massive sword slung over his shoulder began to laugh.
“MORDECAI!” a booming voice called out. “You damned old witch, how the Hells are you?”
The three made their way across the common room—with Joachim clearing a path through the patrons.
“Joachim, Nath’anatel, and Lady Katherine,” he said with a bow. “It is good to see you again, my friends. I see Joachim is still as tactful and stealthy as ever: you know I am not a witch, Joachim, I am a warlock.”
“Indeed, Joachim’s bluntness is a handicap under which we all share a burden,” answered the elf rogue as he drew up a seat. “Luckily for you, Chelas doesn’t burn wielders of arcane magic on sight.”
“Witch, wizard, warlock . . . what’s the bloody difference, all of you use magic,” boomed the northern barbarian. “Damn glad to see you again, though!”
“I trust that by the grace of the Stern Lady that your journey was uneventful,” the priestess asked.
“Nothing more interesting than some new aches in my buttocks from spending four days in a saddle; I could have vented my frustrations on some humanoid bandits, but alas the goblins and hobgoblins had better sense than to accost me.”
Chuckles arose from the table as Amelia reappeared with a tray bearing four more mugs. She set them down on the table and pushed one across to Mordecai. “I thought you could do with one more, since your friends arrived. This one is on me.”
Joachim grinned, “And what’s this, love? Am I not your friend anymore?” he asked plaintively as he placed a hand on her hip and patted her in a playful manner.
She slapped away his hand from her hip, but she smiled as she did so. And then she left to take care of another group of customers.
“She’s a handful, Cai,” Joachim said as he laughed. “It just might make a man out of you, though—if you live through the night.”
The warlock joined in the laughter. “But to do so would ruin your future chances with her, Joachim. Her memories of me would drive all thought of you from her mind. Surely you would not want that?”
“But seriously, why the urgent summons? It was only by the graces of the Gods,” he smiled at Katherine, “and Goddesses that I tarried in my travels in Marner. Two days more and I would have sailed south en route to Irongate; the ship-master was not at all pleased when I informed him he would have to find another arcanist for his crew.”
“By the grace of the deities, indeed, my friend,” answered the elf. “We have discovered an evil here in the northern marches, an evil that needs to be dealt with.”
“By just the four of us?”
“No,” answered the priestess. “Erestan and Zephraim are also journeying here as we speak. Once again, the Company of Steel and Spell shall be assembled. And then we shall deal with this threat once and for all.”
“And this threat is?”
“My friend,” the elf said softly, “do you know of the legend of Ravenloft?”