May 22-23, 498
Having decided to undertake the long journey to Darian by way of Kirvin, Nigel and his companions spent the next couple of days preparing for the trip. Nigel met once again with Katra to make sure he had all of the equipment and supplies he would need; Orbin stocked up on merchandise he knew would sell well in the areas they would be traveling through (mainly hand tools and beer).
Father Kellam said that the Abbey would provide basic provisions and three pack animals, but that after hearing about the burning of a church in Kirvin, he didn't feel he could spare any of the Abbey's guards. Besides, Jazzie had only recently regained consciousness after her encounter with the strange magical effect in the forest south of Luiry (and being discovered in the ruins near Darabont), so she wasn't up to traveling. In order to provide some extra security for the traveling party, Kellam offered instead to pay for some freelance guards.
Orbin offered to make the arrangements; he had traveled with merchant caravans in the past, and knew several trained fighters who did work for hire. He ended up hiring the dwarven fighter Jalafin and the expert archer Autumn Vega, both of whom he had traveled with before. Kellam also suggested Nigel take along Trelain, a young Abbey cleric who seemed to have an unusual (some thought improper) interest in spellcasting; Nigel wasn't sure whether Kellam thought Trelain would actually be useful, or whether he was simply trying to get her out of his hair.
On the morning of Saturday, May 23, the party formed up on the Cullan Road just outside the Abbey gate, with the three pack animals loaded and everyone ready to go. One of the animals turned out to be Victor the donkey; previously, Brother Kerrow (who was still recovering from his own recent traumas) had been the only one who could handle him, but ever since Victor's encounter with Friar Trevall, he'd been much more cooperative and manageable (though recently he had been moping around because of Aela's departure without him).
As the party was headed toward the town gate, a young, dark-haired woman approached the group and accosted Nigel. "Were you just going to go off again without telling me?" she wanted to know.
It was Alyssa, Nigel's girlfriend, and in fact the recent events had driven her completely from his mind. He stammered, trying to explain that he was on urgent Church business, but she wasn't interested. "It's always urgent Church business!" she said. "Look, Nigel, I've hardly seen you for weeks. I wanted to talk to you about something, but I guess I'll just tell you straight out: Keff has asked me to marry him. And I'm going to say yes."
Nigel was stunned. Keff Larro was a local farmboy, a dumb ox of a man, the sort of person who had beat Nigel up as a child. Of all the people for Alyssa to leave him for ... "Keff?" Nigel finally said. "What could he possibly..."
"He's there, Nigel. Which is more than I can say for you. And he looks after me. He puts in an honest day's work, rather than spending all of his time with his nose in a book."
Nigel was speechless, but it didn't matter; Alyssa had said everything she came to say. "I'll see you around, Nigel," she said, turning and walking off.
Red-faced, Nigel turned to face the rest of the party. Sensing the delicate nature of the situation, Orbin had suggested that they all hang back a bit and check to make sure the packs were securely tied to the donkeys. It didn't matter; Alyssa was making no effort to keep her voice down; Nigel certainly realized they had heard every word she'd said. But he didn't say a word, and simply motioned for them to continue on their way.
They headed out the gate to where the Cullan Road joined the Old Road, then turning north toward Sendara. They were almost to the ruins of Ian Tarrell's farm before anyone said a word.
They traveled north all day, with Katra (the only party member who had been to Kirvin) leading the way. At dusk she selected a campsite in a hollow between two hills; they were still a few hours' march from the ruins of Sendara. Nigel had still not spoken more than a word or two since they left Cullan, and Orbin knew he would not be any good to anyone as long as he was still brooding. Surreptitiously, he asked Katra to schedule him and Nigel together on watch, hoping to use his skills as a conversationalist to get Nigel talking. With the aid of some samples drawn from his supply of beer, he eventually succeeded in getting Nigel to open up.
"The thing is, I know she's right," Nigel admitted. Indeed, Nigel said, on one level he was relieved; he had known for some time that he and Alyssa had been drifting apart, and he'd wondered whether there was still any future in the relationship. But Keff?
Orbin listened sympathetically, and told Nigel that in fact he understood perhaps better than Nigel realized. There had once been a dwarf woman back home, a long time ago, during the years he had worked in his parents' shop in Oridon. "But she didn't understand the road," Orbin said. "She didn't understand that there was more to the world than what she knew." When he'd decided to embark on the life of a traveling merchant, she stayed behind.
Nigel knew what Orbin meant. Alyssa hadn't understood the importance of Nigel's work. "But someone must carry on Everam's work!" he said.
"Yes, it is important work," Orbin agreed. "And nothing important comes cheap."
Before Nigel could respond, both of them heard something -- a distant sound carried for a moment on the wind, so faint they couldn't make out what it was. They awoke Katra, who climbed a nearby hill and listened intently; her keen half-Elven ears made out hints of high-pitched voices (kobolds?), large in number but many miles away. Those on watch stayed alert for the rest of the night, but no one heard anything else.
They continued north along the Old Road toward Sendara, keeping their eyes open for any indications of what they might have heard the previous night. As they drew closer to the ruined city, several of the keen-eyed party members spotted what looked like vultures circling high above. Soon they arrived at Sendara, and the vultures were directly overhead.
After they crossed the bridge over the dry riverbed, they spotted what looked like the body of a gnoll; nearby, the arms and legs of three or four other gnolls protruded from underneath a large stone slab. After a bit of investigation (during which Tagart climbed on top of a nearby ruin), they found evidence suggesting that the slab had been intentionally pried from its resting place and dropped on the unsuspecting gnolls; this seemed likely to have been a kobold tactic. Nigel remembered that Kerrow had described the gnolls as being on a war footing; now, it seemed, they knew who they were at war with.
They carefully picked their way through the ruins, spotting the bodies of more gnolls and kobolds along the way. Suddenly, Katra heard something and halted the party; a momenet later, a party of six retreating gnolls appeared. The gnolls, it seems, were fleeing from an unknown number of kobolds; given the choice, they decided to face the adventurers. They did not last long; by the time they reached the party, Autumn's arrows were already sticking out of several of them, and the swords, axes, and maces of the other travelers finished them off. The pursuing kobolds, seeing the fate that had befallen the gnolls, turned and hastily retreated.
They saw no other living creatures within the ruins of Sendara, and soon they had crossed the bridge over the Kalis River, emerging into the swampy land on the other side. A rope tied to her waist, Katra waded ahead of the rest of the party, gauging the depth of the water. Tagart, deathly afraid of snakes, rode on Victor with his feet pulled up and his hands gripping the donkey's neck tightly. Orbin and Jalafin, too short to wade through the swamp safely, also rode across.
Soon they had reached the other side, but before they found a campsite, Trelain noticed a black shape stuck to the back of Nigel's hand. It was a leech, and soon everyone (except Tagart and the dwarves) had stripped down and found a great many more, which they pulled off and flung disgustedly back into the water.
After an uneventful night, the party began to climb the foothills of the Ilvar Mountains, heading toward the tiny sheep-herding village of Randa. Although this was not the most direct route to Kirvin, Katra had decided that it would be the quickest; she knew that a remnant of an old road began near Randa and continued almost all the way to Kirvin, which would make travel with the pack animals easier.
As they climbed into the hills, they saw more signs of the ongoing kobold-gnoll war: smoke from distant campfires and occasional remnants of battle. The day was otherwise uneventful, and they camped that night in the foothills a few hours from Randa.
The next morning, shortly after they'd begun moving again, the party encountered a group of five mounted men heading in the other direction. Before they could exchange more than a brief greeting, two of the men shouted "Those are Church people! Come on!" and charged the party, their swords drawn.
The party assumed these men had been affected by the same spell that had caused Orbin to attack Janis in Sendara. Orbin said to the leader of the other group "Stop them! They've been bewitched!"
"Jord, Palo, wait a moment," the group's leader said. "We have a legitimate grievance with these people, but let's give them a chance to explain."
The two attacking men paused, saying, "But Mebron, you know what these Church people have done!" It seemed they were not under the influence of the magical spell after all.
After some confusion, Nigel convinced Mebron that he honestly did not know what had happened, so Mebron explained. Two months earlier, he said, a group of six blue-robed men claiming to be priests in the Ilvian Church had arrived in Randa, saying that they intended to repair the ruins of the old keep nearby and establish a new monastery. Randa had had little contact with the Ilvian Church and took these men at their word. They had then climbed the hill to the keep and had stayed out of sight for many weeks. Then, four days ago, they had announced that they were ready to begin, and that five of the six priests would be leaving, to return later with the rest of the monastery staff.
The townspeople had thought little of it until that night, when eleven children disappeared from the village. Suspecting the priests, the townspeople had gone to the old keep, where the one remaining priest (flanked with soldiers in orange tunics) readily admitted that they had taken the children. This, he said, was the usual way of things in the Ilvian Church, and it was for the good of the children that they be brought into the monastery to do Arva's will. He informed the townspeople that the keep was now fortified with armed guards, although no one in Randa was sure when they had arrived. With that, the priest closed the door, and the townspeople found that they were absolutely unable to break through a magical barrier surrounding the keep.
They had hired a magician, Mebron explained hesitantly, hoping he would be able to break through the magical barrier; while the magician prepared, they were now traveling to Cullan, hoping to hire some trained soldiers to help rescue the children once the barrier was down.
Nigel listened to this story with shock and revulsion. Finally, he told Mebron earnestly that this was, in fact, not in accordance with any Arvan belief, and that the men in the old keep were certainly not priests of the Ilvian Church. Without going into detail, he explained that there had been a number of recent attacks on the Church, and that he suspected this event was an attempt to smear the good name of the Church. "And we're the ones who would have been sent from Cullan," Orbin said.
Mebron and his companions turned around and led the party into Randa. They went directly to Tom's Tavern, the only public house in the tiny village, where Orbin and Nigel followed Mebron inside. They found Vandis, the mayor of Randa, sitting at a table talking with several other townspeople. Vandis was surprised to see Mebron back so soon, but Mebron explained that he hadn't had to go all the way to Cullan for help. Vandis then told the group that the magician they'd hired was the famous Walto, and he was a bit surprised that Orbin and Nigel had never heard of him. "He said he needed a few days to prepare the spell, but that he would be ready by the time the armed men arrived."
The party got situated in two of the four rooms in the back of Tom's Tavern, and afterward they headed down to the common room for lunch, and an opportunity to meet Walto. As soon as they entered, they saw him: a tall, dark-haired man with intense blue eyes standing before a small group of townspeople. His movements were fluid and precise, and his manner was imposing. "All right," he was saying, "I'll do one. Then please let me eat my lunch."
With a sigh of resignation, Walto closed his eyes and concentrated for a moment. Then, moving his hands around in intricate patterns, he carefully enunciated a stream of words in a language none of the group had ever heard before. As he said the last word, he flicked his fingers outward, and a small fireball billowed out from his hands and then, just as quickly, dissipated into the air above the table. There was a round of awestruck applause, with Orbin joining in; on the other hand, Janis looked disgusted, and Tagart seemed entirely unimpressed by Walto's display. Turning to sit, Walto said "Now please leave me alone so I can eat." Then he turned his attention to the leg of mutton on his plate.
After Nigel and his group ordered their own lunch, Nigel and Orbin approached Walto. Before he could speak, Walto sighed and said "What do you want?"
"I'm sorry for interrupting you," Nigel began, "but --"
"Yes, I am the great Walto. Yes, you have heard of me and my amazing powers. Now please, just leave me --"
"That's not why I'm here," Nigel explained. "We're here from Cullan to help rescue the children. I understand you have been retained by the townspeople to help break through the magical barrier. I thought perhaps we should meet to discuss our plans."
Walto seemed quite surprised, and even a little taken aback. "You're here already?" he said. "I didn't expect ..."
Nigel explained how they had encountered Mebron just south of town. "So we can begin as soon as you're ready."
"I see," Walto said. "Well, the spell that I need to use for this is very difficult and will require a great deal of preparation. But since you're here already, I suppose we can plan to do it tomorrow. But I will need the rest of today -- and complete solitude -- in order to prepare."
Nigel agreed and returned to his own table. Something about Walto troubled him, however; and Orbin (who had been conversing in hushed tones with Tagart) seemed similarly concerned. "I don't know anything about magic," he said, "but I know people. I've made it my business to know people. And something about this Walto just doesn't sit right." He suggested that perhaps Walto wasn't what he claimed to be; Nigel acknowledged the possibility, but wondered why Walto would have accepted the job if that were true.
After lunch, Nigel spoke privately with Mebron. He wondered if perhaps Walto was involved somehow in the conspiracy against the Church; had he ever come to Randa before, he asked, or had he miraculously turned up just when he was needed? Mebron said that Walto had in fact been through many times before and was well known in the area, although he acknowledged that Walto probably would never have gone to a Church town like Cullan. "I know his manner is rather abrupt and unfriendly, but that's just the way he is. He makes a living basically doing parlor tricks, although he talks as though he believes such tricks are not worthy of his great talent. He just happened to pass through Randa on one of his usual tours a few days ago, and we asked him if he could help."
Nigel was somewhat reassured, but not completely. Parlor tricks? Was this Walto really a magician at all? Their doubts became even greater when Orbin found out from Vandis that Walto was being paid the inconceivable sum of 50 gold pieces per day for his stay in Randa. The party decided they would keep a close watch on him; perhaps he was legitimate, but they wanted to know if he tried to leave town unexpectedly. Walto never emerged from his room for dinner; that night the party posted watches with the doors to their rooms ajar, and Katra slept outside Walto's window. Although Walto did appear once, walking to the common room and ordering a drink, he made no attempt to leave.
The next morning, after Walto failed to appear for breakfast, Orbin decided to pay a visit to Walto's room. Walto came to the door after the second knock. "Why are you disturbing me?" he demanded.
"You agreed that today is the day we would rescue the children," Orbin said. "I came to see if you were ready."
Walto's eyes darted back and forth. "No," he said. "The magic that I need for this has proved even more difficult than I anticipated. I have never attempted a spell like this before. I am afraid I need another day to prepare. But tomorrow we should be able to proceed." With that he closed the door.
Returning to the common room, Orbin encountered Vandis, who wanted to know why nothing was happening. Orbin told him what Walto had said, and that the rescue attempt would have to be delayed. He also voiced the party's doubts about Walto.
Unexpectedly, Vandis burst into tears. "I'm sorry," he eventually said, "but my son is up there in that keep. Don't you understand, Walto is our only hope! We have to try." But he no longer sounded hopeful.
As he watched the mayor's anguish, something clicked in Orbin's head. At that moment, he no longer cared about anything else -- not the Church, not selling his merchandise -- the only thing that mattered was rescuing the eleven children from the keep. He put a hand on Vandis's shoulder and looked him straight in the eye. "Don't worry," he said, "we're going to get your kids back. I promise."
After Orbin reported Walto's delay to the rest of the party, they decided the only thing they could do was try to prepare by visiting the old keep and trying to assess what they'd be facing. Leaving Jalafin and Autumn to keep an eye on Walto, they climbed the hill to the keep and found a small stone building with a large wooden door. It had no visible windows, and there was no sign of life -- not even a guard posted at the door. However, as they came closer they could see a faintly shimmering aura surrounding the building.
Praying to Arva, Nigel closed his eyes and sensed that the barrier was indeed magical. Wary of unpredictable effects (remembing the amnesiacs' experience), Nigel probed the magical barrier with his staff. It was unyielding, as if there were an impenetrable sheet of inch-thick glass around the building. Clearly, there was no hope of rescuing the children without magic, a proposition that even Janis was beginning to accept. And since everyone was coming to believe Walto was a fraud, they were beginning to wonder whether they had any hope of success.
Suddenly, Tagart spoke to Nigel. "I need to tell you something," he said. "But promise me you won't be upset." Nigel nodded. "And you," Tagart said turning to Janis; "you promise me also." Janis looked confused, but also agreed. Tagart took a deep breath.
"I think I know how to deal with this," he said.
Nigel stared at him, waiting expectantly. Tagart took another deep breath.
"I know you're not going to like this," he said, "but ... I know how to do magic. And I have a scroll that I think will get through this barrier."
Everyone was shocked, Janis most of all; if she hadn't promised Tagart not to be upset, she didn't know what she would have done. Instead, she just closed her eyes and muttered a prayer to Arva. She had sat next to this person in Church, for Arva's sake!
Nigel was the first to speak. "All right, obviously we're going to have to talk about this. But right now I think we'd better just do what we need to do to rescue the children. What can you do?"
Tagart explained that he needed to study and rest in order to prepare himself fully, and then he believed he could dispel the magic creating the barrier. The others decided that they would then break into the keep, battle through whatever resistance they might encounter, and rescue the children. There seemed little point in involving the townspeople, who were not trained fighters -- and who might not be prepared for what they would find inside. There was also no need to involve Walto; Tagart said that his "spell" in the tavern had been completely fake. "He's no magician," Tagart said.
Meanwhile, back at the tavern, Walto emerged from his room with his pack over his shoulder, only to find Jalafin waiting outside the door. "Good morning," Jalafin said. "Where are you going?"
"Good morning," Walto said, attempting to elbow his way past Jalafin. "I have finished my preparations, but ... I need to gather some of the, uh, material components for the spell."
"Very well," Jalafin said. "I'll come with you, just to make sure nothing happens to you."
"No, no," said Walto. "This is a very delicate ritual. It must be performed alone. I have to gather the, um, Argus leaves for the spell." He pushed past Jalafin and very nearly walked into Autumn, who had come in through the common room after hearing the conversation through the window.
"Why don't I go with you? I can follow at a distance and make sure you're safe," she said.
"No!" Walto said, increasingly desperate. "The ... Mebulus ritual is very delicate! I must be alone!" He elbowed his way past Autumn and walked swiftly through the common room, only to encounter the rest of the party, just returning from their visit to the old keep. They did not stop him, but they followed him closely as he walked back to the stable and began to saddle up.
"We'll accompany you," Katra said. Walto explained once again why this was not a good idea, while Tagart surreptitiously unfastened the strap holding Walto's saddle on the horse. Walto spurred the horse, which trotted out of the stable; after a few seconds the saddle, with Walto in it, slid off onto the ground. The party gathered around him.
"Why are you impeding me?" Walto cried. "You know how important this is! The Dernius ritual is time-sensitive! It must be performed while the ... sun is in, uh, Virgus. Please ... what do you want?"
"We want you to give the money back," Katra said, standing her ground. "We know about you, that you're a fraud."
Walto climbed to his feet. "Oh, please," he said. "I've heard those kinds of accusations before. What do you know about magic?"
"More than you do," Tagart said.
"I don't have time for this," Walto said. "Stop interfering with me."
"Stop us," Katra said.
Walto paused. "Look, just --"
"Stop us," Katra repeated. "If you're such a powerful magician, you can stop us."
Walto froze for a moment and then closed his eyes. He shook his head quietly for a moment. "None of this was my idea, you know," he said.
"We know," Katra said.
"I told them I couldn't do what they wanted. So they offered me more money. And I still said no. So they offered me more money. They begged me. What could I do? I thought maybe I would think of something if I had enough time."
"We just want the money back," Katra said.
"This is my livelihood, you know," he said.
"We know," Janis said. "Just return the money and we'll keep your secret."
"It's in my pack," Walto said with a sigh. Katra retrieved the heavy bag, and Walto then silently mounted his horse and rode away.
Afterward, the party explained to Vandis that Walto had been unable to master the difficult spell required, and had left town after returning the money he had been paid. Instead, they told him, Tagart would cast the spell. Vandis looked skeptical -- after all, Walto had been a professional magician, and Tagart was just a kid from Cullan -- so Tagart agreed to demonstrate his ability.
He closed his eyes and muttered a brief incantation in a language none of the party had heard before. Then he held his hands out before him, his thumbs together and his fingers spread out in a fan shape. Suddenly flames jetted out from his fingers, the bright light and heat startling everyone in the group. It was nothing like Walto's "demonstration" in the tavern, which had involved a lot of exaggerated hand movements and produced only a small puff of flame. Vandis was stunned. "Have you ever considered doing that for a living?" he asked Tagart, who simply shrugged his shoulders.
It was still only late morning, so they used the rest of the day to prepare, planning to move against the keep after dark. Tagart studied and slept; Nigel had a long talk with Janis, who was still feeling badly confused and was unsure what to believe about magic. Meanwhile, Jalafin and Autumn reported that they'd found some scraps of paper in Walto's room, although the symbols on the paper were indecipherable. After Tagart woke up at around dinnertime he took a look at the scraps of paper and confirmed that they were gibberish with a few genuine (but badly copied) magical runes scattered within.
At about 11:00 that night, the party left Vandis and Mebron at the tavern (where they watied quietly with bandages and other medical supplies) and climbed the hill above Randa. It was dark, with only the last-quarter moon casting its dim light on the old keep. But the magical barrier was faintly luminous, making the stone building clearly visible even in the darkness.
Approaching the old keep, Tagart lifted the scroll and held it before him in the diffuse light. The party watched as he read aloud; at first, he sounded tentative, unsure, but after a moment his voice became powerful and oddly strained, almost as if the scroll were reading itself through him. As he read, the ancient letters evaporated one by one from the parchment; and when the page was blank, Tagart let it go and it fluttered to the ground. His eyes closed, he raised his hands and held them out toward the old keep.
Nothing happened for ten full seconds. Then, suddenly, the luminous barrier flickered once, then again, then vanished. There was no sound, no flash of light; it was just gone. Tagart's arms dropped to his side and he let out a breath of air. He was just Tagart once again.
The warriors all drew their weapons, and Katra moved forward. She grasped the wrought-iron handle of the door and pushed it inward. The door began to swing on its hinges, and then, to her surprise, the handle came off in her hand. With a loud creak and then a cracking noise, the door fell from its upper hinge. Immediately, they heard voices shouting from a room within the castle, and a moment later two silhouetted figures appeared in a doorway across from them.
Katra, Jalafin, Janis, and Autumn hurried through the doorway to engage the defending soldiers, while the rest of the party prepared to join the battle. But before they knew it, the battle was over; to their surprise, there were only four guards, and within moments the four warriors had made quick work of them. The party ran across to the inner room, expecting more resistance, but instead they saw only an empty room -- empty except for the eleven children, laid out in a row on a long blanket, apparently unconscious.
As they entered the room, Orbin noticed an odd, shimmering effect in one corner. He pointed it out to Tagart, who walked over and repeated his burning-hands spell, covering the entire area with flame. But there was nothing there, and Orbin then remembered the odd shimmering effect he had seen in the forest south of Luiry -- the same shimmering effect that had apparently carried Jazzie all the way to Darabont Castle. The shimmer in this room had now dissipated, and Orbin speculated that perhaps someone had just left.
Everyone else's attention was focused on the children. They were indeed unconscious, but they seemed otherwise unharmed. They were difficult to awaken, but once shaken awake, they opened their eyes and asked where they were, and where their parents were. Based on this, and the fact that the children were all in night clothes, the party concluded that the children had been asleep ever since their abduction four days ago.
Suddenly, they heard an ominous grinding sound from above, the sound of stone sliding against stong. The ceiling of the room seemed to shift, and flakes of stone fell to the floor. The old keep, which had been restored using magic, had returned to its former state by Tagart's spell, and the ancient stone was beginning to give way once again. Hurrying the children along, the party ran from the keep just in time as the wall of the room they had been in toppled over.
It was just after midnight, but lights came on in windows along the main road as they trooped through Randa with the children in tow. Soon overjoyed townspeople streamed out of their doors, and parents were reunited with their children. Vandis and Mebron came out of Tom's Tavern looking delighted, but also a little surprised. "You actually did it," Vandis said. "I must admit, I wasn't sure. I cannot tell you how thankful we are. What can we do to repay you? We can certainly pay you all of the money we were going to pay Walto, but even that doesn't seem enough..."
"We don't want your money," Orbin said. "Getting these kids back to their families is enough."
But, of course, that didn't prevent him from selling a few hand tools to some of the grateful parents who came up to shake his hand.