17 Peonu, TR720
Out on the Silver Way
The mood of the caravan was definitely improved when Nolomar rose bright and full. There had been no combat all night.
Breakfast passed faster than usual; most everyone was eager to get underway, and cross trail they hadn’t been on recently.
Kaelar maintained the cliff-top patrol.
Mid-morning: gargun sign atop the cliff. It was several days old, but made all concerned uneasy.
They were pulling away from the river now, cutting overland instead of staying next to the Nephen right up to where the Guthe joined it. As the terrain lay, this cut a good five miles off the trip. But it did mean rationed water.
Many of the merchants - and some of the guides — relaxed visibly when the trail opened into a wider plateau. With the cliffs further away and ground cover easily searched, they were far safer than at any time over the past three days.
Lunch was a fairly routine affair, with hot soup and flatbreads.
By days’ end, they were about 3 miles from the Guthe rapids.
Inside the Dyrak base camp
Duncan and Grindin, with his large support team, prepared to leave right after an early breakfast. Arlund decided to come along; he was certainly welcome. As he turned the last grain cakes and sliced the last pieces of hard sausage, most of the cave was still waking up.
Duff had been up for an hour already, sketching the insides of a crossbow that one of the warriors was repairing. But then, Duff seemed to be everywhere that the dwarves were making things; sketching, practicing, asking questions, doing grunt work for a chance to observe. The Khuzan smiths tolerated his presence and smiled when he was not around. None of what he was seeing was a clan secret; to them, this was all routine work and his questions those of a new apprentice. So few humans showed any interest at all, and even less showed any talent. Grindin had spoken to them about this one –
The forges were running and noisy; the workshops seemed to run all the time, with shifts of smiths turning out more bolts for the Fana warriors. Aerith and Sif were sleeping in; K’Arandi had finally gotten to a dreamless sleep. In the next hour or so, the other cooks would be starting breakfast for about sixty; the smell would get everyone else up just about sunrise.
The trip back to Fana was fairly uneventful. He had grown up in forest; the quiet of the rugged terrain near Fana was disturbing. Even knowing that it was because of the gargun presence, it was bothersome. With light packs and numerous mules carrying the heavy supplies, the trip went quickly and they were at the artillery platform by midmorning. Most of the supplies were military; more food, more bolts, extra and repaired crossbows, rope and bedrolls, and so forth. However, there were several barrels that were set aside for the team descending into the catacombs.
It took some time to cut a path through the bramble to the shaft down, but this was unavoidable. There was simply no way to wrestle equipment through those narrow game-trails inside the thicket. Duncan crawled through the trail and pushed a staff up through the branches into clear air while others found the best way to get there. Brambles hundreds of years old are not something cut in moments. Machetes would not have helped; swords would have just dulled. Many of the primary branches were 3 and 4 inches thick; the job was more like an excavation, handled with saws and axes.
By noon, the path was clear. Standing upright, a man or dwarf could walk upright all the way to the shaft capstone without passing under any brush. This last was important, since they planned to lower fire into the shaft to force ventilation. It would be all too easy to ignite all that dead and dry bramble, creating a huge brush fire. Even with the cleared path, several barrels of water were brought up from the stream to soak down all the nearby brush.
There was only a light breeze. It would not help to spread any embers or flame, nor was it enough to help ventilate the shaft.
Pulling up the capstone, Duncan and Grindin looked down the shaft. The air did not smell different, and the hole was just as black. That meant nothing, of course. The plan was for Duncan to make the first descent, as the one most familiar with it. He carried his lantern already lit and turned far down, and some extra oil. He also carried a large waterskin, tightly full of fresh air. He and Grindin had a simple set of pull-codes for the several steps of the plan. The last part of their preparations was to throw a lot of straw and kindling down the hole.
After checking the safety arrangements and making sure that all was ready, he unceremoniously headed down the rope.
By midday, the Dyrak base camp was full of activity; weapons being made and repaired, cooking and eating in shifts, animals being tended, and all the logistics of a military support base. Duff was still all over. Sif was up and tottering about, acting every inch the convalescent. Aerith was usually near her. And K’Arandi was sitting outside the front entrance to the cave, in the open air. It had taken some discussion to get the guards to permit this. Even with victory within their grasp, they were still concerned about gargun getting her scent. After centuries of killing every gargun that entered the valley and making it a taboo place to them, they were still concerned. Of course, it was that level of care that had kept them alive in the first place.
Her concern was that she, too, had unfinished business in the catacombs. With all the poison gas she could not go back inside. But if she could make contact with Karzak, maybe she didn’t need to.
And so she sat out there, legs tucked comfortably under her, inside a circle of Eagle feathers and pebbles from Fana, tapping on her spirit drum and singing to the spirits. She sang to the spirits of the brush nearby, and to the stones. She sang to the spirits watching over this little valley, to the bright spirits of the sky, and to the greater spirits of the mountains themselves. And she kept singing to Karzak. She sang to all the spirits she thought could help her contact Karzak. And in her singing, she put forth the power of her training, and the power of her own spirit.
An hour passed. Then another hour. She had contacted Karzak several times before, from greater distances than this, and it had never been so hard. She did not open her eyes, did not break out of her meditations, but she felt the change in the sunlight. A lot of time was passing. Finally she felt the cold of the spirit world envelop her. As always, it was an eerie sensation. To one without her training, it would be frightening. To her, it was a signal that she could open her eyes.
She was back in the catacombs. She blinked, fighting back the strange sense of double vision. She could still distantly feel the sunlight across her shoulders, but she saw the darkness of the cavern, felt the chill of the air. As she had many times before, she wondered if her eyes were actually open or not.
She couldn’t see Karzak, but she felt his presence.
Duncan passed the final splice in the rope. He should be about fifty feet from the bottom. A few more knots, and he could tell that the flame in his lantern was beginning to dim. He paused to turn it up, and the flame was definitely more blue than before. Not a good sign.
It took a moment to lash a line around his belt and up to the knot just above him, freeing up both arms for a moment. With both legs and his back against the wall, he unlimbered the waterskin and took a light pull. His head cleared a touch. Not a good sign. He re-rigged his gear, released the tie-line, and climbed back up twenty feet. The lantern showed that the air was still good up there.
Again, he braced his back and legs against the sides of the shaft and added a rag under his hands, started taking large, deep rapid breaths. One, two, three…
At ten, his head was beginning to spin. He took one final deep breath and started sliding down the rope as fast as he could.
He hit the bottom of the shaft with little flame left. Pausing only to turn it up higher, he headed up the northern passage to look at the piled stone. He did not have much time; he was still holding his breath.
There was a small chink in the pile; something had settled since he and Arlund had piled up the rubble. Fixing that only took a few moments. When he couldn’t stand it any more, he took another pull on the airskin. With that done, he trotted back to the shaft and tugged on the rope twice. In a few seconds he could see something bright and yellow at the top of the shaft; a firebowl full of flaming oil being lowered down. He started climbing back up the rope to where the air was better.
When the bowl was only a few yards above him, he again took several rapid deep breaths and slid down the rope. He could already tell that there was an effect; he could see dust particles drifting upwards in the shaft. The hot air rising from the firebowl was creating a draft, forcing the bad air at the bottom to rise. Near the bottom of the shaft, he loosely gathered up the last ten feet of rope and knotted it out of the way, then dropped down onto the straw; when the bowl was in reach, he unhooked it from its’ own rope and tugged once on the line. It was swiftly withdrawn, and he tipped the firebowl into the heap of straw at the bottom of the shaft, then scurried to the passageway.
The straw caught immediately. In moments, it was tough to breathe in the chamber, and the flames were licking their way up the chimney. They were still blue flames, but growing. In a moment came the reaction he was waiting for; there was a blast of fresh air rushing back down the chimney. It nearly put out the flames, and scattered embers all over, but the flames turned bright yellow and grew rapidly.
His airskin was nearly flat by the time the flames died down to embers. A few moments kicking them apart effectively put out the fire and he risked taking a breath, airskin at hand. It was full of the smell of fire, but fresh. Smiling, he began free-climbing up the shaft to untie the descent rope. A couple of tugs, and Grindin began his way down.
Karzak’s voice echoed as always, but seemed more tired than ever. “I am here. Why have you called?”
“There are many dead in the catacombs of Fana. Dead, without names, and I fear they will be forgotten. You protect them. Can you identify them?”
“I can. Long ago, when they still had strength, I spoke with them. Now they have faded away and I can no longer hear them.”
“Where have they gone? They do not sleep, waiting to be called back to life. You told me that, for they have not been properly entombed.”
“They wait, but they are not at peace. I will tell you of them, but they are many. Are you prepared to remember such a list?”
Oops. “A moment.” She felt around, rapped on the entrance with a rock. It opened and the guard stepped out. Before he spoke, she asked, “Can you write?” He agreed, and she asked him to fetch writing materials, quickly. She had something of great importance to dictate. He was back in moments. She had spent the time tracing a map in the dirt, a map of the catacombs. She could see each body and each alcove.
When she felt the guard sit near her, she returned her attention to Karzak. “I am ready.” She could vaguely see him as a pale aura, roughly Khuzan-shaped. It was near one of the bodies, pointing.
“This body is mine.” The eerie whisper was stronger. She pointed on her sketch to the correct circle, rattled off the information to the guard. “In the back of the chamber, in the upper alcove to the south, lies the body of Ren, of Clan Dyrak. He was killed in the initial attack by the gargun, in 135, Tuzyn Reckoning.” She relayed this. “Below him lies the body of Uzek, a great warrior of Clan Zurinda. His axe is still near him, and can be identified by the eagle design on the haft. He fell in the same battle, in 135. In the next upper alcove lie the remains of …”
Grindin reached the bottom of the shaft with little difficulty, dropping the last few feet of the rope as he went. Duncan’s lantern was burning brightly, and he guided Grindin to the northern passage. A few moments’ inspection with the lantern flame showed that a little bad air was still coming through, but very little.
A similar inspection of the southern passageway showed that it had not been as well sealed. On the other hand, it did not appear that this would be a source of bad air. The smell of old death, yes, but not poison air.
Grindin smiled at Duncan. “This can be fixed. Both can. Rest easy.” He went back to the rope, tugged it three times. In a few minutes, several small barrels had been lowered down, and Khuzan masons were on the way.
Duncan rocked the barrels. Two were very heavy and solid; the third seemed to hold water. He looked a question to Grindin, who chuckled. “Two casks of lime putty, and one of water to work it into mortar. When the workmen get to the bottom, we will drop down a few thousand pounds of clean loose stones we have gathered. When Fana needed a secret exit through the catacombs, it was important that the wall be loose and easily penetrated. Now it is important that the wall be solid.
“Today, we will fill in as much of the passageways as we have stone for, and cement them in place. Later, when the other ceremonies have been finished, we will close the entire chamber with mortar and stone. When we are done, there shall be no air spaces left, and all the mortar fully cured. With that done, we shall fill the entire shaft with mortar and rubble until the fallen of Fana may be assured this entrance cannot bring enemies to their unprotected backs.” Duncan felt uncomfortable at the thought, remembering that this was how he had entered. Grindin noticed the look. “Rest easy, Duncan. Your entry was vital to bringing peace to the fallen. For all this time, they have had this threat - and only you few seem to have found the way down. Look, the masons arrive.”
With the last of the workmen down, a double tug on the rope brought a shout to get to safety. A moment later, a crashing, pounding cascade of stones began. When the thunder ceased and the dust settled, the entire central chamber was knee-deep in rocks. The masons divided into two teams and opened their casks.
Hours later, the air was again getting foul. Even though the workmen had rotated up the shaft in shifts about an hour long, Grindin and Duncan had both remained below, climbing occasionally forty or fifty feet up the rope to clear their lungs. Working with a speed that would astonish human masons, the Khuzan teams had constructed layers of stone, fitting the rocks together like an intricate three-dimensional puzzle. Surprisingly little mortar was used; the stones were chipped to fit together tightly. First a layer of mortar to seal the rubble, then a layer of stones across that and to the ceiling using the mortar only to fill the chinks; then another, and another…
When the lime putty gave out, each passage was blocked and mortared fully five feet back from the original hole. Even Duncan nodded in satisfaction. Grindin watched the last of the workmen begin the long climb, nodded at the southern passage.
“I think Karzak would agree that the intrusion has been set to rights.” Duncan smiled, for the first time all day.
“Aye. You go on up. I will be up soon.” Grindin nodded. In a few minutes, he started the climb himself, leaving Duncan again alone in the cave.
Duncan looked around, breathed a heavy sigh of relief. He could feel the weight on his shoulders lifting. Perhaps Karzak was nearby. Even if he was not, he would be able to see that Duncan had done his best to leave the entombed dead safe. There was still a bit of the mortar left; he had scooped it out early on, and kept it moist. It spread out into a patch about four inches across on the northern wall. With a twig, Duncan pressed into it a design. It was one he knew well by heart. He had been taught it many years ago, and he had seen it again recently. There was a connection between this place and the duties of his clan, and he would have to find out the details of the mystery. Why had the Horn been here? And why had that coin been there, to suggest that the Horn had passed through Kiraz?
When he was done, he did not look back. Climbing up the rope, he left behind the image of the Great Seal of the City of Kiraz.
Back inside the Dyrak cave, Duff was still drawing and questioning. He felt the press of time; in only a day he would be leaving, and there was so many things left to learn! But he was feeling more confident about the future.
In a year or so, he intended to return to Gwaeryn, to bring proof that he was fit to be proclaimed Shenava, a Journeyman magician among the workers of metal and stone - the Jmorvi. By Guild rules, he would need to bring presents. New spells were welcomed; new magickal treasures were acclaimed.
Already, he had succeeded in inventing one new spell, to change the shape of a thing in one dimension only. That was the secret of his strange steel staff. It rested at the back of his belt, a hollow cylinder of steel with thick walls, only six inches long. When he used his spell upon it, the length changed at his command, becoming a staff six feet long. It was still the same diameter, but the walls became much thinner. It was necessary, since his spell did not change the amount of steel present. Instead of a cylinder with a tiny hole, it became a long tube. Working out how big to make his steel bar, and how long he could make it while keeping enough strength to be useful as a fighting staff, those had been difficult. And rewarding. The look on the mercenary’s face when Duff pulled a fighting staff out of nowhere had been most pleasing indeed.
One spell, of low complexity. He had plans for several others. In his meditations he felt he had worked out one even simpler, to measure small distances more accurately. The Khuzdul seemed able to do that routinely. The key Duncan had carved from memory still irritated him. They could see heat differences he could not, sense changes in the stone he could not feel, they lived longer than men by far, and spent many decades honing their craft. And now it seemed they could judge by eye distances with inordinate accuracy. He now understood why the dwarves had allowed him to watch, and ask, and sketch; no matter how may questions he might ask, he simply had not the innate abilities they did. The innate superiority of Khuzan craftsmanship seemed so utterly beyond human potential. But - he took a mental breath - that did not mean humans could not aspire to come close.
That was his plan, to return to Gwaeryn with new spells, and new knowledge. The warmth from his father, finding that his son had learned directly from Khuzan masters! And - here Duff was even more pleased - to be able to present to the Gwaeryn masters design sketches showing the workings of Khuzan equipment! Surely that would secure his confirmation as Shenava. Already he had drawings of a Khuzan forge, except for that one frustrating box in the air delivery system. And he had the workings of a Khuzan military heavy crossbow. Even if it was not permitted under Orbaal law, the intricacies of its’ design would delight the Gwaeryn craftsmen as a pure engineering solution.
But just in case - he continued making other plans, designing other works.
“…Merick the Maker of Blades was the last to fall, in the assault in 695. His body lies there, closest to the doorway. No other Khuzan has fallen to Fana’s Foulspawn since then, and no humans connected with Dyrak’s attempts to retake the mine.”
“47 names, matched to 47 bodies. Clan Dyrak will be pleased to know that the dead have been named and accounted for. But you phrase it oddly. Are there other humans who have fallen?”
“23 humans and 7 Khuzan have been killed by Fana since 695. But they were killed for other reasons. Travelers who fought poorly, and men of low morals who thought they could trade with the gargun. They do not belong on the honor rolls of Fana, and are not my concern.”
K’Arandi nodded. She was not about to dispute the value of lives with a spirit long dead. “Are there other names who should be here?”
“Indeed. There are also those who fell in the various assaults but were eaten by the Foulspawn. Glory and honor is not only for those whose bodies survive; it is for those who fell in valor.”
“Do you know their names?”
“I know their names, and their tales. I will tell you, and he will write their tales.”
“K’Arandi interrupted him - a risky thing, to interrupt a spirit. “How many are there?” Her stomach was feeling empty.
“There are one hundred and twelve who are now only spirits with no anchor to your world.”
Inwardly, she sighed.
Sunset outside Fana. Grindin and the dwarves of Clan Dyrak set up a great dinner in honor of the dead of Fana. Extra places were set, so the shades would feel welcome. One place in particular was reserved for Karzak.
With venison turning on a spit and the white roots roasting in the coals, ale began to flow more freely. The warriors down the hillside came up in rotation for food. Even the skirmish patrols came in, in small groups. All evening the dinner continued. It was an affair both somber and lively. It was lively as all occasions with victorious warriors and ale should be; it was somber because of the occasion.
By the middle of the evening, things began to quiet down.
18 Peonu, TR720
On the Silver Way
The morning was mostly just more slogging along. Yang trotted ahead on his brown horse and back, keeping an eye on the route ahead. Yin was busy tending to this mule or that horse. Her herbs came in very handy when one of the senior guides took a fall. His mount had shied from a small lizard and went over a small embankment. Both rider and mount needed her attention. The horse was the more important, of course - the rider didn’t need to have his leg in good shape to stay moving. Fortunately, it was not a complex injury and her herbs soothed the horse enough it was willing to walk. Not with a rider or a load, but at least it would be able to keep up.
Lunch came none too soon. They had come back to water, but now they were going upstream of the Guthe, rather than downstream of the Hephen. The Guthe was wider and slower, and quieter. They were past the great cataracts and falls of the Nephen, and passing the Guthe rapids. Over time, a section near the campsite had been improved and deepened, providing a natural cove for fishing. It was also highly useful for swimming, though few people knew how. But it was the best place for bathing for leagues around, and very popular. Even folk who don’t normally bathe more than once a tenday found this a good time to shed some of the trail dirt, and even wash some of their clothes.
Fortunately, this happened on every trip and was planned into the schedule.
It did raise a few eyebrows when Yang knelt down at the water’s edge to do his own washing - with his sister next to him doing her own. Everyone else cleaning clothes was either a woman, or an unmarried man who hadn’t been able to convince one of the women to do his washing for him. A silver per armful was quite the offer, and several men asked Yin.
Actually, they tended to look at Yang while making their offer, and Yin suddenly realized that they were talking about her washing the clothes they were wearing - and there might indeed be more involved in the offer than simply washing. With him there, the men were keeping their invitations a bit more subtle. Yang shrugged and stayed nearby while Yin washed several outfits. Tunic, breeches or leg wrappings, foot wrappings, a cloak - that was a full armload. She did not outright refuse to help them doff their clothes, but neither did she offer to help.
Well before his clothes were dry, Yang had put them back on. He and Yin promptly got into a water-fight. As usual, it started with him splashing her. Before it petered out, both were laughing and wrestling in chest-deep water, splashing anyone nearby.
Oddly enough, her clothes seemed pretty well cleaned before they got out of the water. But she was 3 silver richer –
The caravan didn’t get moving until mid-afternoon. With a wide road and flat ground, they could travel much faster. Even with only about 3 hours of light left, everyone was in high spirits and moving quickly; they got to the overnight campsite just as the sun was setting. Kaelar’s advance scouts set up fires on stone pedestals to provide more light and help cut the chill. Clearly, this was part of the routine.
The evening went well, and even though much of the camp remained boisterous, there was no trouble of consequence.
In the Dyrak base camp, things were starting to wrap up.
Duff was spending more time making frantic schedules, sometimes mere doodles that he hoped to clean up later if he could remember all the details.
Arlund was busy making up trial food and trying to identify the odd spice mixtures the Khuzan cooks preferred. There were at least half a dozen mushrooms that he hadn’t identified yet; they seemed to be native to the region.
Sif was sufficiently healed by sunset to be able to discard the bandages. She was still injured and quite cranky; she and Duff had frequent spats. It seemed to bother her enormously that he had carried her all the way back to the cave, and then hadn’t tried to get any closer. The fact that her right arm and right leg had only recently been useless didn’t seem to bother her much. She was also still nursing closed wounds in her scalp, and across her stomach. She was well enough to make jokes about her head wound keeping her from thinking clearly. Aerith quietly stayed nearby.
K’Arandi meditated, tried to regain her energies and mental balance. After yesterday’s lengthy contact with Karzak she was not only mentally strained but physically exhausted. Still, it had resulted in a long document with the names, dates of death, and brief data on all of the people Karzak had told her were worth inclusion in the Khuzan ceremonies. She still had the document on her person; the guard had kept records as best he could, and the two of them had worked with another warrior to produce a much more formal list.
Much of the evening was spent pulling their gear together and saying farewell to their new friends among the Khuzdul. That last dinner was a bittersweet occasion.
Duncan kept busy all day helping out with the various support teams. He inspected the stonework covering the smelter vents. The site had been much less nerve-wracking late at night, when the precipice nearby was less visible. He also helped with the grunt work of preparing new ammunition for the mule, and even went out with one of the skirmish teams to see the type of terrain they had to deal with.
Late in the afternoon, he was down in front of Fana when there was another escape attempt. In seconds, a dozen crossbow bolts not only killed the several lead gargun, but also threw them right back inside the entrance.
Mid-evening, after dinner, the cooks served the last of the haunch of venison. In preparation for the lunch festivities to come, they buried two haunches of venison in a carefully-prepared pit lined with leaves and hot coals.
19 Peonu, TR720
Morning at the cave. Everyone was up early. Breaking fast was as solid a meal as ever; the Khuzdul don’t seem to eat lightly. But somehow there was less discussion and fellowship than usual. Perhaps the fare-thee-wells had already been said.
It was no small group heading back to Fana. Three dwarves were coming along with the party as guides to the Silver Way, in addition to fully forty dwarves rotating back into their combat assignments. A dozen mules were well-laden.
Before leaving, Duff caught up to one of the older dwarves. “Sir? I wanted you to have this. I am confident that the retaking of Fana will be a celebrated event. Since I have played a small part in it, I expect that my name will be mentioned along with the others. I would like it to be handled correctly.”
The old scholar blinked, accepted the vellum, look it over. It was a short autobiography, mentioning his studies at Gwaeryn and his family but not his arcane training. The scholar nodded and tucked the note away; Duff smiled and returned to the group.
As Duncan had found the day before, the trip back to Fana was disturbingly quiet. K’Arandi tried to think of it as peaceful. After all, there had been many extra voices around her recently.
They arrived back at Fana midmorning, to find an early lunch already prepared. Long-roasted venison and white roots, dark barley bread and Khuzan stout. They ate well. When lunch was done and everyone had an ale in hand, Grindin rose.
“Today is a day to celebrate. We have killed hundreds of the Foulspawn. They are trapped within their usurped home, away from food, away from water. When they try to leave, we kill more of them; even then, we deny them even the flesh and bones of their brothers.” There was much cheering and raising of leatherjacks. When the toasting quieted down, he continued.
“Never before have we been so close to retaking Fana. Even the spirits agree on this. With the help of those who have joined us here,” - he indicated K’Arandi specifically - “we have the assurances of the spirits that the weapon they have used for so long to deny us our property, our heritage, is beyond their reach.” There was more cheering, more toasting.
“Yesterday I sent word back to Pedwar and to Zerhun. More troops are on the way, to make even more certain that Fana returns to us. In a tenday we will reopen the stacks and begin venting off the poisonous air within the mine. A tenday beyond that, we will begin our final assault upon the usurpers.
“I am so certain of the final result that I am today declaring victory and the close of the contract. We will pay per the terms of the agreements. There are those among us who have other obligations to which they must return.” He turned to a chest, selected a pouch, held it out.
“Duff. As we agreed.” Duff took it; it jingled with coins. Grindin caught his eye, quietly added, “You we have paid most of all.” He turned to Duncan, leaving Duff to consider the words.
“Duncan. You bring honor to your clan. The terms of our agreement shall be honored.” Duncan met his eyes squarely, nodded once. Grindin moved on.
“Aerith.” He held out a pouch. “As we agreed.” Aerith took it. It did not jingle and seemed light. Frowning, he decided it was not a good moment to look inside.
“K’Arandi.” He held out another pouch. “As we agreed.” She took it; this jingled and was distinctly heavy with coins. It was too heavy, in fact, and she looked up at Grindin with a question in her eye. He smiled.
“I thought you might ask. We are not known for paying more than is due. By the terms of our agreement, you are owed 24 silver. However,” and here he addressed his words to the assembled group - “you have provided far more than was agreed to. Your kinship with the spirit world has reclaimed for us a treasure we thought lost. I have here,” he held up a thick stack of vellum - “the names, tales, and positions of those fallen within Fana so that we do them proper honor. One hundred and fifty-nine names to add to the Rolls of the Dead.” There was an outbreak of cheering from the dwarven warriors. It appeared to be genuine, not a response to some cue. When it quieted down, he continued. “These are things of value to us, as you see. They are beyond price, but it is a debt that needs to be acknowledged. Thus, a token payment for each name has been included.”
“Arlund.” He held out another pouch. It, too, jingled. “As we agreed.” Arlund took it and retreated back to his ale.
“Sif.” His hands were empty. She stood up before he could continue.
“I came here without making an agreement, without even your knowledge. How is it you intend to pay me, and under what terms?” Her tone was a challenge, but he smiled.
“It is true that the Khuzdul hold to their agreements. It is more true that they hold to their word. It is even more true that the Khuzan heart believes in honest work and in just payment for debts owed. Does it not?” The last was thrown out to the dwarven warriors assembled around. The rumbles of assent and the raised ales confirmed his words. “You have acted here, to great effect. Whatever your motives, it was you who slew the Queen of Fana and her handmaidens. We owe you, and we choose to settle the debt.” He handed her a pouch.
Grindin continued tolling off the list of those leaving the effort, paying off those whose contract was now fulfilled. Aerith took the opportunity to open the pouch. It contained a single coin, a heavy one. Gold. Stamped with the mark of Azadmere. He turned it over for a moment, wondering; then remembered his disputing payment of a crown, back in Pedwar. He had indeed been paid precisely according to the agreement.
It took him a bit longer to wonder how much trouble he was going to have actually using that single rare coin for a purchase. He had never seen an Azadmere crown before; he’d heard stories. How many merchants had seen one? More importantly, how many merchants would be able to exchange one?
Duff looked into his pouch when he had a quiet moment. Dozens of silver coins; a quick counting added up correctly. But there was an extra disk. Brass — no, bronze. A bit smaller than a coin, and stamped on both sides. The obverse showed a pair of mountains with a wall between them; the reverse showed a heraldic design. The same design as on the reverse of all those silver pennies. A mistake? He dismissed the thought. This was payment of some sort; the dwarves would not be likely to make a mistake in that. A token, definitely. An extra reward. Perhaps a pass to enter somewhere? But what would - oh, yes. The obverse design was a stylized image of Zerhun. Perhaps a pass to enter the dwarven kingdom?
He was smiling when he closed the pouch.
About noon, the party gathered up their things and set off, with their three dwarven guides. The trip was arduous but uneventful. In three leagues they dropped over a thousand feet, getting back below the tree line and reaching the trail only a fraction of a mile ahead of the caravan scouts.
Yang was in the lead. He rounded a bend, saw a group in the road ahead. They were definitely familiar. Duncan was sitting in the middle of the trail, surrounded by Duff and Arlund. And K’Arandi, and the others. Yang reared his horse in salute, spun and cantered back to let Kaelar know.
In less than a half-hour the caravan had caught up and they were busy recounting their tales to the lead personnel. Kaelar asked them to please hold until dinner time, and gave them their assignments. After all, in less than an hour more they would be at their next campsite.
The evening was a glorious celebration of the taking of Fana. Ale flowed and tales were told and retold. In the morning, they knew, they would be back to their caravan assignments. But for now, they were feted as heroes.
20 Peonu, TR720
Morning went quietly. Particularly quietly. There were many hangovers. Kaelar smiled and went about his business. When he raised his voice that morning, he got even more rapid results than usual.
Come lunchtime, he could tell who had overindulged last night. They still were not feeling up to a full meal. However, the caravan was still making good time.
They were moving near the Guthe River; it was a short enough walk that many of the available staff members were filling water barrels, pouring river water through Kaelar’s boxes.
After helping with a dozen barrels, Sif decided it was time to get clean. A nice spot on the other side of some reeds slowed the water enough to make a nice bathing pool. It didn’t provide much privacy, but that did not occur to her. She draped her clothes on nearby brush and stepped into the waist-deep water.
Catcalls from the riverbank went unnoticed for a few minutes, until she realized what they meant. Once she understood, she looked up at her audience - and the men faded away. All except for Yang, who remained on his horse, watching. It wasn’t quite a stare; he was watching things around here as well, but he was certainly watching her with great appreciation and a smile.
She considered inviting him to join her, but people were drifting back to the caravan and the horns were a call to get ready to move. Drat.
The next stop was the ford across the Guthe River. He expected to arrive mid-afternoon. It would be a hard few hours getting all the people and animals to the other side for the evening camp. Already he had detailed Yang and a senior guide to go ahead and take care of certain preparations. It had been an interesting private exchange:
“You, and you. It is only a few more miles to the Guthe crossing.” The senior guide, a husky man named Jerren, nodded.
“Time for payment?” Kaelar nodded. Yang looked from one to the other, said nothing. Kaelar look up at him.
“The other side of the river is claimed by Kaldor. They claim it, but do not control it. This side of the river is Azadmere’s as much as it is anyone’s. But our campsite is on the other side. We have arranged for additional supplies, which will be waiting. Jerren has done this before. Ford the river and take across our payment.” He pointed at a pile near him. Yang cocked an eyebrow.
“Three heavy crossbows and a barrel?”
“Do not open the cask. You will need to rig the rope for the crossing; Jerren knows where the rope is. A thousand feet of one-inch line. Do not cut if it you don’t need to; long rope is expensive. Once you have set the rope, bring the cask across. It is tarred inside and out, so a dunking will not likely hurt it. But do not drag it underwater. Once it is across, make sure the camp is secure. Then Jerren can fetch the supplies into the evening camp while you return across the water to help get mules moving.”
And off they went.
Yang and Jerren came up to the lookout point over the ford with high spirits. The last few days had gone well. The caravan was on schedule, the threat of gargun apparently over, reasonably clean clothes, and good weather today.
The river, Jerren explained, was nearly a hundred yards across here, and about 6 feet deep. It was commonly that wide, but not normally that deep; many small streams added into the Guthe coming through the mountains. And with all the heavy snow of the past winter melting, the flow was quite fast; they’d already seen it downstream before some of the tributary streams broke off to water the plains. The ford had been built up over the years, solid stonework under the surface, until it was only about a foot deep with some tricks to divert much of the water. Channels under the ford carried much of the flow. Without such diversion, the water might be only shin deep but it would be moving so fast as to sweep people away. As redesigned, there should be little trouble. Just a lot of tedious hard work getting all the skittish mules across.
Then he topped the lookout and started swearing.
“Yang, look. There, and there. And over there. It’s all white water. See the way the water tosses over there? The diverting channels are blocked, and it’s washed out the ford!”
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