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The Mystara Chronicles XI: "The Queen of the North"

by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)

In response to Alexander's invitation the door to the guest chamber swung open on near-silent hinges. Kaerin entered the room followed closely by the baron, lines of worry creasing the face of the one-armed lord. His fingers twitched nervously as his eyes flickered from face to face. "Gentlemen, I trust that my servants have delivered the money that you were promised? Good." Kaerin answered his own question before any of the companions had chance to do aught but nod. He sat down with a slow exhalation of breath audible to the party. Sherlane remained standing, a fact that seemed somewhat ominous to Alexander. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Thalaric's hand resting casually on his belt, near the handle of his knife.

"I have had a difficult day, and I am sure that you have as well," Kaerin continued. "My home has been invaded twice today, first by those two thieves, and second by the men that you slew. The first instance I can understand; it is surely nothing unusual, unfortunately, for the sin-stained to seek to steal the property of the wealthy. I am very familiar with this phenomenon from my years living in Specularum. I had thought that the north would be less prone to crime and vice, but clearly I was mistaken.

"But this second instance confuses me greatly. The baron and I have begun to suspect that these men were let into my home by Sabinus- my butler and my father's before me- as he is nowhere to be found. Adding also to our suspicion is the fact that the trapdoor that led down into the basement was found in his pantry, a trapdoor that was previously unknown to me or to any of my staff that accompanied me from Specularum, although- I should add- apparently discovered by the women thieves.

"Nevertheless the question remains, gentlemen: why would he do this to me? Who were those men and what did they hope to find in the basement? We retrieved their bodies, and I find it hard to believe that they were common burglars. They were armed to the teeth, almost like soldiers or mercenaries. Tell me, did you find anything that might explain what they were doing?"

Varis looked at his companions, saw them gazing back at him with surrender in their eyes. He nodded slowly to them, thanking them for their trust. "Lord Kaerin, in your father's basement we found a room sealed by magic. The brigands whom we slew possessed- to our surprise- a magical key that unlocked this room. Inside we found the tiara," he handed over Kavorquian's journal, "but we also found this. I think you should read it for yourself."

With a quizzical look in his eye, the one-armed lord of the manor took the book. Placing it on a side table, he flipped it open. "What is this?"

"It was one of your father's journals," Alexander said. "I am sorry, Lord Kaerin."

The room was filled with silence as Kaerin began to read the notebook. The patriarch stood up from the chair. "What have you found?" he asked in a low, slightly tremulous voice.

"Your Eminence," Varis began weakly, "it is hard to explain."

Just then Kaerin gasped audibly. All colour seemed to leave his face, and he began to shake. "Kaerin?" Patriarch Sherlane said with concern in his voice.

Kaerin closed the book. "Excuse me," he said abruptly and fled the room, almost running over the baron in his haste. Thalaric thought he saw tears welling up in his eyes as he closed the door firmly behind him.

Baron Halaran moved to the side table and opened the book, turning the pages with expert care. The companions stood by quietly, heads hung, embarrassed by the dark family secret that they had uncovered. How will he react to this? Alexander thought, praying to Donar that his trust in Varis was not misplaced.

At long last, the baron looked up from the text. There was anger in his bright blue eyes. "I thank you for recovering this. I would be very grateful if you would consent to stay here this evening."

"Of course, master," Varis said weakly.

The aged cleric smiled tautly and closed the book. "I will take this with me. Rest yourselves." With that, he turned and left the room.

The silence in the room was oppressive. "Shit," said Alexander nervously. "What have we gotten ourselves into?"

Varis shook his head and stared at the closed door. "Something horrible. May we have the wisdom to get ourselves out of it."

* * *

The companions had nothing to do all day but rest and wait. And worry. Boldar advocated immediate flight, an idea that was quickly struck down by the rest of the group. Despite some grumbling from the dwarf, in the end the group decided to obey Halaran's request and remain in the mansion for the night. Although they felt that they had no choice but to trust Kaerin and the patriarch, none of them felt relaxed or comfortable, and they never once let their weapons stray far from their reach.

Varis fussed with Boldar's wound a bit, but the dwarf was in a foul mood and had no desire to be prodded by the philosopher. Instead, he busied himself with draining the small, carefully sealed barrel of Skullburster Black that he had carried with him ever since he first met up with the group outside of Stallanford. To him, this seemed as good a time as any to relapse into the spirit of drunkenness that had overcome him ever since he left Dengar; he would struggle with his demons once he had returned to his homeland, but while he was sojourning in this strange land, he would drink beer. He did not offer any to the others.

Soon servants arrived with food, and the companions consumed the victuals with abandon, each hungrier than he realised. The servants appeared nervous. This was not a shocking fact; after all, three of their number had been killed and their supervisor, Sabinus, had disappeared. However, it came as a bit of a surprise to the group that the rumour that it was the butler who had been responsible for letting in the men that had killed their fellow workers had passed around the house quickly. Sabinus, they said, was Kavorquian's oldest and most trusted servant, the only member of his staff to remain at the mansion after the old wizard's death. He was not loved by the retinue of retainers that came north with Kaerin. "There was something queer about him," one chambermaid said. "Something not quite right. We all steered clear of that one."

Day passed into night. The patriarch's Griffons patrolled the house ceaselessly, watching for any sign of new invaders. Although Kaerin had provided them with five bedrooms, they chose to sleep together in two, for the sake of safety and comradeship. Despite the awkward accommodations they thus hoisted upon themselves, their sleep was surprisingly deep; a day's worth of mental and physical anguish had exhausted them completely. Boldar, who had often made derisive comments to the rest of the companions concerning what seemed to him to be the excessive periods of sleep required by humans, slipped into slumber first of all. Their rest was free of dark dreams, a fact that all, especially Varis, were separately thankful for. The philosopher was half expecting Petrides to haunt his sleep again, and when he did not, he said a special prayer of thanksgiving to Koryis upon rising in the morning.

They did not see Kaerin and Sherlane again until sometime around noon on Loshdain. Their long night of uninterrupted slumber had done them good, and Boldar especially seemed to be making a fine recovery from his automaton-inflicted wound. When they met their hosts after a light luncheon, the lord and the baron bore serious looks on their faces, but they did not convey the same sense of shock and surprise that they did yesterday.

"Forgive my long absence," Kaerin said to the group contritely. "I hope that you have been well taken care of."

Alexander responded. "The staff has been most kind, Lord Kaerin. But I and my companions are concerned about you."

Kaerin smiled. "Thank you, Master Kantpatcalites. Obviously, this has come as quite a blow to father was very old when he died, and I can only pray that some madness of old age had come upon him, and that his blasphemies were not spoken of a clear mind.

"If I may impose upon you for just one more day, gentlemen: I have a rather important engagement to attend tonight." As Kaerin said this, Baron Halaran smiled broadly. "I will return late this evening. At that time, the patriarch and I would like to speak with you. Unfortunately, you have become implicated in some extremely important matters, and I think that there is much for us to talk about."

"Of course, Lord Kaerin," Alexander said, faking graciousness. "We will wait for your return."

* * *

It was late by the time Kaerin and Sherlane returned to the manor. Their absence had been quiet one; under the watchful eyes of the churchman's Griffins, there was no disturbance in the house whatsoever. The staff tried to get on with their daily routines, and the companions did their best to rest, relax, and enjoy the comforts of Kaerin's home.

Thalaric had spent most of his time in the study of the wizard's spellbooks. There was much in them that he could not understand, but what he did comprehend opened his mind to new possibilities. Borrowing pen and ink from the absent Kaerin, the elf copied several formulae from the wizard's books, gleefully considering his newfound increase in knowledge.

But this excitement was tempered by a growing sense of nervous unease concerning their situation. What had they gotten themselves into? The elf turned the facts over in his mind repeatedly, trying to force every little piece of information into a narrative, into a story that he could understand, into a tale that he could sing. To his great surprise and frustration, he was unable to do so. Just like Varis, Thalaric was truly mystified as to what was happening to them. The future likewise held no answers- at least, of the sort readily attained by intellectual prognostication- other than the most painfully obvious that the elf surmised even Fyodor and Boldar would be able to deduce: that the secrets that they had uncovered in Kavorquian's journal would surely both haunt and guide their paths for a time to come, until they extricated themselves from this web of alliances politic and dreams demonic.

Thalaric blamed his sudden attacks of fear and melancholy partially on the fact that he was forced to remain cooped up in the mansion all day long; to keep his sanity, the Vyalia spent many hours leaning out of a second-story window, smelling the air and watching birds and men go about their daily routines. Impatience was beginning to well up in him and he longed to see the Dymrak once again and leave the world of men behind.

Thus it was with great anxiousness that he and his companions met Kaerin and Baron Halaran upon their return. In contrast to yesterday, the one-armed lord appeared extremely happy, his face flushed with excitement. A richly jewelled pendant bearing an embossed Karameikan device hung dangling from a platinum chain about his neck. The patriarch, simply robed, bore a look of patient joy on his aged face. Once they saw the companions, however, they became serious, and escorted the five into a sitting room, shutting the doors after them. Sherlane began to speak.

"First, I would like to thank you for being so patient. You have brought a good deal of calm to an extremely intense and unfortunate situation.

"There is much for us to discuss. You came here two days ago bearing a note, a note that you found on the body of a man in a tomb in the Wufwolde Hills. Lord Kaerin showed me this note, and I too did not know what to make of it. Yet this find of yours, this notebook of Kavorquian's, has proven to be most insightful. Although his blasphemy is...regrettable," the patriarch cast a sympathetic glance at Kaerin, "I believe that his writings have proven most helpful in deciphering this mystery.

"What I am about to tell you concerns matters of utmost secrecy. I reveal them to you only because you have managed to become intimately involved in them, and it would be unjust not to inform you of the situation that you are in. For reasons I will explain later, I believe that the treacherous and evil Sabinus," the cleric's face became angry as he spoke, "has colluded with our enemies. Therefore, because you are known to him, I can only conclude that your very lives may be in danger.

"However, you have also become known to me, to Lord Kaerin, to many people in Karameikos who work for Law and the Immortals. I believe that together we can do great things, but it is imperative that we trust each other. Do you trust me?"

"Of course, Your Eminence," Varis said before any of his companions had the chance to reply. "Speak, and it shall be done according to your word."

The baron-patriarch steepled his fingers and nodded. "Very well. Both the note and Kavorquian's diary make reference to a queen, a warrior-woman of some sort. I know to whom this refers: a bandit who has attained to some degree of notoriety in recent years by the name of Ilyana. Flagrantly disregarding the rule of law and the stain growing on her own spirit, she has been responsible for numerous robberies, murders, and sacks of homesteads around Threshold. She is rumoured to be a fine swordswoman, at least the equal of the swordsmen that I have sent to bring her to the duke's justice, for none have returned.

"This Ilyana believes that she is the bastard daughter of the late Lord Arturus and, as such, has a claim to the rulership of the Estate of Penhaligon. She has been known to call herself 'the Queen of the North,' a fact that neatly dovetails with what has been revealed in Kavorquian's notebook.

"Threshold has had trouble with her in the past, but from what I have read it appears that now she is building some sort of army at Haradraith's Keep in the Black Peak Mountains. There can be no doubt- Kavorquian at least clearly had none- that she is planning to take what she perceives to be her birthright by force.

"We in the north are fairly isolated, as you know. The Penhaligon city guard is strong and well trained, but the closest army unit is the Duke's Road Battalion, stationed at the Duke's Road Keep in the mountain pass to Darokin. There are only about two hundred soldiers at that keep, and their primary responsibilities are to patrol the road and keep the pass open. In case of an attack, some of this force could be pulled south to assist, but that is all the help that Penhaligon could be expected to get, at least at short notice.

"Granted, Ilyana's army might amount to nothing more than a large herd of like-minded bandits, easily managed by the town guard. But even if she is unable to draw together a sufficiently large group of ne'er-do-wells to take Penhaligon by force, she could still do extreme damage to the smaller towns to the north, Irenke and Stallanford. And then there is the disturbing fact that Kavorquian, in his diary, wrote that he believed that Ilyana had recovered some sort of magical artifact, and that she had made certain dark alliances. This, gentlemen, concerns me greatly."

"Excuse me, baron," Thalaric interrupted gently. "I must admit, I am ignorant of the customs of your people, so before you go any farther I must ask a question: is this Ilyana's claim a legitimate one?"

The baron hesitated for a moment before speaking. "The Lady Penhaligon is the rightful ruler of the estate. Her liege is the duke, and she enforces the Duke's Law. Ilyana would never submit to Duke Stefan's sweet yoke. So no, her claim is not legitimate."

Varis noticed the prevarication in the patriarch's response, but did his best to brush it aside. "However, if it should come to pass that Ilyana successfully bests Arteris, the duke might feel pressured, for the sake of the stability of the realm, to acknowledge her ascendancy. You can be sure that his grace would not allow such a crass attempt at political blackmail to obtain, but the short-term results of such a rule could be catastrophic."

Kaerin interrupted. "My family has worked too hard building up this estate to have it co-opted by some bandit-queen."

"Surely the Penhaligons could raise an expeditionary force," Alexander said. "Why, a hundred men, at least, would volunteer on the spot if the lady were to put in the call for a militia."

Sherlane and Kaerin looked at each other. "True, Lady Penhaligon could gather such a force. But that would be...unacceptable."

"Why?" Boldar asked.

Varis understood. "It's politics," he said quietly. "You don't want there to be any doubt that Arteris is Arturus' rightful heir." Now that you have possession of Kavorquian's notebook, he thought, there is no proof that Arturus ever fathered a bastard.

The patriarch narrowed his eyes. "Whence our mandate?" It was a question straight out of the Specularum Catechism, one that all of the Karameikan faithful, let alone a member of a clerical order, were supposed to be familiar with.

"From the Light," Varis replied, looking at his feet. Sherlane had asked the question purposefully, to remind the philosopher of the holiness of the duke's rule, of the necessity of this subterfuge, of the importance of their trust. In one question, the patriarch had managed to put Varis to shame for even thinking that his goals were anything less than pristine. It was a rhetorical move that Varis thought Father Cesarius would have appreciated.

"That is correct," Baron Halaran replied. "It is our divinely-ordained mission to preserve the peace in the north. It is our estimation that bringing more people into our confidence regarding these events could have irreparable results.

"There is also the matter that Haradraith's Keep, where all signs indicate is the seat of Ilyana's power, lies within territory claimed by the Republic of Darokin. On the one hand, we dare not anger our northern neighbours by a military operation conducted in their territory, but on the other it is too...sensitive of a matter to involve the plutocrats of Darokin."

"Well, what can be done about it?" For some reason, Fyodor felt almost on the brink of tears.

"We would like to ask you to perform a great service for the crown."

Nervous silence.

"What kind of service, exactly?" Boldar asked warily.

The patriarch cleared his throat. "We know precious little of Ilyana's plans, of what forces she may be gathering to her, of where her alliances lie. Assuming for the moment that we can trust Kavorquian's notebook, we know that she has occupied Haradraith's Keep in the Black Peaks, but that is all that we can truly say. If a small group of capable warriors, small enough to avoid detection by Ilyana or raise questions by others, were able to travel there, they could bring us much intelligence, and hopefully even stop this problem before it starts."

Boldar snorted. "That's insane. You want us to walk into a war camp?"

"What war camp?" the patriarch replied. "We know nothing about what Ilyana has prepared. What we do know is that she harbours a grudge, that she dreams of ill-got gain and blood-bought glory. She is a threat to the realm and must be eliminated.

"Unfortunately for you, we can also be sure that she is a threat to you as individuals; for you are known to Sabinus, which means you most certainly are known to her organisation.

"Why do you think that those men you slew went through so much trouble to break into Kaerin's home? To steal his jewels? No! They wanted that book, that very book that you found and brought to our attention. And lest you think for a moment that perhaps Sabinus acted as he did to protect his master, to hide the record of his shameful acts, let me remind you that three of Kaerin's servants were killed by this man and his filthy compatriots; surely not the actions of a devoted servant but of a perverted conspirator."

Kaerin cut into the patriarch's monologue. "I am also sorry to report that the note that you originally brought to me has disappeared. I fear that Sabinus was very clever in covering up his mistress' tracks."

"Do you not see the lengths that Ilyana is willing to go to keep her plan a secret?" Baron Halaran said with a gleam in his eyes. "Does that not fill you with dread? Do you not see? You are involved...all of you."

The entire party was silent. "What exactly are you saying?" Thalaric asked, not entirely convinced that the patriarch's analysis of the situation was accurate.

"I am saying that you must realise that Ilyana will come after you. Evidently, her agents are more widespread than I thought possible. Understand that in the past she was naught more than a bandit chieftain, notorious, to be sure, but no more. Now we have reason to believe that she may have found an item of great power, perhaps an item belonging to Elendorath herself, which may have brought her increased power and influence. Do you know who Elendorath was?"

"She was the bride of Demara," Fyodor said. "She was a great warrior who made an alliance with evil spirits."

"King Demara's demon-bride," Sherlane said. "A truly interesting story, one that I wish were more studied in the curriculum. She murdered her husband and seized control of northern Traladara. In the leys it is said that she had a great blade fashioned for her by the Black Prince himself, a weapon that sliced through steel like it was paper, that could bend the will of even the demons to her own. She ruled with an iron fist from a court in the Wufwolde Hills for years before she disappeared one day and was never seen again.

"Judging from what I can see from his notebook, Kavorquian, at least, believed that Ilyana had found Elendorath's blade. In Traladaran it was known as Sebrisst, the Tyrant. Although I doubt that all of the legends attributed to it are true, I do not doubt for a moment that at least some of them are.

"And then there is this strange allusion of Kavorquian's to an accomplice, to an alliance with a spell-weaver. This is a completely unknown quantity to us. Unfortunately I have been able to find nothing else in the diary explaining this statement. I would imagine that it referred to some illegal necromantic order, but since Kavorquian himself was apparently allied with these demonolaters, it is my opinion that some other side is involved, perhaps a wizards' cabal. But this is merely speculation. My point is merely that Kavorquian appeared to be uneasy about this factor, so it ought to be something to watch out for.

"Our pseudo-bastard has obviously gained in strength as of late, with the possible acquisition of Sebrisst and this newly-made alliance. If Ilyana is binding the forces of chaos to her, if she is in fact preparing for a raid on Penhaligon, there is a chance, albeit a small one, that she may succeed. And if that happens, the north falls, at least for a time.

"My friends, we desperately need your help. You must, for the sake of the realm, travel to Haradraith's Keep, learn what you can about Ilyana's plans, and stop them if possible. You cannot turn your back on this commission. Ilyana will not let you hide even if you wish to.

"Matriarch Aleena is the one who customarily sees to such matters for us in the north. Unfortunately, she is extremely busy dealing with goblin threats to Threshold. There seems to be no other place for us to turn on such short notice."

"What about your Griffons?" Alexander asked.

The patriarch nodded. "Most of the Griffons in the north are with Aleena at the moment. I would never have consented to their use if I had known that this threat would arise. I must admit culpability in this case. I have a handful as my personal guard, and perhaps they could be lent, but they are soldiers, not adventurers. They are chosen for their dedication to the Immortals and the Duke, not for their...creativity." Varis thought he saw the faintest trace of a smile on the baron-patriarch's face. "If you wish it, I will see-"

"We don't need them," Fyodor said haughtily, rubbing the back of his head. "We can handle ourselves just fine."

"I hope so," Halaran said, his eyes betraying something that Varis picked up on immediately. It was a glimmer of sadness, of regret, that stayed for just a moment before it vanished behind the patriarch's formal exterior. "Regardless, it is of utmost importance that this situation be resolved quietly. If we must, Penhaligon and I, with the support of the duke, will raise an expeditionary force to crush Ilyana. Our victory is assured, but it would be infinitely to our advantage if it were done sooner rather than later, and by a smaller force rather than a larger. I repeat, no attention must be drawn to this matter."

"Your Eminence," Varis said, "this doesn't make any sense to me." Something was not right. He couldn't put his finger on it, but the facts of the case didn't quite add up. "No matter if Ilyana has raised an army or only a large bandit group, we number only five, and we are merely novice adventurers, not soldiers or mercenaries. What hope could we have..." Varis again felt an epiphany coming on, as if all of a sudden the entire world was made clear. They don't expect us to return, he thought. They want to send us to our deaths, so that there will be nobody to know that Ilyana truly is Arturus' bastard. He looked the patriarch right in the eye, found his horrified gaze answered by Sherlane's clear, calm, blue eyes. No, he thought. This can't be...he would never do something like this...

"Ilyana must be eliminated." The baron spoke slowly and carefully, but the philosopher saw the pain in his face, the pain that he seemed to be striving to keep secret. "The safety of the realm depends upon it. I do not know what you will find once you arrive at her stronghold, but you have proven to be resourceful. Perhaps you could infiltrate her group, perhaps she could be waylaid, perhaps her mercenaries could be will surely be a test of your mettle, but I am confident that you will be able to end this threat to the north."

"Hold just one moment, priest," Boldar said angrily. "We have not agreed to anything here-"

"Boldar," Varis put a gentle hand on the dwarf's injured shoulder. Whence our mandate? "Please, we will discuss this later." From the Light. "Your Eminence, I will go investigate Haradraith's Keep, and I will slay this Ilyana if I am able." I am a Karameikan.

"And I," Fyodor said, puffing out his chest.

"Aye," Alexander said, nodding solemnly.

Thalaric looked quizzically from the patriarch to Varis, as if he were trying to puzzle out some hidden subtext conveyed in the long looks the two were exchanging. At last, he nodded, gazing intently at Baron Halaran.

"You are all mad," Boldar said. "This is crazy. I owe you my life, Karameikan, and that is the only reason why I consent to accompany you." The dwarf glared at Varis.

Sherlane and Kaerin looked at each other and nodded. "Excellent," the lord of the manor said with a noticeable tone of relief to his voice. "May Halav strengthen you. I wish that I myself were able to accompany you, but I am afraid I am not much of a swordsman."

Fyodor glanced quickly at Kaerin's empty sleeve, pinned to the shoulder of his tunic with a gold and platinum pin. He had been doing his best not to stare, but he found himself unable to resist. "Do not worry," he said sympathetically. "We have found a blade in your father's basement that will surely be more than a match for Sebrisst." Everything was beginning to come together in Fyodor's mind. We have been chosen by Zirchev for this, he thought. Halav, what wonders have your fires revealed!

Patriarch Sherlane raised an eyebrow at this. "I am confident that any blade, wielded in the name of righteousness, has the power to overcome the Dark. But before you confront Ilyana, you must arrive at the seat of her power; hence, we must discuss Haradraith's Keep.

"For those of you who do not know this story- and how many old legends have come together in this strange affair!- it refers to a Darokinian mountain-king who arose in those parts about two hundred and fifty years ago, after Santhral II had died. He built his seat in the Black Peaks and prospered for a time before his fledgling kingdom fell, torn apart by bandit tribes and infighting within his own ranks. The keep has been deserted ever since. The occasional ranger or scout who stumbled across Haradraith's Keep often found it occupied, one time by orcs, then bandits, then goblins. From what I've heard, it eventually attained a bit of a bad reputation, as a place where dreams went to die.

"When I first saw it mentioned in Kavorquian's notebook, I recognised the name and went to Penhaligon, to the Cartographers' Guild, to borrow a map of the area." Baron Halaran stood up from his chair and, with a swishing of his robes, crossed the room to a desk. Opening the drawer, he removed a map case and gestured to the group to join him as he smoothed out the map.

It was a detail map of the north of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. The Hillfollow River, and the Duke's Road that followed its course, bifurcated the map. The hills and mountains that surrounded the coastal plain were artistically depicted. "Here is Haradraith's Keep," Sherlane said, indicating a point in the Black Peak Mountains. "See, it lies within an area claimed by Darokin. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any more specific record of where the keep lies. We can pinpoint it only to about a four-mile area. I would imagine that you should be able to find it within, say, three days of searching.

"However, if Ilyana's plans are succeeding apace, there should be an unusual amount of activity in the area. There are very few communities in this portion of the Wufwolde Hills: only Penhaligon, Stallanford, Irenke, and the Duke's Road Keep, if you count it. Besides that, and to the best of my knowledge, there isn't a single community larger than a few families anywhere in this area. And there surely is no-one living in the Black Peaks." Baron Halaran sighed deeply. "This truly is the wilderness. It is beautiful country, but it can be quite dangerous to the unprepared. Anyway, if Ilyana is gathering troops to herself, this activity would be undoubtedly obvious."

Alexander nodded over the map, surveying the artist's depiction of the Black Peak Mountains. "What do you feel is the best route for us to take?"

The patriarch squinted at the map and tapped his nose. "Unfortunately there is no quick path for you to follow. I would say that the best thing for you to do would be to head to Stallanford, cross the Hillfollow, and then travel straight through the mountains. There is no road, I'm afraid, although there may be some kind of goat trail or beaten path that you could use. If you leave tomorrow, you could be there as soon as...Tserdain? Yes, four days should be enough, assuming that you don't stray off course and are able to find the keep quickly, although I suppose it could take as long as a week."

Four days, a week on the road seemed like an awfully long journey to Fyodor, a fact that, far from intimidating the young Traladaran, actually invigorated him. He didn't quite understand all of what was at stake in this mission of theirs, but he knew that he and his friends were the only ones who were able to right a great wrong, to counter the inheritor of Sebrisst, the blade of Elendorath, Demara's Bane.

Kaerin smiled. "Well, gentlemen, enough of this dark talk. Now that we have finished with this unpleasant business, I hope that you will take a moment to share a brandy with me. I'm going to be married."

* * *

After the stress of the discussion with the companions had ended, Kaerin showed himself to be in an exceptionally good mood. The reason, as he soon told the party, was that he and Patriarch Sherlane had just come from a dinner party hosted by his cousin, Lady Penhaligon. Baron-Patriarch Desmond Kelvin had been in attendance and had finally relented to Kaerin's repeated requests and consented to betroth his daughter Alerena to him.

The child of a long-divorced first wife, Alerena had recently turned fourteen and was therefore of marriageable age. This union marked the first between the Penhaligons and the Kelvins, and the first such alliance (for that matter) between any of the Karameikan noble houses. Kaerin joked that Alerena was thus also the first of the noble "A's" to be betrothed: of Alerena Kelvin, Aleena Halaran, Arteris Penhaligon, and Adriana Karameikos, all prominent women of noble families, none save Kaerin's bride-to-be were promised to any man. Although, the lord of the manor admitted after his second snifter of brandy, it was anticipated that Baron Kelvin himself would soon be married to Adriana, the duke's only daughter.

The party was surprised to learn that Kaerin viewed the tiara and the sword that they had recovered as important contributions to his acceptable petition to the baron. They were even more surprised to learn that Kelvin had been unsure about the betrothal because Kaerin was an adopted member of the Penhaligon clan; Kavorquian was his father by law, not by nature. Although the baron had been vacillating before, not sure whether or not he thought it best for his daughter to give his consent, the gift of one of Arturus Penhaligon's crowns of office- both for its monetary and symbolic value- finally won him over. "The crown was a sign of the power of the family, of our right to rule," Kaerin said. "The fact that I could make the baron a gift of it convinced him that I was a true Penhaligon, and that my marriage to Alerena would be a true alliance between Penhaligon and Kelvin."

"And the sword?" Thalaric asked.

"I wanted to wear the blade when I re-petitioned the baron-patriarch for like reasons. Baron Kelvin comes from a martial family, and I wanted to make a similarly martial impression on him." Kaerin glanced at his empty sleeve. "I believe he had thought me a bit of a weakling, on account of my arm, or, rather, my lack of it." He smiled self-deprecatingly, diffusing any tension in the room that the party still felt on account of his disability. "I thought it best to appear before him bearing my uncle's blade. It seemed to work."

Kaerin looked at the group with what only could be described as pride. "I cannot thank you enough for finding these items for me. It is my dearest hope that the future of the north will be full of peace and prosperity. You have helped make this come about both by retrieving these items of my uncle's and by agreeing to help us identify and neutralise this threat of Ilyana's."

"We will do what we can," Alexander said, draining the last of his brandy. "But it is late; we should get a good night's sleep."

"Yes, of course." Lord Kaerin took Alexander's hand in his own but addressed the group. "I cannot thank you enough. The past month has been...just such a mix of highs and lows. On the one hand, I am ecstatic to be marrying Alerena, but on the other hand, my father, who I've learned..." He trailed off. "I'm sorry, I'm still having a hard time with the fact that my father consorted with demon-worshippers. Perhaps what you find at Haradraith's Keep will shine more light on this. At any rate, I appreciate beyond words the fact that you are doing this. Surely Korotiku laughs, for your presence here, and the important part that you must play in the future of the north, is unexpected to say the least. But have a good night's rest, and I will see you off in the morning."

"As will I," Patriarch Sherlane said, smiling paternally. "For his own safety, I am taking Kaerin to Penhaligon to stay with his cousin until this situation is resolved. But after that, I shall return to Threshold, to see what I can do to combat this threat from there. After all of this is just an unpleasant memory, I do hope you will be able to visit me." The baron-patriarch's eyes once again glimmered with fatherly fondness. "You will always be welcome visitors in my fief, on the shore of Lake Windrush. Now go, and rest, and may the Blessed guard your sleep."

* * *

"Do you think Sarrah's sword was magic, too?" Fyodor asked, swinging his newfound blade with glee.

"Why do you ask that?" Alexander replied. The group had left from Kaerin's mansion early in the day, and they were making good time under partly cloudy skies.

"It's just that she killed that winged thing so easily, and Thalaric and I couldn't even scratch it."

"A good observation," the elf replied. "It could be so."

Fyodor nodded and returned his magic sword to its sheath. He had yet to decide on what he wanted to name it (for he knew full well that all magic swords had to have names). At the moment, he was leaning towards Blackslayer, but Tyrant's Blight and Balm of the North also seemed like good appellations to him. No, when I am my own king one day, it is I who will be known as the Balm of the North...

He still kept his father's blade with him, strapped to his pack. Despite his prize from Kavorquian's basement, he did not consider for a moment abandoning his heirloom. Fyodor knew that the old sword that he now bore on his back had carried his father safely through countless unsavoury encounters, just as it had served him well in the tomb of Demara and the underbelly of Kaerin's mansion. He considered it lucky, and everyone knew that only fools and Thyatians disposed of good luck charms.

Even though he now carried two blades, the young Traladaran still felt that he was travelling light. Kaerin had volunteered to hold safe whatever of the party's moneys that they could not comfortably carry with them while they were gone, an offer that Fyodor as well as the entire party took him up on. Thus the companions were not excessively weighed down by their treasures.

As per Sherlane's suggestion, they were heading first to Stallanford. Boldar had made the point that it might be a good idea for them to buy a mule there to carry their supplies, an idea that Alexander quickly seconded. Foodstuffs for a trip as long as they were planning to take could soon grow quite heavy, and none of the group desired to be weighed down with bread and turnips as they struggled up through the Black Peaks.

The Duke's Road passed through the Hillfollow coastlands, weaving its way through the fields of scores of farmers, Traladaran and Thyatian alike. Traffic was intermittent but steady, and the companions found themselves sharing the road with merchants, day labourers, messengers, and the occasional small band of rangers or hunters. Although in truth they were met with nothing but smiles or, at the very worst, unconcern on the faces of those they encountered, the group couldn't help but think of the patriarch's warning, and closely examined all whom they came across, looking for any sign that they might be servants of Sabinus, and through him servants of Ilyana.

They were so carefully absorbed in this task that they did not see Sarrah until she was almost on top of them. She was waiting by a small thicket of shrubbery right off of the road, smiling a nervous half-smile, her fingers twiddling in a poor imitation of a wave. Garbed for travel, her blades sheathed and her crossbow slung unthreateningly over her shoulder, Sarrah pulled her leather cap from her head and fiddled with it as the group stopped dead in the road, amazed at the sight of her.

"What the..." Boldar rested his hand on the shaft of his axe.

"Hi," she said shyly, looking down at the ground and kicking at the earth.

"Where did you come from?" Alexander asked with surprise in his voice.

Sarrah shrugged. "I was just there, off the road." She waved noncommittally to an ambiguous point away from the river. Her cold appeared to have cleared up.

"Why?" Thalaric asked curiously.

She looked up at the group. Seeing her now made Alexander realise that he had never paid her much attention when they had first met. Erren had been such an overwhelming influence that the quieter Sarrah had never made much of an impression on him. That is, Alexander thought, until she stepped into battle with us.

"I thought maybe I could join up with you."

"What?" Varis asked incredulously.

"I don't know anybody else in the north."

"Have you been following us?" Boldar cut in, incredulous.

Sarrah approached the group, taking slow and deliberate steps. "I saw you leave the house and went on ahead. I wanted to talk to thank you." She looked directly at Alexander.

"What about Erren?" Fyodor asked.

"Well, she's in prison by now, isn't she?" Sarrah looked off to her right, to the Hillfollow, less than a mile distant. Alexander noted how strong she looked, how her breeches pulled tightly over her well-muscled thighs, and shook himself slightly.

"So you're just going to leave your friend? Just like that?" Varis asked.

"What can I do?" she asked, tossing her head. "You guys seem...pretty good at what you do, and you...really saved me back in there. I thought we might travel together...I might stay with you for awhile." She seemed unsure of herself, surprisingly so to Thalaric. "I'm good with a sword, I could help you."

"Good swordsmen are a star a dozen," Boldar sneered, instinctively putting the idiom in terms of his native coinage. "What else can you do?"

Sarrah seemed to think for a moment. Then, she dropped her crossbow, quiver, and backpack to the ground and with a great leap, somersaulted backwards onto her hands, flipping end over end. Upon completing her acrobatic display with a perfect plant, she paused for only a moment before she began to run directly at the companions. It crossed Fyodor's mind for a split second that she was charging to attack but Sarrah soon threw herself into the air, gracefully twisting and turning before she landed, curled into a ball. Her momentum continued to carry her forward in a tightly-packed bundle before she spread herself out, rolling onto her side, legs a blur of motion. At last, with an impressive display of balance and upper-body strength, Sarrah leveraged herself upwards again with a sudden hand plant, feet pointed towards the sky, drawing both of her blades almost faster than the eye cold see, finally flipping, ending up on one knee in front of the shocked Alexander, her sword and her dagger crossed at his feet.

"And I cook," she said, blowing a stray wisp of black hair out of her eyes.