Twilight Of The Dawn
by Andrew Theisen
Chapter 3: Thanes for the Memories
Beneath the falls of the Black River lay the entrance to a cavern, several hundred feet in diameter and growing daily. It was a natural port, a hidden niche in the vast expanse of the Great Escarpment. Called the Grotto by those who knew of its existence, it was one of the Thane of Caerdwicca's greatest secrets. All around the interior, engineers and laborers worked to fortify and expand the cavern. Several permanent and many more makeshift dwellings dotted the interior, and merchants, mercenaries, and pirates carried out their dark dealings here.
Down by the docks, the nefarious Loh Chang was preparing to make some pacts of his own.
Chang skeptically scrutinized the brawny blond warrior. "Were you raised by Denagothans, or did your parents merely have a twisted sense of humor?" He grinned at his own wit; the mercenary merely frowned.
"I wouldn't make him mad, if'n I were ye." This from the man's companion, a curiously short bearded dwarf. "Ol' Grunt, he don't take too well to smart asses." The dwarf was sitting on a crate, feeding seeds to a falcon that perched on his shoulder.
Chang turned his attention to the more verbose of the two mercenaries.
"I'll bear that in mind." He sized up the man and dwarf. His inquiries had led him to these men as two of the most capable hirelings in the Grotto. "You must be Nightstalker?"
The dwarf nodded. "Dwalinn Nightstalker." He jerked his chin towards the falcon. "This here's Nightwing. Ye already met the monkey." The leather clad dwarf grinned toothily at Grunt.
"Your services come highly recommended," Chang commented.
"No need ta chat us up, boss- you cover our weeklies, an' we're yours."
The Ochalean smiled. "I'll cover it."
The dwarf hopped to his feet, startling the bird, which took to wing for a moment before regaining its shoulder perch. "Then ye've got yerself a pair o' sell swords."
Grunt shrugged, stretched his neck and shoulder muscles. Chang looked around thoughtfully. He'd come to the Grotto with Dunwich, but the sailor was off selling the captive pirate crew into slavery. Their business was completed anyway, and Chang had nothing further to do here. "Back to Caerdwick village, then, to meet up with a traveling companion." To Grunt, he added, "You'll like him. He doesn't talk much either." Grunt snorted.
The rigging creaked softly under the weight of the dead man. His head rested at an unnatural angle, his tongue lolling from one side of his mouth as he hung suspended from the yardarm of the Gwen Y Thane. "How long shall we let 'im hang, Cap'n?"
Uthgaard McRhomaag ran a hand through his fiery beard. "A fortnight an' a day," he was his reply. "An' make sure ye get the word out ta all the lowlifes oot there- 'twill be a long time afore those rogues lend a hand ta Gastwell an' his ilk, ye kin be sure." He grinned as his crew and clan burst into a round of laughter. The self-proclaimed "Dread Wallace" and his crew of the Arrant Endeavor, rogue pirates who had been raiding in the Straits of Barbarossa for weeks now, had been brought to heel by a group of adventurers just a few days earlier. McRhomaag's own allies had been hard pressed to find the scum, and the Thane long suspected the lord of Newcastle had been providing them safe harbor in return for directing their piracy at Caerdwiccan merchant vessels. Apparently Wallace had chosen the wrong target this time, and now his shadow was darkening the deck of the Gwen.
"Ahoy, the ship!" The crow's nest had noted a dinghy venturing into the harbor to where the Gwen lay at anchor. Now they were requesting leave to come aboard, a permission granted with a signal from Uthgaard. It must be Eowain, back from his investigations. The Thane had sent his most trusted seneschal on a fact finding mission almost as soon as the Pearl Islander envoy had departed his chambers. It was most curious, Uthgaard reflected, that such a distinguished emissary as Gorudiro Dwair would show up now, in these troubled times. That he owed the man a debt of gratitude for his part in the capture of Dread Wallace was not to be doubted, but he couldn't risk the chance that Dwair might be here on behalf of his rival, the sometimes enigmatic provincial governor, Catullus Florus.
"Cap'n McRhomaag!" Uthgaard's reverie was broken by his first mate's pronouncement. "Sir Eowain McRomaag presents himself afore ye." The first mate bowed, then stepped aside for the seneschal.
Eowain dipped his head in formal acknowledgement of his liege. "M'lord."
The Thane clapped a comradely hand to his second cousin's shoulder. "Eowain, ye know ye've no need for formality with me." The two men hugged, then Uthgaard ushered his advisor towards his cabin on the aft deck. "We kin talk freely in here, 'tis warded against scrying eyes." The cabin door closed behind them; none among the crew needed be told not to disturb the Thane and his guest.
Once the pair was comfortably seated within the lush cabin, and a few pleasantries exchanged, Uthgaard leaned in conspiratorially for his seneschal's report. "What have ye learned, then?"
Eowain ran a finger along the rim of his stein; the Thane's discriminating palate was widely known along the Shadow Coast, and his cabin was well stocked with only the finest of ales. "Gorudiro Dwair is currently being sought in Beitung for questioning in the assassination of Ran Song, Minister of the Interior."
A bushy red eyebrow raised skeptically. "Sure'n he's not a suspect?" The seneschal shook his head. "Nae - not seriously, in any case. Dwair's reputation is mostly above reproach." He shrugged his shoulders. "But there be politics involved, o' course."
"There would be." Uthgaard frowned. He knew well how politics worked- he'd certainly had ample experience over the past few years. It was a subject that he found distasteful. "An' his presence here?"
Eowain held his hands wide in a gesture of futility. "No one seems ta know. He up an' left Beitung in the middle o' the night, wi' the authorities out on the lookout for 'im, which my sources all found odd. The crew o' the Serpent's Kiss dinnae know a thing aboot 'im, save 'is name. Word from the Grotto hasnae reached me yet, and that Cap'n Dunwich'll probably have returned by the time it does."
"Bring him in for questioning, then, but be discreet aboot it." Uthgaard scratched his beard ponderously. "Anythin' that might tie him in with Florus?"
"No," the seneschal replied, doubtfully. "Well, perhaps one more thing - the crew said that a man named Loh Chang be aboard, an' traveling with Dwair." Eowain wet his lips with the captain's ale before continuing. "Evidently this Chang be a pretty disreputable sort in Ochalea, some kind o' assassin or sorceror or something."
Uthgaard nodded. "I know o' him. He specializes in finding things for clients - relics, rare items." The Thane drummed his fingers against the tabletop. "They're looking for something, then. Mayhap it dinnae have anythin' to do with us at all..."
There was a moment of silence as he deliberated further. "Have 'Lex an' his men keep an eye on Dwair while he's in town. Keep tabs on him for me."
Eowain sat back, startled. "Alexus?" He shook his head. "Why not have me simply bring him in with men we know are loyal to us? What purpose--?" The look he received from his liege put an end to his questioning. "As you command, milord, so shall it be done."
Uthgaard grinned. "Good." He reached under the table to a secret compartment, producing a large glassine flask. "Join me in a drink, then? I just got this brandy from an Arogansan merchant..."
"We're being followed." Cylla Galenus pulled the hood of her cloak tighter around her. Her remark was more an expression of irritation than a warning. Doubtless her mentor was well aware of their pursuit through the maze of byways of the Caerdwiccan docks.
The barest hint of a frown creased Dwair's mouth. He knew that Cylla's anxiety was a not-so-subtle reminder of her earlier suggestion to avoid presenting himself before the Thane. "It will only draw his attention to us, and probably cause complications with your quest, Dwair laoshi." He had known that she was right, but he needed to be assured that the pirate Wallace received proper justice for his crimes. He sometimes regretted the protocol and responsibilities of his station. Things were so different, long ago on his native island.
"How many, and what is their disposition?" he asked, softly. Best to get her to focus...both of us to focus. Quite the wrong time to grow nostalgic for the past, isn't it?
A snort of impatience sounded behind him. "Nine...ten." They rounded the corner of a building, ducked quickly down an alleyway. Dwair could hear their pursuers behind them, irregular footfalls signaling confusion in their ranks. They'd bought a few seconds of lead time, now he and his young charge would capitalize on it.
"Recall your lessons," Dwair chided gently as he led Cylla down a series of short turns and twists designed to further distance them from pursuit.
Cylla shook her head. She'd been paying attention, though her mentor didn't seem to think she had. "Ten pursuers. They smell of oil and polish - that and the sound of their tread probably means they're armored. Legionnaires. Armed with regulation gladii and, given the reputation of this town, probably a hidden knife or three." She glanced behind her, the sounds of their trackers ever more distant to her ears. "All men," she added with disgust.
Dwair paused briefly as they emerged onto a byway. He mentally reviewed the directions he had been given, and compared them to the erratic route he and his apprentice had journeyed. Satisfied he was on track, he turned to the left, past a dilapidated warehouse. "And the other two?" he prompted Cylla.
"Other...?" She stopped, the rest of her question frozen unspoken in her throat. She closed her eyes, concentrating on the sensations around her. Boats rocking against their moorings in the harbor; a drunken sailor shuffling down a nearby street, singing off-key; a heated discussion - their pursuers, arguing over which way to take; and...a smell? Like old leather, drenched in formaldehyde. "There's something." She shook her head. "I don't know. I can't tell what it is."
The black cloaked figure before her nodded its head. "I don't know either," he agreed. "But there are two of them, and they are dangerous." Though her mentor's tone was as impassive as ever, a chill nevertheless ran down Cylla's spine.
It wasn't long before they had reached their destination, and Dwair was sure that they had a good lead on the men following them. He and his charge descended a set of creaking stairs behind an abandoned tavern. They paused before a wooden door at the bottom, flickering candlelight shining through cracks in the frame. Dwair knocked twice, then once. There was no answer.
The Pearl Islander knocked again. "Gwairon?" Still nothing. "Xue-sheng, if you please?" Dwair held out a hand, into which Cylla placed one of her twin axes. Leveraging the blade into the doorjamb, Dwair twisted it, snapping the simple lock on the other side.
The tragic scene before them was almost tranquil. An open basement, stuffed floor to rafters with shelves of books and scrolls, dimly lit by a single candle now close to expiration. The candle rested upon a tiny ink stained desk, at which slumped the figure of a pale, aged man. He might have appeared asleep, save for the horrified expression evident on his face as one approached closer. Dwair quickly moved to check on his old friend's condition, and assessed the situation in the room. His apprentice did likewise, searching for evidence of what might have happened. "Chang?" she asked, even as she inspected the door for signs of previous entry.
Her mentor shook his head. "I think not." It doesn't fit - if he knew who my contact was, then why go to all the trouble back in Beitung? No marks, Dwair noted as he examined Gwairon's body. "It makes no sense to have me this close to him if he didn't need me."
"Unless he was hoping you'd stay and face the charges in Ochalea," Cylla remarked. It was an argument they'd had before, but Dwair still didn't buy it. "You don't know him like I do," was all he would say on the subject.
The candle was still burning, and if it was the same sort as the candles in a wicker basket on the floor by the desk, then Gwairon's assassin had probably struck sometime within the last hour. The temperature and lack of rigor in the corpse seemed to confirm this theory. Dwair's investigations concluded, he turned to his apprentice. Cylla could only shrug. "Nothing," she sighed. "Whoever came in didn't use the door." The islander nodded, as if suspecting the same thing. The death scene reeked of magic...perhaps Loh Chang was involved after all? Only after this examination of his friend's murder was concluded did Dwair allow himself to think of his purpose here.
"Gwairon was expecting us," he said as he began to rifle through the documents on the desk. "Perhaps he left notes?" Like her mentor, Cylla began to look through the piles of paperwork in earnest.
The scent of old leather reached Dwair's sensitive nostrils moments before it did his Thyatian apprentice.
"Damn!" Cylla reached for her weapons, but was forestalled by a movement from her mentor. "Let us see how this plays out, first," he cautioned. The outside stairs creaked painfully beneath the weight of the armored centurions. Shortly, a Thyatian Centurion entered the room, silver armor glinting in the candlelight, sword strapped to his left side. On either side, flanking him, were two massive brutes, with dull expressions and skin like tanned hides. Both figures wore black leather garments and black enamelled steel breastplates emblazoned with an unfamiliar insignia; both carried massive nailed mauls. The legionnaires still outside gave the figures a noticeably wide berth. Dwair noted all this with his usual impassive attention to detail.
The centurion regarded the scene before him with a superior smirk. "Dead?" he asked. "We didn't kill--" Cylla began, but was cut off by a look from Dwair. He merely nodded an affirmative response to the centurion's question. The centurion smiled. "Then there are two murders you must answer for." Though he must have been six feet if he was an inch, the centurion still seemed tiny compared to the brutes standing next to him. He withdrew a scroll from his belt and began to read. "Gorudiro Dwair, you and your companion are hereby placed in the custody of his imperial governor, Catullus Florus."
As he spoke, the brutish figures moved forward, their dull features seeming almost to smile. Dwair allowed himself to be taken into their custody. Darting a questioning look at Dwair, Cylla followed suit. "You will be taken, under guard, to his residence, where you will be incarcerated and remanded for trial in the case of the murder of one..." he squinted at the name in the dim light, "...Ran Song of Beitung." The centurion paused for a moment, then added. "Oh, and this old guy, too."
"I don't understand why you didn't simply take him into custody yuirself," Eowain remarked the following day to his cousin. "Now Florus'll get the prestige o' capturin' Dwair, not ye."
Uthgaard shrugged. "As ye told me yuirself, like as not Dwair be innocent, so there'll be nae rewards ta be had." He tasted his Arogansan brandy, letting it roll across his palate before swallowing it. "Besides, the man did me a favor by bringing me Wallace. Was I ta repay him by turning him over to Ochalea?"
The seneschal shook his head. "Then why have him followed at all? Why not let 'im simply be aboot his business here, then?"
A broad grin creased the Thane's shaggy features. "Ta draw out the governor, o' course." At Eowain's blank look, he continued. "Ye an' I've both suspected Alexus was workin' for Florus for months now, but we've had no solid proof. If'n Florus thought I was interested in Dwair, then o' course he'd want 'im for 'isself."
The seneschal nodded in understanding. "An' now he's got him, and Alexus has played his hand." He swirled his brandy thoughtfully. "So Dwair performs a valuable service for milord yet a second time."
"Aye," Uthgaard agreed grimly. "Though I wager it'll be of little consolation to 'im, where he be headed..."
To be continued...
The Provincia Meridiona
The southern province of the Isle of Dawn, also known as the Shadow Coast, is a rugged and largely lawless territory. The imperial government of Thyatis has only two major holdings in the region - the County of Furmenglaive and the Barony of Caerdwicca, though there are a number of minor lordships in the area. The County of Furmenglaive has long been a semiautonomous dominion, and answers directly to the Emperor and Senate, while the Barony of Caerdwicca and the petty lordships are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Exchequer.
The Ministry's representative in the Provincia Meridiona is Catullus Florus, the governor and single most influential man on the Shadow Coast. Florus' sole duty is in ensuring that imperial taxes are levied in full and on time (the Exchequery's only real concern.) The governor does his job very efficiently, assisted in this task by a deadly and fearsome gang of ruffians, known as the Rorphyri. An ambitious man, Florus has recently begun to claim more real power in the region, by bullying and bribing several of the petty lords. As a result, several power blocs have formed in the Provincia Meridiona, between Florus, Thane McRhomaag, and a few lords who are trying to maintain independence.
The Petty Lordships
The petty lords of the Provincia Meridiona have attained their titles and lands in many ways, not all of them legitimate. Most holdings are simple villages with crude walls to protect from outside dangers. A few are actual castles, with more sophisticated fortifications. The lands they control are very small, compared with some of the larger dominions (such as the Barony of Caerdwicca), but most petty lords lack the military might to protect a wider area.
On his holding, the word of a lord is law, and many of the current rulers are harsh taskmasters. They work their serfs night and day, farming and logging in the fields and woods, and rewards are few and far between. Most peasants are treated little better than slaves. It is rare that a lord is brought up on charges of abuse, however, as the remoteness of the Provincia Meridiona effectively keeps imperial eyes out of the lords' affairs.
Life on a lordly holding, while harsh, is still much safer than in the "free" territories of the southern province. The lords protect their lands and people from the hordes of monsters that roam the lands far more effectively than the peasants can do on their own. They also afford a measure of protection against the ambitious forces of other petty lords in the region. Border skirmishes between lords, while infrequent, does occur. With the recent risings of tension between the empires of Thyatis and Alphatia, and the politicking between Governor Florus and Thane McRhomaag, such conflicts are on the rise. The petty lords are seeking opportunities to expand their dominions while they are still able. There has been a tremendous rise in the number and opportunities for mercenaries in the Provincia Meridiona, as they hire themselves out to the private armies of the highest bidder.
Holdings in the Provincia Meridiona
McRhomaag Castle (pop. 250): This crude fortification houses much of the eastern branch of the McRhomaag clan, including Thane Uthgaard and his personal army. Over the past few years, the Thane has imported all manner of engineers and workers to Caerdwicca, ostensibly to improve his dwelling, but the castle remains as dilapidated as ever. The provincial governor is extremely curious as to the disposition of all these workmen, but since their salaries are paid directly from the Thane's personal treasury, and not with Imperial funds, there is little Florus can do about it.
Caerdwick Village (pop. 750): Primarily a fishing settlement, this village is located along the coasts south of McRhomaag castle. It is the major center of commerce along the eastern Shadow Coast, and plays host to all sorts of merchants and pirates.
Grotto (pop. Varies, not shown on map): Little more than a large port, this settlement doesn't officially exist. It is located in a natural cavern beneath the Great Escarpment, directly beneath a massive waterfall. Engineers and stoneworkers have been steadily expanding and fortifying the port, called Grotto by those who know of it, for years now. Thane McRhomaag intends it to be the secret base for a naval fleet he is building. For now, it plays home to the most disreputable of pirates and mercenary scum, especially those most wanted by the imperial fleets - they pay McRhomaag handsomely for access to this hideout.
Lindum (pop. 450): Lord Giulius Quintus (M9) swore his allegiance to Thane McRhomaag in 1002 AC, in order that his magical studies not be disturbed by the politics of the Shadow Coast. As a result, this quiet farming village has grown and prospered over the past few years. The dolmens of Rock Hill (Carreg Bryniau) are the primary focus of Lord Quintus' recent studies. He believes these rock formations, like others in the vicinity, are related to the rumors of an Unseelie Court to the west.
Caernarfon (pop. 300): Darragh McRhomaag's second son Owain was granted title and lands around the village of Noviomagus in 960 AC, and he founded the fortified manor of Caernarfon. Its current ruler, Lord Rhodri McRhomaag (F6), frowns at the Thane of Caerdwicca's ties to the criminal underworld; Uthgaard dismisses his cousin's ire as pure jealousy. Clashes between the eastern and western branches of the McRhomaag clan occur often, and can get violent. Rhodri firmly asserts his independence from both the Thane and the provincial governor, and his dominion forms a powerful third bloc in the politics of the Shadow Coast.
Noviomagus (pop. 275): One of the oldest settlements along the Provincia Meridiona, this village of loggers and farmers was placed under the dominion of the lord of Caernarfon shortly after the construction of that castle, and has remained so ever since.
Orkans (pop. 150): Lord Gustavus Orkans (F9) founded his dominion legitimately, through hard work and sincere efforts on behalf of the Empire - something most of his neighbors cannot honestly claim. The first 20 years of its existence were difficult enough - carving out a niche in this dangerous terrain always is - but the arrival of Governor Florus and the upsurge in politics has created an entirely new and unwelcome challenge for Orkans. It is certainly not long before the village is swallowed up by one of its more powerful neighbors. The nearby Stone Lake (Llwch Maen), the source of the Wood River (Afon Coed), is named for the strange menhir formation on an island in its center.
Newcastle (pop. 170): Lord Roderick Gastwell (T10) is an upstart whose reach far exceeds his grasp. Though he lays claim to the areas depicted on the map, his law extends little further than his own castle and the farms around it, and the tower of Kidwell Keep (pop. 40), which serves in theory to protect his access to the sea. Pirates in association with Thane McRhomaag regularly ply the waterways around Kidwell Keep, and prey on trade going to Newcastle. Gastwell has recently made overtures to the rebel pirates in the region, to attempt to combat the threat, but it is a losing effort. Lord Gastwell will soon have to ally himself to either the governor or the Thane, if he hopes to avoid going bankrupt. Green Lake (Llwch Glas) is not far from Newcastle.
Glevum (pop. 390): Lord Caius Vegetius (C8, of Asterius) has a big problem; pirates regularly assault merchants coming to and from his village, and he doesn't have the resources or the manpower to be able to effectively fight them off. Like Newcastle, Glevum is losing income daily, and Vegetius will soon have to choose an ally, but he is reluctant to place himself at odds with either. Both the provincial governor and the Thane have agents stationed in prominent positions in the village, informing them of Lord Vegetius' most current ramblings.
Eboracum (pop. 175): An independent village, Eboracum supplies Sorviodunum and Caerdwick Village with much of the lumber they need for shipbuilding. Loggers in the area send their parcels down the White River (Afon Gwyn) into Sorviodunum. As the village relies so heavily on the other two settlements for commerce, and it has no strategic location, Lord Alexus Flavius (F7) has been largely left to his own devices in the game of politics.
Sorviodunum (pop. 225): An ally of the Thane, Lord Plautus Tertius (T5) has kept his ties as secret as possible from Governor Florus. This has been done in order to hide the existence of Grotto; if the governor knew that Tertius was tied to the Thane, then the recent upsurge in traffic along the Black River (Afon Du) would be more suspect than it currently is.
Copyright (c) 2000, Andrew Theisen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.