Thursday, March 08, 2012

Intrigues at the Prancing Unicorn

Fiddles and Flutes

It was the dead of night. The adventurers were sleeping in their room on the third floor of the Prancing Unicorn Inn. Snow covered the land with a silent white blanket. Downstairs a crowd reveled far into the night and early hours of the morning. The noise, and occasional shaking of the rafters, managed to keep Hermel awake. He rolled over once. He rolled over twice. He looked out the window. Snow covered the window half way up the panes. The wind howled through the trees.  Downstairs he heard the huge guffaws of his giant friend Bantum, who was clearly having a grand old time. The rafters shook again, dust falling from the ceiling. He turned over and thought to himself, “How would Ischandar handle this?”

He got up from his bed, put on his shirt and pants, and stumbling into the hall, made his way down the party. There he saw Bantum dancing away happily to the music of flutes and fiddles. Everyone was having a merry time of it all. Hermel scowled to himself as he crossed over to the bar.

“What’s the strongest drink you’ve got?” he asked the barkeep, who looked at him with a raised eyebrow.

“Black whiskey,” answered the barkeep, a husky man with a grizzled and haggard look about him.

“How much for a bottle?” asked Hermel.

“A whole bottle?!” the barkeep asked with surprise. “Why that would put down every man in the room!” he said.

“How much?” asked Hermel, unfazed.

“Well, mate, it’ll break your purse, but if you insist… it’s 40 Iron.”

“Ok, give me a bottle,” said Hermel and placed 40 Iron on the bar.

“Well, ok… but don’t drink more than a shot or I’ll have to drag you up to your room,” said the barkeep placing a large black bottle of black liquor on the bar.

Hermel took it in his hand and carried it over to where Bantum was dancing. He managed to catch the big guy’s attention and over the music said, “Bantum! I want to thank you for having found this great and lively place for us to sleep! Here, have a drink on me!”

“Thank you,” said Bantum delighted and honored, and drank down the entire bottle with huge gulps. He burped. Other than that Hermel could not detect the slightest effect. Bantum burped again, and smiled. He then went back to dancing, only a little more wild and carefree than before. Hermel went and sat down in a corner to watch. The happy giant seemed fine. Bantum danced merrily to the music laughing and clapping his huge hands.

“I’ll take another bottle, barkeep,” said Hermel looking in his leather money pouch unhappily.

“Are you sure you want to get that guy drunk?” asked the barkeep watching Bantum nervously.

“Yeeees,” said Hermel. “… Is that the strongest you’ve got?”

“That’s Black Whiskey, son. It’s the strongest anyone’s got.”

“I see. Well, I’ll take another bottle, then,” said Hermel frowning.

“Are you sure you want to get that guy drunk?” the barkeep repeated.

“Yeees,” Hermel repeated.

“Are you sure you can pay for whatever he breaks?”

While they were conversing, Bantum wobbled, and fell into a table, smashing it to smithereens.

“Oooooo, sorry!” cried out Bantum. He felt dizzy. He began dancing wildly. Not a few people, having seen the interaction, were staring incredulously at Hermel who still had the empty bottle of Black Whiskey sitting in front of him.

The Chicken Soup Thickens

The door to the tavern opened. A cloaked figure with a deep cowl entered the tavern and walked straight to the bar. Standing next to him, Hermel peered inside the deep cowl to see that the new comer was a very beautiful girl with a black leather skullcap that came to a widow’s peak at the center of her forehead. He caught a glimpse of gorgeous red hair flowing down her neck. He spit into his hand and slicked back his hair as suavely as he could. He took note of the fact that she was carrying a blue and brown blanket bundle in her arm. The barkeep came over quickly and they had a whispered conversation. Hermel thrummed the bar counter with his fingers.

“Black skullcap. Evil wizard, automatically. It’s ok. I can change her,” he was thinking to himself.

She was already heading away to the stairs going up to the second floor. Hermel wilted. He realized he lost his opportunity. When she got to the stairs she took a sweeping glance around the room, and caught Hermel’s eye in passing. Seeing this, he immediately decided to play it cool. The effect in fact was that his eyes suddenly bulged when her beautiful sea-green gaze met his, and then he darted his eyes away, settling on the idea that he had come across as alluringly disinterested. He slicked his hair back again. This could work out well after all, he thought. She was gone up the stairs.

Thinking quickly, Hermel muttered an incantation under his breath. On the stairs a piece of black cloth that was half hidden in a shadow transformed into the shape of a fat black cat. Hermel walked over to Bantum and pointed to the apparition.

“Ohhhh! My kitty!” cried the dull witted behemoth. Hermel deliberately put himself between Bantum and the illusion, and dispelled it so that it vanished. Bantum however was convinced he’d seen his big black kitty and so he tumbled up the stairs looking for it. They made it noisily all the way to the third floor, where Hermel guided Bantum into their room. He remained outside while Bantum settled into his bed. His feet hung far over the edge, but in a few moments he was quite happily snoring away.

Outside in the hall, Hermel noticed that one of the doors was ajar. When he looked, he thought it was the girl with the red hair and green eyes peering out at him. The door shut suddenly. Hermel slicked his hair back again and sauntered over to her door and knocked quietly. There was no answer.  He knocked again a little louder.

“Go away,” hissed the girl from behind the door.

“Ok… I just hope my friend’s noisiness didn’t disturb you,” replied Hermel politely.

“… You’re disturbing me. Go away,” she said.

Hermel staggered back to the room. He ruffled up his hair as he looked in the mirror.  "I'm a handsome guy," he thought.  Useless.  He blew out the candle and got into his bed. It was quite comfortable and shortly he felt warm waves of cozy sleepiness washing over him, despite the music and laughter still coming up from downstairs and the snoring of all his companions.

The time passed swiftly. Star of Justice awoke with a start from strange dream, but he did not remember the dream very well. Something about a long corridor, a strange dark green five pronged wheel on a red stone perhaps, his morning star dropping to the ground and the sudden shock of a black bird, but he could not piece it together or remember the order of events.  He was sweating, and chilled to the bone.  He struggled to bring the dream back into his mind, but when he heard a faint noise in the hall, he went to the door to listen more closely. Two men were whispering as they passed the door of the room.

The Night Whispers of Intrigue

“It’s getting late and they’re not here yet,” said whispered a man.

“The snow storm has probably kept them. We’ll wait,” said the other. There was the sound of a door closing, and that was the all Star heard. He contemplated waking up his friends, but instead went to the sink by the door, poured some water from the porcelain pitcher and washed his face. He found a book on the table by the door. It was a Bible. It told the story, as Star of Justice knew quite well, of the Elkron who created the World, and how the races of giants and men waged enormous wars both for and against them across the ages. He picked it up and sat on the chair by the door and read a chapter. It was very illuminating, and nearly put him to sleep again.

“They’re here,” came a whispered voice from the other side of the door. Someone had come up the stairs and was speaking to another person in the hallway. Some footsteps were heard walking past and down the stairs. Star waited a minute or so, opened the door and walked out. There was a man standing in the hall in front of a door with his arms folding across his chest. They looked at each other.

“Good evening,” said Star, but the man only nodded and said nothing.

He went downstairs and saw the men whom he had followed were entering a side room from the tavern. It was an elegant looking room with sofa’s, candle lamps, tea tables and a girl was serving drinks from a silver tray. In the main tavern room were a number of people sitting in various states of turpitude, the music having finally ceased not long before. No one was talking, except those in the tearoom, but Star could not hear what they were saying. He took a seat at the bar and ordered a cup of hot tea from the barkeep, who returned with a steaming kettle shortly.  Nursing the tea he sat at the bar and watched the scene. He still could not hear anyone speaking. One person was sitting at a long wooden table by the fire with a mug of ale. A few people a table down were sitting with ales looking at the fire. There were a number of peasant farmers sitting at a table.  One fell forward so his head was resting on his arm, and his mug slipped out of hand and clattered on the floor.  No one seemed to notice.  There was a man with heavy furs who came out of another room with a glass door on the other side of the tavern.

“We want another round,” said the man to the young serving girl.

“Right away, sir,” she said, and scurried into the kitchen, returning shortly with a silver tray on which were glasses of red wine.

After a few minutes the door to the tavern opened, blowing in gusts of snow-laden wind. Several swarthy men entered wearing heavy wool cloaks and bearing swords. They were grizzly looking rough necks whose darting glances covered the tavern rapidly. One went to the bar, and whispered something to the bartender. Star could not overhear what they said, though he tried, and the man walked back to the others. They took another look around the tavern, and went back out, slamming the great green door behind them. The only person in the room who seemed to take notice of the men was the person sitting at the long table by the fire, whose head turned in their direction briefly, but then went back to studying the fire. No one else was speaking. For some reason Star took the notion that there was something odd about the people there. Perhaps it was merely the late hour, and partial sleep, and strange dream that made him feel that way.

Someone came out into the tavern from the room with the glass door. He was a large man wearing an expensive fur, and had a bejeweled broach on his cloak. He looked to be a rather important personage, and certainly behaved that way. He summoned the girl with an imperious wave of his hand and she came running over. He handed her a piece of paper, and she went immediately to the tearoom and handed it to a man who was sitting there. Meanwhile Star noticed that the person who had been sitting at the long table had gotten up and was walking to the bar. Star caught a glimpse of red hair and a black skullcap. He did not pay any particular attention to her, and she looked sideways at him as she sat at the bar near him. After a short curt nod to her, Star got up and walked up the stairs to the room. In the hall the man who he saw on the way down was still standing in front of a door.

He was not sure if he should wake the others, but he felt that something strange was going on. He woke Hermel from dreams of Ishcandar and explained briefly what he saw. Hermel looked out the window. There was six inches of snow on the panes.

"I'm not sure if there really was not much to go on, but there were two groups of people sending messages back and forth, and a group of rough necks who showed up briefly and left, and a number of peasants sitting in the tavern not speaking. All in all, kind of strange," he said.

“What do you want from me?” said Hermel with a groan.

“I don’t know,” said Star, “… I just wanted to tell you that.”

The Pitcher Ploy

Hermel went to the water basin, picked up the porcelain pitcher and walked out of the room and headed down stairs. Star decided it might be a good time to bless his morning star, just in case something untoward happened. He called upon Eldrik the Elkron of the Sun, and suddenly a black bird smacked against the windowpane cracking it, and his morning star fell from his hands. He had a very bad feeling about this. The window broke and the wind howled as snow swirled into the room. The black bird fluttered off info the darkness.  It reminded him of something but he could not remember what.  Almost like deja vue.

Hermel walked to the stairs and looked down into the tavern. He could see two tables, and heard people moving. Someone passed the bottom of the stairs, lumbering past heavily.  He heard other movements, and chairs scrapping against the floorboards.  He dropped the pitcher so that it broke on the stairs, and loudly cursing he returned to his room and began putting on his armor. Everyone else was woken up and they all get ready for battle, and put their armor on. Arik took a while to wake up, but eventually he was roused out of bed, grumbling. Hermel looked out the window. Snow was coming down in long white sheets. There must have been two feet on the ground.

“I suspect that I’ve managed to curse us,” said Star, looking down at his black tinged morning star, and then at the broken window pain, now piled up with snow. They heard some people in the hall.

“I think this will go quite well,” said a man.

“I’m worried about the woman,” said another.

“Don’t pay any attention to her,” said the first.

“I think we will be stuck here for a few days,” said the second.

“Oh shut up,” said the first. "You always see the worst." A door shut and that conversation ended.

Hermel considered, listening to the howling wind outside, that they would all probably be stuck there for a few days. He was grateful that they’d not had to try to hole up in the stone circle. So, Bantum turned out to be a lucky charm for them after all.  It seemed almost ironic somehow.

A Busy Breakfast

They waited in the room for a while, and outside it began to grow light. The party decided to head for breakfast, concluding that nothing too exciting would happen after all. They disarmed and went downstairs. The barkeep was hustling around serving breakfasts, looking a bit bleary. Hermel apologized for breaking the pitcher the night before, and the barkeep said he’d add it to his tab. They talked about the weather, and the barkeep suggested that the storm would not let up that day. They ate breakfast. It seemed that the inn was serving some wealthy patrons, and so all the guests would benefit that morning, including our ragtag heroes. It was good farmer fare, bread, chicken, cheese, and eggs, with milk, and apple juice and plenty of potatoes. It was quite the spread.

“Did you see my kitty?” asked Bantum of everyone he saw, but the apologetic patrons had not seen it.

Hermel noticed, after a while, that there were not really so many people there as the night before. That struck him as a bit odd, since the snow storm was so heavy… how could anyone have left the inn? Hermel discussed the possibility of leaving the Inn with the others at a table in the corner of the tavern. Hornmel said it would not be a good idea to try to cross the jagged passes through the hills in this kind of weather, so the decided to stay.

There were two of the four grizzled unsavory looking men with dark green woolen cloaks sitting in a corner that Hermel noticed had not been there the night before that he could remember. He went over and tried striking up conversation with them.

One of them was looking out the window.

“So you guys gonna stay here as well?” he asked.

“What’s it to ya?” said one gruffly, glaring at him.

“I’m just saying… we’re going to all be stuck under the same roof if this snow keeps up,” replied Hermel taken aback.

“Mind your own damn business,” said the man cutting him off sharply.

“The same snow over your head and my head, its both our business” said Hermel.

“Beat it,” said the man harshly.

“Unfriendly,” said Hermel half to himself. The man stood up.

“You got a problem with that?” he said putting his hand on his sword hilt.

“It’s better to be friendly than unfriendly,” said Hermel.

“Why don’t you run along?”

“I have a bad leg. I think I’ll walk,” said Hermel and went back to his men.

“Nasty characters,” grumbled Arik over a chicken leg. “You want we should…” he asked leadingly.

“No, no, lets just finish our breakfast in peace,” replied Hermel thinking it was going to be a long storm.

One of the grizzled men got up and went to the bar. He spoke quietly with the barkeep, who glanced over at Hermel and then at the other grizzled man by the window. He nodded and the rough neck went back and sat down with his friend. They both seemed to be keeping a steady eye on things both inside and outside the tavern.

Down stairs came the large fat man from the night before.

New Guests, Further Intrigues

“Senior Borge!” said the barkeep, and went over to offer him a table. Two younger men who were carrying books and taking notes as they walked attended him. Senior Borge was dictating to them various instructions that sounded legal in nature. One was writing and the other looking things up and reading them to the other from one of several books.

Hermel glanced over to the rough necks in the corner, but they seemed to have no particular interest in Senior Borge. Another man came down stairs. He seemed a rather friendly sort. He nodded to Arik politely as he passed him on the way to his table. The serving girl took his order and went to the kitchen. He thanked her politely, a slight accent in his speech.

Hermel offered a friendly “Good morning” to the man, and was greeted in return. The party members asked if he cared to join them, and so the man came to where they were sitting and they all conversed about the weather.

“If I have to spend another night in this fine inn,” Hermel said, “as nice as it is, I think I shall go stir crazy. But at least someone around here knows how to be friendly,” he added with a loud enough voice to be heard across the room.

“Indeed,” said the man uncomprehendingly. “My name is Frank. Where do you folks hail from?”

“We came from Hobbington,” replied Hermel, glad for a new friendly person to talk to.

“Its nice there,” offered Bantum through a mouth full of vittles. “They have chickens. It’s very mmm… mmm…mmm…”

“I see,” said the man with a smile as he ate his eggs and toast.

“You talk funny,” said Bantum.

“I do? Oh,” said the man, looking perplexed.

“He probably thinks we talk funny,” said Hermel to Bantum. “Where do you come from, Frank?” he asked.

“I come from… Lilac village,” he replied, still seeming to be a bit nonplused. Hermel knew of this village. It was one of the more successful artisan villages of the Six Village region. He’d never been there himself, but he’d heard plenty of stories about it where he grew up in the impoverished farming village of Yellow Clay. They conversed at the table over breakfast for a while. Frank explained that he was a gardener in Lilac village and was traveling around on the off-season to other villages to explore a bit, and learn from other gardeners if he can find any. He mentioned he planned at some point to go to Hobbington, as well.

Star of Justice was looking at his morning star. It seemed to have a kind of odd black tinge to it. It annoyed him. He tried rubbing the black tinge off with a corner of a cloth, but it didn’t help. He considered that he should try to get a new morning star when he got a chance.

As he was doing this, the conversation continued. Frank mentioned that he was traveling the area and was wondering if they would take him with them to Bear Claw Village. The roads, he mentioned, outside of Lilac were more difficult to manage than he expected. Meanwhile, Arik, was looking out the window, reflecting that the snow storm would likely have driven any travelers on the road to this Inn. He took another look around the room, half expecting, for some reason, to see Garrison. He wasn’t there, of course.

Down the stairs from the second floor came a woman with blond hair. She was attended by a young man who was coming down the stairs just behind her. Suddenly she tripped on something and fell down the stairs. At the bottom she sat herself up and held her ankle in her hands with a sheepish, pained look on her pretty face. Hermel arose immediately and rushed to her side, his cloak billowing behind him handsomely.

“Miss, are you alright?” he asked with great sincerity.

“Oh my, I do seem to have twisted my ankle,” she replied rubbing her foot gingerly.

“I may be able to help. There’s a little trick I learned…” he said reaching into his leather pouch.

“Yeah, he’s going to rub dirt on your ankle, I’ll wager,” said Arik with a laugh. She looked at him with some alarm. But Hermel had taken out a smooth stone and with a low sung incantation to Minvar, the Earth Elkron, he rubbed her ankle briefly until the pain had gone. She stood up, and put some pressure on her foot. It was fine. She thanked him profusely.

“You see, the pain from the ankle goes into the stone,” explained Hermel.

“It’s amazing how you do that!”, she exclaimed.

“No no, just a little trick. Courtesy of the Elkron Minvar,” he replied humbly.

“Thank you very much,” she said.

“My name is Hermel. It’s nice to meet you,” he said.

“My name is Jane, and this is my companion, John,” she said gesturing to the young man beside her, who was equally amazed. The two exchanged glances. Hermel noticed that they also had slight accents that sounded similar to Frank's.

“Frank, do you know that woman?” asked Hermel after having returned to the breakfast table.

“Oh those two? Yes the came in last night. Nice enough people, I’d say. Hmm… do you know how many villages there are on the way to Bear Claw?”

Hornmel, who was eating breakfast still, answered that there were quite a few small settlements along the way, but they were more hamlets than villages, really. Hermel went on about the dangers of the journey.

“What kind of dangers?” asked Frank, looking troubled.

“Oh, well I’m not sure. I’ve heard stories. Strange tracks in the wilderness. Three-toeed things of some sort. Some call them devils, I suppose, but I doubt that,” said Hermel.

“Have you seen anything like that?” asked Frank of Star.

“I’ve not, but I can’t say that I don’t believe it either. The Elkron work in mysterious ways,” he concluded, looking up from his morning star, which he was still rubbing with a cloth.

“Oh? Do you serve the Mighty Ones?” asked Frank reverently.

“I’m a servant of Eldrik,” he replied looking with regret at the black tinge.

“Oh. Very noble of you. Are there many servants of the Elkron where you come from?” pursued Frank amiably.

“There’s a large temple in Hobbington,” he said.

“Are they all servants of Eldrik?” asked Frank, over a swig of hot cider.

“Well, no. There’s followers of a number of the Mighty Elkron there,” answered Star.

“We should be heading upstairs,” said Hermel. He paid the bill for his friends and they all got ready to head back to their room.  When the barkeep came to bring the bill, Bantum recognized him from the night before and standing up excitedly said hello to him.

“How are my chickens doing?!” he asked happily.

“Your chickens? Fine! Good! They’re doing very well!” responded the barkeep looking up at Bantum, nervously.

“Good! I can’t wait to see them again,” said Bantum.

“They’re waiting to see you, too,” said the barkeep.

“Good good,” replied Bantum merrily. “I’m going to take them on a trip with us when we leave! It’ll be fun!” he said, joy rising up in his voice.

The barkeep looked worried. He hustled away to the bar, and looking behind him at Bantum once or twice, vanished hastily into the kitchen.

Private Suspicions

Everyone headed up stairs and went to their room. Hermel mentioned that he thought there was something odd about the guests in the Inn. The fact that Frank and Jane and John all had the same faint accent, and that Frank asked a lot of questions about things he ought to know, struck him as a bit strange. Hormmel agreed it was a bit odd, and mentioned that he didn’t recognize the accent either. Arik said that he’d never heard of a professional gardener, but the others thought that was not so odd, maybe.

“I’d sooner trust those rough necks in the corner, to be honest,” said Hermel finally.

“Really,” said Star of Justice. “But Frank, Jane and John do seem like nice folks just the same,” he added.

“I’d rather thrash the ruffians in the corner,” barked Arik with a harsh laugh.

”I’d not try too hard to stop you, I think,” said Hermel lying down on his bed. “I suggest we get some sleep now. The night time is too harrowing around here,” he suggested. They moved the table in front of the door and laid down on their beds. Bantum complained that he wasn’t tired, so Arik had him lay down and he told him a fanciful story of the “Three Chickens and the Black Cat”. In the end of the story the cat had eaten the chickens, and then died in an avalanche as the world spiraled into the sun. Bantum lay awake in bed staring at the ceiling for a long time.

Later there was a knock at the door. It was the chambermaid who came to clean the room, but the fighting men sent her away. She looked disappointed. Star generously gave her an iron piece and she curtsied with a grateful thank you and went away. Hermel thought about what he might need to ask of her, but he gave up and rolled over to go back to sleep. Outside the snow was falling steadily.

A Second Night of Revelry

It had snowed all night and well into the morning. The young adventurers spent the day lounging around the Inn as there was no where to go, and nothing much to do. That night there was another big party down in the tavern. There was music and cheering and lots of food and drink. Many people were there. Bantum and Arik went downstairs to partake in the festivities. They saw that there were farmers, and Frank, Jane and John, the four rough necks, and Senior Borge and his men, as well as others who had taken up fancy chandelier room where an elegant dinner party was taking place.  There was a large crowd dancing and singing along with the fiddlers and flutists.  The barkeep and his young serving girls were all keeping very busy. His wife was in the kitchen, and she poked her head out once in a while to smile with satisfaction and clap her hands to the music.

Hermel very quietly cast a spell. He made an illusion of a brown wooden ball. He outdid himself. It was the most perfect illusion he’d ever made. Not only was the shading and the color subtle and detailed, but it was so real looking that he actually began to believe that it actually was real. In fact it was such an amazingly perfect illusion that people from across the room who noticed it’s “realness” were so attracted to it that they came over to look at it. A crowd formed around the table. Hermel, meanwhile, had gotten three tea cups and was in the process of cajoling some farmers into guessing which cup it was under. The farmers, who believed in the illusionary ball completely, wagered small amounts of money on the fact that it must be under the middle cup. Now for the coup de grace… Hermel commanded the illusion, under his breath, to dissipate. But there was a slight problem. When he lifted the cup the ball was still there, looking so wonderful and true he could not take his eyes off of it. He was very annoyed though.  He’d bet a goodly sum on the wager to try and recoup his loss on the black whiskey, but could not dispel the illusion because he actually believed that the ball was real after all. The farmers insisted he pay up. And so Hermel, took out his ever-lightening leather pouch and handed over 4 iron pieces he’d lost in the wager. He sat down rather disgruntled. The farmers asked if they could have the ball, and Hermel, annoyed, waved his hand in assent.

“Wow,” one farmer said to the others, “this is like the most real ball I’ve ever seen in my life.” The others agreed as they walked back to the merry making, tossing the ball in the air between each other and laughing. Hermel stared at them in disbelief. He thought it over and realized that not only had he cast the most successful illusion of his life, but he actually succeeded in materializing the ball. He was amazed at himself, and this thought cheered him up quite a bit after all.

Meanwhile Bantum was doing “the chicken dance” across the tavern. He wasn’t dancing very well, and fell over several times, fortunately not on anyone, least they perish.  The barkeep’s wife came over to him and greeted him very nicely, and gave him a free jar of hot apple cider.

“Oh thank you!” he said. “Nice to seeee you!”

“Nice to see you, too,” she replied with a curtsy and went back to the kitchen, thinking the cider would calm his spirits down a bit, and perhaps save a guest or two.

The tavern door opened with a huge gust of snow-laden wind. A rough looking man with a dark green cloak and cowl covering his face walked in from outside and shook the snow off himself. He went over to the four ruffians in the corner. They talked quietly amongst each other and food and ale was brought to their table. Hermel looked around for the beautiful red haired girl from the night before, but she was nowhere to be seen. He felt disappointed, and went back to his cup of cider, watching the farmers playing catch with the ball. He waved his hand, and to his surprise the ball disappeared in mid air. The farmers, astonished, began yelling! There was a commotion as they began looking all over for the ball. “Did you see that?!” yelled one. “It vanished in mid air” yelled another. They all began looking under the tables and chairs.

As they did, Hermel noticed a face in the window. As soon as he saw the eyes peering though a small circle cleared in the frosty pane they focused directly on him and then vanished. There was something very strange about that face, thought Hermel. It was a dark face. The eyes seemed yellowish. The face was covered by what looked like a gray cowl, but the nose was strangely shaped. He didn't like that face.

“Did anyone of you guys see that creepy guy in the window just now?” he asked his friends. But none of them had seen it. Hermel began to think that it might not be a bad idea necessarily to ask the farmers, who very likely lived not far off, if they could shelter for the night with them. He became less and less certain that the Inn would prove to be a safe place to weather through the storm in after all. He almost felt as though the face in the window had looked at him with a sinister intention. He got a sudden chill down his spine and shivered.

“Shall we go weather the storm with the farmers?” he asked Star of Justice.

“It’s nice here,” said Bantum. “I don’t want to leave.”

The Missing Farmer

The tavern door opened again, and the winds blew in more snow in a great gust. A woman entered, covered in white, and shook the snow off of herself. She was a handsome looking woman with a serious expression. She was wearing a plain but serviceable fur lined coat with a hood, and fringed with beads. She looked around, and not seeing what she wanted, she went straight to the bar. Hermel, glad to see yet another woman, made his way over to the bar, too. He was followed by Star. He happened to catch what the woman was saying to the barkeep.

“My husband came here last night. He didn’t come home. Where is he?” she asked pointedly.

“What? I’m sorry Lanna, but I don’t have any idea! He was here making merry and gambling with the others until the wee hours, and when I closed up he was gone. I didn’t see him. I supposed he went home, too,” he said. “Perhaps you passed him in the snow storm on the road,” he offered finally.

“I didn't pass him on the road,” she said. “And my husband doesn’t gamble."

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said gruffly. “He was gambling. He left in the wee hours. I didn’t see him after that."

Star of Justice had a sense that the barkeep was lying. The woman sat down dejected. Star gave Hermal a significant look. He asked Star in a whisper if he’d gotten a good look at the guy who had been at the table in the wee hours that he’d mentioned. The woman meanwhile was given a stiff drink by the barkeep and she sat drinking it down unhappily. Hermel took note that she was, actually, quite attractive looking. He contemplated helping her somehow. He slicked back his hair with the palm of his hand.

“Your husband’s probably dead,” he said. “You should look to the future.” She glared at him incredulously.

“Do I look good to you?” he asked. “I’m third level,” he said. “You don’t see that every day,” he added proudly. She smiled, realizing that he must be jesting with her.

“My husband was here last night. I don’t believe he ever left the Prancing Unicorn,” she said.

Star asked her if she could describe her husband. She did and he said that he thought he’d seen him there in the wee hours, sitting at a table. He might have passed out, he added. He asked if her husband was usually talkative and garrulous. She said that he loved to sing and dance. She added he nor any of his friends came back to their homes last night, explaining that they lived in a small settlement a few miles from the Inn. Her husband was a regular there. She was wearing, Hermel noticed, a bear claw necklace.

“Well, we’ll walk you home,” offered Hermel.

”Well, I appreciate the offer, but I don’t know you gentlemen,” she answered.

“Um, sure, sure. Just offering. Anyway, have you ever seen that girl over there before?” he asked pointing to Jane who was dancing in the middle of the tavern with Bantum who had lifter her up by one hand into the air and put her down on a table top.

“Nope. Never seen her before in my life,” she said.

“Go ask her if I’m a trustworthy type,” he suggested.

“Why, might I ask, would I want to trust her?”

“Why not?” said Hermel. Then thinking it over he said, “Look, I’m a good guy. I can heal people, so I must be good, right?” He took out his healing stone and clouted himself on the hand with it. He then healed it by rubbing the stone on it. She looked at his hand and then at him, then at his hand, then at him again. Her expression was one of perplexity. She couldn’t tell, really, if he was mad, or joking, or just plain stupid. She decided he was joking.

“Well, I saw a sinister face in the window, so if you want to go home alone, go right ahead,” he went on, a bit miffed at her reticence.

“I will protect you, lady,” said Bantum who had wandered over and sat down at the bar with them and began devouring a roast chicken. She looked up a Bantum.

“Hmm… you seem like the nice sort,” she said. Hermel glared at Bantum.

“Hey. Am I a nice guy?!” demanded Hermel of Bantum.

“Very nice,” said Bantum sincerely.

“See?!” insisted Hermel to the woman.

“Your yelling at her,” said Star.

“I’m going to go take a piss!” shouted Hermel, and stalked off to the toilet, which though indoors because the Inn was a fine establishment, was nothing more than a hole in the floor behind a shoddy wooden door. He spent some time in there thinking life over.

Back at the bar, Lanna was looking pretty miserable as she went back to her whiskey.

“It’ll be ok,” said Bantum to her softly.

She was looking at Star out of the corner of her eye. He was awkwardly silent and didn't return her gaze.

“I’m trying to find my husband,” she said to him.

“I’d love to help you find him as well,” he answered, taking a bite of a chicken leg. “I’d not be surprised if something bad is going on here. But I’m at a loss as to what to do at the moment,” he stammered. “I … I …I’m afraid I don’t know these parts, or this tavern very well.”

“If I might be so bold, frankly, I think that bartender knows more than he’s saying,” she said.

“I think you’re right,” replied Star. “But trying to pry that information out of him won’t get us anywhere.”

“Well, someone ought to … oh never mind,” she said finally and went back to drinking and staring off into space.

Meawhile, in the latrine, Hermel was thinking. “Well, we could follow her home without her knowing. She probably needs protecting.” He finished his business and went back to the bar. She looked at him without much expectation. He didn’t say anything but fluffed out his cloak so that it billowed briefly.

“Well fine, then. I can see I’m not going to get any help here,” she said. “Thanks just the same.”

“I will help you,” repeated Bantum earnestly.

“Will you find out where my husband went to?” she asked him after a moment’s pause.

“I don’t know where he went to,” said Bantum slowly.

“The bartender knows,” she said. “But he won’t tell me.”

“He won’t?” asked Bantum surprised.

“No he won’t,” she said with a pout.

“Well, I’m going to ask him for you! Ok?” said Bantum standing up suddenly.

“Woah woah woah… ” said Hermel

“Thank you,” she said with a great sense of relief. “I knew somebody would help me.”

Bantum lumbered over to the barkeep who was bringing out a large platter of roast chickens. When he saw the giant striding towards him purposefully, he quickly shoved the platter into the closet and slammed the door shut and stood with his back to it smiling up at Bantum with great anxiety. One of the chickens had fallen on the ground, and he pushed it behind him with his foot.

“Where is that lady’s husband?!” yelled Bantum angrily down to the husky little man, not noticing the chickens at all.

“I don’t know!” shouted the man, with a combination of relief and anxiety as Hermel came up behind Bantum.

“She says you do know!” yelled Bantum angrily.

“I don’t know!” yelled the barkeep.

“No, no no!” said Hermel in a loud but soothing voice. “Bar tenders never lie. They take an oath. They never lie."

“Really?” asked Bantum.

”Absolutely. All bartenders take an oath of never lying.”

“Ohhh,” said Bantum calming down. “Now I’m confused.”

The woman gave Hermel a really nasty look.

“I don’t know what to do!” said Bantum loudly. “That lady said he knows, but he says he doesn’t, and you say that he can’t lie, but that lady wouldn’t lie to me! I want my chickens!”

The barkeep looked nervous. He said “The chickens are fine! Fine!”

“I want my chickens now!” said Bantum loudly.

“Fine! The chickens are fine! I will bring them to you. I will bring them to you soon, soon. I brought them to you earlier,” he said and Bantum, not understanding, was appeased. The barkeep turned around and went back into the kitchen and shut the door behind him.

“Thanks a lot,” said the woman sarcastically to Hermel.

“Listen lady, you don’t like me? That’s ok. But he’s not yours to command,” said Hermel sternly.

“He’s a nice guy who’s willing to help me out. Nobody else here is,” she answered staring at him. Hermel slammed his fist on the bar top.

“I need to find my husband,” she said. “Not go home.”

Hermel stood thinking. Star stood thinking. Arik was on his third ale and heartily devouring a third roast chicken, potatoes, corn and a loaf of barley bread with butter. Hornmel was nursing his ale, and watching over the room. Bantum, well, he just stood there like a great dumb ox waiting for someone to tell him what to do next.

“I just want to find out where my husband is,” she said firmly.

“I wonder if the barkeep, now that Bantum scared him that way, may have gone into the kitchen to manage… some business,” offered Star.

“Why don’t you follow him?” asked the woman.

“Into the kitchen?” said Star, astounded by the idea.

“Why not? You look like the adventurous sort, but you sure don’t act like it,” she said with a sharply sarcastic edge. She gave Star a penetrating look.

“Well, I can’t sneak into the kitchen. It’s their kitchen. It would be wrong,” answered Star.

“Oy,” she said, looking crestfallen.

“Look, why don’t we start this over again,” said Hermel. “My name is Hermel. Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said unconvincingly. “My name is Lanna.”

“Lanna?”

“Yes, Lanna,”

“Ok, Lanna, why don’t we step outside so that we all can have a conversation in private on the porch,” suggested Hermel. She looked at him without moving.

“Oh come on!” he said, getting exasperated again. “I’m a nice guy. You trust this guy, right?” he said pointing to Bantum.

“Can I trust him?” she asked of Bantum.

“Yes, he’s a very nice man,” replied Bantum earnestly.

“Will you hit him if he’s mean to me?” she asked.

“Yes I would,” replied Bantum.

“Ok, that’s fine then. Lets go,” she said.

And with this they went out on the porch and stood in the bitter cold wind. Snow was piled up high everywhere, and on the porch beneath the window Hermel saw a set of tracks had been made, but were mostly covered over by then. The tracks went from the window, across the porch and then out into the darkness.

“Did you happen to step over there before you came in?” he asked Lanna.

“Me? No.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” replied Hermel peering out into the darkness. “There are strange things going on here. And quite frankly, we’re trapped here. And yes, my companion saw someone slumped at the table who looked like your husband, but we don’t know what happened to him after that, alright? And quite frankly, we’re stuck here. And you should not be out alone. And I suggest you either stay here, or you let us walk you home,” said Hermel.

“Snow is pretty,” said Bantum, and began trying to catch flakes on his tongue.

“I don’t know where your husband is,” Hermel concluded.

“I am trying to find him,” said Lanna slowly. “I don’t need to go home. I need your help to find my husband. He’s here somewhere.”

“That’s probably true,” said Hermel after a pause.

Arik, who had been quiet up till then, said that he would go into the kitchen and find out what was going on. The others waited for him as he sauntered back inside, grabbed a tankard from a table, and waddled to the kitchen door. Pushing it open he saw a cook and an assistant working at the vats and ovens and dishes. They didn’t take immediate notice of him, so he walked in and began making his way to the back door, which was open. He figured the barkeep had gone that way.

“Hey hey, you can’t come in here!” said the cook as he took notice of him. Arik pretended to be drunk and shouted for the barkeep, saying he wanted another beer, and kept moving toward the door. The cook interceded between him and the door and ushered him back into the bar saying he would tell the barkeep to get back out there as soon as he came back. Arik grumbled, and headed back out and returned to the porch where he explained what happened.

“The bartender seems to have gone out the back door. We could go around the side of the building and see what we can find out.”

“Does your husband have any enemies?” asked Star of Lanna.

“He’s a farmer,” she said flatly. “He does farming. What kind of enemies can he have?”

“I’m just as lost as you are here,” said Star.

“I’m not that lost,” she replied caustically. “You seem lost. I’m trying to find my husband. I’m pretty clear on that. Ok?”

“Ok ok… do you have any great ideas?” he asked her, admiring her pluck.

“I thought you should go and beat the shit out of the barkeep and find out where my husband is,” she said plain as day.

“I can’t just beat up people for thinking that they’re lying,” said Star trying to be reasonable.

“You don’t know he’s lying?” she snapped back at him. “I know he’s lying. All I have to do is listen to him. He sounds like he’s lying. And his story doesn’t make any sense. You can’t tell that? Didn’t you think he was lying?”

“But bartenders don’t lie,” said Bantum, confused.

“Oy,” she said. “You know, honey,” she said to Bantum, “not everything that people say is true.”

“Ohhh… what you said was not true?” he asked, trying his best to clear up his confusion.

“Touché,” said Hermel pointing his finger at her.

“I’m very confused!” yelled Bantum, almost crying.

“It’s ok, dear,” she said patting his giant hand.

At that Hermel decided to take action. He said he would go around the side of the building. He headed off into the snow. It was about two feet deep or more. Light was coming through the windows, so it wasn’t terribly dark next to the building. As he passed the first window he heard Hornmel talking with another farmer saying, “But that ball was so reeeeaaal though. I never saw a ball that reeeaaaal before… it was realer than real, really, wasn’t it…?” Hermel continued. He got to the far corner. He heard voices. It was the barkeep.


Follow the Mystery Man

“I don’t care what you have to do, just move them along. And make it snappy,” the barkeep said. A door slammed and then Hermel heard someone approaching through the snow. He was moving along side of the Inn. Hermel waited for him to pass, hiding in the shadow of a bush next to the house. He ran back to the others and asked if they wanted to follow the man.

Meanwhile Arik was inside and when the barkeep showed up again, he began bending his ear with a tall tale about a bartender who didn’t take care of his customers very well and was finally eaten by rats… and chickens… and then the world spiraled into the sun. The barkeep got a sickly look and went to fetch Arik another ale. He kept an eye on the barkeep, whom he noticed had given a nod to the rough necks sitting in at the table in the corner. He signaled Hornmel who was by the window engaged in a deep conversation with the farmers.

“No you mix three parts sheep shit, and two parts cow shit, and that’s the best for the corn,” he was saying with authority.

“But what about the piss?” he asked another farmer. “You don’t want to waste that, do you?”

“That’s for the wheat, you fool,” said Hornmel earnestly, “Everyone knows that!” The farmers all nodded sagely and ordered another round of ales, proclaiming Hornmel the best farmer in the land.

Arik tapped him on the shoulder and took him aside. He suggested they should probably follow after Hermel. And so the two of them went out on the porch, just as Hermel was jogging back up the stairs. They agreed to follow after the mystery man who had made his way to a nearby barn. Star of Justice decided to try once more to bless his morning star before battle. He thought it seemed to work a little better this time, but it was too dark to tell if the black tinge had dissipated. There was a light in the barn. The adventurers followed. There was a brief argument.

“You stay here,” said Hermel to Lanna.

“No. I’m going,” she said.

“This is what is going to happen,” insisted Hermel. “You’re going to be taken hostage, right, and you’re going to have a knife to your throat, or something like that… and…”

“Can you fight?” asked Star.

“Yes, I can fight,” she answered  fiercely.

“I’m willing to take your word for it,” said Star.

“You know… you’re not that attractive,” said Hermel suddenly, lying through his teeth.

“Well, if she were three feet shorter, and a hundred pounds heavier, with a beard…” Arik said, appraising her thoughtfully.

“Is any of this germane? I want to find my Husband, you imbeciles!” she yelled. The fighting men were still debating her physical merits. “Look, tell me which way the tracks go and I’ll go look for him myself,” she demanded, stomping her foot. Hermel felt a pang of annoyance, but in the end they decided she could go with them after all.

The tracks led to the barn. They got to the door, which was slightly ajar and Hermel peered inside. The barn appeared to be empty except for chickens that were clucking and scratching at feed that was strewn across the dirt floor. Hornmel check the door for traps.

“Looks clear,” he said.

They opened the barn door, and the chickens began clucking and dashing around. They closed the door as Bantum ran around trying to catch the chickens for his new bandolier. Hermel made his way up a ladder as quietly as possible that went up to a loft. He got to the top and saw something moving in the hay. He put his hand on his sword. He climbed up, and pushed the hay to the side with his sword. He saw a leg. Suddenly a girl turned over, revealing herself and a man who was laying there with her. They both had an open gazed look, and Hermel apologized and climbed back down the ladder. They soon followed and left the barn, sheepish expressions on their faces.

Bantum got a rope form the wall and was fixing up a new bandolier when Hermel came down.

“No no no…” he said.

“I want my chickens,” said Bantum.

“They’re better off here,” replied Hermel calmly.

”Their my friends. I want to take them,” said Bantum.

“Do you speak chicken?” ask Hermel.

“Yes I do,” replied Bantum quietly, without hesitation. Arik and Hornmel both broke out laughing. Even Star was amused.

“Bantum…”

“They listen to ME,” said Bantum. “I told my chicken to get you, and he got you.”

“Bantum, you don’t speak chicken. You know why?”

“I do! Look. Hey chicken, he’s a funny man, right?” and squeezing the chicken it began squawking frantically. “See?!”

“Tell you what, Bantum.  I’m going to whisper something to the chicken, and lets see if you can understand what he tells you I said, ok?” offered Hermel.

“Ok,” said Bantum and gave him the chicken. Hermel then whispered the word “Ludicrous” in the chickens ear, and handed it back to Bantum. “Now, ask the chicken… what word did I say?”

Bantum took the chicken and held it up to his ear.

“He says you don’t speak chicken,” said Bantum. “Would you like a chicken?” Bantum asked Lanna holding it out to her.

“Not right now, but thank you,” she said.

She began looking around the edges of the barn, and she stopped. “I found something,” she said, pointing to a rope ring on the floor of the barn. The rest of the group gathered around. Sure enough there was a rope ring. Arik pulled on it and a square trap door opened up, descending into darkness. Bantum tossed a chicken down the shaft. They heard flapping and then the chicken landed with a squawk and a thud. No further noise returned. They decided to climb down the ladder and see what was down there. Bantum went first. It was very dark down there. Bantum found his chicken. It wasn’t moving. He felt sad, and called up to the others to tell them that the chicken was not feeling well. Hermel went and bolted the barn door. He’d decided that they would go down and explore the tunnel.

And so down the ladder they went. At the bottom there was a pitch-black corridor, perfectly square. Bantum was already walking down the sloping corridor into the darkness.

“Whoever hurt my chicken, I’m going to hurt you!” yelled Bantum down the long dark corridor. His voice echoed back.

“Hornmel,” said Hermel to his cousin. “Stay topside and guard the rear with the woman. If anyone comes close the trap door and hide.”

“I’m going down there,” said Lanna.

“Nooo…” replied Hermel.

“No, really, I am,” said the woman sternly.

“Wait. I’m the man with the sword, and you’re the woman who needs help. So I’m supposed to go down into the danger, and you’re supposed to stay here and, you know, cower timidly, and stuff. That’s how it’s supposed to work, see?”

“I’m going down,” she said and climbed down the ladder. Hermel climbed down after her. Hornmel, not following directions once again, followed behind Hermel, closing the trap door behind him. Hermel scowled.

“Why doesn’t anyone listen to me?” he asked of no one. Bantum was twenty feet ahead, his voice still echoing down the corridor. It was dark. In fact, it was pitch black.


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Next Episode: The Salt Mine Mystery

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