As Durul left the tailor’s shop, Immet Vamethau offered him one last morsel of advice. ‘’There is a trader, a member of the Erindrcathetul folk who live in the forests north-east of here. His name is Haucc. He has one of those incomprehensible woodkin names they have in place of a family name. I’ve done business with him before. He can be surely, but I’ve always found him an honest broker.” Vamethau understood that Haucc arrived in town a couple of days previously (a point that, if true, would put him I the clear of any hands-on involvement in the murders at Welangur farm).
After regrouping at the Unbridled Mare, Durul related all he’d learned from the tailor, Vamethau. The three grown-ups decided to go have a talk to Haucc. Meanwhile Art and Holdfast would follow their own line of enquiry, investigating the stables of the other inns around Olari to see if a horse with a star on his shoulder had lodged the previous night.
Once they reached the market (Emlyn knew the way well), it wasn’t difficult to find the Woodkin trader.
Durul, and Maridgan introduced themselves, while Emlyn hung back, observing. Haucc Wethathalkaba was a tallish, sandy-haired fellow of maybe fifty, with the weathered look of someone who had lived. Mardigan took his measure, concluding he looked like the kind of man who could handle himself in a situation.
Durul began the questioning, but when it became obvious these fellows weren’t buying Haucc became short and dismissive. At least until Durul showed him the cloth. At the sight of it he became indignant, demanding to know where he had obtained the fabric. After some discussion Durul took a different tack, suggesting that the alderman could be involved. “Yes, definitely,” Haucc said. “Ethiri can sort this mess out once and for all.” Not the reaction Durul expected. Haucc took a minute to close his stall and secure the canvas coverings and then the four of them, Haucc, Durul, Emlyn and Mardigan were on their way across the square, heading for the alderman’s office.
It didn’t take Art and Holdfast long to check out the better inns in Olari – besides the Unbridled Mare, there were only four others, and Art was on good terms with the livery tenders at all of them. No sign of the horse they sort, or his rider. Disappointed but unperturbed, the two began to make their way across town to check out the remaining, less salubrious taverns that offered something like livery services, when Holdfast started, then gave Art the impression of the horse with the star on his shoulder, pointing with his nose at three steeds tied at a public water-trough across the road.
Mardigan never trusted talkers; he barely tolerated Durul sometimes, although he had to admit – however grudgingly – that he’d managed to get further than the rest of them on this job. No, Mad Mardigan was a man of action, and he was beginning to think that this Haucc would respond to action more readily than blather. Spotting a convenient alley-way between two tall buildings, he made his move, at once signalling his friend Emlyn to follow his lead, than bundling the woodkin into the ally and against a wall. The tall ‘foreigner’ didn’t seem all that surprised. A smile twitched at the corner of his mouth, which was enough to make Mardigan angry. He was about to give the older man an ultimatum – “Talk and it won’t hurt so much”, or something like that; he hadn’t had time to come up with anything that threatening, he was doing this on the fly – when everyone stopped and turned toward the far end of the alley, where it took a corner, at the sound of shouts and breaking glass.
Art just had time to take in what he was seeing – the same mare with the same white, star-shaped blaze on her shoulder – when his train of thought was broken by the noise of crashing wood and the distinctive sound of swords being drawn. In a moment he was up and running, leaping, Holdfast hot on his heels. Some packing crates, a lean-to roof, threatening to give, and then onto a balcony, offering a view of the alleyway and some safety from the unfolding scene below.
At the sound of blade steel meeting steel, Mardigan let go of Haucc and bolted up the alleyway, as he turned he saw a dark figure with his back to him, sword drawn, holding three others at bay. Emlyn and Haucc were next to him a moment later. The dark figure shot a look over his shoulder as Durul turned the corner and swung back to meet the wide swing of the assailant to his left. Noticing the Mardigan and Emlyn, hands on hilts, slowly moving forward, the one in the middle made a gesture, then all three ran in the opposite direction, back toward the street.
Mardigan wasted no time. He was already moving as the dark figure began to give chase to his attackers. Mardigan leapt and tackled the man to the ground. The dark stranger extracted himself from Mardigan‘s embrace, stood, sheathed his sword and glared at the small crowd, then at Mardigan. “You let them get away,” said Ethelo Lathava.
“We weren’t letting you get away this time,” Emlyn retorted.
“Do you know what I’ve been through to try to lure those three out of…? Oh, never mind. Come with me – we have to get this sorted out once and for all,” Ethelo said, dusting himself off.
“Where not going anywhere with you; you’re coming with us,” said Mardigan, trying to regain the upper hand in this exchange.
“Fine,” said Ethelo. I’ll come with you. To Alderman Ethiri’s office, I trust? I mean, you do have a report to file, correct?”
Art quietly made his was down from the balcony, Holdfast in tow. He’d seen the events in the alley, despaired when he saw Mardigan capture the wrong fellow, and watched the three horsemen ride hard around a corner and out of view. He was disappointed, but confident in his canine companion’s ability to pick up the trail.
A crowded room
The conflagration made its way to Alderman Ethiri’s offices. The offices took up the front section of the alderman’s house; a central entrance opened into a small hallway with three doors, the door to the left led into Ethiri’s office. The one to the right was always ajar; this one led into the small office with a tiny clerk’s ledger desk and a small bookcase. This belonged to Fath, the alderman’s faithful and trusted secretary, who let in the crowd of visitors, each expressing their own particular stripe of indignation toward the poor little fellow. Everyone, that is, except Holdfast, who was made to wait on the doorstep of the building.
Once the extended group was ushered into the alderman’s office, everyone – with the exception of Arthur – began talking at once. Confusion reigned for but a moment, until the authority of Ethiri’s voice brought the crowd to quiet. Seizing the opportunity, Durul spoke first, reporting to Ethiri everything that had transpired, from the group’s initial investigations to the killings at the Welangur farm, and the pursuit of the murderers, the loss of the trail, and the return to Onivaro (leaving out any mention of the surviving boy). He then elaborated on the discovery of the cloth at the farm and what the tailor had told him about the fabric being cut carefully as to look torn at first glance.
At this point Haucc, butted in, demanding to know where the cloth had been found, and insisting that no one of his people would part with even a portion of it willingly. He also demanded that Ethiri look into this matter with all haste, as the whisper of suggestion of his folk’s involvement in the murders could be enough to send angry lynch mobs into their forests looking for rough justice. “If that happens,” he said without a hint of threat in his voice, “I cannot guarantee their safe return.”
Mardigan and Emlyn stepped in at this juncture to express his concern over the seeming omnipresence of Ethelo Lathava, who remained silent throughout the stream of accusations. When Mardigan had said his piece, Alderman Ethiri spoke; “Ethelo Lathava is in Olari on important business. I was not aware of his visit to Onivaro, but nonetheless, I will personally vouch for his good standing. I have known Lathava for many years and swear to you he is not involved in these killings.” He appeared to hesitate on the verge of saying more. After a nod from Lethava, he added, “ Ethelo is in the service of the king, and therefore is above reproach.” Suddenly it was plain to Durul why this man could not be so easily bought.
The discussion that began to curl though the small crowd in the small room was abruptly silenced by a crashing sound outside the closed door and indignant, accented shouts. A moment later, Alang Baulial broke into the room, an apologetic Fath remaining in the doorway. Ethiri waved a gesture of consoling dismissal at the beleaguered secretary as Baulial began his tirade.
“Two of my friends were murdered last night! Two draicrafters, known and respected in their community, killed in their home, along with their children. Their children! Now will you believe me? The Judgement has come to Fiahawn. You must do SOMETHING!”
Addressing Baulial but for the benefit of all, Ethiri explained the situation; the party’s examination of the Welangur’s farm and their injuries, the unsuccessful pursuit of the assailants, their reappearance in Olari and abortive attack on Lathava. The forgemaster entreated the group to apprehend the miscreants, or failing that, to make them pay for the senseless outrage they had committed, and offered his services I any capacity they saw fit. Lathava suggested that, in the absence of any further clues as to the destination of the cloaked figures that attacked him, the party should call into the Tethus Alveary. If there was any truth to the rumours concerning the Judgement, then the Abbot of the alveary may be able to shed some light on the situation, perhaps even identify the culprits (or at least establish if any strangers had visited the alveary in recent weeks).
At the end of the conference it was decided that the party would head to the Tethus Alveary with all speed, in case the assailants had fled there. Meanwhile Lathava had business at the capital. He would report to his superior regarding the situation and endeavour to return within a few days. Alang Baulial would leave the forge under the supervision of his journeyman and make the sojourn to Onivaro to attend to the requirements of the Welangur family.
The road to the south
It was mid-afternoon when the party set out for Tethus Alveary. Nobody knew the way or the region, but they were told that if the followed the furrowed road south they would eventually reach the alveary, that lay, according to various accounts, between five and eight leagues from Olari. Leaving the town, Holdfast caught a trace of the now familiar scent of the horse with the blaze of white on its shoulder.
Mardigan, always eager to push for action, pushed ahead at a gallop, his mount straining at the bit. Arthur and Holdfast followed close behind. About half a mile or so behind, Emlyn and Durul kept a good pace, wary of the possibility their quarry may try to double-back behind them.
About an hour before dusk, and after a hard seventeen miles’ ride, Mardigan and Arthur arrived in the town of Tuin. Privileging his thirst over his mission, Mardigan immediately made for the first inn he found, a well-kept establishment called the Silver Barrow, and began to charm the local Nellie (the Barrow’s Betty), leaving Art to take care of the horses.
As dusk settled, the second pair of weary travellers lead their horses into the town. Emlyn took a walk around but most of the establishments were closed by this time and smoke curled from every domestic chimney in the cool, still night. Durul secured rooms for his compatriots; at his request, Emlyn was given a room with a window overlooking the road leading north.
The next morning Durul took breakfast in his room. Mardigan ventured downstairs, took eggs, meat bread and ale (as a hair of the dog), while Emlyn and Arthur took porridge and a couple of boiled treehen’s eggs, a local delicacy. Mardigan spied a woman at another table and immediately went over to her table and tried valiantly to engage her in conversation. After his initial efforts were casually rebuffed, he lifted his game – it had been some time since Mardigan had met his match in a woman and his interest was piqued. The woman, exotic, raven-haired, dark-eyed, and – he guessed – about Mardigan’s own age, introduced herself simply as Kaenia. She said she was in the employ of a travelling merchant, who she referred to as ‘her master’. Mardigan got the impression that she may be a translator; something about her accent tickled a memory deep within him but he could not place it.
Any further interrogation of Kaenia (or of her employer) would have to wait, however. Art had taken some food to Holdfast, and while he happily chowed down, he casually dropped the impression of the shoulder-blazed horse. Art asked the dog if its rider was to be found. He walked up the hill, Holdfast impressed. An image of the hill rising from the flat behind the inn showed clear in the boy’s mind. Arthur ran to tell the others.
Within fifteen minutes the party was off, up the hill. Durul paid in advance for food and stabling for two days, but told the publican not to panic if they didn’t return that night. Durul took his leave of the lovely Kaenia, who assured the warrior of her certainty that their paths would cross again.
The trail led about a half-mile to a stone outcropping, roughly east of the tavern. Holdfast implied that the ‘dark man’ sat here for a while. The trail then headed due north, over rough, rolling terrain – the foothills to the Tethus Mountains. The Dark Man was less careful now and had left signs of his presence along the path – Emlyn estimated he has traversed the ground four or five hours ahead of them.
After eight miles as the crow flies – translating to something closer to eleven by foot – Emlyn and Holdfast both lost the trail. Ahead lay the rise of a bluff. As the party discussed their options, Holdfast trotted up to the rise turned, and yelped a short, quiet bark. When Arthur , crouching as he went, joined the hound at the crest of the bluff, he saw what Holdfast had broadcast; a narrow road, cut through the dense forest, and two figures, unrecognisable form this distance, picking their way along the path.