Looking out over the ridge, our heroes could make out the roofs and walls of the Tethus Alveary. Of the group, only Durul had even heard of it, knowing or knowing of a half-dozen scions of well-born families to have studies there. A winding trail led from a small marshalling yard before the great oak doors of the alveary, presumably down through the hills to the road to Tuin.
Holdfast barked, then Art told the others to duck down – there was movement on the road. Another minute and two figures came into view in the odd clearances among the foliage. As the figures approached the party could make out an unlikely looking couple – on the left a well-dressed, immaculately groomed young man, (if a little dust-weathered from the road), while the figure beside him was anything but; the older man’s hair and beard were matted, while his threadbare robes looked as If they could well make the journey on their own. Durul recognised the well-dressed man – Cade Thorngage, a young fellow of another alveary who had in the past supplied alchemical services to his family.
The older man was known to Art from his time working in the Unbridled Mare. His name was Kordan Meth , a hermit for the most part, he would sometimes wander into Olari. Mother Falkae, always something of a soft touch, would offer him a meal and a bed of straw in the stables with young Arthur. Art was fascinated by the scraggly fellow, who told him stories, folktales and forest legends. He loved the tales of heroes partaking quests the best, though he was cautious of the elder’s insistence on the necessity of mushrooms in a healthy diet.
Kordan had made his life a study of the virtues of mushrooms. This had lead him oft-times into reclusiveness and hermitage, which in turn had the effect of dulling his social graces. In spite of this, he was sometimes sought out by herbalists, apothecaries and scholars for his encyclopaedic knowledge of fungi. It was said that wherever he laid to sleep, within a winter tops would sprout.
Cade had business in the alveary’s library, while the others settled on their accompanying Durul on his own visit due to the dangers on the roads. Durul was looking for a place to send his brother, a wastrel and layabout, for what he referred to as a comprehensive education. This wasn’t too far from the truth; after a purchased commission had been dismissed by Durul’s father – ‘What army would take the fool’ – the only real option left was an education in a closed community, which, it was hoped almost beyond hope, would provide Durul’s sibling with some focus and interest outside his own inherent vices.
The party decided it would be best for somebody to stay outside of the alveary to watch for any comings or goings. Never truly comfortable in cramped buildings, as this one was sure to be. He found a comfortable position obscured but with good views all round, and the others made their way to the end of the canyon and the alveary’s entrance.
Mardigan was about to knock on the iron-bound oak door with the butt of his sword hilt, but Cade stopped his hand. Instead felt the door, then tapped part-way to the left from the middle, about head height. After a long minute a small hatch-door, previously unseen opened within the main door. A voice from within demanded to know the visitors’ intentions. After relating their stories, the voice bid them come inside.
The voice belonged to the gatekeeper (as he introduced himself). He bid the party wait here – an open area like a large atrium, with stables built nearby – while he took word to the Master. In less than five minutes he was back. The master would see them, he said. Cade thought it unusual that a master was the first to see visitors to the alveary, but perhaps they just did things differently in the East.
The gatekeeper lead the party through the labyrinthine passages of the alveary, turning this way and that until any sense of a true north was forsaken. Coming to a larger than normal door, set ajar, the gatekeeper stopped.
‘Master Mautun will see you in here,’ he said, a little stiffly. Durul was suddenly aware of something that had played at the edges of his consciousness – the old man was annoyed; obviously this was not how things were normally done around here. He slipped their guide a thripney piece and thanked him warmly for his trouble. The gatekeeper flushed, not used to being thanked, Durul thought.
The party made their way into the darkened room, and a cloaked figure gestured vaguely to a seating bench. This should be interesting, Cade thought to himself.
The party sat, except for Mardigan, who stood at the end of the bench closest to the door. The cloaked figure spoke without turning. ‘Thank you for meeting in this unorthodox manner. Please allow me to offer my apologies for not extending the normal formalities of hospitality first, but I believe there is much to discuss.
‘I must also apologise on behalf of my friend, the Bald Shalaur, who presides over this alveary. He has taken sick and is too weak to see visitors; so here I am in his place…’
As he spoke he turned. From beneath the cowl protruded a short snout, grey in colour. A long tale slid like a serpent around the stool as the Master moved around. Mautun lowered his cowl, revealing his bald, scaled head and midnight blue eyes. He was Errinirl. A couple of the party felt a slight nausea at the sight of the reptilian master, their discomfort written on their faces, but nobody stirred, except for Mardigan, whose right hand went from resting on is knife pummel to the sword hilt at his left hip.
Durul gathered his wits first. Signalling Mardigan to stay his hand, he addressed the master; ‘Please forgive our reaction to you, master,’ he said, gesturing to the others. ‘None of us have ever encountered an Errinirl before, in the flesh, so to speak.’
The lizard-kin gave Durul an inscrutable look. ‘It is I who should apologise,’ he said. ‘Most of my days are spent within the walls of one or another of these places of learning, where one of my race is not an uncommon sight. I sometimes forget how those of your people sometimes react to our… appearance.’ His voice trailed off, as if distracted. A moment’s pause and he stood, moving off the low stage on which he had sat, and toward the party.
Cade addressed the master, asking if a scented candle would not be welcome if introductions were to be made and discussions were to be had. Mautun nodded assent and said, ‘thank you, Fellow…?’
‘Cade, Master.’ He replied. Cade Thorngage. Late of the Gneynd Alveary in old Chettarn.’
‘Welcome Fellow Cade,’ the Errinirl Said formally, lightly pressing the tips of his fingers together and bowing his head a little. Cade returned the gesture, then went about preparing the candle he had withdrawn from a pocket in his cape. Muttering something under his breath, Cade applied his command of nevena, creating an environment focused around the fragrant candle; any lie uttered would be betrayed by an irritation to the nose, causing the teller to sneeze.
Master Mautun held out a long-fingered hand to each in turn, and greeted them warmly. Durul, unable to help himself, saw the situation as a transaction that would function more smoothly with the application of cash. He made overtures that Mautun politely parried. In Mardigan he recognised a fine warrior and a man of decision and action. In spite of himself, the old soldier felt a small flush of pride as the Errinirl made virtues of what others saw in him as flaws.
When he reached Kordan, he bowed. ‘You are most welcome, benir. It is always an honour to meet with a true seeker.’ Kordan reached into a pocket and popped a dried powdercap into his mouth.
Turning to Arthur, the Errinirl leaned forward and presented his hand to the boy. ‘But to be visited by two seekers is a truly remarkable thing. Welcome benir Arthur. I wish you well on your journey’ Turning slightly, Mautun looked at Holdfast, who looked back, cocking his head. The master extended his hand, below the animal’s snout, and allowed Holdfast to sniff it thoroughly. With a slight wag of his tail, the dog looked up at the master and raised a paw. Mautun took it solemnly.
‘Fellow Cade of Gneynd’ – Mautun struggled a little with the pronunciation of the name – ‘you are an apothecary, yes. I would prevail upon you to look in on Master Shalaur, if you can spare the time. The medicas of this place have done what they can, but that has proven only to make my old friend more comfortable. He is not a young man, but this sickness has come upon him so suddenly, it has transformed him to one who waits for death expectantly.’
Cade measured his words. ‘I would be honoured to see the Bald, and to offer what services I am able.’ He paused before continuing. ‘Forgive my presumption, Master, but the medicas who have seen him already are skilled, I‘m sure. Would there be a particular reason for your entreaty?’
The Errinirl’s head lowered a little, then he motioned wordlessly for Mardigan to close the door. When it was shut, he said in a lowered voice, ‘Shalaur is a vital fellow, older in body but young in mind and in spirit. I believe that whatever infirms his body and clouds his mind is not… not of the natural order.’
‘You suspect poison.’ Kordan made the question into a statement.
The master nodded. He looked at Durul. ‘I believe there are further reasons for your presence here today, also? These times require honest speech among the right-hearted.’ He looked at the others. ‘Let me speak of what I know and what I suspect.’
Mautun knew of the fires, and of the Alderman’s intention to initiate an investigation. He had also heard of the murders – news of that kind always travelled quickly. He suspected that the party was investigating the fires or the murders or both, and he welcomed the news if this proved to be true.
The Errinirl now spoke of what he knew; that Shalaur’s sickness had come on quite suddenly, days before he arrived to visit his old friend. His invitation had come from Shalaur, when he was well. It implied that the Bald thought something was amiss among his charge, but could not fathom the nature of the problem. He sought his old friend’s help to unravel the knotted mystery. Shalaur fell sick about a week after reports of the first fires reached the alveary, and three days before Mautun’s own arrival.
The senior residents of the alveary, a kind of informal advisory council, asked Mautun to take on some of the Bald’s responsibilities until he was well enough to take up the position once more – in the early days everyone was positive he would pull through. Though they had asked him to stay and minister to the alveary, most of the residents didn’t place complete trust in Mautun. Much was held back form him; what precisely he couldn’t say. One thing that had put him on edge was some overheard talk of the Judgement. At the mention of this Cade looked up, something close to shock passing briefly across his face.
Mautun knew whatever was happening to Shalaur would continue so long as this influence remained in the alveary, and may well begin to happen to him as well. He was sure that things were coming to a head, but didn’t know how he could proceed. Mautun said there were a few people he felt he could trust within these walls, but hoped he would find allies in the party.
Durul spoke on behalf of the party, briefly covering the initial investigations, the murders at the Welangur’s farm and the party’s pursuit of the assailants, the confrontation they walked into between Ethelo Lathava (whom Mautun indicated he had met some time ago) and the subsequent pursuit that had lead them to this place.
Out of honesty, accord. On Mautun’s insistence, Kordan would accompany Cade in the visitation of the master, while Mautun would offer a tour of the alveary to the man looking for a suitable position for his brother, and his retinue.