Part 5: Chapter ThreeMinar wakes up the next morning a bit later than usual, greeted again by the smell of freshly baked bread and seasoned meats. As he dresses, he can hear Mariam's voice above the other patrons coming from the common room.
He steps out of the men's shared room and heads down to breakfast. Mariam, Braxton and Sapphire are sitting together as usual, with the rest of the party scattered around them. Minar notes the way Deepmind hides her eyes from the sunlight under her hood and the fresh marks on Urk's knuckles, and concludes their late-night scouting of the Drunken Hog was eventful.
He takes a seat and serves up a plate of breakfast. Braxton has apparently asked Sapphire about the great oak in Eventide Forest. "Oh! You must be talking about the Tree of Tales," answers Sapphire. "That old oak has been there for centuries, according to the stories. The people of Dragonholt say that a benevolent spirit lives in the tree."
Sapphire stops to take a drink of her tea before continuing. "There's a custom in Dragonholt to tell your tales to the spirit, whether spoken or written. They say you will be blessed with good fortune if the spirit is moved by your story. Some of the villagers have taken to leaving gifts for the spirit as well, in hopes of gaining its admiration, I suppose."
"Fascinating!" says Braxton. Minar strains to keep from rolling his eyes. Local superstitions. Mariam frantically scribbles something on a piecce of parchment and pockets it. When Braxton looks at her curiously, Mariam says, "Just making a note to myself." Braxton raises an eyebrow, and an almost imperceptible grin crosses Sapphire's lips.
Aria perks up on overhearing the story. "Hey, old Theodore told us a story about the Tree of Tales last night at the Chatty Archer. Something about a badger, I think."
"MHM," mutters Urk, who sets to fishing about in her pouches. "THIS BADGER?" She withdraws the small wooden token she found in the Eventide Forest.
"Oh my," breathes Sapphire. "May I?" She carefully lifts the trinket, examining the craftsmanship. She turns it over in her hand and giggles when she sees the letters etched into the wood.
"As I thought," she says as she returns the trinket. "This is most certainly carved by Theodore. You said you met him? He's very kind, lived in the village all his life. Theo opened the woodworking shop in the market when he was a young man, but he's been retired for a wile now. He comes by the Swan for breakfast or lunch on occasion, but he spends most of his time at the Chatty Archer or in the market. Even after retiring he's still whittling every day."
The bell signals someone entering the Swan, and Sapphire stands. "I'm sure Theo will be happy to see that particular piece again," she says before running off to greet the new patron.
Mariam and Braxton were son off as well, leaving just the party gathered around the remains of breakfast. "So," says Athtar, spreading his hands wide. "What did you think of the journal?"
"What journal?" Minar asks, and he sees Aria cringe.
She turns to the elf and explains. "Uh, he was already asleep. And Iiiii..." she looks away, clearly embarrassed "didn't read it?"
"I was going to read it," Urist assures. "But I'm afraid by the time I got around to it, some of the more powerful medicinal effects of my pre-bed tea had already kicked in, and the pages wouldn't stop spinning of their own accord."
"Can't read," mutters Deepmind. "Too hungover."
"URK, OBVIOUSLY, ALSO DID NOT READ BOOK."
Athtar sighs, in obvious defeat. "Never mind. We'll discuss it later, right now we need to come up with a plan. I don't have any more leads on this danger to the Fairfaxes, but Celyse urged us to win the villagers' trust and see what we can turn up. How do we start with that?"
A) Go to the smithy and inquire about the goblin infestation
B) Go to the market and find Theodore to ask about the trinket
C) Go to the manor to confer with Celyse and the Fairfaxes
At the end of the market row stands a low building with a grey slate roof and a thick chimney: the smithy. The workshop portion of the building sports clapboard walls, easily opened to let in cooler air when the furnace is in use, while a brownstone annex hosts what you presume are living quarters, offices, storage, and other necessities of the smith's trade.
A polished silver hammer hangs from a wrought-iron signpost outside the front door, inscribed with Dunwarr characters. A bronze plaque is set into the wall, with the same legend written in the common tongue: Fiore Brightmaul, Smith.
A hot wind blows around Deepmind, ruffling her fur as she ducks into the workshop, followed closely by the characteristically-distracted Urist. She hadn't brought the alchemist for protection, despite her insistence on traveling in pairs, but perhaps as a fellow Dunwarr dwarf he might provide some insight or rapport with the one they're looking to meet. The roar of the furnace is punctuated by loud clanging and the in-and-out breathing of the bellows.
The young dwarf man on the bellows pauses in his exertions, mopping his brow with a rag and staring at the short Hyrrnyx with frank curiosity. The clanging continues for a few moments more until the smith puts down her hammer and leans back on her padded stool. "What is it, Bryll?" she calls. The apprentice on the bellows points in the newcomers' direction, and the smith twists to glance at them. "Ah," she says. "New customers. Come closer and let me have a look." She lifts a glowing-hot piece of metal from her anvil with the aid of sturdy tongs and plunges it into a bucket of water at her side, then pulls it back out and sets the quenched work in progress aside.
The smith is a sturdily built woman, simply dressed in a light white shirt and heavy leather smock. Her auburn hair is pulled back from her face in a tight bun, and her only ornament is a bright silver necklace around her neck with a subtle purple sheen. "Fiore Brightmaul," she says as they approach. "Hand me my crutch, will you?"
Deepmind finds a wooden crutch with a padded grip close by and offers it to her. She takes it, situates it under her left shoulder, and swings herself on one good leg over to the edge of the workshop, away from the heat. Her right leg moves stiffly at her side.
"I know what you're thinking," she says. "I must have some great story of battling a troll to a standstill to go with my injury. But I'm sad to say I was born like this. Sorry to disappoint." She settles onto a carved wooden chair and lays her crutch to the side. "Welcome to my smithy. My apprentices and I can handle any work you need, or perhaps you'd like to browse my stock. I assure you, we Brightmauls are the finest smiths south of the Dunwarr mountains." She grins and leans forward, conspiratorially. "And frankly, I'm better than most of those overproud duffers, too."
Urist gives a chuckle at that, and Fiore directs their attention to her stockroom, which is directly adjoining the workshop and filled with useful items - trivets and nails and horseshoes, of course, but also swords, daggers, coats of mail, a vicious-looking warhammer, and a wide selection of other implements of the adventuring trade. "Or I'm available for special commissions, of course," she adds, idly fondling her silver necklace. "Well, Bozarth is. He's a journeyman; his rates are much more affordable than mine," she laughs.
"Actually," Deepmind pipes up at last. "We came here about your notice at the village hall. Something about goblins?"
Fiore gives Deepmind an appraising, slightly doubting look, but begins. "There's a silver mine, south of here past the willow grove. I'd like to get it re-opened, but there's a small goblin problem. You wouldn't know any adventuring heroes who have some free time, would you?"
"That's us," she replies coolly. "And a few of our associates."
Requires 3 Fame - which we have
Fiore looks them up and down before she rummages through a shelf full of old papers and forgotten work requests. She crosses to a large table and unrolls an old map, yellowed with age, and delicately places weights on the sides.
"This is a map of the silver mine," she says. "It's said to be the richest in the region. But it was abandoned during the war when all the workers were pressed into military service."
Deepmind nods, absorbing the information, and Fiore continues. "After the war, we discovered goblins had taken to living in the mines. With so many of our workers killed or injured during the war, we didn't have the forces to evict the squatters immediately. Now there are so many of them, there's not much we can do."
"Sounds straightforward," says Deepmind. "What else do we need to know?"
"Here's where the rooster becomes the cockatrice," she sighs. "We had the area scouted. The scout said there's one goblin who seems to be leading the others - a great big one too." She gestures to the main entrance to the mines. "The goblins have fortified the main path, but here" - she points to an emergency access tunnel - is well concealed. If the goblins know about it, they seem to give it only minimal attention. That's your route in."
Deepmind looks at the map, casting her eye along the twisting passages. The mine is a model of efficiency, with the vast majority of the mine dedicated to work, and only a few rooms set aside for alternate purposes. Two rooms catch her eye: the "pipeworks" and the "blastworks".
"What are the pipeworks?" she asks, tapping that point of the map.
"When the mine was originally dug, the richest veins of ore intersected with a large underground river, which kept the tunnels submerged. The mining engineers used a series of waterwheels and Dunwarr water screws to pull water from the lower levels up and out of the mine.
"The pipeworks itself are a double safety system," continues Fiore. "But the backup is down here, at the emergency dam. With how long the mine has been abandoned, the dam is likely holding back an entire river. That is, if it hasn't collapsed and flooded the heart of the mine. In any case, if the pipeworks aren't already running when you get down there, you should activate them if you can."
"And the blastworks?" asks Urist, belatedly tuning in to the discussion at the mention of water screws.
"Those are areas meant for storing and mixing blasting powder - an alchemical compound that was used to excavate large areas of solid rock. I know rooms like that had a fair number of safety features in place to keep the contents as stable as possible, but you never know how well something like that really works. Well, possibly one well trained in the alchemical arts might know, but I couldn't say for sure. The one thing I can tell you for certain." She stares at Deepmind, dead serious." Leave. Your lantern. Outside the room." She holds that piercing stare a few moments.
"Follow the southern road out of the village past the willow grove," she continues. "If you stay on that road, you can't miss the mine. And one last thing." She looks at Deepmind seriously. "The mine has been abandoned for years, and I highly doubt the goblins have been improving things. Take care while you're down there and consider your actions well. It's a very unstable environment."
Fiore sighs. "But remember: we want the mine whole. It would cost the county a fortune to excavate the tunnels again. We'll pay you part of the reward up front to cover expenses." She drops a heavy pouch of coins on the table.
The party gains 50 gold
"Deal," says Deepmind, quickly sweeping up the bag of coins and secreting it within her jacket. "One silver mine, coming right up."
"You'll get the rest of the reward after you've reclaimed our mine," says Fiore with a laugh. She claps Deepmind firmly on the back, almost bowling the smaller woman over. "Don't let us down, eh?"
A) Gather the party and head to the goblin-infested silver mine
B) Find Theodore at the market to show him the wooden trinket
C) Visit Fairfax Manor to convene with Celyse and the Fairfaxes
Athtar and Minar make their way up the drive toward the front door of Fairfax Manor, the knight leading the way and the wildlander slouching in his wake, as usual. "You know," Athtar remarks with a glance over his shoulder, "you don't have to come with me if you feel so strongly opposed to the idea."
"Then I'll just get roped into some other chore by somebody else," Minar mutters. "Least country nobles are mostly quiet. Besides, I should probably say hi to Celyse. And the lunch could be good."
Athtar shrugs and puts his companion's reluctance out of his mind. The serving girl - Mathilda - comes out to greet them. "Miss Celyse is tutoring young Lord Phillip at the moment. I can show you to her if you wish."
"Please, lead the way," says Athtar with a gracious nod.
Mathilda leads them up a spiral stair to the left and through a well-appointed salon. They hear quiet voices through the double door at the back of the room, and Mathilda knocks softly. "Miss Celyse," she says. "You have company." At a muffled call of "Come in," the serving girl opens the door and steps aside to let them pass.
Through the doors they find a somewhat chaotically decorated space. There's a pair of long writing desks under the windows. A long chaise and cushioned chair lie arranged beneath a bookcase filled more with oddments than books: a fleshless deer skull, a large glimmering rock, a crudely fashioned wooden horse, a colourful assortment of feathers, books ranging from children's primers to classical poets, and a dozen other treasures of more sentimental than monetary value. An easel stands in one corner, its canvas a muddy mess of color.
At a table near the center of the room sits Celyse, rising to greet Athtar and Minar, and a startled-looking young man they take to be Phillip. "Welcome," says Celyse with a smile. May I introduce Phillip, Regina's youngest child?"
Phillip stands and bobs is head. "How do you do?" He has light-brown skin, soft black hair, and green eyes set in a delicately featured face. He smiles shyly, then stands uncertain of what to do next.
"And Rochelle, the countess's daughter and heir," says Celyse, turning to indicate a young woman slumped in a chair by the window, a book across her lap. "Rochelle, we have company. Please rise."
"Oh," says Rochelle, shooting to her feet. "Hello, so good to meet you." She offers a stiff bow, then rolls her eyes and grabs hold of both edges of her dress to drop into a proper curtsy. She is both taller than her brother and broader in the shoulder, with curly brown hair, but she shares his green eyes, light brown skin, and delicacy of face. "I'm sorry, I bungled the courtesies again, Celyse, didn't I?"
"You did just fine, dear," says Celyse. "A curtsy or a bow is usually sufficient; no need for both." Se turns to the serving girl and nods her head. "Thank you, Mathilda. That will be all."
"It is an honor to meet you both," says Athtar, executing a perfect formal bow.
For his part, Minar shuffles awkwardly from food to foot before saying "Uh, yeah, ditto."
"We were just in the middle of our studies for the day," says Celyse. "Phillip was explaining the Council of Barons and the rules surrounding its operations, and Rochelle was reading -" Celyse bends down and picks up the broad folio that Rochelle dropped in her haste. "-a fencing manual. Really, Rochelle?"
Rochelle grins and shrugs. "You told me to improve my mind. Aren't you the one who told me battles are won as much with the mind as the body?"
"Keep practicing that rhetoric, my dear, and perhaps one day it will be as fast as your sword."
Phillip steps toward Athtar. "Excuse me. You were with Celyse at Nerekhall, weren't you? Please, would you tell me the story? She keeps promising she will but never does."
Athtar grimaces slightly at the memory and Celyse cuts in. "That's enough, Master Phillip. It's time to resume your studies. Rochelle, you are plainly bored out of your wits. Please find someplace else to be before you distract your brother."
"Probably time for my daily practice anyway," Rochelle agrees, bowing to their guests again before stepping through the side door.
Celyse turns to Athtar and Minar. "My friends are always welcome to join our studies, of course," she says.
"You are too kind." Athtar's face breaks slowly into a wry grin. "However, I admit I would be interested to see how the Fairfax heir handles a sword. If you believe Rochelle would not mind...?"
Celyse rolls her eyes, but smiles as she does so. "I should've guessed the thought of swordplay would distract you too. Very well, I have no doubt Rochelle would appreciate an audience. Best of luck with our... other matter." Athtar nods in acknowledgement before departing, trailing Minar.
They pass through the same door after Rochelle and find themselves in a long, open salle, its floor laid with smooth, polished wood and marked with white paint in lanes and circles. A number of wood and leather mannequins stand in the corners, some marked with bright colors at critical junctions of throat, groin and joints. Racks of wooden weapons stand against one wall.
Rochelle is nowhere to be seen at first, but as they explore the space and slide their feet along the slightly springy floor, she emerges from a back door dressed in padded doublet, hose, tall boots and long gloves. "Oh," she says, crossing to one rack and removing a wooden longsword. "I have a sparring partner today, I see." She nods to the rack and pulls up her enthusiastic curls, tying them off before cramming an arming cap down over her head.
"Uh, should you really be brawling with our employer's daughter?" mutters Minar to Athtar, but the elf ignores him. Athtar draws a wooden sword of his own and dons a matching cap before taking up a position opposite Rochelle. Minar shrugs. "Oh well."
"On your guard!" she calls, then rushes forward with her sword held in a classic fending grip, and battle (or something like it) is joined. Minar yells encouragement and taunts from the sidelines, supporting both combatants against the other. They lose track of time with the constant back and forth, thrust and parry, and circling footwork. Rochelle introduces Athtar to the classic fencing lanes painted on her floor, as well as the circles of defense, shifting between various drills and methods of sparring with ease.
After some time, Minar realizes Celyse is at his side, watching the battle with an amused smirk. The quieting of his jeers draws Rochelle and Athtar's attention, who lower their swords. "I guess time flies when you're having fun," Rochelle admits.
"It was an honor," says Athtar, yielding his sword. "Would that we had more time, but the rest of our party awaits our return."
"That's enough studying for today, anyway." Celyse nods to Rochelle and Phillip, who had followed her in. "Phillip, good work today. Rochelle, thank you for indulging me earlier."
"You are still my tutor," says Rochelle. "Even if I'm not a child anymore."
"I'm not either," says Phillip.
"Keep telling yourself that, Sprout," says Rochelle.
Phillip sticks his tongue out at his sister. She puts her thumb against her nose and blows a raspberry. For the moment, they both seem impossibly young.
There's a pause, as if both children are thinking of something else. Then Phillip bows to the room. "I must take my leave. It was good to meet you both."
"Likewise, kid," Minar mumbles awkwardly.
"Where are you headed?" asks Rochelle, untying her doublet and following Phillip out of the room. "Shall I come with you?"
"Talbot's already got the horses saddled, 'Chelle. I don't need a wet nurse." Both siblings clatter down the stairs, leaving the visitors with Celyse.
"We must return to our work," says Athtar with a sigh. "Perhaps we'll have more time to catch up later."
"I was kind of hoping we'd get lunch first," Minar wonders aloud, a faint note of hope in his voice before abandoning the prospect. "But I guess we're too busy."
"Another time," Celyse assures him. "Thank you for your visit today, and good luck."
One progress in combat training
A) Gather your party and venture forth to the silver mine to deal with the goblins
B) Go see Theodore at the market about his wooden trinket
C) Read Sonia's journal out on the village green
Once Minar and Athtar were reunited with the rest of the party, Deepmind shared the news about Fiore's quest for the silver mine. Having no immediate leads on their main objective and mindful of Celyse's advice to earn the villagers' trust, they resolved on the spot to give it a try.
The road leading south out of the village splits around a large grove of willow and oak trees. The villagers seem to treat the grove as a sort of park or meeting spot. There are almost always children playing among the trees or families enjoying the sun and the breeze.
As the party approaches the willow grove it seems that Braxton is sitting alone on a thick wool blanket beside a covered basket, but as they draw closer they see that Mariam is sitting tucked up against her, cutting an apple into segments with a pen knife. Braxton leans down and murmurs something in Mariam's ear, and the gnome laughs and crams an apple slice into Braxton's mouth. Braxton chews happily, enfolding Mariam in one arm and squeezing gently.
"Awww," says Aria softly, glancing to Minar, who despite himself gives a small smile.
"Come on," Deepmind mutters brusquely, "it's still a long walk to the mine, let's-"
"HEY!" all heads snap to Urk, waving blithely at the small picnic. "MARIAM! BRAXTON! IT URK!"
Braxton noitces and waves the party over. Urk strolls casually toward the invitation, and a moment later Athtar and Urist follow. Aria's look sours and Deepmind gives a heavy sigh, but the rest of the party eventually catches up so that they're all sitting at the edge of the blanket.
"Oh!" exclaims Mariam, reddening slightly. She shifts away from Braxton, not making eye contact.
"Mariam prepared enough food for a small army," teases Braxton. "Your presence is a bit of a godsend. There's no way I could eat this all myself."
"IF BRAXTON INSISTS," says Urk, who had already begun building a plate of lunch uninvited.
"Oh, of course, right, sure, have a seat," babbles Mariam, to visible wincing from Aria. "Here, have a sandwich." She hands a sandwich distractedly to Athtar, who nods politely in thanks. "Gnomish invention, nothing like it for eating on the go, or a picnic like this."
"Did gnomes really invent the sandwich?" Urist credulously whispers to Minar, who stares flatly at him for a few moments.
The party regain two stamina each
Braxton eats quickly, a small smile sparkling in her eyes. Mariam is all bouncing energy, alternating between forcing some new choice food on someone and peppering the party with high-velocity questions, only occasionally pausing for an answer. "Nice weather, isn't it? I love summer. It's my favorite season, except for autumn. And spring. And winter is nice, too. Do you have a favorite season? Is it too hot out here? Would you like an apple? It pairs nicely with the cheese."
Aria lets out a pained groan, prompting a confused look from Athtar. Urk, a whole apple in her mouth, takes the cheese politely before shearing the fruit in half with her fangs.
"Don't forget to eat, Mariam," chides Braxton. Mariam snaps her mouth shut and turns an alarming shade of red.
"So," says Deepmind, grasping desperately at small talk. "How are you ladies finding Dragonholt?" They look at each other, as if trying to find the correct answer.
"The shop was a mess, of course," begins Mariam. "Much worse than I expected. But Aunt Sapphire was right about the people. They're a good sort here, I think. And the town is prosperous in its modest way."
"I find the village entirely pleasant," says Braxton. "There are even some other orcs here. Not so much staring as I'm used to. I think I could stay, at least for a few years."
"I hope so," says Mariam, "I mean, I'm glad you like it here. Hate to think I dragged you all this way and you'd be miserable, hahaha." She breaks into an uncharacteristically nervous laugh, then grabs a clay cup and takes a long drink of what smells like a light wine. After finishing off the cup, she holds up a wedge of cheese on a cutting board. "Try the cheese."
"THANKS," says Urk, casually lifting the whole wedge off the board. Minar glances with concern at Aria, who's buried her face in her hands at this point.
With the party's help, they manage to eat most of the food Mariam packed, and at length the gnome pops back to her feet. "Enough lollygagging!" she says. We have to get back to the shop and get back to work." Cleaning up the picnic takes no time at all, and after goodbyes the party is back on the road south out of the willow grove.
As soon as the group is out of sight of Braxton and Mariam, Aria punches Urk in the shoulder, albeit to very little effect. "What the hell, Urk?"
"Did I miss something?" says Athtar, his brow furrowing.
Minar suppresses a snort of laughter, barely, and Urk just shrugs. "URK SAW PICNIC. AGED STILTON? URK NOT ABOVE MINOR SOCIAL FAUX-PAS."
"Can we focus on the whole goblin mine thing?" Deepmind snaps, before sighing. "Come on." The party meanders down the trail. The road, if a wagon track that is simply two ruts running through the grass can be called that, runs south out of Dragonolt and marches past the mill, visible in the distance as a leaning stone tower. Beyond the mill, hills pile atop one another, purpling with distance as they reach toward the sky.
Beginning the questbook Sliver of Silver
(On a personal note, thank you for managing to trigger that very brief, minor event that only happens if you go to the Willow Grove at exactly this time on exactly this day, it's a favourite.)