Part 8: Chapter SixUrist ambles down the stairs back into the Swan's common room, yawning in the grey light of pre-dawn trickling in from the windows. Sapphire had made a noble effort cleaning up from last night's revelry, but a few reminders remain - not the least of which being Minar and Aria propped against each other in the same overstuffed chair, Aria still snoring loudly.
The old dwarf chuckles at the sight of them and wanders over to the window, looking out into the quiet streets of Dragonholt. Despite all his explorations of the subconscious, nothing he'd found had quite the same effect as the magic pre-dawn hour, the stillness of it going to work at once on his weariness. A sort of peace he'd struggled to recapture since his unceremonious exile from the mountains, always just out of reach.
Well, he considers, reaching into his shirt to extract the strange mushroom he'd found in the mine the day previous. Maybe one more exploration would shed some light on that mystery...
"Urist?" Sapphire calls from behind.
The alchemist hurriedly slips his prize back into his shirt. "Y-yes, madam?"
"There's a man here to see you - well, one of you - from the manor. One of the countess's household." She gestures to a room set off from the common room. "Came in through the kitchen door, said it was urgent. All very unusual, he's still back there now."
Perplexed, Urist follows Sapphire's gesture and steps into the kitchen. Tymothi, the countess's steward, is fussing with a ruffled yellow shirt.
"Thank you for seeing me," he says. "I trust you are finding Dragonholt to your satisfaction." He stands and paces to a window, peering through it for a moment, then turning to Urist. "I shall skip past the pleasantries as I fear time may be of the essence. The countess's son, Phillip, is missing. He was last seen yesterday, leaving for a day-trip to visit the Tree of Tales in the forest with his manservant, Talbot. They rode two of her ladyship's best horses and should have been gone and back in a handful of hours." Tymothi sighs and dabs at his face with a lace handkerchief. "The horses came back, riderless, early this morning."
Tymoti reaches to his belt and places a velvet bag on the table before him. It clinks. "I wish to - the countess wishes to contract your services. Phillip must be found, but none of her ladyship's guards are," he pauses, picking his words, "ideally suited for such a task. Celyse recommended your party, specifically, for this." Tymothi slides the purse across the table to Urist.
The party gains 50 gold
"This is an advance for any expenses that may accrue. The rest awaits the safe return of Regina's youngest child. Please, hurry. The family can bear only so much grief."
"Of course," Urist mutters, awkwardly scooping up the purse. "We'll, ah, waste no time in getting started." He glances through the kitchen door as Aria lets out a particularly loud snore. "What can you tell me about this man, Talbot?"
"Talbot is a steady man and has been Phillip's trusted servant these past ten years. He was once a member of her ladyship's guard before an injury forced him to seek lighter duty." Tymothi puffs out his chest. "I myself was once a soldier, you know. Logistics."
"A fine profession," Urist agrees.
He pauses, as if lost in memory for a moment, then returns his attention to Urist. "In any case, Talbot is a good man and a personal friend. If any harm has befallen young Phillip, you can rest assured it befell Talbot first."
"Right, well, I'll muster my colleagues and we'll be off at once," assures Urist. "I think we remember the way to the Tree of Tales, we should be able to start there."
Tymothi bows stiffly before excusing himself. As soon as he leaves the Swan, Sapphire pounces. "Well?" she asks. "What did the steward want? Was it about the countess's son? He's missing, I hear. Tell me!"
Taken somewhat off-guard by Sapphire's keen interest, Urist recovers. "Er, yes, well, it seems he didn't return from his ride the other day. The countess has engaged my company in is safe return. Speaking of..." he wanders over to Aria and Minar and gives them a gentle push. The two of them fall over and wake with a start. "We'd best part putting the party together."
Sapphire busies herself putting together a basket of breakfast as Urist goes to rouse the party. "That poor child," she adds, while handing Urist a buttered oat cake. "Well, you may want to see my niece at her shop before you go; she might have potions or something for you. Good luck, Phillip is a good lad and I'd hate to see him hurt."
Urist draws himself up, the effect only mildly spoiled by the oat crumbs in his beard braids. "We shall endeavor to return the young man whole and well, never fear." Behind him, Urk, Deepmind and Athtar stagger down the stairs, rubbing sleep from their eyes. "There's no time to waste. I'll just have to fill them in as we go."
A) Time is of the essence! Head straight through the dragon statues and into the Eventide Forest
B) Stop by Mariam's shop and see if she can lend any potions (or maybe Braxton)
C) It's a market day, maybe it'd be worth looking there first for anything useful?
Athtar was visibly agitated, his hand gripping his sword hilt and his eyes scanning the horizon. "We ought to be out there already. Every minute we waste, Phillip gets further away from us."
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Urist quotes, waving expansively at the apothecary shop, recently rebuilt. "We'll be no good to the young master if we set off unready. And what's more, the newly anointed Dame Braxton of Dragonholt might take offense to a rescue mission without-"
"Yes, yes," Athtar cuts him off. "I see your point, but let's be quick about it."
The jingle of a silver bell greets Urist as he opens the door. Behind the counter, Braxton is holding a hammer in one hand and aligning a board along the door frame to the back room with the other. She holds several nails in her mouth as she works. Mariam is happily humming and glass can be heard tinkling but she remains invisible until she peeks over the counter that is just taller than she is.
"Well, look who it is!" bubbles Mariam. "A customer!" Braxton's reply is impossible to make out as she keeps her lips tight over the iron nails. Mariam hops up on the counter, sitting with her feet swinging. "Braxton, take a break. We have company!"
Braxton drives a nail home with quick, efficient strikes, then steps back to examine her work. She nods, spits the remaining nails into her hand, and smiles warmly. "It's good to see you all," she says.
"Would that it were under better circumstances, I fear," declares Urist.
"Phillip is missing in Eventide forest," Athtar explains. "Those bandits we encountered are suspected."
"You're going after him?" asks Braxton
"Oh, that poor kid," says Mariam. "I hope he's okay."
"I'll go with you," says Braxton. "Let me fetch my-"
"You will not!" says Mariam. "I need you here, and you're barely recovered from that beating the bandits gave you."
"Seems fine to me," mutters Minar from the back.
"Nevertheless," Athtar continues. "Rescuing him will not be easy. We could use all the help we can get."
"Absolutely not," says Mariam. "I forbid it."
"Mariam," says Braxton. "I'm a knight. This is what I do."
"Those bandits nearly killed you last time!" Mariam scrambles to her feet on the counter, her eyes are level with Braxton's and shining with the threat of tears. "You tried to pretend that you weren't hurt - the big strong orc - but that was a lie, wasn't it?"
Braxton's eyes fall to the floor, conflicting emotions streaming across her face. She opens her mouth to speak, but she cannot find the words. She leans on the counter in silence.
Athtar is about to speak when Aria quietly nudges him. He steps back, and in a soft tone she says "I know you're worried for her, but the more of us there are, the better chance we have of bringing everyone back home - including that little boy out there who's been taken from his mother. We'll do everything we can to keep Braxton safe."
"I'm sure you will," says Mariam. "But it's too dangerous. Her wounds still haven't healed fully."
"Mariam," says Braxton. "A boy is missing. He could be in danger, and I can help."
Mariam's eyes begin to glisten with tears. "What if you're caught by the bandits again? What if you don't come back?" Se moves to wipe her tears with a sleeve, but Braxton hugs the gnome to her chest.
Athtar glances over to Aria, uncertain, but she gestures for him to wait.
Aria has empathy
After a few silent sobs, Mariam's choked and muffled voice croaks out. "You better come back. I'll kill you if you die out there."
Braxton opens her mouth as if to comment on the error in her logic, but she instead says, "I will." Braxton releases the gnome from her embrace and gently brushes away a tear with her thumb.
Mariam looks at Aria. "Take good care of her, will you?" She looks away and grumbles under her breath. "I need someone to reach things on tall shelves." A warm smile crosses Braxton's lips.
"We will," says Aria. "I promise."
"I'll head back to the Swan to retrieve my gear," says Braxton. "I'll meet you under the Dragon Statues."
The silver bell on the door jingles as Braxton exits the shop. Mariam wipes her face with a sleeve and takes a deep breath. "Don't go anywhere just yet."
Mariam hops off the counter and scurries into the back room. She returns a moment later holding two bottles of red liquid. "Take these with you. You can pay me back later if you don't have the gold right now, I'd rather you have them in case things go wrong."
"No, that's fine," says Urist, opening the purse Tymothi gave him. "We were paid a retainer for expenses. Only fair to support a fledgling business."
The party gains two more healing potions
The party pays 50 gold
Mariam looks over the party, and years start to form once more. "You all be safe out there too! Bring Braxton and the boy home."
A) We can't afford any more delays, meet Braxton at the Dragon Statues and set out
B) We could still find something useful at the market before we set out
C) Maybe Fiore could do something with the war rune at the smithy?