Part 10: Chapter Eight(Settle in, this is a long one)
As the party reaches the village green, a human woman emerges from the shrine. "Phillip!" she shouts, rushing toward him
"'Chelle" says Phillip. "It's good to see you."
Rochelle wraps her arms around Phillip and lifts him off the ground, laughing. "I'm so relieved! I wanted to ride off after you and cut my way through the forest if need be, but mother wouldn't allow it."
"You're the heir now," says Phillip. "Mother was just being cautious."
Rochelle clasps one fist to her chest and gives the party a formal soldier's salute. "Thank you for saving my brother," she says. "Truly. Celyse said you could do it."
"Celyse was right," Phillip agrees.
"And thank you, Braxton," Rochelle adds, turning to the big orc. "Your service to Dragonholt is appreciated."
"Just doing my duty, my lady." Braxton shrugs as if to salute back, but her arm is still holding up Athtar.
Rochelle's brow furrows. "Is your companion okay? If he's wounded, we can-"
"I can take care of our intrepid leader," Urist assures, patting a hand on Athtar's back that causes his face to freeze up in pain. "We'll take him back to the Swan and see to his treatment."
Phillip nods. "I imagine you'll all want to freshen up, but you should really come to the manor as soon as you can. Mother will want to thank you too." Phillip bows, then he and Rochelle walk off into the darkening evening. She wraps an arm around him, and they lean their heads together, talking in low tones as they make their way toward the manor.
Urk takes Athtar off of Braxton's shoulder as the orc knight nods in thanks. "It's been an honour, but I'd best get back to Mariam before she goes mad with worry. We did good work here today, friends."
"SEE YOU NEXT CRISIS," says Urk cheerily, waving Athtar's limp hand after the departing Braxton.
"Well," says Minar, glancing over the ragged band. He finds a bandit arrow sticking out of his backpack and casually pulls it free. "Pub?"
It's a few hours later, and Minar and Aria push through the Swan's double doors into a crisp, clear night, the crescent moon so bright you could read by it. Deepmind and Urk follow in their wake, and the four of them follow the road down toward the manor. When they reach the home of the Fairfaxes, the door is opened by a stock human man, the stablemaster. He peers at the four of them as he ushers them inside.
"Her ladyship an' the rest are in her solar," he says. "Up those stairs there." He gestures to a heavy stone stair that climbs up to an ancient stone balcony overlooking the great hall. Then he returns to a long table where a half-dozen other servants are cleaning up from dinner.
"BY THE WAY, HE KILLED SONIA PROBABLY," Urk casually remarks to the rest of the party as they walk. The other three come to a stuttering stop as Urk keeps walking, before shrugging off another bout of the orc's weirdness and hurrying to catch up.
When they reach the balcony, they pass through an arch into the manor's ancient east wing, a stone roundhouse from Dragonholt's more violent past. Regina is seated in a tall chair of carved black wood with her children on either side, each clutching a hand. Celyse stands by one of the tall narrow windows, smiling at the noble family. The steward, Tymothi, whispers something to a servant who promptly vanishes down a staircase near the hearth.
"Be welcome, please," says Regina. She makes no effort to stand. With a nod, she indicates a number of chairs, forming a broad circle in the center of the room. "Please sit. My son has been telling me of your heroism in Eventide Forest."
The party's fame increases by two
"I would like to hear more about the bandits," says Celyse, crossing from the window to take her own chair.
"Yes," says Rochelle. "She has acquired a sword from somewhere, which now leans against her chair in its scabbard. "How many? How are they armed? Where exactly is this ruined tower?" Her fingers drum on the hilt of her sword.
"It won't matter, 'Chelle," says Phillip. The boy slumps in his chair as if he might slide off to puddle, snoring, on the floor at any moment. "By now they've moved their camp."
"Perhaps," says Tymothi, settling in to his own chair at Celyse's side. "Perhaps they've left entirely. They can't be foolish enough to remain in Eventide Forest now that we know they're there." He gestures, and the servant from before appears at Regina's elbow with a tea service, then proceeds to give everyone a cup of steaming tea. Regina sets hers carefully on the arm of her chair and ignores it, while Urk makes sure to down hers before the servant can leave in order to get a second pouring.
When the servant withdraws, Regina speaks. "If it is truly my brother Kyric who leads these bandits, he will not leave until he is dead, or he sits in this chair. I trust everyone in this room with my life and the lives of my children, but we must consider the possibility that Kyric has allies within the village."
"Within your household, mother," says Phillip. "Who else knew Talbot and I would be riding into the forest?"
The rest of the party looks awkwardly over to Urk, who is simply draining her second cup of tea, unperturbed.
"Let us not succumb to paranoia," Regina says with a gentle smile. She reaches out and clasps Phillip's brown hand with her pale one, her signet ring flashing in the light of the roaring hearth. "There are many ways Kyric's forces could have learned of your visit to the Tree of Tales."
"But surely one of them is that we have an informer in the household," says Rochelle.
"Are you seriously not going to say anything?" Aria whispers to Urk, who puts down her teacup.
"What would you have me do, Rochelle? Release my entire staff from service? Throw them all in the dungeon?"
"We don't even have a dungeon," says Phillip. "You turned it into a wine cellar before I was born."
Urk clears her throat, drawing the attention of the whole room. She points to Regina's teacup. "IS LADY GOING TO DRINK THAT?"
Aria groans and drops her head in her hands as Regina unflappably passes Urk her tea, which the orc happily downs.
"We can keep our eyes open," says Celyse, long familiar with Urk's ways. "Kyric will try again. And when he does, we'll stop him."
"Quite right," says Regina. She closes her eyes, green like her children's, and shivers, before pushing herself to her feet. Some color blooms in her pale cheeks. When she opens her eyes, they are clear and bright. "My son is alive, thanks to you. I can never fully express my gratitude, but perhaps this might be a start." She nods, and Tymothi stands and hands Deepmind a small velvet pouch. It is surprisingly heavy.
The party gains 150 gold
Three points of heroism gained - Heroism level up! Everyone gains one XP and the party gains one fame
"It is my hope you will remain in Dragonholt, for now. I understand you have lodgings at the Swan. Please ask Sapphire to send me the bill for your room and board."
"ROOM AND BOARD ALREADY-"
Deepmind delivers a swift kick to Urk's leg, who shuts up, as Aria sweeps up graciously. "Thank you, your ladyship, for your generosity." She bows and kisses the countess's ring, rising into an intricate curtsy for good measure. "The bill will be in the mail."
Rochelle escorts the party to the door. She is darker than her mother, her skin brown rather than alabaster, her hair curly rather than straight, and her shoulders broad and her arms strong compared to Regina's almost wraith-like thinness. She has her mother's eyes and her mother's height. And as she steps through the door into the moonlight, she has her mother's regal bearing. "My brother is very dear to me," she says. "With my sister's death and my mother's failing health, I could not have borne his loss. I am grateful."
They part with Rochelle at the manor stairs and walk back to the Swan as the moon passes its zenith. Arriving at the Swan, Aria lets out a huge yawn and mostly falls into one of the plush chairs by the window. "Full day, huh?"
"URK GOING STRAIGHT TO BED," says Urk, heading straight for the kitchen. "ALMOST."
Minar collapses into the chair opposite Aria, who's dug out her violin and begins to idly tune it. "Is it too late to back out of this whole dumb quest and leave this one-horse town to get overrun by bandits?"
"Seems like. Besides, if we save the local nobility, think of how much the taverns'll pay me to play there."
"You can be backwoods famous, just like you always wanted."
Aria grins. "Speak for yourself, crick-boy." Minar groans, but Aria's smile fades as she glances to Deepmind. The hyrrinx stands in the moonlight, peering at something in her hands. Looking closer, Aria sees a scrap of red cloth - no, a scrap from a red tunic. "You need to talk to him."
Deepmind guiltily pockets the cloth and turns a cool expression on Aria. "Why?"
Minar rolls over in his seat. "Because you're angry at him for being too dense to notice you wanted to go after that other catfolk, and you're angry at yourself for not just explaining what's up, and now he's laid up with an arrow wound so you're just angry at everybody."
Aria kicks Minar from her own chair, raising an annoyed 'Hey!'. "He's right, though."
Deepmind stands in place, quiet, before slipping away into the shadows and out of sight.
"That girl needs to sort some things out," says Aria with a sigh. She turns to see Minar having somehow fallen asleep in the last five seconds. "It'll keep 'till tomorrow at least."
End of Day Three