Part 16: Chapter TwelveThe rising sun brings with it a rising sound of chatter and commotion. It seems, somehow, that the village is even noisier this morning than it had been on the market day yesterday. Minar rises, groans, and looks through the window to find the streets already bustling, crammed full of gnomes. Gnomes run shouting toward one another, coming together like old friends long apart. Gnomes cluster in groups, laughing and talking. Gnomes rush hither and yon, carrying goods and supplies every which way. The few humans on the streets at this hour alternate between lending a hand and staring in mute amazement.
Minar shares their dumbfoundedness for a few moments before dressing himself and opening the door, intending to go down to the common room for breakfast. Standing in the hall just outside his door is a young boy, a gnome toddler, holding some sort of frozen orangetreat. The popsicle clings to a stick, and drops of orange run down onto the child's hand. He stares at Minar silently with large blue-green eyes.
"Malachite! There you are!" a gnome man climbs the stairs into the hall. He's young for a father - no more than his early twenties - with bronzed skin and a tangle of messy dark-brown hair. The child toddles over to the man and is scooped up to sit held on the man's hip. "Sorry if he was bothering you," says the gnome before he hoists the boy over his shoulder and turns to descend the stairs. "Let's go back downstairs, buddy." The toddler flexes his fingers in Miinar's direction as a sort of unpracticed wave.
Downstairs, Minar finds the common room buzzing with activity. Dozens of gnomes sit or stand everywhere. As he watches, the door opens, and a group of three gnomes comes inside, kicking dust from their boots and doffing traveling capes. Sapphire greets them warmly as she hurries by, carrying a platter piled high with golden eggs and steaming ham. As she returns to the kitchen she meets a gnome woman with her frizzy hair bundled behind a green kerchief. They exchange words, and the frizzy-haired woman rushes to the newcomers and escorts them to a table near the back wall, encouraging the gnomes already sitting there to shift on their benches and make room. A young gnome man with a silver stud flashing in his ear soon delivers a pitcher of cider to the newcomers - clearly, Sapphire has acquired additional staff to accommodate the rush, although it's not clear from where.
The gnome man Minar met earlier sees him standing at the stairs and beckons him over to his table, where he bounces his son on his knee. "I'll make room," he says. "I guess you weren't expecting the crowd." Minar sits, and a few moments later Sapphire approaches, clattering a broad plate of eggs and ham to the table in front of them.
"Oh, good," she says. "I see you've met my nephew Jasper and his son Mal. My brother's so. Mariam's cousin." She explains.
"Pleased to meet you," says Jasper. "Aunt Sapphire, is this one of those adventurers you were telling me about?"
Sapphire blushes slightly. "Now, Jasper, don't you go making me out to be some sort of gossip."
"Oh, no, Auntie, I'd never do that." Jasper says, then winks to Minar. Minar sits stonefaced, his hands awkwardly folded in his lap.
Aria slides smoothly onto the bench between Jasper and Minar, to Minar's obvious relief. "Good to see you up and making friends," she teases, before turning to Mariam's cousin. "Jasper here was telling me earlier this is like a big gnome get-together."
"Oh, did no one tell you?" asks Sapphire, grinning like she's enjoying a private joke.
"It's a festival day!" says Jasper, bouncing his son high into the air.
"Bestibal!" chirps the child.
"It's an important celebration in wanderer gnome life," explains Sapphire. "A time for all the wanderers to gather and be in the same place for a change."
"It's a good time to catch up with family you might not have seen in a long time," says Jasper. "This is the first festival both Aunt Sapphire and I have been to since Mal was born!"
"That's because it's the first one held in Allerfeldt in years," explains Sapphire. "I suppose I just got lucky it was held in my very town."
"Luck nothing, Auntie, the festival's here because you are," laughs Jasper. "Gnomes move around, and so do our festivals," he explains to Aria. "We don't often hold our celebrations in the same place twice."
"That sounds like fun!" says Aria, enthused. "Getting to see new places every year - what's the festival actually about?"
Both gnomes glance at one another as if confused.
"Well," says Sapphire.
Mal grabs a fistful of ham from the breakfast plate. Jasper laughs and holds his son close to him. "Life," he chuckles. "We're celebrating life. All of it. We come together, we trade, we gossip, we get married and buy and sell and launch new business ventures and make apprenticeships and trade knowledge. And we live."
"Liff," says Mal, and jams the fistful of ham into his mouth.
Minar suddenly perks up as he sees Athtar come down the stairs. "Oh hey, that's our..." he pauses, looking for the right word. "Elf. We've gotta get going."
Aria rolls her eyes but joins Minar as he leaves the table. "We'll see you all at the Willo Grove for the wedding later!"
The pair join Athtar, who looks around slightly puzzled. "I had no idea Mariam had so many relatives, or that they all lived close enough to attend her wedding."
"That's not the whole story," says Aria with a half-smile. "Deepmind is already outside and Urist and Urk are in the kitchen. I think Urk's doing some kind of food magic?" She looks over to where a pair of gnomes walk by with fruity popsicles. "But yeah, we're probably good to get started."
"Please get me out of this gnome jamboree," mutters Minar.
Athtar scratches his chin, looking out over the bustling common room. They had some time to kill before the wedding. What should they do?
A) Go pick up the runic sword from the Smithy
B) Brew the dragon's blood at the Apothecary shop
C) Meditate on the elusive puzzle of Dragonholt at the Shrine
Fiore is sitting on a bench not far from the front of the smithy, watching a blonde dwarf man hammering on a piece of red-hot metal by the forge. When she sees Athtar, Urk and Deepmind approach, she reaches for her crutch and hauls herself to standing. "Welcome back," she says. "It's finished." She walks to the brownstone annex and pulls a key from within her leather apron, then unlocks a heavy iron door. "Wait here," she says, vanishing through it.
A few moments later she returns with a bundle wrapped in red linen under her arm. "Get the door, will you?" she says as she carries it to her desk. She sets her crutch aside and unwraps the package, standing over the desk. "I kept it simple, a classic thrusting sword design. Full tang, of course, with a modest fuller. The haft is oak, wrapped with calfskin leather, and the pommel is brass. The crossguard is steel. The silver is just the outer layer." She holds the sword up and presents it for inspection. Between the gleaming blade and the polished silver crossguard, inlaid with gems, the whole thing shines in the light.
"The real trick is the runeshard, of course. It's set into the blade itself, with the crossguard helping to hold it in places. There's some Brightmaul silver worked into the blade of the sword, which - hah, you got me going on. I'm not going to reveal all my secrets. Suffice it to say, this sword will outlive you and any foe you wield it against."
She takes a leather scabbard from one of her passing apprentices and offers it to Urk. "Scabbard comes free. Use the sword well, my friend. It was a pleasure to make it."
The trio step outside, into the rushed comings and goings of wanderer gnomes. Deepmind glances over at the sheathed sword approvingly. "Once word gets around there's an elven knight with a magic sword walking around, you'll get more quests than you can handle."
Athtar looks to Deepmind, puzzled. "Why would I bear the sword? It's Urk's by right, she bested Splig the goblin king."
Deepmind looks over to Urk, genuinely surprised, as the orc sage draws the gleaming rune sword and starts waving it around to catch the light. A few passing gnomes are quick to give her a wide berth. "Wait, really? Urk's keeping the sword?"
"URK EARNED SWORD SQUARE AND FAIR BY BEATING UP LAST PERSON WHO HAD RUNE," she agrees, taking a few experimental swings with less than stellar grace. "URK BECOMING DANGEROUSLY OVERPOWERED, BUT THIS IS URK'S BURDEN TO BEAR."
Athtar rests his hand on his mundane sword's hilt. "My own blade was a gift when I began on the road of chivalry. It has served me faithfully, and I will remain true to it."
Deepmind runs through a half-dozen arguments as she watches Urk try different scabbard placements, looking for the one that gives the coolest draw. Eventually, she discards them in favor of a characteristic shrug. "You do you, I guess."
"URK CAN REALLY FEEL THE FULL TANG. HEY, DEEPMIND WANT TURN WITH MAGIC SWORD?" Urk asks, casually trying to hand the hyrrinx the runic blade point-first. The thrumming energy of the blade takes on a horrible, menacing edge a few inches from her face.
"No, I'm good," whispers Deepmind, going cross-eyed looking at the blade. "I uh, I think Aria said she was going to check out the village green? Yeah, I think I'll do that."
The party gains the Rune Sword
A) Check out the festival on the village green
B) Brew up the dragon's blood at the Apothecary shop
C) Go meditate at the Shrine
(Sorry if I'm a little slow on updates today, having a bit of an off day)
Edit: (No choice will cause us to accidentally miss the wedding. Or frankly deliberately miss it either, it's very good.)
(I'll go with the festival, since it's true the option to brew the potion will stay open)
A group of gnomes and children, including the dwarf baker's daughter, Penny, are gathered around the festival pole. Each of them takes hold of one end of a colored sash as a gnome woman with spiky hair explains the intricacies of the dance.
A number of gnomes are playing a game with hoops, jumping through them, swinging them about on arms, and hurling them back and forth. As far as it seems, the rules involve never using the hands. One girl is showing off by running a hoop up to her shoulders, then back to her hips, up and down her torso, just by swinging her body. A small crowd of children stands in a circle around her, clapping and cheering.
Near the market row, several trestle tables have been arrayed in a ring around a cluster of iron stoves, their chimneys trailing threads of woodsmoke. The tables are covered with earthenware dishes, piled high with food, flatbreads and foraged greens and sauteed tubers and legumes, all spotted with spices from all across the world.
From under a shadow cast by a tall-sided building, Minar scowls at the festivities. "Backwoods carnival games," he snorts. "Maybe in a one-horse town like Dragonholt a big pole covered in streamers is enough to make it a party.
"Ugh, you are such an angst-pot sometimes," groans Aria. "We all get it, you're too cool for the farm now. Glaring at dancing children isn't a great look." She turns, looking back down the market street and spots Deepmind strolling toward them. "Oh thank goodness, someone fun. Hey, Deepmind! How'd it go at the smithy? Athtar like the new sword?"
"Yep," she replies, pulling up next to the pair. "He likes it in Urk's hands, where it will no doubt accidentally decapitate one of us at some point." She pauses to take in Minar's sour face and the festival being set up around them. "What's the matter? Too tall for admission?"
"This sourpuss," says Aria, gesturing over her shoulder with her thumb. "Thinks that village faires are lame."
"He's right," Deepmind concurs flatly. "But sometimes the food's good. I think I saw spiced tubers."
Aria groans even louder as Minar gives a smug smile. "That's it," says Aria. "I'm taking drastic action." And without waiting for an answer, she grabs both of them by the wrist and begins dragging them, under protest, toward the festival pole.
Penny hands each of the adventurers a colorful streamer, and the spiky-haired gnome woman wraps up her explanation of the dance. Minar tries to refuse his own streamer, but one look at Penny's wounded expression has him cave immediately. The gnome woman crosses outside the circle of dancers and picks up a pair of wooden spoons, sitting on a folding chair next to a man with a zither and another with agleaming brass horn. She starts rattling out a rhythm with her wooden spoons and calls out "Let's begin!"
The music starts out slow, and the dancers' movements are languid, lifting the tassels up above their heads and walking in a slow spiral around the pole. As the music shifts measure by measure, the dancers change direction, shouting out with each shift. Soon the dance becomes more intricate, as the dancers begin to swap places, braiding their tassels together as they move in smaller circles, handing the fabric off to one another as they rotate around the pole once more. The music moves faster and faster, quickening the pulse as the dancers become more and more energetic and the patterns become more complex. The occasional collision sends the - mostly younger - dancers falling to the ground in fits of laughter, leaving their fellows to snatch up their trailing streamers and keep the pattern moving.
Somehow, the dance ends in a tight knot around the pole, shrieking children and dancers running full tilt in a circle as the brilliant braids above them come together one last time. As the last chords ring out, Minar, Deepmind and Aria collapse into the tired, laughing heap of dancers.
"See?" says Aria, giggling and throwing a playful punch into Minar's shoulder.
Despite himself, Minar smiles. He admits nothing, but he does laugh along with the others.
"Reminds me of my old village," Deepmind muses, wistful. She struggles back to her feet, wincing as her leg protests the effort. "Come on. Let's get some of those tubers before Urk finds out about this place."
Minar, Deepmind and Aria each lose one stamina
Mark one progress in physical training and one in social practice
A) Escort Celyse down from the Fairfax Manor to the wedding
B) Sneak in a quick brewing session while the Apothecary shop's free
C) Meditate at the Shrine before heading to the wedding
The serving girl, Mathilda, answers the door and ushers Athtar into the great hall. She peers through the door behind him, shakes her head, and closes the door. "Too many gnomes," she murmurs, then gestures to the garden. "Miss Celyse is in the garden, if you'd like to see her."
Mathilda leads him through the back door and into the hedge maze beyond the garden. They find Celyse sitting beneath a tll oak tree in the center of the maze, her legs crossed and her eyes closed.
"She says she likes to come out here to commune with nature," whispers Mathilda. Then she creeps away as quietly as she can manage. Athtar approaches, and Celyse cocks her head but does not rise.
The knight settles himself down into the grass at Celyse's side and adopts the same posture: legs crossed, hands resting lightly on his knees. He closes his eyes and does his best to open himself to nature.
Somewhere, a dog barks. The sounds of the Fairfax household going about its business rises in the background, calls from the kitchen, the complaining of ducks being chased from the garden. One by one, these sounds fall away. Athtar feels as much as hears the wind, the garden breathing, and in that sound he can feel the shape of the hedges on either side, the quiet strength of the oak at his back. He feels a bird settle upon the branches, and suddenly his eyes snap open.
Mark one progress in spiritual meditation.
"Thank you," says Celyse, "for not disturbing me."
"It had been a while since I had stopped to meditate, myself," Athtar admits.
Celyse takes a deep breath and turns to look at her visitor. "Can I offer you some tea?" She stands and leads Athtar to a wooden bench placed against the hedge, with a basket placed upon it. She sits and withdraws a rugged-looking tea service from the basket, pouring into a broad clay cup.
Athtar accepts a cup gratefully. "I was hoping for a moment to speak to you before Mariam and Braxton's wedding. I bring news perhaps too long delayed."
Celyse pauses in pouring her own cup. "Oh?"
Athtar looks around to be sure they are alone, then leans in. "Urk has been making the case that the stablemaster, Gawin, is complicit in Sonia's death." He pauses, noticing Celyse spill a drop of tea on the table before recovering her composure. "She has studied Sonia's journal and notes he is the son of one of Kyric's old friends, and that he saddled her horse the day of her fall - something Sonia thought unusual enough to make note of."
Mark one point in heroism
"And he could easily have tied a sloppy knot, or even cut through the straps, causing her to have an accident," Celyse agrees. "He'd be the one to examine the saddle, as well, so he could hide any evidence of foul play." She frowns and taps her chin. "He has the means. In fact, he has better means than practically anyone I can think of. But I'm not so sure about motive. He's served the countess's family for years; while his father was friends with Kyric, he also served as stablemaster to Lord Holland, Regina's father. Still, humans have done all sorts of things for gold; perhaps he's in Kyric's pocket or has gambling debts I don't know about.
"We should proceed carefully. I will pass this news on to the countess, and she will take necessary precautions. If you could, ask Urk not to spread this allegation too freely. If Rochelle were to hear it..."
Athtar nods gravely. "I understand."
Celyse takes a sip of her tea. "We can probably afford to put it out of mind for at least the next few hours, and let everyone enjoy the wedding in peace. Would you like to accompany me down to the Willow Grove?"
A crowd is arrayed in a rough semicircle around a brightly painted gnome caravan, parked between two willow trees. A small platform is suspended from the back of the caravan, and a pair of patchwork blankets hang from either side of the wagon to the nearest willow trees, creating a backdrop.
As the two elves approach the crowd, they see a number of familiar faces. Deakon and Tweegal, the guards, stand clustered together looking hot and uncomfortable in their black and white livery. Lady Rochelle, the countess's daughter, stands with them in a ruffled peach riding dress with tall brown boots. Grisbeck the baker laughs as he watches his daughter run in circles with a number of gnome children even smaller than her. Everyone seems to be standing around waiting for something to happen.
Sapphiree rushes out of the crowd to grab Athtar by the hand. "Oh, splendid!" she says. "You're here. Your friends are all meeting the family, come!"
"I'll see you some time after the ceremony," calls Celyse as Athtar is dragged away toward the caravan stage, where two gnome men are standing in high-collared coats with the other five members of the party standing around them. "Time to meet the father and brother of the bride," says Sapphire.
She turns to the older man, a slim, straight gentleman with white hair and a sharp mustache. He bows a little stiffly in Athtar's direction while he tugs at his collar. "Isaek." He says. "I'm Mariam's father. I've heard so much about all of you."
"That's his stock answer when he meets anyone he doesn't recognize," says the younger man with a twinkle in his eye. "I'm Hyrim, Mariam's brother." He bows and doffs an imaginary hat. "Good to meet you." Hyrim looks to be a few years older than his sister, with laughing blue eyes and his hair just long enough to have a few insolent curls brushing on his shoulders.
"Oh, I think I see my cousin Pearl," says Sapphire, and she excuses herself.
"I believe the brides are on either side of the caravan back there," says Hyrim, gesturing behind them. "If you want to visit before the ceremony starts."
"Have you met this Braxton?" asks Isaek. "Is she a good sort?"
"Poppa," says Hyrim, placing a hand on his father's shoulder. "Mariam wouldn't be marrying her if she weren't. Anyway, Aunt Sapphie likes her."
"Hmm," says the older gnome, nodding.
"She's the very best sort there is," Aria assures Isaek.
Urk nods. "AN ORC."
"No, I mean-"
"A knight?" suggests Athtar.
"I mean," says Aria, only slightly forcefully. "That she's a lovely person and I think they're going to be very happy together. Speaking of, why don't we check up on the brides to be real quick?"
Walking around behind the hung sheets, the party sees that Braxton and Mariam have been separated, each exiled to opposite sides of the caravan wagon.
Minar, Athtar and Urk find Braxton polishing her gorget, sitting on the edge of the cart in full armor. The white of her black and white Fairfax tabard is crisp and bright, and the black is deep and strong. Her mail gleams, and her leather boots are freshly shined. Her straight black hair has been tied back, and a wreath of white anemones circles her head. She glances up as they approach, and she smiles, setting aside her polishing rag.
"Nervous?" She asks them. "I am. I shouldn't be. We already did the hard part. You know, orcs don't even have a wedding ceremony, exactly." She looks to Urk, who nods sympathetically. "There's a celebration, but for us the wedding is just part of what humans gnomes consider the proposal. As far as I'm concerned, we're already married, and this is just a formality." She looks down at the gorget and blows out a sigh. "So why am I nervous?"
She lifts the gorget to her neck and fastens it in place. "It's her family. I need them to like me. They're so important to her, and they've never even met me. What if they don't like me?" She stands and fingers the silver chain of her bridal necklace where it lies on the side of her neck. "This is torture. I'm not fearless like Mariam." She reaches out to where a beautiful snow-white cloak hangs from the wagon. With a sweep of the fabric, she settles it over her shoulders and fastens it with a silver pin. "You can do this, Braxton. You're a knight. A few dozen gnomes armed with judgmental stares is not the most dangerous thing you've ever faced." She nods back at the group. "Thanks for listening. I'm ready. You can tell the others."
On the other side of the cart, Mariam is pacing back and forth, pausing to peek through the curtain and wring her hands. She's wearing a new skirt of blue Aymhelin cloudweave over all, laced boots. Her jacket is new as well, waist-length, of thick fawn linen. White wildflowers are braided into her red-brown hair, and a spray of white lace emerges from her cuffs.
When she sees, Deepmind, Aria and Urist, Mariam reaches up and touches the flowers in her hair. "You like them?" she asks. "Penny picked them. Daisies. They can help wounds close and ease rheumatism." Mariam peeks through the curtain again. "Ugh. I'm so nervous. My family has never met Braxton before. What if she doesn't like them?" She wrinkles her nose. "Ugh, Hyrim, why did you have to wear that coat? And don't stand so close. My stupid brother is going to ruin everything." She steps back and takes a deep breath. "No, he's not, Mariam, calm down. Braxton doesn't care what coat anyone wears. She won't hate your family. This is so hard," she says as she turns to the others. "I'm not brave like Braxton. I feel like I have butterflies in my stomach, only they're not butterflies, they're fish or something with sharp teeth."
Suddenly, she reaches out and grabs Aria's hand. "Thanks for being there. I can do this." Looking over her three friends, she reaches down and lifts a beautiful white cloak, settling it over her shoulders and fastening it with a silver pin. "Aunt Sapphire made it for me. It's my new favorite cloak." She nods. "Tell them I'm ready."
The six adventurers regroup in front of the divide. At some unspoken signal, gnomes begin sitting down on the grass of the willow grove. They form themselves into rough rows in a broad semicircle, facing toward the wagon-stage. Space is filling up quickly, as more and more guests filter in from the outskirts of the grove.
One row is clear enough to seat the whole group, sliding in right next to Jasper. Mal comes toddling shyly out of a cluster of gnome children and collapses into his father's lap, where he curls up, staring. "It's your first wedding, Pebble," says Jasper. "Your Aunt Mariam is going to marry the love of her life. We should all be so lucky."
Athtar, sitting next to the gnome man, raises an eyebrow. Jasper laughs. "Am I sounding bitter? I'm sorry; I'm happy for Mariam, but it does make me think about my own romantic... ah, let's just say my 'happily ever after' is this guy and leave it at that. Right, Mal?" He leans down and kisses his son on the head, then turns his attention to the stage.
"There any room here?" asks Grisbeck the baker, holding his daughter Penny by the hand. Urk, at the end of the row, awkwardly compresses her companions to make space for the two. The sideways pressure wedges Urist into Minar, Minar into Aria, Aria into Deepmind and finally Deepmind into Athtar. "Thank ye."
"When I get married," says Penny as the last guests settle down. "I'll wear a splendid gown of cloth-of-gold. Me crown will be shining silver, and I'll have rubies at me wrists an' throat." She glances up at her father, who chuckles. "And a braided copper girdle, o'course."
"URK APPROVES, AND WOULD ALSO SUGGEST BONES OF PENNY'S ENEMIES."
Grisbeck seems to be considering revising that advice, but a hush falls over the crowd as Skala, the orc shrine attendant, walks to the wagon.
Skala climbs onto the stage and raises his hands. "Hello, everyone," he says. "I understand that gnomish tradition calls for an elder who knows both of the intended to perform the ceremony. I was very pleased to be invited to do so for these two women. If you'll all bear with me, I'll do my best to keep this short - brief. Keep this brief." Laughter ripples through the crowd, and Skala tugs at his long beard. He gestures, and musicians begin to play a stately tune somewhere in the back.
One by one, Mariam's father and brother walk through the crowd and stand to one side of the stage. They are followed shortly thereafter by the captain of the guard, Tweegal, in his uniform, and Rochelle, the countess's daughter, who stand opposite. Skala frowns "We're missing... ah yes!" He squints at the crowd, pointing to the party. "The brides have requested our adventuring guests to present themselves as witnesses as well. Please, join us."
More than a little awkwardly, the six adventurers shuffle their way back out of the row and filter up toward the front of the ceremony. "They could've told us," murmurs Minar. Aria just elbows him in the ribs.
The music stops, then starts again in a brighter and more spritely tune as Braxton and Mariam walk out from behind the hung curtains, each emerging from the opposite side of the wagon. They walk, slowly at first, then faster and faster, around the outside of the assembly, meeting at the top of the semicircle and joining hands. Even in the bright sun of the summer's day, their smiles make the day warmer. There's a sudden loud sniffle, and several of the wedding party turns to see Urist hiding his face in a silk handkerchief, his eyes already welling up.
Hands joined and sneaking glances at one another, they walk as solemnly as they can manage through the crowd to the stage, where Mariam climbs u to stand with Skala, and Braxton stays standing on the grass. For once, Mariam is the taller of the two.
"The gnomes say that marriage is walking together," says Skala. "The orcs say that marriage is an alliance, fighting side by side against the challenges of the world. Trust orcs to turn everything into a battle." Skala grins as the crowd chuckles. "You two have come together because you love one another. You wish to walk together, to face whatever may come, together." He gestures to the witnesses gathered on either side. "Marriage is a lifelong commitment, and beyond, as well. The union you create here goes beyond you. It unites your families and creates a new family and a new tradition that will carry on after your deaths." He raises his voice, speaking to the assembly. "And all of you, here, today, are part of that. You have brought these people together. And they have brought you together, as well. Look around you. This community is forged this day, and may it last ever after."
Deepmind licks dry lips and glances down along her arm, toward Athtar. Cautiously, she brushes her hand against his.
Skala reaches out his hands and touches each bride on the shoulder. "It is time. Say your vows."
Mariam takes a deep breath. "I, Mariam," she squeaks, "pledge myself to you, Braxton." Her voice grows stronger as she continues. "I will walk with you when you travel and stay beside you when you rest. I will wander with you wherever you go, because my home is with you, now and forever."
"I, Braxton, pledge myself to yo, Mariam," chokes Braxton, her voice flooded with tears. But as she continues, her voice, too, grows stronger. "I will be your shield and your comfort. I will hunt for you when you are sick and beside you when you are strong. My home is with you, now and forever."
Without taking his gaze off the pair speaking their vows, Athtar slowly closes his hand around Deepmind's, giving it a small squeeze.
"Mariam Emerald Elyad Everon Brightstone and Dame Braxton of Dragonholt, I pronounce you wed," declares Skala. "You may kiss the bride."
They turn to face each other, and Mariam bursts out laughing. "I'm finally tall enough to do this!" she says, bending over her wife and dipping her backward with a passionate kiss. Cheers erupt all around as children run every which way, hurling flowers into the air or directly at the faces of onlookers. Urk howls and claps, Urist blows his nose noisily into his handkerchief, the musicians strike up a gay melody, Sapphire begins to sob, and the newlyweds walk through the crowd, arm in arm, smiling and waving as they go.
When they reach the edge of the semicircle, they turn. "Reception at the Swan!" shouts Mariam. "See you all there!" Then she grabs Braxton's hand and they sprint, laughing, across the grove.
A) Join the reception directly at the Swan
B) Sneak in a quick brewing session first at the Apothecary shop
C) Take a breather at the Shrine
(There's time to do one thing before the reception so I'll allow the quick brew-up first)
Urist is still mopping the tears from his face as he wanders over to the apothecary shop. A sign hangs from the door, its message painted in large, friendly letters. "Getting married at the willow grove!" it reads. "Reception to follow at the Swan."
Despite the sign, the door isn't locked, and Urist steps inside to find another sign on the counter, next to a small basket of coins. "Honor system," the second sign reads. "Help yourself and leave your coins in the basket. Thank you!"
A pair of gnomes chatter by one of the shelves, their rough clothing and the weapons hanging from their belts suggesting that they lead interesting or even adventurous lives. Urist nods politely to the pair before passing through the back door and into the laboratory.
Consulting his notes, he begins by taking down the iron cauldron and upending it over the fire. He builds the fire up with sticks of green oak until the smoke threatens to overwhelm him. Pulling thick leather gloves over his hands, he lifts up the cauldron and slaps an iron lid over it before flipping it upright and setting it aside - still full of smoke - to cool.
Bustling through the cramped space, he gathers the rest of the ingredients, including a base of bull's blood, bat's wings, and a few other things that the future drinkers of the potion would rather not know about. He adds them to the cauldron, mixing with the cooled oak smoke and the flakes of iron from the cauldron itself.
Eventually, he's ready for the final ingredient: the dragon's blood. Urist puts on a heavy apron and re-dons the gloves, then pours just a bit into the cauldron. In moments, the liquid is returned to a simmer as the heat from the dragon's blood spreads through it. Another splash and the potion has come to a roiling boil. With the last drop of dragon's blood, the potion leaps and froths in the cauldron, spattering some onto the dwarf's apron before finally settling down. He tries a small sip and feels strength rush through his body like a hurricane.
"Power," Urist hisses, lifting a discarded cauldron with one hand. "Yes, ha ha ha, yes!" As quickly as it comes, the energy of the potion leaves im and the cauldron drops his arm to the ground with a resounding crash.
Urist privately makes a note to pay Mariam back for minor floorboard damage, and returns to scooping out the potion.
The party loses the Dragon's Blood
The party gains three Strength Potions
Mariam and Braxton's wedding reception has begun, adding to the chaos of the Swan's common room. The wedding party has claimed a long table under the windows, where Mariam is seated next to her father. Sapphire waves to the party as she passes, headed to the kitchen, where Grisbeck the baker is hard at work on what presumably is the traditional wedding cake. Penny waddles past with the gnome toddler Mal balanced on her feet, cackling with delight at each step they take together.
A) Sit with Mariam and her father.
B) Watch Penny and Malachite play
C) Help out in the kitchen
(Sorry for the slow pace, I've had a lot going on the last couple days - I even forgot to append this to the last post! And then I guess the forums were down, and anyway.)
Urist finds Sapphire, Grisbeck, and a handful of other gnomes hard at work in the kitchen. Grisbeck is carefully squeezing whipped cream from a pastry bag onto a towering cake, spotted through with currants and adorned with fresh red berries. Sapphire is chopping freshly washed garden greens, which she then scoops into a broad wooden bowl and dresses with oil and vinegar. She heads the salad off to a runner and bustles to her oven to baste a pair of ducks roasting there. "Hello, dear," she says over her shoulder to Urist. "Here to help?"
Urist clears his throat, tugging on his beard braids awkwardly to buy a moment or two. "Er, thought I might pitch in a bit as needed, yes. I had something of an idea, after this morning's 'popsicle' experiment..."
Urist has Craftsmanship
The alchemist sets up on a stretch of available counter space and begins drawing from available ingredients. There's a momentary commotion as he produces the Frost Rune from a thick sheepskin covering, apply it to the contents of his mixing bowl. Urist attracts curious looks from the other cooks, as he continues to mix creams and sweets and other ingredients with hearty applications of magic, before finally stepping away from the concoction.
"I call it," he intones solemnly, "'Iced Cream'." The others briefly congregate around the mixing bowl for a taste, and the mysterious dessert is well received.
"That will do quite nicely," says Sapphire. Soon enough, the dish heads out the door, carried by a young gnome to a room of hungry guests.
Not long after, the dinner has all been prepared. Sapphire wipes down the counters as Jasper does a few dishes, then steps back and nods. "Grisbeck," she says. "I'll be joining the party now, if you don't mind."
"You go on ahead, then," he says, carefully stirring a copper pot of egg custard. "I just have this cake to finish."
Sapphire, Urist and Jasper dry their hands and leave the kitchen. A raucous roar of celebration comes through the door to the common room as it swings open.
Urist follows Sapphire through the crowd to a table below the windows, where Mariam's father and brother are already sitting with Aria and Deepmind. "Isaek," says Sapphire, leaning over to kiss the slim white-haired gnome man on both cheeks. "So good to see you again. And Hyrim!" Sapphire smiles as she sits across from Mariam's brother with his sparkling blue eyes. "You've grown up very handsome, haven't you."
"Aunt Sapphie, it hasn't that long since we last saw each other, has it?" asks Hyrim.
"Too long," announces Mariam, arriving with her new bride at the head of the table. They sit and Mariam beams. "I'm so glad to finally have my family together again. Well, and Jasper, wherever he is."
"And new family, at that," says Hyrim, raising his glass to Braxton. "To the happy couple!" Glasses clink as everyone cheers and drinks.
Aria downs her glass in one go, a giggly smile spreading across her face. "So," she says, eyeing Mariam and Braxton. "What's next for the happy couple?"
"Oh, I haven't really thought about that," says Mariam, setting down her mug of cider. "The shop just opened, and Braxton's rather busy with this captain of the guard business."
"And there's the threat of Kyric to consider," agrees Braxton.
"Oh riiiiight," says Aria, slapping her forehead. "We're supposed to be foiling some kind of plot, right?" Deepmind chuckles into her cup nearby.
"We'll be staying here for the immediate future, at least," Braxton continues. "But once things are settled, I would like to take you for a proper honeymoon."
"Oh my goodness!" breathes Mariam. "We could go visit your mother!"
"We might, at that," says Braxton with a smile. "Perhaps my brothers, too, just to see the looks on their faces." Mariam giggles and the two press their foreheads together, smiling.
Cheers spread through the crowd, and all eyes turn to see Grisbeck and a pair of gnomes carefully carrying a towering cake through the common room. It rises up and up, layers of custard and sponge cake shot through with currants, all crowned with mountains of cream and colorful flowers and berries.
"Oh my," says Braxton as the dessert arrives at the bridal table. "That looks incredible."
"Good enough to eat!" chirps Mariam.
With dinner finally served, in full, the guests all settle down into their seats and begin to eat. Sapphire stands up on her chair and welcomes everyone, including those poor innocent passersby who thought they were just coming for a normal evening at their favorite inn. "The good news," she says, "is that you eat free tonight, and all you have to do is suffer through a few toasts." Chuckles spread through the crowd as Sapphire looks down at her niece and smiles.
"Mariam and Braxton are embarking on one of the greatest of life's journeys, and they're doing it together. Seeing the joy they bring each other, I can't imagine anything different." She raises a glass of sparkling wine, a gesture echoed across the room. "To Mariam and Braxton!" she calls. "May their journey together be long and never boring!"
More toasts follow, from Hyrim, from Mariam herself. Even Isaek, slightly tipsy, stands up to say a few words. The focus, however, is on teh food: steaming roast duck, crisp greens dressed in oil and vinegar, rich brown bread with soft goat cheese, stewed vegetables fragrant with lemon-tinged spices, a traditional gnomish flatbread of milled corn and peppers. The food seems to never end, and it fills the attendees with warmth and joy.
Everyone regains two stamina
Mark one progress in social practice
Eventually, everyone is full, and the crowd pushes away from the tables. Some leave the Swan, off to tend to their own business elsewhere, while others cluster into groups as tables are cleared away.
Sapphire and Isaek take seats by the fire, sipping mulled wine and reminiscing about the past. Mariam and Hyrim drag Braxton to a nearby table, promising to teach her all about their favorite game they played as children. Jasper and Grisbeck share a bottle of mead as they watch their children run shrieking through the room, chasing each other around.
A) Join Mariam, Braxton and Hyrim for a game
B) Sit with Sapphire and Isaek and talk
C) Watch the children with Grisbeck and Jasper
Doing his best to evade the roiling after-dinner socialization, Minar takes shelter with Sapphire and Isaek by the fire.
"I was just telling Isaek how much Mariam reminds me of my sister and her age," says Sapphire.
"I can see it," says Isaek with a smile. "I don't see much of myself in her."
"It's there," says Sapphire. "Underneath. She's thoughtful and clever, Isaek. Like you."
"You flatterer," says Isaek, preening his white mustache.
There's a lull in the conversation, and Minar realizes some comment is expected of him. He fishes around a moment before asking "So, uh, Isaek, wanderer gnomes get around, right? Been anywhere interesting?"
"Since Mariam was born I haven't gone quite as far afield as I did in my youth," he replies. "For a while we all traveled together, Sapphire too, in the south of Terrinoth and into the Aymhelin. The elves are a wise and welcoming people, as long as you come in peace and bring respect for their ways."
"I don't think they much care what we think of their ways," observes Sapphire, "so long as we leave their forest alone. Very strict rules about gathering firewood in the Aymhelin."
"When Mariam struck off on her own, I headed west, even went so far as Lorimor," says Isaek. "Curious place. Very good place to find alchemical reagents; their bazaars are something to see. But I came back to Terrinoth eventually; I was near Dawnsmoor when I got word from Sapphire about Mariam's impending nuptials, so I headed straight here. Barely made it in time."
"I sent that message the day I met Braxton," laughs Sapphire. "I could already tell. I'm glad I was right!"
A call goes up from the crowd for dessert, and to general cheers Mariam and Braxton rise and cross to the imposing confectionery edifice. Sapphire rushes forward with a silver serving knife as Braxton lifts Mariam up to stand on a chair. The brides each place a hand on the knife and then, together, they cut inot the custard-and-cake dessert, to much cheering. Braxton carefully serves her wife the first forkful of cake, but when Mariam returns the favor she smears a trail of cream across Braxton's nose. The crowd hoots as Braxton gasps, lifts the gnome up with one hand, and returns the favor with a finger's worth of custard.
Grisbeck and Sapphire serve out the dessert as the two brides clean up, and then a raucous cry of "Speech! Speech!" erupts from the crowd.
"Alright, you animals!" calls Mariam, climbing up atop a table.
"No," says Braxton, touching Mariam's back. She turns and Braxton smiles. "Let me say a few words." Braxton steps forward, and somewhere along the way she traded her armor for a generous floor-length gown, one that leaves her shoulders and arms bare. She looks every inch the blushing bride as she looks down at the floor and takes a deep breath. "I don't love speaking in front of crowds," she manages, to general chuckles. "But I do love Mariam."
There's a loud cheer from the back from Aria, who accidentally tips over her glass of wine in the process. Braxton smiles, continuing. "I fight, and I risk my life, but that isn't courage, or it isn't from me. It's just what I know and what I do. I've never been afraid to die, but I think that before I met Mariam I was afraid to live. I was afraid to ask for happiness in my life, for anything beyond duty, beyond the fight. So I wanted to thank Mariam, and all of you, for giving me the courage to live." She drops her eyes to the floor again, her cheeks flushed. "If that's all right with you." She turns to Mariam, whose eyes overflow with tears.
Mariam chokes and sputters and finally calls out: "My wife, everybody, Dame Braxton Everon Brightstone Time-to-figure-out-a-new-family-name-already of Dragonholt! Hands off, she's mine!" A roar and great stamping of feet goes up from the crowd, and Mariam hurls herself into Braxton's arms, then everyone tucks into their dessert.
Aria tries to dry her eyes with both hands, her plate of cake wobbling precariously on her knees. "It's just soooo beautiful," she sobs, taking Urist's offered handkerchief briefly before looking at it and politely handing it back. "Spirits, how long has it been since we've been to a wedding?"
Minar stops mid forkful of cake, remembering. "Red Roger and Pete back in Nerekhall?"
"Oh right, I was at that one," says Deepmind. She gives a small smile. "Roger and Pete were so surprised to find out the next morning, too."
Before anyone realizes, the cake is eaten, and the party is over. "The celebration continues on the village green!" calls Sapphire, waving people out the door. "Another bonfire, tonight!"
Minar gives a quiet groan. "Can we call it quits yet? My crypt wounds are aching."
"Your wounds are aching?" exclaims Aria, wobbling up on her good leg. "I've still got..." the sudden rush of blood to her head pinches off the rest of her remark, and she falls back down into her seat.
"The bonfire isn't mandatory," Athtar reassures Minar. "I, however, still have an appetite for festivity. Would anyone care to join me?"
"I've got no plans," Deepmind remarks with practiced indifference.
"URK STILL HAVE APPETITE FOR APPETITE," suggests Urk, carefully retrieving Aria's fallen slice of cake. "URK ALSO HEAR THERE MAY BE TUBERS."
Mark one progress in social practice - Social Practice maxed out!
Party members can now buy Social skills (deception, empathy, performance, persuasion, or streetwise) at a cost of one XP at any time
A) Head straight to the bonfire on the village green
B) Slip away to the shrine first to clear your mind
C) Run some damage control and turn in early
Urk can't shake the pull to visit the shrine. It's been bothering her for some time, and as the party meanders toward the village green in the orange light of sunset, the sight of the white marble building with domed glass ceiling becomes irresistible.
"URK BE RIGHT BACK," she reassures her companions, splitting off. "SAVE URK VARIOUS ROOT VEGETABLES."
Urk passes silently from outside the great doors to within the shrine's main chamber. The quiet of the shrine is disturbed by coughing, rustling, and shuffling as several people array themselves before the pool. Urk sees Theodore, wearing what she can only assume is his best coat, and Ursula, with a wreath of white flowers on her head, standing side by side. Ursula's quiet daughter stands behind her, dabbing at her watery eyes with a handkerchief. Skala stands between them, his head bowed. Urk soon realizes this is her second wedding ceremony of the day.
On Theodore's side stands Hunter, the bartender from the Chatty Archer, and Theo's apprentice Reginald, who for a change seems sober but is blowing noisily into a handkerchief as he weeps. Ursula is flanked by her daughter and Lei, Hunter's wife. Skala takes in the witnesses, nods to Urk, and raises his hands. "I know you've both been waiting a long time for this," he says. "So I'll keep it short." The audience chuckles, and Skala begins his invocation. "Spirits!" he calls. "We invite you to witness the union of these two people. Bless them, may their years together be long and fruitful."
He closes his eyes and the crowd falls silent. The murmuring of the pool and the whisper of the chamber grows stronger, as if the spirits were, indeed, gathering to watch. Skala opens his eyes once more. "Normally I do a speech about love, about lifelong commitment. I think you two understand that well enough. Let's have the rings please." Hunter smiles and steps forward, pressing a gold ring into Theodore's palm. Ursula's daughter sobs and hands one to her mother as well. "Theodore Carpenter, do you take this woman to be your wife, to have and to hold, to stand by in sickness and in health, until death parts you?"
"I do," says Theodore, as he slips a ring onto his wife's finger.
"And do you, Ursula, take this man to be your husband, to have and to hold, to stand by in sickness and in health, until death parts you?"
"I do, at long last," says Urusla, sliding a ring onto Theodore's hand.
"Then I pronounce you wed. You may kiss the bride."
"Finally," growls Theodore, and he gathers her, giggling, into his arms, kissing her to much cheering and merriment from the assembly. "You know," he says, "this reminds me of a-"
"Not now, dear," says Ursula, putting a finger on his lips. "Let's just enjoy the moment."
Urk maintains a respectful distance as the wedding party makes their exit, Skala nodding once more to Urk before leaving her in private. The ripple of the water and light along the pool gives the sanctuary an ever-changing-yet-always-the-same feel. The stillness of the space, in the face of the movement of the water, seems to reach inside her.
Urk settles herself on a rock by the pool's edge and opens herself to the experience. As she meditates, Skala returns and silently places a candle before her, lights it, and shuffles away. She watches the candle burn down, listening to the murmuring of the spirits and the water.
Mark one progress in spiritual meditation
The rushing water grows louder and louder, the spirits clamoring to be heard. Urk realizes that the sound is coming not from the spring in front of her, but from the polished shell in her pack. She finds the shell and holds it up, listening to the roar of rushing water and the crash of waves.
"Ah," says Skala. "The spirits there are ready to return home, I think. Why don't you place that shell back in the spring from whence it came." The old orc nods to her, and she drops the shell into the water, where its great noise is instantly silenced. The sanctuary seems to glow, lit not only by the glass dome above but by a light suffusing the pool before her, a soft blue radiance.
After a short time, the water churns and roils, almost boiling, and the shell floats to the top once more. The blue light now clings to the shell, flickering within its depths. Urk reaches down and picks up the trinket, which seems to ring a single pure tone.
"The spirits' favor," says Skala. "Good fortune for you, I think." He nods, then wanders out into the garden, as if this event is not at all unusual. Urk simply nods, agreeing with that assessment, and bags the shell backup.
The party loses the polished shell
The party gains the Spirit's Blessing
Mark one progress in Heroism
A bonfire burns at the edge of the green, surrounded by chattering crowds of villagers and gnomes. A large band of gnomes and humans is sawing their way through a variety of folk songs, alternating between the two traditions and learning as they go. The dancers, a mixture of visiting gnomes and Dragonholt villagers, are likewise teaching one another dances to go with the music. Among the dancers, the newlyweds Braxton and Mariam are radiant, although the flowers in their hair are becoming somewhat tattered. Sapphire, Jasper, Grisbeck and Penny intermingle among the crowd. Resting against the paddock, Skala, the orc shrine attendant, watches the dance and smokes his pipe.
Arriving from the direction of the shrine, Urk scans the crowd for her companions, spotting Urist sprawled on the grass enjoying the glow of the bonfire, seemingly lost in his own world. The other four she sees scattered among the dancers, and she moves to join them, soon surrounded by smiling, happy people.
Aria suddenly lurches out of the crowd, violin in hand, and stumbles over to the musicians and singers. They give her a brief, dubious look as she regains her composure, but sure enough step aside to make room for her. Jasper drifts over to stand beside the band as Aria blends into the the performance, nodding happily as she zips through the difficult bits of the piece and then settles smoothly into the more somber number that follows.
As the evening progresses, Mariam joins Aria, adding her voice to a plaintive gnomish "Lament for the Lost," a song memorializing those who vanish on the road never to be heard from again. Sapphire drifts over as well and grins at her niece and nephew.
"Should we do 'A Silver Piece for A Fair Young Maid?" asks Sapphire.
"Only if you promise not to do the silly dance," says Jasper. Sapphire agrees, and the three of them launch into a dizzying and fast-paced comic song, trading verses back and forth as they unfold the increasingly improbable reasons the Fair Young Maid needs the silver piece, including "to replace the moon in the sky" and "to stop a leak in the sea." Aria does her best to keep up while the rest of the assembled musicians laugh and cheer. It seems as if thee three have been practicing this particular song for literally decades, and when they finish the applause is thunderous.
Sapphire pats Aria on the shoulder. "Not many people can keep up with us when we get started on that one," she says. "I should have known you were special."
"That's what dad always used to say," Aria replies, a dazed smile crossing her face before she's suddenly seized by nausea and turns outward from the festivity to vomit.
Minar soon appears from the crowd and lends his shoulder to his shaky companion. "Ooookay, that's probably enough for one night."
"Happy birthday, Mary-Ann," Aria warbles, as she's led back toward the Swan.
Day Five is Over
Party regains half their maximum stamina