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|OF VON SLEUR – BY MAL OF EUROPA|
Prologue:The Baroness Du Laici had always been renowned for her exquisite festivities. She was well known as a flamboyant socialite who leapt at any chance to display her considerable wealth, but her dinner guests barely cared about her self-indulgences as they looked greedily towards the feast laid out before them. On four large carven oak tables with coverings made from snow-white linen embroidered with the Du Laici family crest of the lion rampant were set a wild boar sat on the spit and beside it, platters of fowl decorated with multi-coloured jellies made from brine. Mushrooms baked in breadcrumbs and seasoned with garlic and thyme sat adjacent to different breads from the continent. Exotic wine in a variety of bottles diverse in style and colour, lay against the sidewall of the hall, beside which sat a trolley of fine deserts made from treacle and cleverly shaped sugar moulds.
The guests flitted about like moths to flame, consorting with one another, sharing boasts and claims of their exploits and wealth. Events like this were always the same with the landed gentry banded together to share lies of popularity and affluence. A gentle music began to play in one corner of the hall as a skilled bard gently drew his hands over the strings of a standing harp, plucking with his long fingers. Some of the gathering paused a moment to appreciate the music, but most ignored it. The bard playing was a slim man of average height and rather unremarkable. His dark brown hair was swept into a fashionable ponytail and his jade green eyes scanned the room, watching the spectators as he played. He had not been in Du Laici’s court for very long, perhaps a week and was still adjusting to the social advantage the nobles enjoyed as opposed to his own up-bringing. He had been summoned to the Baroness’ services after he was heard performing in a tavern to pay his debts for the nights food and board. They claimed he sung as if he were an angel, his perfect voice drawing the attention of every patron; so here he was, drafted to entertain the noble blood tonight upon the sixtieth birthday of the Baroness.
He had always been curious about how the nobles lived their lives. He was au fait with endless toil and plight, paying taxes to the very types of people he now entertained. It reminded him of the reason he had become a bard in the first place – to avoid supporting those who relied on exploiting others to afford their affluent lifestyles, those stood around him now. But he came to find that he rather enjoyed entertaining as well. There was a thrill in standing before a crowd to deliver sonnet or song. He envisioned a large payment after tonight’s performance and knew he would at last be able to afford a decent meal and a warm, flea-free, bed. Last months luck had proven rather hard on him. He had lost half of his wealth when his pony bolted in the night, spooked by the wolves that prowled the forests, taking two purses of silver and his best lute. The other half he has spent replacing the pony and the said supplies that it had taken with it. Since then, he had been reduced to eating wild fowl and sleeping under bushes. Fortunately, the pony had left his bow and a quiver of arrows when it departed his services; without it, catching game would have been far more complicated.
The blare of trumpets announced the arrival of Du Laici, braking his train of thought. The murmur of voices died down and all turned to face the marble staircase. Stood on top of the flight of stairs stood a single woman, elegantly built; a crown of silver hair atop of her aged beauty. Her trimmed blue dress trailed about her ankles skirting along the plush red carpet that led from the chambers to the hall below. She gripped the mahogany handrail and descended into the throng below, taking a second to adjust the silver circlet that rested on her brow. As she walked down the staircase the crowd began to clap for her; surviving sixty years in this world was a feat, especially in aristocracy where assassinations were commonplace. She sauntered through the crowd, smiling politely at various comments and compliments made by the audience and made her way to a large wingback chair at the head of the feast table. As soon as she had sat down, a call was made for the bard to continue playing and the guests resumed their conceited conversation.
The bard had to suffer another ninety minutes with the crowd of nobles before attention was turned to him. The nobles had all but finished their meal; and the bard stopped a moment to accept a tankard of mulled wine, which a manservant offered to him. When he stopped playing, the Baroness turned her head in his direction, watching him as he drank. At first, the bard did not even realise that the nobles had stopped their conversations to stare at him, he had already blocked their mindless droning out so that he could concentrate on his playing – until one of the nobles, a large fat man similar in appearance to a boar, spoke.
‘Do you not think it rude to not acknowledge when a Lady and a Peer warrants your attention, Bard?’ he chortled. The bard jumped a little; startled by the fact that someone was speaking to him, and looked up.
‘Begging your pardons, I was merely lost in thought.’ The bard replied sheepishly.
‘Thinking you say?’ replied the fat noble, his voice slippery with scorn, ‘I had no idea that you had been employed to think, I was under the impression that you were hired to play that instrument of yours.’ To this a few of the nobles chuckled – taking great sport from the bards’ discomfort. The bard lowered his tankard and placed it on the floor carefully, then took up his harp and began to play once more. Again the fat noble spoke.
‘Do you have nothing to say in your defence servant, or did you trade the ability to talk for singing and playing?’ There was more chuckling from the throng of nobles, but the bard ignored him and continued his song. The fat noble turned red with anger and cried out.
‘How dare you ignore me when I speak to you peasant…’ but the Baroness interrupted him.
‘Enough Karl! This bard is as much a guest in my house as yourself.’ She proclaimed. The fat nobles face grew redder at the thought of the Baroness comparing his importance with that of a Bard, but he knew his place and simply snorted, his eyes ablaze with anger. The baroness ignored him and turned her attention back to the bard.
‘Perhaps the gentle bard would care to prove his speaking talent and share a tale with us?’ she said gently. To this, the bard smiled gently and nodded a little.
‘And what would Milady like to hear a tale of?’
The nobles all turned their chairs to face the bard; who shifted uncomfortable under the weight of the eyes now upon him.
‘I would like to hear a tale of romance and passion, bard.’ The baroness informed him. Her words were met with several low groans from a number of the male guests. The bard smiled at Baroness Du Laici.
‘My lady, it appears that your decision has struck a discord with a number of your guests.’ The bard began. ‘Perhaps it would be more to everyone’s taste if I was to tell you a tale of romance and horror, of devotion and deception and of the dawning of light and the twilight of evil.’
‘Very well Bard, you have our attention, tell us your tale.’ The baroness said as she raised her crystal goblet to her lips.
‘Yes Milady.’ The bard said nodding. He stood up and straightened his clothing; and walked towards the crowd.
‘Lords and Ladies; please allow me to tell you the tale of Manfredd Von Sleur.’
“To throw to the fire,
That gained in hate.
The gift of the dark kiss,
Captured the moment,
Tempered in thorns.
Release for a lifetime,
Till anger break the chains.”
Those words worked again and again in his mind, working into a feverish mantra that pounded against his skull. His mind was buzzing, but from the shadows; dark thoughts encroached his being as old thirsts overtook him once more. He pulled his shadowed cape about his cheeks, the tails whipping in the breeze, as again the sunlight began to cause him discomfort, and though the deep amber sun was setting behind the fiery mat of cloud, the light was still enough to force him to squint his eyes as he looked out to sea. His face was set like stone as he fought the red tide that assaulted his emotions. The tingling as his skin lost feeling worried him. His senses were slowly rising to their former zenith as he sat and watched the tide ebb and break upon the rocks below him as he stared into the crystal waters. Now, for the first time in some years, his reflection no longer glinted back at him as he looked upon the silvered water. A feeling of great loss washed over him, and he began to sob the blood red tears catching the light like rubies, and casting a dark glint which matched his vacant eyes.
The darkness slowly washed over him as the sun set before his eyes.
The morning air bore a distinctive chill, the cold eastern wind coming over the sea, bringing the drilling cold and the strong taste of salt spray. Sunlight slowly filtered over the southern peaks highlighting the red shale rooftops of the community of farms that clung to the fertile soils. Chickens scratched at the fallow as the seagulls flew overhead to catch the night fishermen as they returned with their catch. Over the fields various small creatures roamed the grassland, munching absently upon the lush vegetation. The piercing cry of a cockerel dictated the awakening of the farmers, who rose from their beds to collect eggs and milk for the morning meal. There was a muffled cursing from the butchers boy as he carried a bulk of meat to the local inn, stumbling under the weight of the parcel, and from the woodland the sweet sound of a lap harp suggested the presence of the Bardic guild. Heading into the village, one built so carefully from planks and thatch, the mixture of early sounds and smells increased. The local blacksmiths were already taking inventory for the day; their assistant carrying the pricing boards in front of their stalls to attract passers by. The aroma of fresh baked bread filled the dew soaked air, stating that the local baker was indeed awake also. Small quaffs of oddly scented purple smoke rose from the mages tower. Across the main square came the bank manager, passing by two courtiers who sat speaking in front of the fountains to open the bank doors. The butchers’ lad was finally relieved of the parcel by the Inns’ landlord, and he ran home with haste, his purse rattling with the gold coins given to him for his troubles.
The Inns doors opened as the first of the villages’ residents left for adventure. This marked the start of the day.
All in all, the village of Has Pereth was both as simple and as idealistic as any man could wish.
From the West, the sound of hooves on gravel was heard, but barely any heed was paid to it, as adventurers hunting Orcs or patrols from the local outpost were commonplace. A few children ran to the side of the road, hoping to see the purple-clad members of the Order – gallant, dashing gentlemanly knights who protected the surrounding region. Unfortunately for them, the riders were of little interest. The first was a young man in his early twenties, with scruffy shoulder length hair. He was rugged and of stocky build, wide of arm though not unpleasant to look at. He wore plain brown trousers and a faded green tunic, both well worn and weather stained. He rode a dapple-grey steed with skittish eyes. About the horses flanks several satchels hung – accompanied by a bow and quiver of arrows. The young mans’ riding companion trotted along beside him upon a chestnut mare. Her figure was obscured by the heavy blue riding cloak that she wore, the hood pulled up – concealing her face in a vale of shadow.
The children quickly grew bored of the normality of the riders and returned to their games, allowing the riders to continue with scant little interest being paid to them.
They continued through to the centre of the village, heading east to the livery where they left their mounts in the hands of the wizened old stable hand and continued on foot. The man walked with the grace of an elf, as though his feet didn’t touch the ground below, his boots barely making a sound upon the roads. He had a strange air of danger and dignity about his posture – akin to a stalking cat, his strides long and somehow meaningful. He had pulled a cape from his saddle-pack, which he now draped across his shoulder, half hiding the long hunting knives that suspended above either of his thighs. His eyes, as crystal clear blue as a mountain spring scanned from building to building, recording every brick and every feature he passed. The woman followed just behind his right shoulder, her riding cloak still obscuring her body as she glided down the street like a cloud in the clear sky. She had taken from her riding satchels a heavy leather clad books, which she hung from a twine belt that circumnavigated her delicate waist. In her hands, she carried a sizable leather pouch with a simple leather cord that she grasped tightly. Her head did not move, but her eyes flitted around the scene, watching for any sign of disturbance from the sleepy neighbourhood. They came outside a large wooden building, the feet of its walls obscured by a sprawl of items, from barrels to nets. The man glanced up at the sign, a simple wooden plaque that simply said ‘provisions’. They made their way to the doorway and stepped into the gloomy interior of the building.
The interior of the store was small and dark, its widows covered with stock piled upon oak shelves. An assortment of tools stood beside baskets of foods as well as items such as hay, seeds and containers ranging from rough leather pouches to elaborate handmade boxes. Single rays of light struggled their way through the stock to illuminate shafts that caught the swirling dust like phantoms in a dark corridor. In one corner was a pine desk with an assortment of small items as well as a ledger with quill and ink and a small metal box, which looked most likely to be a cash box. The man made his way to the desk whilst the woman took to the shelves, browsing the inventory. The hunched figure of an ancient man appeared from a small trap door built into the stone floor and pulled himself up the desk and regarded the man with a small smile. He was an odd looking man, thin and crumpled as though he had bore a great weight upon his shoulders during his many years. He had a map of wrinkles that crosshatched his face and great bushy eyebrows of silver that matched the few tufts of hair he still possessed. His eyes, almost hidden by his brows, shone with experience, a deep green that seemed to break the darkness.
“Good day to you, stranger. What can I do for you?” he asked, his voice croaking. As he spoke, he opened the great ledger to a new page and took up the quill, gingerly dipping it into a small pot of ink.
“We are travelling to Aestrania and are in need of feed for our horses as well as two quivers of arrows, bandages and Ginseng” said the stranger, his voice gritty yet commanding. The old man looked up a second at the hooded figure.
“Aestrania?” he repeated “ but the only way to get there is via the Snakeshead pass and then via Gruit, and you wouldn’t want to go that way, oh no indeed.” The old man nodded as he spoke, jotting a note of the items in the ledger before looking up again. “You see, Gruit’s been hit by the plague, there’re dozens dead already. The whole area’s been cordoned off by the border guard, they won’t let anyone leave.”
“But they will let people enter?” a third voice broke in, the musical voice of the woman. She had gathered the items she required and was now walking across the stone floor to the two men, her face hinting concern.
“Well, yes, I suppose they would allow people in, but who would want to enter a plague stricken village? It would be madness.” Replied the old man, taking the items from the girl and making a note of their prices in his ledger. The woman simply nodded.
“Bad luck for their new Laird, I say” continued the old man, still scribbling away. “He’s been there all of a month and his village is devastated, I can’t see him being able to recover in time for the harvest” he nodded as he spoke, as though he was making sense of the information himself. “Right then, is that it? The total is 34 silver pieces.” The old man said with a smile.
Once they had paid the old man, they took their goods to their horses and continued onwards to locate the local Inn; a large plaster coated building with a thatched roof and shuttered windows. They took their mounts to the rear of the Inn and set them in a small stable block with feed and fresh water before continuing into the Inn proper. The inside of the Inn was relaxed and had a warm aura, its white-washed walls catching the rays of sunlight and reflecting them back to illuminate the corridor in which they stood. Along the walls were several paintings of the village throughout the ages, as well as an ornate shield that hung above a large heavy door at the far end of the corridor. In one wall was cut a small hatch where and woman sat on a stool to welcome and direct guests. She was a young woman with fierce red hair and hazel eyes that hinted a deep boredom. She was sat in a plain dress picking at her nails with a small brass letter opener. She didn’t look up at them until the woman gave a polite cough.
“Can I help you?” she said, her voice full of a ground tediousness that strongly said she thought she had better things to do.
“We wish for a room for the night, and a hot meal,” said the lady.
“Rooms are two gold yiring’s per night, the meal is an extra silver piece,” was the reply as the girl returned her attention to her fingernails. “Are you going to pay now, or in the morning?” The man pulled a small pouch from the confines of his cloak and from it produced five gold coins, which he laid on the desk. “This is to ensure that no one bothers us until we leave, is that understood?” The girls face broke into a small smile as she scooped up the coins, placing two into a register and the other three into her own purse. “Understood perfectly, Milord” she said with a smirk. “Your room is through the main doors and is the second on the right. Directly across from it is the doors to the Dinning area, we serve at dusk.”
The night had been quiet for them with only a wandering drunk in tuneless song as he made his way home from the tavern to disturb the lull. But the travellers were unbothered by the brief racket he made, the lady already huddled under the blankets of her bed in a deep sleep and the huntsman quietly applying fresh beeswax to his bow string. An hour later, his kit was spotlessly clean, and he was unravelling his bedroll next to the door, hoping to steal a few hours of sleep.
[TO BE CONTINUED]
Last modified: March 27, 2011