It was an interesting winter. Once they had returned from their investigation in neighboring Kohlen, they reported to Lord Dhonyl and apprised him of everything that had occurred – almost everything. Though he was perturbed to find that their identities had been revealed, he couldn’t help but be pleased when Erol handed him the letter from the Lord Tulleken pledging friendship, trade and even military allegiance between the two cities.
As reward, he decided to raise them to scions of his house, offering them a title and lands. For Gillam, this was a no-brainer – he was made to be a lord. He may have started out as a miner’s boy scrambling around in the dark, but this was his true calling. Finally, a chance to be in charge and set the world to rights with some authority. He accepted without hesitation. Still, old habits were hard to break, and when Captain Yahn came over to congratulate him, he called him “Sir” as always (though in the back of his mind he kept the thought that the city watch could do with revolutionizing with him as its new commander).
Erol and Phaedra, however, were more hesitant in accepting, neither of them desiring a position of power – at least not power so conspicuous, in Phaedra’s case – but in the end they could not help accepting the offer when the freedom to build to their pleasure and a sackful of gold coins was thrown in.
Erol then disappeared for the rest of the winter, setting up on his new lands surrounding the northern pass between Tavalen and the nation of Aarta. Gillam got to work creating his own military academy with an adjoining mansion for himself right in the center of town. It had bunks for his new recruits, as well as an armory, infirmary and training hall, and in the mansion a library with garden for a special someone.
The construction went well, but Gillam soon found himself more than a little peeved when he found a newly-established theater had been built right next door by a certain little rogue. On the surface it was a legitimate theatre company, but Gillam knew there was more going on behind closed doors. For now, though, he left it be.
His academy opened its doors with a first batch of recruits and Gillam soon got into the role of instructor and captain, despite the odd squabble between the lads. Leading was easy – you just told people what to do – but dating was hard.
Early in the winter, he joined Erol in visiting the Griiz residence. They found Mahala hale and healthy and climbing the walls, but it was Kushlu he had come to see. As before, they slipped outside while Erol and Griiz discussed matters of artefacts. She greeted Vaprus and patted his neck like she did, and Vaprus whinnied happily to see her. Then they took a stroll.
They walked in silence at first, Gillam searching his brain for the words that would not come out. But it was Kushlu who spoke first. She asked about Kohlen and Gillam gladly recounted his adventure. When he finished, though, she did not give him the congratulations he had expected. Instead, she kept silent, gazing off into the distance as her hand rested on Vaprus’ neck.
When he asked what was on her mind, she began talking about old Rabhanastrian stories.
“In the desert it is easy to get lost,” she told him confusingly, but explained that there were tales of evil spirits who were unharmed by cuts from swords and went up in a puff of smoke if they were destroyed. But if one failed to defeat them, one would be enslaved.
Some days later he asked her the full tale. It originated in the southern wastes where creatures of smoke and flame known as the La’Habin were said to have terrorized villages, emptying them wherever they emerged. Whole armies sent to depose of them were enthralled. Then, a great hero, blessed of the gods, called Saafh’Adin went in to the desert and tracked the La’Habin to the center of a great mountain. There the hero slew the monsters, freeing the many people from enslavement and ending the reign of terror. There were certainly some similarities to what they had seen and it was worth looking into.
But on this particular day, Gillam and she continued on in silence. And at that particular time, Gillam’s desperate mind decided to pop a question that had been lurking at the back of his mind (and probably should have stayed there). He began to tell her about his promotion and lordship and she was thankfully impressed. This encouraged Gillam a little too much, however.
“I’m going to have many more duties from now on,” he babbled. “So, I think… I want you to be there beside me. So what I’m trying to say is, I think, would you… would it be ok if you’d join… Erm, you know I’m to be a Lord, I was wondering if you would like to become a Lady?”
Gillam’s head was spinning and he only realized he had said it when she saw her face blush. She chuckled, “I wonder what my father would think – a Lady in a Lugardian city.”
In the end she agreed to accompanying him on their travels, for now, and they left they subject at that.
Once the snows of winter receded, the grass began to turn back green and they entered a fresh new year, a brand new crisis emerged. It began when Erol returned to town from his estate in the mountains. He was huffing and sweating buckets when he burst into Gillam’s office, announcing that he had run the whole four-day journey here in just two and that he had an urgent report to give Lord Dhonyl. They picked up Phaedra, right in the middle of directing a fresh play after the success of her first production, and hurried to the hold.
Erol announced his news to Dhonyl and his advisors. Part of deal in which Dhonyl had granted the large tracts of forested highland to Erol was that he would serve Aaren in patrolling the borderlands. Up there, Erol had trained a squad of scouts into his service and it seemed they had done their job.
While on a regular patrol, they had discovered a group of men, lacking the markings of any lord or city, taking up a position ready for ambush in the trees along the road. And this was in Lugardian territory. They avoided detection and informed Erol, who had only returned to his estate from Aarta less than a week beforehand. Knowing he was the fastest thing on two legs in the entire region, he decided to bring the report to Dhonyl himself.
With no news coming out of Aarta and no knowing the identity of the men, Dhonyl decided to take all precautions. He sent Erol, Phaedra and Gillam with his best recruits back to the borders, ahead of an army of some 100 men led by Captain Yahn.
They left immediately and reached Tavelen two days later. But as their squad entered Gillam’s home village, one of Erol’s scouts found them. He reported that the ambush had struck an Aartanian envoy, captured the party and had marched them back into Aarta. But no sooner had they gone, than a trickle of refugees began to appear in the pass, and it appeared more were to follow.
So far, Erol’s men had blocked the refugees’ passage, so Gillam and the others decided to visit the temporary camp that was forming and attempt to glean some information about the situation.
There they found Mahala, who had been wintering in Erol’s manor. She had been observing the camp and reported a certain suspicious member – red hair, blue eyes and wearing a muddy cloak and torn trousers, plus a streak of dirt across her face for good measure.
“She seems too perfect a refugee,” Mahala said.
They went around the camp and talked with some of the refugees. They soon learned it was the Marian city of Dalyria that was invading Aartanian territory. One boy – whom Phaedra spoke to and became so enamored by that she tried to recruit – said he had overheard his father, a guard, talking about extra men being needed at the bridge over the river border to Dalyria. That was the last he saw of his dad before he and his mother left their home in a hurry.
Another camp member, a merchant who was selling his wares to the refugees, told a rumor from a sailor friend that five days prior Aarta had “chucked stones at ships on the horizon”. With Aarta controlling the mouth of the large bay of Dalyria, it wasn’t a leap of faith to guess whose ships they were.
Phaedra located the suspicious woman and took her to speak in private among the trees. She soon broke down the refugee disguise and learned from the woman, who called herself Liri, that half of Dalyria’s invading army were tearing around the countryside, burning and looting, while the other half surrounded the city. She was part of a home front hoping to protect the town of Karpatia and had come to seek aid from Aaren. Phaedra was moved, and came back to the others insisting that they do all they could to help this woman’s cause.
They decided to return to Lord Dhonyl with this information, on the way passing he column of men lead by Yahn and advising him to maintain the camp until they had orders from the lord.
But as they returned to the hold in Aaren, they found the lord already with a visitor: an envoy from Dalyria. They regarded him with suspicion, knowing the fate of his Aartanian counterpart, but held their tongues till they could speak with Dhonyl privately. Eventually, the lord excused himself and took Gillam and the others into his office.
He considered the news they told him.
“That envoy has just come from Kohlen,” he said, “but they turned him away – they have their own internal situation to sort out. So now they have come to us seeking support against Aarta. Their claim is that Aarta attacked first.”
He paused before adding, “If Aarta blockades the bay with their catapults, Dalyria’s trade is ruining.”
When he turned to them for their advice, they found themselves siding with Aarta, but in truth they had next to no knowledge of the events surrounding this war. With that, Dhonyl decided to hold the border, and send them into Aarta to investigate, keeping a low profile as he requested (but they were unable to do due to extraneous reasons) before.
A few days later, they were in Aartanian lands. With Kushlu, Wendika and Mahala joining them, plus his soldiers and Erol’s scouts, Gillam led a company grown to 21. They kept to the main road at first, not finding much hint of war in the hilly farmland as they came down from the mountains.
But as they came to the outskirts of Karpatia they saw a road block. Erol could see they were Dalyrian and not friendly. Rather than get in a diplomatic tangle with them, they went off road, taking a wide detour around the west of the town through fields and pocket woods.
In one thick wood, they made cold-camp, even though the nights were still chilly, as they feared a possible Dalyrian patrol. And sure enough, during that night, hours before dawn, they were woken up by Erol’s scouts who had been on watch. Seven people were passing through the trees just north of their camp, they reported. Phaedra went to check.
She came back shortly afterwards reporting that the men were armored, carrying crossbows and clearly led by one in a dark cloak but wearing armor underneath and a Marian helm. They had spoken little, but did mutter about seeking out ne’er-do-wells and the Aartanian army.
They quickly packed up their bedrolls and set off, giving the patrol a wide berth. Their walk continued through fields until, about midday, they came to what was clearly a main road heading west to the sea, east to Karpatia. Erol and Phaedra quickly noted the terrible condition it was in, realizing that a huge number of feet, hooves and cartwheels had trampled along it. On closer investigation, they figured they were all heading to the sea. They agreed it was better to head straight to Aarta than follow, and so they crossed the road and continued.
That evening, as they followed a trail through a forest, they noticed woodsmoke rising. Phaedra went ahead and found a small lean-to and a mother, father and child surrounded by three armed men.
“We can’t have you running back and telling on us,” one of them was telling the family just before Erol stepped out. They turned and the fight began, and was soon finished. Erol arrowed one to death where he stood as Phaedra killed another. The third, seeing his buddies fall, tried to run but Mahala dropped from the trees and punched him out.
While Gillam manacled the unconscious one and roped him over Vaprus’ back, the others spoke to the family.
“When we heard the Dalyrians were coming to Karpatia, we decided to get out before they arrived,” the father said. “We were hiding here when those men came. I think they were guards. They’re supposed to be on our side!”
They asked the family whether they to stay or join them to Aarta, and they chose the latter.
When the Karpatia guard woke the next day, Gillam was already on hand to interrogate.
“Good morning! What’s your name?” he asked genially, while holding a sword point to the man’s neck. He eventually got his name, rank and number and learned that he was indeed a guard in Karpatia, but had ran from the approaching army. Gillam felt compelled to spell out his crime to him – that he had attacked the very people who he was supposed to defend – but he clearly knew already by the look of failure in his eyes.
Gillam tried to get some more from him, but he knew little of the movements of either army and only muttered a guess that Dalyria’s invasion was part of the civil war across Laegen Mar, that had arose since Prince Doukas had taken power, much to the ire of the nobles.
Though he was dead weight, and never spoke again, Gillam refused to kill him as Erol and Phaedra would have liked. Instead he lashed him over Vaprus’ back so that he could face proper justice in Aarta.