Jewelspider Chronicles 2

Written By: Stephen Dove

Session 2 (01/10/2013)

As the cart rumbled along the frozen lanes towards the river, the Company chatted contentedly about the village of Saxton; dreaming of the thick broth and warm fires they would soon enjoy. Ranulph reminded them that Saxton was famous because of its shrine; a well dedicated to a warrior, who was said to have slain a giant on the spot long ago. The story Ranulph told claimed that the spring arose on the precise spot where this warrior fell and died after the battle was won.

The Lepers

Rounding a bend in the wintry road and entering a deep gorge, the company came upon a ragged conflict; four men, dressed in rags hazarded a lone traveller. Malvol was for caution until one of the beggars turned to the company and slurred a challenge, his hood falling back, revealing the lipless, puckered face of a leper.

Angered by such brazen banditry, Malvol leapt from the cart and donned his tabard yelling that ‘it will be a mercy to put you down!’. He had barely touched the ground ere Maelee’s throwing dagger sank, with a sickening thud, into one of the lepers who assailed the tall traveller. This dark cloaked man wielded his blade with no little skill and had expertly backed against the rocky wall so that the lepers could not come at him from behind.

Then Danee drew his bowstring back to his ear, firing a cloth-yard shaft into yet another bandit-leper, fearing to draw to close to those so ill-favoured and sick. Meanwhile Jasper leapt from the cart, summoning Mage’s fire and hurling it at the remaining scum, scattering them.

Osric meanwhile, wasted no time in turning the cart around once Jasper was off and thundered back up the gorge, shouting that he was ‘protecting the boy, Ranulph and his Wife’ though no-one was fooled. Maelee shot a poisonous glance at his retreating back, also scanning the sides of the narrow gorge for hidden attackers as she did so. As luck would have it, the lepers lacked any such cunning, and no archers assailed the company from above, but all cast nervous glances upwards every few seconds even so.

The battle was soon over then; the lepers’ morale deserting them as Malvol, heedless of their condition, waded in close to put the remaining foes down. The last leper begged the Knight for mercy and he gave it him joyfully, driving his holy blade into the bandit’s chest hilt deep.

As Malvol wiped his sword with an oiled rag, the stranger tipped his tall hat and thanked the company, naming himself ‘Master Carroe’. Malvol curled his lip as at this and wordlessly began stacking the dead like cord-wood, ready for the pyre. Maelee came over to the Carroe warily and exchanged greetings, asking where he was bound and noting a livid scar on his cheek. Carroe said that he was making for Saxton, and so the company ‘welcomed’ the stranger into their number, though it must be said that t’was with little warmth. Jasper was especially nervous; his temper having led him into summoning magic in the presence of a stranger, despite the danger.

Maelee then stalked back up the gorge, Jasper in tow, seeking the hiding place of Osric and the cart. She half expected the miscreant to have fled, but found him hunkered down over the rise, eating beans over a tiny fire, with Ranulph and his Wife bellowing at him to go back. She fairly snatched the beans from Osric’s startled hands and chastised him for his cowardice. Osric affected a wounded expression and slunk to the other side of the small fire, whinging like a dog that has been unfairly whipped.

The Cave

In the gorge, Malvol began cutting wood for a fire, though the outer bark was covered in hoarfrost and his breath steamed in the frigid air with the effort. As he worked, he noticed tracks leading back to the cliff face, far away from the scarlet, churned up scene of the battle. He poked at some bushes and saw a crack in the cliff, calling for the others.

Malvol waited until the others came down the gorge in the cart, Jasper cuffing Osric and mocking him. They spilled out and began helping the Knight to push the greenery aside, revealing a side gorge, complete with a bubbling brook, that led into the darkened maw of a large cave. The tracks led into the cave and so Malvol donned his armour. He then called out into the cave, declaring that “any who surrender in yon cave shall know mercy” but no answer came. He then shouted that “Death it is then!” and began collecting together the wood he had cut for the pyre, piling it up at the cave’s mouth and kindling it to smoky flame.

Alas, the flow of air defeated his plan; for it billowed out of the cave, carrying the smoke into the gorge and not down into the depths, as Malvol had intended. Osric began complaining; asking Malvol what he was going to do about his ‘smoke stained garments?’ Malvol’s reply was extremely impolite.

Carroe volunteered to watch Ranulph, Matilda and the boy, and took up position so that he could guard both cave mouth and the entrance to the hidden gorge.

Maelee, lurking on the crags above the cave, espied a horse inside, tethered onto a large rock, with packs strewn all around it. Malvol went in then, lantern held high, with Danee haunting his steps and Maelee not far behind.

As they entered the cavern stream, each felt the icy pull of the water and Malvol realised he was outlined by the lantern light and made a perfect target just as he drew close to the horse and what was clearly the half eaten corpse of a man. It was almost a mercy when the first arrow shattered on a rock above his head, but a second took Danee full in the chest, and the warrior staggered and then charged, as Malvol matched him pace for pace, as both plunged further into the cave.

They ran down the icy brook and into the darkness, seeing their attackers lurking on a vast boulder that the brook ran beneath. Pressing themselves against the huge rock’s base where the bowmen could not see them, they counted to three, then raced around the sides and climbed up as bright blood flowed from Danee’s chest wound. Maelee snuck onto a ledge overlooking the boulder, unseen by the remaining two lepers and launched an attack with her knives, just as Knight gained the top and began raining blows on the bandits. He clove the first in twain and was moving to slay the second when Osric, who none had marked, stepped from out of the gloom and opened the last leper’s throat from behind, deftly. Bowing low, the assassin proceeded to search for any treasure, rifling through the packs that were strewn at the base of the boulder; much to Malvol’s disgust. Maelee took pleasure in reminding Osric of the lepers’ condition and the dangers of touching their things, but the Harbinger was far too pragmatic to abandon his prize. Indeed he whooped with joy as he opened one pack, finding some coins. Malvol also began searching, hoping to find marks of ownership; instead he found an ornate and jewel-encrusted triptych in one of them. There were also many woolpacks, and a search of the area near the horse showed the half eaten corpse of a traveller and also the bones of some donkeys; clearly the lepers were not too fastidious about their ‘fare’. Osric

Quitting the caves, the Company saw the sun was past its zenith and set to making a camp, being weary and needing to burn the corpses and also to dress Danee’s wound. Malvol piled the dead from the cave up with the other lepers, cut more brushwood and soon a pyre burned redly in the gorge, greasy smoke spiralling up into the cold blue sky. Danee led the horse out and feed the poor beast. It was then that Osric began complaining of hunger.

As Malvol paused from his labours Ranulph took him aside and pointed at the boy, who was playing with stones by the stream, seemingly without touching them! “This is devilry my Lord!” breathed the old priest, but Malvol calmed him and promised that “the shrine at Saxton will cure him.” and the old man was content.

“Let us remember this place my friends; it might make a good rally point should ever we be separated.” declared Malvol and all nodded their silent agreement.

Maelee had bound Danee’s wound up whilst she and Osric bickered like a couple long married. Carroe ‘blessed’ Danee’s sword as they argued, for the tall warrior feared the contagion from the lepers. Maelee was unconvinced by the newcomer’s ‘powers’ and eyed him coldly.

Sensing Maelee’s displeasure, Carroe then took up his bow; striding out of the ravine and up into the frozen hills, seeking game. Maelee waited a minute and then snuck after him, wondering what the stranger was about. Her spying revealed nothing; for Carroe merely stalked and killed a deer, then gutted the creature and turned back to the camp. Carefully leaving tracks he would see, the troubadour returned to the camp ahead of him.

By the time she got back, the sky had darkened and the cart had been drawn into the hidden gorge, the pyre outside having burned down. Danee and Ranulph were pulling the bushes that covered the entrance to the hidden camp over the gap in the cliffs, hiding the camp from view from the main gorge. Malvol bent over a newly dug grave; for he had buried the half eaten traveller’s corpse, weighing it down with rocks so that it would not walk and saying prayers over it. As she took her place by the campfire, Jasper and she talked in low voices about the newcomer just as Carroe returned bearing the deer.

A Night of Ghosts

Jasper set expertly to cooking the beast and soon it was roasting over the fire on a spit. As the apprentice went to get more firewood, Maelee noticed a strange misty form sitting by the fire and then the spit began turning of its own accord. Shooting a glance at the boy, she saw he was dozing under Matilda’s watchful care and so looked around for another source for this power. Thinking Jasper had forgotten himself yet again, she squinted into the gathering gloom to see if the gangly mage was once more using magic in front of mundanes, but Jasper was talking to Malvol.

With gathering unease, the troubadour went to Malvol and Jasper and whispered news of this ghost, yet they could see nothing but the spit turning on its own. Osric ruined their attempts at subtlety however, grabbing the spit whilst yelling at Jasper for allowing the meat to burn. The spit wrenched him off his feet and threw him into a patch of bushes. Everything in the camp stopped, as all became aware of the strange behaviour of the spit. Ranulph and Matilda shrank in fear, pulling the boy away with them. Yet Master Carroe, who had not moved a muscle and sat tying up his bowstring nonchalantly, assured all that “there is nothing to fear and no evil here” so confidently that all took him at his word though they knew not why. There was a pause then before all slowly drifted back towards the fire.

Maelee then stood up and began telling tales to her audience both seen and unseen. She regaled them with stories of honour and nobility, of giants and knights and always of God; and all sat enraptured in the flickering firelight. Maelee then became aware that the gorge was now full of ghostly presences, all of whom seemed to be listening to her stories. Yet as full night enfolded the camp and the stars burned down coldly, the presences disappeared and spit stopped turning.

Taking up both Ariel and Seraph, Malvol bent his head and said a prayer for the passing of the dead. He was disturbed, however, as a voice from above proclaimed “They do not hear your prayers nor your God Sir Knight!” and so saying, an old wiry shepherd came down into the gorge, moving down the slope more easily than Maelee had. His face was wrinkled and smiling and he bore an old crook in his hands, yet there was power about him; though it might only have been the power of one who knows himself and is content.

The Knight did not sheath his swords, but warily invited the shepherd to the fire for some food, asking Ranulph to say Grace. Watching the shepherd carefully as Ranulph intoned the liturgy, Malvol was distracted as Osric, impatient for the end of Grace, grabbed himself a haunch of meat and buried his face in it. Maelee rolled her eyes but Malvol still watched the shepherd with narrowed eyes and asked him for his meaning.

“The folk you sensed did not worship your God. They lived in the downlands with their flocks and were simple people. Before the coming of the One God, there were the spirits of Wood and Stream and these people gave them offerings. This cave was one sacred to such people, and mayhap still is. It can be dangerous to tarry here; especially on this night of all nights.” Malvol grew angry then and told the shepherd “that all their souls are damned then!” But the hermit just smiled and then stood up, thanking the company for the food, and strode out into the night, passing through the bushes with ne’er a rustle.

As the Company absorbed this, and the stars wheeled overhead, Maelee suddenly saw that the cliffs around them were faintly glowing. She approached and noticed the boy also haunted her steps; he too could see, though no-one else seemed to notice. Inscribed on the cliff faces were glowing symbols written in an ancient script that Maelee knew was Kell and so guessed the language was that of Lughwyd, though she could not read it. She began copying the script into her book.

Malvol, seeing Maelee at the cliffs, strode over and asked her what she was doing, and Jasper came also. Telling them of the symbols, Malvol cursed and crossed himself, whilst the Apprentice looked thoughtfully at the sky. Making some notes, Jasper exclaimed that “the Hunter holds sway over this place and he shall not set for 4 hours!”

Malvol cursed anew and went back to the camp, ordering that no food be left out “nor offerings of any kind left unguarded.” Then he asked Ranulph if he knew the names of the Old Gods that once held sway in this place, and the priest said that his father might have. He rummaged in his pack and brought out an ancient, dusty book; the Church rolls of his village. Malvol could not read them, nor Jasper, for they were written in Bacchile, but Carroe took them up and read of fines given to villagers for worshipping ‘Kernau’ and ‘Arawn’ a hundred years ago.

The Threshold of Annwyn

Yet Malvol had not waited; plunging into the cave with Danee and Jasper, even as Maelee called out a warning. For the boy, standing at the entrance to the cave had asked her “why they are going to Annwyn?” and Maelee was filled with fear then, for she knew this was an ancient name for the land of the dead. Walking closer she saw the retreating backs of her three companions and noticed a ‘veil’ across the entrance to the cave; for the cave was now part of another realm and the air was now rushing into its depths.

Malvol was not swayed and charged onwards, frothing at the mouth. Ariel and Seraph began to glow and by their light the three saw that the cave was now horribly changed; huge roots twisting down from the rocky roof, as if a vast forest grew above the cave. As they slowed and moved more cautiously, they noticed a ‘river’ of misty forms moving past them and into the cave; the souls of those who had passed. Malvol’s eyes rolled like a spooked horse as he breathed “So many damned souls!” as if it was more than he could bear.

“Come Death and claim me at last!” bellowed Malvol, his eyes now frantic with fervour; yet his only answer was the echo of his voice from the cave. Feeling mocked, the Knight plunged onwards and noticed that the brook no longer covered the cave where it once had; a river of quicksilver flowed in its place. But even Malvol rocked back on his heels as he went past the place where they had fought the lepers and found a very different scene.

The cave was filled with a golden light and by this radiance could all three see the huge form of a vast lizardine creature; a two headed Dragon as big as a house, sprawled upon a hill of golden treasures. Beyond the beast the cave continued a ways, before opening out into a sunlit land where a swollen red sun hung unmoving on the horizon, as if caught forever at the moment where day became night. The Dragon opened an eye as big as a shield and lazily demanded that they “pay the toll for passage” but the Company were nonplussed. Jasper hesitantly asked the nature of this toll and the Dragon lifted one head and regarded him for moment, before replying that it required “something eldritch for my hoard, though be warned mortals that such a trophy shall get you in, but only when you are dead may you leave Annwyn!” This last declaration, accompanied as it was by a rush of poisonous fumes that leaked from between teeth as long as spears, cooled even Malvol’s anger.

The creature looked carefully at the river of souls passing by and declared that “I have never seen a night so rich in the dead! Do more of these tin men in your world slay those who do not worship the One God, or is there another reaper?” But its question was unanswered as the Company pondered what to do.

Malvol said boldly then that he would content himself with “closing the gate to your world and so deny you any more souls.” but the Dragon only laughed, its voice booming around the cavern. Then as they turned to go, did Jasper suddenly realise that much more time had passed in the waking world than they had marked in the cave, and with a sinking feeling he feared that the gateway would soon close. As he shouted a warning, the roots from the roof suddenly began moving and attempted to snag the Company. Dodging this way and that, they ran down the cave as if the very devil himself was after them.

Jasper gasped as a root caught at his ankle, hauling him upside down and Danee also, as he tried to help. Malvol hefted Seraph and cut both free then all ran like the wind to see Carroe at the cave mouth, intoning a prayer in Bachille with Maelee stretched across the gap, one foot in each world. As his words echoed down the cavern, suddenly the roots began to shrivel and turn to stone. Then they came crashing down, dust and rock almost burying the Company, as they staggered out of the cave. At the last, Malvol turned and thrust Seraph into the rocks blocking the cave mouth, and intoned a prayer, hoping to close the gateway for all time. When he opened his eyes, there was no sign of any rocks or dust, for the cave was exactly as it had been in the daytime, and Seraph was gone. The Knight swore then to return and claim the holy blade one day.

The others, faces flushed, were swigging from a bottle that Ranulph had produced, huddled around the fire. Malvol stalked past them and out into the main gorge and a moment later there came an anguished cry as if an animal had found its mate dead. It was a long hour before he returned and begged Jasper for the Gray blade that Ulric had gifted him. After Seraph’s clean touch, the sword felt somehow unclean to the knight but he placed it in his scabbard all the same.

As Jasper calmed, he looked skywards and saw that the Hunter was setting. The mage began to suspect that only on the night when the Hunter rose directly overhead, was the cave opened to the strange world he had seen and silently gave thanks for that. To calm himself he kicked Osric, and soon Maelee joined in. “Savaged by a scarecrow!” roared Osric and “Assailed by two women!” spat the assassin spitefully, but all smiled.

The night passed quickly then for dawn was not far off. Few of the Company slept much and all had troubled dreams and so everyone threw off their bedrolls and blankets as soon as there was even a twilight to see by. They wordlessly packed up the cart and prepared to leave.

Malvol, his armour already donned and his face troubled, told Maelee that he would hold a vigil in this place and that they should go on without them. Jasper gave him the horse they had rescued and told him to catch them up, and the Knight thanked him.

Saxton and the Pardoner

The Company journeyed cheerlessly onwards for a day and half; Jasper and Osric constantly carping, till Malvol caught them up at dusk as they drew nigh to Saxton. The Knight was still troubled and muttered “Seraph is lost” for the gateway had not reopened the next night. He then fell off his horse and all saw that his back was flayed, as if by a whip. Maelee dressed the wounds with a poultice and they kept on.

They forded the Hern River, paying an extortionate toll to the drovers who guarded the crossing. The Company then drew aside from the road as the lights of Saxton showed on the lane ahead. The Knight took off his armour and donned monk’s robes. Jasper winced at the sight of the Knight’s flayed back and the others also changed clothes and hid their weapons away.

As they led the cart back to the track, a strange group of men came up from high-road; they were all dressed in hooded priests’ robes and carried whips, which they used to scour their own backs as they walked barefoot through the icy mud. A fat beetle of a man on a horse led the group with an obvious air of self-importance. Seeing the company, he reined in and leaned down, asking if any needed to purchase ‘indulgences’. Malvol grimaced, as did most of the others, for the man was obviously a Pardoner; one who sells scraps of paper with prayers inscribed in Bachille that are said to reduce a soul’s time in purgatory. Carroe stepped up and bade the man pass on, but the Pardoner grew angry and threatened them, implying that they were “ungodly”. Carroe told them man leave again and he angrily did so, but his backward glance promised future trouble.

As soon as the cavalcade had passed, Osric let out a breath and raged at Malvol and Carroe, warning them that “they’ll be a reckoning for this, for Pardoners are not lightly gainsayed! That one served the Bishop of Clyster by his livery and he is not a man to be crossed. Now we’ll have to lie low in Saxton you fools!” But Malvol declared that “Only the guilty need fear.” And Osric was left to shake his head in disgust, muttering about “mages and relic sellers are usually considered guilty.” And so saying, he led the company off the lane and across some fields, but Malvol and Carroe did not follow; and Ranulph and Matilda also took their leave, going off into the darkness.

Malvol and Carroe walked boldly up the high road to the shrine, which was set on a hill above the road. The hill was covered in a vast camp of supplicants; ragged and lean, the poor and the dispossessed, seeking a blessing from the shrine in this time of pestilence.

Malvol took the triptych to the priests in the shrine and the he looked shocked at Malvol’s tale, promising that masses would be said for the soul of Sister Winifred, whose possession this was. The Knight then asked to hold a vigil and was given admittance to a side chapel, glimpsing a group of knight dedicating their swords to God on the main altar. Malvol slept on the cold stone floor of the chapel, face down, his arms outstretched like a cross; a sleeping draught speeding his decent into slumber.

The Hound of God

Carroe showed his ring to a disinterested priest and was admitted instantly to see the Prior. The prelate, sporting a bejewelled cross, rose from his rosewood desk and ushered Carroe into his private chapel. He pulled a lever and the altar swung back to reveal a subterranean crypt and he descended. Carroe followed him down and the Prior did not speak until the grating of stone had stopped; the altar swung back into place.

“What can I do for you Brother? What news do you have for the Archbishop?” said the Prior primly.

“Tell him I have not yet found the source of the pestilence but that I will.”

“You play a dangerous game Carroe; be warned that the Bishop of Clyster’s men are in the village. They are no friends of your Master, so have a care. Clyster is said to have burned three Varni in the marketplace; blaming them for this pestilence!”

“I will be wary, but have you any news for me; has the heretic said any more about his visions? Surely those days in the lightless depths of Canterbridge Castle have loosened his tongue further?”

“Sadly not yet; the Archbishop merely urges you to greater efforts, but cannot yet give you further aid in your search.”

“It is hard to find this ‘demon’ the heretic says is spreading this plague without more knowledge, but I’ll do as I am bade.”

A few minutes later, Carroe was back in the main chapel and threading his way out, through the tent city on the hill; just another nondescript traveller in the throng. Few marked his passing.

Den of Thieves

On the other side of Saxton, the rest of the Company had followed Osric across the frozen fields, until they came to an outlying barn. Osric waved them to silence and stepped warily forwards, calling out a password. It was answered by a lumbering man with a squashed nose, who urged them into the barn, cart and all, and barred the door behind them.

Once in the barn, ‘squashed-nose’ insulted Osric and the Harbinger returned the favour, then the company set to cooking over a brazier of coals. Other men lounged at the back of the barn and in the hayloft overhead and all looked ill-favoured or shifty in the dim light. Jasper and Maelee exchanged worried glances and the Camelot pulled the boy close to her.

Once they had eaten, Maelee and Osric fell to talking and conceived a plan to earn some coin, using Maelee’s false relics. Osric rubbed his hands with glee at the thought, but Maelee was less sure. The assassin explained that honour prevented him from fleecing other thieves, but that their wives and girlfriends, who were not covered by this stricture, would soon arrive; and so it proved.

fter Osric had sold ‘the hand of St Swithin; a sure ward against all diseases and agues’ to one of these women; much to the annoyance of their menfolk, Maelee sidled over to the boy and warned him to speak to no-one. The boy nodded, but then his corn-dolly, given to him by Ranulph, began walking on its own and Maelee warned him to “Stop that!” as she glanced around nervously, and the boy looked sad.

To cheer herself and the lad up, she piped up a tune on her flute and soon the barn was filled with music and the clapping and stamping of feet in time to the ditty. Then she began playing a lament that soon had eyelids drooping and had lulled the boy into sleep. Jasper rubbed his eyes and realised something was wrong; everyone in the barn was being affected by some dweomer. Then he saw that the boy was dreaming and that power was coming from him and flowing into Maelee, who herself seemed transfixed. As he went to stop Maelee playing, he saw a shadow on the wall above her; the music had somehow filled a spider, bloating it until it was as large as a dog.

Jasper swung his blade at the creature but it dodged, even as Danee unlimbered his holy blade and charged it. As soon as his sword was unsheathed, the music faltered and Maelee seemed to come out of the spell, also reaching for her daggers. But Danee’s swing was true and sliced off three of the foul creatures legs, even as the thieves in the barn came awake and began bellowing and screaming with fear, making for the doors. The legs plopped onto the floor and morphed into huge cockroaches, scuttling towards Danee with murderous intent, but Jasper hacked at one, slaying it. Maelee, rousing herself, slapped the boy hard and woke him. At the instant he awoke, the cockroaches and spider fell into dust and the company breathed a sigh of relief.

The door burst in and one of the toughs came back with a huge dog, one that looked like it had been spat out of the mouth of hell. “Where’s Osric? What’s this I hear of spiders and Magery” bellowed the man, sniffing the air as if he could smell the magic in the air. But Osric was no-where to seen. The head-thief grabbed Jasper and looked at his hands declaring that “this milkmaid will scream the truth when I apply the thumbscrews!” but Maelee told them not to harm her property and feigned that Jasper was a “bum-boy and whore”.

Hearing this, the head-thief roared that ‘It’ll take silver to put this right!” and he looked greedily at the coin purse the Camelot carried. She gave him 22 florins and then the man strode off to talk with his lieutenants, possibly planning to rob or kill the company.

Danee nervously went to the apple barrel and took one, but plunged his hand in upon seeing a movement. He dragged Osric out, who had been hiding in the barrel and had an apple in his mouth like a pig dressed for the table. He spat it out contentedly, and asked “if the ruckus was over?”

The others were all for killing him then, but Maelee intervened and Osric went over to the thieves and spun them a tale. A few minutes later, one of the toughs took a swing at Osric bellowing “you laced our drinks with dream-dust! Now you’ve made us looks stupid in front of the Master and you’ll pay for that!” But Osric just swayed out of the way and opened his coin purse to smooth things over.

Maelee looked on in disbelief; not pagan shrines, nor monsters, nor Fey Lords equalled the miracle she had just seen; Osric paying for something. But the Harbinger strode over grinning and began taunting Jasper about how he’d “saved his arse.” Jasper just glowered and plotted revenge.

The Pardoner’s Revenge

The next morning Osric ran panting into the barn, for he’d seen the Pardoner back in the marketplace and this time he had soldiers with him. They were said to be searching for some ‘godless travellers’ and it took little imagination to conclude who he was looking for. Though some Knights had argued with him, he would doubtless be back.

Maelee dressed Osric in the guise of a beggar and sent him to find the others at the shrine and warn them, and Osric scuttled off as if hot coals were concealed within his robes.

Malvol awoke strangely refreshed and when he got up one of the lay brothers who tended him came forward and gasped, for there were no wounds upon his back. The lay brother ran into the main church shouting about “a Miracle” but Malvol felt no easing of his heart. He went out into the church and the Knights, who were dedicating their swords, all bowed and asked for his blessing. The Prior himself was all for parading Malvol through the throng outside and was only convinced to abandon his plan by Carroe.

Osric pushed his way through the line of supplicants and heard rumour of a miracle in the crowd. He quickly found Carroe and warned him of the Pardoner. Cursing their luck, Carroe went to the Prior and asked for books to carry as a cargo and also monks’ robes and the prelate granted him some old, rather stained vestments and some books recently copied for the Abbey at Vennforth. The prior informed Carroe that the pardoner’s men had quit the village but were doubtless waiting on the road to Clyster, and that he’d best be careful.

Down in the town, a merchants’ caravan was assembling on its way to Clyster and the lane was full of covered wagons and irate merchants and their guards. Maelee learned of this and wondered if they could use the caravan as a ruse to quit the village. When Malvol and Carroe joined them in a side lane, they decided to join the caravan and all donned the robes they’d been given.

Realising the cart would give them away, Maelee took it back to the barn and asked the thieves for paint and canvas, and began painting the cart to look like a merchant’s. She also dyed her hair with black-root, disguising her flaxen locks. Meanwhile Danee bought them another donkey to pull their cart, rightly fearing that without a second beast, they would not be able to keep pace. However, this all took too long and the merchants began moving off, whereupon Malvol told the company to go into the crowd of supplicants and spread the rumour that ‘the miracle knight is in the caravan’. Hundreds of supplicants poured down the hill, wanting to touch and be blessed by the ‘holy knight’ and they soon blocked the road, sending the caravan master into apoplexy! It was an hour before the way was cleared and by that time Maelee was back with the disguised cart.

The Company kept their heads’ down and endured the scrutiny of the Pardoner’s soldiers who were drawn up some way from the road on a hill and so did not recognise the companions as they passed in train with the caravan below them. One soldier later rode up and questioned them, but they feigned ignorance and spun him a tale, and he rode off none the wiser. Once the soldier was gone, Osric congratulated them all as “a most devious crew.” and he clearly thought this high praise till Jasper threw an apple at his head….

The Sidhe

Towards dusk, four wagons peeled off from the rear of the caravan and made towards a bald hill that burst out of Fenring Forest. This caused the caravan master to look to the rear, and seeing a wagon he did not recognise, sent a man back to demand recompense for being a part of his company. Jasper made payment and the caravan continued onwards, and indeed picked up the pace. The Company travelled a few miles further, hoping to put the marsh between their camp and the Fenring Forest, but then turned off the road to camp. The caravan continued onwards, for the master sent back word that he intended to move all night and change horses at Karicksbridge, before continuing on the morrow. Indeed the fat wagon-lord had word of bandits preying on travellers using this road and was eager to get to Clyster. Yet Danee could already see that their donkeys had not the strength for an all-night journey, and so they had no choice but to stop.

Maelee took the reins and guided the cart off the track, but suddenly one of the donkeys seemed spooked and the cart picked up speed as the wagon lurched down the embankment. One by one, the company jumped off; all but Maelee and Jasper. The camelot jumped onto the donkey’s back and tried to calm it; only then did she notice that it was no normal creature, it was a kelpie. Jasper cut the other beast free as the cart hurtled towards a pool of marshy water, fringed with willow trees. The cart plunged into the water with a huge splash, and Maelee and Jasper were dragged down to the lake bottom.

They got a surprise once through a thin layer of water on the surface, for there was a hollow space below the surface of the lake that was obviously a Fey realm and they were not at all wet. Jasper landed head first in the soft ground and was stuck for a moment. The sky above was riven with strange auroras and the lake floor was forest-like and carpeted with flowers and plants that seemed somehow too bright and gaudy for the mortal realm.

Gathering themselves, Jasper and Maelee became aware of two slender creatures, with almond eyes and faintly blue skin approaching. They wore shimmering clothes that were crafted like fish scales and both seemed angry.

“Why have you trespassed into our realm mortals?” one demanded and Jasper retorted immediately that they had “been brought here against their will!” and glared accusingly at the Sidhe, for Sidhe he knew they were.

Jasper then whispered to Maelee to be careful what she said, for each statement the Fey made was a kind of trap and if they did not speak carefully then they would forever be trapped or in these creatures’ debt. She nodded grimly and resolved not fall into the power of any Fey ever again.

Suddenly two forms jumped into the lake above; for Malvol and Danee, fearing for their friends’ lives had jumped into the lake to rescue their friends. Yet somehow they did not penetrate into the realm where Jasper and Maelee stood; but instead seemed to be drowning in a real lake, though the water seemed misty and insubstantial, the lake weeds enfolding them as they struggled. Jasper groaned, knowing what was coming.

“Do you ask for their lives?” asked the Sidhe malevolently, rows of serrated teeth suddenly showing as it smiled horribly.

“What do you ask in return?” asked Maelee without thinking, and Jasper made a strangled cry, for the Camelot had already misspoken and had placed them into Fey debt.

“We wish the child you carry within you; the one placed there by the Lord of Summer!” and Maelee’s faced paled and she almost swooned, for she had known of no child though she realised in a flash that Ulric must have known.

“Take the cursed thing! Take it NOW!!” she screamed.

“Very well!” said the Sidhe, beside himself with glee as he collected a stream of quicksilver essence that issued out from Maelee’s stomach, and into a silver chalice.

“Begone; this bargain is done!” shouted the creature, and all four of the company were ejected from the Lake and found themselves flying through the night air to thump heavily down onto the turf. Osric and Carroe ran over to aid their friends.

A Second Bargain

“Why did you meddle Jasper? That was mine to bargain!” shouted Maelee, as Jasper hid his head in despair.

“Yes why did you meddle Jasper?” wheddled Osric slyly, clearly enjoying this moment, and for a second it looked like Jasper would spit back a retort, but then he set his face and retreated back into sullen silence.

“What bargain did you make Maelee and with whom?” said Malvol stridently, for he could see all that passed whilst he was below the water, and that was enough for him to sense trouble.

“They took something from my womb; a terrible changeling child! But the Sidhe removed it!”

“What the Fey take they also bestow” said Malvol grimly and gestured for Carroe to lay hands on Maelee’s stomach, hoping to sense the presence within. The priest did so and then nodded with a white face, for he sensed the quickening of something evil within the Camelot.

Seeing his face, the Camelot flushed red. “Rip it out!” cried Maelee, but Carroe only shook his head heavily.

“That is beyond my power lady. You would die if any were to do so” he breathed. “But I know of one who can.” he exclaimed, showing her the Archbishop’s seal ring he bore.

“The Church would burn me as an anathema you fool!” the Camelot chided and stalked off into the moonlight, clutching a dagger to her breast as if she would cut the thing out herself. Carroe heard the sound of weeping and turned back to the mere.

Meanwhile Malvol had removed his armour and waded into the lake, shouting a bargain to the night air. “I offer you my unquestioning loyalty and service if you will release the lady Maelee from whatever evil you have done her this night Sidhe!”

The water boiled and a ghostly woman appeared on the surface of the lake. Her wraith-like face twisted and distorted and she breathed, like a corpse taking its last gasp “You are bound to one greater than we and we cannot touch you. Sometimes the deed chooses the doer mortal!” and at this last, the ghost gave a dreadful gallows smile as if drinking in Malvol’s building rage.

“NO!!” bellowed the knight, throwing off his shield and sword “I will not be a pawn!! Let me die and all my sins with me! Let me choose my release as others have done!” But the night did not answer him and he sat for a long moment, head bowed, as Danee kindled a fire to warm those who stood soaking in the freezing air.

Osric was still taunting Jasper and the mage finally boiled over, rushing towards the assassin, who turned and ran. But for once the beanpole was too swift and caught him up. Spinning him around, Jasper bunched himself up for a punch but then noticed that the Harbinger was suddenly limp and slack jawed.

Osric’s jaw moved stiffly but it was not his voice that grated out into the night’s air “Do you seek aid mage?”

“What aid would you give me Fey filth?” sneered Jasper, half fearing mummery from Osric but then he saw a Raven perched on a branch above him, its eyes filled with unnatural intelligence.

“I am Sengool; the Sorceror! I think you know of me? I am a rival of your Master’s. I have taken this body, which others have opened to influence, in order to speak to you. I have watched you from afar for as much of your life as I may Jasper. I offer you a bargain. Your Master has a mirror, and if you promise to destroy that mirror, then I shall give you the power to heal your friend this very night. I am no Fey and my bargains may be trusted. Here is my rune, that you might know that I speak true.”

A glowing blue rune appeared suspended in the air and Jasper saw that it was indeed Sengool’s mark, and knew that such a thing was one of the hardest things to make free with and that few of the Fey or even demons would dare to do so.

“I agree; how may this be accomplished?” said Jasper, his shame burning within him, for he felt acutely that he had let the lady Maelee down whilst they were in the lake. Indeed in that moment, his dearest wish was to spite his Master and bring the Company back to his tower whole and without loss and he resolved to do so, no matter the cost to himself.

“Approach and let me lay hands upon you.” and Osric-Sengool suddenly glowed with power, a power that flowed into Jasper as he bowed his head.

“It is done; go into the forest, following the lights. There you will find a staff. Use it to draw the evil from your friend, but make sure to replace the staff where you find it by cock’s crow. Fail to do so, and you will be destroyed as dawn comes.”

“What of my bond to my Master?” said Jasper suddenly, remembering the dweomer laid upon all apprentices at their oath swearing.

“I have altered it!” breathed Osric-Sengool. “Now go and collect the staff and remember our bargain! And suddenly Osric fell over and was himself again. Jasper kicked him viciously and then stalked off towards the forest, just in time to see Malvol bucking on his armour and warming himself. He paused and looked down on his friends, then took off into the forest, as Malvol called after him.

Fenring Forest

Strange lights, like will-o-wisps hung in the air and drifted lazily ahead of Jasper as he strode down an ancient track-way covered in hoar-frost, winding through gnarled trees so old that they might have been birthed before the first men ever drew breath.

Behind him Malvol and the others ran into the forest seeking him, but blundered about in the darkness. Only Osric stayed behind, looking after the boy.

“Where is the fool? I can’t see my hand in front of my face!” bellowed Malvol.

“That stupid idiot; he is making a mistake. There is a Fey hand in all of this, I smell it! Jasper, you are another meddling idiot and a fool to boot!” returned Maelee, though she could see a shimmering net glimmering between the boughs of the trees and could see a strange light moving ahead of her. “This way! This Way!” she shouted.

“Be not so hard on Jasper lady.” said Malvol gently as both appeared on either side of a forest track. “He is greater than you know. I sense great power in him.”

“That is what worries me the most; power without wisdom is a dangerous thing.” breathed Danee as he lurched up behind them.

Jasper heeded none of this and threaded his way through the trees like one born to it. For the first time he was Master and something was different. He followed the mage-light eagerly. He returned to the others a few minutes later, bearing a vine like staff crowned with a dark jewel. They all stopped suddenly and then began talking all at once.

“Where did you get that Jasper?” said Danee warily.

“What bargain have you made? I cannot protect you if you don’t tell me.” roared Malvol.

“Are you still Jasper or someone else?” asked Maelee gently.

“Shut up all of you! This staff can heal Maelee and I will do it. Stand aside!” breathed the apprentice, gathering his power and extending the staff.

Maelee turned and ran, her face flushed with terror, but a golden tendril of power lashed out from the staff and enwrapped her, pulling her off her feet. She lay writhing in agony as something was drawn from her bosom and then the tendril snapped back into the jewel with an ear-splitting crack; and now the jewel glowed with a blazing light. Jasper turned, his face exulting at the power he felt coursing through him. For a moment it seemed he would use the staff again, but he saw the pale light of dawn on the horizon and suddenly Mastered himself. He went back down the path as his friends rushed to see to Maelee. By the time he returned, this time without the staff, sunlight was sending tattered streamers of light to dapple the forest floor, raising a morning mist.

Maelee slapped Jasper full in the face and the apprentice staggered. “Don’t you ever do that again you whoreson mage! You had no right; NONE of your kind ever have the right!”

“I apologise lady, but I did what I thought was right. Part of the reason for your ‘condition’ was my fault and I only sought to protect you. Forgive me if I was presumptuous.” Said Jasper rubbing his jaw.

“What is done is done; and I have little doubt it was well done. Let is quit this forest whilst we still may” said Malvol. And so saying he led them from the forest and out into the light. As they walked, all noticed that the thaw had come and the first buds were bursting into life for spring had come at last to Fenring Forest.

The Familiar

Back at camp, Osric had already made breakfast and was feeding the boy eggs, yolk staining both their tunics’. The others cuffed the Harbinger and he whined as was expected.

“We must discuss this Malvol. There will be a reckoning if that fool has exchanged one Fey bargain for another.” said Maelee as she ate.

“Do not doubt the Mage’s wisdom; he knows more of the world of the eldritch than any of us, even you.” replied the Knight.

“You saw him last night. How can you trust him or his Master after what they did to me?” she raged.

“His Master I trust not, but this one is different. I sense he risked much for us last night; perhaps his very soul.”

“If any of his kind even have souls!” she said bitterly.

On the hillside above the camp, Jasper brooded, away from the Company. Nothing he did was ever good enough; not for his Master and not here either.“Yes it is Master; for you are Master now!” but Jasper looked round and saw nothing. Then he sensed a presence in the trees ahead and turned to face it. “May I approach?” said a voice in his mind. “You may.” he said, surprised at his own daring. A wolf emerged from the mists and padded towards him. It lay at his feet and licked his boots. It was a great brown thing, feral and deadly and yet it could somehow talk in his mind.

“I am bound to you Master.” said the Wolf. “What shall you name me?”

“You shall be Connor, but what are you?”

“I am your familiar Master. I have waited a long time for you.”

Jasper felt a growing sense of unease, for all apprentices are taught from their earliest days by their Masters, that only a fully trained Sorceror may bind a familiar. “This is not possible!” blurted Jasper.

“Open your book and you will know.” breathed the Wolf, and Jasper did as he was bade. Hexograms and spells previously unknown to him were now as clear as day. He grabbed his head in fear.

“How is this happening? My Master has punished me many times for not being able to learn these. He has called me a fool in front of all; had me whipped!”

“Your Master sought to bring you low; the bond a Master places upon his apprentice clouds his pupil’s mind, so that he can only learn the magic that his Master deems safe. That is why an unbound apprentice is very dangerous. Look no further than the boy you guard to see that. If you have failed, it is because your Master willed it.”

Down in the camp, all heard a sudden scream of rage as Jasper stalked down the hill, Wolf in tow, raging at the sky.

“Jasper; beware! A Wolf stalks you!” bellowed Malvol, grabbing his blade.

“Be still, for this creature is with me! And even were it not, my rage would consume it!”

“What ails you Jasper?” asked Maelee rising.

“My Master has been limiting my powers all these years; calling me a fool and humiliating me, yet it was a spell he laid upon me that was the cause!”

“Perhaps this spell was for your safety.” sighed Malvol. “It seems to me that an uncontrolled mage might be a dangerous thing” he said, as his gaze turned to the boy, who was playing with stones without the need to touch them. “The real question is how this spell has been undone? And don’t get me started on the Wolf….”

But Jasper did not answer and strode towards the lake, opening his spell book. He stared down at the incantation and raised his hands, sensing the cart far below the surface. Gathering his power, he grasped the cart with invisible hands and slowly it rose to the surface, the lake roiling as it did so.

As the cart broke the water, covered in weeds, all conversation suddenly ceased and his friends stood open-mouthed as the cart glided slowly across the water and came to rest on the shore. Jasper exhaled as if he had held his breath for hours, and almost collapsed, but the Wolf snapped at any who came near him.

“This does not seem a good development to me.” ventured Osric, his mouth full of food and the others could only nod their mute agreement. Jasper ignored them all and went to get something to eat, tearing ravenously at some bread. But the others drew aside, their faces drawn into worried frowns.

“I must tell my Master of this; he’ll know what to do.” said Carroe

“Yes indeed, he’ll most likely erect a stake and a few faggots of wood, and perhaps even some oil! mocked Osric. “That’ll really help!” and then he moved away as he saw the wolf watching all of them intently.

“I am weary and must sleep. I suggest we all get some rest.” said Malvol.

“We cannot wait overlong before we decide what must be done.” declared the Camelot.

“Well wait we must, for paths chosen whilst weary oft lead ill. I’ll seek my bedroll.”

But Carroe was resolved already and sat and penned a letter, sealing it with his ring. He had taken himself off from the camp to write it, but when he raised his head, the Wolf was just yards away, watching him. It regarded him for a moment, before running off.

Ten minutes later, a horn sounded and Carroe shielded his bleary eyes and saw a rider on the road, which was about a mile away from the camp. Vaulting onto his horse, he rode towards the rider, for the horn sounded like one the Church Heralds often used, and he was eager both to give and receive news.

The rider reined in, wearing the livery of Cantorbridge and asked “if you be a highwayman?”

“I am not Good Sir. I serve he whose ring I bear.” said Carroe holding out his ring hand and the messenger relaxed as he saw the seal.

“Then we serve the same Master; I have a letter for you mayhap.”

“Good; and I a message for the Archbishop.”

“I shall take it at once. Good Morrow Master Carroe.” and with that he rode off.

Carroe regarded the rider for a time, before spurring his horse back across the sodden turf to the camp. He found Jasper talking in low tones to Maelee, who was clearly bothered by the Wolf, though the creature itself was no-where to be seen. Danee, Osric and Malvol were asleep and Carroe felt the insistent tug of his own blanket and dismounted, opening his Master’s letter but finding it blank. Thinking it might be written in secret ink; he spread out his blanket and bedroll, and resolved to check it later, once he had slept.

As he rolled over, he did not see the wolf return from the forest bearing a letter in its mouth, which it dropped at Jasper’s knee. The mage absently took the letter and tucked it into his pocket, not recognising Carroe’s seal upon it.

The Wolf stared around the Company, and something about its expression unnerved Maelee, for there was much that was not entirely friendly in that gaze. Yet she too soon succumbed to slumber, curling up on the warm grass, and giving herself over to strange dreams.

Session 1

Session 3

Session 4

Maelee

Malvol

Jasper

Sven

Carroe

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