It had all been a test and it had not gone well for the companions.
The realization of the failures weighted heavily on the minds of each of the Adepts and sleep came hard (if at all) for them that night. Many thoughts were beginning to turn towards what they might do if they were not chosen for the expedition and had to remain on the island. To most, this potential future was something they had not considered since they had become Adepts. Each and every one of them had been so sure they would be chosen.
The next day, each of the companions found solitary activities to occupy their hands, while their minds worked on the failures and ways to remedy them. For most, this competition represented the chance of a lifetime, the opportunity to be sent out into the world; but it was beginning to feel like sand running through their fingers. Corman was due to come and speak with them at length the following day, but none were looking forward to it.
The knock on the cabin’s door came within the first hour of dawn. Roland steeled himself for the trials ahead and opened the door. “Good morning, Master Corman,” Roland greeted the stoic visage of his mentor formally, “Please, enter.” Despite the early hour, the older Warrior showed no signs of having woken recently. No bleary eyes, freshly shaved, neat and orderly… a model of discipline.
“Morning, Roland,” Corman nodded his own greeting. “My apologies for the early hour,” he said as he entered, no real apology in his voice and his eyes scanning to make sure all were present, “I have much that needs done today. This should not take overly long.”
Everyone silently took seats in the small common area. The air almost seemed to crackle with nervous energy.
“Now,” Corman’s voice broke the silence, “You’ve all had a day or so the calm down and think about the exercise. So I will ask again, how do you think you did?” His tone was a bit softer than many had expected. It was not filled with the admonishment that they had feared, but mere curiosity.
Stigandr spoke up right away, “Considering what we had to work with, I think we did alright. I would certainly not call it a great success, but much was learned from the test.”
“That is good to hear,” Corman nodded, “We can discuss the lessons learned as we go along. I’m sure that there were many.”
When no further comments came, Corman continued, “This exercise broke down into five basic phases. I am going to give you a critique on what I witnessed for each of the phases, then my overall impressions. When I’m done, if you wish to, we can discuss any or all of the particular phases. Lastly, I will have a few comments for each of you as individuals.”
Noting nods of understanding from the young Adepts, Corman pushed on, “The first phase was the murder scene. Honestly, few of you are truly trained for this type of work,” a few heads nodded in agreement, and Corman went on, “That being said, such things may still be required of you in the future. Consider such things as exercises in perception. The more information you can take in, and the quicker you can do so, the longer you can stay alive on an ever-changing battlefield."
“As you came to the scene, all of you immediately went into the long house. No one talked to the potential witnesses. No one took note of who was there. Questioning the people almost seemed like an afterthought. Nor was any thought given to securing the location.”
“Also, it spoke volumes that you did not know your team well enough to know that Lady Grace’s father was a possible victim and that she should probably not be allowed to enter, just in case.”
“Lastly, after you concluded your investigation, you split the team. Sometimes this is necessary, but why would you pursue a group of five or six killers with only four of you? That act alone gives the known bloodthirsty murderers a tactical advantage if and when you catch them. Just because you have a noble intent to deliver justice unto the wicked, it does not mean you should throw caution and common sense out the window.”
“Next, came the guard at the fissure. The guard asked you, ‘What is your intent?’ and you responded, ‘We seek to bring criminals to justice.’ This portion of the exercise is very simple. Face value, in fact. We asked your intent, and then applied your answer to the actions that followed.”
“It was also at this point that several of you begin to question things. The guard. The fissure. The light. You even hypothesized that it may be an illusion, though you did not have the strength of will to break free.”
“Perhaps the true beginning for the exercise came next, in the form of Ky. At the Madron Long House, someone had mentioned that they thought Ky had been one of the killers. Armed with that and personal prejudices, when faced by Ky, you slew him.”
“‘We seek to bring criminals to justice.’ Are you justice?”
Roland stiffened in his chair and his mouth opened to say something, then closed again.
“One does not attempt to subdue a prisoner with swords and bows. These are tools for killing. And for that matter, no one even spoke to Ky. No one told him to lay down his weapon and surrender. No one even told him he was accused of a crime. You decided his guilt and you killed him.”
Roland could hold his comment back no more. “With all due respect, Master Corman” Roland commented, “I hold no prejudice for Ky and we had not concluded that he was guilty when he attacked us.”
“I have been your mentor for several years, Roland. There is no love lost between you and Ky. Whether you consider that prejudice or not, it plays out the same.”
Roland’s eyes burned with disagreement, but a hard-bitten, “Yes, Master,” was all the reply he gave.
“When he came out of the trees, he was covered in blood,” Grace cut in, “He went right after Roland. I thought he was going to kill Roland too. So, I attacked. I… I was so angry. My father, and now Roland? I lost control. I killed him. Looking back, I can see how none of it really made sense… didn’t go together. He came from the wrong direction, but he was going to kill Roland. I have no doubt of that. If he wasn’t guilty of the murders, something else must have driven him mad.” Grace paused and looked at each of her companions. “When it was over, and I started to realize what I had done, I felt… horrible. Then, there was the look in your eyes. Thank the Passions it had all been an illusion. Now, I know that darkness exists. I will work to control it, but if you can’t forgive me for killing an illusion… I guess I’m in the wrong group.”
“Oh, Grace!” a wide-eyed Jennean cried, “Oh, no, no. When I first met you, you seemed so aloof, and… well, a little stuck up. You were always talking about proper this and proper that and spending all that time brushing your tail. You didn’t want to get dirty and everything had to be all fancy and stuff. But, when I saw you that night, how you went to avenge your father and,” a thoughtful look passed over Jennean’s face, “now that I think about it, you were the first to run to help Sheyzi in the lagoon too. When your friends are in danger, you go to them without thought. You’re… awesome.”
Grace blushed a little beneath her fur.
“I was just trying to figure out how we were going to obfuscate the body,” Dumond muttered.
“Grace,” Roland said quietly, “I think we were all just a little shocked. Things were happening very quickly and, even then, seemed to be starting to spin out of control. Your father had been slain. You sought justice, and that is commendable. There is, however, a fine line between justice and vengeance. We just were not sure that Ky was really responsible.”
Roland looked to his mentor, hoping Corman would shed some light on the dilemma. Corman shook his head in response to the unasked question, “For the purposes of this exercise, it does not matter whether illusionary Ky was guilty or not.”
A mixture of the current topic and the growing tensions in the room sent the group into a debate once again. As the voices competed with one another, Corman leaned back in his chair and watched. There were very few accusations being thrown about, and that pleased Corman. Whether they saw it or not, they were at least starting to pull together.
The foundation, he thought, Now, they can truly begin to build.
Corman let the debate go on for several minutes, until the group began to realize that they were not really arguing, just agreeing loudly. With that, they began to quiet and Corman went on, "The Cave of Temptations followed that. This portion had less overall ramifications; but, at the very least exposed you to something that may challenge you dearly in the future. I can say that with no certainty, of course, but I want you all to be aware of the potential hazard.”
“Temptations can be extremely insidious and can drive an irreparable wedge between even the closest of comrades. They can plant the seeds of doubt in your mind or lull you with delusions of grandeur. You may all achieve great things in your time; I only suggest that you approach greatness with caution. A rushing charge towards your objective may be successful, only to find that the way back out has been swallowed up by the dangers you left in your wake.”
“If you are chosen to leave the island, the companions you have with you will be the only ones you can trust… at least at first. In time, you may find other allies; but the bond you share with your companions will be, or should be, one of the strongest you will ever possess. If you do not feel that way, I dare say that you are not in the right group.”
“And, lastly, came the battle,” Corman’s tone became more serious, “This, to me, was the biggest disappointment. True, it was a scenario that would have been nearly impossible to beat, but you threw out every tactical advantage you may have had right from the beginning. You split the team into smaller units, making it far easier to overwhelm you. I will speak more on this in a bit.”
“As you have likely guessed, this exercise was not designed to be passed. You performed within the acceptable parameters, but now we know what to work on.”
“Despite my criticism, I do not think any of you are beyond salvaging. I am hard on you because I want you to survive. Perhaps, if you are sent to the mainland, you will find it is all highly civilized and these lessons were naught but wasted time. On the other hand, I may just be able to teach you something that will save your life.”
“Here are the areas that I feel you need to work on.”
“Leadership. Your companion, Jennean, came and spoke to me the other night. It was a rather moving speech about how you did not need a leader, because you knew each other now. While no doubt heartfelt, it was also idealistic nonsense.” Jennean’s jaw dropped, “I have no desire to berate her for this speech. It was quite beautiful, but I disagree with the general premise. Jennean sees you all as water, flowing with one another, supporting one another, filling in the gaps. Were this so, you would all have already been chosen to be on a ship. This is precisely what we wish to see.”
“What I witnessed the other night, however, was nothing of the sort. What I saw was a full rout in mere seconds. You were panicked, scattered and directionless. And you lost.”
“Now, her speech did bring one point to my attention… some misunderstanding as to what I consider a leader to be. Jennean made mention of one of you ruling over the others. I am not asking anyone here to subjugate themselves to one of their companions, or to appoint one of your number king or queen. I am looking for someone to take up the mantle of responsibility. A leader is not just a figure that stands above the others to rule over them, a leader assumes responsibility for those he or she leads. Their actions are your burdens. Their victories are your successes. Their failures, your fault. A leader puts the needs of the group above their own needs and desires. He or she is responsible for the safety and well-being of those they are in charge of, and may help to unify purpose. The leader’s position is not an enviable one, especially among strong-willed peers. Try to rule over them, and they will resist. Lead with compassion and empathy; and, if you prove yourself worthy, they will follow.”
“If all I wished was a figurehead to order you about, I would simply appoint someone. Instead, I am allowing you to find your own path and hoping you will find your own leader amongst yourselves. Perhaps it will not happen.”
“Will being ‘leaderless’ keep you from being selected for the journey?” Corman asked the question that had sprang to several minds, the answered it for them as well, “Not exactly, but lack of unity will.”
“That brings me to unity.”
“In the throne room, there was absolutely no unity and minimal teamwork. You fought, or rather fled, as individuals. Most disappointingly, you lacked the faith in yourselves to even attempt the fight. Your first reaction was to flee. You did not, but for a few minor exceptions, protect one another; nor was there any attempt to help your fallen comrades.”
“Through natural aptitude and training, you each have incredible potentials. This seems to act as both a blessing and a curse to your group. Each of you are sure of your own particular skills, but you continue to act as individuals, rather than working with one another. The chaos you bring to a battlefield has, apparently, helped you in the past; but, against organized enemies, you will find such tactics more detrimental… as the throne room proved.”
“Given a chance, I’m sure that you would find that as a unified group, you would possess more power than you could possibly imagine. This is usually done through proper leadership, which is why I stress it so much. Perhaps you can find another way; but, until you do, you can expect limited success.”
“The very first lesson I try to teach my apprentices is that not every war is fought with steel and that a smart Warrior is one that relies on his wits more than his blade. Before you enter a fight, you should do everything you can to know your enemy and understand the situation. When the time comes to act, however, do not hesitate. Unfortunately, most pupils only seem to hold on to that last bit more than the first.”
“You have now experienced a situation where this lesson would have proved useful.”
“At each phase of this exercise, you asked fewer questions and pushed on more quickly, like hounds on the scent of game. As the situation became stranger, you pushed on without hesitation. You discovered a mysterious cave, radiating energy a mere hour’s march from the village; yet no one thought this was important enough to report back to the village. You entered, not knowing what you would find. Had the cave presented a true danger and you died within, the village would have been none the wiser.”
“As Adepts, you have an obligation to those around you. You have been entrusted with great power. Not just the power to shape your own destiny, but to shape the destinies of those around you.”
“Take Doogan, for instance. A few short years ago, he and his clan rarely left their homestead. They had little faith in those not in their clan and were content to be apart from everyone else. Or, Meregret, who lost her husband and spiraled into hopelessness and depression. Many tried to help her, but none could seem to reach her.”
“Then, along comes a small group of fresh Adepts, and you save Meregret’s daughter, Fifina, from the corrupted chootan. In hindsight, perhaps the deed does not look like much to you anymore, but it means everything to them. You had no real reason to help them, other than they needed help. No reward was promised and no glory was expected, yet you did not waver in their time of need. You will live in their hearts, as heroes, forever.”
“The catch to shaping destinies, however, is this: You reap what you sow. When you succeed, and you will, those around you will begin to emulate your behavior. Act in anger or with greed in your hearts, and you will be rewarded in kind. Serve with honor and respect, and see it returned to you. Become heroes, and you could truly change the world.”
“So, those were my basic impressions during the exercise. If there are no questions, I have a few words for you as individuals."
He paused a moment, but no questions came.
“Roland,” he turned to the Warrior, “Your abilities on the battlefield continue to grow. In small combats – against one or two opponents – you seem to do exceptionally well. It is, however, in larger scale combat that your skills need work.”
“In the throne room, you choose to hold the enemy and give your companions time to escape. A noble sentiment, but sentiment does nothing to hold your enemies at bay.”
“After Dumond cast his illusion on you, you left him to his own devices and rushed to face the enemy in the middle of an open room. Tactically, that was the worst decision you could have made. Superior numbers easily began to overwhelm you in the open area, spilling passed you and cutting down Dumond.”
“In the future, consider the ground you fight upon to be another of the weapons at your disposal. Control where the fight is fought and you will have an advantage… one that may save your lives.”
“One last word of caution. Diplomacy is a noble skill to possess. However, when you are asked a question by a mentor or member of the Madron, we expect an answer; not political banter that deftly avoids answering a question. This competition is not political maneuvering. We seek and respect truthful answers above nimble word choices.”
Corman turn his attentions to Lady Grace, “How are you, m’lady?”
Corman actually gave her a small smile. “I know you experienced a horrifying tragedy in the exercise. That was not entirely intentional. Everyone went through the same scenario. It’s just that none of the other Adepts actually had any close family among the Madron. You proved unique, and for that, I apologize.”
“Emotion, however, was your downfall in this exercise. I do not believe emotions to be bad things in general, but you cannot allow them to blind you either. A cool head, whether in combat or not, can be the one thing that keeps it attached to your shoulders. Be happy that you learned this lesson about yourself when it was not real blood spilled. Perhaps the memory will serve you well.”
“Beyond that, you certainly will make me think twice about wronging a khajiit.”
His eyes moved to the Scout. “Stigandr, your skill with a bow is quite impressive. I’m sure that Sterling regrets not having you as one of his Archer apprentices.”
“Unfortunately, you have a carelessness bred from exuberance and curiosity. You throw caution to the wind and push forward without much consideration of the consequences. This is a dangerous habit, especially for a Scout. There will be many a time that you are far afield. Get careless when you are alone, and your mapmaking days could end abruptly.”
“Fortunately for you, this is a common problem among the young. Time and experience will likely temper this issue, providing you survive it.”
“Jennean. You care for your friends deeply and always seem eager to help. You also have a sharp mind and are willing to speak your mind. These are admirable traits.”
“What you lack is focus. You speed passed your companions and over the enemy as if you were invincible. You speak eloquently intermixed with meandering ramblings. On the battlefield, you seem aimless. I know you are not trained for combat, not like some of the others anyway; but such aimlessness can potentially endanger yourself and others in the group. You have a unique vantage point in the group; use it to your advantage. Learn to focus, take in every element on the battlefield. If you are not confident enough to face the enemies, act as an extra pair of eyes for your companions.”
“Dumond, I must admit that there is little I can say about your craft as it is well beyond my understanding. Any weakness you may possess in that regard is between you and Master Melenkyle.”
“However, there is one thing I wished to speak to you about. Why have you not left the competition? It seems that either you do not care one way or the other whether you are selected; or you do not believe yourself worthy of being chosen and hide behind mock-bravado. Both of these things do you or your companions a great disservice.”
“Would you take the place of someone that truly wishes to leave the island, or sabotage your companions with indifference? Think on it.”
“Anetha. Do you want to be with this group? You seem stand-offish at the best of times and downright cold other times. Daughters of Heaven I have known in the past, and I admit it is not many, but they were generally peaceful, loving people. You almost seem to hold your companions in contempt."
“For ten months I watched you closely, and not once did I see you use your Talents to benefit your group. Why is that? Each of them use their abilities each and every day, and yet you hold back. You had opportunity after opportunity to ease their suffering; and yet, you did nothing. I ask, what good is a Warrior that will not fight, a Troubadour that does not tell tales, or a healer that does not heal?”
“If you simply wish to be a part of another group, that can likely be arranged; but the choice is yours. It is said that Daughters of Heaven do not like to choose sides, but you must choose your companions. If you will not support them, you are little more than baggage.”
Corman sat back in his chair and seemed to relax a little. It was the first clue that any of them had that perhaps Corman did not really enjoy criticizing them. “This concludes this phase of training. If it eases your minds at all, this was less of a test and more of a lesson. Some things can only truly be understood by experiencing it. Now you have experienced some of your weaker points. You know what you have to work on."
“From now on, your training will be determined by each of you and your group as a whole. Time with mentors will need to be scheduled, as will time at the various training areas. You will be responsible for all of this. Train as much, or little, as you like.”
“You will also have expanded duties throughout the village. Scouting missions, hunting expeditions, guard duty, and so forth. Wayfare is a generally peaceful village; but, should the need arise, you are charged with keeping the peace.”
“Also, you are now completely responsible for upkeep of you cabin, food, weapons, and equipment. This will cost you coin. It’s up to you to come up with the money you may need. Nothing more will be provided by the mentors.”
“Take the week off. You have earned it. Relax. In one week’s time you will renew your training. During this week, however, I do suggest that you all discuss this group’s plans and future. I will not go into details about the other groups, but I will say that this group is not quite living up to some expectations. Were the decision made today, I do not think you would be on one of those ships. However, there is time and the competition is tight enough that there is still hope. You, as individuals and as a group, have enormous potential. Tap into it. Rise to the challenge. Show the Passions, and The Madron, what you are made of.”
“Any questions or comments?”
The group decided on spending their week off by going on a hunting/fishing/gathering trip. The goal was to work on their bonds with one another.
In game, we skipped over this pretty quickly. I now encourage players to contribute stories and/or journal entries about what happened over that week.
Was the trip a success? Are the companions getting closer? Are there any rivalries or such in the group? Remember, being unified does not mean “devoid of personalities”… it’s not like you are joining the Borg.
The next block of time was training starting up once more. Again, we passed over this rather quickly. This would be another great opportunity for players to post some stuff and get those precious rewards.
Here is a little bit we didn’t go into about the current training set-up.
The mentors keep tight schedules, leaving only about 6 hours a day for instruction and training. These are divided in 2 hour blocks of time, which are first come, first serve on the sign-up sheet (which only extends out 1 week).
If someone is late to meet a mentor, they leave. They also remove your name from any future appointments that week. If you do respect their time, they will not respect yours.
There are really a few different routes the group could go in regards to the training, but I see two main paths…training individually or as a group.
If everyone is focusing on personal Talents and Skills, you have a few challenges. You can’t always get the appointments you want, but it’s easier to have a nimble schedule when you are only considering yourself.
If the team is trying to work together, things are a bit tougher. The other groups are working very hard towards their goals, and it is often a race to sign up for appointments when the new sheets are posted. Resources (the mentors and certain training areas) have become precious commodities and the other groups do not sit idly by and let the companions take whatever they want.
Direct competition with the other groups has become more prevalent. The Prank War even returned, but the participants are much slyer this time. The idea is to not get caught, which usually means keeping the pranks on a small scale. None of the groups want to see the mentors get involved again.
As all of you are considered Peacekeepers in Wayfare, fighting between the groups is frowned upon as well. The sparring ring has been used to settle more than a few disagreements though.
Stigandr and Roland sat in the shade under a tree, drinking water and catching their breath. Both were working towards mastering the basics of the Fireblood Talent, but neither had expected the strenuous nature of the learning.
Nearby, in the sparring ring, Ky and Sendra circled one another, weapons poised for assault and shields ready to defend.
“I’d wager 5 copper that Ky could take her,” Stigandr commented, “The Ky we faced in the illusion stood against You and Grace, while I put arrows in him, and Anetha tried to dim mak him,.. or whatever it is she does.”
Roland smiled at his friend. “I wouldn’t throw away your coin like that. Sendra is tougher than she looks. Ky is strong, but so is she and she knows how to goad him into mistakes.” Roland studied the pair. Was Corman right? Did he actually harbor some sort of prejudice against Ky? If he did, it was unintentional; but Corman did not seem to have any doubts that it existed. Much as Roland hated to admit it, his mentor’s eyes were sharp. If he saw something there, then there was something there.
Stigandr interrupted Roland’s reverie, “Which would you rather face? You know, if you had to?”
The question actually startled Roland a little and an image of Ky’s rage-contorted face flashed in his mind. “I would not face either of them,” Roland said soberly.
“But, if you HAD to?”
Roland gave Stigandr a long look that ended the line of questioning. I wonder if Corman taught him that look, Stigandr wondered.
From the sparring ring, Ky smiled at Sendra and said, “You seem to be favoring you right today. I do hope I wasn’t too rough on you yesterday.” His tone was a little playful. Perhaps even… friendly?
Sendra grunted in disgust, “You sure talk a lot for a big, dumb ox. Maybe you’d like to hold my hand too?”
Ky looked as if she had reached out and slapped him. “I only thought…”
Sendra barked a harsh laugh at him, “Aha! There’s your problem. Leave thinking to the better equipped.”
Ky’s face reddened; but, with effort, he remained silent
They two combatants exchanged a few more attacks and counterattacks, moving cautiously around the ring and looking for a hole in their opponent’s defense. Sendra launched into a pounding barrage of sweeping attacks, forcing Ky to give some ground. With a jump into the air, she finished the combo with a heavy, downward strike designed to drive Ky to his knees.
At the last moment, Ky spun around her left, passing Sendra and swatting her butt with the flat of his sword on the way by.
Like an enraged lioness, Sendra rounded on Ky. Her eyes were little more than slits of burning promise.
Ky shrugged, “It was a target I could not pass up. You overextended.”
Sneering at Ky, Sendra fell back on her time-tested insult, “You’re dancing again, pretty ballerina. Stand and face me, oh mighty Queen of the Bears!"
Ky’s face darkened as anger at the old insult boiled in his blood. Roland waited for the explosion of fury, or the returned insult that would be aimed to trigger Sendra’s Gahad. Instead, Ky did something completely unexpected. He laughed. It was not Ky’s usual mocking laughter; it was an honest and mirthful sound. Had Roland been standing, he may have fallen over at the sound.
Ky wiped at his eyes that were tearing up slightly. “Oh, ouch,” he said through the laughter, “that hurts. Good one, Sendra.”
His unexpected reaction almost made Sendra take a step back. This tactic had never failed her. She had been bracing for the coming assault, but now she simply stared at Ky with confused and untrusting eyes.
She started to move in while Ky’s guard was still down. She had taken only a few steps when Ky, still doubled over, dropped his sword and held out his empty hand.
“I yield.” He clutched at his ribs.
Sendra eyed him skeptically, looking for some hint of betrayal. Seeing nothing suspicious, her features softened. “Well, well, you might be smarter than an ox after all.”
To Jennean, Thaddeus the Scholar moved with all the alacrity of a sleeping banana slug. She understood the human was old, but there was slow and then there was sssslllloooowwww. Thaddeus fit much more in the latter category. If he was not absolutely brimming with information, Jennean would have likely flittered off some time ago.
While the Scholar droned on about a less interesting topic, Jennean looked around. It had been at least a year, probably closer to two, since she had last been inside the kaer. There was little reason for any of the former residents to return to Kaer Ara, though it was maintained in the case of a dire emergency.
The stone tunnels were large enough to move several wagons side by side, but it was still closed off from the sky and an all-too-familiar touch of claustrophobia tightened in the pit of Jennean’s stomach. How generations of windlings had survived in here was beyond her. The thought of all those windlings that spent their entire lives never seeing the sky was enough to blur her vision, but she bit back the tears and tried to focus on Thaddeus once again.
“… Elemental Earth interwoven with the natural bedrock. This formed an extremely hardened barrier; but this, in itself, was not enough to stop a Horror. These runes,” he indicated the thousands of runes that had been etched into the surface of the tunnel in a precise spiraling pattern, “form a complex spell of protection. Each and every rune was carved with exacting detail to Master Aleon’s instruction.”
It was the opening she had hoped for, “Master Aleon created the protective spell?” she asked.
Thaddeus blinked in surprise, as if he had forgotten that he was not merely speaking to himself. “Yes, yes, of course. Master Aleon designed the kaers of Natales. All three of them, actually. Of course, that was long, long ago.”
Jennean let the obviousness of the statement go without commenting, “Are all three kaers inside of mountains?” A vision of three stones played in her mind. Tap, tap, tap.
Thaddeus stroked his beard thoughtfully, “Yes, I believe they were. You see, the practicality of a stone kaer versus an air dome is that stone is easier to conceal. Camouflaged within a mountain, a Horror may never even find you, much less be able to breech your defenses. Therans, they say, preferred great domes of Elemental Air that encircled their enormous cities; but they had far greater resources at their disposal than did the founders of Natales.”
“Are any of the kaers darker than the others? Like in black stone or something?”
Quizzical eyes stared out from under Thaddeus’ bushy eyebrows, “A curious question, child.” His eyes searched her face, but his questions remained unasked. “To the best of my knowledge, no. I could go back through the old records, but I’m not sure that such information would have been recorded anyway,… unless it had some greater meaning.”
“Poo,” Jennean complained. She furrowed her brow, working on the riddle. See the pretty crystals, how they twinkle with light? One is darkened now… forever gone. She mulled over the words again and again. She was sure that Aleon’s words were more than the mere ramblings of a madman… she just knew it. Pretty crystals?
“What about crystals?” she felt like she was reaching, grasping for some sort of clue, “Were crystals used in the construction of the kaers?”
“Indeed,” Thaddeus commented happily, “Crystals were used in all manner of the construction. The innate properties of many crystals allow certain magics to be focused or refracted, depending on the crystals and/or the cut. In fact, Aleon’s pride and joy are often some of his most overlooked works.” Thaddeus gestured up, towards the roof of the main chamber.
Jennean’s eyes followed the movement. At first she saw nothing, and then realization began to dawn on her.
Suspended by a great chain from the center of the chamber hung an enormous globe of glass and metal, that had acted as the kaer’s principal light source for hundreds of years. Within the globe, a giant light quartz pulsed; while on the intricate metal frame, hundreds of glass plates spun and turned in place. The finely worked plates had been enchanted to lighten or darken, allowing varying degrees of light to pass through each one.
“Most see it as a mere light quartz,” Thaddeus went on, “As I understand it, large ones such as this were quite common within kaers; but I have never heard of any quite like Master Aleon’s. You see, in most kaers, it was either light or it was dark. Master Aleon’s contraptions could imitate the passage of days, or even different types of lighting.” Thaddeus looked up at the huge globe. “It really is a marvel, you know. It has also never, at least on record, needed to be recharged. Most unusual. Had I my knowledge and your ability to fly, I’m sure I could spend days investigating the Calma’Anor.” Thaddeus chuckled at the thought of himself flying around inside the kaer, “Some of the old texts say that Master Aleon built all three of them himself and they are, at least potentially, Pattern Items tied to him.”
Calma’Anor, Jennean thought, A Lamp of Sun. She turned back to the Scholar and bowed to the old man, “Thank you, Master Thaddeus. Your lesson was well received. I must go now, however, or I will be late for another of our training sessions.”
“Curious minds are always welcome, child,” Thaddeus responded, returning the bow. “Go on then. Don’t get in trouble because of me.”
The months slipped by in a blur of training and lessons and midsummer found the companions once again. For the second year in a row, no new apprentices were chosen by the mentors.
The companions were returning from their morning exercises, and had just come into sight of their cabin; when the horn sounded, summoning all Adepts to the village Commons.
“Quickly,” Roland said, “Grab your gear!”
The Adepts grabbed their gear and made the short run to the assembly area; only to find Melenkyle, not Corman, there to meet the Adepts. Never before had anyone but Corman called them to assembly… something serious had happened.
“Good, good. You’re all here.” Melenkyle said, obviously agitated. “Corman is not here, so it falls to me to…”
Grayson (one of the Archer Adepts) interrupted, “Is this another illusionary test?” He smirked, “I really do not feel like get butchered again today.”
Melenkyle’s eyes narrowed and arcane energies began to crackle around his hands. His voice was low and dangerous, “Interrupt me again, boy, and I will show you the truth in illusions.”
Grayson eyes widened, realizing his faux pas. He held up his hands in submission and closed his mouth.
Melenkyle stared at the Archer for a few heartbeats to make sure the threat had sunk in, and then turned back to the group as a whole. “A girl has gone missing. Linnea Ro. She was last seen this morning near the mines. She was retrieving some samples for her father, Shojen. Her basket was found not far from the mine, but no other trace has been found yet. Corman and several of the other mentors are already up there looking for her, but they need all of you to help as well. They can fill you in on the rest of the particulars when you get to command post.”
He looked to the companions, “Gold Team, you are to proceed directly to the mine where Corman should meet you. It seems he has some questions for Stigandr, since he has previously mapped a portion of the area.” He looked over the assembled Adepts, “Go, and may The White watch over you all and guide you to Linnea.”
The companions made the strenuous climb up to the mines in a little less than one hour, impressing even themselves. Perhaps all of this training was having an effect.
Corman came out to greet them, “Good. You made it. Stigandr, I know that you did some scouting up here over the past few years. Can you think of anywhere that Linnea may have gone, or anything that may have taken her? Miranda is looking for tracks, but we have only managed to find a couple of scuffled tracks near where the basket was found. Sterling has tried to use his Direction Sense to locate her as well, but he says that it feels like something is blocking the magic.”
A concerned, somewhat frustrated look passed over Corman’s face, “The best plan we have come up with so far is to divide the area up and physically search it. If you have any knowledge that can narrow our search, it would help immensely.”
The hints of distress in Corman’s eyes worried Stigandr some. Something about this had caused the Warrior to show the chinks in his normally cool demeanor.
Stigandr moved to the nearby table to get a better look at the map that had been rolled out. A flash of pride went through him as he saw it was his own work. He studied it carefully, trying to recall any detail that may help the search.
“This area here,” Stigandr pointed to a section to the north, “The brush is much too thick for easy travel. It’s nearly impassible. Oh, and here!” his finger indicated a location to the east of them, “This ridge collapsed in the quake last year. It would take an experienced climber to get up that wall.” His eyes flew over the map and he could almost smell the vegetation in some of the areas he had explored. “We had heavy rains this past spring, so this valley is a swamp now. You could get through it, but you would be slogging through knee deep mud. If anyone passed through there, their trail would be obvious.” He studied the map again, almost sure he had ruled out as much as he could, but spotted one last area. "Here! He pointed to a section of lightly wooded area. “If the abductors know their way around, they wouldn’t have gone this way either. The rains also caused the river to rise. If anyone went in there, they would be trapped between us and the river. Only a madman… or maybe a t’skrang, would try to swim it.”
A look of relief washed over Corman and the companions could see some of his tension wash away. “Excellent. Thank you, Stigandr, that should help a great deal. I will still send smaller groups to the indicated areas, but only to make sure that these,” he searched for a word and came up with nothing, “whatever they are, are not dumber than we are giving them credit for. We can focus our remaining forces on the other areas.”
Corman stepped around to the other side of the table and motion for the companions to gather around. “As you have some experience in the area, I would like to send your group up in this area,” he pointed to a region on the map that marked the ruins of an ancient watchtower. “We firmly believe that something, or someone, took her. The lack of tracks and something blocking Sterling’s magic seems to indicate it is at least somewhat intelligent. With that in mind, I think it would probably move into one of these four areas.” He indicated a total of four locations, all ruins of watchtowers and separated by a great distance. “Be careful. I do not know what the threat level is, but this is no test. If you find Linnea and her captor or captors, do what you must. The primary objective is to save the girl, but do not throw your lives away in doing so. Signal, if you can, and others will come as quickly as we can; but these locations are a fair distance apart.”
“Any questions or comments?”
The only reply Corman got was stern gazes. The companions were shifting into mission mode.
A small smile played at the corners of Corman’s mouth. “The White protect you,” he said, “Happy hunting.”
Stigandr lead the group at a fast pace, climbing higher and higher into the mountains that dominated Natales’ center. Despite their elevation, the Scout knew that they would not get as high as the snowline, a destinations he himself had not made it to yet, but the air was already a great deal cooler.
After several hours, the tower came into sight.
The old watchtower stood about forty feet tall and at the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea far below. If memory served Stigandr, the cliff plummeted several hundred feet to jagged rocks and crashing surf.
The group huddled in a small thicket and studied the tower, searching for signs of activity or occupation. Most of them had never seen the tower before, at least not this closely, and no signs of obvious activity presented themselves. Stigandr, on the other hand, had been there before.
“Those doors,” he pointed to a pair of heavy, iron-bound doors set slightly ajar. “They were sealed when I was here a few months ago. I tried them, but I think they were barred from the inside. I had planned to come back sometime, if and when I had the time.”
He peered at the rooftop, his eyes squinting. “I can make out smoke too,” he made some quick calculations in his head, “Two or three fires. Maybe even four. Small ones and burning clean.” He looked to his friends. “Someone is definitely here.”
“Want me to go take a peek?” Jennean volunteered. She saw the doubt flash through several people’s eyes and quickly added, “Dumond can put that illusiony thingie on me. If they see me, they will attack that and I can get away.”
“OK,” Roland said reluctantly, “But try not to be seen at all. I do not want to give away our position just yet. Take a quick look, then come back. I’d like to know what we are dealing with.”
“Sure thing!” Jennean was quite pleased to be of use. She turned to Dumond, “OK. Illusion me!”
Dumond focused the arcane energies around the windling and displaced her image. “It will only last for a minute or two,” he warned, “So, be quick.”
“On it,” Jennean said; and, in a flutter of wings, she buzzed toward the tower.
A few minutes later, she was back… and a few shades paler than she had been when she left.
“What did you see?” demanded Roland.
“It’s bad,” she said, obviously shaken, “Linnea is there, along with a big guy in black plate mail, some magicy guy, and this creepy looking guy with elongated limbs. Linnea is being held by the plate mail guy, near the far edge of the tower… on the cliff side. The magic man seems to be doing some sort of ritual. I couldn’t understand the words, but the made me feel… unclean,” Jennean shuddered at the memory. “The other guy was just sort of standing around.”
“Was there an entry way from inside the tower?” Roland asked, “A hatch or something?”
Jennean thought for a moment, trying to conjure a mental image of the roof. “Yes!,” she said, “Over by the lanky guy. Maybe he was guarding it?”
Dumond cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention, “If they are performing a ritual, our time may be limited, and I’m sure whatever they are doing does not bode well for the girl.”
“Dammit,” Roland muttered, quickly going over the options in his head. “We are going to have to go for it. Grace, Stigandr, do you think you could scale the tower on the cliff side?”
The Scout and khajiit looked at each other.
Stigandr shrugged. “Yeah,” he said confidently.
Lady Grace only gave Roland a mischievous smile.
“OK. You two climb up the backside and get in position…”
“Want me to go with them?” Jennean asked.
“Sure,” Roland agreed, still calculating. “Dumond, Anetha, and I will wait until nightfall, then leap out of the rabbit, taking the French completely by surprise”
“Sure,” Roland agreed, still calculating. “Dumond, Anetha, and I will give you some time to get into position, then we will charge the tower and try to come up from inside.” Roland swore under his breath and shook his head, “I don’t like it. We have no idea of what sort of resistance we may encounter inside, but we will have to deal with it.”
Roland looked everyone over and was pleased to see the battle-ready focus had crept into their eyes. The grim determination in their faces quelled some of his building anxiety. “OK,” he turned to Stigandr and Grace again, “If you get the opportunity to get the girl, grab her and get out. Don’t wait on the rest of us; but try to let us know, so we can pull out as well.”
The two nodded in understanding.
“OK,” Roland took a deep breath, “Let’s do this.”
Stigandr and Lady Grace moved up the side of the tower like silent shadows, using the miniscule cracks between stone blocks as finger and toe holds. The ability was really quite impressive to Jennean, for grounders. It was really too bad they couldn’t just fly up to the top. It was simply a much easier way to go.
Within a few feet of the summit, the pair stopped and readied themselves for the quick burst that would take them up and over the edge. The guttural, incomprehensible voice of one of the creatures droned on above them. It was a language unlike anything any of them had ever heard; and, of that, they were glad. The words felt like fetid oil sliding into their ears and staining their souls and each of them felt that if they could actually understand the incantations being uttered, their very sanity may have been at stake.
Grace took a moment to glance down at the fall that would await a careless move. It was a long, long way down. Ensuring she had a good hold with her right hand, her left slipped down to her waist and checked the rope that tied her off to Stigandr. If one of them were to fall, there was a chance the other could save them. Then again, Grace thought, One of us might just end up pulling the other after us. She shook her head slightly. No, she had complete faith in Stigandr and she hoped he had faith in her as well.
Within the tower, the faint sounds of battle erupted and Grace suddenly wished she was there, helping her comrades. No, she thought again, they have their part to play in this, and so do I.
Clinging to the side of the tower, the moments seemed to creep by slowly. Each passing second, each distant ring of steel, they were torturous.
Stigandr shook his head to get Grace’s attention and she looked at him with questioning eyes. With a jerk of his head, he motioned that they should make their move and crest the tower.
Lady Grace nodded in agreement. It was time for action.
Stigandr held out a hand with three fingers splayed.
Grace nodded again.
Both climbers dug in, finding the best grips they could.
Their eyes met and Stigandr nodded. One.
And with the third nod, both climber pulled themselves upward in perfect unison.
Stigandr and Grace were both pulling themselves up onto the ledge when the plate mailed head turned toward them. The helmet’s visor was down, but Grace could make out a pair of blood red eyes on the other side.
Without warning, and with little effort, the armored figure hurled Linnea off the tower and out over the cliff. The girl screamed in absolute terror and began to fall.
NO!!! Lady Grace gathered her legs up underneath her and leapt with all her might, sailing out over the dizzying drop below. Her eyes locked onto the girl, refusing to worry about anything else, as if only she and Linnea existed in a great void. The girl will not die today! Grace gritted her teeth and stretched out for Linnea.
“Sonuvabit-!” Stigandr swore, wrapping his arm around a partially crumbled merlon, just as the rope snapped taunt. Stigandr grunted loudly, but held on with everything he had.
Grace’s hand had just caught hold of Linnea’s forearm when the rope pulled tight. Reflexively, her claws dug into the girl’s arm; but Grace supposed it was a small price to pay in comparison to her other options. Their forward momentum ceased with a strained, coughing sound from Stigandr; then the pair began to pendulum back and down towards the tower’s solid wall.
Like an aerial dance; Grace spun, still clutching Linnea’s bleeding arm, and managed to get her legs between her and the wall.
Above, all Stigandr could do was hold on. He was the anchor keeping Grace and Linnea alive. He looked up and watched in horror as the figure in plate strode towards him, bringing its great and gleaming two-handed sword to bear. “Grace,” Stigandr shouted, not trying to hide his mounting concern, “Please hurry!”
The heavy boots came closer and closer and Stigandr began to measure his life expectancy in breaths.
Suddenly, in a flurry of fluttering wings, Jennean was there; circling the armored menace and speaking incessantly.
“Did you know that the first emperor of Thera had a pet cat named Twinkles? It was a ragged cat with two tails and one eye. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, one day the Emperor had to go to the store… why he had to go and not a servant, I don’t know… or a slave, cuz Therans have slaves. Slavery is not nice at all, y’know. Everybody deserves some free time. What do you do on your free time? Have any hobbies? I bet you bake. You look like a baker.” On and on she went, a blur of wings and inanity.
The armored head moved back and forth, trying in vainly to keep up with the little windling, leaving Stigandr completely forgotten. The Scout, realizing the precariousness of his situation, counted the Troubadour’s presence as a blessing.
Lady Grace’s feet made contact with the wall, absorbing the impact with practiced ease. Quickly, she pushed her toes into the wall and found a momentary hold for her free hand. She pulled up slightly and the rope slackened.
“Thank the Passions!” Stigandr breathed as the tension released from the rope. Without a moment’s hesitation, he drew his dagger and cut himself free. “Jennean,” he called, “Time to go!” and, with without waiting, he began his rapid descent.
The now free end of the rope dropped passed Lady Grace and she let out a little sigh. The hard part was done. Down was easy. Using her claws as a partial brake, Grace let gravity do its thing and slid down the wall. The impact at the bottom was going to hurt, but, holding on to Linnea, there were few other options.
At the last moment, Grace strained to lift Linnea up, so her own body would absorb a majority of the impact. Grace thudded into the ground and took a couple of staggering steps toward the edge of the cliff, but righted herself. Still gripping Linnea tightly, she pulled the girl to her feet, and led the way around the tower. She was very pleased to see that the young girl was adjusting quickly to the situation and not working against her. Linnea’s father had been right. The girl was made of stronger stuff than most. She had metal in her soul.
Stigandr landed a few moments later, with Jennean right behind him. “Jennean, can you take Linnea to safety? Grace and I need to get in there,” Stigandr gestured towards the watchtower.
“Sure,” Jennean replied cheerfully, then turned to the traumatized girl, “Tell me, Linnea, have you ever heard the Tale of the Princess Ellannea and the Mysterious Wiggy-Womp? No?” The windling smiled brightly, “Oh, well, then allow me to enlighten you!” Jennean began to lead Linnea back down the mountain, “Once upon a time, it the faraway kingdom of Torbanque… which must have been a human kingdom with a silly name like that; but, anyway, there was a small princess called Ellannea…”
Lady Grace, Stigandr, and Jennean moved swiftly to the tower and, hugging its wall, moved around its base and out of sight.
Roland turned to his remaining companions. “We will give them a few moments to begin their climb, and then,” he sighed, “we will see what we find within.” He did not like this plan at all, but he saw no other way. He was sure that, if he survived the day, he would receive another earful from Corman. They were doing precisely what the Warrior had told them not to do. Roland shook the thoughts from his head. This was no time to concern himself with potential lectures in his future. Corman was not here. He and his companions were, and Roland had faith in their abilities. “We will need to move quickly. Fight only what we must and push higher into the tower. Our goal is the roof and the girl.”
“Ready yourselves,” Roland said, making last minute checks to his own gear.
Anetha tighten her fist wraps and stared at the tower with calm indifference. Roland truly did not understand the Daughter of Heaven. Born from the place where lightning struck the earth, she was the only Storm Child on the island. At least the only one Roland had heard of. Perhaps all Storm Children were as distant, as if focused on faraway places or listening to whispers on the winds that only she could here. Still, he was glad to have her at his side. She was capable, unfaltering, and he knew he could count on her. Perhaps in time he would come to understand her; but, for now, he felt he could trust her, and that was what he needed right now.
Roland looked to his other companion and couldn’t help but give a little smile. Dumond had proven himself more than proficient at his craft as well, saving Roland’s life on at least two occasions. The Illusionist seemed to take very little seriously, viewing much of the world as some sort of great joke, and only he (and possibly other Illusionists) got the punch line. With an impish gleam dancing in his eyes, Dumond worked to prepare whatever mischief he had in mind for their enemies. It was almost enough to make Roland pity those that would cross Dumond… almost.
“Are we ready?” Roland asked.
“Yep,” Dumond smiled.
Anetha gave a slight nod of assent.
“Let’s go to work. May the Passions watch over us.”
They crossed the open ground between the thicket and the tower at a hunched over run, hoping to go unnoticed until they reached the already breeched doors. Once inside, they would move as stealthily as they could until they encountered resistance. With some luck, the only adversaries would be those already on the uppermost level of the tower.
Luck was not with them.
Pushing through the entryway, Roland came into what appeared to have once been a modest barracks for those stationed at the tower. The room was large enough to have once housed ten or twelve in soldierly comfort. The remnants of bunk beds rotted away against one wall; while, across the room, a modest and long-deserted cooking area sat neglected. Thick dust covered everything, but the booted trail that headed into the tower proper. Roland did not have Stigandr’s eye for tracking, but it looked like more than three people had been here recently.
Tightening his grip on his sword, Roland motioned for the others to follow him towards another pair of doors that would lead to the tower itself. He watched the shadows as they moved, seeking some sign of threat, but the only movements he caught were the cobwebs wafting on the slight breeze.
Anetha tapped Roland’s shoulder and pointed ahead of them when he turned his attention to her. Peering through the gloom, he noted the faint flicker of light coming from inside the tower. Torchlight, or a small campfire, he surmised. He turned back to Anetha and nodded his understanding.
Ensuring he had the attention of both of his companions, Roland flashed a few quick hand symbols.
Both nodded and focused their attentions on the doors ahead.
Here we go, Roland thought, moving closer to the door. He hoped to get at least a peek into the room before they were spotted. A basic layout, concentration of enemies, anything. Any small detail could mean the difference between life and death.
He was almost to the door when the pebble skittered across the floor and panged! off the door. Grunts of surprise and curiosity sounded from within the room.
“Oops,” Dumond said sheepishly.
“Go!” Roland roared without hesitation and put a shoulder into the door.
The door slammed open and into a figure that had been approaching to investigate the noise. It reeled backwards from the impact, but managed to right itself against the wall. Living eyes glared at the intruders from a mask of rotted skin. Its nearly lipless mouth snarled at Roland and it drew a rusted, notched blade from its scabbard. Splotchy, ill-kempt hardened leather armor creaked with its every movement, as decayed as the being it covered.
Roland’s eyes pried themselves from the rotting thing before him and scanned the room hastily. He counted a total of six hostiles in the small room. Two more like the one he had hit with the door, two that appeared as if their limbs had been pulled and stretched to impossible lengths, and a large hulk of a man that looked as if he had swelled up while wearing chain mail.
Across the room, through the gauntlet of corrupted foes, a narrow spiral staircase climbed up to another floor. If they could make it to the stairs, the advantage of superior numbers the enemy had would be thwarted. The trick would be getting there. Tactically, they could achieve the same advantage by remaining in the doorway, but that put them no closer to helping their compatriots on the roof.
Roland felt a hand on his back and a now familiar shimmering before his eyes told him that Dumond had displaced his image once again. “The stairs!” Roland called out, charging into the room and trying to draw a majority of the attention towards him.
The hulking brute unlimbered a great, rust-scarred two-handed sword and, with an animalistic roar, moved towards Roland. With each move the brute made, the chain mail wrapped around its flesh cut into it, causing small rivulets of blood to dribble down its massive frame. The pain had to be excruciating, but its maddened eyes registered none.
In a blur, the battle was joined. The companions stayed close together, watching one another’s backs, and moving towards the staircase. Steel and steel met again and again, while dazzling sparks of arcane energies swirled from Dumond’s outstretched hands.
The one Roland hit with the door had been the first to fall. It lay bleeding and unconscious on the flagstones. Dumond’s illusion on Roland had served him well in the initial onslaught, but the creatures were beginning to see through the trick that cloaked him. More and more attacks were aimed at him, rather than the illusionary copy that had drawn their earlier attentions.
Anetha deftly avoided the thrust of a short sword from one of the long-limbed assailants. She reached out and delicately took the creature’s wrist. Holding the captured arm steady with one hand, she drove her elbow into its forearm. She felt more than heard the crack of bone, but the thing still did not release its weapon. It snarled wickedly and snatched its arm roughly out of her grasp.
Roland spun, barely blocking the brute’s downward slash with his shield. The blow was still almost hard enough to numb his arm and from the underside of his shield he could see it was beginning to splinter. This is not good. Roland thought, Not good at all. If something was not done about the brute soon it would breech Roland’s defense through sheer power.
“Anetha,” Roland called out, “Get to the stairs! Secure them if you can!”
Without a word, the Daughter of Heaven was off. She danced between combatants, narrowly avoiding a few strikes, but claiming the bottom steps. Up she went, two steps at a time, passing quickly from view.
Roland watched her progress out of the corner of his eye and was pleased to see that things may be turning their way at last. Over the din of the combat, he thought he made out the sound of… a scream? He couldn’t be for sure, but he felt a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. It had been too distant to have been Anetha. That left only the roof.
“Alright, Dumont,” Roland grunted, bringing his attention back to more immediate concerns and parrying an incoming attack, “Your turn. Get up those stairs.””
“OK,” Dumond responded, but paused long enough to refresh the failing illusion that protected Roland. Then, the Illusionist was off for the stairs as well.
Roland breathed a sigh of relief as the new illusion pulled the attention off of him once again. He knew it was only a momentary respite, but it was enough to regain his breath.
Anetha crested the second floor and ducked just as the blade whistled through the space her head had occupied mere moments before. More of the corrupted soldiers were waiting on the second floor. A quick glance told her there were four of them, two of which were the hulking, chain mailed sort. She spat out something very unladylike and began a retreat back down the stairs. “Go back! Go back!” she yelled at Dumond, “There are more! We are cut off!”
At the base of the stairs, the companions stood together and fought a pitched battle as the creatures from the second floor now joined the fray. They could only hope that their companions above were faring better. Perhaps they had already gotten the girl, but… what about that scream?
Movement in his peripheral vision caught his attention. One of the long-limbed had flanked the group and was preparing to throw a dagger into Dumond’s unprotected back. Roland could move to protect the Illusionist; but, in doing so, he would leave himself and Anetha open for retaliation. “Dumond,” he called trying to get the Illusionist’s attention, “Your ba-!”
The would-be dagger thrower pitched forward, an arrow sprouting from his shoulder blade, and the dagger spun across the floor.
“Stigandr!” Roland called triumphantly. United, he had no doubt that he and his friends could deal
Stigandr nodded a greeting and called back, “We got the girl! But we’ve got company coming. I think we made them mad.”
As if to punctuate the comment, Lady Grace ran into the room and slammed the door behind her. Bracing herself against the door, she yelled, “He’s right behind me!”
Roland sighed again. So much for a clean getaway.