1626, Fire Season, Illusion Week
It is very, very early. Varanis is inside the walls of the Vingan Temple’s courtyard pacing. A tall, scarred woman with short-cropped red hair guards the gate, holding her spear with casual confidence.
Berra arrives rather before Yelm does, and asks the guard to send a message in to Varanis. The guard barely has time to turn before Varanis is there. She’s in full armour, though not yet helmeted. Her long hair is plaited and coiled around her head. She doesn’t look particularly well-slept, but outwardly she seems calm.
“Good morning, Berra.”
Berra is just turning to look at the road when Varanis speaks, and she rotates back to grin at Varanis, happy, and then the smile fades, like memory just hit her. “Good morning.” She has her shield on her right arm, her left hand free for her sword. “Hello.”
“Thank you,” Varanis says to the Vingan at the gate. She slides her helmet onto her head and scoops her shield up from where it leans just inside the gate. “Let’s go.” She’s all business.
“Right.” Berra looks left and right, and manages to cast a spell to check for enemies the second time.
“To the inn. It’s good to see you. I wasn’t sure when or if the Temple would let you go.” She glances around, taking in the quiet street.
“They don’t have a call on me, I think, but it’s complicated right now. Are you going to want more bodyguards than just us? At least for the moment?” Berra moves smoothly into a walk, her eyes casting about, her shoulders loose.
“We should discuss it.” The helmet hides her expression, but the Vingan’s voice gives away her unhappiness. “Xenofos isn’t going to like this, but I don’t want him guarding me on his own. He’s a way to get to me, and he’s not as strong as you or Rajar.”
“In that case, I suggest we go up to the Temple. The Regiment is not here but the Wilmskirk Humakti are. If they go home, we lose them. We don’t have to hire them but we should maybe pay for them to be here for a few days, if the High Sword does not want them.”
“We should go now, before going to the inn?”
“I think so. We can also see if it’s an alternative place for you to sleep, but that gets really politically complicated, and I might get into trouble if I… well, I want to offer, but it’s inappropriate to do it without my High Sword’s agreement. I can’t speak for the Temple, but we should ask that as well. Avoiding pinch points is difficult, and it’s good to have options.” Her voice is clipped, words short even though she runs on in what she says.
“It’s worth asking,” Varanis says after a moment’s consideration. “The worst they can say is no.”
“It’s an admission to … well, it means you’ve asked, but I think that’s worthwhile, and it’s in the middle of other buildings, so there is no exposure up a long stair.” She falls silent, and gives Varanis a look that has worry in it.
“What?” She’s tired and impatient. She takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to snap. Something is worrying you. Is it more than the obvious?”
“No. Nothing more than the obvious. Personal worry, though, not about guarding. Maybe that’s not a thing for the street.” Berra looks away, going back to the scanning of the street.
“Let’s go to the Temple then. Can we grab a bite on the way or after? It would be an unpredictable stop and so unlikely to involve any premeditated attack. But it might provide time for an attack of opportunity.” She frowns. “I’m hungry. I didn’t eat at my Temple.”
“We can get food there, I’m pretty sure. I can get meals there, so you can have mine if you like. I have some nuts as well. It’s a bit early for places to be open, that will do food, but I know my way around the kitchen at the Temple.” Berra keeps looking about with the casual habit of someone used to scanning cities. If she were even half a foot taller, she would look like a real soldier.
“Are we over-reacting? Surely the risk isn’t this high?” Varanis matches her pace to Berra’s, moving briskly, but careful not to outpace the shorter woman. In spite of her words, her hand stays close to her sword hilt.
“There are two parts to this. The chance of something going wrong, and the result if it does. There’s a small chance, but if it happens, it’s a life. So we do our best to stop that part from happening. and then if we get hit, we make ourselves as hard as possible, to keep us all from damage. You in particular, but all of us.”
“We need to think about how we protect everyone. If someone wants to get to me, any of you would be good targets.” She scowls. “Some more than others, perhaps,” she admits. “Where’s Mellia? And Irillo?”
“Mellia was called to the Palace,” says Berra. “And I lost track of Irillo. I think someone said he was being healed, but we should check. The last I knew for certain, Rajar was carrying him away.” She does not add, ‘I was a bit busy’.
“And we don’t know where he is now? No one went looking?” Varanis is startled. “Crap. We need to locate him.”
Berra winces. “A few seconds of distraction for us are bad,” she says. “A few seconds of delay for Irillo, likely not.”
Yelm begins to peek over the cliffs.
Varanis starts looking around again. “We are almost there, right? I recognize this street.”
“Yes, yes we are. The relics are inside now. There are a few things I should say once we are inside the walls. The courtyard should be private and I didn’t want to say them on the way here.”
Varanis nods. “Let’s concentrate on getting there then.”
A few minutes later, Berra speaks to the gate guards, and they go into the compound. The temple is in the shape of a cross, with the centre part, the blade, protruding into the exercise yard, and arches on either side of it that make secondary buildings at a lower level. The yard is still big, and there is nobody in it but them.
Berra turns left and pauses a little way in. “Lord Eril is currently not the High Sword,” she says. “He can’t carry out those duties right now. Lord D’Val is acting in his place.” She looks peaceful, calm, ready for the next thing.
Varanis raises an eyebrow at that news.
“I don’t know how long it will be before someone else takes the High Sword’s place. The Regiment will get back soon, and then it’ll probably be one of two people. But right now, there are the Iron Lord, High Sword D’Val, a dozen lay members, and perhaps the Wilmskirk Humakti, and a badly injured Sword of Humakt who is missing his Wyter Sword.”
“Missing his Wyter Sword?!” Shock gives the words a sharp edge.
“It’s with the Regiment. He hasn’t lost it.” Despite the situation, Berra grins. “There would probably be a lot more shouting if that had happened.”
“I would imagine so. Is the Regiment far behind the Prince…?” She breaks off unable to finish the question. Berra knows her well enough to recognize the pain in her voice when she mentions the Prince.
“I don’t know,” Berra says, all humour gone. “I did not want to ask either of them. Sword Heenith should have it, though. He’s the most likely in the field. But there was a victory. The Humakti will be coming back, and it’ll be at marching pace, and I don’t know when they will set off. Coming in from Dangerford, it will be at least two more days, unless they push it for some reason, but that would be fast. Maybe weeks, if the Sword keeps them there. They will likely march back as one, but that’s only my thinking.”
The Vingan takes a deep breath and straightens her spine. “Let’s see if your High Sword will receive us this early.”
“I’ll go see if he’s awake, if you like. I know where he sleeps. And ask about food and see who’s awake to hire. You could be in the first hall as my guests, and I can raid the kitchen.”
The Duck is seated outside the chambers, idly munching on an apple. Yep, slicing it with a dagger still. He is unchanged by high office.
Berra leaves her shield behind when she sees him, so she can drop into a full-body bow, making her a lot smaller than him, at least for the moment. Head down, arms before her, she would make a good footstool for someone of Rajar’s size.
“What’th up, Dagger?”
“Yelm, Lord.” Deadpan. Maybe Berra decided it was worth being killed just for that moment. But, after a moment, Berra raises her head to speak properly. “We came to see if bodyguards would be available, and to ask for the use of the kitchens, as Varanis has missed breakfast. She also has a personal request.” Thus, Berra does not ask about whether Varanis can camp out, leaving it to the Vingan.
Varanis bows politely to the High Sword. “There is some fear that my bloodlines may make me a target. I do not wish to bring risk upon those who are unable to deal with it, like the innkeeper at the White Grape. I am seeking a safe place to sleep under ward from time to time and was hoping the Temple of Humakt would shelter me.” She is proud, not entreating, but making a formal request.
“That would be highly irregular. Thpeak with Lord Eril. He’th exthpecting you both.”
Varanis bows her acceptance of his words.
Berra looks slightly alarmed, and then, “Well,” she says. “If he’s awake. How is he this morning?”
“Oh good. Back to himself, then.” Berra cheers up. “Don’t go into any room I don’t go into,” she tells Varanis. “But the corridor and Lord Eril’s outer chambers are not reserved for those who know the mysteries. Thank you D’V… uh…” She blushes. “Sorry. High Sword.” She gestures Varanis through a big door.
D’Val nods, as they go through.
The High Sword Emeritus is lying on a pallet. He looks pale, but raises himself up as they enter, “Please. Come in and take your ease.”
Berra goes to one knee, briefly, and then stands. “Lord.” She casts around for a seat that has a view of the door, automatically. There are no polite questions from her about how he is.1Berra suggests Varanis and Eril make insight rolls. Passed. Insight: Berra is more than politely upset by seeing Eril. She seems hurt somehow.
Varanis bows politely.
“Ah, Lady Vareena. Thank you for attending. I should normally have come to you under the circumstances. “
The Vingan sinks down to the floor near to the pallet, so he doesn’t have to strain to see her. “Lord Eril, my pardon, I do not know the correct way to address you at this time.” She gazes seriously at him. “I am happy to come to you instead, though not happy at the cause.”
Berra finds a low stool and moves it so that she is in the background of the conversation. The Sword could see her if she wished, and she is at the right height to be spoken to – or shouted at. “Lord, or Sword, are both acceptable,” Berra murmurs. Were Eril looking, he would see she is downcast. Probably, this time, at having failed to brief someone in a timely fashion.
“Either is more than acceptable. Now… have you reconsidered my offer?”
“To stab me and send me into the Underworld that way?” she asks, not quite raising an eyebrow.
“Yes. The offer is meant sincerely. You would not suffer, and time is not our friend.”
Berra gives Eril a thoughtful look, like something just sounded in her mind.
“It wills start the quest quickly?” Varanis looks thoughtful.
“Yes. Or you die, of course.”
“I’ve been meditating on this. It was something I’d intended to speak to Berra about today.” She doesn’t glance at her friend and kinswoman. “Yes, Lord Eril. I am willing.”
“Good. Are you also ready? You should speak with your friends, I think.”
“Yes, I should. There are preparations that need to be made before I will be ready and they need warning and preparation time too. But I will be ready as soon as Vinga and Orlanth permit.” She is resolute. Decided.
“Lord, if I may?” Berra slips off the stool to kneel respectfully.
He looks to Berra and nods.
“We don’t currently have an Issaries. It may be that he can manage it, but if not, do you have any suggestion?” Berra has difficulty meeting his gaze.
“The High Priest is around. But endeavour to take your one.”
Berra nods, and stays kneeling but falls silent.
“Do you need anything further before I go speak with the others?” Varanis asks.
“I do not believe so.” A beat. “Thank you for coming.”
Berra bows her head and then pours herself upright, rising with the grace of a hunter, or a nurse with a very deadly bedside manner. She backs away, picking up the seat to return it to where it belongs in the room.
Varanis bows to him, from her kneeling position. “Thanks you for your time, Lord Eril. May you heal soon. Sartar needs its Sword.” Before she rises, she places a small, highly polished stone beside the pallet. Its muted colours run in stripes across the surface. She murmurs, “stay” to the rock, then rises and steps away.
“Thank you.” Composed but… puzzled?
Berra looks faintly confused as well, but in a way that says she is sure other people understand.
“It’s from a place I visited recently. A woman I met told me about how they were trained. Her story made me remember that there were once happier times and we could all use reminders of what we strive for. A Sartar at peace, where children can play and where lovers do not need to part.” She looks wistful.
Berra now looks puzzled for a different reason. She has reached fully confused, as a state.
Varanis shrugs. “Never mind. I’ve had a long night and have decided that it’s a good time to die. I’m allowed to be a little strange.” She looks down at Eril, “But keep it. Maybe one day it will make sense.” And with that, she steps out of the room, leaving Berra to catch up.
Berra takes a moment to do that. As Varanis reaches the door, the shorter – and less injured – of the two Humakti present asks, “Anything else, Lord?” Her voice is quiet enough to show respect, and maybe even care.
“No, nothing. Thank you.”
Berra leaves smartly, after another bow that is probably ingrained habit. Outside she looks around as if to get her bearings, and her jaw clenches briefly as she does that.
Waiting in the corridor, Varanis is unusually motionless, controlled. “Can we leave now?” she asks. “I want to leave here. The walls are closing in. I need Air.” While her face is a mask of resolute calm, her eyes are wild.
“Courtyard,” Berra says, and leads that way.
Varanis follows, moving precisely, with discipline that has emerged from years of training, but was seemingly little used until now.
Berra outranks most people here right now, and finds someone to get food from the kitchen.
Berra looks Varanis over. “Do you think you’re still up to eating?” She sounds calm, rather more than usual.
“People keep asking me that,” she replies. “I was. Now? I can make myself do what I need to.”
“Good.” She takes a deep breath, and then reaches inside her armour. “I should give this back to you. You’re going to need it more than I do.”
Varanis looks at the crystal Berra is holding. She takes a deep breath and holds her hand out for it. “I’m sorry. I think I will.” She takes another breath. “I should ask Xenofos to make sure it gets back to my sister if… if I don’t come back.”
The crystal needs a bit of untangling. “No need to be sorry,” says Berra, and gets it free to hand over. “It did me well. I’ll probably be in the Temple for a while anyhow.”
“I need to prepare. I’ve never done a quest this important before and I’m not sure what I should be doing. But I definitely need to write some letters.” Again that deep inhalation. The surface is calm and the breathing keeps it that way, but emotions are roiling beneath.
The Humakti smooths out the thong where the crystal was hanging, and tucks away the wolf tooth. “You know the myth well enough, once you’re in. Humakt will send you there. Then you are Orlanth. But your blood will carry you, and your friends.” Berra gives an awkward shrug. “It’s the best chance. You do your best. If you don’t succeed, you probably never find out. Look at the rock face, not what’s below.”
“But am I changing paths once I’m in the Underworld? I am seeking Sartar, not Yelm. I don’t know how to change quests as Arkat did. Is there a trick to it?” She sighs. “I have to do this right, so that everyone comes out whole. Speaking of which, Eril said we need Irillo and he was wounded. He needs to be healed fully and everyone needs to reaffirm their connections to the gods. We need the gods for this.” She’s starting to shift into planning mode, letting that replace the fear.
“Humakt will send you the right way. Harmast Barefoot found Arkat. Live within what you have, and what you can do. You don’t know enough to plan for that part, so do not try. And do it fast. This evening is Wildday. Tomorrow is Godday. If the Hi… if Sword Eril can be up to start the quest, we can get Irillo into it. I’ll support him if I have to. I can probably count as a thing that’s not there.” Berra’s own planning voice is lower, thoughtful, pitched not to carry too far in a crowded city, or in this case an empty courtyard.
“Do you think we can arrange for me to have an hour on the roof of Orlanth’s Temple today? It’s a good place to think and a better place to pray. The views of the city are good.” Spoken as one who has been there before. “The brazier might work as well, but perhaps that is more predictable.”
“Probably. You’d need guards, though. Or we could go up the saddle, or somewhere that you can climb. We could ask another Vingan, have them make a Sanctuary.”
“I have climbed Orlanth’s Temple. But perhaps it’s not the thing to do in broad daylight. It’s a hard place to sneak up on though. The saddle has more ambush points. And yes, maybe there’s a Vingan who can make me a Sanctuary.”
“Guards, then. Teleportation is a problem. If you can have me there, I’ll come, but I’m not at my best right now. Don’t count me as a warrior until I have filled myself with my God’s strength again.” Berra looks slightly ashamed.
“Are we able to hire any guards here?”
“From where they are sleeping in the barracks? No. They’re on the wrong side for that. And High Sword D’Val did not say yes. I think the Temple here has hired them. Add some relics to th… to Lord Eril being injured, and I don’t think we are getting any.”
Varanis looks thoughtful. “Maybe the Vingans, though the Temple looked relatively empty. I think we should go by the inn to find the others and set some plans in place. Then we can try to hire guards and make whatever other arrangements are needed.”
Berra nods her agreement. “Right. Do you know if Tennebris is in the city? He might be able to release some Palace troops.”
“The last I saw Tennebris was at the Prince’s side. He did not even seem to know I was there. Koraki was standing guard for them. Maybe he can help.”
“It’s a potential source of force,” Berra says like she is quoting something. “Yelmalians too, maybe. They might not all have gone to fight.”
After a brief moment Berra adds, “Most of the people to ask are already in this Temple. The High Sword and Lord Eril already know. The Iron Lord has no reason to tell.” She glances back into the Temple. Footsteps, probably someone with food, are approaching.
Varanis looks confused. “I thought there weren’t any guards available here?”
“I mean about the Heroquest. They might know more about what Harmast Barefoot did. But we should talk… sorry, I think you should talk to the others, first.”
“Right. Sorry. I was distracted.” A deep breath. She stares in the direction the footsteps are coming from. “Is that the food? Even if it isn’t, I am very ready to leave.”
- 1Berra suggests Varanis and Eril make insight rolls. Passed. Insight: Berra is more than politely upset by seeing Eril. She seems hurt somehow.