When Besilana returned with a rat corpse, Taliesin reached out and took it, pitching it into the corner. The snake flicked its tongue out experimentally, and apparently finding the offering to its liking, snatched the dead rat and began to swallow. The half-elf was overcome by disgust and averted her eyes, unwilling to observe the circle of life.
With the snake thus occupied, Taliesin carefully made toward the nest. The viper’s flinty eyes stayed on the druid, but it made no aggressive move toward him. As he drew near he saw the jeweled hilt of a dagger. Taliesin slowly knelt down and drew the dagger out of the water. Then, he slowly rose and retreated to the hallway where his companions awaited him.
“That’s some impressive snake handling,” Furnok said, straight-faced.
“Woooowwwwww!” exclaimed Felicity. “That was kinda’ scary! Were you scared?”
Taliesin shook his head. “Animals have desires and intentions just like people do. If you bother to learn them, it’s not hard to communicate. Most just never bother to learn them.”
“Oh, well, it’s less impressive when you put it that way. Except that you understood it, which is impressive.”
“Indeed. Well done,” said Besilana.
“Knowledge is power, I’ve heard tell,” said Furnok.
“You kind of make yourself better at something less obvious at the end,” the halfling continued her thought. “Knowledge is really important, I mean we don’t know much about this place and we’ve almost died several times!”
“Yes,” said Besilana. “Almost.” She winked at the halfling.
“We should leave it to its meal,” said Taliesin.
Furnok nodded. “Shall we check these doors, or count our blessings and withdraw?”
Besilana reached for the eastern door. The room beyond was once very opulent, obviously a place of many expensive furnishings. The remaining bits and tatters still appeared rich, though all were ruined.
“Excuse, me,” she said, castling with Felicity to try the opposite door. Once the quarters of a castle troop leader or some other petty official, the chamber was a total wreck. The bed has been chopped to pieces, and the furniture was smashed or missing. “Hmph,” said the paladin, stepping over to the last door in the hallway.
The room behind it was once a conference chamber but it stood empty. Its dirt and wreckage showed no signs of any recent occupants, though a couple of small rats were seen scurrying away. Besilana’s nose wrinkled momentarily. “Not more rats,” whispered Felicity.
“These rooms look abandoned. Have we cleared out all the bandits?” said Taliesin.
“Only if they’re not hiding behind that barred door,” said Besilana.
Furnok put one finger on his nose and pointed at the paladin. “If you’re up for it, we can try to find out,” said the rogue. “I might be able to pop the bar.”
“That would be handy,” said Taliesin.
“It’s worth a try,” said Besilana. “I think we’ll have to head back to town soon, though.”
“I am getting drained…” Felicity agreed.
Furnok nodded, pulled a couple of oddly shaped metal rods out of his pack and approached the door. Besilana stood beside the door, ready to pounce on anything that might come out of it. One of the rogue’s tools bent as he applied pressure and he winced.
“Well, if there is anyone behind the door, they know we’re trying to get in,” he said softly.
“Can’t be helped,” said Taliesin.
“Can I help?” asked Besilana.
Furnok smiled at her. "Well, if I can’t manage this, you could always apply your shoulder to the problem.
That brought a smile to the half-elf’s face. “They probably heard us fighting the bandits before anyway.”
“Probably. Once more with feeling.” The rogue’s efforts resulted in the sound of a metal bar hitting the stone floor on the other side of the door. “Allons-y!”
“Well done,” said the paladin. “Excuse me.” Furnok made way for her to take point once more, readying his short bow. Once everyone was in position, Besilana shoved the door open.
The chamber was floored in black flagstones, and had ebon-colored wall hangings – burnt and tattered – as well as a jumbled wreckage of furniture. Bedrolls had been pitched in odd corners, and the northern fireplace contained the remains of a fire.
A number of armed men had taken cover behind the furniture. Three leathered humans along the north wall held crossbows trained on the door, and a fourth wore chainmail, bore a small iron shield, and wielded what appeared to be a wooden sword. Besilana gasped and said, “Ruaera?”
Before she could recover from her surprise, a fourth crossbowman maneuvered from the southern part of the chamber and the bandits loosed quarrels at the paladin! Two of the bolts flew past her, one caromed off her shield, and the last sank into the wood of the door frame. There expressions exchanged arrogance for nervousness.
Furnok waved Besilana forward, putting an arrow to string. The paladin nodded once and waded toward the crossbowmen with grim determination. When she closed with the bandits, leaping atop a bed, the rogue fired an arrow at one of them. Both adventurers found their mark, but both bandits survived the initial salvo, and Furnok cursed. Taliesin moved behind Besilana and poured poison over her shoulder at her target, and the bandit crumpled, overcome by the poison. The druid retreated back out into the great hall, as Felicity started a hymn about holy light. Her sacred flame struck the floor beside her intended target as he ducked aside.
The swordsman leaped up on the bed beside Besilana and swung his sword. Discordant minor chords screeched from the bronzewood blade as he did, and he grinned as his strike fell true. The crossbow-wielding bandit next to the paladin backed away from her carefully, leaving the fighting to his companions for the moment. The other two were content to continue firing at the half-elf, but not wanting to hit their fellow, their shots shattered on the wall behind their target.
Furnok popped his head around the corner, aiming to finish off the bandit he’d injured, and his second shot was enough to drop the man. The rogue followed Taliesin’s example and retreated back out the door once more.
Besilana cried out to the bandit swordsman in Elvish. “She will not sing for you. But she WILL sing for me!” She swung her blade at him with a war shout.
Hate entered the swordsman’s eyes as Besilana struck him. He stared murder directly into her face, ignoring the poison that the druid flung at him. “La-la-la-la-la!” sang Felicity, continuing to lay down holy light all around the bandits.
The swordsman ignored the others and focused on bringing Besilana down! His focus was rewarded. As she fell, he bellowed wordlessly, turning on Furnok and advancing on him. The other bandits maneuvered to get an angle on the rogue as well, taking aim and firing.
Furnok evaded the bolts handily, but still looked concerned. He dropped his bow and pulls the rapier, trying to stab the bandit leader. His eyes widened a bit when he didn’t find his mark. Taliesin spat poison from point blank, but the swordsman resisted again. “Besi!” Felicity shouted, running into the fray, ignoring the danger of the leader and sliding in to begin applying waking salts to her friend.
“Avara!” Besilana exclaimed as she regains consciousness.
The bandit swordsman whirled on Felicity and attacked. “Stop trying to undo my good work, urchin!” The bandit beside the revived paladin dropped his crossbow and drew a scimitar, stabbing down at her. The other took a bead on the halfling and let fly! The blade sank into Besilana’s leg and she fell senseless once more, but the bolt missed its mark.
Furnok pulled his dagger as well, stabbing at the swordsman in a flurry of steel! His rapier scraped off the man’s shield, but he brought the dagger up from below and buried its blade in the bandit leader’s heart. Having dispatched the primary threat, the rogue advanced on the crossbowmen, putting himself between the ladies and their enemies. Taliesin moves up to support with his poison, but it had apparently lost its potency. Looking down at Besilana lying senseless once more, Felicity cried, “No-no-no-no! Stop that!” She reached into her healer’s kit and stanched the half-elf’s wounds with a jelly.
“Sure the Mother of Forests sent you to watch my back,” said the paladin as she regained consciousness yet again. She glanced over at the bandit swordsman’s fallen form, before turning her attention back to the remaining threats.
The bandits had been startled by Furnok’s sudden charge, and both tried to apply scimitars to the rogue! Furnok could not defend himself from both attackers, and he found himself bleeding for the first time in the Moathouse assault. Still, he steeled himself against the pain and kept his feet long enough to retaliate. His flashing rapier distracted one of the bandits from the dagger in his side. And then the bandits realized that Besilana was up again.
The adventurers felled one of the men, and the other held up one hand palm forward defensively. “Okay, I can see that I’m beat here. Please. I’ll surrender. Just don’t kill me.” Furnok glanced over his shoulder at his companions.
“Drop your weapon,” said Besilana.
“And you won’t kill me?” the man pressed.
“Oh, it would be evil to kill someone begging for mercy,” said Felicity.
The paladin nodded. “I won’t. WE won’t. I swear it.”
The bandit nodded and dropped his blade, shoving it away with his foot. Furnok kept his blades drawn, and ready to strike. “What will you do with me?” the defeated man asked, eyeing the rogue askance.
Besilana started to answer but looked to the others first. “Oh, shoot. Didn’t think of that,” said Felicity.
“We could take him to the authorities in Hommlet,” suggested Furnok. The man winced but nodded.
“That was my thought,” said Besilana.
“I guess it would depend on what you can tell us,” said Taliesin. The rogue nodded sideways at the druid.
The paladin turned toward Taliesin. “But perhaps we can release him if he helps us?” Felicity nodded gravely.
Furnok quirked an eyebrow. “To let him join up with another gang of bandits? Do you think that wise?”
“We could always release him into the south or west rooms,” said Taliesin with a slight grin. The bandit paled at the suggestion, and Felicity squirmed a little, not liking the direction of the conversation. Seeing the halfling’s discomfiture, Besilana laid hands on Felicity and then herself, taking the sting out of their wounds, if not the situation.
“Besi, I am not against any course of action really, but I do want to hear what he has to say,” said the druid.
“This man and his compatriots have been robbing and killing along the roads for months. And you want to let him walk?” Furnok’s tone was incredulous.
“I haven’t killed anyone, I swear!” said the bandit.
Ignoring the outburst, Besilana addressed Furnok. “I don’t know what I want yet.” She turned to the man. “What is your name?”
“Wil,” he said.
“Wil.” She gave him a tiny smile. “Wil, do you want to keep being a bandit, after this?”
The captive’s shoulders slumped. “Not a lot of other prospects, really. ‘Specially now. Started as sort of a ’join or die’ thing. But my hands aren’t clean. I’ve helped this gang rob. And watched them kill.”
“You keep saying you haven’t killed. But just from the past few minutes I can tell that is due to your aim, not your conscience,” said Taliesin.
“Damn near killed me,” said Furnok, putting a hand on the slice in his side. “Personally.”
Wil looked down at the floor. “You’re right. Both of you.”
“He seems so sad about what he’s done, though,” said Felicity.
The man looked at the halfling with renewed hope, nodding quickly. “I don’t like lurking about in ruins that’re haunted, like as not. Was a farm hand before this life. But that’s been years ago now.”
“Haunted?” said Besilana.
Wil nodded. “Strange sounds in the bowels.” He pointed with his chin at the fallen swordsman. “*Bower*always said it was just the wind through the stones, but I’m not so sure. ‘Course, he ain’t been the same since he got that damned sword.”
Besilana shook her head, as though snapping out of a daydream. “Ruaera! How could I have forgotten?” She bent over the fallen leader and gently picked up the wooden blade.
Though hewn from bronzewood, the blade was as sharp as any metal sword. A swath of the night sky had been carved into the blade. As she swung the sword to get a feel for the balance, the holes also make a melodic, flute-like noise. The hilt was carved in the likeness of an alicorn – Ehlonna’s holy symbol. Besilana’s fingertips ran along the etchings, slightly trembling. She blinked suddenly, and whispered to the sword as though trying to soothe an anxious child.
“Is this her sword, Besi?” asked Taliesin.
Felicity came close and peered under the half-elf’s arm at the blade in reverence. “Oooohhhhhhhhhh.”
“Listen,” said Wil, completely missing the significance of the moment. “We got a bit of scratch stashed here. Take it. Return it or donate it or do whatever you want. If you let me go, I’ll … I’ll figure something out. Heard tell they’re building a castle in Hommlet. Might be they need another hand.”
Felicity shushed him. “This is important,” she told him with a little smile. Furnok and Wil turned to look at the paladin and the sword, the former wearing an expression of surprise, and the latter one of confusion.
A single tear appeared in the corner of Besilana’s eye. “This is Starsong, Azathir Moonwind’s blade, now reclaimed by her daughter.” She pressed the hilt to her breast then sheathed the blade in the empty scabbard at her belt.
“Wow,” said Furnok. “So you found it? Already? Seems … I don’t know … too easy?”
“I must attune with her, but … yes. I am a little surprised, as well,” Besilana admitted. She turned back to everyone else. “I suggest we return to the village and take Wil with us. We can ask the authorities to put him to work, rather than jailing him.”
“Thank you, miss,” said Wil. “That’s better’n I deserve, but I’m grateful for it.”
“There, we agree,” said Furnok acidly. He cleaned his blades on the nearby bed and sheathed them. “I’m going to bind your hands until we get you back to town, though.” Wil nodded and complied.
“Fair enough,” said Taliesin.
“You FOUND IT!” Felicity cried, startling everyone. “Hey, Wil, she found the sword! Isn’t that great?” The halfling was bouncing with excitement. The bandit nodded uncertainly.
“Congratulations Besi,” said the druid. “I’m glad it has returned home.”
She nodded thanks to her cousin then turned to the prisoner. “Where is this ‘scratch’ of yours, Wil?”
Wil pointed out where the bandits’ loot was hidden around the room. The swordsman called Bower had a handful of platinum and a pair of citrines in his pouches. The bandits had stashed a hundred silver, ten electrum, and five gold coins in various nooks and crannies. A chest held a blue potion of healing, two bolts of fine cloth and an inlaid wooden box with ivory handles and decorations, all of which Furnok declared to be valuable.
After everything was collected and prepared for travel, Furnok took another look around the room. “Folks? There’s a secret door over here,” he announced, standing near the east wall. “Did you know about this?” he spats at Wil.
“What? No!” the captive insisted.
“Secrets aren’t good for friendships,” said Felicity.
“Gods, maybe that’s where the spooks have been hiding,” said Wil.
“Spooks? Or cultists?” said Furnok. He pushed open the secret door and revealed the darkened stair that led downward. “A question for another day, aye?”
“Could be,” said Taliesin. “It warrants investigation. But not today. You all look terrible.”
“And I feel worse than that,” said Besilana.
“Ta,” said Furnok sardonically. He sticks his tongue out at the druid.
“Ough, I don’t know if I can deal with either right now…” said Felicity.
“Agreed,” said Besilana.
“Well then,” said Furnok. “We should get a move on. Might make tea time at the Wench, if we’re lucky.”
“Oh tea!” exclaimed the halfling. “I think we could all use some tea, or something stronger. But tea is medicinal and could be just what our flagging spirits need. I wonder if they grow their own tea leaves…” She trailed off as they left the Moathouse behind.
* * *
It took the adventurers half the time to get back to Hommlet than it did to get to the Moathouse, primarily because they didn’t have to hack a trail. Taliesin asked Wil about any information he may have about Eiravain, but it was apparent that the man didn’t know anything about the missing priestess.
Entering town towing a man with his hands tied behind his back raised a few eyebrows, but no one stopped them. Felicity cheerfully skipped ahead and waved at anyone who stared too long.
“If the village elder isn’t the person we need to talk to, they can probably point us to the person who is,” said Besilana.
“Sounds good,” said the druid.
They passed by the beginnings of a smallish castle, being built around a new tower atop the low mound. Workers had dug deep trench lines about ten feet wide and as deep, down to hard clay. They seemed to be in the process of mortaring the foundations of the wall to be built above. Work had barely begun, but the adventurers noted the outlines of bastions, towers, a gatehouse and a keep.
The keep was atop the second hillock, and considerable excavation had already taken place. The earth from this digging had been used in the walls around the whole. Some dressed stone blocks were visible, but not similar to local stone.
As they wondered about this, a hairy man in leathers with ruddy cheeks and somewhat bleary eyes stumbled toward them. “Wha’z this, then?” the man slurred.
“Afternoon, Elmo,” said Furnok. “Caught ourselves a bandit.” Besi nods politely to the man.
“Do wot? ‘Zat fookin’ right? Ha-ha! Where’bouts, eh?”
“He talks funny…” Felicity said softly.
“He’s drunk,” Furnok said in an undertone.
“Heee,” breathed the halfling.
“At the old Moathouse, sir,” Besilana answered.
Elmo’s lips formed an “O” and he blew out. The failed whistle of appreciation resulted in more than a little spittle streaming into his beard. “Bollocks. What’er’ya’doon’thar?” blurted Elmo. It was unclear if he was addressing the party or their captive.
Felicity broke into giggles, and Elmo squinted at the her. “Ye havin’ a laugh, miss? Havin’ a bit of a giggle at ol’ Elmo, eh?”
Besilana started to tense, but then the halfling exclaimed, “I like you! You should come and have some food and drink with us tonight!”
“On that drink,” Elmo said self-importantly, “Ye can be asshured.”
Furnok shook his head slightly. “We need to see the village elder. Or perhaps Burne. Or Rufus. Whichever is available.”
Elmo’s gaze very slowly made its way back to the rogue. “Burne? Wot for?”
“We’d like to turn our prisoner over to someone in charge,” Besilana offered.
“Well dun let ME stop ye,” says Elmo pleasantly. “Keep’shrighthere!” After a beat he said, “Burne – heh. Jist got that. Burne. ‘Cos ’e’s a wizard. Poof!” Felicity snorted, startling the man. His gaze gradually focused back on the adventurers. “’E’s got ’thority enough, I reckon.”
“That sounds perfect. Thank you for your… time, Elmo,” said the paladin.
“An’ I dun think the Badgers all got reputitable backgrounds, either. If’n ye dun aim t’see yer pet bandit ‘ang, Burne ’n’ Rufus’re yer best bet.”
“I hoped as much,” Furnok said, very patiently.
Elmo shooed them away, then turned and started ambling back down the main road toward the Wench.
He hummed an old Velunan drinking song as he goes.
“… Colorful sort,” said Besilana.
“He is, that,” said Furnok. “Somehow well-respected despite it all. There’s a story there, I suspect.”
“The Badgers?” Taliesin asked.
“Mercenaries, I gather,” said Furnok. “’Burne’s Badgers’, though Rufus typically leads them, I think. I’m still getting the lay of the land,” he admitted with a grin.
“I see. Shall we?” said Besilana.
“So, mercenaries instead of a local guard force?” asked Felicity.
“Well, there’s a militia, too. I think,” said Furnok. “Haven’t seen them in action, per se. Bear in mind I’ve only been in town about a month. Burne and Rufus have been here a few years at least. And based on their keep, it appears they mean to stay.”
“Wow, I’ll say!” said the halfling.
“Have you met either of them before?” asked Besilana.
Furnok shrugged. “I’ve seen them in the Wench a time or two. Haven’t introduced myself. They don’t seem like the ‘dicing with peasants’ types.” They spotted a large man barking orders at laborers. “That’s Burne, there.”
The paladin nodded. “Well, we’re fellow adventurers now! Let’s introduce ourselves.”
The big fellow looked over at the group as it approached, one eyebrow rising as his gaze took in the prisoner in tow. “Oh, this is gonna be good, I can tell,” he said in a deep bass.
“Oh it IS going to be good!” Felicity said cheerfully.
“Hail, Rufus!” Besilana called.
“Hail, fellow warrior,” Rufus boomed. “What can I do for you?”
“We … have a prisoner!” announced Felicity, holding the pause dramatically and pointing at Wil with both hands.
Rufus smiled genially down at the halfling. “So, I see.”
Besilana nodded. “We’ve just come from the old Moathouse, where we defeated a gang of bandits.”
The big man whistled in the same way that Elmo failed to. “That old place? What took you out there?”
“Rumors that the cult of Elemental Evil is stirring again. We intend to return there to continue our investigation, but, in the meantime, Wil here is eager to atone for his crimes. Isn’t that right, Wil?”
The prisoner nodded enthusiastically. “That’s right, miss. Honest work for me from now on.”
“Bad stuff out there apparently,” said Felicity. “Ol’ Wil here got sucked into a life of crime! Now he’s come to repent! Work it off! Pay his debts! I think he’s gen-u-ine!”
Rufus took it all in stride. “The Cult, eh? But let’s set that aside for the sake of young Wil. Let’s see those hands,” he said. Furnok cut the former bandit loose, and Wil uncertainly held his hands up for Rufus’ inspection.
“Oh, those soft hands are gonna blister, boy. Eh. Call it penance. Welcome to the Badgers.” Rufus looked up at the party. “You’ll be wanting a finder’s fee, or some such, aye?”
“A what?” said Felicity. Taliesin shrugged, and Furnok nodded casually.
Besilana started to reply, but after she glanced back at the others, she changed her answer. “Nnnsure?” she said. “I mean, I found exactly what I was looking for in the Moathouse.”
Felicity leaned over to the druid and whispered, “We’re not SELLING him right?” And then aloud, she said, “Ohmygoshwe’renotsellinghim!”
Rufus chuckled at Felicity, shaking his head and smiling. He reached for his pouch and produced ten gold coins. “Ten, Wil. That’s ten weeks o’ labor I’ll get outta you before you start to draw a wage. Any objections?” Rufus loomed ominously, of a sudden. Wil shook his head and stuttereds out assurances that he would work hard. Rufus nodded, apparently satisfied, and his smile returned just as quickly as it fled.
“I would call that justice,” said Taliesin.
Rufus smirked at him. “If you’re going to stay around Hommlet a while, keep in touch. If your investigations bear more fruit, I’d be interested to learn if there’s anything to these cult rumors.”
“Of course,” said Besilana. “Thank you, sir.”
“Oh of course!” Felicity echoed. “We aren’t hard to find I’m sure! Then again neither are you with that awesome keep being built!”
He looked at them all expectantly, like he was waiting on something. After an awkward silence, he huffed bemusedly and said, “Could I have your names, perhaps?”
“OHNO!” cried the halfling. “I’m Felicity and this is Besilana and Taliesin and Furnok!” she said very quickly, practically running across in front of them all. “I’m so sorry! I can’t believe I didn’t say anything!”
Rufus chuckled again, and Taliesin joined him. “Charmed, my dear,” said the big man. “A pleasure to make your acquaintances.”
Besilana sighed. “I knew I forgot something. Once again my dear friend has saved me.”
“Get some rest. And some salve on those wounds. Wouldn’t want to wind up with a mound of scars.”
“Oh, no!” cried Felicity. “Scars are less than- Oh, no! I’ll have to help apply lotions, something to keep the skin smooth. I need to replenish my salves … So much to do!”
“Yes, lotions…” said Besilana, getting lost in some private thought for a moment. She shook herself and said, “Thank you for your time and your mercy, Rufus. Good day.”
As they walked toward the Inn of the Welcome Wench, Furnok slapped his forehead with a palm and turned toward Taliesin. “It just clicked. You were talking about a literal bird!”