In which our friends gain an odd travelling companion and settle in for a hopefully relaxing night at a busy inn.
The road north
The next day they went on north, now on horseback along the road. Since they needed to transport Marike’s laboratory on a cart progress was not very fast – maybe 20 miles a day. At this rate they might make Middenheim in six days.
Shortly after passing the town of Sotturm (apparently famous for its goat cheese), the road once more passed through dark and tangled woods.
During a rest in the afternoon, after passing the town of Sotturm and once more passing through woods, they were caught up with by Emmelinde, a young woman travelling on foot in the same direction. She was tired and looked stressed but stopped to talk; she was a hunter, going to Schöninghagen to help bail out a friend in trouble.
The adventurers offered Emmelinde a ride on the cart and she gratefully accepted. Along the way, she opened up a little more: the ‘friend’ in trouble was her fiancé Klaus, who was imprisoned, and she had to set him free before Geheimnisnacht in a week. She wouldn’t elaborate on the importance of the date.
The party once more spent the night at a roadside inn, but Emmelinde – who only had money for the bail – preferred to sleep rough and camped outside. Aenlinn, a little suspicious by this time, crept out during the night to see if the hunter was actually sleeping where she camped, but she did appear to.
The brigands and the wolves
The next day, the road was once more passing through heavy woods; on this stretch, you could barely ride two abreast. After a turn, they came across a fallen tree blocking the road. Aenlinn and Kethe, riding in front, thought they saw axe marks on the trunk – someone had felled it. They shouted a warning to the others and drew weapons; and indeed they soon found themselves surrounded by at least eight masked men in the woods. As the adventurers refused to surrender, the brigands attacked, a crossbow bolt barely punching through Aenlinn’s breastplate but only scratching her and another narrowly missing Kethe’s horse.
Then, suddenly, two great wolves appeared among the trees and flung themselves on the brigands. Between Aenlinn and Marike shooting down one brigand each, Kethe wounding one and two more quickly killed by the wolves, the remaining brigands quickly lost heart and fled into the forest.
The wolves padded up to the adventurers, growling but not attacking. Emmelinde talked and gestured soothingly to them, and they visibly relaxed.
“Friends of yours?” Kethe asked; Emmelinde responded with something in between a shrug and a nod. “I grew up in the forest – I suppose I’ve made some unusual friends.” She waved at the wolves and they disappeared into the woods.
After moving the tree, they continued on, eventually reaching the town Malstedt on the border between the Grand Duchy of Middenland and the Principality of Middenheim. They paid the toll and went on, noting that the inn “The Emperor’s Crown” had been vandalized; someone had painted over the crown on the sign with a white wolf’s head. The wolf is an old symbol of the peoples of the northern Empire, and it seems the wolf’s head is being used as a symbol for separatists wanting to break free from the Emperor.
A stream trickling down from the hills, running north alongside the road, was slowly but surely widening into a small river.
At the sign of the Three Feathers
The journey went on. And on. On Monday afternoon it started raining, and it wouldn’t let up for all of Tuesday. In the evening, they finally arrived at the Three Feathers inn. This was a coaching stop as well, and at this point the river had grown wide and deep enough to be navigable by smaller boats. Due to the awful weather, they insisted on paying for a bed for Emmelinde as well.
The place turned out to be very busy tonight; none other than the Gräfin Marie-Ulrike von Ambosstein was staying there with her retinue, occupying a large chunk of the upper floor bedrooms. Her servants and guards, the latter in yellow and red livery, were milling about everywhere. The adventurers remembered the gossip they’d heard earlier about the Gräfin supposedly poisoning or bewitching another noble at a party.
After getting their lodgings – Aenlinn and Kethe shared a double room with Emmelinde, Marike and Courage another, and Wernhart snagged a comfy single room – the party headed down to the bar-room for supper. As they came down, they saw the Gräfin herself settling a deal with the Tilean musician and gambler Marcinella Piantina before retiring upstairs with some of her retinue.
Old friends at supper
At another table an arm-wrestling match was going on between two of the Gräfin’s men, being watched and cheered by members of the her retinue and others. The winner, a strong and handsome fellow with an infectious smile, was none other than Aenlinn’s old friend Bruno Franke, a fellow veteran of the Middenland regiment. He was happy to see her and they chatted fror a bit.
After mustering out, Bruno had ended up in the service of the Gräfin and now he was even her champion. They were heading to Middenheim to settle a trial by combat; apparently the gossip was more or less accurate in that one Freiherr Eberhard von Dammenblatz had accused the Gräfin of murdering his father, by poison or sorcery, at one of the famous parties hosted by the Princess of Middenheim. Everyone in the retinue, of course, agreed the accusations were preposterous and the old man’s death was clearly a drunken accident. Either way, the Gräfin had invoked her right to demand trial by combat and Bruno will fight for her.
Sitting next to Bruno was Elina, a curvaceous young servant who seemed to be sweet on him and looked at Aenlinn with jealous suspicion until she realised they were just old friends.
* * *
Meanwhile, the rest of the party had supper with Hieronymus Jung and his party, who were also staying at the inn. His teenage niece and nephew were happy to see their heroes again and Ulrike chatted happily, although young Bertholt now seemed tongue-tied whenever Kethe was nearby. Hieronymus himself soon excused himself; he was going to retire with a good book and left the valet Gunder to keep an eye on the kids.
During supper, more travellers came in from the rain: three travelling scholars, who ordered food and kept to their table in the corner, and the handsome Estalian traveller Joaquin Montilla, who soon settled down to play cards with Marcinella.
The evening continues
A servant came downstairs telling Bruno the Lady wanted him to stop arm-wrestling in case he injures himself. Aenlinn had a good laugh at this and Bruno got up in his full impressive height, flexed a bit and asked rhetorically if he looked like he was injuring himself. The servant retreated, but not long after the Gräfin herself came down to personally order Bruno up to his room. The Gräfin’s retinue were served their supper, some upstairs and some in the bar-room.
Kethe finished her supper quickly and excused herself to join the gamblers’ table, where she was eventually joined by Marike and the others as the young Jungs retired. Wernhart, too, soon grew tired of the noise and bustle and withdrew to his snug room for some quiet reading. Marike concentrated on flirting with the not entirely unreceptive Joaquin Montilla.
And all the while, more guests kept coming in:
- A well-dressed couple of newlyweds, having booked a room as Herr and Frau Schmidt (though notably, Herr Schmidt looked quite a bit richer than his wife).
- Three grey-clad monks, brothers of the Order of the Stranger, bringing a body for a funeral. After bribing the innkeeper they dragged the coffin upstairs to their room. The coachmen who brought them here stayed to drink the evening away along with the boatmen delivering the Schmidts.
- The tough-looking adventurer Ursula Kleipzig.
As the cuckoo clock struck ten, the Gräfin’s retinue retired – some upstairs, posting a sentry in the corridor, and some to the common dormitory on the ground floor. About the same time, Herr Schmidt came down to order a bottle of wine and apparently got into a heated argument with the coachman Hans Fuhrmann before storming back upstairs.
A little later, Bruno snuck downstairs and resumed drinking, soon joined by Elina snuggling up to him. He arm-wrestled the boatmen and was then challenged by Ursula, whom he narrowly beat. This impressed him and they talked a bit (Elina was not happy at this at all).
Ursula was soon distracted, however, by one of the monks coming down to talk to the landlord. After he’d gone back upstairs, she went over and talked to him as well, apparently sneaking him some money.
It wasn’t very long before, once more, a servant came down to confront Bruno. “The lady has noted your absence. Are you going to come upstairs or is she going to have to come down and get you again?” Bruno sheepishly followed along. Elina quickly kissed him on the cheek before ducking out of the way; a little later she was seen buying a bottle of wine at the bar and sneaking upstairs with the bottle and a pair of cups.
It was now half past ten and Aenlinn was tired of hanging out in the bar-room; she and Emmelinde went up to their room, while Marike, Kethe and Courage stayed in the bar-room. They met Hieronymus Jung on the stairs, coming down to order a brandy to bring to his room. As he was at the bar, one of the traveling scholars went upstairs, followed by the others a few minutes later.
From their rooms on the upper floor, Aenlinn, Emmelinde and Wernhart overheard someone knocking on a door in the corridor outside and being let in. The suspicious Wernhart put his ear to his own door to listen, and a minute or so later heard raised voices in an angry argument. One of the voices was Hieronymus Jung, and Wernhart picked up the word “blackmail”. Then suddenly the voices lowered, and everything went quiet.
To be continued…