The Hateful Wars: Chapter Forty
The Lortmil Queen carefully folded the garments of Esmerin and packed them away in her sack. She girded herself in her mithril armor and strapped her sword to her side, and pulled a red travelling cloak overtop. Slinging the sack over her shoulder, she set off toward Courwood. Not long had she walked before passing the burnt ruin of Defile’s End. The blackened and broken stones made her shudder. She offered prayers for the fallen.
Edda’s New Riddle
A few miles further brought her to the cairn that sheltered the bones of the Prince Consort’s host. Like a wight clambering out from a tomb, a wild-haired and wild-eyed elfess climbed from behind the stones and leapt up on top of the cairn. She wore only a loose-fitting hair cloak bound at the waist by a thin leather belt. “Hail, Queen of the Lortmil Mountains,” Edda saluted. “What now for Kristryd Olinsdotter?”
“Edda!” Kristryd exclaimed as she recovered from the start. “I am almost glad to see you. Have you more riddles for me?”
“Just this one,” Edda replied. “How did the Red Fang orcs know to waylay the Prince Consort at this place?”
“I imagine they fell upon him as a random act of savage banditry, not unlike a dozen’s dozen that occur in these mountains every year.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps you are right,” Edda feigned a naiveté that belied her words.
“I feel as if we have had this conversation before Edda. If you know something more, you might say so.” Kristryd grew impatient and rested her hand upon the hilt of her sword where it hung at her belt.
The wild elf continued, “The Grand Court whispered about the People of the Testing. Some said that we plotted against the life of the Prince Consort.”
“I don’t understand your pitchkettle riddles Edda.”
“Perhaps you have not heard that the queen’s dandy led a strike deep beneath the mountains. They say that the third time is the magic. This time the fastaal made good on his oaths. None of the Red Fang orcs remain in the bowl, though many begged for their lives.”
“That’s good news to my ears.”
“Is it? The fastaal persuaded the unhappy survivors to spill the true tale of the ambush. They said an old dwurwife hired their tribe for the deed. She paid them in horse’s flesh.”
A stab of fear plunged into Kristryd’s heart.
Walk through Fairyland
Kristryd made her solitary way northward along the main road until she came beneath the boughs of Celene. At least the queen has not yet banned me from her kingdom, else I would have been turned back by now. Although she saw them not, she knew that half a dozen elven warriors of the borderwatch (not less) marked her steps. She walked all that day, and as the sun slipped behind the Lortmils, she resolved to continue on without stopping that night. The evening felt warm, like a midsummer night, but midsummer had long since passed. It must already be the end of Reaping and start of Goodmonth! By the gods, I was in Esmerin longer than I thought!
The familiar fragrances and scents of summer in the Fey Kingdom evoked a nostalgia for days long past when she had enjoyed the delights of the elven land under the queen’s good favor. As dusk settled on the woods, a distant tinkle of bells caught her ears—elves dancing in the Twilight Woods. Fireflies flickered in the thickening darkness; pixies darted about and illuminated the night with their own magical light, and phosphorescent mosses made the wide roadway through the trees glow like magic. All the night air filled with the swelling symphony of crickets, frogs, nightingales, and the laughing waters of small springs and splashing brooks. In harmony with the sounds of the summer night, unworldly voices of the elves sang aching odes to the Seldarine. Kristryd sighed over the beauty, adjusted her pack over her shoulders, pulled the strap tighter, and continued on her way.
In this manner she passed through the Fey Kingdom over days and weeks. By night she slept under the open air, fearing no danger. By day she gathered berries and mushrooms to supplement the supply of apple bread, almond cakes, sesame nutrolls, soda bread, hard sausages, and cheeses that Alton had packed into her sack for the journey. She saw few travelers on the road. Elves recognized her with surprise and greeted her politely as “Your Majesty.” From these she learned news from Enstad and the course of the war.
Each step took her closer to the capital where she knew her Fey Majesty must yet be seated upon the Blossoming Throne. An irrational thrill of hope rose in her heart. Perhaps I will be welcomed! She drove the thought from her head and scolded herself, I will not be so quick to forget the insult the queen has done me! She treats me like one of her spurned and mally suitors. Still, the hope persisted. If she summoned me to her gardens …
The Three Heroes
The Fey Queen did not summon her, nor did the elven guard ever acknowledge her presence as she passed through the midst of their kingdom. No one paid her much attention at all, not until she reached the place where the road passes over the Handmaiden near Enstad. Three old friends stood upon the bridge awaiting her: Xaxalander Deravnye the Magsman, Young Prince Archosian, and Noble Peralay of the Hunt.
“May I have your permission to cross the river?” Kristryd asked according to the rules of etiquette that govern fairy lands.
“You may ask, but you will not receive until you have paid our toll,” Prince Archosian yawned with false air of disinterest.
“State the price.”
“Tell us the tale of how you have passed over from the land of the dead,” Peralay said. “If we deem it a worthy tale, we will grant you leave to pass over this water.”
“And tell us where you have been hiding since you were lost at Riechsvale,” Xaxalander Deravnye added. “We searched the whole battlefield, and we even pursued the orcs back into their holes, lest you had been taken prisoner.”
“If the tale is the toll for crossing, it is a price I cannot afford to pay. I shall have no recourse except to swim across the river, and I don’t know how to swim.”
Archosian insisted in good humor. “Then you cannot pass. You must, instead, dine with us tonight in Enstad.”
“Nay,” Kristryd shook her head. “I will not enter that city again unless the queen summons me.”
The three heroes agreed to let her cross the river after all, and they agreed to accompany her on the Way of Tears as far as the Kron Hills. As they walked beneath the roans, evening shadows stretched across the road. They told her the tale of all that had befallen them since the Battle of Riechsvale.
Battle at the Edge of the Void
Having failed to find Kristryd among the wounded or the dead, Peralay set his cooshee hounds on the scent, but even the hounds could not track her. Xaxa and Archosian assumed she had been dragged away by Hroth or perhaps by the Red Fang Orcs. The Fastaal Dothmar proposed another attempt to penetrate the Karrak Bowl to satisfy his oaths against the Red Fang tribe and perhaps rescue Kristryd from their clutches. The heroes agreed. The fastaal brought along a company of elite elven swordsmen summoned from Clan Sherendyl. They took no dwarves with them this time, nor did they consult their maps. Instead, they relied upon Peralay’s cooshee hounds to lead them through winding maze of those the dark depths.
On the third day beneath the mountains, they came to the Karrak Bowl. Xaxalander the Magsman crept through the outer encampment, scaled the walls undetected and, at a prearranged time, removed the bars of the gates. Fastaal Dothmar and his warriors came upon the fortress so quickly that the orcs within it scarcely understood before the doors flung open and elven warriors poured into their midst. Indeed, the Red Fang were unprepared. They still licked at their wounds from Riechsvale where they had lost the better number of their warriors.
The orcs shrank back before the flashing sword Concluder until a shaman of Shargaas came casting mighty spells like a seasoned warmage. The elves fell to unseen terrors and the chill touch of the undead that the shaman commanded. Yet they persevered. The Karrak Bowl filled with the blood of Gruumsh.
The orcs retreated before the elves and closed themselves up inside a temple dedicated to their gods. Fastaal Dothmar and his heroes fought their way through temple and into the depths therein. In those awful dungeons, they came upon a place of vile darkness. Baleful evil rose like thick smoke from a great round hole in the stone, twenty feet in diameter, ringed by profane monoliths to foul gods of the orcs. No light could penetrate the gloom of that place. The orcs fought savagely to defend their sacred ploutonion, and many of the fastaal’s heroes fell along the rim of that portal to darkness.
Soaked in the blood of his foes, Dothmar fought on in the darkness. Unstopped by the dweomercraft of the shaman and the icy touch of undeath, the fastaal prevailed. One after another, he cast the wicked priest and his acolytes into their own sacred pit while the Sherendyl warriors slew the last of the orcs. Such a ghastly wailing terror of ghosts and undead came rising up from the pit that the elves fled the unclean place and did not return even to retrieve their own fallen. Content that they had at last avenged the Prince Consort Triserron, they quit the dark places beneath the mountains.
When the three warriors had finished their tale, Kristryd said, “Edda told me some pieces of that adventure. She also said that you took prisoners who spoke of being paid to ambush the Prince Consort.”
“Indeed! We puzzled over that a long while,” Peralay said. “Some among us speak the tongue of the euroz and the jebli. Dothmar interrogated a few of those who begged his clemency. In the end, he slew them too, for they knew no language but flattery and lies. But a certain acolyte of the shaman knew a good deal of all that had transpired. From the tongue of that miserable spellbinder, the fastaal learned that one of the three sisters, Hedvyg I heard him say, had paid them handsomely in horseflesh to ambush the Prince Consort.”
Kristryd spat upon the ground at the mention of Hedvyg’s name. “Would that all three sisters were dead and forgotten.”
“Yes, and that is the real matter of our business with you. Her Fey Majesty has commissioned all of her heroes to hunt down Hedvyg and make an end of her. We intend to be the ones to accomplish that quest,” Archosian explained.
At the mention of Yolande, Kristryd stopped in her tracks and stared vacantly over her shoulder in the direction of Enstad. Her mind turned over an idea. “I know the bate that will draw out the witch. But it will take some time for me to settle matters and to set the trap. Travel with me now, and we shall catch the third sister and bring an end to these wars.”
Living Greyhawk Gazetteer, 162: The People of the Testing “are poorly received at the Grand Court of Celene; they have influence there, but they are suspected of contriving the death of the royal consort of Celene.”
Mike Bridges, “Mysterious Places from the Fringe IV, Shagraas Void,” Greyhawkery.
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