Haug Handslayer laughed and shook his head as the eorman in the funny hat saved face with a puff of his cheroot in the rain.
“You’ve got sand, Smalltop,” he said, glancing at the relatively narrow-brimmed headgear as he took Lafitte’s card, “I’ll grant you that.”
The rain pouring off both of them as they stood in the mud and the blood, and probably beer as well, being the kind of camp it was, Haug studied the card – a rather poor and bedraggled thing, like everything else in this forest at the moment.
Just then, two runners arrived, one a faerie, one a goblin.
“Captain Starhand’s compliments, and will the gentlemen kindly attend a parlay in the Great Hall of the Temple immediately on a matter of mutual concern, interest, and urgency, thank you,” panted the faerie.
“The fellows are as assembled as they’ll ever get, thanks to those miniature scum,” the goblin muttered close to Haug’s ear, with a vicious and resentful glare at everyone who did not look immediately like a bandit.
Haug’s eyes narrowed, and his lips twisted as he weighed the options before him. The tantalizing hint of Mt. Isolla as a prize sounded equal parts a come-on and a fool’s madness. But then they were standing in the shadow of a flying ship, so no bets were safe in this game, it seemed to him. He perked up especially when the eorman said something about the prince desiring their presence.
Oh, aye? And who’s a prince then, and of what?, he thought.
With a slick, sideways grin, he said to the faerie runner, “Tell them in the Temple I’ll be there shortly, with a few hands of mine.”
And he stalked off to address the remnants of Baugl’s army, huddled under the airship as much to get out of the incessant rain as anything else. Haug could not know if this was his one chance, but it was certainly a chance, and he intended to make the most of it. He would start by offering these fighters a deal they’d either sign on for heartily or run from like a case of rose rot. And then he would go to this parlay of a prince and see what spoils there would be and how and whether they would be shared.
The Ereonis brothers had been just starting to ease their exhausted limbs before gathering themselves to climb the carved stairs of the Temple of Flidais to the Great Hall, when Ionas approached and begged a hearing.
As he spoke in low tones that emphasize the direness of the information, Peino and Jeneyeru listened with increasing seriousness, while Ruili listened with impatient curiosity.
When Ionas was done, Peino nodded grimly. “It is as I suspected. I never liked the cut of the man.”
“What man?” said Ruili, “And who is this gentleman?”
“Oh, I beg your pardon, brother,” Peino answered. “This is Lord Ionas Farseer of the House of Ymuin of Sesus. He is the lookout on the La Danse Calinda.” His pronunciation of the foreign name had not improved at all.
“The what?” said Ruili.
“The airship.” Peino pointed up.
“Good gods,” said Ruili, realizing what he meant. He looked wonderingly at Ionas. “Why?”
“Not now,” said Peino. “Mr. Farseer, may I present my brother, Lord Ruili Windwolf. I hope you will both forgive me if I do not go into the entitlements just now. In any event, the man Mr. Farseer refers to is the First Mate of the airship.”
“An assassin,” Jeneyeru interjected. “A terrible person.”
“Rather too good at killing,” Peino added.
“Then it seems this warning comes in good time,” said Ruili, “and we are in your debt, Mr. Farseer. What are we to do about him? Can we maroon him here?”
“Possibly,” Peino sighed, “but I’m not so certain I want him behind us anymore than before us. Let us do as we are advised for now, and keep an eye on him.” The idea that this scheming assassin might be influencing Captain Lafitte cast a pall over the entire journey, especially for Peino. “I knew he would be trouble, from the first I saw of him. Farwind and Longblade wanted to run him through in Kledy. Perhaps I should have let them. I could never understand why Lafitte wanted to join this quest. The twists and machinations of an assassin would explain much.”
The Selkie’s expression darkened as he thought of the quirky, humorous, unpredictable Lafitte being nose-led unawares by one of those children of Pwyll who made an art of deceit as much as of death.
Priestess Moonrain was putting together a basket of medical gear – bandages, potions, and the like – to take out to the wounded in the field outside. She paused in her work when Y’lanna asked her questions, and she regarded the strange, purple, hairless woman closely with her big, dark eyes. It was not in the nature of the faerie folk to question things, no matter how odd. As the most magical of all the races of Aeldreth, meaning their kind tended to be open and powerful conduits for aura energy, the strange was ordinary to the fae, and the impossible was commonplace. Lady Moonrain herself, her body expressing the form of her family’s totem animal, the white doe, probably would seem as strange to Y’lanna as Y’lanna seemed to her. And yet, Y’lanna Sparti, who had come to the Temple as the Brownies’ pretty and exotic prize, was strange enough for comment.
“You are not one of us, are you?” she said bluntly, after Y’lanna’s questions where complete. “You are certainly no faerie, that much is plain. It is a pity time is so short just now. I would be curious to learn just what you are, but I have work to attend to, so I will be straightforward.
“The Stronghold of Mt. Isolla is the main seat of the Guild of Wizards and Magi, the organization that governs all of the magical professions in every realm. All of the professions have their own guilds, which oversee training and schools, certify the ranks of members of the profession based on mastery of skills, and generally promote the professions and the interests of their members.
“The thirteen Guild Masters of Isolla govern the Guild’s affairs, enforces magical ethics and serve as the High Clerics of Scatha of the Dark Arts and Myrrdin of the Arts of Light. They are the most powerful wizards in all of Aeldreth, elevated from among the highest-ranked masters of the various skills and schools. Tremendous power is concentrated where they live and work, and if some evil has overtaken them, it must be a great evil indeed.”
She resumed packing her basket and gave a subtle nod towards the three brothers listening intently to Ionas Farseer.
“I hope those fine, handsome Selkies have a plan,” she said. “I suppose Lord Nightwise must have some close knowledge about it, being a master magus himself and a servant of Caillech of the Gateways into the bargain.” She stopped a moment to add in explanation on the remote chance it might be needed, “The goddess of spirits. Her magic pretty much trumps all else, and it had better for their sakes and yours, too, if you go with them. For on the snowbound heights of Mt. Isolla, anything can happen. Anything you can imagine, and even some things you can’t.”
She hefted the basket on her slender white arm. “I will not be joining any force that marches on the stronghold. The devotees of Caillech may go wherever the Gatekeeper of Ghosts lets them, but we servants of the gods of this world do well to respect each other’s boundaries. I fear for those who decide to join your Selkie companions, but their fates are their own. I am not their leader, even though they elected me to lead them against Baugl in defense of the Temple. But that battle is won, and now I must go and help with the wounded. Hm, I wonder what the bandits are doing up there. I heard Lord Starhand, or perhaps it was the other one, say something about a new leader up there. Are our troubles over or about to begin again? One can never tell, can one? You wouldn’t happen to know anything about it, would you?”