Interlude 17: Suspect
Jesse shares his suspicions about a visitor

Jesse Cook and Douglas Smith sat next to one another in Douglas’ smithy. It was early, few walking the streets quite yet. As was their habit, they were going over the weekly intelligence information that Jesse collected.

“Anything else, on the horizon maybe?” Douglas asked.

“Just one thing,” Jesse answered. “I’ve heard you and Jason talking about the trouble you had meeting with anyone in a real leadership position in Varn.”

“Yes, a headache,” Douglas injected.

“Well, strangely,” Jesse said, leaning close, “while you’ve been having difficulty meeting the right people in Varn, some important people from Varn have been visiting Ingerland quite often, even quite regularly.”

“I said a headache,” Douglas explained. “They’re not our enemy. They’re welcome visitors, so long as they follow our laws.”

“I’m just telling you that one person in particular, a ranger priestess of Erastil no less, has been a regular,” Jesse said.

“Well, we do have a priest of Erastil in Ingerland,” Douglas replied with a shrug. “It can’t be unusual for them to interact.”

“No,” Jesse conceded, “and visits to Jhod on their own wouldn’t have caught my attention. It’s the way the visits occur, different routes, sometimes Ingerton, sometimes visiting Jhod, but once a month for last seven months. That’s a pretty regular schedule, camouflaged by traveling to different locations. This is a common trick in espionage.”

“Hmm…Caspa Morgaria, right?” Douglas replied, nodding. “I’ve met her before, maybe twice. She seemed okay.”

“There’s one other tidbit,” Jesse added. “I’ve heard she’s close, as in really close, to Maegar Varn. He’s supposed to be a bit unstable. What if she’s here as his eyes and ears, meeting with spies here. What if he’s planning on making a move on us? Maybe he thinks we’re an easier target for expansion than those centaur fields that are giving him so many problems.”

“Interesting,” Douglas replied. “You know who you should talk to is Jason. He knows her pretty well, though I’ll be surprised if he has anything bad to say. He speaks pretty highly of her.”

“I can’t say any of this is true, yet” Jesse responded. “I’m just speculating, but it is suspicious. I want to know just who she’s meeting with when she visits Ingerland.”

“Tread carefully,” Douglas said. “We don’t want to start any trouble with Varn unnecessarily. Keep me apprised, and if it turns into anything, we’ll bring it to the Council.”

Interlude 16: Wizened Delegate, Part 2
Brian meets delegates from Varnhold

The sun was nearing the horizon, and Caspa Morgaria was nearing Brian Shepherd’s home. Brian and Cephal Lorentus, Caspa’s friend, were sitting on Brian’s porch smoking their pipes. Brian Shepherd stood as she arrived at his gate and waved her inside.

“Caspa Morgaria, I presume,” Brian said. “I’m Brian Shepherd. Cephal said you would be coming to fetch him.”

“I don’t know why,” Cephal said, “I’m sure I can find my way to an inn just fine.”

“Good to meet you, Brian,” Caspa said. “And Cephal, I am only on the journey as your guide. I just want to do a complete job.”

“Cephal Lorentus needs a guide through a tamed land like Ingerland?” Brian asked. “Gods help the bandits that attempt to lift his purse on an open road.”

“Yes, they will need the gods help, indeed,” Cephal said, “to usher them to their final resting place.”

“Well, maybe I just enjoy visiting Ingerland too much,” Caspa said, “looking for any excuse to revisit.”

“You have friends here? Official business?” Brian asked.

“I have acquaintances, but no good friends here…yet.” She replied. “No official business this trip.”

“Well, you must be an awfully good friend of Cephal to come all the way here just to see….this,” Brian said, gesturing around the still growing town of Ingerland, " and no work to do or anyone more than an acquaintance to meet up with."

“I suppose I’m a little too impulsive,” she replied, laughing to lighten the mood, “but I know how important Cephal’s work is. He deals with a lot of things I can’t hope to understand. For instance, what was he here to discuss with you? I’m sure it was very important and very esoteric.”

“Dragons,” Brian replied.

“Silver dragons, in particular,” Cephal added, standing up and tapping the ash from his pipe.

“Well, that sounds very important and very esoteric,” Caspa said. “I’ve never seen a dragon. You?”

“Of a sort, yes,” Brian replied, “but not a silver dragon. So, you only now are learning why Cephal even wanted to come to Ingerton?”

“I told you I was impulsive,” Caspa replied. “Can you imagine? Coming all this way on Cephal’s assurance alone?”

“I confess I cannot imagine,” Brian replied.

“You two talk in circles,” Cephal said, lifting his gear, “but I am tired and would like to get to my lodgings to retire for the evening. Mr. Shepherd, thank you so much for your expertise. I will have the book returned to you soon. It’s not my best written language, so it may take me some time to read through it.”

“There’s no hurry, Cephal,” Brian stated. “I should thank you for those cheeses, very good, very unusual. Rest well and safe travels home….but then, why wouldn’t you with Caspa as your guide?”

Caspa smiled. Brian smiled back…in his own tusked way.

“You have a safe journey too, Caspa,” Brian said.

“I appreciate that. It was a pleasure to meet you, Brian Shepherd,” Caspa said back.

Brian watched them walk away through the red-orange haze of the setting sun. He saw Eric Bowman ride past them and give them a short wave. Then he ran to the edge of his fence and waved wildly to get Eric’s attention. Eric noticed and galloped over to him.

“Trouble?” Eric asked as he approached.

“No,” Brian answered. “You know those two, the two from Varn?”

“Yes,” Eric replied. “Caspa Morgaria and Cephal Lorentus…from Varn. I helped escort them to you.”

“That’s them,” Brian stated. “What did you think of Caspa Morgaria?”

“Very nice,” Eric said. “Are you sweet on her?”

“No!” Brian replied quickly. “I most definitely am not sweet on her.”

Interlude 15: Wizened Delegate, Part 1
Sheriff Eric of Ingerland meets visiting delegates

Eric Bowman rode the streets of Ingerton, his daily route to keep the peace. As he passed Kavener the wainright, he spotted two strangers at the end of the street who appeared lost. One was a woman, dressed as a seasoned traveler, tall, dark hair. The other was a bald man with a long beard, dressed in robes.

Eric steered toward them, but avoided rushing his horse. The man suddenly raised his left arm and a falcon came and landed on his gauntlet. He pulled something from his pouch, fed the bird twice, and then dropped his arm, the bird taking to the sky once more.

“That was a spectacle we don’t often see in town,” Eric said, nearing them on his horse. “You two look like you could use some directions.”

“You must be Eric Bowman,” the woman said to Eric. “My name is Caspa Morgaria, Varnhold’s ranger priestess of Erastil, and this is Cephal Lorentus, wizard of Varnhold. Yes, we are in need of some guidance.”

“OK. Pleased to meet you both,” Eric replied. “Are you looking for anyone or anywhere in particular?”

“Brian Shepherd,” Caspa answered.

“We aren’t far,” Eric said. “I’ll walk you both there.”

“Thank you, Mr. Bowman,” Cephal replied. “Mr. Shepherd should be expecting us.”

“Do you mind if I ask how you knew me?” Eric asked.

“We share some common friends,” Caspa replied. “You’re the sheriff. You keep the people of Ingerton safe, keep the peace. I like that. I don’t think enough leaders truly listen to the people or care about them.”

“I agree,” Eric said. “Most people aren’t looking for thrills or danger to overcome. They just want to live, have a family, enjoy their life when they can. They don’t need all the fighting. You never lose the fights that never start.”

“Such wisdom from a frontier sheriff,” she said with a smile. “One might think you had some other life before this one, but then…that is the Inger way, is it not?”

“You know quite a lot about Inger for a priestess from Varn,” Eric joked. “Just how many of my friends do you know?”

“Jason Brewer, David Forrester, Douglas Smith…” She began.

“Okay. That explains it,” Eric said. “As a priestess of Erastil, you must have some influence, a certain degree of leadership. Are you a good listener of the people?”

“I like to think so,” Caspa replied. “I hope so.”

“She is very good,” Cephal interrupted. “The people love her. She shows empathy and concern and follows up on her promises. She’s not always listened to, but she is a voice for the common folk, an advocate for their interests. Believe me. I know because I am none of those things and people are constantly asking me to be more like Caspa.”

“Cephal, you are being kind,” Caspa said.

“No, I am not,” Cephal replied. “I actually find it quite annoying because I cannot be constantly bothered with the needs of the common folk because my charge for Varn is one of a most uncommon nature. I am simply stating the truth.”

“Thank you, anyway,” she responded.

“I think you’ll get on with Brian famously, Cephal,” Eric said, “and that is good because we are here.”

Eric gestured to a cabin at the corner.

“Thank you, Mr. Bowman,” Cephal said, “for the directions, I mean. Whether Mr. Shepherd and I get along is somewhat irrelevant, so long as we can help one another.”

“Cephal, how much time will you need?” Caspa asked. “I will secure us some lodgings.”

“A few hours, but I brought some things to show appreciation, and was hoping to share them for supper with Mr. Shepherd,” Cephal replied.

“I’ll be back after supper then,” Caspa said.

Cephal waved to both her and to Eric for a moment and then walked to Brian Shepherd’s residence.

“Eric,” Caspa said, turning to him, “Can you recommend lodging?”

“Blue Daisy might be to your liking,” Eric replied. “I can show you.”

“No, I’m sure you have more important things to do,” she said. “I’m good with directions.”

“Is that why Cephal had you along?” Eric asked.

“It is,” she answered.

“Well, it’s that way,” Eric said, pointing. “Take your second left. At the third right after that it will be just around the corner and across the street.”

“Thank you for everything,” Caspa said, “and it was pleasure finally meeting you and sharing your company.”

“I would say the same,” Eric replied.

Interlude 14: Hair of the Dog
Jason and Doug discuss politics

Jason Brewer and Douglas Smith sat alone on one side of a long table at a small tavern near the border of Varn and Ingerland. It was mostly empty, one regular passed out in the corner. Their gear was stacked on the other end of the table, dusty from the end of a long journey.

“What a day,” Jason said, rubbing his temples.

“That man was the biggest jackass I’ve had to deal with yet since I became Regent,” Douglas said, pausing to take a long swig on his ale, “and that’s saying a lot.”

“It’s starting to look like a requirement for leadership positions in Varnhold,” Jason replied, pulling a small vial from his robe and pouring the contents into his own ale.

“How many more of these minor land barons do we need to meet? More to the point, why?” Douglas argue, slamming and splashing his mug down on the counter.

“They don’t find us worthy of any higher up the food chain right now,” Jason explained. “It might be a good thing.”

“Why?” Douglas asked. “It’s a waste of time.”

“It’s just…well, you never know what might come up in negotiations,” Jason replied.

“What the hell does that mean?” Douglas asked.

"I"m just saying…people’s past can show up when you least expect it and….even if it doesn’t have to do with what’s going on, it can still lead to…" Jason stumbled.

“Seriously, what in the hell are you talking about?” Douglas asked again. “Did you sleep with someone’s sister?”

“Me?” Jason chuckled. “No. I’m a priest, remember?”

“A priest of taverns and libation,” Douglas replied. “Chasing skirts is probably in there somewhere.”

“Well, I can’t argue on that point, but I wasn’t talking about me. I’m just saying that nothing every really gets left in the past, right?” Jason clarified.

“No, not right,” Douglas argued. “The past can be left in the past. It’s the very foundation of Inger philosophy. You do remember that you wander about representing us.”

“Yes, and I do so very well, thank you very much.” Jason replied. “Look, you can leave your past behind. We all have that power, but that doesn’t mean the past is done with us. If I escape an execution for murdering a child, and then move on to live a peaceful life, it doesn’t mean the sentence might not catch up to me some day, even if I’ve left that life behind me and everyone who knows the ‘good’ me doesn’t judge me for it.”

“Who are we talking about? You? Me? Are you saying you killed a Varn child?” Douglas asked sarcastically.

“No, I’m just trying to make a philosophical point,” Jason explained further.

“Do you know anyone who hates philosophy more than I do?” Douglas asked.

“I do not,” Jason replied, taking another long drink.

“Is Caspa meeting us here?” Douglas interrupted.

“She said she was going to,” Jason quickly replied. “You know, she’s a good example to use, so we can dispense with the philosophy. You know I adore Caspa, consider her a very good friend.”

“As do I,” Douglas added.

“Uh huh. Anyway,” Jason continued. “Caspa is an outspoken woman who, I’m sure, has ruffled feathers in her day. What if someone whose feathers she has ruffled sees our association with her and decides they don’t want to associate with us….or wants to make our work a little more intolerable?”

“Who wants to do that?” Douglas asked sternly.

“I’m trying to avoid specifics here,” Dave replied. “I’m just giving an example. She’s a handsome woman. Perhaps a spurned lover could get twisted in a knot because of…you know.”

“Our friendship with her?” Douglas added.

“Sure, that,” Jason replied.

“She has a spurned lover that could really be contributing to all these troubles with the land barons?” Douglas asked.

“You don’t know?” Jason asked in return. “I just, well, I thought you of all people would know.”

“Why me of all people?” Douglas asked.

“Because….good gods, for someone who does so well at reading others, you really keep yourself behind a wall of brick don’t you?” Jason asked rhetorically.

“I like to think of it as iron,” Doug cut him off.

“She was once engaged to Maeger Varn,” Jason spat out quickly.

“What!?” Douglas asked, surprised. “I, uh, I didn’t know…not that it would have been any of my business.”

“Of course not,” Jason said with a roll of his eyes. “Nevertheless, I thought you should know.”

“We don’t really talk about our pasts,” Douglas said, somewhat absently.

“Because you’re just friends,” Jason added, stone faced, “and because it’s not the Inger way.”

“Yes,” Douglas replied.

“Good gods,” Jason said, holding up his empty tankard, “I’m going to need many more of these tonight.”

Interlude 13: Getting to know your neighbor
David meets Jhod's fetching visitor

A hazy orange sun shined down through the trees, nearly finished burning off the morning mist. David Forester was checking one of the snare traps he kept set along the forest routes he traveled in his station as Marshall of Ingerland. When he didn’t walk the route, his deputies often did. As fortune had it, one trap along his path held a recent catch not yet assailed by other predators. It was a good-sized brown hare, still living. A blow from his ax handle ended its struggles and its life. He detached it and reset the snare. Then with skill that comes from repetition, he bled it out and skinned it in short order. It was the perfect size for a lunch to share with his friend Jhod, who was just another few hours walk through the forest. Dave put the hare into a sack and set out for the Temple of Erastil, Jhod’s home.

As he approached the temple, he could hear laughter. It was loud and it was a man and a woman. The man sounded like Jhod, and it sounded like he’d found himself some good wine or ale. Jhod was known to make his own wine and liquors from pinecones, but he was new at it and his efforts were barely drinkable by anyone but himself. And so weak was its proof of alcohol, it required a lot of drinking of the undrinkable to reach the level of intoxication that David was hearing in Jhod’s voice. The woman’s voice, he did not recognize.

He entered the clearing and, as expected, saw Jhod refilling his cup from a firkin that settled with an empty thump after his pour. He was indeed drunk, barely sitting upright. The woman sitting across from him was either not matching his drinking or could hold her liquor considerably better. She had long brown hair. Her clothes looked well made, but rustic. David raised his hand as he neared them and caught Jhod’s attention.

“David!” Jhod called out, the woman twisting her head around to look. “You’re a day early!”

Dave looked at the woman. She was not a young girl, but certainly not past her prime. She had piercing green eyes, like a reflection of the forest itself. Her skin had been much touched by the sun, but remained smooth and unblemished. Her lips still glistened from the cup she’d just lowered.

“I’ve been taking extra long strides,” Dave replied, opening the bag and lifting out the hare, “and I picked up lunch along the way.”

“Thank, Erastil. I’m famished,” Jhod said, rising unsteadily to his feet, “I’ll get the fire stoked.”

Jhod started walking away. The woman looked from him to Dave, gave a smile and an uncomfortable shrug.

“I suppose we’ll have to introduce one another ourselves. Caspa Morgaria,” she said to Dave, starting to stand.

“Please, please, don’t get up,” Dave said, dropping to a seat on the ground a few feet away from her. “David Forrester. Please to meet you.”

Caspa nodded and smiled.

“I’ve heard of you,” she said. “You’re the Marshall of Ingerland, charged with guarding the frontier from evil and foul intent.”

“That’s a big exaggeration,” Dave explained. “Just who’ told you that?”

“Jason Brewer,” she replied. “He speaks very highly of you.”

“We’ve been through a lot,” Dave continued. “He also drinks quite a bit and his tales get taller as the level in his tankard drops. Speaking of which, just what have you been providing our friend Jhod? He’s usually a lot more polite and, uhm…steady.”

“Some Cheerful Delver Stout from Varn,” she answered, laughing a little.

“You’re from Varn?” Dave asked.

“I am,” she answered. “I am the Ranger Priestess of Erastil there.”

“A ranger priestess of Erastil,” Dave said, glancing back toward Jhod, who was now toddling his way back to them, “I guess that explains how you know Jhod. What does a ranger priestess of Erastil do?”

“Like you, I travel a lot,” Caspa replied. “I observe and inquire, but the matters I deal are of a somewhat more….spiritual nature. I listen to what the people say, what the lands say, what Erastil tells me.”

“I see,” Dave said, nodding his head, “and what have they been telling you lately?”

“That Ingerland is more peaceful right now than Varn,” she replied. “Maybe we need someone like you to keep things under control.”

“Well, I….uhm, I’m not particularly special,” Dave stumbled through, hoping she didn’t see the slight blush he could feel. “That’s the Inger way, you know. We’re not special. We just work harder.”

“So I’ve heard,” she said, getting momentarily lost in thought, “many times.”

“Jason again?” Dave asked with a laugh. “I didn’t realize he was such a zealot about it.”

“Yes, yes, that Jason,” she replied, “always going on and on about Inger values.”

Jhod sat down next to them with a sudden drop to the ground.

“The fire is ready,” he said, reaching for the hare, “I’ll get it on the spit.”

“Are you sure you’re OK to do that?” Dave asked. “Fire, sharp objects, and you right now don’t seem a good mix.”

“Oh!” Jhod exclaimed, finally seeming to realize his state. “Perhaps you should help, yes. Caspa, we’ll be right back.”

“Don’t worry,” Caspa said, standing. “Take your time. I have to be off.”

“So quickly?” Jhod asked.

“I just wanted to stop awhile share some spirits with a good friend, and even made a new one,” she said, looking at Dave. “I have someone I’m meeting nearby. The two of you can enjoy the rest of the brew.”

“It was a pleasure to meet you,” Dave said, with a slight bow.

“And you,” she said, doing the same. “Jhod, always a pleasure. I might stop by again next month.”

“Please do,” Jhod replied. “Safe journeys.”

“And safe journeys to you,” she said to Dave.

“You too,” he answered.

Jhod and Dave watched her heft her gear and walk out of the clearing, a short wave before she disappeared through the trees.

“Good friend?” Dave asked Jhod.

“Very good,” Jhod replied.

“She’s not….married by any chance is she…or spoken for?” Dave asked.

“No,” Jhod replied with a laugh, but then got quickly serious, “but I don’t believe she’s looking at anyone new right now?”

“OK. Any particular reason?” Dave asked.

“I’d rather not say,” Jhod answered. “Let’s go cook up that hare.”

“It was just a question,” Dave said, somewhat defensively.

Interlude 12: Spurred to Action
The Ingerland Council debates venturing south

A full meeting of the Ingerland Council was underway. Everyone had a healthy portion of honey cakes and wine. Most members listened attentively, while others did other things and listened only absently.

“Next item on the agenda, a last minute addition from Svetlana,” Doug said, “the southern Narlmarches.”

“Yes,” Svetlana said, standing up. “I’ve received several requests from trappers and woodsmen that we open up more of the forest south of the Boggard.”

“Since when did we close the forest south of the Boggard?” Doug asked, looking around the table.

“We haven’t, to my knowledge, but….” Svetlana began.

“I’ll take this, “Dave interjected. “I’ve been telling everyone, and having my rangers tell everyone, to avoid going much more than ten miles south of the Boggard. It’s just too dangerous down there. I don’t have the manpower to start patrolling an area as untamed as that yet.”

“I don’t pretend to know the details,” Svetlana added, “but Corax Feller did venture to the far south Narlmarches. Several trappers had told him of a cache of coachwood groves there. He verified at least one such grove himself. He would have looked for others, but he was chased off by a large creature. He called it a troll, but….he admitted he didn’t really know what one looked like.”

“Well, there you go,” Dave said, gesturing, palm up, “too dangerous.”

“This whole land was too dangerous once,” Doug said. “Six men were able to change that. I think we’ve done admirable work over the last year, and still have work to do, but it sounds as if there is a need right now. I don’t see the point in putting off an expedition by those same six any longer. This isn’t the first such request we’ve postponed or handled minimally such a petition. There’s the haunted burial mound, the hodag, the centaurs.”

“But is this the time?” Eric asked. “There’s still a great deal to be done in the north we control now. I know we should be proactive with threats, but do we want to risk potentially kicking a hornet’s nest? Whatever the decision, the people’s safety must be our first priority.”

“It would be a difficult time for me,” Jesse said, barely looking up from his wine.

Doug looked around the room at everyone. Some seemed more interested in the discussion than others.

“Let’s not argue about it,” Brian interjected. “Doug, as steward, you do not have the power to order such a thing of the Council, but you do have the power to demand a vote on the matter. Might I suggest that we put it to a Council vote?”

“You’re correct, as usual,” Doug said to Brian.

“I wrote most of our powers and procedures,” Brian replied. “If someone beside you and Svetlana had bothered to show up when they were written, likely many others would have had the ability to come to the same conclusion.”

“But that’s why we have you for such things,” Jason said.

“Okay, okay. Let’s put it to a vote,” Doug said loudly. “Should a…subcommittee of the Council…namely our steward, high-mage, sheriff, marshal, spymaster, and ambassador….be sent within the week to the south to address the petition regarding the southern Narlmarches, as well as other petitions for the region, as time permits? My vote is ‘yes’. Svetlana?”

“As the people’s voice, I have to say ‘yes’,” Svetlana replied.

“Oleg must abstain,” Doug said, “Kesten?”

“I’d prefer a focus on reinforcing our existing controlled regions for the time being,” Kesten stated. “My men work hard, but our fortifications are still far from adequate.”

“There you go,” Jesse interrupted. “Excellent points, Kesten.”

“So,” Kesten continued, glaring a bit at Jesse. “I’m afraid that’s a ‘no’ from me.”

“We have two ‘for’ and one ‘against’,” Doug clarified. “Jhod?”

“I feel it would be Erastil’s wish to clear the evil from the forest, and he would look favorably upon Ingerland for such an effort from us,” Jhod explained. “Therefore, I vote ‘yes’.”

“Three ‘for’ and one ‘against’,” Doug recapped. “And it would make Erastil pleased. How ever can we deny Erastil? Jason, your vote.”

“As much as I respect the will of the people and the needs of Erastil,” Jason said, pausing to finish his cup of wine, “I have many….uh, diplomatic matters that have immediacy and time-sensitivity and require my personal attention here in Ingerton.”

“Brewing?” Doug asked.

“There might be brewing and other….matters as well,” Jason answered.

“It could be a chance to meet with the centaur tribes,” Doug said.

“I have sent them a dispatch, proposing a diplomatic meeting, and I would prefer to wait for that response,” Jason replied.

“You have to state your vote,” Doug said, “for the official record.”

“No,” Jason stated.

“Okay. That’s three ‘for’ and two ‘against’.” Doug summarized once more. “Eric?”

“As I said, my concern is that we could be kicking a hornet’s nest that is still far from the cabin,” Eric said. “Do we want to risk bringing to town a problem that is currently limited to frontier? I fear this is what could happen with…with the centaurs, in particular, they trod on Varnhold’s fields. Ingerland could be next. My charge is to protect the towns and their citizenry, and that must be my priority in voting. Therefore, my vote is ‘no’.”

“Three ‘for’ and three ‘against’ and three votes to go then,” Doug said. “David?”

“If one puts off pulling the weeds too long, the garden quickly becomes nothing but weeds,” Dave said. “I’m not sure we’re adequately tamed within our lands, but I fear ignoring these problems any longer will only lead to them encroaching on us at a time of their choosing, rather than ours. As my charge is controlling the frontiers of our land, my vote is ‘yes’.”

“Four-three. Jesse?” Doug asked.

“I can see how some of these long-winded responses are driving you insane,” Jesse answered, “so I will, of course….continue to be long-winded.”

“Of course you will,” Doug said.

“Though this is a crucial juncture in our geographic and political position for the region, I am in the midst of quite a number of temporally sensitive upgrades to our espionage infrastructure…” Jesse began.

“I’m sorry for interrupting,” Doug said, rubbing his brow and laughing, “but what in the names of all the gods have you been reading?”

“Is it that obvious?” Jesse asked.

“Yes,” several people said.

“Brian gave me this to read,” Jesse said, pulling a handful of scrolls from his coat. “It’s a history of the power behind the throne during the empire of…”

“I think I speak for everyone when I ask of your to stop and just give us your answer so that it can go into the record,” Doug interrupted.

“Fine,” Jesse replied. “I am badly needed for immediate whoring and consumption of spirits. So, ‘nay’.”

“I appreciate you candor and honesty,” Doug said.

“That’s redundant,” Brian injected.

“Noted,” Doug said with a nod. “Four to four, one abstention, and one vote left to be cast. Brian, it comes down to you.”

“And I have been listening to all of the rationales both ‘for’ and ‘against’. It has been particularly noted that most are using the charge of their office as the foundation for their vote,” Brian explained. “I find this both admirable and appropriate. In that same vein, I’m afraid I also have some rather time-sensitive matters over the next several weeks, and possibly longer depending on trade routes. There are some tomes coming through by caravan that I will have access to for just a short period of time. They are important for our understanding of the region’s eldritch history.”

“There’s a ‘no’ in there, right?” Doug asked.

“Uh…yes,” Brian said, “as in, ‘no’.”

“I see,” Doug said, with a little disappointment. “Five ‘against’, and that’s a majority vote, everyone. The record will reflect that the vote was ‘against’. Perhaps we’ll take up the issue again in the future, Svetlana.”

Svetlana nodded.

Doug made some notes onto some parchment.

“I have nothing else on the agenda for today,” Doug stated. “Does anyone have any last minute requests before adjournment?”

Everyone shook their heads, some obviously eager to leave.

“Very well,” Doug said, “This meeting is officially adjourned. Before everyone leaves, however, we should confirm the details for the next Council meeting.”

“We’re not meeting next week, same time?” Jason asked, putting on his coat.

“No,” Doug replied. “The next Council meeting will be in ten days at dawn in the southern Narlmarches next to the waterline where we found that slaughtered unicorn last year.”

“That’s not how the vote went,” Jason argued. “You can’t just over-ride a majority Council decision. Uhm…can he, Brian?”

“No, he absolutely cannot,” Brian agreed.

“Absolutely,” Doug agreed, “wouldn’t dream of it. It would be an act of anarchy and completely in violation of the rule of law that we established. Without any argument from me, the vote stands.”

Everyone looked Doug in silence for several moments.

“However….Brian, can you remind everyone who has sole authority to set the date and time…and location of Council meetings?” Doug asked.

“No,” Jesse said, mouth agape, looking toward Brian.

“The steward,” Brian ceded.

“Wow,” Jesses said quietly, slumping in his seat with a half-smile, “Well played, Douglas Smith. Well played.”

“You’re saying he can just…?” Jason started to ask.

“He can,” Brian reconfirmed, “for now. I think that’s a rule we’ll be putting to a Council vote as needing a change.”

“Certainly,” Doug said, making a note on parchment again. “Of course, as this meeting was officially adjourned, that vote will have to be the first order of business at our next meeting.”

“The next meeting in the Narlmarches?” Kesten asked.

“Yes,” Doug replied, “but as the steward also assigns required attendees; Kesten, Jhod, Oleg, and Svetlana, are all designated as optional attendees for the next meeting only.”

Brian nodded as everyone looked toward him for a confirmation.

“All required attendees should meet morning after next to begin the journey south,” Doug announced, as people began shuffling out.

Brian and Jesse wanted by the door until Doug was leaving.

“That works only once,” Brian said plainly.

“I know,” Doug replied.

“That was devious,” Jesse said. “I’d be proud if I wasn’t one of the ones being suckered.”

“Sorry,” Doug replied. “It was only a back-up. I was cautiously hopeful the votes would go my way.”.

“Since I no longer have a choice otherwise,” Brian stated, “I would say that I’m now rather looking forward to getting out on the dark paths once again, the promise of both danger and wonder at each turn.”

“Liar,” Jesse said.

“Yeah,” Brian admitted.

They all laughed.

Interlude 11: Budget Problems
The council questions expenses incurred

Oleg Leveton, Jesse Cook, and Douglas Smith sat around one end of the Council’s meeting table. Pieces of parchment were scattered between them, clogged with figures, and an abacus sat before Oleg.

“So, what does this all mean?” Jesse asked.

“It means we cannot approve the budget increase you asked for,” Oleg said.

“Doug, we’ve talked about this,” Jesse explained. “You agreed with me.”

“I still agree with you, but I can’t give you what isn’t there,” Doug replied. “To give you everything you want would mean a total re-budgeting. I have a certain amount of discretionary budgeting that I can move around under my sole authority, but it’s very limited. This goes way beyond what I have left.”

“Exactly,” Oleg added.

“A re-budgeting means a full Council vote,” Doug explained. “Do you really want to try and convince Kesten and Dave that you deserve a larger budget than they do? Do you see what I’m saying? I may agree with you, but I’m just one vote. I’d be surprised if you could get even one more…maybe Jason.”

“It gets worse,” Oleg said.

“Well aren’t you just full of good news,” Felkik complained. “What is it?”

“You’ve been overspending,” Oleg said. “I’m sorry, but you’re the one who insisted on accounting methods with as little detail as possible. Had I a complete ledger of activities, I might have been able to foresee this and warn you months earlier.”

“Not this again,” Jesse said with a sigh. “I’ve explained before. It’s to protect my sources. A piece of paper can be stolen, accidently viewed by someone else if lost. The information in my head cannot.”

“Unfortunately, your head is proving less accurate than my abacus,” Oleg explained. “Numbers don’t lie.”

“You just said that I still have…” Jesse began, rifling through papers on the desk.

“Yes, that is what you have left, but look here,” Oleg said, sliding another document in front of Jesse. “This is what you have been spending on average each month. You don’t have enough remaining to continue that level of spending through the budgeted year.”

Jesse looked at the numbers, squinted, counted in his head and on his fingers a few times.

“Crap,” he finally said. “I hate when you’re right, Oleg. So, how much will I be able to spend each month?”

Oleg began flicking away on his abacus and making notations on a small piece of parchment. He slid the document over to Jesse, passing it front of Doug at the same time.

“This is what you can spend,” Oleg said. “It’s about fifteen percent less than what you’ve spend over the last eight months.”

Jesse rubbed his temples.

“You’re going to have to really pour on the old Jesse Cook charm,” Doug said.

Less than an hour later, Jesse walked past a butcher shop in the way to Oakmoor Tavern. A vase of fresh daisies hung from a rope next to the door. Without a change in his stride, but still a quick look around, he snatched most of the daisies from the vase, and gathered them in his hand into a bouquet.

He quickly reached Oakmoor Tavern and entered through the wide door. It was small, but clean, and had surprisingly good food. The back door led directly to its neighbor, the second largest brothel in town. Jesse had been through that door many times, but the woman he was after was no whore.

He approached the barkeep. He was a thin man, older than Jesse, short cropped grey hair. He had a completely foreign accent, and usually a look on his face that there was a stink. Inextricably, his name was ‘Bob’.

“Hey, Bob. Serina in?” Jesse asked, waiting patiently for a reply that was bound to be caustic, possibly sarcastic.

“Aye,” Bob answered. “Bet she ‘as no tim fer da likes o’ yer scarny becksid.”

“Helpful as always, Bob,” Jesse replied. “I’ll just show myself up.

There was a steep staircase at the back that led up to the apartment of the owner, one Serina Oakmoor. Jessie climbed the stairs and scanned the room below as he walked toward her door. In the middle of the room were the Carpenter brothers. They were quick tempered, but not bad sorts. They worked hard, and there was plenty of building going on, and played hard. In a corner watching the door were Pearl and Annie. They were two girls from the brothel looking to stir up some new business. Serina had a good relationship with the brothel, taking a small cut of whatever business her tavern might send their way, and selling a few drinks to gents ‘waiting their turn’. Finally, in another corner sat Caldus Baggert. He was a traveling merchant, mainly trading goods bought in Restov to more distant venues. He came through every two months or so. He was a snob, never drinking with his men, who were presumably at another tavern, but he was a good source of spices and quality fabrics.

Jesse reached the door and knocked louder than usual. It was not a visit she was expecting. There was a slight scraping sound, and a green eye peered out through the one-inch eyehole, which then closed back up. The door opened.

Serina Oakmoor was Jesse’s height. She had long dark hair, usually tied up, a fair complexion, and was slightly older than Jesse. She looked at everyone suspiciously.

“This is unexpected,” she said. “An actual social call?”

“No,” Jesse replied. “It’s….look, can I come in?”

She gave an emotively flirtatious smile for anyone watching and opened the door wide for Jesse to enter. He did.

As soon as the door was closed, her expression changed to curiosity.

“Is there an emergency?” She asked. “Please don’t tell me I’m found out already.”

“No, no,” Jesse assured her, dropping the daisies into a waste bin. “It’s nothing like that. There’s still not a scrap of paper anywhere with both our names on it. The only person who knows our connection is the Steward, and he knows nothing beyond that it exists.”

“Well, that’s necessary in case you ever meet with an untimely demise. I’d still want to be paid for my services,” she replied.

“Funny you should bring that up,” Jesse said with a smile, “being paid for your services, that is.”

“I don’t know why you’re smiling,” Serina said, sitting down on the stool in front of her dressing table. “You know I usually don’t find conversations about money to be very funny.”

“Oh, I know,” Jesse agreed, “and I know you won’t find this one funny either.”

“I take it the increase we discussed is not going to happen,” Serina said with stern disappointment.

“No,” Jesse replied quickly, and taking a seat on the bed.

“Bramble and Crown are working on expanding their networks on my say so, and they have to pay their informants,” Serina complained. “You told me you could get it.”

“I don’t seem to have quite the flair for accounting that I thought I had,” Jesse replied, “which leads me to the second and related issue. It seems I’ve already been overspending and, at least for the next several months, I’m going to have to cut back from our original agreement. Now, before you get as angry as your raised arms seem to indicate you’re about to get, I’ve figured out a way for you to work with these financial cuts and still maintain your network.”

“Is that right,” she said, forcibly calming herself. “Please enlighten me.”

“You could cut your own overhead,” Jesse said, knowing the backlash was inevitable.

“Is that right?” Serina asked sarcastically. “Even were I willing to do it, there’s barely any overhead to cut. This will affect all of the spies you depend on, now even Acorn too. Frankly, I don’t know if they’ll even stay on or be able to maintain their networks. I don’t know if I’ll stay on. Perhaps I should just move on to somewhere else where my skills and connections are appreciated and adequately compensated.”

“Serina,” Jesse said with a knowing smile, “you and I both know that’s not going to happen.”

“And why not?” She asked calmly.

“I didn’t go into this totally blind,” Jesse answered. “I don’t pretend to know exactly why you left Bardston, but I know it wasn’t completely your choice. The fact that you came to Ingerland, where people come to disappear and leave the past in the past, also speaks volumes. I know. I did the same. You don’t have as many choices as you might pretend.”

“I left Bardston because I refused to rat out an employer,” She said.

“That part I’d heard,” Jesse replied. “That’s why I approached you when I saw you in town.”

“I thought it was my eyes,” she said.

“Well, that, plus I remembered back in the old days,” Jesse said. “Maybe we never met, but everyone used to tell me how good you were. You had connections for every job.”

“It wasn’t so long ago,” Serina retorted.

“Maybe not in years,” Jesse sighed, “but a lifetime still…for both of us.”

“Okay, so you’ve softened me up with compliments and waxing about the ‘old days’,” she said, “and you’ve robbed me of my leverage in the argument to boot. So, let’s get right to it. What sort of cuts are we talking about?”

“Twenty percent,” Jesse said.

“Ten percent,” she countered. “Anything more than that, and I’m paying spies out of my own pocket.”

“Sure you are,” Jesse said sarcastically. “Fifteen.”
“Done,” she replied quickly, “but in four months I expect a raise or I really will commit time to looking for a new home.”

“Fair,” Jesse replied.

They sat in silence a moment.

“Anything new?” Jesse asked.

“You know I don’t get dispatches until tomorrow,” she replied. “That’s why I was surprised to see you.”

“Well, I didn’t necessarily mean about…you know, work,” Jesse explained. “You, your life.”

“Are you trying to talk me up?” she asked, finally smiling again.

“Well, I just thought,” Jesse began, “we’ve known each other a long time, you’ve a beautiful woman, I’m sitting here on this comfy bed.”

“You’re a little randy after winning an argument,” Serina added.

“I’m a man. You’re a woman,” Jesse continued.

“No,” she said flatly.

“Sorry, I…” Jesse began.

“You haggle me down, humiliate me a bit, and now you think I might jump in the sack with you?” She asked.

“I guess not,” Jesse said.

“That is the correct guess,” she said. “Try a pleasant conversation next time. Try bringing a bottle of wine up with you. Try not throwing the damn flowers in the trash. Is all this getting through?”

“It is crystal clear,” Jesse said, standing up, “but should I stay a little longer, just to keep up appearances?”

“I think I have it covered,” Serina replied, reaching into the trash bin.

She pulled out the daisies and walked Jesse to the door.

“Go!” She yelled, opening it.

Jesse stepped out and turned to say goodbye just as the flowers struck him across the face and fell to the ground as the door slammed. Jesse turned and smiled apologetically at the attention he’d just gotten from the Carpenter brothers. He left using the back door.

Interlude 10: Questionable Practices
The Spymaster does what is necessary to secure the kingdom

It was a near moonless night as four thieves approached the wagon parked to the side of the road. There was a gusting breeze that covered the sound of footsteps through the underbrush.

The man at the front of the pack was named Dorn Houker. He was born in Restov and had only recently come to visit Ingerland. The robbery was his idea. It was an idea given to him by his brother who had worked the mine for a month before getting fired, then arrested, for some past horse-thievery that had caught up to him. Dorn promised to bring his brother, imprisoned in Restov, a share of the take. Dorn had never kept a promise in his life.

The wagon was filled with unrefined gold ore. It wasn’t as valuable as the ingots and dust that travelled via better protected caravans, but it would net a good sum from the right metal smiths in Restov.

The two men directly behind Dorn were named Jek and Herren. Dorn had met and hired them in Restov. He’d overheard them talking about moving to Ingerland for new opportunities. They were clearly amateurs to this sort of work, but it was a relatively simple task for Dorn to convince them of a short cut to some coin.

Behind all of them was a man Dorn found in Ingerton, a local named Jesse Cook. He knew the roads and the workings of the constabulary in the area, even recommended the time and place for the ambush that was eventually agreed upon by everyone.

In the wagon, Nathan Irons was awakened not by footsteps, but by the needs of his own body. He’d always had a weak bladder. It was a bad trait for a wagon driver, but this was not Nathan’s first calling. Back in Ingervale, his family extracted iron from the iron ore pulled from the iron mine there. In Ingerland, there was no iron being pulled from the ground yet, just gold. So, Nathan took a job with the Miner family, taking ore to Ingerton and Restov for trade. He hoped to learn something of gold refining from the buyers, perhaps build himself a new trade someday soon.

He climbed from his wagon and moved to the side of the wagon opposite the road. A land still newly tamed, few travelled the roads that late at night this far from Ingerton, but he remained modest nonetheless. Nathan smiled at the relief before a blow struck the back of his head, and consciousness left him.

Dorn stood over the body, having just struck with the pommel of his heavy shortsword. Jesse cursed to himself. The driver exiting the wagon was a wrinkle he hadn’t planned on, and one that hopefully wouldn’t cost the driver his life. Dorn reached down to slit the driver’s throat.

“That’s enough,” Jesse said loudly. “Let’s take the wagon and go.”

“Are you nuts?!” Dorn swore, running to the rear of the wagon to check for another occupant. “You’re lucking no one else was in here. They’d be riding off.”

“He didn’t see us,” Jesse pressed. “There’s no need to kill him.”

“He’s right,” Jek said to Dorn. “I signed on as a thief, but I’m not a murderer.”

Dorn looked toward Herren, who looked at Jek and nodded.

“None of you would even be here if…” Dorn began.

Dorn’s complaint was cut short by a yelp from Jek, who fell to his knees as an arrow appeared in his shoulder. Jesse also then shrieked, clutched his belly and fell forward onto his chest. Herren, unharmed, curled into a ball on the ground, clutching the top of his head. Dorn ran for the tree line. An arrow struck the back of his thigh and he went down yelling.

“Surrender!” A deep voice called from the direction of the tree line, and a silhouetted figure approached Dorn from the front.

Dorn threw down his weapon. Herren had helped Jek to stand and they both threw down their weapons. Jesse Cook was motionless on the ground.

Eric Bowman stepped out from behind some large shrubs. With the point of his scimitar, he led Jek and Herren to the opposite side of the wagon from Jesse. David Forester stepped out of the darkness and walked to Dorn, axe in hand, and helped him to his feet.

“Other side of the wagon!” Dave barked. “Same as your friends.”

All three were sat down in a row, backs against the wagon. While David lectured the three of them about their charges, conviction and sentence; Eric went around the wagon to check on Nathan Irons. Jesse had already woken Irons and was giving him water.

“You could take the stage with a performance like that,” Eric said to Jesse quietly.

“Can’t do that,” Jesse replied. “What would you and Dave do without me? By the way, you could have saved this kid a headache if you’d shot a little sooner.”

“Until you all started arguing, I didn’t know which silhouette you were,” Eric explained. “Next time, I’ll just chance it.”

Nathan was alert again, and Jesse helped him to his feet. Eric went back around to where David was with the prisoners.

“What happened?” Nathan asked Jesse.

“Someone tried to rob you,” Jesse answered. “They didn’t take anything. The Marshall has them on the other side of the wagon.”

Dave walked round the wagon, nodded to Jesse, eyed Nathan Irons carefully.

“You okay?” He asked Nathan.

“I think so,” Nathan replied, “just a little embarrassed.”

“The man that hit you,” Dave said, walking toward Nathan with a heavy bullwhip in one hand, “he’s been sentenced to thirty lashes. He’s right on the other side of the wagon. It’s your option if you want to do it yourself.”

Jesse Cook looked at Dave with an arched eyebrow.

“We have to do things a little different out here on the frontier,” Dave explained. “Justice is a little more immediate…and just.”

Nathan nodded slowly, took the bullwhip from Dave, and let it unravel to the ground as he walked to the other side of the wagon.

Two weeks later, the Ingerland Council sat around a large table. David Forester had just finished relaying the story of the foiled heist attempt.

“Thanks for saving Nathan,” Doug said. “He and I go way back. But what happened to the bandits after they got their licks from Nathan?”

“Well, for the fellow that hit him, Nathan only got through about twenty before his arms got tired,” Dave explained. “I finished the rest.”

“I suspect he preferred the first twenty,” Doug said.

“I’d hate to think I’m losing my touch,” Dave replied. “Anyway, Eric’s deputy then rode him up to Restov, where he was from, to see if he was wanted for anything up there.”

“Why not just throw him into stocks in town?” Svetlana asked.

“I didn’t want him seeing me walking around town,” Jesse answered.

“And what happened to the other two?” Doug asked.

“Since they didn’t hurt anyone, and with Dave and Eric’s agreement, I made them a deal,” Jesse replied. “They just have to stay on the straight and narrow and let me know if anyone approaches them with an offer to do otherwise.”

“Can they be trusted?” Svetlana asked.

“Of course not,” Jesse answered. “That’s why people might approach them with criminal offers. But do they fear the ramifications of getting into trouble again or accepting one of those offers without telling me? Definitely.”

“Dare I ask those ramifications?” Jhod asked, a hint of concern in his voice.

“I lash them down to the spine,” Dave said quickly.

“And I toss them in stocks until their knees grow roots,” Eric added.

Doug scratched his beard, still looking doubtful.

“Look,” Jesse said to him, “we’re Ingers, right? Well, those men still have a use to be had in securing this land, even if it’s against their will.”

“Next item,” Doug said loudly, “the smell at the north end of town.”

Interlude 9: Counsel from a ghost?
Gathering dust from the Greenbelt trails... and little else

Four of days from the temple, having visited Nettles Crossing, and now with Oleg’s Trading Post visible in the distance; Doug and Brian rode in silence at a brisk pace.

“You know, I’m just going to be the one to say it,” Doug burst out suddenly.

“Say it,” Brian insisted.

“This was a wasted journey,” Doug said.

“Yes, it was, but we wouldn’t know that if we hadn’t gone,” Brian explained.

“Well, I can’t argue with that,” Doug agreed. “We can still detour to the Tiger Lord mound.”

“Do you really think we’ll find anything more than we found the first time?” Brian asked.

“Nope, and I don’t relish the idea of grave robbing,” Doug added. “Still, ‘nothing’ would be about the same as we learned from that days-long journey to Nettles Crossing.”

“There it is,” Brian responded. “Okay, I admit, that one’s on me. I thought it was worth a shot, thought he might actually answer a question…since we’re trying to bring him the Stag Lord’s body, exactly the thing he wants.”

“Well, he’s a ghost. What can we expect?” Doug asked rhetorically.

“I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts,” Brian said.

“I didn’t,” Doug said, “until I saw one come out of the water and talk to me. I’m skeptical, not in denial.”

Hours later, Doug was stabling the horses from their journey. Brian was off picking them both up something hot and fresh to eat. As Doug exited the stable, he bumped into Brian at the doorway. Brian was holding two mugs and two plates of stew stacked atop one another. Doug took a mug and plate.

“I talked to Oleg while I was scaring this up…about Nettles Crossing,” Brian said with some excitement. “A man named Davik Nettles used to run it until he and it were burned to ash. Rumor had it that he’d defied the Stag Lord. Oleg even said that Nettles used to visit the post from time to time and he travelled with three noisy hounds.”

“I don’t see how this helps us,” Doug replied.

“I…don’t either,” Brian said, “but at least it answers some questions.”

“So, not only did we learn nothing helpful in this trip; but also, the only truly interesting information we could have gotten by just staying put and asking Oleg,” Doug declared.

“You’re father once told me that a destination is only half as important as the journey,” Brian said.

“My father would not have said that,” Doug replied.

“You’re right,” Brian admitted. “I gave it a shot. Let’s eat.”

Interlude 8: Counsel from a Priest
The shepherd and smith seek wisdom of Jhod

Two days from Oleg’s Brian Shepherd and Doug Smith arrive at the Temple of the Elk. As they neared the temple, Jhod could be seen chopping firewood next to the temple’s entrance.

“Jhod!” Brian called out.

Jhod waved back and settled his axe hard into an uncut stump. Then he dusted his hands on his shirt as he approached them.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” Jhod asked.

“We’re seeking counsel from a priest of Erastil,” Brian answered.

“Well then, you’re in the right place,” Jhod replied with a smile. “Please, rest yourselves. Sit down next to Erastil’s soothing waters.”

They did sit, Doug making a bit of a ruckus as his armor-burdened frame hit the ground. He pulled open a large sack he’d had knotted around his belt. From inside, he pulled a small package wrapped in burlap and a small keg.

“We brought you some of Svetlana’s breakfast biscuits and some ale, in case you’ve missed it,” Doug said, handing him both items.

Jhod laughed. “I’ve never considered myself a big drinker, but it will be nice to know it’s here should the urge strike me,” he said. “Thank you both. I’m afraid I have very little to offer in return, but you said you were in need of counsel.”

“Yes,” Brian said, “and that will more than repay us. We have been given a charge to dispatch the Stag Lord, who appears to orchestrate much of the banditry in this region.”

“Oh my,” Jhod said with concern. “Yes, I’ve heard of him. I…I mean I have the highest confidence in your success, of course.”

“Of course,” Doug added flatly.

“How could I possibly help you with such a task?” Jhod asked.

“We have scant information about the Stag Lord, but what we do have seems to point toward a connection between Erastil and the Stag Lord. The descriptions we’ve received of him have all mentioned him having a large set of antlers, much like those etched up there,” Brian said, gesturing toward the large carved antlers that adorned the temple.

“Hm, yes, I see your point. It is a fair question, but I fear my answer will not be much help. Erastil is a god of farming, hunting, commerce, and family. He would not willingly condone such activities as banditry and murder. If there is a connection between Erastil and the Stag Lord, it is a corrupt relationship.”

“Are there any weaknesses or enemies of Erastil?” Doug inquired. “Or are there any weaknesses of his enemies? We’re trying to find anything that might translate to a practical advantage for us in a fight.”

“I’m sorry,” Jhod replied, shaking his head. “Nothing comes to mind that would have any application you could exploit. This Stag Lord is already committing the most grave attacks on Erastil’s ideology.”

“Hmm,” Brian pondered, rubbing two fingers around the tip of his left tusk. “Could we ask you some more general questions, nothing about Erastil particularly?”

“Of course,” Jhod nodded.

“Have you heard of Nettles Crossing?” Brian asked.

“No,” Jhod answered. “Forgive me, but my dreams drew me to this region and I am not yet familiar with all within it.”

“Well, maybe you can still help,” Brian explained. “It appears to be haunted. A spirit there demands the body of the Stag Lord.”

“Ah, well, it is not uncommon for spirits to cling to this world in order to seek revenge for some past transgression,” Jhod explained.

“Would such a spirit be chained to a particular place?” Brian inquired further.

“That is typical, yes,” Jhod replied. “They will haunt the location the event occurred or where their body lies, if they were never put to rest properly. You might talk to Oleg about the particulars of Nettles Crossing. He’s lived in the area many years.”

“Of course,” Brian responded. “We should have thought of doing that before we left.”

“Since we’re here,” Doug interjected, “Do you have time for a few more questions?”

“Please don’t hesitate, my friend,” Jhod replied.

“Thank you, father,” Doug responded. “Have you had an opportunity to examine the statue we told you about last month?”

“I have not,” Jhod said apologetically. “I’ve just had so much to do cleaning up around here, but I hope to soon. From your description, I believe it is a statue to Erastil. I would have to meditate at the location for some time to be certain. The Greenbelt was first settled hundreds of years ago, so it is not unreasonable that it might be a remnant of some bygone civilization for the region.”

“I understand,” Doug replied. “We also happened upon a small burial mound to the northwest. Brian believes it dates back to the Tiger Lords of long ago. Is there any chance that it has anything to do with Erastil…and by extension any corrupt relationship with the Stag Lord?”

“Oh, I highly doubt it,” Jhod answered. “The Tiger Lords are named after tigers that used to live in this region. I have never heard that they have any relation to Erastil.”

“Thank you again, and just one last thing,” Doug said. “We ran across a starving warg very close to Oleg’s; plus our horses were attacked by wolves on another occasion, and we ran across quite a lot of wolf tracks down south. Is it possible this has anything to do with the Stag Lord?”

“Well, now this is interesting,” Jhod replied. “Wargs are no strangers to this land; so, by itself, your encounter may not be significant. However, if this Stag Lord does indeed have some sort of corrupt relationship with Erastil, it’s possible that he has somehow bent these beasts to his will.”

“Great,” Doug replied flatly.

“Jhod, thank you again,” Brian said. “We would stay, but we can probably still get in a half-day’s ride and we mean to make it to Nettles Crossing on this journey.”

“Of course,” Jhod replied. “I understand. I wish you both a safe journey, and remember that I am here should you need any injuries dealt with.”


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