February 1 2018

The Pilgrimage of Virtue 6 – by Olthadir – narrated by Asclepius

Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with the next chapter in this wonderful story by Olthadur, entitled
The Pilgrimage of Virtue
Background music by Smartsound

Chapter 6, “The Cooks Tale”

I sat in the Courage Plaza for most of the morning. I looked at the statue of Grannus, staring off into the distance in stoic strength. It has been a week since the soldier was injured. He will survive and will walk with us. His arm is badly broken – shattered they told us. But he demanded he be allowed to leave with us.
Determination and Courage. Where was the line between Courage and foolishness?

We sat in the tavern that afternoon with the Soldier. He was glad to be out of his bed and eating. He refused his normal mead, but seemed in good spirits.
“Maybe we should think about going back?” the Farmer said, nodding once to the Soldier.
There was a quiet pause. No one said anything.
The Cook cleared his throat.
“If every time someone got hurt they stopped what they were doing, no one would have done anything worthwhile.”
“That’s easy to say when you aren’t the one who almost died,” the Farmer said.
“You assume that I was never hurt before. You must have been hurt before as well, all of you. And yet, here we are, like the Soldier, continuing on.”
“Tell us more,” the Elder said, picking up his fork and eating once again.
The Cook took a look around the table and nodded.
“I suppose it is my turn,” he said.

“I knew a woman who lived in Braemar. She was not a well off woman by any stretch. But she could afford to survive. She had a small house, a garden and hunted enough to feed herself and earn some coin.
“She was considered beautiful and was courted by many. She refused all advances. She did not really care for such things. She focussed more on her work, hunting, tanning, and making leathers. She became quite good at it.
“Hunters and artisans looked for her leathers and paid good coin for them. Others, who were more ambitious, asked her for her hand in marriage, hoping for both love and wealth.
“She denied the marriage, but took the coin. Eventually this got tiring, and a little lonely. She wouldn’t mind a companion, one who could hunt with her, help in her chores and learn from her. Maybe, and she was very reluctant and afraid to admit it, love her.
“She believed she found someone and reciprocated his affections. Many were surprised at this change in the Lonely Huntress, as they called her.
“She was excited and nervous. The relationship was good, for both of them.
“She used her coin to build a larger house and together they hunted, stretched and tanned leathers.
“One fall the Lonely Huntress found out she was pregnant. This was unexpected for both of them. The news meant that things would change. The man she fell in love with said things would be fine. She could care for the child and he would hunt, tan and sew. She said she could hunt, tan and sew with child. She loves what she does and will find a way to care for the child and continue her work.
“As time went on the Lonely Huntress grew with child. She hunted as much as she could, but took many more breaks than she anticipated.
“When the child was born she had to remain indoors for some time. Her child was beautiful and strong, but birth took a toll on the mother.
“She lived, being strong herself, and used a wrap she had made to carry her child into the wild to hunt with. The hunting never stopped, but it did change. The child did not yet know of stealth and patience. Soon, the Huntress remained home to care for the child while her partner did the work.
“‘This was temporary,’ she thought. When the child could learn, she would hunt again. She did the stretching and drying of the leathers as the child grew, but that too waned as she had to spend more time caring and feeding the child.
“Again, she felt that this was temporary. Years went on and things changed yet again, but not in the way the Huntress wished.
“The child was sick often, causing her to spend more and more time tending to the child as opposed to hunting and preparing skins.
“Soon business began to falter. Stress overcame the family. The Huntress needed coin to pay for the child’s medicine and she still yearned to hunt. Her partner was unable to hunt well enough to make the money the needed. She wished to go out and hunt more than anything. She knew she was a better hunter than her partner. She had been at home with the child for far too long, yes, but her skill could not be denied.
“Yet, he did deny it. He demanded he remain the hunter. He demanded she teach him the skills needed to keep the business, and their life, afloat.
“There was no way this could work. It would be easier to teach her partner to care for the child and hunt herself. On top of that, her partner did not have the skill she had – no amount of teaching, or time, would change that.
“There was only one thing she could do to ensure the survival of her child: sell the business, the tools, the workshop, the property and the house. Use the coin to purchase a smaller dwelling and the excess coin to care for the child.
“Her partner did not agree. He held onto the life they had before the child and refused to allow the business to be sold. ‘Without the business, he would be nothing,’ he said.
“The Huntress replied, ‘I have not hunted in three years. The business and name I created are no longer mine. You do everything while I care for our child. My very identity has changed. No one calls me the Lonely Huntress any longer. They don’t even call me a Huntress. I am a mother. Our child needs us. Let the business go. You will not be nothing, you would be a father.’
“Her partner did not agree. His work was his identity and giving that up would not do. Over the course of the next year the two fought, stopped talking, broke up, and the business was sold.
“Now, the Lonely Huntress was an out of work mother who had the business she started sold off. She had to give some of the money from the sale to her partner, which meant she did not have enough as she had planned for herself and the child.
“The next few years were difficult. The mother had purchased a small house, barely large enough for the two of them to live in. There was a small garden which she worked, and it provided them with enough food to stretch every coin they had.
“As the child grew older she grew stronger. She grew out of the sickness that held her back and the Love of her mother made her stronger.
“The mother took the daughter hunting. She patiently taught her everything, nursing the child’s natural skill. The hunts were not as productive as the mother would like, but they were more a lesson to the child than a job. The leathers they created were damaged and imperfect, both from an untrained huntress and an untrained tanner.
“Many years passed like this. The daughter grew into a good huntress. Her kills yielded more and more usable skin and her tanning gave high quality leather.
“Soon both mother and daughter were hunting, tanning and sewing together.
“Through all this the mother reflected. She lost a good deal of time and money to this child. She lost her identity, her business, and her love. She really did love her partner, contrary to the fact that he chose his own happiness and identity to theirs and their child. She very likely could have been famous and rich throughout the island if she continued to hunt for the last fifteen years. Instead she chose to care for her child, the child who survived childhood sickness and became a strong independent woman.
“For many days, the mother wished she could just be herself and hunt, but the child interfered with that. It was frustrating, but necessary. Now, aged beyond her prime she sat outside her house waiting for her daughter to return from a hunt, a cart filled with carefully chosen and compassionately killed game to be turned into food, tools and leather.
“She was no longer the Lonely Huntress. She was a mother. The mother who gave her daughter everything so she could live and provide her herself. In exchange the daughter became what the mother always wanted, a Huntress.

January 18 2018

The Pilgrimage of Virtue 5 – by Olthadir – narrated by Asclepius

Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with the next chapter in this wonderful story by Olthadur, entitled
The Pilgrimage of Virtue
Background music by Smartsound

Chapter 5, “Nightshade Pass to Resolute”

We awoke early the next morning. There were some obligatory troll jokes commenting on our survival. The Sailor, the Tailor and myself did not partake in the commentary. Mostly because I didn’t feel quite comfortable saying anything.

“You all know that the Troll is in the Pass we are about to go through,” the Soldier said. “If something is to happen, it will happen today.”

With that our pilgrimage took a very serious tone. Some must have believed the danger was in the night, but the Soldier reminded us that it wasn’t.

We packed our camp in silence.

The pass itself is beautiful. It is quiet and pleasant. The path went up into the mountains and opened into a beautiful valley. We followed it until the soldier made us stop.

“The troll is ahead. It lives near the bridge. If we are lucky, we can simply walk past. If not, it will be on the bridge and we will have to wait for it to decide to leave,” the Soldier said quietly.

The tension in the group was high. No one spoke, even though the surroundings were calm and beautiful. Other than the Soldier’s words, we had no reason to be frightened.

The Soldier went forward, cautiously, down the path to scout the bridge. He returned a short time later and said that we were clear to go.

“We must remain quiet, and go quickly,” he reminded.

The bridge was an ancient stone bridge crossing a river that came from the surrounding mountains and emptied in a lake that dominated the valley. I wish I could have stopped here and described it more, but the threat of the Troll kept us going and focussed on that. Perhaps one day I can go back when there is no longer a troll.

There was a loud gasp from the Cook, then the Soldier drew his sword and told us all to run.

The troll was walking towards the bridge from a path on the right. We all ran onto our own path, turning left. The Soldier walked towards the troll.

“Go! I will join shortly!” he said. We all went, the Scholar and the Smith helping the Elder move quicker than normal.

We rounded a corner and were out of sight and sound of the Soldier and troll. There was a wall of rock and woods between us. We all stopped and argued between waiting for the Soldier to return and leaving to save ourselves.

“His sacrifice is valiant and seemingly necessary,” the Smith said. “If we wait, it will be for nothing. The troll saw us, it will come when it finishes with the Soldier.”

“We wait,” the Tailor said bluntly. “I’m not leaving without one of our own. Either he is dead and should be buried, alive and well and we will be abandoning him, or injured and in need of care.”

“And you would go and see?” the Scholar said. “You would risk your life just to see if he is alive or dead?”

“I will,” the Cook said.

“I can, if you all wish it,” the Farmer raised her hand.

There was a small argument before it became clear that the Cook and Farmer were not going to change their minds. They were going to go back for the Soldier.

“They are going to die, same as the Soldier,” the Smith said as they walked off and turned the corner beyond our sight.

“There is no reason why we shouldn’t wait, for them and the Soldier,” the Elder said. He was sitting on a rock behind the group, catching his breath. “I still have hope, as we all should.”

“We will give them a fair amount of time. But we shouldn’t have to die because of hope if there is no hope,” the Smith said, crossing her arms.

We waited in anxious silence for the Smith’s fair amount of time. Before she could comment that we should go the Farmer came around the corner raising a hand high and coming forward quickly.

“He is alive!” she said, “The Cook is helping him back. He broke his arm and hurt his leg. He drove off the troll for now. He says as soon as he comes we all need to get out of the pass.”

“We should get out of the pass by nightfall. There are wolves in these hills,” the Tailor commented.

The soldier was beaten, but alive. He was favouring his leg and his left arm looked limp. He was still holding his sword, it’s tip dragging on the path. The Cook was helping him walk, allowing the injured man to lean on him.

We all rushed forward and helped, saw the blood and dirt and the clearly broken bone in the Soldier’s arm.

“We must go on,” the Soldier said breathlessly, “out of the pass. I injured the troll, but we must go before it decides to look for revenge.”

We spent the rest of the day helping the Soldier – who didn’t complain about the help once. We moved quickly, our energies spent entirely on getting each other out of the pass. Only when we were out on the other side did the Soldier say we could stop and rest. He instructed some of us in what to do to set up a reasonably safe camp and we rested.

The Tailor and the Scholar tended to the Soldier’s wounds, gave him a sling for his arm, while the Elder fashioned him a sturdy cane.

We all wanted to get to Resolute to get some medical care for the Soldier – something better than sticks and cloth.

The night passed uneventfully. We heard the wolves of the pass howling back and forth. No one slept all the way through the night. There were whispered conversations between our bedrolls; discussions on our safety and whether it was worth continuing our pilgrimage.

At first sign of the sun rising many were up. The Scholar washed and tended to the Soldier’s wounds. She asked him if we should go on.

“Why wouldn’t we?” he responded.

“You are hurt,” she answered, “We are only a few days into the pilgrimage and we already nearly lost a fellow pilgrim. Maybe it is a fool’s dream.”

“We made it through the pass. I fought off the troll because I said I would protect all of you. If you decide to turn back and stop the pilgrimage now, what does that say about what I did?”

“It’s dangerous though!”

“You don’t think I knew that?” the Soldier replied softly with a rare smile. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to fight off that troll forever. I also knew that I was likely sacrificing myself for this pilgrimage. If I did die, I’d hope you would continue so my sacrifice wasn’t for nothing. I hope you don’t stop now.” He spoke these words softly, without emotion. To him they were mere facts he was sharing to a friend.

“That is why we are on this pilgrimage,” the Elder said, carrying a bucket of hot water. “Did you think we would not encounter deeds of Courage and Love while we were out here?” He placed the bucket next to the Scholar and smiled.

It took us two days to get to Resolute. With the Soldier hurt our pace slowed down considerably. No one complained. We took it all with stride.

We spoke about Courage – mostly about what the Soldier did for us, knowing he would likely perish. The Scholar told us that she had believed that the Soldier was the least likely to remain with us when we left Owl’s Head. She didn’t think that any more.

As we ascended into Resolute it became clear that the Soldier was ill. The Scholar’s work in tending his wounds was good work, but infection was still setting in. We took him to the apothecary and let them tend to him with medicines.

We sit now in the tavern awaiting news. We are all optimistic.

January 8 2018

The Pilgrimage of Virtue 4 – by Olthadir – narrated by Asclepius

Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with the next chapter in this wonderful story by Olthadur, entitled
The Pilgrimage of Virtue
Background music by Smartsound

Chapter 4, “The Sailor’s Tale”

The campfire crackled as we all got comfortable. Our eyes and, more importantly, our ears were directed to the Sailor.

“You are certain it is safe? I heard there is a troll that lives in the pass,” the Scholar said.

“There are nine of us,” the Sailor said.

“Not all of us are fighters,” the Tailor added.

“Virtue is on our side,” the Elder said. “Tell your story, Sailor.”

“Worry not, this is a happy tale,” began the Sailor. “It ends well, unlike the Soldier’s.

“My tale is about a boy. A man, verily, when this tale is all told. He was born in a small village in Verdantis in a modest home. He had little to show for himself. His father was a cobbler. His mother was a seamstress. They made clothing and shoes in the hamlet they lived in. It kept them fed, but gave them little else.

“This boy was well liked, true to himself, fair to look at despite the dirt that was seemingly always on his young face.

“His heart was set on the mayor’s daughter. She was his age and beautiful. She was well dressed, wealthy and well educated – for the area. She wasn’t a Brittany scholar, or a wealthy Lady of Resolute – but she was beautiful.

“Our hero courted her, picked daffodils and dandelions for her, cleaned his face in the puddles of the street, and learnt to sew his own fine clothes from his mother.

“His love, the mayor’s daughter, endured him. She smiled and accepted the flowers. She spent time with him and was kind to him. But she did always speak about going to Harvest to live. Other times she spoke about leaving to Valhold. Or even Brittany. She wanted to live in a large city with stone houses and stone streets and hundreds of people.

“Our hero smiled and nodded and said ‘Where ever you go, I will follow.’ He said this so often that the Mayor’s daughter began to believe it to be true.

“By the time they were in their late teens they were the couple of the hamlet. When they walked by, hand in hand, people would smile and say ‘There walks true love!’ and ‘He saw through the class and silk and she saw through the burlap and dirt.’

“It was true, you know. They did love each other. As much as they were able to.

“Time went on. Our hero wanted to give the entire Island of Norgard to his love. So he started to look at how to get her there and give her a place to live in a stone house on a stone street.

“He needed a job, something that would pay their way and would buy that stone house on the stone street. He couldn’t make that coin in the small hamlet they lived in.

” ‘I must go my love!’ he said one day, holding her hand tightly.

” ‘No! I can’t go on without you!’ she replied.

“They went on like this, as lovers do. Our hero eventually persuaded his love that he must, indeed, go. He was offering her everything she wanted, and it was the only way she believed she could get it. They would talk through letters. He would constantly update her on how things were progressing and how close they were to moving to Norgard.

“I won’t tell you the details of what he did. But he worked. More than most would. His heart was in it. He worked two jobs if finding work was difficult. He worked through his free time. He worked the land, on boats, underground, protecting caravans, anything that gave coin. And he saved every coin he could.

“And he wrote a book of letters to his love. He spoke of his work, where he went, his friends and how close he was to delivering her to her dream.

“Her responses were always joyful, excited. She was very thankful and reminded him in every letter of what she wanted, and how much she loved him. As time went on, the letters from the mayor’s daughter got shorter and further apart. Our hero kept working. When his coworkers went to the brothel, he would stay away. Even close to the end of his work when he hadn’t received a letter in months.

“He would imagine the delays in her responses would be from her travelling to him to surprise him one day. Maybe tomorrow. But she never did come to him.

“Years after, he returned home. He was so excited to see the mayor’s daughter. When he finally saw her, he grabbed her and held her close and started telling her to gather her things. She was shy, hesitant, and avoided his gaze.

” ‘I’ve…’ she began.

“He knew. Right then and there. It all made sense. She didn’t wait. It took him years to get what she needed. He nodded, gave her one last kiss on her cheek and handed her a bag of coin, then walked away.”

“That… that’s not a happy ending!” the Smith yelled.

“No? And why not?” the Sailor replied. “Also, I’m not yet finished.”

“I don’t see how this is a good happy story. And I don’t see the value in it,” the Smith said.

“Well, you see, it’s quite simple,” the Sailor said. “The entire time, the boy, our hero, kept true to his love. He lived his entire life in her service. In the end when she proved not to have been true to him he had the Courage to remain true to her, hence he gave her what he had earned for her, and the Courage to return to the unknown. This time by himself for the first time.”

We all grew silent.

“Truth and Courage. The boy, the man now, is free to do what he will, knowing that he held true his oath. He will find happiness in the end,” the Sailor said.

“I don’t think,” the Elder said, clearing his throat softly, “that we should explain our tales. They may affect us differently, teach us lessons we may not know we needed to be taught. They may leave us riddles we may need to answer ourselves. After all, that is why we are on this pilgrimage.”

And so we all agreed. Some of us got into our bedrolls, while others had hushed conversations. The Soldier kept watch, probably for the troll.

December 21 2017

The Pilgrimage of Virtue 3 – by Olthadir – narrated by Asclepius

Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with the next chapter in this wonderful story by Olthadur, entitled
The Pilgrimage of Virtue
Background music by Smartsound

Chapter 3, “Brittany to Nightshade Pass”
Docking was a long process. Longer than I care to remember. We had to wait our turn amid at least twenty boats in Spindrift Bay outside Brittany. We had to wait for some boats to leave and for our ship to be given permission to dock. When we finally disembarked we were thankful to be able to stand on solid, unmoving ground.

Brittany is huge. Larger than I expected. I could tell that many of us felt the same upon seeing it. I fear we would have gotten lost if we didn’t have the Tailor to guide us. We went to an inn, a crowded building whose name I couldn’t see. It had old, hard beds in it. It was not a comfortable sleep, but it was better than sleeping in the hold of the ship.

The next morning, we gathered in the common area of the inn. We were all very happy, bright and excited. This was the first real day of our pilgrimage.

We all sat at a long table and ordered breakfast. Some, like the Tailor looked comfortable in this busy place, while the Farmer and Scholar looked very out of place – even slightly frightened.

As time went on, the mood changed. Everyone started to warm up to our surroundings on a full stomach.

“What is our plan?” the Elder asked, sipping his third cup of tea,

Everyone looked shocked, surprised and even embarrassed. Here we were, in Brittany without a next step forward.

“Don’t you have a plan?” the Cook asked?

“Did I? When did I say I had a plan? I suggested we go on a pilgrimage, yes, but a plan…” he trailed off with a rough chuckle.

“Where are we going to go next? We are here in Novia proper. What Virtue should we seek first?” the Scholar said.

“Courage or Love,” the Sailor said, “Their cities are closest. Truth is too far, we would have to travel through one of the first two to get to the Truth’s city.”

“The city of Courage is Resolute, west of here, in South Paladis. The city of Love, Ardoris is south. Far south,” the Tailor said.

There was some discussion – philosophical and practical. Some argued a preferential order, others spiritual. Eventually, practicality won over all else.

“It would be easiest to go to Resolute, then Aerie, then Ardoris. Most roads, easiest travel,” the Tailor said.

We had a map at this point, stained now with tea, beer and grease from our meals. Yes, meals. We spoke through lunch, too. There were stubborn members of our group who needed an extraordinary amount of convincing.

After more discussion, we finally agreed on the Tailor’s path. Tomorrow we would head west to Nightshade Pass and into Resolute to see the City of Courage.

There were arguments that went on through the remainder of the day. Some were saying that we could go further, others saying that we could only go halfway to the pass. Expertise in travel versus experience. I stayed out of it and others did too. We were pilgrims, but we never were in agreement. I hope we would be soon.

It still felt like a vacation, though. All that had happened was a trip on a boat and a stay in an inn. We talked, argued, drank, laughed and ate more. It was a vacation and not really a pilgrimage yet.

I wondered what exactly would happen. Would we all be together when we left Ardoris at the end of our pilgrimage? Would some of us get frustrated, angry, or even perish along the way? The Elder already slowed us down; he was old. He never told us just how old, but I would say he is probably eighty years old, if not a good-looking ninety.

I feel like we are off to a rough start. It took us a day to agree on a path for the pilgrimage. And we were already a few days into our pilgrimage. Would we last all the way through Ardoris? Maybe it was foolish.

What is keeping us on this fool’s trek?

I can only speak for myself. I plan on remaining through to the end, if only to record the events. I may end up being the only one to remain, writing how and when we all parted ways.

I hope not. I hope we succeed even in just the journey and not the pilgrimage.

We left Brittany early in the morning. The sun was still young in the sky. It seemed that we all were anxious and excited to travel.

The road was very pleasant. It was well-maintained and well-travelled. It felt safe as it was populated by travellers and traders. We travelled quickly down the road, even the Elder seemingly picking up his pace. Maybe he wasn’t as old as I thought.

“We were in Brittany, why didn’t we try to speak to Lord British?” the Smith asked.

“He wouldn’t see us,” the Cook said.

“Why not? I don’t hear of many going on a pilgrimage of virtue,” the Scholar said.

“There are the Avatars,” the Elder added.

“Lord British is more than a leader of a new philosophy. He is like a king, trying to bring order to the land,” the Farmer said. “Maybe he would be too busy.”

“He might have heard what we were doing and given us a carriage, or something to assist us in our journey,” the Sailor suggested.

“Like an escort,” the Tailor added. The Soldier snorted at that.

“We don’t need anything,” the Farmer replied, “we have each other, the road and the virtues to guide us. This is how we will learn about the virtues.”

She was right. We were silent as we walked after that. Either pondering her last point or silenced by it. I must admit, though, that I agreed with the Smith; it would have been nice to see, speak and be acknowledged by Lord British.

The land we travelled through was green, fertile and calm as we travelled south. We passed many towns and communities that surrounded Brittany. As we kept south, black cragged mountains came into view. The sun climbed higher in the sky and the mountains continued to grow, and began to look more menacing. The Tailor called them the Blackblade Mountains.

We traded stories about the mountains, mostly hearsay. The Tailor remained quiet, shaking his head at some of the more outrageous tales.

We turned west and began to see the pass, our destination.

“That doesn’t look like much of a pass,” the Scholar said, surprised.

“What did you expect?” the Elder said. They usually walked together.

“A space between mountains. That is what they are defined as.”

The Elder smiled softly and shook his head. “No, no. Well, yes it is, but it is not an easy space. There is a path, mostly uphill. There is a lake up there too, a rather beautiful one. And water does do wonders to the rocks. It is beautiful.”

The Scholar pondered this.

“A pass is a pass, but not all passes are the same,” the Elder said.

A few hours later we stopped at the foot of the mountains and started to make camp. It was eerily dark, so we had a large fire made to bring us light and warmth before our climb tomorrow.

December 7 2017

The Pilgrimage of Virtue 2 – by Olthadir – narrated by Asclepius

Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with the next chapter in this wonderful story by Olthadur, entitled
The Pilgrimage of Virtue
Background music by Smartsound

Chapter 2 – The Soldier’s Tale

It was cold on the ship. I spent the majority of the journey below decks and I was still cold. I wouldn’t have been able to write anything if it was just the temperature, but there was the rocking too. There was a fire, which helped keep us warm, but I thought it was folly. I was assured it wasn’t.
The journey was long – a lot longer than many of us thought. There was small talk, some excitement about reaching Novia proper. Nothing really happened until the Tailor spoke.
“This is going to be a long pilgrimage if we cannot find something to do with times like these,” he said.
There was agreement through the room.
“We need to do something to pass the time. As we are a diverse group, we need to come up with something that we can all partake in equally and fairly.”
There was then a long debate about what we would do – games, knitting, cooking – utterly ridiculous things too that I doubt the one who suggested them could do.
Finally, the Tailor said: “What about stories? We can all tell stories when we have a long leg of our pilgrimage. I think we will be on this ship for quite some time so why not start now?”
“What kind of story?” the Scholar asked.
“Well, we are on a pilgrimage of Virtue, why not stories of Virtue? We have all heard them, and probably have even experienced something that falls in line with the Virtues.”
“Like a fable or something?” the Farmer asked.
“Yes. Anything really. To pass the time and remain true to our pilgrimage.” the Tailor responded.
We were all agreed.
There was another long pause. We all began thinking of stories that would pass the time and fit with the theme of our pilgrimage. The Soldier came down to check on us. He sat and listened to our discussion as we searched for someone and something to talk about.
“You want to hear about Courage?” he said, his voice rougher than it usually was. The hold went silent.
“Everyone knows about war. They hear about it, read about it – some even dream about it. People travel to see great battlefields of past wars imagining the strategies and skill the generals had. Others imagine the individuals that stood on the ground, weapon in hand. They hope to imagine the thrill of battle, the desire to know you are defending something bigger than just you – a village or a way of life. Everyone always goes to battlefields after the battles are done. They should go before.
“I heard a story about a scout. He had been chosen to head out to locate the rumoured forces of his nation’s enemies. There was rumour of an attack, but no evidence. His nations armies would not be allowed to march unless there was evidence of a threat. This scout’s general was prudent and sent the scout out to find evidence instead of waiting to see if evidence showed up.
“You have to understand me, we are talking about rumour. Everyone was on edge. If they waited, they might be overrun. If they acted without threat, they may create a threat in neighbouring nations, or end the career of the general.
“When the scout asked where to go the general didn’t have a location. The enemies were in the east, so that was where the general suggested to go first. But the north had mountain passes they may try to go through. Or, if they had allies and money, they may come from the south via fleet.
” ‘I am only one scout, how can I go in three directions? If there is a threat to the north and I go south, I will fail,’ the scout said. He wanted allies.
” ‘If I send more scouts, our government will call me a warmonger looking for battle. They’d say I’m looking for trouble and stirring the pot. Our allies are trustworthy, I am told. But I cannot let the rumours breaking this trust go unheeded. I must act. You are the best scout in the nation. I am trusting you to make the right choice.’
“This was a great responsibility for the scout. He had the entire nation depending on him.
“He chose to head west. It was the most obvious entrance to his nation. He felt that if an attack came, it would come from there. He walked to the border, spoke to farmers, traders and travellers. There was no news of a muster or movements of a large force.
“The scout grew anxious. Either there was an attack coming from the north or south, or there was no need to worry. But he had to know for certain.
“He chose to go north next. He went to the mountain passes and watched, listened and waited. He grew more anxious. He feared he had chosen incorrectly and that the opposing force was already in his lands.
“He had a choice now, head back and suggest the attack could come from the south. It was the fastest, safest and easiest decision. The general would mobilize the army, head south and either be considered a hero, or declared a warmonger.
“It was an easy way, and he would defend his people, but he had a duty. He started to head south, to see with his own eyes if there was an invasion. If there was no invasion, his people were anxious for no reason. But he would have done his duty in either case.
“As he drew near to the coast he heard news of sightings of a large fleet. They had appeared this morning and were drawing near. They would arrive this evening. he had failed. The invaders were here and he had no idea of their numbers, composition or any weaknesses. He was still a day’s travel from the coast.
“The Scout came to the last town before the coast and showed his Royal Writ in the town square. He asked for the fastest horse and the strongest traveller. He promised them a wealthy payment from his own cache, then wrote it, signed it and sealed it with his personal seal, then sent them on their way.
” ‘Early warning at the least,’ he thought. But he needed to count the soldiers who landed, assess their numbers, equipment and supplies. He took another volunteer and went to the coast.
“The army he saw was large. He couldn’t see clearly as he was trying to hide himself and his companion behind a small hill. It was not an insurmountable problem, especially now that his first message would arrive.
“He needed to see clearly their number and composition, but he also knew he would be seen clearly if he tried. He turned to his companion, a middle aged woman. He told her his plan, to see the invading army and to have her report back at the capital.
“The scout stood tall atop the treeless hill, wearing the tabard of his order. He saw the numbers of his foes, he saw their composition and he saw their provisions. As he watched he told his companion everything even after he was spotted and shot by the sharpshooters. He fell saying what his companion must remember and write. She did, and fled as fast as she could.
“The invaders must have been placated in their kill as they did not go further. Or they did not see his companion.
“His companion made it to the general as the army was being mustered. She told the general what she heard the scout say and it changed the general’s battle plans. Needless to say, the land was protected by the valorous actions of this scout.”
The Soldier fell silent. The hold creaked and shifted. No one spoke. The Cook looked more puzzled than anyone, but didn’t say anything.
“You should all get rest,” the Soldier said, standing up and walking towards the stairs that led to the deck. “We will be docking in the morning, and who knows when we will stop next.”

November 23 2017

The Pilgrimage of Virtue 1 – by Olthadir – narrated by Asclepius

Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with a wonderful new story from Olthadir, entitled
The Pilgrimage of Virtue
Background music by Smartsound

Chapter 1, “Prologue and Introductions”
When we left Owl’s Head the sun was already high enough overhead to start descending. I doubt we would make it very far today. The plan was to go to Brittany. We only got to Kingsport.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. There are nine of us and a good majority of us are not used to travelling. We ended up leaving Owl’s Head much later than I expected. I was at the Fire Lotus Tavern at sun up.
Hours of slow walking later and we arrive in Kingsport just after nightfall. And I am foolishly staying up, writing down the first days journey by candlelight in the inn.
Truly, I should begin with what the journey is about other than the ravings of a tired and impatient traveller.
This entire endeavour – called a ‘pilgrimage’ by some – really began about a week ago in Fire Lotus Tavern. The talk going around was about the large quantity of Outlanders entering our lands. We discussed who they were, where they came from and why they were here. Some of us were pleased, thankful even. Businesses were booming, we had more coin coming in than usual. Work was good. For some, business was too good, they couldn’t keep up with the new demand. Others were driven out of business by powerful Outworlders who seemingly could work through the night.
As we spoke and drank more the conversation became more and more heated. These Outlanders were called Outlanders because they don’t really belong here. They don’t understand Novia like a Novian. If they are here to help, why are they causing so much trouble for a lot of us?
Don’t get me wrong, we do need help. The world is in trouble. Whatever madness caused the moon to shatter and end the Obsidian Empire hasn’t just disappeared and left. We all know that. Lord British knows that – Outlander that he is. He supposedly saved other worlds before coming here. If you believe that, that is your own problem.
The reality is he is here and he has a very large following and there are hundreds if not thousands of Outlanders in Novia. So, what are we going to do?
A few drinks later, we considered our situation.
First, Lord British’s plan to help isn’t all that bad. We all agreed that the virtues he was describing were all well and good. We could not find immediate fault in them.
The major issue, however, is the huge amount of Outlanders rushing into Novia ‘helping’ us.
Lord British’s virtues are easy enough to understand. They would take long to really enact and follow. But the fact that Outlanders have been brought, or called, whatever you believe, is downright insulting. Why can’t we figure them out ourselves and save our own land?
That was the beginning of this pilgrimage. Nine Novians decided to travel our home land, learning all we can about Lord British’s virtues. We intend to show that we Novians can care for ourselves and do not need Outlanders to save us.
We intend to become Avatars.

For posterity sake, I suppose I should describe out ragtag group.
We were organized by the individuals who solidified our intent and brought us together: the Smith, the Cook and the Elder.
The Elder is the reason we took nearly more than a day to get from Owl’s Head to Kingsport. He will be the reason for a good deal of delays, I’m sure. As much as I cursed him today I would wager that we wouldn’t be a group of pilgrims actually going on this pilgrimage if it wasn’t for him. He was the main voice in going out into Novia and exploring the Virtues.
I’d guess the Elder is nearing a hundred. He is nearly toothless and has hair only on the back of his head. He walks with a cane and has a very pronounced limp.
The Smith is a tall muscular woman with blonde hair. She is quite a powerful looking person and has an equally powerful voice. She is determined to learn what she can about the virtues – especially to learn if the Virtues are an Outlander plan to subjugate Novians. She is so determined to learn the truth that she left her business to do so.
The Cook is a short, thin man who used to work at the Fire Lotus Tavern. He has short brown hair and a plain, forgettable face. He would often leave the kitchen and listen to the conversation we were having. He quit his job shortly after talk of this pilgrimage began to materialize. I’m sure the tavern doesn’t miss him, he spent more time with us than at his post.
He is a wonderful listener who intently listened to all of us speak. That said, he was the first of us to agree to come along. Maybe he just really wanted out of Owl’s Head.
The rest of us agreed over the next few days – some more reluctantly than others. When the Cook quit we all figured he did so only to sit and listen to us, but when the Smith sold her forge we knew this was serious. The Elder then started calling our trip a pilgrimage.
The Tailor agreed the next day. It wasn’t all that surprising that he agreed. He was a rich man who owned a large business. He wasn’t originally from Owl’s Head, or the Hidden Vale like most of us. He never said where he was from. He only told us that his clothes would sell for quite the amount of coin. We all just nodded. He didn’t look rich, he could be making it all up. He wore the same clothes as everyone else. He didn’t even act rich. But considering he was at the Tavern every time I came in he must have had a lot of coin to spend – or be seriously in debt.
The Soldier was the next to agree. He is a medium sized man of little words. He has a black moustache he carefully grooms and a mop of black hair. I feel like he joined for no other reason than just to protect us. After the Tailor agreed to come along all the Soldier did was say he was coming, drank some more ale, crossed his arms and that was that. He hasn’t said much since. Honestly, I am very surprised he came along.
The next day, I figured we would see the same people in the tavern, maybe less the Tailor or the Elder and never speak again of this pilgrimage. But as soon as the Farmer came in, she said she was coming along. She sold all her land and livestock that morning. I since asked her why she should do such a thing. Her reply was simply that the pilgrimage sounded interesting. I asked her what she thought would happen to her lands and she shrugged and smiled. She is a young woman, red haired and red cheeked. She is plain, homely, as if she was born of the earth itself.
As we discussed the weather over some soup the Scholar – who always sat near to us with an open book and pen – said she was coming along as well. I was especially shocked at this slight, nondescript woman wanting to join. I suppose it was her chance to fill out a book or something. A way to find fame or something. Not that I am one to talk.
The last one to join was the Sailor. He joined a full day later, before we even realized we would need such a companion. We were all discussing our routes, sitting around a map of Novia when the Sailor placed his mug on the table and said he would come along, free of charge – as if money had anything to do with our fools errand. He was a round man, devoid of any hair, save his eyebrows and a long braid coming from his chin.
I asked him why he wanted to come along and he simply said that he had been all over Novia – seen many ports, talked to various kinds of people, but never had heard of such a good reason to go anywhere as he did these past few days.
Sitting here and writing this now I do realize how silly we all were, the nine of us at the Fire Lotus Tavern. Our grand plan to go to Novia proper and learn of the Virtues. But, this is us, the Pilgrims of Virtue who left Owl’s Head, and are about to leave the Hidden Vale, to explore an Outlander’s plan to save us Novians from ourselves and our past.

November 9 2017

Virtue’s Forge – ch 11 – by Ulf Berht – narrated by Asclepius

Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with another chapter in this great story by Ulf Berht, entitled
Virtue’s Forge
Background music by Smartsound

Chapter 11, “The Climb”

Cook pointed toward distant sand-colored hills. “This is as close to the Sequanna Colossus as we dare venture. The place is infested with well-armed bandits ready to split any one they can catch.”

“Why there?” asked Merlin.

“There have been whispers of ruins lost to the shifting sands, buried treasure, and Obsidian secrets. Lurking behind every boulder are unnaturally huge corpions whose ancestors, some say, carried Obsidian warriors into battle. A very dangerous place, to be sure.”

Kaia packed away her navigation equipment and showed her map to Merlin, Abrams, and Cook. “This is our current position, far off any marked trail. We must go here,” she said, pointing to another spot on the map. “We must be into the Northern Barrens before sunset tomorrow. Get some water into your bellies, gents, then we must get underway. Remember, voices low and no fires tonight.”

The long walk, much of it in silence, provided Merlin with ample time to reflect upon his situation.

People see what they expect to see and believe what they have been told to believe, he thought. They see miracles in the mundane and fail to see the miraculous. Are we truly seeking to rescue Ulf, to save him from a gruesome fate at the hands of an old enemy, or are we just playing along until an opportunity arises to enact secret agendas? Sunstones, as described by Kaia, must be incredibly powerful. The mere presence of one in this world has put in motion plans and events beyond my understanding. Ulf is here because of one. I am here because of one. Ancient enemies vie for one, and enigmatic adventurers seek to meddle in the outcome. Without a doubt, my return to Avalon rests with my acquisition of this stone. I loved Nianne but she betrayed me, and now she is free to manipulate King Arthur for her own ends. Once it is in her hands, will Kaia part with it? I must have that stone at all costs and return to Avalon before the witch corrupts the young king.

“Three Palms Oasis,” Cook announced, pointing to a miserable cluster of palms and struggling green shrubs. “Our rendezvous. There is plenty of water, but we must dig for it.”

“Excellent,” said Kaia. “There is plenty of time to get to the top before sunset. We can rest for an hour before Cook and I begin the climb. Merlin, you may join or wait with Abrams, as you wish.”

“Climb? Climb what,” asked a bewildered Merlin.

“Why, that tiny pile of stone over there,” she said with a grin.

Merlin took a glance at the nearby towering mesa. “We scurried through this inhospitable place for two days, hurrying to recover my friend, and now you will take time for a climb? What madness is this?”

“It will be time well spent. Atop yon rock we have a friend who will give us an accurate accounting of the comings and goings from Desolis. We will come to know whether Ulf is indeed held inside or is still in transit. Besides, if what Cook tells me is true, there is a panoramic view second to none in all Novia. You may wait here with Abrams. We will be back tomorrow before noon and continue our quest. The choice is yours, but I must have this intelligence.”

“I will join you, if only to keep abreast the truth. I fear there is much more afoot than the comfort of one man.”

“You are not a simple man, Merlin but while you are at risk for capture, there is much I cannot reveal. The simple truth is that Outlanders operating outside of the Oracle’s ken and in the hands of the Obsidian Cabal present an intolerable risk.”

“Aspirations of acquiring the Sunstone do not influence your actions then?” challenged Merlin.

“The Sunstone is Ulf’s. I have no plan to own it,” said Kaia looking straight into Merlin’s eyes.

“Enough chatter. We must be at the summit before nightfall. Pack only food and water for the climb—and warm clothes. We will find adequate accommodations at the top. Cook, outline the route for us.”

“There is but one route to the top and it is not easy. On the west face of the mesa, we must first find and scramble up a rock scree. The crumbled broken rock is loose and easily set into motion, so it may take several attempts before we reach the actual cliff face. Once we are all on the ledge, we are faced with a difficult northeasterly traverse until we reach the gap between the two peaks. In my youth, it took me many tries before I successfully made it up both peaks, including the taller easterly one.”

“There we have it. Cook leads, Merlin in the middle, and I bring up the rear. Let’s get underway.”

As predicted by Cook, getting up the broken rock proved very difficult, but persistence paid off. After several attempts, the trio achieved the ledge. The traverse was not difficult in spite of the steep drop to the desert floor. They carefully made their way along the ledge to the large flat area between the mesa peaks.

“My agent will not leave his post until darkness obscures the desert below, so we have several hours to wait. Until then, feel free to accompany Cook. He has a particular interest in planetary movements and their influence upon this wretched globe, “ said Kaia.

“Indeed,” said Cook. “Cabalists are known to time their raids and sieges according to celestial events. I have observations to make that will aid those defending settlements. Are you with me Merlin?”

Again Cook proved to be an exemplary guide. The duo was atop the peak within an hour, and the entire western half of Novia was laid out before them. Due west, Cook pointed out the fiery glow of the Hilt in the Blackblade Mountains, the placid blue of Lake Equitas, and the sweeping light of Elad’s Lighthouse. In the north, Spindrift Bay and the glow from the newly risen volcano of Blood Bay could be seen. Above them, the whole of the night sky was unblocked by anything, no buildings or trees or mountains, just sky.

“There is much I could teach you, Merlin, and even more to learn. But duty calls. We must descend.” Cook said, packing away his astrolabe. “The Captain will grow impatient if we dally any longer. These torches will light our path.”

No one waited at their departures spot, and Merlin feared some misadventure or abandonment had occurred. Then he made out an entrance to a cavern. “This was not here earlier,” he said. Cook merely grunted and indicated that they should enter.

Captain Kaia could be seen crouched near a small fire, seemingly talking to no one. The pair approached the fire. Suddenly, what Merlin had taken for boulders resolved themselves into a gigantic being, daintily munching on what must be the carcass of an entire sheep.

“Ahh, Merlin. I’d like you to meet Bently. He is an ogre, my spy I told you about. Have no fear. He only harms outlanders who deserve it.”

October 26 2017

Virtue’s Forge – ch 10 – by Ulf Berht – narrated by Asclepius

Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with a further chapter in this great story by Ulf Berht, entitled
Virtue’s Forge
Background music by Smartsound

Chapter 10, “Epitaph”

“I am told you are awake. Welcome to the Epitaph, Outlander. I see you are not too badly damaged. Satyrs are not known for their gentleness. You may call me Lord Talon. I am the Grand Imperator of the Obsidian Empire. I am a direct descendant of the great General Karcheck and destined to rule all Novia.”
Ulf, too weak to say anything, struggled to piece together the world.
“Your life was in immediate peril, assassins were closing in, and I needed you here without delay. The trip would have been exceedingly uncomfortable had you not been drugged. No time…no time at all for food and whatnot. Damned meddlers. Meddlers always getting in my way.”
Talon turned to his attendants and pointed at Ulf. “I want him tidied up and ready to talk this evening. Yes, for supper, suitable clothes….suitable clothes and not stinking of satyr.” With that, Talon strode out and Ulf faded back into oblivion.
Several hours later, Ulf was awakened by three aged attendants, one carrying a large bowl of stew and water, another with clothes, and the third with bandages and various unguents and ointments.
“A hot bath awaits, sire, through that door. After which we are told to attend to any injuries you may have and to help you dress. Talon will also expect us to trim your hair and beard. We can tell you nothing, so do not ask.”
“Then get on with it. I will wash and dress myself.”
No longer starving and somewhat refreshed, Ulf could begin to take stock of the situation. He was in a windowless room with worn tapestries hanging over stone walls, presumably a forlorn attempt to bring some cheer to the drabness. The door opened with a creak of ancient hinges, but no bars or lock blocked the way into a long corridor dimly lit by glowing crystals. Ulf stepped out, hoping for some obvious escape route.
“Don’t wander too far,” a leather clad fighter said while passing by, seemingly on some errand. “It’s a maze in here and there are many unpleasant surprises lurking in darkened hallways.”
One of the aged attendants materialized beside Ulf. “Please don’t wander or they will make me into spider food. Let me show you around a bit. You can get more food in the dining hall,” he said, pointing down the hall behind them. “lt would give me great pleasure to take you to the library. Talon will send for you. Trust me, you cannot get out of here without his permission.”
“I have been drugged, kidnapped, and made a prisoner in a dismal dungeon, and you think I am looking for a library?”
“Apologies, Sire. Please take no offense, but Lord Talon has amassed a considerable collection of rare editions, some of which may be of interest to you, perhaps even vital,” the attendant whispered to Ulf. Then he hurried off down the orange lit corridor. Several open doors between massive stone columns revealed additional well appointed rooms.
The attendant stopped partway down the corridor. He looked back to see if Ulf followed, and waited until Ulf caught up with him. Stone dragons’ heads, lit by yellow crystals, lined the wall. The old man pointed left down some stairs. “Do not go down this corridor without an escort. The satyr guards will not treat you well. This hallway leads to the old Chamber of Souls that Talon calls his council chambers and it is strictly out of bounds. Not that there is a Council any more. It also leads to places you don’t want to go, places no one returns from.”
In the dim light, Ulf could just make out a hallway guarded by two very large and very pale horse-like creatures standing on two legs.
“Are they satyrs?” Ulf asked. “The ones that carried me here?”
“Indeed they are satyrs, Sire. Lord Talon has many. He claims to have created this particular breed. Underdwellers, he calls them. They hate the sun, run around in the dark, and squeak like bats, they do.” The old man shivered. “I hate them even more than the pale elves.”
“Elves? Here? Underground?” Ulf asked.
“Quick, we must go before they report us,” the old man said, and continued down the corridor. It ended with two doors. The old man put his finger to his lip and whispered, “Talon.” He pointed to the right hand door, opened the left one, and whispered, “library.”
Once through this door, they reached the entrance to the library. Although the dimly lit chamber was not as big as Ulf had imagined, rows of bookcases almost filled the room completely. A few brown-robed individuals were seated around long tables trying to read by candlelight. “Follow me. Speak to no one,” he told Ulf.
They wormed their way between bookcases and the wall until the old man reached a corner of the room and began working on a loose brick. A secret door opened and they entered a small hidden room.
After carefully closing the door, the attendant spoke. “We can speak more freely in here. My name is Jaren and we all have to get out of here.”
“An excellent idea my friend, but this room goes nowhere that I can see,” said Ulf.
“No it does not, but we have been digging a tunnel that does. This is just a good place to talk. The tunnel is accessed through a secret door in your room. It makes me wonder if Talon suspects something and put you in there to trap us.”
“And here you are confessing to me. That cannot be wise.”
“A risk we had to undertake. Talon has plans for you, and I am sure they will not be pleasant. We are but a few days from breaking through and, unless you want to die right now, say you are with us. You may be able to stop me from sticking you with this poison knife, but one tug on this string and that spider above you will be released.”
Ulf looked up a saw a giant, red-spotted spider suspended in a net, mere feet from his head. “I have no love for Talon, nor for his lovely accommodation. Your secret is safe with me, but truly, what are the chances of success?”
“Much better than they would be by staying near that madman. Remember, this is a prison, not a fortress. The outer wall is to keep prisoners in, not invaders out. We would never be able to dig deep enough to get under the wall, so we have sought other ways to get out. Some of the southeastern part of the inner wall has collapsed, and if you get to the dining hall you will see where an old entrance is blocked. We have found a secret door in your accommodations that leads around the rubble and connects to a hallway.
“I assume you remember nothing of the entrance to The Epitaph. The guards occupy a large balcony that overlooks the entrance to the prison, the pit, and the stairs down. The balcony once encircled the pit but no longer does. A section of the wall out there has also collapsed, and we have found another blocked entrance high up in the rubble. All our tests convince us that the secret door in your room leads to this entrance and, once cleared, a way out.”
“These plans have been long in the making. Can you not just walk out of here?” asked Ulf.
“No. Talon’s men have orders to shoot on sight anyone trying to leave without permission. He pays the guards well and they are loyal. Over a decade ago, I was part of a group of scholars studying the Epitaph. We discovered a secret room above the old dragons’ pen. Before we realized what we had found, Talon and his men marched in and took over. Three of my students were killed trying to get out, and the rest of us were forced to serve.”
“And I, here for less than a day, get to just enjoy the fruits of your labors?”
“Essentially, yes,” said Jaren. “But it is highly unlikely that all of us will manage to escape before the guards are alerted and kill the unlucky ones. We will draw lots in order to determine the order of escape. Neither of us may live to see the light of day.”
“Your truthfulness gives little comfort,” said Ulf, just as there was a light tap on the room’s door.
Jaren opened it. “Talon has summoned you,” said a pale brown-robed man.”
“Quick! Back to your room. Some finery has been laid out for you. Get dressed and I will escort you to Lord Talon.”

September 21 2017

Virtue’s Forge – ch 9 – by Ulf Berht – narrated by Asclepius

Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with a further instalment of this wonderful story by Ulf Berht, entitled

“Virtue’s Forge”
Background music by Smartsound


” Chapter 9, “Landfall”
“Land ho!” the watch cried out. “Three points off starboard.”
“The Isle of Wonders,” announced Kaia, as Merlin came on deck. “We will be up the Brisach River and docking at Lochbrier within the hour. Merlin, Cook, Mr. Abrams, Tuey, Chin-ho, and Scott, with me. Pack light. We can only go so far upriver before it’s overland.”
”Captain, having a map of this trek of ours would allay some fears I have of being stranded in some domain as yet unknown to me.”
“Merlin, Cook here is a native of The Grunvald and can guide us to Desolis. But a map you shall have. Cook! Would you be so kind as to make up a map for our fearful wizard.”
“Aye, Captain,” said Cook. “Although, if he finds himself in need of a such map, I fear what remains of his life will be short.”
“You may be right, Cook. Just oblige me.”
“Aye, Captain.”
Merlin had little to do save watch as Kaia and her crew docked their boat and transferred the few supplies and equipment their little band could carry. The bridge at Lochbrier blocked the course of all but small vessels, so at least a day of rowing upstream lay ahead. Just before embarking on this leg of the journey, some much appreciated kegs of beer appeared on the dock. “This will make rowing more palatable,” thought Merlin.
Rowing was expected of all onboard save the captain. Four rowed while two rested, drank beer, and watched the river go by. Tuey and Chin-ho even broke into song, easing the passage of time and weary muscles. “I have rowed more since arriving here than I have in my entire life,” thought Merlin. “Some good will come from this should I ever have to swing a sword.”
Cook signaled a stop just before the Brisach made a major turn to the northeast. “With your permission Captain, we camp here for the night and head inland at first light,” he said.
“That will no doubt be agreeable to all,” Captain Kaia said as the dory’s keel crunched on the gravel shoreline. “Cook, Mr. Abrams, stay with Merlin and me. Tuey, and Scott, return to the crew in the morning. Mr. Chin-Ho, accompany them but ensconce yourself in Lochbrier for a week or two, then rejoin the crew. See what a few tongues, loosened by gold, can bring forth.”
“Tomorrow night we will be in bandit country, so there will be no fires. Before we leave tomorrow, pack enough of the rations. Prepare for at least two days’ march.”
“Carry on, Cook,” said Kaia. “Abrams and Merlin, with me.” She unfolded a map. “This has more detail than yours, Merlin, but is essentially the same. The Pass through the Vauban Mountains, here, is north by northeast of our position. That will be where we might expect Ulf to be. The pass and the area around the Sequanna Colossus is firmly in bandit control and must be avoided. Even our rendezvous in the Barrens contains some risk, so be ever alert.”

September 7 2017

Virtue’s Forge – ch 7 & 8 – by Ulf Berht – narrated by Asclepius

Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with another instalment of this wonderful story from Ulf Berht, entitled

“Virtue’s Forge”
Background music by Smartsound

Chapter 7, “Fire”
“Fire! Fire!”
When Merlin heard the shouting, he threw on his robe and boots and ran out into the pre-dawn twilight. Around the corner and up the street he could see the red and orange flames leaping high into the sky, showering sparks down upon the village. He ran to help and soon realized that Ulf’s forge was engulfed in flames. A bucket brigade had formed but clearly there was already no possibility of extinguishing the blaze. The fire fighters were now concentrating on putting out fires started by flying embers. Ulf was nowhere to be seen and no one could recall seeing him.
By noon, only smoking ruin was left. With no sign of Ulf, Merlin and others began poking through the blackened timbers. “Here! Over here! A body I think,” called out one of the searchers. “It must be the blacksmith.”
Merlin watched as guardsmen arrived and collected the body in a canvas sheet and took it to the mortuary. A few tattered scraps of cloth were stuck in the burnt and blackened flesh. There was nothing recognizable as Ulf’s, but the height and weight were a match. A sword lay by the body on the scorched floor. Other weapons and household item had also been scattered by the firefighting.
The Captain of the Guards approached Merlin.”You were acquainted with this man?” he asked.
“I am indeed. Ulf Berht is a particular friend of mine. I am not yet convinced that those remains are his.”
“Are you not, sir? Then whose might they be? I have not been informed of any other not being accounted for. Where were you prior to the blaze?”
“In my lodgings at the inn. I am sure the innkeeper can attest that I was there until wakened by the alarm. As to who this is, I have no idea.”
“I will, of course, verify your whereabouts with the innkeeper. I the meantime, I must ask you to remain in town.”
“Of course, Captain. May I search the site for things recoverable? I know much of what he owned.”
“You may, but one of my men will accompany you and catalogue what you find.”
“Good day to you then. We must be about our tasks,” said Merlin.
The Captain made no reply as he left to give some orders to his men. “Keep an eye on him,” Merlin overheard the officer say.

The possibility that Ulf was gone increased with no sign yet of any resurrection. Merlin’s mood turned dark. “It is not my way to become attached to anyone,” he thought, as the warm water of the tub soothed his tired body. It had taken two tubs of water to be rid of the throat catching, nose stinging fumes of wet burned wood. Merlin’s searching had located Ulf’s tools, swords, and armor–all things a blacksmith would have taken with him had some business called him away. Most troubling was that the iron ingot containing the jewel could not be found.
Merlin’s dozing reverie was disturbed by a knock on his door. “More hot water sire. Can I bring it in?” a female voice asked.
“Certainly. But weren’t you just here?” The door opened and the maid stepped in with a large jug of steaming water.
“Not I sire. Mistress told me to bring more. Do you not want it?”
“Just pour it into the tub, girl, before it too gets cold.”
Merlin examined the girl as she emptied the jug. He noticed her attractiveness and was somewhat embarrassed by his nakedness. Darker skinned than any he had seen around Port Graff, small breasted, with her hair cut short. Lithe, and certainly strong, judging by the way she handled the large jug of hot water.
“I have not seen you before,” said Merlin. “Do you have a name?”
“Kaia, to you sir,” she said. In an instant she was behind Merlin with a dagger against his throat. “Assassin to others. But fear not. I am not here to kill you, unless you cry out.”
“That cold steel at my throat ensures my silence. If it is not my death you want, then what? You can have my manhood without the need of a blade.”
“I have found that a little steel in the bedchamber keeps a man more compliant to my will. Now listen, I know nothing about your friend’s fate nor was I party to the fire or any such mischief. I can tell you that the Sun Stone that was in his possession is on the move. In whose pocket I honestly know not. The guardsmen will soon be seeking me, as my enquires about you and him are well known. So I must be off. I must follow the stone which, I believe is destined for Desolis. If your friend is alive, he goes there too. Join me if you wish, but I must sail tonight. What is your answer?”
Merlin thought for a moment. “We will then seek out those who have the stone, determine Ulf’s fate, and exact the appropriate revenge?”
“Excellent. Be at the dock at midnight, attract no attention, and all will go well. If necessary, I will cast off and sail to a small bay at the north of Graff Island and wait for you no more than one day. Failing that, make your own way to Desolis and seek out Anya. She will know where I am.”
Merlin had barely enough time to nod before she was out the window and onto nearby rooftop.
No moon lit the way as Merlin walked as silently as possible towards the docks. The few people about were easy to evade by slipping into darker shadows. “The Captain will not be pleased with me,” he thought. “I will probably be branded as a murderer.”
As if on cue with the thought, the Captain of the Guard stepped out of the shadows, sword drawn. “Out for an evening stroll are we?”
Before the Captain could summon other waiting guards, a darker shadow behind him pulled out a leather sap, easily laying the Captain out with a rap to his head. A lithe female form in head to toe black stepped out. “Quick! The boat’s on the beach. Get in and row for all your life’s worth. My crew is watching and will pick us up.”
Merlin needed no more encouragement than that to sprint alongside the dark form to the shoreline, find the boat, and ready the oars. As she removed her black facemask, Merlin could now confirm that his ally was Kaia. Without any further conversation, they bent to the oars and rowed off into the night.

Chapter 8 – “Kaia”
“Well, Mr. Wizard, your life is once again in my hands,” said Kaia. She had one hand on a ratline and one foot theatrically up on the gunwale. Her supple black leather armor hid none of her femininity. “If this wind holds, we will be at the mouth of the Brisach River late tomorrow, with perhaps enough light to make Lochbrier before dark. To get any further inland, we must switch to a vessel with less draft. From there it’s overland to Desolis.”
A hue and cry had arisen from Graff Harbor and several torches had illuminated the docks, but no pursuit had arisen. Once onboard the larger boat, Kaia issued a single command and her crew flew into motion, setting sail and getting underway.
Merlin looked hard at Kaia, unsure of when or even if he could charm her and access her motives. Light from the shattered moon lit her features well enough, but he would have to wait to find out if she possessed any resources that could counter his attempts to beguile her. “I am ever wary of fortunate happenstances,” he said. “That you happen to be at the dock with the appropriate weapon in hand, at exactly the right spot to allow you to render unconscious a conveniently alone Captain of the Guard, seems to be too fortunate.”
“It seems to me, Mr. Wizard, that if it were not for just such fortunate happenstances, you would be laying in your own piss in a dark and cold clink, waiting for the hangman to get sober enough to stretch your wizardly neck. I admit to spying upon you and the blacksmith. I also admit to seeing pale-skinned satyrs out at night engaged in similar pursuits. I also know that gold would aid said Captain in making quick and convenient decisions. If you continue to suspect my motives, you are free to disembark anytime. I may, however, forget to tie the boat to a wharf first.”
“Please, Kaia, do not misunderstand me. I am very grateful for your help in keeping me out of that draughty cell. Perhaps were you to use our names instead of references to wizards and blacksmiths, and if you were not so eager to draw your knife, we might yet be comrades. But for now I am eager for more information.”
“Very soon, Mr. Wi…Merlin. Have patience while I lay out a course for my crew.”
Ahoy, Mr. Talbot. Take our guest here below and find him a bunk. Ask Cook to conjure up a meal for us in my cabin.”
Merlin, I trust that once settled you will join me in my cabin and we will share a good meal and perhaps become comrades.”
Merlin nodded and turned to follow Talbot. The bunk was in a tiny cabin, barely large enough to turn around in. There was a small wash basin, dutifully filled with warm water. By the time he was summoned to the Captain’s cabin, the cooking aromas that filled the air had Merlin more than ready to eat. A mere foot or two separated his cabin from hers, yet a small neatly clad cabin boy was somehow required to conduct him in.
Elegant silverware embellished a carved wooden table large enough to seat six. A writing table, two trunks, and a draped four poster bed filled most of the room. Through the stern window, pale moonlight reflected off a foamy wake.
“Have a seat, Merlin. Brent will be along shortly with some grub. Wine? Port?”
“I am exceedingly hungry. Some wine would be most welcome,” said Merlin, taking the offered seat and wine.
“Let me get straight to the point,” said Kaia. “I am not an Outlander like you, but neither am I from Novia. For now that is all I am prepared to say. The events now taking place in Novia are causing a lot of concern throughout this unfortunate globe, and I need your help. I need help in preventing your friend, Ulf, from being turned into a monster and being used as a weapon.”
A single rap on the cabin door interrupted. “Enter,” she said. A smartly dressed young man came in carrying several serving dishes, elegantly balanced in his arms.
“Thank you, Brent. Just put them on the table. Give my compliments to Cook and you may call it a day.”
Conversation between Merlin and Kaia ceased as both attacked the meal: white meat, rice, and vegetables covered in a spicy, buttery sauce, served with some flat-bread.
“My compliments to the cook as well,” said Merlin. “Crab, or perhaps Lobster?” he asked.
Kaia laughed. “Corpion. Cook is from Grunveld, the very same area we must make our way through. Somewhat of a delicacy of that region, I am told. A deadly poison, unless properly prepared.”
“He must know his trade, for we are still breathing. Delicious, nonetheless. Have you a map of our journey so that I may become more oriented? I fear my lack of knowledge may interfere with the proper digestion of this so expertly prepared meal.”
“I do indeed,” said Kaia. “Several, in fact.” The meal finished, they made their way to her writing table. “The first is of Drachvald, from the northern tip of the peninsula south to the head of the Brisarch River and Vauban Pass. Port Graff is here,” she indicated, “and our current position here. Exile Island is off to starboard, here. The satyrs I watched in Port Graff were of the underdweller type, normally found only in The Epitaph at Desolis.”
Kaia unrolled a second map. “Here is Grunvald, south to Eastreach Gap. Desolis is almost dead center of the barrens. The Epitaph in Desolis is where your friend Ulf is destined to meet his fate, unless we intervene.”
“I have heard of The Epitaph, a 200 year old ruin from the Obsidian Wars. Why would Ulf’s abductors go there?”
“Obsidian Chards, rings of stone, secret rooms, elves, satyrs, and the undead, all in a bandit stronghold. A cornucopia of trouble. Without a doubt, a center for Obsidian Cabalists. Here they plot their re-conquest of Novia.”
“And their need for Ulf Berht is…?” asked Merlin.
“They hope the Sunstone that accompanied Ulf to Novia will allow them to resume the reshaping of living things to better suit their purposes. In particular, the creation of chimeric monsters, invisible to the Oracle—re-worked elves perhaps. You were to be a redundant victim should Ulf prove too delicate and expire.”
“Sunstone? The jewel I gave Ulf was a ruby.”
No it is not. It is a Sunstone masterfully disguised and exceedingly rare here since the Cataclysm. The Shardfalls, thought by many to be random strikes, were in fact carefully planned. The locations were specifically targeted so as to eliminate any local source of the gem. A source of sunstones would allow full control of all the Lunar Rifts in Novia and enable the return to the re-formation of living beings.”
“For someone not from Novia, you seem to be in possession of knowledge not known to others. Are you one of these Cabalists?” asked Merlin.
“In some ways I am, I must confess, but not of the current variety. Were I Novian, I would be called an Annaleman.
“Annaleman?” asked Merlin.
“Before the Cataclysm, many scholars studied the magic of Lunar Rifts—Moongates, they were known as then. Some of the scholars were investigating how to extend the range of the portals, even to the moons, Trammel and Felluca, themselves.
“These are the moons that collided?” asked Merlin.
“Yes. Following the collision, thousands of scholars and academics were rounded up and accused of causing this Cataclysm by dabbling in things belonging to the gods. Many were murdered or exiled. The Obsidian Cabalists offered some security, so many joined the cause, only to be aghast when Cabalists began re-forming the living into war machines. Any objection to this magic was met with a trip to the re-shapers’ laboratory.”
“A gruesome fate,” said Merlin.
“Indeed! That is why dissent went underground. A secret society formed, working against the Obsidians. They called themselves Annalemans. Some, like my ancestors, fled to other lands. Others remained and still maintain a network of informants who are keeping a close eye out for our interests.”
“How does all this result in Ulf being abducted and me being wanted for murder?” asked Merlin.
“Wait, Merlin. Let me continue.
“One way to re-shape creatures is to tune two Lunar Rifts so that they have the same destination, like a mirror reflecting itself. The simultaneous use of Rifts set this way can produce a chimera—a single creature with some combination of those transported. The result is usually a disgustingly messy blob of slimy wet flesh and bone that lives for but a moment.”
“Not a fate I would relish for Ulf, or anyone.”
Kaia continued. “Several texts have survived the centuries and explain how to tune the ring stones to reduce the risk of this happening. Viable creatures can be produced. However, it is more troubling that unfettered control of Lunar Rifts would allow for the production of multiple copies of such successful combinations.”
“A repeat of the Obsidian armies,” said Merlin.
“Just so, said Kaia. “Our information suggests that some Obsidian Cabalists have taken up residence in The Epitaph. They have their hands on the texts and are planning to produce warriors who are invisible to the Oracle. A resurgent Obsidian Empire would not be a good thing.”
“Do you have any evidence for all this?” asked Merlin. “My mind reels to think that Ulf and I are at the centre of such events. It defies reason.”
“Oh Merlin, your distrust wounds me yet again. You are well known for being at the centre of events. Having a wondrous sword crafted for a young king comes to mind.”
“Enough of this banter!” said Merlin. “I demand that you explain to me how you would come to know this. Do you have a magic that lays open a man’s mind?”
Unphased, Kaia slowly took a sip from her goblet. “Much as I wish I did, I do not. What I do have is access to some of the information that the Watchers gather. I will give you proof, as long as you acknowledge that any betrayal will mean your death, a permanent one. Do you agree to this?”
“If this is just another tactic to confuse things, you may have to kill me anyway,” said Merlin.
“Let me demonstrate.” Kaia walked over to one of the trunks in the cabin and opened it. She retrieved a dormant Watcher. “A Grand Master in water magic froze this flying Watcher so quickly that no one was alerted. He then replaced its sensing organ with one of our own design. This process creates a spy that we can use for our own purposes. Unfortunately, these substitute sensing organs do not preserve much of the information they gather. Nor can the organs send out the information they do retain. So each must be retrieved before we can access that information. Watch this.”
Kaia took out a small whistle that produced no audible sound when she blew into it. A semitransparent still image of Merlin and Ulf appeared in the air. They were sitting in chairs in front of a small house. She blew into the whistle again. The image animated and Merlin’s image spoke.
“Being unseen by your enemy is the essence of camouflage and stealth. Wars are won and lost by knowing things your adversary does not realize you know. Who then is this spy? An agent of the Oracle seeking to know us better, or a foe of the Oracle seeking some advantage over it?”
“I have resolved to delve deep into the mysteries of this land,” Merlin’s voice continued. “My hope is to find a way to return home. I must seek out Grand Masters and trainers in every school of magic and learn what I can.”
Kaia blew the whistle again. The mirage disappeared. “You do indeed seem to have the gift of prophecy,” she said.