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Archives: The Golden Egg

Chapter 13: The Duke of Gyenon

    After leaving Kima with Talen’s mother, the adventurers continued back to Dragon Scale. Though they encountered the same problem at the north gate as they did at the west, one of the guards on duty recognized Talen. They had been squires together, but the guard had never made it to knighthood. It seemed today that that failure was a benefit to Talen’s companions.

    The group continued onto the castle entrance, but Aiden stopped his horse just before the drawbridge, where more guards waited. “Talen, perhaps it would be a better idea to ask your father to meet us before we try to enter the castle,” Aiden suggested to the knight.

    Eliamn nodded along. “Especially considering we don’t have Mycen’s feather to vouch for us should something go wrong.” She didn’t believe that they could run in trouble only at the gates.

    Talen stopped alongside Aiden after noticing that he had spoken. “Hmm...You have a point Aiden, might be a better choice to ask for my father, rather than have any trouble with the guards,” he said before motioning his horse up, stopping before the guards. “I am Talen Drecloud, of the Drecloud family, I am here to request that my father, Talanvor Drecloud, come out and speak with us, we have a matter that would concern him.” he said.

    “Yes sir,” the guard stated, sending his companion off to fetch Talen’s father. “I see you have some elves with you, sir. The last few nights the other guards and I have been hearing stories about Mirror Forest and the elves that live there. The minstrel telling the tales is quite adept for someone so young.” While it was not his job to keep Talen and the others entertained until the lord Drecloud came down, he felt a little small talk may ease some of the tension that seemed to be emanating from the group.

    Eliamn frowned lightly and sent a look Naclia’s way. Minstral had made mention of being headed in the same direction they were headed. Could the blue-haired half-elf been at the bottom of the infamy suddenly plaguing Talen Drecloud? She toyed with the idea for a second but then discarded it. No, despite the sour note on which he left, that wouldn’t make any sense. First of all, we still had Kima traveling with us. Secondly, he would risk too much if we learned about it and somehow tracked the source of the rumor down.

    “We happened to meet a traveling minstrel on the road; perhaps it is the same person,” Eli said as she returned her attention to the guard. “Was the one you saw perform a blue-haired male?” Her speculation weren’t worth much in the first place if the guard was referring to another minstrel.

    Naclia met Eliamn’s eyes for a minute, just as suspicious as the other elf. He hadn’t been happy with them when he left. Had he tried to take revenge on them in the form of a rumor?

    A minstrel? Aiden thought with a frown. Was it him? He was considering the same thing as Eliamn and Naclia as he waited for the guard’s response. If it was the same man, then he was convinced that Minstral had tipped the guards off to their arrival and fabricated the story about assassinating the duke.

    “Oh, you know him?” the guard responded to Eliamn. “Yeah, that’s the one, the blue haired minstrel. Really nice fella too. He gives some of his earnings to some orphan kids. Come to think of it, the duchess seems to like him quite a lot.” The guard laughed. “A couple of the court ladies, like gossiping hens they are, say that there’s something of a sordid affair between the duchess and the minstrel. There are tons of rumors flooding the courts though, always is. It’s not like any of them should really be taking for face value. Speaking of rumors, I heard of this one rumor about a knight traveling with a bunch of elves planning to assassinate the duke.” He laughed heartily. “Imagine that! Elves and a knight trying to assassinate the duke. The minstrel scoffed at the idea as well. ‘I doubt that any kin to the fairies could conspire such a dubious deed,’ he said to us guards. ‘Not a single head amongst the fairer elfin fellows could commit such a heinous crime. Their darker brethren on the other hand, is more likely to cull unscrupulously’.”

    Lyassa remained quiet, she didn’t like the information she had heard. Although she gave no looks or any sort of expression, the priestess didn’t know for sure if Minstral told them, but she didn’t dismiss that assumption either. The priestess cupped her hands together as she remained quiet still and simply listened and observed to what was going on.

    Eliamn resisted the urge to smirk. Good, I was right. “Indeed. Not only does the forest people have little interest in human politics, but memories of the War of the Demon God are still fresh in our minds,” Eli replied glibly. “While it may seem two generations distant for the race of man, elven folk still remember how humans came to our help. It would be ill-mannered to strike out so at the descendants of those whom came to our succor.”

    The guard nodded. “True enough.” The second guard returned to his post and whispered the Lord Drecloud’s reply in the first guard’s ear. “It seems his lordship—your father, sir—will see you all upstairs in a moment. He’s currently engaged in courtly matters. I will escort you to the antechamber if you would like.”

    Talen nodded after seeing the words exchanged between the guards. “Good, then we will wait in the antechamber until my father is ready.” he said, turning around to motion to the others to follow.

    “Very well then. This way,” the talkative guard said after a brief pause. He lead the group into the castle and into the antechamber. The castle interior was decorated rather extravagantly with tapestries and paintings that hung on the walls, as statues lined the halls; the stone floor had been polished to a near mirror finish, as well as the gilded couches that sat in the antechamber for guests to sit on.

    “Please wait here for the lordship.” The guard made a sweeping gesture to the room as he talked.

    Aiden left his horse at the gate and followed Talen into the castle. As they entered and saw the rich decor, he was thankful for the fact that Talen’s mother agreed to babysit Kima. They couldn’t risk her damaging anything of the castle’s riches. Looking at the expensive couches, Aiden didn’t feel right sitting on them. He’d leave dust and horsehair all over the upholstery. Instead, the elf opted to stand and wait.

    Eliamn trailed after, though she seemed much more interested by the castle than she had been back when they had been sightseeing earlier. She paid particular attention to the artistry of the Mossians, the motifs of the carpets, how their couches were built and so on. It was mostly eyes only stuff, though—she had no intention to let her curiosity have her scramble around like Kima.

    Lyassa followed, she too was interested in the castle, having spent most of her life in the temple, she never got a chance to see things like this. However, despite the fact she was enjoying this, she knew better then to just run off to go look around and remained by the rest of the group. Lyassa finally stopped staring at all the carpets, and other sights that were around them and she politely remained standing as well, due to being somewhat unclean.

    Naclia moved next to Talen as they waited. She much preferred the modest decorations of his parent’s home. It seemed that none of their party wanted to sit on the glided couches. Glancing down at her feet, she saw that she had left a bit of mud on the polished floors and frowned. All of them had tracked dirt in over the meticulously well-kept floors. It was inevitable that someone would make a mess of the place. Eliamn finally moved to the gilded couches, dusted off her robe a bit and plopped down on the cushions. The shamaness joined both hands loosely over her lap and waited.

    After the adventurers had been left to wait for a few minutes, Talanvor Drecloud finally emerged from his study. The knight wore no armor, as many of his duties had become administrative in recent years. However, he still had the tall, statuesque physique of a knight. Talen’s companions could see that he bore a strong resemblance to his father.

    “I am sorry to have kept you waiting,” Talanvor said as he met the group in the antechamber. His eyes roved over his son’s traveling companions. “What brings you here, Talen?” he asked the younger knight.

    Talen approached his father, nodding at his words with a smile on his face. “Hello father. We need to speak to the duke to learn the identity of a nobleman,” he said with an obvious concern behind his voice.

    Eliamn rose from her seat, dipped in a brief, unobtrusive curtsy to greet the nobleman’s entrance in the room and then listened to the exchange between father and son, inwardly surprised at the lack of introductory pleasantries before Talen bluntly got right to the point.

    “A nobleman?” Talanvor seemed blindsided by Talen’s response. “Who? What’s this about?”

    “Well,” Talen started, glancing around at his companions. “It’s...a long story. Mycen’s egg has been stolen by a Lord Mur-Cavendrel, and we were charged with the mission of finding it. Mother doesn’t know of a Mur-Cavendrel family in the Gyenon region, so we think that this family must be in another part of Moss, which is why we need to ask the duke if he knows of this family.”

    Talanvor was still dumbfounded. The older knight tried to absorb Talen’s explanation, but it was obvious that he was lost. “Wait...Mycen has an egg?”

    Naclia cleared her throat. “Perhaps we should sit down to talk about this?” the elf suggested.

    “Yes, yes. Please come into my chambers,” Talanvor eagerly replied to Naclia. The knight gestured for the party to enter the room he had just left, and as he waited for the others to pass, he gave his son a reprimanding glare for being so obtuse.

    At Talanvor’s beckoning, Naclia led the way into the office. The room was spartan in decorations, a sharp contrast to the antechamber. The most ostentatious decorations in the room were the heavy velvet drapes behind Talanvor’s broad desk. The furnishings were similar to those of the Drecloud manor—simple, yet finely crafted. A sword and shield with the Mossian heraldry hung on the only bare wall (the rest were blocked by cabinets). Three chairs were arranged in front of the desk. Naclia took a seat in one of the chairs as the rest of her companions filed in.

    After the party had entered the chambers, Talen and Talanvor entered. The elder knight took his place behind his desk. “Now, first, please explain to me what this is about, from the beginning.”

    “Thank you for receiving us,” Eliamn thanked Talen’s father before getting to the meat of the matter. “While we were visiting Dragon Breath, Aiden here—” she gestured to her ranger companion, “was bumped into by a child being pursued by guards. We made nothing of the matter until we began making our way to Dragon Scale, where we noticed his pack had a new addition: a sealed letter.”

    Eliamn’s memory was sharp. She had no trouble recalling the words and reciting them. “It read: Lord Mur-Cavendrel, we have the Golden Egg. The mother is distracted by a decoy. We will reach you in a week using the back roads. Regards, Roess.” The blonde shamaness paused and continued: “Not long after Mycen rose in the skies, roaring in anger, and flew to Dragon Breath—the message was made clear to us. Someone had known of Mycen’s secret unborn offspring and had spirited the egg in her absence.”

    “We managed to find the decoy, which was a wagon led by four horses with six riders. We tried to subdue its occupants, but sadly couldn’t yield much in the way of information from the survivors. The egg we found in the cart was obviously fake and we only could find out that their employer had paid them a Raiden to have them play the decoys. I attempted a divination ritual to track down their employer, but my attempt was blocked—which hinted at the time that the employer had magical assistance and that he was rich enough to pay in Raidens.”

    Eliamn raised one hand to push a few strands of blonde hair behind one of her pointed ear “Mycen came to the scene soon after, listened to our explanation on the matter and charged us with finding her egg—a task my companions accepted. Once she left, our rangers tried to find those backroads Roess talked about, but we weren’t very successful—so, instead, we worked on an assumption of where the thieves would head and made our way here. However, once we arrived, the city guard had been cautioned about us by a rumor describing our group and saying that we came with intent of dealing harm to the Duke.”

    Eliamn’s brow marred as she frowned. “Obviously, while my divination failed, someone else on Mur-Cavendrel’s side scryed us in return, learned of our identities and had enough influence in Dragon Scale to start a rumor about us being a threat to the Duke. We came to your wife for direction and she pointed us to you—and so here we are.”

    Talanvor listened to the elf’s retelling of their travels, absorbing her words. “This a grave situation. How could a lord be foolish enough to take the offspring of an ancient dragon, and in the nation that honors her the highest? I wasn’t aware that Mycen even had an egg. If anyone knows, it may be the highest nobles in Moss—the queen and possibly dukes. I know of no Mur-Cavendrels, but the duke certainly would be more familiar with the lords of other territories. I can’t imagine how any lower lords would know of Mycen’s egg, unless someone in a high seat of power let it slip. Have you informed anyone else of this?”

    Talen nodded to his father. “I notified the guards in Dragon Scale, but there was little more I could do. We had just begun our pursuit of the thieves. I’m not sure if they even believed me,” he replied. By now, he was ashamed of how short he was with his father. Luckily, Eliamn’s recount was better than his would have been.

    Talanvor rose from his seat. “This is a matter of grave importance. We will speak to the duke immediately,” the knight informed them. He crossed the room and opened the door, allowing his guests to leave ahead of him. Once they all had stepped out of the chamber, Talanvor took the lead and began to lead them to the throne room.

    Talanvor set a fast pace, as he wanted to get to the duke as soon as possible. It didn’t take long to navigate the corridors until they reached the antechamber of the throne room. They could see that the throne room was unoccupied, as the duke had no business to attend to at the time. This antechamber was similar to the one they had waited in for Talanvor, decorated in the same tastes with the same gilded furniture.

    “Please, wait here,” Talanvor instructed. He turned away from the adventurers to speak to the guards of the throne room in a low whisper, “Fetch the duke. We have a matter of utmost importance that must be discussed.” The guard nodded and headed off into the throne room, then into the duke’s chambers.

    Once they were left to wait, Eliamn turned to her other companions. “Two things have been nagging me at the back of my mind,” the blonde shamaness said. “The first is the matter of the child and the reason why he felt the need to hide the letter on one of us, along with why guards were pursuing him. If guards had been after him, wouldn’t that have meant someone in Dragon Breath would have had been already aware of the situation in the first place?” She paused and added. “Children do not just come across notes like these, and children do not typically get themselves involved in these kinds of events—I have been suspecting it could have had been a grassrunner instead... but again, it does not answer the why in the first place.”

    “Perhaps he stole it, or he was a courier,” Aiden suggested. “Though...the letter was sealed so I don’t see how he would know. We can’t be sure why he was being chased either. Perhaps the plot to steal the egg was just a rumor.” The elf groaned and rubbed his forehead. “Ugh...I have no idea.”

    Eliamn nodded but quickly continued with: “And then, there is our running assumption that Lord Mur-Cavendrel was a Mossian noble. I think we can all admit—myself included—we assumed he was once we heard the ‘Lord’... but that leap of logic might be detrimental to us. It could be that he is actually a noble from another province, that he is a very rich merchant with ideas of grandeur or even just a charlatan with considerable means whom lied to his underlings in posing as nobility. Lord could very well just be a term of respect rather than an actual title. The name could be made up.”

    The shamaness sighed. “If someone learned of the egg and had cause enough to steal it, they would need extensive resources both in ways to gather information, considerable resources and most especially... preparation. Usually, just on account of this, I would have had considered us outmatched except for the one mistake they have made: spreading the rumor.”

    The duke came back with the guard that was sent to fetch him. He approached Talanvor first, to find out why he was summoned. The plump, yet regal man wore his age well, though more than a few wrinkles crowded his face. “For what reason have I been summoned, Talanvor?” he asked with a tired sigh. “I thought we concluded all business just a little while ago.”

    “I’m sorry to disturb you, my lord. There is something urgent that must be addressed however,” Talanvor spoke to the duke.

    “Alright,” the duke responded. “What is this about then, Talanvor?” He wanted to keep this conversation as short as possible. There was much work to do in his study and every distraction merely proved to keep him from finishing for the day.

    “My son and his companions have come across a plot to steal Mycen’s egg, for what ends, I do not know,” Talanvor began. “The egg is already in possession of a thief, and he is to deliver it to a lord. However, we know nothing more than the name Mur-Cavendrel. They are hoping that you may know this name as a lord from another duchy.”

    “Mycen’s egg?” The news came as a bit of a shock to the Duke. He pushed past his initial shock to see if he could recall the name Mur-Cavendrel, however the name was hard to remember, then it came to him. “I believe a family in Northern Moss has that moniker, however other than that, I’m not too familiar with them. There is still the issue of why they would do such a thing, if this rumor is real.” The duke sighed. “However, I’d like to talk to your son and his friends first. There seems to be a lot of strange rumors going around the courts and the streets lately, and perhaps we can sort out whether or not this rumor is worth pursuing.”

    Talen stepped forward at that and greeted the duke respectfully by placing his hand over his heart and bowing at the waist. “I’m am Talen Drecloud, my lord,” he introduced himself. “What is it you would like to know?”

    “Ah, so this is your son, Talanvor,” the duke said with a small smirk. “Very well, Talen, could you explain how you came about this information? How reliable would you say that this information is? Has any of it been confirmed by anything close to a reliable source?”

    “My lord, we met Mycen herself.” Talen looked up at the duke, conveying the gravity of his statement. “She has charged us with the mission to retrieve her egg.”

    The duke took a step back subconsciously. “Mycen herself?” he repeated quietly. “I understand that much. So it was Mycen herself that dropped the name Mur-Cavendrel?”

    “Actually, it was a letter that found its way to us,” Talen replied. “It said that a golden egg would be delivered to Lord Mur-Cavendrel and that the mother was distracted. We didn’t know what it meant, until we crossed decoy wagon carrying a false egg. Mycen followed it and met us.”

    The duke nodded. “Could the letter have been planted, and by some coincidental happenstance you managed to come upon the very decoy set for Mycen to—” the duke stopped mid sentence and laughed. “This seems all too coincidental to me. The letter comes into your possession, and then you stumble upon the decoy, by accident, I might add. Much like, the coincidence that managed to bring the very ‘assassins’ sent to kill me to my doorstep to return Mycen’s egg to her.” The duke shook his head. “Suspecting a Mossian lord for something this grievous...” The duke’s shoulders heaved with a heavy sigh. “I know urgency is of the utmost importance in this matter, but allow me some time to digest this story and bring it up in front of the court of lords tomorrow. If by some chance this story isn’t true, and we presumptuously act upon false information, the possibly innocent Mur-Cavendrel family’s reputation and name could be beyond repair.”

    Eliamn frowned. She didn’t like the Duke laughing away what they had gone through, but figured there was little she could offer back which wouldn’t be a caustic reply. She clenched her jaw, fisted her hands and kept her peace.

    Talen was disappointed, but he acquiesced to his lord. “Very well then, my lord,” he said, and bowed again.

    Aiden shared a glance with Naclia. This was no help. Or was it? The duke had told them that he knew of a Mur-Cavendrel family in the north. They didn’t need to wait around, they could just ride north until they found some news of the family. When they got closer to the family’s holdings, then they would be able to ask locals about where to find them. Aiden kept silent, but as soon as they were out of earshot of the duke, he’d propose they just leave on what leads they had.

    “Well, your Lordship, if you have any further need of us, we shall be guesting at the Drecloud Manse for the night.” Eliamn offered, hoping to steer the matter away from them. She didn’t want to be in the castle anymore.

    “Very well, I shall send for you after we have reached a decision tomorrow.” The duke nodded. “I shall be retiring to my study to finish up today’s business.” The man gave a small bow to the group and left out the door he came.

    As the duke left, Talanvor turned to his son and his companions. “I would escort you back to my home, but I still have duties to attend to. I will see you all tonight, and I hope to learn more about you all. Farewell for now,” the knight said to the adventures, then left them to Talen.

    Eliamn quickly came up to Talen’s side once they were left to themselves. “Sir Talen, could you lead us to a cartographer? Preferably a renowned one whom would be commissioned by the Duchy?”

    “Umm...yeah, I guess,” Talen replied, scratching his head. “Why?”

    Naclia gave Talen a playful punch in the shoulder. “To get a map of the north, silly! Now, let’s go.” Naclia began to walk away, she didn’t want to stay here any longer.

    “Oh...right,” Talen said and scratched his head again in embarrassment, then the knight followed Naclia out.

* * *

    The adventurers left the castle and Talen led them to the nearby shops. Around the castle gates were the most expensive businesses, luxurious inns, restaurants, shops selling exotic goods, fine tailors and cobblers, scribes, and many other establishments. As they walked, Talen had thought about why Eliamn wanted to see a map maker. “You don’t intend to go without the duke’s permission, do you?” he asked Eliamn, and anyone who may share the same mindset.

    “We need a map with proper political boundaries to proceed on our own, yes,” Eliamn answered curtly, her blonde hair stirring a bit for each of her strides. “The decision to head off rest on Aiden and Naclia. They are the ones whom wished to be adventurers.”

    “We really should wait for the duke’s decision,” Talen protested meekly.

    “Oh please,” Naclia said, rolling her eyes. “Who are you going to listen to, some duke, or the Dragon Queen Mycen?”

    Aiden was pleased to hear that most of his companions were thinking the same thing. “Naclia and Eliamn are right, we must proceed on our own,” Aiden added. “This is Mycen’s child, and we were charged with the mission to rescue it. We cannot waste time waiting on the decision of someone who doesn’t even believe us.”

    “I guess you’re right...” Talen replied. It made him uncomfortable to disobey his duke, but this was too important to waste time waiting. “We might become fugitives though.”

    “I can live with that,” Naclia said with a grin.

    The arrived at the cartographer, a shop with a bay window displaying a variety of maps. Eliamn was the one with the idea, so Naclia opened the door for her shaman companion to enter first, then followed behind.

    As the door opened behind him, Minstral was already engaged with the cartographer attempting to update his forty-year-old maps. “So, these towns...?” Minstral began.

    “Either deserted or destroyed,” the cartographer said, puffing on his pipe. “Take it from me, your maps belong in a display case they are so out of date.”

    Minstral blushed and scratched his head. “...So, the cost of updating them...?”

    “You’re just better off selling them and buying new maps,” he grunted. “Unless you really want to spend the money on updating these relics.”

    Minstral sighed. “I’ll buy new maps,” he groaned, pulling out his coin pouch. “You’re lucky I was paid last night...Anyways, how much?”

    “For detailed maps of Moss, Raiden area, and Flaim, that will be two Raiden.”

    Minstral blanched at the price. “T-two Raiden?” He gulped and looked through his pouch. “A-alright then.” Reluctantly he paid the price. For that price I hope he throws in a free map case as well...

    Eli nodded in thanks to Naclia and lifted her chin as she walked in. She came to the counter, actually directly next to Minstral, whom she noted the presence of but didn’t raise a fuss about, and waited for his transaction to be done so that she might have the shopkeeper’s attention.

    The cartographer overlooked Minstral’s purchase to turn his attention to the beautiful elven maiden that happened to enter. “How may I help you, miss?” he asked, haphazardly tossing Minstral his newly bought maps. The maps slid onto the ground and rolled out of the shop, leaving the bard more than a little miffed at the sudden change in treatment.

    Minstral looked over towards the newcomer and blanched. Her! his mind roared. Perhaps her head is too far up her own ass to notice that she knows me, he mused quietly, sneaking out of the shop before she started asking questions about certain rumors that had been going around town.

    Eli founds the way Minstral blanched hilarious; seeing him scurrying after the rolled maps was also funny, but not as much as the look he gave her. It took a mighty effort not to double in two from laughter—not even the distasteful smell of pipe weed could keep her from giving the shopkeeper a sunny smile. “I am looking to purchase recent maps detailing the political boundaries, forts and important holdings around the north Mossian border and its outskirts. Would you have anything of the kind?”

    “That I do. Have business in the north do you?” He asked, puffing on his pipe.

    “Indeed,” Eliamn nodded to the shopkeeper. “Can you show me what you have?”

    The cartographer nodded and pulled out a few older maps. “The boundaries of Moss don’t fluctuate much, so these five year old maps should do the trick.” He rolled them out on the table, opening the aged parchment to show the authenticity of his words. “Most of Northern Moss is rather dense in forest. These forts—” he said, pointing to the few dotted forts along the roads, “—are used more for defending against monsters, goblins and sorts that having any true strategic value.”

    He puffed his pipe and lowered his voice, leaning in across the table. “Not that I’d think you’d be smuggling, but on the off-chance that you would be, I’d stick to these animal trails if you don’t want to be seen.” He outlined a few animal trails that lead northward on the map. “It’s a bit of a longer hike, but few people save hunters and smugglers walk these trails. Wagons can’t take them because they aren’t wide enough to allow for the passage. Most of the smuggling would be done on foot.”

    Eliamn was just about to blurt out a protest to the shopkeeper in denial of her group being smugglers, but she caught herself in realization of the import of the information the shopkeeper had provided her. She was not interested in smuggling anything anywhere, but Roess would be.

    “So then, if someone wanted to smuggle something large to the Mur-Cavendrel domain... how would they go by it?” she whispered back. “Would there not be any backroads that could be used for such a purpose?”

    “Back roads?” he grunted. “These back roads are all monitored and patrolled by knights and a few mercenaries. There would be no point trying to smuggle going down them, especially if someone knew that you were smuggling. Hiding in plain sight only works if no one knows what you’re doing.” He outlined a few back roads to the Mur-Cavendrel domain with his finger. “Smuggling along these roads would make you seem like you want to get caught. Only a fool would do so. If you’re that worried about carrying a large object along the animal trails, the best thing to do would be to use a palanquin, or covered litter. That way, four men could do the work of two horses. It’s not faster, but it’s a lot more concealed.”

    The blonde shamaness frowned. “Would those knights and mercenaries be Mossian ones, or would they be on the payroll of the Mur-Cavendrels?”

    The shopkeep frowned. “I’d assume that they’d be in the pay of the lord of the area. Can’t be sure though. Some of them may be directly under the pay of their royal majesties. Never-the-less, if it’s an experienced smuggler, regardless of whether the men on the road are under the pay of the lord that they are smuggling to, they wouldn’t chance it. There are still bandits, and the few crooked knights and such that wouldn’t care whether or not a certain package made it to the lord that’s paying them as long as it could make them a quick copper.” He carefully shook the remnants of the charred pipe weed out of his pipe and into a can. “Of course, all this is pure speculation,” the cartographer spoke while cleaning his pipe. “I was never in the export/import business of smuggling. I knew a man who knew a man who was.” He picked a few flecks from his beard and discarded them in the can as well. Then, after refilling his pipe and igniting the contents he gave her a serious stare. “However, they were the type of people who’d gut you rather than look at you. But there are other ways, lots of other ways to come about this knowledge.”

    Eli remembered the letter that had been slipped into Aiden’s pack. If the Mur-Cavendrels would be expecting someone doing their bidding coming from the backroads, then they could very well use the men patrolling in the region to escort them back to their holdings. The elf maiden nervously brushed some of her golden hair back behind her shoulder as she stalled for time to think about another question and then asked: “What if the smugglers were working for the local lord and that they were expected?”

    The irony would be that seeing that the letter had ended up in Aiden’s hands, the Mur-Cavendrel might actually be completely clueless about how the egg was coming back to them... meaning her current line of thought might be going nowhere... except that Roess did not necessarily know his message had not reached the intended recipient. If she could figure out where Roess would be headed, perhaps there would still be a chance to catch up with his group if he still anticipated being escorted from the backroads.

    The cartographer’s shoulder’s fell. “I wouldn’t know then. Perhaps they’d chance it on the back roads, or perhaps they’d take the trails. It really depends on how much the smuggler is assured he’d be taken care of.”

    He sighed deeply and put down his pipe. “It’s pretty obvious to me you’re on the trail of someone who may be smuggling something of extreme value to yourself. Now, perhaps your a bounty hunter—which I find hard to believe—or perhaps you just care about what is being smuggled. It doesn’t matter to me. But, what does matter to me, is that you seem to be pretty determined to find this smuggler before he reaches Lord Mur-Cavendrel. Answer me truthfully: Is that right?”

    Eliamn’s violet eyes appraised the older human man a moment. No doubt he is shrewd enough to have read between the lines by now. I am not going to insult his intelligence by making useless evasions—especially seeing how helpful he has been up to now. Perhaps if he does not have to read between the lines he might actually be of more help.

    “You are right,” the shamaness finally admitted. “A man named Roess stole the egg of the golden dragon and means to deliver it to a Lord Mur-Cavendrel using the backroads in... around three days from now at the least. My group means to stop him and to recover the egg before we end up forced to confront the Mur-Cavendrels themselves to retrieve it.”

    “Roess,” the cartographer sighed. “I was afraid that name might come up. He’s quite well known in smuggling circles, it’s not surprising that Mur-Cavendrel hired him. He has no qualms about smuggling a lot of things, people, animals. Mycen’s egg must be his big break.” He scratched his beard and puffed at his pipe while he was in thought. “Roess had a haunt in Dragon Scale, a really low class joint that authorities tend to stay away from. Someone there might know his actual path, but I can pretty much guarantee he’s not going to stick to just the back roads or the animal trails. He’s like a snake. He’ll slither his way up there somehow, undetected.”

    Eliamn gave the shopkeeper a nod, truly grateful for his help, made a brief motion for him to wait a moment before she turned to face the opened doorway where Minstral and her companions were speaking. “The offer the Minstral extends is most gracious and we have need of someone with his talents. I will join you in a moment to offer my terms of service.”

    The shamaness turned back to the shopkeeper and smiled. “You have been beyond helpful, but if we will have your former customer join us, then he already has the most recent maps you could sell. Still, you have made this worth my while and I will make it yours.” The blonde elf fished in her money pouch and took out two large gold pieces like she had seen Minstral offer minutes ago, placed them on the table and pushed them by her fingertips toward the old man. “I would like to offer this as payment for all you have told me before, along with knowing where this haunt of Roess is and if he has any known associates—most especially magic-users. I also pledge discretion about where I learned this, so to avoid having you having unsavory individuals come to your doorsteps with complaints of you having a loose tongue when it comes to elven women.” The elf finished with a silent chuckle and a wink as she released the coins so he could take them.

    “Thank you kindly, miss.” The shopkeep smiled and took the coins as payment. “As far as the haunt goes, there is this cozy little niche in the back alleys, a real eyesore of an inn. The thieves guild owns and operates it, but several ‘exporters’ hang out there. The kind like Roess, that is. In there you should talk to man named ‘Roke’. That’s not his real name, but ask for him at the bar while ordering a glass of pear cider. Sit at a table for a moment, and leave a note under the cider with the address you’ll be occupying. At midnight, expect a house call from ‘Roke’. Anything more than that I can’t say.”

    Eliamn bowed her head in thanks. “May the rest of your day be green and golden,” she bade the shopkeeper before turning to take her leave.

* * *

    Outside the other people who were traveling with Kima stood. “Uh, hi, howdy...” he said to the group as politely as he could muster and retrieved his precious maps from the ground.

    “Why, hello there!” Naclia said with a grin that seemed to hold some malice behind it. “If it isn’t our Minstral friend! How’ve you been? I wonder, did you hear anything about a rumor regarding three elves, a Mossian knight, and a priestess of Marfa plotting to assassinate the duke?” They still weren’t sure who had started the rumor, but if he was here, it was a good bet it was him. Who else could have brought it?

    Minstral smiled. “Of course I have, it’s the talk of the court. Of course, I told them it was balderdash. I can’t speak for Mossian Knights, but I can speak for elves and priestesses of Marfa, they would never even think of such a thing.” Minstral kept a cool head, there was no point in going on the defensive, he covered his tracks better than seasoned hunter. It would take a social bloodhound with the intelligence and wit of a fox to out-maneuver him in a game of words and rumors. “It would take a blind, deaf, dumb and stupid twit to not have heard or seen that rumor.” He stored his maps under his arm and looked around. “Where’s Kima?” His face hardened for a moment. “You didn’t ditch her on the road did you?”

    Lyassa listened to the exchange between them, she didn’t say anything, for she saw no point to. As a priestess of a goddess of light, feeling hate toward anyone wasn’t like her, though she could see it in Naclia’s grin. Lyassa saw they weren’t getting anywhere, or so it seemed, on finding out who was behind the rumors.

    “Kima is staying with a friend of ours until we finish our business in town,” Aiden said, intentionally being vague. He didn’t believe a word of what Minstral had to say.

    “Oh,” Minstral nodded. “As long as you’re taking care of her, then I guess it is alright. Still on the trail of Lord Murky?”

    “Maybe. What business is it of yours?” Naclia asked, making her distrust quite obvious.

    Minstral shifted uncomfortably. “I thought maybe I could help,” he said with a small sigh. “I know I left you guys on bad terms before, and perhaps you think that I had something to do with the rumors. But why would I endanger Kima?” he snapped back at Naclia, giving her a cold stare. “If I was the source of these rumors I would have added that you were traveling with a centaur as well. Did the rumor have any centaur in it? No. It didn’t.”

    “We didn’t hear the rumor itself,” Aiden stated. “As far as we know, they may have been warned of a centaur, but he didn’t come to the gates. The guards stopped us because we fit the description of some would-be-assassins.”

    “Because you sound like the assassins in the rumor. ‘A knight in the company of elves plots to overthrow the Duke of Dragon Scale, with lies that they were sent by Mycen herself’. It vaguely sounds like your group, however, there was no mention of a centaur, or a priestess in that rumor.” Minstral sighed. “If I set the rumor I wouldn’t still be in the city, and I would have included the priestess and the centaur in the mix. But that would put Kima in danger, and I would never, ever, put Kima in any sort of danger.”

    “It isn’t often that three elves travel in the company of a Mossian knight,” Aiden pointed out. He was starting to doubt that Minstral had actually set the rumor, but a part of his better judgment told him that there wasn’t much of a chance of someone else starting it, nor that three other elves would be traveling with a knight to assassinate the duke. “It’s all very convenient and coincidental, I think.”

    “I never heard the exact number of elves mentioned in the rumor,” Minstral admitted honestly. He had never given a number. It was best if it was vague. A knight in the company of elves was an extremely vague rumor. Parn had traveled with Deedlit, an elf. Spark traveled for a time with Leaf, a half-elf. Both were knights. “Coincidental I’ll give you,” Minstral said with a shrug. “But it wouldn’t be the first time a knight was found in the company of elves. Look back over the recent history of Lodoss and see if you can’t remember a knight being with an elf.” Minstral sighed again. “Anyways, if you guys would like my help I can sincerely offer it, in any way that I can be of some assistance.”

    Upon exiting the shop, she closed the door behind her—perhaps in silent declaration to not involve the old man in their quest any further—and regally looked to the rest of her companions whom now included Minstral. “We will need to split up,” she announced. Violet eyes roved around those in her company and she looked to Aiden. “Sir Talen will have to decide if he intends to go against the authority of the Duchy or not. If so, then having someone with the ear of the court to vouch for our good behavior would be of use—if not, there will be consequences which may touch your family.”

    The shamaness’ eyes shifted to Aiden and Naclia. “You need to rejoin Rylan and Kima and then quickly make your way north to the Mur-Cavendrels holdings. One of the reasons is to avoid being suspected of foul play by the authorities: should harm befall the Duke, we will be prime suspects for blame. The other reason, more compelling in my opinion, is that catching up with Roess before he reaches the Mur-Cavendrels places a lot less complications on the retrieval of the egg than having to retrieve the egg after Roess has handed it over. This is a race and we have to win it... I am not even sure of if you can afford staying overnight in the Drecloud manse anymore.”

    The blonde elfmaid then pointedly eyed Minstral, took her money pouch (obviously weighted with coin) and offered it to the half-elf. “My minstrel hireling and I will remain here and we will try to get in touch with an acquaintance of Roess whom might know more of the route the former will take. We will stay in an inn overnight, see what we can learn and then we will join back with the rest of you with Sylph’s help.”

    “Wil,” Minstral grumbled. “It’s Wil, not ‘my minstrel hireling’. I do take some offense to such titles.” He also pushed aside the coin pouch and shook his head. “Keep your money. I’ll follow along because I want to help, not because I want to get paid. As long as there is a roof above my head that I don’t have to pay for, and food in my belly, then I’m a happy and content ‘hireling’.”

    There was no way that Talen would stay behind. “No, I’m going with Naclia,” he said. “I was given a mission by a higher power than the duke. I will not abandon the dragon queen, if I did, what sort of knight would I be? My father will probably understand, and we have him in the courts.” I can’t leave Naclia either. If something happened to her when I wasn’t there, I couldn’t forgive myself, he thought.

    Aiden was impressed by Eliamn’s planning, and it seemed like a sound plan. However, didn’t fully trust the Minstral alone with Eliamn, and thought it foolish of her to trust him that far. “I’ll be going with you, Eli,” he said. “The others can handle the search without me.”

    Eliamn appraised the look in Wil’s eyes as he refused the offer for payment and nodded, returning the money pouch to her bag. She wasn’t sorry to keep her coins—they looked pretty valuable to the humans. “Aiden, I chose Mister Wil because he was streetwise and myself because there were specific questions I wanted the answers to. Also, I have trouble enough magically transporting myself by air walking alone. Bringing another person with me is pushing it. Bringing total of three is not something I trust myself to be able to do. We need to save as much time as we can and I believe it is the best way to go by it.”

    “It’s not debatable. I’m going with you,” Aiden said sharply. “I’m a competent shaman in my own right, we’ll regroup one way or the other. I am not leaving you to scout out the seedy side of this city with a single guide that we hardly know.”

    Eliamn blinked her almond-eyes slowly, refraining from replying immediately mostly because the tone of voice Aiden had chosen to take when talking with her. She turned to look to Naclia, as if mutely asking her for her opinion.

    Naclia gave a shrug and a slight nod of reassurance when Eliamn looked at her, askance. If Aiden went with her, she would feel much better. She and Talen could lead the rest on a search.

    Eliamn turned her eyes back to Aiden. “Alright,” she said quietly.

    Eliamn relented, to Aiden’s relief. “Naclia, take Tiash with you,” he mentioned, then looked to Eliamn and Minstral. “Let’s go then.”

    “Wait,” Naclia said. “Did you get a map we could use, Eli?”

    Eliamn nodded in a subdued fashion and pointed Wil. “He did already,” she answered.

    Wil forked over the map of Northern Moss to Naclia. He gave a soft sigh and put his hand through his short blue hair. “Listen, Aiden. I know you can’t really trust me, but miss Eliamn and I going together, just us, is better in the long run,” he said softly. “Unfortunately, having two elves with me is going to attract more attention than is really necessary. Not only that, but having Kima go along without you is going to be an impossible task.” Wil gave a deep sigh and shook his head. “You know what, never mind. The more the merrier. Just don’t blame me when your only proof you were sent by Mycen disappears into the wilderness of Moss.”

    “Thanks,” Naclia said. Things were getting heated, and she didn’t want to get in between Aiden and Eliamn. She agreed that it was best that someone else went Eli, aside from Minstral.

    Hooking her arm around Talen’s, she pulled him away. “Let’s go,” she said, glancing back to Lyassa as she walked back toward the direction of the castle where they left their horses.

    Aiden’s jaw was set in frustration, and he wasn’t backing down. “We’ll manage,” he nearly growled. If they didn’t want him to be seen, he could use an invisibility spell, but he would be there for Eliamn’s protection.

    Wil sighed. Obviously Aiden didn’t trust him. That much was fine, it’s not like he exuded a calm ‘trust me’ aura. He rubbed his eyes and gave a soft defeated smile. “Listen, regardless of having you with us, you should tell Kima to stay with your friends. If she partially understands you’ll be coming back, she’ll stick with the group regardless of your presence there or not.” He gave Aiden a pleading look and continued. “For her sake, as well as our future sake, can you at least tell her that much before you disappear with us?”

    “Alright,” Aiden agreed. “Let’s head back to the manor then.”

    Eliamn did not immediately follow. Instead, she said: “Mister Wil and I will be booking rooms in a good inn while you are gone to see Kima.” She glanced to the half-elf man. “Can you supply the name of the establishment so Aiden will know where to meet us?”

    Wil stroked his chin. “Let’s see, the Weeping Bell has pretty good ale, and standard accommodations. I ran into some trouble there about ten to twenty years ago though. If things get rough, that place wouldn’t be the best place to start a fight, not that we’re going to start a fight.” He paused and bit his lip lightly. “There is the Dragon’s Paw. It’s got cheap rooms, fairly bitter ale, and it’s proprietor could give a troll a run for it’s money in an ugly race, but it may suit our needs a little more.”

    “By the name of Falis...” Aiden growled, clenching his jaw and running his hand through his hair roughly. It was an obvious sign of restraining his frustration. He was under no circumstances leaving Eliamn with Minstral, but she almost seemed determined to be alone with him. More than likely, it was her own naivete and confidence, but Aiden was only trying to look out for her own best interests. How could he let the Keeper’s daughter wander off into the city with some flirtatious rogue he barely knew, and suspected of spreading rumors out of spite about them? “I’m either going with you, or you’re coming with me, Eliamn. I’m not throwing you to the damn dogs.”

    Normally, Eliamn was against speaking a language other people present would not understand—it seemed impolite to her—but making a scene in the middle of the street felt even more inappropriate. She raised her chin and coolly replied in elven: {“I believe I am quite capable of securing room and board at an inn, especially seeing I have the experience of Dragon Breath now behind me. It needs to be done as well, seeing that we need to know which place to refer Roess’ associate once we leave him a message—I will not leave things just up to chance and secure it afterwards.”} She smiled faintly. {“Doing so will save time while you go see to Kima. I already agreed to waiting for you before heading to the more dangerous place—you need not worry that I break my word.”}

    Wil held his tongue and waited for Aiden’s response. He didn’t want to embarrass Eliamn with the fact that he was fluent in elven. He pretended he didn’t understand and looked down the street ways. “I wonder how Cole is...” he pondered aloud.

    Eliamn was not convincing him, but Wil was right. Aiden had to take care of Kima. “Naclia!” Aiden called out to his friend, who was quickly walking away. “You go with her,” he said, then walked after the three. This was becoming too frustrating. “You can go with Talen after I talk to Kima.”

    Naclia was disappointed at being separated from Talen, but Aiden was furious and she wasn’t about to complain. It was probably for the best. “Alright,” she agreed, and walked back to Eliamn and Wil. This was an awkward position for her.

    Eliamn gave Naclia a silent nod in apology and then turned to Wil. “If you please, I would now like to go to the Weeping Bells inn. Could you guide us there?”

    “Sure thing,” Wil said. He lead the way with a comfortable stride, trying his hardest not to move too fast for the two women in the group. While Naclia looked like she could probably keep up with his fastest stride, Eliamn looked too frail to push her too much. “While we’re at it, let me give you a little history of the Weeping Bell Inn. It was originally founded in four-sixty under the name Weeping Fairy inn, and specialized in providing quality service for elves from Mirror Forest, and as such, had many vegetarian cuisine on the menu. Unfortunately, that didn’t bode well for the business as many of the customers were human rather than elven. In four-ninety, its name, and owners changed hands, changing it to the Weeping Bell Inn. Most of the vegetarian cuisine was dropped when the owners changed, and it began to diversify. In five-eleven, a young human maid came into romantic entanglement with an elven man, and a year later she bore a child. The child, Air Telany, grew up under the guidance of Cole Telany, my friend and her uncle.”

* * *

    Aiden stormed by Talen and Lyassa after switching places with Naclia and kept walking. Eliamn was infuriating him. Someone had to protect her, and he didn’t trust the Minstral. He would have felt better if could be there, but Naclia was just as good. He also had Kima to worry about. Perhaps it would be best if Naclia stayed with Eliamn for this journey. Aiden realized that Naclia was enamored of Talen, but since Eliamn had been so stubborn, he wouldn’t be able to let Naclia pursue their relationship right now. Perhaps that was for the best. They needed to focus on the mission, after all.

    Lyassa followed Aiden. The priestess at first said nothing toward anyone, but when she noticed Aiden’s look she tired to ease the tension. “Eliamn will be fine, she’s a strong woman on her own, and besides Naclia will be there to guard her so, stop worrying,” she said. The tone in her voice was normal and it did have concern behind it for Eliamn as well. The priestess was trying to convince herself that Eliamn will be fine. “What is our task Sir Aiden?” she asked him. Lyassa was a bit curious to know why Talen didn’t go with Naclia, she had noticed their relationship, and she was a bit surprised by him going with both of them instead of with her and Eliamn. However, she didn’t bring this up and went back to being a ghost for now.

    Aiden slowed his pace a bit when Lyassa began to talk to him. “I’m sure Eli will be fine with Naclia,” he replied. He was still frustrated by her stubbornness, however. “We will have to search the back roads until Eliamn is done with her business in town. For now, we’re going back to Talen’s house to fetch Kima.” Suddenly, Aiden realized something. “Damn!” he cursed. “Naclia has the map we need.” He really didn’t want to go back to get it.

    Talen glanced back, but he had no idea where Naclia and the others had gone. He would have gladly volunteered to get the map from her if he knew where she was. “I don’t know where they went...Should we look for them, or do we really need it?” Talen asked.

    “No, don’t worry about it. Naclia knows where we’re going if she needs to send. Otherwise, we can do without. No need to waste time and energy,” Aiden replied to Talen. They reached the castle gates, where they had left their horses. Aiden mounted Tiash, and grabbed the reins of Naclia’s horse.

    Lyassa climbed upon her horse once they reached the castle gates, then the priestess waited for Talen to be ready, then they would be off to carry out the mission. Searching the back roads would be a good idea, but she could see that Aiden was obviously still upset by Eliamn’s stubbornness. This caused the priestess to smile at that, she cared for Eliamn too, but yet understood the woman’s reasons for doing things her own way.

    Talen silently followed along. He didn’t want to step into Aiden and Eliamn’s conflict, and though he was concerned about Eliamn’s safety as well, Aiden let his pride get in the way. Aiden’s pride had separated Talen from Naclia, and though it was only a day, Talen was starting to long for her.

    The knight mounted his horse, then led what was left of the group back to the city gate and onward to his family home.

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