As the caravan crawled up the Forsaken Pass, Ailukka sheltered inside the covered wagon, while Ameiko strummed away on her Samisen. Absently Ailukka wondered if the elegant Tien stringed instrument was designed to cope with Ameiko’s high and clear voice singing ‘The Goblin in the Dress.’ Probably not.
She pulled the front cover aside and handed Vankor and Ragmar some watered down beer they had retrieved from the Knarr. The visibility outside was still virtually nil, she noted, and the damp chill of the mist had soaked through both men’s cloths.
The sound of wolves howling off in the distance reminded her of their contingency plan for tonight. Anytime now Reynald would be passing his brother the drugged drink, and he and Kesserlik would then bind him up with a combination of rope and light naval chain they had picked up in Rodericks Cove. With the rope, the chains, as well as the hobble, handcuffs and halter they would attach, he should be safe enough, even if he did change. If the worst came to the worst Ameiko’s sword Sliver was made of mithril. She moved to the back of the wagon and looked out, and Reynald gave her the thumbs up.
“So Ragnar”, asked Ailukka slipping back into the Skald tongue, “What is the story of this Monastery? Is it far?”
“I have never been there” replied Ragnar, “When I came south as a youth it was by ship. But the Priory of Cymer is quite famous to the Priesthood Of Iomidae simply because of it’s remote location. It sits almost exactly on the border between Varisia and the Lands of the Linnorm Kings, and its walls are a rare landmark for the few passing caravans, even if it is rarely visited. It is only a small, backwater outpost named after a minor saint. The priory was founded at the behest of Cymer (a visionary believer) who had a vision that it would be needed to succour travellers. Never thought I’d actually see it.”
Their conversation was interrupted when the light drizzle suddenly increased in intensity, and Ailukka retreated back inside, passing Vankor and Ragnar their canvas driving capes. Thunder sounded with an ominous crack overhead, and the rain showed no signs of decreasing in intensity.
Sandru had been worried about the weather for the last two days; what he didn’t want was a massive rainstorm as they climbed the pass, but it seemed that his gamble had not paid off. Small rivulets of water now started pouring down the slope.
The wagon stopped, and she heard Sandru outside conferring with Vankor.
“I don’t want to risk it, this has all the signs of a really big one” Sandru was saying. “Any idea where this Priory is Ragnar?”
“Vell, I ‘ave ’eard zat it is situate ’igh above the pass on a pinnacle of rock." Ragnar replied, slipping back into the Common Tongue. " Only zose valorous enough to attempt ze climb can get zere. Zat definitely means Reynald and Rasha vill ’ave to vait in ze rain. Zere combined valor vouldn’t equal the volume of a severed penis. Ze rest of us are fine zough. Even the horses I should zink.”
Rasha, who had also wandered over, laughed.“It’s nice to have you back, Ragnar. That extended meditation session you had earlier today left me wondering if you’d had a stroke. Then Koya explained that your religion requires you to be completely useless for four hours a day while the rest of us are hunting for food or mending the harnesses and tack. Seeing as how you’re up and about now, would you care for a bowl of stew?”
“No time for that now” said Sandru, “We need to move while we can. Keep your eyes peeled for this tower, or a light. By the way, how did it go with Wolfboy?”
“He didn’t suspect a thing”, said Rasha. “All nice and bound now. Just in time too- he was composing some crappy ditty and starting to drive me nuts.”
The wagons started moving again, and Ailukka pondered. She HAD been this way, when she was travelling southwards about a year ago, down into Varisia, with a caravan. She had no notion of a Priory, and it hadn’t been mentioned by the Caravan Master at the time. Perhaps, like Sandru, he had simply wanted to get as quickly as possible over the pass?
After half an hour the caravan stopped. The wolf howls were nearer now, and she heard Ragnar saying something to Vankor. She looked outside and saw that they were turning off to the right, into a side trail that wound up among the pine trees. She idly noticed a small waystone with some markings on it.
The trees drew closer here, and although it was not yet dark, with the forest gloom and the overcast they paused to light lanterns on the wagons. The journey resumed. Outside the wind howled, increasing in magnitude, and the protective flap rattled; the trail they were following seemed to act like a funnel with the wind tearing down it as they climbed further uphill.
Once again the wagon halted, and she heard Vankor and Ragnar jump down. Opening the flap she heard a cry and as she looked out she saw Vankor stumble to the floor with something sticking out of his shoulder. Ragnar was peering about in the semi darkness and then she saw his arm move and she caught a glimpse of a broken arrow as it clattered against the wagon. Seeing dark shapes behind a fallen tree ahead she muttered something in Skald and a hard lump of frozen ice materialised in front of her, curling ahead in an irregular line towards the shapes. She had the satisfaction of hearing a sharp cry and fired another one off almost immediately, before ducking for cover.
There was shouting and running about,and next thing Vankor was being helped into the wagon. Shaleelu and Rasha came back to the wagon.
“Three of them” said Shaleelu. “No point chasing them in this Forest-probably lure us into a trap anyway. Goblins I’d say- but big ones.”
Ragnar and some of the others hauled the tree out of the way in the pouring rain: it was a miserable job, but soon they were ready to travel on. This time Shaleelu took the driving seat, while Rasha kept lookout in the next wagon. They moved on .
The weather meanwhile, steadily got worse. On they drove for another hour,and still no sign of the monastery. Dusk started to fall, and then Shaleelu stopped and pointed. Ahead, on a rocky outcrop above the wall of trees, they could see a light. As they watched they could faintly hear the sound of ringing bells, marking sunset (not that there was any sign of the sun). Relieved they pressed on, knowing now at least there was safety and dry shelter somewhere ahead.
And then the howling broke out again, and this time it was very close- and this time it was all around them. Rasha stood up, and then in front of Shaleelu’s wagon two shapes darted out from either side at the horses. He loosed a shot at one, and he could hear Ragnar shouting. More shapes darted out, and then off again, and the horses started to panic.
“Hi— Ya!!” shouted Shaleelu, and the lead wagon started to speed up. Kelda followed suit, and Rasha struggled to maintain his balance, loosing off the odd shot when he caught a glimpse of a dark furred shape. More howls broke out from the rear of the train, many more.
“They must be starving” shouted Rasha.
“It inna natural” shouted Ungo, reeking of Riddleport Grain Juice,“The hossess canna take much morra this. It’s feckin’ Wolfboy. Like callin’ like.”
“Get your bow out Ungo” said Rasha, " We need to scare them off."
“Feck that, gimme a hand here” yelled Ungo. Rasha looked round, and saw Ungo struggling with the snoring Dinald, dragging him from under a tarpaulin to the edge of the wagon.
“What the heck are you doing?” cried Rasha.
“They want theer own” snarledd Ungo, “So they can feckkin have him”. Before Rasha could react he pitched Dinald over the side.
“Oh well” Rasha consoled himself, “It makes a sort of sense.”
A long drawn out “Noooooooo!” could be heard from Reynald, standing in the wagon behind.
Howls broke out all around the wagon and Rasha saw wolves rush in from each side to snap at the horses; he guessed that along the line the other wagons were in a similar predicament. He sighted one of his precious few remaining arrows and skewered one of the wolves. The other snapped at the team, causing them to buck and rear, and leaving Kelda fighting to prevent the wagon being tipped.
On the wagon behind Reynald saw several wolves closing in on the prostrate form of his brother, and he cursed as his arrow missed. More wolves tore at the horses, and he noticed the wagon in front lift up on one side and then settle with a crack, pitching Ungo off the side as Rasha struggled to maintain his balance. Beverlik struggled to halt his team, but disaster loomed when a drunken and dazed Ungo staggered straight in front of him. The rear wagon was pulled up short, and Beverlik lost his balance. This didn’t look good. Dropping his bow Reynald drew Whispering Shrike and jumped off the wagon towards where his now awake brother was screaming on the floor.
Kelda had now jumped down from her stalled wagon, and drawing her sword she cut one of the beasts in half. Reynald could also see Ragnar fighting further down the line, and could see Ailukka firing off magicks from the back of the lead wagon. His own danger was lessened somewhat when leaning out of the rear off the fourth wagon, Raine cast a spell which ensnared several of the beasts in an area of sticky strands.
With half a dozen of the wolves injured or killed, the pack pulled off for now. Reynald went over to his brother, who had been badly bitten by the wolves: fortunately the chains and thick rope he had been smothered in had probably saved his life, as they had acted as a sort of armour. Koya and Spivey saw to the the wounded, including several savaged horses, who the drivers were now busy trying to calm down.
Kelda’s wagon was damaged however, and Vankor pronounced a split axle. Quickly tying it round with rope, and moving some of the load to the other wagons,they decided to try to move on before the wolves decided to attack again; already howling could be heard off in the surrounding forest.
Half an hour later they were climbing a small escarpment, which climbed above the trees. Passing through a ruined wall they saw looming ahead of them the shape of the priory, looking for all the world like a small Fortress, guarding against-who knows what? The light they had seen was in a small turret forming part of the gatehouse. Between the outer wall and the Priory itself were a few ruins and a couple of ancillary buildings, one of these a locked barn. Ragnar guessed that much of this was once used to grow food to supplement the Priory’s rations, but now there were only a few small plots cultivating vegetables and herbs, currently battered down by the heavy rain.
Black thunder clouds crawled overhead, and the air was pregnant with the promise of a heavy storm. As the wagons pulled up, Sandru pulled a bell rope outside the gate, and a few minutes later a small flap opened, revealing the light of a lantern and a hooded pair of eyes.
“Ho there! Who goes there!” called a crisp voice.
“Travellers caught by the storm.” replied Sandru. “Four wagons seeking shelter and hospitality-one of them a monk of Iomidae. We also have injured and one of our wagons is damaged. Can we enter, Friend?”
After a short pause the gates were unbarred and creaked open, revealing a gatehouse tunnel leading into a cloistered courtyard. Light poured form a room off one side of the gate tunnel.
“Welcome travellers.” said their host. Pulling his hood down revealed the unmistakable features of a half elf, his long blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. “I am Malvenos, Gatekeeper of the Priory of Cymer. On behalf of Prior Ruan, I bid you welcome.”
Malvenos led them into the courtyard and indicated a small stable in the south western corner. It would not hold all of their horses, and so some time was spent unhitching and arranging the wagons, and then rigging some tarpaulins between two of them, so that using part of the cloister and this improvised roof, they were at least able to keep most of the water off the remaining horses; in the courtyard they were protected from the winds anyway.
The travellers themselves were shown to a guest room in the south eastern corner of the cloister, containing a number of bunked beds.
“Not been used in a good while I’m afraid” said Malvenos. "If you air the blankets they should be alright, but you’d best remove the mattresses and get fresh hay from the stables instead: I’ll store the mattresses tomorrow-they can’t really be washed and dried properly till the winter is over.I’ll bring in a brazier and some firewood. Supper is in an hour-you’ll hear the bell ringing.
The time was soon spent in arranging the beds and changing clothes, and shortly before supper Malvenos came back in, and led Ragnar and Reynald-carrying Dinald between them, to a cell where they could lock him up: Ragnar had indicated earlier that Dinald was raving and a danger to himself.
The group were then led into a large, cold room: evidently it was meant to accommodate far more people than the number of places set out around the two dining tables. Some of the other tables had obviously stood unused for years.
Bowls and a thick potage were set out on the table, along with plates of bread and cheese. A quiet monk fetched in jars of thin beer and placed it on the table, whom Malvenos introduced as Brother Ythel.
As they sat down a small number of other monks arrived, including Prior Ruan -a smiling elderly man, Brother Tomas his deputy, and a timid mousey woman caalled Rosenn, who acted as scribe and librarian. These five only, it seemed, comprised the staff of the Priory, though obviously it had been designed to accomodate a staff of many more.
After a short prayer to Iomidae, the meal commenced in relative silence, puctuated only by the howling winds and steady drumbeat of the rains outside. Tonight was a night when it would not have been safe to be exposed on the mountain path.
It was Sandru who eventually broke the silence.
“We are fortunate indeed Father Prior to have your sanctuary in this storm, and you have our thanks.” The other guests all nodded or murmured assent. “But I take it you no longer receive many visitors?”
“No indeed”, said Ruan, seeming grateful for the conversation. “The Priory here was established for the succour of mountain travellers, but except for yourselves and out other recent arrival, it is over a year since we last had visitors- other than the two annual supply deliveries form Riddleport that is.”
“Other arrival?” asked Dinald, “You have another visitor?”
“Over a week ago yes” interrupted Brother Tomas, a small, hawkish man. “A woman called Eiravel. She has a poisoned dart wound and claimed she was attacked by goblins.” He sniffed slightly. “Though what she was doing so far off the trail and alone I am not sure.”
“Peace Brother Tomas” said Ruan smiling, “She was in need and is now under our care: that is enough.” He looked round. “She is currently recovering in the infirmary, and makes good progress.”
Borther Tomas seemed about to say something but then nodded his head and dutifully intoned “Yes , Father Prior.” Rasha thought he saw a ghost of a smirk beneath the hood of Brother Ythel.
“Goblins you say?” asked Ragnar, interrupting the short silence. “Perhaps ‘vey may assist? I too am sworn to Iomidae-der Guardian Order of St. Justinian. Shaleelu over’der iss an expert ’vith goblins.”
“That is extremely kind of you to offer” said Ruan, “As you may have noticed we are few here, and our numbers are not even equal to maintaining this ancient structure” here he gestured towards where the door to the kitchen was askew off one of it’s hinges. “The recent problems which have started to arise are certainly beyond our capacity to deal with.” This latter remark drew further questions from the group,(and a few frowns from his fellow clerics, thought Rasha),and so he continued.
“Well for one thing there are the lights moving through the woods at night” said Ruan, gesturing at Malvenos.
“I saw the lights in the trees about a week ago.” said Malvenos, “Saw them twice, but couldn’t tell what they were. The lights seemed very dim and never left the trees so I didn’t investigate further. Strange things dwell in the deeper parts of the woods – goblins and worse – and it may have been a trap.”
“The lights are nothing to worry about Malvenos” interruped Tomas impatiently “Perhaps a lost hunter or some strange, but natural beast. Malvenos, you worry too much.”
Malvenos seemed about to say something when the solemn voice of Brother Ythel cut across the table “The lights are nothing but the doomed spirits of the savages who claimed these lands centuries ago. They worshipped false gods and eternal damnation is their fate!”
“Anyway we’ve seen nothing more of them since” said Malvenos shaking his head, “And I’m not reckless enough to check the Forest on my own, so there it is.”
“There is something else though” he continued, “I did check down at the bottom of the causeway and along the forest edge and something struck me as very strange. AT this time of year the Forest should be a hive of activity as the animals forage and prepare for winter. But there was nothing. Nothing: no birdsong, no movements up in the trees-no sounds at all other than the wind and the occasional distant howling of the wolves. It’s like the area is cursed or something.”
“This elvish superstitious nonsense doesn’t help Malvenos” snorted Brother Tomas, “And verges close to blasphemy in this sacred place! You should not alarm our guests so!”
“Well I know what I heard and saw” insisted Malvenos stubbornly, "And that includes the tracks I found near the gatehouse. At least six, and being stealthy by the look of it. Goblins I’d say, and big ones. "
“Fie Malvenos! This is nothing more than an over active imagination-by your own admission you’re no expert tracker. We had the woman arrive last week, and we use the outer storage buildings regularly ourselves. You need to stop this”. insisted Brother Tomas.
“Malvenos we are safe behind the Priory’s walls are we not?” asked Sister Rosenn, somewhat fearfully Rasha noticed. “No creatures of the forest can reach us here can they?. What do you think? Will we be safe?”
“Be calm Sister Rosenn” said Ruan soothingly. “No evil can reach you here.” He looked round at the visitors. “We will talk more anon. Perhaps you would care to join us in Vespers Brother Ragnar? After these we go early to bed at nine, and I would ask you to keep in your dormitory till morning. I bid you all goodnight.”
As he left, with a gesture he invited Ragnar to walk with him. “There is one other matter of import, though it pains me to mention it” he said.
“Oh?” said Ragnar curiously, and vat iss that?"
“Over the last several months no fewer than six gold and silver icons of Iomidae and her saints have simply gone missing.”
“Missing? Und you suspect one off your fellow clerics?” asked Ragnar in surprise.
“I accuse no -one” said Ruan simply, “But I have had to secure any remaining such items in out vault as a precaution. I have asked Malvenos to search unsuccessfully for them, but as he says, there are many such places where such things might be hidden.” He sighed. “No doubt this is a form of punishment for my own sins.”
Before Ragnar could ask further they entered the Justicer at the northern end of the courtyard. This was a long hall with a tall ceiling containing the High Altar, flanked by three statues on either side representing important saints and helpers of Iomidae. Dusty pews filled much of the of the hall, and there were many arrays of candles, which Brother Ythel was currently engaged in lighting. Ragnar helped the elderly priest over to the lectern from which he would be leading the prayers, and found himself a space to sit and meditate.
The other few clerics filtered in, and with the doors closed the heat from the braziers started to have some small effects, as the wind howled outside. Vespers commenced, with their familiar and comforting rituals, and Ragnar responded in the appropriate ways. The darkness, the howling winds, the glow of the fires and the candles and the whiff of incense, together with the familiar prayers were reassuring to Ragnar, despite his unfamiliar surroundings, and distant memories of many such evenings spent permeated through his mind. He found himself wondering at the strangeness of this remote Priory and its inhabitants.
Prior Ruan was a strange choice for such a harsh posting: the man was elderly and frail, and at his age should be comfortably situated in the Hospice of some large temple or monastery. Leading such a forlorn community required youth and vigour- the first testing perhaps for some young cleric yet to make his name within the Church. And there was his earlier comment: the only conclusion was that this posting was a penance or punishment of some sort for the old man.
Brother Tomas was a different sort-he had made conversation with him earlier in the evening. Tomas, though openly supportive of Father Ruan, was so in such a way that he left no doubt in the listeners mind that if it wasn’t for he, Brother Tomas, the whole place would fall to pieces in an instant. An arrogant and pompous little man.
Brother Ythel was more of an enigma. Possibly a little literal and fanatical in his views from his earlier comments. He had nevertheless been relatively courteous to the visitors, and had seemed concerned about their problems and welfare. He was also somewhat solicitous of the old man.
Sister Rosenn was a timid beast, as Rasha had discovered at table. Probably trying to be friendly, he had nevertheless rattled the woman to the point where she made an excuse and left he table-to a slight smirk from Malvenos, Rangar had noticed. Clearly the woman had deep seated problems.
Malvenos himself was also somewhat suspicious. Clearly not a cleric-more a sort of odd jobs man, and more practical than the clergy. Reynald had reported that he had seeemd somewhat interested in Kelda, but that might perhaps not be that unusual in this isolated posting. But why would a non cleric tolerate such a remote posting? And many of these purported events seemed to depend on Malvenos’s reports. One to watch that one.
With the Service over Ragnar collected his blankets and a bottle of wine, before making his way to the lonely stool outside the cell Dinald had been locked up in. As he crossed the courtyard he looked up and caught a brief glimpse of the full moon riding high above the storm clouds, and he shuddered slightly.