Outside the tavern Undvarr, Rhalin took the lead and showed them the way through the city to the southeast gates. The great oak doors were open wide and the wide dirt trail headed up the mountains on a gradual incline.
Spring had well and truly come to the mountain regions of Gaianaus and green grass covered part of the road and spread up the mountainside. The trees and plants were in bloom and fresh fragrances filled the air along with the calls of the birds and animals.
The road followed the side of the mountain into a long vale that led further into the range. Tall pale pine trees grew along the gully beside the road and more intermittently along the foothills.
“Such a lovely day,” Valianna remarked happily as she picked some pink wildflowers at the side of the road and skipped alongside Vhindr. “Not a cloud in the sky, the birds are singing and the smells of the flowers are delightful.”
“A good thing you are not allergic,” Vhindr replied dryly, drawing a chuckle from Rhalin.
“The weather is so different here than out on the tundra,” Valianna continued, ignoring Vhindr’s remark. “Is it far to the distillery Rhalin?”
“A ways yet,” Rhalin replied.
“That is good,” laughed Valianna, “All the more time to enjoy the scenery.”
“Well while you are doing that be sure to keep an eye out for monsters lurking under the trees,” Vhindr quipped and shot Rhalin a sly wink.
“Do you think there are many?” Valianna asked with concern as she skipped to move closer to her brother.
“You can never tell in these lands,” Rhalin said playfully, “But I heard a patrol from Feord were attacked along this trail not too long ago.”
“Monsters don’t scare me,” Valianna boasted, but she remained close to Vhindr’s side as they continued along.
Moving further into the mountains they soon came across a divide in the trail and they stopped before an old sign post.
“The White Goose is this way,” Vhindr said and headed down the narrower path that led through a gap in the hills and into a secluded vale.
More trees crowded around the path and the undergrowth was thick with ferns and other leafy plants. But the road was wide through the dale and they could see clearly all the way to the grand mansion that stood at the center of a wide clearing.
“Let’s avoid the house,” Vhindr suggested as he stopped and turned to Rhalin. “Where is the distillery located?”
“At the far end of this valley,” Rhalin motion towards the peaks showing above the roof of the two story building at the end of the road. “We can likely follow one of these trails through the woods there.”
Vhindr nodded and moved off the main road and onto the narrow path Rhalin and indicated. The trail twisted and turn about the trees, joining up with other paths that led back towards the house or deeper into the wood towards the hillside. But it kept them sheltered from view as they moved past the large house and further down the valley.
“Is the White Goose similar to the vineyards south of Port Na’brath?” Valianna asked curiously.
“What do you mean?” Rhalin asked back in confusion.
“Can you stay the night here?” Valianna clarified, “Is it also a restaurant and inn where they hold tours of the grounds and tastings of the produce?”
“I do hear that the owners of the mansion do that sort of thing,” Rhalin replied, “Though I have never partaken.”
“The owners?” Vhindr inquired, “You mean the Boss, The Grandfather?”
“Officially he owns only the distillery, not the mansion,” Rhalin said as she ducked under a low hanging branch. “Unofficially, who can say.”
It took them a while to reach the northern end of the glade and the large barn-like building with tall chimneys reaching above the trees. At one end a windmill turned slowly in the breeze beside a wide lake and out the front many workers were loading and unloading horse-drawn carts.
Staying to the thin path through the trees they moved around to the back of the building where Vhindr stopped behind a tree and gazed out to the wall of the barn.
“Why are we here so early?” Valianna asked with an annoyed tone, “I thought I would take a while to get here, but it is barely mid-afternoon.”
“It is called reconnaissance, dear sister,” Vhindr replied calmly as he continued to look about from his cover. “It is always wise to know your surroundings before heading into a meeting such as this one.”
“Plan out the area, so to speak,” Rhalin added, but Valianna grumbled under her breath.
“Go play with some flowers if you are bored,” Vhindr remarked and glanced over his shoulder at his sister who stuck her tongue out at him.
“It seems we are not the only ones who had the idea,” Rhalin said softly and pointed to a pair of elves coming around the far end of the building.
As they walked they talked between themselves and pointed to the hill that overlooked the far end of the building.
“Doesn’t look like The Wolf intends to come alone,” Rhalin said seriously, “They will have archers in that undergrowth Vhindr.”
Vhindr nodded as he continued to watch the pair talk and walk along the wall. They stopped half way and began discussing something before heading back the way they had come.
“I don’t like this,” Rhalin continued seriously, “They will cross you.”
“That is likely,” Vhindr agreed, “Perhaps they work closely with Dun Hyic. Perhaps the assassin is even part of The Jester’s crew?”
“She did not seem one to join the local scōrd,” Rhalin replied, drawing a chuckle from Vhindr.
“That is true,” Vhindr conceded and turned from surveying the distillery.
Scratching his chin thoughtfully Vhindr moved over to where Valianna had sat down on an old moss covered log and joined her. It was quite a wait until sunset and Vhindr had many things to think about. As he waited Vhindr took a piece of yellowed parchment from his extra-dimensional pouch along with other necessaries for writing a letter. Using a flat rock as a desk he went about writing an assassination contract for the elf Haylien. Finishing it he rolled up the paper and sealed it with red wax. Underneath the melted wax Vhindr placed a small ebonite coin that had many engraved runes upon it.
“What is the coin for?” Rhalin asked curiously as she watched him.
“It will allow me to track the letter magickally,” Vhindr replied and blew on the wax to make it cool quicker.
Slowly the afternoon drifted by, the shadows grew longer and the air developed a chill to it. A light mist drifted over from the lake by the windmill and soon the stars began to shine, crickets chirped in the undergrowth and the howl of a wolf sounded in the distance.
“It is about time I meet with these elves I think,” Vhindr remarked as he stood up and brushed the dirt from his backside.
“We will be right here,” Rhalin assured him.
“Be careful,” Valianna said with concern as he headed back through the wood.
Moving back along the path Vhindr continued on until the rear of the distillery was out of sight before he walked from the cover of the trees. The stars shone bright as Vhindr whistled a tune and headed across the open ground to the building. Reaching the corner he glanced back to the treeline where he knew his companions to be. Fortunately they were well hidden in the undergrowth.
Stopping there, Vhindr continued to look about as if wondering where he should be and leaned casually up against the stone wall. A shrill whistle from the other end of the building caught his attention and Vhindr looked up to see a dark figure waiting for him. Shooting another quick glance to the treeline where his companions were Vhindr walked along the building to meet with the shadowed figure.
“Lovely evening,” Vhindr remarked politely as he stopped a few paces from the figure, “Dun Wolven I presume.”
“You presume correctly,” the elf replied seriously, “You wished to see me?”
Vhindr looked about suspiciously, to the roof of the building and then to the treeline up the small hill to the side. He did not see any elves in the bushes but he knew they were there, and no doubt had arrows leveled in his direction.
“I hear you are the man to see about arranging assassinations,” Vhindr said confidently as he studied the cloaked man before him. “Though, it would have been a lot easier to talk back at Undvarr, Illendr.”
Vhindr hid his smile well as the man suddenly seemed uncomfortable.
“I am not that elf,” the cloaked figure replied unconvincingly.
Vhindr felt a sudden twinge behind his scarred eye and the sensation of pins and needles stabbing his scar. The shadows covering the elf before seemed to lift as the darkness grew brighter in Vhindr’s eyes. He could see the features of the elf clearly under the cowl and they were indeed the features of the elf Illendr.
“No need for such games,” Vhindr replied, trying not to seem distracted, “I solve mysteries for a living, and although I was not sure it was you Illendr, you have told as much from your response.”
The elf chuckled and pulled back his hood to reveal his blue-white hair and sharp features.
“Not much gets passed you Mir,” Illendr said with a crooked smile. “But let us dispense of such games and tell me why you are here?”
“For you to pass on an assassination contract to Dun Hyic.” Vhindr sated confidently.
“I thought we had moved passed the games,” Illendr replied, his eyes hard. “I know who you are Vhindr Varrintine, and I know that a man such as yourself would never hire someone to kill another. You are a man of the law and justice.” The elf chuckled to himself, “If there was an individual you wished to see removed from society you would do so within the framework of your legal system, however broken it is.”
“It is not broken,” Vhindr replied seriously.
“I am not here to debate such with you,” Illendr cut in, “What do you want?”
“Exactly what I said,” Vhindr replied after a brief pause, “For you to pass on an assassination contract.”
The elf narrowed his pale green eyes and subtly chewed on his lip.
“What is this really about, Varrintine?” the elf glared at him.
“What do you care?” Vhindr asked in reply, “You, and your companions in the bushes, are what are left of the Dun Kār in Gaianaus. This is my business and not your concern. All you need do is take this contract and deliver it to Dun Hyic.”
Vhindr pulled out the rolled parchment he had prepared earlier and sealed with a heavy red wax stamp, and handed it towards the elf.
“I require ten percent of the offered sum,” Illendr said without taking the letter.
“Of course,” Vhindr smirked and tossed a bag of coins to the elf.
Illendr was quick to open the pouch and look at the contents.
“All gold, and mixed with uncut gems,” the elf’s eyes lit up in excitement, and as he pocketed the payment he took the contract from Vhindr’s hand. “Before I deliver this, and you have my word that I will, Dun Hyic told me that you would come to the city. Though I did not think you would seek me out.”
“Your point?” Vhindr asked warily.
“I have survived in this line of business for quite some time,” the elf continued, a sly grin on his face, “The Jester has given us Dun Kār sanctuary from prosecution, but I did not get to where I am today without being cautious and knowing when a situation is likely to turn on me.”
Vhindr narrowed his eyes at Illendr and glanced up to where the other elves were hiding. He had heard such speeches before during his time sifting through the dregs of cities underground, and never did they end well.
“None of this seems right to me,” Illendr said seriously, “Dun Hyic said not to interfere with you, but I don’t trust her or you. I will delivery this contract to the assassin, but you will not be around to see it succeed. I don’t care what Dun Hyic said. No hard feelings mister Varrintine, but I have to protect my interests.”
“Sure.” Vhindr smirked, “Be sure to get that letter to Dun Hyic.”
“I always honour my payment,” Illendr said and abruptly turned and walked around the corner of the distillery to disappear from sight.
Gritting his teeth Vhindr quickly turned towards the tree line and to where he guessed the other elves were hiding. Summoning his Fog sword he thought to show them that he was still skilled with magicks, but his sword did not come to his hand. Vhindr’s mouth fell open as he suddenly realised his mistake and the sound of bow strings humming echoed loudly in the night.
Vhindr stood ridged in horror as the arrows whistled in, there was nothing he could do.
Light suddenly flashed through the darkness as the arrows exploded on an unseen barrier. The shards of wood, feather and metal rained around him turning to floating butterflies.
Silently Vhindr thanked his sister and he let out a relieved sigh. He heard the undergrowth rustling up the hill and there came a flash of light and a rush of magicks as the elves teleported away.
“Vhindr.” Rhalin called out as she and Valianna came running towards him, “You alright? Where are the archers?”
“Gone,” Vhindr replied, “And I am fine thanks to you Valianna.”
“Thought you might need some help,” His sister smiled at him, “What now? Did it go as you planned?”
“Not exactly,” Vhindr replied and motioned for them to follow him from the scene, “But Illendr has the contract and I can follow his movements.”
As Vhindr spoke he took out a small compass and speaking a command word the needle flicked towards the northeast.
“It seems he teleported back to Issia,” Vhindr remarked as he showed the compass to his companions, “Come, let us hurry.”
* * *
“Surprised we made such good time,” Legin said cheerfully as he led the way into the same tomb that he and his companions had stayed in last time they came through Ard Thengr. “Good thing there is no blizzard this time, else I don’t think I would have found this place again.”
“I would ‘ave,” Kōrrin was quick to say, “A dwarf’s nose knows.”
“With a nose like that I would think so,” Bel’eak quipped, drawing a laugh from Legin.
“Let’s get a fire going ay,” Korrin said, ignoring the jape, “An’ let’s roast something, I’m starving.”
A sweet and sad song suddenly drifted up from the caverns below, grabbing their attention and setting their nerves on edge.
“Don’t like this,” Kōrrin grumbled, his shield and axe hand at the ready.
“You two stay here,” Bel’eak said as he sheathed his sword and moved towards the stairs leading down.
“Are you mad?” Legin exclaimed and jumped to intercept his friend.
“Celniel could have killed us last time,” Bel’eak replied calmly, “She knows we are here, why else would she be singing?”
“Might not even be her,” Kōrrin said seriously, “Probably a siren luring you to your death.”
“You forget who you are talking to,” Bel’eak shot them both a confident grin, “I am the greatest swordsman in Nevārance, Death won’t have me this day. I’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
With that the warrior stepped lightly down the stairs leaving Legin to look to Kōrrin for answers.
“He’ll be right lad,” Kōrrin assured him, “Ye know how capable he is. Come on lets have some food and play some Bront.”
Hesitantly Legin turned from the stairs and helped Kōrrin build a fire. The haunting song continued to drift up from below and soon they were eating some nicely cooked meat, which had been previously smoked for travelling. After having their fill Kōrrin pulled out some cards and handed Legin a deck before they began playing.
“Good use o’ them espionage cards boy,” Kōrrin said as he wore a confident grin, “Ye got quite the infantry line there, eighty points not bad.”
“You picked up your cavalry card didn’t you,” Legin sighed and the dwarf chuckled as he placed the card down.
“An’ this particular card also affects your armies moral,” Korrin continued to grin, “Goodbye to yer highest card in yer archery line.”
“But not Magi Drakkas Eirtherian, right,” Legin said, “Because he is a hero card.”
“That’s right,” Korrin nodded, “But that still drops you points for this round to sixty-seven overall. So I win this round, and the game.”
“Again.” Legin sighed and the dwarf continued to chuckle.
Legin glanced to the stairs leading down as he thought of Bel’eak and what was happening.
“He’s fine I tell ya,” Kōrrin said, “Come on, another round. Ye almost had me last game.”
“Wait.” Legin said as he noticed something, “That song is no longer there.”
“Yer point?” Kōrrin asked.
“Something might have happened.” Legin said with concern and jumped to his feet before racing for the stairs.
“Hold yer horses,” Kōrrin called after him and Legin heard the dwarf’s heavy boots thunder after him.
But Legin was in no mood to wait for Kōrrin, he had been unsure of coming back here right from the beginning. But because Bel’eak was adamant to do so he felt obliged to help his friend, but now he was seriously worried that something bad had happened.
As quick as he could Legin darted down the stairs and through the small alter room where he vaulted over the table of offerings, knocking a few jars to the floor in the process. Before Kōrrin even got to the bottom of the stairs Legin was racing through the large room where the walls were lined with tombs and down the dark corridor Bel’eak had ventured down last time they were here.
The hall was dark and cold, only faint burning torches along the wall provided him with enough light to make out the turns in the path.
“Bel’eak,” Legin called as he ran along, “Where are you?”
Coming around a sharp turn he slid to a stop and breathed a sigh of relief as he saw his friend standing calmly in a circle of bright lanterns.
“Bel’eak, there you are,” Legin smiled, “You’ve been ages, what’s going on?”
His friend turned around to face him and Legin’s brow furrowed in confusion.
“Your eyes,” stammered Legin, “They’ve turned green.”
A sly smile came to Bel’eak’s features and wave of dread washed over Legin.
“You’re not my friend.” Legin readied his fists angrily, “Who are you?”
The impostor's eyes flashed yellow and Legin went flying backwards through the darkness and into the stone walls.
With a groan Legin looked up from his slumped seat and watched in fear as the man walked towards him. The torches along the corridor suddenly burst alight, throwing back the shadows and highlighting the impostor as his features and appearance slowly changed from Bel’eak to the man Legin Had seen with Celniel last time he was in this place.
“What … what do you want?” Legin asked breathlessly and tried to stand, but his body felt suddenly very weary.
“I have been watching you for some time now, Legin,” the man replied, his eyes back to their green colour. “I was going to find you at a later date, but I guess now will do just fine.”
“What?” Legin breathed his eyes wide and his head aching.