“So…how is this going to work, again?”
Although Odus had responded each time with due patience, it never seemed to fully satisfy his two friends who were seated at the table with him, waiting for their guests to arrive. Their very. Important. Guests.
“Don’t worry, Garrick. Just follow my lead.”
Garrick and Isak exchanged worried glances. “That’s just it,” responded Isak. “What lead are we following exactly? It just seems to me you’ve invited trouble here.”
‘Here’ was the backroom at Wrafton’s Inn. Garrick had hoped to have the manor house at Gardmore rebuilt in time to accommodate his guests but Odus had informed him quite suddenly that other arrangements would have to be made since the originally envisioned timetable was being sped up.
“That’s just a sign of how successful we’ve been!” Odus had assured him, but Garrick wasn’t so sure. Neither was Isak. Of course, it was easy to see how far they had come, the various alliances they had cemented and so forth. The problem was, the more successful they were, the louder the rumours and the quicker information was going to get back to the throne. At that point, the legitimacy of the entire affair (Isak was pretty sure the legitimacy level was low, if existent) would be called into question and the whole project would come tumbling down around them. Garrick had himself expressed concerns that perhaps they weren’t doing enough to remain beneath the crown’s notice.
“Nonsense,” Odus had replied. “There’s no avoiding it. Besides, we need more of a Nyrondese military presence up here. Not that we need more actual military troops, though that wouldn’t hurt; we need more official sanction to be seen. Most people in the northern lands here feel forgotten. Padraig is going to change that, with our help of course, but it needs to be seen as having official consent from the throne.”
“But that’s just it: I don’t think it will get official consent from the throne!” answered Garrick.
“I’m not sure it will either,” confessed Odus with a smile. “But neither do I believe it will come to that. So listen again, before they get here.”
The guests they were expecting, and who had, in fact, just passed through the town gates, were General Myariken and his military entourage. During his travels about northern Nyrond, the general was the person Odus had tried to learn the most about. Odus had been quick to share what he had gleaned about the general: “Myariken is 44, tough and muscular, with iron-grey hair and a thick black beard greying in places; I actually spied him myself at one point as he was passing through Midmeadow. Standing 6′ 6″, his height only adds to the intimidating stare of his dark brown eyes; I got that first-hand from the soldier he was dressing down. Why he was dressing down the soldier, I’ll get to in a little bit. Anyway, he has a broad swathe of scar tissue along the right side of his jaw, where most of his teeth are missing and his beard is scrawny, apparently from the rending of a massive two-headed troll encountered in the Rakers some years ago. He’s no behind-the-lines kind of leader, that’s for sure.”
Isak nodded his head in approval.
“Myariken commands the northern front and makes no bones about his contempt for his king. From what I can tell, if he had his way, he would root out the Valorous League, close the borders with the Pale and keep the scarce food of the north for its own people. Because Myariken is a reverer of Pholtus in his less dogmatic aspect, he truly loathes the League and the Pale, and some say he has even instructed some of his most trusted henchmen to raid the Pale from the Phostwood, to bring food back to the north… and they’d be right. It is also true that Myariken is one outburst away from losing his command, and that he makes no secret of his desire to see Crown Prince Lynwerd made king.”
“He’s still a loyal military man, though, through-and-through. My hope is we can secure his goodwill and a blind eye to some of the more liberal ways we’ve interpreted things here and get him to focus on what is actually being achieved,” explained Odus.
“And if we can’t?” queried Isak.
Odus sighed. “Then I’ll have to resort to some of the plans I made while touring about the lands… but I really hope I won’t have to.”
Garrick stood up. “We’re about to find out. Here they are.”
Myariken walked in flanked by two of his lieutenants, all in plate mail with Nyrond coat of arms and embroidery. No herald, though, which Odus took to mean they were not taking this meeting seriously. That was fine; he had expected as much.
Up close, Myariken was every bit as impressive as his reputation. He could not be considered a handsome man, not with the wicked scar taking up much of his face, but the man had real presence and was definitely the type who could get things done. Odus had heard he was impatient and had little tolerance for foolishness, and Myariken confirmed it right away with his first words.
“Where is Lord Padraig? I have no intention of being kept waiting,” he brusquely began, while effortlessly pulling a chair out and falling into it with a controlled collapse.
“Good afternoon, general,” began Odus. “I apologize, but Lord Padraig will not be able to join us this afternoon.”
” ‘Us?’ Who are you supposed to be? If Padraig is ill, who called this meeting? I am here to deal with Lord Ernest Padraig, not his herald and two militia boys.”
Garrick laid a calming hand on Isak while Odus did the same for Garrick. The bard then smiled and began his reply. “Thank you for mistaking us for part of Baron Padraig’s…”
” ‘Baron?’ Heh. No, I don’t think so,” interrupted Myariken. “Unless someone has travelled through the areas I am responsible for to Rel Mord and back without me knowing? I hope he didn’t make the king sick.”
“Really? Is that what you hope, my good general?” asked Odus, whose mouth was smiling but whose eyes were not.
Myariken’s gaze narrowed. He’s taking this more seriously now thought Isak. All the general did was gesture for Odus to continue, however.
“As I was saying, we are not actually an official part of Baron Padraig’s growing forces though we are fortunate enough to be allied with him.” He couldn’t resist. “Have you perchance heard of the Winterguard?”
“Sure,” exclaimed one of the general’s adjoints. “You’re the group that sealed off the old Oeridian portal to the Shadowfell!”
“Right. That’s you, people,” said Myariken, finally. “Good job on that. I’m sure you were well-paid for it,” he said with something of a sneer.
“I don’t know about ‘well-paid,'” interrupted Isak. “But it was certainly more money than we got for rescuing two of Winterhaven’s citizens from the Bloodreavers in Thunderspire Mountain. That we did for free, so don’t make the mistake of confusing us for greedy opportunists, general.”
Myariken’s look softened for the first time since the meeting began. “Put an end to the Bloodreavers, huh? Hmm. They had been a thorn for over a year now. You have the gratitude of the throne, then.”
Odus smiled. It was almost like a script being rehearsed. “The general speaks for the throne, then?”
Myariken frowned again and was about to shout a retort when Odus sleekly cut him off. “… because we’d much rather have your gratitude, general. With absolutely no offense meant to His Majesty, I do believe the general’s gratitude will be manifested more practically and the people he feels gratitude towards will actually be remembered for their actions. Am I correct or have I misread the situation?”
Myariken did not look pleased. He waited several long moments before replying. “Let’s assume you read it just fine. What are you looking for here?”
“Your support in what we are trying to accomplish. Nothing more.”
The heroes felt Myariken’s eyebrow would have arched at their response, but since he had no eyebrow only scar tissue that would remain a theory.
“From what I’ve seen, what you are trying to accomplish is elaborate tax evasion, which I don’t mind saying is particularly reprehensible during these trying times visited upon the average Nyrondian. Fake claims to baryonic titles, adventuring loot claimed from within Nyrond’s borders with no tithing, reconstruction of the Abbey with absolutely no official permission given nor fees associated with it paid… Tell me, have I read that situation well enough?”
“Your understanding of the facts are just fine, general,” replied Garrick, only slightly gritting his teeth. “Whether or not this is a good thing will depend on your perspective.”
Myariken almost sneered again, but his curiosity was starting to get the better of him. “And what perspective would that be?”
The heroes then set about explaining all they had been up to in the last few months: the discovery and subsequent alliance with the eladrin of the Feygrove (Myariken couldn’t believe a thriving community of eladrin were within the abbey); the network of alliances with the peoples of the Gamboge through the Brothers of the Bronze and their new representatives, Mordekai and Chaedi; the furnishing of raw materials to the abbey and the resolution of much of the immigrant problem in Midmeadow (though certainly not all of it), all under the banner of Nyrond’s newest baron, Lord Ernest Padraig.
Myariken’s reaction throughout the telling alternated between surprised, incredulous, gratefulness, suspicion and cynicism. When all was said and done, however, he let loose a heavy sigh and stood up, his hand falling casually near the pommel of his sword. When he spoke, it was with a mixture of admiration and resignation.
“I confess, on a certain level, I admire your creativity. And to be sure, I no longer have any doubts that your intentions are in the right place. And finally, if I put my pride aside, I can admit I am happy to see you’ve accomplished some things I’ve not been able to do, hampered by my position. But it’s all very illegal; as much as I may disagree with my king… he is still my king. And yours, too, if you intend to stay here. The moneys you are using, even to accomplish the great works you’re doing… they’re not yours to do it with. Not totally, anyway; you can keep whatever is left after the taxation rate has been applied. I… I know it won’t be much, but… it’s the way things have to be. I took an oath, after all, and I honour it, even when it’s difficult. Especially when it’s difficult.”
Isak also stood up, but wisely kept his hands on the table. “General, you didn’t swear an oath as a tax collector, you swore an oath to protect the Nyrondian people. This is what we are doing here, you need to see that!”
“I do. But there are procedures to follow and edicts from the crown must be obeyed. Maybe your lives as mercenaries gave you the luxury of deciding which orders to follow and which to ignore, but I can’t do that, especially not when you are housing Tenhas and actual Nyrondians are starving! There are other people that need help, not just the ones in the area you happen to have settled in!”
Damn it, thought Odus. “Very well, general Myariken. I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, but I can see you are beyond being convinced. You’re a good and lawful man, with an impeccable sense of duty, and it was perhaps silly of us to think you would go along with our machinations. We’ll be glad to pay what is owed in taxes. It is not here, however, we need to go retrieve it.”
“We’ll be coming along, of course,” said the second adjoint. The first was still observing his newly sworn vow of silence.
“Of course, of course,” responded Odus genially. It shouldn’t take more than a week or so… it’s in Midmeadow.”
The adjoints and Myariken all looked to each other, slightly confused, until the general addressed the bard. “Not the safest place for anyone’s gold, Odus…”
“Oh, it’s safe. We have excellent and highly dedicated guards.”
“Oh, yes. Who is more dedicated than the Valorous League of Blindness?”
Myariken’s eyes went wide with rage.
Odus continued, seemingly unaware. “Unswerving, really. Of course, I had to initially make mention that I was considering building a manor house within the city and made several comments about how it was a shame the temple to Pholtus was so small, and wouldn’t it be nice to make it more grand, and so on, but after that they were very agreeable.”
“You… you… you’ve made an alliance with heretics!” sputterd Myariken.
“Nonsense, they’re just slightly more… orthodox in their practices. Besides, they did uncover the cult to Incabulosa> that was growing right beneath everyone’s noses there in the city, so they couldn’t be all bad, could they? Ah, but what does it matter? Let’s go get you that gold, general. I have even prepared a song for along the way, and special lyrics for when we leave Midmedow, trunks filled with coins.”
Myariken’s face was red from rage but he was trapped and he knew it. If he entered Midmeadow with an armed force only to be seen confronting the members of the League and be seen ‘stealing’ gold from within a city already on the brink of absolute chaos…
“You… you will go get it yourselves, and bring it here to me.”
“How trusting of you, general! All right, we’ll leave at first light. I just need to send a letter on its way first, then it’s off to Midmeadow!”
Garrick and Isak were stunned both at the turn of events and at Odus’ supernatural cheeriness in the face of their plan crashing and burning. “What… what letter?” asked Garrick, finally.
“Oh, just a correspondence with my new friend, Alaned Mesfajin.”
Myariken’s eyes grew wide, and Odus looked almost apologetically at the hulk of a man.
“You. You. Out,” commanded Myariken, with his adjoints instantly obeying.
Once the general was alone with the heroes he looked cynically at Odus. “So. That’s how it’s going to be?”
“I honestly wish and pray to Rao that it needn’t come to this, general, truly I do,” responded Odus with great authenticity.
“Why are you fighting us on this, General Myariken?” asked Isak, almost with desperation. “All we are doing is making the area you are responsible for safer and easier to govern. Your biggest hardship here has not been the Fists of Stonehold, the humanoids of the Bone March or even the forces Of Iuz to the east… it has been that King Archbold has virtually forgotten about the people here except for what they can provide in taxes. Their sufferings go completely ignored and we know that is why you find yourself in the position you are in.”
Myariken slouched down in the chair and sighed.
“You’re from around here, aren’t you?” asked Garrick quietly.
Myariken nodded his head sadly. “The town of Greenplane. I grew up there as a child until I joined the military at fifteen.”
“Things… things aren’t good there are they?”
“No, though honestly, better than most, I suppose… it’s funny, I did hear of you before coming here: from gnomes. Apparently, the Flinty Hills gnome community is all abuzz about a ‘restructuring’ of their relationship with Nyrond. All based on your tall tales of course, but… it was still nice to hear.”
Garrick leaned forward. “All we are asking for is your help to do what you have sworn to do anyway: protect the people of Nyrond. Right now, what needs protecting the most is their collective sense of hope, which is in sorry shape indeed.”
The general smirked. “Based on your lies and un-keepable promises?” he responded in a defeated tone.
Odus smiled. “Under normal circumstances, Padraig would probably have been made a baron for being responsible for shutting down the Keep on the Shadowfell, no? Of course he would! And subsequently, he would most certainly have taken us on as official retainers, diplomats and what-have-you so that we would have had proper authority to negotiate with all the people we already have, no? Of course he would!”
“Of course it’s true!” answered Odus excitedly. “And listen, once the success of our plan, and by ‘our’ I now include you, my dear general, once its success becomes well-known, we will make all haste in officializing all that needs to be made official, as it were.”
Myariken looked at each of them in turn. “I can’t believe I’m agreeing to this…”
Odus clapped him on the back. “One meal made by Salvanna Wrafton and you won’t believe anything so good a cook she is!” He leaned close and whispered “Your secret is safe with me, general. I promise you.”
Myariken looked at him, nodded curtly with pursed lips and left without another word.
Garrick and Isak couldn’t believe what had happened either, while Odus stood there like the cat who had swallowed the proverbial canary.
Finally, Garrick arched an eyebrow and broke the silence. “Odus?”
“Is our money really being guarded by the Valorous League of Blindness in Midmeadow?”
“Goodness, no. Far too dangerous. Besides, what money? We’ve spent almost all of it.”
Garrick nodded. “I figured.”
“And who is your new friend, Alaned Mesfajin, I think it was?” queried Isak.
Odus looked at his feet. “He’s a squire for one of the knights under Myariken’s command who raided the Phostwood in the Theocracy of the Pale.”
Isak nodded grimly. “So he knows about the raid? Participated in it, maybe?”
“Oh, no, not at all. Couldn’t provide me with a lick of proof, even though he was there. Fell asleep after battling the spirits, as it were, and woke up only as they were returning; he couldn’t even tell where they were returning from.”
“But if he knows nothing…”
“Oh, they don’t know he was asleep. And when you were a squire, Isak, did you volunteer when you were derelict in your duties?”
It was Isak’s turn to smirk.
Odus looked up. “So, my friends? What do you think?”
“I think you’re the most powerful member of our party.”
“Silly. I mean about our plan here.”
Garrick looked at his two oldest friends and allowed himself a smile of hope.
“I think we have a chance, here. I think we have a really good chance.”