Howl of the Carrion King – Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight

Suspicions and Suspects

Bree awoke to the sight of Father Zastoran’s long beard dangling inches above her face.

“-away.”

She didn’t quite catch what he was saying.

“There. It is done.”

Bree paused for a moment and mentally checked her body. Her hands were clammy and shaking, but otherwise she felt fine. Cayden Cailean had smiled upon her.

She sat up and looked around. She was inside Almah’s tent, piled atop a few cushions. Behind Father Zastoran, Garavel nodded.

“You may go.” he said calmly to Father Zastoran, who stood as quickly as his creaking bones allowed, and hobbled out of the tent.

“Is Trevvis alright?” Bree asked.

“He is recovering.” Garavel responded. “Father Zastoran believes that he is past the point of danger.”

Bree sighed in relief.

Almah’s tent looked much as it had in Katapesh. Almah, however, looked much different. Though she still reclined upon her cushions, she wore no makeup or perfumes. Soot smeared her perfectly bronzed skin and sweat glistened upon her, soaking through her disheveled silk robes. Her veils and elaborate headdress were gone, and her hair was loose and messy.

Before her stood three men. The first were Nes and Fudin who, at first guess she had presumed were a nobleman and his slave, but later found out were brothers. Who they were, where they were from, and why they dressed so differently, she couldn’t fathom, but word around camp was they were rather tight-lipped about their history. The well-dressed one looked like a leaky keg, but she couldn’t be sure about the other one.

The last was Santon. He was the son of a merchant from Katapesh. By the look of him, he was a rather successful one at that. She had presumed he would spend most of his time with the richer looking of the two brothers, or Almah, but it seemed he preferred a lower class of company. He spent his free time around the feast-fire with Trevvis and his friends, just as Bree did, and blended in just fine. He boasted as loudly as Trevvis, laughed as freely as Utarchus, told stories as eloquently as Dullen, spread his affections as freely as Brotis, ate as much as Kallien and was as youthful as Yesper. He was muscular and attractive, but utterly without tact. All in all, he seemed nice enough. He reminded her of the strapping young lads who came to Norn’s bar for the first time: boisterous, inexperienced and ready to indulge. The guy was dripping with Cadyen’s own luck, but he was certainly a drunken preacher – nothing but trouble. As far as she could tell he had already shared bedrolls with Brotis and Kallien, although he had not yet made any advances towards her.

“Welcome back,” Santon said to her with a smile. “Trevvis has already made several failed attempts to visit you. I wouldn’t worry about him.”

“My thanks for the care, but I – “

“The Princess Roveshki would make a request of you.” Garavel interrupted. He no longer wore his turban or keffiyah, and Bree noticed some kind of strange silver bolt protruding from the back of his neck.

Almah nodded. “A thousand thank you’s for your help,” she began formally from across the tent. Her cultured voice had a business-like tone to it. “I am Almah, heir and Princess of House Roveshki and agent of the Pactmasters. It was under my direction that Garavel has hired you and again that you were brought before me.”

Bree frowned. Even filthy, Almah was a striking woman.

“One of my enlisted agents is dead and his property destroyed,” Almah continued. Her voice was even and calm. She seemed more upset over the loss of property than anything. It made Bree’s blood boil. Cayden’s curse upon her!

Almah turned to her major domo. “I hereby task Garavel with overseeing agents of my choosing in an investigation of the fire in order to determine if their are misdeeds afoot, and to apprehend any persons suspected of wrongdoing. Furthermore, I assign Fudin Sahadine, Nes Sahadine, Santon Synger and the Northerner Bree to act as his agents in this endeavor. Do you accept your tasks?”

Garavel nodded in response and looked at the four hired hands gathered before him. They nodded in turn. His eyes locked with Bree’s last. She watched as he wiped the sweat from his skin and replaced his keffiyeh to its place upon his head, covering up the strange silver bolt.

“Why us?” Bree asked with suspicion.

Garavel looked to Almah for permission to speak. She nodded at him once in assent.

“None of you were present when the fire broke out. You acted in order to aid the camp . You handled yourselves admirably under pressure. Therefore, you are well suited to this task.”

Bree frowned, but nodded. “Alright, then.” She didn’t relish working with the Sahadine brothers, but when it came down to it she wanted to help. A man had lost his life in the fire. He deserved justice.

“It is settled then,” Garavel confirmed. “I expect an unbiased investigation. You may follow the trail wherever it leads. Do not let your emotions hinder your progress. I expect an update by sundown.” His voice was as neutral as ever. Did anything upset him?

“Whose wagon was it?” Nes enquired.

“The wagon belonged to a Princess Roveshki’s personal fortune teller, Eloais. He hailed from her distant homeland of Varisia. He was young, handsome and healthy. His specialty was a divinatory deck of cards known as the Harrow.”

“We will inspect his wagon shortly,” Nes responded. “But first, what can you tell me of the… people here, Garavel? I have not taken the time to associate with many of them.”

Bree snorted at his choice of words. As far as she could tell he was too pompous to talk to anyone but Father Zastoran, Almah and his brother.

Nes either didn’t notice her response, or chose to ignore it.

Garavel nodded. “We number twenty in total. Other than yourselves, Princess Roveshki, and I there are fourteen more. Her personal guards number four in total. You will have recognized them by their red armour. It designates their standing as members of the Pactmaster Guard. This means that, like myself, they are loyal to the Princess, although not so much under her employ as the Pactmasters’. They were appointed to guard her with their lives and they will do so without question. They do not disobey. Their names are Fexx, Podarn, Keldon and Vodrave.”

“Our further guards consist of six mercenaries who were hired in Katapesh. They have proven capable in combat and at watch. They are led by a man named Trevvis and include two other men and three women. The men are named Dullen and Utarchus. The women are named Yesper, Kallien and Brotis. Some amongst your number would know them better than I.”

“Our tracker and guide is named Dashki. He is an expert on gnolls and is said to know the regions we will travel through quite well. He was hired in Solku and has been reliable to date.”

“Our healer is a halfling priest named Father Zastoran. He has been Princess Roveshki’s spiritual advisor and personal physician for some years. He worships the god of magics both benevolent and destructive, Nethys. He is quite changeable, but has proven loyal.”

“Lastly, we have two animal herders among us, named Hadrah and Hadrod. They care for the livestock, camels and cook. They joined us in Solku and have proven to be hard working, capable and talkative. They know much that happens around camp.”

Garavel tilted his head to the camp’s entrance. “Anything further you will have to enquire about yourselves.”

Nes nodded his head in response before turning to Almah with a practiced, respectful bow. His brother followed suit and performed the action with equal grace. “Rest assured, Princess Roveshki, that we will unravel this mystery in due time.”

Bree frowned. She would not bow to this woman who cared more for profit than people. “How about we start right here, then?” she stated more than asked. “How do you feel about the death of Eloais?”

Nes and Fudin’s jaws dropped. Santon’s smile never faltered and he seemed more amused than anything. Almah’s eyes narrowed.

“That is an impertinent attitude to have with a woman of Princess Roveshki’s standing!” Nes replied with outrage. “She is obviously a woman of much higher caliber than your sort are used to and – “

“Enough,” Almah interrupted. Her voice was bitter and her eyes were cold. “How do you think I feel, Northerner? My friend burned to death within sight of my door and no one on this caravan managed to help him.”

Bree paused. She had misjudged Almah. It wasn’t the first time. Almah had turned out to have no slaves or servants on hand, either. Of course, having none on hand didn’t mean she had none. Bree considered allowing the woman a respite, but changed her mind. She turned to Nes instead.

“Garavel just told us to conduct an unbiased investigation. I think it only fair everyone here be treated equally. Besides, I’m not doing this for her, I’m doing this for Eloais.”

Santon placed his arm around Bree’s shoulder. “Garavel did say that, didn’t he?” He chuckled. “Best continue, then.” He turned to Almah. “My lady,” he began with a twinkle in his eye and a nod of his head. “How did Eloais come to join your caravan?”

Almah’s eyes softened. “I came upon Eloais in Solku over a month ago, shortly after hiring the camel drivers. I have never visited the land of my ancestors, but when I came upon his brightly coloured wagon I could not help but enter. He seemed to read the Harrow with grace, if nothing else and so I hired him. I cannot explain it, but I felt that having a Harrower at my side felt… right, somehow. I hired him on the spot and he set with out the next morning.”

“And how often did you visit him, highness?”

“Often. Every other day or thereabouts. We spoke of our homeland, families and life in Katapesh. He performed Harrowings for me regularly.”

“Were his predictions ever accurate?”

Almah paused and seemed to grow a shade paler.

Santon approached her and knelt down, to her level. “Anything he might have foreseen could help us, my lady.”

She waited, seeming to decide how much to reveal. “Eloais’ readings had grown increasingly grim of late. His last reading centered on an inauspicious card, the Cyclone. He said it portended death by fire and schemes by a powerful evil. I asked him if it indicated something about Kelmarane. He said it did, but that the village was only a small part of something larger that he called a ‘Legacy of Fire.’ “

“What else do you know of this legacy?”

“Nothing. I don’t believe Eloais knew anything more either.”

Santon nodded and reached out a hand to Almah. “May I?”

She placed her tiny hand within his and nodded, allowing Santon to bow to her and kiss her hand.

Bree shook her head. Cayden’s codpiece, this was ridiculous! A man had just lost his life and Santon was flirting!

Santon stood, bowed again and turned to leave the tent. Nes and Fudin followed him, but Bree lingered.

“I am sorry your friend died.” Bree said slowly after the others had gone.

“Do you remember what I told you when we first met?”

Bree shrugged her shoulders. “I wasn’t really listening.”

Almah smiled. “I told you that here, in Katapesh, everyone wears veils. We are raised to do so. It is a part of our culture. It is in our nature. It is a part of us.”

Bree nodded. “You’re two-faced.”

Almah’s smile did not fade or falter. “We are merchants.” she said with a shrug of her shoulders, as if there was no difference. “That is why I chose to hire you.”

Bree raised an eyebrow. “Because I’m not a merchant?”

“You have no veils. You believe that to mislead is unjust and I expect, due to some unfortunate past event, you wish to distance yourself from such things. I hired you because I could tell that you were true. This is also why I chose to involve you in this task.”

Bree couldn’t help it, she blushed.

Almah continued. “I know you mistrust me, but I also knew that you would accept the task I set before you and follow it to its end, no matter the destination.”

“I will.”

“Since you obviously did not take my advice last I offered it to you, I will repeat it one more time. You find yourself in an ocean of liars. Observe us. Learn from us.”

“And if I don’t?”

Almah shrugged. “If you do not, you will surely drown.”

Bree turned and left Almah alone in her tent, without another word. She hated Katapesh.

She glanced around for a moment, spying out her so called comrades, and found them nearby, inspecting the fortune teller’s wagon.

“What an impractical vehicle for this terrain,” Nes was saying.

Fudin nodded his head. “It would only worsen as we near the foothills.”

Bree eyed the wagon curiously. It was a charred hulk of ruined timber and curled paint remains. The roof was collapsed and the door and shutters were completely burnt away. It was built in the northern style, and was meant to serve as both transport and shelter for a traveller. She had seen many wagons like this back home, but none since coming to Katapesh. They weren’t really meant for desert terrain. Still, it must have been quite beautiful before the fire claimed it. A few brightly coloured cards, singed by flames and soaked by water, lay scattered about the wagon.

“The man was a Varisian,” Santon said without any preamble. “And this was his home.”

Fudin crept into the wagon.

“Inventory, Fudin?” Nes asked.

“Ashes,” he began by calling out.

Bree stifled a laugh. Obviously there were ashes!

“Broken bottles or potion vials, cracked crystal ball, several dozen pools of melted wax, Eloais’ body. There is little else of interest.”

Bree peered over his shoulder. A crisp skeleton with blackened skin rested in the middle of the wagon.

Santon stepped into the wagon and crouched low to the ground. “This was Eloais, all right. Young, middling build, good health, male. I don’t see any wounds beyond that which a fire could cause.”

Fudin nodded. “His position suggests he fell. He shows no signs of defending himself or pain. Perhaps he was overcome by heat or smoke?”

Bree furrowed her brow. Other than that this body was indeed Eloais, she couldn’t tell a thing. She peered closer, but the corpse revealed nothing to her. She sighed. “So he wasn’t attacked?”

Santon shook his head and stood up, stepping out of the wagon. “No. But, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t murdered.”

Nes nodded. “Agreed. This fire would have had to spread unnaturally fast for him to be unaware of the danger. Of course, it was not magical in nature either.”

“Sabotage?” Fudin enquired.

“Perhaps.”

They fell quiet for a minute or so, lost in contemplation.

It was Nes who broke the silence. “Fudin, it is best you do not conduct any investigations. Your methods of interrogation are not conducive to long friendships. Scout the area for tracks.”

Fudin nodded.

“Santon,” Nes continued, “Speak to your mercenary companions.”

Santon smiled. “Gladly.”

“Woman,” he said.

Bree scowled. “Excuse me?!”

“Consult the Pactmaster’s Guards while I confer with the physician.”

Bree shook her head. “Look, I don’t know who you think you are, but I don’t take orders from anyone, least of all a leaky keg like you.” She clenched her hands into fists. “I’m going to talk to Trevvis, Kallien and Father Zastoran. You can do whatever you feel like, although I hope it has nothing to do with me.”

Nes opened his mouth to speak, before closing it again. He shook his head and turned, walking off in the direction of Almah’s tent and her red-armoured guards. “Peasants,” he muttered under his breath.

The nerve!

Fudin pushed his way past her, out of the wagon. “You know not who you speak to.” he said in a tight voice. “Mind your tongue, or I’ll be forced to mind it for you.”

“Your brother is rude.”

“And you are a child. Think before you speak or you will find yourself with fewer allies each time your open your mouth.”

“Why do you protect your brother?”

Fudin shook his head. “Do you foreigners know nothing of family? Of loyalty? He is my brother. I need no other reason.”

She grumbled under her breath as Fudin began circling the wagon, blue eyes glued to the brown, sun-baked earth. With an frustrated sigh she stalked angrily across the camp.

She found Trevvis sitting upon a seat sized rock at the central firepit. Kallien sat beside him, quiet as always, while Father Zastoran stood behind him, bandaging his head. He appeared in much better health than when she last saw him.

Bree let out a sigh of relief. Lord Cailean had smiled upon him.

Father Zastoran was an old halfling from much further south than Katapesh. He had deeply tanned, sun wrinkled skin, a long white beard and a prominent nose. He seemed to have all hit wits about him, despite his age. His hands were steady, his eyes were clear and his tongue could cut as deeply as a blades. He wore a white robe with dark blue trim, and had a dark blue and red turban wrapped around his head. He wore sandals upon his large, hairy feet. He wore a chain around his neck from which dangled a symbol of a black and white mask. It was the holy symbol of his god, Nethys.

“May the All Seeing Eye watch over you,” he said at her approach. Apparently he had good hearing for an old man.

“And may Cayden’s favour find you, Father.”

From behind him, Trevvis smiled. “Star Flower! You’re all right.”

“Of course. I was just tired. I’m not as used to channelling divine power as I would like. It overwhelmed me.”

“It’s too bad you don’t have as much healing in your hands as Star Flower, Father,” he teased. “If you have more magic in you I’d be as well healed as Kallien, here,” he gestured to the woman beside him whom Bree had saved earlier. “Then I wouldn’t have to wear these ugly bandages. How can I woo anyone looking like this?”

Bree laughed as Trevvis ran a calloused hand through his greasy hair.

“Well, if this is the thanks I receive for saving your life you can bet I won’t bother next time,” the priest replied with mock annoyance. “I’ll leave you to tend to you own wounds the next time you come whining to me of ankheg attacks and scorpion venom. Besides, if you had not bumped your head on the lintel you wouldn’t have been in this mess. Really, it’s your own fault for being so clumsy.”

Bree frowned. The wagon. Of course. “What do you know about Eloais?”

“He was a charlatan and a crook!”

Bree’s jaw dropped. “A crook?”

The priest nodded. “We are in the Age of Omens, child. It is a time when not even the gods can know the future. So how could a foreigner with a pretty deck of cards do it?”

“So you think he cheated the Princess?”

“Yes, though not intentionally. He believed in his art.”

“I see.”

“Still, he was a cultured man, whatever his beliefs. Not a one of these others can discuss the poetry of Bellianais or the music of far-off Absalom. Eloais was well-travelled and intelligent. I will miss him.”

“In Cayden’s name. May his tankard be ever full.” Bree prayed respectfully. “So you were friends with him, then?”

“I would say so, yes.”

“Was anyone else his friend?”

“The Princess spent a great deal of time with him.”

At this, Trevvis and Kallien exchanged furtive glances.

Father Zastoran seemed not to notice and continued. “She did seem quite fond of him, although she is better off without his attentions. Perhaps if they had spent as much time praying to the gods as they had playing cards this could have been avoided.”

Bree nodded. Their professional rivalry did not surprise her. She had noticed as much in her short time here. “Were there any in the camp who may have wished to harm him?”

The priest’s eyes widened in surprise. He scowled. “I wouldn’t know about that.”

Bree frowned. She had messed it up. “I beg your pardon, Father. I didn’t mean to imply that you could have been aware of a plot against Eloais, but you struck me as a learned man. Surely you have some suspicions..?”

He seemed to relax under the compliment. He leaned forward, towards Bree and spoke quietly, looking somewhat troubled. “Dashki unsettles me. He has an obsession with the Princess, you know. It’s disturbing to see a dog like him eyeing up a woman of her standing.”

“So he was jealous of the time Eloais and Almah spent together?”

“Alone in his wagon or her tent,” interjected Trevvis.

“Of course he is. Or, was, I should say. It’s as plain as the nose upon my face!”

“And did you see him do anything to Eloais?”

“He never acted violently. Still, no one with healthy desires skulks around a pretty woman the way he does. Who knows what that scoundrel is capable of?”

“So you think he could have set the fire?”

“Of course he could have, but that doesn’t mean he did. It could have been an accident. Eloais burnt many candles and his wagon was filled with flammable objects – books, cards, cushions, fabrics and the like. Still, Eloais was a careful man, and graceful. I can’t imagine him accidentally setting his wagon aflame and not noticing.”

“And the Princess did spend a lot of time with the seer,” added Trevvis. “I, for one, can imagine Dashki’s jealousy.”

Bree frowned slightly. Trevvis seemed to go somewhat somber with his last statement. She eyed him curiously as she continued the conversation. “Did anyone see Dashki before the fire?”

Trevvis’ eyes wandered slightly, almost imperceptibly to the right where, in the distance, Santon spoke with both Brotis and Yesper.

Bree fought back a wave of jealousy.

“I was reading a book here at the fire-pit – and nowhere near the astrologer’s wagon – when I decided I was fed up with these roughians being so noisy.” He gestured at Trevvis, Kallien, and the other mercenaries across the camp. “I stood up to return to my tent when the fire broke out.”

Trevvis and Kallien nodded in agreement.

“I did not see Dashki here or anywhere about, either before or after the fire broke out, nor did I notice him helping to put it out,” the priest continued.

“The old man is right,” agreed Trevvis. “The cripple didn’t like the card reader at all, and he wasn’t in our company when the fire broke out. Kallien and I ran towards the wagon when the alarm was raised, but the door was stuck. When we did manage to pry it open the fire inside was already too hot.”

Kallien made a few gestures with her hands which Trevvis watched intently. He nodded.

“Then smoke overcame Kallien, and I bumped my head on the way out. We could not rescue Eloais.”

Bree paused. Trevvis was a strong man and should have had no trouble with a wagon door. “Stuck?”

Trevvis nodded.

Father Zastoran arched his eyebrows in surprise. “I didn’t know Eloais had a lock on that garish wagon of his.”

Trevvis shook his head and shared a look with Kallien. “Not barred, old man. Stuck.” He raised his brown eyes and looked at Bree earnestly. “It was simply stuck, Star Flower. Jammed. I don’t know why. Perhaps it had swollen or warped with the heat.” He looked back down at the ground, as if embarrassed. “By the time I got in it was too late.”

Bree patted him on the back. “You did all you could, Trevvis. No one would fault you.”

“I just – ” He sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“Did any of you see Dashki at all?”

“Bah! The dog was probably spying on Almah,” Trevvis answered with a leer.

“And then decided to hide when the fire went out?” Father Zastoran chimed in. “He is not a fool. Perhaps he was on sentry duty?”

“It was not his turn,” Trevvis reminded him.

“With the animals then?”

Bree looked around, towards the animal pickets. An older man and woman stood soothing and tending them. “I suppose I’ll go ask the camel drivers about that. Thank you for your honesty.”

Father Zastoran nodded curtly.

“Come back when you’re done, Star Flower.” Trevvis said with a smile.

For the first time in days Bree wondered at his sincerity. Who was it that he had once fawned for, Brotis or Yesper? Brotis was pretty and often flirted with many men, but Yesper was in a long time relationship with her comrade Dullen. Truthfully, it could be either of them. More importantly, was it done with, or would he still prefer to be in her company over Bree’s?

“I will.” she answered.

Was she nothing more than a distraction?

She shook her head as she approached the camel herders, as if it would force the thoughts to dissipate.

“Hello.” Bree greeted with a bow.

The woman turned to her. She was a wiry, middle aged Kelish woman, although years of physical labour and exposure to the sun had definitely taken their toll upon her. Her name was Hadrah.

“We haven’t been properly introduced, I’m – “

“Bree,” the woman cut in. “Yes, dear. We’ve heard all about you! Come from the North, do you?”

Bree nodded. “Yes, but – “

“I’ve always had a soft spot for you Northerners! You have skin as smooth as a – “

“Newborn babies,” the man finished. He was skinny, and bearded. He seemed friendly enough but looked rather sad. “You don’t get much in the way of heat up there, do you?”

Bree shook her head. “No, we don’t. We get lots of – “

“Well, we can’t blame you for wilting like a flower at the first sign of heat, then can we, dear?” Hadrah commented with a laugh. “You’re a – “

“Lucky one.” Hadrod finished. “Most foreigners don’t have much help from the locals in dealing with the climate. But Trevvis – “

“Oh, yes!” Hadrah cut in. “Trevvis seems to have taken quite a shining to you.”

Bree blushed and the woman winked.

“Oh, no need to blush, dear, we’ve got a keener eye than most!” she continued. “We can’t blame him, of course, what with your pretty hair and – “

“Exotic clothes.” Hadrod finished. “Is that blouse made of Chelish cotton?”

Bree nodded. “Yes, but – “

“Chelish cotton? Really?!” Hadrah exclaimed. “We don’t see much of that down here! Can I touch it? Oh, feel it, dear! It’s so rough.”

Bree stifled a laugh. Chelish cotton was among the worst in the world. It was all she could afford.

“I’ll take your word for it, dear.”

“Yes, well – ” Bree cut in before being interrupted by Hadrah.

“And that nice golden hair of yours! We’re happy to see some new faces of course, but yours is a welcome sight, indeed!”

“Thank you, but – “

It was Hadrod that cut her off this time. “And what strange eyes you – “

Bree frowned. She had had enough of this! “I need to know about Eloais!”

The camel herders stopped. They eyed her as if she were crazy.

“Well, get on with it then,” Hadrah replied.

“You could have just asked,” Hadrod added.

“Exactly what I was thinking, dear! She’s a rude one, isn’t she? Still, it seems to be the way of – “

“Foreigners. They’re taught the barest of manners.”

Bree scowled. “What do you know about Eloais?”

“Oh, Eloais! He’s from one of those cold northern countries originally,” Hadrah answered with a smile. “The same one as the Princess, but I can’t seem to remember which one.”

Hadrod’s morose mood lifted slightly and he smiled.

“No, don’t tell me, dead!” Hadrah exclaimed. “I know it! It’s…”

“Varisia,” Hadrod said with a smirk. “That’s one point for me, dear.”

“Oh, you cheater! I hadn’t given up yet and – “

Bree rolled her eyes. Were they making a game of gossip? “The fortune teller,” Bree prodded.

“Oh, Eloais. Right. Like I said he was a Varisian,” Hadrah continued with a gloating glance at her husband. “He was nice enough, for a foreigner, I suppose. And handsome. It’s little wonder the – “

“Princess spent so much time with him,” Hadrod finished. “He was strange, though. We never understood much of his talk about – “

“Cyclones and fiends and uprisings and such.”

“Cyclones?”

“Like I said,” Hadrah replied. “We didn’t understand.”

Bree frowned. She hadn’t said that, her husband had. “And did you like him?”

“Well, we never met him much. Not much – “

“Time, you see. We’re busy with the animals. But, the Princess seemed to trust him, so he must have been a good man.”

“Do you know anyone who would have wished him harm?” Bree asked.

At that Hadrah paused, looked about, leaned down and whispered. “We knew Dashki a bit from back Solku-way. Used to take rich folk into the scrublands to hunt up gnolls like trophies. Most people here don’t trust him. Especially the way he leers at Lady Almah with his mouth all watering like at the smell of a fresh steak. Maybe he done it to Eloais, to remove a rival for Princess Almah’s attention?” She straightened up and returned her voice to normal. “We were first to raise the – “

“Alarm for the fire. We smelled the smoke, screamed fire – “

“And then before we knew it the livestock were lose and running around everywhere!”

“And poor Rombard!” Hadrod moaned. “He’s lost.”

Hadrah nodded. “That’s his favorite goat, you know. The poor kid’s missing. We fear the – “

“Worst!”

Bree frowned as Hadrod burst into tears. “Yes. Well… I am sorry for your loss.” She paused for a moment but Hadrod seemed like he wasn’t about to stop anytime soon. She turned to Hadrah. “How did the animals get loose?”

“I’m not sure, exactly.”

“You didn’t see them escape?”

“Well, not as such, no. But they pulled their stakes up somehow and we had a heck of a time rounding them all up. It’s a good thing the camels didn’t get free too!”

“Wait,” Bree said in confusion. “You mean the small animals managed to pull their stakes, but the camels didn’t? How is that possible?”

“Well, the camels were a little further away from the wagon. And when it comes down to it they’re less excitable, I suppose. Although, I did see a camel once who was afraid of his own shadow! You should have seen it he was – “

Bree rolled her eyes. “I should be going now,” she cut in. “Good luck with your goat, Hadrod. May Cayden smile upon you.”

“Northerners,” Hadrah began as soon as Bree’s back was turned. “So nosy, the lot of them, aren’t they dear? And I couldn’t get – “

“A word in edgewise,” Hadrod sniffed.

Bree shook her head and headed off to find the others.

They sat together, talking in hushed tones by the water wagon.

“The mercenaries didn’t see anyone set the fire,” Santon said. He turned at her approach. “We were just getting started, Bree. Any news?”

“Trevvis said the fortune teller’s door was stuck when they first tried to get in, but not barred.”

Nes nodded. “I will check it for residual magic, to make sure it was no more serious than a heat-warped wooden frame.” He stood up and set off to the wagon.

Bree continued. “Only the small animals managed to get free. I think someone might have let them loose on purpose. One of the goats is missing altogether.”

“It could be that someone wanted to add to the chaos of the fire.” Fudin added.

Santon nodded. “They would have had to have knowledge of the flames in advance to loose the animals so quickly. If we can find a suspect they’ll know who set the fire.”

“If anyone set the fire, you mean,” Bree added.

“I did find some tracks nearby the wagon that seemed out of place, but nothing human sized. Animals, most likely, though none whose prints I recognized,” Fudin confirmed.

“I can find no traces of magic,” Nes said as he returned. “Of course, if the caster or their spell was of middling power, any traces of it could be faded by now.”

He dusted a stray soot smear from his otherwise clean hands. “The Guards did not see anyone enter the wagon, or lurking around it.”

“Has anyone found Dashki, yet?” Bree asked. “It seems he had a grudge against our poor fortune teller.”

“I heard as much from the mercenaries,” Santon agreed, “Though they didn’t say why.”

“Apparently he’s rather fond of Almah.”

“Ah!” Santon exclaimed. “Jealous of all the time our Varisian spent with the fair lady.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Intriguing.”

Nes shook his head. “One of the guards said he say Dashki lurking around Princess Roveshki’s tent. That would place him quite a ways away from the fire.”

Santon smiled and placed a hand upon Nes’ shoulder. “Best make sure, my friend. I’ll speak to Dashki.”

They nodded as Santon walked off to find the guide.

“Father Zastoran and the herders also suspected Dashki of ill intentions, but didn’t see him around anywhere. If he did set the fire he would have had to be silent and quick.”

“Yes,” Nes agreed. “Although I find him disreputable, he does walk with a cane. I doubt his body would have held up for such a feat. Perhaps one of the guards is in league with him. If it was the one with the wagon in his view he would not have had to work in stealth.”

“Garavel did seem to trust them completely, my brother.” Fudin replied. “Best to wait for Santon to – “

A shout from across the camp cut him off. Bree, startled, dashed after the sound to find Santon and Dashki practically nose to nose.

“She’s my woman!” Santon yelled before shoving the man.

Dashki growled in response. It was gutteral, almost… feral. A shiver ran up Bree’s spine.

Santon growled back, gnashing his teeth and puffing up his chest. A crowd formed around them until, after a few tense minutes, Dashki bowed his head slightly, and seemed to crumple in on himself, deflating.

Santon straightened with pride. It was as if they were a pair of animals and Dashki had just admitted Santon’s dominance over him.

Santon nodded, while Dashki growled to himself, then turned and walked to Bree.

“Cayden’s codpiece, Santon!” she hissed. “What are you doing?”

Santon smiled a proud, boyish grin. “He wouldn’t cooperate.”

“So you picked a fight with him?”

“Just get him talking, would you, before he forgets his humiliation?”

Bree shook her head. She couldn’t believe it. Santon was such a boy. Nevertheless, she took his advice and wandered over to Dashki with Nes and Fudin close behind.

Dashki had hobbled over to his tent while leaning heavily on his makeshift, wooden cane. He took a good deal of time for him to sit under it’s shade. He wore dark clothing and bore both a curved dagger and sword on his hip. He was covered in months worth of dirt and smelt even worse than he looked. His clothes were tattered, his hair was matted and he looked more like a mangy beast then a man.

Bree approached him cautiously. “May we sit and talk with you?”

He shrugged. “Sit, woman, and be done with it.”

“My name is Bree.” she answered through tightly gritted teeth.

“Enough beggaring, woman. What do you want from me?”

“What do you know of Eloais?”

Dashki shrugged. “A northern fool. Nothing more.”

“A fool? Why do you say that?”

“Bah! If he could tell the future, there would have been no need for me.”

Bree nodded.

“I was hired by the Princess as a guide and tracker. I know these lands and I know the ways of their inhabitants. Why would she hire me if she had a man who could see everything she needed to know?”

“Almah seems like a nice lady,” Bree lied. “How long have you known her?”

“A few months. She hired me in Solku. She had heard that gnolls occupied these lands and sought out a gnoll expert. She chose me. She is a… smart woman.”

Bree raised an eyebrow. He seemed to be hiding lust and obsession for Almah, but sounded truthful about his skills.

Nes wrinkled his nose. “And how did you become so learned on the habits of those curs?”

“I studied them.”

“What for?”

Dashki grunted. “Revenge, why else?”

Bree raised an eyebrow.

Dashki’s eyes darted about. “They killed my mother and grandfather. They put fire to our village. Hundreds died. My father and I escaped.” He sighed. “I have forgotten much of what I saw. Terrible things. But, I find its the sounds that stay with me. The shrill howls and barks – hundreds of them at once – that sounded deliriously close to an audience. Laughing at us.”

Bree tried not to frown. There was a quiet aggression in Dashki’s voice but also something else that she couldn’t seem to put her finger on. Respect? Admiration? Perhaps. Loss, sadness, anger?

“My father raised me to know everything about the gnolls, their customs, their language. So as better track them down and wipe them out. All of them. Together we scouted out their lairs, studied their tribes, listened to them speak until we could understand what they were saying. They’re not dumb animals, you know. Not like you might think. In some ways they’re even smarter than us.”

Nes raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure.”

“Dad didn’t survive out first raid on a gnoll camp. I saw them fall on him like hyenas on an abandoned kill, slathering themselves in his blood and innards. I can still hear the tear of his scalp and the sound of his bones against frenzied teeth. Against this scene I was forgotten. Ignored. I escaped, though not without injury, and I carry on the work of my father.”

Bree nodded sadly. There was definitely pain in his voice when he spoke of his injury, but a look in his eyes seemed to suggest that it was more of an emotional pain than anything. That was a look that Bree knew well. Although he seemed guarded Bree was having an easier time reading him than the other members of the caravan. Was she getting better at this, or had Santon’s display set him on edge?

“I share your goals, Dashki,” Bree offered with pride. “I seek to wipe all those abominable creatures from the world, never to see them back again.” She reached a hand to her copper tankard and smiled. “Lord Cailean willing, of course. But, that’s why I’m here. To kill gnolls. As many as I can.” She thought it best she leave her goals of abolishing slavery unstated.

Dashki stared at Bree for a moment before nodding once, slowly. He then turned his gaze to the brothers beside her.

“Yes, well, that’s quite lovely,” Nes said with disdain. “Now, tell me, how did the fire first come to your attention?”

“I was just finishing up my meal at the fire pit when the call went out.”

Bree frowned. He was lying.

“I have seven witnesses who say you were not,” Nes replied coldly. “Give me the truth this time.”

Dashki growled. “I was out scouting for gnolls.”

Fudin tensed. “I was on watch and did not see you.”

“It is no concern of mine if you shirk your duties.”

Fudin clenched his fists. “How far must you have wandered, to not be back in time to help?”

Dashki’s tone grew fierce. “When the alarm was raised I came back, but I am not a fast walker. By the time I arrived it was taken care of.”

“Did you find any tracks or signs of gnoll activity?” Bree asked, hoping to ease the tension around her.

“Gnolls?” Dashki snorted. “Unlikely. If a tribe were behind this we would be dead already. Or dying, at least.”

“So who do you think set the wagon ablaze?”

Dashki grunted. “Set? How do we even know the fire was set? That idiot burned a hundred candles in his wagon. Perhaps he just got unlucky. We’re in gnoll country. It was probably pugwampis.”

“Pugwampis?” Nes repeated with a curled lip.

“Terrible critters what crawled up from the Darklands below the earth. Jackal rats, some folks call them, on account of their pointed little heads. They worship gnolls as gods and infest their communities like rats. Wherever pugwampis go, bad luck is sure to follow. The gnolls hate pugwampis because of it, and try to kill them all the time, but they always come back. Perhaps their bad luck caused the fortune-man’s candles to start a fire? Yes, pugwampis. I am certain it was pugwampis.”

“Pug… Wumpus?” Bree asked with a frown, tripping over the unfamiliar word.

“Jackal rats?” Nes asked, though even Bree could tell he thought the tracker was lying.

“Yes, yes. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, if one is about. They are small and stealthy, but their should still be some sign of their passage.” Dashki moved to stand. “I will go look around the wagon and – “

“I have done so, already,” Fudin interrupted.

“Are you sure? You could have missed something. I’d better go look.”

“No need. I did see come strange tracks by the fortune teller’s wagon.” Fudin acknowledged slowly, as if he were cautious of buying into the tracker’s tale. “They were small, close together. Almost like a mix between a child and a dog.”

Dashki nodded. “That’s them.”

Nes wrinkled his nose in disgust and stood suddenly. “It was an honour to have met you, peasant.” he said, his voice heavy with sarcasm before turning to Fudin. “Come, we have much to discuss.”

Fudin stood at his words and turned, with little more than a nod to the crippled guide. Bree followed as well, although slower than the others.

“Thank you for your cooperation,” she said earnestly before leaving. “Your goal is a noble one. May the Drunken Lord smile upon your endeavors.”

Dashki stiffened, but made no other response.

Bree joined up with the others outside of Santon’s tent.

“Finished with the cur?” Fudin asked as she approached.

Bree frowned. “If only.” she said with a sigh. The corners of her lips tilted up slightly. “Though perhaps after this conversation I will be able to shed your brother’s company.”

Fudin tightened at her response. Coiled, like a snake ready to strike.

Nes turned bright red. “The gnoll hunter seems to be a natural suspect,” he began, ignoring her remark, “primarily due to his charm and pleasantness towards others, I gather.” He nodded his head at Bree. “A trait you obviously have in common. Unpleasantness aside, no one actually saw him do it, or can explain how he could have done it, especially with that injured leg.”

Fudin nodded. “Yes, brother. Despite the outrageousness of his claims, he seemed sincere about the Jackal rats. The tracks I found could belong to such a creature.”

Santon nodded. “I agree. I don’t think our friend there could have started the fire. If he felt strongly enough about our dear Princess to kill for her, his response to my actions would have been much more violent. He would not have backed down so easily.”

“Come,” Nes put in after a moment. “Let us share our opinions with Princess Roveshki.”

Almah sat within her tent, reclining on a pile of cushions. “What have each of you discovered of the fire?” she asked softly. “Was it arson? An accident? An attack?”

Nes shook his head. “No, Princess. Although some in camp may have had reason to dislike the fortune-teller, everyone is accounted for. However, there are some strange tracks we found by the wagon. We believe whatever made the tracks to be the culprit.”

“Can you identify the tracks?”

“Fudin did not recognize them, Princess, but the tracker says they belong to pugwampis.”

“Pug … wampis?” Almah frowned, tasting the unfamiliar word. She looked at Nes with a raised eyebrow. “What are they? How could they burn down Eloais’ wagon?”

“If he can be trusted they are foul little creature from the depths below the earth who worship gnolls and bring bad luck wherever they go. If this is true than the passage of one of these creatures could have caused both the fire to start and the animals pickets to come loose.”

“Are there other witnesses of this creature?”

“Just the tracks, Princess.”

Almah sat for a moment in stunned silence. “If not for the tracks you say you have found, I would tell you that Dashki was lying.”

“I am well versed in rooting out deception, Princess.”

“Indeed.” She looked at each of them in turn and stroked her cheek with a perfectly manicured fingernail. “If my expert is correct the hills around here should be crawling with these pugwampis, or at least some sign of their passage. It should be easy for him to find one and bring it back to me. As he is, however, our best suspect in this affair, it would not do to send him out into the darkness alone. I’m afraid that your investigation is not yet at and end. Go out into the desert with Dashki and find me one of these pugwampis.”

Nes and Fudin bowed as one. “Yes, Princess Roveshki.”

Santon nodded his head and smiled. “Of course, my lady.”

But, it was not to any of the men before her that Almah turned to. Instead, she looked past them and locked eyes with Bree.

‘And you?’ she seemed to be asking.

Bree nodded her head once in response.

Almah smiled. “Perfect.” she said. “Perfect.”

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