With the beginning of Denus the Stolen Lands seemed to be sinking under the water like ancient Azlant. The constant rains and mists soon had the snows of winter either washed away or turned into soggy layers of slushy ice. The frequent sleet had turned the naked trees into shimmering branching icicles and the evergreens into casualties. Fields stood unplowed and roads generally empty as the relentless wind turned the wet into raw freezing suffering for any beast, bird or man.
The Tuskwater complained at being awoken in such terrible weather with cracks and groans that startled horses and woke sleepers in Meereover throughout the beginning of the month. The melting snows and rain swelled the rivers of the Greenbelt to overflowing and by mid-month the final resistance of the Tuskwater’s ice pack crumbled and spent days cracking and grinding in fury. The ice fishing village had long since escaped to the shore to be stored for the year and stood next to the barges, boats and fishing vessels that waited for the Tuskwater to be safe to travel again. The unending war between the ravens and haniver of the barony’s capitol had a rare ceasefire. Rooftops were covered in black suffering ravens failing to stay dry and the mischievous gremlins hid in every crevice and overhang along the pier watching men struggle to shove and shatter the ice floes that threatened the pilings and docks.
The town of Tatzlford watched as the Skunk River overflowed and flooded the forest around it along with part of the town. The church of Erastil helped its flock who were already prepared for the possibility and there was little that could not be cleaned or repaired later as a community; and for all the disruption and inconvenience the abatement of the Skunk’s natural subtle odor was a welcome exchange.
The roar of the rapids of the Shrike near its namesake village were a common yearly event and referred to by the locals of Hard-by-the-Rapids as the Shouting Time and provided an excuse for raucous celebrations after Hamish’s services in the tavern. The hard long winter, the endless dreary wet days of constant roaring and the impending days of hard spring work had prompted Hamish to give his community a few days of release to strengthen them for the work to come. The Shrike, the downpours and the loss of members of the community to weather and disease could not drown out the song and laughs that rose from the Rapids Tavern. Parties in homes and the tavern seemed to center on seeing who could be louder, the folk or the Shrike.
Riding away from the village through the early morning deluge was the Warden’s patrol. Six miserable horses plodded along the muddy road with heads hung low. Their coats were soaked making them dark and steaming in the chill with heavy manes and useless limp tails. The six members riding along were almost all to a man equally as miserable, except for one. Four men and a woman were bowed and silent under oiled cloaks trying to stay as dry as possible. Their commander, the Warden Akiros Ismort, sat high and bore a faint look of contentment as he kept watch on the road. The three usual patrol members had been giving Akiros looks throughout the last three days of patrol; their not being used to travelling with the Warden without his usual gruff nature or weather such as they were experiencing bringing out the worst in him. The other two were more discrete and weren’t part of the usual compliment.
One of those two men let his horse drift closer to Akiros’ and shifted the water stained ranseur he carried in the crook of his right arm. Regik shifted his rain hood enough to look at Akiros without letting too much runoff pour into his lap.
“So it’s any day now, isn’t it?”
“Huh,” Akiros blinked at the distraction to his thoughts. “What is?”
“Please Ismort, your child being born.” Regik turned his head back forward to hide his smile.
“For the last eight months you have grown progressively less and more you.”
“You’re not making any sense Regik,” Akiros quietly growled at the familiarity of Regik’s tone, “and you should call me Warden.”
“I’m not talking to the Warden, Akiros, and I don’t serve under you. I really don’t serve under anyone but if I had to stand and declare I’d say I serve Marshal Slade first and Baron Yorick second. I’m part of the city guard as well as the inquisitor’s man so it’s him who can order me.” Regik turned to face Ismort’s heated gaze with a calm resolve. “I used to serve under you when we was men who deserved the noose; when we was different men working murder and theft but that was a ranseur ago. I was talkin’ to a friend.”
The music of heavy rain and plodding mud-slurping hooves was the only sound as the two men looked at each other; one with furious eyes and the other unflinchingly returning the gaze with no provocation or mischief. The sudden jangle of bridle and the snort of a horse unsuccessfully shaking water from its mane broke the moment and drew Akiros’ attention to see who was listening in. The soaking wet rider to his left looked sheepishly at the Warden and pushed his unkempt dripping hair out of his face. Topper’s usual red locks were plastered against his head and now were dark like blood. His oilskin cloak was wrapped around his belongings tied to the back of a horse less than pleased to be forced into the poor weather leaving the bard with the protection of a soggy cloak obviously not up to the task. Topper’s usual smile hadn’t been seen on the lad’s face since the beginning of the month and his eyes were grey like the clouds above than their usual blue.
“We both are,” said the young man who added a hint of his old self in a quick smile and wink, “and I never worked for anybody if I could help it in those days.”
“You still don’t you shiftless…” the Warden let the rest of the statement get washed away with his anger as he caught the look in Red’s eyes that the boy tried to obscure with his sodden hood.
“Topper, I…” Akiros knew the whole story that few knew beyond the Council about Topper and Grigori and the General’s gift. Ismort took a breath to hold while he let the last of his temper abate and released it in an explosive fog of condensation that drifted into the rain to be lost. He didn’t understand Topper’s attraction to whores much less men. The order of Erastilite paladins that he had trained under had preached that such behaviors were unacceptable to community and family and he himself thought it wrong and unnerving to think about. But then the church of Erastil thought far less of murder and he had laid that sin upon his own soul not too long ago so who was he to judge and, Akiros realized, that besides Corbin these two were the closest things to friends that he had. Looking up from his saddle Akiros noticed that Regik was staring at him again but had added a look of condemnation towards him.
“I…,” Akrios began angrily towards Regik before swinging towards Topper in resignation, “Topper, I’m sorry. You are not the same boy that you were. I never trusted you then, never would have relied on you; that would not be the case now.” He turned away to stare ahead and allow his hood to shield his face. “I know everything and trust me I can understand the sacrifice that you made and what your loss feels like. I don’t know about us being friends but I would say that you have earned my respect; you as well Regik.”
“Oh we’re friends Akiros.” Topper replied. “Not then, no way. You were better than the Stag Lord in some ways perhaps but more of a pain in the ass than that drunken sod in many more; however you never killed a man when you were with us without a reason and were as fair as a bandit lieutenant could be expected to be. It was obvious that Zebulon seemed to see something more in you than what I already knew about your past but I had liked him and I figured if he saw a reason to keep you alive, much less Regik or I, then I should support that after he died.”
Akiros was silent for a few minutes until he realized something and turned towards Topper with a quizzical look.
“What do you mean, ‘what I already knew about your past’?” Akiros’ broke out in a cold sweat that mixed with the icy rain. “What did you know about me?”
“Oh, Dovan told me. Well, I overheard him talking to the Stag Lord trying t’sell you out is more the truth. He really hated your being second-in-command so he had looked into your past to find out more about you. He told the Stag Lord abouts how you were an ex-paladin murderer wanted in Taldor with a bounty on yer head. I wouldn’t worry about it though I don’ think anyone else on the Council knows.” The red head paused and regarded Akiros with a slight wet grin as if he hadn’t said anything. “I think you’ll make a good dad.”
The three guards riding ahead doubtless could not have heard anything given their distance, coverings and the rain but the shocked stares from Regik and Akiros left the rain’s drumming the only sound until it was broken by the creak of Akiros’ leather glove tightening around his sword’s grip. A lengthening edge of steel reflected the cold murderous rage of Akiros’ face as it slipped from the dry scabbard. Akiros’ warhorse sensed the shift by its rider and drifted towards Topper’s miserable riding horse ready to respond to the conflict it sensed was imminent. Topper looked up as the last of his whispers pulled strands of aether together forming a recorder in his hands. He saw the look in Akiros’ eyes and the revealed steel and was nonplused.
“Akiros, we’re not friends because we share some sort of camaraderie or are brothers in arms. We’re not friends because you might think that I have something that I can use against you to force you to treat me well which I wouldn’t do now but I might have way back. We are friends, the three of us, because we were spared the hangman’s tree and given another chance by Zebulon Pike and Brother Slade’s company and, in one way or another, we each have died and been given a new life. Now Regik and I thought we’d keep our friend company on the last patrol he’ll be a goin’ on before he returns to his frightfully pregnant woman about to give birth and finds himself as good as wed and cuckolded. When we end in Olegton the ladies of the Elf’s Bedroom have promised us a party the likes of which will undoubtedly leave you begging Katilyne t’forgive you for the gossip alone.” Topper then smiled at Akiros’ stunned face revealing a Topper Red that had not been seen in months as he leaned into the Warden’s reach heedless of the naked blade ringing from the raindrops along its length. “Plus we really have to get Regik’s wick dipped.”
Akiros Ismort felt the fear and rage wash from his skin with the rain taking the cold from his soul and he laughed out loud to his own surprise. He clasped Topper’s shoulders almost pulled the young man from his saddle and the friendly scowl from Regik just intensified it. The three guards ahead were ready with nocked bows at the unfamiliar sound but gave each other bemused looks of foreknowledge of the party as they returned to their ride. Akiros gave Red’s hood a pat and he straightened in his saddle to dry and sheathe his sword. Regik smiled and moved his ranseur back to its resting spot and relaxed.
“Yeah, we told the men what was up and it’s in Oleg’s new inn before it’s even open to the public. I know that Corbin will be there as well as Markoa and Yorick, Prog, Matt, Kestan, Oleg, Tanner, Carl….” Regik continued to list the possible revelers as Akiros turned towards Topper and regained a bit of his usual countenance.
“Thank you, my friend Red. You are right of course. It will be good to unwind from the troubles that Kat has been having: the pains, the stench of medicines, the mood swings and demands, Lizvetta’s condemning stares. A party may well do me well as long as Korrah doesn’t bring another dire bear.”
The uplifting music that Topper had started playing stopped suddenly and Akiros looked over at the hood the instrument stabbed into. The voice that hung from the steam of Topper’s breath threatened to freeze it.
“She is not invited.”