Still, looking out at the camp in the silent cold as a soft snow fell around him the young man thought back to that time he had been here playing leader and making a mess of things, of his time with the bandit lord and in Pitax. He wondered what his mother would have thought of him while he had been with the Stag Lord or even given what he had needed to do to survive in Pitax after he had fled his home. That seemed like a long time ago. He knew that he was a different man now but all in all he was fine with that. Topper supposed that wasn’t altogether a bad thing. He had been quite a twit and looking back he could see how much of an ass he must have been for the Council when he had been the Magister.
Topper began to walk back to his horse standing sheltered under a snow laden fir. He would send a report to Castle Stag from Rickety Bridge and look into the Grigori issue as he had heard a rumor that the agitator was hiding in that hamlet.
Topper pulled the snowy blanket off his horse and vaulted into the saddle. Topper picked his way through the forest and thought of the orator Grigori. Topper didn’t know how he was going to deal with the handsome agitator but he was sure he would think of something.
Jhod whispered a prayer through his cold lips. The soft creak of his bow made a louder noise in its impatient need to be released from its draw. Jhod’s fletching almost touched his eyelashes and with hardly a movement was flying through the forest before felling a young impressive buck midstride. The silence of the Narlmarch forest fell over the hunting party again after the fall of the prey and the flight of the rest of the herd like a man slapping a gnat away. Venn, the temple’s master scout, gave him an appreciative nod and moved forward to collect and dress the carcass. Jhod Kavken took a deep cold breath and smiled as he thanked the Stag Lord for the continued bounty of the forest. Dornen, his choice for Elder of the Temple of the Elk and the small community grown around it that serviced the temple.
“Deadeye is here.” He said it as an absolute fact and Jhod could not argue it. The young priest paused in silent prayer before allowing his tone to shift conversations. “Is it wise to allow this?”
Jhod smiled at the young man. “How would it look if the High Priest of Nalmarch did not allow his own temple to be joined to the barony?”
“I understand that Eldest but it should concern us that the Abadarans have so much sway with the Council. It would be expected of the Marshal but the Baron heeds Restov and Leveton knows no restraint.” Doron’s voice almost growled the Treasurer’s name. “Elder Hamish says that they added his village. He is concerned that their community will become swayed by money and loses their focus on the Parables; that Hard-by-the-Rapids will become like Leveton’s cesspool.”
Jhod placed a hand upon the Doron’s shoulder and looked out into the snow filled forest. “Hamish is a good elder. He leads by example and cares for all his flock. This will be a test that is certain. There will be cities but we must attempt to remind Yorick that the strength of his River Kingdom is in the good solid people of this land who seek to make this place a home not the opportunists who flock to his cities seeking only gold and glory. We must empower the small communities to see reliance in each other and Erastil rather than run to the cities only to become ensnared in the vices, crimes and loneliness of the cities. There will be roads and progress but Erastil has given us the opportunity to direct it, mitigate it, and even stop it if necessary to ensure that we all succeed. I know that is why Erastil led me here to absolve my sins and grant me this mantle of High Priest. The Stag Lord will guide our aim, Doron.”
“Well, this was an interesting choice of an addition to the realm,” Lizvetta remarked as she eased herself into the steaming waters of the pool, “but I find that I approve entirely.” She sighed as she slipped deep into the black waters.
The heat was penetrating and she could already feel the tingling that Bokken had said gave the hot springs its healing benefits. Yorick was already immersed and resting against lichen covered rock watching her slip into the pool. They were both naked but the water seemed impenetrably black and the curls of steam that rose into the snowy air offered even more cover to their indiscretion. Around them were arrayed the Order of the Raven in a circle with their backs turned watching for danger although Yorick was sure that Dannell had stolen more than a few looks as he had entered the pool. The nearby a pines had been decorated with candles to light the springs and a bonfire built to warm everyone and celebrate the solstice and the ritual of Stardust. Markoa had assured the Baron that the giant frogs that seemed to spawn within the pools would be deep in hibernation and found the safest pools to use. After an hour of languishing in the water the two laughed and fell in a tangle into a nearby snow drift gasping at the bracing shift in sensation. It was only a short time later that couple was dressed in thick furs celebrating at two tables arranged with a modest feast of food and drink. Yorick and Lizvetta each tossed the star ruby dust and ritual sand into the flames and while the fire burned to ash surprised the guards with gifts and wishes for a joyous year to come.
Kaitlyn had been uncomfortable the entire night. Her armor was too tight and uncomfortable plus some of the foods on the table had a smell that left her feeling uneasy. It was a welcome break to retire to a nearby stone to rest and try to adjust buckles. Lizvetta’s gift had been touching and the two had shared a relieving moment for Kaitlyn but as the captain moved on to another all wished was to have been able to enjoy the Desnan ritual with Akiros. It surprised Kaitlyn that she couldn’t focus, that she was irritable but the Black Maiden thought it was probably due to the looks that the Swamp Witch had been giving her as of late. By the end of the night she had joined the others in singing songs and when her handful of sparkling dust, sand and ash had risen into the flurry filled sky sparkling and shimmering she was sure that her prayers and wishes to Desna for the upcoming year would be heard and her heart was full of joy.
A good whiff of roast pork a few minutes later had her vomiting behind a boulder with Mad Shulb holding her hair back and giving her surprising news directly from the Mother of Souls. The second round of vomiting had nothing to do with the pork.
Svetlana carried her drink over to new polished wooden bookshelf and let her fingers stroke the small collection of new books held within. She herself couldn’t read. Her impoverished family hadn’t the money to feed all their children much less pay for schooling. It had been for that reason that her father had sold her to a travelling house mother. In time her days as a prostitute had necessitated her learning how to carry herself with some semblance of noble carriage; it brought in higher paying customers. She had listened to a man start every session reading his poetry and had walked through another man’s library to reach his secret bedroom. She had always wanted to be able to read. It had always struck her as the very idea of what it meant to be rich, to be noble, lounging on velvet chairs by a fire with endless books to choose from and the idle time to enjoy them.
Since she had assumed the mantle of Councilor she had discovered things about herself that she wouldn’t have guessed but she still needed to have an assistant read to her. Oleg assured her that her work was impressing people (and some not-people) but being illiterate still made her feel at a disadvantage and not nearly as worthy of being a leader of Narlmarch as the others. Her house mother, Granny Vaka, had always told the girls that reading was a waste of time for girls who needed to focus on bringing in enough coin to fill soup bowls and dress their siblings.
She looked around the impressive stone building with its columns and wood paneled walls, stone floor and hand carved furniture. Marshal Slade had designed the building and she had insisted that the workers for its building and furnishing come from throughout the barony. Halflings, kobolds, dwarves and men had built this place and Svetlana could see their individual touches everywhere but especially in the extra rooms in the rear where Svetlana awaited the kobolds to finish the tables and benches, and the large wall mounted slate that would complete the city’s first schoolroom. Svetlana wanted her future children to learn to read.
“Will your coming child school here, Councilor?”
Svetlana turned and saw Goody Niska standing in the doorway watching the Councilwoman. Svetlana smiled and unconsciously laid her hand upon her stomach.
“I hope so, or one in Olegton.” Svetlana walked closer to the midwife. “I heard that the Nivvan family is still ill. Have you heard how they are doing? They’re such a nice family and with a newborn as well.”
“I have been there. They are not well, Councilwoman. It is not likely that the family shall live but if the children, who are stronger, survive I know childless families who would care for them.” Goody Niska took the young woman’s hands in her own. “You must focus on your own family. How did Oleg take the news?”
“Oh Oleg.” Svetlana’s laugh at the memory was tinged with sadness, “ You know men Malgorzata, their hearts are so often distracted by their brains and cocks. He is scared. His first wife died in childbirth with the child. He doesn’t, in his heart, see this child for the future son or daughter it might be but the chance of losing me like he lost her, the difficulties of the two of us being on the Council and Oleg running his town. I am giving him time, he still has time.”
“I am sure you are right, Svetlana, that Oleg isn’t like most men. Too often I have seen strong women weakened by the demands of their men or given terrible choices that no woman should have to shoulder.”
Malgorzata let her fingers trace across Svetlana’s womb a moment before she seemed to remember something and reached into her satchel drawing forth a small burlap bag that instantly filled the room with a confusing medicinal smell. “I received your message regarding your light headedness. Brew this as a tea, two pinches only; and make sure to continue to take the wafers in the morning that I prescribed.”
“Thank you Goody Niska.” Svetlana beamed at the woman gave her a quick friendly hug before the two left the new library and entered the street and went their separate ways.
The street was busy for a bitter winter day. Carriages, carts and pedestrians became an impromptu honor guard around the Councilwoman’s cab as it trotted away towards Castle Stag. Malgorzata entered the press of people rushing to accomplish their goals in these last days of the year. Men and woman flowed up and down the streets with their calls, laughs and chatter like rapids. The snort of horses and the bray of mules might interrupt the sound as much as they physically did so but the sound of civilization always returned. A stray cat watched a conspiracy of ravens chase a manic flock of haniver gremlins down the street in their endless war before leaving it’s sheltered nook and joining the crowd.
High over the city watching the aerial dogfight evade and attack through the columns of chimney smoke and tight places between buildings Marshal Slade Svergunsson looked down and enjoyed a moment in the cold but brightly sunny afternoon to enjoy what Abadar was building. Gleaming white and with a halo of wood smoke Meereover looked like it was anointed with incense. Aethelia came up behind him wrapped in a thick fur robe and stood at the balcony’s rail. They didn’t say anything but both felt their deities’ presence in some way. Aethelia surprised Slade by sliding her hand over his and in moments two divine servants, two people having become friends through mutual experiences became something more subtly but undeniably.