Chapter 6: The Taste of Murder
Around the fire they sat, sharing wine and food. Five riders and three wanderers for Belladonna and Erden did not dare show themselves to the men from Grindbone. They chose instead to hide in the bushes nearby, still within earshot so they could hear the conversation at the fire. Kratullos explained that the balance of power in his village was a brittle one and that he and his men were the only thing keeping the bone-ferrets guild and the thieves guild from killing each other in the streets. That was the reason for him to ride out and meet the newcomers who bested Esgar Farthing. He wanted the chance to recruit them first, before one of the other factions got to them. He offered them food and a place to sleep and a generous salary of one silver coin per day if they decided to take up his offer. All they had to do in return was to follow Kratullos orders and work to keep the peace in the city. Exactly what that entailed was not completely clear and the adventurers got the feeling that Kratullos was not quite sure himself. Vague remarks regarding crime-solving and the breaking up of fights were mentioned. Droll, Burzob and Nobel obliged. Erden, hearing of the promise of payment showed himself to ask some questions but eventually he ended up denying the offer saying he needed to see the village and sleep on the matter first. Belladonna still did not trust the guardsmen of Grindbone so she stayed hidden and followed the company on a sure distance as they all left for the village. Her friends did not reveal her existence to the guardsmen.
Captain Kratullos seemed like an honest and rightforth man but also somewhat unintelligent. He asked many questions, especially regarding the stories he had heard from Esgar Farthing. Apparently Esgar and Dyndria had survived the passage from Weatherstone to Grindbone and it seemed like the silver tongued swordsman had been good to his word. The exiles told their tales of fighting the horror in weatherstone and the bloodling in the mist. Nobel denied the rumors that he could control the restless dead for he knew all to well that regular people were often suspicious of necromancers. When asked about the fate of Brother Ferebald they said that he was killed by one of the undead in the castle, knowing that it was almost half the truth.
When approaching Grindbone the exiles dreams were crushed. In their minds they had pictured a bustling village filled with shops and tall buildings. What they got was a run-down group of log cabins surrounded by a palisade. It’s location was somewhat impressive though. It was built on a grand hill with three tiers next to the fork of a stride river. It looked very defendable, and they understood why the village still remained despite being located in the middle of the Harga. As they approached they could hear screams from the nearby water mill. The screams came from a man tied to the great wooden wheel that was turning in the river. The man was tied down with his back to the wheel and both his arms and legs were broken. Kratullos informed them that the mill was the home of Master Hargan, the village dentist, torture master, healer and executioner. The man on the wheel was a criminal of the worst kind. He was a peddler that had cheated the Thieves guild by trading in silver coins that were filed down to reduce their weight. On the gatehouse of the palisade they could see several hands nailed to the wall in various states of decay. They also noted that the walls were built more to keep people in than out. All was explained when they saw the slave pens, right next to the garrison that was now their home. The slave pens was a smelly, decrepit pit of decay guarded by five demonic swinehounds of a breed they had never seen before. The slaves were kept in burrows in the ground and they ones allowed to stay above ground wore brands on their foreheads, forever marking them as property of the Bone-Ferrets guild. Burzob felt his blood churning in his veins as he had been raised with the stories of his peoples enslavement. He considered all slavery a great injustice and in his mind he vowed to raise Grindbone to the ground. But that would have to wait, for in the halls of the city militia they were served hot food and cold ale by a warming fire. Around them sat about twenty soldiers of which six were orcs who soon got Burzobs attention.
In the meantime Belladonna approached the village with care but when she discovered that the palisade gatehouse was guarded she instead took to the farmlands for shelter. She was after all just an old dwarven lady. It should not be hard for her to find a place to sleep. Indeed she found a small farm and made contact with the master of the house. He was an imposing old gentleman by the name of Gunnar Bilecave and he was not easy to persuade having been raised next to the city of slavers and thieves. But when he saw Belladonna, heard her plea for a place to rest and noted her willingness to pay, he relented. However he demanded a pricy sum of three silver coins as she bore visible injuries on her face, and that could mean trouble was coming in her wake. He also promised that she could get a blanket for the night and a breakfast in the morning. As night fell and Belladonna went to sleep in the loft she realized that she never actually got the blanket and that made her mad. She lay there brooding on how to take her revenge on the greedy farmer who would dare trick her for the sake of a simple blanket. When the night was darkest she climbed out of the hayloft, past the sleeping farmworkers and shimmied the door to the house. Once inside she found her way to the kitchens. Around her she saw large wood fired ovens, an assortment of kitchen tools and piles of dough set to rise. She realized that there was enough dough there to feed a small village and a horrible, strange plan started forming in her demented mind. She opened her purse and started fingering through her assortment of poisons.
The next morning Burzob, Droll and Nobel took to sparring with the orcs of Captain Kratullos city guard. Erden tried to take bets on the fight by yelling about great odds and fun games. He succeeded only in attracting the attention of a man named Shulaban Snaketounge who told him that if he earned any money doing that he should make sure to give a cut to the Duke. The Duke was the leader of the thieves guild and Shulaban assured Erden that he was a reasonable man. In fact, Shulaban considered himself the Dukes closest associate and would be glad to introduce Erden to him. The split-tongued Shulaban was obviously one of the most dishonest men Erden had ever met, and so they took a liking to each other immediately. Erden told his friends he was leaving with a stranger to meet the thieves guild but the others did not listen.
As Erden and Shulaban walked up over the crest of the upper parts of the village they saw a man sitting on a bench, apparently gravely ill. As they approached him he bent over and collapsed and they could see that his nose and mouth was dripping with blood. With the confidence of a man who had no idea what he was talking about Shulaban said that those were the typical symptoms of skull rattler plague and told Erden to stay away. That sort of thing happened all the time in these parts, or so he assured Erden. So they walked and left the man to his fate. As they approached the guildhall named Alderhouse Erden noted that it was one of the nicer houses in the area, painted in black, red and white. He also noticed that the guardsmen of the house seemed pale and unwell, so they stayed away from them too. The insides of the house were just as nice, with linen covering the tables and heavy, luxurious curtains on the windows. At a long table set with food and drink sat the duke himself with a plate of small tomatoes, bread and a piece of chicken which he ate in a vulgar fashion with the seeds and juices running across his chin.
“Please sit newcomer for I have heard of your pursuits, you and your friends were the ones that bested Esgar Farthing in that ruin to the south. Please feed yourself with bread, fruit, butter and honey from my table. My name is Undar Alderman but my people call me The Duke. I have heard that your friends have allied with the so called City Guard, but that you have not, is that true?”
Erden and the duke quickly took a liking to one another but their discussion was stilled when the duke took a bite of bread. As he chewed his face turned into a frown before he spat and started cleaning bread from his mouth with a napkin.
“By the rusted earths I recognize this acrid taste of murder. This bread has been poisoned! Quickly, spread the word and arrest the baker at the Bilecave farm and bring Gunnar Bilecave himself in for questioning. I am sorry Erden but our discussions have to wait. I must immediately excuse myself to the outhouse, I suggest you do the same since you have partaken of the bread. This has been a crime against both of us and I assure you I would never stoop so low as to wittingly poison one of my guests. And rest assured the ones responsible for this will be brought to justice!”
Instead of going to the outhouse Erden started hanging around the guildhall, watching the chaos unfold. Indeed it seemed like many of the village inhabitants had eaten of the poisonous bread. Erden had only had a small piece of it and in retrospect he agreed that it had a funny taste. Luckily he did not feel sick at all and figured he probably owed thanks to some god for sparing him, but he did not remember which.
In the meantime Burzob, Nobel and Droll finished training as a young man came running, screaming his mouth off about poisoned bread. Feeling that they had a duty as members of the city guard they questioned the boy and found out that the bread came from Bilecave farm so they went to the Captain and asked if they could go there and arrest the farm owners. He said to go there and poke around and if anything seemed suspicious, ask a few questions. If anyone seemed guilty he said, tie them up and bring them back. So they did. While heading towards the farm they could see four men from the thieves guild heading out in the same direction as them. This was not a good sign for they had been warned about the thieves guild from Kratullos earlier in the day. However, after having a brief chat with the guildsmen they realized they had similar goals, arresting the baker of Bilecave Farm, and they could find no reason to argue about it so instead they all made common cause in heading there.
From the farm they could see a cart drawn by an ox heading towards Master Hargans old mill. The ox was driven by a man and a woman. Both were slaves as evident on the brands on their faces and in the cart they could see a man and an old dwarven woman, both of them were mad with fever and cramps, coughing so hard their eyes were stained with red. The woman turned out to be Belladonna but they could not recognize the man. Burzob asked many questions and it turned out that the man leading the ox was the baker they had set out to find. So they tied him up despite his struggling protests and together with the thieves guild they abused him, quite badly. Belladonna was taken to Master Hargan at the mill for medical care. Droll stayed with her while Nobel and Burzob and the rest of Kratullos men went to the farm to investigate together with the members of the thieves guild. The brought the baker with them. At the farm they found Gunnar Bilecave in the outhouse, passed out from blood loss and with his pants at his ankles. The thieves looted the farm since its owner was dead and told Burzob they found a small vial of acrid smell in Gunnars bedroom. They handed the vial over to him and informed him that it was just the type of vial seasoned poison makers used to store their most dangerous brews.
The case seemed settled even though the baker never admitted to anything. Gunnar Bilecave was left with Master Hargan and the baker was taken to Undar Alderman by the thieves. Nobel and Burzob agreed however that something was off about the whole thing. They could not see why the baker would have done something like this, and they knew Belladonna was exiled for having murdered her husband with poison since she admitted this to them on the day they were lowered down the Iron Lock. They decided that they would need to speak to her once she recovered.
In the meantime Erden was walking around the thieves guildhall watching the victims of the poisoned bread puking and writhing in agony. He discovered that it seemed like the thieves guild had their own healers living in a shack behind the guildhall proper. They were three women all clad in robes and veils showing only their eyes. The youngest one noticed Erdens glances and approached him with questions, presenting herself as the youngest sister Soraya. She wanted to know who he was and what he was doing at Grindbone and Erden answered in truth. She understood that Erden was a learned man and when he asked her if he could do anything to help with caring for the poisoned thieves she told him that there was a special herb that grew on the hillsides outside Grindbone. The herb had to be picked in the moonlight by a lone herbalist, for if more than two pairs of eyes ever laid their gaze on the herb at once, the plant would become shy and lose its magic. She would pay a handsome sum for such an herb, picked properly. She also insisted that if Erden took up her offer he should come tell her first so she could give him some advice and some herbalists tools. Erden was a greedy man but he was not stupid and realized something was really strange about the whole offer. He imagined that the woman wanted to bewitch him and sleep with him in the moonlight considering the last time he met a strange young woman in the forbidden lands. He politely said he would consider the young witches offer and then left to find his friends.
Erden found his friends at the Barracks where they explained the situation to him and that they needed to speak with Belladonna. She was still in the care of Master Hargan and droll was there to make sure she wouldn't escape. Erden realized that Hargan seemed like man who might be interested in buying the pickled hands and eyes Erden had found in the laboratory in Weatherstone and so he decided to join the others in going there.
Belladonna had regained her wits and was found laying in the grass outside the millhouse among the other victims of the poison. She was helped to her feet and told that she should stay calm and just hang around for a bit. Erden and Burzob approached Hargan and Erden sold him the pickled body parts for two shiny gold coins. When Belladonna saw the coins in the hands of Hargan she realized that her robes were lighter than they were before she went into his care. All the coins she had found in the harpies nest on the cliffside of weatherstone were missing! The farmer , Gunnar Bilecave had awoken and was interrogated by Burzob. Gunnar did not understand how he could be accused of such an awful crime as poisoning an entire village, especially considering that he had been poisoned himself and almost died. He said that his baker must be guilty, or perhaps it was the strange dwarven lady he had taken in the same night. Burzob did not like the farmers face so he roughed him up a bit and took him to the barracks dungeons.
Back at the barracks the group also interrogated Belladonna who admitted her crimes without hesitation. She said that Gunnar Bilecave was an awful man and that she had wanted revenge for being swindled by him. She also considered the entire town to be a very bad place filled with bad people and thus, poisoning the bread for them all seemed like reasonable line of action. In order to remove suspicion from herself she had naturally also eaten of the bread, not expecting to become quite so ill. The group considered this and decided to protect her, it would reflect badly on them all if one of them was found guilty of such a crime and they had the perfect opportunity to frame the baker considering he had not eaten of the bread himself. They made Belladonna promise to never do something like this again without asking the rest of the group first, and Belladonna promised without seeming completely sincere. When she told them of the stolen gold however they got a lot more angry. Why had she not told them before of the gold? Did she want to keep it all to herself? In any case they had to get the gold back from Hargan.
They went back to the mill and told Hargan in no uncertain terms that if he did not hand the gold back he would find himself on a hot date with Burzobs longsword. Hargan relented and gave the gold back, but kept the silver and copper as payment for having healed Belladonna. His claim was not unreasonable after all, if you came to his abode looking for healing and held grand riches in your clothes, it was in his right to reimburse himself for services rendered. But the sum was too large and he admitted he had gotten a bit carried away. He knew that if he was killed by outsiders those outsiders would not have a long stay in Grindbone, and he informed these particular outsiders of this fact. He also realized that they band of outsiders did not seem deterred by this and that they might all be completely mad. Thus he gave them the money back with a promise that they would never get healing from him again.
During this time Nobel had gone out in the nearby forests to prepare a necromantic ritual. After being sure that he had not been followed by any superstitious townsfolk he started placing stones in the shape of a pentagram around a single candle. He started chanting and could feel the magic gathering in the air around him. He was nervous since he had never prepared such a ritual before. It was dark magic and he knew it, but he felt it was necessary considering that the town he had found himself in was so dangerous. He would need all the power he could find. The sweat was beading on his forehead as he spoke the last words of the chant and with a flash the candle flamed up and extinguished. The smoke from the wick billowed in the wind but did not pass to the skies. Instead it pooled into a large cloud above the pentagram and as the cloud grew all the plants and small insects around him started dying, their lifeforce expended to feed the unholy smoke. As the sorcerer breathed it in he could feel himself filled with power but also something else. There was a presence in the smoke. A creature that was now crawling through his lungs and into his blood. With a sharp stabbing pain in his heart and mind he started coughing and thought he managed to expel the thing before heading back to the barracks. He knew that magic always had a price, but was pleased that he had avoided paying it this time. Or so he thought…
End of chapter 6