Aurei hummed softly as she kneaded the dough early the next
morning. They'd ended the evening after the foot soak in the
Millpond and she had been extremely pleased with how the young
knight had seemed to begin to enjoy her company. The Drow girl
had prided herself on winning over people's opinions and she had
encountered none as negative as Sir Eleazar's opinion toward her.
She smiled at the thought of how different his attitude toward
her was now. In fact, she had thought about him constantly since
the night before.
"What are you smiling about?" Alis trudged into the kitchen, looking bleary-eyed. She wasn't a morning person.
"Oh, nothing." she lied, though she really didn't know why.
"Nothing? Really?" Alis gave her a suspicious look. Aurei just shrugged, but she couldn't help but continue smiling.
Alis suddenly snapped her fingers, "Ah ha! You were talking to Sir Eleazar yesterday evening!"
"So?" She felt like she might be blushing.
"Apparently things have warmed up between the two of you."
"Well, he seems much more comfortable around me now; I'm very glad about that. He had a great idea about setting up watchtowers around the three villages as a form of protection, and his plan is pretty good. I've been worrying about that for weeks now and it's just a relief to finally have a plan, so I'm relieved, so of course I'm smiling!"
"Uh huh." Alis commented, still smirking as she put flour on her hands and began working another batch of dough.
"Did you talk to Sir Aeric last night?" Aurei found herself changing the subject for some reason.
"No, he was very busy. The Paladins kept watch on top of their new tower all night."
"They saw something to the south - far away, around sunset, I think they said about 8 miles or so away, they guessed -a red light hovering over the ground."
"Airship!" Aurei smacked her forehead with the palm of her hand, sending into the air a poof of flour, "I should have checked in before I went to bed! Why didn't someone tell me?"
"They knew you were… preoccupied, I suppose."
"I'm never THAT preoccupied!" she snapped, but then touching her friends' arm, softly added, "Sorry, I didn't mean to snap at you."
"It's alright. Pectros said they thought about notifying you but the light disappeared shortly after they first saw it and it never reappeared."
Aurei breathed a sigh of relief. Eleazar's watchtowers were sounding better and better now, "We are going to have to act quickly on those towers - the sooner the better. After we finish with this bread, I want us to get Pectros and some guards, Brother Darv and the Paladins and see if we can find a strategic location for the southwestern watchtower."
"You want ME to go with you? What do I know?"
"Well, we both need training in these sorts of things if we're going to be Paladins."
"Aurei, don't start on that again, I'm just a barmaid-"
"Not long ago I said that too, now look at me. Come on, Alis, it will get you a chance to be with Sir Aeric, if you can convince him to come, which I imagine you will have no trouble doing."
"And of course you will want Sir Eleazar to be part of our company?" The half-Elf girl gently teased.
"Naturally - it was his idea, after all."
"Uh huh - that is the only reason?"
"The only one." Aurei quickly answered, but wondered if she had just lied.
"Well, it is a beautiful day outside.", Alis said with a sigh, looking down at the mound of white dough, "It's cloudy, but very suitable for riding. Oh, okay, it sounds like a plan to me."
"I'll go get Pectros and Brother Darv, you tell the Paladins our plans. I also may see if Thorm, Lute and Siris will join us, as the three of them have been around the world and have no doubt seen Watchtowers before, so their input will be valuable."
"How far are we going to ride?"
"Well, I haven't said anything to anyone, but I was thinking about the old ruins of Duttontun - they are about a mile south of Thurgood village, so a watchtower there would offer them advanced warning of anyone coming up the western road. If those lights were about 8 miles south of here, they'd only have been a few miles away from Thurgood, so maybe they saw it better."
"I just hope that Airship wasn't dropping off another 'surprise' for us." Alis said as she arranged the dough on a baking stone.
"I share your hope; that is another reason I want to visit the ruins, since it will take us through Thurgood. I'm very sure we'd know it by now if something attacked the village, but I'd still like to check on them. By the way, I want everyone in their armor for the trip, just in case."
"As long as I don't have to wear one of those stupid helms."
Aurei smiled, "That's fine - but if we encounter something that we have to fight -"
"I'll slip it on then." Alis slid the baking stone into the oven with a long baker's paddle and wiped her hands on her dress apron, "I'll get Morla and Tobbis to bake for us."
"Good - tell everyone we'll meet back here in an hour."
With that, the two girls hurried to change clothes and prepare for the ride.
Exactly an hour later a group of 11 stood on the wrap-around front porch of the Tavern, awaiting Aurei. The Drow girl was running a bit late, but hurried down the stairs of the Muddy Boot, adjusting the coif of her chainmail hood. She'd debated wearing the Drow armor, but she did not want to do anything that might upset Sir Eleazar, and she knew that seeing the Drow matron armor would probably do just that. She did take both of her Drow swords though, hoping they'd stay in their scabbards and out of his sight.
She was glad to see the group standing waiting for her. Lute and Siris stood talking to Thorm, Neal and Brolen. Pectros stood with Sir Alvis, Aeric and Eleazar, gesturing to the south as they no doubt were discussing the Airship that had been sighted the night before. The other Paladins had either decided not to join them, or else Sir Alvis had assigned them other duties today. Brother Darv and Alis were seated on their horses watching several children chase a dog in a field behind the Inn. Aurei felt very thankful for the group and she stood there for a moment, glancing at them. They were all suited up in their armor, even Lute and Siris wore chainmail. 'How did I ever become their duchess?', Aurei asked herself silently as she joined them.
Minutes later they were all heading southward out of town, to the waves and calls of those townspeople who saw them pass. The day was very pleasant, cool and cloudy, but without any wind or threat of rain. 'A perfect day for a ride', Aurei thought as she rode up beside Sir Alvis and Brother Darv.
"Gentlemen, I want to thank both of you for agreeing to this impromptu trip. I greatly value your opinions. I was speaking last night to Sir Eleazar about some sort of defenses for the three villages in this duchy, and he mentioned Watchtowers."
The Knight Commander nodded with a smile, "Yes, in fact he mentioned your conversation to me this morning. I want to thank you, Duchess, for Sir Eleazar has asked me to consider allowing him to remain as a Blood Knight, and I have agreed, pending approval of St. Kinnis. But knowing how very fond of Sir Eleazar that Master Kinnis is, I am very sure he will gladly agree. From what Sir Eleazar tells me, you encouraged him to seek Yesh's forgiveness and restoration."
Aurei nodded, then turning to Brother Darv, "I used my key to get inside the church; I didn't want to disturb you."
The Priest of Yesh grinned, "Duchess, you are always free to bring a soul back to fellowship in Yesh in the church. I thank God for your wisdom in helping him."
"He's a good man." Aurei said to both of them, looking over her shoulder to where the half-Drow rode, chatting with Aeric and Alis.
The Knight Grand Master and Brother Darv noticed the young woman's long look and the two men glanced at each other, both suspecting the same thing. When Aurei turned around, both men were smiling knowing smiles at her and at first she considered asking them what they were smiling about, but she suspected that she didn't want them to tell her. Without another word she dropped back to join the three Elven riders.
"Duchess" Sir Eleazar spoke with a respectful nod as she fell in beside him.
"Sir Eleazar, I trust you slept well last night?"
"Yes, thank you." he lied, for he had in fact spent the entire night trying to figure out what to think about the interest the Drow girl was showing to him. He'd debated simply leaving town that night and riding hard to reach Aeropolis before winter set in, then begging St. Kinnis to allow him to renew and refocus on his knightly vows far away from her distracting influence.
But a terrifyingly stronger feeling had demanded that he hold his ground accept her friendship and nurture it. He had no idea how to do this, but he amazed himself by being whole-heartedly thrilled to try to figure it out.
The girl somehow looked extremely pretty dressed from head to toe in chainmail, with only her beautiful face showing her race. Her skin was shining with that lovely slight purplish tint that is common to Drow when they are exposed to daylight. Like him, she had no problem with the light except for perhaps the brightest of sunlit days. On a heavily overcast day such as this she was as comfortable and happy as any human.
He suddenly realized he had been staring at her and quickly looked down at his horse.
"Sir Eleazar" she spoke after a moment, "I have been considering the wonderful idea you shared with me about setting up Watchtowers and I think I may have a good idea for a location, which is where we are riding to right now. I guess you have heard that there was a red light seen last night from the Towers in the general direction that we are heading?"
He was pleased that she was sticking to 'business' today; it made it much less awkward for him. "Yes, it sounds to me as if they have one of their elemental powered Airships lurking about. They don't have nearly as many of those as the wind-powered ships, so that says to me that they are extremely interested in this area."
"Do you think they will still be in the area? Are we riding into danger?"
"I doubt it - they are very guarded of their elemental powered vessels and they don't like many eyes seeing them up close. I imagine they will be some distance away from where they were last night as they'd probably expect someone going out to spy, if they were still around. But from past experience, they won't be extremely far from the area, either. Still, I doubt we have anything to worry about as long as we are out of the area before late in the day. Of course they may be at another location by then. I'm more concerned with their reason for hovering within sight of the towers. It could be to unnerve us, but I suspect they were probably dropping off something."
"Another monster?" she asked nervously, and those riding around
them looked at the half-Drow for his opinion on the issue.
"Perhaps… I suspect we will find out. We need to be on guard."
His words seemed to put the group into a somewhat somber mood and they rode for a few minutes in silence. Aurei began checking to make sure her swords were secure in her saddle.
"Drow swords?" Sir Eleazar spoke up after she had fidgeted with them for a moment.
"Yes" she hoped this would not upset him, so she decided to try the straightforward approach. She pulled the short sword from her scabbard and handed it across to him, hilt first, "This is one Thorm brought back to me a few months back. What do you think?"
Aurei held her breath as the half-Drow knight took it and looked carefully at the sword, turning it around from side to side and bringing the blade up close to his eyes as he examined the metal.
"It's extremely well made." he finally said, handing it back to her, "Enchanted too; probably used by one of the Nobles, I'd say."
Aurei sheathed the blade and turned in her saddle, to slowly pull her long sword from its scabbard. Eleazar's eyes went wide when he saw it and eagerly took it from her when offered.
"This one was found on top of a grave of a Drow woman who was most likely my aunt. I am told it too is extremely well made."
Eleazar seemed almost entranced by the blade and even checked its balance with a few fast swings from his saddle.
"Extraordinary!" he finally said, holding the blade just above eye level as he read the inscription.
"Belonging to Tholmi Ar'Rilla, Weapon Mistress of the House." he translated to Aurei.
"You deciphered the runes?!" Aurei asked in delight.
"It is a basic inscription, but the sword is anything but basic, Duchess. One thousand duplicates of your short sword would not equal the worth of the pommel of this one, alone. The edges of this sword will never dull, and it is definitely highly enchanted. I've never seen such an expensive and top quality crafted weapon like this carried by any Drow noble. I have not heard of House Ar'Rilla, but they must have possessed extreme wealth or at the very least controlled the weapon smiths of their city, to have such a blade crafted. Have you any others like this?"
"Well, I have a big chest full of Drow armor and weapons that Duke Gamel left me, but I have not had time to go through it, except for the suit of plate armor."
"Plate armor?" Eleazar's mouth fell open, "Is it of the same metal as this sword?!"
"Well, I think so…"
"Why in the world aren't you wearing it today instead of mere chainmail, then?"
"I didn't want to… upset you. I look the part, I'm afraid, if you know what I mean." She smiled weakly.
"Duchess, that is very considerate of you, but I am a practical man and if you possess a suit of Drow Plate armor you should wear it into battle. Have you had the entire suit on?"
"It adjusted in -key areas- for comfort?"
"Yes." She blushed, catching his meaning.
"Instead of cloth padding, it uses a full suit of extremely fine chainmail that wears and feels almost as if it were wool - cool and comfortable and very lightweight as an undergarment?"
"The plate armor also is lightweight and probably has elevated heels?"
"Yes, I hated those crazy boots at first, but I got used to them after a while."
"You wore the armor in daylight?"
"Then it most certainly is of the highest quality, as most Drow armor decays after exposure to sunlight."
"It doesn't seem to affect it."
"I want to see it when we get back to town - that and the other things in that chest."
"It won't bother you?"
The knight smiled, "I hate the Drow, Duchess, not inanimate objects that they craft and use. In fact, I used to have a small collection of weapons that I took off Drow I had killed during our raids against them. So I appreciate their craftsmanship."
Aurei told him about the battle with the Undead giant and the Knight seemed impressed with her for holding her own in battle.
They were nearly three miles south of town when they came to the edge of the Rattooth 'mountains', a long stretch of low, but jagged peaks, long worn away from frequent rainfall until it left a patch roughly 10 miles wide that ran like a long scar on the land from Westmark south until it slowly became the taller, more noble mountains to the south. But here in the north they formed a narrow badlands that only a goat or bird could appreciate. The broken ground made travel by cart or wagon totally impossible, and even on horseback it was a challenge due to the eroded gullies and sudden sharp drop-offs mixed in with abrupt steep hill-like knobs covered with loose soil that gave very poor traction.
The only road that would reach Thurgood village or the ruins of Duttontun passed through the edge of the Rattooth range, crossing a small canyon with the trickling remains of a stream snaking around the bottom. The canyon was somewhat deep - it was about 25 feet down the sides and maybe 20 feet across; a straight drop off onto the rock covered bottom.
There was no way to cross it except for the old Duttontun bridge; a somewhat old and worn, yet strong bridge on the dirt and rock path that forked off from the Old Western road to head in a more southerly direction, through the edge of the Rattooth in a steep, curvy route until it reached Thurgood. Just past the village, the ruins of Duttontun were nestled on the western-side of the Rattooth range.
Both the village and the ruins rested on the two mile long plateau of the loaf-shaped mountain with its sheer rock sides that rose above the surrounding hills. The village looked down from a high bluff to the western road that bypassed it far below. Duttontun's remains were a short ride to the south of the village, in a large, overgrown vale, also with a bluff-side view of the western road. While the top of 'Flatloaf mountain' (as everyone called the unique mount) was fertile and green with several springs for water, the single bridge access to the area, as well as the steep, curving path to reach the summit made the community somewhat isolated from the rest of the Duchy.
They had ridden for nearly 2 hours at a leisurely pace when they reached the fork in the road that lead to the Duttontun Bridge.
"It's a rather steep, curved road from here." Pectros informed the Paladins and Thorm, "Our destination is at the summit of this flat-topped mountain."
"Mountain" Thorm snorted, "Ye call this a mountain? Why, the foothills of Hammerforge are taller then any of these!"
"It's not tall", Brother Darv answered, "but it'll surprise you, Master Thorm. A lot of loose soil and rocks, and the bridge we'll cross in a few minutes is the only way to get there. It is probably one of the best naturally fortified places in Westmark. It would have been ideal for the ducal keep."
"Sure", Aurei commented, looking up the steep winding road, "If you don't want any company, that is. Besides, from what I have been told, the mount was already occupied when this area was made into a duchy and father told me that they figured that anyone crazy enough to try to build a village on top of such a hard-to-reach place should be left alone to enjoy it."
"People still live up there?" Sir Alvis asked.
"Yep - probably about 20 families - maybe 75 people, all of them related by blood." Aurei replied.
"Inbred" Neal snapped, receiving chuckles from some of the party, but only frowns from Aurei, Alis and Siris at the rude remark.
"The Thurgood clan is not exactly inbred." Aurei said to Neal.
"Oh no? Have you ever heard of any of them marrying outside of their community?"
"Neal, that doesn't mean they are inbred!"
Aurei sighed, rolling her eyes, "You men are so rude! They are simple people, but very hard workers."
"What do they do?" Alvis asked.
"They raise sheep," Aurei answered, then quickly spun in her saddle to hold up a warning finger to Neal who was preparing to take his comments on the community to a new level of rudeness. The guard wisely closed his mouth, but everyone knew what he would have said and again many of the men chuckled.
"Anyway," Aurei continued, "Duttontun was an earlier village, that was abandoned for better farming land to the west. They had built stone houses since Flatloaf Mountain has an abundance of rocks, so many of the old homes and barns still stand. I began wondering if any of them could be used as make-shift watchtowers until something more practical and permanent is constructed. This mountain is ideal for a watchtower."
Everyone nodded in agreement to her assessment as they began the ascent to the Duttontun Bridge.