Terrastal hunkered down in the blasted ruins, eyeing the two Lunar cavalry as they sought him out. Some distance behind him was a stream, wending its way down from the Troll quarter of Boldhome; he could tell as much from the noisome smells that reached him every time the mountain breezes shifted in his direction. Ahead of him, beyond the cursed Lunars, was the flat shelf of stone known as ‘Geo’s Pocket’. The buildings here were in ill-repair and poorly-planned, with one being built on top of another without thought for the consequences. The result was a shambles of humanity, forever on the brink of tumbling off the edge of the mountain and onto the valley floor. Those who called this place home lived lives as ramshackle as their dwellings, and it was not a place that welcomed outsiders. Still, it appeared to be paradise to Terrastal; if only he could reach it, he’d be able to give the Lunars the slip for good and all. He could see that the Lunars were unwilling to enter the shanty, and he allowed himself some hope. It was then he spotted movement on the road leading back to the way he’d fled. As he watched, his heart sank as he saw a full troop of Lunar foot soldiers heading his way. Thinking quickly, he stripped down to his breech-cloth, bundled up all but his knife and hid his belongings as well as he could. Then, keeping one eye on the approaching Lunars, he hacked off his hair and beard and wiped dirt and mud over his face and body. If the Lunars found him, he’d play the part of a wandering idiot and hope for the best.
At that moment, Sandene sat trembling in the Temple of Chalana Arroy on the other side of the valley. It wasn’t through fear that she trembled, but because she fought against habits borne of bitter experience to submit to the will of someone other than the Implacable Anger. She’d been in a similar state all that long morning, and to distract herself she’d summoned a couple of the urchins that hung around the temple hoping for gifts from the healed. Gazing upon the pair with a stern eye, she’d directed the older one to follow Terrastal and Bofrost and the other to follow Randel and Yrsa, with instructions to return and inform her of their whereabouts. She skewered the older of the two with a particularly fierce look, a lad of some dozen summers with an unsightly wen marring his face. As he blanched under her gaze, she secured a terrifying oath from him that he would follow Terrastal wherever he went and report back to her, or he would experience her wrath. Flipping a coin to each, she bade them be off as a Chalana Arroy priestess entered the chamber, almost tripping over the two as they rushed headlong to do Sandene’s bidding.
Randel was disappointed to see most of the traders were Etyries members rather than Issaries but still they engaged him in friendly banter as he wandered among the stalls. Suddenly he heard the sound of feet behind him and turned to find Bofrost running full pelt towards him. ‘We need to talk urgently’. ‘Not here’ said Randel, pulling the sage into an alleyway off the market.
Once Bofrost had caught his breath, he continued. ‘a Lunar soldier is dead and Terrastal is missing!’
Randel knew in his heart those two events were connected; he slumped against the wall and placed his head in his hands. ‘Why? Why can’t he see the bigger picture? If an opportunity to kill 10,000 Lunars presented itself he would try and jeopardise it by killing one!’. ‘His temper gets the better of him’ said Bofrost. ‘Agreed’ said Randel shaking his head mournfully, ‘nevertheless we had better try and find him before the Lunars do, if they haven’t already’. The two friends hurried off towards the Chalana Arroy temple to find Sandene and inform her of the terrible news.
In the House of the Healers, Sandene steeled herself before submitting to the healer’s ministrations as she began her work. She wondered if this was how she died. Not physically, but the burns and scars left by the Lunar demon had created a new existence for her – torn from her sisters at the Earth Temple, separated from her Goddess, and isolated from other people by anger and deformity. It had been easy to fall back on Death as the answer to everything, hurling herself into battle knowing that the worst outcome would be that she emerged the victor. But the force of Life flowed into her, and she felt the merciful touch of Chalana Arroy – perhaps she had been missing something? Perhaps she had always been missing something? Finally, after what seemed like hours, her scars melted away and the ever-present pain with it. Sandene lifted her arm as if wielding an axe – no reassuring agony to reassure her that she was, in the end, just an instrument of Death.
She threw everything valuable she had at the priestess, blinking back tears and desperate to escape. Grateful but spiritually torn it was almost a relief when she met Terrastal in the antechambers, accompanied by the boy she’d sent after him. A bizarre transformation had taken place; gone was the proud and impulsive Orlanthi warrior she’d bidden farewell to but a short while ago; in his place was a filthy, near-naked savage, mumbling something about an argument that had led to a dead Lunar soldier. So he’d been unable to restrain himself and threatened not only his own life but that of his companions and the quest given to him by his god. She laughed abruptly that this should be a surprise; of course he had! Though the near naked and filthy Orlanthi looked ridiculous, Sandene felt a long-forgotten pang of anxiety. She looked at the nervous merchant Randel and the scholar Bofrost, who walked through the door at that moment and were likewise aghast at Terrastal’s appearance. Terrestal looked every inch the madman Randel suspected he was; naked except for a loincloth and caked in mud and worse. Having cleaned himself up he went on to explain yes there had been a fight, yes he had killed the soldier and no it wasn’t his fault. ‘Obviously’ thought Randel in a somewhat disbelieving manner. For her part, Sandene cared if the Lunars crucified Terrastal, if they killed her and her friends. This couldn’t be good.
That afternoon the group had a plan to meet a story teller at Geo’s Pocket, an inn in a rough Sartarite area just outside the town walls. It was decided to leave Terrestal behind as the Lunars had probably circulated his description by now. On the way Bofrost told the group the story of Geo who had been Sartar’s cook and who opened a number of inns where Sararites could always find a warm welcome. Less so Lunars as the party passed a group of demoralised looking Lunar soldiers who had clearly encountered some of the hostility for which the Geo’s Pocket area was renowned.
As the group entered the area there was a palpable air of hostility even in daylight, Randel started wish he didn’t look quite so successful, at least they had Sandene with them who Randel thought was probably warding off any immediate threat of robbery, though he wasn’t sure even Sandene’s presence would help after Yelm set.
Despite the rough area a warm welcome awaiting the party in Geos itself, the bartender recognising them as true Sartarites, repeating the phrase ‘Geo knows his own’ and even standing them a round of drinks. They quickly found the story teller and crowded round his table. He appeared to be God-touched, for he not only did he know Terrastal was missing and sent an urchin to bring him by a secret route but he also knew the their motivations and desires telling Randel he was driven by love but he should not focus on one person. Randel guessed this to be Eirissa, but he had no idea why focusing on her was a bad idea and he hoped not to find out. The story teller asked where the party were from and when told Clearwine he asked if the party knew the heroes of the Broken Tower; there was some prevarication, but as it was clear he already knew who the party were. As if on cue, Terrastal arrived, having made himself more presentable. With some encouragement, he started to tell the story of the Broken Tower once again – and this time Sandene joined in, leaping and whirling in a martial dance that reflected her destructive fury as Randel sang his battle hymns – but this brought joy rather the usual grim endings. Maybe this was what she should do now? Maybe she should be a Temple Dancer?
The story was well received by the occupants of Geo’s and greeted with thunderous applause which after it had died away was followed by a slow handclap from a hooded figure.
An Orlanthi revealed himself – he had some grudge with Terrastal, it didn’t matter what. The result was always the same – one of them had to die. To rub salt in the wound, the duel would take place at the House of Death at the old Humakti Temple. It looked like Sandene was being reminded of her responsibilities…
Though it was clear that Death was still a central part of Sandene’s fate, she was not going to be tied down by the oppressive Humakti rituals. Terrastal had impetuously insisted on the duel being the following morning the preparations began immediately, despite this Sandene continued to drink, perhaps clinging to one more night celebrating her Healing before the endless battle began again.
The Orlanth challenger was called Killer, and he was a Greydog, or something – Sandene didn’t really pay much attention. He looked competent and put on quite a show in the makeshift arena. What he didn’t understand is that his skills were not on trial in the upcoming fight – it was the will of the Goddess who walked out. Looking at her opponent Sandene sighed inwardly – a confident young weapon-thane simply fulfilling her tribal responsibilities to support her Orlanthi leader. No matter – it was a duel to the death, and Sandene would play her part.
The interminable Humakti rigmarole finally came to an end, and Terrastal stepped into the ring. As Sandene followed him she felt the weight of divine interest settle around them, and she remembered why - despite everything – she loved the simplicity and power of battle.
Her first blow was off – perhaps she missed the feedback from her damaged nerves every time she moved? Her opponent easily parried, but the swing in reply lacked conviction. Joy began to swell in Sandene’s breast. She leapt and twirled, her axe catching the Orlanthi woman just below her helm, opening up a cut on her forehead that bled distractingly into her eyes. As the spike haired thane wiped it away Sandene almost felt sadness – was it to be that easy? Did she really not see what happened next? Maybe she is bluffing?
But no, the next axe blow sunk into the woman’s knee, and she collapsed to the ground frantically signalling her surrender. “No, no” though Sandene “don’t spoil it! You swore an oath, and your God will welcome you!” Almost embarrassed for her opponent, Sandene sunk her axe into her downed foe’s chest to finish the ritual.
Beside her, Terrastal’s opponent was proving more interesting a challenge. He wielded both sword and shield well and had already destroyed Terrastal’s shield. But Sandene’s partner was made of sterner stuff, desperately deflecting the searching sword blows and showing no signs of losing heart.
Once again, Sandene felt the unfamiliar anxiety. She wasn’t sure whether the ritual allowed for it, but she was not going to abandon her…well, her “friend”. As she moved across the ring she felt Babeester Gor guide her axe, knowing that her goddess was keen to show her rival Humakt what real battle was all about.
The blow was unstoppable. The Orlanthi duellist efficiently put his shield in the way, but he had underestimated the power that the Earth drove through Sandene’s small frame. The blow was deflected, but still ended deep in his thigh, and he fell to the floor as his ally had done before him.
“Killer” also offered his surrender – throwing his shield to the floor and offering ransom. Sandene stepped back. This was not her battle, she had no oath commitment to slay this Greydog for whatever trivial slight he felt Terrastal had inflicted. She turned her back and walked away, though her heart leapt a little as she heard her friend finish the duel.
Around her the ring dissolved into all the expected emotions – anger, joy, relief. But something was out of place, there were onlookers running back from the temple entrance. Lunars. At least twenty of them in full peltast armour. Apparently duelling was banned. Sandene bent over and smeared her opponent’s blood over her cheeks to mark her victory and then smiling, stowed her axe and walked towards the shield wall. She thought she remembered someone saying that Fazzur Wideread may be in Boldhome. Maybe this would be a good way to finally get a chance to meet him…
Seeing the Lunars taking their companions in hand, Bofrost, Randel and Yrsa followed on behind. As they walked, the master of the Colymar tribal manor pushed past them, loudly proclaiming that he would speak for his tribesfolk before the Prince. As he passed, he caught Randel’s eye and in it Randel saw concern mixed with determination. As the Lunars and their captives moved through the gate into the Royal Compound, the remainder of the Hero Band found themselves on the wrong side of the gates as they shut with a dreadful finality. As they stood in the street with the remaining onlookers, Randel felt a tug on his sleeve. Looking down, he saw a filthy urchin who leaned in close. ‘Sweet Arkell of the Lightfingers would like a word…’.