By the time they reached Asparn, it was too late.
They arrived at nightfall to the grisly sight of a wolf gnawing on a corpse in the middle of the deserted little village. Their companions were nowhere to be seen.
Entering the village, the group immediately began looking for clues as to where their companions had gone. They found disturbing patterns of tracks – the horses had fled at a gallop in all directions, and there were scuffles in the mud implying a struggle of some kind. Long, shallow furrows criss-crossed the mud in places, as if someone had dragged an empty burlap sack around, but there were no footprints around them.
The three travellers, already on edge from the unusual events in Hanburg, debated whether to stay in the damned down of Asparn, or to brave the woods. Ultimately, they decided that one of the deserted homes would be more defensible, and chose the sturdiest-looking of the homes (not the stone priory, thanks to the odd encounter at the priory in Hanburg) to hole up in for the night.
Entering the home, they found mouldering food on plates in the house, as if the previous tenants had left without warning. But they didn’t spend much time dwelling on this, instead spending their time barricading the door… just in case.
Gisla took first watch, and around midnight, she heard hoofbeats approaching town from a distance. She awoke Hugo and Bjork, and they listened to the sound of the beast growing ever near. When they heard urgings of “hyah, hyah!” on the galloping beast as it went by, they realized that it was unlikely of supernatural origin, and pulled back the barricade to look outside. They just barely caught glimpse of what looked like Brother Agathon riding his charger, sword raised, after a dark figure. A moment later, they realized who the dark figure was: brother Drogo!
What was happening? They didn’t have time to think much on it before the pair disappeared down the slope to the Zaya river. Moments later, they heard the pained whinneying of a horse, and then silence.
Though Hugo was a capable fighter, none of the irregulars were under the illusion that he would be a match for several of the warrior-monks, if they had gone mad and were attacking each other. Rather than investigate in the night, they barricaded themselves back up in the house, after concealing their horses in another of the houses lest they reveal their presence.
The rest of the night passed uneventfully, and after a quick meal, they emerged from the house to another day of drizzling rain. Looking about, none of the warrior-monks were to be seen, so they followed the tracks down to the Zaya river.
There, lying on the bank of the river next to his dead horse, was Brother Agathon, mortally wounded. Gisla tried to tend to his wounds, but ultimately could only provide comfort. He only managed to cough out the words “all dead…except Gudman…” before slipping into delirium. As they watched him dying, he whispered to himself in Greek. Gisla again grabbed her quill and parchment and tried to note down his final words, but caught only the words “akrides” and “skorpioi”.
Quickly rifling through Agathon’s effects for clues, they found nothing, but decided to take his gear – especially the sword, which Gisla hefted awkwardly. Hugo gave her a quick lesson in how to hold it and swing it, but it was clear that they would be relying heavily on him for protection should anything happen.
Despite their fear, and the obvious danger of staying in such a place, the three rendered the fallen monk a proper Christian burial before riding for Laa.
Dusk was falling when they arrived. The smell of smoke and the barking of dogs were a welcome change to the forbidding forest that they had been traveling through.
The settlement sat in the center of a great clearing dotted with copses of trees and outlying farmhouses. Water diverted from the river Zaya surrounded the fortified settlement, forming a moat, over which a plank bridge led towards a gatehouse. A great wooden stockade surrounded the settlement, which was bisected by an interior wall. The northern half of the settlement held the military buildings, including a three-story stone tower-house, while the southern half held a group of homes, stables, and a small church.
As the group walked between the rows of great Slavic crosses at the edge of the forest (used to fend off the spirits of the forest), they saw that there was a commotion at the gatehouse. Drawing nearer, they saw two guards pulling a corpse out of the water with poles, and to their shock, recognized the corpse as that of Brother Drogo!
Upon seeing them, the captain of the guard, a burly German named Hunman, rushed over and asked them their identities and business. Bjork quickly recounted the strange events in Asparn and Hanburg, and Hunman’s brow furrowed. “Come, Lord Brant will want to speak with you.”
The three were escorted through the gatehouse and into the tower-house. Climbing the stairs to the top story, they caught their first sight of Lord Brant. Sitting on a wooden throne over which were thrown three wolf pelts, Lord Brant glowered at them when they entered. A man of moderate build, his black hair was turning gray at the temples, but his eyes sparkled with intelligence…and distrust. He had apparently been consulting with a monk, who stepped aside as the group entered the room. A few guards stood along the walls, and an older noblewoman sat watching from the shadows.
Lord Brant questioned the group about their ordeal, and seemed satisfied. Bjork paid deference to both Brant and, wisely, his mother, the noblewoman. As the story unfolded, Brant’s demeanor changed little, but it was clear he was concerned. From the conversation, the irregulars learned that nothing out of the ordinary had been happening in the town, although he mentioned that once in a while someone will go missing. Brant seemed to think the likely culprits were the Magyars to the east, however. The monk whispered something in Brant’s ear at one point, but was waved away.
Eventually, Lord Brant called for Hunman to fetch Burgolf, the town’s innkeeper, so that the noble-born Bjork would have a place befitting a woman of her station to stay. Lord Brant sat thinking while the three irregulars talked amongst themselves while they waited. Then, one of them thought to address the monk.
The monk, it turned out, did not know Greek, but he did, of course, know Latin, and translated the term “Calx” to “stone” for them. The ghost of the prior in Hanburg had been speaking of a stone…
Suddenly, a loud, low groan erupted from below. As the three surprised newcomers looked up, they saw that none of the others seemed to care or notice. They ventured to ask Lord Brant about it, but he snapped at them, saying it was none of their concern. When they pressed him gently on the matter again, he said, “The man making those noises does not deserve your pity! Leave the matter to me.”
Thus chastened, the three quietly waited until Burgolf arrived, a heavyset man with a thick beard. Lord Brant instructed him that the party would be staying with him, on his coffers. This show of generosity by the landlord was met by only a harumph by Burgolf, who gruffly waved the party along to follow him downstairs.
They headed through the gatehouse in the inner wall, to the southern side of the stockade, and into Burgolf’s inn. Despite Burgolf’s less-than-friendly demeanor, the accommodations were very inviting. A warm fire blazed in the fireplace, and a young woman named Brun (Burgolf’s daughter, apparently) served them a delicious meal of salted ham and bread.
Over the course of the meal, Burgolf’s brusque attitude softened somewhat, and he sat down to speak to the party. Remembering the lack of a prior at Hanburg, and the inscrutable words they had encountered, they asked Burgolf if there were any learned holy men in the area. He replied that their best bet was the Hermitage and vinyard in the nearby woods. (At this, Hugo’s ears perked up – before long, Brun was bringing a sample of the Hermitage’s wine.)
Brun, herself, was very interested in the group. An eager sixteen-year-old girl, she peppered them with questions about their travels, and quickly offered her services to help the travellers acquaint themselves with the town, or to assist them in anything they needed.
At this, Bjork decided that, indeed, there was something Brun could do for her. She wrote a message to Lord Brant, saying that she’d had dealings with Magyars, and that if the man being tortured in the tower-house was a Magyar, perhaps she could assist them in interrogating him. Brun rushed out with the message, happy to be able to help, but came back empty-handed; Lord Brant had not deigned to send a reply.
After the group finished their wine, ale, and food, they retired to their room. After so much uncomfortable travel, and especially after the stressful time the night before, they were eager to get some sleep in a safe place. But as they were preparing to go to bed, they noticed something in Agathon’s effects they hadn’t found before.
Dropped in the shoe of one of the dead man’s spare boots was…a black stone. Could it be the Calx Oscura?