“Winter is a time for comfort, a time for home.” – quote for Winter Solstice in Gozreh faith
Sulayn and Persephone went to greet Aetherton. What had we done? We would answer for this somehow. Numbly, I pulled out my journal and scribbled every rune I saw on the altar. As if this would somehow have the answers. I saw the men looking at the macabre seen in horror. Persephone and a woman named Hera were arguing, trying to explain events. Sulayn said it couldn’t be avoided. Halda was noticeably quiet. But it was a lie. He knew it. We all knew it. Aetherton stonily looked on and said, “Let’s let the woman speak.” The way he said it we all knew not to question it.
The woman of course said her peace. She did not know the gods they appeased. They were not going to kill the boy, only sacrifice his blood. It must be done. It was always done that way. The Lowls never interfered in the past. It was true. It was untrue. Persephone and Sulayn murmured they had tried to avoid bloodshed, but the priest and the villagers attacked and gave them no choice. It was a lie. Aetherton was shaking his head, looking for a way out of this mess.
I quietly said, “The priest cast a spell on us using dark sorcery. It was unmistakably evil. The gods they worship or appease here, I do not know what they are, but they are not gods you or I know of. They are ancient gods, maybe Kellid, but nothing like Iomedae or Sarenrae, not Desna nor Erastil nor Gozreh, and certainly not Pharasma.” I swallowed. Successfully this time, if with effort. “I tried to tell them to wait. They wouldn’t wait. I told them you were on your way here and it could wait just one day.”
“Less than a day,” Sulayn added.
“Less than a day.” I nodded slowly, looking down. “They wouldn’t wait.”
“They were going to kill the boy!” Persephone emphasized. “It wasn’t our fault.”
“It was our fault, Persephone. It was all our faults.” I looked down.
Aetherton sighed. It was agreed that he would tell the village he’d hung us. The others discussed I know not what. I went to retrieve my arrows. While there, I took another two moments to grab the vials I’d seen earlier and took the priest’s ritual dagger – a strange obsidian blade with the same runes on it. Dawn, at last, mercifully arrived, but it was going to be another bitter cold Versex day in Kuthona. When I came back to the group I learned they were discussing plans – who would wear a Versex tabard, who would go disguised, would we split up again. I didn’t care. We did still have a task in front of us – finding the Smiling Man…who must be grinning right now. I had lost some taste for this hunt, but the work had to be completed. There had to be some meaning in all of this.
Aetherton warned us that we would have to be much more careful in the future. Persephone, unrelenting, argued, “We were trying to save someone.” “And in the process you got how many killed?” He couldn’t allow such things to pass again. Already, this made things far more difficult. He explained to us, like children, that the ogres were no doubt stirring up revolt through this Josephine and that we had just given them exactly what they wanted – a bloodbath to pin on the Lowls. “You’re right,” I said. “We’ll be more careful. This won’t happen again.” I lifted my head to look at Aetherton. “I will be more careful.” I couldn’t help but feel like this was all some sort of inconvenience to him, but I kept that to myself. Perhaps that’s what good leaders did – attended to peasants as inconvenient children. But our idealism had cost dozens of people their lives.
“Good,” he said satisfied. “Now, we need to get some things straight. Our goal is to kill this Josephine, first and foremost. Then the ogres that follow this Gulug.”
I debated whether I should speak. We’d already done so poorly, and at such great cost. I didn't know if I could trust myself any longer. I had to try. “Aetherton, we need to talk-”
“Yes, what about the Smiling Man?” Persephone asked, already knowing where I was going. “The children.”
“Aetherton, we need to talk. We have some conflicting interests. Josephine may or may not be responsible for this. We don’t know-”
Halda asked, “She can change forms. We believe she may be the Smiling Man. So she’ll be difficult to track – and has proven to be.”
“Aetherton, there’s something you need to know-“ my voice was lost.
Sulayn asked, “Do we know that Josephine is the Smiling Man? She could be what she says.”
Aetherton scowled. “She comes in and people suddenly trust her. Her mob killed a sheriff. She’s in league with the ogres. She’s trying to sow dissent and confusion while they loot the countryside.”
“Aetherton,” I said more loudly, closing my eyes, trying to find the right words. To speak clearly enough to be heard. “We need to talk. Not all of us are here for the same reasons.” He looked at me. I imagine he thought, What now? Why aren’t you still in line?
“Aetherton, we came here, I brought you here, because there were children missing. I came here to save people. So did Persephone. I didn’t come here for the money. We didn’t come as your mercenaries. If you are to lead us, you have to understand that.” Please try to understand damnit. “I will do what I can to help you, and I will hunt these ogres, but I and Persephone, and I think others are here to save those children and end this Smiling Man.”
He seemed to reflect a moment, taken aback. But then he simply nodded. “OK, but the Smiling Man is Jospehine.”
“Yes, very likely, but we’re not sure,” said Halda. “We do know he can change forms. He could be any form, so he very well could be this Josephine.”
I pressed, softly, but unmoving. “We don’t. Have. Evidence. Of that.” Could they not see we might be making the same mistake again? No, of course not. They did not grow up here. They did not know Ustalav. Only Persephone and I could see. And oddly, maybe Vargan if he were here.
Sulayn seemed undecided, but ever practical he resolved the discussion. “These might not be mutually exclusive goals. We can do both. We just might need to be opportunistic Aetherton. If we see a chance at one, we might need to go for it.”
“Yes, yes,” I agreed. “I just thought you should know Aetherton. I do not want there to be confusion later. And you have been generous…I thought I should lay it out on the table.”
Aetherton looked at me inscrutably, then nodded. “Agreed.”
“Twenty bridges from hightower to Kew -
Wanted to know what the River knew,
Twenty Bridges or twenty-two,
For they were young, and the Urgoth was old
And this is the tale that River told:” – from a dwarven song Halda sang along the river
Some bit of life returned to us as we rested on the raft Aetherton and Sulayn commandeered. We slept. I brewed additional potions. Aetherton requested that I create potions to fortify against sorcerous influence. I said I had such recipes but they lasted for very short times. He bid me create eight such potions – four for the guards he had come with us and four for us. Halda said she would do without, her disciplined mind being trained to resist such spells. I sit here writing in my journal, pages and pages, huddled against our gear and away from the biting wind that came down from the Hungry Mountains. Halda sings a dwarven river song. I didn’t even know they had any. But it’s welcome. I don’t have the heart to play my violin right now, and I’ve unstrung the strings to protect it from the cold anyway. I think I noticed a crack in the wood the other day.
In Openti we met with the mayor. Aertherton sat at the table with him while he tried to avoid answering questions directly. I think we all knew he was lying, but there was no good way to suss that out of him. Eventually we left, led by a disturbing woman, Mable, covered in boils. I’d forgotten how miserable the Versex lot was. For a day. But she was a remarkably dour woman. I tried to pinch her and get her to discuss her cookery, but it only burst an elbow boil – hot and wet. She offered me cabbage boiled in tainted water from the river. “That should be good enough for you,” she added. I held a gold crown up to her in appreciation, but she only stared at it like it was a bug between my fingers. Aetherton wisely made sure we only traveled in pairs.
After some investigation, Sulayn and Persephone came back with a few rumors. Aetherton, Halda, and I came back mostly empty-handed, having explored the small town on an evening walk, except for the mine which stood open like a pit. We gathered to discuss, but Halda noticed a small boy eavesdropping. She focused and sent him stumbling, disorienting the boy and given me time to chase him. I grabbed him by the scruff admonishing him, but there wasn’t much to do with him. I was about to let him go when Sulayn popped his head out and told me to keep hold of him. I did so.
Both Halda and I tried to calm him unsuccessfully. Sulayn must have been in a mischievous mood because he scared the poor boy witless with stories of elves that eat the living – especially those that aren’t helpful. I let go of the boy half way through this bullying. I suppose it was the mercenary’s light way of extracting information but it wasn’t working. Eventually Aetherton approached while Persephone looked on silently. I watched him speak to the boy and even share a quick story about throwing stones against walls when he was a boy – what kind to throw and how they burst. It was interesting to hear him describe his childhood, if only briefly. In that moment, he seemed more like a lord to me than he had since that first day in Vauntil. Here was the man I’d judged to be one of Vauntil’s saviors.
I went in to rest, exhausted. I was awoken a short time later. Aetherton and Persephone had learned that what was likely Gulug and his band of nine ogres or so were with a company of goblins in the woods east of the town. They’d also learned that the ogres had come to steal the “cup that was not a cup” as Sulayn described it. Apparently, the town held some sort of ritual gathering in the depths of the mines, and the cup figured prominently in those rituals. Desna’s grace, Versex was a foul place that drove people into further foulness. I thanked my luck that I traveled with entertainers and thieves for a decade, rather than settling into a town to forget myself. Still, it was hard to blame Ustalav’s people. Against the horrors they endured, what could they do? And there was great beauty that came out of that suffering. Mable just didn’t inherit it.
You can't expect to wield supreme power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!” – From The Holy Chalice of Sarenrae by the great playwright Montis Pythis
I remember reading Montis Pythis, the Ardis humorist and playwright, in Ms. Kindler’s library when I was a young boy. I thought he was stupid, but now, as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized how much wisdom he dressed in humor.
We left by the southeastern road to try and meet up with the rest of Aetherton’s honor guard on its way to Openti and to possibly lay a trap for Josephine. Aetherton deduced that she was likely headed back to Openti sometime soon. Midday the next day we indeed saw two figures riding slowly – one woman, one man. Josephine. “Vali, be ready to shoot the horses if they make a break for it.” I nodded. As an afterthought, he added, “Halda, be ready to stun the horses if they make a break for it.” Smart man. I only hoped his integrity matched his intelligence.
We clamored down the slope to block their way. Halda used the wand and found Josephine radiating magic, although none of her clothing did. It seemed Aetherton's guesses might be right, and she might be our Smiling Man in disguise. Or, she might have cast as spell on herself, much like Elias walks around in constant enchantment. I wasn't convinced, but I had to admit it didn't look good for her innocence. Josephine greeted Aetherton calmly, and he returned her greeting just as calmly. “I think you know who I am, as I know who you are,” said Josephine.
“Josephine.” He drank the Mettle Tonic I’d given, but far too early I knew. His guards followed suit, their potions would end all too soon as well. I held off drinking mine.
“Drop your weapons and turn yourself in,” he ordered. It wasn’t the best start.
“I will not be doing any such thing,” she calmly answered. Come on, you can do better than that. He’ll kill you where you stand if you don’t speak up. Sulayn circled from the side. I gave him an icy look, but he simply shrugged. The bastard. All his words about freedom, and here was someone who might be innocent and who might be fighting for the same freedoms for the Versex people and he’d chosen this moment to be the dutiful mercenary.
“You will, or you will die. Throw down your weapons.” Aetherton drew his sword for emphasis and his guards followed suite. She didn’t have a chance with Sulayn’s grim blade behind her. I took up my bow, and Persephone raised her crossbow. I hissed sharply at her.
“What?” She asked, confused. I hadn’t given her much to go on. But what could I say. Aetherton had made it clear we could not continue to disobey him publicly. He’d also made it clear he hangs dissenters in Versex. I wracked my brains for something to say, but again, I could find nothing.
“Is this really what you want?” Josephine asked.
“One last chance, Josephine. If you give yourself up now, we will go back for a fair trial and I will exile you if justice sees fit.”
She began to shake her head and I called to her from behind Aetherton. “Josephine! If you are who you say you are, you must say more than that. Give him more reason to stop.”
“Like what would I say.”
Exasperated, I offered, “Like tell him what you’re really doing here in Versex.”
“Me? I am simply helping the people make their choices. End their suffering and servitude.”
“And aiding the ogres,” Aetherton added, clearly trying hard not to cut her down like a dog.
“I am not aiding the ogres.”
“Why would I do that to the people I have been working to protect? I am simply talking with them, helping them see options for their lives.” She spoke so softly I could barely hear her from where I stood, but the truth of her words were plain.
“You lie. You are working with the ogres,” Aetherton pressed. “You weaken us for them to loot the villages. You made deals with them.”
“They are seeking help because of your leadership. What do you do?”
Aertherton was quickly losing patience now. “I provide armed guards for their protection,” he growled, motioning to his men.
How could this be happening? Why was no one doing anything? “What are we talking about here? She clearly hasn’t been working with the ogres. She’s clearly not the Smiling Man.”
Irritated with my petulance, Aetherton responded without looking at me. “We’re discussing the hanging of a sheriff by the mob she incited.”
“I did not tell them to do anything,” Josephine answered. “What they did they did of their own choice.”
Aetherton had had enough. “Guards. Grab her.” I tried to swallow, but found myself unable to again. Was it the poisonous air here? I washed it down with the Mettle Tonic I had prepared. Josephine drew her sword and reared it around with her companion. Halda reached a hand out and the horses stumbled. I looked at her, betrayed. Sulayn reached back with his glaive and swung it like a scythe. Josephine’s horse buckled underneath her. Aetherton’s men cut down the other man’s horse. In a matter of second they were on their feet facing four armed guards, Sulayn’s gleaming polearm and Aetherton. Still Josephine did not fight. She parried their blows, as if chosen by some merciful god in this cursed land. Sulayn raised his glaive above his head, a clear killing blow prepared. I aimed, still not breathing, released, and shot the arrow straight past Josephine’s head hitting the blade of his glaive with a blow that would have split a rib cage. It shuddered in his hand, but he held fast. He didn’t look up at me.
Sulayn paused for a moment, as did Aetherton, momentarily out of breadth. Again, he called to her to drop her weapon, and Sulayn warned them, “Surrender, and no one gets hurt – stand a fair trial, as Sir Aetherton promises.” And again, it fell on deaf ears. “Josephine, this isn’t worth it,” I desperately pleaded.
Sulayn brought his glaive down, as a farmer reaps the wheat. It ripped Josephine’s sword from her hand, but she moved her fingers and Sulayn took a step back, as did Aetherton. Aetherton, enraged, roared and swung his sword hard. She barely got her shield up in time to block the deadly blow – leaving a gash even in the masterwork steel. He prepared for another swing while Sulayn leveled his glaive again.
Unthinking, I snatched a quickness potion from my bandolier and drank it in one hard swallow, dropping my bow and running down the hill, the momentum carrying me straight past one of Aetherton’s guard, twisting around Aetherton as he pulled his sword arm back, then back around in front, finally careening into her. Her eyes met mine just before, a great disappointment acting on me as if I’d hit a barrier, but I pushed willfully through. She batted me off, sending me stumbling, but I corrected myself and lunged in front of Aetherton’s sword to grab her arms. Again, I had to push past her barrier, but my Mettle Tonic did its trick. Or maybe, whatever merciful god looked after her knew that I was her only hope now. At last, I landed purchase.
“Enough! It’s over!” I screamed at her desperately. Aetherton’s guards immediately came from behind and grabbed her. Her companion gave up as well. “I can do no more,” he said, in ragged breadths.
“Bind them,” Aetherton spat. They did so with haste. “And gag her.” Sulayn arched an eyebrow, then shrugged. I said nothing, praying Josephine would not resist. "Halda, check her for enchantment again." Did it matter if she demonstrated enchantment? Could he not see she was not the Smiling Man? Or was it some last effort to justify his actions?
Halda slipped the wand out again. "I see no enchantment on her armor, just her self."
“Take her arms. And her armor.” One guard arched an eyebrow. We’ll need to unbind her then. “Do it,” Aetherton said stonily. I looked at her, bound, not having given one strike with her sword the entire battle. Her armor would need to be removed, and I wondered what small clothes remained beneath. This was how hard men did things they regretted afterwards. But I had made my decision already. We all had.
I walked past Aetherton and spoke in his ear quickly, hopefully quietly enough that not a soul heard but him. “I did what I did because I trusted you would keep your word.” He turned his head to face my impertinence. “You promised her exile and nothing else,” I added, then walked away.
He called after me, “I promised her I’d exile her. I didn’t promise not to take her weapons and armor.” I kept walking without turning.
It was done.