After you enter the lordship of Gryphondale, the scene changes completely. Lush fields, sunny meadows and prosperous towns give way to deep valleys and dark, forbidding forests.
“Things have changed,” says Durgan absent-mindedly as you pass another run-down village of frightened and scrawny inhabitants that eye your wagons skeptically. “This used to be a good place.”
“Not anymore,” says Thorm, watching the villagers pull their children away from the streets and hide behind dusty curtains in their crooked houses.
“The last time we passed through Gryphondale, these people were very hospitable,” Durgan explains in his deep, booming voice.
“Must be some while ago,” Gorhan observes dryly.
“A little more than a decade, that ’bout right?” Durgan asks no one in particular.
“Thirteen years,” Thorm says gloomily.
You ride on in silence and pass the ruins of burnt-down taverns and abandoned villages. Although it is already well into summer, many fields lie barren and empty. After three days of travel during which you don’t meet anyone on the road, Durgan speaks up at dinner around the campfire.
“It seems foreigners are not very welcome in Gryphondale anymore. Let us not stay for longer than we must. Life seems to have become pretty rough around here and I pity these people. But we got our own problems and I fear we cannot do anything about their plight. So let’s move on as fast as we can. We will pass the capital Whitehaven the day after tomorrow and turn south from there. We should be able to make it to Westmere in less than two weeks.”
Two days later around midday, the road circles a rocky little hill. It gives way to a breath-taking view of Whitehaven, the magnificent capital of Gryphondale. Nestling between rugged hills and dark forests of ancient evergreens, its delicate and perfectly white spires gleam in the sunlight. Colorful pennants dance playfully in the afternoon breeze.
Azrail whistles softly. “Nice.”
“You think …?“ Thorm muses.
“Nah, let’s move on,” Durgan says, reading the old priests mind. “I got a bad feeling ’bout this.”
He snaps his reigns and the wagon starts to wobble down the winding road. You follow, still marveling at the unexpected beauty of Whitehaven. It stands in stark contrast to everything you have seen the last couple of days.
“Are we still in Gryphondale?” Azrail asks disbelievingly, speaking your thoughts.
“Don’t be fooled by appearance,” she says, having pulled her horse beside you. “Never be fooled by appearance.”
As you follow the rocky road down towards the extensive outskirts of the city, six riders dressed in red and black chain and leather uniforms appear ahead of you. A round crest, featuring the head of a boar, adorns their chests. They bring their horses to a halt a couple of yards in front of you.
“My good men!” their leader, a bear of a man, greets you kindly.
“The venerable Lord Fallon sends his humble greetings. My name is Lester and it is my special honor to invite you to give a show at the castle tonight!”
Durgan, with his years of experience on the road immediately seeing through the sweet words, swears incomprehensibly under his thick beard. Thorm quickly nudges his horse to take a step forward and speaks up.
“Our most humble thanks to your benevolent Lord.”
He smiles broadly before his face assumes a well-practiced look of regret.
“It is, however, most unfortunate that we must decline your gracious invitation. Our road is still long and we must not linger in this magnificent city lest our journey be delayed.“
Honey drips from his words.
“This is most unfortunate indeed,” a hint of steel has entered the guard’s soft voice, “but it seems you misunderstand. There will be a great banquet and you have the honor,” he pauses and, ignoring Thorm, stares at Durgan, “The honor,” he repeats, “to give a show.”
While staying on his lips, his smile has vanished from his eyes.
“Then it will be our pleasure to accept your Lord’s kind invitation,” Durgan speaks up with ill-concealed anger in his voice.
Lester starts to grin so wide that you think his head might fall off.
Passing busy farms and well-tended manors, you are escorted towards Whitehaven. You see people working in the fields or on their farmyards. Some of them look up and watch with interest as you pass by, but nobody approaches to have a closer look. After a while, you reach a small market place just outside the city walls of Whitehaven. It is surrounded on three sides by tall wooden buildings housing various shops, guest houses and taverns. Lester turns around.
“This is where you can set up your wagons. You didn’t want to take them with you to the castle, did you?”
He laughs at what apparently was supposed to be a funny comment.
“Make your preparations. I will return in the evening. Ulrich and Rufus,“ he nods towards two of his companions, “will stay with you in case you need anything.”
Being left without choice, Durgan decides to make the best of the situation. Pointing one after the other at you, he says
“You will come with me to the castle tonight. Standard program. We won’t get paid, so nothing fancy. The others stay here and try to make some money.”
“Should be at least some paying customers around,” he says, scrutinizing the surrounding buildings.
“We leave first thing in the morning.”
“Dammit! I don’t like any of this, but I fear we have no choice.”
Clasping his hands, he looks at you.
“Come on, lads. There’s work to do!”
Ulrich and Rufus watch you closely as you pull your wagons into a half-circle. As you had expected, they don’t move a finger to help. You don’t feel like talking with the two guards nosing around and so you prepare for the evening in silence.
In the early evening, Lester returns with two other guards.
“Ah, I see you are ready. Let us go then.”
Leaving the others behind, you are led through the evening streets of Whitehaven towards the castle. Ulrich and Rufus follow behind, watching you warily. Passing the well-guarded city gates, you enter a maze of big and small, flat and tall, crooked and upright, wooden and stone houses. The streets are buzzing with activity and it smells of wet mud, moldering straw, feces, smoke, stale beer and boiling stew. In some areas the sewage flows openly through the streets and the stench is stomach-turning. Dogs bark, you hear the clanking sound of a distant smithy, and the deafening sound of hundreds of busy voices bartering, chatting, discussing, fighting and laughing. You are currently walking on what you think must be some kind of main road. Although it is so crowded that it appears to be flooded by a rolling sea of heads, you never have to slow down. People scramble out of the guards’ way and anyone who doesn’t is whacked heavily on the head with an iron glove.
After a walk that leads you through several different districts of the city, you reach the enormous inner city gate. It looks like a structure that is not built for the looks but to withstand heavy siege. A massive ancient wall separates the outer from the inner city. Pitch black scorch marks from battles long forgotten cover its rough surface in several places. In front of the gates, two merchants in exotic-looking garments argue furiously with a somewhat helpless looking young lad in guard’s uniform. A wagon piled with rolls of rich drapery, delicate artwork, and fine weaponry stands close by. It is, however, a smaller second wagon that seems to be the point of debate. It carries a tall square object covered up by thick dark blankets. Before you get the chance to make out any details of the discussion, you have already moved on into tranquil silence of the inner city.
Here, the streets are paved with smooth stone slabs and the houses are large and friendly. Leaving the stench of the outer city districts behind, you have entered a world of fragrant flower gardens and neat little statuettes on accurately trimmed lawns. Everything is clean and tidy and you feel a little like in a huge doll’s house. Countless beautifully decorated lanterns bathe the streets in soft golden light. Although there are lots of people going about their business, the wide streets are far from crowded. You pass large shops with wide open doors in front of which crates and shelves display neatly arranged goods. There is obviously little fear of thieves.
Soon, the impressive castle of Whitehaven comes into view. You pass big iron gates and enter an extensive courtyard. The guards hurry on, past strolling noblemen and important looking foreigners, and head for a small entrance at the side of one of the buildings. As the heavy wooden door slams shut behind you, you find yourselves in a world of luxury and wealth. Fine artwork adorns the halls and passageways. Thick silk carpets cover the floor, softening your steps. Huge murals, depicting scenes of great heroes, epic battles and glorious victories hang on the walls. Shining through intricately designed and colorful windows, the golden rays of the evening sun paint luminous pictures on the walls. Having soon lost orientation, you are led upstairs and into a room that is empty except for a big chest, a small desk and a chair.
“Durgan,“ Lester turns towards the old Dwarf.
“I need you to come with me. We have things to discuss. The others wait here.“
He looks at you.
“You will be summoned.”
Glowering and mumbling, Durgan reluctantly follows Lester. Before closing the door, one of the other guards turns towards you.
“You better give the hell of a show tonight. The Lord has had a bad day and that normally means that somebody else also will.”
Without waiting for a response, the door slams shut and you are left alone. After what feels like an eternity, a freckled page opens the door and sticks his head into the room.
“It is time. Please come with me, my good men?
It sounds like a question. You wonder why Durgan has not returned yet, but, not knowing what else to do, you follow the boy.
You are led through a hot and noisy kitchen where sweaty scullions are busy preparing plate upon plate of steaming food. Climbing a narrow staircase, you finally reach another small room. On its far side, a short passage leads to the adjacent banquet hall. On a small wooden stage a beautiful girl dressed in a revealing silken negligee performs an exotic dance. In the big, vaulted room people are laughing, singing, and shouting. Cheerful music plays. Long tables bend under the weight of piles of food and big mugs of ale and wine. There are loaves of white bread, several roasted pheasants, a whole boar, cooked vegetables and big casks of ale.
You can see Lord Fallon, a muscular guy in his mid-forties, sitting at a big table at one end of the room. He seems very much to enjoy himself, laughing and joking with his companions. They watch the girl perform her dance, shouting, cheering and most of them salivating with pleasure. During one movement, her silk scarf shifts just a little and you can spot the rim of an iron collar beneath it. Quickly, she adjusts her clothes with a fluid movement and finishes her performance. The room erupts in cheering and bellowing but the girl leaves the stage without acknowledging the crowd. With lowered head she takes a seat between two richly dressed merchants. You remember seeing them at the inner city gates this afternoon.
Then it is your turn. Durgan has not shown up yet but you feel that it is useless to start an argument now. As you have done dozens of times before, you present your show. Somewhat to your relief, the Lord seems to enjoy it. At least the beginning of it. Before long, most people loose interest in your performance and go back to drinking and singing. Probably because there is no half-naked beauty in today’s program. At the end, you earn a half-hearted applause.
The freckled page leads you to a small table at one side of the room opposite of the stage. There is food and plenty to drink. Just as you stick your heads together to discuss what to do about the still missing Durgan, a scream cuts through the noise. Silence immediately falls over the room. You look up and see Lord Fallon scramble up and stagger a few steps back. The black hilt of a small dagger protrudes from his left shoulder. You hold your breath.
And then chaos erupts.