Double Trio: Chapter 2
These were supposed to have been heretics. That was what the Order said they were, and that's why Baldwin and his men were called out here. But there was no sign of heresy, no taint or tinge of the mamono he could see. There were no dark preachers, no strange women roaming about, no mamono engaged in their disgusting lewdness, nothing. This village was massacred for nothing.
Baldwin felt the heat rise faster against his face. "You are right in your fury," he told it. "I have killed innocent men and women for nothing." He could feel tears stinging his eyes. "You have every right to hate me. I have failed my Oath as a Crusading Paladin, and my duties as a good and noble man. Punish me for my guilt however you see fit. I deserve it."
The fiery winds, however, slowly subsided on his words. Baldwin's tears rushed down his face. "I am a knight. A small knight, with no hopes of truly fighting against this evil the Order has become, and there are many mamono who deserve their deaths for causing chaos and evil among us men. But I can remove myself, and launch a true crusade on my own terms. Away from this." He punctuated the last sentence with a glare at the burning village. "Forgive me, O Gods, and let me redeem myself in full with this new quest."
And with that short prayer, he turned his horse aside and rode away, never to be seen by his men again.
Cwichelm nudged Baldwin awake with his gnarled hands.
"It's time," the Battlemage said.
Cwichelm was already battle-attired. He wore on his chest an old iron breastplate with specks of rust here and there, underneath which was a thin, red gambeson. Buck-leather trousers covered his legs, and his feet were protected by bearfur boots. On his head, he wore a simple nasal helmet, battered and rusty, covering his lengthy strawberry blond hair. On his left hand he wore a glove; his right hand, as the dominant hand, had to remain free of obstacles to cast magic. His weapons were a one-handed axe, strapped to his right hip; a curved-tip saex on his left hip, and, the prized weapon of his people, a yar, which he held in his right hand. A 'yar', to his folk the Yarlingar, was a simple ash-shafted spear, the length of which was roughly the same as the span of his arms, tipped with an iron, leaf-shaped spearhead. The spearhead was chipped and darkened with old blood.
Cwichelm looked to Anselmo, standing in front of his bed, who had also readied himself. Anselmo wore a battered kettle helmet a size too large for him, a good piece of battlefield loot; a long, dark blue brigandine, which covered his body down to his thighs; thick woolen hose and leather boots; and he wore worn-out leather gloves on both his hands. He had his crossbow, with a draw weight of roughly 500 pounds; a belt quiver with 16 iron-tipped bolts, and a short sword strapped to his left hip. He carried a small pavise on his back, the front adorned with a sensual painting of a naked woman holding a greatsword; her flowing dark hair covered her breasts, and the sword covered her genitals.
Cwichelm turned back to Baldwin, and let the man get up. Cwichelm went to his own bed to get his pack, loaded with spellbooks and supplies for the long journey ahead. Ingredients for healing salves and potions, an iron-and-silver medallion to commune and conjure guardian spirits, and elemental stones for strengthening his magics. He slipped the pack on, weighing in at twenty-five pounds, and marched out the door, Anselmo following behind.
Cwichelm took a deep whiff, and then looked down to Anselmo. "They're gone."
"But it's still morning, and I haven't had breakfast yet!" Anselmo whined. He was more disturbed that they were now out and about in town by themselves. Were those mamono ladies insane? Going out in an unfamiliar Order-controlled town, with no one around to help watch out for them? Even if they were capable of defending themselves, they couldn't handle a sudden lynch mob if they were found out. He couldn't let that happen to them, not while there was still plentiful gold to be made. Well, not just gold, Anselmo thought to himself, revisiting the scenes from last night. Sure, they were mamono, but hey, they were still women, weren't they?
Cwichelm grinned as soon as that thought was finished.
Anselmo turned to the Battlemage. "Oh, don't tell me you've been reading my thoughts," he growled irritably. Magical telepathy and mindtouching wasn't known to be a possibility, but, given the intense secrecy of the magical mysteries, many still felt there was some truth to rumors suggesting otherwise.
"Don't need to read thoughts to know your personality, Anselmo," Cwichelm replied. He chuckled a bit, then went down to see Herbert. The innkeep had been making breakfast, and Cwichelm was never late for his meals.
Anselmo sighed. That Cwichelm, he was a real piece of work.
Baldwin finally came out of the room, having fully suited up. He wore a brightly shining iron cuirass (which Anselmo referred to, perhaps affectionately or maybe sarcastically, as 'the Mirror'), small iron pauldrons, mail gloves, mail chausses, on his head he wore a sallet, just as bright as his helmet, covering his chestnut hair. He carried as his weapons a flanged mace and a bastard sword. He also had a heater shield painted with his family's coat of arms: two white chevrons on a green background. Above all the armor, he wore a surcoat with the same coat of arms.
Anselmo nodded towards Baldwin. "You look good, boss."
Baldwin smiled. "Thanks, Anselmo." He walked to join Herbert and Cwichelm for breakfast, the mail and plate clanking with each step he took.
Anselmo followed from behind. When he reached the front of the inn, he saw Cwichelm seated at a table eating breakfast, and Baldwin getting his breakfast from Herbert. Judging by what kind of slop they were eating, Herbert was relying on the traditional oat and sawdust porridge to wake his dear guests up. Anselmo couldn't bring himself to dislike the old bastard for that. He was an excellent cook when he had the money to buy good food, but with the adventurers' money running out, and the Alehog having no other guests besides them, it was unlikely the fat old man was going to serve anything but, until something changed. Like the potential riches to be gained working with these mamono.
Anselmo got himself a bowl, and sat down with the others. He ate it joylessly, thinking all the while of tastier things, like the foods of his homeland, or maybe that Anubis' thighs...
His thoughts were interrupted when the door swung open and in came the ladies, newly attired in clothing far more fit for the long conditions ahead.
Ahmose wore all-beige clothing, tunic, hose, and turban all. The only non-beige thing were her sandals: those were brown. She had a chipped scimitar on her left hip, and a dagger on her right. Her turban was not a single piece of cloth, but multiple rags, all in various degrees of yellowing, sewed into one, all hiding her black hair. Her tunic was in better shape, though her hose was so full of holes it could've been made a sacred relic. You could see her knees and her portions of her thighs and calves. Her shoes were in better condition, but not by much.
Brigid wore long, dark woolen robes that covered all of her body up to her forearms and calves. Those were covered with equally black gloves and boots. Underneath her dark hood lay her sunken, melancholic grey eyes and silky black hair. Her skin was still pallid as ever, but it seemed to have a bit more life to it. She had as her only 'weapon' a zither which she carried on her back. Its body was engraved with beautiful cursive runes, each line in the wood seeming to shimmer faintly.
Cassandra wore a brown gambeson and mail shirt, both a size too large, to compensate for her large breasts. They seemed to fit well on her regardless. Her wavy red hair hung out from under a leather bascinet, her green eyes shining excitedly through them. She wore leather boots and leather gloves. She had as her armament a short yew bow and twenty-four iron-tipped arrows, and a saber.
There was silence for a few seconds; the adventurers and Herbert turned from what they were doing to see the ladies. Anselmo broke that silence with a whistle. "You girls went shopping, hm? You all look really nice!"
Baldwin was going to reflexively chastise the man, but he was cut off by the ladies.
"T-thank you, Anselmo!" Ahmose shakily replied, making an awkward attempt at a smile to Anselmo.
"You are very sweet," Brigid responded, before she turned her attention to Cwichelm, who nodded at her.
"It's nice to be in armor again!" Cassandra triumphantly proclaimed, turning to Baldwin.
Well, Anselmo, you'll get off this time, Baldwin thought to himself. The compliment was well-intentioned anyways. He instead asked the ladies, "Have you ladies had something to eat yet?"
Ahmose answered, "Yes, we got some good things to eat at the market."
Cassandra sauntered over to Herbert to see what he was cooking. He was hypnotized by her chest, but Cassandra paid no heed. Taking one look at the pot of slop, Cassandra nearly gagged. "This is what he's serving you adventurers? How could you stand such garbage?"
Herbert, despite the insults, wasn't even fazed.
"It keeps us alive," Cwichelm answered, getting up to take his empty bowl back to Herbert.
Cassandra regarded the battlemage with wonder. She murmured to herself, "That shit would kill me."
Cwichelm came back to the table, but stood instead of sitting down. "Are we ready to leave, Captain?" He asked Baldwin.
"I'm no Captain, but if we are done here, then I don't see why not," Baldwin replied.
The three adventurers got up, Baldwin and Anselmo depositing their bowls next to Cwichelm's, and escorted the ladies out from the Alehog. Out in the street, the sun was shining bright, with several puffy white clouds gracefully crawling across the skies. The townsfolk were walking to and fro, either ignoring the adventurers entirely or regarding them with a quick curious glance before moving on with their business. Overall, it was another pleasant day in Intanis, a good start to a long journey.
"Walk this way," Ahmose told the adventurers. "We have hired a teamster who will take us to the crossroads."
"We aren't hoofin' it there?" Anselmo asked.
"No," Brigid replied. "Don't worry," she added, seemingly ahead of Baldwin's objections. "We've got everything we need there."
Baldwin's objections already answered, he simply nodded and followed the ladies. The group walked several city blocks to the market, where, true to the ladies' word, a teamster stood next to his four-horse carriage. He nodded to the group, and let them get in his carriage. He started the horses and drove them through the main street. At the main gates, the carriage was stopped by some guardsmen. They did their check to ensure no customs violations, and then let the carriage through the gates.
As the carriaged passed through the main gates, Cwichelm chuckled to himself.
Anselmo, who was seated to his left, asked, "What is it, Cwichelm?"
Cwichelm shook his head after containing his laughter. "Can't spoil the punchline just yet."
Anselmo scoffed at the man, and contented himself with gazing out the carriage's windows.
For another league, the carriage went, before it finally reached the crossroads. The teamster stopped the carriage, and happily took three silver coins from Ahmose. The group left the carriage, which soon turned around and drove back to the city.
The crossroads was a small little dirt path, each road leading straight north, south, east, and west. There were wide fields full of crops, and peaceful meadows. On the corner of the south and west roads, there was a tree with five horses leashed to the trunk, each already saddled up and carrying bags of supplies.
The adventurers were surprised. Anselmo squinted at the horses, and said, "Well, damn, now that's a good enough surprise for me."
Cassandra went to each of the horses, gently petting their heads and saying sweet words before loosing them one by one and giving them to everyone except herself. She looked up at Baldwin, who mounted a white destrier, and with a single motion hopped onto the horse.
"Lady Cassandra, why don't you have a horse?" Baldwin asked.
Cassandra changed the subject. "Don't worry about that, it was all we could find. Besides, it wouldn't hurt to ride with such a noble knight like yourself!"
Baldwin, though he was slightly flustered by the flattery, allowed her to stay on. He was a chivalrous man, of course, but he also knew that ladies who stayed with knights out in the field unaccompanied would engage in certain, brief matters from time to time. He supposed it was one of those moments.
Anselmo and Ahmose had roan rouncies to ride, while Cwichelm and Brigid had chestnut coursers.
Anselmo, trying to mount the horse with his pavise, had nearly fallen on his ass trying to do it, but he needed that pavise. So he found a way to have it hold by the horse's side using a rope attached to the reins.
With everyone saddled up, Baldwin asked Cassandra, "So where must we go to find that piece of this Great Scepter?"
Cassandra replied, "We believe the piece may be in a ruined temple to the Emperors of the Damned. If our intelligence is correct, this temple would be in the Duchy of Amalzigas."
Anselmo glared at Cassandra in disbelief. "But that's, what, 200 leagues away from here?"
"Then we'd better get moving, eh, crossbowman?" Cassandra answered acidly.
Anselmo sighed in defeat, and the group started on their long journey.
In the Inquisition base at Intanis, a single stone tower that once served as the belfry for a long-ruined church, an elderly man in priestly robes stood next to an Inquisitor at its top, now enclosed save for some small arrowslits. They, along with a single candle on an oaken desk, served as the only light source in the room.
"Inquisitor Banden," began the priestly man. "You have let those suspected mamono and their accomplices escape."
Inquisitor Banden bowed before him. "Yes, Your Holiness Ranno. I did so on your orders, if I may remind-"
"I remember well what I said, Banden, after your mishap with that wand, and that was to observe them! How can you observe them if they are leagues away from us?"
Banden winced at the criticism, but, thinking quickly, replied, "Your Holiness, it is not too late to catch them. If you send me with some good men, we may still catch up to them!"
"No!" Ranno exclaimed, placing his wrinkled old hand on his forehead. "We cannot capture them now. If what our informant says is correct, they'll be heading over to the Temple of the Damned, to claim the Gemstone of the Great Scepter. We cannot let the mamono have it, but we cannot leave it be there, if the mamono know where it is." Thinking for a second, the priestly man took out a sheet of parchment and a quill from his desk. He quickly scribbled out a letter, flourishing it with his signature. "I authorized you to take a company of men, of your choice, and follow these mamono to their destination. Do not attack them, do not attempt to capture them, but watch and follow them. When you reach the Duchy of Amalzigas, I want you to take command of any local Inquisitors and Ducal soldiers, which I authorize with this letter, and I want you to follow them to that temple. Catch the mamono and these mercenaries and bring them to the Inquisition there for trial and execution. Then, I want you to bring the Gemstone, along with any other treasures, to me personally!"
Ranno handed the letter to Banden. "Do not fail me, Banden. I want everything done as I ask, understood?"
"Yes, Your Holiness. The mamono and mercenaries dead, and the treasures brought to you, yes."
"Good, now get going!"
With that, Banden rushed down the stairs.
For three days, the group rode their way to the southwest, crossing over countless more fields, meadows, and villages and hamlets. They forded the River Elling, whose waters coursed and snaked through the Republic of Intanis, and passed through the County of Mascillus to reach the Bishopric of Danri. The group stopped on the third night there in a small wooded clearing, close to a nearby creek. After the fire was lit and the tents set up, everyone settled down on some logs.
After a moment of silence, Ahmose was the first to speak up. "S-so, fair adventurers, w-why don't you tell us about yourselves?"
"Ah, the classic 'get to know you' kind of deal?" Anselmo replied.
Ahmose nodded eagerly.
"Well, before I joined with these losers" - motioning to Baldwin, who sighed and facepalmed, knowing the story to come, and Cwichelm, who merely grinned at the entertainment - "I was the greatest crossbowman this side of the Aldag mountains! I fought in many a good campaign as a soldier of the Maran League. We fought against the dastardly tyrants of the Empire, as I served to preserve the honest liberties and freedoms of my people and our cities! I even unseated one of the bastards with my bolts, and if it weren't for the fact that twenty knights charged against me, I would've finished him off myself! I only got to kill nineteen of the knights. The last one my old friend Waldemar slew with his guisarme, true story! You guys would've loved him. He was a true man of liberty and justice! But, alas, the Maran League was defeated by the Empire, and I was forced into exile."
Ahmose looked in complete astonishment and awe at the wondrous, but numerous lies Anselmo told. "Wow! I can't believe you were that great of a soldier!"
Brigid wanly smiled, and Cassandra shook her head in disbelief of her friend's credulity.
Brigid turned to Cwichelm, "What about you, Cwichelm?"
Cwichelm answered, "I am Cwichelm Aelfricson of the Yarlingar. My father was a great warrior, my mother a priestess and mage. I inherited both of their talents and learned my craft at the College of the Battlemages in Gamsbree. After that, I came here to the Empire for mercenary work. I have killed many men in battle from my childhood, and I will surely kill many more, until the day I fall and return to my forefathers."
Anselmo and Baldwin were used to the hard warrior talk Cwichelm gave, but it seemed to terrify Ahmose, the poor girl. Cassandra grunted, possibly out of respect, but didn't have anything to say.
Brigid, on the other hand, blushed, with her cheeks even turning a shade of healthy pink. "Wow," she said. "You must be a great warrior with such an attitude like that!"
Cassandra turned to Baldwin and asked, "And you, Baldwin?"
Baldwin sighed. He never did like telling his story. "Well, I was once a crusading knight, valiantly battling the forces of evil wherever it could be found. Criminals, heretics, necromancers, even mamono -" (The three ladies looked in shock at this, but Baldwin seemed not to notice) - "Everyone who stood in the way of truth, justice, and righteousness. Now, I'm here, as the senior member of this trio here, in my own little crusade."
Cwichelm quietly giggled. He nudged Anselmo. "There's the punchline."
Anselmo couldn't help but giggle as well.
Baldwin pretended not to notice. It was a somber moment for him and even though the two were giggling, probably at his expense, it was not the first time people had scoffed at him.
"So, what about you, ladies?" Baldwin asked. "What are your stories?"
Ahmose started. "I-I was born i-in the land of Awant. It w-was once a beautiful kingdom r-ruled by powerful pharaohs, b-but that died long ago, and n-now it's a kingdom ruled by slave-soldiers. I was an a-alchemist by trade, and the slave-soldiers banned it as they did with most magic. S-so I left, then I m-met Brigid and Cassandra and travel with them as their friend."
Anselmo nodded sympathetically. Fellow exiles, far away from their home.
Brigid went next. "I was born here in the Empire. Since I was a wanderer who loved romance and music, I became a Bard, playing music with whatever instruments I could find. My music could heal the sick and reinvigorate the soul. Once I die- nearly died after an attack by bandits, I was rescued by a traveller who healed me. After I recovered, I travelled deep to the south, where I found Ahmose and Cassandra."
Cwichelm sighed. She, too, was a fellow traveller, a restless soul.
Cassandra finished. "I'm the daughter of a horselord's concubine. My father was one of the best horselords, and he and his clan held great power over the other clans. While my sisters were trained to be princesses, to be married off to other horselords and their whelps, I chose to become a horse-maiden, to become the strongest I could be, so that I would never marry them. My father was murdered one day, and I rode off to pay his killers and their kinsfolk in kind. After that, I rode away from the steppe to the cities, where I met Ahmose and Brigid."
Baldwin looked at her. She was an avenger, a fellow fighter for justice.
There was quiet now, with the stories finished. Baldwin, remembering events long ago, suddenly got up and walked down to the creek. Cwichelm looked at him with a concerned expression, and turned to Cassandra. "Cassandra, I think he would need your touch on this. He is in a mood."
Cassandra tilted her head.
Cwichelm added, "He's a hopeless romantic. You know how they are."
Cassandra nodded and followed Baldwin down there.
Cwichelm looked at Ahmose and Brigid. "I'm sure you knew about what happened in the inn four days ago, correct?"
Ahmose and Brigid both smugly grinned.
"Of course! Anselmo was such a cutie about being a Peeping Tom!" Brigid said.
Anselmo replied, "Well, I can't say I'm sorry. That was a good view."
Ahmose laughed. "Y-you're honest! I like that in a man. S-so many men when they meet our kind, they're a-always so scared! B-begging for their lives like we were going to slaughter them!"
Cwichelm nodded. "So, are you going to reveal yourselves now, mamono?"
"Yes. It's been so tiring, keeping these disguises up," Brigid answered.
"Be careful, then. Baldwin doesn't know," Cwichelm warned.
"B-better now than n-never," Ahmose said.
And suddenly, what once were human women were now mamono. Ahmose, revealed as an Anubis; Brigid, revealed as a Banshee; and off in the distance, Cassandra, revealed as a centaur.
Baldwin screamed in shock, and pulled out his sword. "Mamono! What in the names of the Gods?" He yelled, drawing his sword out.
The group rushed over to the creek, as Baldwin suddenly swung at Cassandra. Cassandra back away just in time, and then charged at him, knocking the sword out of his hand and tackling him to the bank. He was struggling, trying to find some way to fight back against the centaur.
"Y-you monsters! Get your hands off of me! I will not submit to you!" Baldwin roared. He stared at Anselmo and Cwichelm, standing, doing nothing to help him, and then he realized the truth.
"You got us involved in mamono business! Don't you know what that means for us? Don't you know how we'll die?"
Baldwin turned back to Cassandra, staring at her with defiant eyes. He was ready for what was to come, though he would never surrender. But then, Cassandra descended to his face and planted a soft kiss on his lips. Baldwin stopped resisting. He felt a rush of pleasure going through his body. It wasn't one of simple-minded hedonism, but of joy and true love, of romance. One he hadn't ever felt.
Cassandra spoke softly, "Come with me, Baldwin. You and your friends are safe with us. We don't want to hurt you. We only want your help, and your hearts." The soft words calmed Baldwin down, and Cassandra picked him and his sword up off the ground.Baldwin stared at Cassandra, dazed and confused. With Cassandra holding him, Baldwin and the group went back to the campfire...