Apple Village Hillside

Neat rows of disciplined trees snake along the contours of the hill. Set perpendicular to the slope to catch moisture and conserve soil the aisleways between these rows are thick with bright emerald green grass that is cropped short by small herds of goats that wander freely through the fields. Each tree is pruned to a low, widely-branched form with lower limbs just too tall for a goat to reach and upper branches just within the grasp of a short man on a ladder.

Individual fields are differentiated by low hedgeways or fences with the gates often left open between them. Different, too, are the shape of the tree-leaves, the texture of the bark, and the colours and scents of the fruits borne. Through this neatly-laid patchwork a road wends between the nestle of cottages in the valley below and the scraggier, uncultivated hilltops high above where the majority of the town's livestock is pastured.

Cray Burrow is sitting on the hillside, munching on an apple, watching the clouds roll overhead.

Up the road from Apple Village comes an almost comical sight. Neerly the Bard, with a near 7 foot frame, riding high on the back of a sturdy but somewhat aged horse, feet out of the stirrups and almost dragging the ground. Spotting the man sitting on the verdant hillside, he reigns in Palimpsest and steps from the saddle. "Ho there friend," he says with an amiable smile, "Share your grass a bit?"

Cray Burrow glances over at the horse and rider. He smirks. "Imagine this coincidence." He takes a bite of apple.

It is a cold late evening, descending toward dusk. The air is stagnant, not stirring with the slightest breeze. Puffy white clouds fill most of the sky.

Giving Pal a light slap on the rump to send him into the verge of the road, Neerly settles himself on the hill. He slips the cape from his shoulders to enjoy the brisk air and the last rays of the weak sun. "Now my friend, we have both been round the Wall too many times to believe in such things." He sits quiet, apparently listening to the day sounds give way to the evening. "I am come to get your Story, of course."

"And I am prepared to give you far more than that," the carpenter replies. He takes one last bite of the apple and hurls the core downhill. As the apple core bounces in the grass, Cray looks back toward Neerly. "The Surrector's bounty is not insignificant. I shall turn myself in to you."

Neerly goes still, though he doesn't yet look at the man next to him. He is silent for the space of a dozen breaths. "If that is your wish my friend, though I did not ask it of you. The Surrector does not yet know where you hide." After another pause he continues. "A man's Story, caried by a Bard, may stand in his stead in many an instance. You are sure of your part in the larger Story?" His voice is quiet and sincere, quite unlike the Tavern Bard most in the Fastheld hold him to be.

"If *you* found me, bard, it's only a matter of time before someone less palatable turns up to collect on the bounty," the carpenter says, shrugging. "But my conscience troubles me, and I would have it eased. An innocent person is wrongly blamed. I cannot stand for that."

At this, Neerly lets a light laugh join the sparse clouds. "You should have been a bard, my friend, as I cannot be certain whether to be complimented or offended... the Keep does not know your place because I've not given it to them." Tossing the grass stem aside, he pulls his cape up against the oncoming evening chill. "But you are quite correct, you will be found sooner or later. "'The Wall contains all secrets, and each one will have it's dawn' it is said." Neerly sighs, "Then it is settled, I will escort you to the Keep, though I must confess, I value your Story more than the bounty and fear it will be lost in that Great Fastness."

Cray Burrow smiles faintly. "I'm in no rush. If you want to hear it first, you may. When it is done, then you may take me to Fastheld Keep."

Neerly shifts slightly, turning to give the man his full attention. "That is well then, my friend, for I do not trust those in the Keep any more than I would a Wildling over the Wall. All Stories should have a place to rest, a place to move on from as well. In the Keep is where all Stories die.... Tell me then, Master Carpenter, your Story. " And here Neerly takes a breath and settles to Listen, and in listening to Remember as only a Bard may.

"During the season of Shadowreach, a mother and daughter arrived in Aegisport with a damaged wagon wheel," the carpenter begins. "Jessa and Alana Finethread. They were quite distressed. They told me that a Shadowscourge pursued them along the river from Wildling Wood, where they had become lost in the fog one morning. I gave them use of my lodgings. I tracked east along the northern shore of the Fastheld River. Eventually, I came upon the Shadowscourge and confronted him. He insisted these women were Shadow Touched. He demanded that I take him to them at once, so they could face the justice of the Light. I told him I could not do this. He drew his scourge and warned that I would be convinced to do it." Cray gazes out at the sun as it disappears behind the Aegis to the west. "I used my abilities to fling him away. I killed him."

Neerly's face is calm, his boisterous voice hidden deep now. He only dips his head to encourage the Speaker to continue, time enough for questions when the Words have run their course.

"I went back to my shop, completed the repairs on the Finethreads' wagon," Cray goes on. "They told me of a friend of theirs in Vozhdya, who had been asking after them. They asked me to look after her. Althea Weaver. If the scourges were pursuing the Finethreads, it made sense that, eventually, they would turn next to their friends." He plucks a blade of grass, starts turning it in his fingers. "The Finethreads didn't know I had killed the Shadowscourge. But I realized then that I had only added to the trouble awaiting their friends. I urged them to move on, to go north. If possible, to get beyond the Aegis, for they would find no safety in these lands anymore."

Pal snorts into the wet grass, causing Neerly to cast a concerned glance up and down the road. Seeing no newcomers, he gestures for the story to continue.

Cray Burrow shrugs. "I don't know if they made it. I hope so." He slowly wraps the blade of grass around his right index finger. "After I burned down the shop and fled from the Surrector, I made it my mission to get to Vozhdya as often as possible. To, as I promised the Finethreads, watch after Althea." He chuckles. "One afternoon, she took Duke Markus Vozhd-Kahar on a boat ride. It ended badly. For the record, I did not build this particular boat. If I had, I assure you, it would have held strong and fast, without incident. But, this poorly made boat foundered." His brow knits. "The Duke wore full armor. He sank fast in the chill water. I watched from the southern shore of Providence Inlet. Again, I called on Shadow-Touched ability to walk upon the water and rescued them both."

Despite himself, Neerly raises an eyebrow at this last part of the tale, though he speaks not against it and offers no explanation. Instead, all that is offered is a quiet and polite, "So...." by way of encouraging the Tale to complete itself.

"So, I fled back to this village and carried on with my life for a while," the carpenter says. He sighs. "Then I heard the madness spouted by the Lomasa woman just so she could get out of that dungeon in Fastheld Keep. Althea Weaver is no more Shadow-Touched than I am a chitter." He glances over at Neerly. "I went back to Vozhdya, lurking, watching and waiting. Soon enough, the Surrector arrived to take Althea into custody. I used my abilities to spirit her away from his clutches. Then I came back to Apple Village. And I decided that the first person to arrive and recognize me would hear this tale and win the bounty."

Neerly sits quiet, eyes shut slightly against sun sinking over the western Wall. He speaks not. Pal is content to chew and listen as well. Finally, he speaks to the former Carpenter of Aegisport. "I thank you, Master Cobble, for your gift and for your courage as well. What may happen in the Keep can not lessen your Story now, nor stop it from finding its own way in the world." He catches the Carpenter's gaze, "You will be lessened you know, if not executed immediately. But to a common man few choices are given, to give one's own life to save another is the greatest of these." He stands and brushes the grass from his trews. "At your leasure Master Cobble, it is your ride now..."

Cray Burrow shrugs, getting to his feet and tossing aside the mangled blade of grass. "A life in hiding, watching over one's shoulder, is no life at all. No life worth living." He walks toward Palimpsest. "My father and I didn't see eye to eye on many things, but on this we agree: One's life should mean something more than selfish ends."

Neerly's long legs carry him down the short hill to his waiting horse, he throws one leg over the saddle and, taking up the reigns, turns Pal's nose to the Carpenter. When Pal is satisfied with the introduction, Neerly offers a hand to the Carpenter, "Then take my hand Master, your father could ask for nothing more from you now."

Cray Burrow takes the bard's hand and pulls himself up onto the back of the horse. He gets settled, then takes a final look around at the landscape. He nods to Neerly.

Neerly chucks to Pal, "No complaints now Pal, off we go the Evil Keep, fast as you may now..."

Palimpsest speeds off at a gallop toward the East.

Some time later...

Lightholder Crossroads

A small village has sprouted on the edge of the Lightholder River where the cobblestone roads from Fastheld's other prominent districts intersect, in the shadow of Caryas Hill and the majestic gray silhouette of Fastheld Keep - the seat of power for the entire realm.

Sutlers, traveling performers and other small-time merchants ply their trades along this main crossroads - competing for space with carriages hauling passengers, couriers rushing important communiqués from one district to another, and the soldiers of the Emperor's Blades who regularly patrol the area.

On the northwest corner of the intersection, next to the road that twists north toward Lightholder Bridge and the palace, sits a large tavern and inn where weary travelers can refresh themselves.

Neerly pulls Pal into the shadows near the merchant stall. "Move not from this place Master. I've ridden long to find you and Pal needs fodder before we move on to the Keep. I will return in a nonce."

Neerly is gone only a moment before returning with a few handfuls of hay. "The stable boy owes my favor. And Pal reaps the reward. On now then Master Cobble, I'll not delay you further."

A short while later...

Entrance to Fastheld Keep

The Palace Road widens into a clearing of packed dirt as it arrives at the southern approach to the imposing majesty of Fastheld Keep, with its high stone parapets and lofty tower spires flying the Kahar family banner (a field of bright blue emblazoned with a prowling black wildcat). Soldiers of the Emperor's Blades can be seen along the south wall - on the parapet and flanking the gatehouse - standing guard over the Imperial keep that sits perched atop a ridge of earth known as Caryas Hill.

The Lighthold River can be seen twisting beyond the thick woods to the west. Beyond that rises the barrier of the Shadow District. To the south, one can see the misty rolling hills and woodlands of the Forest District. Off to the east sprawl the thriving bazaars of the Market District.

The road twists off to the southwest, downhill toward Lightholder Bridge and the Imperial Thoroughfare that leads all over the realm.

Neerly swings down from the saddle, a bare hop for his legs. "Here is where we leave the horse, Master."

From Palimpsest's saddle, Cray Burrow nods and climbs down.

Neerly pays a stableboy to have Palimpsest stabled in Horse Stable. The boy leads the horse back into the stables.

Neerly pulls the hood of his cape up, putting his face in shadow. "I'll ask you to follow me now, my friend. Keep your eyes down and say nothing till we are arrived I beg you, as my life is now at stake as well."

Cray Burrow nods, then starts following Neerly, his eyes downcast.

Neerly and his charge wind their way through darkened halls and outdoor passages to the far Northwestern corner of the great Keep. Up and up to the top of the tower, Neerly never slows or glances left or right, the path well known to his feet...

Top of the Northwest Tower - Fastheld Keep

A conical ceiling with wooden rafters rises overhead in this upper turret of the northwest tower. The cylindrical chamber is largely cloaked in shadows, with doors leading out onto the western and northern parapets along the castle walls.

A heavy wooden door leads into a residential chamber. Rough stone steps spiral down toward the base of the tower.

Arriving at the top landing, slightly out of breath, Neerly turns to whisper to his companion. "Through this door is your final choice made Carpenter, you are set on it?"

"I am," Cray replies.

Neerly nods and sets his musician's hand on the Carpenters shoulder, "Then here we are." He knocks 3 times softly on the great wooden door.

There is a muffled *tap tap* as you knock upon the door leading into Heavy Wooden Door.

From Soram Nillu's Quarters, Soram Nillu yells, "enter"

Soram Nillu's Quarters (Fastheld Keep)

The Emperor's realm intelligence advisor, Soram Nillu, is afforded lodging in this spacious tower-top chamber, with a huge canopy bed, a writing desk with inkwell and quill, a padded chair, a clawed-foot brass and ceramic bathing tub, green marble wash basin, rich brownwood wardrobe and a waste bucket for personal relief.

The heavy wooden door can be locked and latched against unwanted visitors. Two blue-curtained archways lead out onto balconies.

Cray Burrow walks into the quarters on the tower top, hands clasped behind his back.

Neerly slips through the opening door, gently propelling the Carpenter in with him. Toeing the door closed behind him he pulls the hood from his head and speaks to the occupant of the room. "Hey Boss, guess who?"

Soram Nillu sits in a high-backed chair by his desk, turning as the two enter. He raises a brow at Cray. "Master Neerly. I see you have brought me a guest."

"I'm not a guest," the carpenter grunts, knitting his brow. "I'm a prisoner. I've turned myself in." He glances toward Neerly, and a scowl forms. "You're a spy."

Neerly's smile is grim and hurt seeming, "I am my own man, and no different here than on that sunny hillside. I remind you, you are here by your own wishes my friend." Nodding to the seated lord, "May I introduce Master Pash Cobble, formerly of Aegisport." Turning to the Carpenter he finishes the introduction, his gaze sympathetic but firm, "Master Cobble, this is the Lord Soram Nillu, the Emperor's Spymaster, it is to him that I deliver you and your Story."

The Spymaster grins, obviously very pleased. "Very astute, Master Cobble. I am glad you've decided to be civil." He stands, folding his hands in front of him. "You are aware I shall hand you over to the Surrector. And if you attempt something rash, say, an escape," he nods to Neerly, "You will only make things worse for yourself. Am I understood?"

"My *wish* was to be turned in to the Surrector, not some skullduggerist," the carpenter snaps. His gaze drifts toward Soram. "If I had meant to escape, I would have turned invisible and fled when your dog arrived in Apple Village."

Neerly voice now is low and tinged with an urgent concern. "Hush Master Cobble, be wary, for you are in a different world now and our rules and values are of no consequence here. 'No one' wishes to see the Surrector, not even in your position my friend." Neerly turns now to the Spymaster, placing himself gently between the two men, "High Lord, the Carpenter has turned himself in, and has done so with all honor. That being the case, I have no wish for the bounty, only that the Carpenter's Story be given out and the worth of it known."

"A skullduggerist, perhaps, but the Emperor's Skullduggerist." Soram's face turns grim. "Very well. I will show you to the Surrector. Though you will explain yourself first. To me." He nods again at Neerly.

Cray Burrow shrugs. "Let the bard earn his keep and tell it himself." He leans against the wall near the door and crosses his arms. "My short version is: I killed the Shadowscourge. I saved Althea Weaver and Duke Markus Vozhd-Kahar from drowning. And I spirited Althea away from the clutches of the Surrector. She has been innocent in these matters."

Neerly winces slightly at the harsh tone in Pash's voice, "He speaks truth, I have the Story and will report it to you in faith this day. But I must leave the Keep now, so as not to be questioned leaving after dark or seen on the roads." Neerly opens a palm to Pash, "This is where it begins and ends my friend. This is what you came for. Your Story will be told and it's work will be done." He looks to offer his hand, then thinks better of it. "You will think me a traitor now perhaps, but we each have hard tasks we must do. Goodbye, Master Cobble, Light be with you unto the end." With that he bows once to each man and retreats to the door.

"Fascinating." The Spymaster clasps his hands behind his back. "Well, here's something I'd like to know: Why?" He eyes the carpenter suspiciously. "Why kill one of the Church's soldiers?" He pauses. "Do you have some vested interest in the Weaver woman?" Soram looks toward Neerly. "Report here in two days, Master Neerly."

"I killed him in self-defense," the carpenter replies. "He was coming after me with a scourge because I refused to take him to two women, friends of Althea Weaver's, who had been sighted in Wildling Wood."

Neerly opens the door only as much as will take his thin frame. Without looking back he passes through it, listening still to the Carpenter's confession scroll out.

Soram Nillu furrows his brow. "And why were these women in Wildling Wood? Why defend them? I'm sure you are quite aware it is forbidden to enter Wildling Wood."

"They got lost in the fog," the carpenter explains. "They were just two women, a mother and daughter. They meant no harm.

"I'm sure." Soram gestures to the door. "I will show you to the Surrector, as you requested."

Cray Burrow nods, then moves to step out into the tower chamber.

A short while later...

Gell Mikin's Chamber (Fastheld Keep)

A spartan chamber, kept neat and tidy by a meticulous occupant, this edifice includes simple and fairly modest furnishings compared to most rooms in the rest of the Imperial fortress.

The bed is a basic four-poster, no canopy, with neatly trimmed beige blankets and thin pillows covered in linen. An ink well and quill sit perched atop an angled wooden writing desk that seems to have received a great deal of use over the years. Next to the ink well is a seal for pressing the familiar wax GM on communiques to the Emperor, Blademaster and other worthy recipients. A gray stone wash basin is off to one corner, available for cleansing. A plain pinewood wardrobe stands against the northern wall, holding the clothes - primarily robes, loose trousers and gray tunics of the Emperor's Hawk.

Two crimson-curtained archways lead out onto balconies.

Gell Mikin is sitting at his desk, his attention focused on a parchment upon which he's scrawling with a raven quill. "Just put my dinner on the table, Yanur. I shall eat it directly."

Pash Cobble walks into the chamber, hands clasped behind his back.

Soram Nillu enters the chamber, his expression grim. "Surrector Mikin."

Gell Mikin glances over at the newcomers. "Ah. No dinner." He tilts his head slightly, eyes narrowed at the man with the Spymaster. "Yet something tells me I will feel satisfied, regardless."

"I am done running," the carpenter says wearily. "I have turned myself in. I am Pash Cobble. I killed the Shadowscourge. I saved Althea Weaver and Duke Markus Vozhd-Kahar from the freezing Fastheld River. And I snatched Althea from the square when you sought to take her. She has done nothing wrong. Lady Lomasa lied to get out of your dungeon. Althea Weaver is not Shadow-Touched. I am."

The Spymaster opens his mouth, but is cut off by Cobble. "..Indeed." Soram looks to Gell. "He asked to see you specifically."

Gell Mikin arches an eyebrow. He stands, walking toward Soram and Pash. The necklace of fingers thumps softly against his chest as he walks. Stopping in front of the carpenter, he says, "You will sign a document swearing the truth of this?"

"I will," Pash says simply. "So long as you drop these accusations against Althea Weaver."

Soram Nillu stands silently, watching Pash.

Gell Mikin nods, narrowing his eyes a bit. His voice drops to a near whisper. "You are either amazingly brave or terribly foolish." Growing louder, he looks toward Soram. "I will see that he is delivered to the dungeon. Thank you for your assistance, Lord Nillu."

"Quite welcome." The Spymaster turns to walk out of the chamber, cloak sweeping behind him.

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