The next morning several wagons arrived, full of gear for the Crimson Wolves. There were blankets, red wool cloaks, razors, mirrors, and good food. There was also one pair of high black Aquilonian boots for each member of the Free Company. The troops were appeased by these presents and along with them came slaves to clean the house.
Shortly thereafter, another slave arrived with a message from Countess Synelle, requesting that Tullweim go to her mansion. Cuana, Dhak and Xacksmith wondered if they should go as well and it was decided that they would all travel to see what the Countess had to say. The party ventured to the opposite side of Ianthe and walked through an area of the city full of gleaming palaces and exalted temples. Synelle’s servant who had accompanied the mercenaries pounded a ring on the gate and was met by a bearded, one-eyed soldier who eyed the sellswords suspiciously. Tullweim held out the note he’d been given and was told only he would be admitted.
The Aesir took in the sight of the Countess’ mansion as he moved through the gardens to the heavy front door. Once Tullweim entered the front hall he saw a broad-shouldered man with black hair and a proud nose lounging on a divan. The man sneered at the barbarian with a scathing remark to which Tullweim responded in kind. Affronted, the noble drew his sword and declared, “You must not know who I am, outlander. I am Lord Taramenon, and will not be spoken to in this manner without challenge.” Obviously skilled with a blade, the enraged noble landed two solid hits on the Nordheimer, but could not penetrate past the mercenaries’ armor. Tullweim lifted his greatsword in response but found both of his mighty swings easily parried by the noble. Before the fight could go further, Countess Synelle intervened and demanded an end to the swordplay. Taramenon sheathed his sword, bowed before the Countess and begged her pardon. Tullweim put his sword away as well and also offered his apologies. The Countess thanked the barbarian for arriving with haste and led him to her study where she asked him to sit, then pointedly said, “You torment me, you know that, don’t you?” She stood perplexed for a moment, then seemed to change her mind about something and suddenly became quite business-like. She called a servant in to fetch the Aesir’s companions and handed Tullweim half the company’s wages as promised.
Cuana, Dhak, and Xacksmith walked through the manor and passed Lord Taramenon on the way. The arrogant noble eyed the mercenaries with disdain but they paid him no heed. Once they entered Synelle’s chambers the Countess solicited their opinion about the feasibility of stealing the royal scepter from the ailing King Valdric. She had little to say except that she knew he always had it with him and that the King seldom ventured outside the Royal Palace. The surprised mercenaries inquired as to why the Countess wanted the scepter and she replied simply that it was the true symbol of Ophir. She informed the party that Count Valentius had the strongest claim to the throne but several of the nobles feared General Iskandrian would attempt a coup. If Valentius had the scepter the people of Ophir would recognize him as the ruler no matter what challenge the White Eagle of Ophir presented. Tullweim said the mercenaries were in the Countess’ employ and would do what she asked. Synelle smiled at the mercenaries and concluded the meeting.
The Death of the King
As the mercenaries made their way back to their headquarters on the Street of Crowns they heard muted horns sound dimly in the night air which echoed through Ianthe’s naked streets. King Valdric was dead. Mourning cloths of black and white were hung from shuttered windows. The public fountains were shrouded. Sprigs of sa’karian were nailed on every door, the plants’ black and white berries symbolized death and rebirth. The sound of wailing was everywhere. Whether the people cried for the King or for themselves was not known, but none could blame them if they cried for their own safety. War was inevitable now and would soon reach even Ianthe’s cobbled streets. Ophir faced hazardous times, hazardous even for a company of soldiers and cut-throats.
The party moved about the somber scene and quickly heard proclamations from the City Guard which paraded the streets:
General Iskandrian has declared martial law. Anyone seen on the streets is subject to arrest. The gates of Ianthe are sealed and cannot be opened by any except those bearing direct authorization from Iskandrian.
His majesty Eupherius II. formerly Iskandrian the Eagle, has mounted the golden throne, Pray for him his subjects and rejoice in his great name.
They also caught a few rumors among the dispersing crowds:
Count Valentius is the rightful heir to the throne, but he’s been kidnapped.
King Valdric’s body, crown and scepter, are supposed to lay in state for 10 days in the Throne Room. If Iskandrian has taken the throne, he’s broken the ancient law. But even if he dared take the crown, he’d never dare take the sacred scepter in violation of such an ancient decree.
The mercenaries quickened their pace due to the news and a block from their headquarters saw a shape fall from the roof and hang in front of their door. The shape swung in a disturbing manner, reminiscent of a worm on a hook. As they neared, they realized with horror the shape was that of a man hung upside down, the poor wretch had been skinned alive. Cuana and Tullweim lifted the man who gurgled and struggled painfully within their grasp. The Aesir cut the rope which held the man and he was quickly brought inside. Tullweim ordered Enaro to take a head count of the men to see if the bloody heap was one of the Crimson Wolves and laid the man on a blanket. Dhak tended to the man and found that his tongue and eyes had been gouged out and his ears shorn from his head. Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith left the wretch in the Stygian’s care while they made their way to the roof of the building to search for any clue as to who had dropped the man. All they found on the roof in the darkness was a small pool of blood and a spear which had been thrust into the roof with the remainder of the rope the man had swung from. Cuana grabbed the spear in the hopes that the Stygian would be able to divine who was responsible for this atrocity and the three returned indoors.
Once inside they presented the spear to Dhak, who explained that he could not use it as a focus unless he already knew to whom it belonged. Enaro returned and reported that all the sellswords had been accounted for. The Stygian then revealed he knew the identity of the victim. Due to the size of the frame of the victim as well as the few characteristics not removed, Dhak said with certainty that the man who laid before them was none other than Galbro, the thief who had until recently hounded the party for the crucible of Al’Kiir. The party looked upon the wretch with pity, fully aware that by sending the thief out on his own with no coin or weapons and with a powerful curse upon his head he was likely easy pickings for his tormentor. Tullweim’s face hardened with resignation and with a quick thrust of his greatsword he put the Zingaran thief out of his misery.
That grisly work done, the party convened in a separate room to plan the theft of the Royal Scepter. With Martial Law in effect the mercenaries knew they would have to move like thieves across the city. With Galbro fresh on their minds, it was decided their best chance to move freely would be by rooftop so as to completely avoid the city watch. Tullweim then went to the nearby chimney, removed his armor, and rubbed soot and ash on his body which dulled his pale skin. The other sellswords followed his example and Cuana took Xacksmith’s rope and tied knots in intervals along its length. After the party was completely covered in soot they went to the rooftop and began the slow steady travel across the dark city. As they neared the palace walls the mercenaries saw a group of city guards who herded a group of people towards one of the jails. The adventurers waited for them to pass, then continued towards the palace.
At the palace, Cuana easily climbed up 40 feet and stooped between a gap in the crenelated wall. The Cimmerian could see the torches of patrolling guards all along the wall. Looking into the grounds themselves, Cuana saw a massive amount of troops gathered. It appeared as if they were preparing to move out soon, probably at first light. Knowing it would be difficult to get past such a large number of troops, the barbarian lowered the knotted rope to get his allies on the wall. He was surprised when he heard a voice which issued a challenge. Two guards quickly moved in to apprehend the intruder and called out to the watch in the nearby tower. A loud bell rang in the tower as an alarm to the rest of the soldiers. Cuana attempted to climb down the rope he had just lowered and heard the clang of sword on stone as one of the watchmen cut it. The barbarian plummeted 20 feet to the hard ground. The Cimmerian picked himself up and scrambled out of sight. The gate was opened and 20 men poured out searching for the intruder. The party scaled the wall of a nearby 3 story building and settled on the roof. The watchmen searched for hours but could not locate the party, which decided to settle for the night on the rooftop as they’d determined it too risky to attempt to steal away into the night.
Storming the Gate
The next morning the mercenaries awoke with backs aching and a chill in their bones to the sound of marching boots and hooves. When the party investigated, they witnessed a large mass of troops exiting the palace with King Eupherius at its head. He wore the crown of Ophir but did not carry the scepter. The troops were met by soldiers throughout the city, all headed to one of the 3 gates out of Ianthe. It seemed only a bare bones of troops had been left behind to defend the palace and indeed the entire city. The adventurers traveled through the alleys, passed closed shops, witnessed some looting on the way to their headquarters and avoided the few city watchmen they saw. Once they arrived they found a furtive man awaited them with an anonymous message.
Tullweim, Be at the Gate of Avanrakash at dusk, ready for action. If any should seek entrance, aid them by releasing the gate mechanism atop the right tower. Any who attack are our friends, but I think I know who you will thus greet. Afterwards, report quickly to me. Your Lady
The letter was accompanied by a delicate ring which Tullweim recognized as Countess Synelle’s. The mercenaries ate some of Fabio’s stew and Dhak slept until late afternoon. The party then moved towards the Gate of Avanrakash. More looting took place as they passed and the severely depleted city watch had their hands full which made movement about the alleys and streets a bit easier. However, when the party was nearly halfway to their destination they were spotted by 6 watchmen who ordered them to stop. Cuana and Tullweim stepped out of the alley as ordered, then insulted the watchmen. Weapons were drawn, steel rang, and blood was spilt. Dhak and Xacksmith stayed near the rear of the alley and engaged two of the watch who attempted to flank around the barbarians. Only one of the watchmen survived the encounter as he fled while his companions fell.
The mercenaries arrived at the Gate of Avanrakash at dusk. There they found 10 watchmen atop the gate wall which attempted to repel men-at-arms who scaled the wall from the outside. Xacksmith picked the lock to the tower door and the party moved in. Only two guards were at the gate mechanism atop the right tower. The party engaged the two guards, recognized them as the very same guards who had accused Xacksmith of cheating at dice, and had intentionally fed Dhak mis-information about Galbro. The guards were dispatched quickly, but not before they could call out for aid. Tullweim and Cuana held back the rest of the guards while Dhak and Xacksmith strained against the gate winch to move it mere inches. The gate’s door was moved a third of the way up when Dhak left his position to aid in the killing of the guards. Xacksmith was not strong enough to operate the winch himself and the gate crashed down. The Hyrkanian called for help and Cuana took up the burden next to Xacksmith. Even together they could not move the winch as the Cimmerian’s hands were covered in blood and he could not hold his grip. Cuana went back to dispatching guards and Xacksmith found a reserve of strength the Hyrkanian had never known he had as he strained against the winch and opened the gate. After which 20 men-at-arms with the colors of Count Valentius rushed inside with a great shout. The gate was then closed and Valentius’ men remained to guard it. They were grateful to Tullweim and company and thanked them for their aid. Tullweim then ordered his men to go to Countess Synelle’s mansion.
When they arrived at the mansion they found it well guarded by 50 cavalry, who barred their way and challenged them. Lord Taramenon soon appeared and disdainfully escorted the party inside to Synelle. Once they arrived, he sneered at them, “Barbars are good for something then, after all. They can be trained to open doors.” Synelle interrupted and said, ””Well done. We now hold all three gates in the city. They have been seized by Valentius’ and our own troops. Fool that Iskandrian was to trust me. Just because I am a woman, he felt safe allowing me troops within the city walls, thinking I would not know how to use them, treating them as if they were a woman’s baubles, nothing more. But you have shown him your might, Iskandrian’s army still holds the Royal Palace. Our army of nobles, led by Counts Clavanedes, has gathered in Asmark and is already pressing Iskandrian back. If he attempts to retreat into Ianthe, he will be surprised to find the gates held against him, trapped with his back against the walls. I want you soon to take your remaining troops plus 25 of my own cavalry and ride out to join the battle which is about to begin. However, first you must enter the Royal Palace, go to the Throne Room, take the royal scepter, and carry it into battle with you. It is a sign of the rightness of our cause. The spirit of Avanrakash still rests upon it, blessing it when used in purposes of right, cursing it when used for wrong. Which,” she adds, “is why Iskandrian was afraid to take it along.” Tullweim nodded, told the Lady her will would be done, and quickly led his men out of the mansion.