The Battle of Hillshire was over and done with and could be credited as a victory, even if not a resounding one. At least the main objective, liberating Elsa, had been achieved but even that was with caveats, as her wracking, tortured coughing seemed to be growing worse by the minute.
Guiding the half dozen slaves that they had freed from the Hillshire camp, the party moved slowly toward Bree along the East Road. Captain Kraddock, along with Addiela look the lead, while Squad Leader Lyra and the handful of Doves she had brought with her warily took up the rear. In the middle, Nethrida and Ryn watched over Elsa who swayed listlessly in the saddle of her horse as well as the newly released slaves. The slaves for the most part seemed confused, as if they were not fully aware of what happened to them. Most were typical Breeland wayward drunks and forgotten men and there was one young woman who clearly had gone looking for trouble and found it, now spending most of her time crying and asking to see her parents. However there was one man who seemed to be better off and more savvy than the others who had introduced himself as Harald when they first set off from Hillshire.
“I am still not clear,” Harald remarked to no one in particular as he trudged along despondantly. ”Who are you people and why are you doing this?”
Addiela stared down at her feet as she walked, trying to keep her emotions under control; though she kept in front of the group, she was still quietly fuming about how Garon had escaped. Hearing Harald speak up, she glanced back and raised her brow to him in question.
Harald noted Addie’s attention and focused on her, his tone slightly belligerent. “I mean, what do you gain from it except making trouble for yourselves with nasty people? Aren’t all you heroic types off fighting some war in the east?”
Addiela's crystal blue eyes studied Harold very carefully, taking note of his facial features and his attire. "Would you rather that we had left you in their company?"
Harald seemed typical for Bree in those days. He spoke like a local but his accent had a Daleman drawl beneath it. His clothing was well made but not expensive and he had the nervous, aggressive energy of a man used to wealth who had ran out of money. "No, obviously not. Look, I made a bet and lost and next thing I knew everyone had a knife out except for me. They sold me off to this bunch of criminals to cut their losses, it was just business and I could understand that. Don't get me wrong, I am very happy to be freed, just worried that you lot will now have your own angle. If this is for ransom, sorry but I am skint, but I can't believe you did this out of the goodness of your heart.”
Addiela looked away in frustration, not willing to argue about her intentions further with the man, especially as her goal had been rescuing her friend no matter what. Any other good deeds done were simply afterthoughts, however compassionate, and that thought made her feel uneasy. Harald realized the woman was now ignoring him and fell silent, simply watching his benefactors warily.
Beside her, Kraddock, riding slowly astride his warhorse, snorted and looked up from what he was reading, calling back to the Doves."Well, it appears they were intending to get you out of the way, little Lyra. According to this document I found in the camp there were plans to have you offed, if you can believe it.”
Lyra frowned slightly and then shook her head, refusing to let her internal shock to Kraddock's assessment play out on her features. While she was very confident in her own abilities, this was one of the first missions she had been given sole command of by the Pale Kestrels and Captain Lianna and she was quite young for her rank. To think a gang of hardened criminal were willing to pay to have her assassinated sent a chill down her spine. "It seems they did not succeed in carrying out that plan in time."
Kraddock nodded, still reading. “It says here that Garon wanted to give the job to someone called Finnualith in Bree. Silly name. Ring any bells?”
Lyra thought in silence for a moment, staring straight ahead at the road as her mind scanned through the list of wanted villains that she had long since memorized. After a while she shook her head. "I do not know them, but I am unfamiliar with Eriador trash. Perhaps Addiela of Rohan, spending more time hereabouts, has an answer?"
Kraddock nodded and put a hand on Addie’s shoulder. “Someone named Finnualith, my girl - who knows how it is pronounced - ever hear of ‘em?”
Addiela hadn't heard Lyra's musings since she had been thinking about Harald's words. She glanced up toward the two Knights, giving the question thought. After some consideration, Addie shook her head. "I'm afraid that's not one of the names that had been listed in the various things we have found, and I have not heard of them elsewhere. You only have a name?"
The Captain nodded. "Yes, but it does show a way to contact them at this Pony place. Sounds like it is worth doing… And someone shouldn’t have played with matches it seems.” Kraddock sniffed the air. “Is it just me, or does It smell like burnt dog around here…”
His question went unanswered for the moment as Nethrida called out while looking at Elsa. "Is there any chance to hasten our trek? Elsa does not appear very well."
Ellsabeth was doing her best to stay awake and hang on as she rode on the back of her horse, but was indeed looking anything but like her normal self. Her skin had taken on a gray pallor, and her constant coughing was growing deeper and wetter. Blood red, pulsing lines had started to appear in her skin around her eyes and were spreading out.
Hastening was suddenly out of the question, as the party found the road ahead blocked. A burnt wagon, still smouldering, lay on its side in the road. Four or five bodies were still inside, apparently roasted alive in their armor. The remains of two armed horsemen were beside the wagon, burnt as if trapped in a sudden cataclysm, their bodies reduced to man shaped charcoal, already crumbling as they cooled. The scent of burnt flesh was overpowering.
Addiela froze and her face paled. Nethrida gasped and came to a sudden halt, shocked at the sight.
The fire had apparently been so sudden and brief yet so intense that, save for a small circle around the wagon, the grass was unsinged. The harness had been burnt through near the wagon and the horses, apparently unharmed, were standing wild-eyed nearby. The same could not be said of the two warhorses, who now looked like black statues of horses, dead in mid stride.
Lyra brought her mount to a halt and then slowly dismounted. "... Those who play with fire risk getting burned. Some avoid it like the plague but can't escape, some let it consume them without mercy, and some embrace it and hone its power well." She neared the scene to get a closer look but did not touch anything. The wagon appeared to be local, possibly Shire-make, but the armor and weapons of the dead had the design and appearance of Angmar gear, well made and lethal. Likely the arms had been hidden under robes, now burnt away. The position of the bodies were as if a firestorm had flared and then disappeared, leaving the victims in life like poses, dead before they knew anything was even wrong.
Along the side of the road, various other travelers gawked at the scene. A few prayed to whatever gods they had, one retched into the underbrush. One man explained to another in a thick Breeland accent. “The damnedest thing. I left Bree with them, their driver told the Watchers they were artisans going to Celondim, everything was pleasant and then WHOOSH, it was as if Mount Doom itself had opened up under them, burned them all alive, then closed again. I was riding just behind them…I think the heat alone scorched off my eyebrows. I have never seen anything like it.”
Slowly the other travelers moved on. As remarkable as this had been, sudden death was awfully common in wartime. Off to one side of the road, an older man remained leaning against a tree, hair and beard salt and pepper black. His gaze fell on Addiela, who met his eyes, already shaking her head ruefully. "Hail Addiela,” said Leon. “You fare well?”
Addiela knew what the particular signs of such a fire meant and so, hearing Leon of Baril's voice did not surprise her. The blonde woman glanced over and walked his way. “So…you intercepted this lot? Slavers or you have a sudden aversion to artisans going to Celondim?”
Leon nodded, his voice low and matter of fact. "A few fellows in that tavern you like were discussing going off to help an old comrade, said he had a comely lass of a prisoner they would need to take to Kheledul. They found the possibility of fringe benefits amusing and described them in vivid detail. They were a rough lot, and I recognized their whispered cant. Iron Brotherhood, or formerly so. I was a bit concerned this prisoner they spoke of was you, so… I sent them on a bit of a detour to Cinder and back.”
Lyra looked over the charred remains and raised her brows overhearing the conversation. "Iron Brotherhood? So I am right, men of Angmar... And who-..." She then silently looked over to where Leon stood and tilted her head slightly. "So, this is your doing, then?"'
Leon grew a bit cagey. "I wouldn’t say that, exactly... 9 out of every 10 Accidents happen on the road, after all.”
Lyra smiled slightly and looked amused. "Then it is well that Addiela of Rohan has turncoat friends who are... connoisseurs of perfectly timed accidents."
Addiela looked back to the charred wagon. "That was quite the detour indeed... However I do believe that we have rescued the prisoner they were coming to transport."
Leon looked past Addie toward Elsa and frowned. "That the one?”
Addiela nodded to confirm. "Aye, she’s not doing well at all."
Leon gave Lyra a soft shrug, then looked back at Addie. "You could say that. You think you rescued her?”
Ryn frowned, trying to keep Elsa in the saddle. "We don't have time for this hold up...we need to get her to a healer."
Addie snapped her head back to Ryn. “OH, I hadn’t realized, silly me….And what healer do you suggest?”
Nethrida frowned. "I think she just means we should get Elsa treatment immediately, before it's too late..."
Leon shrugged his shoulders. “It’s already too late.”
Addiela's brow furrowed in concern, her heart going cold at the Pyromancer’s words. "Speak what you sense. I have not dealt with such an illness and fear for my friend."
Leon shrugged again. "You are wasting your time, she is already dead, she just hasn't fallen over yet. Someone gave her Ranma Extract,” Leon explained, “and from the confused looks you all have, you don’t have any of the Extract with you. Another few hours without it, she is dead. Even if not, without more Ranma every 12 hours or so, she is dead, so it is just a matter of time... It is a slow acting execution, used by the Unsealed as an interrogation method... and to control the acts of men.”
Nethrida scoffed a bit "Perhaps some ancient elf knows a remedy? Surely they’ll have seen something akin to this before?”
Addiela 's eyes widened and she shook her head. "Nay... I...” She looked to Neth. “Miss Cesistya is no longer around, Neth. No one has seen her for quite some time. Perhaps Aliandith…or the Lady Calidis, but they are far away in Gondor or other parts."
Leon sighed. " I doubt the Quendrach, what you call Elves, would know much of it, but their foul medicines are well known for their efficiency... The dark lord of Rivendell is said to be an adept in many unnatural arts, but unfeeling and arrogant towards those he thinks lessor folk and the sons of Man.”
'I don’t know what lies you have been told of Elves, but we don't have time to make it all the way to Rivendell anyway.” Addie replied with some frustration in her tone. “There is no other method of obtaining an antidote?”
Leon shook his head. “Likely whoever gave it to her had a supply of Ranma, but beyond that? Perhaps Kheledul. Or, the work rooms of Carn Dum.”
Lyra sighed. “Addiela, I searched Garon's tent as well. I did not come across anything that could look like a poison. If the bastard had any, he took it with him."
Addiela shook her head, panic starting to set in; her countenance filled with even more worry as she looked back to the others and then to Elsa. "That would take a long time as well, to travel to Kheledul or worse, Angmar. And we cannot exactly waltz into their midst in those places.”
Leon paused. “We may have a way to buy time.”
Nethrida scoffed, also growing frantic at this ill news. "Then speak..."
Leon looked back at Addie impassively. “Marron.”
Addiela bit her lip for a moment as the name was spoken. "The apple vendor, the one you said was a Deacon of the Guild of the Unsealed. An Angmar Necromancer hiding in plain sight in Bree?"
Leon looked meaningfully at Addie. “He may have a small supply of the Extract if he is high ranked amongst the Unsealed, and he seemed to be so.”
Nethrida tilted her head a bit. "Can’t we create some if this ‘Marron’ does not have the poison?"
Leon shook his head. “Not without the proper ingredients. It is fermented in a very involved, specific process. We would need the proper ingredients, and then a corpse exactly 6 days after death, for the spores to grow in the brain cavity for 4 months until they begin to seek new hosts, as they extend in search of prey the tendrils can be harvested and ground into extract.”
Nethrida frowned again and steeled her gaze. "Then point me towards this Marron. I'll have a word with them.”
Kraddock nodded. "We may need to split up, then. We also need to address if his Finnwhatever is a threat to Gondorian interests.”
Addie raised a brow in question toward the Captain. “The potential assassin? Perhaps they will know Garon’s whearabouts…How did you acquire this name again?”
“Coinspinner wrote it down,” Kraddock replied as he showed Addie the piece of paper. “Said they were going to hire them to deal with “The Dove”. I assume he meant the Squad Leader here.”
Lyra scoffed softly. "Either this Coinspinner is getting above himself or is no mere money-exchanger, whoever he is."
Kraddock smirked. "You betray your youth, Squad leader. Coinspinner was the campaign name of Garon the Betrayer.” Lyra’s eyes widened at the name, and she fell silent.
Addiela sighed. "It can likely be assumed, then, that this assassin is very dangerous. As is a Deacon of the Unsealed…so we must pick our poison.” Everyone stared at her for a moment and she cleared her throat, going pale again. “That…was a poor choice of words, but you see my meaning.”
Nethrida glanced at her sword and pursed her lips. "I fear not the Unsealed. Just point the way and I'll get the antidote if it's to be had while you seek out this assassin.”
Carneryn grimaced. "I'll go with Neth and watch her back... I remember the man."
Lyra looked at Kraddock, her voice matter of fact. "I imagine you would like to remain by Addiela's side, Captain, and seek out this assassin?"
Kraddock nodded. "If that is prelude to a courtesy, Squad Leader, I accept. If it is anticipating an ORDER, I laugh as you do not command me, Squad Leader.”
Lyra just smiled. "Far be it from me, a lowly Scout of the Pale Kestrels to command YOU, the Captain of Elendil’s Vanguard. Though I hear that my Captain, the Lady Lianna would prefer that your endeavours here remain... orderly."
Kraddock snorted. "If the Gray Maiden wishes me orderly, she can come see to it herself, little Lyra. You in the meantime can see to these poor wretched we freed. Perhaps one of them overheard something useful.'
Addiela smiled softly at the banter, relieved at the thought of Kraddock remaining as her guardian at least for the time being, then motioned at Leon. "Nethrida, he had been keeping an eye on him while I was about other business. He should be able to tell you Marron's location."
Ellsabeth suddenly groaned as if it was her last breath and fell off the horse she was riding. Her face and arms were covered in angry, pulsing red veins and she could barely breathe. Ryn had been following behind Elsa's horse and dashed forward to catch the girl as she fell.
Leon nodded. “We are running out of time. This Marron lives in a small cottage off the market square. He has a cat that dislikes him, he mates casually with a local woman that he beats for her promiscuity and tortures a local urchin for amusement while gathering bones from local tombs and collecting barrow earth.”
Nethrida bared her teeth for a bit. "…a Necromancer AND a bully? That ends now..." She murmured and glanced towards Bree.
Addie put her hand to her mouth as she watched Ryn catch Elsa. “Mister Leon, would you go with them? They will need a guide and might need a distraction. You are also the only one of us that knows what this Ranma looks like.”
Leon nodded. “As you desire, Miss Addiela.”
Ryn still held Elsa. "Addie, you'll have to take Elsa, hm? Take her to the Pony, we will meet you there. It seems like your friend the Captain intends to go there to find this assassin anyway."
Addiela nodded and held out her arms so that Ryn could hand the woman over.
Ellsabeth slumped into Addie's arms like a sack of potatoes. She looked horrible and felt scorching hot to the touch with fever as Addie looked up at Nethrida, her eyes wide with terror and guilt. The two old friends understood one another perfectly in that moment and Neth nodded, an oath exchanged between the two. “Don’t worry…we will NOT fail…and Elsa will not die. I swear on my ancestors.