Herger's family was delighted to see him, and the happy reunion was made even more complete when Uncle Theobald arrived a few days later. Although he did not stay with Herger, saying that he had lodgings elsewhere in the city, he spent nearly all his time with the family, telling stories of his travels and hearing from Herger all the details of his adventures since last they met.
Herger was extremely happy to once again be with his family and enjoyed every minute that he was able to find while not performing his clerical duties.
Tibbo joined them for dinner one night and Theobald questioned him as well, leaving Tibbo with the strange feeling that Theobald had learned far more about the halfling's activities in the city than Tibbo had intended to say.
Rurik and Marri, after parting from Herger annd Tibbo, spent a few days in Nuln, purchasing some supplies to take back to the keep and consulting with lawyers about the legal status of the keep.
The lawyer "helped" them file a claim with the Imperial Registrar for "Clearing Land with Intent to Homestead." A fee was charged, and the land was now formally theirs.
Marri was actually dosing a bit as she rode along on the pony on her return from Nuln, a testament to how much a little city scribe with no riding experience had changed since her friend Herger first knocked on the back door of one of her family's bakeries back in Altdorf. It was a growl from Traveller that roused her from her comfortable nod. Immediately worried that the scrappy little animal might have gotten herself into trouble, Marri glanced around quickly, trying to locate her. Seeing some bushes moving a little ways off, from the same direction from which a series of barks were now issuing, Marri scrambled off the pony and hurried over. She paused a moment to take out her sling, then parted the bushes and peered in.
Traveller was barking at a slightly larger dog, who was, annoyingly Marri was sure, completely ignoring the excited dog. "Traveller!" Marri said sharply, "Quiet! Quiet now! Sit!"
With Traveller quiet, Marri moved cautiously closer and now noticed the trap that was nearly crushing both the animal's back legs. "Oh, dear." Anger flooded the little Halfling immediately. "How could anyone - Oh dear!" At that moment Marri realized the animal caught in the trap might be part dog, but the other part was definitely wolf. "Ohhh dear. Well, I simply cannot leave the poor thing like that. But, a wolf! Or a half wolf! And, oh dear!"
Marri suddenly had another revelation -- that the wolf-dog, who had apparently been in the trap for quite awhile, was far along with pups. Her fear forgotten, Marri got a bowl and poured some water into it, and offered it to the animal, who lapped at it gratefully. She talked soothingly while she moved around purposefully looking for a stick study enough to use to pry the trap open. Finding one that was suitable, she stood for a moment looking at the trapped wolf-dog, who stared steadily back at her. "I do hope you are not so very hungry!" she continued in the same soothing tone as she began to work at opening the trap. "And that a small dog, and a small Halfling are not so much of a meal in any case. I could never leave you here, even should you chose to attack me when this is open. But," she concluded as the levered the teeth of the trap open enough for the wolf-dog to drag itself out, "it would be extraordinarily nice if you did not."
Wolf-dog and Halfling stood panting, and eyeing one another for a few moments, before the animal turned away and began to try to lick its wounds. "Oh dear. No!" Marri said a bit sharply to the animal, forgetting herself. "No! You'll make it worse!" Kneeling down, Marri examined the animal's legs. The wolf-dog tried a bit weakly to snap at her. Traveller yelped at this, and lunged at the wolf-dog. "No, Traveller!" Marri cried, grabbing the dog. "Whatever is the matter with you? Can't you see she's unwell! I'm ashamed of you!" Traveller move d a little away, clearly still on guard, and clearly unrepentant at having tried, in her view, to save Marri. "Oh bother!" Knowing she'll have to make it up to her self-righteous companion later, Marri turned back to the more pressing issue of the wolf-dog's wounds.
Looking at the wolf-dog, she continued sternly, "Drink some water! A better use for your mouth! Now no nonsense from you! You'll be a mother soon and we need to see what we can do about these legs." Apparently somewhat chastened, either by Traveller's demeanor, or Marri's determination, the wounded animal offers no more resistance while she is being treated.
Being Marri, she manages to clean and bandage the wounds, set up a campsite, and heat some stew for a meal which she shared with Traveller and the wolf-dog, all the while keeping up a non-stop monologue about cleansing the evil keep, and her current journey to Nuln to file homesteading papers. After watching the animal eat her meal, she nods. "I do believe you will be all right. It'll take a bit to be sure, and what on earth am I to do with you while you are healing? Oh, dear!"
* * * *The three companions who were spending the winter at the Keep found themselves snowed in for weeks at a time. Thanks to Michael's friend the woodsman, they did not lack for firewood; thanks to Michael and Rurik's skill with crossbows and the gratitude of Marri's clients, they did not lack for food; and thanks to Marri's skills, the food was tasty.
Rurik spent several weeks early in the season racking his brain about ways to make the keep and lands profitable, before deciding that the keep was a rich man's toy.
A trip was made to Dunkelberg and a message sent to Herger, contracts were drawn and the land ceded to the Sigmarites as a permanent lease on the condition that they continuously occupy it. If they failed to do so for any reason, the property would revert to any of the surviving companions. If no companions survived, then it would fall equally to their heirs.
Word came back from Altdorf that a deputation would come in the spring to take possession of the land. During the weeks they were snowed in, Michael, Marri and Rurik went over the keep carefully, inch by inch, removing anything of value - the Sigmarites might get the keep and the land, but there was no reason they should get the silver service as well!
Meanwhile, in Altdorf, Herger's studies continued apace. Sigmar blessed him with several new prayers, and his teachers professed themselves satisfied with his progress. They began discussion with him concerning ordination and his choices if that came to pass. "The priesthood of Sigmar is threefold," they told him. "The Anvil, who retire to our monastaries to study the words of Sigmar and pray - the heart of Sigmar; the Silver Hammer, who travel and bring the word of Sigmar to the lost, who root out heresy, and bring light to the darkness - the strong arm of Sigmar; and the Torch, who preach to the faithful, who build and support the Church - the body of Sigmar."
Tibbo spent much time with Herger in the dark, cold months of winter, eager to learn about the training he was receiving and rapidly becoming a favorite with the children, some of whom were already old enough not to believe everything he told them.
It was to the house in the Domplatz that Lothar came in the cold month of Vorhexen. He knocked and explained to the porter who he sought.
When Herger opened he door, shushing his daughter, he sa a stranger. Strange he was, but somehow familiar, dressed in short grey robes above sturdy boots and with the look of a traveller. He was tallish and of middling years, a few years older than Herger perhaps. His curly black hair was beginning to thin. "My name," he said, "is Lothar. I am apprenticed to Gre ... your Uncle Theobald?"
"Come in, come in. I have not seen Theobald in some time. How does he fare?" said Herger.
Lothar stepped inside, rubbed his eyes, then peered about the residence casually as he replied, "When we last spoke, Theobald was in good spirits and health, sir. However, I had come here with the intention of posing the same question to you and, by the sound of things, you haven't seen him as of late either."
The pair moved inside and sat down at a table as Lothar elaborated, at quite some length, about the last time he had seen the wizard. He made sure to highlight the various parts where he, Lothar, had been required to walk for many miles in cold precipitation and slightly exaggerated the scale of the "numerous" hills he had had to climb while travelling to find the myriad articles and texts that Theobald had asked him to gather and transcribe. While there had been two manuscripts he had been unable to find, the journey had been otherwise successful, a pleasant change considering the difficulty of most tasks set upon him that more often left them more incomplete than not.
Lothar rubbed his eyes again and blinked a few times as he concluded, "...and I haven't seen him since. He spoke of some business that Alistair had to attend, but that's not a name I'm familiar with. I've waited a month for him now, and though he's frequently tardy in arriving at our agreed upon destination, it has been a bit long, even for him, sir." Lothar took in a deep yawning breath, covering his mouth. He rubbed his eyes and scratched at his chin, unsure of whether Herger was listening intently or in a trance.
Tibbiddo scrambled to his feet and said, "Tibbiddo Stoutwaddle of the Greenhill Stoutwaddles," by way of introduction. The halfling puffed joyfully on his pipe, sending a sweet, woody aroma into the air; for he was smoking some of the elven herbs he had been given. "Please, come in and warm yourself by the fire. Tell us of this business, perhaps we can help." A whisper to the side sent one of the children hurrying out to fetch some hot cider.
"Alistair," said Herger thoughtfully. "That name does sound familiar. Where did I hear it?" His ruminations were interrupted by the arrival of his wife with cider for Tibbo, Lothar and himself. "I wonder if Marri would remember? Lothar, my friend Marri also knows Uncle Theobald, and she might remember that name. She is not in the city at the moment, rather she is far to the south, near Dunkelberg. As fate would have it, I am bound thither in another month or so. You are welcome to travel with us, if you are so inclined. Tibbo, are you coming, by the way?"
"Ah, pardon me, friend Tibbido." Lothar said, bowing slightly, "That I remembered the name Alistair is, in itself, a feat. Truly it seemed at the time an unimportant mention as I was sure to see Theobald again and soon enough." Lothar smiled and thanked the missus for the cider and sipped at it, the warmth of it spread comfortably through him. "If, as Herger says, this Marri might recall who Alistair is then perhaps speaking with her would be best. I appreciate and accept your offer to accompany you."
Tibbiddo removed his pipe and exclaimed "Another adventure!" doing a little jig around the children. Composing himself he strolled up to Lothar and patted him on the back. "Now Lothar, remind me to tell you about the time I fought the skeltons and other things that walk after death. Herger was there, he helped me!"
And so it was decided. Over the next month, Lothar came to visit with Herger and his family often, and even once or twice with Tibbo learning that Tibbo had no visible source of support.
Then, in mid-Nachexen, they set off. In addition to the three named already, there were two Templars of the Fiery Heart and four Sigmarite monks, as well as four novices. With such a company, they encountered no difficulties on the road, and by early Jahrdrung they were riding down the little canyon that led to the site of Likar's keep.
Marri yawned and stretched. Traveller, sleeping in her accustomed place at the foot of the bed, stretched a bit as well, but did not wake. "It is early," Marri mused a bit grumpily, not yet motivated to move from her warm covers, "and cold yet. One might not even know it to be spring time!"
But it was spring, and today was the day the Sigmarite deputation was scheduled to arrive at the keep. Having spent the winter at the keep, usually with only her two traveling companions for company, Marri, who was a very social person, was looking forward to turning the keep over to its new inhabitants and leaving for Altdorf. At the same time, she would be a bit sad to leave this place. "It was the first kitchen I could truly call my own!" she thought, scrambling out of bed and quickly lighting the fire she had laid the night before. Her mother and sister, she knew, would each be doing much the same thing in their homes in the Moot. Then, like her, dressing and hurrying to their kitchens to begin the morning meals.
Marri was sure that her mother would be cooking a wonderful meal for Marri's father and the eight brothers who still remained at home. Her sister would, no doubt, be doing the same for her husband and two children. Those of her brothers, who ran the family bakeries outside the Moot, would be up preparing their own meals and prepping their ovens for the day's baking. Marri found herself caught up in thoughts of her family home, perhaps because she was again leaving a place she had come to feel was home. And she had to admit to feeling a bit sorry for herself and her stomach, considered the very simple breakfast she would be forced to make this morning consisting of no more than a dozen items, since almost all her kitchen utensils were packed, along with everything else that would be going with them when they left the following morning. "Silly Marri!" she admonished herself. "You're with friends, and you are going to meet friends! And we've found the Water and the Tree is well! It isn't as if we are headed out to save the world on this trip!"
She shook her head at her own foolish thoughts. After setting the kettle of water on the fire for tea, she paused a moment and looked long and hard at this room where she had spent so much time cooking, baking and concocting herbal teas even she had to admit were sometimes undrinkable. She seemed to be trying to memorize every nook and cranny. "I shall miss you," she said softly to her warm, safe kitchen. "I shall miss you very much."
She reached up to touch the last thing that would be packed in the room: a small statue of Esmeralda that sat above the kitchen hearth. For all her brave words, she felt, for no reason she could pinpoint, a bit apprehensive. "I hope it will not be long before I have such a wonderful haven again, Bountiful One. And you have such a fine place to watch over my cooking."
With that, she turned to a shelf and began selecting jars-- a little grin on her face. "I am SURE these herbs will make a tea that will make our last day here memorable!"
As she worked, Michael came in to tell her that he had spotted a company of riders approaching the keep. It looked like the deputation was nearly here. Michael went to tell Rurik and soon the three companions were awaiting the arrival of the riders.
When they came into the valley, it was clear that Herger and Tibbo had both come with the deputation and in minutes the companions were again reunited.
Herger introduced the Sigmarites to his friends and vice versa, and then introduced Lothar to Marri, Rurik and Michael. Marri had food prepared and so they all retired into the keep. The next few days would be busy ones as the three who had spent the winter would be showing the new tenants the land and buildings. One of the monks spent most of the afternoon closeted in the kitchen with Marri unloading the supplies he had brought and discussing the facilities. He was a dour type and Marri was shocked at the lack of spices or herbs in his inventory; meals here would be plain affairs. By evening, he was satisfied and claimed the kitchen as his domain. The friends, he said, would be welcome to join the monks for their meals, or fend for themselves, but they would only be able to cook over the fireplaces in the rooms or the small hall, which was set aside for their use.
As a result Marri was fairly miffed when the friends and Lothar gathered that evening in the small hall. Still, they were confident that they were eating better than the somber gathering in the next room. Herger had asked to eat with his friends, and despite a dissapproving glance from the ascetic monastic cook, permission had been granted.
As the meal finished and Tibbo lighted his pipe, Herger turned to Lothar. "Tell them your story, my friend. Perhaps, Marri will remember something."
Taking his napkin and wiping his mouth, purposefully missing the crumbs in his moustache (if anyone would have asked him about it), Lothar stood and began to speak. He recounted the events as they had passed, making sure that each person seated at the table truly understood how difficult his travels had been. From the muddy, rutty roads to the fithy, stink-filled streets, Lothar spared no detail until he reached the point of his and his teacher's parting. At that point he could only explain and show the results of his most recent tasks and, again, bring up the obscure reference to 'Alistair's business'. Turning to Marri, he asked, "Is the name Alistair familiar to you? Herger said it was to him, but he couldn't place it."
"Hummmm...." Marri said, obviously lost in thought. "Alistair? Alistair? Puts me in mind of mutton pies and quite good ale! You remember those pies Traveller!" she said to her dog. "Perfectly spiced! A decent crust too, though it could have used a bit lighter hand in the rolling! Now where... oh my goodness yes! Of course, only a halfling..." she exclaimed with a delighted laugh. " Hayfoot's Inn in Thistletoe in the Moot! You remember Herger: tell them Alistair sent you and they will treat you right? A postscript in a note Herger's uncle left at my brothers at our family bakery in Nuln when we were trying to connect with each other while making a... trip together awhile back. It was before we met Tibbi." She looked around at the still puzzled looks on the faces of those around her. "Alistair is one of the names Herger's uncle uses... for... discretion I suppose... when he travels about." She cocked her head to the side for a moment, searching her memory again. "They did treat us right there! Of course one would expect no less from a well run halfling establishment! Those pies...!"
"Of course!" said Herger. "Alistair was the name he used in the village of ... Thistletoe, was it, Marri?" Turning to Lothar, he continued, "We stopped there at Hayfoot's Inn, and the name Alistair opened doors for us. He might use the name other places, but that seems like a place to start."
"It does indeed," agreed Marri. "We're all going I take it? How long do I have to purchase supplies? I have some lovely new recipes that I'm just certain will work BEAUTIFULLY over a campfire..."
"I have some discretionary time," said Herger, "now that my duties here are done. What of the rest of you?"
"With what sounds like a good chance at finding Theobald, I would think that the sooner we depart, the more likely it is that he'll be found.", said Lothar, rubbing at his eyes. "I have little in the way of things to prepare."
"Since yonder monkish spoilsports are occupying our tower, I suppose it's time t o find more real estate to appropriate from the forces of darkness....or at leas t to find more dark heads to crack." Michael seems eager to hit the road.