Vhindr woke slowly with a great yawn and stretched out his arms and legs. The pleasant sounds of bird’s calls greeted him and the light from Inüer filtered down through the tree branches. For many minutes he remained lying in the thick grass, staring dreamily into the trees and allowing his mind to gradually wake.
A loud crack drew his attention as the young man Berron came from the trees carrying some fallen wood.
“What was that?” Arell gasped as she jumped awake and looked frightfully about the small dell.
“Relax it is just me,” Berron replied and gave the Captain of the Pentrin Guards a strange look.
“Relax?” Arell huffed, “How can I relax? We are in the middle of the wilds, surrounded by vicious animals. I hardly got any sleep last night, all the strange noises had me on edge.”
“You really should relax though, Arell,” Vhindr remarked as he sat up and began helping Berron with building a small fire to cook their breakfast. “We are in the middle of Vhasden forest on our way to the Artāre Monastery, a place famous for creating warriors for the specific purpose of killing monsters.”
“I know where we are, and where we are going,” Arell cut in irritably.
“So where do you think the Helwyr train?” Vhindr asked with a smile, “I would bet my entire wealth that there are no monsters hiding in these trees.”
“Whatever,” Arell pouted, “I know what I heard last night. Normal animals don’t make those kinds of noises.”
Vhindr smiled, “Well, I slept exceedingly soundly. What about you Berron?”
The young man shrugged, “I slept alright I guess. But there are strange noises which echo through these trees.”
“I told you so,” Arell was quick to say to Vhindr who smiled and did not reply.
They soon eat their breakfast and were back riding casually along the winding road through the trees. A gentle wind blew through the branches of the leafy trees carrying with it the scent of hundreds of different flowers which grew amid the grassy undergrowth. Vhindr wore a slight smile as he listened to the varied calls of the wildlife hidden in the foliage and tried to name the animals he heard. He recognised most of the calls, but there were a few he had no clue about what animal made them.
“I should say before we go any further,” Vhindr said suddenly and turned to his companions, “I have devised a cover for us.”
“Why?” Berron asked with a perplexed expression.
“My boy, we cannot simply ride up to the monks and priests and start asking them questions like we a performing an investigation,” Vhindr explained, “That will get us nowhere. We must make them assume we are here on other business so we can then ask them questions when their guard is down.”
“What will be our cover?” Arell asked cautiously.
“I shall play myself of course, the son of a rich and powerful Lord of Port Na’brath,” Vhindr proclaimed nobly, “You will be my wife, Arell, and Berron our page hand.”
“I knew I wasn’t going to like this idea,” Arell remarked and sighed.
“At least you’re not a page hand,” Berron grumbled, “I don’t even know what a page hand is.”
“Basically a servant,” Vhindr was quick to clarify and smiled.
“Great,” Berron replied sarcastically and sighed.
“Can’t I just be your companion, Vhindr?” Arell asked as they continued to ride along the road.
“What is wrong with being my wife?” Vhindr asked back indignantly.
“Do you want a list?” Arell quipped and Vhindr laughed.
“That is not necessary,” Vhindr said with a smile, “I assure you that being my wife or lover is the only believable cover story. Sacrifices must be made Arell.”
“I can tell I am going to enjoy myself,” Arell replied sarcastically.
“We are not here for enjoyment,” Berron quickly snapped, a scowl on his face, “These monks and priests are behind Fay’s disappearance and death, remember.”
“We have no proof yet Berron,” Vhindr said sternly, “And in truth I begin to wonder if we will find any at all.”
“What do you mean?” Berron was quick to ask.
“I am not sure yet,” Vhindr replied honestly, “It is just a gut feeling.”
“These monks are behind it,” Berron said firmly, “And I will find the evidence to prove it.”
Vhindr regarded the young man curiously but did not reply and he turned his attention back to the lovely scenery. Soon it was around midday and they stop by the side of the road for a rest and a bite to eat.
“Berron look at me,” Vhindr said as they were starting to pack up.
As soon as the young man looked, Vhindr flicked his fingers at Berron and there was a bright flash in front of his face.
“What in the Abyss,” Berron exclaimed as he shut his eyes tight, “By The Five you’ve blinded me.”
“Do not be so dramatic,” Vhindr replied causally and went back to sorting his saddle bags, “I simply cast some illusory magicks upon you.”
“What? Why?” Berron asked irritably as he continued to hold his face in his hands.
“You said you had been to the Monastery before,” Vhindr replied as if it were obvious, “It would not do if any of the monks recognised you.”
“Incredible, you look completely different Berron,” Arell exclaimed as Berron moved his hands from his face.
“Different how?” asked Berron worriedly.
“Do not worry, you are not hideously deformed,” Vhindr sighed, “I merely gave you some facial hair, changed your eye colour, your nose, and gave you a scar above the eyebrow. I did quite the decent job if I say so myself.”
“And you look at least ten years older,” Arell added with astonishment.
“How long will it last though?” Berron asked.
“As long as I remain conscious,” Vhindr shrugged and he mounted his horse.
“So when you fall asleep it will disappear?” a slight look of concern came to Berron’s features.
“I will recast it when I wake each morning,” Vhindr dismissed the question, “Trust me, you have nothing to worry about. Come on let us be on the move, I hope to reach the Monastery before nightfall.”
The other two agreed and mounted their horses also, and very shortly they were trotting along the road as it meandered wistfully through the trees and over singing streams. By mid-afternoon the track began to widen and the trees grew thinner, and as they rode along the stone towers of the Monastery started to peak above the canopy. Then all of a sudden the trees fell away and a large metal gate and high stone walls greeted them. Behind the wall the old castle of Vhasden stood proudly and ominously, its grey spires reaching into the blue skies.
The trio of travelers stopped their mounts in the small dirt clearing in front of the gates and looked in wonder at the imposing structure. The iron gates stood open before them and they could see the grand oak doors on the other side of a stone courtyard. Dozens of balconies could be seen along with hundreds of windows, some large and made of stain glass while others were nothing but arrows slits in the stone. The building was very old, and that age could be seen in the worn stone and the vines climbing the side of castle. Its age could also be felt in the air like a weight on the mind.
“Castle Vhasden,” Vhindr proclaimed with a smile, “Quite the sight, is it not?”
“It’s magnificent,” Arell exclaimed with a smile.
“I would hardly call it that,” remarked a rider as she came up behind them, “But I suppose it looks different to outsiders.”
Vhindr turned a curious eye to the rider as she came to halt beside him. The woman was close to his age and had stark white hair, yellow eyes, and many feint scars on her face and body. She wore only an old leather tunic and pants with slipper like shoes on her feet. Belted at her hip was a beautiful sword and many satchels and pouches, some with vials within them. She was a Helwyr.
“Well met, my lady,” Vhindr greeted pleasantly and smiled, “I am Vhindr Varrintine. Travelling with me is my wife, Arell, and our page Berron. You are the famous, and beautiful, Rivian of Gerrald, are you not?”
“I suppose I am,” Rivian sighed, “It is nice to meet you sir Varrintine, what brings you to Vhasden?”
“A donation to the Sect of Artāre,” Vhindr replied, “I would have sent the money by courier, but I wished to see this fabled place with my own eyes.”
“You will likely be disappointed,” Rivian replied dully, “Shall we?”
Vhindr nodded and Rivian kicked her horse onward, with Vhindr right beside her.
“Why would I be disappointed?” Vhindr asked as the trotted through the gates.
Rivian shrugged, “Most are. The priests and monks do not display their Helwyr making processes to anyone who makes a donation.”
“I see,” Vhindr nodded slowly and the company came to a stop.
“I am curious Vhindr Varrintine,” Rivian said as she dropped from her saddle, “Is the famous detective simply coming here to make a donation, or is there something else that brings you?”
Vhindr hid his smile, “I cannot imagine I know what you mean. What of you Rivian? Why do you return to this disappointing place?”
Rivian smiled, “I always stop off now and then, to see how things are going.”
“And to of course make your prayers to Artāre,” Vhindr added.
“Of course,” Rivian narrowed her eyes slightly.
Just then the large front doors opened and a monk came out to greet them.
“More travelers,” the monks exclaimed with a smile, which disappeared when he noticed the Helwyr, “And Rivian.”
“It is good to see you again too, Jizalpii,” Rivian sighed before leading her horse away.
“Do not mind that one my dear guests,” Jizalpii said excitedly, “Leave your horses and come in, join the others. It has been so long since we have had so many guests at one time. My name is Brother Jizalpii, and you lot are?”
“Vhindr Varrintine, and this is my wife Arell, and our page Berron,” Vhindr replied formally, “Pray tell, what other guests are here?”
“Follow me, please,” the monk replied as they followed him through the doors and into the marvelous entrance hall. “I shall introduce you of course.”
Vhindr followed the monk as he led the way from the hall and through many rooms. Though grand in design the rooms were not furnished with rich rugs and antique furniture. Only the most basic seats and tables sat upon bare stone floors and only a few religious tapestries hanged on the walls.
Through another sparsely furnished room they went and through a large doorway into yet another sitting room where several travelers mingled. Of all the rooms Vhindr had walked through this one had the most luxuries with comfortable looking recliners and bookshelves filled with old tomes.
“May I introduce first our most distinguished guest,” Jizalpii said as a large Lordly fellow turned to meet them, “Lord Phanish of Beldōrin and his lovely wife and daughter.”
“A Varrintine of The Port, if I am not mistaken,” Lord Phanish drolled, and he gave Vhindr a weak handshake.
“You are not mistaken my Lord,” Vhindr replied courteously, “I am Vhindr, second son of the Varrintine house.”
“Yes, of course,” the Lord nodded, causing his double chins to quiver, “So many sons in the Varrintine vest. How do you keep up with them all?”
Vhindr glanced subconsciously down at his black and gold designed vest, a symbol of his family.
“With difficulty, my Lord,” Vhindr smiled as he looked back up to Lord Phanish’s small eyes.
“You are not Vhindr Varrintine, the famous detective?” Lady Phanish exclaimed with a wide smile. “But of course you must be, my word this is exciting. I simply love your books, dear.”
“Thank you,” Vhindr smiled.
“But tell me, who is your beautiful companion?” Lady Phanish asked as she pushed past Vhindr to get a better look at Arell.
“My wife, Arell,” Vhindr replied.
“By Artāre, when did you get married?” the Lady giggled and embraced Arell with a hug. “You are rather plain my dear, but you do have beautiful eyes. Come tell me, what is the famous detective truly like, I must know all the gossip.”
Before Arell could object Lady Phanish pulled Arell away and to one of the seats. Vhindr chuckled to himself when Arell looked to him with a plea of aid.
“Tell me who is your other friend, Master Varrintine?” Lord Phanish asked, grabbing Vhindr’s attention, “He is quite the silent brooding type is he not?”
“He is Berron, our page,” Vhindr replied and motioned for Berron to join them.
“Never mind him then,” the plump Lord quickly said and pulled Vhindr away. “Gianna, don’t just stand there like a mute, speak up and greet our noble friend.”
“I apologise father,” the daughter of Lord Phanish stammered before curtsying to Vhindr, “Greetings my Lord, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Vhindr smiled pleasantly and dipped into a short bow.
“Don’t bother with that Varrintine,” Lord Phanish said, “Gianna is our youngest daughter, the dimmest and most plain of the three. No need to waste your breath with pleasantries. Gianna go and wait on your mother, leave us men to talk.”
Giann curtsied again and left without another word, obediently going to sit by her mother.
“Come now, Varrintine,” Lord Phanish pulled Vhindr along and towards the other guests. “Let us meet with the others who have come this day.”
“My Lord, please, I am doing the introductions,” the monk Jizalpii spoke up.
“Go away monk,” the fat Lord interjected, “Find us all some food or drink. We have no need of you at this moment.”
Jizalpii looked outraged, but he held his tongue and hurridly left the room.
“Annoying lot these monks,” Phanish drolled, “But they are doing the will of Artāre, so I must be tolerant of them.”
“Of course,” Vhindr nodded and sighed quietly.
“Now let me introduce you to this lot,” Lord Phanish said loudly as the two of them stopped in front of the three other guests. “This tall fellow is called Vhal, am I pronouncing that correctly?”
“Yes,” the tall man with flowing white hair and bright blue eyes nodded, “A pleasure to meet you sir.”
Vhindr nodded to the board shouldered man but did not get a chance to respond as Lord Phanish blundered onwards to the next man.
“This is the Helwyr, Drizzen of The Dale,” the Lord stated, “And as I understand he is one of the few Helwyr who are actually from where they say they are from.”
“I am indeed from The Dale,” the Helwyr nodded, “Though I have not always been so, in fact…”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Lord Phanish interrupted the Helwyr, “We can talk about that after I finished the introductions. Now lastly here is…”
The Lord’s voice trailed away as he indicated to the third in the company.
“Well, now I do not think we have actually met my Lady,” Phanish stammered awkwardly.
“Perhaps I may assist you, my Lord,” Vhindr cut in, “This is the famous Rivian of Gerrald. I had the pleasure of meeting her earlier.”
“Yes, quite,” the short man nodded, “Well met indeed, my beautiful Lady. You are a Helwyr? I thought they were only male?”
“Such is her fame, my Lord,” Vhal said with a slight smile and turned his eyes to Vhindr, “You are Vhindr Varrintine, correct? I have heard much about you and your accolades, what brings you to Vhasden?”
“I am indeed he,” Vhindr nodded, “And I come to the Sect of Artāre to donate to the honorable duty the monks and Helwyr commit to.”
Vhindr noticed Rivian scoff openly to his comment.
“Are you not here for the same reason?” Vhindr continued, looking to Vhal.
“Well, yes indeed,” Lord Phanish began, but was cut off.
“Actually no,” Vhal replied, “I am an adventurer and this Monastery was on the path. I thought it opportune to stop by, and the monks were kind enough to offer me accommodation for a few nights.”
“That was indeed fortunate,” Vhindr said, “And you, Drizzen? Rivian?”
“I stop by regularly,” Drizzen was quick to reply and Vhindr regarded the Helwyr curiously.
Drizzen of The Dale was not like most Helwyr Vhindr had come across. His eyes were not the usual yellow of most of his kind, and instead one of his eyes was purple and the other more of an orange. Though Vhindr did not know much of the process in which Helwyr are made he reasoned that it might have been due to a complication. But Drizzen’s eyes were not the most unusual characteristic; most Helwry wore simple leather clothing like Rivian’s garb. But he wore clothes which would more suit a ranger with a pale green cloak and leather armour. On his belt was a slender scimitar along with the typical potions and pouches that Helwyr carried, but Vhindr could tell that this man was not the typical Helwyr.
“And you, Rivian?” Vhindr turned his eye to the female Helwyr.
“You saw me,” Rivian shrugged, “I was travelling by and decided to stay the night. A typical thing for most Helwyr to do when close by.”
“I see,” nodded Vhindr, and he looked to each of the three, a sense of curiosity bubbling within him.
“Well isn’t this marvellous,” Lord Phanish clapped his many ringed fingered hands together and laughed. “I am sure you would all be interested to know…”
“My guests,” Jizalpii said loudly as he entered, interrupting the fat Lord, “I sure you would all be pleased to hear I have organised dinner for you all. And what’s more, Grand Priest Jaysis shall be joining you all. Isn’t this simply delightful?”
The monk laughed happily and clapped his hands together.
“You, page,” Jizalpii suddenly shouted angrily as he noticed Berron, “What are you still doing here with my distinguished guests? Get out of here, take your Master and Mistresses bags up to the rooms or something, just leave.”
Berron looked to Vhindr for aid but he shrugged at the boy and Berron left in a huff.
“Now, if you would please follow me,” Jizalpii smiled warmly as he turned his attention back to the guests.
“Food, excellent,” Lord Phanish laughed, “I am positively famished. Come, my dear, let us go and eat.”
The large Lord skipped on his way and his much thinner and more attractive wife was quick to join him.
“Pick up your feet Gianna,” Lady Phanish scolded her daughter.
“Yes, sorry mother,” Gianna quickly apologised and trailed after her parents.
The two Helwyr and Vhal followed the rich family more slowly and Vhindr moved to Arell before they walked from the sitting room and to the dining hall.
“Find out anything interesting from Lady Phanish?” Vhindr asked quietly as they followed the group.
“If you regard all the gossip from Sparren’s court as interesting, than yes,” Arell replied dryly.
“Spare me the summary,” Vhindr laughed.
“I should really make you suffer through it as I did,” Arell replied with a mischievous glimmer in her eyes.
“I would rather listen to the rambling of Lord Buffoon,” Vhindr remarked and they both laughed.
“Though the Lady did say why she and her husband were here,” Arell added and Vhindr gave her a curious look. “Their daughter, Gianna, is to become a mother of a Helwyr.”
“I wonder if it is the girl’s choice,” Vhindr remarked darkly and Arell nodded.
“What of you, did you learn anything interesting?” Arell asked curiously.
“Perhaps,” Vhindr shrugged, “But not in regard to Fay’s murder.”
“What do you mean?”
“There may be more going on here than we first anticipated,” Vhindr replied an excited smile on his face as the two of them moved into the dining hall.
In the middle of a large room sat a long oak table where the other guests were already taking up their seats. Always the gentleman Vhindr was quick to get Arell’s chair for her before he took up a seat next to the man Vhal.
The food was already laid out and their glasses already full of wine. But before Vhindr could begin his meal the monk Jizalpii called for attention as the elderly priest Jaysis entered the hall and sat down in the grand chair at the head of the table.
“Let us pray. Thank you ‘o great and powerful Artāre: beacon of light and morality in this dark world, for this bountiful blessing of food. Thank you ‘o merciful and righteous one for our beautiful lives and the peace in which we live them. May you forever give us hope in the darkness and guidance in adversity. Anon.” the Grand Priest recited in a strong voice and finished with a kiss of the symbol that hung on a chain around his neck. “Please, eat my welcome guests and children.”
The dinner passed with little conversation and Vhindr spent the time studying each of the guests closely, and in truth he learnt more about them that way than actually talking with them.
The two Helwry said little to each other, though they exchanged interesting glances. Vhal kept to himself and eat his meal in silence, though his stern gaze was fixed upon the Grand Priest. While on the other side of the table Lord Phenish talked endlessly with Grand Priest Jaysis while his wife ate quietly, only speaking up to scold her daughter on something.
After the meal all left for the rooms provided for them, as did Vhindr and Arell and they made their way up the stairs and to a small room. Although small it had a fire place on one side of the room and a wash room on the other. The rest of the room was dominated by the large king sized bed.
“We are not sleeping in the same bed,” Arell exclaimed as they walked into the room and closed the door behind them.
“We are a married couple remember,” Vhindr quipped and Arell gave him a dark look.
“I don’t care you can sleep on the floor,” Arell was quick to say, but Vhindr laughed.
“Not a chance,” Vhindr said and walked over to the bed and sat down, “You can if you like.”
Arell narrowed her eyes and pouted.
“Is it really that big of an issue?” Vhindr sighed, “Surely you have suffered through worse things. The trek across the Morrow Plains comes to mind.”
“Whatever,” Arell huffed and walked to the bathroom door, “I am going to have a bath. Do they use magicks in this Monastery?”
“Of course,” Vhindr replied as he took of his small leather shoes and unbuttoned his shirt and vest. “We are not in the Sect of Anduěr.”
“Thank The Five,” Arell muttered and moved into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
Vhindr laughed softly to himself before he undressed to his smalls and turned off the crystal lights before sliding into the large bed. He was just drifting off to sleep when he noticed Arell slide into the other side of the bed, her fresh scent filled his senses as he drifted into a deep a peaceful slumber until the next morning.