Chapter Two: A Change in Plans

Village Stethlan, Ches 1st (The Claw of the Sunsets), 1372 DR (The Year of Wild Magic)

The two stone towers guarding the bridge that crossed the Hazur River and led into the Village Stethlan were just visible on the horizon a half mile away to the south. The quintet had put about the same distance between themselves and the small port of Bixburg where the fishing boat had dropped them off an hour or so earlier. They had spent some time browsing the small market for native trinkets and fruits while Krell attempted to replenish the contents of his stomach that he’d lost into the River during the latter part of their trip.

“I will ne’er understand human’s fascination with creatures of the sea!” he complained, dismayed by the limited options offered by the lone fry shack – fresh fish and chips fried in boar’s fat – settling for two orders of raw chips and a mug of warm Stethlan Pale Ale. “At least they know how to craft a hearty brew.”

It was the first thing all five had agreed on and they’d joined Krell in a friendly round before setting out on the road south.

The loftily-named Hazur Promenade was a packed dirt highway that served as the primary trading route for the nomadic humans that lived on and worked the farmlands and light forests of central Tashalar, and supplied the small villages and ports along the River with everything from food and drink to timber and furs. They’d passed two caravans already, both heading north back to Bixburg, neither with any news of interest on the road to Stethlan.

The woodline had been cleared fifty yards from the road on their right, the angry river flowed freely on their left and the only shadows cast were their own which grew longer by the minute as the sun was well on its way to disappearing into the west. Though it offered relatively safe passage, the potential yuan-ti raid or griffon ambush caused them to pick up their pace a bit, wanting to make the village ahead of nightfall.

Shann was the first to notice the damage to the top floor of the southern three-story tower as they neared the gate that guarded the bridge into Stethlan. The stone was cracked and blackened wherever it hadn’t been completely shattered, as if hit by a powerful blast of fire, and jagged pieces of wood jutted from several places. The windows on the top floor were blown out, jagged shards still sitting in the frame, and the windows on the second floor hadn’t fared much better.

Corin recognized the damage immediately.

Shann had last visited three months before and remembered both towers being in perfect condition, as the northern tower and the gate that sat between them had apparently remained. The bridge beyond also looked undamaged.

As they got closer, she realized the windows of the northern tower had been boarded up, leaving narrow slits – just wide enough to shoot an arrow or bolt through – that revealed nothing about what was on the other side.

“Yuan-ti?” Corin asked, his nerve-endings jangling at the thought.

Shann nodded grimly. “Recently, too, it would seem. The fortifications to the windows are new since my last visit.”

“It would appear the village prevailed then,” Corin said.

“Aye. I hope.”

Twenty yards from the gate the party was halted by a crossbow bolt zipping out of the second story window of the northern tower and impaling the ground ten feet ahead of them.

“Halt! Identify your business.”

The voice was gruff and clearly native.

“I am Shann Tharden of the Tashlutan Reform Church of Waukeen,” she said, pulling from beneath her cloak the gold coin bearing the likeness of Waukeen that hung from her neck. “My companions and I have business here with Skellar Threshwell. He is expecting us.”

There was a long uncomfortable pause before an answer came.

“Turn around and head back the way you came. There is no business for you here today.”

Shann’s face darkened a bit as she arched a confused eyebrow.

“We have business with Skellar Threshwell, the sheriff of this village,” she replied. “If we are to turn away, it will be on his word.”

“It is on his word that all are being turned away today.” This time there was no hesitation.

Corin took a step towards Shann, at the same time trying to adjust his position for a better look into the tower. He could make out movement in the darkness – perhaps a crossbow being aimed in his direction? – but nothing specific.

“Not the welcome I was expecting,” growled Krell, arms crossed, one hand resting on the leather-wrapped hilt of the waraxe strapped to his back.

“Not at all,” said Shann. “There is obviously something wrong here.”

“Hail, soldier,” yelled out Aladren as he stepped forward, ahead of Shann. “What manner of evil caused this damage to your tower?”

Corin noticed a subtle shift in the darkness beyond the slitted window and pulled Aladren back by his kithara as another bolt thudded into the ground inches from where he’d stood.

“They’ve obviously drawn a line in the sand,” Aladren laughed.

“Solider,” Shann called out. “I would like to speak to Skellar Threshwell himself to sort this matter out. Would you please retrieve him?”

There was another long pause before the response: “No! Now turn back. Now!”

A hint of desperation had creeped into the guard’s voice and they’d all caught it.

“I’ve been to this village two times before and never had this difficulty gaining entrance,” Shann said.

“You’ve also never traveled in the company of such as us,” suggested Aladren with a smile. Always with a smile.

“True. But there is still something wrong here. Our arrival is expected!”

“I don’t like this,” muttered Indo.

“Neither do I,” agreed Corin. “The smell of yuan-ti is strong but there is nothing to suggest they did more than damage the tower, perhaps in a hit and run attack. I see no significant tracks around the gate and across the River, the brewery’s water wheel seems to be turning normally.”

“From what I can see,” said Krell, “there are two men in the northern tower. The southern seems empty, but I’m not sure.”

“Are you suggesting we charge the gates?”

Krell raised his bushy eyebrows and shrugged.

“No,” said Corin. “We’ve no idea what’s happening in the village. If it’s been taken somehow, we’d raise an alarm and get ourselves killed. Probably the villagers, too.”

“What if we sneak in?”

They all turned to Aladren who basked in the attention for a moment before continuing.

“We return under the cover of night. It’s open area but I’m small and quick. Not to mention very good at what I do!”

Shann and Corin exchanged quick glances before joining Indo and Krell in nodding their assent.

“We shall retreat then, and return after nightfall.”

As if on cue, another crossbow bolt shot from the tower, this one just over their heads and landing twenty feet behind them, back the way they’d come.

“You know,” said Aladren, “we’re just assuming these are warning shots.”

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