Early settlers who came to this land in search of fortune found fortune in the iron mines. West Rufus was a vast rocky region on the western bank of river Sane. The ores mined here were molded into the finest iron in the kingdom. It was this iron that attracted some of the best ironsmiths, alchemists and hunters in all of Ashlora. These early settlers built a city upon the iron-rich hills and they named it Ironheart.
In centuries to come, Ironheart flourished on its natural wealth and talented craftsmen. The current Citadel, the city of Azeth, was pale in comparison to Ironheart in its heyday. Nowhere in Ashlora could have compared to Ironheart. And frankly, there hadn’t been many cities in Ironheart’s heyday.
Then as though jealous of the city’s prosperity God sent a mysterious plague to plunder Ironheart of its wealth. Like a hidden dagger, the plague emerged from unknown origin and stabbed deep into the city’s veins. The farms surrounding Ironheart could no longer produce food, the wells became barren and the rain became poisonous.
The plague worsened over the years. From a miniscule start in the Dark Forest it had extended rapidly across the western region. Eventually, it swallowed up the whole West Rufus, along with the lands upstream of river Sane. It was only a matter of time before the entire Ironheart was consumed by the blight.
And the people of Ironheart thought they had seen the worst of it.
Their bishop was found dead last night. A city patrol discovered his body at the border of the Dark Forest. His remain was brought to the local keep, where he was examined and certified dead by an official from the Academy, and then returned to the local church by the paladins of Azeth. No one knew how Azeth caught wind of the news so quickly but the blue-shield crusaders arrived at the scene within the first hour, carrying the Archbishop’s request for a temporary take-over of the local church.
Father Felacia was a charitable man. He was beloved by commoners and nobles alike as his see fell on the darkest chapter in Ironheart’s history. Spiritual guidance is always on high demand in times like these. Before he became a cleric, he was married to a noblewoman. They had a daughter: the silver-eyed girl was named Lilia, after the white lily in the castle garden. When his wife passed away in a revolt, he and several loyalists persuaded the Common’s Hall to send reinforcement. With Azeth’s intervention, they defeated the illegitimate reign and returned the throne to Silverflow family.
In the later days leading up to the plague outbreak, Father Felacia found solace in the house of God. He led a pious life helping the less fortunate. He left his daughter in the care of the Baron. His death stirred quite a commotion amongst the nobles and the commoners alike.
At noon of the next day, Priestess Lilia was seen exiting the local keep with the casket of the bishop. In the morning session, Silverflow Council relieved the Priestess of her day’s duty, citing how unbecoming it would be for a daughter to certify her own father’s death. Rumors had it that she broke down in tears when the news came.
Priestess Lilia was popular to the townspeople. She was admired for her knowledge in alchemy and known for her involvement in Silverflow Council. She enjoyed being the first in everything. She was the first to be court wizard and priestess, the first sorceress to hold the highest rank in Silverflow Academy, the first noblewoman to escape an arranged marriage, turning a prince into a frog and almost getting away with it.
For better or worse, she did not show up at the Church for the funeral in the afternoon. By then, there had been words within the Holy Church of the Lord that the bishop was murdered. And, by the time the Archbishop arrived in Ironheart, the identity of the murderer—no, the prime suspect according to the Academy’s investigation—was confirmed: the killer was the Witch.
It was always the Witch.
Something was set in motion that day.
A large bounty, a hefty sum of seven hundreds gold from the Church and eight hundreds gold from the Baron, was posted at the local guild. Yet, despite the large bounty, no group of mercenaries dared approach the quest for only a madman would fight the Witch in the Dark Forest. The Priestess was seen visiting the front desk, asking about the status of the bounty, many times during the day. Her expression, from the last time she was seen at the local keep, had changed from grievous to hateful.
Paladins wielding Azeth’s dark blue shields stopped the Priestess when she approached the castle. These crusaders from the Citadel kept a close watch of the castle. She wished to discuss urgent matters with the Baron and ordered them to step aside. But these crusaders refused to let her through as either a priestess of the Church or a councilor of Silverflow. Digging through her pouch of scrolls, Lilia found the rarely-used decree that identified her as the court wizard of Ironheart. Only then did they let her through.
There was only one entrance to the court. Eight crusaders were guarding the entrance in place of the usual elite guards. Two of them were magicians and the other six were heavy footmen. None of the red-helm guards was seen in the castle.
“This is preposterous! Where are our guards!?” was the first thing she exclaimed to the Baron when they met in the court.
The former noble knight, Sir Richard, was often seen in his ironclad. He chose a halberd as his primary weapon but in his old age, he fell back on the lighter short sword. The Baron was left-handed. A small circular shield was mounted on his right arm. Embossed on the shield was the bronze pickaxe and iron hammer crest of Ironheart. He was reading a book when the Priestess entered. He motioned the servants to leave them alone. Then, he left his throne for the bookshelf nearby and gestured the Priestess to come closer.
“Where are our guards?” Lilia repeated the question in hushed tone.
“Hiding in a tunnel behind the bookshelf,” the Baron whispered.
Historically, Ironheart held a friendly relationship with Azeth. In reality, the Baron was always wary of the Citadel. He had never approved of the Archbishop as the head figure of Azeth. Nevertheless, because it was in Ironheart’s best interest to keep the eastern trade road clear, the Baron was somewhat lenient when it came to the Archbishop’s demands. This time, he let the blue-shield crusaders roam Ironheart while they investigated Felacia’s death.
“I should have put some restrictions on their movement. Now they’re all over the place like rats down the sewage!” the Baron sighed.
He was talking about the crusaders. It’s politics, not a topic she should comment on.
“So, what do you think?”
“About the Witch is the killer,” the Baron asked, flipping the pages of the book he was reading; the book titled “History of Ironheart, volume 3”; tracing his finger to the section covering the last twenty years. He read the section again and handed the book to the Priestess.
She put the book back on the shelf after a mere glimpse of the content. She knew the history of this city well enough. She didn’t need a history book to remind herself of what were happening in her lifetime.
“The magic signs on his corpse belong to the Black Witch. We identified the footprints at the scene of crime belong to the bishop. The trail suggested he was running at speed from inside the Dark Forest to where he died…” Lilia cited the result of the investigation, which was read aloud in front of Silverflow Council during the afternoon session. “I think it is quite clear that the Witch is responsible,” she concluded.
“Read the book, Lilia. Felacia was her mediator, without him, she would be at odds with Ironheart. There is no gain for her in this, only losses. She’s missing a motive here,” the Baron said.
The Priestess gave it a thought. Then, she shook her head, saying:
“Whether she did it or not, this city would not miss her if she disappeared. Her existence only fuels conspiracies and disputes.”
“Better be safe than sorry, huh? I see.”
The Baron patted her shoulder and gave her a wide grin.
“Frankly, I was worrying you would follow your father’s footstep but I see the blood of Silverflow is strong in you. Come to the court more often from now on, I’ll make sure you are ready when the time comes. You will be a fine queen.”
That evening, Sir Richard and Lilia slipped out of the castle via a secret tunnel behind the bookshelf. It was an old castle; God knows what the original purpose of these tunnels was. One thing for certain though, they came into handy when the Baron wanted to avoid the blue-shield crusaders.
“Alright, gents, lady…”
Four red-helm elite knights were waiting in the tunnel. They saluted the Priestess and the Baron. Lilia knew these guards personally. They used to accompany her when she came to play in the castle. It was years before she started studying clergy. She was a little girl then. These men, and one woman, all had strong build. They were a head taller than Lilia and next to the tallest of them; she only stood to his elbow.
“His Majesty, Mr. Excellency, the Lord’s Prophet sent a bunch of wimps to the castle for my protection. Hold it! I think he meant for their protection,” said the Baron, stressing on the irony of his words.
The knights laughed.
“Ha’ willy boos! It is Saturday night tonight. Who stays home on Saturday night?”
“Dead people!” the knights answered in unison and threw their fists in the air.
“Indeed, only dead people stay home on Saturday night. With you gents and ladies around, I feel much safer, much younger and much more alive than around those no-life wimps. Let’s us march to Brown’s Boulder and live our lives to the fullest tonight. For tomorrow, we will burn the Witch’s house!”
“Speaking of His Excellency, my lord, what did he say at the funeral?” Lilia wondered.
“His Majesty commanded Silverflow Council to stand down. He and his “holy army” will take care of the Witch and “safeguard” us from the dark curses that “will befall upon Ironheart”. It’s not very well-received,” the tallest knight of them said. With a playful pause and a cough, hinting sarcasm, he added: “Silverflow Council, a band of disagreeable people, they wouldn’t give a damn unless someone told them not to give a damn!”
Lilia was also a member of the Council. In hindsight, she recalled from their afternoon session that Silverflow Council did agree to stay out of this despite a great deal of resentments.
Lilia shrugged her shoulders, “I shouldn’t have asked…” she commented in a low tone.
“Ignorance is bliss,” the Baron nodded.
“Can we really trust the Archbishop? I mean, he moved an army against a single Witch. Isn’t it a bit suspicious?” another knight wondered.
“He may have hidden agendas, maybe he wanted to use the opportunity and seize Ironheart. The idea wouldn’t be too far fetch. He did raid Fa’el for a horse! Maybe he will raid Ironheart for a donkey tomorrow…” the tallest knight voiced his opinion again, making no attempt to hide his mockeries.
The Baron listened to the comments. He thought it would be a good time to ask about allegiance.
“Lilia,” he called out, “Which title fancies you more, court wizard or priestess?”
“The answer is obvious; I would never pray God unless I had to,” she answered.
“How Silverflow you are!” the Baron remarked, “of your father and you, only he was the devoted one huh?”
A knob-less door stood before them at the end of the tunnel. On the other side of the door they could hear chattering voices. At other times, there were cheers, the noise of liquid being poured into various vessels, the crispy sound of grills, the faint smell of beverage and old pine barrels.
The Baron and three other men pushed the barrel blockages asides and cleared a path for the rest of the party to come through. They had arrived at a cellar. There was light coming from another door—with knob this time—at the end of the rows made up of crates and barrels. All the sounds they heard came from behind that door.
The Baron turned around. Before they entered Brown’s Boulder tavern, he took time to give Lilia a few words of warning.
“Lilia, we’re going to meet a friend of your father. He’s a peculiar fellow. If he somehow offends you, just ignore him,” he warned.
“Actually, it’s easier to ignore everyone but Brown. He’s the only decent human here,” the female knight whispered.
“Then what are the others?”
“Frogs, the worst kind of frogs, the pervert kind,” the Baron replied.
The knights burst into laughter.
“I see…” Lilia could hardly laugh with them but she understood what he was getting at.
“Make sure you don’t accept drinks from strangers. Don’t mention the Church. Don’t mention anything magic. Vomit into a bucket and…don’t talk to a man named Alex,” the Baron advised.
His advice intrigued her curiosity. She couldn’t imagine what kind of people her father had to deal with in his daily life.
A red-helm knight put his cape on Lilia’s shoulders. The difference in their stature allowed the Priestess to don it like a cloak, hiding her highly visible orange-silver court mage dress. The female knight undid her hair and handed a white string to the Priestess. The knight kneeled and helped Lilia tie laces around the collar.
“Sir, she still stands out too much.”
“Just keep the hood on, stay with me, and don’t utter a word,” the Baron sighed.
Brown’s Boulder was a well-known tavern in Ironheart. It was frequented by the low and middle classes but rarely any nobles. The tavern stood alone in the middle of a busy market district, built on a giant boulder that no one could move. The two-story architecture marvel was a testimony to man’s defiance in face of natural hardship; the very kind of defiance people worshipped in time of famine.
Brown’s Boulder served food and beverage throughout the day. It welcomed merchants, guild members and adventurers alike. There was usually a guard or two patrolling the streets outside at all time. No illegal business was allowed. Past curfew, however, the tavern became much less lawful. Brown’s Boulder offered inn services and overnight recreations. It closed its doors as the law demanded but remained accessible to the regulars.
The owner of the place was Brown. He had a strange accent. He used to be a miner from West Rufus. His last name, a family registry tracing back to Old Miners’ origin, was too tedious for most everyday conversation. At some point, he left the mine to live in the city. Brown made a number of investments with the silvers he earned from selling his family’s iron mine. One such investment was on a plot of land no one wanted, upon which he built a forge and later a tavern.
The Baron led the party to the bar’s counter, he waved his hand and thumbed up, signaling that the two irregulars—the Priestess and the Militia—were with him. Seeing the signal, the sentry man sitting on a rocking chair by the doorway averted his eyes and let them through.
As they reached the bar counter, the Baron made a query with the barkeeper to see a person named “Leo”:
“Ye look for Leo? He’s upstairs with a woman,” the barkeeper informed.
“A woman you say?”
“One moment,” the barkeeper broke off the conversation, “Morgan! Ice cider, room three,” he ordered one of the employees in the kitchen.
“Aye sir!” replied the waiter, leaning his shoulder and coming into the party’s view.
“Yes, a woman; a foreign beauty,” the barkeeper answered the Baron, “They are in room three. Ye come with Morgan. He’ll show the way.”
While the Baron was talking to the bartender, Lilia spotted a handsome-looking man sneaking into the kitchen. He approached the red cider on the wait table and poured a suspicious potion into the drink. Then, he noticed Lilia’s stare. With a mischievous smile, he put a finger on his lips and signaled her to keep quiet about the potion.
She gave the female knight next to her a nudge, pointing to where the man was. Seeing the knight, the man made a run for the backdoor. He was immediately struck by a rolling pin in the back of his head and fell to the floor.
With a furious cry, the bartender stormed his feet into the kitchen. He pinned the man down and forced him drink the cider. Ensued was unheard of violence; the burly bartender’s fist pounded on the man’s face.
“You and your drug, out of my kitchen!” the bartender shouted and, with his inhuman strength, lifted the man up and threw him out of the window. The sentry man, who had opened the window in anticipation of the throw, peered down the street and gave the bartender a thumb up, to which the crowd laughed and cheered, “The cockroach survived the window again!” And, in all of these shenanigans, what amazed Lilia the most was how the tavern-dwellers could laugh and act as if the blatant attempted murder was nothing serious.
So that was Alex, whom she was advised to steer clear.
Following the waiter, who had to prepare a new cider as a result of the ruckus, they crossed path with a middle-age man in brown tunic at the staircase. He wore peasant’s clothing; he was tall and tanned but his build was not that of hard labor. Rather, Lilia thought he looked a bit flimsy and whimsical with his ruffled chestnut hair.
He asked the Baron about herbs, to which the Baron replied:
“Leo. I brought a healer!”
“Rick, I asked for herbs from Silverflow. Herbs! Not a wishy washy healer! Those prick clerics ask too much, talk too much and do too little. Herbs! Bring me herbs and modern medicine, not a cultist!”
Lilia chose to ignore the insult, which was directed at her whether he had realized it or not. The Baron discreetly held her back; though his action was superfluous, she learned from it that he acknowledged the man was being an irritation.
His nagging tone of voice reminded Lilia of the folks in Silverflow Council; many of whom despised everything magical and religious with a passion. Albeit they never had brought any issue to the local Church when Father Felacia was around, they had been drawing to themselves the wrong kind of attention from the first Holy Church.
“Brown told me about the woman you’re hiding. She’s the reason why you need herbs this urgently, isn’t she?”
“Even if you say so…”
“—there’s nothing wrong with a healer then,” the Baron shrugged, “Forget about your ideal, take what I offer now, or she dies.”
The man, seemingly to have been persuaded, gestured them to follow him upstairs.
“I’m afraid you and your knights will have to leave weapons out of this. I don’t want to give her the wrong impression.”
“I don’t mind but may I know who she is?” the Baron asked.
“She’s the Black Witch.”
*Revision June 2016.