Erastus was a good month for all in the kingdom. Initially, Stagfall had felt a bit like Oleg’s- a small oasis on the edge of something fearsome and unpredictable- but as the summer solstice approached the settlers began to feel as if their city was truly home. Stagfall lacked the conveniences of Restov, but it had an able military, wise leaders, and clean, new buildings. The later were particularly novel to many settlers. Back in Restov new buildings were often only built after a fire. In the countryside farming humans could afford to have big families, but in the bigger cities when an old shoemaker or blacksmith died his eldest would take over the trade and its building, leaving their younger siblings with little. For this reason second and third-born sons were the first to respond to Restov’s call for settlers in the Stolen Lands. Many of the settlers of Stagfall proudly called themselves “third sons” regardless of gender and birth order as a symbol of their previously undervalued rank.
The populace was young, independent, and came from many different classes and races. Most were humans, but even the tradition-loving dwarves produced a few “third sons.” One swore he would open a smithy as soon as he was able but repaired the worker’s tired hammers and axes on his porch in the meantime. Others were half-elves, who regardless of birth order were always “third sons” to their families.
The human settlers proved to be well suited to construction and city protection, though some, like the blacksmith dwarf, had greater dreams. One human came with drawings in hand- instructions for proper mill construction.
“Soon,” Promised Baron Melvin, “All of these things will come to pass. Now that the castle is finished we can devote ourselves wholly to building comfortable houses for everyone. None of those filthy tenements some of you knew in Restov!”
At the start of Erastus spirits couldn’t be higher. Archerfest fell on the third and it was the most raucous one many had seen. In the spirit of the god Erastil it was a time for asking a girl’s father for her hand in marriage. “Third sons” and their female counterparts had no fathers to go through, which resulted in spontaneous proposals which were celebrated with much exhalation and ale. Jhod clapped his hands with delight as couples came to him, seeking his blessing in wedlock.
Underneath the high spirits something more sinister was brewing. In the month of Arodus what Miracelli and her newly christened “Spy-ders” had hoped was an isolated incident a month prior turned into a full-blown bandit problem.
Zot assumed that the problem could be fixed by increasing the patrols of his men. Unfortunately, his soldiers looked dubiously at the tiny, staghelmed gnome and wondered if he was joking. What the men needed was someone to rouse their patriotism, and Baron Melvin was just the person to do it. He called the populace into the courtyard of the castle and gave a speech from the steps.
Note to self: Ravena scrawled on the corner of a scroll, a meeting-place-hall-thing whatcha callit is probably a good thing to build for stuff like this… research it’s cost.
Ravena was never particularly good at calculation or organization so that note found itself quickly buried under the pile of notes and scrolls in her room. She had little time for reading anyway, as a healer her job was never done. She was always amazed by the clumsiness of humans. The places they managed to hit themselves with hammers… one would think that the alehouse had already been built!
Fortunately, the more graceful half-elves formed the base of Miracelli’s Spyders. A few humans fleshed out her crew, which also included a tiny female gnome who had the benefit of fitting into tight places but the detriment of having pink hair of a shade never found in nature.
It was in the month of Rova that a remarkable artist heard the calling of Erastil. He constructed a statue of Old Deadeye which was so lovely that it drew people from miles around. This boosted the kingdom’s economy as well as giving the populace a strong reminder that the kingdom itself bore the blessing of a god.
The favor of Erastil was a strange blessing for Stagfall to have. When the four adventurers met, neither Miracelli nor Zot had shown any interest in the machinations of the gods. Even Melvin was a fairly apathetic follower of Erastil. Ravena worshiped all things, aware of the presence of the gods all around them, respecting them, but truly following only her patron. Now the foursome found themselves leading a nation deeply steeped in the worship of Erastil. Zot even had a magical hat that told him to worship more.
For Ravena’s part, she still started the day the same way, waking before dawn to commune with Skitter and thus her patron, Insanity. She more fully understood the nature of the curse that blessed her. Though when Ravena had ascended Pharasma’s spire, Insanity had told her that their contract could be ended at any time, Ravena knew she would find it impossible. The pair’s fates were now hopelessly intertwined.
Nonetheless, one morning Ravena went to the new statue of Erastil, took to her knees, and prayed. The god was there, of that there could be no doubt. But now what to do with it? Erastil’s powers were so anathema to Insanity’s that the combination of the two made Ravena’s soul feel funny. She was attempting to grow comfortable with the contrast within herself when she was startled by a hand on her shoulder.
It was Jhod. Ravena apologized for not noticing him sooner.
“’Tis quite alright. It seems you’re as moved as I am.” The old priest observed.
“I… I wouldn’t say that.” Ravena replied as she rose, dusting off her black skirt. “You are, after all, the head priest. You know the god’s spirit better than any.”
“To think,” Jhod shook his head, “This time a year ago I was scraping by on the fringes, forsaken and lost.”
“Erastil understands. He forgives.” Ravena replied, gazing over Jhod’s shoulder to where Akiros was standing a polite distance away.
Miracelli suddenly appeared in Ravena’s line of sight directly in front of Akiros.
“How did you do that?” Ravena asked.
“A master does not reveal her secrets.” Miracelli winked.
But a master does, Ravena knew, tease a girl about marriage. Ravena struck before Miracelli could.
Miracelli argued that no such arrangements could be made until the kobold brothel is opened.
Jhod suddenly looked deeply annoyed and turned to leave without saying goodbye. Akiros shrugged helplessly and followed the older man.
“Did that not go as you had planned?” Miracelli said with a devilish smile.
“I have no plans.” Ravena replied then changed the subject. “Except how do we tell the boy kobolds from the girl ones? Also, it’s a dumb idea.”
“Well it’s hard to tell, so it’s even kinkier!” Miracelli exclaimed. “And it’s not a bad idea, it’s a FREAKING BRILLIANT idea!”
“Okay, we’ll leave that on the table,” Ravena lied.
The month of Lamashan began auspiciously enough, but then one of the Spyders reported to Miracelli the tragic case of a sick little boy. He seemed at death’s door but his father diligently cared for him, almost to the point of neglecting his service in the royal guard. The guard drug himself to work each day despite the sorrow that weighed upon him. Little did he know that his weariness was not the only thing causing him to falter on patrol. He had become infected with his son’s disease. Soon guards all over the city were falling ill. They took their own illnesses home, sickening the weaker members of the community. The very young and very old had little to protect them from the creeping green plague.
Zot’s men were quarantined, but for the little boy the city’s efforts came too late. A tiny coffin was crafted and carried to the newly built and blessed cemetery.
As the plague continued coffin production became sloppier in race against the clock.
Ravena was fighting the clock too. She ran from home to home, half-mad from sleep deprivation and magic overuse, laying her hands on each and every person she could find. Her hands glowed violet then white, cleansing what she could of the dread sickness. When her magic was exhausted, as it was every day, she patched up boils with blessed bandages. She had seen a contagion like this before and had her suspicions, but it wasn’t until one of the men by the newly founded mill noticed something odd. The lake- the very water upon which the city depended- was tainted.
Fortunately, through the whole city’s efforts the plague claimed its last victim and then showed its face no more. They were safe- at least for the time being.
Stagfall’s survivors had their confidence shaken, but they went back to their lives. New farms and roads were built. The farms and freshly minted miller assisted with internal food production, allowing the city to be less reliant on hunting and imported foods.
Still, no one said this would be easy, and if they had they were either lying, naive, or just plain drunk.
Even amidst the tough times the people of Stagfall had not forgotten their right to party, and Ascension Day is the finest excuse to party. It coincided with the first snow of the year, allowing for chilled kegs in the common areas outside and soul-warming spiced wines and ales inside the freshly constructed houses. No one got drunk enough to attempt the Test of the Starstone as the day’s honorary, Cayden Cailean, had, though Seamus, the blacksmithing dwarf kept threatening he would.
“Ha,” Zot laughed, “And they say Dwarves can handle their liquor! He’s hardly had 20 mugs!”
“Hush.” Melvin snapped. “If he hears you insulting him like that we’ve got a fight on our hands and that’s the LAST thing I want.”
“Indeed,” Svetlana agreed. She had been standing with them at the edge of the winter revelry in the open public area where houses and businesses would soon stand. “Now that things have calmed down after the plague the last thing we need are racial tensions within the city.”
Oleg danced through the crowds and over to where the group of leaders were standing.
“Oh, ho!” He exclaimed, “What have we here? No one dancing? No one with ale in hand? The fiddle’s playing, Svetlana, join me!”
She smiled at her exuberant husband and let him spin her into the thick of the dancers.
Suddenly, Zot became aware of a prickling feeling on the back of his neck. He whirled around to see the tiny pink gnome Spy-der sneaking up on him.
“Drat.” She said, looking shamefully at her snow-coverd feet, “Element of surprise lost.”
“What did you need the element of surprise for?” Zot asked.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hot-I mean Hat-I mean Zot… yes, I covered for that well… would you mind dancing with me? Everyone else is too tall.”
“The hat frowns upon dancing.” Zot replied.
“Oh… wow.” She said, turning her wide-eyed gaze to the staghelm’s empty eye sockets, “The um, thank you anyway, Mr. Zot-hat.”
A group of reveling kobolds tried to drag Melvin into the dance but he was resistant. Ravena strode over to him with Skitter perched on the edge of her ale mug.
“I’m sorry,” Ravena said the the kobolds, “But Melvin’s true love is Miracelli.”
Miracelli suddenly appeared next to her.
“Ack! Stop doing that!” Ravena exclaimed.
“Seriously, Ravena,” Miracelli sighed, “That joke hasn’t been funny in 6 months.”
“That joke was never funny.” Melvin corrected.
“Okay, fine. I promise. I won’t make it again. Anyway, Miracelli, I just saw some interesting behavior from a Spyder. Looks like she’s consented to Kestin’s courtship request.”
“Oh god not the gnome!” Miracelli gasped mockingly.
“No, that one has eyes for Zot.” Ravena laughed. “Wouldn’t that be cute, though? Just imagine how tiny their babies would be!”
“Well good luck to her,” Miracelli replied. “He’s married to that hat.”
“But what if the hat tells him to get married?” Ravena asked.
“Ha. Lets see if it asks him to court tonight.” Miracelli laughed.
“Not sure why we need two courtship holidays in a year.” Melvin remarked.
“Well Arrowfeast is for proposals. This is for courtship.” Ravena replied.
“That’s not what I meant. I know what they’re supposed to be for. These feasts were huge in my hometown. I just don’t understand the point.”
“The point is that it makes people happy, I suppose.” Ravena replied.
“Sooo, Ravena,” the spymaster cooed, fluttering her eyelashes, “Couldn’t help but notice Jhod and Akiros over there.”
“Yup. They’re there.” Ravena replied.
“And you’re here.” Miracelli said pointedly.
“Yup. I’m here.”
“Seriously?” The blonde half-elf pulled her hood back in exasperation, as if seeing her face more clearly would drive home the point. “I thought we’d worked this out already. Aren’t you two already dating or something? This is kind of ridiculous.”
“No, what’s kind of ridiculous is that you and Melvin aren’t together.”
“Still not funny.” Melvin interjected.
“Very not funny. Also, you promised,” Miracelli reminded her.
“Your mom promised.” Ravena replied.
“You’re not even making sense anymore. That’s it, we’re walking over there.” Miracelli said.
“That’s probably good,” Ravena replied. “I need somewhere to put this mug down. Skitter says she wants to take the Test of the Starstone, which-” The witch raised the mug to eye-level and began to yell at her familiar. “No! You’re not doing it. Don’t look at me like that.” Skitter and Ravena glared at each other for a moment before Ravena plucked the spider off the rim of the ale mug and put her in her hair. Ravena put the empty mug down beside one of the kegs then turned to Miracelli. “Did it ever occur to you that I have intimacy issues?”
“Yeah, so does he. That whole killing someone you love thing’ll do that.” Miracelli replied.
“Why does that not strike me as a problem?” Ravena replied.
“Probably because your soul is owned by pure, primal Insanity. Either that or you have weird standards. Probably both.”
“Probably both.” Ravena agreed.
The two half-elves stared at Akiros from several yards away for a moment before Jhod smacked his hand on Akiros’ back and said, “I thought you were going to ask to court her? What are you waiting for? The god is on your side!”
“I’m gonna be somewhere else for a minute.” Miracelli said and then vanished.
“How does she do that?” Ravena mused.
“Do what?” Akiros asked, coming up next to her.
“Oh! Um, hi. Yeah. Hi.” Ravena stuttered. “I mean hi. I mean-” Finally, a few moments too late lucidity returned to her. “Hi, I’m glad that you came to town for Ascension Day. And Jhod too. It warms my spirit to see both of you.”
“I feel likewise.” Akiros replied, his gray eyes meeting her brown ones.
The fiddler changed tunes. She played an old waltz and many of the dancers shifted from the center of the muddy yard to the snow-covered wooden kegs or cozy doorways of nearby houses. Some stayed, drifting beautifully in the steps of the formal dance.
Ravena looked mischievously at Akiros. “Well, Mr. Chivalrous Paladin, I’m fairly certain you would have been taught a courtly dance or two.”
“I forgot-” He began to protest.
Ravena interrupted, “It’s simple. One-two-three spin. You walk forward, I walk backward. C’mon, we talk while we dance!”
With that she took his hands in hers and began to dance. He did know the steps. Ravena laughed gleefully.
“Told you so!” She grinned.
“You are… very pretty when you let yourself be happy.” Akiros said hesitantly.
Ravena caught herself and replaced the grin with her trademark look of apathy, but she couldn’t maintain it.
Akiros smiled at her attempt.
“Your hands are quite rough,” Ravena observed, “Has Jhod been working you quite hard at the Shrine?”
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had soft hands. I just don’t think you’ve held them for this long before. We spin now, right?”
“Yes,” Ravena replied as Akiros spun her around. Her big black boots tripped over a pair of kobolds who were attempting to mimic the dance. She fell onto what was either the boy or girl of the pair.
“Aw, you ruin dance!” The non-crushed kobold swore.
Ravena laughed, recognizing him at once. “Gar Gar! How are you?”
“Better when you off my girlfriend!”
Ravena helped the kobold girl to her feet and apologized in Draconic.
“Oh, we remember you!” The girl said. “Where Melvin?”
“Yeah! We wanna show Melvin how good I got with heavy chain things!”
“You mean your nun-chucks? Melvin’s um…” Ravena scanned the crowd. “Well he was over there. You can’t really miss him. He’s wearing a huge fur cape.”
“Why dance? Let’s see Melvin!” The girl kobold exclaimed, scampering off in no particular direction. Gar Gar chased after her.
“Your alliance with the kobolds is most unusual,” Akiros remarked.
“It is. Really, this whole thing is most unusual. The kingdom, the people… you.”
“I suppose of the many things I’ve been called, unusual is the least of them,” He replied.
“That’s not specifically what I meant, though you are unusual. What’s more peculiar is this moment right here. We’re dancing-”
Just as Ravena said that the music stopped. The human fiddler took a bow as a half-elf with pipes and a dwarf with two upturned empty barrels and two sticks took their places beside her. The dwarf began pounding a rhythm and the fiddler and flautist picked up the beat to a wild jig. Akiros looked at Ravena dubiously but she shouted over the music, “Try to keep up!”
The dancers crowded around thick. Even Melvin joined the fun, dancing simultaneously with a dozen happy kobolds. A circle formed. Partners were spun from man to man. Miracelli lifted Zot off the ground and tossed him in the air before spinning him off into a kobold’s arms. The pink gnome stuck out her tongue at Miracelli.
“I’ll dock your pay for that.” Miracelli joked.
“You can only do that if you can find me!” The gnome shouted, vanishing into the crowd.
Miracelli took a moment to be proud of her Spyder’s knack for going undetected. As long as no one asked her full name or why she was here (a deal many of the Spyders had) the gnome would serve Stagfall.
Back in the dance, a large circle had formed with partners flowing round in opposite directions. A carpenter picked Miracelli up and swung her into the arms of Kestin. Kestin politely handed her to Ravena. Ravena bowed to her new dance partner and kissed Miracelli’s hand. As she did so, Skitter crawled out of Ravena’s hair and up the sleeve of Miracelli’s coat. Miracelli was unsure what to do as the dance carried her away from Ravena, but Skitter seemed content to sit on her shoulder.
“A bit drunk, huh?” She whispered to Skitter.
“What, drunk ‘nuthin!” Exclaimed her new dance partner, Seamus the dwarf.
“No, silly, not you. The spider.”
“Spider?!” The dwarf gasped, quickly shoving Miracelli into the nearest man’s arms.
It was Akiros, who greeted her warmly. Their hands interlocked and Skitter took the opportunity to crawl from Miracelli’s shoulder and into Akiros’ hair.
“Is this…” He asked Miracelli, pointing at his head, “A good thing or a bad thing?”
“Depends. Is she biting you?”
“No. I mean ofyesow!” Akiros grabbed at his hair and pulled Skitter out.
The urge to crush the creature played through his mind briefly, but he pushed the thought aside. Although Skitter seemed hellbent on coming between him and the woman he loved, destroying her best friend would ruin his chances. But what to do? He took a step backward, out of the dance, and regarded the scarlet spider. Skitter was held by the body, futilely swinging her legs at him. He thought for another moment and then slowly, deliberately, placed the spider on top of his head.
“Do what you will, Skitter.” He whispered, stepping forward again into the dance.
Soon, Ravena was swung back into his arms.
“Have you seen Skitter?” she asked worriedly, “I saw her on Miracelli, but now I can’t find her.”
Akiros pointed to his head. Skitter was buried in his gray-brown hair, unsure of what to do.
“Skitter!” Ravena squealed, “Do you like him?” Then, after a pause. “You don’t? Not really? What, you bit him! You little bitch. But what, you gave up? He gave up? Akiros, you didn’t mind her biting you?”
“I have a bit of a welt swelling up, but I don’t mind. She’s your familiar. I will make peace with her.”
“And why,” Ravena smiled, “is that?”
Akiros swallowed hard. “Because this night I would like to ask for the right to court you.”
“You won that right the day you saved my life. I regret it has not been official sooner.” Ravena said, wrapping her arms around him. “And now, officially, you have until Archerfest to prove yourself.”
Ravena smiled. “You have presented yourself as an honorable gentleman, despite what may have come before. But we will follow the stupid human conventions. You have until Archerfest. You know what that means.”
“I know what that means,” Akiros replied, holding Ravena tightly. “I shall not do you wrong. I only wish that Erastus would come sooner.”
Ravena smiled. “It shall come soon enough.”