The rider came swiftly towards Avenigar. Keeping his horse at a fast trot, he reached the cluster of buildings that stood beyond the town’s West gate. Those buildings stood mostly empty and boarded up now that winter had arrived. During the summer, though, they were home to hundreds when trade caravans passed through en route to the mountain passes.
Dev Jackelbury, Warden of Avenigar, stood in the watchtower over the gate and watched the approaching traveller through the tower spyglass. Every now and then, he noticed, the rider would glance nervously over his shoulder. The man’s face, barely visible in the fading daylight, carried a tense look.
It was rare to see someone coming from the mountains this late in the year. The passes were mostly unusable once the snow began to fall. That alone made Dev a little suspicious of the new arrival.
“Keep an eye on him,” the Warden ordered when he returned the glass to the sentry on duty.
Turning away, Dev walked to the back of the tower. On the ground below, his deputy, Jaira Teresh, and two sentries were waiting to close the gates, as they always did at sunset.
“There’s a traveller approaching. Leave the gates open until he’s in, but detain him. I want to talk to him,” the Warden called down.
“Aye, sir,” Jaira yelled back.
Dev began descending the stairs to the ground-level gatehouse. They were steep and narrow, not exactly easy on his stiff, achy left leg. He paused part way and rubbed his thigh. Winter weather wasn’t kind to old war wounds.
The Warden hated having to deal with the unexpected visitor. It was the Eve of Winter and festivities were already underway in the town's central plaza. Winter's Eve celebrated the Winter Solstice and the beginning of a new year. The Warden, as commander of the town guard and keeper of law and order, was a senior official and expected to participate in the ceremonies. Dev did not enjoy the ceremonial part of the role, but at least this occasion was more a party than a ceremony.
By the time the Warden reached the bottom of the stairs, his ears picked up the sound of approaching hoof-beats.
“He's in,” called Jaira.
Dev limped out to find the traveller dismounting from his horse. The man was a head or so taller than the Warden and looked a bit on the heavy side. He wore a heavy, dark brown leather coat over tan breeches and black boots. His round, pudgy face was red from the cold, save where a thick black beard covered it.
“So, what brings you to Avenigar tonight?” the Warden asked when the man turned to face him.
“Who wants to know?” the man responded in a haughty tone that put Dev's nerves on edge.
“I am the Warden of Avenigar, sir,” Dev snarled back, “And as such, I have every right to know who passes this gate and why.”
The visitor nodded, but still had a vaguely contemptuous look on his face. Dev contemplated how nice it would be to wipe that look off with a trip to one of the cells in the bowels of the town’s guardhouse. The Warden quickly dismissed the idea. He had no good reason to arrest the man yet.
“My name is Lambret Soren. I am en route to Madrygor,” the man finally explained, apparently reading Dev's scowl correctly, “This was not a night I had planned to be on the road, but I was detained on a trip of importance for my guild master and then lost my way.”
“Which guild?” Dev asked.
“The Circle of Fire, if you really must know.”
Dev snorted. “Circle of Fire” was the pretentious name of an offshoot of the Smiths' Guild. They focused on research and invention of new tools and weapons rather than on routine smelting and forging. Most of those inventions were just useless toys in Dev’s experience.
“Welcome to Avenigar,” Dev said with a smirk, “We are about to celebrate Winter's Eve. Join us if you like.”
“Perhaps, but I really need to rest,” Lambret replied with a sigh.
“There's two inns open, both near the town centre. You'll find them easily enough. I recommend the Old Town Hall.”
Dev watched the man walk off leading his horse.
“He's lying, sir,” said Jaira, who had come up beside him.
“Through his teeth,” Dev agreed, “Or at least he is holding back a lot of the truth.”
“And he's scared, too,” the deputy went on, “His face was somewhere between haunted and hunted when he first came in. Looked back over his shoulder several times until the gate was shut.”
“Let's keep an eye on him, though I imagine he'll be on his way as early as possible tomorrow,” said the Warden, “But for now, it's party time. Two sentries on each gate. Everyone else is free to join the festivities. The duty guard can come find us if we're needed.”
Large bonfires blazed at either end of the town's rectangular main plaza. One was in front of the Temple of Nethandra, the other in front of the Town Hall and guardhouse. Crowds of people gathered in various spots around the plaza, mostly near vendors selling food and drink. Musicians near the fires played traditional Winter's Eve songs while people sang and danced along in small groups or circles.
Dev bought a tankard of hot mulled wine from one of the temporary outdoor bars, then started wandering towards the temple. At midnight, the Warden and other dignitaries like the mayor and the temple priestess would each take a swing at the bell that sat on the dais in front of the temple. The ringing of the bell was the traditional way to announce the New Year. After that, the priestess would ask the Goddess' blessing on the town for the New Year and coming winter.
As he walked along the side of the square, Dev swapped greetings with various locals that he knew. It was not a big town. After two years as Warden, Dev knew most of the permanent residents.
“Happy Winter's Eve, Warden,” sang out a cheery female voice.
He turned, smiling, to face a woman bundled up in a long, fur-lined green cloak with a hood. Combined with gloves and boots, the cloak left only her dark, pretty face visible. It was enough for him to recognize Niomi Shen, Priestess of Nethandra and Keeper of the Temple.
“To you also, Your Ladyship,” he responded, “You look warm.”
“Barely,” Niomi said with a shudder, “I think this is the coldest I have ever been.”
The Warden chuckled. He had grown up in a mining town beyond the mountains where it was just as cold, if not colder. Niomi, by contrast, was from an island in a sub-tropical region far to the South. Dev had been to her island during his military service in the Pirate Wars so knew just how warm it got. This winter would be the priestess’ first in Avenigar, or anywhere that had snow.
“Perhaps we should move over to the fire by the temple. It would be more comfortable for you,” he said, nodding towards the large bonfire.
“Definitely,” the priestess responded, starting towards the fire, “Were you uncomfortable in the heat? When you were in the South during the war?”
“In some ways, it was nice to be warm all the time. But I also sweat more than I ever did before or since,” Dev answered with a chuckle.
“Care to dance, Your Ladyship?” called out one of the musicians near the fire as they approached.
“Love to!” the priestess called back, then more softly asked Dev, “Would you join us?”
“Eh, why not?” the Warden replied, though he was not really much of a dancer.
Dev put his mug down in a pile of other empties and followed Niomi. They joined a circle of a dozen people moving around in patterns timed to the music. Dev had only a vague idea of what he was doing but Niomi seemed to be an experienced dancer, so he just followed her lead.
Niomi was giggling when the music stopped. Dev staggered a little, his bad leg aching more than ever after the exertion.
“That warmed you a bit, I guess?” he asked with a grin as massaged his thigh.
“It did. Thank you,” she answered, “It bothered your leg, though.”
“A little pain is okay now and then. It is a night for fun and frolic,” the Warden grunted.
“What happened to your leg anyhow? War wound?”
“Indeed. An ill-timed spear thrust during the Nerrine Islands campaign. The thruster got the worst of it, though,” Dev recounted.
Niomi gave him a curious look as a memory flashed through her mind, but said nothing.
Suddenly, a powerful gust of wind blasted through the plaza, startling them both. It was very cold and was strong enough to make the fires dance and flicker. Niomi turned away from it and shivered.
“Where did that come from?” she asked.
Dev shook his head and looked back to the West whence it had come. While it was a cold night, there had been no signs of a storm coming.
“No idea, perhaps ... ,” he started but was cut off as a second gust blew through the square, sending mugs and other items flying around them.
“Nethandra’s tits,” the Warden cursed, feeling the sting of the cold even through his coat.
A third followed quickly.
“Let's get some shelter,” Niomi said with a shiver in her voice, “The temple porch should do.”
They began to move that way when Jaira's voice caught Dev's attention.
“Dev, get to the West gate. You've got to see this,” the deputy yelled.
“What's up?” Dev asked when she reached them.
“There's some kind of ... monster storm coming down from the pass,” the Deputy Warden replied as she caught her breath.
“Monster storm?” Dev queried, cocking an eyebrow.
“Like a huge whirlwind or something,” she explained before urging, “Hurry, we don't have long before it hits.”
“Okay, I'll head to the gate. You start spreading the word for people to get indoors. This party may have to wait,” the Warden responded, already starting towards the gate.
“I'll help with getting people inside,” said Niomi, “I can shelter some in the temple and chapter house if needed.”
“Good. Thank you,” acknowledged Dev before racing off as fast as his leg allowed.
“Hot shit,” he gasped a few minutes later when he reached the watchtower.
The Warden was staring at an intense spiraling wall of wind and blowing snow. As it approached, it threw off more of the icy gusts that he had felt in the square.
“Get down to the ground,” he ordered the sentries, “We do not want to be up here when that hits.”
As Dev struggled to reach the ground, wind and snow poured over the walls. The temperature seemed to drop in seconds. Dev and the duty sentries huddled against the gate, the best available windbreak.
As they watched, the wind and snow reformed into a swirling column and moved slowly into the town. Strange, vaguely human, figures seemed to be dancing around inside the whirlwind. Dev was curious about them but wrote them off as an illusion caused by the intensity of the strange storm.
Jaira and Niomi arrived and joined the Warden and sentries in their mediocre shelter. All stared at the strange phenomenon as it moved slowly towards the centre of town.
“By the Goddess, what is that?” Jaira said.
“I recall hearing tales of whirlwind storms in some parts of the South but I have never seen anything like it myself,” Dev replied, “And it moves strangely for a storm, almost as if it had purpose.”
“Look at those things moving in and around the storm. I think they're wind sprites,” Niomi suddenly said.
“Wind sprites?” the other two asked simultaneously.
“I read about them when I was studying at the Great Temple, but thought they were just folktales about weather phenomena,” the priestess explained, her voice shaky with cold and fear, “They are said to be beings of air who can command the winds.”
“But why are they attacking the town?” asked Jaira, “If that's what they are doing.”
“The legends say they are quick to rise in anger if they are harmed or offended,” Niomi answered after a moment's silence, “But who could have offended them?”
“They came from the pass and no one from Avenigar would have been up there this late in the season,” Dev responded, “No one except ...”
Jaira and Dev looked at each other.
“Lambret,” Jaira finished.
“You commented that he looked 'haunted and hunted',” Dev responded.
“He's staying in the Old Town Hall Inn like you suggested.”
All three steeled themselves against the frigid wind that was blowing in the wake of the whirlwind and raced towards the inn.
They arrived barely ahead of the approaching storm. Already, powerful gusts were battering the structure. A shutter from one upper storey window lay on the ground, its mate dangling on one remaining hinge.
“Thank the Goddess the lower walls are made of stone,” Dev said as they reached the door, “Else it might already be down.”
The door was unlocked and ajar, allowing them quick entry. Once inside, Jaira wrestled the door closed and put the bar down to hold it.
“Hello,” Dev called out, “Markell, are you here?”
The innkeeper appeared, his face pale and frightened.
“We are hiding in the back room, Warden,” he said, “But even that may not help when the roof and upper floor go.”
“The cellar would be best,” Dev responded.
The innkeeper’s face turned angry.
“The guest who arrived just after sunset has locked himself down there.”
Dev and Jaira looked at each other and frowned.
“Get back to your shelter. We’ll deal with Lambret,” snapped the Warden.
He went over to the cellar door, a section of floor by the bar that lifted up. Locating the handhold for opening it, Dev grabbed it and pulled. It wiggled a little but would not open. Lambret had somehow fastened it.
Straightening up, Dev pulled his sword. Sliding the point into the gap by the handle, he tried to pry the door up but with no more success.
“We need stronger tools,” he said, “The blacksmith probably has something but I don’t know if we can make it there.”
The whirlwind now surrounded the inn. Another shutter had given way, allowing a frigid blast to blow through the building. Above them, the roof and wooden upper storey creaked ominously.
“Let me deal with it,” said Niomi, her soft voice barely audible over the storm.
Dev turned and froze in surprise. The priestess had undone her cloak and lowered her hood. Underneath, she wore a quilted top and pants. It was her jewellery that attracted the Warden’s attention, though. A thin chain around her neck held a round pendant with an ornate pattern of fine latticework. He had seen this before. It was the sigil of a witch.
“It’s all yours, Your Ladyship,” Dev said, stepping out of Niomi’s way. He had no intention of getting in the way of a Sister of the goddess Denytha, a “witch” in popular parlance.
Removing her sigil, the priestess set it in the middle of the door. Then she began moving her hands over it and chanting in a slow, steady rhythm. Her words were nonsense to Dev and Jaira’s ears but Dev knew they were from a language that died from common use long before the Seven Cities even arose. This was not his first time seeing a witch in action.
“What’s she doing?” Jaira whispered.
Dev just shook his head and signalled silence.
Lines spread out from Niomi’s sigil and across the door, forming a lattice that mirrored the pattern of the sigil itself. While initially black, almost as if burned into the wood, the lines soon began to glow and pulse a dull red. An electric tingle danced over Dev’s skin and made his hair stand up. Magic was happening.
“Move back,” Dev mouthed at his deputy.
They both stepped back, leaving Niomi alone. The wind howled outside. A loud crack echoed through the house as another shutter, or maybe even part of the roof, gave way.
“Nasha ty. Nasha ty. Nasha ty. Nasha ty varal,” the witch finished in a crescendo, waving her arms dramatically before moving her hands back over the sigil.
With a flash of light, the sigil jumped from the floor into Niomi’s hands. Then, with a crack even louder than the one moments before, the door burst into a cloud of sawdust and wood chips that fell down into the cellar. Niomi staggered back and leaned against the bar gasping for breath.
“Go get him,” Dev snarled at Jaira, then headed over to the witch.
His deputy vanished down the stairs.
“You okay?” he softly asked the priestess.
“I’m fine. It just took a lot of my strength to control the power for the spell. Go help Jaira. I’ll join you shortly,” she replied.
The Warden nodded and headed down the stairs. Now running on pure adrenaline, Dev barely noticed his bad leg.
At the bottom, Dev found Jaira face-to-face with their quarry. Lambret had a dagger in his hand, pointing it towards the deputy. From his stance, the Warden could tell the traveller had little or no combat training or experience. Jaira was in a defensive stance with her short sword out, ready to parry and strike if the man moved against her. It would be a short fight, Dev suspected, except that they needed to take Lambret alive.
“Is this how you protect a citizen?” Lambret snarled.
“Protect you? You brought the wrath of the wind sprites down on the town I am sworn to protect and now you want me to protect you?” the Warden shot back, “What in Nethandra’s holy name did you do to them?”
As he spoke, Dev moved slowly away from Jaira, trying to divide the man’s attention. A wink from his deputy told him she caught on to his plan.
“I had a mission. And I accomplished that mission. You’ve probably ruined it all. They can get in here now.”
“They would have got in anyway,” Dev responded, his voice sombre, “They’ll tear this inn apart board by board until they get you.”
“So what are you going to do with me, then?” Lambret asked.
“Ideally, arrest you for endangering the people of this community,” said the Warden, still slowly moving, “Less ideally, let the wind sprites have their way with you.”
“Save me. That’s what you should be doing.”
Lambret turned towards Dev, his blade now pointing at the Warden. Before any more words could be said, Jaira moved. She lowered her blade and brought her other arm down hard on Lambret’s. The man’s howl of pain filled the cellar as the dagger clattered to the floor. Another moment, and the deputy had him pinned face-first to the wall with his arm twisted behind his back.
“Now,” Dev yelled into the man’s ear, “What did you do? Or should I just have Jaira take you upstairs and hand you over to the sprites?”
“Dev, by your foot,” said Niomi, who had quietly entered the cellar.
The Warden looked down to see a small locked chest. He nudged it with his foot. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Lambret had glanced towards it as well.
“What is it?” Dev asked the priestess.
“I don’t know but I sense waves of great power coming from it.”
“Then let’s open it.”
The lock was a small, simple one, not very strong at all. Finding Lambret’s dropped dagger, Dev used its narrow blade as a lever to break the hasp. A wave of cold washed out and a faint hum filled the cellar when he opened the box.
Inside was a sphere about the size of an apple. It had a lattice pattern similar to Niomi’s sigil, only more elaborate and in three dimensions. The metal was a strange one, shiny and white with a bit of a glow to it. Dev grabbed the sphere and held it up. Even though he wore heavy leather gloves, cold seeped through to his skin.
“It is some kind of power source or focus, Dev,” Niomi said after taking a close look, “He’s stolen their sigil, or something like one.”
“Then let’s return it,” the Warden responded, “That might be enough to send them on their way.”
He placed the sphere back in the box before it gave him frostbite.
“You can’t do this,” Lambret howled, “I took huge risks to get that. We could change the world with that power.”
He struggled until Jaira made it clear she would happily break his arm if he didn’t stay still.
Dev picked up the box and rose to his feet.
“You really think you could get any further with this?” the Warden said, addressing the prisoner in the stern tone he usually reserved for errant underlings, “That the sprites wouldn’t catch you? Be glad if I can convince them to leave you in my hands, Lambret. I’ll be far more merciful than they likely will be. Jaira, put him under arrest.”
“Theft and reckless endangerment of the people.”
Before either Jaira or Lambret could respond, Dev and Niomi headed up the stairs.
The wind nearly knocked Dev back into the inn and off his feet as soon as he opened the front door. Adjusting his stance, the Warden pushed his way outside. Then, suddenly, the wind’s force seem to relax and a curious warmth washed over him. He glanced to his right to see Niomi’s sigil glowing and her lips moving as she chanted.
“This spell won't hold the wind back for long,” she said, “Do it.”
Putting the box down, Dev opened it and picked up the little sphere again. It felt even colder. Perhaps its power was waxing as it neared its rightful owners. The Warden held it up over his head.
“Here you go,” he screamed as the strange figures dancing in the whirlwind drew closer, “Come and take it back.”
For a moment, there was nothing. Then one of the sprites streaked by so fast that Dev barely saw it. When it was gone, his hand was empty. The wind began to blast him again as the witch’s spell broke. Before it could reach its original intensity, though, the storm subsided to a light, if frigid, breeze.
Before Dev stood a crowd of maybe a dozen beings. They were vaguely human in that they had a body, head, two arms, and two legs. But after that, they were strange and alien. All were short, maybe three to four feet tall, and impossibly slender by human standards. Their faces were strangely alike and androgynous, almost if they were all twins of one another. If they were male or female, there was no way for the Warden to tell.
“Where is the one who took it? We shall have him as well,” said the sprite nearest Dev. The sprite spoke slowly and deliberately, clearly uncomfortable with human speech. Its voice had a strangely flat, emotionless tone to it.
“No,” Dev said softly but firmly, “He is a citizen of Madrygor and put this town in jeopardy with his actions. I have exercised my authority as Warden of the town and placed him under arrest for the theft of your object. He shall be tried under the laws of Madrygor.”
The sprite looked taken aback.
“You are a rare man, Warden,” it said, “Not many will defy us after a display of our power.”
“I fought a troll, sprite. After that, you’re really not that intimidating,” Dev responded, though inside he was growing nervous. What if his firm stance set them off again?
The lead sprite nodded and turned to the rest. Strange tittering and chirping noises filled the air. For a few minutes they talked, or Dev assumed that’s what they were doing.
A hand touched the Warden’s and he glanced down to see Niomi smiling up at him. She said nothing, just nodded to show her support.
“Warden of the town, we know the woman by your side is a Sister of Denytha. Like her Sisterhood, we follow the wisdom of Denytha. If she will vouch for your integrity, then the man is yours,” the lead sprite said after a long discussion.
“Honoured One,” Niomi answered, “The Warden is upright and honest. He is respected by this town and by those who served with him in the wars. And...”
She paused and glanced at Dev, looking tense but clearly having more to say.
“And he saved my life once,” the witch went on, “Many years ago, when I was still young and living with my mother, he saved us from bandits who would have enslaved us. Or worse. So I know he is a courageous and honourable man. If he wasn't, we might not be having this conversation.”
Dev looked at her in surprise. That had been the fight where he was wounded. There had many such battles but that one, in particular, was burned in memory. He remembered it for the impact on his life but also for the kindness shown him by a girl who couldn’t have been more than fourteen or fifteen. She had bandaged his wound and tended to him until other soldiers from his corps arrived.
The sprite nodded solemnly, “You speak well of him, Sister. We accept your testimony. The man is yours to try under your laws, Warden. But if you fail us, Warden, we will return for justice.”
“Farewell, then,” the sprite said, as the wind started to pick up again.
“Wait,” said Niomi, “One question that might help us in trying Lambret. How did he do it? How did he get your sigil? I sense clearly that he is not a practitioner of magic and can't see how someone lacking such knowledge could do it.”
The leader paused and regarded her for a moment.
“There was a cuckoo in the nest who helped,” it said, “We have dealt with it.”
“A traitor?” Dev asked, cocking his head.
“No. One who took our form but was not of us. That is all I will say.”
Dev started to ask another question but Niomi shook her head. He nodded and kept silent.
The rising wind began to form a new, gentler whirlwind. It swirled around the wind sprites and lifted them up into the air. They rose high over the town, then the wind carried them away over the wall and into the night.
“So he had an ally,” Dev muttered, “A magical one, evidently.”
“But who was behind it all?” the priestess asked.
“I doubt he'll tell us,” the Warden responded with a sigh.
“I wonder if he even knows,” Niomi added.
They turned to see Jaira and Lambret emerge from the inn, the latter with his hands bound behind his back.
“So I assume you’ll release me on my way now that you’ve placated them?” Lambret said in his usual snide tone.
“You’ve learned nothing, have you?” the Warden growled, “Put him in the back cell.”
“What?” the man spat out.
“She arrested you and you’re going to be held until I convene a hearing tomorrow,” the Warden explained, his voice stern, “And at that hearing, I shall likely put the trial over until a senior magistrate can come to town.”
“How long will that be?” Lambret asked, looking cowed for the first time.
“Three or four weeks. It will take a least a week for my letter to reach the magistrate by rider, maybe longer,” Dev responded, a wicked grin crossing his lips, “Don’t worry, the back cell is quite comfortable. Even has a window to let the fresh air in.”
Chuckling, Jaira gave her prisoner a rough shove and they started towards the guardhouse. Dev and Niomi began to walk slowly towards the temple.
“How long have you known it was me?” Dev asked Niomi.
“You look much the same, just older and with a beard, so I thought it was you when we first met,” she answered, “When you described how you got your wound, that kind of confirmed it. I saw it happen.”
“And cared for me, for which I have been forever thankful,” the Warden replied, “They told me that without that care, I might have lost the leg.”
Niomi looked up at the sky. The clouds had dispersed, leaving the stars and a crescent moon shining over them.
“It’s not yet midnight, Warden. We can still make it in time to ring the bell,” she said, her voice suddenly full of excitement.
“Then let’s go. I think the town has a lot to celebrate this night.”
“As do we.”