May 12th - Krimml
Moira paced back and forth in her tent, once more listening to the torrent of abuse that her bondsman had spewed forth. Could any doubt, reading the threats of murder and claims of persecution that he must be one of those poor souls tormented by the Gods for some unknown slight or passing whim?
"What do you think Helion?"
"It's clearly the taint at work milady. In each of us there is a careful balance of humours, in lay terms the vital forces which regulate the body and give it life. Poisons work by disrupting this balance such that a single humour such as the black bile or the phlegm becomes ascendant and the connection between flesh and spirit weakened leading to death or severe disability."
"In the case of red shade it would appear that the elixir amplifies the effect of the bile leading to unpredictable changes in mood, such that at one moment the black bile dominates and there is irritability, at another the yellow bile and the afflicted is prone to violent and irrational outbursts."
"As if this were not bad enough - and do not worry Countess if details seem difficult to grasp, for this is a very subtle point of medicine - the phlegm is completely suppressed during one of these incidents. This leaves only the humour of blood in its natural condition, leading to a desperate longing for physical exertion as a soporific for the deeper hurts, and the artistic passions of the individual becoming completely predominant over the rational faculties."
"During these episodes it is essential that the patient be restrained from any kind of physical or mental exertion, which is why the City physicians prescribed that course of action. In the event of early treatment this alone would have been sufficient to rebalance the humours and with a course of emetics and bleeding to purge the taint. Now alas more radical treatment would be required."
The physician placed a folio of vellum on the trestle campaign table, opening it to a number of gruesome hand-drawn images of sufferers in various states of distress and the contraptions which could be used for rebalancing the competing biles.
"Well I cannot punish him for words of which he is not culpable," Moira lent forward to look at the images and read the accompanying text, written in an impenetrable hand and peppered with alchemical symbols. "Are you certain this treatment would work?"
"According to the learned Areoscarbus, a physician of considerable authority in this matter, trepanation and extended bleeding with leeches is the most effective treatment in severe cases. But even then perhaps one in three long-term victims will still experience minor relapses subsequently, although the violence is generally diminished."
"And of course if the affliction is as far advanced as these ravings suggest then there may not be much more time before the taint either becomes untreatable, leaving Sir Louis a danger to all," the physician turned serious eyes to meet hers.
"I know Helion, but until he presents himself to a physician for examination there is nothing that can be done. He has after all already once escaped from the most secure prison in Fontan, not to mention those of our enemies," and she sighed a deep sigh, pained that the protege of the noble Duke Aeneas should be so utterly undone by those who - for whatever reasons - had conspired against hi that night, long ago in Krimml.
May 13th - Krimml
The cool dark interior of the refectory was punctuated by multi-coloured light from magnificent stained glass windows, casting tales of Darton and the Balancewalkers across the tiled floor and heavy black dining table. Usually this was where the monks of the foundation would break bread together, sat in peaceful contemplation.
Today it served a rather different purpose, providing neutral ground in which Countess Moira Dubhaine of Oporto and her estranged vassal Sir Louis de la Fere would once and for all settle the question of his sanity. It had taken some effort on the Countess's part to ensure that this meeting would not be overheard, but nothing compared to that required to tempt the wily knight from his shadowy existence on the frontier.
Moira sat uncomfortably in one of the ornate wooden chairs provided by the abbot, flanked by her bodyguard Yfain. The giant reaver towered over her chair whilst her whilst Captain Heinman and her guards awaited within earshot. It did not pay to take security lightly with a man who had publicly threatened to knife her in her sleep, but she would not call upon them unless absolutely necessary.
To Moira's left sat her personal physician Helion, leafing through a folio of vellum parchments and scrutinising the faded labels of various coloured vials to ensure they matched the text contained within. By his side was a black leather case containing exquisitely tooled steel instruments and carefully packed glass containers, many with a mysterious purpose known only to those skilled in the medical arts.
"Do you have everything you need for the examination Helion?" Moira leaned towards him, resting her chin on her clenched fist.
"It would appear so milady. I've checked and double-checked the various reagents needed to draw the humours and I have the necessary instruments should treatment be necessary. All appear to be in good order," the physician reassembled the parchments into a neat stack.
"Then I hope that Sir Louis will not keep us waiting much longer. Arranging this meeting has proven both difficult and costly, the abbot having driven a tough bargain for the use of his refectory."
"I would have thought that the least of the difficulties Countess," Yfain's roguish voice sounded particularly out of place amongst the stately pillars and stone corbels.
"Admittedly Sir Louis was not keen to meet in person. He seems to have taken it into his mind that I am part of some conspiracy against him, and I wonder if he will turn up at all. I hope he will, for this matter must be resolved one way or the other."
"Well from what I recall of the tax office incident it's no surprise if he's wary: someone surely has it in for him."
"Doubtless Yfain, but we have to be certain that he is in his right mind before we can get to the heart of the matter."
May 16th - Krimml
The refectory lay in hushed silence, punctuated intermittently by the creak of Yfain's leather boots as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Moira and her entourage had waited an entire day, the sun slowly passing from east to west such that its long fingers now wove a complex web of shadows from the monastery orchard.
Sir Louis de la Fere had failed to do his feudal duty and present himself when requested, despite his protestations that he wished to clear his name. Either the notorious agent genuinely was as mad as all must suppose from his continual erratic behaviour, or else he was playing some devious game of his own. Either way Moira had had her fill of him.
"Yfain, have the men muster. We head back to Oporto before nightfall: it is time I held court."
"And what of Sir Louis Countess?"
Why had Duke Aeneas seen so much promise in this troublesome knight? Doubtless it was the Duke's kindly heart, something few saw behind the bluff exterior he affected, and for a moment her mind lingered on their parting after the tournament in Partora. Her hand instinctively shifted to the hilt of the beautifully crafted sword he had gifted her.
"He knows where I am if he wishes his name cleared. For the sake of Duke Aeneas and the friendship between us I will not deny him that, but neither will I waste another day when I have more pressing concerns."
"Very good ma'am, " and with that the bear-like warrior was striding to the door, bellowing orders to the guards.
May 17th - Oporto
Louis and his companions are riding towards Oporto when they see some people travelling.
Louis yells:" Hey there, am I honoured to meet Countess Dubhaine?"
They were on the road to Mossy Bough, an outlying village close to the Oporto-Montijo border. A week earlier the village had been the site of a bloody massacre when a family of trolls had rampaged through the district, eating livestock and peasantry with equal glee, and today Moira would hold court to settle the various property disputes which had arisen in the aftermath.
The lot of a landed noble was often far from glamorous, delivering impartial justice in the division of a pig or a hide of land, compensating the victims of outrageous fortune and settling petty grievances. Sometimes this work could be left to local administrators or the ad hoc policing of her vassals, but nothing quite heartened the peasantry like the knowledge that their liege travelling forty miles to deal with their divisions. Moira guessed that it made them feel safe and protected in these war-torn times.
The Countess brought Ironhoof to a dead stop with a nudge of her knees, and drawing on the reins of the muscular warhorse she wheeled him on the spot. He shook his mane irritably, breath steaming in the early morning mist as Moira studied the approaching riders. They had obviously travelled a great distance judging by the dust and mud caked to their clothes and she suspected this to be Sir Louis de la Fere and his band of saboteurs.
On either side her bodyguards were making ready their axes, but she stayed them with a gesture of her hand. "It's alright Carl, your men won't be needing those today," her Captain looked slightly put out as he ordered the men to stand down, and one burly giant stood nonchalantly propped on his axe-haft grinned with obvious amusement.
"Well met good Sir," the Countess slid lithely from her saddle, barely encumbered by her dull black plate armour, a wolf's-head hilted sword slapping against her hip. As her feet hit the ground she was already walking towards the approaching company, "I am Countess Dubhaine. And who might you be?"
Louis noticed the moves of the guards but yet didnt grab his dagger. He was silent till the Lady had reached him. Noticing the reaction of the guards Louis made a deep and elegant bow. That reminded him his days in the Royal Court. How many times he had done that bow...
"Greetings Lady Dubhaine, it is a pleasure to meet finally."
Louis notices her eyes which look at the guard.
"M Lady may I present you, Charles Laur, the guard of the tax office in Krimml. He has some info to share with you. To avoid confusion I leave you alone with him, he will put some light into the red shade incident. All I can say is that dont ask who did it, I already tried, he wont speak of that."
Louis sits under a tree nearby.
Moire stood for a moment in silence, studying her vassal as he squatted on his haunches in the shade of a jinbar tree. Sir Louis had a tired, almost haunted look to him as if he'd not slept or eaten properly in some time: was that further proof of the madness she suspected?
"Helion!" she called for her personal physician.
"Milady?" his cultured voice rasped breathlessly as he bustled from the rear of the column.
"Attend to Sir Louis and make sure that he is in good health. See if you can get him to go somewhere a little more private than the roadside, but don't press the matter," she signalled to the bearded giant, "and you Yfain will make sure that Helion can perform his duties unmolested - but make sure you treat Sir Louis with more dignity than you would afford me under similar circumstances."
His grin spread, "Why Countess, I don't now what you're inferring."
"Yes you do you rogue, and this is one occasion when I expect you to act with a little decorum."
"Very good ma'am," he swung his axe lightly onto his shoulder and trailed the ageing physician.
"Now then," she turned her attention to the nervous guardsman, her levity of tone taking him unawares, "I believe you were a witness to the events in Krimml?"
He stood stammering, his weight shifting uneasily from side to side, "Y-y-yes Countess."
"No need for formality, this is a discussion between friends," her bluff soldier's manner seemed to set him somewhat at ease, although his eyes still darted furtively from Louis's companions to her own as if gauging his chance of making a break for it. There was of course none, and the fact he understood that was plainly written on his face.
"Th-thank you ma'am. I... my life is in danger for just being here ma'am"
"I don't doubt it, although it remains to be seen whether what you have to say is true. Now walk with me, and tell me everything that happened that night in Krimml," and with a firm hand she steered him away from the road and into the surrounding undergrowth where they could have a little privacy.
May 18th - Oporto
From the outside the Great Hall of Mossy Bough bore more resemblance to a barn than the administrative centre of a thriving agrarian community, which was hardly surprising considering that the local tithes were collected here for despatch to the warehouses in Oporto.
The interior was divided into three areas: to the front was a combined barracks and feasting hall arranged around a long fire pit, this being where the local reeve and his men lived; the the rear was the massive storage space where bushel upon bushel of crops were stored; above the storage space a mezzanine floor boasted tow administrative offices where local deeds and records were stored and the tedious work of community maintenance managed, and a reinforced cell for the detention of criminals awaiting trial.
It was in the smaller of these offices that Moira was currently sat with her physician Helion and her lieutenants Carl and Yfain. Sir Louis was sound asleep in the neighbouring office, possibly for the first time in days. The errant guardsman Charles Laur was safely detained in the cell under the watchful eye of her trusted Cagilians, his manner somewhere betwixt gloom and terror.
"Sir Louis was initially reluctant to be examined," the physician was outlining his findings, "until Yfain calmly explained that without his cooperation it would be impossible to conclusively disprove the account of the tax office guards."
"It seems that this has been weighing heavily on Sir Louis," the bearded warrior explained, "and whilst I'm sure he'd have preferred to sit on his dignity, common sense won through"
"So what are your conclusions?" Moira turned to head to face her doctor.
"Well initial physical examination was inconclusive. Sir Louis has a number of scars, one or two of which could date from the time of the alleged attack, but a deep wound would have introduced the red shade to the viscera and I think it unlikely that untreated he would have survived the night. And of course a subtler wound would not have left a scar."
"I therefore turned to the particular signs described by Areoscarbus," Helion spread the folio pages so everyone could see the hand-drawn illustrations, "which as you can see are detailed and specific."
"Can you cut to the chase?" Carl Heinman was clearly less concerned about the means than the outcome.
"If I must," the physician's irritation was noticeable in his tone, "Sir Louis does not appear to have been afflicted with the red shade toxin, although he is clearly suffering from deep exhaustion."
"So you believe that he's responsible for his recent outbursts?" Moira's tone was questioning.
"Well if you're asking if I believe him to be sane, then yes ma'am I do."
Moira tipped her chair backwards, legs extended and arms folded, a thoughtful expression on her face. There was a long pause.
"I can't condone the things Sir Louis has said in recent weeks, but it seems there is much more to this than meets the eye," she righted her chair forcefully, placing her elbows on the table with fingers meshed beneath her chin. "It seems he has been the victim of a conspiracy, the purpose of which is far from clear to me, but having interrogated guardsman Laur at some length I see the hand of treason in our midst."
"The guardsman knew nothing of the hidden hand behind this plot, save that the colleague who wielded that poisoned blade did so with the clear intent of discrediting Sir Louis - and specifically Sir Louis. If you recall, at the time of the incident he had only recently announced his intention of becoming a political officer and his presence in the Capital provided a perfect opportunity for who ever masterminded this scheme. A poisoned dagger in the hands of a madman could have covered a multitude of sins..."
"That's all well and good Moira, but how is any of this going to be proved?" Carl Heinman was ever the pragmatist.
"I don't know," she sighed and lent back in her chair, "but I think we should start by letting everyone know that we have a witness willing to turn Judge's evidence. That should make whoever's behind this nervous. Maybe even nervous enough to show their hand."
There was the sound of movement from the next office, swiftly followed by a knock at the door and a throat clearing as Sir Louis entered. With a good night's sleep and clean clothes he once more looked like a peer of the realm.
"Well it looks like we both are in the wrong Sir," Moira signalled him to an empty chair. "Helion assures me that you are of firm mind and I apologise if my concern for your health has caused you any unnecessary embarrassment. I shall of course inform the realm at large of his findings."
The relief on his face was quite apparent. He made to say something, but stopped as Moira raised her palm to him.
"But there is still the matter of the threats you publicly made against me, Sir Louis. I will require an equally public apology if you are to remain my vassal, and an assurance that you will not make similar threats to any other noble of this realm whilst in my service. It is one thing to demand satisfaction in a duel, quite another to threaten an assassins knife in the dead of night."