The Battle in Gilles’ Tower
Anastasia, her pistol placed against Jules’ temple, congratulates the company on their discovery of Gilles’ Tower. She says that if the company her what they know and agrees to give up their search for the treasure, she will return Jules to them unharmed.
Negotiations are abruptly cut short when Sabina raises her pistol and fires at Anastasia. She misses, but her shot distracts Anastasia enough for Jules to wrestle free of her grip. Anastasia fires, purely by instinct, but strikes only empty air. Jules—still bound and gagged—hops out the tower door and into the courtyard beyond.
The sounds of gunfire alert the rest of the company that something is amiss. They hurry downstairs to aid Magnus, Sabina, and Maurice as best as they can, though they are somewhat slowed by their own eagerness to enter the battle and by the narrowness of the curved stairwell.
Anastasia’s men surge forward to try and slaughter the trio before reinforcements arrive, while Anastasia retreats to a side room and shuts the door behind her. She does not get away before Maurice wounds her with an arrow, however.
The resulting battle is as brief as it is brutal. One of Anastasia’s men is killed outright, while the other is mortally wounded and trapped in Renee’s heavy net.
Maurice, in an uncharacteristic moment, draws his dagger, covers it with oil of Black Lotus, and runs after Anastasia. He kicks open the side door, stabs at her, and misses. He also realizes that Anastasia has just finished reloading her pistol, and that he has literally no place to go to avoid being shot.
Fortunately, Andre slips into the room behind Maurice and badly wounds Anastasia with a skillful thrust of his sword. Anastasia falls back, carefully considering which of the two men to shoot, when Garnier calls out from the tower stairs.
“Surrender now, or we’ll kill you and your other man.”
Anastasia, somewhat ruefully, holds out her pistol, which Maurice grabs. She allows the two men to escort her back into the main body of the tower, where she officially surrenders.
The company searches the trio of treasure hunters and divides up the spoils, with Sabina getting Anastasia’s very fine pistol and her shoulder pouch of wadding and shot. The company also finds an identical copy of Andre’s map on Anastasia’s person, which they also take.
|A Marker Stone (See Below)|
The Foreshadowing of a Mutiny and a Bounty
Sir Henri at last sees his squire, Jules, standing outside and trying to free himself of his restraints. Sir Henri cuts away the ropes while Jules apologizes profusely for putting the knight and his friends in this predicament. He says that he went to spy on Anastasia, as ordered, but that she and her men discovered and captured him, and that they planned to use him as ransom for their own ends.
Sir Henri, with much high dudgeon, tells Anastasia and her surviving man that it is a very great crime to assault a squire. Anastasia says nothing in her own defense, while her man sullenly bleeds beneath Renee’s net.
Jules, still upset by his ordeal, thanks the company for saving him, but also notes his dismay at being shot at by Sabina. Garnier yells at Jules, telling him to shut up and stop being such a whiny child. Jules retreats behind the sheltering bulk of Sir Henri, and seethes.
Sir Henri and Renee then frog march their two captives and the corpse to the nearest watch garrison, where Sir Henri makes a statement and Renee is paid a bounty for Anastasia’s arrest and capture.
Once this bit of legal wrangling has been taken care of, the company continues on with their original plan. A few hours later, Jim, Jules, the three men of Magnus’ new company, Frieda, and the rest of the company all meet in the forest just to the north of Colmar.
The company travels to the three hills indicated on the map, where they find a large stone with a hole carved in the top. Several of the company look through it and see nothing of note. This includes Sir Henri who, for some reason, looks through the hole in the marker stone toward the direction of Colmar, and is dismayed to see nothing other than the town’s walls.
Pierre, however, sights on a nearby valley situated between two hills. He says that, perhaps, the company will find something of note over there. The company heeds his advice and sets out. They eventually come to the valley, which is low enough that a stagnant pond has formed in the bottom. They also spot another marker stone—and a figure standing in front of it.
The figure hails the company in a quavering voice.
Andre, whose eyes are especially keen, notes that the figure is a very old, and nearly skeletal-looking man in a shapeless brown cloak. Andre, skeptical of the man’s intentions, replies to his greeting, and is dismayed to see that the old man starts shuffling over to the company. He becomes more dismayed when he realizes that the old man only has empty sockets where his eyes should be.
|The Old Man|
Morbidly fascinated, Andre offers his waterskin to the old man, who takes it gratefully and drinks from it without any difficulty. He then seems to look at the members of the company in turn, despite lacking the eyes to do so, and greets them most politely as a fellow traveler.
When asked what he is doing there, the old man says that he is here to warn the company against continuing further on their quest. He says that, if they proceed on the path that they are going, they will find only death and doom. He then “looks” directly at Renee and says that, of all of the company, this doom will be the most formidable for her.
Various members of the company talk to the old man, and are unnerved that he seems to know quite a bit about them and about the circumstances of their birth. Perhaps guided by superstitious fear, the company give the old man both food and coin for his kindness and guidance. He takes these all with grace and nearly apologetic thanks, before saying that he hopes that they have considered his warning. Then he wanders off into the growing darkness.
Sounds in the Dark
In the growing dusk, the company, unnerved by the words of the old, blind man, find it difficult to continue on their hunt for the treasure. They decide to camp in the valley rather than return to town or journey onward. Considering the entanglements that they have found themselves in, the company opts to set several watches, so that they are not surprised by other treasure hunters.
While camp is set up, Andre tries to see if he can fish in the shallow pond—despite it not being of a size to really have fish. Once again, the magic fishhook does nothing until Andre anoints it with his blood. Then it somehow catches a very large carp that, by rights, should not be able to survive in the pond. Andre returns triumphant, only to find that many of the other members of the company refuse to eat an obviously magical fish.
During dinner, Maurice and Renee hear what sounds like the sounds of battle echoing over the hills. They point this out to their companions and soon the entire company is sitting rigid around their fire, listening to the ringing of steel on steel and the grunts and cries of warriors.
After much whispered discussion, it is decided that Renee and Maurice will follow the sounds and see if they can discover their source. They set out into the hills and, after a few minutes, find a lonely clearing deep in the forest. Upon their arrival, they spy a large marker stone, similar to the ones they have previously discovered. They also see a very large, very dead oak tree. In the dark shadows, Renee spots what appears to be a person lying face down amidst the tree roots.
The tree has a large, natural crack in its trunk. As Renee and Maurice arrive, three people—one of whom is holding his side and is limping—walk single file through this crack into the tree, using torches to light their way. Renee and Maurice wait until the tree people are out of sight before creeping in for a closer look. They find the corpse of a very tall, white-haired man lying face down in front of the tree. The man has manacles on his wrists and ankles. A two-handed sword—presumably the man’s weapon—lies close to one of his grey and lifeless hands.
Renee and Maurice, spooked by what they have seen, quickly retreat back to their encampment. Once there, they tell the others about the tree, the three men disappearing into the trunk, and the dead man with the great sword. They are quite rattled, however, and it takes quite a bit of time for the rest of the company to piece together their story into something that makes even the slightest bit of sense.
The company decides to investigate the tree again once it is morning.
The night passes quietly, with no one seeing anything on their watches. The only incident of note is Frieda confessing her true feelings for Sabina in the nerdiest way possible, only to run away when Garnier and Andre (who were secretly awake the whole time) make fun of her for it. Sabina catches up with Frieda by the company’s horses and haltingly reciprocates Frieda’s feelings, though, so it all turns out okay.
The next morning, the company awakes to find Magnus sewing sergeant stripes onto Jim and Jules’ jackets. He tells the two squires that, as part of their training, Sir Henri has allowed them to also become the squad leaders of his new mercenary company. He then orders them to thank Sir Henri for giving them the privilege. When they do this, Garnier needles Jules some more. Jules becomes very pinch-faced, but does not otherwise respond to the goading.
The company then sets out for the tree that Renee and Maurice discovered the night before. The clearing is eerily quiet, and several of the company note that no birdsongs or animal noises can be heard in the vicinity. A quick survey of the clearing reveals an area of blood-spotted, churned up earth that seems to have been the site of at least one battle. They also notice, to their concern, that the corpse and the sword are no longer present.
Sir Henri says that he would very much like to have a look inside the tree. He approaches, only for a loud, booming voice, to draw him up short.
Moments later, a giant of a man steps out of the crack in the tree. He has manacles on his wrist and ankles, as well as a metal mask seemingly fused into the skin of his face. He carries a massive, two-handed sword in his hands.
The man, in a rasping, halting voice, says that the company cannot enter the tree without first defeating him in single combat. He asks that the company choose a champion to fight him. He tells them that, once the fight begins, they cannot interfere with it in any way.
Almost immediately, Magnus volunteers himself as champion. He strides purposefully to one end of the clearing, while the giant moves to the other.
“BEGIN!” roars the giant.
|The Guardian of the Tree|