The Flower in the Sepulcher

The Warchanter's Tale, Part One
In A Tavern Not Far From the Flower

The tavern was busy; they’d all heard that the hero-bard would be performing her great epic tonight. It had been whispered all over the city that she’d been perfecting the tale for weeks, and that it was finally ready. Song and tale alike, the rumors said. Her masterpiece. Adventurers of every stripe had gathered beneath the sign of the Arrows; ordinary citizens packed the tables, stools, and corners. And when she swept onto the stage, the cheers and applause shook the rafters.

Red of hair, was she. Her blue woad curled in spirals on cheek, wrist, and collarbone. She sat on the stool in leather armor worked as smooth and supple as silk, her longsword chiming lightly against the rough boards as she tuned her lute. Plink, plink, went the strings as she turned a peg here. There. All was perfect. The crowd held its breath, and she sang the introductory verses.

Oh gather round brothers, I’ll tell you a tale,
Of those warriors, valiant but few
Who gave wager of battle with blade and with guile
Who stared Death in her face and laughed back with a smile
And who kept all their solemn oaths true, so true
Oh always for them to be true…

And one was a bastard and one was a lord
And one a sly smuggler who carried a sword
And another a dragon so proud, so proud
Ah, that sea dragon princess, so proud…

And another a knight and another a knave
And a weary old shepherd leaned hard on his stave
And a scout with a soul frought with shame, with shame
Oh, our heaviest burden is shame…

And there was a crow, and a man made of steel
And an exiled orphan, her heart full of zeal
And the one who sought secrets long dead, long dead
Yes, he found those things better left dead…

And a gambler there was, and a legend unbowed
And a king in the shadows, in a city uncrowned
And the woman who never forgets, forgets
Oh she let us never forget…

And here the bard paused, and let her fingers drift away after a final melodic flourish. The cheers washed over her, and she stood to deliver the first soliloquy. In the traditional Elven way, the Heroes of the story are never named until the last verses of the song, but all those gathered knew the names already. How could they not?

“Fall was coming on when the heroes struck south. Many adventures they had, and many tales already had been sung of their deeds. But a few will I may speak of this night, that we might remember them.”

“Remember when the shepherd, so weary and sick, took a long journey to bring back a sheep that had wandered very far. His faith was his armor, his allies his weapons. And from an angel dark as pitch they claimed that rarest treasure; redemption.”

“Remember when the bastard slew in single combat a beast with tusks like scimitars, and came back covered in glory to her Sisters and Brothers. And then she found altogether different sorts of brothers, needing altogether different kinds of glory.”

“Remember that smuggler, his smile so untrustworthy, when he and his comrades made that most impossible alchemy a gleaming reality. They turned a millstone into gold, and none could say how they did it.”

“Remember the scout who always volunteered for the cause of the right; who flew in on wings of ropes and shattered glass to free from bondage those so cruelly imprisoned, and followed a Way that is rewarding but hard.”

“Remember the lord who never bowed to anyone, who lost his name but found his nobility in the streets and canals of the city. They bragged that a battering ram couldn’t knock him down, and it turned out they were right.”

“Do you recall the knave? How she crept unseen into a most distinguished parliament of the dead? And then, by inviting her friends to the conversation, caught these debaters of consummate skill quite unawares and, for the first and last time, at a loss for words and chess alike?”

“The secret seeker found out more than he had ever bargained for, if I recall correctly. What do you call a dead man who talks? I’d say an awful liar, but to him it told a whole new kind of truth. Concern for the living on the part of the dead is unsettling at the best of times, and those times were most unsettled.”

“The dragon had roared a thousand times, but never to the accompaniment of church bells before she and her companions struck out for a grove of live oak and peculiar sorceries. The knight wasn’t there, and she thanked her queer gods for that, for otherwise she’d never have heard the end of it. Can you ever remember seeing a dragon blush? I can.”

“The gambler bet it all on a dwarf who lived in a mountain of gold, forgetting whatever small amount of good sense he’d had beside the ocean. But in the sea of grass he found something rather greater than what he’d expected.”

“All this we remember, and let songs be sung of those days. But now we must turn to what they found on their leaving, and on their returning, that cool foggy day. What evil awoke from the swamp, what good awoke in the city. That day not long ago at all, in the fading of the year…”

The bard sat back down, her blade ringing like a tuning fork. A few more plucks of the strings, a crowd charged with bated breath. And she strummed, and she breathed.

And she sang.

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Initiation

I met Lord Greystone and the incredibly humble leader Lord Clemont Bishopsgate of the Lords of Exile after receiving an invitation sent to the collective’s headquarters. My interest was piqued when I learned of the formality of the occasion – after roaming the streets of Treff’s back alleys often going without clean clothing for days, a formal banquet was a delightful escape. What I quickly learned of the Lords of Exile however was not entirely what I had expected…

I walked into the party with a Potion of Bull’s Strength, adorned in fine dress clothing I had purchased that day. Upon first glance the party felt like that of the nobility I remember serving long ago. Actually, my first impression of Bishopsgate made me reminisce about the early days of my life with nobles. His command of the room around him, his certainty, direction, and confidence was admirable. It did not surprise me that he was at the head of all this.

During dinner, I brown-nosed and played my part a bit. The banquet itself was more delicious than any meal I had had in Treff thus far. It too had reminded me of the nobility of old and feasts within the great halls of the kingdom’s main castles.

I had not expected to leave Treff, but the words that bellowed unexpectedly from Lord Bishopsgate at the end of the feast caught me off guard. He wished to return to the Kingdom of the Horse in a months time. Murmurs and whispers, chatter erupted across the room as people appeared confused, befuddled and upset. Why would Bishopsgate strip all these people of the home they have made for themselves? Despite our loss during the uprising, most of us have achieved freedom in different ways. Perhaps Bishopsgate will not take those who are not loyal too kindly, perhaps… he will view them as traitors.

I spoke with Greystone briefly before returning home, I am to be initiated on Friday in a little more than a week’s time. He claims I will not worry about leaving the collective for now, but that my help would be very much needed. I will look to Cyrus as an example. I feel as though my work with the collective, Treff, and the Kingdom of the Horse is connected somehow, and my quest with my companions is just as important as my new objectives with the Lords of Exile. If it comes to it, Bishopsgate will have to learn.

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naheeda's jurnal 11

war is breething its stench al over the nek of the citee. the swamp smels of evel. yet no one can see the obveous thret to tref. there are signs evrywere. dead orcs. clans vanishing. the creeping kingdom has come bak. plant orcs rising from the deeps. dead and alive. not alive and not dead. places of power huming with the forces of fire and air. the newly printed coins with faces of dead vampire kings. it is all so damn obveous. the water elf kings whore the grey lady the high prestess hide there heads in the swamp. there ears are filed with muk. no mater wat we say they do not lisen. they still need proof. when orcs die there is no problem. onlee til the citee fok are afected. humans and elfs. that is when people pay atenshion.

-———————-

my brothers and sisters of the swamp have shared there wisdom with me. called me to a meeting of the clans both orcs of the citee and swamp. the orc abominashions are cursed. a curse almost as old as the swamp itsself. a orc war cheef wanted more power. i cannot blame him. when you can have the power to crush the skulls of your enemees and conkur every man orc and elf who dares to challenge you. but he did not think of the price. power is only good if you can keep it.

the songs say the orc cheef spawned three sons. each one was given an objec of great power. a sword a croun a spear. i must get these items to unite the clans. to defeat the high cheef who lives but is alredee dead. i no the items places. the colective nos one way to save the citee.

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Another dream...

I sat in the lounge sipping my herbal beverage, staring into the dark shadows of the headquarters as a single source of candlelight lit one face of my cup, the fireplace, a chair, a stack of Abad’s spellbooks sorted on the table – the lit objects around the room flickered with the flame, almost phasing in and out of existence. A light breeze from the window caused the flame to dance madly, what little I could see in the dark began to flicker with more ferocity, until finally the lone candle was snuffed with a draft. I could hear the whistle of the wind as it began to grow stronger. The room was now pitch black.

I sat motionless for a moment until I began to hear voices – shouting, yelling from what appeared to a large number of men. I heard the sound of cold and tempered iron clashing and breaking, the rend of weapon, and the cry of battle. I sprung to my feet.

I quickly assembled my gear and armor, immediately removing my longsword from its sheathe. I raced to the front doorway where the source of the battle cries came, flung open the door and gazed into a scene of wanton destruction. Fire engulfed the scene before my eyes as poorly equipped civilians attempted to fend off knights in full armor. I had not immediately recognized what I was seeing, until I witnessed a lone paladin standing in front of a house as it burned. He appeared to be gazing intently, with some kind of satisfaction. I began to approach him, ignoring everything around me. I started walking, then running, then sprinting with my sword about to strike. Not more than a moment before my blow, the knight turned around ready to parry my attack. I immediately stopped in sheer horror as I stood looking at my own face. Frozen in place, I did not attempt to block his blow. With one large swing he rent my armor and nearly severed me in two. I stared at the ground, blood pouring out of my body onto the ground. The world around me began to dissipate and become blurry. My vision grew dark. I felt myself lose consciousness.
I woke up in our lounge, the single candlelight still living. My armor laid across the room in fair condition. My sword lay along with it, still in its sheathe.

I cannot hesitate any longer. The Empire will not rest, and neither must I.

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Mina's Notebook, p. 90
I apologize for this, but I have loyalties and priorities. As someone who is clearly committed to her team, I hope you can understand. I’ve left the greater part of the passage for you; figure that out and bring it to me, and then perhaps we can discuss the invisible ink portion. Don’t leave important items in a Handy Haversack; if someone else knows what they’re looking for, it gives it up as readily as it would to you. — Lysander Bantam

Son of a BITCH. Of course he recognized it. I’ve gotten sloppy since leaving the Republic – it’s normally a very safe bet that no one even realizes it’s a magic item. They’re just so incredibly rare. But of course, he knows I’m a Tabler, and of course, even if he can’t figure it out like a craftsman, he can wait until Clyde starts scampering in his sleep, hold his hand near the opening, and hope that his hunch is so very correct.

At least it inspired a very long string of expletives which appeared vaguely amusing to Magnus. He recognized the cipher, a standard Legion issue, and happily agreed to unravel it for me. For the record, I’ve missed Magnus. He’s got some amazing ideas in that strange head of his. I’ll make a point of taking some beer when he finishes that translation, as a way of thanks and as an excuse to linger and talk. I want to hear more about the theories he’s coming up with.

Fucking hells, I was desperately hoping to just avoid speaking to Lord Bantam for as long as possible. The voice in my head that I’ve come to recognize as “what would Cyrus say” immediately informs me that I don’t have to take the bait. I’m not sure whether I’m going to give the real Cyrus a chance to back it up. I damn well know it’s bait. I’m just hoping I can snatch it from the trap.

I’d also like more than a few stolen moments with Cyrus. Not happening with his men around, but. Well. Sometimes I wish I could say more than “don’t die”. Is that at all compatible with wanting to do so many things behind his back? Is that the reason I’m trying to keep so many secrets?

I know exactly who to ask about the Bastard coin, and I might just have a few other questions for him too. Couldn’t find him today, Spelter said he was “otherwise occupied”. I think I know what that means, so I’ll leave well enough alone for the moment. Don’t know what else I’ll do tonight though. I hate when I’m the only one in the Rose. Just me, Clyde, and far too many troubling thoughts.

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A link to the past...

I sat at the Full Quiver, my eyes gently gazing at the adventurers, wanderers, drifters, commoners, and mix of residents much as I always do. After adventuring for so long, seeing these weary travelers of all kinds come in and out does not faze or otherwise interest me to a notable degree. It came as quite as a surprise however, when a knightly figure affixed with a family crest on his armor strolled in with another companion.
“Vasilli?”
The mention of my name in conversation rattled me in a way battle had not. Confronting certain elements of my past can be.. difficult. Those who were a part of the Southern Rebellion must always be watchful of the Empire, but a traitor earns a certain disrespect and contempt, especially among paladin circles. I checked my eyes for an obfuscation spell once or twice before coming to the realization that the adventurer addressing me was none other than one of the famous companions of the Compass Rose, and, one of my old war companions… I obliged his greeting and took him up in conversation, and we agreed to meet later at the Full Quiver to discuss business.
The Lords of Exile, a group of ex-nobles and those against the Empire, were in the midst of amassing money and influence and one of their goals was to capture an uncharted outpost too large to send an army to, but too small for adventurers. I reminisced about the days of my path towards becoming a paladin – would I ever walk that path again? Would I take up my past, or perhaps simply help out the Lords to make some extra cash for the collective? Naheeda and Abad would surely jump at the chance for additional income, but perhaps they would not know what they were getting themselves into…
At the Full Quiver we took the job, and I conversed with Cyrus’s companion Mina for a while about our past. The woman has a short temper, but a good ear, and my crass attitude towards women perhaps merited a less than favorable response when I ditched her at customs some time ago… Alas, what is in the past is in the past. I would hope that based on our conversation she did not think I fancied Cyrus in more than a platonic way, though it is always difficult to discuss the finer points of thrusting and dancing in a way that is not, should one say…
Uh, anyway…

We helped out Lucio, the handsome young rogue with apparently some problems with money, in capturing a debt collector and taking him to our good ‘ol Smuggler’s friend, “No-Collar” Jack. Poor sack of crap had little recourse with the blade of one of Naheeda’s greatswords at his throat, though capturing him was not easy, and as we quickly found out capturing him gave us little leverage against Fat Sun, the debt collecting company from The Ermine Republic. Collateral belonging to Lucio was the real weapon against us here. Still we took a great deal of joy bringing him to Jack for questioning.
My main concern and interest at the moment is in confronting my past. I feel as though I will not be able to ignore it forever, and I must confront it at some point. As for what decision is best, I still do not know… for now, we head to the outpost.

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Mina's Notebook pp. 87-89

Three preserve me, Drylands, what have you gotten me into this time?

The actual taking of the outpost went far more smoothly than I expected. When you’re given no information other than that it’s important, that normally means a long, hard fight ahead. By our standards, that part of this job couldn’t have been simpler. Just some swarms of particularly nasty beetles and a stray behir. The door was locked and the Collective seems to be without an expert, but I found an unlockable trap door in the observation tower and we were able to get in easily enough.

What concerns me is that this place has been recently used. The pier’s maintained and the channel freshly dredged. We found ashes in the fireplace, cool but dry, clearly from after the most recent rain. The stores were fresh, and judging from the quality of the ale, they weren’t just trying to stock the place on the cheap. We also found two things of particular interest – a very rare coin and a cipher.

Abad recognized the coin as being of particularly unusual mint. Obviously I know about the Miracle of the Monolith – our own damn inn’s named in honor of the Pariah’s words. What I didn’t know – well, let’s be honest, I probably did know before I forgot more than I ever learned at the Academy – was that Ceraxus II died without a clear heir. The coin we found was minted under the authority of one claimant, Thenex the Bastard. After the current branch of the Imperial House gained control, these coins were melted down en masse. Abad also mentioned that Thenex died childless, but there were persistent rumors of a twin.

The cipher is similarly confusing. We found it in a strongbox under the floorboards beneath the behir’s hoard, and it’s just layer upon layer of obfuscation. It seems to be written in the Celestial alphabet, but not in any particular language. I thought it best to make a copy, and noticed a second cipher, written in the Common alphabet but in invisible ink between the lines. I haven’t the faintest idea of what to make of it, but I can think of some people who might be able to help. Fiona at the Sole Exception, but I don’t know her well outside of our mutual scholarship. Magnus strikes me as a better person to ask. I’ve worked with him, he’s trustworthy, and I’m sure he has no reason to aid the Empire.


The troops sent to relieve us came today, accompanied by Cyrus and the elder Lord Bantam. Lysander Bantam scares me. Maybe that’s the wrong word. “Scared” is too unsubtle of a description for the powerful gut feeling that the rapier at his side is his least effective weapon. He started by greeting each of us in a different language, in the most proper style. His Halfling’s good, I was more taken off guard by his Draconic. It’s not Arcane Draconic or Lizardfolk Draconic, and it’s not far from the coastal dialect I picked up at the Academy. He also addressed me by my full name. My full name, which I haven’t gone by since I was old enough to insist on Mina, and and which appears on exactly three pieces of paper that have ever been in this city – our free company charter, my ballot, and page 62 of this journal. He’s been keeping tabs on me. In descending order of likelihood, he either read our charter, badgered Cyrus into giving him my full name, read my mail, or paid Finn to read my diary. Joke’s on him if the last one’s true, she reads this thing for free.

He did, at the very least, have the courtesy to apologize for his sons. He also requested that I send his regards to Finn for the much-deserved kick in the shins. I’ll try to remember to tell her, but if I don’t, she’ll probably read it here anyway.

He also instantly recognized that I’d used the good tracing paper on the note. I admit to being merely a talented amateur when it comes to forgery, but I thought I was better than that. Makes me wish I’d used the cheap stuff, so he might underestimate me. He didn’t mention the invisible ink, and if he noticed the residue from my tracing paper, there’s no way he missed that. The moment we’re downstream, I’m telling Cyrus.

Strangely or not, Lord Bantam seems to approve of my tracing. Told Cyrus he’d chosen well. The direct wording was that I’m an intelligent traveling companion, but in the greater context, it’s only adding to the feeling that every time I meet with a Lord in Exile, I’m being sized up. Well, I can make it through a dinner party without major embarrassment, I can put up with the Bantam twins without insulting them to their faces, I’m competent in battle, I’ve got a good sense for intrigue, and I can sufficiently distract their spymaster to be able to completely omit a very interesting piece of evidence. What next? Is someone going to pry open my mouth and look at my teeth?

I trust Abad to keep that coin well out of sight – he’s not about to turn over something that valuable. I also fervently hope that sleeping in the top bunk, keeping my diary in my haversack, using my haversack as a pillow, and having Clyde sleep on the opening of the haversack will sufficiently discourage anyone from reading my entry from yesterday until I’m safely back in the Rose and the only spy I have to worry about is a certain light-fingered elf.

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Mina's Notebook pp 85-86

I am going absolutely stir-crazy here. There’s a city full of work, full of adventures to be had, and where am I? Trying to herd this company of cats. Finn’s been absent, Galen’s been lost in his head, Cyrus has been penned up by the Exiles, and Isabella – well, she’s been around, and that’s the worst part. I don’t exactly blame her for being suspicious of hiring on someone to compliment our abilities, but if we had another hand, we could mount expeditions again. Really, Clyde is the only one happy with this arrangement.

I’ve gone to the Sole Exception once or twice, which was interesting enough I suppose. I’ve got about five half-finished essays on my desk that are either going to get submitted to the debating club or get shredded for ermine nesting material. I also picked up a new spell in the waiting, which I’m itching to try out. Maybe I should go home for a visit. It would take less than a moon round-trip, and maybe things will be back to normal by then.


Cyrus dragged me out to the Full Quiver tonight. I was a little cross at first, but it turned out really well.

He’d offered some work to the Traveler’s Collective on behalf of the Lords in Exile, and I suppose he was trying to appease me by seeing if they’d take me on for the duration of the job. We’re going to be looking for some sort of outpost that was poorly labeled on a map, clear it, and hold it until it can be garrisoned by their men. That’s about all Cyrus was told, and I’d like to trust him when he says that. This isn’t going to be as easy as al-Arakis thinks. If this is so desperately important that they’re hiring it out, it’s going to be a mess. Damnable Hells.

Of course Cyrus can’t come along. I know the higher-ups don’t have the highest opinion of free companies, but I still wish they’d respect that he chose to sign our charter. This expedition could change that, perhaps. I do agree that they need to be shown that a lot of problems benefit from a more nimble solution than a full regiment. Maybe that could convince them that allowing Cyrus to spend more time with us is to their advantage. It might also cut back on the number of expeditionary forces he has to lead. I bet black dragons have sunnier dispositions than Cyrus after leading a regiment.

I also hope that getting in the good graces of the Traveler’s Collective might help me learn more about what No-Collar Jack wants with us. al-Arakis doesn’t seem to have backed off from his involvement with the Collective Friend. Perhaps he knows, or can find out. Or at least get me an introduction. I have this nagging feeling that if I said that I’m late for a meeting with Jack, I wouldn’t be lying by half.

I wonder what Owain meant by saying he’d like to be there for my first meeting with Abad. He seems rather tedious, all flowery words with little substance behind them. More open-minded than Naheeda, or at least able to look past initial impressions when profit’s on the line. Strange, being seated between them. Abad always dancing around the subject, Naheeda cutting deep.

In something I can only hope is coincidence, Lars and Cyrus served together in the rebellion. I’d pegged Lars as being from the southern Horse, but didn’t dream he’d be involved in noble intrigue – he seemed so guileless. The possibility that they’d pulled something off together crossed my mind. Cyrus can’t lie to my face, but he’s a master of the strategic omission. Perhaps Lars tipped him off as to when to find me. Perhaps it’s a true coincidence. Perhaps it doesn’t matter in the least.

I admit, I’ve been a bit harsh on Lars for leaving me at the customs office after our first ranging. The pair from the desert sent us to find a friend of theirs, one Emilia, and he’s more talkative than I remember. Even a touch witty. He confirmed my suspicion that it’s impossible to talk about weapon drills without veering into innuendo. Abad and Naheeda appear to have chosen to take any comment about weapons training in the most sexual way possible. Heh, those two. I’m sure they’re not blood relations, but they’re definitely brother and sister. The difference makes the similarity, as the old saying goes – the refinement of the eldritch knight and the raw power of the barbarian only strengthen their kinship.

Turns out the Emilia they sent us to find is Emilia Oddsbeater, my old friend from the caravan days. As Clyde reminded me, I lost a lot of money to her before I figured out her talent. There’s a phrase in Halfling people used to refer to her all the time, and when I asked for a translation, I was pretty uniformly met with hesitation, then “something like divine favor”. Obviously a half-translation. Apparently Red Tom of Cinnabar is her brother, and she’s been working at the bar, setting odds for fights. Strange, that we were a handful of blocks apart this whole time and never knew. I’m excited to travel with her again. I’ve just been checking and rechecking the contents of my haversack. Finally, back to the swamp.

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naheedas jurnal 10

al it tuk was a plot, a kidnaping, and the threat of violense to realee make the travlers colective feel like a teem. seems that lucheeo had a run in with some money colecters. one thing rohgs are never gud at is keeping their coin. he was up to eyebals in dets. so wat does he do? fakes his death. cowerds way out. cant say i epected more from the sneeky basterd. abad Abad Ibn Mousa Al-Arakis living up to his luv of bad plans goes along. lars didnt seem to be bothered at al. and somehow i get roped into their skeem. a public cry, a litel hide and seek, and paying off some goons. we got our hands on the colecter. tied that fuker up like a pig. and boy did we make him skweel and sweat lik one too. turns out he was part of some two bit theives guld from the ermeen reblic. he bot up al of lucheeos det. thot hed cum along nice and kwiet because he had his sister as a hostage. (ill be talking to the rogh about that shit later. cant lie to the colective and expect to get away with it.) jak managed to show up to the partee to. he didnt care much for another club colecting on his turf.

it al tunred out fine in the end. somehow we owe the great dwarf of the docks a favor. fuk if i know how that happened. too manee dam human groops to keep trak of. i was trying to make sure the litel worm didnt escape during our kwestions.

gotta say after that mission. i felt us grow. we worked like a real teem. id like to see more of that in the future. were becoming a nice cozy familee.

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naheedas jurnal 9

the hunters have made me one of their own. i bested that boar one on one. in a fit of rage i cleaved its head from its nek and brought it to tref. the old elf was beside himself with praize. i canot help but feel a litel pride. ive come far being a bastard from the desert. the hunters welcomed me without a secund thought. its odd. there are a couple other half orcs and even a mountain orc. they do not seem to mind my kind and kin. they value my strength and dont fear it. i look forward to this new realationship.

damn shame i didnt lose against that boar tho. then i wouldnt have had to sufer the shame of losing. i stil canot beleeve i lost to krog. he chalenged me in the midle of kroms. my turf. its gonna take monts for me to bild up my rep again. id finalee goten to tooth torgul the goblin to stop anoying me. most of the crowd forgot i was a girl. how the fuk can i go bak.

i wuld fight one hundred more frenzied boars just avoid this dinner. ive got to wear that sorry excuse for a peese of clothing. krogs choise. i canot move in that. it looks so tight in the chest. theres to much cloth on the botom. not mention its pink. were am i going to put my greatsword. o gods y did i ever lisen to becks.

after the fight and some lite drinking we came home to find maman. she wispered to us that were in danger. her magics warned us death was coming. for tref. for the swamp. we dont know. maybe gan wil be able to understand her mesage. the image of the upside down burd skul is realy al i can remember.

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