Legend of Grimrock: Honor's Dissension
Chapter 1: Of Hearth and Home
Braem Rolfeson shivered and peered out of his riding hood, a hand held up to block the waning sun's low rays. In the distance he could just make out a stone tower, the symbol of House Canthor, rising slightly above the tree line four miles away. Low clouds from the north were approaching, their interminable march bearing the promise of a dismal night. The autumn forest was sparse here, just a few trees in truth, so the encroaching dusk had not yet stolen away all light to travel by. That was good; judging the Congam-Ranwyn road too conspicuous for a man in his situation, Braem had opted to strike out across wild land, southward at first, then west. Travel by night was not advised, he thought wryly, not due to thievery as on the road, but because of other, darker dangers. Only fire could ward off the lurkers, the traveler recalled with another, deeper shiver. But he could afford to increase his mount's pace a little, and thus not have to make camp again before arriving at the Marquess' home. A hot supper and a fiery hearth with a bit of ale or wine would be a most welcome change to the growing chill his bones had stubbornly borne these past five days. "Home, it seems impossible" he muttered.
Ranwyn, the large lakeport city where he was headed, was not home to Braem. He hailed from the capital, but the prospect of the Marquess Lord Canthor's comfortable offerings naturally led his thoughts to Nothampton Palace where he grew up. At twenty eight Braem Rolfeson was the youngest Vischancellor the Kingdom of Theraen had seen since the great refounding nearly three centuries past when most of the court were younger than two score. Chancellor Tarnn Gentram had handpicked the up and coming courtier to serve as his new second in command after reading several kingdom law studies the young man had authored and then closely reviewing his Chancery service reports over the previous three years. Of course, it didn't hurt matters that Braem's father had once gotten a much younger Sir Gentram out of a messy affair at the Royal Academy, and the two men had traded favors for many years before the elder Rolfeson passed on.
Life had been comfortable at the palace. While there were always minor intrigues of one sort or another, nothing terribly disheveling had occurred in Braem's memory besides the loss of his father. Chancery work was fascinating, and last year when he walked out of Gentram's office after being offered the Vischancellory, Braem could hardly restrain the sides of his mouth from reaching his cheekbones. That elation didn't last long.
On the morning of last year's summer solstice, just two months after receiving his new title, Braem had been called in to an audience with the King, finding Chancellor Gentram and Magister Luqentas Alarast at His Grace's side. After the proper greetings and etiquette were observed, the business at hand emerged.
Braem was to temporarily abandon his beloved position at court to travel abroad, in direct assistance to Magister Alarast, sage of the Royal Library, seeking information regarding the seven lost treasures long believed to reside within the dungeon halls of Mount Grimrock. He was to spend roughly two months researching each individual treasure, a total of fourteen months away from hearth and home, pursuing anything he could find of use to the Royal Society of Knowledge and the Triumvirate.
Chancellor Gentram believed that if the treasures could eventually be recovered, this would place Theraen at a great advantage in relation to her neighbors, especially since five of the seven treasures originated from them, with only two rightfully belonging to the kingdom. Alliances might be strengthened with the diplomatic return of sacred artifacts, while enemies might be strategically disheartened or subdued when their fabled relics were paraded or destroyed publicly. Whatever the final decisions for each treasure's fate, surely their acquisition would be an incredible benefit to the kingdom, a coup of little cost and large reward. But this was only the secondary reason for the quest.
The King and Luqentas, friends from childhood, both yearned to know more about the ancient mysteries the treasures might reveal. They were true men of learning, ever thirsting for knowledge, understanding, and ultimately, enlightenment. Braem had known of this, and had himself spent many hours in the Royal Library pouring over old tomes of law during his studies of the affairs of the Kingdom of Theraen, the Malanian Empire, the hierarchical Nex Thalassocracy, the independent city states, and other various regional tribes and minor kingdoms of the Northern Realms. He had heard a little of Grimrock as well, more so after the recent and dramatic report from Lord Perel's squire Dranth Pursuivant just three weeks prior, he being the only surviving member of a doomed expedition into the mountain labyrinth. So that was it, Braem had mused, the alluring mystery of Grimrock had captivated the King, and now he was to further the cause of light and truth for the glory of Theraen.
Braem supposed that even if no expedition were to ever successfully recover the treasures, the act of gathering information on them might be an end in and of itself. Besides, he wasn't about to refuse a direct request from His Grace. His honor and loyalty demanded he accept. He also had a future to think about, a family one day, and having a pleased king on his side would go a good way toward ensuring a lengthy life of comfort and wealth.
That was then. Now all Braem could think about was how distant that world seemed. It was as though the past year and two months had been spent unwinding the threads of his life and reweaving them into some unrecognizable tapestry. He could never go back to the Realm, at least not in the same manner or capacity as before. He now knew too much. And yet, nearly hidden in the recesses of his heart, he still believed that the Triumvirate alone could be trusted with the whole sum of what he had learned. Put together, as Braem had done over many months, the findings drew a picture of something far larger than the king or Chancellor Gentram ever hinted at. Perhaps they knew something of it and had simply withheld the knowledge, but only Magister Alarast and his two unknown sage counterparts would be given the full measure of his notes. His carefully scripted cryptography would see to that.
The light was notably dimmer now, the shadows growing longer, and Braem's eyes struggled to see the lower branches in his path, although the horse seemed to have no trouble avoiding rocks, brambles, and the like. He should arrive within the half hour. How would the Marquess handle the situation? Lord Farrington Canthor, inheriting his position six years hence, was not much older than Braem. They had met once, when Braem was still a youth serving as a court page, and the young Farrington had accompanied his grandfather, the Duke of Redstone, to the palace on some business involving cities and land near the Malanian border. Braem doubted the Marquess would even remember the occasion. Thinking again on the present, he of course held the proper royal papers and seals to ensure all cooperation and aid, and this meeting had been long since arranged by the Chancellor himself. But there were doubts in his mind.
Braem tried to prepare himself for the mental acuity it would to take to both fulfill his duty and yet withhold all he dare for the right eyes and ears. How to not draw suspicion? "It's impossible" he said to himself. There was that word again. No, not impossible, but it would take caution, careful observance, and deft choice of words, timing, and body positioning. He had not studied such things as a youth or while in the Chancery, not directly, though like all intelligent men he had picked up much of it through the normal course of courtly interactions. But it was during these past fourteen months that he had vastly improved upon it.
Talking to dozens of men of position from different races and kingdoms, Braem had become somewhat a student of conversation, the kind that draws out key information and subtle hidden directions. It was in the eyes, the mouth, the head and neck, the arms, the tension or relaxation of certain muscles in the face or hands, the brief flashes of understanding, recognition, deceit, suppression, or a dozen other emotions and tactics. He could see them, hear them, and respond how he chose, guiding and directing the interaction as an orchestrator might lead a group of players. Oh, he had failed on many occasions in many places, but the experience gained always helped him hone his skills, sharpening his insights for the next time. He only hoped it would be enough for tonight.
A chill breeze began to pick up, scattering fallen leaves, rustling branches, and carrying with it the smell of firewood and a hint of damp weather to come. Up ahead, wavering torchlight marked the road near the Canthor estate, a half mile outside the Ranwyn city walls. Drawing nearer, the famed tower loomed high above the outlying buildings, and the main manor house sat back from the road two stones' throws. Braem hailed a guard at the entry gate, announced his title and business, showed two papers with the right decrees and stamps, and made his way through toward the stable house and into hands of a quiet stable master and a talkative steward.
"Best get inside for the night milord. Looks to be a nasty one out here. The Marquess has been expecting you since yesterday morning, and I'm sure he's anxious to hear whatever it is you've got to say." The steward's eyes darted this way and that while his mouth kept moving. "We don't get much excitement around here most days, just the usual border business and assignments from the Duke. If you don't mind my saying it, all of the staff here consider you somewhat of a shining star in the palace, what with becoming Vischancellor at such a young age and all. Oh, and I should warn you, there…"
The sound of footsteps on stone was heard, and the men looked to see Lord and Lady Canthor emerge from the well lit front entry of the house proper. The steward abruptly stopped talking, fidgeted with a fearful look of being caught red handed, bowed, and hurried into the house carrying Braem's satchel and pack. The Marquess and his wife then greeted Sir Rolfeson, apologized for the steward, and welcomed the traveler into their home. It was a little after the supper hour and the household had already eaten, but Lord Canthor instructed the cook to prepare something for Braem while he bathed and rested from his journey. After cleaning and dressing, he ate plentifully of succulent roast fowl and fresh vegetables in butter, considering it a king's feast after the dry road rations he had grown accustomed to.
By the time Braem finished eating, a light rain had begun to fall, pattering upon the roof and window overhangs. The large house clock struck nine chimes, and Lord Canthor invited him into the great room for some drink and talk. Upon entering, Braem immediately steeled himself inwardly, showing no unwarranted surprise at the sight of Prince Albrennan standing by the fire. His thoughts raced, what in the name of the gods was a member of the royal family doing here, now? Also standing nearby was another man Braem did not recognize, but who almost seemed to fold in on himself amidst a cascade of shadows and half concealments. Mentally shaking off the shock, Braem waited a moment for Lord Canthor's introductions.
"Your Grace Prince Albrennan, this is Vischancellor Braem Rolfeson, currently assisting Magister Alarast on an important quest. Sir Rolfeson, the Crown Prince Albrennan."
Albrennan was the third son of the king, known for his friendly nature, handsome stature, and physical prowess. Braem now saw up close a keen intelligence in the man, a sharpness he might have guessed at but never knew before. The proper bow was made, with the words "Your Grace" spoken in the expected manner.
The prince replied "Sir Rolfeson, it is a genuine pleasure to privately meet one of our brightest of the court. I look forward to hearing more about what you have found."
So, thought Braem, things had changed, arrangements had been altered. He hoped to soon discover why, but asking such a thing too directly or too quickly would not be wise.
Lord Canthor again spoke. "Sir Rolfeson, meet Sir Thomas Jordrane, Chamberlain of Baron Henrick Suthandrel. Sir Jordrane, Vischancellor Rolfeson." The two men exchanged respectful greetings. The Marquess continued, "The Baron was meant to be here himself, but has suddenly been called to Nothampton on urgent business of the king's Justiciar, and has sent Sir Jordrane in his place. He is known and can be trusted in all of our business and discussion this night."
"You must be wondering why I am here and why Henrick had planned to attend us as well" Albrennan offered. Braem could see why the prince was so popular, he anticipated others' desires and met them if possible. "First off, Farrington is still in charge of this meeting, I may be in the line of succession but on the matter of your quest I have no rank. You need not address me before anyone else or use any honorifics tonight. You may simply call me Albrennan, and I shall call you Braem, fair enough?" Braem was impressed, and he couldn't help but find himself liking the prince and wanting to tell him more than he planned. Surely this was just what Albrennan desired, but for now Braem would play along.
"Certainly Your Grace, er, Albrennan" Braem said with a congenial self depreciating smile.
"Very good. Then about our presence," the prince spoke carefully, "there has been an increase in … urgency, relating to a few Malanian uprisings, disturbances of trade along the northern borders, and some other issues the king has been made aware of via letters and through one secret visitor from the ruling oligarchy itself."
"The Malanian oligarchy, here?" sneered the Marquess.
"Indeed, these are unprecedented times," continued Albrennan. "Word of your traveling research, Braem, has spread, as you know, and while Theareona has long since been absorbed into the empire, many of its citizens still identify with the old ways, their ancient glory. Your investigations into the Crown of Kings specifically have stirred some few troubles for us, for Redstone and the Duke more directly. Baron Suthandrel has long aided in keeping the peace in Qegendac, and Quenfar has fared friendly enough these last forty years since their turning, but the Baron has now been forced to deal with another aspect of this same issue in person at the palace, hence Thomas' presence with us."
The Baron's chamberlain spoke quietly, "I will gladly be of service in any way possible."
Lord Canthor stepped in, "My duty as Marquess requires me to pay especial attention to the northern border and our holdings in the region. Redstone Keep may command the march, but I must have information to work with. That is where your report, Braem, matters so much. If there is any chance you've uncovered a way to reclaim the Crown of Kings, or even any new details about its true origins or nature, we might be able to use that to our advantage, to quell the problems, renew the peace, and hopefully restore full trade to the roads. We can't risk another Quenfar."
"I'll need my notes" Braem interjected. "Your steward took my satchel upstairs, I'll just go and fetch it."
"You needn't bother, I had it brought down during your meal, it's on the table there" Canthor gestured.
"Very well, Sirs, then you shall have my report," Braem began resolutely. "As the Marquess is aware, I visited the Malanian Empire last in my travels, first having gone to the Eastern lands, and then South across the seas. Notably, some time was spent on Nex, more than originally allotted, but the other islands bore little fruit so I rearranged my calendar. Those notes will be included, of course, however I have the sense that I should begin near the end, with my landing at the Malanian city of Daejon, southeast of Theareona, and once part of her lands." Braem paused a moment, "Ah, forgive me, but my tale must truly begin on board the Emerald Dragon, a Nex ship of magnificent proportions, a day before our arrival at the port."
Albrennan raised a finger, "Before we listen further, my fellows, I propose we settle ourselves in a bit more comfortably. Thomas good man, why don't you take that chair there. Farrington and I will occupy the couch." The Marquess turned it slightly toward the fire and put on another log, while the prince jovially continued, "Braem, you've traveled long and hard, I'll take no official notice if you put your feet up during your discourse. Men, let us enjoy the warmth of the good fire, Lord Canthor's wine, and a fine tale."
"Hear hear!" chimed Lord Canthor, while Sir Jordrane only nodded.
"Well then, Vischancellor," the prince warmly smirked, "do begin."