It was early morning on Pasaday, Secundar 25, 930, when Gabriel Button woke from an unsteady sleep. Too much waiting, too much time lost while the Barony could be in peril. Again, as he had the day before, and the day before that, he dressed, went downstairs, cooked and ate a small, simple breakfast, belying a man of his station, and left the keep, trading the safety of its walls for the cold wind of early spring twilight. The sun still hovering just below the horizon, the animals as asleep as the people of the town, no one, save a few guardsmen at the last hour of their overnight shift, noticed as the young man paced around the walls of his Lady's estate. They paid him no more heed than usual; Sir Button was not a heavy sleeper. This was a walk he had made often during times of stress. Weighing on his mind were many problems, but a few stood out as more urgent than the rest, and it was this walk in the quiet that helped him think.
First, he thought, was the problem of the missing persons. Eight adult citizens. Kidnapped by orcs, the boy said. Orcs. In Radimyr? In Viridonia? That didn't seem right. Last he'd heard, they were off getting their numbers thinned out in the elven provinces. Perhaps the boy, Bron, had killed a few people, but then why turn himself in with such a story? If they lived, those people needed rescue. Of course, one does not become the aid to a baroness by only planning for the best, and he needed to consider practical, if morbid, eventualities. If the citizens were dead, he would still need confirmation, to exempt the affected households of tax until they recovered, and to update the census. If possible, the bodies should be recovered for burial. Ortrul's faithful did not approve of leaving the dead unburied, and Gabriel was quite faithful.
Speaking of the unburied dead, the second issue was that of the graveyard. It was good to know the halfling was doing his job, but what could have happened to the bodies? As Gabriel stared at the plumes of fog issuing from his mouth, he narrowed the possibilities. The could have been dug up. This bore several implications, none of them pleasant. Any animal digging up fresh corpses was a sign that prey in the woods was becoming scarce, and that could be due to so many factors….
But if that were the case, why would it dig up the other two graves, which would surely be skeletons after so many decades? So no, not an animal. Nor, in that event would it be a problem of ghouls, who only sought flesh to sate their unholy hunger. Or so he had once been told, on another cold morning so long ago. Not the time to think about that. No time for the memories of the red skeletons in the snow, broken and chewed, and the priest, and the torches, and the fear. Focus. Focus.
Not an animal. Not ghouls. That left but four options he could think of.
The few pranksters and troublemakers he knew of wouldn't pick the graveyard, as it was too far out of the way. They preferred to vandalize buildings near the keep to taunt authority, and their handiwork was limited to rude graffiti or broken fences. Three options left.
It wasn't grave robbers, because no one in that graveyard was buried with anything of value, and even if they had been, a corpse is not something you could easily transport or fence. Speaking of fencing…
Focus. One problem at a time. Two options left. Either that halfling was right and the dead were digging themselves out to wreak havoc on the sinners of Highridge - unlikely, and even if their motivation was divine punishment, wouldn't they attack Whitefield first, after that feline had caused all of that trouble with the drinks? Also, there had been no sightings. One option left.
Necroturgy. Someone was collecting the bodies of the dead. William had no enemies in life, and no one who knew him would have known the other two. The other two. Skeletons by now. Animating skeletons was cheaper, wasn't it? Hadn't Akram the Damned laid siege to Harlsburg with wave after wave of them? The fresh body must have been a target of opportunity, under looser earth. With limited time, in the dead of night, perhaps the digger chose William over another, older grave rather than risk taking too long. In any case, the situation needed further investigation, and the corpses should be recovered if possible.
With that settled, he turned his mind to the third and fourth problem. The new prisoners. Now was the time to think about the feline, and her peddling of spirits. Being an outsider, she wouldn't know the history of alcohol abuse the village had suffered after the cotton blight. So many farmers losing their jobs and drinking away what little money they had left. The rash of crime as they turned to illicit means to keep the rotgut in their bellies. The graves filling as people drank themselves to death. The Hearthfires, weary of funeral rites, begging a much younger Dame Zelcir to forbid the drink. Gabriel knew, though it was before his time. He heard the stories, and understood what had to be done. The feline had traveled through before many times, but for the first time, the hawking of her merchandise was heard and wanted, as William was mourned.
Enough. What to do about the prisoners. The feline had already been charged. Solicitation of alcohol consumption, Intent to subvert rightful authority, Intent to subvert morality, Possession of alcohol without lisence, and whatever else he and Dame Zelcir could think of. Now the feline was sitting in the dungeon next to that man. That man who refused to give his name or to talk to the guards. Mr. MacAllister had been very cross and intent on pressing charges as soon as possible, but without knowing the facts, Gabriel couldn't know what to charge him with, if anything at all. The only person he spoke to was the feline, and never in the presence of the guards. Gabriel had visited himself, and as persuasive as he was, could only convince the man to tell him that he wouldn't talk to anyone from Whitefield and feared for his safety. All this over a magic stone? Sure, the stone was very old and potentially dangerous, but where had it come from? There was no proof it had been stolen, no proof the stranger knew it was dangerous, no proof that any crime had been committed, save perhaps accidental endangerment of a shopkeep, and that was hardly a crime at all. Knowing he couldn't hold the man on suspicion alone indefinitely, Gabriel formed a plan. The feline could get him to talk. And he didn't really want to keep her locked up, only scare her sufficiently to keep her from breaking the law. And that other stranger she'd been traveling with, the one that slept beside the well, had offered to pay her bail. All Gabriel had to do was graciously allow her early release on the condition that she assist in the investigation. Hell, she could help with all of them, as long as someone was with her to keep her in line. Audreyn could do that job, and it would be good for her to leave the keep for a while and do some field work….
As Gabriel Button walked back through the front gates, the sun had begun to show over the horizon, and the cockerels crowed in the distance. Hopefully today would be the day Skyler Hollow came into town, and he could ask his help and round up the rest of Whitefield's more competent free citizens. Mr Hollow, of course, was a capable hunter and tracker, and could locate the missing persons in short order better than anyone in the village, and might be able to track the corpse looter as well. Mr. Knoll, the magician, would be able to tell more about the boiling water stone and would probably find a way to be useful against the other problems as well. Miss Smith, even without her divine magic, with her gift of arbitration and intimate knowledge of the area, would be a prized asset to use for any of the pressing issues. Audreyn, for protection. Sir MacLear, being Captain of the Guard, would have the authority to make arrests if need be and lend the operations legitimacy as a government operation. The feline – Felicia? Felicity? – She could go along with them as part of her sentence and with Audreyn and Vaelin to keep her in line, she might prove useful. At the very least she could take what was left in her barrels out of town and stop tempting the guards in the impound lot to sample the contents. If her traveling companions decided to accompany her, that wasn't a problem, either. There. All planned, all set, just waiting. Now it was time to sit by the fire for a while and write the rest of his daily itinerary….