Meamnar:For Mariah - Prelude
This is the prelude for the adventure For Mariah.
Octavius is a legend. As a scout in the Auran Imperial Army, it was his single-handed reconnaissance of the Black Bear Tribe in the Shadowhaunt Forest. As a regimental commander, it was his defense of the Khyber Pass during the Second Orcan War. As general of his first brigade, it was the Battle of Tailor's Hill that ended that bloody conflict. Now, as leader of the entire Northern Army, it is his prowess as a strategist that sets him apart; his ability to see the entire landscape of the northern frontier in his mind and direct his forces as easily as a child scatters stones in the dirt.
You know the lengendary General Octavius of Galden, Protector of the Empire, as something else, though. He is a mentor, a friend, a man who cares deeply about those who serve him, as well as those he protects. He is, perhaps, even a father to you.
Which is why you came yesterday with no need for an explanation. The message was short and clear, but enigmatic nonetheless. "Meet me in Galden, on the 17th, at the mill, at daybreak. Yours, Octavius."
At the appointed time, several familiar faces were there; Octavius, of course, and Galen, brigadier general of the Khyber Brigade, as well as Carrac, commander of Wyvern Keep, Byron, a captain in the Storm Riders, and Cort, the General's scout. The meeting took place in an alcove overlooking the threshing floor, just large enough for the men to mill about comfortably, shuffling their boots in the straw. Handshakes, warm words, and pats on the back were silenced after a few minutes by the General, clearing his throat in a formal gesture.
All eyes went to the General, and it was then that you knew something was wrong. Not a simple matter, either, but something cold and foul was the cause of this meeting. You saw it in his eyes; those ice-blue eyes that could stare down a dragon were suddenly old and tired. Glassy, they seemed, and reddened, as those of someone who'd been crying. You've known the General for years, and to think that his weathered, scarred, stubborn face could produce tears was beyond your comprehension. Yes, something very cold, and very foul, had brought these men together...
If he noticed the confused looks of his men, the General gave no clue. "There's been a riot in Lirath," he began, his voice as old and tired as his eyes, which now gazed absently at the straw around us. "Similar to the, uh... " he cleared his throat once more, much differently than before. "...to the trouble we had in Bywater last year around harvest."
You had heard of the Bywater riot. The fact that one had even occurred was strange enough. The populace of the Empire was content for the most part, as far as you knew, and those few who caused trouble were easily dealt with by the army.
What made this event more strange was that it was supposedly instigated by the town leaders. You knew little more, except that the General had dispatched the Second Brigade of Septron's Corps, and that the riot had ended. As far as what became of those responsible, or what damage they caused, you heard only vague rumors.
And now another riot? In Lirath, of all places?
"I sent Ceresa's Corps to surround the town, but not to enter," he continued. "I wanted to handle this one more... delicately." He was silent for a moment, his mind obviously wandering; to where you could not tell. "By the time I'd arrived, Ceresa had been given new orders from Auranolis. One division entered the town through the Copper Road Gate, one through the Fish Gate. The other two kept the town surrounded. They cornered the rioters in the Lower Ward, and..." Octavius' voice cracked, and he struggled to contain himself. After a long, labored breath, he went on, "... and they burned it down."
At those last words, the General could no longer stand. Overcome with grief, he collapsed to his knees, sobbing uncontrollably. The rest of you looked on in disbelief.
Minutes went by, as each of you began to understand the news. They had torched the entire Ward. Thousands must have died, innocents as well as rioters. The Lower Ward was an older section of Lirath, the poorest part of town. Images flashed in your mind of people - women, even children - dying in the flames.
Finally, still on his knees, the General was able to compose himself. His head hung, and his voice was distant as he spoke. "Ceresa still surrounds the town. No traffic is getting in or out. That's why you haven't heard." Stunned silence followed. Tragic as the news was, you began to wonder why it was having such a personal effect on the General. Thousands had indeed died; that fact could not be dismissed. His chain of command had been circumvented. Would that have such an effect on him?
"She was beautiful," he whispered, "like her mother." You looked to one another for an answer. "She?" you thought. It was then that you realized, all of you, simultaneously, just what a father this man was to you. He knew you. He knew your spouses, your children, your heritage. He knew your abilities and your faults. He knew your desires, your fears. He knew your hearts. And this mountain of a man was on his knees in front of you, choking back tears once more, as he shared his life with you, telling you what you never knew.
"I met her mother just after the Battle of Shadowhaunt. She was a Berean, from one of the local villages. She was one of the healers that they sent to our camp after we routed the Black Bears. She had long, raven-black hair, and beautiful olive skin. When we broke camp, I asked her to come with me, and she agreed. Her father was disappointed, I could tell, but he let her go anyway. We made our home here in Galden, and for the first year, we were very happy."
The General continued staring at the straw at our feet. Caught up in his tale, his voice had evened, and he had regained some of his composure. "I knew she was not adjusting well, though. Galden was a far cry from her village in the west, and she was homesick, though she repeatedly denied it. When Mariah was born, it helped, for a while anyway. Then came the second war with the orcs, and I was attached to Dathek's Corps. I was away for nearly two years, and it broke her heart."
"We left three days after I returned. I don't think we spoke a word to each other the entire journey. Her father was happy to see her, of course, and ecstatic about having a granddaughter. I only stayed one night, before returning to Galden. There was never any anger between us, only sadness."
"I visited a couple of times, and wished I'd been there more. Mariah grew up too quickly. During my second visit, Mariah told me she was moving eastward, into the Empire. She'd heard about the plague in Lirath, and wanted to help. Though her mother and grandfather were saddened, she was of age, and they knew they couldn't stop her. I was overjoyed, of course, knowing my daughter would be that much closer to me."
"We left the village together, and I escorted her to Lirath. Those were the happiest days of my life..." Octavius trailed off for a moment. Though his head was still bowed, you knew that tears were once again welling up in his eyes.
"I saw her three times in Lirath," he continued, "and I remember each vividly. She was an angel, gliding around the orphanage." His head rose, finally, and there were tears streaming down his cheeks, and a faraway look in his eyes. "By the time of my second visit, she was running the place. I guess she had some of her father in her. But, by the gods, she reminded me of her mother, of that first day after Shadowhaunt, when I looked up into those dark eyes..."
After a long pause, he continued once more, his voice almost quivering now. "When I found her body, her arms were wrapped around two of the children. They couldn't have been more than four or five winters old. They were in a corner of the main building, trapped by the flames. Trapped. And burned. They were nothing but blackened bones, but I knew it was her. I knew it. My daughter..."
Octavius stopped, and brought one foot under him. He stood before you, not slowly as someone as old and tired as he appeared, but quickly, like a soldier. He looked each one of you in the eye. Those tear-laden eyes suddenly showed their familiar spark. "Gentlemen," he said, with equally familiar resolve, "the Empire did this to Lirath, to those orphans, and to my daughter." He continued to eye each one of you, studying you as he studied you so many times before. "The Emperor has lost his way - his claim to the throne is no longer righteous."
"These are dark times," he added, the firmness of his voice growing quickly. "I believe the rumors about the Council are true. We must fight this disease, or the Empire will fall."
That was yesterday. Before leaving you, Octavius asked you each to consider your own destiny. What he proposed was nothing short of a rebellion, and he cautioned you against making this decision lightly. "Look to your own lives," he warned, "for what you do now may be your death sentence." He gave you one day to make your choice. You were to return here, to the same alcove, today, if you were to stand with him.
And now,you are all assembled once again at the appointed hour - all of you, that is, except for Octavius.