Polk was shirtless when he waded into the pool, but kept on his trousers because there were women present. The orog was a powerfully constructed man, his obvious ogre lineage evident in his muscles. Had either Belynda or Hilde been more luridly inclined, the spectacle of the shivering Polk climbing up the soaked rope in the middle of the waterfall might have been titillating. As luck would have it, though, they found it comically amusing. He climbed quickly, like a man possessed, and swore the entire length of it. By the time he had reached the hole at the top, Hilde and Belynda both had a better understanding of why Polk had turned away from a purely priestly vocation. He could swear like a sailor, only louder.
He had made the climb with the rope to the baggage tied about his waist. Once he had climbed through the hole, he tugged on the rope to let Belynda know that he was ready to haul in their equipment and supplies. Belynda and Hilde climbed on top of the bundled goods, and the little xvart cast her enchantment, causing it to rise in the air. They gained altitude easily, and once level with the top of the waterfall, Polk began to reel them in. Hilde laughed uproariously. “This is the way to go!” she declared, her bellowing laugh echoing all throughout the cavern.
Polk pulled the women, and all of the gear, right through the hole in the wall, and none of them got even the slightest bit damp. Polk, however, was soaked through and shivering. He pushed the floating pile of equipment off over the rocky trail, and climbed out of the river. Belynda lowered their stuff, and set it down nicely on the ground. She then helped Polk find dry clothes, and he climbed up into the dwarven-built defenses to change out of his wet pants and put on his armor again.
Hilde likewise began to put her armor back on, with her squire helping to get her suited up. Then they separated out their luggage, and with packs on their backs, and the wet knotted rope hauled up and laid out to dry next to the river, the trio set out through this part of the caves towards the ruined underground dwarven outpost. It was very easy going on this part of their journey. Belynda walked between Hilde, who was in the lead, and Polk, who followed along behind. Cinder sat on her mistress’ rucksack, and snoozed peacefully.
It was several miles through the twisting tunnels of these dark and gloomy caves before they reached the cavern containing the dwarven settlement. They rested here as well, and Polk inquired about the undead that had been found here. Hilde and Belynda answered as best as they could, and while they rested, Polk ventured up the trail to where the gruesome ghouls had been crushed or pushed off of the nearby precipices. Hilde and her squire were unsure what he was up to, but without speaking about it, they each guessed that it had something to do with his former calling.
After having a meal, the adventurers headed up the trail to the rockslide. Polk had his mace in his hand, and warily held it out defensively as they made their way over the remains of Belynda’s magically created avalanche. There was no indication that the undead were currently restless, and they might very well have been destroyed at this point. Just beyond it was the crack in the wall of the mine shaft, and Hilde exclaimed her joy with a sudden, and somewhat startling, “WHOOP!”
Cinder was wide awake, now, and ran as quickly as she could towards the exit of the caverns. She sat on the edge of the elevating platform, and chittered happily. The trio tossed their backpacks into the bowl of the platform, and with a happy sigh, Belynda took the controls and they began their ascent.
As they headed up to the smelting hall, or more specifically, the forge pit, Hilde told Polk all about what they had found in this part of the mine. It ended up not taking long, because they hadn’t really found much. But it was only one shaft of three, and they hadn’t done any exploring of the other two. Polk just smiled, and listened. He hadn’t been this close to the surface in weeks, and the anticipation was almost more than he could bear.
At the top of the shaft, the group gathered up their equipment and headed for the exit of the mine. The air was fresh, and Hilde found herself gasping on the crispness of it. Everyone’s pace quickened as they got closer to the outside world. They didn’t even pause in the storage hall, their eagerness to be under the sky again was overwhelming.
It was nighttime in Romilmark, the sky was clear, and the air was very cold. The moon hung in a glowing crescent in the deep of the heavens, surrounded by unfathomable numbers of stars, and the beauty of it all was unbelievable. Polk fell to one knee, and offered a quiet prayer of thanks for their safe return to the surface world. Belynda hung her head while he prayed, and when it was finished, she did a happy little dance. Hilde just sat down on the ground, and sat against her pack.
Hilde took a deep breath, and said, “I could not live in the deep. I need the openness of this world. Air to breathe. Fresh, cold, glorious air.” She took a deep breath, and closed her eyes. “Good to be home.”
After resting for a little while, Belynda and Hilde got loaded up again for the walk to Wrunler Hall, where Nathalie had boarded their mounts. Polk would travel with them to Vulthar’s home, and from there arrange transportation to Jaggerholmschloss. It was a long walk to Vulthar’s estate, but it was a wonderful evening, perfect for the journey. The trees had lost their leaves, and the evergreens stood among them like sentries watching over skeletal comrades. Snow hadn’t begun to grab hold of the great valley of the Grafdom, but the peaks all around it were showing the first dusting of snowfall. It felt good, and there was a brisk breeze from the north that pushed at their backs. Their pace was one of a leisurely stroll, and while they walked along, Hilde dug out the sack of coins from the beholder’s loot. She smiled, and looked at Polk, who was walking beside her on the road.
“Would you accept a share of this, Mr. Polk?” she asked. “It was a pleasure to have you with us on this little outing, and you certainly did your share of the work fighting that dark elven ambush.”
Polk looked at her, and chuckled. “I was glad to be of service, Shar Eigenblade. But I am being paid handsomely for my work, already. You two earned your reward.”
Hilde was surprised by his refusal, but Belynda didn’t hesitate to chime in and ask, “How much are you being paid, anyway?”
Polk nearly choked on his laughter, and Hilde shot her squire a withering look. In a coarse voice, hardly a whisper, she chided the xvart. “You don’t ask a gentleman his income, you goof!”
Belynda just shrugged her shoulders, and looked expectantly at Polk. He winked at her, and that was all of the response he gave.
The xvart muttered under her breath, “This guy can’t seem to answer a damn question. Now if that isn’t curious, I don’t know what is.” Hilde heard her, but just shook her head.
About halfway to their destination, the sun began to sneak up over the alps to the east. The colors were vivid and the three of them stopped to admire the handiwork of their God. It was an odd scene, and should anyone have happened along they might have thought it weird. Here were three goblinoids, laden with gear and fitted for battle, pausing on a country lane to watch the sun rise. A more bucolic setting could not be imagined, and the figures involved could not have been stranger to an outsider. This was a bit of Slothjemia seldom envisioned by foreigners. Polk said a prayer, again of thankfulness, and rejoicing for a new day filled with promise, and then the group continued along their way.
They didn’t talk much the rest of the day, just enjoyed the sunlight and took note of the life all around them. Farmers going about their work, livestock milling around in pastures, and a few laborers here and there repairing fences and the like. There were a number of estates along this road, and at most every one of them there was somebody waving cheerfully at the three as they made their way. Twice they were offered a bite to eat, and they accepted it gladly. Hilde gave each of their hosts a dark elven platinum coin as a thank you, and a very generous thank you it was.
Arriving at Wrunler Hall just before midday, the three of them were met with wild enthusiasm. Vulthar himself, brandishing his glaive as a wizard would a walking staff, strode out to meet them. Practically everyone on his estate came to greet Hilde, her squire, and the orog in the funny little helm.
Holding out his burly hand to them, Vulthar said, “Welcome back, Shar Eigenblade! We were beginning to think you had been devoured in the mines!” he laughed, and then continued, “How deep is that mine, that it should have taken you this long to explore it?”
Hilde let her pack drop from her shoulders, and stretched her arms out before taking Vulthar’s hand in a firm and hearty handshake. “We ended up going a little further than we planned.” She said dryly.
Vulthar then shook Polk’s hand, introducing himself as he did so. Polk grinned, and said, “Pleased to meet you, sir. I am Polk, amateur mineral enthusiast.”
The half-orc just laughed. “A brute of a rock crusher, unless I’ve missed my guess. All of you, come inside. You must be tired, and a rest will do you well. Say the word, and we’ll tend to whatever you need done.”
With that, the hospitable knight led his guests in to the manor. He dispatched Lorkin to ride to Dregladorf, and fetch Nathalie. The barmaid had been out twice to Wrunler Hall asking if Hilde had made it back, and Vulthar wanted to allay the young woman’s concerns. The household staff busied themselves adding settings to the table, and fussed over the food for the noon meal. A couple of maids helped Hilde get out of her armor, and Polk went ahead and took his off, as well. Afterwards the guests lounged about, answering questions that seemed to come from every direction at once.
Relishing her role as squire, Belynda used cantrips to illustrate her tale of how Hilde had vanquished the undead dwarves, their encounter with the beholder, the discovery of a route to the drow elven city of Kaht-Medinhk, and the attempted ambush by a rival dark elven faction. When asked how Hilde felt about all of this, the orcish dame replied wearily, “Tired.” Vulthar ordered rooms prepared for his guests, and after everyone ate lunch, the three adventurers retired to get some rest in real beds. Polk could be heard snoring for the rest of the day, and Hilde and her squire opened a window to let in the cold wintery air, and burrowed under the blankets with just their faces sticking out. Sleep hit them hard, and they didn’t awaken until the following morning.
Tinza, the grey-speckled mare, was excited to see Hilde when she ventured out before breakfast to check on her. Hilde’s hair was, of course, a wild untamed mess, and she was draped in a blanket that she had dragged off of the bed. But she had brought her horse a small apple, and nuzzled the beast’s nose as it tried to rub against her. The little cart was here too, and Hilde was ecstatic that she wouldn’t have to carry all of her stuff on her own back home. Belynda was tending to her donkey, who wasn’t nearly as thrilled to see her as Tinza was to see Hilde.
Polk had found out from his host that there was a regular stagecoach that passed by here each day, one going north and around to the east to Karpaburg, and the other that ran south to Dregladorf. From the southern route, the orog could take another coach out of Romilmark to Jaggerholmschloss. This was a very agreeable arrangement to the former chaplain, and Vulthar had one of the estate’s youngest members, a little boy, go down to where the manor trail met the road to tell the coachman to stop when they happened by. Polk had breakfast, then gathered up his belongings and found a place to sit out in front of the manor, where he could see the road too.
Gripping a tankard of hot cider, and still wrapped up in her blanket, Hilde went out and sat down next to Polk. He glanced at her, and smiled. “Cold this morning.” He said quietly.
Hilde sipped at her cider. “It will be even colder soon.” Replied Hilde.
A few moments of silence passed, and then Polk asked, “What’s on your mind, Hilde?”
She sideways glanced at the orog, and sipped again at her cider before answering. “You’ve studied the sacred writings, right? You have read the same things that priests speak about from their pulpits?” her voice was soft, and her tone such that Polk knew she didn’t want to be overheard.
The big man nodded his head, and said, “Yes, I know them well. I might not be as well-versed as a priest, but I can find my way around them without too much difficulty.”
Hilde seemed to be staring into her tankard. “Do you know the bit about the sins of the father being visited upon their children?”
Polk drew a deep breath, and said quietly, “Yes, I am familiar with the passage.”
Hilde looked at him, and asked, “What if a child knows that their father has sinned, and grievously? Can she do anything to make it right with God?”
Polk could tell by her manner that Hilde was serious, and he had been guessing by her chosen surname that she was carrying a burden in her heart, and now the weight was beginning to slip. “Yes, of course she can.” He said, meeting her gaze with his own. “A big part of it is holding the father responsible for his behavior, and, if possible, making him accept his own guilt. Another part is that of restitution, restoring that which was sullied, either in a relationship or whatever the transgression was. If a child is aware of her father’s wrongdoing, she is now a part of making it right.”
Hilde turned back to stare into her tankard, and then sipped some more cider. “So, by knowing what he did, she is responsible for fixing it?”
Polk smirked, and replied, “Only as far as she is able. The fullness of guilt rests on her father, though. If he is unwilling, or unable, to make right what he has done, then she must do all that she can to correct it. We all have an obligation to act on what knowledge we are provided. An injustice is still an injustice, regardless of who committed it. And all that learn of it must act according to their faith in restoring harmony to those that were wronged. Otherwise, you will be held by God to be as guilty as the transgressor, for you knew of evil, and remained passive. Allowing evil to flourish by doing nothing is itself an act of evil.” Polk clasped his hands in front of him, and looked down towards the child standing vigilant at the road. “Which is why I am no longer a chaplain, Shar Eigenblade. I am compelled to act, and not merely wait to be summoned.”
Hilde felt a tear run down her cheek, and she brushed it off with her blanket. “How do I convince my father that he needs to make it right?” she asked, her voice faltering slightly.
Polk shook his head. “If your father is anything like you, Hilde, he already knows that he stands in error. He may even have tried to make things right. The real question is whether or not he has heeded his own conscience, or if he maintains a willful stance against the will of God.”
“I’m not sure God enters into it.” Hilde said softly, her voice barely audible.
Polk sighed, and said, “Then to whatever power your father respects and owes allegiance to. No man stands alone in the world, all are accountable to somebody else. If not the almighty God, then whom has your father sinned against?”
Hilde took another sip of her cider, and replied, “I aim to find out, Polk. I aim to find out.” Another tear rolled down her cheek.