Trumps of Winter

01- The Ghosts of Stolyich Field
Four heroes assemble in the troubled town of Rubyal.

In the western reaches of splintered Lokva, a caravan of a single wagon travels south from Golen Kar, on the road to Zelezka. The wagon, home to the tiefling Malioki family and the Malioki’s Miracles business, is accompanied by some extraordinary friends: the traveling author Gennadiy Milyukov, the reclusive priestess Mika Sokolov, and the metal-skinned sorcerer Kazimeer. Kazimeer knows that the Maliokis are quietly running a discreet errand for Alsvedun the Magnificent; what’s more, Gena has received a letter from the town of Rubyal asking for help. The Boyar Zarkozky is dead, and his daughter Rovina has requested Gena’s assistance on the grounds of the friendship he and her father shared.

When they reach Rubyal, the locals tell them that it’s a shame they’re traveling south, as the road’s dangerous. Bandits have been preying on small groups lately, and with most of Zarkozky’s fighting men lost alongside the boyar, the town can’t spare the swords to clear the way. The bandits apparently refer to themselves as the Ghosts of Stolyich Field, and cover themselves in ashes. Rumor has it that the neighbor to the south, Boyar Kurzkov — also called the Red Tusk — is offering his assistance, but in exchange for a very steep price.

Gena, Kazimeer and Mika pay a visit to the town constable, whom they find conversing with a lean Volyar woman accompanied by a night bear. The bear seems tame enough, though it still clearly unnerves many of the townsfolk. The woman, Anfisa, turns out to be a wandering saber-for-hire — and Mika secretly recognizes her as the daughter of Tsar Buresk’s head gamekeeper. Anfisa does not recognize Mika in turn, and the priestess doesn’t change the arrangement.

They go to the Zarkozky manse, and the trio take Anfisa’s side in intimidating the help into letting the bear Kostya come inside as well. They note that the stables house a number of horses and a carriage bearing the red tusks of Boyar Kurzkov. Gena stops to discreetly check the saddlebags of Kurzkov’s men, but he doesn’t find the ashes he’s looking for.

The group meets the 15-year-old Rovina Zarkozky inside. She is also playing host to Kurzkov’s representative, a smiling officer named Butrek. As they discuss the bandit troubles, it becomes clear that Kurzkov intends to become the “protector” of the Zarkozky lands, likely as a preface to absorbing them, while the young Rovina prefers to remain independent. She lacks both battle experience and a good quantity of men, though, and therefore cannot resist Kurzkov’s offer forever. What’s more, the bandits can bolster their numbers by use of a magic war horn that conjures ghostly allies. Gena, Mika, Kazimeer and Anfisa offer to deal with the bandits themselves.

Butrek leaves as it’s becoming clear that his offer is being put off; he promises to return later to continue negotiations. Rovina tells the group that the bandits are operating near an old bridge across the river, and likely from the watchtower that stands over it. She makes a present of 12 remarkable arrows with stained glass heads to Gena, as something of a recompense and a sign of their friendship — her father was also a loyalist to Commander Anrikka Valyevna, now the Trump of the Knight.

The four, as well as Butrek, attend dinner in the boyar’s home. During the course of the conversation, Butrek asks a peculiar astrological question of Kazimeer, who points out the flaws in the science. Gena surmises that it was a password of some sort, and tries to guess the proper answer — but he is clearly off-base, and Butrek ends that thread of the conversation abruptly.

After the meal, the adventurers talk about a potential approach. They decide to pose as farmers, renting a wagon to carry a load south. They secure Rovina’s assurances that the Maliokis will be well-guarded in town. Gena also brings up the likelihood that Butrek was attempting to use a recognition pass phrase on Kazimeer, and the sorcerer suddenly explodes into a tirade — Butrek seems to have some connection to the Cult of the Mad Star.

The next morning, Gena and Mika get up early to sabotage the Kurzkov men’s saddles, just in case. The group then sets out in their disguise as farmers, the night bear Kostya concealed under canvas in the back of the wagon.

Sure enough, as they approach the ancient bridge and watchtower, ash-covered men and women emerge from hiding, arrows nocked. The Ghosts of Stolyich Field, or at least a small band of them, demand that the group empty the wagon and turn around. The adventurers respond with naked steel.

Arrows go flying on both sides. Anfisa and Kostya are the first to charge, with Gen riding after them. Mika remains on the wagon, conjuring bone javelins from her vengeful god’s power. Kazimeer freezes the lead bandit solid. The rest of the bandits are quickly overwhelmed, and the last one surrenders in a desperate attempt to keep her ashen hide intact.

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