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Constantine looked very puzzled at the message, but it made sense to the rest of us, particularly to Speculor. It was an invitation from the Lady of the Valley of the Mists, requesting the presence of Owl, Beetle, Frog, Mouse, Fox and Eagle at her games and saying that the entertainments had not been good since we were last there. She also wrote that she had sent a gift, though none was obvious. Jehan was asked to find out if it had been left at the Manor House, for it seems that the letter had originally been delivered to Sir Achilles rather than to us, for some reason, and the Lady's messenger was still in the village.
Why did this have to happen while I am Princeps! Why is it that one rarely needs a Quaesitor but on the one occasion when it is vital to have one, there is none about? I was anxiously turning the words of the invitation over in my mind when one of my sodales voiced the origin of my dilemma, reminding everyone else how I had come to an agreement with Fudarus at Tribunal that we would stay away from that valley, where they claimed sole rights to the vis. I know my sodales consider me weak and hold me much to blame for this agreement, but I should like to have seen one of them stand up to Probus Malignis Archimagus Tytali!
While we were talking, someone came back from the village carrying a small quantity of mud, which had been delivered along with the letter. It was a pawn of Muto vis! It was very hard to put the lure of vis out of my mind while we debated what to do about the invitation. We concluded that to refuse the invitation would be to offend the fae, which was clearly against the Code. We decided that we would comply exactly with the details of the invitation, sending just the same group as went before, so as to demonstrate that we were being careful to avoid giving any offence to the Lady. (Constantine had shown some interest in going to meet the Lady Cierella on hearing the story of Speculor's last visit, but was dissuaded from going along this time.) We trusted that the written invitation would stand in our defence if Fudarus made accusation against us for breaking our agreement with them.
I do hope we have done the right thing! I cannot forget that it is I who will be held responsible, by Fudarus, by Tribunal and by Iuris Perita. I think the last of those three scares me the most just now.
She was well, and well pleased with her trip. She had spent time with her parens, obtained her longevity potion and brought the menhir chip safely back to us.
Discussion moved swiftly on to what it would be best to do if Speculor happened to win vis from the Lady. Joach's suggestion was excellent, politically, even though it meant sacrifice. He proposed that any vis we won should be delivered to Fudarus as soon as that could conveniently be achieved. Sending it with Aversus would be the safest way, so the Redcaps would be able to confirm the delivery. A letter could accompany it, written by Iuris Perita, to explain the invitation and acknowledge the right of Fudarus to the vis. Thus, if they did see fit to make a fuss about our breaking the agreement to avoid the Valley, they would not be in a very strong position since they would not be able to demonstrate any loss to them or gain to us. If we win this time, and by any chance we are invited again, and win again, we might even be able to challenge Fudarus' claim to that vis source at the next Tribunal.
So, we have a plan of some sort, just in case, and now we just need Speculor back safely. He is certainly taking his time!
Soon after reaching the valley, our people noticed crows in the trees near by calling out rude things about them, then Zane spotted dark shadows slipping between the trees. Speculor announced that they had arrived, as invited, and a tall, glamorous lady appeared to welcome him; she was expecting our group and was glad to see them. After asking them to go with her to find some entertainment, she guided them to a glade where there was a circle of boulders, and left them there, making a suggestion that they make themselves comfortable. Speculor decided that he could best obey the instruction by using spells to give everyone the head of the animal the Lady expected them to have, and by magically creating the same sort of pavilion and couches that had been provided for their comfort on the previous visit.
Soon after Speculor had cast an Imaginem spell to make a tent, a graceful young man pushed the fabric aside and entered. He said nothing but smiled and beckoned the visitors to follow him. Moving with an unnatural grace, he walked ahead of them along the valley and deeper into the cold mist. As the mist thickened, it began to assume the form of walls, arches and doorways until it seemed that they were walking through a vast palace built of mist. They were guided into the presence of a tall lady in a grey gown and silver crown, who was waiting for them. She dismissed her servant, who dropped to all fours and ran off in the form of a silver wolf. (Galienne said something about this being most probably a relation of Helissente, but I do not think she has any evidence for this allegation - if she has, we must find out about it as that could mean yet more trouble ahead).
This lady was surprised to find that her visitors all wore the heads of animals, and said they had probably been misled or distracted by the lady in the woods. She was more amused than offended, fortunately. She said that the other troupe had arrived, that they always come, but that they were not entertaining. Then she conducted the visitors to meet the other competitors. The other troupe were undoubtedly the Fudarus representatives. They were not at all pleased to see our people. Their leader was Julian, or maybe Juliana, a tall, slim young person with a piercing gaze, who is well-known to be the 'voice' of Fudarus in negotiations outside the Order. There was a large grog with tusks and small horns and several normal-looking grogs.
The leader of the Fudarus delegation glared at Speculor and berated him for his cheek at coming. Then he calmed down a little and coldly pointed out that this was in breach of the agreement, before going on to quote Hermetic law at length. Julian spoke in Latin, so I only have Speculor's report on just what he said, but it was certainly enough to scare me. Speculor responded, of course, by saying that our group had been invited and that it would have offended the fae to refuse. Julian then complained that they should not have got themselves invited, as if we could have done anything to prevent it. I gather that some of our grogs got restless during this extended exchange, especially Huon, who was enjoying having a frog's tongue. Although not a magus, Julian has some power because he glared at Huon and sealed his mouth for him.
A small pack of silvery wolves entered the clearing, formed a circle and sat down on their haunches. Galienne was heard to mutter something about Sir Achilles' relations. A plain, grey-clad woman entered the clearing; this was Lady Cierella, the hostess and judge. Speculor got to his feet and bowed. Julian also bowed to her. The tall, glamorous lady looked peeved. Alain became convinced that they were going to fight over him, but that is just his delusion, that he is irresistible. The attractive woman suddenly became old and wrinkled, and seated herself beside Alain, whispering to him that the other woman was all glamour. Then five of the wolves turned into tall, elegant young men with dark hair, touched with silver, and handed masks to the party from Fudarus. Julian acquired the head of a deer, the soldier with the tusks had a rabbit's head and the other three grogs got the heads of a lamb, a kestrel and a pike. The five reverted to wolf form then one of the wolves let out a long, terrifying howl.
Ice crystals formed in the air and some of the competitors were struck with a deep fear of Winter. Huon covered his eyes (having no obvious ears); Alain leapt up and vaulted over the couch, axe in hand, as if ready to defend himself. Speculor warned Alain and he went no further but he remained standing, warily eyeing the wolves. Then the Lady gestured to Speculor to begin the entertainments. He stood, bowed to her and cast a spell to set off a display of coloured light and music. There was a dull thud and everything went quiet and grey. Speculor looked suddenly insignificant despite his owl head, his spark gone. I believe he must have lost control of his magic rather badly. This may have hurt his pride but losing the contest was the aim so it was not a bad situation. Julian responded by entrancing one of his grogs who impersonated a series of animals, quite effectively. Round one to Fudarus.
Pike was called next. He chose to put on a demonstration of fighting with sword and shield against Kestrel. Milon and Huon had been practicing for just such a display so acquitted themselves considerably better than was necessary under the circumstances, and there was no doubt that they pleased the Lady more.
Galienne was asked to perform next. She was ready with her tale of Redwald's encounter with the great Wyrm, but she had expected that Speculor would provide images to illustrate the story as she spoke. He had found himself unable to provide martial music as a background to Milon and Alain's display and could not contribute to the story. Instead, Milon acted as Redwald. Huon's offer to act the Wyrm was rejected. I am not sure whether this was on the grounds of taste, verisimilitude or the risk of amusing the Lady too much, but it was undoubtedly the right thing to do on all counts. Fudarus had brought no storyteller with them. Their rabbit sang a war song, not very well. Had we wanted to win, this would have put us in a strong position, since not only did it mean we won this round but it meant their strong man could not take the lead in another round.
There was some discussion amongst the other team at this point. Then the Lamb called out for one of our people to wrestle with him. Huon had not participated yet so went to take his turn, and did rather well in the bout. Having thrown his opponent to the ground, Huon managed to loosen the man's belt such that, when he stood, his trousers fell around his ankles. Huon seemed rather proud of this. It raised applause from the audience and the round was awarded to Fudarus, for being the most entertaining even though Huon had wrestled the better. This was perfectly satisfactory for Speculor.
Lastly it was Huon's turn to start an entertainment. He wanted to juggle the belt pouches of the opposition but Speculor was able to stop him attempting to obtain them, and he juggled knives instead. The Kestrel juggled for Fudarus, using a plate, bowl and jug of wood, but he did not do it at all well.
The Lady Cierella was amused. She thanked all the visitors for participating and said how glad she was to see something new. She presented two pawns of Muto vis and one pawn of Intellego vis to Speculor, as the winner. Of course, he had to graciously accept her gift for fear of giving offence!
Speculor notes that, if we ever found an excuse to take part in the Lady Cierella's contest again, and want to win, we must take care to provide different forms of entertainment. That is all very well, but we have to survive that long with Fudarus against us!
Council decided that Speculor had been away for so long on Covenant business that he ought to count this season as service. There was a suggestion that he might personally take the vis to Fudarus, but this was rejected, wisely. He had been very successful in hunting vis so far this season, even if we did have to give it all away, so we agreed that he should continue with vis hunting.
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