The dining hall at LaDuce Manor evinced only a shadow of its former glory. It was spacious; with a high ceiling and a large stained-glass window at one end depicting some long-forgotten battle in which some equally long-forgotten ancestor of the LaDuce's had been victorious. Clearly Luna was given credit for his success, as the moon goddess herself was depicted smiling down on the scene from a higher window in the shape of a triangle with its point downward. The wallpaper was faded, as were the rugs and even the tablecloths. The moulding was chipped in places, and the room had an overall musty feel about it. A large fireplace sat empty on either side of the long table which dominated the center of the room. Above one of the fireplaces – the one on the east wall – was a portrait of a dark-hared man with bright blue eyes. He appeared to be just shy of his middle years. He wore a military uniform, as people in such portraits so often do. In a chair before him sat a girl with curly blonde locks and a serious look on her face. Above the other fireplace was a portrait of a young woman sitting in a chair that matched the one in the other portrait. Standing to either side of her were two small children: Jens and Jessa at a younger age. The painter of the portrait had caught their delicate features perfectly in the work.
The guests were shown into the hall by Rikard, who had changed into an ill-fitting coat and tails. He helped Elinge with her chair, and motioned the men to sit.
"Drinks will be served," he said. "And the Countess will be with you shortly." He bowed and exited through one of the side doors.
A few moments later Nansi entered with a tray of fruits and cheeses, followed by Rikard, who bore a bottle of chilled wine. Each of the guests was served, and they both exited once again.
"I believe you were going to finish telling us of the time you hunted the chimaeras." Elinge began, "But we arrived at the manor before you could finish. Would you mind continuing, Owerst?"
"Oh yes, that. Of course, dear lady, though it may not be the best topic of conversation just before dinner." Aerik Nandliss looked at the other guests. "However, if no one else minds?"
The others nodded their consent and made agreeable noises, so Nandliss continued.
"Of course, of course. As I said, we had tracked the beast out of the forest, through the scrub-lands and into a dry sort of country. Not quite a desert, you see."
Owerst Aerik Nandless was one of those men who loves to hear the sound of his own voice. There was no topic too big nor too small for him to have formed an opinion, and he would gladly explain that opinion to anyone who would give him half a chance. He also loved to recount tales of his many exploits – especially those involving hunting or military action. He had served in the Palonian Rangers, a branch of the army that specialized in scouting unknown territories and in operations behind enemy lines. He'd reached the rank of Owerst and was very proud of his numerous medals, especially the Traveler's Cross, which he'd received from King Jacke-Petrer Himself. Since then, he had mounted numerous hunting expeditions – mostly for ferocious or legendary creatures.
He continued, "The terrain was all rocky, which made tracking somewhat difficult, but I was determined. Such a large beast as a chimaera shouldn't hide easily, you see, but it's coloring was close to that of the terrain, and they have semi-magical properties, as I'm sure you know."
Elinge seemed captivated by his every word. The frail man in the black and blue robes maintained his silence, but listened politely. Mr. Insel seemed to be paying only half his attention. While he listened to the blustery old officer, he also studied the room – teasing out its history and its secrets.
Owerst Nandliss rambled on, describing the methods used to track such a fantastical beast. He detailed the methods of looking at rocks to see which ones had been recently disturbed, and the uses of divining powders obtained from the far-away lands of Tik'kalli.
"The creature knew we were on its trail. But it must have also known it could never lose us. We had been tracking it for three days, after all. Finally, it must have grown tired of flight, and found itself a position from which it could most ably defend itself. It had chosen a little cavern of sorts, with the only approach through a narrow defile that, at that time of day, allowed the sun to shine straight in our faces as we approached. We had a rather difficult decision to make: assault it head on, all but blinded by Sol's glare, or wait until he set, thus having to fight the beast in darkness. The way I saw it, there really was no choice. We naturally decided to ..."
He was interrupted by the entrance of the Countess, who was accompanied by the servants, along with Jens and Jessa. The guests rose at her entrance, and Rikard helped her seat herself at the head of the table, with the windows behind her. The twins seated themselves on the other side of the guests, opposite one another: Jessa next to Mr. Insel, and Jens next to the Owerst. Nearest to the Countess were Elinge and the Dreamer.
"My apologies for not welcoming you in person earlier," said the Countess. "My health isn't what it used to be, and sometimes I need a little rest in the afternoons."
"No apology required, Madam Countess," replied Owerst Nandliss. "I believe I speak for all of us when I say that It is a considerable honor merely to be invited to your great and storied home." The others murmured agreement and bowed.
"My home isn't as honorable as it once was, I'm afraid, so we needn't stand on such ceremony." The Countess motioned to their chairs. "Please do sit, all of you."
Once everyone was seated, Nansi left for the kitchen again, while Rikard filled the Countess's wine glass before following her. The Countess took a sip and studied her guests. Countess Amelia LaDuce was educated in the ways of proper courtly behavior, but at her advanced age she had little patience for it.
She was a tall woman and possessed a regal bearing. Her hair was as white as snow, and her face was wrinkled, but fair. Her azure eyes possessed a sharpness about them that might be mistaken for coldness, but was actually a sign of her undeteriorated mental faculties. She wore a grey silk gown – somewhat formal, but not elaborately so – with a white lace shawl and pearl buttons.
"Thank you all for being here. I trust your journey went well. Are your rooms agreeable?"
"Yes, quite well, Madam." Nandliss, naturally, was the first to speak. "Your coach was quite comfortable, and the accommodations are more than pleasant. Thank you for your hospitality."
"I'm very glad to hear that, Owerst Nandliss." She turned to Elinge and Mr. Insel. "And yours?"
Elinge replied with a simple Yes, Ma'am and Mr. Insel only nodded.
"And you, Master Trammer?"
The Dreamer nodded to the Countess. "Yes. The journey went well, and the room will suffice."
Nansi and Rikard returned with a large tureen of wild mushroom soup. They began serving the guests, who made small talk. Through the first courses of the meal the Countess and her guests discussed mostly pleasant, light topics; such as the weather or the year's fashions in Ayrst. The twins ate silently.
Mr. Insel broke the chatter with a question. "I noticed that there were workmen cutting and burning many of the trees on your estate. Is there any particular reason for clearing so much land now?"
"Yes, there is," replied the Countess. "But we'll discuss that later."
After the main course of roast lamb with vegetables was over, came the Rivvener cream & peach pudding. While the dessert was being served, the Countess got down to business.
"No doubt, you are all wondering why I've invited you here. Yours were not the only letters I sent, but among those that replied, you were the four I chose. Before I get to the reason, I'd like to know what you all know of my late husband's history." She nodded towards the portrait above the eastern fireplace.
Without hesitation, Owerst Nandliss put forth his knowledge. "I know Count Viktor LaDuce was born some twenty years before our Good King Jak. You and he were married in 758. You bore him a daughter, Elinora, who Passed into The Dream at a young age, but you had no other children."
Seeing the Countess wince at the mention of her late daughter's name, Nandliss paused. "I apologize to m'lady if I brought up an unpleasant memory there. It was a well-known tragedy at the time – some fourteen years ago, I believe?"
"Thirteen years ago last month. Please, do continue."
"He was a man of some renown even before the Orgish rebellion. It was during the Battle at the Willow Wood of 768 that he was lost defending this very homestead. He was granted the Blue Dragon for his valor, though it was granted posthumously. By all accounts he'd lived the same way as he Passed: an honorable man."
"That is what is commonly known, yes." The Countess nodded to Nandliss. "What few know is what a devoted and loving husband he was. So devoted, in fact, that though he has Passed into The Dream, some part of him as remained. He watches over his ancestral home. He still watches over me. And sometimes he still speaks to me from The Dream."
At this, the Dreamer opened his eyes wider in surprise. "Surely, Countess, you know what you speak could be construed as heresy?"
"Yes, I know, but there is no Hierophant here to scold me. Surely you have no interest in running to the Temple?" She laughed. "Though I've little doubt they'd love to hear the tale."
"Now, back to the point at hand," she continued. "I believe my deep connections with my dear departed Viktor have given me a waking connection to the Dream." She motioned the Dreamer for silence. "Patience, Master Trammer. You will be heard, but as you've no doubt guessed your presence here is especially important."
"You see, it was in the week before the anniversary of Elinora's accident that I had a dream. A dream which involved Viktor, Elinora and that accursed forest. First, I should tell you of the nature of Elinora's Passing."