Episode 15 — Crash-Landing

After Maya's Light emerges through the Jumpgate into Gwynneth system, Captain Merced puts the ship through the customary systems check and discovers a misalignment in the secondary fluid feeders. She informs Aquilegia that it would be prudent to land on Gwynneth to effect inspection and repairs. Unfortunately, the Paracelsus Belt — a 22.6-billion mile long serpentine column of red solar plasma which crosses the binary system from its red dwarf to its blue star in a wide, undulating arc — is currently closer to the planet than is considered entirely safe. Waiting until conditions improve could take weeks and delay the mission to Bannockburn unreasonably, especially in light of the time lost on Criticorum. Aquilegia tells Captain Merced to proceed cautiously and pull out at the first sign of danger.

For a few hours everything seems to go smoothly but then fire alarms ring through the ship. A conflagration has started in the engineering section and the automatic door controls seem to be off-line. Aquilegia and NeVaga grab fire extinguishers and run to the compartment to evacuate the three crewmembers and seal it off. In the corridor near the door, they find a small charred body burnt to cinders. They race in, NeVaga heading for the control console and Aquilegia searching for the crew. The baroness finds herself facing a blinding column of fire! She barely has a chance to duck as the creature, for it appears to be one, moves to strike her. Responding instinctively to NeVaga's shouted warning, Aquilegia opens her fire extinguisher and aims it directly at the fiery creature, which disappears with high-pitched whistling cry. NeVaga activates the containment doors and drags Aquilegia out just in time. Of the crew they found only three lumps of ash.

After depressurizing the compartment to extinguish the flames and letting it cool down, NeVaga takes a look at the damage and does some damage control. Almost immediately, a new klaxon goes off and the captain's voice on the comm system instructs everyone to brace for impact. Aquilegia and NeVaga race back to the bridge and see that Maya's Light is about to crash on Gwynneth. They barely have time to strap themselves in their crash seats as the captain takes the ship into a barely controlled descent through the atmosphere. Rather than hitting square into the forest, Captain Merced is able to follow the silvery line of a river and limit the amount of damage as they crash-land into the stream. Everything goes dark as the power goes out.

Most of the crew are moderately to badly injured. Aquilegia checks on the crew and administers first aid, while NeVaga pulls out emergency supplies then opens the hatch to examine their surroundings. It's night and although the river is not deep enough for the ship to sink far, it begins to fill with water. NeVaga announces that she will go scout for a safe spot to erect a camp, while Aquilegia helps the survivors out.

As she reconnoitres into the woods in the dark, NeVaga senses the presence of people skulking about. She evades capture, but Aquilegia and her crew are not so fortunate. A group of rough-looking peasants, dressed in pelts and hides and armed with makeshift weapons, surround and capture them. They demand that Aquilegia calls NeVaga back, under threat. Once the Ukar has joined their merry band, they take their prisoners on a forced march through the woods; soon after, Aquilegia hears detonations in the direction of the ship they left behind. The captors assure her that this means the Muster are here and not being too delicate about their methods.

After several hours of travel, the exhausted prisoners are taken to a village where perhaps a hundred people are assembled. The prisoners are put in a cramped hut, where soon someone comes to fetch Aquilegia. She is taken to meet with a young man, better dressed and armed, who the peasants refer to as "the Baron" and who introduces himself as Lord Randall Hawkwood; he has the good looks for which his family is known. He tells Aquilegia that the Muster are hunting his group and they must now break camp and leave for a safer location. The trip will be difficult for her wounded crew but promises to see to the wounded and bring them all rather than abandoning them behind if Aquilegia will give her word that she will not try to escape. She grudgingly agrees and the trip begins anew. But before leaving, the peasants assemble in the centre of the village and invoke their ancestors in a ceremony that is clearly not in the liturgy of the Prophet Zebulon, while Lord Randall stands aside silently. The group scatters into many smaller groups. Three days of march takes the prisoners and their captors to a forested hill that turns out to hide a network of caverns.

After they have had some time to rest, Lord Randall meets with Aquilegia again. He explains that he is running from his brother Baron Clement Hawkwood and his liege Duke William Rochefort Hawkwood. Aquilegia vaguely remembers hearing of Duke Rochefort, and having formed a bad impression. Rochefort, Lord Randall says, is a religious fanatic who, upon becoming Duke of Tolth, called in Temple Avesti and initiated a ruthless Inquisition against the pagans who formed a large part of the peasantry of his duchy.

Millions were killed — Aquilegia is shocked at the numbers. The Hawkwoods and the Gwynneth Orthodoxy were shocked and acted to have him censured and lose his Church support, but he then hired Muster mercenaries to do his brutal work. Most other Hawkwood nobles shun him but his vassal Baron Clement, though somewhat less extreme, continued to support him. Revolted by his brother's action in support of Duke Rochefort's bloody repression of the pagans, Lord Randall spoke up in protestation and soon led a rebellion. Now, he says, he is a traitor to his family and his liege.

Because of the rebellious activity in this area and the occasional help smuggled in, the Duke's Muster forces destroy any ship they intercept, asking questions later; in that way, they bombed Maya's Light. They likely realized later that they had destroyed a Questing Knight's ship, but by then Baron Clement and Duke Rochefort would be left with the decision of how to treat this faux-pas. Aquilegia suggests that they might well want to blame it on the rebels themselves.

Questioning Lord Randall about the planet and the Gwynneth system, Aquilegia also learn that her ship was attacked by Salamanders when it neared the Paracelsus Belt, fiery creatures who seem to hate travellers and to know how to best disable ships.

She insists that she must find a new ship or, if possible, repair Maya's Light and get on with her mission as the fate of the Known Worlds may hang in the balance. Lord Randall says he will try to find a way to get her safely off the island and outside Duke Rochefort's reach, but asks her to give her word that she and her people will not try to escape in the mean time. She agrees to a truce of one week, which she figures will give her people a chance to recover.

During that week, NeVaga spends much of her time exploring the cave network, which turns out to be a veritable warren. She locates convenient ways through which they might be able to escape, but also starts going deeper into the caves than probably any of the rebels ever have. Deep, deep inside the earth she finds ancient Ukar runes, perhaps millennia old! She decides to return inform Aquilegia of how far this network extends — when she feels a tremor in the rock, then another. She realizes that this is not an earthquake but a bombing attack.

Nearer the surface, Aquilegia hears the explosion much more clearly. The caves are shaken and rockfalls scare the inhabitants. Aquilegia gathers her crew and tries to evaluate whether it is more dangerous to go deeper inside the caves or to try to run out. The answer rapidly becomes obvious when panicked peasants run out and are mowed down by well-armed ground troops. Aquilegia leads her crew and other refugees away from the cave entrance, and runs into NeVaga. She convinces the Ukar to help her collapse the cave entrance to buy temporary reprieve from the attackers. The resulting partial cave-in slows down the Muster and Hawkwood forces.

NeVaga rapidly explains that the caves stretch much further than the humans know and leads the group into the warren. They run into Lord Randall and a group of escapees, and Aquilegia explains what NeVaga told her. She convinces Lord Randall to help her create more rock blockages to protect their retreat, trusting that NeVaga can lead them to another exit.

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