He could feel the uneasiness of the city as he passed through the gates, leading his horse by the reigns. The group trailed out behind him. They had placed the oldest and most wounded of the would-be sacrifices in Rognvald’s cart. The rest walked along behind, with Ku and Barry bringing up the rear on horseback. Luckily, they had met no more worgs in the day or so of travel that it had taken to reach the city.
The buildings of Rivers’ Crossing were packed closely together. They were made from a combination of timber and brick. Gale stopped as he reached a crowd that seemed to be watching something up ahead. Can’t see a thing… He climbed back onto his horse to get a better view.
Up ahead, a man was standing on a crate, crying out, “I’m sure you’ve all heard! The elves! The elves are raiding and pillaging across the entire Fadafir Kingdom!”
Last I heard, they had only raided some border towns…
“Even now,” the man continued, “they walk among us! Preparing to strike!”
Gale reached up and pulled his hat tighter. The crowd was muttering and eyeing each other suspiciously. Great…
The man pointed to the sky, “And now, I tell you! The elves have used fell magic out in the Bittercold! They have sent the monster… the dragon… as a sign of their power!”
Ok. It’s official. This guy is nuts.
The man now pointed at the crowd, “The elves own the sky! How long do you think we have? Even now, our lord… Eric Indaren… is negotiating with the elves! He will sell our kingdom into slavery! We will all soon be in chains!”
And now he’s stirring up a panic… Wonderful. Gale cleared his throat and shouted, “Hey!” Many in the crowd turned to face him. Uhh… what am I doing? This is crazy… no, that man is crazy… This madness has to stop. “The elves have raided a few towns, yes… but the only danger here today is your own panic. You must… you must stay calm and stand united against the elves. Your leaders are moving to stop the elves… all will be fine.”
“Fine, he says!” The man on the crate pointed an accusatory finger at Gale, “He is probably one of them! An elf!”
That… might very well be the first true thing he’s said… heheh.
“How,” the man continued, “can we stay calm when the elves send dragons to kill us all?”
Someone in the crowd called out, “Oh, come off it already!”
The eyes of the man on the crate rolled wildly, “Another elf! They are among us! They are in the crowd!”
The crowd’s only response to that was a nasty tomato between the crazy man’s eyes. The man spluttered and stumbled around atop his crate. The crowd chuckled and started to disperse.
Mathius Drosund walked up beside Gale’s horse. Gale had come to admire the nobleman, who walked among the others in their group… the commonfolk that had been nearly sacrificed by the worgs and the strange horned creatures that Blind Seer called shamans. Barry had offered Mathius his horse, but Mathius had declined, saying that the ones with the ability to fight should be on horseback, so as to quickly respond to danger. Mathius now looked up at Gale and said, “Good work. Panic is the last thing we need right now. Come, let us get Rognvald to his townhouse, then I will introduce you to Lord Eric Indaren.”
He walked alongside Gale, who had dismounted again. It was much easier to lead the horse on foot through the crowded streets. Blind Seer looked up at Gale, “Do you… do you think it could be true? What that man said about the elves and the dragon?”
“I doubt it,” Gale replied.
Blind Seer sniffed the air. Ack! This is worse than Lakeside! How do humans live like this? He tried to ignore the terrible smells, “He may have been crazy… but I have heard the elves are skilled at magic.”
“I have… uh, heard that too,” said Gale, “But this… I’ve never heard of anything like this.”
Their conversation lapsed into silence as they continued to make their way to Rognvald’s townhouse. Blind Seer watched the crowd stream by, feeling slightly overwhelmed. He saw only a few other wolfos in the city, sitting on street corners and selling finely woven cloth. There were a good amount of enieto on the streets, mingling amongst the countless humans.
“Turn left here and third house on the right,” Rognvald called out from behind them. They followed his directions and soon arrived at his townhouse. It was a modest building, thin, two stories, well crafted but unadorned. Rognvald rumbled his cart around back to a shed. He hopped down and unhooked the horses, hitching them to a nearby post.
Gale, Blind Seer, Ku, and Barry got their own horses settled and started helping to get the cart unloaded of the few goods Rognvald had picked up in Lakeside. The once-bandits and the almost-sacrifices assisted as well. Mathius Drosund approached the cart.
“Oh no, sir,” said Rognvald, “I couldn’t ask you to help.”
“I don’t recall you asking,” said Mathius with a smirk, “Still going to help.”
They made short work of unloading it and the goods were soon stacked and secured in the shed. Rognvald led everyone inside. The interior of the house was much like the exterior, well made and practical. “Ahh,” said Rognvald, heading into his humble kitchen, “Good to be home.” He rummaged around in a cabinet for a minute. “I’m afraid I don’t have any food in the house. Need to restock after that journey.” He pulled a box out of the cabinet, set it on the dining table, and produced a key from an inner pocket on his jacket. “I do, however, have coin for my faithful guards.” Rognvald unlocked the box, which had many coins inside. He paid out fair amounts to the guards, then relocked the box.
Blind Seer accepted his coins and awkwardly shuffled them into his pack. These bits of metal are more suited to those with true thumbs… Blind Seer looked back to Rognvald, “So, what now?”
“I imagine,” said Rognvald, “that Mathius Drosund here will be taking you to see Lord Eric Indaren now. You lot seem to have made quite an impression on him.”
Mathius smiled, “That tends to happen when you save someone from a pack of blood-crazed worgs.”
Rognvald continued, “Any who wish to stay in my employ are welcome, though I daresay you four may very well have other work after seeing Lord Indaren. In any case, you may certainly come back here and visit anytime.”
The men who had once been in the outlaw gang with Barry accepted Rognvald’s offer of employment. Everyone shook hands and made their way to the door. “I am honored to have traveled with you,” said Blind Seer, formally bowing, “May the Guarding Hunter grant you good health and long life.”
Mathius Drosund rounded up the men and women that had almost been sacrificed. Gale, Blind Seer, Ku, and Barry gathered their horses and joined him. “Let us be off,” Mathius said, and led them in the direction of the castle.
They made their way across the city. They passed by a thriving market square where everything from food to wagon wheels were being sold. A sturdy stone bridge loomed ahead, beyond which rose a formidable castle and another bridge. Ku could see that the river they had followed from Lakeside split into two here. One of the branches curved off to the west and the other headed southeast. The castle was nestled between the two branches of the river. A sound defense… Close off the bridges and a practical attack can only come from one direction.
“So,” said Blind Seer as they walked along, “What… what are everyone’s plans for after this?”
Everyone was silent for several moments, then Gale said, “Well… I suppose it depends on this Lord Indaren fellow… I guess that… that if that doesn’t lead to anything… we could continue working for Rognvald.”
Blind Seer wagged his tail, “I certainly wouldn’t mind continuing to travel with you all.”
Gale smiled, “Me neither.”
Barry chuckled, “It’s the best I’ve had in a long time.”
They all looked to him. “Ah,” Ku said, “Yes… It has been rather enjoyable.” I don’t know if I just want to wander around with them forever, though… I’ve always wanted to see Laushurno…
They crossed the bridge. Both sides had thick gatehouses. The castle guards recognized Mathius Drosund and hailed him. One of the guards stepped forward, “Here to see Lord Indaren, Lord Drosund?”
“Yes,” Mathius replied, “As well as these folk here.” He waved his hand towards the group behind him.
The guard nodded, “I will see that he is informed of your arrival. He may be several minutes, though… He is holding council about the recent elf raids. You are of course welcome to wait in the front room.”
Mathius led the group through the castle gates.
They sat around in the front room. The castle stable boys had seen to their horses. Guards were posted on the double doors that Mathius said led to the lord’s hall. Barry was sweating slightly. He had been a bit nervous ever since entering Rivers’ Crossing.
Surely it has been long enough… Surely no one will recognize me. It’s been… what… two years since I was last here? I’ve never been to the castle, though…
He cast his gaze around the room. The walls were made of huge, carved stone bricks. Arrow slits let in sunlight and the main door was thick and reinforced with strips of metal.
Gale slid into the seat next to Barry and said, “Barry, what do you know of Lord Indaren?”
Barry thought back on the time he had lived in Rivers’ Crossing, “A stern man… and just… His family served in the Second War. He served in the border patrol. The Indaren family has been around since the time the Longman family ruled as kings. Eric has devoted himself to holding the elves at bay. The severity of their raids has dwindled while he’s been Lord of Rivers’ Crossing.”
“Sounds like a great man,” said Gale.
Mathius paced back and forth for a while in the front room, then asked one of the guards if he could join Lord Indaren’s meeting. The guards allowed him to pass. The front room became quiet again as the rest of them waited to be admitted.
Lord of Rivers’ Crossing
He leaned over the table, braced on his arms, surveying the map of the Fadafir Kingdom. His officers and his advisor, Varison Dargur, were gathered around the table as well, studying the map intently. He pointed a finger up north, to the Cold Forest, “The scouts report elf raids all along the border of the Cold Forest north of the river,” he slid his finger down the map, to the Silent Hills, which were south of the borders of the Fadafir Kingdom and near the Singing Forest, “and the men at Brandon’s Watch report increased elf activity… the elves are ranging further and further from the Singing Forest.”
He let out a long sigh. “They are testing us… testing our defenses. They are planning something big… I just know it. And now I’ve got thrice-damned fairy tales flying over my city! Where do we stand with that?”
Varison Dargur replied, “Still no word from Sir Grisholm, my lord.”
He clenched his jaw and stared at the map. “If the elves decide to invade…” A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. He strode over to it, flung it open, and stared down at the page who had knocked. “Yes?”
The page wrung his hands, “Lord Indaren… sorry to disturb you. It’s just… we have a man here insisting to see you… a Lord Drosund…”
Eric Indaren widened his eyes in surprise, “Mathius Drosund is alive?”
At that moment, Mathius sauntered into view behind the page. “And well, my friend… Alive and well.”
Eric strode forward and clapped Mathius on the back, “Good to see you! We began to worry when we didn’t hear from you… Thought maybe bandits… or worse.” He pulled Mathius into the map room as the page scurried off.
The smile on Mathius’ face faded, “Worse, I’m afraid… Worgs.”
Eric swore, “As if a dragon wasn’t enough… now you are telling me we’ve got worgs in our borders?”
“Well,” Mathius said, a smirk beginning to form, “You’ve got fewer of them to worry about now… I was rescued by a… somewhat unusual group. Could be just what you need…” He put a hand on the map. “Are the rumors true? Are the elves stirring?”
Eric joined Mathius at the map and replied, “Yes. From both forests.”
“War on two sides,” said Mathius, “Only one way to survive that…”
Eric narrowed his eyes at Mathius, “With allies. Your… unusual group… you think they could bring us allies, don’t you?”
Mathius nodded, “Two humans, a wolfos, and an enieto… I’m sure by now you’ve sent envoys to the Brimmahg Confederacy, but we may need more help… The enieto of Laushurno… and the wolfos tribes.”
Varison Dargur scoffed and joined the conversation, “The wolfos tribes? Bands of scattered savages… You’d sooner convert a Bulanti from Celestialism than you’d get those tribes organized and working together.”
Mathius said, “The wolfos are holding a Great Meet this year, I’ve heard. Could be an opportunity to speak with many tribes at once.”
Varison waved a hand dismissively, “Great Meet… right… a chance for them to all get together and yap at each other. The enieto of Laushurno would be a better bet for allies.”
Mathius pointed at the map, to the Eolas Mountains, which were across the vast Veldt of the Sun from where the Fadafir Kingdom lay, “But Laushurno is many miles away. By the time an envoy reached them, negotiated with them, and-”
Lord Eric Indaren held up a hand. Mathius and Varison grew silent. Eric said, “We need allies, yes. Both the enieto and wolfos are a possibility. The Brimmahg may also need further convincing… But, we have a more pressing matter at the moment. You said your group has dealt with worgs, Mathius, perhaps they could also deal with a dragon. It flew over yesterday and it looked like it landed in the woods just south of Rivers’ Crossing. I sent Derrack Grisholm to investigate, but I haven’t heard anything yet. Perhaps your group can look into this for me… track down Sir Grisholm and see what the situation is.”
Mathius nodded, “They might be up for that.”
“Good,” said Eric, “I will meet them now. If they do well in this task, I imagine I will have more work for them.”
He looked up when Mathius returned to the front room. Mathius said that Lord Indaren would soon be ready.
I wonder what he will be like… Gale had heard tales of lords back on the farm from human slaves… Good lords, bad lords, cruel lords, and noble lords… Barry said that this Lord Indaren served in the border patrols… Gale pulled his hat tight. He may not differentiate between enlightened and highland elf… I’d best be careful.
“Lord Eric Indaren will see you now,” one of the guards said as he moved to open the double doors to the lord’s hall. The room beyond was long and made of sturdy stone bricks. It was furnished with several benches where petitioners could wait their turn on court days. On a small raised stone platform at the back of the hall was a finely carved wooden seat. To one side of the platform stood a man dressed in red silk robes, standing with his arms clasped in front of him. Another man stood in front of the seat, wearing fine chainmail and a dark red cloak.
Gale, Blind Seer, Ku, and Barry followed Mathius into the room. The would-be worg sacrifices followed behind.
A herald stepped forward and said, “Welcome all, to the hall of Eric Indaren, Watcher of the Hills, Defender of the Kingdom, and Lord of Rivers’ Crossing.”
Eric stepped forward on the platform, his chainmail rattling softly. “Indeed, welcome. Mathius here tells me that you saved him and these fine folk from worgs.”
“Aye, m’lord,” said the woman who had nearly bled to death during the ritual, “If not for these here, we’d have been eaten alive by those beasts.”
Eric cast his gaze over the four of them. “Seems to me we have some heroes here.” He chuckled and raised his eyes to the civilians, “My stewards shall see that you are fed, clothed, and given some coin for your troubles before you begin your journeys home. Rest assured that my militia shall be informed of the presence of worgs within our borders. Take care and safe travels.”
The stewards ushered out the civilians, taking them to a side room. Eric beckoned the four of them forward, “Now, let us speak of your reward for protecting the citizens of the Fadafir Kingdom. Come, tell me your names.”
Gale stepped forward, “Gale E- Eh… Ahem… Wood… son… Ah… Gale Woodson, sir… my lord.” Nearly said ‘Elswood’… That would have gone over great. Doesn’t sound elvish at all!
Blind Seer hurried forward and bowed, “I am Blind Seer of the Sagesnouts, noble lord.”
Dang, I forgot to bow.
Ku gave a brief bow, “I am called Ku in the human tongue, my lord.”
Great. Now I even look less courteous than Ku.
Barry bowed deeply, then said, “Barristan Castor Longfellow the Third, at your service, my lord.”
What? Who? Is that his full name? Wow… that’s a mouthful.
Gale heard a sharp intake of breath. He looked for the source and his eyes settled on the man in red silk robes standing next to the stone platform. The man’s eyes were widened in surprise, but they quickly returned to normal. The man glanced furtively at Eric, then his gaze settled on Barry. Gale shook himself mentally, realizing that he had been staring at the man in red silk robes for several moments.
“Ah yes,” said Lord Eric Indaren, “This is my advisor, Varison Dargur.” The man in red silk robes gave a brief bow. “Now,” Eric continued, “You shall of course be paid for rescuing my friend and aiding the security of the Kingdom by slaying those worgs.”
Eric gestured to another steward near the back of the hall, who scurried off to make the payment arrangements. Eric turned back to the group, “If you are interested, I may have additional work for you. I am sure that you saw the dragon?”
Kind of hard to miss… “Yes,” Gale replied.
“I need to know what we are dealing with,” said Eric, “Is it smart like the dragons in hearth tales? What does it want? Can it be reasoned with or is it just a beast? Is it a danger to the Kingdom? Should it be slain? I need answers to all these questions. I sent one of my knights, Derrack Grisholm, into the woods south of here, where the dragon landed. I haven’t heard from him, though.”
“You want us to go into the woods and… confront… a dragon? I’m… not sure we’re… qualified,” said Gale.
“No one is qualified to deal with this creature sprung from legend…” Eric sighed, “Look, I’m not asking you to confront a dragon. I just want to know what has happened to Sir Grisholm. Would you be willing to track him down for me?”
“I… suppose we could do that, sir… my lord,” Gale said, looking to the others, who nodded their agreement.
“Good,” said Eric, “Rest assured that you will be well paid for your efforts. I would advise starting first thing in the morning. It is getting late… You wouldn’t want to wander around the woods in the dark.”
Mathius spoke up, “You are all welcome to come stay with me. I’ve plenty of room.”
They agreed, thanked Lord Eric Indaren, and bid farewell, heading back across town to Mathius Drosund’s place.
“Welcome to my home,” said Mathius as he pulled open the ornately carved double wooden doors. Servants scurried forward over the tiled floor. They quickly relieved Mathius and his guests’ of their possessions, leaving them to relax by the crackling fire in the wood floored sitting room. Blind Seer padded forward and curled up by the warmth.
“We have refreshments for all. Rooms have been prepared for you upstairs,” one of the servants said. He eyed their travel worn clothes and faces. “If you like, we can also draw up a warm bath.”
Gale’s eyes lit up. “A… warm… bath? Like… a bath… with hot water?”
The servant nodded.
Gale hopped up and said, “Yes, I’ll take one please. How about the rest of you?”
Barry shrugged. “But it isn’t time… Hasn’t been a full year yet.”
Gale looked absolutely mortified.
Barry chuckled, “Just kidding. Yes, I’ll take one too, please.”
Ku and Blind Seer decided to have one as well. The servant headed off to prepare the baths. Another brought food and drink while they waited. When the baths were ready, the servants led them upstairs and showed them to a room with copper tubs.
He sank into the warm water with a deep sigh. The pleasant floral smell of the soap wafted upward along with the steam. Ku breathed deeply, relishing the moist air on his skin. The hot, dry air of late summer had been murder on his flesh. He absently felt around for the sponge on the side of the tub, eyes closed, enjoying as all his muscles relaxed.
His reverie was broken by an astonished exclamation from Blind Seer, “Gale! What are those!?”
Ku’s eyes snapped open. What is going on? Ku swiveled around to stare at Gale, who was halfway done sinking into his own tub. Ku felt a hiss escape him and the flesh around his frills swell, an instinctive reaction of anger or disgust, both of which would be appropriate in this case.
Gale was covered with ropy white scars from his shoulders to the backs of his thighs. He heard Barry groan and spared him a glance. Barry sank deeply beneath the bubbles with his eyes squeezed shut, apparently too appalled to look any longer.
Gale stood awkwardly, apparently at a loss of words. Finally, he replied calmly, “They are just old scars, Blind Seer… They don’t hurt.” Slowly, he lowered himself into the water, hiding the scars from view.
“But…but how…?” Blind Seer stammered, his voice quaking with distress.
Gale turned around to stare hard at Blind Seer, his facial expression difficult to read. “Blind Seer… I was enslaved for nearly 50 years… scars tend to accumulate…”
Barry coughed and choked on the bubbles, apparently forgetting the horror of Gale’s disfigurement in lieu of this shocking new revelation. “50 years? You’re 50 years old!?”
Gale seized on the new topic with eagerness. “Enslaved for 50 years or so… I was taken when I was still young… I’m somewhere in my early 60’s by my count. It gets a bit hard to keep track of when you’re a slave. I think that would make me physically in my early 20s by human standards.” Gale began scrubbing his back, Blind Seer and Barry winced at the reappearance of the scars.
“But Gale… those look…” Blind Seer implored. He was not so easily steered off topic.
Gale sighed heavily. He leaned backwards over the rim of the tub so that he was staring at them all upside down, his pointed ears clearly visible beneath his sodden hair. “Blind Seer… I appreciate your concern, but it’s in the past now and I’d rather it stayed there. I want to look forward not back, ok? So can we talk about something else please?“
Blind Seer pushed the bubbles around his tub nervously, but did not pursue the topic.
Ku had watched this exceptionally awkward interplay with interest. Humans and highland elves apparently share the same compulsion to avoid painful topics in favor of living in denial. Ku rolled his eyes. If thats how you want it then lets change the subject… He spoke, “Gale, I have an inquiry for you.”
“Yes?” Gale offered cautiously as he vigorously scrubbed his arm.
“If you are as physically developed as you claim, why do you have no body hair?”
Barry and Blind Seer immediately looked up from their own bathing to stare curiously at Gale.
“Pardon?!” Gale turned around so fast to stare at Ku that he sent a wave of water out of his tub.
“I shall repeat. You claim to be physically mature and yet you are as hairless as I am, except for your head. Why?” Barry and Blind Seer watched the byplay with great interest. Barry stared down at his own hairy chest and glanced at Gale. It was true enough, Gale’s chest and forearms were completely smooth. It was an odd juxtaposition when compared to his otherwise mature physique.
Gale blushed furiously, his red face clashing magnificently with his auburn hair. “I … what.. that… What does that have to do with anything?!”
“You asked to change the subject.” Ku responded.
“I meant to something else that doesn’t have to do with me and my body!” Gale hollered back. Barry covered his mouth to keep from laughing and Blind Seer was attempting to look thoughtful but was failing spectacularly at hiding his own amusement.
Ku’s unfathomable black eyes stared back impassively, awaiting his answer.
Gale sputtered and ground his teeth. “Highland Elves do not grow body hair… anywhere… no matter how old they are… “ He offered grudgingly.
“Really? None anywhere?” Ku kept his voice even and polite. Barry couldn’t stand it any longer and burst out laughing at the look on Gale’s face.
“No! None anywhere! Want me to prove it!?” Gale made to stand up.
“I don’t believe that will be necessary,” Ku replied quietly, barely making himself heard over the braying laughter of Barry and Blind Seer.
In the morning, they found fresh clothes outside their doors. They prepared their gear, bid farewell to Mathius, and headed out. They stopped by Rognvald on the way out of town.
“Good morning. Come in, come in,” said Rognvald, “How did your meeting with Lord Eric Indaren go?”
Barry replied, “He offered us the chance to go get killed by a dragon.”
Rognvald raised his eyebrows. “Oh? He’s sending you after that thing?”
“Well,” said Barry, “Our actual goal is to track down Sir Derrack Grisholm, a knight that Lord Indaren sent after the dragon.”
“I hope all goes well. Here, have some biscuits. Picked them up from the baker this morning.” Rognvald passed around a plate of delicious biscuits. They ate, then bid their farewells.
They made their way through town, over the west bridge, past the castle, to the south gate. The gate was not normally open to townsfolk. It was reserved for nobles wishing to hunt in the dense forest south of Rivers’ Crossing and soldiers heading south to Brandon’s Watch in the Silent Hills. The guards at the gate were expecting them, though, and let them through.
“So,” said Gale, edging his horse closer to Barry’s, “Barristan Castor Longfellow the Third, eh?”
Barry ducked under a tree branch as his horse plowed forward. The leaves rustled as it scraped atop his head. In this area of the world, some deciduous trees were sprinkled amongst the coniferous. Leaves and needles jostled together, all vying for sunlight.
Barry sighed inwardly. What possessed me to give my full name? I’ll never hear the end of it… I guess it was Gale talking about how Lord Indaren sounded like a Great Man… My ancestors were Great too… “Yes. That is my full name, but you can continue just calling me Barry.”
“I don’t know,” Gale smirked and gave him a sidelong glance, “Barristan has such a nice ring to it… Barristan Castor Longfellow the Third… sounds rather noble, don’t you think?”
“Well… actually… The Longfellows are… well, were… a minor noble family. My ancestors were great men… They served in the Border Patrols and fought in the Great Wars… Ah, the stories my father would tell me when he wasn’t drunk… We have dwindled, though… Lost our lands and fortune until…” Barry trailed off into silence. Until me. Here at the end of the line… an ex-bandit wandering around in the woods with this merry gang of misfits…
The silence stretched on for several minutes until Gale, guessing at Barry’s thoughts, said, “Come, Barry, you may yet join your ancestors in the ranks of Great Men.”
As Barry was preparing to reply, another voice rang out through the woods, “Halt!”