Raloric Beixalim wasn't a hero.His mother had been a hero. She lost her life saving a young girl from demons when Raloric was a child.His father and stepmother had been heroes. They died from the wounds they received saving a village from ogres, leaving Raloric to raise his half-brother.His half-brother had been a hero too, falling to a kobold ambush while attempting to rescue a child that had been kidnapped.Raloric didn't want to be a hero. He just wanted to protect what was left of his family, the widow his brother had left behind and the daughter his brother had never gotten to meet.Fate doesn't always give you what you want though. Raloric's unique history made him essential to our mission.As you search for the sword you will find new companions along the way, but without the lost one to guide you, all is lost.Raloric seemed so out of place that I couldn't imagine he wasn't the lost one the seers spoke of. There was only one problem. He seemed content to hide away in this backwater village, pretending to be nothing more than a simple hunter and scout. Make that two problems, we were running out of time. We only had six months before the Prince of Demons was reborn, and without the sword, we had no hope of standing against him.
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The Sword of The Sun God
Text Copyright © 2018 Chris Godwin
All Rights Reserved
The salty sea air wasn’t high on my list of favorite scents, but at least it was fresh. After two months of being on this boat, most of that breathing the stale air of my cabin, fresh alone was a selling point. Unfortunately it was the only selling point, as the view of our destination was disappointing. For a town that had been established almost six hundred years ago, I was expecting a bit more...anything.
Thankfully we wouldn’t be staying here long. We wouldn’t even be stopping here if it weren’t for the war between the island kingdoms south of here. Having to use the land route added a few weeks to an already tight schedule, but we really didn’t have a choice. The Queen’s Blessing had been the only ship heading this direction, but her captain wasn’t the only one to tell us no one would risk running through the Kingdom of Isles.
“I hope you were comfortable during the trip, mi’lady, despite the restrictions.”
“Your cabin was quite comfortable, Captain,” I replied as I turned to him with a smile on my face. “I’m a bit surprised you agreed to bring us here though. This place doesn’t look big enough to turn a profit on your cargo, even if you add the price of our passage to what you could make.”
He chuckled as he gestured toward the town. “I grew up on those dusty streets, as did most of my crew, but that’s not why we stop here. The only way to move goods past the Kingdom of Isles is over land, and this is the last port before you start running into their ships. We have caravans of goods coming and going every couple weeks, so you’d be surprised by what passes through here. If you’ll excuse me though, I need to oversee getting us into port.”
I nodded as he called to pull the mainsail and turned my attention back to the town. There wasn’t much to look at, but the only other view was the open ocean, and I’d seen enough of that out my cabin’s window. We were almost to shore when the clanking of metal announced my brother’s presence before he arrived.
“You shouldn’t be out of your cabin yet,” he said as he set his armor and pack down next to me. “These sailors don’t seem to understand certain language shouldn’t be used in polite company. I’ll be glad to get away from it and back to the relative quiet of the open road.”
“I’m not that delicate, brother,” I sighed, “and I was tired of staring at the walls. We’ll be on the dock in a few minutes. Will you have time to look for horses tonight?”
He glanced toward the sun and shook his head. “It’s getting late and people pack it in early in small towns. There’s probably a stable hand, but they’re rarely able to do more than take in mounts for the night. We could all use a real meal and a decent night’s sleep first; mounts and supplies can wait for tomorrow morning.”
“Uggh, yeah, I don’t think I ever want to see salt pork or beans again. How can they stand eating that constantly?” Lafarac just looked at me and chuckled. “Alright, I suppose my regular diet isn’t any better, but everything started to taste like it had been dipped in salt after a couple weeks, even the fruits.”
“I’m guessing you left the window open most of the trip?” Glancing over, I saw the captain watching our position as we slowly drifted up between the docks. “I’ve been doing this for thirty years now, and know exactly what you’re talking about. If you leave the window open, you’re breathing in that sea air while you’re eating and everything starts to taste salty. It becomes a trade-off between how stuffy can you handle the room being verses tasting your food. Thankfully it passes once you get away from the water a bit. If you don’t mind a bit of a walk, I’d recommend the Silver Dagger. Shelia’s the best cook in town and it’s far enough in that you’re not assaulted by the ocean air. It’s a bit more expensive, but it’s probably the best choice for a lady such as yourself.”
As the crew tossed the towlines to the dock workers, he turned back to me. “The council built the inns by the docs before my time, but our crews stay there for free when they’re on shore leave. After a few months at sea a man seeks strong ale and female companionship, so after our celebratory dinner at the Silver Dagger, they filter back this way looking for both.”
“I get the idea, Captain, and we’ve heard of the Silver Dagger. Our companions should be up once they finish gathering up their gear. Any chance you could give us directions?”
“Straight up the main strip there to the market square, then turn right. I can do one better though if you don’t mind waiting a few minutes,” he said as he pointed toward the shore. “See that wagon pulling up at the end of the dock? I have two crates going to the Dagger, so my mate will be running them over as soon as he can get the wagon loaded. You can toss your gear in there and ride along if you’d like.”
“Thank you again, Captain. I’m sure my companions will appreciate not having to carry everything. It’s a bit surprising to hear you’re sending your mate off as soon as you hit land for a single customer.”
He chuckled a bit. “I wouldn’t for anyone else, but Shelia doesn’t ask me to look for something and argue over the price after I have it. She tells me what she wants, asks how much it will cost her, then pays in advance, so I make sure she gets her goods as soon as I get back.”
It made sense, but I still couldn't see many merchants doing the same. At least we wouldn’t have to carry all our gear. Dain and Dabarel came up from below as we waited for the oxen teams to pull the ship into position, and my brother filled them in. The dock crew started tying the ship up when I glanced over at my companions.
“I need a hand with the chest if you guys have everything else.”
My brother just nodded and followed me back to the cabin. I grabbed my staff as he picked up the chest and put it over his shoulder like a sack of grain. Considering how much his armor weighed, it probably was like a sack of grain to him. He barely slowed to grab the bundle containing his armor as we made our way down the gangplank and to the end of the dock.
The ride to the inn was uneventful. I’d been through so many small towns and villages over the past three years that they all started to look the same, not that I spent much time looking. With any luck, we’d have our horses and trail rations by noon tomorrow and we’d be on our way. Arriving at the inn made me reconsider.
“Welcome to The Silver Dagger. The mistress hasn’t started serving dinner yet, but we have plenty of stew left if you’re hungry, and I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.”
I could smell it already, but the scent of roasting meat was more tempting. “It smells wonderful, but after two months at sea I think we’ll wait for whatever she has on the spit, and we’ll need lodging for a few days. I need time to remember what solid ground feels like before I’m ready to travel again.”
“Rooms we can do. It’s five silver a night for a regular room, baths are included but they’re shared. We also have a couple deluxe rooms with a private tub for a gold a night if you prefer.”
“A long hot soak sounds wonderful, so I’ll take one of those deluxe rooms for myself.” I glanced back at my companions and saw all three of them shaking their heads before digging five gold out of my pouch. “Sometimes I wonder if they would even stop at an inn if I wasn’t with them. Three regular rooms for my companions. Let’s say for two nights, but we may stay longer.”
“Extra days aren’t a problem,” she said as she took the coins and waved for us to follow her. “Shelia usually works the bar herself in the mornings, so just let her know you’ll be staying longer. We’re rarely full as the merchant council owns the inns down by the docks so they can charge far less than we can. You’d be better off sleeping in the woods if you asked me, it’s probably cleaner. Gentlemen, the three rooms on the left will be yours. Men’s baths are the last door on the right. Miss, this will be your room. We start serving dinner in about an hour if you’d like to freshen up.”
“This will be perfect, thank you. Could you hold one of the booths for us? I prefer to eat with some semblance of privacy.”
“Of course, Miss, we’ll see you at dinner.”
My companions dropped off their gear and were in my room a minute later. “I thought you only wanted to stay one night. What happened?”
I looked up at my brother and shook my head. “Sorry, I knew you would all accept the change and I didn’t have time to explain. Did you see the dagger over the fireplace? The seers mentioned a bloody dagger. I don’t know if that was the dagger they spoke of, but it felt like someone slapped me as soon as I saw it. There may be something vital to our mission here, and I’d rather spend a couple days looking around than miss something we need.”
My brother nodded. “It hangs in a place of honor, so I’m sure there’s a story behind it. I’ll ask around and see what I can learn from the locals. You never know what might be important.”
“Unfortunately I’ll have to make you guys gather what information you can on your own tonight and we can discuss it tomorrow. Divination isn’t one of my strengths, but after dinner, I’ll be coming back to my room and trying it anyway. Hopefully one of us will find a clue as to what we’re looking for here.”
"Is it worth anything? It obviously didn't do him much good."
I tested the dagger’s edge before I looked down at the mostly eaten remains of the dagger's previous owner and shook my head. "Silver weapons are good if you're dealing with certain types of undead or lycanthropes, but they don't hold an edge very well. He probably thought it would help against the ghoul, but silver doesn’t bother them any more than good steel would. It's worth its weight in silver, but that's about it."
"Well, you learn something new every day. We can sell it and replace the one I broke trying to open that hidden door, but it doesn't help us find the ghoul that's been killing people's livestock around here. This guy looks like he's been here for a while, so the trail's gone cold, again."
I slipped the dagger into my empty sheath as I rolled my eyes. The real lesson for today was I needed to start carrying more than one dagger. That and never let my brother try to open a hidden catch. Geoffrey had many talents, but he got his lack of patience from his human mother.
"Look at all the cracked and broken bones up next to the walls. Our ghoul has been feeding here regularly for a lot longer than we thought. We're either in its lair or close to it, so keep your eyes open and stay ready."
There were only two passages into this cavern, so my brother took the lead as we moved toward the one we hadn't just come through. He was twenty yards from the tunnel when the ghoul charged out of it and slammed into him. Geoffrey had his shield up and turned with the impact, giving Shelia an easy shot at the back of its unprotected head. There was a crack as her war-hammer caved in its skull and it dropped to the ground, completely dead this time.
"That had to be the easiest twenty gold we ever made, and it gives us enough to finally open that inn. How does it feel, knowing that was the last monster you'll ever have to fight?"
Shelia's response was cut off by a cacophony of shrieks, howls, and groans as a dozen ghouls charged into the cavern. I got separated in the rush, but Shelia and Geoffrey were still together, back-to-back just as I'd taught them. It was especially important at this point, as a ghoul's touch could paralyze its victim.
I lost track of them in the melee, but I could hear Shelia's chanting as she drove them back and my brother's curses as he attacked the ones in front of him. My hands were full with the four that kept trying to grab me and drag me to the ground. Slipping between two of them, I cut the legs out from under the one on the left and spun to slash the second one across the lower back. Despite being undead, their bodies were still basically humanoid and they still relied on bone and muscle for movement.
With its spinal cord severed it dropped to the ground, but the other two were on me before I could finish it off. I jumped to the right and got lucky as the one in the lead tripped over the first one I'd taken down. They were far from finished, but the fourth one was just far enough behind that I had time to alter my swing and slice through his neck.
His severed head was still falling when I shoved his body into the two trying to get back on their feet. The injured one went sprawling but his more nimble companion managed to dodge and threw himself at me. I stepped to the side and twisted, bringing my sword down on the base of its skull. With two down, I turned and found severed spine already dragging itself toward me and crippled leg scrambling to its feet.
Location was the deciding factor as I took a couple quick steps and kicked severed spine in the side of the head. His body spun, putting him in the perfect position for a follow through cut that severed his neck and finished the job. A scraping noise alerted me to the last one's presence and I turned, swinging my sword at his neck as I again thanked the gods the undead's muscles were stiffer than their living counterparts.
A crash of metal pulled my attention and I turned to find my brother laying on the ground. Shelia's gasp of surprise broke her casting, letting the ghoul in front of her rush in to attack and she quickly joined my brother.
"Get the elf, I will use their bodies to replace the ones that have fallen."
I looked over but only caught a glimpse of him before I had to dodge the attacking ghouls. Unfortunately, that one glance confirmed my fears. His gaunt, almost skeletal look told me he was a necromancer, and the way the ghouls moved to stay between us showed he was controlling them. This was bad. The knife in his hands was starting to glow as he stood over my brother and Shelia, and I had no doubt dying to that blade would raise them the same way being killed by a ghoul would.
The ghouls countered every move I made to get around them so I had no way to get between the necromancer and my family. I was running out of time when I remembered the silver dagger. The edge wasn't as sharp as I would like, but it was sharp enough to do the job. I pulled it as I stepped to the left. As the ghouls moved to stay between me and their master, I changed direction and sprinted to the right.
Time seemed to slow down as I got a clear shot at the necromancer. He was standing almost frozen as he chanted the words of his spell and my arm whipped forward, releasing the dagger. I watched it tumble end over end, praying my aim was true, when it sank into the soft flesh of his neck. His knife fell from his hands as they came up to staunch the flow of blood, but it was too late.
I didn't have time to celebrate as the ghouls were already rushing their master's body. The undead hated being controlled, and if they would have settled for just eating him I would have left them too it. Unfortunately, Geoffrey and Shelia were still paralyzed right next to him and the ghouls would turn on them once they were certain their master was dead. As I sprinted to save my family, I could only pray they would settle down and open that inn they always talked about so we wouldn't end up in this kind of life or death situation anymore.
The sudden pounding was loud enough to cut through the din and make me look up from my musings. It was hearing that damn story again. Every time I heard it my mind went back to the fight, and I couldn’t help but remember how close I had come to losing both of them that day.
It was a surprise I could hear anything, as the inn was busier than average tonight. Looking around, I spotted familiar faces I hadn’t seen in a few months and understood why. Captain Drake had returned early and had his crew with him to celebrate their successful voyage. There were a few new faces in the group, but most of his crew were local boys and he took care of his people so he didn’t see many deserters.
My eyes traveled over the press of bodies, searching for the interruption. When I saw who was making the noise, I couldn’t contain my groan or the sinking feeling in my gut. Finishing my mug, I caught Jenny’s eye and signaled for two more. I would have company soon, and that company came bearing a job offer. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but I knew I’d accept because there wasn’t anyone else.
I could only surmise the merchant’s council had lost another caravan. It was the only thing I could think of that would make them loosen the purse strings and start posting reward signs again. I wasn’t foolish enough to try for the reward myself or join up with one of the inept bands who were. The last four groups had been little more than children, local youth thinking they were ready for a grand adventure or youth from farther out who jumped ship here after deciding a life on the sea didn’t suit them. None of them had survived for me to guide back to the city.
Shelia wove her way through the crowd, showing surprising agility for a woman her size, and deposited the tray on the table in front of me. As she palmed the coppers, her eyes followed my gaze and she shook her head.
“I take it you’re going out again, Raloric? Leading another group of meat to the slaughterhouse?”
“Looks that way, darlin. I’m not sure how long it will take to put together their latest group of fools though. They’ve upped the reward again, double what it was last time, so I’m sure it won’t take long. That kind of gold makes people forget how to think,” I told her as I set a few Aurei on the table. “I shouldn’t be gone more than a couple weeks when the time comes. Will that cover holding my room until I get back?”
Shelia snorted at me as she scooped up the coins. “I’d never let anyone but family down there and you know it. I would have lost this place if not for your kindness after Geoffrey’s death. You just don’t go taking any foolish chances and bring yourself back in one piece.”
I just nodded as calls for more food drew her back to work. Her bartender could handle it, but Shelia wasn’t the type to let him in her kitchen. The Silver Dagger was known all along the coast as the best place for a good meal, and Shelia was the one responsible for that reputation. Her cooking was what I missed most when I had to go out of town on jobs.
Joshua’s eyes were scanning the crowd but stopped when he finally saw me. He made his way across the room and sat, nodding as he picked up the second mug and took a deep pull of the rich ale. “I see you were expecting me. They want you again, under the same terms as last time if you’re willing.”
“I kind of figured when I saw that the reward had doubled. How bad was it?”
“A wagon full of silk and seven men.”
I let out a quiet whistle as I shook my head, that explained the massive jump in the reward. A single bolt of low-quality silk would go for fifty Aurei. A wagon full represented a huge investment, and it was probably abandoned in the courtyard because they had no use for it. Five hundred Aurei to a group of adventures who could recover it was actually a small price to pay.
Of course, even with that kind of reward, the danger would scare off any but the bravest or most foolish of people. “I take it they want me to start scaring away the chaff tomorrow morning?”
“I put up notices at the other inns and down by the docks. The merchant’s council wants to start screening the first batch of potential adventurers tomorrow, and you’re the only one who’s actually seen what’s out there.” Joshua stopped and looked over his mug at me. “You know, they might have a better chance if you actually helped them. Rumor has it that you used to be pretty damn good with a sword.”
“Still am, but I’m a hunter, not a hero. Hell, I tried to convince those boys to turn around and come home before they got themselves killed. I even gave them what support I could at range,” I sighed. “They barely knew how to hold their swords, less likely use them. The most important rule of being a scout is to survive so you can report. I’m not going to sacrifice my life to save a bunch of farm boys who think they’re on a grand adventure. ”
Joshua nodded toward where he’d hung the notice. “You might get better than that this time.”
I glanced over and shook my head. We could only see his head over the other patrons, but his stature, along with the braided hair and beard, told me what he was. Dwarves weren’t all that common here, but The Silver Dagger drew all kinds. He had that stocky build common to his race, but he was more likely to be a merchant than a fighter. I’d still give him better odds than that last group of farm boys though. Dwarven merchants were known for protecting their own merchandise when they were on the road.
“Probably just couldn’t read the sign from across the room. I doubt he’ll leave his own business to help the council recover their stolen goods.” I looked around the common room and took in the others looking thoughtfully at the posted reward. “We’ll see more farm boys looking for a way to escape the boredom of farm work and a few sailors thinking they can make a bit extra off a side job before they set sail again. The sailors probably know how to handle a weapon, but most of them won’t risk missing their ships and the farm boys will barely know what a sword is.”
“Rumor also has it that you had a lot better outlook on life once.”
I turned my attention back to my mug, but I knew he was right. It wasn’t kindness that had motivated me to help Shelia keep the inn. Geoffrey had been family. Like the farm boys I’d led to the slaughter, he’d dreamed of a grand adventure. Unlike the farm boys, I’d trained him in how to handle a sword. Our early success had enabled Geoffrey and Shelia to buy the inn, but his desire to be a hero kept him going out time and time again.
I’d been out hunting when the job had come in. Geoffrey knew better than to go out on a job alone, but the situation had been urgent. Shelia told me where he’d gone when I dropped off the quail for that evening, but I arrived too late to do anything more than make sure he had an honor guard for his trip to the Elysian Fields.
Shelia had tried to convince me to get back out there. Maybe that sense of camaraderie and adventure was what I was missing, but it wasn’t easy for an outsider. I was accepted and valued for my skills, but I would never be one of them. I was the only one of my kind and outliving everyone around you made it hard to grow attached.
“Maybe I did once, but those days are far behind me. Watching one too many would be heroes get slaughtered makes it hard to see the bright side of things.”
Joshua looked at me over his mug. “I’m trying to decide if you’re really that cold, or you just lost all your nerve when Geoffrey died.”
He jumped back in fear when the knife slammed into the hunk of meat on the plate next to me. He was a city boy, trained to count coins and keep records, so his eyes weren’t even fast enough to have seen me draw the blade. A silence spread through the room as I stared him down.
“Do you know the difference between a coward, a brave man, and a fool? A coward runs from a fight, his only concern being his own safety. A brave man fights but knows when he’s outmatched and withdraws to fight another day. A fool runs into battle, with no thought of how to keep himself or his companions alive and gets everyone killed. My nerves are just fine, but I’ve never been a fool. Tell your bosses that I’ll arrive after breakfast tomorrow morning.”
Shelia came rushing out of the kitchen and scanned the room before her glare settled on me. “The rules apply to you as much as anyone else, Raloric. No fighting in the inn.”
“We’re not fighting, Shelia dear. My hand slipped as I was explaining something to my friend here. You know I’d never start a fight in your common room.”
Shelia harrumphed at me as I took a bite out of my venison and the conversations slowly started up again. My focus was still on Joshua as he turned and stormed out, but I didn’t miss the dwarf watching me. The light of approval in his eyes made me reevaluate him, but it would take more than a single Dwarven warrior to take down Cluchick and his band of raiders.
My eyes scanned over the crowd as I entered the town square. Like many towns, it was as much a market as a meeting place. Most of it was what I’d expect to see on any given day. Farmers, merchants, and townsfolk going about their own business with little more than a curious passing glance at the group gathered by the fountain.
That’s where I was heading, and they were about what I expected as well. Curious farm boys, in town for a couple days delivering produce, and bored sailors with time on their hands as their captains bought and sold goods for the next leg of their voyage. Joshua was with them as the merchant’s representative and moved toward me as soon as he saw me.
“I owe you an apology for how I acted last night. I was out of line and never should have said that.”
“We won’t mention it again. I know you had friends in the second group, so your anger is understandable. The problem is that this job calls for experienced warriors, not untested boys and half-trained guards.” He nodded gratefully as I stepped up onto the edge of the fountain and turned to address the group. “The name’s Raloric if you have any questions, and before we get started, I need to make one thing clear. This isn’t an easy job. I’ve guided four other groups out to the ruins to deal with this threat. If you don’t know how to handle a weapon, it’s safe to assume you’ll end up in the same place the last four groups did, in a goblin’s stew pot.”
The farm boys turned a sickly shade of green and the crowd quickly thinned, leaving mostly sailors. “For the rest of you, the fastest route to the ruins is a four-day trek through the wilderness. If you don’t have a fortnight to dedicate to this task, you’ll probably want to leave now.”
As the crowd started to disperse, I hopped off the ledge and turned to Joshua. “We’ll give them a few minutes and see if anyone’s left.” From the speed the crowd was dispersing, I didn’t expect anyone to be standing there when I turned back around.
“Now that ye’ve sent the children home, I have a question. How did ye manage to escape four times when the rest of yer party perished?”
The fact anyone was asking was a surprise, but it was a valid question from someone who was considering this undertaking, and the deep gravelly voice told me who the speaker was before I turned to address him. “I’m a hunter, not a warrior. My job was to guide them to the ruins. I went beyond that, but even my skill with a bow only goes so far. When they fell it was my duty to escape and bring back word of their failure.”
“But isn’t it also a ranger’s duty to eradicate evil beings like goblins from the world? The bards sing of the feats an elven ranger is capable of. Why haven’t you dealt with this issue already?”
I turned to the newcomer and was actually surprised for the first time in years. He towered over me by the better part of a foot and was twice as wide on top of it. The fine clothing and almost too pretty face spoke of softness, but the calluses on his hands and the coat of arms embroidered on his shirt said otherwise. That coat of arms announced what he was as clearly as his attitude. How I’d missed the presence of a paladin was beyond me, but even that shock didn’t last long. “That’s a fancy title I never had any claim to. I’m just a hunter. My skill at tracking dangerous animals makes me the best choice to occasionally scouts dangerous locations for the council.”
“Lafarac, Dain, if you’re done grilling him on moral questions, perhaps we can ask what the job entails? It’s clearly more than an average pack of goblins.” As she stepped between them, she gave me an amused smile. “You’ll have to excuse them. They can be a little extreme, but you get used to them after a while. I’m Sasha, the pretty one’s Lafarac, the not so pretty one’s Dain, and the quiet one in the back is Dabarel. We hear you have a goblin problem? Since it seems we’re the only ones left, maybe you could give us more detail.”
Her presence was almost as surprising as the paladin’s. She was my height, with long blond hair and a pretty face that had probably sent hearts racing among the local boys. They would have missed the cold, calculating look in her blue eyes and the slender chains running up the back of her right hand. Not that any of them would recognize a magic focus, she was the first mage I’d seen in Hagga in the twenty odd years I’d been here.
I looked around and realized she was right before sitting down on the edge of the fountain. “At least the four of you look like you’ve seen a goblin before. Let’s see, it all started about two years ago. A caravan was running a few days late, which really isn’t all that abnormal, when one of the drivers stumbled into town. He was half delirious from a head wound, but he spoke of an ambush by a goblin raiding party. The merchant’s council hired me to investigate the scene and track the goblins to their lair if possible.”
“Goblins aren’t usually all that hard to track in general, but these made no effort to hide their trail. I followed it to an ancient keep that’s been abandoned for several generations, where the stench told me it was far more than just a raiding party. My understanding of the goblin language leaves a bit to be desired, but in the four days I spent scouting the area, I picked up that a goblin chief named Cluchick had moved his tribe into the ruined fort. If my counts were correct, he still has over two hundred adult males in the keep with the females and children occupying the caverns underneath it.”
I finally saw a bit of concern when I mentioned the numbers. “You should also know that Cluchick is probably expecting another attack. Every time they’ve ambushed a caravan, the council has mounted another attempt to destroy the tribe.”
“That’s a bit more than we anticipated, Lafarac.” I could see Dain calculating the odds and knew exactly how bad they looked. “They could take us down with just the sheer number of bodies. It may be the right thing to do, but it would be suicide to go in with just the four of us.”
“We’ll take the job.” Her companion’s heads snapped around at Sasha’s quiet declaration. “Oh, stop looking at me like that. You would want to do it even if they weren’t offering a reward. I’m sure I can find a way to even the odds, and we do have a fallback if things get out of hand.”
“Are you sure you can handle it,” Lafarac asked, his concern for her clear in his eyes. “You said its power was far beyond what you were capable of and it might take years to master.”
“You forget, brother, I spent the entire voyage stuck in my cabin. I had plenty of time to study the tome that we found with it,” she replied in an exasperated tone. “I haven’t discovered how to use all the most powerful functions, but I’m capable of far more with it than without.”
The other three continued to eye her as she turned her attention back to me. “You’ve scouted the area extensively, so I’m assuming you can sketch the area surrounding the keep and any defenses they have set up? I need that sketch and time to plan an attack that won’t offend my brother’s sense of honor, but still gives us a good chance to finish this while surviving.”
“Don’t let the fact she’s a woman deceive you,” Dain added, seeing my amused look. “Her mind has gotten us through as many scrapes as my hammer and Lafarac’s sword combined.”
“Far from it, friend,” I laughed. “I was just thinking how much she reminds me of a younger version of Shelia. Gods help you if you’re foolish enough to stand in her way.”
You could almost see the sparks shooting from Sasha’s eyes as she glared at me. “The innkeeper?”
“Don’t let her size fool you,” I chuckled, paraphrasing her Dwarven friend. “She’s put on a few pounds in the ten years since she retired, but most of her bulk is solid muscle. How do you think she enforces that no fighting rule? Her old war hammer sits behind the bar, and she’s shown more than once that she remembers how to use it. When her husband died, she had the strength of will to turn a run-down inn into well known and respected establishment while raising a daughter. You have that same drive.”
Her gaze softened as she shook her head. “You admire her, so I’ll accept the compliment as it was intended. Since we’re going to be working together I guess I should warn you, I have a bit of a temper. My studies have helped me control it, but it still shows up on occasion.”
“I’m sure we’ll get along well enough that it won’t be a problem,” I replied as I looked around the market. “As for that sketch, you’re staying at The Silver Dagger, so I’ll have it ready for you tonight. If I’m not in the common room, just ask at the bar and they’ll get word to me.”
“You live at the inn,” Sasha asked, amusement creeping into her tone before her eyes narrowed. “The innkeeper treated you like more than just a patron, and the little girl I saw this morning had elven features. Is she a paramour of yours?”
It was hard to identify the mood behind her question. Some found the idea of an elf mating with a human offensive. I had personal experience with that kind of prejudice, as it was how I’d ended up living among humans. Thankfully it didn’t matter this time.
“She’s my sister-in-law,” I answered finally. “I help keep her kitchen stocked and watch over them to honor my brother’s memory. If you have any other questions about the job we can go over them tonight, but I have other business to attend to until then. Shelia can’t serve roast rabbit for dinner unless I get the rabbits.”
“Are you sure he’s the one we came to find? He looks a bit shifty to me, and a wrong guess could get us all killed. As much as I love bashing in goblin skulls, I don’t see how we’re going to defeat a horde that size. If we draw them out in the light of day so they’ll be at a disadvantage they could surround and overwhelm us easily, and if we go into the keep to limit the number coming at us, they have the advantage.”
I’d been watching Raloric walk away but turned to Dain. “Is it your Dwarven prejudice or your general mistrust of new people speaking? He follows his own path, but he’s still on the side of good. Think of the words of the augury. The lost one will guide you. That pale golden hair and those violet eyes mark him as one of the gray elves, but he’s here, thousands of miles away from their lands. Gray elves barely tolerate other elves, and they see every other race as beneath them, yet here one is living among humans. If that isn’t a lost one, I don’t know what would qualify.”
“As for the goblins, well, they’re goblins for Tyr’s sake. You’ve been champing at the bit since you heard the word goblin, and Lafarac’s presence gives us a natural advantage against them. All we need is an item with a continual light spell cast over it and we can force the goblins to fight in full daylight even inside the keep.” I looked between them and realized they weren’t getting it. “All three of you wear plate mail. Between that, the light spell, and being repelled by Lafarac’s holy aura, they’ll be hard-pressed to do any damage to you.”
“Aye, I guess I can see that, but how do we get to the keep in the first place? Goblin chiefs are smarter than the average goblin, so I’m inclined to agree that they’ll be watching for us. As much as they hate fighting in the sunlight, they’re bound to know they have the greatest advantage fighting in the open. Dwarves aren’t exactly sprinters, especially in full armor.”
“That’s what the sketches of the area are for,” I replied, slightly exasperated. “If I can’t devise a way to get us to the gates without being seen, I’ll have to find a way to keep the goblins from rushing out. You mentioned my mind to Raloric, have you forgotten your own words already?”
“He’s like this before every battle,” Lafarac offered. “You’re usually off in your room planning by the time he gets to this stage. How long do you need to plan? We should start procuring supplies, as we’ll likely be traveling on foot for a few weeks.”
I thought for a moment and nodded. “Let’s plan on staying through tomorrow night. That will give me more than enough time to plan and take care of the continual light spell before we leave town. I may not have a lot of time to memorize spells once we start traveling.”
“I’ll take care of the light spell, and make sure I have one on hand in case of emergency.”
I turned in surprise. Dabarel spoke so rarely you almost forget he could, but I could understand why he didn’t speak. A childhood battle with the pox had left his face heavily scarred, so he avoided drawing attention to himself.
“Thank you Dabarel, that’s actually an excellent idea. Goblin shamans are rare, but it’s best to be prepared. Any other suggestions would be appreciated. As you know, we have a limited window to convince Raloric that he should join us. I don’t know what his role is, but the seers were clear that our mission would fail without him.”
“That may be harder than we anticipated,” Lafarac interjected hesitantly. “You mentioned the old silver dagger over the fireplace? I commented on its condition, wondering why the owner didn’t get it repaired or at least clean the blood off it. I got an ear full of a story, and I think your new friend was the hero of it, even if they didn’t mention him by name.”
We all looked at Lafarac expectantly. “The innkeeper, in her younger days, used to travel with her husband and his brother seeking adventure. That dagger was a memento of their last adventure together. They found it moments before they were set upon by a pack of ghouls being controlled by a necromancer. They managed to wipe out most of the pack before the innkeeper and her husband fell to the ghouls paralyzing attacks. The necromancer, seeing a chance to turn the tables, ordered the remaining ghouls to attack the brother as he drew his dagger and approached his disabled victims. Pinned down by ghouls, with his family seconds away from being killed and raised as the undead, he did the only thing he could think of. He drew that dagger with his off hand and threw it, catching the necromancer in the throat.”
“It can’t be him,” I sighed. “I’ve seen skilled performers who could make a throw like that with their off hand, but it takes years of practice to get that good. This was ten years ago, and he’s not old enough to have been that good.”
Dain gave me an amused look and shook his head. “Yer thinking in human terms, lass. Ya figure he’s about yer age because he looks young but add a hundred years to yer guess and ya’d probably be closer to the truth. I’m not a fan of elves, but they spend a human’s lifetime learning to wield bows, daggers, and swords before they’re even considered an adult among their people.”
“I read something about that in my studies of the elven races. I guess it just slipped my mind because I didn’t think it was important at the time. That makes it possible, but it’s still an impressive feat to make a throw like that during combat.” I stopped and looked at each of my companions. “That actually makes me more certain that he’s the one we seek. He has the heart of a true hero, but he’s lost his way.”
“That may be true, but it still makes our task harder,” Lafarac reminded me. “He stays here to watch over his brother’s mate. Convincing him to leave his family behind and join in our fight won’t be easy.”
“Nothing worthwhile ever is easy, Brother.” Fishing several gold pieces out of my purse, I handed them to him. “That should cover whatever provisions you can find for the next couple weeks. Since we know I won’t be much help in that department, I’ll ask around and see what else I can discover about our guide. Hopefully, I’ll learn something that will help us.”
I could feel their amused smiles following me as I walked away. I had no idea why the one department I was lacking in gave them such amusement, but it wasn’t my fault I couldn’t cook. My magic studies had occupied all my time, so I’d never learned. My lack kept me from having to help with acquiring provisions though, as I rarely thought to buy more than the pemmican and hardtack I survived off during my apprenticeship.
I was already moving in the direction of the inn and realized it was the best place to start. The locals all seemed to know him, and there had been several gaffers already in their cups as we left this morning. If there was anyone you could count on to recall local history, it was the men drinking their retirement away. I just hoped I could steer their ramblings to the topics I was interested in.
“That group of people who checked in yesterday, they’re upstairs asking for you.”
I put the finishing touches on the last sketch and looked back at Shelia with a smile. “Probably my group of intrepid adventurers. They’re better than the farm boys I was expecting though. I’d give them even odds of coming through this mostly intact.”
“That’s what I figured. I told Jenny to seat them at your table and take their orders.” Shelia reached down and tapped the maps as I gathered them up. “That little blond is interested in a lot more than these though. She spent most of the afternoon chatting up the old gaffers at the bar. I doubt any of them noticed, but she kept turning the conversation back to you.”
“It’s nothing to be concerned about,” I replied, taking her hand. “The others started that this morning. They just want to know what kind of man is guiding them into danger. I can’t really blame them when you consider the fate of the last four groups I led out to the ruins. I’d want to make sure the person guiding me wasn’t the type to lead me out in the woods and slit my throat while I slept.”
“I get the feeling it’s more than that, but you never notice how the local girls react to you either.”
I shook my head and nodded toward the steps. “I notice, little sister, I just don’t take them up on their offers. They get over their infatuation, find a stable husband and start a family as they were meant to do. I’m not exactly cut out to be a husband.”
Shelia rolled her eyes as we moved into the kitchen. “You’ll make a wonderful husband and father someday. I just hope I’m still alive to meet the woman who finally catches your eye. I’ll bring your dinner out in a few minutes.”
Taking the hint, I kept moving until I entered the common room. I was the only man she allowed in the kitchen, but during meals, it was best to be elsewhere. With a nod to Cole and Jenny as I passed, I joined the group at my regular table and set the maps down in front of Sasha.
“The top one is as accurate as I could make it. The other two are what I remember of the keep’s interior.”
Sasha had flipped to the second page and looked up in shock. “You actually went inside with goblins patrolling the interior? Wasn’t that a bit risky?”
“No, I explored it years ago. Several bands of outlaws have used that keep as a hideout over the past twenty years,” I explained. “It was a simple layout, so I put down what I could recall.”
Sasha nodded as she looked back down at the drawings. “It doesn’t look like anyone intended to live in this keep. If I had to guess, I’d say it was a military outpost. The design suggests they wanted a place they could retreat to and defend against an attacker, but if we can get inside before they notice us it will work out in our favor. What’s the distance from the tree line here to the gate, and is the gate intact?”
“The gate rotted away decades back, and the murder holes in the tunnel have been rusted shut for at least that long,” I replied, glancing down at the map. “It’s about fifty yards from the tree line, but you won’t be able to approach from that direction. The builders had the forest cleared out to three hundred yards, but nature has been creeping back in since the keep has been abandoned, with a little help from a local druid. The undergrowth is thick enough the last hundred yards that you’d have to smash your way through it.”
“Cutting through a few bushes wouldn’t slow us down much.”
I looked over at Lafarac and smirked. “I’m sure it wouldn’t take long to cut a path through it. Unfortunately, you’ll be making one hell of a racket and the goblins will know where you are.”
“So, you’re saying it’s impassable?”
“No, I could do it in my sleep,” I explained to Sasha. “I could even get you to the tree line with me, but it probably wouldn’t work for the rest of your group. No offense, but a warrior’s armor isn’t designed for stealth.”
“I could cast a silence spell.”
“I appreciate the offer Dabarel, and it’s a good idea, but it’s too big a risk,” Sasha sighed. “The duration is pretty limited, and it could dissipate when we were half-way through. I know you’re not fans of stealth tactics, but it’s imperative we get to the entrance before they notice us. You said you could probably get me to the tree line with you. What kind of chance are we talking?”
“If you can follow his directions, a lot better than he’ll admit to,” Shelia said as she started setting our food on the table. “Sorry, but I heard the end of that as I brought the food up. We used that tactic on occasion to surround outlaws and get them to surrender without a fight. I’ve never heard of anyone else guiding another person the way he does, and I’m not exactly built for stealth.”
“He mentioned that you used to be an adventurer, and still used those skills to keep the peace here.”
“I was never the adventuring type,” Shelia chuckled. “I’m a devotee of Hestia, and I went adventuring to earn enough gold to open this place. It wasn’t hard to lay my hammer down in the end, although I keep it close to help break up bar fights. Most times, just seeing me standing at the end of the bar is enough to calm people down. Well, I hope you enjoy your meal, and if you need anything just flag Jenny down and let her know.”
Sasha just nodded but gasped as she looked back at the table. “I thought we just ordered the stew, and how did she get all of this here by herself?”
I laughed as I stabbed one of the hot rolls and spread butter over it. “You did order the stew, and I think I mentioned she was mostly muscle.”
“But the portions are huge, and loaves of bread on top of it? I’ve paid more for lower quality meals at establishments that weren’t this nice. How does she stay in business?”
“She’s a cleric of Hestia, the goddess of the hearth,” I reminded her. “This meal she’s laid out is her devotion, and no one leaves her table hungry. Her goddess allows a bit of leeway on what’s permitted as long as she’s working toward that goal, so she’s made a deal with several local farmers. She gets the best prices they can offer on their produce in exchange for blessing their fields every year. The increased production means they come out ahead, even offering her lower prices.”
“Fascinating,” Sasha replied after swallowing. “I can honestly say I’ve never had a better meal, and I’ve dined with royalty before. I doubt I’ll be able to eat this much, but it’s easy to see why this place was recommended when we left Farache.”
I hadn’t realized the inn’s reputation had spread so far. Farache was the capital of the Belanian kingdom, over a month’s travel from here. It usually took twice that, as no one could convince a captain to skip stopping to trade at every port in Enol.
Everyone was preoccupied with their meal, so the momentary curiosity I had about why they’d traveled to Hagga passed before I bothered asking. They were probably just passing through to catch the overland route south. The Kingdom of Isles was at war with Nerlis, and they had a nasty habit of attacking any ship in their waters. Most captains went straight across to Nuvik before cutting back up the Enol coast.
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