They burned the bodies of the Flydros family. It was a horrible thing to have to do, but with the reanimators of corpses now violating the peace of Westmark, they had no choice. Aurei had sent Leah back to the Muddy Boot with the guards escorting her. Then they examined the farmstead to see if they could learn what had happened. It had been a scouting party sent out by the Necromancer Guild, the first they had ever seen in Westmark.
Aurei sent a detachment to ride east to intercept the King’s convoy traveling to the funeral to inform them of the raid. Then they secured the farmstead the best that they could. The dawn was tickling the eastern sky when she rode in silence beside Brother Darv and Thorm (both of whom were riding in one of the Flydros’ wagons completely loaded with all the family valuables they could find) back to Westmark. The Knight – who wore the arms of the royal bodyguard of the King—rode with them, using one of the Flydros' horses as a replacement for his dead mount. The man had respectably kept silent as they took care of business at the farm. Halfway back to the Inn, Aurei decided she had better find out who he was and why he was out so late at night alone. Pulling back on her reins, she fell in beside the knight. He was a tall, strong looking, middle-aged man with a fiery red beard and short red hair.
"I’m sorry I haven’t a chance to speak with you." She said to the Knight.
"Quite understandable with all that has transpired. I am very sorry for the death of the Flydros family. Bad tidings indeed if the Necromancer Guild has come this far north."
"I sent a dispatch to the King – I assume you are part of his bodyguard?"
The man smiled, "A fair assumption. I shouldn’t have been riding about that late alone."
"Did he send you out alone?"
"It was his decision, yes."
"Not wise." She commented and he seemed surprised at her words, so she continued, "I don’t mean to disrespect his majesty, but he nearly got you killed."
"You are right; it was not a wise plan."
"Checking the road ahead, I assume?"
"There was nothing to report until I came around that last corner and found those wizards and their servants waiting for me. I have you to thank for saving my life."
Aurei shrugged, "You looked like you were holding your own."
"Not so, I was nearly overwhelmed. You have my gratitude."
"No problem. By the way, I’m –"
"Aurei Bugley?" the knight finished for her with a slight smile.
"You know me?"
"You are the only Drow that I know of in the Kingdom of Northmarch."
"And there are quite a few songs about you." Again he smiled.
"Songs about me? Are you serious?"
"Oh yes, quite so. Drow barmaids are noteworthy and one as beautiful as you, even more so. There are quite a few tavern songs I’ve heard about you. Most of them rather vulgar to relate."
"Wonderful" she sighed, "Just what I needed. Notoriety. Please, don’t add this little adventure to the tales about me, okay?"
"Well, it would be different! I had not heard that you were a warrior."
Aurei laughed, "Hardly that. I’m just filling in until the next Duke takes over."
"Yes, that’s the one."
"You don’t sound too pleased."
"I don’t think he will do very well as Duke."
"Are you sure he will be selected?"
"Quite sure – Duke Bugley didn’t have any children and he is next in line."
"What about you? Aren’t you his adopted daughter?"
Aurei swallowed back some emotion, "I know he loved me like a daughter. I found that out earlier tonight, believe it or not. But Pinel is a bootlicker and I’m sure he has his tongue around the king’s boots right now."
"He is a groveling little man."
"You know him?"
"He travels with the king’s caravan, driving everyone crazy. Including the King."
"Well, that will settle it then – if his majesty confirms him as Duke of Westmark he will be out of the King’s hair forever."
"True. And placed in your hair, I take it?"
"I doubt I’ll last long. He’ll have me locked up or killed."
"He would be wise to make you captain of the guard."
Aurei laughed at the idea.
"Why did you laugh?"
"I’m not a warrior."
"You looked like one tonight."
"But you have had training, haven’t you?"
"Well, father… uh, I mean Duke Bugley wanted the women who worked in the tavern for him, as well as those at the Keep, to know how to fight in case we were ever attacked. He figured the Keep would be the most logical point of an assault, and since the Muddy Boot sits next to it, he ordered that the barmaids and female servants should have some skill at arms. So he had some of the guards train us one summer many years ago in the basics. But apparently it wasn’t enough for me, or maybe I wasn’t doing it right – I don’t know which— but he decided about 5 years ago that I needed more training."
"So what did he do?"
"Have you heard of Stanislav’s Circus?"
"Oh yes, I think everyone has. That is that group of gypsies that travels all over in a convoy of wagons that puts on shows from town to town. They’re known for ‘Stanislav’s exotic women’, who stage duels and gladiatorial types of mock battles in very scant costumes. They're hugely popular with the men, of course. They say the whole thing is just a front for a band of thieves who pillage the various towns that they perform in as the men folk are all sitting in the tents drooling over the fighting women. They’ve been thrown out of numerous cities all over the world. Haroldris likes them though, so the King hasn’t banned them here, yet."
"No surprise from what I’ve heard about the King." Aurei quipped, for Haroldris was long rumored to be quite fond of the fairer sex and nearly a slave to his lusts.
"Well, he’s not as bad as you’ve probably heard. You know about rumors…"
Aurei nodded, wondering about the songs about her that the Knight had mentioned. It suddenly occurred to her that he had not told her his name.
"Say, before I tell you about my ‘advanced weapons training’ I just realized that you haven’t told me your name."
"Oh" the knight seemed momentarily taken back, but only for an instant, "Sorry about that. Hugh Rex, at your service."
The knight bowed slightly and Aurei nodded.
"Well, Sir Hugh, I had mentioned Stanislav’s circus --- you see, Duke Bugley was a friend of Stanislav and had known him for many years. They come through Westmark every summer around mid-summer’s day and usually stay for a week. It’s always very popular out here as we don’t have much excitement –usually- and honestly, there doesn't seem to be more burglaries when they are around. Maybe it's because of Stanislav’s friendship with father… uh, Duke Bugley. At any rate, it is the highlight of the summer and we have hundreds of people coming into town to see the circus. So, about five years back, he asked Stanislav to let some of his star female gladiators give me and my friend Alis some advanced swordsmanship lessons. They have a very beautiful redheaded Elf lady named-"
"Ember" Hugh interrupted with a sheepish grin, "Yes, I’m familiar with her, as well as the other one - the Albino Elf girl that doesn’t speak."
"Snoe. Yes, they both taught Alis and I some of their skills during the month they stayed with us. We would work out afternoons in the Great room of the Keep. Father gave us both afternoons off from work – with pay in Alis’ case— for the whole month that we trained."
"How did you both progress?"
"Alis became very proficient with axes – long great axes, battle axes and even throwing axes. She is also very good with a long sword and bows of all kinds."
"How about you?" Hugh asked.
"They said I’m pretty good fighting with two weapons – long sword and short sword or two short swords, maybe even two long swords, though I didn’t practice much with that. Ember worked me to death with a long and short sword, I guess because that was her specialty. I really liked Snoe, but I wasn’t nearly as fast as she was with her great sword. I’m not very good with bows, though – they told me that it's due to my Drow eyesight, though I’m not really sure how that would affect it. At short range with throwing knives or daggers, though, watch out, I’m deadly!"
The knight smiled, "I’m sure you are. It looks like you were trained well."
"Thanks. I really haven’t had the chance to put it into practice until tonight. Unfortunately. I can’t believe we were raided. The poor Flydros family. How horrible. And Leah! She has none of her family left! Yesh preserve her!" Aurei blinked back tears.
"I’m sure you will watch over her."
"Everyone will, that is how the town is – we take care of each other."
"It sounds like you take care of everyone. You seem to be a leader, Aurei."
"Me?" Aurei laughed, "Wow, are you mistaken! I’m just a barmaid."
"A barmaid that led a rescue party which saved a girl, then laid hands on a comrade and restored him to life."
"That was a group effort on both things. Brother Darv healed her, I just prayed for her and Yesh healed her."
"But he used you as a tool. I know you felt the power flow out of you."
"I felt something, but I’m not sure what happened. It was weird…"
"It’s called 'Laying of hands' and it is a power given to Paladins."
"Really? How weird that Yesh would let me do that." She said with a shrug, dismissing the event.
Hugh just smiled knowingly but said nothing more about it.
"Sir Hugh?" Aurei asked after a few moments of silence, "Those undead back there – you said they were from the Necromancer’s Guild?"
"Most certainly, they were. Those men we killed were their controllers – wizards that use the undead as their pawns to further the purposes of the Guild, which is to control the world."
"Why would they come here to Westmark? We are not really worth their time, I would think."
"Not necessarily, Aurei. Westmark is the western entrance into Northmarch and the eastern entrance into the great Elven forest, as well as the northern end of the Southern Highway. Strategically, it is rather important. Their scouting of this region would seem to hint that they may be planning a concentrated effort to infiltrate Northmarch."
"I imagine Haroldris will desire a stronger defense of this area and will probably pay for a strengthening of the defenses."
"Pinel will LOVE that – more fame and fortune for him."
"Tell me, Aurei, have you ever met the King? Or at least seen him?"
"Well, sort of. When he was born, his father, King Brax, had a reception at King’s Reach for all the Dukes in the Kingdom and father… sorry, I mean, Duke Bugley went, along with his wife. For some crazy reason, they brought me along. Mother Bugley had made this rather fancy purple dress for me to wear at the reception. When we got there, as we were disembarking from the coach, the King – Brax, I mean- was there to receive us and the other nobles who were arriving. He took one look at me and very coldly told the Duke that he would not allow any ‘demon children’ to attend his son’s reception. I was about 30 then, which was about the same as a 5 or 6 year old human child. Mother Bugley was so angry that she refused to go to the reception and the two of us stayed in the guest quarters. The Duke had to attend, even though he was very put off by the King’s hatred toward non-humans. I’ve heard he didn’t even like surface Elves. I did catch a glimpse of Haroldris being held by his mother as they stood at the top of the stairs in the courtyard when the Dukes’ departed. I remember he had a full head of fiery red hair… about the color of yours."
Hugh nodded, "The King has several redheaded knights – it is partially because he likes to confuse an enemy in battle as to who the King is during a skirmish."
Aurei shook her head, "So he uses you as a sort of decoy?"
Hugh just smiled, "Well, lets’ just say I’ve been the focus of several attacks because of my appearance. I’ve survived though."
"I suspect Haroldris inherited his father’s hatred of Elves."
"Not so! In fact quite the opposite – because his father despised Elves, the King is very fascinated by them."
"Well, we never went back to King’s Reach after that reception and my father, while staying loyal to his duty as a Duke, was no fan of Brax. And since we’ve never met Haroldris, as he so seldom seems to leave King’s Reach, all we have to judge him on is what we hear in the tavern about him and much of that is not complementary."
"But surely you don’t believe all of that; you know how drunken stories tend to go."
"True… I guess I will find out tomorrow evening when they get here." She sighed wearily, wishing the next several days were completed, good or bad. Her mind once again went to the Flydros family, dead except for Leah. She found herself weeping once more, trembling from the emotion of the events of this evening.
"Aurei?" Hugh asked, reaching over to touch her shoulder.
"Sorry" she whispered, then cleared her throat and continued, "It’s been a very tiring day, Sir Hugh."
The group – all whom had ridden in silence -except for the knight and Aurei— crested the last hill before Westmark. It sat below them now, sleepily in the very early dawn light – the birds singing to the dawn and only a handful of people milling about. It all seemed so peaceful, so different from what she had just witnessed this night. Straightening up in her saddle, she turned to the knight, "Come to the Inn, I’ve a room for you to rest in."
Hugh shook his head, "No, it sounds inviting, but I really need to ride back to meet the royal caravan."
"But you haven’t slept."
"I’ll have plenty of time to sleep once they arrive."
"At least let me get you something to eat – on the house."
"You are most kind, Aurei, but I’m well provisioned, and I fear I may be needed before they reach Westmark. I will take you up on that room tonight when the caravan arrives."
"I promise that I will save you a comfortable room in the Inn, if I have to put the King himself in the stable to do so."
The knight laughed at her determination, "That would take him down a few notches!"
"I’m sorry – I’m just tired and worried about many things. His majesty will have the guest bedroom at the Keep – this is something I’m quite certain that Pinel and I will agree upon. If you will excuse me, I probably should ride to the Inn and check on Leah. Shall I send an escort to accompany you back to the Caravan?"
"Not necessary, I think the Necromancer Guild sleeps during the daylight hours. I should be quite safe. I will bring the Flydros' horse back when I arrive with the caravan."
"It was nice meeting you, Sir Hugh." Aurei extended her hand to the knight, who took it and surprised her by leaning over and kissing the back of her hand.
"I enjoyed our conversation, Aurei, and I can promise you that The King will have a very favorable report of you."
"Thank you, sir. May Yesh guide your journey."
"Goodbye, until this evening."
With that, Aurei took off at a fast trot down to the Inn.
Sir Hugh paused to watch her go as Brother Darv and Thorm in the wagon, pulled up next to the knight.
"Thank you, gentlemen, for keeping silent during my talk with Miss Bugley. She is quite a young lady. Most Elf maidens are rather immature at her age."
"She doesn’t think like an Elf – or a Drow" Darv answered in a low voice so the guards accompanying them would not hear, "Physically she may be an adolescent Drow girl, but she thinks of herself as a human and by that standard she is elderly, so this combination is what makes her so remarkable."
"Quite remarkable." the knight agreed as he stared down at the town, "I think my little spy mission is complete."
"It seems wrong to deceive her." Thorm grumbled in a soft voice.
"The end will justify the means, gentlemen. Now I must be off at once, and I know you shall not mention my true motives to her or anyone in town."
Both Cleric and Dwarf nodded.
"Good, you shall not have long to keep quiet. Tonight it will be revealed to all and what fun it will be to see her reaction."
Without another word, Sir Hugh turned his stead and took off at a gallop back the road they had just travelled down.
"I don’t like his methods." Thorm whispered to Darv.
"Neither do I, but what can we do? I just pray Aurei is not too angry when she learns the truth."
"Aye." the dwarf agreed as they reached the outskirts of the town.