I remember our fair Sol was shining with all his might that day. The old star was always his hottest and brightest near the dessert where we were taking refuge. There, in the bustling port-town of Thris I, Jouni Svett, and my friend-in-arms, Gunnar Faust, sat in poorly refurbished wooden stools and idly listened to the bartender, an aging Orcish fellow, tell the story of the oldest building in Thris to a newcomer at the end of the bar. This was the fortieth time Faust and I had heard the story since we had arrived a month ago. Fortunately the Old Orc never told the story the same way twice, however it was probably less fortunate than I would like to remember.
The Orc had a fair grasp on the Human tongue, but would roll his A's with an E sound, and his Short-I's came out more like UE's. The poor lad that had happened to be his audience didn't seem to be able to make heads or tails of anything that had been said over the course of the past ten minutes, but he persevered for the sake of the cheap food and lodgings that were provided. In these uncertain times who would blame him?
"This tavern was called the Retchin' Flagon 'cause o' the ol' days when mead flowed so smooth it was akin tae th'flaggon's retchin' it up faster than guests could drink it," he explained proudly finishing with, "I try tae keep those ol' days in mind when I fill yer drinks, an' I hope to get back tae those days o' glory and prosperity."
As it was a custom of Orcish bartending for the bar-hand to drink one for each drink they sold, the old geezer chugged his glass to mark the end of his history lesson, and the newcomer looked down at his food with longing for his lost appetite. I was fascinated by the end of the Orc's story, as it was the only part that was the same each time he told it. I had only realized days ago that the tavern didn't actually have a name until just a couple-hundred years ago.
Thris started out as a group of settlers that just wanted to get away from the monarchy. In the Four-thousand-twelfth year of the time known as "The Several Kingdoms" Era (Or S.K. for short), only a handful of humans had settled here after crossing the dessert while escaping the monarchy, and they established Thris as a trading and fishing town. They had only themselves and the dessert tribes as neighbors back then when the economy was still flourishing.
In 4028 SK the town was Purchased, in it's entirety, by a pirate known as Captain Cole whom named this building "Cole's Tavern" and never set foot inside of Thris as he stayed in his ship any time is was anchored there. I never let the Orc know about this, or about the fact that the Orcs hadn't been allowed into the town until far later than that. I always sat quietly and listened to the story each time; I think he respected me for that, or maybe he had no idea as we spoke less and less over the course of the month I spent in his Inn.
After the story was told the four of us sat in complete silence until Faust grasped his longbow, and rose from his stool to leave. I took my harp from the counter, and left with a wave to the Orc and his guest. Outside I found him staring out across the ocean, and placed a hand on his leather-clad shoulder.
"I just can't stay here another day," he said somberly, "I'm sick of struggling to collect a few pieces of Silver just to have some rich dirtbags scoff at me over the price of a room, and then call it 'surviving'. This isn't what I trained for."
When I first met him, Faust had been a scout for a military installation in a castle-city called Fark's Keep which hailed from the north. His duties included venturing out into the great north where Humanity had to truly struggle to survive. "I used to hunt for my own food, and build my own shelter every day. No one cared how many dirty pieces of metal I had on me," he concluded and fastened his longbow to his back using a shoulder-clasp on his jacket.
"We could go to the Wild Lands by ship," I offered to Faust while pulling myself around to see the his face, "those sailors are always looking for new lackeys, and when we get to the Western continent we can do whatever we want."
"All we'll find there is a few frontier villages, and endless forests. There's nothing worth looking for out there," Faust reasoned with some more volume. What he had said may have been true, but many sailors had said such rumors were spread to keep people interested in the monarchy. The only way to know for certain would be to go there, and it was a great risk if one was as poor as we were.
That's when we heard someone clearing their throat, and a remarkably limber-looking fellow dropped into our conversation, quite literally, from the roof of the Retching Flagon. "I don't mean to be a bother, but I couldn't help hearing your conversation," he began with some erratic gesturing, "The name's Richard, and I have a decent proposal for you. There's a job opportunity in the north at Darenthold to escort The White Lady. They want someone from outside the city to do it so they have no political involvement; I happened to find this on a dying knight I met in the dessert."
Richard handed over a paper with all the information for the task written out in full-detail. Faust echoed the job's description, "Escort Countess Vezh back to Fark's Keep... Why would you share this with us?"
Richard scratched his head, "Well; I can't get to Darenthold on my own, and the job will be easier with more people. The way I see it, they'll be expecting a few people as it is, and showing up on my own might look suspicious; not to mention the danger I'd be putting myself in for doing it solo."
"That's perfect," I added, "Now we can find some decent work -and- travel." That's when my friend held up an index finger as if to tell Richard he needed a moment to discuss it with me in private, and led me a few feet away.
We each laid an arm across the other's shoulder while crouching to form a kind of human wall. Then he started our debate with the usual logic, "How do we know this guy didn't kill that knight himself, or whether he's even telling the truth?" I assured him of the facts, "We can easily take him if he turns on us, and at least we can get out of the heat of the dessert. If it turns out to be a lie we will be in a cooler climate."
We stood up and turned back toward Richard who was waiting patiently while picking at some wax in his ear. Faust lead the negotiation, "We can't just travel for free, we'll help you out if you can help us pay for transportation there." The bowman had a good point, these days everything was much more expensive than it had to be.
His words reminded me of a time when I collected pieces of copper, and just a few of them could pay for a decent meal. Back then Copper was for every day purchases, pieces of silver for larger investments, and pieces of gold were a measure of a person's wealth. These days copper was scarce, Silver and Gold were the only respected currency, and pieces of rare Platinum were a measure of wealth.
Richard nodded and withdrew a coin purse from his leather jacket, "As it turns out, that knight's armour was worth a decent amount." Faust shot me a look that could stir the dead, and I laughed lightly while dying inside.
So it happened that the three of us hired a coachman to take us north. Ten days, a full week of travel, cost us our entire fortune of Twenty-Three pieces of silver. It would have been twice that, but we couldn't afford it without promising to hunt along the way. Even then we barely found enough food to feed the coachman, never mind ourselves.
By the end of the trip our coachman was quite bitter, and made certain that we knew we would have to pay full faire next time. He left us at the gates to Darenthold, making his way into the metropolis while we looked over the paper with the details of our task.
We found ourselves approaching the main ramparts. The city itself used to be much smaller, it would seem, everything contained within the walls of a castle. As the years passed the city expanded to a large area outside the castle proper, and a second wall was constructed to contain it. Then, just before the turn of the era when Humanity stopped counting the year at 4440 SK and switched to the Converging of Humanity year Zero (or, 0 CH), a third wall was constructed that spanned the entire kingdom from the base of the mountains on her eastern border, clear to the ocean in the west. This wall became known as The Great Gate. Although the only way through was within Darenthold, the city prided itself over it's open boarders.
We were stopped at the entrance to the main castle, a massive building that seemed to stretch far off into the sky, by a man in full plate-mail whom brandished a spear with a red flag that was the symbol of Darenthold among the Several Kingdoms. He held out a steel-plated hand and addressed us as a hawk might address a finch, "What business have you within these walls?"
I stepped forward to give him a taste of my studied speaking voice, "We are here to respond to a call for an escort to Fark's Keep for her Countess, Lady Vezh". I Handed him the slightly weather-worn paper Richard had given us, the guardsman lifted his visor to read over the information. He grumbled under his breath as he read, perhaps having only learned the skill a few years ago.
"Go wait in the stables; someone will be over to deal with you soon enough," he huffed, and pointed his spear in the direction he had intended.
Faust groaned on the way there, "I hope everyone doesn't treat us like this while we're here."
Richard chuckled with a waving hand that followed his words as he spoke, "I'm sure he's just having a rough day."
When we reached the stable we beheld an unique sight. Before us stood a Human wearing only pants and a belt. He was crouched over a small log with poised, open palms. He quietly focused his mind, and we were struck silent with awe at his concentration. The young man slowly took a deep, audible breath, and released his might with a single, powerful strike that split the log in two and sent one half spiraling through the air toward us.
Richard swung his body out of the path of the flying chunk of wood, and Faust caught it in his left hand. All I could muster was to utter a single word, "Astounding". This strong fellow lifted himself up to stand straight, and then relaxed his entire body before turned to face us with a small bow.
"My apologies, I hope I did not cause you trouble," he offered. To which we all replied with our own forms of acceptance.
He introduced himself as Kent, a monk of the Divine order of the Self. Monks and Priests of this order focused on perfecting their own bodies and minds in order to lend the greatest possible assistance to the struggles of sentient life across The Earth. Shortly after exchanging introductions a messenger arrived to escort all four of us into the stronghold.
Kent smiled while throwing on his vestments, "It would appear we are here for the same purpose".
Inside the main hall of Castle Darenthold, Faust, Richard, Kent and I were addressed by a human with strikingly red hair. He wore a well-made breast plate, sharp grieves, and a fabulous mantle all emblazoned with red and gold dragon cameos, another symbol of the kingdom. He spent a full minute pacing before us, examining us as a farmer might examine his horses. His voice was unusually gruff, and bold.
"I am Drillid, the leader of the Kingdom of Darenthold. You four will be accompanying The Countess on a two-month journey north. You will be expected to protect and care for her along with three men from her personal guard. You should be prepared to fight, kill, and even die for her safety. I have prepared rooms for you in the guest house, and you will be fed and clothed for this mission. There will be no questions; if you don't feel up to the task then don't show up tomorrow, and be prepared to pay for your food and lodgings. Otherwise, enjoy yourselves tonight, and get plenty of rest."
He turned with a dramatic flip of his mantle, and exited the hall. The messenger then lead us to his guest house. The lower floor of the building was set up like a tavern with a bar, plenty of tables and chairs, and was fully staffed. We found ourselves waited upon with expert care taken in every step, and before long, the place was packed with many townsfolk.
Faust and I sat at the counter while Kent took a walk outside, and Richard went to his room to rest. The room was becoming crowded and lively as more locals gathered for some kind of end-of-week celebration. The barkeep treated us to drinks and thanked us for taking the job adding, "We've been waiting for you four to show up for a few months. The countess will be pleased at your arrival".
It wasn't long before six men dressed in golden armour entered the tavern. I immediately recognized their uniform as those of the Dragon Hunters lead by a powerful, influential man named Tyberius. I could not resist the sudden urge to tell stories of their exploits, some holding the prestige of true legends, and so I snuck off to don a disguise. Utilizing the arcane arts, I made myself appear older, changed my outfit into shades of green, and turned my skin to an olive tone. I produced some ear-tips from a small box of disguises that I kept among my possessions, and finally trained my voice to carry an Elven accent.
Emerging from the back of the house, I strummed a simple tune on my harp and began my performance as one of the forgotten Elven Bards of Dragonsong.
"O' wherefore do bones of great beasts lay,
scattered and smashed; what dreadful disarray?
The secret behind the sudden dragon's slumber
can be found upon the sword of the knights known, of Dragons, to Slay.
With great, scale`d wings these fiends show no fear
suffering not even gods to pass near,
but here we see why dragons do stumble
at the sight of Tyberius, The Slaying troupe's Leader."
Tyberius was less than impressed, and shot me with a cold glare while promising, "If you play one more bar, Elf, I will snap your neck".
"You do not wish to be regaled with tales of your achievements?"
The dragon hunter picked a gold coin off the table and handed it to me, "If it means that much to you, I'll pay you to stop playing."
The other Slayers chuckled at this gesture, but Tyberius was clearly not making a joke. I sat down next to Faust at the counter and the Barkeep gave me an estranged look until Faust nodded and stated, "The old man's with us". After that the Barkeep poured me some Elven-made wine, and I sighed into the glass.
After another hour of conversations and libations the crowd died down, and Tyberius approached Faust and I, "You seem like the kind that would know a thing or two about dragons, why don't you come with us on our next mission? You'll have an opportunity to learn more about our clan, and about myself as well." It would seem certain rumors of Tyberius' self-absorption were not entirely false, as I was led to believe by his outburst earlier.
I could not bring myself to care enough, however, and let him down... softly.
"Considering I know everything about you, and this is the first time we've met, I really have nothing to gain from our partnership."
Tyberius scoffed loudly, "Then you would do best to keep your mouth shut, should we meet again." Our encounter left him a little sore, I had reasoned.
After that, Faust and I climbed the stairs to our room where we would discover, for the first time in many months, soft beds and a comfortable rest. We had soon lost hope of such comforts after opening the door to find Richard face-to-face with a very large, cat-like creature.
The creature appeared metallic, and was bearing it's fanged maw, threatening to devour any of us with a single snap of it's jaw. We soon witness it's supreme agility as, upon opening the door and before Richard could completely turn to spot us, the shining beast lunged forward, it's large, imposing body bathing Richard in shadow as it obscured the light of the street lamps just outside.
For that split-second we could clearly see Richard's expression turning from confusion to horror; slowly he was coming to understand the danger he was in.