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An Assassin’s Redemption

A story from the Diaries of Seeche the Half-Elf

Please direct all feedback to adarajin@yahoo.com
Thanks, Josh

 

Chapter 1

            Swiftly I hurried down the path, despite the sharp pain that I felt radiating from my leg. I was late, and Lord Spichot would not be pleased. Bad enough that I was late, but that I had failed at my assigned task as well? I only hoped that he would give me a second chance to remove the trader Torchentor, rather than reneging on our agreement and refusing me payment, if not doing worse than that. A trader like Torchentor might be missed, despite the fact that he was known for shady dealings and many would welcome his removal – a simple street urchin like myself though? I could be made to disappear and no-one would even blink an eye, if they even noticed that I was gone at all – that’s assuming that they knew I was there in the first place, which few did.

            It had been such a simple task for me, given that I had proved to be a natural with thrown darts when given a chance to properly line up the shot – given that the dart was properly balanced of course. Instead of the easy job that was expected, I had run into a number of problems. The town watch had not been as fully distracted investigating the ‘theft’ of the dart that I had been supposed to use, meaning that I had been distracted somewhat from my job. Add in the recent rains that made the shale roofing shingles that I was trying to cross overly slippery, I was fortunate that I had been able to reach my position outside of his bedroom window in a timely fashion at all. But then he hadn’t shown, staying downstairs petting his cat for over an hour. Twice I had had to hide when the watch had passed by, and when I had stood to make the throw itself I had slipped and fallen, tearing my leg open on the garden trellis on my way down. That had cost me one of my precious healing potions, hoping to god that it was not a fake, despite the good reputation of the merchant. As expensive as it was, it was only that good reputation that had convinced me to buy them.

            This was not the first job that I had undertaken for Lord Spichot, and I hoped that it would not be the last. Life on the streets was hard, and I was lucky that I had managed to catch the local lord’s eye with my skill as a pickpocket and thief. The extra money that doing jobs for him that he would rather not be associated with made life on the streets a lot easier. After all, there wasn’t much hope for a half-breed like myself, only half human in a town almost exclusively of other full-blooded humans, daughter to a wandering elf who had abandoned my mother and I when I was only 2 years old. She had died only a few years after, leaving me young and alone, cursed with maturing slower by my elven blood, meaning that if it wasn’t for that nice family that had found me and taken me in for a few years, I never would have survived.

            Limping along, sticking to the shadows whenever possible, I suddenly looked up to see one of the watch pounding down the road yelling something. Oh no! I’ve been discovered. Was my first thought, thinking that I was about to be in deep trouble. Trouble it was, but on a far greater scale than I thought as a moment later he came close enough for me to hear what he was shouting.

            “Run! Run for your lives! The dragon is coming!!!” Over and over he repeated his call, stopping every now and then to bang on the door of someone or other prosperous enough to warrant special attention. In his wake windows were opening as people shouted first at him for disturbing their sleep, and then for their families to gather their things and run.

            Forgetting the pain in my leg, I began to sprint for my bolt hole. This was an older green dragon, who lived several miles upriver of the town of Thalao, and came down to raid it for a snack every few years when it had cleared out enough of the animals in its area to make hunting more difficult, or when it desired to add a new piece of treasure to its hoard. Rumor had it that dragons found elves to be a tasty snack, and while I was only a half-breed, I doubted that it would decline to eat me if given the chance – after all, it never turned down the chance to eat one of the local humans who invariably had one of them be foolish enough to stay out in the open when it came to call.

            At last, there it was, my bolt hole containing all my worldly possessions. Knowing that against a dragon who would find me out, my bolt hole was hardly a safe place to hide, I swiftly gathered up my belongings and fled for the forest, hoping that with far more easily accessible prey, it wouldn’t notice me. Behind me I heard everyone fleeing towards Lord Spichot’s manor. It hadn’t been attacked before, however I wondered if this time, with no easier prey available, the dragon would attack and destroy the manner itself with contemptuous ease.

            So busy was I with getting as far away from the town as fast as possible, that I never noticed the root sticking out until it was far too late. Catching my bad leg on the root, I fell hard, the pain making me curl up into a ball, my arms clutching my leg rather than trying to break my fall. I felt a sharp pain in my head, and then all I knew was darkness.

 

            When I woke, it was to see a strange man – no, it was an elf, and not one that I recognized – bending over me. “That was a nasty fall you took, although I wonder where you tore up your leg. It certainly wasn’t from an old worn tree root such as that one that you must have tripped over.” he said. Reminded of my leg, it suddenly started to throb with pain, although not nearly as much as I expected it to, even with having been treated with that potion. Reaching down to investigate, I discovered that the elf had rebandaged my leg, or to be more accurate had properly corrected the makeshift job that I had done before.

            “Who… who are you?” I asked blearily, still feeling somewhat out of it from my fall. Based on his clothing, which was reasonably well-made, despite showing a considerable amount of wear, I was guessing that he was some sort of traveler. He only carried a small pack, with no sign of a pack-animal which a merchant would be bringing along if they weren’t packing all of their goods on their on back. The answer I got however shocked me out of my daze completely. “My name is Dronja.”

            Just four words, spoken softly, but he might as have screamed it at the top of his lungs for the reaction I gave him. I pulled away, fast. I may have lived my whole life in a small town, but the name of Dronja was very well known in dark tales used as threats by bullyboys everywhere. Dronja the Assassin, the deadliest man in centuries, quite possibly the deadliest assassin to ever live. According to the stories, in the early days of his career he had been known as Dronja the Betrayer, for the way that he had first claimed his title as assassin. The unwritten code for a killer wishing to join the ranks of the assassins is that they must kill someone for no other reason than to become an assassin. Most picked a target at random, however Dronja had taken it a step further, and a lot more personal than usual. His target, or to be more accurate, targets, had been his closest friends and traveling companions, who he had murdered in their sleep. Only one of them had managed to escape, having been lucky enough to be attending to the call of nature when it happened, and being quick-witted enough to flee on horseback as soon as he realized what was going on. According to one merchant I had overheard telling the tale, an elf who claimed to have heard the story directly from this survivor, Dronja had been acting oddly since their last stint in the army, and it was because of this that he had fled rather than trying to figure out exactly what had happened.

            Seeing my reaction, Dronja backed off a bit, giving me some space. “Easy now, if you aren’t careful you’ll just hurt yourself some more. I’ve fixed you up once, but I’m not that interested in practicing my healing skills to fix you up again. Anyways, I’ve told you my name, what’s yours?” “My names Seeche,” I spat, “and I know who you are, murderer.”

            His eyes saddened, like he was remembering the past with sorrow. “Yes, I once was a murder, an assassin. But that was due to a dark priest’s spell on me, countered years ago. I have tried to put that all behind me, but some have long memories, not that I blame them. I will never make up for all that I did during those years, although I have tried my best.”

            “Now why should I believe that?” I demanded.

            “Well, for one thing, I just spent my time and energy to heal you of an infected leg and a cracked skull. Will you at least give me a chance? You have nowhere to go; the dragon destroyed the town and killed everyone in it.” His voice was still calm, but now it sounded…sad, almost. For a moment I almost thought that he was sad…almost. But he was right, he had helped me, he deserved to be given a chance at least.

            Moving carefully, I got up and looked around. My bag was a few feet away, and didn’t look to have been tampered with. Few knew the knots that I used to close my bag, and I figured that if it hadn’t been tampered with yet, he was unlikely to mess with it at all. More importantly however, I wanted to know just what happened to the town. Figuring out which way town was located was rather easy – all I had to do was find the smoke coming from beyond the root that I must have tripped over.

            Leaving Dronja behind me, I wandered in that direction, only to stop staring when I reached the edge of the forest. The town was…destroyed, utterly and completely. There didn’t seem to be so much as a single building left standing, much less intact. The manor was gone, its stones scattered all over the place, docks and warehouses smashed and burned to the ground, and the marketplace and homes, there was nothing left of them. Nothing living moved down there, not even a dog or goat or pig. Nothing. Everything that I had ever known was now gone.

            Dronja had walked quietly up behind me, and now he took hold of my shoulders gently and held me. Surprising myself, although perhaps not him, I pulled myself free just enough to spin around, then threw myself into his arms and wept. I may have hated and despised my home, but it was still my home. An indeterminate time later, I finally could cry no more and I pulled myself free of his embrace, and went to sit on a nearby log, looking out straight ahead, not really seeing anything.

 

            I do not know how long I sat there, only that when I awoke from the sleep that my stupor had turned into, it was hours later and growing dark. I looked out through the open tent flap and saw that Dronja had made a fire and was in the process of cooking some food.

            Tent flap? Why was I in a tent? I didn’t sleep in a tent, much less own one, I slept in an old storeroom that had long since been abandoned. It was only after I had pondered this for a few moments that I realized that someone had undressed me and placed me in a bedroll in the tent. I blushed when I realized who it must have been.

            Suddenly I realized that the town was gone, really and truly realized it rather than the shocky ‘something has happened’ feeling that I was experiencing before. I started to cry, long and hard, absolutely sobbing my heart out. Normally I’m not emotional, especially about the town, but what can I say? It was my home and all that I had ever known, and now it was all gone, destroyed, never to be there for me again. But then Dronja was there, gently rocking me in his arms, doing his best to comfort me, again; and I forgot all about who he was, how he was a dangerous former assassin, all I cared was that he was someone there trying to comfort me. After a few minutes of sobbing my heart out, Dronja managed to put me back to bed, but refusing to lose his comfort I dragged him in after me – we didn’t go to sleep for a while after that…

 


 

 

 

Chapter 2

            I woke up the next morning to the singing of birds and the smell of hot food. For a moment I lay there wondering where I was, but then it all came back to me. This time however, I remembered everything with a feeling of acceptance. I had gotten all of my crying out the day before, and there really wasn’t that much to hold onto from my past. That’s all it was, the past, and very little of it full of happiness or otherwise worth remembering. Then, when Dronja moved across my field of view, I blushed remembering all that had happened after he had gotten me to go to bed that second time. It definitely wasn’t my first time, for after all the life of a street urchin is tough and almost all play the part of whore at one time or another, nor had he been my worst, but this time had definitely been different. It wasn’t about the sex so much as a seeking of affirmation that I wasn’t alone in the world, that there was still someone else out there.

            Fortunately, I got my blushes under control quickly for a moment later he looked in on me, likely alerted by hearing my movements. “Did you sleep well?” he asked, tacitly leaving off the other activities that we had engaged in prior to going to sleep. At my nod he continued on saying “Breakfast is ready; I plan to leave after I have eaten. Do you wish to join me on the trail once we are done?” I nodded again and waiting until he had stepped away from the tent to get out of my bedroll and get dressed. Despite what had happened the night before, I still had my modesty.

            As I approached his fire he handed me a bowl of porridge which I discovered contained chunks of apples and some sort of berry, and absently gestured towards a log that he had pulled within a comfortable distance from the fire. The morning was slightly cool, and the warmth of the fire was welcome. Off to the side, I say the sack containing all of my belongings, and next to it was another sack with some odds and ends sticking out of it. Seeing where my gaze was directed, Dronja spoke up, saying that that was all that he had been able to salvage from the town, and that I could sell it for some extra money in the next town unless I wanted to keep it.

            It did not take long for us to finish up our meal and douse the fire, and, before I knew it, we had moved to the main path and were on our way, hiking towards Dulte, a nearby town. At this point I realized that I knew very little about my new traveling companion, beyond the stories and rumors which, by my own experiences, had proved to be either inaccurate or outdated. Before I could ask him anything however, he began to inquire about my own past. With my sudden change of fortune, I decided to use this as a chance to review my past and try and decide where I wanted to go in the future.

            “Well, to start off with, I’m the daughter of a tavern girl who was charmed by a wandering elf. My mother managed to make him stick around and help support her by doing various odd jobs around the town, however it was only for a while and when she died when I was around two, he soon abandoned me to go back to roving. Fortunately for me I was taken in by a compassionate family of traders who had seen how hardworking my mother was to support me, and were appalled to learn how I had been abandoned by my father. I never did learn what happened to him, I don’t even really know who he was, I was so young at the time. They raised me for the next ten years or so, with myself helping out as much as I was able for one so young, but then they fell on hard times and had to move on. Rather than going with them and leaving the town that was all I knew, I ran away and have been living on the streets ever since. Life was hard at first, and I was forced to steal to get by. One day, when I was desperate for a bit of food, I tried to rob the local Lord Spichot’s pantry and got caught. Rather than turning me in to the guard, he decided that he had use for my skills and employed me every now and then for tasks that he didn’t want to be associated with. The extra money and food made life a lot easier, but it was still hard.

            “I was told to remove a trader who had offended him with by selling inferior goods, except that it was wet and I slipped on the roof, it was when I hit the trellis on the way down that I tore up my leg. I was on my way back to my bolt hole to wait for a time to make a second attempt when the dragon attacked.” I paused for a bit after I finished telling my tale, then asked “So now I have nothing, do you mind if I travel with you for a while?” I wouldn’t mind traveling with an assassin, as long as he didn’t try to kill me as well, and while one night didn’t mean anything, I certainly wouldn’t mind staying with him for a while – he had his own sort of charm after all.

            He nodded briefly, and after a few minutes, I cautiously asked him about his past, sensing that it was a sensitive topic for him. At first he didn’t respond, but after a moment he started to speak, and I realized that my first impression of him was right once I had gotten past thinking of all the stories and looked at him as he appeared to be now. He was a good man, trying to make up for his past, a past that he didn’t altogether understand – understandable since he had been under the influence of a powerful spell for a good portion of the time.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 3

            “I guess life really started for me when I was about eighty. I lived in a small village, hidden away from the rest of the world. One day, a pair of green dragons, great wyrms both, and probably older than the oldest elf in my village, moved into the area. I don’t know why they had moved from wherever they came from, but once they were there they started to clear out any possible rivals or threats, and they apparently considered my village to be such. Some of us had felt a stirring of power nearby, but we hadn’t yet gotten around to investigating it so the attack came as a complete surprise.

            “We were all gathered together to celebrate the birth of my aunt’s child when the dragons swooped down, spraying acid everywhere. I had gone to go retrieve some additional drinks which is why I escaped the initial attack. Some of the others tried to put up a fight, but they never really had much of a chance. I fled, leaving behind my favorite eagle who gave her life to distract the dragons in a futile attack while I made my escape.

            “Having nothing left to keep me in the area, I moved on, roving the land until eventually I put my archery skills to use in the army. Since I was one of the best archer in the army, as well as a skilled tactician and leader, along with a natural skill at disguising myself and blending in with the landscape, I was put in charge of an elite group of scouts and sent out ahead of the army to scout out enemy encampments. This proved to be my doom.

            “I had been with various armies for a couple of centuries, holding together my band of scouts and skirmishers – or rather my mercenary company as that is what it had grown into – through thick and thin when we got caught behind enemy lines facing a group of powerful enemy mage-priests. Calling upon the power of their dark lord, they targeted me as the leader of the group, and managed to cast a power spell of corruption upon me moments before being cut down by the others in my squad. Dazed, I allowed my men to lead me back through the lines and to our camp where I recovered, however I was forever changed, or at least I was for a very long time.

            “The spell had twisted me, turned me evil as it were, and I began to see plots and suspicions in every action around me, nothing appeared the same anymore. I took every chance to advance myself, particularly at the expense of others, ‘paying them back’ for every perceived slight that they heaped upon me. I finally left the army and the company that I had led for oh so long, after killing my traveling companions while on a side-trip scouting out a nearby valley. I got all but one of them, who happened to be attending the call of nature when I struck and who fled rather than sticking around to see what happened, having observed how I had changed over the past several months. With their escape and spreading word of my actions, I knew that they would never take me back.

            “Perhaps it was the curse that caused me to kill these good people, sensing that if anyone could drag me back it was them, and in its own way it refused to allow that to happen. Thus began my time as an assassin, by killing those closest to me.”

            Here he paused, and I was afraid that he wouldn’t continue the tale, for tale it was. Up until this moment he had told his story in a flat, monotone sort of voice, but now he shed a tear, crying for the loss of his friends. I didn’t think that he was faking it either, I suspected that his voice before had been emotionless due to his attempting to keep speaking evenly, not due to a lack of emotion on his part.

            “After that, I spent the next few centuries plying the trade of assassin, relying on my skills both as a bowman where distance was not an issue, and my natural skills at stealth and the bypassing of wards and locks. Finally, it was when I learned that I was capable of great magic, and attempted to find training for that potential that I found my freedom. It was under the tutelage of a dark sorcerer who had taken me as his apprentice that I had a spell backfire on me. This was a spell meant to dispel whatever traps or enchantments had been placed on an area, however so great was the power that I put into it that it bounced off of my target and enveloped me as well. For most magicians, this would likely have drained them for a while, effectively preventing them from casting any spell for hours, if not days. In my case however, the spell found the curse that had been placed upon me centuries before and nullified it completely, making me face all the damage that I had caused over the years.

            “My first act of goodness after all that time was to kill my teacher of the time, knowing that given time, he had the ability to make my actions seem like nothing compared to the horrors that he planned. Since then, I’ve spent the past fifty years trying to redeem myself, escaping my past and the reputation that I had gained in it. Over time, I have managed to convince a few that I have changed, however there are far more people who still believe me to be an evil person. Eventually I hope to convince everyone, however for now I will have to be satisfied with convincing one person at a time.”

            He sighed, thinking back over his tale and all that he had done, and inside I felt myself come to a decision. “You can add my name to those who believe you to be a good man now.” I said softly, half whispering as I did so. I had heard many stories, however his tale matched those that I had heard, if I ignored those that had obviously been blown out of proportion, and his story of being cursed made a kind of sense. As for the past, none of that mattered to me, all I cared about was who he was now. So far, he had proved to be someone that I could like, kind and caring, and willing to do things for others for no personal gain at all. He might be accused of having an ulterior motive if he had rescued someone rich, but someone like me, a simple street urchin, with few skills, and even fewer resources? Pah, absolute lunacy.

            He looked at me for a long moment, then murmured “Thank you, thank you very much. You have no idea how much that means to me.”

 

            We spent the rest of the day mostly traveling in silence enjoying the landscape, occasionally speaking up to indicate a particularly interesting rock formation, tree, or animal. When it grew dark, he looked at me for a long moment, then said “I’m certain that you have figured out that as no ordinary traveler, I am unlikely to be limited to ordinary equipment.” At my silent nod, he continued on “Well, since that’s the case, as long as you promise not to rob me blind, I’ll show you a few of those pieces of special equipment, and retrieve my spare tent for you since it appears likely to rain tonight.” He smiled at me in understanding, and I grinned at him in return. It would be foolish of me to attempt to rob him, for even if I did succeed in escaping which was no certain thing, but whatever I took would only last me for so long, while sticking with him and maintaining his trust would allow me to survive indefinitely living well, if not luxuriously.

            Shrugging his pack to the ground, Dronja reached up and detached a beautifully carved wooden amulet with an intricately carved sigil on it from a necklace that he wore, hidden under his collar. I noticed that there were a couple more amulets of various designs also on the necklace. Placing it on the ground in front of him, he focused on it for a moment, until with a slight creaking noise it suddenly expanded up into a good-sized chest. Opening it, he revealed a complete set of camping equipment, including tent, bedroll, pillow, and blankets, both light for the summer, and heavy for winter camping. Also inside was some sort of tubular device, alongside what looked like some kindling for a fire. Lastly, there was a backpack with a couple of water canteens on top of it, next to what looked like extra trail rations.

            Pulling out the backpack, he tossed it to me and told me to put whatever belongings that I wished to hold onto into there, then put the rest of it aside and he would store it in the chest until later for me so that I didn’t have to carry it. He then pulled out the water canteens, along with a couple from his own pack, and bade me to go fill them at a nearby creek while he set up camp. As I left I saw that he was in the process of starting to set up a fire, and when I returned the fire was crackling merrily and he had almost finished setting up both tents.

            Seeing that he had the tents well in hand, I moved to start laying out the bedrolls and their padding while he pulled out a pot to boil water in, throwing in some dried fruit and meat from his pack, adding in some greenery that he had collected along the way, putting together a stew for us to have.

            We ate in an easy silence before retiring to our separate tents. Part of me wanted to join him in his tent – my body still remembered the night before, and after all he wasn’t that bad looking. As for his mind, well, he’d certainly proved that he had a good knowledge of our surroundings, and I suspected that he could hold his own in any debate that I engaged him in far better than I could do. And then there was his personality. Easygoing, relaxed, and definitely not the ‘evil elf out to get you’ that the stories had always portrayed him as – he really had changed, and it showed.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 4

            We repeated this pattern of travel, walking and talking during the day, sheltering in our tents at night from the nightly rains. Our topics ranged from discussions about the scenery to various other topics as we walked over the next day or two, and I learned a lot about the places that he had explored, and a bit about the political atmosphere of each place. I was not at all surprised to know that he knew the politics so well, for after all, the vast majority of the assassination jobs that he was given were dictated by political reasons. As I had suspected, he was well educated in a broad number of subjects, ranging from the nesting locations of a rare type of mammal from the far east who’s name I can’t even begin to pronounce, much less spell, to the breeding habits of local birds of all things; and that was just a few of the topics that he knew that weren’t associated with his occupation as an assassin – there was far more that he knew about being assassin, not all of it that he was willing to share saying that it was too dangerous to be broadly known.

            Late on the afternoon of the fifth day, we stopped on a hill overlooking the town of Dulte. It was a fair sized town, slightly smaller than Thalao was, but still boasting a large marketplace that I could see even as far away as I was. Pulling out the amulet that controlled his camping supplies chest, Dronja called it forth and pulled out the sack of odds and ends that had been recovered from Thalao, and placing back into it both of our tents. He weighed the sack in his hand for a moment, then said “This definitely won’t bring us enough coin to properly outfit you and I assume that you are planning on continuing on with me as I head towards Jornjonia, capital city of Jornja. I figure that’s a decent place to disappear for a while and learn about the situation in the extended area.” I was happy when he automatically assumed that I was going to continue on with him, rather than trying to abandon me at the first town that we came to. Converting the chest of camping gear back into its amulet, he returned it to its place and then pulled out a different amulet.

            Placing this one on the ground far more carefully than the other, he expanded it with a muttered phrase and opened it up. I caught my breath when I saw what was contained inside that chest. The compartments seemed to be even larger than the chest appeared to be from the outside, even in its expanded form, and many of them were filled to the brim with coins upon coins, gold, silver, platinum and ones of metals that I didn’t recognize, in all sorts of different shapes and sizes. And then there were the gems, some sorted by shape, size, and type, while others were all jumbled together. I recognized a few of them as being precious or semiprecious stones, but there were many that I did not. All together though, this chest represented an enormous amount of wealth.

            Dronja chuckled at my reaction and commented “A successful assassin is often a rich one, and I was a very successful assassin for quite a long time. This is only one of several chests that I have, although it’s the only one that I keep with me. The others I have stored in an extra-planar cottage cum stronghold that I have. That’s a bit trickier to get into and out of, and I prefer to use it for storage only unless I need to hole up for a few days and rest in secluded privacy or safety. The only chests that I keep on me are one chest of money and gems, a chest of extra camping supplies, and a chest containing whatever of my preferred equipment that I don’t happen to be wearing at the time.”

            So saying, he reached inside the chest and pulled out three or four small pouches from another compartment and filled each one with a different type of coin – or a variety of small gems in the case of the last one. My eyes bulged as he put more than a double-handful of coins into each pouch, each of which was only slightly larger than the size of my fist, and none of them looked to have more than a few coins in them when he was done. “Magical pouches, a small fortune in and of themselves, but they make you look like a much smaller target than you are and I can make them myself, so it’s not too costly.” He said with a grin at my expression. “Anyways, we’ve dawdled long enough, let’s head on into town.” And with that he shrunk the chest back into its amulet, he carefully clipped it to his necklace and tucked it away under his collar.

            Striding off down the path, he left me still standing there staring for a moment before I came to myself and hurried after him. He glanced at me as I caught up and started to speak, telling me what items we would be purchasing in Dulte. “Food supplies is an absolute must. I can keep things fresh in the camping chest so we don’t need to restrict ourselves just to trail rations, although we should get plenty of those so that I don’t have to pull out my chest too often. Some equipment for you, basic armor and weaponry for starters, we’ll properly equip you once we get to Jornjonia. Oh, and some horses so that we can keep things with us, but won’t have to carry it all the time.” “I can’t ride.” I said quietly. “I suspected as much, no time like the present to learn. I know some tricks to calm even the wildest horse, so you won’t have to worry about getting a rough beast.”

 

            I looked around curiously as we passed through the stockade gates. Where Thalao was hidden away in the forest and unguarded, Dulte was out on the open plains and guarded itself from roving bands of brigands with a high stockade wall fully manned by a complete garrison of town guard.

            “Let’s go find a place at the inn, then we’ll have a place to put our stuff down and store our purchases.” Dronja said, guiding me by the arm to a large multi-storied building nearby, outside of which several wagons were parked.

            The innkeeper was a large, cheerful looking woman, except for the fact that she had a bit of bad news for us when we asked for rooms. “I’m sorry, but we’re all full up.” “All full up? What do you mean by that? This is a rather large inn that you’ve got here, with at least ten rooms or more.” Dronja asked. “Yes, we do have fifteen rooms here actually, however there is a trade caravan here currently, stopped on their way to trade in Thalao. Penny pinchers too they were, a room apiece for each of the two masters, with their underlings spread out through the rest of the available rooms, taking up all of my space yet not paying a single copper more than the standard fare per room.”

            Dronja snorted, and replied “Well, you can tell them that they might as well turn around. Thalao has been demolished. A green dragon paid them a visit about a fortnight ago. We just came from there and what’s in the sack is about all that was worth salvaging.” He gestured at the sack I was holding for emphasis. “Well, if that’s the case, why don’t I tell them that if they are feeling so stingy, the masters can share a room and you can take the other? After all, they need to save what money they can since they aren’t going to be making a profit at the end like they had intended Tough luck for them, aint it?” The innkeeper said with a grin.

            “It’s a deal, five gold-pieces aught to cover the bill for the night, and cover breakfast and dinner for us as well.” Dronja said smiling. The innkeeper gaped at him for a moment before recovering, and I began to get the impression that she was usually paid in coppers and perhaps silvers as well, but definitely not golds. “Deal, and it’s a thumb in their eye for their coin pinching. Not much that an innkeeper can do and still expect business with the likes of them, but I’m willing to bet that I can get away with this.” She said with a broad grin on her face, clasping Dronja’s hand.

            Pausing to place the golds in a strongbox under the counter, and retrieve some smaller coins as well, she led the way past the common room and up a flight of stairs. She stopped near the end of the hall and rapped sharply on one of the doors. “Whadya want?...” a voice mumbled from behind the door as footsteps approached. With a click of the latch, the door opened revealing a rather unkempt looking dwarf staring blearily out at us. “You and your brother are going to have to sleep together tonight to make room for these good fellows.” The innkeeper replied shortly. “Whadya mean? I paid for this room and I intend to keep it!” he all but shouted, and a moment later another dwarf, looking if anything even scruffier than the first, peered out of the room across the hall. “Whadere ya’shoutin’bout Bourda?” he demanded, running his words together like his partner, only worse. “This lady ‘ere,” he said jabbing a finger at the innkeeper, and running his words together even worse in his anger “says thatime ta movin widya. Tha’shesa given ta’room tha’eve paid fer ta’ese idjuts. How’re we supposed’ta getany slep’fer’the journey ta Thalao?” The innkeeper (she had yet to give us her name) handed the coins that she had retrieved earlier to the dwarf and stated “Here’s your money, so you haven’t paid for that room. And as for going to Thalao, forget it. These two just came from there and they got a bit of news for you.”

            Dronja smoothly picked up the tale from there, continuing on to say “The town is gone, destroyed when a green dragon paid it a visit. I suggest that you figure out where you are going next, but first, please vacate our room.” He finished this in a steely tone that brooked no nonsense. “An’ whadif I don’t?” Bourda(?) asked. “Well, I could always throw you out in the street along with your baggage, or something equally, if not perhaps more…unpleasant…” he finished, placing his hand on his dagger. Proving that he was something of a coward as I had first suspected, the dwarf cringed backwards, backing down quickly in the face of someone who clearly meant business. When he saw that Dronja was waiting, and rather impatiently I might add, for him to gather his stuff, he quickly scurried back into the room, grabbed a couple of bags and fled into his partner’s room across the hall.

            Stepping aside to avoid being knocked over by the rushing dwarf, who didn’t seem to notice her, the innkeeper stated “Sorry, but there’s only one bed. I could provide blankets if you wish to make a bed on the floor, however I hope that you can use your bedroll to provide the base.” “Thank you, but we will make do with just the bed.” Dronja replied. “We will be going out for a while to get some supplies, do you mind giving me the key to our room?” “You can get if from them.” she said gesturing at the closed door behind her. “They don’t seem to have turned it over when they vacated the room.”

            Thanking her one last time, Dronja turned to me and asked, “Do you wish to intimidate the idiot this time? Or do I get all the fun?” “My turn.” I said, smiling. I then proceeded to demand our key from a very scared dwarf who looked fully prepared for me to give him his head on a silver platter as the alternative option for handing over the key. “Coward.” Was my only statement as to his behavior. Dronja merely nodded as we neatly stacked our belongings along one wall of our room, then left to go explore the town, carrying with us the sack of salvaged items that we wished to sell.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 5

            Roving the marketplace of Dulte, we swiftly found a general store where we were able to unload the bag of salvaged items, getting roughly fifty gold-pieces in return. It was far more money than I had ever seen in my life prior to meeting Dronja, however I got the impression that Dronja felt that it was far less than what we could have gotten elsewhere. Wandering along further, we picked up a variety of foodstuffs, both trail rations that would keep well for our backpacks, and some rather tasty pastries that I spotted as well. The way that I knew they were tasty was because I couldn’t resist sampling one of them before they were wrapped up in their paper wrappings. Dronja also picked up a number of different spices to add to the stews that he invariably fixed us each day. Feeling rather whimsical, I also picked up a curious looking glass sculpture that sort of looked like a dragon, but was also rather cloudlike, first making certain with Dronja that we had a way to properly store it so that it wouldn’t get damaged on our journeys.

            Leaving the main market square behind, we wandered down the row where the blacksmiths and leatherworkers plied their trades, with Dronja making his selections of equipment for me. Since I had a natural skill with thrown weapons, he picked up full score of darts for me, along with a long blade that could double as a throwing knife in a pinch. He also picked up a crossbow and a shortbow for me, saying that if I was going to stick with him, he wanted me to at least have a familiarity with just about any weapon that I might be forced to use, if not any amount of actual skill. With armor we had less luck, finding only one set of stiffened leather armor that was a near-fit, and required a few modifications to make it comfortable. Fortunately for my peace of mind however, Dronja said that we’d pick up better equipment and completely re-outfit me once we got to Jornjonia with its far wider selection, but he wanted me to have at least something for now.

            It was when we went to purchase horses that we got truly lucky, a retired soldier had gotten a beautifully matched pair of horses for his daughter and her husband, however they had both been killed in a bandit raid not too long ago shortly after he had purchased the beasts and he no longer wished to keep such a blatant reminder of what he had lost. Gentle as anything we could possibly wish for, and also with full tack included, we were well satisfied with our purchase.

            Returning back to the inn, after stabling the horses and storing the rest of our purchases back in our room, we enjoyed a quiet meal of roast lamb, while ignoring some rather heated glares from the dwarven caravan leaders across the room. I was surprised that they were so hostile, however perhaps they had managed to get their courage up a bit while we were out shopping. I didn’t worry, there was nothing that they could do to us that Dronja and I couldn’t handle. It appeared as if they were trying to figure out where to go next, without any luck due to the heated argument I overheard, and were likely to spend another night at the inn. As coin pinching as they were, I just knew that they would hate having to pay for a second night even worse than having been told that they must give us a room. I just wish that I had been able to be there when the innkeeper came to collect their additional lodging fees.

            It was when we went up to our rooms to sleep that I got a bit of a surprise. I had forgotten that there was only one bed, and while I was standing there wondering who would sleep where, Dronja stripped down and got into bed on one side, patting the bed beside him in an obvious invitation. Following his lead, I did the same, hurrying to get out of the chill air. Snuggling together for warmth, our explorations soon turned into something far more – apparently the attraction hadn’t been nearly as one-sided as I had thought.

 

            “Morning sleepyhead, the sun is up and the day begun. Up you go Seeche, no time to lie about all day now is there?” Dronja sounded positively chipper while I merely groaned, savoring the feel of the soft downy featherbed. It the first one that I had ever slept on in my life as far as I could remember, even when I was a young girl being raised by the traders, I had only been given a rough straw-tick mattress. “Oh come now, you can’t be that tired, we didn’t go to sleep that late. Up you go, the sheets and I are going downstairs for breakfast. See you soon.”

            The next thing I knew was that the sheets were suddenly pulled back and it was cold. Shivering like mad I struggled into my clothes as fast as I could. Opening the door to follow Dronja down to breakfast, I abruptly reversed my direction to make room for Dronja, because he was standing in the doorway holding a large serving tray in both arms, on it a couple of platters containing hot eggs, bacon, porridge, along with a pair of mugs, as well as a pitcher of some black drink that gave off an interesting aroma. “Why thank you, you saved me the trouble of figuring out how to knock without spilling everything, for I certainly wouldn’t have been able to open the door on my own.”

            Setting the tray down on the nearby desk, he crouched down beside the fireplace, and swiftly built a fire using the kindling and wood from the firebox beside, and lighting it all with a skinny little tube with a button on the side, which he pulled out of his backpack. Coming back to sit across from me at the desk, he poured us both a cup of the drink, with a statement of “Coffee” to identify it. I sampled it first, and found it to have a rich, smooth yet slightly burnt flavor; sharp, yet highly pleasing. I had heard of coffee before, however this was the first time that I had ever tasted it.

            We sat eating in a comfortable silence together for a while before Dronja commented “It appears that it will start raining fairly soon, and if my ability to predict the weather is at all accurate, we will be having a heavy rain all day. I for one am not at all interested in traveling in such weather, not when we can stay all nice and cozy here at the inn for another day or two until things blow over.” “I agree, we should spend the day relaxing and resting after our past journey, and so that we have extra energy for when we are continuing on to Jornjonia.”

            Once he had finished his breakfast, Dronja pulled out a book from his bag and got into bed to read it. Feeling a bit chilled, I got back into bed as well and snuggled close to him for warmth. Curious, I looked at what he was reading, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. One of the best things that the traders had given me was my ability to read, hence my ability to write this diary. This book however was completely indecipherable to me, written in some strange archaic language that used some type of runes for its writing. I suspected that it was some sort of magical research that Dronja was doing, because he kept taking notes on a piece of paper that he had on his lap. Snuggling soon turned to cuddling however, and after Dronja put his reading materials away, cuddling turned to lovemaking. Basking in the gentle warmth of our bodies, I soon drowsed off to sleep shortly after our activities reached their logical conclusion.

            I must have shifted somewhat as I woke up, as Dronja put his book back down almost immediately. Turning to look at me, he smiled warmly, yet his voice was completely flat, with none of the kindness in it that his face was showing. “Tell me how you have made me feel this way, after only knowing you for a few days? I have never felt anything like this before, but for you, I throw caution to the winds in following my emotions!” I stared back at him, wondering just that myself, trying to answer the same question, except with the positions reversed. “I said tell me! What magic have you been working on me; I haven’t survived for this long to die like this, betrayed by someone who pretends to be a friend, an ally!”

            I suddenly discovered that he held a very sharp, very dangerous feeling dagger at my throat. I froze for a moment, then quietly said “If I didn’t know better, I would be asking that same question of you. Test me however you would like, but I think that you will find that it was nothing I have done, at least not intentionally, that has caused this attraction between us.” He sighed and leaned back, making the dagger disappear as he did so. He sighed quietly, and said almost wistfully “Part of me is wishing that it was a spell that you had cast, for I have been alone for so long that I am not certain that I can get used to traveling with someone else.” I glared at him, stating flatly “You’d better, ‘cause now that you’ve got me, I’m not interested in leaving.” He snorted, a soft puff of breath of a chuckle against my chest as he laid his head against my shoulder, “Don’t worry; I don’t have any intention of leaving you behind. I don’t suppose that you will want me to continue setting up a separate tent for you while we are traveling.” Now it was my turn to snort, and I leaned into him a bit more closely.

            We lay this way for a indeterminate passage of time, marked only by the falling of the rain, until with a loud thrap the innkeeper rapped on our door and enquired whether we would wish for dinner in our room or if we would be coming down. Before Dronja could answer, I called out that we would be down soon. Dronja looked at me and I commented “You don’t get to do all of the organizing, we’re a team now, remember?” His only response was a soft sigh and a slight shake of his head, a smile on his face.

            A few minutes later we extricated ourselves from the blankets and got dressed. Going down to eat another hearty meal, this time a beef stew, we ate quietly before returning upstairs to go to sleep. No mention of additional payment for the extra nights and meals that we were using was made by the innkeeper, and personally I had doubted that she would anyways. Dronja had paid very well the night before, and if there was any way that she could have made us more comfortable and likely to return, I suspect that she would do so. After all, it was not often that she got custom willing to pay in gold rather than the more standard copper and silver such as Dronja had done.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 6

            Day dawned bright and early the next day, with no sign of a cloud in the sky, the storm having blown over sometime during the night. After a hearty breakfast, we got an early start on the road, with myself sitting none to steadily in the saddle of Starpatch, for that is what I had named my horse, for the star-like patch of white on his forehead. Dronja had opted to call his Erwynel, after his late father. Dronja promised that with experience, I would become more comfortable in the saddle, and eventually the saddle sores would pass; I certainly hoped that they would pass, for by the end of each day I was utterly sore in a broad number of places.

            The road was long, however it was anything but tedious, as Dronja imparted all sorts of knowledge to me, such as how to make poisons and detect when they had been used, maintain and repair my weapons and armor, and even how to make them in the first place. And that was just the beginning of what he was teaching me during the day as we were riding, using magical illusions to help illustrate his points and showing me the various sorts of plants or equipment that he was teaching me how to use. He didn’t expect me to learn any of this well enough to use these skills while riding, but he hoped that this introduction would make it easier for me to learn once he had time to properly teach me in the proper place and setting. Magic he said, he would teach me as well, because I had the talent for it. That however, would have to wait, because the danger of having a serious accident was just too great.

            During the evening, before we called it a night and cuddled together a bit before going to sleep, it was weapons training. Every traveler should have the ability to defend themselves Dronja explained, especially for an assassin, or for a rogue and sneak as he suspected I was more likely to be. A rogue and a sneak may try to avoid combat most of the time, however sometimes there was no other choice because you could be caught unawares, such as what happened one evening. Our encounter with the manticore went something like this…

            Dronja was just starting to teach me the finer points of why you need to keep your sword point up when in a defensive position, because it is easier to lower your sword than to raise it, when I heard a tremendous roar behind me. It was only the fact that I instantly and instinctively dropped forward into a rolling dive that kept my head on my shoulders, so caught by surprise was I. I was surprised both by the fact that this creature had managed to sneak up behind me undetected, and that Dronja had failed to spot it as well despite his excellent night vision and the fact that he was looking in the correct direction. He must have been as startled as much as I, for when the creature lunged again, this time at him now that he was the closer target, it was all he could manage to stumble backwards.

            Recovering himself once he saw that I hadn’t been injured in the surprise attack, Dronja straightened up a bit and stated “Now that is a manticore, and a rather stealthy one too considering how it managed to sneak up on us. On their own a single manticore isn’t too difficult to deal with, as long as you take care not to get hit by the spikes that they can throw at you. The problem however, is that usually they travel in groups of anywhere from two to three, to as many as a full score, although that many traveling together is rather rare. Also, while not exactly the smartest of creatures, they do have a basic grasp of tactics as far as herding their pray into an easier location to kill them. DUCK!!!” he suddenly shouted, and I dropped flat once again as a shower of spikes flew by overhead, originating somewhere off to my right, then swiftly rolling to the side to avoid a charging attack by the first manticore. Dronja rolled to the side as well, avoiding the edge of the spikes being thrown, somehow drawing out his bow from his pack as he passed and getting it strung all in one smooth motion so that he came out of the roll with his bow ready and strung, an arrow knocked and firing the moment that he came to a halt again. I admired his skill and grace and was completely happy that he was on my side – I couldn’t imagine my ever having even the slightest chance of winning if I had to go up against him as an enemy.

            Dodging aside from another attack from the first manticore which was most insistent on pursuing me, I heard a loud squall from the direction from which the spikes had first originated. “Quit dodging around and hit it from a distance Seeche, it’ll rip you to shreds if you try to get in close without knowing what you are doing!” Dronja called out, ending my confusion on how to attack this creature who made angry swipes with its claws every time I made a motion to attack, and presented a thick ruff of sharp spines at me at other times. Sheathing my sword, I reached into my belt-pouch and pulled out some of the heavy darts that I had taken to carrying at all times, since my crossbow was with my pack and I wasn’t anywhere nearby it at the moment, meaning that I couldn’t even attempt the maneuver that Dronja had pulled off with such ease. Pausing to weigh the dart in my hand for a moment, I checked the distance between myself and the manticore, then hurled the dart, placing it right on target in it’s left eye.

            It screamed in pain, pawing at its face, as I sensed another large mass rushing at me from the side. Diving forward, almost into the first manticore who was too busy pawing at my its face to notice, I barely missed the rushing charge of the third manticore, or rather the fourth as I saw Dronja placing yet another arrow into the body of his second target beyond my latest opponent. Sidestepping quickly to avoid being backed into the first manticore, I hurled my second dart, but it ducked its head at the last moment and the dart merely embedded itself in its forehead, a painful annoyance to be certain, but not the crippling distraction that my first dart had caused. I made ready to charge me yet again, then sagged to the ground in silence. Beyond its body I could see Dronja half-crouched, holding his bow in a position indicative of his having just fired an arrow.

            Recalling that the first manticore was only injured, if grievously, I backed away from it, then planted another dart in its throat when I got the opportunity, barely a moment behind the arrow that Dronja loosed at it. It collapsed to the ground silently, and I looked around the surrounding forest warily, waiting for any additional attackers if there were any. Dronja looked around carefully as well, then after a moment closed his eyes and relaxed, yet somehow tensed at the same time. I felt a slight tingling in my skin, such as I had felt whenever Dronja summoned or dismissed his magical chests, and a moment later Dronja opened his eyes, relaxing completely. “You can stop worrying now, there is nothing larger than a small rodent within a league of here. Those manticores must have cleaned out anything larger, and now we’ve dealt with them. Come on, let’s do a bit of exploring, I think I sensed where their nest might be. If they are like the last group of manticores that I encountered a few years ago, they will quite likely have been sensitive to things that once had a magical power within it, and sometimes you can find within their nest items of some use. They also are like magpies and like shiny objects, and some of those objects can have their own sort of value.”

            Nodding my agreement, I first retrieved my darts and his arrow, noting that he only pulled a single arrow from each manticore that he had downed when retrieving his own ammunition. Obviously his skill was such that he didn’t waste even a single shot. Dronja took the lead as we pushed through the brush, going only a short distance from the path before going down into a hollow beneath and among a large tree’s roots, where the manticores had obviously made their nest. Dronja and I split up to search the area, and while I came up with nothing other than a pile of remains from what was likely previous travelers, Dronja found what appeared to be the communal stash of loot, which he patiently sorted the junk out from the useful items. Ever the resourceful person, Dronja swiftly stowed the loot he collected in a small – and obviously magical since it took far more than it looked possible for it to hold – bag that he pulled out of his pocket.

            “Isn’t it odd that these haven’t been cleared out already?” I asked. “After all, we aren’t more than a few days ride from Jornjonia aren’t we?” “Closer to a week actually, but do you really think that anyone cares if the odd traveler or two disappears, as long as they don’t bother any of the locals?” Shaking my head, I had to admit that even in my own experience, he did have a point. As long as something wasn’t bothering them directly, most people couldn’t care less about what happened to others.

            I turned to go back to camp, when suddenly Dronja grabbed my arm. “Why didn’t you tell me that you had been hit?” “Huh?” I asked, then gasped in pain as Dronja wrenched something from my back. I turned to look at him and saw him drop a bloody quill to the ground before he roughly spun me back around and shoved me to the ground. Leaning over me, I felt him place both hands on my back, on either side of the wound, and I felt the faint tingling that I was coming to associate with magic resonating from his hands. A moment later he sighed, and said “Ok, you are lucky that I am skilled as a healer as well as a killer, and also that this was not one of the manticore variants that I feared it was.” After a moment more of holding his hands on my back while I felt a sort of itching sensation coming from by back, he sagged down beside me, and seeing my confused expression continued speaking. “My apologies for treating you so roughly, but some breeds of the manticore contain a paralyzing toxin within their spines, and I needed to make certain that you weren’t poisoned as quickly as possible. I have also healed the worst of your wound while I was at it however you should keep it loosely bound and your exertions to a minimum for the next few days. Come now, it’s back to camp we go. I’m tired and our dinner should have finished cooking by now.”

            Fortunately, the rest of our evening was much quieter, and after a fairly silent meal, we headed to bed. The only real downside of our battle was that I had to sleep on my stomach, rather than my back as I usually did, because even half-healed as it was due to Dronja’s ministrations, it still hurt to put my weight on it.

 

            In the morning, before we left, Dronja insisted on harvesting as many of the quills from the four manticores as possible, saying that there were a variety of uses that they could be put to, from use as the base for a dart or arrow, a writing quill, or even ground up and used for medicine or poison, depending on the manner in which it was prepared.

            It was once we were on the road that Dronja brought up the topic of asking what we should do once we got to Jornjonia. “I wonder, should we find a priest and get married, or do you just want to keep things the way they are for right now?” I asked. Dronja sat in silence for a bit, before he finally answered. “You know, I never really thought about it. When I was an assassin, I trained myself to never think about the past or the future, only about the present. It kept me from having to justify myself… probably how others who do evil acts, but aren’t really evil themselves go about their business.” He paused for a moment, then continued on “We may run into a slight problem though.” He said.

            “Oh? What’s that?” I asked, perplexed that there would be a problem with the two of us getting married. “My past.” He said simply. “They might not believe me when I say that I am putting the past behind me. They might think that I’ve kidnapped you and somehow bewitched you into thinking that you loved me. I think however, that I know the solution for that. I happen to know that like just about every other trade city, in addition to all of the other more commonly known guilds, there is a thieves’ guild hiding in the shadows. In addition, as is to be expected for a city as large as Jornjonia, particularly since it is the capital city of Jornja and with all of the political scheming that goes with that sort of situation, there is another guild hiding in the shadows – an assassin’s guild. Due to my background, I know how to get into just about any guild’s headquarters that I want to, anywhere I want to, and I know the secret entrances to many of these underground guilds as well. In the case of Jornjonia, this is even simpler for me, since the two guilds have their headquarters in the same building. Now, my knowing where these guilds are is one thing, but I wonder what would happen if suddenly the information was leaked to some of the leading lords and ladies who run the city, and were forced to clean up the mess after dear – or not so dear – Lord Croasta was assassinated, leading to a minor war.” He said, his voice loaded with sarcasm on the word ‘minor’. I blanched, for even I had heard the story of Lord Croasta, the powerful local representative of one of the eastern rulers. It was said that the only reason his death did not cause an invasion of the scale that would have overrun the entire country was because of how far away his ruler was. Even so, the attack that did occur had left scars on the city and the surrounding countryside for decades, or so the story went.

            After a moment of thinking about the tale of Lord Croasta and his demise, I laughed and said “That is, if we survive.” “Survive?” He asked in surprise. “Yeah, survive. Wouldn’t it be great if the thieves guild, guarded by the assassins guild, were to be robbed of some of its greatest treasures mere hours before the righteous lords and ladies pounce on them to get all of those things back?” He laughed and asked “Are you certain that you want to reveal them? Or do you actually want to join them instead you little minx?” “Well, now that you mention it…” I ducked as he mimed a blow at me, then chucked the rains a bit at Starpatch, urging him into a gallop.

            Calling back over my shoulder at Dronja who hurried to urge Erwynel into a gallop as well, “Well, we won’t be able to do any of this if we don’t get there first!” Crouching down on Starpatch’s back, I let the wind blow through my hair, and just relaxed, enjoying life and the fact that I could now ride without being in constant fear of falling off my horse’s back.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 7

            I reined Starpatch in to a stop at the top of the final hill and looked out over the city of Jornjonia, stunned at the sheer size of it. I had known that it would be a large city – after all, it was one of the largest trade cities in the world – but knowing that it was going to be a large city hadn’t prepared me for…this! I had expected maybe something a few miles across, comparing it to Thalao, which was just under a mile at its widest point. But this large I just hadn’t imagined in my wildest dreams. Compared to this city, the entire town of Thalao was just a small hut in a rather large town, a very small hut.

            “Welcome to Jornjonia, the trade city so large that it takes more than a day on horseback to get from one side of the city to the other.” Dronja said from just slightly behind and to the right of me, startling me. “Come on, let’s get down there so that we can find a place to sleep before dark. Since we are stopped anyways though, I might as well retrieve some additional money.” So saying, he swiftly dismounted, drop-tying Erwynel’s rains to the ground and trusting in his training to keep him nearby. Within moments he had retrieved a goodly amount of coins from the chest, along with a number of gems and the like, however not nearly as many as I had expected for an extended stay in the city like I understood we would be having. At my enquiring glance Dronja spoke up to explain “It’s better not to be carrying overly much coin while in the city, as it has it’s share of pickpockets – not that you’ll be joining them, right?” He said the last with a wink in my direction. “Would I do that?” I asked innocently. “Well, you’re the one that used to be a street urchin back before I found you!” I simply smiled at him in response.

            “Anyways, we can also retrieve more money at night if we need to while in the privacy of our rooms. Also, I had hoped to look around for some sort of job, and after we are settled in with that we will probably end up selling the horses which will bring in a bit more gold. Don’t worry though, I will be retrieving more money later, and a lot of it, for when we go shopping.” He said. “Why would you need to retrieve lots of money? My needs aren’t that expensive…” I trailed off as he shook his head in disagreement. “Your personal needs may not cost much, however getting you properly equipped well enough to satisfactorily meet my standards is going to cost quite a bit. I just hope that you don’t make me dig into a second chest of money.” At my wide-eyed stare he laughed and asked “Just how much do you think my armor cost to have made?” At my bewildered look he said “I won’t tell you the numbers, because I’m afraid that you might pass out and fall off of your horse, and we wouldn’t want that now would we? Anyways, my armor is of the highest quality possible – I had to search long and hard to find a smith who could make it to match my standards. Dwarven make, because only they can truly make good armor. I then sought out the elven smiths, for it is my people that can truly make a bow and sword that is light as a feather, yet deadly as can be. For the enchantments on the equipment, I found an elf so old that I might have wondered why he hadn’t died of old age, if not for the fact that he was so vibrantly alive. He was a masterful mage, and for the price I paid, he put his best into it. Enchantment upon enchantment he packed into my armor and weaponry, until even he, for all his skill, could fit no more enchantments into the armor and weapons.”

            “I don’t expect to be able to get quite that level of quality for you, but just so that you know what my standards are. Anyways, we really should be going if we want to get into the city before nightfall.” So saying, he chirruped to Erwynel and led the way down the hill into the city.

 

            Passing through the gate set in the middle of the north wall, Dronja led me past numerous stalls selling all sorts of different items, from foodstuffs to jewelry to arms and armors. Looking neither left nor right at any of the stalls, we went a ways down the main path, before turning off onto a small side street which eventually dead-ended in front of a large building bearing the name Stolsguard Inn & Bar. After paying a stable boy to see to our mounts, we entered the main establishment carrying our bags with us. Letting Dronja take the lead, I fell into step behind his left shoulder, watching as he enquired after rooms and soon paid for a week’s rent, saying that depending on how our fortunes faired, we might be staying an indefinite amount of time. The proprietor didn’t seem to mind our planned extended stay, merely commenting that they were somewhat empty at the moment and would welcome the extra coin.

            When we reached our room, I discovered that we had been allotted a rather nice and comfortable looking two-room suite, with a sitting room complete with writing desk and a bookshelf with a number of books already on it. Attached to the sitting room was nicely appointed bedroom. Both rooms had wide windows along one wall, and the sitting room had a fireplace against the bedroom wall, so both would benefit from its heat.

            Casually shrugging off his pack, Dronja dug out a well-worn book and began to page through it. Following his lead, I placed my backpack on the floor next to his in the corner and sat down in a nearby chair, watching him curious as to what he was looking for. After a moment he seemed to find what he was looking for, a couple of pages in particular from within his book. Asking me to open the window, he retrieved a bit of bread from his backpack. Now most interested in what he was doing, I promptly opened the window for him, and then sat back down in my chair.

            “Just sit there quietly please and don’t disturb me. Oh, and don’t be surprised when a bird flies into the room, it shouldn’t bother you at all.” He said quietly, before sitting down cross-legged on the floor and concentrating. I felt around me a tingling, such as when he had called his supply chests, except that this time it was far stronger, yet also less focused. We sat like this for a few minutes, him on the floor concentrating on whatever it was he was focusing on, and myself in my chair alternating my focus between watching him and the open window.

            Suddenly, in flew a large, black raven. It hopped across the floor to stand in front of Dronja, and he swiftly flipped through the pages of his book to the second page that he had marked. Focusing again, he stared at the raven and the raven stared back at him. After a moment, he held out the bit of bread, and the raven gravely bent its head to accept it. With a loud caw, it hopped back to the window and flew off.

            As soon as the bird had left, Dronja stood up, stretched, then walked over to the writing desk. Pulling out a piece of paper and a quill and inkstand, he swiftly composed a brief note before setting it aside to dry. Turning to me, he addressed me for the first time since the beginning of the rather remarkable display. “As I can see that you are rather curious about what happened, I’ll explain. I just performed a series of spells, chaining them together somewhat. The first was a spell designed to call an animal to you as long as you have no ill intent – I wanted a raven because they are naturally curious, and able to get into all sorts of places, which is just what I needed. Next I performed a spell allowing me to communicate with the raven that I called and told it what I needed, which was for it to try and track down a friend of mine. A raven is particularly useful because many of them can see beneath the surface of things, and this one was especially talented in that as far as I can tell. This is fortunate as my friend is what is commonly called a ‘shapester’ which means that he is somewhat of a shape-shifter and thus would be rather difficult to locate if I hadn’t been able to give an impression of who he is as well as what I think that he looks like, as he may have changed his appearance from last time I saw him, which was a few years ago after all.”

            I nodded my head slowly to indicate that I understood, pondering this for a moment before I replied. “So, once the raven finds him, then what happens? Also, just who is this person, beyond the fact that they are a shapester, and why do you want to contact them? Oh, and one last thing… when will you start to teach me magic?”

            “So many questions from you today eh little Seeche?” Dronja said with a laugh, patting my hand as I bristled at being called little. “Don’t worry, I didn’t mean to call you little as an insult. Anyways, to answer your questions, Dulche, for that is his name, is a shapester as I said before, which is a shape-changing race. They have three natural forms that they can choose become, even if they have no other shape changing abilities. All shapester’s have an animal aspect to themselves, and their three shapes are a fully humanoid shape, a shape that appears almost exactly like the natural animal that they have an aspect of. Their third form is a hybrid of the two, usually combining some of the best aspects of the two extremes, and when in their natural communities, it is this hybrid form that they usually spend most of their time in. Dulche has the weasel as his animal aspect, and he is a natural intelligence gatherer. Indeed, he is so skilled at such tasks that in his own land he was once called the ‘Spymaster’.

            “I first met and befriended this man when his network of information gatherers brought my existence to the attention of a local lord in another part of the country. Seeking to gain fame as the one who had successfully ordered my death, this lord – I forget his name – had ordered Dulche to find and eliminate me as a menace to everyone. Since I was no longer evil, I soon befriended him and convinced him to renege on his contract, and to tell the lord that I was no longer a problem and that he should call off his men for their sakes. Disbelieving this tale, even when another man who was hunting me returned to agree with the story after I spared his life, men were soon set on Dulche as well, and he quietly slipped away from the area.

            “Last I heard, he had moved to somewhere in this part of Jornjonia, and was starting to earn his title of spymaster back with his network of information gatherers. Hopefully the raven can find him, because I will be able to make good use of his network, both because he will likely know of a good church to go to in order to get married, and also I suspect that he would be helpful to my quest.” “Quest?” I asked. “Yes, I wish to make it known to all that I have put my past behind me, so that the name of Dronja is no longer feared like it currently is. Anyways, in answer to your last question, as soon as we get settled in more thoroughly I will begin your magical training… Oh, and one last use for him that I almost forgot – he will be useful as a go-between when we release the whereabouts of the Thieves and Assassins guild headquarters.” “After we raid them of course.” “Yes, after we have raided them, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he is interested in joining us in that raiding. He would be a useful ally if he chose to do so.”

            “All this planning is rather good,” I stated abruptly, but in a city this large, I doubt that the raven will be able to find Dulche very quickly, and I’m feeling rather hungry. Shall we go down and get some food?” He smiled and nodded, standing then following me down the stairs to the dining room of the establishment.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 8

            Dronja and I picked a small table in the corner to sit at, out of the way of the rest of the room and just incidentally put us both with our backs to the wall, where we could watch the rest of the room with ease without appearing to do so. There were quite a few other customers sitting down to eat despite the proprietors statement that they had relatively few staying customers, so obviously this place was popular for its food, if not as much as for its rooms. Despite its large size, the dining room was almost full, and a number of the customers were rather well dressed, raising my hopes on the quality of the food being served. The serving girls moved quickly and efficiently from table to table, keeping things moving fairly efficiently. They were rather good looking, and I suspected that it wasn’t just food that they were serving, a suspicion that seemed to be correct when I saw one of them head upstairs with a patron. Fortunately however, there weren’t any absolute beauties among the servers, so I wasn’t at all worried that one of them would attract Dronja’s attention. Besides, he seemed the type that cared about more than just the surface – after all, he had picked me.

            As we waited for our food to be served, Dronja started to explain to me some of the rules of the city. Apparently, when it came to trade, as long as the product was not misrepresented, all sales were final unless the shopkeeper happened to say otherwise, which was rare. Fights, while not strictly forbidden, were highly frowned upon, however it was best to keep things as non-lethal as possible, and don’t draw anything longer than a dagger if you didn’t want to end up regretting it for a long time unless there were special circumstances at the time. Dronja recommended that unless I specifically intended to put myself in a position where I would need them, I would be well advised to carry only my dagger and darts, and leave my sword and bow behind in our rooms.

            It was shortly after our food had arrived that yet another patron walked in the door. Now, this patron I gave a quick glance to note and assess whoever it was that had come in just like I had with every other patron that had walked in while we were waiting, but Dronja seemed to be giving this particular patron more than just a passing glance. Standing up, he signaled the nearest barmaid for another drink and called out to the latest stranger as he walked by “Well, is that you Dulche, or are my instincts off for once?”

            The man turned, and this time I got a better glimpse of him. He was about middling height, without any real distinguishing features, yet somehow with a somewhat soldierly look to him, as if he could handle his own in a fight and was used to being in the rank and file. “And you would be?” he asked cautiously, accepting the drink. “Are you Dulche, or am I mistaking you for someone else? And feel free to have the drink either way, it’s on me.” Dronja said conversationally.

            “Damned if I know how you always recognize me no matter how I look. How do you do it…Dornja?” he asked. “Dornja will do just fine, and it’s instinct more than anything else. Why don’t’ you sit down and eat, then we’ll go up to our rooms and talk privately afterwards. This is Seeche by the way.” He said with an offhanded gesture in my direction. Seating himself easily, Dulche did just that, digging in with gusto the moment that his food arrived.

            As soon as we had all finished eating we headed up to our rooms and after the door was closed behind us I asked Dronja why Dulche had called him Dornja. Dulche answered first however, speaking from behind me saying “It was the first name that I thought of, and I didn’t think that you wanted your real name spread around just now.” I looked back at him and couldn’t help but gasp at the change in appearance that had occurred. Rather than the soldierly looking man that I had seen before, now there was a lean, rat-faced man, with thin wiry arms and legs. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” He said conversationally. “Your face, and the rest of you…” I managed to stutter out. “It’s a little ability that I picked up a while back, made much easier by the fact that I’m a shape changer naturally.” He replied; then, redirecting his attention to Dronja, continued, “Your bird messenger found me, but I told it that it didn’t need to go back and get the note because I’d come on my own. So what are you doing in town, and where’d you pick her up?” the last with a nod in my general direction.

            Dronja answered him in an easy manner, which told me that anything we told him would go no further despite the fact that he was a known information broker – that is, none of the information directly relating to use would be spread, I couldn’t begrudge his spreading the news about Thalao and the other things that we had seen about to those who would be interested. “Thalao’s been destroyed? That’s too bad. Oh well, they’ll probably have it rebuilt and ready for trade again in a few months, a year tops. Sorry to hear that your home was destroyed lass, but you seem to have moved on fairly well.” He said once Dronja had finished explaining things. “I’ll spread the word ‘round about Thalao for you. Now, shall I also look for a priest that won’t be seeking your death?”

            Dronja started, almost falling out of his seat at the desk. “Is it that obvious?” he asked. “Not to a stranger, but to someone who knows you? Yeah, definitely.” Dulche answered with a grin. “I think that I might know of someone who will do the deed for you, but you’ll need to prove yourself to them first. Any ideas on how exactly you might go about doing that?” he asked. “As a matter of fact,” Dronja drawled out, “I was planning on ousting out both the local thieves guild, and the local assassins guild. Both of them have their headquarters in the same building after all, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to deal with them at the same time.”

            Dulche jumped up out of his chair, knocking it over in his surprise. “You know where their headquarters are? Damn, I’ve been here for a few years and I still don’t know that. You want my help spreading the news I assume, am I correct?” Dronja nodded, holding up a hand of caution. “Yeah, that’s what we had planned, but we hadn’t exactly planned on spreading the news just yet.” Dulche took one look at Dronja’s face, then righted his chair and sat back down, grinning and rubbing his hands. “Something tells me that what you have planned is going to be quite a bit of fun. Go ahead and count me in, you know that I love a good thrill.” “Well, we figured that since Seeche needs some better equipment, we might as well let the guilds do some of the providing, particularly in the stuff that doesn’t need to be custom fitted. Also, if I can remove any of the more dangerous threats myself while we are there, there will be fewer remaining to cause problems afterwards. Oh, and picking up some extra loot while we are at it would be a plus I guess.” Dronja said with a shrug.

            “If anyone can pull that sort of stunt off, it’s you Dronja.” Dulche said. “You probably need to take a few days to scope out the situation, so in the meantime I think that I’ll spread the rumor that some rather interesting, but as yet unspecified information will be surfacing in the next few days. It will be fun to see just how close to the truth the rumormongers get as to guessing just what that information will be. Oh joy, this is going to be so much fun!” he continued gleefully. “Anyways, I’d better get going and leave you to whatever you are going to be doing for the rest of the evening, I’ll talk to you later.” As he left, he tossed me a leering wink which I laughed at, knowing that he wasn’t being serious.

            “Well, now that that bit of business has been taken care of, I suggest that we get some sleep, tomorrow will be a busy day.” Dronja stated. “Sleep! That’s all you want to do?” I asked incredulously and snorted. “Well…if you’re not too tired…” He drawled. I then shoved him down onto the bed and proceeded to show him just how tired I was.

 

            I awoke lazily the following morning and gazed fondly down at Dronja lying beside me, resting with one elbow propping me up in order to get a better view. How lucky I was to have found him, or to be more accurate, been found by him. He may look ordinary to most, but to me he was incredibly handsome. His face, wearily lined with the years of pain and suffering that he had caused, had softened somewhat since the time when I had first met him, for he had finally found peace. Even if there were many who were not at peace with him, he was at peace with himself. Now, the only reason that he desired to prove himself to others was so that they could be at peace with him as well; I understood that now.

            As I watched, his eyes opened and he cracked a smile. “Morning sleepyhead.” I said softly. “Do you know how beautiful you are?” He asked. “How about how handsome you are?” I responded, lazily stroking his hair. He reached up and gently grabbed my hand. “Stop that, we need to get up and get going you know. There are things that we need to do remember?” Dronja said, rubbing his thumb in slow, gentle circles around my palm. “Do we really need to get up right away? We’re going to be staying here for a few days and there’s plenty of time to get everything done. I for one don’t feel like getting out of bed at the moment and I’m not in the least bit tired.” Smiling, he responded in just the manner that I had hoped for, and we enjoyed the rest of the morning in a gentle bliss.

            It wasn’t until shortly after noon that we emerged, him wearing his backpack, weapons and armor, and a pair of his magic gloves, and myself wearing my weapons and armor. Pausing just before the door to leaving our room, he secreted a throwing dagger within one of his gloves, and a small pouch containing a few small gems and coins in the other.

            After eating, we headed out into the market to investigate commissioning some proper armor for me. The armor that I had was still serviceable, however it rubbed badly in a couple of places if I was not careful in how I moved or dressed, a fact that I was fairly certain was not supposed to be true.

            It took some time to locate an armorer who’s level of craftsmanship was up to satisfying Dronja, during which time Dronja was able to relocate just where the combined guilds were located, the Thiassan trading complex, an absolutely clever combination of the terms ‘thief’ and ‘assassin’. Please note the sarcasm on the word clever, as I found the name to be utterly childish although I had to admit that for disguising the true business of the place by hiding it in plain sight as it were, it did do a rather good job.

            After a long day of shopping and putting forth the commission for my armor to be made, I was perfectly happy to head back to Stolsguard for dinner and bed. I never did get Dronja to tell me just how much he paid as the initial payment, nor how much the final price would be… I just hoped that it wasn’t too much.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 9

            The next day, we found Dulche waiting for us when we came down for breakfast. Apparently while we were busy shopping yesterday, he had spent the day checking up on his contacts and had discovered just where the church was that held this priest that was more open minded than most and likely willing to accept that Dronja had changed, and for the better. Unfortunately, the church was quite a ways away. It was several hours later by horseback when we reached a smallish – that’s compared to many that we had passed, as it was quite a bit larger than the one-room church that I had seen back in Thalao – church that was our destination.

            Pulling off our caps out of respect, we followed Dulche inside where he politely enquired of the acolyte who hurried up to us if ‘Father Mincely’ was available. The acolyte nodded that yes he was, and led the way to a small room of to the side of the inner sanctum. “And what can I do for you my children?” he asked in a careworn voice. “We wish to be married, Seeche and I, and we had hoped that you would do us the honor of performing the ceremony.” Dronja said quietly. “And you would be? She is Seeche I understand, but what is your name?” Father Mincely asked. Quietly, Dulche closed the doors unnoticed by Father Mincely, however I was certain that Dronja noticed as alert as he was. I understood why Dulche had done so – hopefully the heavy door would at least somewhat muffle the inevitable outburst when Dronja revealed his name.

            “Please do not be afraid, for I have changed.” Dronja answered, still speaking quietly. “That isn’t exactly an answer to my question.” Father Mincely stated pointedly. “My name is Dronja”. Father Mincely froze in place for a moment before finally he finally responded, fortunately not in the shout that I had feared would happen. “And what will I do if I refuse to perform this travesty of a marriage between you and some girl that you’ve brainwashed?” he hissed through his teeth. “If that is what you truly believe, then we shall leave and find some other priest that might accept that people change. If you truly believe that, simply say so, and I promise that I will do you no harm. I only ask that you not shout my name to the world at large, for there are those who would seek to kill me, and those few that actually succeeded in finding me I would be forced to kill in self-defense most likely.”

            Father Mincely stared at Dronja in surprise – surprised that Dronja had not threatened his life, and even more surprised when he realized that Dronja was telling the truth. “At least you are honest in that.” He finally said. “I shall not wed you now, however, if you manage to convince Brother Jolston that your love is true, and not cause by some spell that you have cast, then, and only then, shall I perform the deed.” He nodded with a sense of finality, then gestured towards the door. “I bid you leave now.”

            I started to move towards the door, but stopped when Dronja stood still and didn’t make a move as well. “And where would we find this Brother Jolston, may I ask?” Father Mincely paused for a moment before turning back to whatever it was that he had been doing before we had entered, and finally replied “You can ask, but I won’t tell. Those who seek him will always find him, if he doesn’t find them first…that is, if you have good intentions. If you don’t, well, let’s just say that you’ll never find him and you might as well give up now.” Father Mincely replied with a laugh, clearly expecting that we would fall into the latter group and never find the one that we sought, this mysterious ‘Brother Jolston’. I knew however, from the bottom of my heart, that we would find him. I had heard that elves had a natural resistance to magic when they didn’t wish specifically wish for it to work and let down their barriers. That, combined with Dronja’s reaction that first morning in the inn back in Dulte, told me beyond a doubt that this was me, and not the result of some spell that Dronja had cast.

            “Well, that was a complete waste of time.” Dronja snarled as we untied our horses. “It was only a complete waste of time if you don’t believe that we will find this Brother Jolston. If you believe that, then we probably won’t and then you’ll be right, it was a complete waste of time.” I snapped back. “I’m sorry, it’s just that people like him get on my nerves, always bringing up the past. I know, I know, he only spoke the truth, but I don’t like this waiting and not knowing.” He said, instantly repentant.

            “Your past was terrible, and as much as you try to leave it behind, it will always catch up to you now and again. That is why we will need to prove once and for all, to everyone, that you really have changed. Until then, we must put up with it and convince them one at a time; convince enough of them and eventually everyone will believe you.” I replied, softening my earlier snappiness. The man had gotten on my nerves as well; he just had no reason to be so harsh when telling us to find Brother Jolston on our own.

 

            Late that night – or was it early the next morning – we arrived back at the Stolsguard Inn & Bar and collapsed into bed, saddle sore and too tired to do anything but sleep. Still, we still managed to wake at dawn the next morning and perform what had become our little routine of expressing our love before getting out of bed and deciding what to do with the day.

            “Well,” I said, “since we obviously will or will not find Brother Jolston, I suggest that we focus on something else today. What should we do, do you think? Raid the guilds or finish re-equipping me? The armorer will likely take several days more at least to finish putting together my armor – the first set at least, I recall that you said something about ordering a backup set of armor just in case the first set is gets too badly damaged – but we can still go looking for better weaponry for me.”

            “Actually, I was planning on combining the two. I thought that we should allow the guild to do most of the providing of equipment. Weaponry doesn’t have to be custom fitted to the user the way that really good armor does, as there is a lot greater leeway in shape and size.” Dronja replied. I laughed and nodded, answering with a grin “Sounds good to me.”

            Heading downstairs, we ate breakfast with Dulche then headed back upstairs for a final bout of planning before we left. Dronja and Dulche both wore their backpacks – magically enhanced so that they could carry far more than their outward appearance suggested, as I learned when Dronja emptied out far more stuff from his pack than I thought that it could possibly have contained. At my enquiring glance, Dulche admitted to having a backpack with similar capabilities. “Don’t worry; I’m certain that we will be able to find one for you as well when we raid the guilds.” Dronja assured me. All of us wore our weapons and armor, although we were wearing long traveling cloaks as well to try to disguise just how heavily armed we were. As long as we didn’t start or engage in any fights, we shouldn’t get into any trouble carrying our equipment Dulche assured me.

            The closest entrance was relatively close to our current place of residence, and it should have been an easy few minutes of walking to get to it, however the merchants were out in force hawking their wares, and the customers were even more numerous. The crowds definitely slowed us quite a bit, however I took advantage of the push and press of people to lighten a few pockets – keeping my fingers nimble for what was to come I told myself. Uh huh, I was not being a thief just because I found it a bit of a challenge, and a challenge to be fun, right?...

            Finally, we reached the ally that was our destination, and within minutes Dronja had managed to locate the hidden door, disguised within the brickwork and its numerous cracks. The door opened inwards once he had pressed the appropriate brick with enough force to trip the lever, and we silently stepped inside before closing the door, and thus began our raid.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 10

            Once inside, we were confronted with a series of steps leading down a little lower than I was tall, followed by a long corridor which led down at a gentle slope, well lit by some sort of magical illumination placed every 20 paces or so. Taking off at an easy lope, we soon came to a ladder leading up through a trapdoor. “Move aside and let me have a look at this.” Dronja ordered me gently.

            After a moment of focusing and a muttered phrase, the trapdoor dropped down as he sighed and relaxed. “Heh, my bet is that it was either a wizard of little skill, or one who had just learned the spell used to lock this trapdoor, if not both. Either way, this thing is sloppily enchanted, all power and no skill. I could completely remove the spell with ease, but I think that it would be better to simply disable the spell for the few moments needed for us to open the trapdoor and pass through. That’s probably how it’s supposed to work anyways, with whoever is needing ‘legitimate’ access bypassing the spell rather than destroying it.” He stated. “Anyways, time to go, quit dawdling and move you two, we haven’t got all day you know.” He called back over his shoulder as he ascended into the lower level of the Thiassan trading complex. Swiftly I climbed the ladder myself, and Dulche followed me up as well. Once Dulche was clear of the hatch, Dronja closed it and with another muttered phrase, the hatch was sealed again with no sign of our having passed through it.

            “Ok, this way to the main armory, where we can find some proper weaponry for you Seeche. Also, I want to see what – if any – new devices that they have come up with recently. I might want to ‘borrow’ a few of them for myself. Maybe figure out how they work and how to duplicate them as well.” Dronja said, leading the way. “And he calls me a thief at heart.” I muttered fondly, following behind Dulche.

            At least, I think I was following behind Dulche, he kept disappearing into the shadows and it was getting rather distracting trying to keep track of where he was. “Will you stop doing that?” I finally shouted out. “Quiet!” and “What?” came from Dronja and Dulche almost simultaneously. “Dulche’s constantly disappearing into the shadows, it’s rather disconcerting.” I said, more quietly this time. “Oh, that. It’s just a habit that I have; I always keep to the shadows when I’m on the enemy’s home turf. You wouldn’t believe how many times it has saved my life, allowing me to sneak up on someone that I didn’t even know was there in the first place.” Dulche replied. “If you really want me to, I’ll try to keep from doing it, but I’d rather not.” “Well, if it might help us survive, go ahead, but you could have warned me that you would be doing that before we came.” I answered back. “Sorry, I’m used to having the people that I work with already knowing my habits. I forgot that you’re new to the game.” He apologized.

            “Now that that’s over, would one of you mind opening this door? It’s only a simple key-lock and I’d rather save my magic for when it is needed most.” Dronja said. “Move aside, I’ll do it.” I replied, pulling out my lock picks and gently shoving Dronja to the side. A moment later, after a little bit of jiggling with my lock picks, I managed to throw all three tumblers and the door swung open at the light shove that I gave it.

            When I saw what was inside, I could only stare. Just past the door was a large room its walls covered in shelves and in the middle additional towers of shelves stood, all of them loaded with racks of armor and weaponry. “After we finish in here, let’s go raid the storeroom as well, it’s just across the hall. No, wait – let me get into the storeroom first and collect some more of those magical pouches which we can carry stuff in. I’ll get a backpack for you as well Seeche. Mind if I borrow those lock picks from you for a moment?” Dronja asked, taking them from my nerveless fingers as he walked past back towards the door.

            It wasn’t until he shook my shoulder and handed me a backpack to fill that I managed to break out of my trance. He handed me a bolt case and an arrow case and gave me a gentle shove in the direction of the bins containing bolts and arrows. “Collect what you think we might need and be able to use, don’t be too greedy now mind you.” He said with a wink. When I got to the cases, I saw that all of the bolts had various little strips of color banded around them, or combinations of such. I was puzzling over what they might mean when I spotted a chart listing the color-codes and I realized that these bands were what identified the archer what enchantments each bolt contained. Thinking for a moment, I decided that more was better, and starting with the more common or generic arrows, I filled first the bolt case, then the arrow case, swapping out a few of the ‘common’ ones in order to include a decent selection of more exotic varieties on the enchantments. I also collected the vast majority of the darts – also labeled by color-code – that I saw into one of the pouches that I discovered in a side-pocket of the backpack. I also made certain to grab a copy of the color chart so that we would later be able to identify what I had taken.

            Moving to the racks of weaponry, I selected for myself a set of throwing knives, along with a pair of hand crossbows, both sporting a number of enchantments boosting their power and range. I also picked up a rather nice shortbow, although I doubted that I would use it much. I passed by the racks of armor knowing that Dronja would insist on having all of my armor custom-fitted, however I couldn’t resist taking with me a small buckler that had the magical enchantment of attracting and absorbing all sorts of incoming projectiles, including some of the more basic combat spells.

            Finished with the projectile weapons, I wandered into the storeroom where I assisted Dronja and Dulche in careful packing all manner of vials and potions into a crate. I could tell from the open bags lying at their feet that they had already visited the armory themselves, and were just finishing up cleaning out the storeroom.

            It was just as we were leaving that we encountered our first sign of a guild member. Judging by the clothing, all patchy dark grays and browns, made to break up a person’s outline and render them truly difficult to spot at night, she was most likely an assassin. Fortunately, she turned into the armory first, which meant that we had a clear shot at her back. Between my dart, Dronja’s knife, and Dulche’s crossbow bolt, she never had a chance and made hardly a sound as she collapsed.

            “I think that Dronja wins this round, with a spine-slicing silencer whereas Seeche and I both went for the heart shot.” Dulche commented as we collected our ammunitions. Loosening our blades in their sheathes, and making certain that our ranged weapons of choice were easily accessible, we continued onwards.

            Leading the way, Dronja ignored most of the rooms on either side of us, heading towards a staircase that led up to the back of the building if my sense of direction was at all accurate based upon my observations of the area the day before. Suddenly, Dronja stopped next to a door that held a number of red straps and a black one wrapped around the door handle, each with a small symbol on the end of it. “Careful, this room is occupied. One of them is an assassin too, might be a good idea if we removed them to prevent them from causing problems for the righteous lords and ladies that will be paying a visit here later.” Dronja whispered, leaning forward to closer examine the straps. “Thought so, it’s Ronija’s strap; a rather nasty assassin, with a habit of going after personal revenge as well. He definitely needs to be removed because if he isn’t caught and or killed, he will cause problems for people out of pure spite. I don’t recognize any of the thieves straps, however in my experience most thieves rely on stealth to escape a fight, not to engage in one. Seeche, you stay by the door and make certain that none of the thieves escape. Dulche, you go in first and find a shadow to hide in and once I’m in position, you can start the fun.”

            Dronja eased the door open silently, and Dulche slipped inside the room, disappearing the moment that he reached the first shadow, just like magic – or probably to be more accurate, using magic or some similar ability, now that I thought about it. Dronja stepped inside as well, and I followed, closing the door behind me. A moment later, Dulche’s voice boomed out “What? Working so hard to learn to fight and you forgot to invite me? How rude of you! Oh well, then I might as well invite some of my friends to help me teach you a lesson. Ah ah ah… if are going to try and throw a dagger at me, kindly aim in the right direction and actually throw your knife, rather than simply dropping it.” Dulche finished conversationally, as one of the thieves hit the ground with a thud, a crossbow bolt in the back of his spine.

            “Clumsy Dulche, oh so very clumsy; you merely paralyzed him with that shot rather than killing him with it.” Dronja said, stomping down hard on the back of the man’s neck as he glided over to join the shadow that detached itself from the wall and resolved itself into Dulche’s slim form. The assassin simply stared at Dronja, mouth gaping open slightly in surprise. “Dronja,” he drawled, “how nice of you to return. Master Dolatae was quite angry that you took the best of the guild equipment with you when you left. He will reward me most handsomely for being the one to kill you and bring your head to him. Separate from the rest of your body of course.” He said with a nasty smile.

            “Actually Ronija, I plan on living. It is you who is going to have your head removed.” Dronja replied. While Dulche and I finished dealing with the remaining two thieves – I noticed that he preferred a strange weapon consisting of a curved hook attached to the end of a chain with a weight at the other end, and he used either end with equal ease – Dronja and the other assassin engaged in a blistering series of rapid fire attacks, dancing their way around the mat. Moments after Dulche and I had finished, Ronija was on the ground dead, and Dronja was barely even breathing hard. “Well, now that that is over with, shall we continue on? We’ll raid a few of the offices on the main floor, then go for the main treasure vault on the second floor.”

            Dulche and I nodded, and after cleaning our weapons on the looted bodies of our foes, we moved on.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 11

            Leading the way up to the main floor, Dronja and Dulche efficiently looted the most valuable and portable of the items from each of the back offices on the main floor, staying away from the front offices which were more likely to have people going in and out of them, and were more for show anyways, aimed more at churning out false paperwork for the complex rather than actually doing anything important. Once they finished with the offices, Dronja led the way through a hidden staircase up to the second floor, where sleeping quarters for the residents were, and more importantly, the main vault.

            Upon reaching the door to the vault, Dronja posted Dulche and I to either side of him to watch for unwanted company, then sat down carefully and began to study the door. Splitting my attention to watch the hallways as well, I kept an eye on Dronja to see what he would do. After a moment, he sighed, then fiercely, commandingly even, he barked out a sharp incantation, the same one I noted as he had muttered earlier to open the lock to the trapdoor that had let us into the building in the first place. Unlike that door however, this one did not open obligingly for us almost immediately. The lock glowed slightly with a faint color, somehow blue and yellow at the same time, without the slightest hint of green to it, however nothing more happened. Glaring at the door, Dronja barked out the incantation again, more firmly this time. This time, the entire door glowed, yet still it refused to open. Muttering to himself profanities about the door that far exceeded the imagination that I had pictured Dronja of possessing in that topic, Dronja rose to a stand, planted his feet, and asked Dulche to surround the area with a spell of silence, to contain any sound within it.

            After a moment, Dulche nodded to signal that it was done, and with an almighty roar, Dronja screamed his magical command at the door one last time. I could feel the raw power that Dronja imbued into that spell of his, and it shook me to the core knowing that he could command that much power. I had known that he was powerful, but I had never known just how much power he possessed – either that or I was far more sensitive than I had given myself credit for being, which was a possibility. The door absolutely exploded apart, and Dronja would have collapsed had I not dodged forward and grabbed him, supporting him against myself.

            “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.” He said wearily. “I just over-exerted myself a bit breaking that spell. This is why I wanted you to pick the locks on the armory and all the offices, rather than using magic to break through them. I was saving myself for this. Go ahead and collect what you want from the treasury, focus on gems first, as they are often worth far more than coins of similar size. Don’t take more than you can fit inside of one of the smaller magical bags apiece, fill one for me will you Seeche?” I started to protest the limit, but then I remembered that even though the bags looked like they could hold little more than the size of my fist, they were actually far larger than that. Also, there was the matter of the lords and ladies who would be coming down here in a righteous fury once the news broke. They might be a somewhat miffed to discover that some of the best equipment from the armor had been taken before they got there, but they would be completely enraged if they discovered that the treasures that they came to reposes were gone as well. No, a bag apiece was more than enough to satisfy us for now, but little enough to avoid making an overly noticeable dent in the overall pile.

            Helping Dronja to his feet, I attached his bag to his belt and we slowly made our way back to the secret entrance, him leaning most of his weight on my shoulder with Dulche leading the way and keeping an eye out for trouble. Fortunately, we didn’t encounter anyone, and once we got to the streets we managed to turn his stumbles into my helping a drunken friend home for the night. I worried about him as he collapsed into bed the moment that we got back to our rooms, however he assured to me that he was just suffering from over-extending himself in his use of magic, and he would be fine after getting plenty of food and rest, although he would likely be a bit tired the following day.

            Leaving Dulche behind to watch over Dronja, I hurried downstairs to collect three hearty platters of roast suckling pig from the hearth, along with some potatoes and greenery of a type that I wasn’t able to identify but smelled delicious and a trio of beers as well. Gesturing imperiously for one of the serving wenches to help me carry the food, I led the way back upstairs. Once I got to the room, I discovered that Dronja had fallen into a light doze, although he soon perked up once he smelled the food. After demolishing the food with a hunger that was almost beyond ravenous, he fell into a sound sleep, snoring softly. Sighing to myself, I bid Dulche a good night, then turned off the lights and slipped into bed myself. The next thing that I knew, it was morning with the sun shining in through the windows.

 

            Dulche showed up around noon, before Dronja awoke, and while I still worried about him, he seemed to be resting peacefully so I let him be. Keeping our voices down, Dulche informed me that he had released the news about the Thiassan trading complex and that the town council was on their way to confront the issue as we spoke. Obviously we hadn’t spoken quietly enough however; as a moment later I saw Dronja shift a bit, then roll on his side to watch us from where he lay.

            Dulche lay his pack on the floor, and as I pulled out our packs as well and began to sort through the various items that we had repossessed, he went downstairs to arrange for breakfast to be delivered to the main room, leaving the door to the bedroom closed. He came back just as I had finished and together, with Dronja’s assistance, we worked on dividing our plunder among us. Surprisingly, Dulche insisted on us taking the vast majority of the combat based items, and only taking his fair share of the rest of the items, begging off by saying that without us, he’d have nothing, when we tried to press more upon him.

            After we had finished dividing up the items, and after Dulche had satisfied my curiosity as to what a weasel shapester looked like in all three of their natural forms, he headed off, leaving directions on how to contact him.

            Dronja still was feeling fairly tired, so between us we decided to put off searching for Brother Jolston until the next day. Instead, we ‘relaxed’ together back in our rooms at the inn, quite a bit of a workout in and of itself if you get my drift…

 


 

 

 

Chapter 12

            The next day, with Dronja fully restored, we headed downstairs for breakfast before we left for our search for Brother Jolston. Before we could find an empty table however, we were waived over by a slim, smallish person of some unknown race as it (he/she?) was wearing a complete suit of polished, yet well worn silver armor. Nodding to it, we sat down and ordered our meal. After the server had come and gone, it asked us “So, how did the raid go, day before last?” in a low, mellow voice. Its voice was soft and quiet, yet also had a powerful strength and warmth to it, softened by the slightest hint of a bell-like ring, possibly caused by the armor.

            I started, and Dronja swore, and then demanded to know what it knew about the raid. “Only that the guilds had already been raided when the council came down on them. I am only assuming that you have some knowledge of that, due to your particular situation. But that is not why I am here; I understand that you have been seeking Brother Jolston, am I correct?” This creature’s knowledge of our intentions startled me yet again, as the only time that we had discussed searching for Brother Jolston in public had been with Father Mincely. “How do you know that?” I asked. “We were going to start looking for you after breakfast today, and we hadn’t informed anyone of that fact yet.” I stated flatly.

            “Shall we go up to your rooms? I think that it would be for the best if what I have to say were not heard by others. After all, there are some secrets of the past that I know that would cause problems for you were they to become common knowledge. It asked gently as our food was delivered. I nodded and grabbed my plate, hurrying up to our rooms while Dronja and the stranger followed more slowly. Placing the food on the desk, I grabbed a crossbow and loaded it, then set it down next to my food, dropping a cleaning rag over it to disguise the fact that it was loaded. Another crossbow, larger and heavier than the one on the desk, went on the couch, with a cleaning rag over it as well. The bolts that I loaded were just normal wooden bolts, however there were other, more powerful bolts nearby and accessible, with all variety of enchantments on them, should it prove necessary.

            Moments after I had finished my preparations and sat down at the desk and pretended to have started eating, Dronja and the stranger walked in. Dronja glanced at the crossbow next to me, then at the one on the couch, before casually going to recline on the couch with one hand lying on the crossbow as if it had naturally fallen there. “Well, now that we are here where no one will overhear us, what is it that you wanted to tell us? Oh, and please remove your helmet so that we may see your face.” Dronja said calmly. I tensed, for if this person meant any harm to us, now would most likely be the time for it.

            The stranger laughed for a moment, its voice again showing that bell-like ringing that I noticed earlier, before replying “Why should I remove my helmet when you can already see my face? It’s the same as me asking you to remove your head so that I may see your face.” I was completely confused by this response, however Dronja was not. “Steel person.” He muttered under his breath. “Huh?” I asked. “This is a steel person. Steel people are magical constructs made from suits of armor that are of a superior quality, such as the quality that I’m ordering for you, except that instead of being just enchantments of protection and then like, a good portion of the enchantments on a suit of armor destined to become a steel person are various spells of animation, which brings the suit of armor to life as it were. Often they are used either as personal bodyguards or as spies and assassins, depending on what style of armor is used and what enchantments are placed on it.” Dronja replied. I nodded my understanding and he continued on. “Now that I’ve identified what you are, I’d like to know who you are, and what you are wanting of us.”

            “I would be Brother Jolston, and I believe that it is you who wanted to speak to me rather than the other way around.” It (he?) replied, surprising the both of us. “I see that you are surprised.” he continued. “Most people think that they are looking for something human, or at least humanoid, and most definitely living rather than animated. It’s part of the reason that I am so difficult to locate when I don’t want to be found. That is not the only benefit of being a construct, since I was intended at least in part to spy on some of my masters rivals when I was created, I am very difficult to lie to, and I am good at keeping myself from being noticed when I don’t want to. Now, what is it that you were wanting? Father Mincely wasn’t very specific in his information beyond that you were looking for me…”

            I looked to Dronja before taking the initiative to reply, since he simply shrugged at my enquiring glance. “We wish to be married. A friend of ours mentioned Father Mincely as a person who might be more open minded about our past. Unfortunately, he was not nearly as open minded as we had hoped, and said that he would only marry us if you said that you believed we had changed.”

            “Somehow I don’t think that it is your past that is the problem, just his. Isn’t that right Dronja?” He asked kindly. “Yes, I agree with you on that, Seeche’s history is innocent enough.” He replied softly. “Do you think that you have changed, and put the past behind you?” Brother Jolston asked, just as softly. “Yes and no.” Dronja replied. “To put the past behind me, and to completely ignore it would be suicide. However, while I have learned much from it, I have put those skills to other uses since the curse was lifted from me.”

            “Few are able to see that the answer is both, as you have seen so clearly. Tell Father Mincely that you wish him to know that you have learned from the past, and then put it behind you. If he does not marry you after you tell him this, then I shall be paying him a visit as he has too long of a memory.” Brother Jolston replied, walking to the door. Turning back, he continued, “Do you think that you can remember that? I have said that you have learned from the past and left it behind you where it belongs, as it is the past and over with. And now I must bid you good day, as it is time for me to be leaving. Oh, and good luck, may your love for each other be great.”

            And with that, he walked out the door and left us to our thoughts. “Well, that wasn’t what we expected.” Dronja finally stated after a time, putting words to my confusion.

 

            “No, no, and for the last time, NO!” Father Mincely screamed, fairly spitting in his rage. He had met us at the door to his office, and would have bared us from entering it had Dronja not politely, yet firmly moved him out of the way inside with me shutting the door firmly behind me in an attempt to keep at least some of the conversation in the room, although with Father Mincely’s constant screaming I wasn’t certain how successful that was.

            “As you obviously are not going to fulfill your promise to marry us after we have passed your test of speaking with Brother Jolston, we shall be going now.” Dronja stated, then after a moment added “And you won’t be spreading my name about saying that I am in town, do you understand me?” I felt the tingle of magic, and hoped that this slight use of power would be enough to reinforce what he Dronja said, at least until we had gotten a ways away.

            As we were walking down the steps, I was surprised to hear someone call out to us. “I take it that Father – or rather brother – Mincely has a hard time forgetting the past, unlike most people his age.” They said with a chuckle. I simply stared at Brother Jolston, who was lounging against the stabling post that our horses were tied to. Dronja shrugged nodded, “I was wondering when you would show up again.”

            “Why don’t you head back to your rooms in the inn, and I’ll see you later to perform the ceremony myself…perhaps sometime tomorrow morning would be good? Or would tomorrow night be better? But before that, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some business to attend here.” And with that, he stomped up the steps. As we were leaving, we heard a high-pitched scream of “What? You can’t do that!” through the open door, then a bit of a thud…possibly brother Mincely fainting, but I don’t know for certain because I never once looked back.

 

            “…and I now pronounce you husband and wife, you may now kiss the bride.” Brother Jolston concluded. We were back at our room at the Stolsguard Inn and Bar, and as of a few seconds ago, Dronja and I were now husband and wife. Kind of a heady feeling, even with how long we had been together – ok, a couple months isn’t that long, but who’s counting? Married? Me? The former street urchin married to the former deadliest assassin ever? No way…way…this was real… Oh my god! I’m married! I shouted within the silence of my mind. This was pretty much the way that my thoughts were running at the moment. Some shock, but overall quite a bit of happiness.

            Dronja of course was more focused on the matters at hand, and I doubt that he would fully comprehend the change in our status together until tonight when I would see to it that he did understand the change…and the freedom from any potential gossip in our doing anything ‘bad’ all those nights hidden away… “…and now what I’m really wondering at the moment, is where you got all your authority around here, especially in your church.” Dronja concluded. I had missed everything that he had said previously, as my mind had been a complete blank as to what was going on around me in the shock of the marriage ceremony.

            “To most people, I’d try and redirect their attention, or just give a flippant answer such as ‘the people gave me my authority’ or something else along those lines. But for you, you have earned the right to know the truth. The truth is that I am the founder of my church, although most of them don’t realize that. Most people just know that I am a very important person in the church, and that tradition has it that I can overrule anyone in the church hierarchy when I choose to do so, which isn’t very often.” Brother Jolston replied slowly. “Wait a moment, what do you mean ‘the founder’ of the church?” Dronja demanded rudely. “That church has got to be at least five or six centuries old, judging by the aging on the brickwork.” “And how old do you think that I am?” Brother Jolston shot back.

            That stopped Dronja in his tracks; he simply turned to Brother Jolston, his jaw starting to drop open. “Just how old are you Brother?” I asked politely. “Oh, I’d guess near on seven hundred years, give or take a decade or so. My master was destroyed in the events leading to my breaking free of him, shortly after my creation, and the church I started about fifteen to twenty years later.” I turned to Dronja and asked “Is that old for a steel person?” He turned to me and stared for a moment, then laughed. “That’s at least three times as old as the oldest steel person that I’d ever heard of, if not four times.” “But you had heard of me before you knew my age.” was Brother Jolston’s humorous retort. “And now, I shall be going, much happiness to you both, and lots of success on your quest for peace.”

 


 

 

 

Chapter 13

            Wandering down to the bar area of the Stolsguard Inn and Bar, we found a quiet corner to eat some food and talk. About halfway through the meal, Dronja brought up an important question. “Well, now that we’ve dealt with what we came here intending to do, namely revealing the thieves and assassins guild, and also getting married, what should we do now?” I paused a moment to think about the question. “I don’t know; explore the city a bit perhaps? We have nothing else planned to do other than finishing re-equipping me. Which reminds me, how much longer do you think it will take the armorer to finish making my armor?”

            Dronja leaned back in his chair, letting out a contented burp as he relaxed to digest the first portion of his meal before he finished eating. “How long the armor takes depends on how readily available the materials for it are. If the armorer already had the materials at hand, and he is a fast worker, it might already be ready. If he has to go out and find the materials, or have them specially prepared for him before he can use them, then it might take another week, if not longer – perhaps a month or more if they have any issues finding the materials. Exploring the city isn’t a bad idea, however I was thinking of perhaps getting a job if we didn’t leave town to go adventuring again. While I don’t particularly mind having loads of free time, it’s not something that I particularly enjoy. I’d rather have something to do, and while I might not hire out as an assassin, I have no qualms against hiring out as a guard against assassination. Also, I have many skills that can be put to other uses, and I would not be adverse to learning new skills. You never know when knowing how to do something will come in handy.”

            This time it was my turn sit back in silence, thinking about it. Deciding that my food was getting cold, and that I didn’t need to answer immediately, I leaned forward again and continued eating. The rest of the meal was concluded in a peaceful sort of silence.

            Finally, after everything had been eaten, I responded to Dronja’s last statement. “Yes, hiring out sounds like a good idea. It wouldn’t do to show all the signs of being prosperous, yet not showing how we got all the money that we would be spending. People might start to wonder just who we are. Before we go job hunting though, perhaps you should finish at least teaching me the basics of fighting, and also teach me a bit of magic. As you said yourself, it’s a bad idea to be capable of using magic, but not knowing how to control it, because eventually it will come out, and if I don’t know control…” “I agree, also we don’t want to hire out to just anyone, we will need to investigate that carefully before we reveal ourselves as potential helpers. Your idea of continuing your training in the meantime is a good one, and one that we should probably get started on immediately.” Dronja said thoughtfully.

            After a few minutes of sitting back to relax some more, Dronja signaled the serving girl over and settled the tab, and then we went upstairs to begin my magical education in earnest, as teaching me combat wouldn’t be very feasible until we found a good place to train.

            Learning magic was hard I discovered, requiring a great deal of willpower, and far more physical energy than I had believed possible. I was completely in agreement with Dronja when he suggested going out for an evening meal to appease my raging hunger. Afterwards, we settled into bed and gently entertained ourselves for a while before finally falling asleep in exhaustion from all the activities of the day.

 

            After a luxurious night of sleep, and after our morning activities of reaffirming our love, we headed out early for the nearest market. Walking right past the stalls that sold jewelry and the like with hardly a pause, we moved on to more interesting items. I had never seen much purpose in the wearing of jewelry, as I had grown up as a street urchin, the only use for it that I saw was that it was often worth quite a bit, and that being small and light, it was relatively easy to conceal after I had stolen it. Dronja made no comment and continued on as well when he noticed my disinterest, as he was quick to realize that jewelry would not make a good gift to me, due to its low personal value to me.

            We did however stop at some of the stalls that were selling weaponry, and there I was able to acquire a number of perfectly balanced throwing daggers, along with a pair of belts to hold them that were designed to be worn over the shoulder and across the chest. In addition to the shorter throwing daggers, I also purchased a pair of longer daggers, which were practically short swords in length. These were a weapon called a dirk, and made great close-in weapons, as well as having an excellent balance should I need to throw them.

            I’d have found something for Dronja, however he had long since found the best weapons that suited him. I did however manage to find a beautifully crafted glow stone, mounted onto a clasp which could be clipped to any manner of items, such as a belt, a saddle, or a rope. There was even a flat plate on the backside where you could have an inscription carved into it for a minimal fee. I had the stall keeper inscribe a small likeness of Dronja and I together. It took a while, a good portion of the afternoon, more so because he kept getting interrupted by other prospective buyers; however it was well worth the wait. The man (at least I think it was a man, I wasn’t even certain what its species was other than that I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t human) was a master of his craft, and the detail he was able to provide was absolutely exquisite.

            In another area of the market, we found a stall watched over by a giant spider, that was selling mountain climbing gear. The offerings included spikes to be driven into the rock to anchor the rope, a small yet properly weighted hammer to drive the spikes, and yards and yards of lightweight rope, coiled onto small spools for traveling purposes, and special clamps designed

to clip into the middle of the rope and either hold tight or slide freely depending on how you positioned it. Despite the light weight of the rope, it was powerfully strong, and very difficult to cut, made up of specially treated silk of the seller’s own production. Dronja purchased liberal amounts of this equipment, along with a pair of harnesses for each of us, specially designed for use with the other climbing equipment.

            Dronja had this habit of buying equipment in pairs, with one set going into his storage chest while the other would go into use by us. With as much money as he had, I fully approved, as it could prove to be quite an issue if we discovered that some of our equipment was broken out in the middle of nowhere with no way to fix it or replace it.

            When we went to check on my armor, we discovered that the armorer had managed to acquire all of the materials needed to make both sets that we had ordered, however it would be a few more days before they managed to complete the order as they had to deal with a couple of smaller orders at the same time. Acknowledging this and promising to come back in a few days, we started to head back to the inn for the night; it was on our way that I made my biggest purchase of the day. I am not certain that it was the most expensive purchase because Dronja had not let me see know the price on many of the other items that we had gotten, however I suspected that it was; it was certainly the biggest emotional purchase for me however.

            As we were passing by a number of various auctions, for all manner of things, we passed by one that was auctioning off live exotic animals. Curious as to what was being sold, I turned and watched for a few moments as the current auction of some sort of heavily furred creature with no discernable head came to an end and it was led off by a large bat-like creature. I couldn’t help but stare, as some of the bidders looked just as strange as the creatures that they were bidding upon. Up next the auctioneer was announcing that the next animal up for bid was a young eyrie, newly weaned and highly impressionable; the perfect pet for your child – or so the auctioneer claimed. Seeing my interest, Dronja began to give me more information about eyries in general. According to him, they were a sort of miniature gryphon, highly intelligent and in some places, to own one was considered a form of slavery. They were prized as pets for their small size – about the size of a large dog when fully grown – and beautiful coloring, a rich green in the case of this one.

            As I watched, the baby eyrie stared around fearfully, occasionally keening softly, which another, larger eyrie farther back on the auction blocks answered back. I suspected that this was the mother that the baby had recently been weaned from. Instantly, my heart went out to the poor thing, and I entered into the bidding with a will. The bids started at just under a hundred gold pieces, however they quickly rose until we were making bids of several thousand gold. Eventually, we reached fifty-thousand gold and there were only two of us left bidding on the eyrie, myself and an altogether cruel looking man who was fingering a small whip that he had at his belt. It wasn’t until we had added another ten thousand to the price that he started glaring daggers at me – something that I was perfectly happy to return. The auctioneer however was looking quite satisfied, as we had passed out of the reasonable price that he had expected long ago, and into (and out of?) the wildly extortionate price range, and were only now showing serious signs of slowing.

            By now our bids had slowed in their raises, where at the start we had been raising by sometimes over several hundred gold at a time, we were now raising by a mere five to ten gold-pieces at a time. Finally, Dronja seems to get fed up with it all. I don’t know what it was that he said or did, however when he walked over to the other bidder and started to speak, the man stopped bidding instantly. The last that I saw of him was his back as he wandered off to find another auction to bid at. My mind wasn’t on him however; it was focused solely on that small bundle of terror huddling up on the display stand. I hastened up through the crowds and pick her – for female it was – up, crooning softly all the while, doing my best to comfort her.

            While Dronja haggled with the auctioneer on how to pay for my purchase, finally parting with a large number of fine gems and the magical pouch that they had been stored in, originally meant as payment for my armor, which both agreed was worth roughly the price of my final bid. I took the eyrie back to where the rest of our purchases were. The auctioneer wasn’t too happy with the vagueness of the value of the gems, however since my biggest competitor had left and no one else was willing to compete with Dronja’s proffered payment, he grumbled his way into acceptance.

            Carefully carrying her while Dronja amiably acted as the beast of burden and carried the rest of our stuff, we continued on our way back to the Stolsguard Inn and Bar. As I walked along, I began to try out different names for her. She seemed to quickly realize that I was a friend, proving the intelligence that Dronja had remarked on her kind having, and I soon settled on the name of Eyrica. She seemed pleased with this name, going as far as trying to pronounce it herself, squeaking out “Eyyyyyrrricaaa” despite her being too young to really speak properly, although Dronja assured to me that adult eyries were capable of speaking just as well as a young child.

            Abruptly she seemed to remember her mother, for all of a sudden she burst out wailing. Doing my best to calm her, I soon managed to soothe her into a fitful doze for the duration of the journey. After calming her, I finally looked over to see Dronja smiling over at me in complete approval of all my actions. “Shall we go see about getting this little one settled in? Perhaps a bit of food would do her some good.” I smiled back at him. “Please, let’s do that. Would it be alright if she slept with us? At least for the first night? She’s such a baby after all, and I think that this may be her first night away from her mother.” He nodded, and by this time we had reached the inn, so while he lingered downstairs to purchase dinner for us and some meat for Eyrica, I gently carrier her upstairs and created a small nest within the blankets in the middle of our bed.

            When Dronja arrived after me with the food, he frowned. “As much as I hate to say this, I would rather that she not eat on the bed. Could you please move her to the desk in the other room instead?” I was stretched out on the bed, gently stroking Eyrica who was a small bundle of feathers huddled up beside me. She had looked up as Dronja entered the doorway to the bedroom, however the food he was carrying attracted her attention some more. Now she held out one of her fore claws in an obvious plea for him to bring the food closer.

            She whimpered a bit at his words, and while I don’t think that she truly understood what he was saying, she fully understood his action of turning around and walking away; what it meant was that she wasn’t going to get the food immediately. Swiftly I had picked her up and carried her to the other room, where I gently placed her down on the desk beside the platter of meat that Dronja had brought. Once by the food however, she refused to eat, staring up at Dronja fearfully waiting for permission to touch it. Not satisfied with merely giving her permission, Dronja soon began to hand feed her some of the choicer tidbits, smiling and talking softly in some language that I couldn’t understand. When she was full, her belly stretched tight and round, Eyrica did something that I believe she viewed as very daringly explorative in her new surroundings. She jumped down off the desk, walked into the other room, and jumped up onto the bed where she curled up in her nest of blankets contentedly.

            I looked at Dronja, then at the small bundle of feathers sleeping peacefully in the middle of the bed. “I had hoped to repeat our little ‘routine’ tonight, however I don’t wish to wake her. D you mind if we skipped a night?” I asked carefully. In response, he walked over and lay down on his half of the bed, gently stroking Eyrica across the head. As I followed suit he spoke. “Tomorrow I think that I will teach you a spell that will help you to communicate with her. It is not too difficult, and I think that it will prove useful.” I nodded and soon joined Eyrica in her slumbers.

 


 

 

 

Here there is a large gap in the journal entrees, and the next entree does not take place until about a year later.

 

 

 

Chapter 14

            Not much has happened in the past year, we picked up my armor and sold our horses a few days after I purchased Eyrica, and soon after moved into some of the long-term housing facilities that the Stolsguard Inn and Bar provided, an attached cottage of sorts with its own cooking area although we still often ate at the bar. Taking care of Eyrica had caused our love life to become a bit more…well, mature I guess you could call it. We no longer took advantage of every possible free moment to express our love for each other, mostly because we no longer had very many free moments, particularly in the first few months of caring for Eyrica. Dronja got a job at a local enchanting shop, working under the name of Ronija, shamelessly stealing it from the dead assassin that he had dealt with when we had first arrived in Jornjonia. He was not willing to sell his knowledge of some of the more powerful destruction spells that he knew, however he had no qualms against enchanting scrolls and other objects with various smaller or more peaceful spells.

            The only other real piece of news that I might have considered truly important was that Brother Mincely cried to the world that Dronja was in the city, causing a vast – and completely unsuccessful – search for about a month or so before it tapered off. Brother Mincely was silenced by an assassin soon after because he was being such a nuisance and had helped to uncover a number of other assassins, thieves, and the like. Note that it wasn’t Dronja that had killed him; Dronja was past that and would rather disappear into the vastness of the city than deal with such a small nuisance.

            It was as I was playing with Eyrica a bit that I heard the door open, and I stood up to greet Dronja, leaving Eyrica to figure out the rest of her puzzle on her own. She absolutely loved solving puzzles of all types, and particularly enjoyed it when there was more than one possible solution to the puzzle. I could tell that he was tired, and suspected that he had been doing something particularly taxing, such as enchanting armor with spells meant to last through enemy counter-spells again. Shooing him into the other room to play with Eyrica for a bit, I put together a bit of supper for us, then brought it to the others when I saw them pause in their play.

            After we had eaten, Dronja leaned back in his chair then asked “Do you want to come into the shop with me tomorrow?” “Why? Is there anything in particular that you were wanting me to do?” I replied. This was not the first time I had helped him with work, as sometimes he would bring things home to enchant, or I would enchant something with a more obscure spell that he had taught me and he would bring it into the shop to sell, however this was the first time that he had offered to bring me to work with him.

            “Lord Anbelagol has made quite a large order for enchanted arrows and crossbow bolts, in addition to a number of heavily enchanted swords, shields, and sets of armor. Rumor has it that he is preparing to go aid his brother Lord Belgolan to fight off invaders on the other side of the Jonjon mountains. Master Lunthen has called in all of his mages to work on this order in order to fill it as quickly as possible. I thought that you might want to bring in a little bit of extra money assisting us, as your skills are certainly up to this.” Dronja said.

            “I think that I’d be willing to do that.” I replied. “Also, I believe that Eyrica can behave herself well enough that she can come with us without disturbing anyone.” I smiled down at Eyrica who was working on separating the different pieces of her puzzle by their basic coloring so that we could all find the piece that we were looking for more quickly. “Be-have” she said, smiling in her own special way, using her eyes to do so since she had a beak rather than mobile lips; she also puffed up her feathers slightly, showing that she was happy. It was her ‘feather language’ as I like to call it, and was as expressive as most people’s faces, so that lack of a more mobile jaw wasn’t a serious impediment to her expressing herself. “Me be-have” she repeated – she wasn’t very good at speaking yet, but by using simple words, or those spoken often around her, she could at the very least get her point across the vast majority of the time, and sometimes do so amazingly clearly.

            Dronja smiled indulgently at her, and reached out to gently scratch her behind the ears, just like she really liked. “I think that we can manage to get Master Lunthen’s permission to have her sit in a corner with a book or something, don’t you agree?” I nodded, then watched in amusement as Eyrica abandoned what she was doing to go grab one of her books, specially designed to allow her to turn the pages with her talons, just as the puzzle we were working on had pieces that were slightly thicker than the average puzzle, with a small hole in the middle of each piece allowing her to poke a claw through the center and more easily get a grip on it. Gently I motioned for her to put the book back. “Tomorrow dear, tomorrow we will go and we will be certain to bring your books, but for now let us finish this puzzle shall we?” Satisfied, Eyrica went and returned the book to its proper place in her cupboard of toys and such, then returned to help us finish the puzzle in an evening of happy family time, enjoying the company of each other and our closeness.

 

            The next day we got up a little earlier than normal, in order to get Eyrica fed and her stuff together before Dronja left. Usually I ate breakfast with Dronja while she was waking up, then I’d feed her after he had gone.

            When we got to the shop, Master Lunthen personally came out to thank Ronija (Dronja) for recruiting more help to assist in filling this overly large order. Obviously Dronja had never told him about my helping with work that Dronja took home with him, simply taking it as a given that sometimes Dronja liked to earn a little extra outside of the usual working hours. Soon we were ensconced together in a corner, Dronja and I sitting together at a table with a large pile of arrows between us, each holding a list of what we were supposed to enchant the arrows with. Beside us, Eyrica quietly played; reading, doing a puzzle of some sort or another, writing/coloring in her coloring books, and generally keeping herself occupied. There were some snacks in her bag as well, but she had yet to avail herself to them. Every now and then, when one of us would take a break to stretch, or just take a momentary pause from the immense concentration – immense for me at least, Dronja didn’t have to focus nearly as much as I did having had greater experience at the task – required to enchant the arrows, we would also check on Eyrica, petting her, or scratching her behind the ears, and also giving her a chance to ask for help on something, such as figuring out a word in her book.

            The work was interrupted around noon for a lunch break, and again, shortly afterwards when we had just finished settling in again, by something less unexpected. Dronja and I were situated at one of the tables that had a decent view of the front room of the shop, in particular a fine view of the doorway, which meant that we had a clear view when a strange man walked in, followed by Dulche of all people. Being the curious person that I normally am, when the stranger declined all offers to buy something from the front clerk, instead asking to speak with Master Lunthen, I cast a small spell to sharpen my hearing and allow me to overhear what was being said.

            Shortly into the conversation, I realized that this was Lord Anbelagol in person, the man who we were currently enchanting arrows for. Perhaps he came to check the status of his order I thought, but that didn’t explain the presence of Dulche. Things became a bit clearer however when Master Lunthen came to the doorway to the back room and beckoned to us, calling “Ronija, Seeche, would you please come here for a moment, these gentleman would like to speak to you. I glanced at Dronja for a moment, then bent down to tell Eyrica not to worry and that we would be back soon. Following Dronja to the doorway, I watched as Dulche greeted “Ronija” as an old friend, telling Lord Anbelagol that “these were the people that he wanted”. Mystified, I could only watch and listen as Lord Anbelagol described what he needed; someone who could escort his nephew on his return to his father Lord Belgolan. From there, he would assist his father and inform him that reinforcements were on the way as quickly as possible. While his nephew was a strong and capable fighter, the mountains had become infested with all sorts of nasty creatures recently, and Lord Anbelagol wished that he have a small escort to protect him, while at the same time keeping as unnoticed as possible while passing through the mountains. His sources had led him to Dulche, who in turn had led him here.

            Dronja listened and nodded as each point was made, then asked if we could speak of this again later in more detail, as we were busy working on enchanting arrows at the moment. Lord Anbelagol stated that he would much rather discuss it now, and if his order ended up being filled later than previously expected due to the loss of one of Master Lunthen’s best enchanters, then so be it. Dronja gestured that I should collect Eyrica, while he made a note on how much we had already finished enchanting. Lord Anbelagol appeared startled upon seeing that Eyrica belonged to us, however he made no comment beyond accepting Dronja’s terse comment that he would not continue the discussion until we were someplace private where he could guarantee that there were no unwanted listeners.

            As we walked out the door, Lord Anbelagol commented that he would rather that we simply call him Anbelagol, to put us on more even footing. I admired him for this, as it put us on more even footing, meaning that we would neither or obligated to serve him, nor disinclined to help because we didn’t wish to be seen as a servant. After all, it was a well-known fact that someone who dislikes their job is much less likely to do that job well.

 

            Eventually, we all retired together in a closed study at Lord Anbelagol’s mansion, Dulche included, although Anbelagol had tried to keep him out until Dronja had told him in some amusement that Dulche knew everything that he wanted kept private, including the fact that his name was Dronja, not Ronija, he concluded after a slight pause to allow me to finish closing the door before revealing himself. I admired the way that Dronja had identified himself, speaking casually and hiding the pertinent details of what he said within the other information, so that it had a moment to sink in before it really registered to Anbelagol. I had to admire Anbelagol’s reaction as well; rather than drawing away in fright, or preparing to attack, he simply leaned back in his chair to think about it.

            After a moments pause, he spoke. “Would I be correct in assuming that you arrived in Jornjonia about a year ago, say just before the assassins’ and thieves’ guilds were uncovered? And that the rumors of your being in town that started a little while after this were also true? But the real question is, would I be correct in assuming that the rumors about your having a change of heart are also true?”

            Dronja leaned back as well, giving a quick glance at Dulche, who responded with a shrug and a jerk of his head that seemed to say “I wouldn’t have brought you here if he wasn’t amiable to you.” “You’re fairly astute in your thoughts, and I’m impressed that you are willing to accept that I have changed. I will also do you the favor of answering the question that you hinted at, but were too polite to ask. Yes, I did have a hand in the raid that occurred before the official raid, and the leaking of the knowledge as to the whereabouts as to the guilds’ location. Also, as to the why of why I leaked this information, it was my way of showing that I had changed, and at least getting my enemies to consider that before they declared themselves to still be my enemies.”

            Anbelagol nodded, then leaned farther back in his chair, even tipping it back onto two legs in order to reach a bell-pull that was hanging by the door. When a servant looked in on us, he asked if Geofred could please join them. The servant nodded and stepped away, however she was back a moment later to let in a young man. He walked in with a sneer on his face, swiftly surveying those already inside. “I see that you have gotten me a set of nursemaids to see me across the mountains haven’t you uncle, even after I clearly stated that I have no need of them. I supposed that the baby eyrie is supposed to lead us?”

            Eyrica squawked out an indignant protest, both at his tone and at being called a baby, causing me to reach out and pet her gently in order to calm her. “You mentioned that he was strong and capable Anbelagol, you neglected to mention that what you really meant was headstrong and capable of great foolishness.” Dronja stated, deliberately baiting Geofred.

            Anbelagol started to reply, then paused while he rethought his words. Geofred however was not so careful as to his response, replying immediately and heatedly. “Headstrong and foolish? I’ll show you headstrong and foolish. Face me like a man down at the training yard now will you?”

            Turning to Anbelagol again, Dronja commented “You see? He only proves my point. No clue as to who is opponent might be, yet still he already wants to fight him.” Directing his attention back to Geofred, Dronja continued “Very well, let me see if I can curb your foolishness, at least in this. Or maybe your pride will doom you into challenging me again and again, until I am forced to kill you for your stupidity.”

 


 

 

 

Chapter 15

            Soon we had moved our discussions to the training yard, with myself, Dulche, and Anbelagol exchanging small-talk about trade and the city, along with the unseasonably cool weather we had been having, while Dronja and Geofred pulled on their armor and selected their armor. Dronja borrowed an older suit of leather armor, worn soft and pliable, and offering little resistance to his freedom of movement. The sword he chose was one that had a reasonable amount of wear on it, not enough to risk the integrity of the blade, but enough to prove that the blade was solid. Geofred’s armor was a complete set of riveted leather armor, with heavy looking plates of metal protecting all the critical areas; I could tell however that it was heavily enchanted, and suspected that some of the enchantments went to making the armor feel slightly less heavy, as Geofred did not have an incredibly muscular build, but rather a more loose and rangy quality to him. Like his armor which was highly polished and looked like it had almost never been used before, his sword was of fine make, containing several large gems in the hilt that I suspected had to do with magic as I sensed much energy in them, however it lacked the small scuff marks that a sword that has been used before inevitably acquired, showing that here as well it was a weapon of fine make, but not yet tested for hidden weaknesses.

            When everyone was ready, Dulche took Eyrica off to the side where he entertained her by drawing circles in the sand for her to drop pebbles into, seeing how small a target she could hit from how high up, and Anbelagol and myself made ourselves comfortable on a nearby bench, and started to place bets on the combat to come. Geofred was not pleased when he heard the final bets, with his uncle, Lord Anbelagol betting that the match would be short, decisive, and to the point, while I on the other hand felt that the match would be longer, with Dronja drawing it out as much as possible to prove that it wasn’t luck that allowed him to win, but his vastly superior skill.

            By the end of the match, I had won quite decisively, as the fight did not end until Geofred was tripped up by a simple move by Dronja, and was unable to rise from the simple fact of pure exhaustion. He tried to get up, but simply collapsed again.

            Geofred knew quite a bit about combative magic, and had proven it during the match, mixing bouts of physical attacks with volleys of magical missiles and such, from fireballs of pure energy, small objects being hurled at Dronja from all directions, and even gooey traps designed to immobilize or at least slow down my husband. Dronja simply treated them all the same, evading or dispelling the traps within moments, and blocking, dodging, or simply deflecting the more overt attacks, sometimes straight back at Geofred forcing him to defend himself against his own spell. Dronja’s attacks were for the most part far less flashy, aimed more to gain advantage in one way or another, such as by magically tripping up or momentarily blinding Geofred, than to actually do any harm directly through the attack.

            While Anbelagol busied himself asking a servant to bring the money that I had won, Dronja squatted down near Geofred’s head and asked quite simply, “Had enough?”

            Geofred spat at him, pausing for a moment to try and catch his breath some more before demanding of Dronja, “Who the hell are you? You wear cheap clothing, and act like a commoner, but you fight with the skill of one that was born fighting.”

            “Isn’t that what you should have asked before you challenged him Geofred? Checking to see if this was someone that it was wiser not to challenge and all that.” Anbelagol asked, with a side comment to Dronja of “What took you so long? You lost me my bet.” Dronja laughed a moment before replying, “If I had beaten him quickly, which is more likely; That he would accept my superior skill, or simply challenge me again stating that my victory was pure luck?” Anbelagol was forced to agree with Dronja’s logic, and suggested that we all head back up to the study to discuss the terms of the contract.

            Geofred’s woeful complaint as he was helped to strip off his armor – helped because he had not the strength to pull it off himself – was that Dronja still hadn’t identified himself. “Figure it out for yourself, I’m certain that you are smart enough at least to do that.” was the only answer he received.

            The terms that Anbelagol offered were quite agreeable, and while we didn’t agree to actually fight when we got there, Dronja at least agreed to consider it. A surprise addition to our party however was Dulche. The reason he gave was that things were getting altogether too dull around here; I was not inclined to believe that that was his entire reason; however I saw no reason to dispute it. If Dronja was willing to accept him, and saw no problem with his joining, then I was happy to have him along. We all agreed to return back to Lord Anbelagol’s mansion the next day around noon, wearing our usual traveling equipment and armor rather than simple commoner clothing, then finally took our leave as it was getting quite late.

            We had a lot to do once we got home, as on the off chance that we did come back to our little cottage, it would not be for some time, perhaps years even. Because of this, there was no reason for us to leave any of our stuff behind, however there was far too much to bring with us. It was amazing how many items we had acquired in our stay over the year, from toys for Eyrica, to little knickknacks that happened to catch our eye. I despaired over what to do with all of our stuff, however Dronja reminded me of the extra-planar cottage that he maintained as an emergency safehouse and stronghold, and had rested mostly abandoned during our time together as there was nothing there that we had needed.

            Exited by the idea, but knowing that it would take some time to move all of our stuff, I dispatched a magical messenger to Master Lunthen informing him that our services were unfortunately no longer available, and another to Anbelagol to tell him that we would need an extra day to settle our own affairs. While I was doing this, Dronja laid out the materials to open an extended portal to his cottage, as the teleportation feature that the talisman around his neck used was not a acceptable option for ferrying stuff across constantly. Once he was done, he explained the spell that he intended to use to me, and together we opened up the portal. It took far more energy than I had expected, and I could feel it draining me of more energy the longer that it was up. Fortunately however, I could tell that were I fresh, I would be able to help maintain the spell for hours if needed. The thing was, I wasn’t fresh, and neither was Dronja, as I could sense him starting to wilt under the strain after his extended bout with Geofred.

            “That’s enough; we can move our stuff tomorrow. I’m tired and so are you, and this spell is simply draining us too much right now. Let’s drop it and get a good night sleep.” I said wearily, and together we let the spell lapse.

 

            It took all day, however eventually we managed to transport all of our belongings into Dronja’s cottage, where we neatly stored them among the spare sets of armor, weaponry, chests of treasure, and other odds and ends already populating the cottage. By the time we were done, the safehouse looked ready for us to move into, and the cottage where we had spent the last year or so of our lives was barren and empty.

            Utterly exhausted, ravenous, and feeling slightly depressed at the emptiness of our home, Dronja and I went to the dining area of the Stolsguard Inn & Bar and proceeded to stuff our faces. Extended magic usage drains energy at a prodigious rate, energy which must be replenished through food, and lots of it. Once we had finished, we stumbled back to our cottage, shed our clothes in a pile on top of our packed bags, and curled up in bed together under the sheets that we had decided to leave with the room.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 16

            After settling our accounts with the proprietor of the Stolsguard Inn & Bar, we picked up our backpacks, with me also carrying a bag of Eyrica’s things, and set out for Anbelagol’s mansion to collect our charge.

            Geofred was waiting for us at the gate, and when we walked up he simply stared at us. While Dronja’s equipment had gained an old and worn look, mine was still quite new looking. I suspected that he reached out with his senses as a mage as well, for after a moment he was not just staring at us, but doing a very good impersonation of a fish out of water.

            “Who are you?” He asked finally, just as Dulche showed up behind us with perfect timing. “Your weapons and armor are of the highest quality that I have seen in a long time,” (this was directed at me) “and yours stranger, your equipment may be a bit worn, but it shows all the signs of being of the highest quality as well. Then there is all of the enchantments on your armor, both of you. Yours is heavily enchanted, far more than I might have expected,” (to me again) “and yours, I didn’t even realize that it was possible to heap as many enchantments into a single set of armor as you seem to have managed.”

            Dronja smiled at him. “Are you surprised that our equipment is heavily enchanted? Didn’t your uncle tell you where he recruited us from?” At Geofred’s mute headshake, Dronja continued on. “We were assisting in the fulfillment of that quite large order of enchanted equipment that your uncle ordered. It was the shop that I work at and Seeche sometimes assists with that received the commission for your uncle’s order.”

            Geofred nodded in understanding, showing that he wasn’t a complete idiot at least. “But that still doesn’t explain the high quality of the equipment itself, or the sheer power and skill required to place as many enchantments per item as you have managed.” Dronja simply shook his head. “And here I thought for a moment that you were actually able to figure things out. First of all, how do you know that I’m not powerful and skilled enough to enchant our equipment myself? I was only using the bare minimum amount of power needed to defeat you yesterday, and I gave you no sign of how much power I really have at my command. Secondly, I could have forged my weapons and armor myself; did you ever think to ask whether or not I am capable of displaying the skills of a master smith were I given a place to work along with some decent tools and materials?”

            At Geofred’s mute headshake, Dronja continued on. “You keep thinking in terms of what you can see and do, which is where your problem lies. I am an elf, and as such have a much longer lifespan than you, meaning that I can learn far more skills than you can. You are what, twenty years or so? I measure my life in centuries, not decades, and I have had more than enough time to learn how to do both of those things. But say that I didn’t do all the work of creating our equipment, think about how much it would cost to pay for another’s services for this, and who might be able to afford that cost. Think on that, and consider it a clue as to my identity. Also, think on who Dulche is, who he might know, and why it was that he chose me for this task. It was Dulche who picked me, not your father, and I was at the top of a very short list of people who he considered at all. You will be a hunted man once your father’s enemies know that you are coming, and they will seek to either capture you in order to use you in some way or another, or they will try to kill you, be it through battle or through assassination. I am fully skilled at protecting you from any of those situations, and you might think on that as yet another clue to my identity.”

            Dronja started to walk past Geofred towards the house, but Geofred grabbed at him – and found his wrist held in a viselike grip. “It is not wise to grab at me from a position that might take me by surprise. You’re lucky that I didn’t break your hand, which is what I would do to most people who attempted such a maneuver.” Dronja said mildly. Geofred winced for a moment, face going taut, before finally managing to gasp out “How can you be that old?”

            “Don’t hold him too hard my dear; our job will only be made harder if he can’t defend himself.” I said quietly, suspecting that the tautness was due to pain. By the way that Geofred relaxed after a moment, I suspected that I was correct.

            “I already told you,” Dronja said, “I am an elf. Quit thinking of me as human with the shorter lifespan that comes with it just because you yourself are human. Elves can live centuries with ease, and living for millennium is not at all unheard of.” Geofred nodded, chagrined that he had just had the fact that he hadn’t been listening shoved in his face, even more so with Dronja’s next words. “In the future, listen to what you are told, and you will not make yourself look so foolish.”

            By now, Eyrica was getting a bit antsy to be doing something, and to calm her I handed her one of the puzzles that I had brought with me. This one was a number of differently shaped pieces, which would form into a ball when they were properly assembled together. Gleefully she accepted it and got to work, happy that I had found yet another puzzle for her to do that she hadn’t seen before. Unfortunately, before she could do more than unwrap the pieces, I had to take it away from her again, as Anbelagol himself had come out to greet us and lead us into the study where we would finish negotiations.

            Once we were all settled in and Eyrica was absorbed in solving her puzzle, Anbelagol asked Geofred “So, have you figured out who your ‘nursemaids’ are?” Geofred flushed at the name that he himself had called us. “I’ve known the name of Seeche almost from the beginning since she let it slip early yesterday, but I’m still no closer to identifying who he is.” He said ruefully. Now that he was losing his haughty manner, I could tell that he was actually rather smart and that the admittance of not yet having figured out who Dronja was stung.

            Dronja grinned, and I knew that he was about to release another hint. “Then let me give you another clue…and widen your choices at the same time, or at least change them. I haven’t been with Seeche that long, and before that I worked alone.” Geofred moaned and stated mournfully “And here I was beginning to think that you were the mercenary Bonjon.” Dronja laughed. “While Bonjon was an elf like myself, and had a wife who very few knew her name, I can think of two very good reasons why he isn’t me. First of all there is the wife; Bonjon’s wife was highly secretive, while Seeche is outgoing and told you her name right from the start. Secondly, Bonjon is dead, killed while working for some lord, can’t remember the name, about five to ten years ago.” “Oh, I didn’t know that.” Geofred said quietly.

            While Dronja, Dulche, and Anbelagol debated on how much we would be paid, and in what way, I watched Geofred quietly. He was thinking hard, looking back and forth between Dronja and Dulche, obviously considering the hint that it was Dulche who had selected us. He’d glance at me every now and then, but each time I’d simply shake my head, giving him no clue as to who Dronja really was.

            Abruptly, Geofred paled, and I suspected that he had an idea as to my partner’s identity. By now, the negotiations had just about finished, with Anbelagol agreeing to a reasonable price for our services – reasonable if we had simply been skilled mercenaries, but actually a bit lower than what I had expected knowing the skills that we possessed. Actually, the price was a bit higher, however that was to cover the cost of equipping Geofred with anything that he didn’t have already.

            Dronja glanced over at Geofred, having noticed his change in pallor almost instantly, despite having paid little or no attention to him before. “Yes Geofred? Did you have something to say?” he asked kindly. Rather than answering Dronja, he instead anxiously asked his uncle “He mentioned that the people attacking my father might send assassins after me, would you hire another assassin to guard me?” “Anbelagol laughed, then asked back “As the saying about the best way to catch a thief is to find another thief to do the searching, who better to guard against an assassin, than another assassin? Why, do you have an idea as to who your mysterious guardian is?” Geofred nodded, his face white as a sheet. “I think that that is Dronja the Assassin sitting right there.” He said meekly.

            “And what brought you to that conclusion?” Dronja asked calmly, as if he were accused of this every day – which he was, being, or rather having been, just that, although now he simply went by the name of Dronja having given up the title of assassin quite some time ago.

            “You said that you were chosen by Dulche, who considered you to be the best choice on a very short list of people. About a year ago, there were a number of events that occurred and your name floated around quite a bit; among other things, there was a priest screaming that you were in Jornjonia, and that he had been reduced to a mere brother from the title of Father of his church, after refusing to perform a travesty of a marriage between you and some woman. Also, I just remembered a story that my uncle had told me he first introduced me to Dulche, where Dulche used to be a highly successful mercenary, specializing in the art of assassination and the protection against it. He was chased off of his last job when he refused to kill Dronja, who was heard to be in the area. He went off on orders from his lord, but came back and admitted to not only having found and spoken with Dronja, but also that rather than even attempting to kill him, he instead let him go free even helping him to acquire some supplies. That means that not only would Dulche know Dronja, and be on reasonably good terms with him, but as one of the most successful – if not the most successful – information brokers in the capital, Dulche would know when Dronja was in town and feel safe contacting him.”

            After saying all of this, Geofred trailed off, staring at Dronja fearfully, hoping that he wouldn’t face any repercussions after having successfully identified what had been widely acknowledged as the best assassin of his time, if not ever, until he had disappeared and could not be found anywhere, even by those seeking to hire him.

            “You know Anbelagol, I think that I might actually enjoy this job. He might have been a little rude at first, but he is shaping up rather well. Could use some more training though, he’s had plenty of training in fencing and dueling, but he has no clue on how to really fight. He expects his opponent to meet him honorably, one on one, without any tricks, but I believe that he can still be made to learn how to fight…shall I say less honorably? In the way that assassins would fight; or those of lower class, such as bandits and the like.” Anbelagol nodded, then laughed at his nephew’s expression. “What? You didn’t really expect me to hire someone who might kill you if he gets a better offer do you? If you had been listening to the rumors about him, then you probably have also heard the rumor about Dronja’s ‘change’ which I’m certain that he’ll be willing to explain in more detail sometime in the future. Also, Dronja always did have a solid reputation for not changing sides just because he received a better offer, and he was far more likely to just walk away and ignore all offers rather than change sides, even back when he was an assassin.”

            Geofred nodded numbly, unable to disagree with anything that his uncle had said, because it was all stuff that he already knew to be true, or at least as true as his uncle had stated it to be.

            “So, shall we go see what equipment Geofred has, and what he still needs for traveling?” I asked, in part to distract Geofred. Startled, Geofred looked at me and then nodded, leading the way to where he had prepared his stuff. Eyrica complained a bit at having to move because she had almost solved her puzzle but couldn’t finish on the move, but came along good-naturedly.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 17

            Geofred was actually better equipped than we had expected, although Dronja was still able to find a few things that needed to be ‘fixed’. His clothing was one item of contention. It was quite obvious that whoever had packed his clothing had no idea what was considered appropriate attire. Not only was it not appropriate for a traveler trying to avoid attention, but it wasn’t even appropriate for traveling at all. We would bring some of his finery with us, so that he could dress appropriately when he got there, but we would need to purchase more common clothing for him as well. The other main items that we needed were a climbing harness for Geofred as we would be going through the mountains and there was a good chance that it might be needed, and a horse for Eyrica. Lord Anbelagol was kind enough to offer to supply all the riding and packhorses that we would need, however we needed something special for Eyrica as there was no way that she would be able to fly the entire time, and having her on one of our laps just wasn’t feasible. I wanted something that she could get onto and off of herself, which meant by flying in, and that required a horse with special training, one that wouldn’t spook at her coming and going.

            Once at the market, we were able to find clothing that fit Geofred quite easily, along with a few odds and ends that Dronja had discovered we were lacking – more soap for one, we had almost completely run out and both of us preferred to keep clean whenever it was an option. The stall where we had gotten our own climbing harnesses oh so long ago was still open for business, and Geofred was soon equipped with one himself. Finding the horse for Eyrica however proved to be a bit more problematic.

            It was not until late in the day when we tried our third market area, and searched what must have been the twentieth stable, if not more than that, that we got lucky and found a horse that almost perfectly suited our needs. Not only did it have the perfect temperament for what we needed, but it was already trained not to react when something suddenly jumped into and out of a special basket saddle that it wore. Apparently, one of the wealthy ladies in town had been rather attached to her cats, and liked to keep them with her always. In order to do this, she had ordered that a series of specially trained horses be procured and basket saddles made all so that her precious cats could ride in comfort whenever she went out riding. Unfortunately (or fortunately for us, depending on how you look at it) one of her cats had recently died of old age, and being so distraught that the cat couldn’t ride with her any longer, she had ordered that the horse and its special saddle be sold so that they wouldn’t remind her of it. A little modification to the saddle making it larger, and changing the silk linen for something more durable that could withstand Eyrica’s talons, and it was perfect for our needs.

            As mentioned however, it was now rather late, so with Eyrica proudly riding her new mount – on a lead rope of course, she wasn’t able to guide it herself – we headed back to Lord Anbelagol’s mansion where we were given rooms for the night.

 

            Much to Geofred’s disgust, we got up and on the road bright and early the next day. Apparently, Geofred was a late riser and while I preferred to sleep in and be lazy when I could get away with it, it was relatively easy for me to get up with the sun still. Eyrica wasn’t much of a morning creature either, however she was relatively easy to handle, simply picking her up and placing her gently in her saddle-basket didn’t disturb her too much, and all she did was mutter sleepily for a bit before falling back into a doze.

            By the time that Geofred finally came down, complaining as loudly as he dared to without waking everyone else up about how Dronja had woken him – apparently by throwing all of his bedding in a corner and threatening to empty a bucket of cold water on him if he didn’t get up immediately – Dulche and I had finished saddling the horses, packing the saddlebags, and placed a bag of food in front of each saddle with the help of some stable hands who were highly amused at Geofred’s complaints. A second bag of cold bread and cheese for breakfast placed next to the first bag of food, which we would eat in the saddle, and we were ready to go.

            Once on the road, after I had eaten, I fell into a sleepy stupor just keeping my horse in line with the other, occasionally reaching over to pet Eyrica as she slept, since she was right next to me and our horses were traveling close together. After a while though, I perked up a bit when I heard Dronja speak.

            “So, what were you supposed to be doing here and why did your father send you away?” Dronja asked of Geofred. We had been traveling for several hours, and from the way that Geofred reacted, I suspected that he was trying to catch up on his sleep before Dronja had woken him. “Huh? What did you say?” he murmured sleepily. Dronja sighed. “Some people actually stay awake while riding, didn’t you know? I asked what you were doing in Jornjonia and why your father sent you away.” Geofred answered the first part with a muttered “She’s sleeping and riding too.” accompanied by a small gesture towards Eyrica, and at myself somewhat as well although I had been reasonably well awake. Dronja just ignored it, patiently waiting for an answer to his question.

            “I’m not entirely certain why my father sent me out to stay with my uncle in Jornjonia. He claimed that it was so that I could properly learn the politics of the country, but I’m not so certain if that was the only reason.” Geofred said. “What do you think was the real reason that your father sent you away?” I asked curiously. “He knew, or at least suspected, that all of this was going to happen.” Geofred stated bluntly. “He sent me away trying to keep me out of combat. You saw how I was before I met you; brash, headstrong, so certain of myself and my immortality. No one had ever been able to best me in anything; I was the best fighter in the keep, and none of the mages were stronger than I. It wasn’t until Dronja beat me, and beat me so soundly in a manner that showed me that it wasn’t just a quirk of fate or luck, that I realized just how little I knew. And it wasn’t just the fact that he showed himself to be a more skillful fighter, but it was his style of fighting, where there was absolutely nothing that was off-limits to him, and no target was dishonorable to hit, that really drove my inexperience home. I expected him to fight like some lord in a duel, and instead he fights me as if he was a common ruffian…or probably more accurately, like a soldier in a war.”

            Geofred looked over at Dronja and said “I would be honored if you were to teach me how to really fight, rather than just how to duel.” Dronja nodded, “If you know how to fight, then it will be easier for me to defend you. Would you be willing to learn new spells as well? I noticed that the only spells you seem to know are the ones that are obviously combat oriented, but I have learned that just about any spell can be used in combat if you have enough imagination to properly apply it. And those same spells will likely prove useful at other times as well.” Geofred grinned broadly. “I would be even more honored if you would be my teacher in that.” He said.

            What Geofred had said about his father knowing what was to come had intrigued me, and I just had to ask for more information. “What did you mean when you said that you thought your father knew that all of this was going to happen?” Geofred turned back in my direction and responded “Back before I left, he’d been sending out a lot of scouts recently, checking the southern borders for intruders. I think that the scouts had started to find something shortly before I was sent off. Also, I know that he had stepped up the training of the local militia, as well as making certain that the real fighters were spending plenty of time honing their skills.”

            “Do you have any idea why he started patrolling in the first place?” Dronja interjected. “No I don’t, and that’s the thing that scares me.” Geofred replied. “Why might that be?” I asked. “Because he only started sending out scouts fairly recently, maybe a year or so before I left at most, except that the southern borders have been safe from attack for as far back as anyone can remember. Even in the stories of past attacks, there are none of the attack originating from the south.”

 


 

 

 

Chapter 18

            While we considered all of the possible implications and repercussions of the fact that Lord Belgolan seemed to know things that he shouldn’t know about based off of the information that he was supposed to have, Eyrica suddenly spoke up, surprising us all. She didn’t speak often, particularly around strangers, however when she did choose to speak her words were always worth listening to. “Per’aps Lorrd Belgon uses magic to see the fu’ure.”

            All of us turned to stare at her, as she had suggested a possibility that had occurred to none of us. After a moment, Geofred spoke up. “Seeing the future…I don’t think that he can do that, or that any of the local mages can either. But I wouldn’t put it past him however. No one realized that there was even a chance that he might be a mage until I started showing signs of it, and people just assumed that it had lain dormant in our blood and skipped a few generations before me, coming possibly from my mother whose parentage is not the most clearly recorded. No one thought much of the idea that he could be a mage however until a few years back during a bandit raid, when he killed the bandit leader and about twenty of his followers with a huge fireball that he suddenly conjured up. From the way he conjured it up, it was clear that it was him casting the spell, and not just releasing a magical enchantment, but the spell he used wasn’t a beginners spell, I can tell you that much at least, as I can barely manage to cast it on that scale myself, even with all of my training. But while I struggle with it, he cast it with ease, just conjured up the fireball as if it were nothing, so whatever else he knows he is very secretive about it.”

            “If he can see the future, then he is a lot more powerful than he lets on. Foreseeing spells are some of the most difficult ones to master, especially using them with any accuracy due to the multiple possible directions that the future can go. According to my information, you arrived at almost the exact same time as this war broke out across the mountains, meaning that your father knew exactly when this war would start, and kept you as long as possible with him while still managing to ensure that you would be safe in Jornjonia before the war started.” Dronja stated flatly. Geofred started at the mention of Dronja’s resources, finding out both when Geofred had arrived and when the war had started on such short notice as a day or so of being hired.

            “My greatest fear,” Dronja continued gravely, “is that Lord Belgolan is making a play for power, and using us as pawns in a greater game.” After a moment of thought, Dulche spoke up. “If he is making a play for power, then we must find out just what he intends to do with that power once he gets it. Remember the reign of terror that that dragon had a couple of centuries back Dronja?” “Don’t I ever remember it, how could I forget the experience? And trust me, I don’t intend to go through that again. Being an assassin for higher to those in power is one thing, but being the private executioner against anyone that has slighted the person literally holding me on a magical leash that I couldn’t escape is another thing entirely. He was only defeated back then, not killed, and my greatest fear is that he somehow foresaw my involvement in this and is using this as a means to regain access to – and then control of – me, and all of my companions as well since I am no longer a loner on my own. If that is the case of the situation however, then I will revert back to my assassin-like ways in order to remove him.” Dronja said with vehemence.

            “I never was in your class as an assassin, but I will work to improve on my past skills as well if that is what is necessary.” Stated Dulche, followed shortly by Geofred’s grim statement of “While he is my father, there is no love lost between us, and this wouldn’t be the first time that he’s used me to get something that he wanted. I won’t stand in your way, and if things are as bad as you fear, then I just might help you to remove him myself.”

            I looked back and forth between them all, and suddenly I felt cold. In all the time that I had been with Dronja, I had never seen this side of him, the side of him that he had struggled to put behind him. But now I saw that he had never really put it behind him, perhaps could never put it behind him, because of how much a part of him it was. When he wanted to or needed to be, he could – and would – be cold, hard, and cruel, and only the fact that I had seen the other side of him showed me that he was capable of being the caring, loving man that I knew and loved. When I moved my attention to Dulche again, I saw the same thing; a man that had sought to change, and had succeeded, at least on the exterior, but was still cold and hard at the core.

            While I was thinking of all this, I silently dropped back to be level with Eyrica again, letting Dulche take my place on the other side of Geofred. When I finally got around to listening to the conversation again, I revised ‘the truth’ about them again. Now they were talking about agriculture of all things, and how fertile the lands were in Geofred’s home land. Dronja and Dulche had changed, and for the most part they showed that change. It was only when what they cherished was threatened that they reverted back to their mannerisms of the past, but then when they had dealt with the threat – or at least moved it to the side – they changed back to the attitudes that I knew until they were threatened again.

            To distract myself, I decided to play with Eyrica for a bit. I couldn’t safely come close enough to her while mounted to interact directly, however my mount had a sufficiently smooth gait for me to focus and practice one of my levitation spells in order to play with her that way. She was working on one of her puzzles, and it was my job to move the extra pieces around, juggling them a bit even, while she attempted to grab the pieces and use them to complete the puzzle. Her task was made all the harder because sometimes I would snag a loosely-placed piece and pull it back out; however she was enjoying herself to the hilt for all of her troubles. My antics evoked many a happy chortle when she managed snag a piece, sometimes followed by squeaks of surprise when she discovered that she had grabbed the wrong piece, punctuated by the occasional squawk of indignation when I managed to grab one of the pieces that she had already placed down. The others would glance back now and again, a small smile on each of their faces as they saw how our little game was going, and sometimes they would call out a suggestion to one of the other of us, such as “That piece looks a bit loosely placed” or “I think that you need that green piece floating right there near the front of the saddle basket” or some other comment entirely.

            Lunch had been eaten in the saddle whenever a person felt hungry enough to start munching, so we didn’t stop until nearly sundown when the sky was just starting to go pink. We had passed a couple of towns already, but Dronja had just led us down the main road through town, or on a side-road if it was more direct, without stopping for more than a few minutes in order to let the horses have a breather and a drink. These towns were spaced about a day apart for those walking on foot, since we were close to the capital, although I suspected that once we got farther away the towns would be more widely spaced apart. This time however, since it was late, Dronja sought out and located the nearest local inn, swiftly dismounting and tying his horse to a nearby tie-post and walking in to enquire about rooms while we were still working on stopping our horses, such was his speed. Geofred, Dulche, and I also dismounted to wait for him, stretching as we did so.

            Rather than dismounting, Eyrica took a few experimental strokes of her wings, then launched herself straight into the air. Swiftly I handed the reigns of my horse to Dulche to hold, and gave chase to her. She hadn’t had many opportunities to practice flying, having lived in a crowded city for most of her life, and the only chances that she had had to truly practice were times when we had taken her to the outskirts of the city, or even all the way out to the open countryside, in order to give her more space to maneuver in. Because of this lack of practice, she was still a fairly ungainly flier, and would take a crash landing every now and then, particularly after a long flight when her wings grew tired.

            She didn’t go far however, simply taking the most direct route out of town, then flying in slow, lazy circles a bit over a soft field to warm up. After a few minutes of this however, she got bored of simply flying in circles, and started doing tricks; spinning in circles, flying upside-down for a moment, or even diving straight down and pulling out of it at the last moment to skim the ground, her feet brushing the tall grass. The last trick was one that really scared me, and caused me to jump to my feet from where I was sitting on a fence post. She simply squawked in amusement at me however, coming in for a perfect landing at my feet.

            Slowly we walked back in to town, where we discovered that Dronja had gotten us rooms at the inn and already had the horses settled into the stable behind. Since our rooms had a balcony with a chair or two scattered on them, we retired to sitting on the balcony, watching the sunset with myself in a chair and Eyrica sprawled comfortable on the floor beside me, together watching the glorious sunset. This was where Dronja found us a while later; since he was fully capable of walking silently when he wanted to, and did so fairly often as a prank in order to surprise me, I didn’t realize that he was there until he started to give me a shoulder massage from behind. I managed to keep from jerking in surprise, and was rewarded with a small sound of disappointment, although the massage didn’t stop.

            “I’d tell you to stop sneaking up on me like that, but you never listen so I won’t bother.” I said, breaking the peaceful silence that Eyrica and I had been maintaining. “Oh, I listen, I just sometimes ‘blank’ on what you are saying is all.” Dronja replied, his voice full of good humor. “Where are Dulche and Geofred?” I asked. “If they are finished eating, they should be in the other room. Geofred is a bit disgruntled that he has to share, but I don’t want to take any chances. I believe that they are matching their wits in a game of castles at the moment… Geofred is doomed to lose though; Dulche is a master at castles.” Dronja stated, moving his hands slightly lower as he found a particularly knotted spot in my back. This was one thing that I loved about him, he gave excellent massages. I tried to return them, but I wasn’t nearly as skilled as he was. “You’re treating him like he is a target already then? But we just left Jornjonia this morning.” I asked. “Something about this is making me very wary. I don’t know why, but I’m fairly certain that there is more to all of this than just what we are seeing.”

            Something in Dronja’s tone caused me to turn around in my chair. “What do you mean?” I asked. “I think that there is a very good chance that Lord Belgolan is the cause of this war. I wouldn’t put it past him with what I’ve heard. Indeed, I wouldn’t put it past him to go after Geofred himself – or rather hire mercenaries to do so – blame it on the enemy, and then further prolong the war that way either.” He replied, dead serious. I stared at him. “Surely you don’t mean—” I started, only to be interrupted. “I mean that exactly. I’ve got a bad feeling about this Lord Belgolan, and believe me, I’ve been around people who would do exactly this for most of my life. When I get a hunch about someone like this, I’m right far more often than not…but that’s not what is really bugging me.” He said grimly. I looked at him for a moment before asking softly “What’s really bugging you then?” “That this feels like something from the past. I don’t think that we are yet seeing all of the players in this game.” He replied just as softly.

            I looked back out at the sunset and discovered that the sky was now a uniform bluish grey-black. Clicking my tongue to attract Eyrica’s attention, I stood and walked inside. Then, stretching a bit, I sat down on the bed and began to undress. Dronja followed me in, going one further and getting fully into bed as well. Eyrica found the nest of blankets that Dronja had set up as her bed, and settled in with a sigh of contentment. I shifted positions to return the massage, pausing only when Dronja rolled over onto his belly so that I could more easily work on his back muscles. He fell asleep mid-massage and I realized just how tired I myself was; so, seeing how Dronja was already asleep, I slipped into bed and went to sleep myself.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 19

            We had made good time, and now, only about a week out from Jornjonia, we had already reached the last town before we entered the mountains. Although it was the middle of the day and the sun was still quite high in the sky, Dronja decided to stop and ask for advice on what the best route through the mountains would be.

            What we learned was of circumstances on the mountain being far different from what we had expected. Rather than simply being a hard climb through one of the many passes, the mountain trails were all iced over and perilously slick. We were advised that it would be much safer to travel through the maze of caves and passages that riddled the mountain to its very core, hiring a native guide to help us on our way and avoid getting lost. Since horses were hard to keep alive underground, it was suggested that we sell ours to the local stable which bought and sold horses to those travelers coming and going from the mountain.

            Eyrica wasn’t very happy with the idea of going through the caves, but then she was a creature of the sky and preferred open air to enclosed areas. She was willing to put up with it though if that was what was required in order to stay with us which she was quite keen to do (assuming that I had been willing to part with her either) and perked up a bit when she heard that some of the ‘rooms’ could be quite cavernous.

            There were a profusion of guides hanging about at the local bar which was attached to the stables, but either Dronja or Dulche rejected each and every one of them for a variety of reasons, the most common reason when they couldn’t find any other excuse was that the prospective guide seemed to be too vulnerable to manipulation from others, and by this I suspected that they meant magical although they must have considered mundane corruption as well. I might have questioned them about the need for being too picky, however I had been listening to them as they talked about the possibility of there being ‘more players in this game than there appeared to be’ and understood that one of the hidden players could be using others to disguise its actions. It was a paranoid sort of attitude, however it was what had kept Dronja and Dulche alive for so long, so I was willing to just go with it and trust them. This level of pickiness did lead to a bit of a problem however, as there were soon no more guides left that had yet to be eliminated for one reason or another. Dronja decided to wait and see what happened, and put off selling our horses until we made our next decision.

            Since we were going to be stopped for a while, Eyrica decided that she might as well get in some more flying practice while she still had the chance to and launched off into the air overhead as I found a shady patch of ground to watch her from. Dulche stood there looking at the horses for a moment, then stated that whatever we were going to do, we needed to buy more foodstuffs and the like, and he might as well do that now. Dronja hauled Geofred off to a nearby clearing to continue his training. Between Eyrica’s drawing a mesmerizing series of shapes in the air, and the rhythmic clash of arms and armor coming Geofred and Dronja in the distance, I must have dozed off, for when I looked up again, there was another creature performing an aerial dance with Eyrica in the air above me.

            They appeared to be finishing their duet, and as it came to a close, I whistled Eyrica over, with the other creature following close behind her. Now that it wasn’t constantly flowing from one maneuver to another, I was able to get a better look at it. It appeared to have the upper body of an elven woman, except for the brightly feathered wings sprouting from its back, and it had a powerfully built tail; scaly, yet colored similarly to its wings.

            “Well then, you must be the caretaker of this wonderful little flier!” it exclaimed. Eyrica wriggled with excitement to be praised by one who was obviously an excellent flier itself. “And who might you be?” I asked politely, cradling Eyrica in my lap and gently smoothing down her feathers with my free hand as I did so. “My name is Bertrest, and before you ask, I am a Ferthathl. Before we started our dance, your little friend here happened to mention that you are looking for a guide through the caverns below the Jonjon mountains…I happen to have come through there before, and I happen to remember the way. I would like to return, however I would not wish to do so alone as the caverns have become infested with all sorts of nasty creatures for some reason, and it is not safe to go alone. Last time I was in the company of a rather large caravan and for the most part we were left alone, however I might be persuaded to lead a smaller group if they are capable of defending themselves from the denizens of the deep.” It (she?) said.

            I paused for a moment to think, then, seeing no reason not to take her up on her offer, replied “Our group is quite capable in that regard, however I am not the one who decides who our guide is to be…perhaps I should gather the others so that they can decide? They are quite cautious as to whom they decide to trust.” Bertrest nodded energetically, “Certainly, I shall need to go collect my things from the inn before I leave anyways, shall we meet at the inn around nightfall? I doubt that your party will wish to leave until tomorrow.”

            Startled, I looked at the sun thinking that it was an awful long time she needed to gather up her things, or even to get to the inn which was nearby, but to my amazement that sun was just barely visible and nightfall would shortly be upon us. Turning my attention back to Bertrest, I nodded and then stood up, setting Eyrica down as I did so. “Do you think that you could locate Dulche dearest?” I asked. “I’ll go get the others, and we’ll all meet back up outside the inn.”

            Bobbing her head in response, Eyrica turned and took off on her errand, while I gathered up my things and wandered on over to where Dronja and Geofred were practicing. Sword blows flashed back and forth, along with combat spells – the term ‘combat spell’ being applied to any spell used in such a manner, which could be just about any spell if applied creatively enough as Dronja would oh so often point out. They were completely engrossed with each other however a carefully placed explosion caused by a spell of my own knocked both combatants off of their feet, so surprised were they at an attack coming from an entirely new direction. Dronja managed to turn his fall into a roll and came out on his feet in an instant, throwing knife at the ready, although he stayed his throw when he saw that it was me. Geofred was slower to recover, but he came out in a defensive position as well.

            “Well, it appears that someone would like our attention, wouldn’t you agree Geofred?” Dronja said, stating the obvious. I chuckled and called out, “Well, if you are done bashing yourselves to pieces, I think that I may have found us a guide.” Dronja immediately straitened up at this and gestured for me to tell on. “One Bertrest, calls herself a Ferthathl, I found her doing some sort of aerial dance with Eyrica when she was practicing. Bertrest wants to meet us at the inn at nightfall.” Dronja glanced at the sun, and seemed as surprised as I had been at how much time had gone by, then nodded and moved to collect his things from where he had set them down out of the way. Geofred followed him and soon we were on our way towards the inn of the town, which was on the other side of the bar from the stables.

            We found Bertrest waiting outside the inn, beside a cleverly rigged travel pack that was clearly made to allow for flight even when it was being worn, without impeding either arms or wings. She was wearing an additional sword and dagger at her waist, and carried a small flute in one hand. Dulche was talking animatedly with her, while Eyrica reclined along a broad branch of a nearby tree. Dronja pulled Dulche aside to confer with him, then quietly questioned Bertrest some more. After a few minutes it appeared that both had approved of our new guide, but had decided that we would have to wait to leave until the next morning.

            Dulche handed over the extra supplies that he had gathered, then took the horses on over to the stable to sell them, leaving the rest of us to see about getting rooms for the night.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 20

            Fed and rested, we left the following day on foot for the half-day hike required to reach the entrance to the caverns. As we walked, Dulche appeared to be rather uneasy however, particularly as we approached the foot of the mountains. When pressed for a reason for his unease however, he would wave us off, saying only that he thought he sensed something familiar, except that it was out of place here. “Keep your eyes open.” Was Dronja’s only comment, but it was a statement which we all obeyed. Bertrest commented from above that while at first glance everything looked the same as the last time she had passed through here, something had changed…

            Made wary by some indeterminate item, we moved on. Just as we were about to enter the small forest that clothed the lower regions of the mountain, a short spear thudded into the ground before us. “Who are you and why have you come?” A sibilant voice hissed out of the underbrush. Weapons were out immediately, and Dulche faded into the shadows of the trees. Dronja was about to reply when Dulche came flying back out, flung by a long, green and yellow banded tail. He recovered much more slowly than I would have expected of him, and appeared to be in a minor state of shock as he stood.

            “Wha… What are you doing here? You belong across the land and across the sea, far east of here!” Dulche cried out. In response, out of the bushes slithered a…naga I guess, if the stories were to be believed, but dressed in a strange manner, similar to that of some eastern traders that I had seen passing through Jornjonia. “What is that?” I asked quietly of Dronja. “A naga, of the grass-snake variety. And Dulche is correct, it is far out of place in this land.” He responded just as quietly.

            “I am sssscouting.” The creature hissed. “For others in my group, in search of other creatures from my land that are here and do not belong. What are you doing here shapester? Have you come at the call of the Foreign Lord?” It raised the crossbow that it was carrying and aimed it in the vicinity of Dulche’s middle. “I am Dulche, here of my own free will, in the company of friends and allies. I know not of this ‘Foreign Lord’ that you speak of, but I would be interested in hearing more, in order to better understand matters. War has broken out on the other side of these mountains, war in a place that was at peace for ages, a peace that was ended without any warning.” Dulche replied evenly, ignoring for the moment the crossbow, although I didn’t doubt for a moment that it had been factored into his answer.

            “The sssspymassster, friend of the assassin…we have heard of you, and even more so of your friend… They say that you were once a servant of the Foreign Lord oh deadly assassin, that you broke free long ago, shortly before the Foreign Lord fell. Now he calls his servants to him again, and he calls for servants from the east as well. Will you return to him assassin? Will you join him spymaster?”

            Dronja staggered back, and I had the feeling that I didn’t want to know who this ‘Foreign Lord’ was…and a feeling that I was about to find out anyways, despite my wishes, and in the long run I suspected that I would be finding out about them in far more detail than I ever would have wished for.

            “Rarrsconsha? That foul creature still lives!?!” Dronja cried out in horror. “Sssspeak not his name!” the naga cried, “Who knows what of his minions lurk nearby. I see by your reactions that you still bear ill will to this creature. A warning to the enemy of my enemy: All is not as it seems, and creatures lurk in places that they do not belong. Beware, and make haste through the caves of the mountains, and hope that you arrive while you still have a chance to make a difference. I will tell my people of y, so that you will not be bothered by us again.” And with that bit of warning and advice, the strange naga turned and slipped back into the forest, taking its spear along with it.

            Geofred turned to Dulche and asked “What was that all about?” “It appears that we were right that there is more to these doing than there appears to be. But Rarrsconsha? This sounds like trouble.” Dulche replied. “But just who is this Rarrsconsha?” I cried. Dronja answered me this time. “An ancient red dragon, who once used me as his personal executioner by means of a powerful ‘magical leash’ if you will. If he is mixed up in all of this, then there is trouble to be had. But I do not like that bit about his having regained his powers and reclaiming his followers after his fall. Even less than that do I like the fact that the naga called him the ‘Foreign Lord’ and said that even the far eastern creatures from across the land and sea are flocking to him…” he trailed off into contemplative silence.

            “Is this the monster that once ruled with an iron fist and a mantle of fear several hundred years ago?” Bertrest inquired. “Unfortunately yes, and he is likely looking to try and do so again. If all this information is true, then trouble indeed is brewing…if this information is true, I suspect that I may be a target, for he found me to be a highly useful tool in removing those he disliked. Because of this, his destruction is something that I feel I must ensure, after I have delivered Geofred to his father. And this time I will make certain that a more thorough job of it is done.” Dronja replied heavily.

            “And if I don’t wish to stay with my father?” Geofred inquired, showing that recklessly adventurous side of his that had been so obvious when we had first met. “That depends on the situation. Likely it will be up to your father whether or not you stay to help him.” Dronja replied. “After all, I am being paid to return you to him, and it would be rather like going against the job to immediately take you away again.” Geofred’s head fell, but he made no additional comments.

            “Well, now that we know what we might be up against, I suggest that we continue on, the entrance to the caves is not far from here.” Bertrest stated, then suited actions to words and headed off.

 

The next journal entree appears to have been added at a later date and by a different hand, as the characters are smooth and flowing rather than sharp and angular like the rest of the diary.

            “I can’t believe that you just let them go free Scout Leader Sssispike.” Hissed a sinuous form from the shadows. “They were only passing through, and the shapester had nothing to do with the Foreign Lord.” Sssispike replied.

            “The spymaster would be of a great asset to the lord, and the other, the assassin, was once a favored tool of the lord.” The other replied. “What of it? If anything, they would be the Foreign Lord’s enemies, not his allies and tools.” Sssispike replied warily. “Perhapssss…perhaps not, if we caught them off guard, they might be…persuaded…to join him.”

            “WHAT!?! I thought that we came here to stop this Foreign Lord, and to stop his summoning of easterners, not to join him!” Sssispike cried out.

            “Before, yessss… but now it appears to be advantageous to join him…”

            “You’re mad, you know that honored elder. You used to be against this creature, and would gladly have destroyed it had it been within your power to do so, yet now you talk of allying yourself to it!”

            “Times change, and we much change with them…don’t you agree Scout Leader?” The voice replied, taking on a more dangerous tone. “You’re mad, completely mad. Perhaps someday you will come to your senses, but for now, I believe that you are dangerous to be around.” Scout Leader Sssispike replied, sliding backwards slowly.

            “An unwise decision Scout Leader, but your decision nevertheless…and for you to pay the price for that decision!” A heavy tail lashed out of the shadows towards Sssispike, but he evaded. Moving quickly, he fled the one that he had formerly revered, dodging around the others that tried to close in around him.

 

            “So, is it agreed? We will follow after the spymaster and his friends; aid them in their quest to defeat this Foreign Lord?” Sssispike hissed out to a group of his fellow scouts. They were a varied bunch, mostly of the green-snake variety, but containing those of other types, vipers, constrictors and the like. “Are they on a quest to defeat this Foreign Lord though?” Enquired a naga of the cobra variety. “Perhaps not at the moment, for they claim to be guarding the young lordling Geofred back to his father, but the assassin in particular has a past history with this Foreign Lord…if his ‘change’ is true, I highly doubt that he will want to return to the Foreign Lord, despite the fact that the Foreign Lord will eagerly try to seek out his services once he knows that he is nearby. Wanting to avoid returning to enslavement and wanting to prove that he truly has changed should prove double reasons for him to seek the death of this creature. Are we agreed?” Sssispike responded.

            The cobra paused to consider this momentarily, then nodded. “It is agreed, any against?” Silence reigned over the gathering of serpents. “Very well then, we shall gather our things and leave immediately, we follow the trail of the spymaster and his friends, friends and allies to him and his party.”

            With a rustle of branches, the gathering melted silently into the underbrush, to swiftly follow Dronja and his friends.

 

            At a more leisurely pace, but still following, trailed the rest of the naga, those still loyal to the elder of the group. Once they had set out to stop the joining of eastern creatures to the Foreign Lord, now they sought out those same eastern creatures, and insisted that they join him. Those that could not be persuaded by any means were destroyed. The only exception were those who got warning and fled the area, heading back east towards Jornjonia and the rest of Jornja.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 21

            Once within the caverns, our first hint of trouble came when Dulche spotted a foot-piercer trap craftily hidden among the rocks littering the floor of the passage. A slight rattle of rocks a moment later provided barely enough warning before the attackers were upon us. They looked somewhat like a naga, however where the naga had a human’s powerful upper torso, these creatures only had the barest hints of shoulders above their arms, and a head mounted upon the top of the body. Their skin was a grayish green, and they swarmed in scratching away with their long fingernails (claws?) all the while trying to get a grip on us with their tails.

            “Don’t let them grab you with their tail, they’ll squeeze you to death like a snake does in its coils.” Dulche gasped out, slicing off the top of one tail that was coiled around his ankle as he did so. “I’ve never heard of Balya traveling in such numbers before, have you Dulche?” Dronja called out, bashing his current foe on the head, then lashing out to chop the last several feet off of one’s tail as it was about to start squeezing Eyrica. She quickly wriggled her way out of its coils and began to punish the remainder with her claws, expertly dodging its return blows. “No, never…I thought that they preferred to travel in groups of at most up to half a dozen, and rarely that many.” Dulche called back.

            Abruptly I found myself pulling my blow, for I was about to strike at the head of the very same naga as had warned us at the edge of the forest. He was in the process of beheading the creature menacing Eyrica to my right, and crushing the one in front of me within his coils. Around me I sensed a change in the battle, as the Balya realized that not all of the ‘snakes’ in this battle were friendly to them any longer. More naga of all types swarmed in, rapidly outnumbering the Balya. The Balya, seeing the odds go against them, promptly started to flee, or at least tried to. More than one was brought down and killed before it was able to make good on its escape.

            We circled up, putting our backs together with Eyrica safely hidden in the center, as the naga surrounded us. We watched them warily, waiting for them to make a move, wondering if we had just traded one set of foes in combat for another. Then the one that we had met before pushed its way through to stand before us. “My apologies, I did not reckon the Foreign Lord’s influence to be so great. Let me introduce myself, I am Sssispike, former Scout Leader of my tribe.”

            Dulche frowned. “Former Scout Leader?” he asked.

            “Alas, the elders of my tribe now see fit to follow the Foreign Lord, rather than trying to stop the eastern creatures from rallying to him. Perhaps I should have taken notice when we started allowing these scum” this with a gesture towards the bodies of our slain attackers “to start following us, rather than simply slaying them as we would have back home, that not all was right; however I still revered the elders and thought only that they were looking for allies in strange places…now I see that they were indeed looking for allies, but not on the side that I had thought.

            “It was when they talked of recruiting you for the Foreign Lord, spymaster, and persuading you to return to his service, assassin, that we realized that we must act. My fellow scouts and I have decided to come with you, and aid you in the overthrow of this vile creature in any way possible.” Sssispike finished, gesturing at the surrounding naga.

            “So, Rarrsconsha has indeed returned…” ruminated Dronja. “Do you have any idea what role Lord Belgolan has to play in all of this?”

            “The warring lord? I do not know, although I sussspect that he may be a puppet of the Foreign Lord as well…” hissed Sssispike.

            “But who is this Foreign Lord that you keep talking about?” cried Geofred. “I know that Rarrsconsha is an ancient red dragon, but again, who is this Foreign Lord?” “The Foreign Lord is Rarrsconsha.” Dronja replied acidly. “Oh…” was all that Geofred was able to manage.

            Dronja gazed about at the naga arrayed around us. “In the spirit that it is offered, I accept you and your group’s alliance, Scout Leader Sssispike.” He finally stated. “Just Sssispike, I am a Scout Leader no longer now that I have left my tribe.” Sssispike protested. “But you are still the Scout Leader to them.” Dronja replied with a gesture at the gathered naga, and the large cobra near the front nodded vehemently. “Not to mention that I would be honored if you would still be the scout leader for our group, when it would not be better for one of us to direct the scouting.”

            Sssispike pondered this for a moment, then slowly nodded his head in agreement. “It is agreed, I will be the Scout Leader for this new tribe of ours that we shall create, banded together in our quest to defeat this foul creature.”

 

            We spent days going through those caves, several weeks actually…sleeping when we needed to, traveling the rest of the time, interspersed with attacks from various minions of Rarrsconsha. He appeared to have found followers from all groups, both east and west, along with a few that appeared to be from somewhere else entirely. If not for Bertrest and the music of her lute, we would probably have fallen into a bit of a depressive stupor between attacks as the days wore on.

            Here, let me describe one such encounter we had.  We discovered this creature when we started to cross an underground chasm and stream, Bertrest was flying ahead with Eyrica trying to find a way across when suddenly something whipped out of the chasm below and snared Bertrest, pulling her from sight.  Eyrica managed to evade the tentacles and escape back to us, warning us that something lurked within the chasm.

            Cautiously, I belied down and crawled to the edge – peering over, I could see nothing in the murky darkness below but a bit of movement in the shadows, although I could certainly hear Bertrest struggling with something or other. “Light,” I muttered to myself, “I need light.” After a moment’s thought, I recalled that one of the spells that Dronja had taught me was to create a mage light, and I hastily sent a sphere of brilliant white light into the air above our heads.

            Below us, I saw for a moment a large mass of tentacles writhing in pain around a central body from which Bertrest suddenly shot free and took to the air, fleeing towards the rest of us at maximum speed, before suddenly my light spell was disrupted with a loud crack and all went dark as a moment later all the rest of our magical lights were disrupted as well. I cursed to myself the fact that we did not have any torches already lit and behind me I heard Dronja and Dulche cursing as well, joined a moment later by Geofred after a yelp announced he had banged into something. Fortunately Eyrica had landed a moment before and was safely down, and not flying blindly in the air above us.

            Someone must have been doing more than just cursing, because I suddenly sensed a rush of power from behind me, and as it surged over me while there was still no light, I could see perfectly well. Leaning back over the edge of the chasm to see below, I spied the creature below, stealthily sending its tentacles up towards us in the darkness. It had roughly half a dozen longer tentacles, and many, many smaller ones surrounding it’s bulbous body, half submerged in the water below us. A beaky mouth gaped open and closed, but I couldn’t see any eyes.

            “Some sort of subterranean kraken it looks like.” Dronja said into my ear, startling me and I would have fallen if he had not grabbed me by the arm. “How many times must I tell you not to startle me like that?” I wailed. “Obviously not enough.” He said with a pained grin as he gently pulled me back from the edge, pulling out his bow as he did so. “What is it, is there any way around?” Geofred asked from where he was sitting on a boulder to the rear of our party, holding his shin which appeared to have the pant leg somewhat scuffed.

            “Well, it obviously does not like light – shall we see how it likes fire?” Dulche asked, pulling a number of strange metallic balls from a pouch at his waist. “Exactly my thought. Fire arrows it is.” Dronja stated, pulling an arrow from his quiver and with a muttered phrase to prep the enchantment, fired at the kraken. A moment after it struck the soft flesh of the creatures tongue, it exploded into bright flame, turning the twitch of reaction into a shriek of pain and rage.

            “Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of a shuri-bomb.” Dulche said. At my blank look he elaborated. “A number of shurikens lightly welded together. When they hit their target with sufficient force, they will create a spark igniting the powder at the center, which will explode and send the shurikens in all directions.” “And a dangerous weapon to carry around, requiring careful handling and storage to keep it from going off prematurely. I did not realize that you had any with you Dulche.” Dronja added. Other than a brief shrug, Dulche ignored Dronja’s comment, walking casually to the edge where in a single fluid motion, he hurled the device downwards and dove backwards to the ground. A loud explosion sounded below eliciting a further squall of rage. “Also, you don’t want to have them go off nearby, as they are an area of effect weapon and can easily hurt friend as well as foe, so you’d best be hiding behind something when they go off.” Dronja stated with a grin at Dulche.

            A tentacle appeared over the edge, and wrapping itself firmly around a rock outcropping, tensed as if it were trying to pull the rest of the creature’s body up as well. “Now that is interesting. I’d have thought that it would have fled off down the river after all of that.” Dronja said as, with a wild yell, Geofred leapt forward to slash at the tentacle. He managed to complete his swing, completely severing the tentacle, but his blade became wedged in the rock beneath and was wrenched from his grasp as another, longer tentacle appeared and grabbed him by the waist, dragging him below.

            As one, Dronja and I moved to the edge with our bows out and strung. Bertrest, momentarily forgotten, dove down from above with her sword out, and slashed at the tentacle – she didn’t cut entirely through it, but she did enough damage that it released Geofred dropping him into the water. This wasn’t entirely a good thing, as he was now in range of the smaller tentacles as well. Dronja and I peppered the beast with arrows, casting light spells as we could since it obviously took pain from their brilliance, maintaining them for as long as possible each time before they were dispelled by the creature below.

            Realizing his peril, Geofred hurried to swim to the near shore in the placidly moving water, heading towards the rope that Dulche was lowering for him. His splashing attracted the attention of the kraken however, and it turned its body to bring the smaller tentacles to bear. This was not to be however, as Sssispike and his scouts joined the fray, returning from where they had been scouting ahead. Within moments of their rejoining us, the kraken succumbed and lay dead in the water, slowly floating away in the gentle current.

 

            Finally, at long last, we exited the caves, weary of travel yet still with everyone with us, as we had been fortunately to take no true casualties in our long journey under the mountains. Relying on Bertrest’s excellent memory, we came out right where we had planned, not too far from Aljast, where we intended to stop for a while and rest before continuing on. Signs of war were already obvious however, in the fortifications that could be seen everywhere, each individual farmer trying to protect what was his from the ravages of war.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 22

            Aljast probably hadn’t been a fortified town at first, as the wood of its stockade wasn’t fully weathered yet, but it was definitely a fortified town now. Its walls were built high, fifteen to twenty feet tall in places, and over the top of the wall we could spot the occasional sentry standing watch, keeping an eye out for incoming trouble.

            We weren’t certain on just how to approach the town, as our companions the naga weren’t always the most welcome in some places, yet we didn’t want to leave them behind. Eventually however, our plans were put forth and decisions were made. Bertrest and Dronja would go in ahead to scout the place, the naga would scout out the surrounding countryside under Sssispike’s command, while Dulche, Eyrica and I would stay hidden just out of view in a small forest nearby watching over all of our gear.

            It was Coilswhip, the cobra naga that served as Sssispike’s second in command, who arrived back first. Everything was quiet he said, but it was a tense sort of quiet and the one time that he had been spotted, a great cry of alarm had gone up among the farmers who had seen him, and he had fled before they could gather themselves to investigate and possibly pursue him. A few more naga trailed in soon after bearing similar reports, although none of them had been spotted. The real news came when Dronja and Bertrest came in however.

            The town was in a state of controlled panic, as large groups of monsters had been seen roaming across the land, mostly coming from the mountains to the east, and headed toward the southern border, as if called by the conflict, and the average peasant was deathly afraid of what might happen to them. Due to his military background, the commander of the local militia had been given complete control, and he had exercised his new powers with a vengeance. First to occur had been his ordering of the palisade for the defense, and the conscription of any person within the city without a clear job already into his defensive force, with which he fully intended to hold off any attack force that came at him until he got clear orders from Lord Belgolan, who had been out of contact for quite some time.

            “Busy dealing with the south” was what everyone assumed of him, however I wondered a bit that he had apparently not even sent a messenger to collect status reports from each of the major cities within his realm. Sssispike commented the same when he finally showed up, trailing the rest of the scouts, saying that it was odd that the lord seemed to have so little care about his lands, or if he was just too busy with his war to the south, and if that was the case, just how bad was the situation that we were walking into?

            Dronja and Dulche, our putative leaders, discussed things over together, conferring with Sssispike as well as to what the current situation was, and decided that things were just too tense within the town, and that with the commander’s orders rationing all food within town, it was unlikely that we would be able to purchase the foodstuffs that we so desperately needed. In order to avoid actually carrying overly much in the way of food during our travels underground, Dronja had dipped into the emergency travel supplies that he kept in his extra-planar cottage and now they were just about empty.

            Eyrica was anxious to fly after having been underground for so long, however Bertrest cautioned her against it, saying that we were trying to keep cover, and if she was spotted, depending on who it was, under the current circumstances they would likely either think of her as a way to increase their rations for a bit, or as some monster that would need to be dispatched. Either way there was a good chance that they would try to turn her into a pincushion which we really didn’t want. Fortunately, Eyrica was willing to listen to reason and while she pouted a bit, she stayed on the ground allowing me to breathe a sigh of relief that I wouldn’t have to try and keep track of her in the air, although I suspected that Bertrest would be happy to help if it came to it, being a flier herself and just as much in need of stretching her wings.

            Eventually however, Dronja, Dulche and Sssispike came to the conclusion that it was too dangerous to stop in town, and likely in any of the other towns as well, so we would have to ‘rough it’ as it were, spending the nights outdoors under and foraging as we went along.

            Fortunately Dronja and Dulche were highly skilled at foraging for food, as were the naga who had long experience with fending for themselves while out on patrol in their role as scouts, both with us and before when they were still with the rest of their tribe. Bertrest may not have been very skilled at foraging, used to traveling with a well-provisioned group as she was, however she had proved to be an excellent cook, able to make a meal out of just about anything and she promised to be able to do the same with whatever the others managed to scrounge up. Only Geofred and I were unprepared for this sort of truly rough living, as I had learned to scrounge in a city, not the countryside, and Geofred wasn’t prepared at all. We were both prepared to learn however, and resolved not to complain too much.

            We traveled quickly, moving by day, avoiding traveling directly on the roads when possible to avoid ambush, and leaving them entirely to circle wide around towns when we encountered them, as we had been driven off as potential bandits when we tried to approach the second town, without any chance for negotiation offered. We slept under cover whenever possible, hiding ourselves from discovery at night.

            Moving as quickly as we were, we encountered few others, although we did happen to run across an encampment of a small army of goblins at one point, which we were careful to skirt around. It wasn’t that we didn’t feel that we couldn’t defeat them, because I was certain that if we were forced to we could have, however we didn’t know what else lurked nearby and we were in a hurry to return Geofred to his father, and didn’t want to run the risk of any major injuries that might slow us down.

            At last we managed to reach Castle Cornwhich, where Lord Belgolan usually resided. There, we were welcomed by the steward of the keep, who reported that Lord Belgolan was present, however since it was quite late had already gone to bed. She was certain that the guardians of his son were quite welcome and hastened to find rooms for our entire party, saying that we would be properly greeted by Lord Belgolan in the morning.

 

            Come morning, we all got up early as we had gotten used to doing, and sat down for a hearty breakfast, wondering when the lord of the castle would show his face. We didn’t have to wait long, as soon an older man walked out of a side-passage and slapped Geofred on the back, saying “Welcome back son, it’s good to see you again!” in an overly hearty manner. He seemed outwardly likeable, however there was something about him that I distrusted. I don’t know what it was, perhaps it seemed to me that his outward joviality was somewhat forced, his smile a bit false, his voice a bit too hearty. I glanced around the table and noticed the shadow of a frown on Dulche’s face, and Dronja’s face was an impassive mask. A moment later both put on a show of cheer that I would have believed if not for the fact that it hadn’t been there a moment before, and I realized that if Lord Belgolan was a good actor, then these two were masters, Dronja slightly the better.

            It was slightly late to do so, however part of me wanted to subtly check my food for poisons. Pretending to be focusing on the flavor of a particularly tasteful bite, I focused on the food before me, but there was nothing ominous that I could detect. A slight brush of his hand against mine and a minute shake of his head told me that Dronja had detected my search and was subtly letting me know that the food was safe. “I checked before we started.” he mouthed to me with his back to Lord Belgolan.

            “I take it that you had a safe and uneventful trip?” Lord Belgolan asked of Geofred, and something in his tone caused me to look up, as if he had expected our trip to be full of unwelcome events. “Well, the caves under the Jonjon were infested with all sorts of nasty monsters which was a change from what I remember, and we were turned out as bandits from one of the towns that we attempted to enter, although that could have been because we were traveling with a party of naga.” Geofred responded, finishing with a gesture towards Sssispike and Coilswhip who were seated at the table with us. Bertrest had control of Eyrica this morning, and was seated with the rest of the naga down at a lower table from us.

            “Don’t forget the small army of goblins that we passed by.” Dronja stated, then proceeded to reel off the exact numbers and location of the goblins, along with their apparent direction of travel, with far more detail than I could ever have given, even if I had the opportunity to go back out and view them again.

            Lord Belgolan frowned. “You mean that you didn’t try to deal with them yourselves? I would have thought that a strong well-armed party such as yourselves would have had no problem dealing with such a small nuisance.” He asked haughtily.

            “Even for fighters of such high caliber as us, a host of goblins of that number is no laughing matter. We could have defeated them, however it would have taken time that I felt was better spent traveling, and there was always the risk of us taking an unnecessary injury in the battle.” Dronja replied cautiously. As he spoke, I watched Lord Belgolan’s face and I didn’t like what I saw. When Dronja spoke of our skills there was a moment of unease on Lord Belgolan’s face, and when Dronja talked of possible injury, the only description of Lord Belgolan’s face could be that of an opportunity lost, before he managed to resume his mask of good cheer. All in all, I truly did not trust this man.

            I could not wait to retire back to our rooms to discuss things, and fortunately I did not have too long to wait, as the meal was soon over.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 23

            We all congregated together in the north barracks, which had been given over to the naga, as that was the largest room currently under our control. We all looked at each other, waiting to see who would talk first, when suddenly Coilswhip spoke up. “He’s plotting something, and it’s not something good. He truly didn’t like hearing how we had escaped major injury on our way here, nor how we dodged past that encampment of goblins.” “Agreed, I’ve got some small tele-empathic skills but he’s shielded hard against that sort of thing. I couldn’t read anything off of him and I don’t like that.” Dulche added.

            “So what are our plans?” Dronja asked. “Obviously none of us feel safe staying here, but where should we go? Do we head south down to the border and try to lose ourselves in the chaos, while trying to find out more information? Do we head north back into the main part of the country and try to find out more information about Lord Belgolan? Or do we pull out completely, head north then swing back east towards the mountains back to Jornjonia? West isn’t much of an option, as on the other side of this large valley is yet another set of mountains, and there’s nothing in there except deserted wilderness until you make your way past the mountains to the coastal towns. Unlike the east branch of the Jonjon Mountains, the west branch doesn’t have a huge network of tunnels going beneath them, and at this time of year the mountain passes are hazardous at best.”

            Suddenly, before any of us could respond, the door slammed open and Geofred stood in the doorway. “I have to get out of here!” he gasped. “What? Why is that?” I asked in surprise. “My life is in danger; my father is trying to kill me!” Geofred responded, still gasping for breath. “Calm down, catch your breath, and tell us in a calm and logical manner.” Dronja ordered.

            Faced with the full force of Dronja’s personality behind that command, which was quite formidable when he chose to make it so, Geofred had no choice but to stop for a moment and try to calm his breathing. “Now, since you are calm now, why don’t you start from the beginning and tell me why you feel that you life is in danger?” Dronja said calmly.

            “It started as we were walking through the castle talking, I kept almost tripping over things at the oddest moments, always when I thought that I was paying attention, yet I still kept catching my foot on something or other, and always when there was some risk of danger if I were to fall. First it was at the top of some stairs, then out near the parapet. I thought that I sensed a bit of magic each time that I came close to tripping, however I couldn’t be certain. If it wasn’t for your special training however, and the skills I was forced to develop while climbing in the mountains, I probably would have fallen at least once. It wasn’t until he invited me to have a drink with him however that I was certain that he was trying to kill me. In my glass I detected mirin poison, and I couldn’t not drink it without outright accusing him, which I did not feel to be an altogether safe proposition at the time. Fortunately, mirin poison is one of the toxins that I have an antidote to in my belongings. It’s one of the more common poisons out there and my uncle made certain that I was as properly prepared against that sort of thing as possible.” Geofred finished in a rush, starting to tense up again.

            “Calm yourself and let us think this through, we can’t panic now or we’ll all be in a bind. We didn’t tell you about this earlier because we didn’t think that it was related to us, but there were hunters on the road as we came down here, which is part of the reason that we avoided traveling openly on the roads. They all missed us, and even had they spotted us, we would have dealt with them. We have dealt with the problems of the past quite calmly, now it is time for us to deal with the present problems calmly.” Dronja stated.

            “What do you think I should do? I can’t stay here safely, my father will kill me and then blame it on assassins to further his cause. I don’t know why my father wants me dead, or what cause he is trying to further, but I do know that I’m not safe here.” Geofred said, finally calming down enough to speak easily.

            “I do not know what you are doing, however I thought that I might ask that we swing west a bit when we do leave, my family used to be right near the western edge of the southern border, and I would like to check in on them.” Bertrest said, speaking up. “After that, I am uncertain as to what I would like to do, as I am the adventuresome sort, but my family might need my assistance.”

            Dronja nodded in Bertrest’s direction, saying simply “West sounds like as good a direction as any, now we just need to see how much of a reprovisioning we can manage from the stores here. Perhaps our excuse for leaving would be that we would like to act as scouts to find out the situation down south, and we would like to maintain Geofred’s services as a local guide so that we don’t get lost as easily. After all, the local lord’s son should have a reasonable knowledge of the land that he intends to govern.”

            Geofred nodded thoughtfully, “That should work, and you should be able to claim the reprovisioning as part of your end fee for delivering me. If my father wants me dead, sending me into danger as a scout with you should satisfy him well enough.”

            “Also, if Lord Belgolan is working for Rarrsconsha, then he will want to send us closer to where Rarrsconsha will have access to us, which will make him happier as well.” Dronja pointed out.

            “Well then, if that’s been decided, let’s go about implementing this plan shall we?” Dulche asked. “Sssispike, you see about assembling your scouts together in the courtyard and debriefing them on what’s going on, Dronja and Geofred will see about reprovisioning us, while Seeche and Bertrest will work together to tidy up our belongings here.”

            “If you don’t mind,” Dronja interjected, “I would like to have Seeche’s assistance with the supplies, as she has proved very capable at maintaining the portal to the extra-planar cottage for extended periods of time. Perhaps Sssispike could detail one of his party to assist Bertrest?”

            “I would be happy to help.” a brown naga with a yellow belly spoke up shyly from the side. “Really, there isn’t all that much to do and my own belongings are already packed away.” she continued shyly. “Your help is appreciated, and as you say, there isn’t that much to do.” Bertrest said, accepting instantly.

            “Me stay wi’ Ber’trest.” Eyrica said, piping up from her seat on one of the beds. Obviously she was still very much enamored with her fellow flier. “That sounds fine with me, she won’t get in my way at all.” Bertrest acknowledged.

            Having decided on our course of action, we soon got down to business. Lord Belgolan was happy to reprovision us if it meant sending us south sooner to deal with the problems for him. He doubtlessly felt that he gave no hint at how eager he was that we were going back into danger, but it was obvious from how hearty he was in preparing us to be off. To avoid giving him too much information, we were careful to simply say that we were going west and then south, to make it more difficult for him to organize an ambush of us if he were so inclined to do so.

 


 

 

 

Chapter 24