Friday, September 25, 2009

North Bound

As Ademar Nightwalker ran to keep up with his newfound companions, Cor’Nal and Besali, he told himself again that morning had come far too early this day. His eyes were bleary and heavy-lidded, his head pounded with every jarring step, his limbs ached from the previous nights’ merriment, and his stomach protested loudly to not having been fed breakfast. It was late summer and the companions had finally left the comfort of Goodale in search of fame and fortune nearly a year after deciding to do so. It was their first morning out, and while Cor’Nal was eager to be on the road, Ademar had overindulged in his farewell celebration making mid-afternoon seem like a much preferred time for them to leave. That had been one of many arguments the rogue had lost to the calculated logic of the druid.

Ademar had to work hard to keep pace with the longer gate of both the wolf and the taller elf. Panting hard, sweat dripping from his face and running in rivulets down his arms and back, the elf was greatly relieved when the small troop stopped for a midday break. In the small glade deep in The Crown Wood, Ademar Nightwalker dropped his heavy pack and collapsed in a gasping heap. To this point Cor’Nal had been completely absorbed in the world around him enjoying the time back in the forest but, at the sound of equipment and body falling to the ground at his back he turned around seeming to remember his counterpart for the first time this day. A wry smile crept across the druids’ face as he beheld the spectacle of the thin elf on hands and knees forehead nearly touching the ground, wheezing for breath.

“Is there… a reason… we don’t have… horses?” The rogue puffed, seeming to be even more pale than usual.

“Actually there are several reasons.” Cor’Nal responded fighting hard to hold back his laughter.
“Room and board through the winter, extra blankets for said room, wine -only the best-, wenches, gambling, paying back a certain person for ‘lost goods’, paying the fine constables of Goodale to look the other way while investigating ‘lost goods’, shall I go further?”

Having finally caught his breath, the rogue pushed himself up on his haunches sitting with his head still bowed like a dejected child before the taunting wood elf.
“There are days that I hate you.” Ademar replied quietly.

Unable to contain himself any longer Cor’Nal burst into uncontrollable laughter. The druid did not begrudge the rogue for being himself, it had actually played into his favor as the overindulgent Ademar had spent all the money he would need to travel back to Caercaster and was now forced to accompany him further north in search of adventure. He found the entire situation humorous despite the fact that they were many months behind his intended schedule.

After a leisurely lunch break the trio was off again. Their planned route would take them northwest through the Crown Wood just outside Goodale and into the rugged lands beyond to a place called Snoam-Schlabach. It was said that there were actually two towns there between the foothills of the Greystoke Highlands and the craggy wasteland known as the Laandsraad and that a great deal of strife existed there. Despite Ademars’ complaints, Cor’Nal had decided that, where there is conflict there will be adventure and opportunity to create a name for himself bringing honor and glory to his family. The pace after their rest was decidedly slower to Ademars’ great relief though, it didn’t stop him from complaining.

“Curse my luck! I’m getting a blister already.” The rogue grumbled as they navigated the forest.

“Will you be this irritable for the entire journey?” Cor’Nal asked as they continued to march along.

“Not unless the weather becomes cold and wet.” Ademar replied smartly, knowing that they were heading into a land where the weather was always cold and snow or freezing rain were often encountered. Cor’Nal could only roll his eyes as they continued on.

For three whole days they traveled the uneven ground and thickly packed pines of the forest before they noticed the first signs that they were approaching the edge of the wood. More light was filtering in through the boughs and more undergrowth was encountered. Just after midday on the fourth day their quiet passage was broken up by an unexpected noise. Off to the east of them and down a small ravine came a deep voice speaking a very broken version of the common tongue.

“Why Vrock not listen to Grock? He tell me not to trust smelly one-eye. He say wine no good no way. Well, he wrong, wine good but now Vrock stuck in woods with no food. Stupid, smelly, one-eye!”

With not a word spoken between the elves they began making their way silently toward the conversation taking place. Cor’Nal motioned to Besali, to move out to the end of the ravine in a flanking position and the wolf obliged swiftly and silently. Carefully the elves moved from tree to tree taking care to watch their footing and remaining quiet while they drew their bows and knocked arrows.

As they reached the lip of the small valley and peered down the elves reactions were simultaneously aggressive. Bow strings stretched taught and fletching went to cheek as rogue and druid alike took aim at a hated ancestral enemy. Standing at the bottom of the ravine was a hulking beast standing a full head taller than most men and just as thick as many of the old pines they stood among. Although olive skinned and broad of brow, this creature seemed somewhat different than the orcs both elves had encountered in the past. Its skin was not quite as dark, its jaw line not quite as animalistic, tusks did not really protrude from beneath its lip, something was slightly out of place. Why a lone orc? Were there more of them milling about? Was this some sort of trap? The arrows were held at bay for a moment, neither elf sure of exactly what they were up against.

For nearly an hour the trio followed this strange character about the forest. After passing through the ravine for a third time Cor’Nal decided that this particular orc- no, half-orc as this beast was not of full orc blood, was obviously lost and definitely alone. The druid motioned for Ademar to stop. After only a few moments the half-orc moved off again on the same track that he had followed previously. As the misplaced creature wandered away the elves and wolf emerged into the clearing at the bottom of the small valley.

“I wouldn’t want him scouting for me.” Cor’Nal remarked with a frown.

“What do we do about him?” Ademar asked. “I almost hate to kill the beast. He doesn’t seem smart enough to hurt anybody.”

“True, but he is an orc, or at least he has orc blood, that much I’m sure of.”

“Is that alone a reason to kill it? Maybe there is a way to use the brute.” The rogue mentioned off handedly. “It sure would be nice if you could teach him to carry our packs.” That comment got the druid thinking.

When the half-orc came around as expected for the fourth time the elves and wolf were still standing in the ravine awaiting him. With a start the beast nearly fell over itself to pull a massive great sword off of his back. “Pointy-ears!” He growled in a low, gravely voice, yellow eyes narrowed suspiciously and he assumed a defensive stance, sword at the ready.

The companions held their ground and remained calm. Besali stretched and yawned before lying down to watch the half-orc seemingly bored already. Ademar stood back trying hard to look at ease while remaining ready should the creature attack them.

Cor’Nal stepped forward boldly, he had learned that strength and bold action were respected within orc society and he prayed to Kutenai that his plan would work.
“Well met good sir.” The druid began, holding out his hand in greeting. “We are looking for a brave warrior named Vrock. Could you tell us where we could find him?”

The half-orcs’ expression went from suspicion to pride then back to suspicion before ending in confusion as the elf spoke. For several breaths the half-orc mulled over what the druid had said before responding.

“Me Vrock, son of Grock. Brave warrior! Strong warrior!” Vrock proclaimed loudly. Then his voice lowered and suspicion furrowed his broad brow. “Why you looking for me?”

“We two elves are traveling in this dangerous land and we are looking to hire some protection from the beasts of the wild.” The druid lied. “We have heard that the warrior Vrock can assure our safe passage to the north.”

The half-orc stood before them, sword still at the ready in both of his gnarled hands. He listened intently and as Cor’Nal talked a frown worked its way onto his face. Seeing the frown on Vrocks’ face told the druid that he had to sweeten the pot somehow to earn his cooperation.

“We are going north to find treasure and adventure!” He proclaimed enthusiastically. “If you choose to help us we will give you a share of the take.” Behind Cor’Nal Ademar choked and coughed, a wounded look of shock and despair upon his face. Vrock smiled.

“Food?” The burly half-orc stated more than asked.

“Of course, you are welcome to eat with us this eve.” Cor’Nal told him thinking that things were going well.

“No, food now. Vrock hungry.”

As Vrock noisily devoured all the provisions Cor’Nal had packed for himself it was Ademars’ turn to smile while the druid stood by in astonishment at Vrocks’ appetite. Finally with a belch that rattled nearby pine boughs Vrock, son of Grock announced that he was ready to travel.

With the added appetite of Vrock forcing the group to forage for food much sooner than anticipated their forward progress slowed to a crawl. It took several more days before Cor’Nal was confident that they had enough food stocked to make it across the empty land between The Crown Wood and foothills of the Greystoke Highlands. Once the group was finally underway on a seldom used trail to the cold northern reaches of Edlrige their pace quickened. Vrock carried most of the supplies which greatly reduced Ademars complaints although he still found opportunities.

Within two weeks of travel Cor’Nal reported that the companions were nearing civilization. This was welcome news to Ademar who had not anticipated how severe the cold would be once they left the protection of The Crown Wood. As they had climbed nearer to the mountains the temperature dropped from cool to cold. Frost was an every morning occurrence and no matter how large the fire was stoked Ademar was always cold at night. When they finally came to the small camp known as Whitewall just south of their destination, the frost cover had given way to snow. Ademar was now cold day and night no matter how many layers he wore or how vigorously he marched. Inversely, Cor’Nal never seemed cold despite being dressed in only a light shirt, breeches, and his mysterious wooden armor. The smug druid just smiled all the wider whenever the rogue moaned over the weather. Vrock also seemed unaffected by the cold, insulated in his heavy hides and thick cloak, he marched on with the elves apparently happy with his current arrangement.

The group rested in the mostly abandoned mining town of Whitewall for two days allowing Vrock to eat his fill and Ademar time to thaw his chilled limbs. Norton, the tavern keeper in town, told the companions that there was indeed trouble brewing between Snoam-Schlabach and its neighboring hamlet Schudlichton although he seemed doubtful that there would be much in the way of coin to be had there. The reprieve was short lived. The druid predicted another snowstorm to be on its way.

Much to the chagrin of Norton and Ademar alike the group headed out from Whitewall Camp into the deepening snow and cold bite of a winter which had not yet even started. In the difficult and unfamiliar terrain it took the companions almost three whole days to finally reach their goal.

Over a hill in the midst of a mild, late-evening snowstorm it came into view, a small hamlet maybe 80-90 buildings in all. Mostly modest homes, only about three-quarters of which seemed to be permanent structures. But at the southern-most edge, along where the closest thing to a road could be discerned, lay a building larger than most but smaller than a few. Plumes of fragrant gray smoke, visible against the moonlight, billowed out from the chimney. Its roof of tarred pine branch and log walls of the same type wood. The only kind that could grow this far north. Instinctively, in their years of traveling they knew the building could only mean one thing.

"A bed." Cor'Nal said to himself.
"Food." Vrock said to himself.
"Heat." Ademar said to himself.

Of course all three things really meant one thing: An inn. Even now, uphill, upwind and still a mile away the smells and sounds were unmistakable. Rowdy banter, spiced potatoes and roasted lamb all filled their senses causing their exhausted pace to quicken. Though one more time they wished they'd found some way to acquire horses, flying carpets, goats or any other form of permanent transportation.

They arrived in minutes though it seemed like hours. Freezing, starving and exhausted they each passed but not a one of them read the sign at front that read:

"Welcome to Homebound"
Magda Dervish, Proprietor

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Leaving the accursed tower and the forest that held it far behind him, Ademar continued north. He pushed himself hard, traveling completely beyond the borders of Westheath and crossing over into the Dodanna Freelands, a sparsely populated marshland that stretched from the mountains known as The Broken Lands in the west all the way to halfling kingdom of Murgar in the east.

He had been away from Caercaster now for several weeks and yet his journey had just begun. Ademar redoubled his efforts to avoid civilization and curbed his curiosity near interesting places for another many weeks while he traveled always northward and away from his past problems.

Still he marched on not having knowledge of where he was going nor really where he was exactly. The mountains had faded into the distance behind him leaving a vast grassland before him. The few trees he encountered were full of green leaves, showing that summer was fully upon the land. The rains became cool relief as shelter from the sun became increasingly rare yet, he continued on, his soul full of inner turmoil. Eventually the elf did come to terms with his aimless wandering.

At the first snow, that is when I will stop. He told himself. The first snow will mark the end of my travel. There I will find shelter for the winter and then I will return to Caercaster in the spring. He felt that some of the burden had been lifted from his aching shoulders. The fact that he had formulated some sort of action plan came as an unexpected relief to the beleaguered elf. Yes, it will be fitting that Kendrick Cwik dies in the spring. That always was Deedras’ favorite time of year.

*** *** *** *** ***

The predawn glow crept into the massive forest that surrounded Goodale chasing the darkness further west as the sun approached the eastern horizon. The people here had named the large conifer forest The Crown Wood as it sat at the northern edge of the continent like a green crown upon the land. Despite the early hour, two shadowy forms made their way silently across the carpet of dry twigs and pine needles on the forest floor. In the lead was a large grey wolf, its black nose sniffing the air, intently following a scent deeper and deeper into the wood. Close behind the wolf followed an elf covered head to toe in some exotic armor apparently made of overlapping wooden plates shaped like leaves of various trees. They weaved effortlessly through the dimly lit tree trunks, moving with such speed and grace an onlooker would swear they were ghosts.

The elf, Cor’Nal Utharo, was a talented young druid from Sanctuary who had recently traveled the lions’ share of Atalanxia ending up here, in Goodale with his newfound wolf companion Besali. For nearly two weeks the pair had explored the large forest, practicing their stalking skills and enjoying what time they could outside before autumn came, forcing them to find shelter and supplies for the coming winter. The druid knew that summer was fast drawing to an end; as it was a short season this far north. While they ran through the trees this morning a thick white fog hugged the ground, a testament to large temperature differences from night to day which were already moving across the land.

The elf was not quite sure what Besali had caught scent of but he knew it must be something new judging by the eagerness in the wolves’ strides. Without warning Besali stopped. Cor’Nal, following so close behind him nearly ran over the animal before coming to a halt. Besalis’ hackles stood on end, his body was rigid and his brown eyes were fixed on something just ahead of them. Taking a moment to catch his breath Cor’Nal dropped a calming hand to the shoulder of his companion while scanning the forest ahead of them. Inside the predominantly pine forest it was not difficult to see past the bare trunks and sparse undergrowth and spot the source of their morning “hunt”. A slim figure lay up against one particularly large tree next to the grey ashes of a small campfire. Judging by the slight build and diminutive stature of the figure, the druid thought that it might be a woman or a very young human man lying beneath that black cloak.

Wanting to get a better look, Cor’Nal started forward while motioning for Besali to stay put. As he approached the form something caught him off guard, something the elf never expected to see this far north. A pointed ear protruded from the black cloak, the ear of a Cala'Quessir! Forgetting only for an instant about his surroundings, Cor’Nal took another step closer to the sleeping figure. His foot came down on an upturned twig accompanied by the sharp snap of breaking wood. Instinctively Cor’Nals’ hand went to his sheathed scimitar. His instinct served him well that morning. Within the blink of an elven eye the once prone figure sprang to life. The black cloaked elf was now on his feet and a long sword came across at Cor’Nal in a sweeping horizontal strike. Steel rang out on steel, a pure harmonic note sang out in the deep forest breaking the calm silence of the morning. Both elves found themselves staring at each other in bewilderment. Several tense moments passed before Cor’Nal spoke.

“ Well met friend.”

The tension between the elves evaporated quickly with those simple words and the cloaked elf retracted his blade. Both parties assumed non-threatening stances yet their blades remained naked as they continued to measure each other. This elf Cor’Nal noted had seen his share of hardship, bearing horrible scars on his hands and half of his face, now visible after his cowl fell away during the strike. It was the elfs’ eyes that held Cor’Nals’ attention though, something familiar about those bright green eyes which were even now darting about, making note of every detail about him, eyes which grew larger after taking note of the wolf watching intently from a distance at Cor’Nals’ back.

Seeing that no conversation was forthcoming from the cloaked stranger Cor’Nal attempted discover what he was about.

“An elf is an unusual sight this far north, especially with autumn fast approaching.” He began.

“Yes, that is unusual.” The stranger said in a measured tone, his eyes flicked back to hold Cor’Nal in a hard stare.

“Fear not my elven brother.” The druid replied, taking the initiative to sheath his weapon. “I bear you no ill will. I am just as surprised as you at this unexpected meeting.”

The black cloaked elf responded in turn, sheathing his sword although his eyes continued to watch both Cor’Nal and Besali warily, apparently ill-at-ease with the situation.

Moving slowly, the druid took a cautious step forward, moving almost as if trying not to spook the stranger before him, and extended his right hand in greeting.

“My name is Cor’Nal Utharo. I am the son of Legawyn and Nydia Utharo of Kemmermere.”

The cloaked elf stepped forward also, taking Cor’Nals’ forearm in acknowledgement yet, those green eyes remained on the wolf.

Recognizing that Besali would continue to be a distraction, the druid gave a shrill series of whistles not once looking back at him. Without a sound, the wolf stood and loped off into the forest, back the way he had come. Picking right up where his introduction had ended Cor’Nal continued. “And that, is my companion Besali.”

The elf opposite Cor’Nal relaxed at the exit of the large canine, his emerald eyes flashed back to the druid. “Pardon my manners.” The stranger spoke in smooth, practiced elven seemingly genuinely humbled by his lack of proper protocol. “I have long been on the road and in the wild. It makes one somewhat, suspicious of others. My name is Ademar.” After a slight hesitation he continued. “Ademar Nightwalker, also of Kemmermere.”

That name brought light to Cor’Nals’ memory; he remembered now meeting Ademar while delivering a message to the Helyanwë family many years ago. What had happened to the young Ademar to cause him to take up an alias? From what the druid could remember the Helyanwë family was a well-to-do merchant clan why would he stray so far from the comforts of Kemmermere? Deciding that Ademar must have a valid reason to abandon his family name, Cor’Nal chose to feign ignorance of his kin but he was interested in how he came to be in Goodale and hoped that Ademar had news of Kemmermere.

“So, what brings you to the wilderness of Eldridge my friend? And, what news of Tel’HithTal?”

Ademar thought about the questions for a moment, seeming to be carefully constructing his answers before responding.

“My family thought it would be advantageous for me to travel the world for a while. They are trying to gain knowledge of the goings-on beyond our borders. We are hoping to open up more trade across Atalanxia. I have been throughout Westheath, The Dodanna Freelands and Nargosath, before coming here. In the spring I will be returning to Caercaster to report my findings.”

Cor’Nal nodded throughout Ademars’ explanation seemingly believing the entire thing though he secretly wondered why he would return to Caercaster, a city of humans rather than the forest of Kemmermere.

“As for The City,” the rogue continued, “They were still rebuilding when I left nearly two years past. Regulus Silverfire is determined to have every detail within the citadel perfect which has made things difficult for the craftsmen to say the least.” Happy with the direction the conversation was turning, Ademar asked a question of his own. “If you ask news of Kemmermere you must have been away for quite some time yourself. What of your journey Cor’Nal Utharo?”

Happy to be having a conversation with another elf, the druid happily told Ademar of his journey which had taken him all about the continent over the past two decades and how he had ended up in Goodale looking for adventure. The conversation lasted long into the day, stretching on to dusk.

Knowing that winter was fast approaching, Cor’Nal suggested that Ademar stay in Goodale and continue his travels in the spring. Beginning to tire of traveling, Ademar readily agreed with the druids’ suggestion but decided that he would prefer the comfort of a bed in an inn to the hard ground of the forest floor. Reluctant to leave the wild but unwilling to let go of this newfound link to his homeland, Cor’Nal relented to this request. Throughout the fall and all through the winter both elves worked for Iwan Welsher, a fourth generation brewer of his families’ famous Welsher’s White ale. Using the silver they earned from Iwan the pair waited out the winter trading stories of their homeland in the warm shelter of The Wizards’ Charm inn.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


The young dwarf sat with pleasure wenches on either side of him at the bartable of a well-known tavern in Goodale called the Broken Skull Inn. A place where the ale was expensive (likely to be expected in a town called Goodale) and so were the wenches. Neither mattered to the dwarf as he was the type who wasn't interested in handing over his silver for the standard wench or the average ale. No sir, only the finest wenches and ale for Vlad Pwent but he thought if the circumstances were different, today he might reconsider. Yes, he thought to himself, today would be different. The entertainment here was good after all (he was surprised to see a band of minstrels playing in such a small town) the food wasn't bad by dwarven standards and the continuous flow of ale provided the dwarf's head with just the right amount of a delightful buzzing to keep him in good cheer.

Indeed, Vlad Pwent thought to himself, this day will be different.

At that thought he lifted his latest tankard of ale, one purchased only moments ago, and drained it to the last. Satisfied, he slammed the tankard down to the table dramatically, straightened himself in his seat, threw his shoulders back and let go of an impressive belch that caught the attention of everyone nearby, only a few of whom seemed to admire the display, not that Vlad cared.

He waved toward the barkeep with one hand and wiped his neatly braided beard with the other. As with most dwarves, Vlad's beard was no exception in being his pride and joy, though when drinking ale, the cloth of his shirt-arm was just as good as any finely knitted napkin. Reluctantly, the barkeep relieved himself of wiping down the wooden ale-mugs he'd just washed and deliberately made his way to the smug dwarf.

Frowning, he spoke. "Another ale dwarf?" The human was massive, even for those of his kind, easily six-and-a-half feet tall and seemed just as wide. His expression and body language, a spectacle of clenched fists and even tighter shoulders, told Vlad he had very little patience, for the little people.

The dwarf offered a mock expression of surprise at the enormous human's reluctance to serve. This lasted for a brief moment before he slowly changed his expression by adding a wry smile, seemingly reveling in the barkeep's annoyance. He then turned his head, looking to the pleasure wench on his left who returned his smile with one of her own. He eyed her up and down like a starving dog would gaze at a freshly roasted rack of lamb. She shifted closer to him, daring a hand upon his forearm and rested her ample bosom against his shoulder. He liked the firm, yet soft caress her breasts made upon him and, if it hadn't been for the recently consumed glut of ale he imagined that, like the one in his head, there would be a buzzing in his pantaloons where there was none now. The dwarf's smile widened, regardless of his lack of rigidity. He grunted an approval as he failed to notice the growing impatience of the barkeep he'd summoned.

"Come now dwarf," The barkeep interrupted. "I do not have time for this." Sweat glistened on the barkeep's balding pate. "What'll ye have, another ale?" He furrowed his sweating brow and pursed his lips into a scowl.

"No barkeep," Vlad said at last. His gaze never leaving the resting bosom of his new female friend. "Bring two. One for me and one for the lady" She fanned herself dramatically as if Vlad's gesture of kindness had suddenly, and quite magically, risen the temperature in the room. Thinking to herself, the wench hoped that Vlad realized that the price of her services slightly exceeded that of a few kind words and a tankard of ale.

"Right," The barkeep replied, slightly amused. "One for you and one for the... lady. He laughed at the misuse of the word and spoke it with disdainful inflection. Chuckling he left the two in order to retrieve their ales.

The pleasure wench to Vlad's right tugged innocently at his undershirt and whined in a surprisingly high-pitched, grating voice.

"Wha' abou' me Vlad?" She pronounced his name like many poor folk of the Southern Eldridge Kingdom: Vlot. "I would also like an ale." She risked an expression of childish neglect, it was a poor attempt and even in his inebriated state, Vlad wasn't fooled. He snapped his gaze toward her, the smile he wore disappearing instantly into a scowl. The wench let go and recoiled slightly. He eyed her for a few seconds before smiling wickedly.

"Get yer own ale, wench! I've nay the gold nor the energy for the both of ye!" He snapped viciously before continuing. His voice became gentler in tone though his words retained their acerbic intonation. "But in a tenday or so, I'll have enough gold for the services of yerself and all yer whore friends!" He then became thoughtful and his sarcastic left his face as it went blank. "Although I'll likely still be too knackered for more'n one of ye a' a time." He whispered the last to himself though the right-side wench wouldn't have heard it anyway as she had already left his company, scurrying away on her plump little feet to sell her wares to more eager, and hopefully even more intoxicated patrons.

Before the boastful, arrogant dwarf could return his attention to the dark-haired beauty that he had become so anxious to begin receiving services from, the barkeep had returned to them with both ale tankards and was impatiently awaiting payment. Vlad reached into his coinpurse and payed the barkeep what he owed. The barkeep took the coins from the dwarf but remained still even after pocketing them, eyeing Vlad intently. Vlad, never making eye-contact initially, looked up at the barkeep sheepishly, half-expecting the barkeep to accuse Vlad of somehow shortchanging him.

"You'd be wise not to speak to the wenches in that manner." The barkeep spat the words threateningly as he crossed his arms over his thick, barrel-shaped chest.

Vlad's expression remained blank. "And you'd be wise not to speak to me in that manner." He curled the corners of his mouth into an arrogant smirk, barely visible beneath his thick, red beard.

"Is that right?" The barkeep taunted, leaning over the table slightly to remind the dwarf of just how much larger the human was than he.

Before Vlad could explain to the human just how right that was the pleasure wench that he had nearly begun to forget about interjected, trying desperately to change the subject in order to avoid a confrontation which almost certainly would end up costing her the patronage of a well-paying customer.

"That's right" She said. "Vlad here is goin' t' be a hero. Ain't ye Vlad?" She spoke loudly to ensure that both of them would give her their full attention. Unfortunately, she got the attention of half the rest of the pub's patron as well.

The barkeep turned to her, unconvinced and half on the verge of uncontrollable laughter. "Is that right?" The barkeep repeated. Suddenly, Vlad began to wonder about the size of this human's vocabulary.

"Yes," The wench continued, half-impressed with herself at seeming to diffuse the encroaching confrontation. "he is goin' to the 'Goodale Cave'. The one about a dozen miles Sou'east a' here" She smiled and looked at Vlad with mock pride. "It's supposed t' be 'aunted."

"I know." the barkeep spat. "The Bearded-Child has been boasting about it since morning." He laughed heartily and then glanced at the dwarf, whose face had begun to redden. "But what he failed to mention to ye lass, is that he hasn't been assigned to Faramin's party yet."

Vlad remained silent, incredibly angry and embarrassed by the barkeep's revelation. He watched as the wench's expression melted from mock pride to genuine disappointment.

"Is 'ee speakin' truth, Vlad?" She asked sullenly.

Vlad paused a moment to consider his next words, a feat which required an enormous amount of will for him even when sober.

"As of now, aye." He spoke the words and felt the gaze of at least a dozen onlookers. Their eyes pierced his back like tiny assassins daggers. "However, I am confident, nay, certain, that his Lordship will find me of adequate quality to represent him and fight for the people of Goodale." Whatever confidence Vlad felt a few moments ago was now whisked away and replaced by the feeling that to all those present, all those listening to himself and the wench, that he had begun to bear a striking resemblance to a horse's arse.

The barkeep threw his head back and laughed. "Obviously you've not been paying attention." He said between peals of laughter. "Faramin has abandoned selecting the adventuring party's." He wiped away a tear, reveling further in the dwarf's humiliation. "Not after the last party he selected went down into that godsforsaken cave and never returned."

"Never returned?" The wench spoke the words in Vlad's head.

"That's right," The barkeep continued. "Faramin has decided that he can no longer bear the terrible burden of sending young men to their deaths himself, so he has commissioned volunteers to select, or bring to town, their own parties in order to travel to the cave and commit suicide themselves. The fools! Though he promises to reward any party that returns with the head of some mage who calls himself 'Raylock' the hefty sum of one thousand gold pieces." Vlad hung on to every word but tried to keep the air of aloofness, he failed miserably as the barkeep continued. "I've heard of only one such suicidal idiot." The barkeep finished his speech, again crossed his arms in front of him. He winked at the pleasure wench who seemed genuinely troubled by Vlad's sudden change in demeanor.

Vlad chanced a look over his shoulder, noticed that over a dozen bar patrons had begun to make their way towards the bartable. Inching closer in order to get a better position from which to eavesdrop on the suddenly very interesting conversation. He tried his best to ignore them and turned his attention back to the sarcastic barkeep.

"What 'Suicidal Idiot' is this you speak of?" Vlad asked humbly.

The barkeep smirked as he looked down on the small (at least to his eyes) dwarf who seemed to be getting smaller with each passing moment. "A vagabond, silver-haired elf... calls himself, Razell. Or some such. Travels with another of his kind, red hair and freckles. I don't know 'is name. Don't care either." He snorted the last bit, pleased with himself.

"Razell..." Vlad whispered absently to himself, staring into his full, untouched tankard. Then he frowned. "An elf!" He reached into his purse to pay the barkeep for the information but the barkeep refused it, holding his outstretched arm palm out toward the dwarf.
"No need. Information's free. I like to watch smart-tounged, loud-mouthed braggarts like you running off eagerly killing yerselves trying to become heroes." He smiled broadly as Vlad wondered what he may have said earlier to make the human hate him so. He supposed he didn't really care.

"Is that right?" Vlad said, knowing the barkeeper's answer.

"That's right." The barkeep repeated to Vlad's expectation.

"Thanks nonetheless." Vlad said moving from his stool to stand on the dusty tavern floor upon shaky, unsure legs. He found himself slightly dizzy from his consumption of ale but tried quickly to forget about it. The same way he forgot about the pleasure wench and the full tankard of ale he left behind as he pushed his way past the gathering crowd and out into the streets of Goodale, in search of this fairy elf. This, Razell.

Again, he thought to himself as the mid-day sun crept behind a large cluster of threatening purple clouds, this day, indeed, will be different.