The Tyrant of Kepala
Book 1, Chapter 4 - Fel's Hope
At the edge of a clearing, Fel’s Hope appeared as a pleasant-looking village that had been spared the ravages of the times. Its modest buildings sat on either side of a rivulet that branched off of the main river. Comings and goings from the town were few and far between, usually only a local farmer in his wagon transporting his crops to market, or a single person on foot, very intent on not making eye contact with anyone. The travelers were glad for the lack of attention as they approached the town.
As they neared the edge of the modest town, an intact, but obviously disused temple to Jaghankortra, the local god of agriculture, goodwill, and the earth, stood before them. It stood proudly, yet dark and hollow over the road, like an extinguished lamp. “Looks like the Old Man has taken a vacation,” said Rodrigo to the group, casting a jaundiced eye to the hollow temple.
“My mother used to take me to one like this,” Gia said to Rodrigo. “We would bring wheat and fresh water, and then have a banquet for everyone at the southern gates. Simon would give me piggyback rides when our mother wasn’t looking, and I’d make friends with the other children who came for food. They would leave with happy faces because they’d be full. We sometimes sang old songs…”
Gia’s recollection broke down as she began to cry. Gently, at first, then breaking down into a fit of sobbing. Rodrigo put his arm around her and drew the hood of her cloak further down over her face. Zerkanti and Tala, carrying Brehon together, turned in unison to Rodrigo with a look that urged him to silence the princess.
Tala shook her head and returned to concentrating on the road. “How can someone so powerful be so fragile?” she whispered to Zerkanti.
“Haven’t you ever lost someone in your family you loved?” Zerkanti retorted.
“…No,” Tala answered simply.
The group made their way further into town. Past the village hall, near the junction of the two main streets stood the inn and public house, The Scoundrel and Strumpet. It was an inviting building made of sturdy wood and plaster, and the smell of something savory and delicious wafted out from its open front door.
Rodrigo and Zerkanti now had Brehon between them, his leg-sized arms thrown over the shoulders of the two rogues who bracketed him. His feet dragged in the dirt behind them as Tala and Gia brought up the rear, hoods drawn and unassuming.
Upon entering the front door of the Strumpet, Rodrigo went into the mode that Zerkanti had come to recognize as his public face. “Well, well, well! Hello stout yeoman!” he half-yelled boorishly to the bartender. “It looks like Bartholomew here has had a few too many, and so early in the day!”
The barkeeper regarded Rodrigo stoically. “What’ll it be?”
“Did I smell a stew going back there? Ah, yes, that would surely hit the spot. Yes indeed! Stew for all, then. Stew for one, two, three… stew for five, good sir!” Rodrigo blustered. “And day beers!”
A few of the heads in the sparsely populated public house turned in the direction of the flamboyant rogue. Taking advantage of the distraction, Tala and Gia quietly grabbed a large table while Echo shadowed them like a wraith, gliding unseen past the pub’s patrons. They took shelter in the warm shadow at the back of the room. As he turned to address the proprietor, Rodrigo handed the inert form of Brehon off to Zerkanti, who nearly buckled under his weight. Zerkanti seemed to withdraw into a cloud of darkness as she and her parcel joined her companions in the rear of the house.
“You gotta pay as you go, I’m not in the charity business,” the bartender said bluntly.
Rodrigo drew close and addressed the stocky man in a low tone. “See here, sir, I don’t have any of what you, clearly being a legitimate businessman, would call ‘the legal currency’, but what I do have is a whole lot of the old king’s…”
“Have you lost your mind, put that away!” rasped the bartender. He shoved Rodrigo’s coin purse back at him. “Ain’t nobody dealing in the dead scratch anymore. That’ll get you on the wrong end of a rope, fancyman. Now pay for your food or get your drunk friend and your whores out of here!”
Rodrigo regarded him for a moment and produced a large cut ruby from his belt pouch. “Here, skipper, this ought to be worth at least a hundred of the Imperator’s.”
The bartender cocked an eye. “Fifty. It’s good for fifty, and not a shiner over. Go and sit, Heika will bring your food.”
Rodrigo returned to his female companions who appeared to be nursing an incredibly drunk man and sat. “They’re setting us up.”
“And you paid with?” asked Zerkanti, pointedly.
“Remember that caravan we took down?”
“Well, never mind the money then,” Rodrigo said with a handwave.
“Wait, have you been holding out on us?” flared Zerkanti.
“Shush, dear, nobody wants to hear our dirty laundry,” Rodrigo said at a louder volume.
“You little corpse fart, I’m going to…”
Zerkanti was interrupted by the form of a large, older man approaching the table. He wore the remnants of an old cavalry uniform, but none of the group recognized the army to which the uniform belonged. His hair grayed at the temples and he moved with a deliberate swagger. Wherever he came from, he was proud of what he had done.
“Can you see your way to buying an old veteran a drink?” said the man.
“Veteran of what? A fight with a mule?” caustically snorted Zerkanti.
The man stood up straight. “I am Commander Wallace Tilian, veteran of the Siege of Sira Zelaad, and leader of fighting men. And I will have you know that whatever you have heard of me, my reputation has been very badly slandered, so I deny all of it!”
The group regarded him in a silence. Somewhere in the distance, a sheep bleated. Tala finally spoke, “We have no idea who you are.”
“No, no, no, nonsense,” Commander Wallace said, taking a free seat at the table. He waved his empty cup at the barkeep and the bartender acknowledged him. “I was the finest trainer of men Kepala had ever seen. I came on a recommendation from King Jory himself, and I would’ve been the owner of this blasted place if old Narcis hadn’t set out to ruin me.”
“Narcis Vask?” asked Rodrigo, suddenly giving the drunken cavalier his full attention.
“The same!” said the commander. “The old bastard wanted it all for himself, I tell you. He wanted it all, and he rode them all straight up Morgorod’s ass. But did he want to earn any of it? Did he care to train and treat those boys with the care that you need to whip a cavalry into shape? Did he? I answer that question myself – no!”
The group shared a look as they all looked on in silence at the ranting stranger. Brehon’s form slumped forward and his head struck the table with a loud thump. Tala quickly pulled him back, and he collapsed onto her shoulder.
Wallace wheeled around to notice the commotion. “That boy there, do you know who he reminds me of? Wodan Veld. Now there was a soldier. That was someone who could lead men, and so he did. Cut that evil little Thratch bastard in half, he did. No, he didn’t want the shortcut to glory like Vask did, the miserable prick. He waded right in there and did the work! Now there’s a man we’ve never seen the like of again. Too many Vasks in the world. Not enough Velds.”
Rodrigo pulled the besotten commander close and lowered his voice. “Sir, if you would like to put a thorn in Narcis Vask’s side, you can direct me to The Alchemist in this town. My friend over there, Bartholomew, that’s his name, has a bone to pick with Quinneth, the heir to the Vask title.”
“That boy is a blackhead on the ass of the world!” Wallace spat.
“Shhh, right. Right. We are, sir, in perfect agreement. So if you could discreetly show me the way there?” Rodrigo paused, then added, “I shall pay for what I can only imagine would be your extremely large drinks bill.”
“Too generous you are, sir, too generous,” Wallace said as he began to size up the other occupants of the table. He looked from Zerkanti, to Gia’s shrouded, nondescript form, to Tala. Echo growled as the inebriated veteran lingered on his partner. “Nice doggy! Nice!”
He reached out a hand to pet the wolf, and Echo snarled and bared his teeth. Tala put a comforting hand on Echo’s ruff but it only barely restrained him. “I will be friends with your wolf, I think,” said Wallace.
“He will make a meal of your hand, I think,” scoffed Tala. Echo’s growling intensified.
Wallace reached out his hand to pet the wolf atop his head, and Echo snapped at the man’s hand. The wolf’s teeth pierced his flesh and blood began to seep from his palm. Wallace did not withdraw his hand, but instead made a calming noise and looked Echo directly in the eyes, and turned his palm downward. Echo continued for a moment to glare at Wallace, but suddenly his gaze softened, and he began licking the blood from the wounds of Wallace’s hand.
The group sat in stunned silence as the man and wolf bonded. Tala looked down at Echo, and the wolf returned a knowing look to her that said, We can trust him.
“Right!” said Wallace, standing up. “We go then. Dinan! Keep the tab open! And charge it to him!”
“As you say, Commander,” said Dinan the bartender with a nod, then to Rodrigo, “You may want to find yourself some more shiny jewels, fancyman.”
Rodrigo turned his head in the direction of his companions-in-arms and the woman he’d charged himself with protecting for so long and hesitated.
“Let me go instead, highwayman,” said Zerkanti, cracking what was almost a grin. “You keep the rest safe here.”
“As you wish,” slurred Wallace. “Take the main street out south till you find a hedgerow. Find the break in the greenery and follow it in. Then just follow your nose.”
“I’m going with you before Echo makes any more of a meal of the old man,” said Tala, standing up from the table and making for Zerkanti’s direction. The two elven women and the wolf departed the bar and went into the street.
They headed for a bit down the main road, then took a turn down a dark row of man-high hedges, just as Commander Wallace had indicated. “I think the old man’s going to figure that it’s Brehon before long. Surely if he sobers up,” said Tala.
“So the case goes for drunkenness,” quipped Zerkanti.
They had entered a small clearing and a dilapidated shack, built into the tangled trunks of half a dozen trees, stood before them. The ramshackle dwelling gave off an aura of something otherworldly and ethereal. The women shared a look, and Zerkanti rapped on the door. From inside, a voice as gnarled and bent as an old tree was heard. “What do you want?” it yelled, muffled by the structure.
“We need medicine!” said Tala to the door.
“Medicine for what?” came the voice with a tone that seemed highly irate at being disturbed.
“An antidote for a poison,” Zerkanti said. “We have a friend who’s been poisoned and he needs help.”
A moment passed and the top half of the door opened, swinging inward. Out of the gloom came a robed man so old, wrinkled, and bent that he looked like more akin to the trees that surrounded his dwelling than a human being. He sized Zerkanti and Tala up for a moment.
“Hrm. And you two need an antidote, eh? What, you slip a snoozer into a mark’s drink and overdid it? I bet he’s lying face down at the Strumpet with his trousers wrapped around one boot and his arse in the air. I hope you found his coin purse.”
The women looked incredulously at the twisted old man. “No,” said Tala, “it was some kind of orcish poisoned blade. We were lost in the woods and got jumped by a band of raiders.”
“Eh. It’ll happen, you wander out too far. That’s why I never leave,” wheezed the ancient man. He looked them up and down, and made his pronouncement. “Seven hundred platinum for your antidote. I don’t take the old gold, so don’t ask. I run a decent operation! Now bring the one you need fixed here.”
Zerkanti became uneasy. “You could give what you make to us, that way we could avoid…”
“You want him to drop dead? Bring him!” The Alchemist interrupted.
“Are you sure…” began Tala.
“Yes!” The Alchemist interrupted again. “Now bring him or bugger off!”
The gnarled old man slammed the door in their faces, and indistinct muttering was heard retreating from the door.
“I guess we’d better bring him,” said Zerkanti with a shrug.
Things were picking up at The Scoundrel and Strumpet as afternoon turned into early evening. Farmers, tradesmen, hunters, and travelers began to filter into the alehouse to find some comfort in a hearty meal and a refreshing drink.
At the rear of the big room, Commander Wallace Tilian continued to hold court with Rodrigo, Gia, and the inert Brehon. Wallace stared intently at Brehon’s head.
“Your man, Bartholomew, he does look a great bit indeed like the great General Wodan, you know. The set of the eyes. The nose. The whole face, really,” slurred Wallace.
“Please keep your voice down,” calmed Rodrigo.
“Ah, here we are,” belted Wallace, ignoring Rodrigo’s pleas and looking up.
Zerkanti, Tala, and Echo returned to the table. “We need to bring him there,” said Tala. “The old coot doesn’t do house calls.”
“Well, the professor is a touch set in his ways. Very well. Take him, then,” said Wallace.
“I saw an old wheelbarrow outside,” said Zerkanti. “I could go dump him off?”
“Go then,” said Rodrigo, “I’d rather the Commander here make as little noise in the streets with our friend Bartholomew as possible, eh?”
“I’ll be in and out like a lonely shepherd,” said Zerkanti, and she disappeared into the crowd.
From the direction of the bar, an argument was developing between two hunters, and their voices were carrying.
“You couldn’t hit Lake Tilian if you were in a boat,” said the first.
“Shut! You’re nothing but talk, Stick. You’re no hunter! You couldn’t catch the drips in a Zelaadi brothel,” said the second.
“You shut, Bolt! You empty-headed twit!” countered Stick. “If you fell out of a tree, you’d miss the ground!”
“Then I would be flying, and I would fly to your Olivia’s bedchambers when you were hunting. Hunting and not catching anything, I might add!”
“You bastard! You bastard!” shouted Stick. “Say that to my face!”
“I just did, you flatheaded, half-baked puke!” offered Bolt.
All heads in The Scoundrel and Strumpet had turned to watch the verbal sparring match between Stick and Bolt. To his new friends, Wallace turned and said, “Watch that one,” indicating Stick. “I drummed him out of the cavalry myself a lifetime ago. He’s a first class ass.”
Stick marched over and put his reddened face an inch in front of Bolt’s own. “I. Am. Better. Than. You. You… bastard!”
Bolt spat onto the ground at his challenger’s feet. “I’ve had runny farts that were more cunning than you, you meatbag.”
Stick raised his fist and Dinan, the bartender, was heard shouting hard above the crowd, “Lock it up, you two! If you’re so interested in proving who’s better, why don’t you do it at the archery contest at the festival tonight. It’s a five hundred platinum purse!”
Tala’s ears perked up.
“Right! I’m gonna win that money,” said Stick, “and I’m gonna buy a pack of goblins to throw their turds at you day and night with it.”
“Careful, they might hit Olivia with those goblin-chips. She’s liable to be on top of me. You prick!” taunted Bolt. He then made an about-face and ran from the alehouse. The crowd enjoyed a good cheer, and then the patrons went back to their business.
Tala approached Dinan after the fervor had died down. “How much did you say that purse was? Five hundred?”
“That’s right, what of it?” said Dinan.
“I want in. If I enter I’m sure I can win, but I need someone to sponsor my entry. I’ll split the winnings with you when I win,” said Tala.
“Fat chance,” the barkeep snorted. “It’s fifty of the Imperator’s to enter. What guarantee do I have that you’ll win?”
Tala spied a candle burning atop a table on the far side of the room, at least fifteen yards away. She picked up a nearby table knife from the bar, and without breaking eye contact with Dinan, flicked the knife across the room. The room fell silent when the knife found its mark, neatly severing the wick of the candle and lodging itself into the wall behind. Thank you, Brinco, Tala thought to herself.
“Very well,” said Dinan, “I’ll front you. But if you lose, I’m keeping that ring on your finger.”
Tala nodded. Over my dead body, she thought.
“Oh, good, dinner and a show,” said Wallace at the far corner. “I suppose we’d best get to Fel’s Tower!”
Fel’s Tower stood over an old, ruined fortification on the outskirts of the city. The crowd of revelers approached the fairground that occupied the former courtyard of the old fortress. Three targets were set up on the grounds, with hay bales and bullseyes.
“You see, in times of war, the townsfolk would take shelter here, in the tower,” explained Wallace to Rodrigo and Gia, appearing more lucid than usual. “In times of… well, whatever these times are, they use it for a fairground.”
“You say ‘they’ like you’re not one of them, Commander,” Rodrigo noticed.
“I’m not from around here, my boy. I’m just passing through. My loyalties lie… far from here.”
“Having no home is no way to live,” said Gia. “You need somewhere to grow.”
“Oh, sweet thing, I’ve lived enough for six men already, and I’m not slowing down. And I know enough about the world to not do business too close to my hearth.”
At the field, a charismatic man with a balatier was entertaining the crowd that had gathered. He was dressed in an outfit similar to Wallace Tilian’s, but it was adorned with all manor of flash and accents; bright hues and shiny buttons. Where Wallace’s was drab and tattered, the entertainer’s was flamboyant and sharp.
“Ladies and gentlemen, highwaymen and harlots, blessed and damned, welcome to the spring festival! I am Saragossa Springheel, your excellent balladeer, beguiler, and bachelor, and I shall be here all week to be your entertainment. Aren’t you lucky?” bantered the man, to the crowd’s enthusiastic approval.
As he continued on warming the crowd, Zerkanti appeared behind Rodrigo like a shadow. “Now that one has a sense of style, all right. And he delivers. Perhaps you should ask him for some lessons,” she cheekily whispered to him.
“Leave him alone,” Gia shot at Zerkanti. The dark elf smirked at Gia and moved along.
The contestants had assembled at the shooting line. Stick and Bolt did their best to look competent and tough in their hunters’ gear. Tala Ravenwood appeared, and her faithful companion, Echo, stood vigilantly beside her. Bow at the ready, she was the very image of the huntress.
“Contestants, you may begin!” exclaimed Saragossa Springheel, and a cheer came from the crowd.
Stick had drawn his bow and cast an eye wildly into the crowd. He puffed up his chest and shouted, “This is for Olivia!” and fired. The arrow veered wildly off its mark and struck the ground ten yards behind the target.
“No!” came the shout of a single woman’s voice from the crowd.
“That’s not what she was saying when I bedded her last night! Right stick-prick?” taunted Bolt. The crowd laughed. Bolt drew his bow and fired, but only hit the third ring of the target. A tepid smattering of applause sounded in support.
Tala’s turn to shoot came, and she readied herself and fired. Her shot flew straight, but only hit the outer rim of the target as well.
“Go home you pointy-eared twat!” yelled an onlooker directly behind Rodrigo.
“Excuse me, m’lady,” Rodrigo said to Gia, and he spun on his heel and flung his fist at Tala’s heckler. He connected, and a fine spray of saliva, blood, and teeth sprayed from the ruffian’s mouth before he spun to the ground. The crowd about him gasped for a moment, but then, true to the festival’s nature, applause rang out. Two other onlookers appeared to drag away the beaten lout.
“Please, please, gentlemen! The pugilism contest is on these grounds tomorrow, not tonight!” called out Saragossa with a flourish, and a great peal of laughter rang out from the crowd.
Zerkanti approached Tala, and a hush came over the crowd, undoubtedly because of the dark elf’s striking appearance in this provincial village. “Don’t think about them,” Zerkanti said to Tala, close to her face. “Let them melt away. They aren’t even here. The only thing that exists under the sun is you, your bow, and that target. Put it in your mind’s eye and find it in yourself. Show them what feykind can do, sister.”
Zerkanti embraced Tala, much to the archer’s surprise, and then melted back into the crowd. On the other end of the shooting line, Stick was drawing up. “Oliviaaaaa!” shouted the earnest fool. He let fly and once again, his arrow cleanly missed the target, landing far beyond its mark.
“Ha!” chortled Bolt, “No wonder your woman is unsatisfied if you can’t hit a mark that big with such a narrow shaft. You know about Stick’s narrow shaft, don’t you, beautiful?”
Bolt drew his bow and shot, and this time, his arrow only hit squarely in the first ring of his target. Once again, a smattering of applause came to salute him. “See!” he blustered.
Tala quieted herself, and concentrated on her heartbeat and her breath. In that moment, the world melted away, and she could only see the target, big as life before her. She breathed out, and in a single serene motion, let her arrow fly. It whistled across the shooting range and struck the target in the dead center of the bullseye The crowd gasped in astonishment. Tala looked back at Zerkanti, and they shared a nod of understanding.
Stick once again raised his bow, and let out a flustered battle cry. His arrow flew, and his, too, struck the central bullseye of his target. The crowd cheered, and from deep within the crowd, Olivia shouted, “I’m pregnant!”
Stick fainted. The crowd applauded.
With a confused look on his face, Bolt drew his bow as hard as he could, and unleashed a mighty battle cry. But when he let the string go, rather than propelling his arrow forward, the string snapped with a jarring, twanging sound. The crowd gasped, and then broke out into laughter. Bolt gnashed his teeth and threw his useless bow to the ground, stomping away from the field grounds.
Tala stood alone on the shooting line. Again she drew her bow, but this time the focus came much more naturally. It was as though she could clear the whole world of everything but her target and see her arrow striking true before she even let it go. Then she loosed her arrow and it flew, and struck right atop her previous arrow, splitting it in two as it found its mark. An earth-shaking cheer went up from the throng as Saragossa Springheel announced that the winner was Tala Ravenwood.
Rodrigo, Zerkanti, and the hooded figure of Gia Corin formed a circle around Tala to keep her from being mobbed by her new fans. Wallace was off in the distance, exchanging pleasantries with Saragossa. He returned to the victorious archer’s circle of friends. “Well, looks like you’ve won,” Wallace said, “and more importantly, drinks are on the house for the victors!”
Dinan set the bag of precious metal coins on the bar before him. “Two-hundred-fifty, your share,” he said. Tala quietly thanked him and attempted to mind her own business. Her newly acquired adoring fans, each attempting to buy her a drink, sign her mark to their placards, or shake her hand were not letting her have much privacy, though, and she was clearly uncomfortable.
As Rodrigo entered the pub with Gia in tow, he spied a familiar face leaning against the bar. He was a thin, greasy-haired man with a crooked smile and a shiny metal breastplate that was more for decoration than protection. “Hello, Rexus,” said Rodrigo.
The greasy, shiny man winked at Rodrigo. “Hello, old friend. Fancy seeing you around these parts.”
“Fancy to see you around any parts,” Rodrigo returned. “I thought Barrow Suskind had done you away after he caught your hand on the grain scales!”
“Lucky for me, I have a nimble tongue and a kind face,” said Rexus, smiling wanly.
“The kind of face a decent man would like to push in. What are you doing here?”
“Pursuing a life of fortune and ignominy, my old friend, the same as always. I’ve got wind of a game of Kings and Devils here tonight, and I’m considering a go at it. But Rodrigo Sahasi Rath, the man who cannot lose, might you want in on this opportunity for thrills and riches?”
“I’m trying to keep my head down just now,” Rodrigo said, breaking eye contact with Rexus.
Rexus pulled in close and lowered his voice to a whisper. “It wouldn’t have anything to do with your little traveling companion there, now would it? The young lady. Not the archer or the scrad, no, I’m talking about that one in the hood that keeps her head down. Her red head. I’ll bet you an old style copper I can guess who that is. Where did you pick her up, my old chum? I knew you always had a way with the ladies, but this is quite another precipice you’ve climbed.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, it’s just some girl named Jane I picked up in Arrain. She’s good at sewing holes in my socks,” Rodrigo muttered.
“Oh, yes, Arrain. I’ve heard a great many things about Arrain. I’ve heard of a round of very unusual prisoners getting taken in Arrain, including a scrad and a fancyman and a fire-haired girl. I’ve heard that not long after they were taken, the village haberdashery went up in flames and an elven archer came on the scene and killed a few of the town guards to break them out. I’ve also heard that one of The Seven – one of The actual Seven – was dispatched and a there was a fight in the streets with the Hollow Men, and they escaped to the hills. All this much to the ongoing displeasure of the Vask boy, who is currently trying to make his bones along the North Coast. Is any of this sounding familiar, my dear Rodrigo? What have you been up to?”
“Never underestimate the want of the Vask family to make legends out of laments. Now what’s this game of which you speak?” Rodrigo said, eagerly changing the subject.
Rexus regarded him with a cold, calculating eye for a moment, and then smiled broadly, saying loudly, “Kings and Devils, my good man, Kings and Devils. One moment you’re up, one moment you’re down, just like the arse of a Coridan Street fishmonger.”
“Ah, yes, truly the test of the lucky,” said Rodrigo, awkwardly taking up Rexus’ cue.
“So, you game for the old ‘fox and loop’?” Rexus asked, once again pulling Rodrigo close in.
Rodrigo regarded him for a moment with suspicion tinged with a hint of dread, but then nodded. “Yeah, all right. I have a need to make a bit of money.”
“As I thought you might,” Rexus said into Rodrigo’s face. His breath smelled like river fish out of water and iron. “Just wait for my cue, and you do what you do.”
With that, Rexus broke contact with Rodrigo and strode out of the room. As he was leaving, Zerkanti entered. He grasped her shoulder as he exited the room, seeming to breathe something into her ear as he passed, and then he was gone.
In the rear of the bar, Rodrigo, Gia, Zerkanti, and Tala had joined the game at a table with three other well-to-do looking festival attendees, appointed in fine clothes and jewelry. A fiery-haired older lady named Muriella, a dark-skinned and shrewd-looking man named Ivo, and a sharp-looking blonde man named Donimo completed their circle.
Tala attracted the most attention from the strangers, all of whom wanted to see her nimble fingers deal. They asked her a series of cloying questions that seemed to drain the energy from Tala as she struggled to cope with the attention of many people who meant her well for the first time in her life. She dealt a hand, and Gia won, four kings with a chasing devil. The strangers at the table were good-hearted at their disappointment, but seemed to relish the chance to be in the company of a local celebrity. After two more hands, Tala, clearly mortified at the attention, excused herself from the table. When the locals moaned in protest, Echo’s sudden presence at her side silenced them.
Rodrigo dealt and let his nimble fingers do the work, palming a king card here, slipping a devil card there, arranging the deck just so. Before two more rounds had passed, Muriella was out of money and leaving the table in a huff. One more round had passed, and Donimo, the blonde man with the Zelaadi accent, shook his head and smiled good-naturedly, saying he’d lost enough for one evening. He bowed curtly to the table and turned to leave. After another moment, and without a word or a sound, Zerkanti disappeared from the table like mist in the night.
Ivo, the shrewd look about him turning bitter, regarded Rodrigo with a suspicious eye. “You’d better not be cheating, boy. Fancymen like you have their luck run out sooner or later, one way or another.”
“I’m sure you’re right, sir,” said Rodrigo as he dealt again. “It’s only a matter of time. Why not make this interesting, hm? I’ll go all in on this hand. All or nothing, what do you say?”
“All or nothing? So be it. This ought to wipe that smug look off your pretty face,” snarled Ivo as he pushed his entire pile of platinum coins to the center of the table.
Rodrigo and Gia did the same, and the cards were dealt. One by one, they fell to each player and the excitement built. Ivo flipped his final card and smiled. “A brace of kings, and three ladies,” he said, grinning. “Let’s see you beat that!”
Rodrigo turned his last card, and much to his duress, it was only a fool card. He slumped in his seat. Ivo bounced with glee in his seat. Then Gia turned over all her cards at once.
“Is this good? I’ve never played before. I’ve got four devils and the scepter card. Four devils couldn’t be good, could it?”
“Not when you’ve got the scepter, Jane,” Rodrigo said quietly, a slight grin curling the corner of his lips.
“A full devil’s court! Bugger me dead, you took everything from me on a full devil’s court! I’ve never seen such chicanery in my life!” Ivo said in disbelief, then turned and stormed out of the room.
The hour was getting late and the patrons of the inn had begun to leave. Gia pulled closer to Rodrigo and put her head on his shoulder. “You stacked the deck, didn’t you?”
“Not any more than usual. But that last hand had nothing to do with me. You managed to luck your way into an unbeatable hand. How did you manage that?” Rodrigo said softly to Gia.
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m just supposed to be in the company of devils. Or maybe the devils were angels in disguise. Or maybe it was just a silly card game.”
Rexus appeared out of the gloom and slid into the seat nearest them at the table. Gia leaned away reflexively and drew her hood. “Looks like you managed to not get rusty,” he said.
“More a case of luck finding me a good companion today,” chuckled Rodrigo.
“Ah, yes, I saw the big win, nine hundred platinum by my count!” said Rexus to Rodrigo. He looked past him to Gia. “I like your copper hair, my dear. So unique.”
Gia turned to glare at him, but before she could speak, the tolling of the town bell was heard from outside, followed by the scream of a woman in the distance. The three of them jumped up to investigate. They ran to the door and shoved past the crowd to see the source of the commotion. There in the street lay Donimo, the older blonde gentleman from their game, bleeding profusely from a wound in his chest.
Dinan the innkeeper cradled the wounded man’s head in his hands. “What happened? Who did this to you?”
“I don’t know. Whatever it was, it came out of the night and struck like a viper, then it was gone,” wheezed Donimo. He coughed and a spray of blood mixed with a thick, black fluid came from his mouth. Donimo gasped in agony and made a hideous gurgling sound. His eyes rolled back into his head and he kicked violently three times, then his body went into an uncontrollable shudder. The shuddering continued as the townspeople gathered around him stared in shock, and then just as suddenly, it stopped. He lay there still and peaceful at last.
Dinan looked up from the fallen man and growled, “Everyone back indoors, and lock them up. Nobody come out till morning.”
The crowd broke and quickly filed away. Gia and Rodrigo entered The Scoundrel and Strumpet, went up the back stairs to their room, and bolted themselves inside. Tala and Zerkanti were there with Echo and a passed out Wallace. “I guess the peace was too good to last,” Tala said.
They woke in the morning to the sound of a murmuring crowd outside their window and the sound of a hammer pounding a nail into a wooden post. Tala looked outside and caught a glimpse of the source of the noise, and instantly shot back from the window.
Gia and Zerkanti joined Tala at the window, and they saw an infantry captain bearing the Mark of Kotu standing in the center of the square. He still held a tackhammer in his hand and was flanked by two Hollow Men, one on each side. He addressed the crowd.
“In the name of His Excellency the Lord Verower Villilar Kotu, Imperator of Kepala and protector of this land, I do hereby issue a decree of warning! The Imperator has issued a bounty for these people,” he held a finger to the bill he had posted to the board in the center of the square. “They are vile, odious evildoers, and to be considered enemies of the state! If anyone gives them aid or shelter, they are also to be considered enemies of the state! And anyone who withholds information that could lead to the capture of these bloodless miscreants shall be considered an enemy of the state as well! This we do in the name of Lord Kotu, may he live in glory and protect us from his wrath! Hail Kotu!”
“Hail Kotu,” the crowd murmured, complying with the mandatory custom. The crowd began to gather to get a closer look at the handbills the infantry captain had placed.
“I’m up! I’m up!” Wallace said from behind the ladies lurking at the window, falling out of his bed and onto the floor with a thud.
Zerkanti wasted no time. She hauled Wallace up by his lapels and said in a smooth voice, “Be a good lad and get down there. There’s a crowd gathering and we need one of those handbills. Go.”
Wallace, too groggy to offer resistance, complied. He stumbled out of the room, re-securing his breeches as he stepped over the still-sleeping form of Rodrigo. Gia barred the door after him.
“Well, that didn’t take long,” Tala said. Echo growled in agreement.
“Just hang tight, we don’t know what it is yet,” cautioned Zerkanti.
They waited in silence, the room still and cold in the morning light with only Rodrigo’s faint snoring to mark the time. A moment later Wallace returned with a knock at the door. He was chuckling to himself, holding a copy of the post in his hand.
“I’d say you lot have not a thing to worry about. They’re looking for two people much more terrifying than you!” he smirked, then handed the post over to Gia.
She read for a moment, then gasped, holding a hand over her mouth. On the handbill were images of two ravening villains. One was dressed in black armor and covered in blood with a pile of bodies at his feet. The other was a man in a black cloak with a mask over his mouth and nose, menacingly brandishing a rapier and a crossbow. They were named with the titles “Brehon ‘The Breaker’ Veld” and “Rodrigo ‘The Rake’ Rath”.
Beneath the depictions of the two men, the poster went on to read:
Brehon “The Breaker” Veld
Engaging in the mayhem of killing servants of Imperator Kotu
Arson of a farming village north of Arrain
Consorting with an enemy of the state
Rodrigo “The Rake” Rath
Burglary, Larceny, and Criminal Mischief
Evasion of justice
Fornication with several odd dozen of the nobility’s daughters
These two baseless reprobates are holding hostage a personal slave of Lord Verower Villilar Kotu.
Known to keep the company of the company of the following feckless ne’er-do-wells:
An unclean scrad woman, who is suspected of kidnapping children in the night for unknown nefarious purposes. Also an evader of justice and known forger of documents.
An elven ranger who has been observed to use the beasts of the wild to attack innocent subjects and soldiers of the Imperator Kotu.
There will be a 50,000 platinum per-head reward for the party alive, 10,000 dead, plus a 250,000 platinum bonus for the safe return of the female slave of the Imperator. If the slave is killed, severe punishment will be exacted.
The three women stared at the flyer in disbelief for a moment. Then Tala and Zerkanti broke out into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. “Rodrigo the Rake!” Zerkanti gasped, hardly able to breathe through her laughter.
Rodrigo stirred from his slumber. “Somebody call me?”
“You are, apparently, a highly sought-after fornicator,” said Gia, displaying substantially less amusement than Tala and Zerkanti.
“Looks like they don’t think as much of you as Old Ash does, eh?” said Wallace to Rodrigo, adding, “I knew it was Wodan’s boy. But since when did he drink the blood of his victims like in that picture?”
“This is the funniest thing I have ever seen in my life,” said Tala, collapsing onto the floor. Echo pawed at her, frantically trying to calm her down.
“Quiet you, two!” hissed Gia. “Just because the words are fluffed up doesn’t mean that everyone in this town isn’t going to notice five strangers showing up in town that match the description. Tala is the most famous person in town right now, and Zerkanti sticks out like a lump of coal in a snowbank! We’re going to have to get Brehon and get out of here!”
“Princess, have I ever told you how much I love you when you get tough with everyone?” said Rodrigo.
“Not now you twit!” snapped Gia. She turned to Wallace. “We need a plan. We have to get away from curious eyes. Commander Wallace Tilian, you’re wearing a Kepalan uniform. You served on the side of right when Kepala answered my father’s call. Will you serve me now? Will you help us?”
Wallace stood tall before the little princess and held his chin high. For the first time, he looked like the perfect figure of a military hero. He bowed his head and said, “My lady, it would be my honor.”
Rodrigo and Wallace descended the stairs into the tavern of The Scoundrel and Strumpet, and Rexus leaned on the bar, awaiting them. He greeted them with his customary wink. “Well, I didn’t know you were such a highly sought-after commodity among the nobility. And here I was thinking it was only Barrow Suskind that wanted to see you swing for your philandering. ‘Rodrigo the Rake’, eh? I must admit, it has a ring to it. If only I’d gotten there first. ‘Rexus the Ravisher’, how does that sound? Care to take it on the road?”
“Please, in the name of whatever gods you fear, shut up,” said Rodrigo flatly.
“Oh dear, someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, didn’t he?” taunted Rexus. “What’s the matter, see something at the cryer’s post that didn’t agree with you?”
“Who is this runt? Friend of yours? You want me to see if I can break the bar on his head?” said Wallace to Rodrigo, noticeably more irritable now that the grog had left him for a time.
Rodrigo waved aside this line of gleeful antagonism and looked into Rexus’ eyes with the most utmost of seriousness. “I need a boat. I need to go upriver, and I need it tonight.”
“Hm. Tonight? Well, that is going to cost you, my friend. And more so if you want to bring your, ah, celebrity friends along. I suppose I’ll be keeping your winnings from the game last night, in that case. Four-hundred-fifty, was it? And you’d best throw in that ring on your finger, too.”
“You can have the money. And a couple of large cut rubies. Not the ring, I need it,” said Rodrigo.
Rexus considered for a moment and then shrugged, “Done and done, highwayman and lucky one. Meet me at the millhouse at sundown. You’ll have your boat, and I’ll have some easy money. Everybody wins.”
“Just see that it’s all in order,” said Rodrigo, impatient and short.
Wallace and Rodrigo exited the inn and made their way briskly into the streets toward the hedgerow leading to The Alchemist’s dwelling. Rodrigo kept his head down and his hands tucked into his cloak.
“You’re even more conspicuous walking around like that, you know,” said Wallace. “The man on that flyer is a ravening viper looking to deflower and defile every virgin in Kepala. You look more like a merchant’s son when you’re not hanging your head like a vulture.”
“As you say, Commander,” sighed Rodrigo.
“How do you plan to get this friend of yours out of The Alchemist’s laboratory in such short order? Didn’t you only just go to him yesterday?” asked Wallace.
“I’m going to try the age-old custom of begging. And failing that, bribery.”
The two men came to the ramshackle dwelling of The Alchemist and banged on the door.
“What do you want?” came a muffled and crotchety cry from inside.
“We’ve come for the young man with the poisoned wound. Sir, I’m sorry to disturb you, but we need him now,” Rodrigo called into the door.
For a long moment, no answer came. Then the top half of the door opened to reveal the bent and trembling shape of The Alchemist. “Now, you say? And for what? And what happened to the scrad and the wild one with the arrows?” the old man asked, the irritation in his voice stabbing into Rodrigo like a needle.
“They’re, ah, indisposed. We have need of his company, and we need him now. So could you please, good sir, remand him to our custody, and we shall be on our way,” Rodrigo said.
“No, three days means three days. Now away with you!” croaked The Alchemist as he slammed the door. Once again, irascible and muffled muttering was heard as the gnarled old man shuffled away from the door.
Wallace and Rodrigo exchanged a look, and Wallace banged on the door this time, “Look old man, we know you’ve got him and we know he’s ready. Now bring him forth so we can be on our way, or we’re coming in!”
Suddenly the door flung open, and The Alchemist was brandishing a smoking wooden vial before him. “Coming in, are you, soldier? One drop of this and your eyes will shrivel in your head and you’ll be growing six hairy udders out of your back before you can squeak for your mother! You want any of this, you cloth-brained road apple? Eh?”
Wallace recoiled and Rodrigo interjected, “Good sir, please, please, there is no need for any unpleasantness. We would be happy to pay you for your inconvenience, sir. Say an extra hundred?”
The Alchemist scowled for a second. “Two hundred, or strike him dead.”
“Done!” said Rodrigo, and threw his coin purse to the gnarled man.
“Wait here,” said The Alchemist as he slammed the door once again. A moment later, Brehon appeared at the door, dressed in a white linen gown of fine quality. He had a dazed look in his eyes, and a look of serene wonder on his face. The Alchemist opened the door all the way and shoved Brehon out into the yard toward Rodrigo. “Go on with your friends, then. I’m done with you.”
Brehon nearly collided with Rodrigo, squinting as he entered the sunlight. “Hello, Rodrigo! I had a strange dream that we were very small and some big men were trying to stomp on us. And then there were some lizards talking. It was all very strange. Do you like my friend? He was teaching me to play Kings and Devils.”
“You taught him to play Kings and Devils?” Rodrigo looked to The Alchemist, incredulously.
“Yes. He is very bad at it. Doe-eyed lunk couldn’t bluff an egg out of a hen. On your way then, I’m going to have my nap!” The Alchemist said, once again slamming his door and muttering off into the house.
“He gave me a new robe!” Brehon said in a happy and serene tone. “Look!”
“Brehon ‘The Breaker’, I presume?” said Wallace, bowing curtly.
“Huh?” said Brehon.
“Never mind,” said Rodrigo. “Time to get you back and get us out of here. I’ll fill you in on the way back.”
“Rodrigo, what’s a rake, besides a thing you push around leaves with?” asked Brehon in a daze.
The band of fugitives, now joined by Wallace, slipped out of The Scoundrel and Strumpet through a back door and made their way along to the millhouse, avoiding the roads and crowds of locals. They all had taken the time to equip but keep out of sight their weapons and armor. Brehon, still dazed, had donned his armor underneath his white cloak and was being pulled along between them.
“So how much is left after you paid the hermit?” Zerkanti asked Rodrigo.
“Er, well, we still have seventy-five more than when we started,” said Rodrigo cautiously.
“Seventy-five? What are you going to pay that greasy man with for the boat?” asked Tala, casting a piercing eye at Rodrigo.
“I was going to get to that. How much did you win with your little arrow competition?”
“A lot. And it’s mine. And it wasn’t little,” Tala deadpanned. Echo woofed in support.
“Look, we’ll figure it out. He’ll have the boat, he’ll take what he can get. He can’t just not let us have it, can he? No, we’ll find some sort of compromise, I think,” said Rodrigo.
“I wish I had your confidence,” said Gia.
“I wish I had your cloak,” said Zerkanti to Gia.
They approached the millhouse, and all was calm and still. Only the gentle babbling of the tributary stream and the creak of wood sounded in the night air. As they neared the millhouse, they did indeed spy the shape of a boat floating at a dock on the river side of the building. It was big enough for six, with rows and a small sail. No one appeared about in the silent night.
“I don’t like it,” said Wallace. “This is too easy.”
“Don’t bother me with easy, don’t you think we’ve earned a break?” snapped Rodrigo.
As the group neared the millhouse, Rexus stepped from inside the door to greet them. “Well, my old chum, as promised, there’s your boat. Shipshape and rigged to run silent. I trust this pleases you?”
“Yes, yes, very good. Very good. About the money, I’m afraid I may have to revisit some of the terms we agreed upon, you see…”
“Ah, yes, I figured it would be one thing or another. Isn’t it always with us, Rath? Yes, you see, as you know I’m first and foremost a businessman, and I did stand to make a bit of money helping you and your lot out of a bind. But then again, someone else was offering a lot more money,” Rexus said, his face darkening. “Captain, they are here, as promised.”
From out of the darkness behind Rexus, the infantry captain they had seen that morning stepped forward. He was flanked on either side by a soldier, each wearing an Imperial uniform. Across the street, the chilling groan of metal-on-metal sounded as two Hollow Men emerged from hiding inside of a farmhouse behind them. Behind the two Hollow Men, another two soldiers stepped into the street, weapons drawn.
“Rexus, you bastard!” Rodrigo cried, as he produced his shortbow and fired. The arrow went streaking past Rexus’ face and into the night, and the slippery scoundrel was on his heels and fleeing before anyone else could react.
“Get after him, get the boat!” shouted Zerkanti as she raised her black-fanged dagger and prepared to give chase. The soldiers on either side of the captain drew their swords and blocked the door to the millhouse, bracing for a fight.
Around them, they felt the rush of air come inward toward Princess Gia, and they felt the strength gathering within her. Then, like a blast of thunder, the wave spread out from her, blasting the Hollow Men and the two soldiers behind them. All of them were knocked off their feet and into the farmhouse behind them. Brehon, still dazed and lost, stared in wonder at the princess.
Tala raised her bow and fired two arrows in rapid succession at the nearest Hollow Man, and a sharp blast came from the metal creature as the unnatural life left it, falling in pieces to the ground.
“No more, you bootlicking toadies,” said Wallace as he drew his longsword and rushed the infantry captain. The captain swung his sword at the cavalryman, but Wallace cleanly deflected the blow with his shield. He countered by skewering the cavalry captain straight through the chest, then withdrawing his blade in a spray of blood. With the grace of a dancer, he pivoted on his heel and swung his sword at the soldier to the captain’s left, and in a single sweep, separated the soldier’s head and arm from his body.
From behind the remaining soldier, Zerkanti emerged from the blackness of night like a spider and slid an arm around his neck, plunging her envenomed dagger between his shoulder blades. The hapless soldier collapsed to the ground as a thick frothing began to form at his mouth.
Their way clear, Rodrigo rushed forward into the millhouse, but saw no sign of Rexus anywhere. The boat, however, remained. Behind them, the soldiers and the remaining Hollow Man were attempting to regain their footing. “Let’s go!” shouted Gia.
The six of them, along with Echo, lept into the boat, and Rodrigo slashed at its moorings with his short sword. The boat rocked slightly and the current began to move it. Above them, at the top of the millhouse, a Hollow Man emerged, too far away to see them, staring blankly off into the distance.
In silence they looked to one another, realizing that in the melee, none of them had taken so much as a scratch. “I guess sometimes Izurra lets the joke be on someone else for a change,” Rodrigo said to himself, once again pointing a finger to the sky in casual acknowledgement of the trickster god.
Wallace hoisted the sail, and the small boat caught the wind, and at last they began to move east. The moonlight glistened off the water, lighting their faces in silver and indigo.
“Where can we go now?” asked Gia, scanning the eyes of the others. Her companions had no words. Her only answer was the creak of wood and the lapping of water.