The Tyrant of Kepala
Rodrigo the Rogue
It was his birthday, and Dirk Dunn was shoveling shit.
Dirk passed the morning of his seventeenth birthday with little fanfare, and even less salutation from his family. Being the only son of Derek “The Digger” Dunn often meant long hours toiling at a thankless job with the constant reminder that he had a destiny to fulfill as the sole heir of the Dunn and Son Manure Company. The family business had been called “Dunn and Son” for longer than Dirk had been drawing breath; his father Derek was once the titular son when his grandfather, Dozer Dunn, had started the business and established a tradition of Dunn men firmly planting their sons into the fertile field of manure peddling.
And so, on his birthday, Dirk dutifully moved a pile of sheep manure bound for sale at market to the provincial farmers of northern Kepala onto one of his family’s purveying carts. Scrawled on a tablet and left by his bedroom door, his father had given him the morning’s work orders. It was the same as every other day. No mention was made of his birthday. Not even a “good morning.” Just the orders purposefully written in his father’s neat hand: One ton to the Arrain market, two tons to the market at Harn’s End, five to the trade hub at Lake Tilian. That was all, nothing more.
The kitchen servants had laid out his breakfast and he ate in solitude as he daydreamed. He imagined being the hero of legend that he read about in his old books and pursuing a life of great purpose and destiny. But he knew in his heart that this was just a fantasy.
Dirk had heard of a life beyond the monotonous existence in his family’s estate on the periphery of Harn’s End, but he had never lived it. He had once seen the grandeur of Sira Kepala on a merchant voyage when his father had been invited to attend the Feast of the Hunter’s Moon, but he was only a child then. He only remembered flashes of the capital’s gleaming spires and finely dressed people. They were kind and sophisticated, he recalled. Not gruff and boorish like his father, who was living proof that money couldn’t buy class, taste, or refinement. His sole source of comfort as he grew up was his mother, who was there always with a kind bit of reassurance after being scolded, or worse, ignored by his father. It was always she that gave him hope that life was not made up solely of work and toil without end.
He finished heaving the last shovelful of the sheep’s leavings into the cart and told Old Wartwick that he was clear to move. The old man tipped his hat and clicked his tongue, coaxing his oxen to lurch forward, pulling the heavy cart of “brown gold,” as his father called it, away from the loading platform and down the road. Always a good-natured gentleman, Dirk waved his hat in the air after Old Wartwick as he disappeared over the first hill and made his way off to the horizon.
He took a moment to compose himself and stretched out his arms, easing the aching muscles in his back. He went to the washing trough to the side of the loading yard to cleanse himself of his day’s labors. First he started by scrubbing down his hands and arms, and washing his face. Then he stripped off his tunic and dumped a bucket of the cool water over his head. Then, not satisfied with simply being clean, he decided it was better to be soaked. He flung himself over the side and into the trough completely. It was the size of a small bathtub, and his slight frame fit neatly into it. And there he sat, contemplating his life.
A month ago, the news had come through – the great free city of Sira Zelaad had fallen under siege. First just according to rumor, then by official news readers from Sira Kepala, a hobgoblin army had risen from the south and encircled the great and exotic eastern free city, hoping no doubt to break it wide open and plunder it for all the ancient wealth and secrets hidden inside. King Jory had raised his sword and said that free people should stand for each other, and so had given the order to raise a great army to break the siege. Duke Narcis Vask, one of the richest nobles in Harn’s End, had quickly taken up the cause, promising to field the fastest, strongest, and most finely outfitted cavalry that the world had ever seen against the enemy horde . And so every eldest son from a family of means rushed to join Vask’s cavalry regiment. Dirk was among them. Or he would’ve been, if it had not been for his father.
“Absolutely not,” his father decreed, not even looking up from his ledger. The words still rang in his head a month later. “You are not cavalry material, son. Besides, a horse, the kit… it all costs money. Money better spent on helping make the family an even more solid business. And I need you to stay here and help me run that business, boy. All this flash and flouncing about, it’s not for you. You’re a son of Dunn. You’ll do what you’re expected to and leave the fancymen on horses to their parading around like a pack of prancing peacocks. Now get back to work.”
Remembering these words that stung like a horsefly’s bite, he sank down deeper into the water trough, leaving only his eyes above the surface. And there he sat and pondered his lot in life. A son of Dunn. Born to be a manure merchant. A shit-peddler. He sank even deeper.
After several minutes, he emerged from his watery contemplations and stumbled across the field toward the manor house. Evening was approaching, and he wanted nothing more than to lose himself in one of the books he had spirited away from the house’s library. He’d spend the rest of the night with a book and a candle, squinting at the words that illuminated days of old when Titans and gods walked on the world’s surface. He’d read of those ancient times when Arkon rose up with his great lightning spear to challenge his brother, Morgorod. The god of righteous war and the god of blood and death battled over every corner of the land, their legendary fighting pushing up the mountains and digging out the lake beds. He’d thrill at re-reading the tale of Arkon finally beating Morgorod in battle and banishing him to the underworld, then crying enough tears over it to fill all the lakes and oceans. Dirk loved getting lost in these tales of legend and adventure. It certainly beat being heir to a legacy of cow chips.
He had missed dinner again. Dinner was always served promptly at sundown, and his chores almost always brought him home after dark. It was just as well anyway, as dinner was customarily a dull affair, where the family would sit in silence, trying to quickly finish their meals by the time his father did. It was his standing order that the table be cleared as soon as he finished eating, whether or not the others had yet eaten their fill. With Derek Dunn’s abstemious appetite, his mother, sisters, and Dirk himself usually had no time for idle table chatter.
And so this night he once again went to the kitchen where Loretta the cook had been at work portioning the next day’s foodstuffs. If this was a usual day, as it was turning out to be, she would’ve prepared a plate for him. Dirk rounded the corner and was surprised by the sight of his mother, and his youngest sister, Delilah. Before them at the table was a simple cake. They smiled at him as he entered.
“You didn’t think we’d forget your birthday, did you, Dirk?” said his mother.
Delilah beamed up at him through a gap-toothed grin. “Mum let me put on the icing! I only ate some off my fingers before she took it away!”
“Oh, Mum,” sighed Dirk with a smile. He sat at the table and looked up at his loving mother and his favorite sister. “Thank you.” Dirk picked up the fork and took a bite.“Strawberry honeycake. Your favorite. I gave Loretta the night off and made it myself!” his mother said, her chest swelling with pride over her accomplishment in baking.
“Mum, it’s perfect. You and Delilah sit and have some with me. Please!” he motioned for them to sit.
They sat and took politely small portions of Dirk’s birthday cake. “It is good, if I do say so!” his mum said.
“Dirk should have a birthday every day!” said Delilah through a mouthful of cake.
Cordelia Dunn, Dirk’s loving mother, put a hand on his shoulder. “My son, you work so hard, and you’re so dutiful to this family. Your father might not always show you that he is proud of you, but he is. We all are.”
“Well. ‘It’s a man’s work that makes him a man,’ that’s what Dad always says, right?” said Dirk, slightly mocking the oft-repeated platitudes of his father.
“He’s not as stodgy as you’d think, you know,” said Mum. “In his day he was quite dashing and gregarious, you know!”
Dirk and Delilah looked blankly at their mother for a moment, as she held a look of earnest sincerity. Then all three of them burst out laughing. They laughed for a long while.
“No, no, really,” Mum said, catching her breath, “he really was fun in his youth. I’m speaking true!”
More laughing pattered around the kitchen like rain in a well. When they had caught their breaths and calmed down, Cordelia fixed Dirk with a firm gaze and her familiar loving smile. “A seventeenth isn’t a birthday that I’d let pass without a bit of fun.” She slid a small coin purse into his hand. “There’s a theater troupe in the town center tonight. Go and have some fun. I’ll tell your father you went upstairs to read all night. He never cared for the gods and legends anyway.”
“Really?” Dirk said in amazement, counting the several Kings that were in the pouch.
“Treat yourself to some fun. And get some nice clothes. Go!” Mum said.
Like a shot, Dirk raced out the door on fleet feet toward the center of Harn’s End.
Dirk had stopped at a tailor shop near the center of town to spend some of the largesse his mother had given him for his birthday, and he had bought the smartest outfit he could afford for two Gold Kings. He took his working clothes, permanently soiled from hundreds of days of working the family trade, and surreptitiously tossed them onto the roof of the vendor for safekeeping.
He strode proudly through the streets of Harn’s End. Compared to his solitary life in the Dunn manor, this was a bustling center of activity. He made his way to the town center where the theater had set up, and paid a glistening Silver Queen for admission to the best seats in the amphitheater. Around him, members of the nobility were arriving fashionably late. In a seat in the row across from him, a girl who was the very image of beauty took a seat. Through her radiance, he recognized her as Nicolette Ferrier, daughter of a wealthy land baron in the lands to the west of Harn’s End. She was dressed exquisitely in a dress that undoubtedly cost more than his father paid most of his servants in a year, her hair festooned with rare flowers. Escorting her was a boy near his own age, sharply dressed in one of Duke Narcis’ cavalryman uniforms. The uniform was dashing and smart, but the boy who wore it was rat-faced and beady-eyed. He held Nicolette too close to be polite and continually babbled into her ear, although the only thing Dirk could make out were the breaks he took from his story to laugh at his own jokes in a high, irritating cackle.
The musicians played the opening strains of their dramatic score, and the audience quieted. Two fiery braziers were lit on either side of the curtain, and the stagemaster strutted to the platform’s center. He was a wiry fellow with wild eyes, dressed in a black tunic tied with a red sash, and he made wide, sweeping gestures welcoming the audience to the theater.
“Boys and girls! Lords and ladies! Welcome on this warm and starry night to our humble drama! Tonight, we give you a tale to raise the hairs on the nape of your neck and the butterflies in your guts. A tale to make your heart race with thrills, and your bones quake with chills! A high-flying adventure not heard of since the gods walked the land and the world was young. A tale of a death-defying swashbuckler, and a terrible dragon! A pair of young lovers torn apart by the hands of Kismata’s fate! A tale that will one day ring across the ages as the legends of old! Tonight we bring you another adventure of our hero, Rodrigo the Rogue!”
A few members of the audience cheered at the mention of what was undoubtedly a character they were quite taken with, but Dirk had never heard the name before. Whoever this “Rodrigo the Rogue” was, he surely couldn’t be as good as the legends of old. Yet he couldn’t help but feel his pulse quickening as he listened to the stagemaster’s speech.
The lanky stagemaster stalked the stage as he continued. “Men, hold your ladies close, and mothers, hold your children closer, as tonight you will witness a terror the likes of which you have never seen! For tonight is a tale of our hero confronting none other than the ravening monster Silarrezkanto the Stormbringer!”
A flashpot flared for dramatic effect on the stage, and the audience gasped in unison. The stagemaster lowered his voice and continued. “Now we join the dashing Rodrigo the Rogue on the high road as he pines for his lost love…”
From the side of the stage, in front of the still-drawn curtain, the most dapper and dashing man Dirk had ever seen entered. He was dressed in an elegantly detailed red cape that swirled around him and over a black leather jerkin detailed with divine symbols. A mask covered the top half of his face, and a sheathed longsword was at his belt.
He raised his head to the painted heavens above the stage and spoke, “Oh, but whatever am I to do? My sweet love Aveline has gone from me, and she’s been taken by none other than the dreaded Silarrezkanto the Stormbringer!”
A dramatic gasp came from the crowd at the mention of the great dragon of The Spur, and the curtain drew back to reveal the stage. The stage was crafted to look like the rolling hills of Strata Trevva, with its occasional mountains and dark valleys. On the far side of the stage, The Spur rose high over the landscape, and atop it, a puppet meant to represent the great dragon sat, surveying the land before him. The dragon roared for effect.
“But the dragon is so powerful, and I am but a mortal man with only my wits to serve me! What am I to do?” Rodrigo wondered to the audience.
From the opposite side of the stage, a figure in a black hooded cloak emerged, his face hidden from view. He raised a hand to Rodrigo and spoke without lifting his head. “Young adventurer, come here, I would have a word in your ear!”
Rodrigo addressed the crowd. “Who could this stranger be? Should I trust him?”
Several members of the audience started calling affirmations to the character on stage, and Rodrigo cautiously approached the hooded man. “Stranger,” he said, “my love has been taken by the great Stormbringer and nobody will help me! What am I to do?”
The hooded figure once again spoke from his shroud. “Men have tried with sword and shield, hammer and axe, fire and stone to fell the great Silarrezkanto, but never has he been so much as bothered by such small scratches to his ancient hide. But here, my boy, here I have in this box a thing that will hold the great dragon as still as The Spur itself!” The hooded man produced an ornate gold-inlaid box.
“But what must I give you in return, stranger?” Rodrigo asked.
“Nothing!” said the stranger. “One day I shall call on you to return my favor in kind, and so you shall. There is no other way to rescue your love from the dragon. Do we have a deal?”
Despite a few excitable members in the audience shouting their disapproval of the deal, Rodrigo shrugged and said, “Well it appears we have an accord, dark stranger. I will take the box!”
The hooded figure handed the box to Rodrigo. “Take it then, and remember that you must sharpen not your steel, but your guile to free your love. I shall call on you one day soon, Rodrigo, and you shall serve me!”
Rodrigo took the box and walked to the opposite side of the stage, craning his head to look to the horizon. The dark stranger finally lifted his head. He took three steps forward and pulled back his hood to reveal the pointed ears and gray skin of Izurra, the trickster god. A shocked gasp came from the crowd. “And now young Rodrigo goes to free his love. Little does he know that it was I, Izurra, who has helped him,” he said, winking at the crowd. “He will outwit the great dragon, methinks, but then he owes a deep-pocketed debt to me! And oh, how I do love to play the collector!”
Dirk had been immersed in the drama. He had utterly forgotten the cares of his life in the unfolding of the story. Another flashpot exploded and the dark trickster vanished from view, leaving Rodrigo alone on the stage.
Rodrigo opened the box and looked inside, but the audience could not see what secrets it held. The dashing rogue’s mouth opened in surprise, and his lips curled into a wry grin. “I think I do indeed know how I can best the Stormbringer with what’s in here! I shall use what’s in this box and free my love, Aveline!” he said. With a flourishing bow, he did a turn around the stage and exited in haste, the music swelling underneath him to play him off. The curtain drew as the stagecrafters began to change the sets.
As the stage quieted for a moment, Dirk looked across the aisle to Nicolette Ferrier. He found himself enraptured by her beauty in the soft light, but the rat-faced cavalier had his hands all over her. The young officer pawed at her and pressed his face into her ear, snaking in for an unrequited kiss. “Please, Quinneth, not in front of everyone. The show is supposed to be on the stage,” Nicolette said, blushingly turning away from her suitor’s ham-handed advances. As she turned, she locked eyes with Dirk.
Not realizing he had been staring at her the whole time, he felt a shock of surprise, guilt, shame, excitement, desperation, and panic all at once. He froze in place. To his surprise, Nicolette smiled back at him for a moment, and then returned her attentions to the officer who was trying to burrow into the opposite side of her neck.
“Quinneth Vask, not now! Please!” she said plaintively.
The young officer threw back his head and repeated his high-pitched, cackling laugh. “You teasing bitch! How dare you work me into such a lather and then fail to show me the proper respect!” he said in a cracking voice. Three other officers who must’ve been this Quinneth Vask’s friends all laughed in approval of his boorish taunts.
An eye-twitch of recognition came over Quinneth as he locked onto Dirk’s staring face. “I’m sorry, you perverted swine, were you not satisfied with the drama on the stage?”
Dirk instantly broke his gaze and stared directly at his shoes. “Sorry!” he said. How could a beautiful girl like that possibly see anything in a lout like that officer? Dirk wondered to himself.
The stagemaster once again appeared onstage, and the audience quieted. He raised his hands and spoke. “And now Rodrigo brings his wits and guile to The Spur to confront Silarrezkanto the Stormbringer, the ravening monster who holds captive his one true love!”
He gestured to the curtains, and they drew back to now show the rocky cliffs at the top of The Spur. At its highest peak, a scantily dressed woman was chained to the rock face, and before her, an enormous paper and wood representation of the great dragon stood. His hide glistened silver just as the real one must have, his terrifying head bobbing back and forth, intimidating the crowd with fierce eyes and smoking breath. There must have been four different puppeteers inside, Dirk guessed, to bring this impersonation of the great beast of Strata Vask to life.
“Who comes to challenge me, Silarrezkanto the Stormbringer?” the enormous dragon bellowed to the crowd. “I have beaten all the champions of men and I have blasted mountains to dust! I have drunk Lake Tilian and spat out the clouds that cover the land! I have taken Aveline, the fairest lady in the land, and she shall be mine to have forever!”
Rodrigo the Rogue once again entered the stage and addressed the great dragon. “Mighty Stormbringer! It is I, Rodrigo the Rogue, highwayman, overdone, and lucky one, at your service! I come here to witness the glory that is clearly the greatest beast ever to walk the land or fly in the heavens!”
“Beast?” bellowed the dragon, a spout of steam rising from his wooden nostrils. “I am no mere beast, tiny mortal! I have more power than the great gods of old! I have more might than an earthquake, and my black heart is darker than the bottom of The Deep! Now do you come to me with anything of interest, tiny one? Or are you to simply be my next meal?”
“Oh, great one, I am not here for any such small purpose,” said Rodrigo, “but I do come to you with a gift of such amazing wonder that even one as wise and venerable as you will be dazzled by its brilliance.”
“A gift, you say? Well then, what have you brought me, slug?” bellowed the paper and wooden dragon head.
“Only the gift of the most beautiful and unique thing in all the world, great one. A thing worthy of only you! In fact, I would wager that it is even more beautiful than the girl that you took for your own and chained to your high peak.”
“Nonsense!” the Stormbringer laughed. “Aveline is the most fetching beauty I have ever laid eyes on, and now she is mine to do with what I please! What a delicious meal she will make when I grow tired of her, too!”
Some members of the audience gasped at the thought of the dragon devouring poor Aveline, but Rodrigo turned reassuringly to the audience. “And now we shall see how this overgrown lizard can get drawn into my trap!” He winked to the crowd and returned his attention to his adversary.
“Great Stormbringer, I would bet you anything that I have here in this box something that is even more entrancing to you than even fair Aveline,” Rodrigo said, producing his gold-inlaid box.
“Anything?” the dragon said with a hint of amusement. “What do you propose? Surely there is nothing quite so captivating as this lady I have taken for my prize.”
“So sure am I, your enormity, that I am willing to bet my life on it! If the gift I’ve brought you in this box does not captivate you more than that girl up there, you may eat me alive! And if I am right, well then, I shall have the knowledge that I have impressed the greatest, most magnificent creature in the world,” said Rodrigo.
“Done!” said the dragon, bellowing a hearty laugh. “Now show me what you have there in your little box, highwayman!”
“Here’s where I spring my trap,” Rodrigo said in an aside to the audience, and then turned back to the dragon. “Here, great one!”
Rodrigo bent down and opened the box, and from it produced an ornately decorated mirror. A knowing murmur came over the audience. He held it up to the face of the dragon, and the dragon froze still. “Is the sight you see in this frame not the most impressive, glorious, and beautiful thing you have ever seen?”
“I see… It is beautiful…” said the dragon, sinking his head to the floor of the stage right before where Rodrigo placed the mirror. “Such an enthralling sight I’ve never gazed upon in all my hundreds of years.”
Rodrigo quickly danced away from the entranced dragon and leapt to where Aveline had been imprisoned. “Oh, my love, Rodrigo!” said Aveline, kissing him as he freed her from her shackles. “But how did you outwit that monster?”
“I had a little help, and I knew that no sight could impress such a vain beast as the sight of himself. Now quickly, my love, we go to safety before the spell is broken!” Rodrigo grabbed a rope that had been hanging from beside the peak where Aveline was imprisoned. “Now hang on! We must get to shelter before the storm!”
Rodrigo and Aveline swung across the stage, and off into the wings to safety, just as the dragon stirred. “Wait, what’s this? Where has my prized girl got to? And what of the fancyman that I was to make a meal of? How has this trick confounded me?” he roared. The large puppet of the dragon withdrew from the stage, and Rodrigo and Aveline reappeared, this time racing to and fro across the stage to play out running for their lives. Overhead, a smaller shadow-puppet of The Stormbringer soared overhead, emitting howls from offstage.
“We must run, Rodrigo! How will we ever be able to survive the wrath of Silarrezkanto?” Aveline wondered in a panic.
“We must find shelter! We must find our way to ground!” shouted Rodrigo.
From the side of the stage, a prop of a large tree with a small door in its side appeared. The door opened, and a figure that looked to be a troll appeared from inside. “Here, friends!” he said excitedly. “This way, if you want to escape!”
Rodrigo and Aveline turned to the troll and rushed to him. “Thank you, friend, I shall owe you one for this!” Rodrigo said gratefully as he and Aveline disappeared from the stage through the tree’s door. From what seemed like far away, the Stormbringer shrieked in defeat.
The troll let them pass and then stepped forward to gaze at the audience. He removed his mask and revealed the gray-skinned face of Izurra once again. The audience gasped. “I agree, young Rodrigo! You shall owe Izurra more than you shall ever know!” Izurra laughed, and the curtain was drawn.
Great cheers went up from the crowd, and everyone got to their feet to applaud. The stagemaster once again appeared before the curtain. “Thank you, thank you my friends, for coming to see our dramatic offering this fine evening. I do hope that our humble play has brought a color to your cheeks and a quickening to your heart. Please do join us next time to see what happens to our hero Rodrigo the Rogue! Can he trick the trickster himself? Don’t wait for your friends to tell you in the pub! You can only find out if you join us here! Now I bid good evening from us all, may Severance speed your way home, and may Prickwith not hammer on your head too much in the morning! Good night!”
The flashpots flared again, and the stagemaster disappeared. The audience applauded again, and after a short while, began to disassemble and stream toward the streets. As the excitement faded and the crowd scattered, Dirk found himself sitting completely alone in the theater. He began to get to his feet and wander toward the exit when he noticed on the ground one of the flowers Nicolette Ferrier had worn in her hair. A slight smile crossed Dirk’s lips as he picked it up.
He raced through the wide streets, scanning left and right until he caught the radiant sight of Nicolette. She was flanked by a formidable gang of uniformed cavalrymen, including the cloying Quinneth Vask, who clung to her like a raptor clutches a mouse in his talons. Things seemed to blur together for Dirk, and before he knew it, he was standing right behind Nicolette and tapping her on the shoulder. “Miss Ferrier! Miss Ferrier! You left this!” Dirk said.
All went still as she whirled to face him. She grinned sheepishly, and the cavalrymen stood still as red-faced statues. Spontaneously, and without knowing why, Dirk dropped to one knee. “Sweet Nicolette, I… I am Dirk Dunn, and I have returned this to you! For though it cannot match your beauty, it surely can only make you seem more lovely in its company!”
For a moment that seemed to last for ten years, nobody said anything. “Stand up there, boy,” said Quinneth very quietly. Dirk scrambled to his feet. Why did I take a knee? he wondered to himself. Quinneth grabbed the flower from Dirk’s hand and placed it in Nicolette’s.
Nicolette broke eye contact with Dirk and turned to Quinneth, giggling coquettishly. “Oh, why thank you, Lord Vask, you surely do know how to see a lady taken care of.” She kissed Quinneth on the cheek and turned to walk away. As an afterthought, she looked over her shoulder and said, “Bye, Burke!”
Dirk’s heart sank, until his eyes met Quinneth Vask, who was staring daggers at him. Dirk froze. Quinneth took two steps to him and through gritted teeth said, “Don’t try and rise above your station, Dunn. I know of your family. You’re a shit-peddler just like your father, and you will never be anything more.”
Quinneth shoved Dirk’s shoulder and turned his back on him, storming off after Nicolette, who was chirping like a songbird in the distance to some of the other cavalrymen already. With his heart in his stomach, Dirk turned and walked the opposite way, back toward the edge of town and his family’s estate.
On the way out of town, he stopped by the tailor to recover his rags that he had stowed away on the roof of the shop. He bound his new clothes in a humble sack and trudged back home with only the light of the moons to keep him company.
The next day, his morning work orders arrived the same as usual. One ton to the Harroway market, two tons to the market at Greybay, three bound for Waterhill. He ate breakfast in silence and set about his day’s work with only the memory of what had happened the night before for company.
Why must sniveling toadies like Quinneth Vask wind up with great beauties like Nicolette Ferrier? Who was he that he could be so easily pushed around? Why was life not more like in the tales of old? What would Arkon have done when faced with a mean, small man like Quinneth? What about Rodrigo the Rogue? What would he have done?
What would Rodrigo have done, indeed! Dirk thought. Inside of Dirk Dunn, a plan germinated.
Two more Gold Kings had bought Dirk a sizeable barrel of beer from the Blackeyed Bully, a pub at the center of town. He pushed the small cart with the keg atop it through the narrow streets, dodging the merchants and citizens of Harn’s End as he made his way to the theater. The hour was late, and the theater company would just be concluding their nightly performance of Rodrigo the Rogue.
He approached the empty amphitheater, and the tent that the traveling theater company had set up behind the stage. He wheeled the cart up to the entrance flap and called, “Hello there? Is anyone about?”
The stagemaster appeared. He did not look quite so impressive now, as he was not adorned in his dashing stage costume, but a simple tunic and no pants. “What?” he said impatiently.
“A gift for the cast and crew, sir!” Dirk said, trying his best to affect the air of a delivery tradesman.
“What is it? From who?”
“It is a keg of the finest beer in Harn’s End, courtesy of the Dunn and Son company, sir, to salute your fantastic performance,” said Dirk.
“Dunn and Son? Sounds like someone in the manure business,” the stagemaster snorted.
“In fact, it is, sir,” said Dirk. “Best ale in town, though!”
“Fine, very well. Bring it in and put it over there,” said the stagemaster, pointing a thumb at an area near the rear of the tent.
Wheeling the keg inside, Dirk was puzzled at how the tent somehow seemed larger on the inside than it did on the outside. He shook the questions away from his mind and focused on the task at hand. He hefted the heavy barrel off of the cart and made the announcement, “Free drinks for all!”
A stirring came from every corner of the tent as actors and crew began to appear and head straight for the keg. Dirk took one step back, and then another as the theater folk streamed past him. Then he turned on his heel and ducked around a corner.
He turned around a divider in the tent and produced a gunny sack from his cloak. It must be back here, he thought to himself. He came to a row of four smaller rooms inside the tent, separated from the common area by individual flaps. He tried the first one to the left, and saw that it contained nothing but a cot and some rumpled clothing on the floor. Not what he was looking for. He opened the next flap and was greeted with the sight of the bare backside of a man, and a dark-haired woman under him. She locked eyes with Dirk and shrieked, and the man atop her rolled off and quickly drew a sheet over them both. Dirk recognized them both after a moment as the actors who played the parts of Rodrigo and Aveline.
“What are you doing here?” said the actor.
“Um! I’m terribly sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to barge in! I mean, to interrupt! I mean, that is, I’ll just be going now!” Dirk said, his face reddening.
“Who are you?” asked the actor.
“I’m here to pick up the laundry for the company, sir! The Blackeyed Bully has offered to do the wash for the company free of charge!”
“It’s a good thing, then. You could use a pair of clean trousers,” said the actress to the actor. Then she turned to Dirk, “It’s two flaps down to the right, young man. Unless you’d like to join us?” she said with a glint in her eye.
“Oh! No, no ma’am! I mean, not that I’m not honored to be… I mean… I will just go get the laundry now, ma’am!” Dirk said, partially feigning embarrassment. He quickly backed out of the door and disappeared. He heard laughter from the couple from the room behind him as he left.
Two flaps down, he found the wardrobe just as the woman had instructed him. Thank you, sweet Aveline, he thought to himself. He opened the doors on the wardrobe and found the object of his quest. Up close, it wasn’t as fancy and crisp as he remembered, and it smelled bad, but it was still spectacular.
He shoved his prize into the sack and turned to beat a hasty retreat, but paused before he exited the room. This will make it right, he thought, and left his last Gold King inside the wardrobe in the empty spot he had made. Then he whirled and darted from the room.
He streaked past a pair of giggling, unseen actors behind the second flap’s entrance, and beyond that a room full of theater crew heartily imbibing the Blackeyed Bully’s finest brew. None turned to notice him as he disappeared from the tent and fled into the night.
The ball was being held at Barron Horst Decker’s estate on the opposite edge of town from Dirk’s own. He approached under the cover of darkness, avoiding the main road which had been illuminated by lanterns set by the family’s servants for half a mile outside of the grounds.
In the distance, he could hear them all. The children of the landed gentry babbling and laughing as they discussed all matters insignificant and dull, going through the courting ritual that kept common people out of noble bloodlines for centuries. Dirk stole through the shadows and found a still refuge beneath the shadow of an Elderwood tree. There, he assembled himself with what he had procured from the theater’s wardrobe and prepared his heart and mind. I can do this, he thought. They’ll never know what hit them!
He found a trellis on the far side of the main house and climbed it, stepping up onto the roof of the first floor. From there, another wall rose before him. Finding a foothold in it, he ascended to the top. The boots were soft and easy to find purchase, and the cape hung effortlessly out of his way. He alighted atop a column that rose above the third floor, and he followed the light that came from three narrow windows in the roof. Keeping to the shadows, he looked down through the openings and into the light.
Below him in the yawning main ballroom, the young uniformed cavalrymen and the wide-eyed ladies they escorted danced and postured on the floor. They twirled their way through the stilted movements of courtly dancing and pattered on in light conversation that echoed up to the sky windows like birdsong.
Dirk readied himself. This was it. There was no going back now.
He dove through the open window, his cape a crimson tail behind him, catching a chandelier that hung in the center of the room, directly over the middle of the dancefloor. He pulled his longsword from his belt and slashed one of the ropes holding the chandelier in place, and grasped it in his hand. He swallowed, took a deep breath, and jumped, swinging across on the rope to perch atop a column on the far side of the room. They all saw him at once, and the crowd gasped.
On his precipice before the gathered nobility of Harn’s End Dirk stood, resplendent in an elegant red cape that swirled around him and over a black leather jerkin detailed with divine symbols. A mask covered the top half of his face, and a longsword was in his hand. Dirk had become Rodrigo the Rogue.
Dirk summoned the deepest and most commanding voice that he could, and shouted above the dancers, “Oh, ho! What’s this? The fanciest people in Kepala here for a dance, and nobody invited me? Well, I hope you don’t mind me dropping in! Is an occasion like this not a perfect one to be graced by none other than Rodrigo the Rogue?”
Below him, he could see smiles coming to the faces of the guests. The cavalrymen and their ladies were smiling up at him and whispering to themselves as though he was a hero of legend made real. And now he was. In putting on the costume, he had made Rodrigo the Rogue, hero of the people, a real person.
He held onto his rope and swung once again across the room, landing atop another column on the room’s opposite side. The young nobles beneath him laughed and clapped for him as he accomplished another feat of acrobatic agility before them. Filled with confidence and beaming with an ear-to-ear grin, he once again spoke to the crowd. “I know all you lords and ladies are looking sharp in your uniforms and finery, but none are so sharp as my wits and my steel!”
Dirk dove forward off the column, did a full somersault and landed on his feet. His catlike grace surprised even him. The crowd once again applauded and murmured among themselves in awe of his grace and skill. He ran across the dance floor and began engaging the people at the dance directly. “Yes, it is I, Rodrigo the Rogue, highwayman, overdone, and lucky one, at your service!” he exclaimed, sheathing his sword and pulling an uncorked bottle of wine from a nearby service tray.
He took a big swig of the wine, and it felt like a pleasant fire in his throat. He approached a nearby cavalry officer, standing tall with a smirk on his face. “You, sir, I suppose you will ride to fight the hobgoblin horde that besieges the poor embattled Sira Zelaad?”
“I will, and we shall all crush them together,” he said, raising his glass. The cavalrymen about him raised their glasses in turn and let out a grunt of camaraderie in unison. Rodrigo raised his bottle with them and drank again.
“But brave cavaliers, do you not know that the legend of Rodrigo the Rogue shall ride with you?” Dirk enticed them. “I have faced down the Stormbringer, I have supped with gods and monsters! The hobgoblin hordes will be no great feat for me to best!”
The gathered officers chortled in unison, and one of them shouted from the back of the room, “If you’re gonna ride, where’s your uniform?”
The cavaliers again laughed like a flock of cawing crows. Dirk was unfazed. “My lords, I need no uniform when I have the breastplate of the gods on my chest, and a blade forged by Arkon himself in my hands! I am every bit as good as the rest of you, and I can prove it!”
From across the room, he spied her. Nicolette Ferrier. She was commiserating with three other young ladies, and they whispered and covered their mouths as they giggled at him. Dirk took four leaping bounds across the dance floor and was standing tall before Nicolette a moment later. He took a deep bow, held out his hand, and said in a much quieter tone, “My darling Nicolette, you are the fairest flower I have ever laid eyes on. Fairer than even Aveline herself, whom I rescued from the dreaded clutches of the dreaded Stormbringer. Will you do me the honor of dancing with me?”
Nicolette giggled, looked to her friends, and then nervously nodded. The musicians once again began to play, and Dirk took Nicolette by the hand. He had never felt so confident or alive. He whirled her around on the floor, imitating the moves he had seen the servants doing at their private parties on the grounds. Not the stilted, stiff dances of the nobility, but the wild and carefree dances of the people. He spun himself, his cape making a dramatic trail behind him, and caught Nicolette’s hand, pulling her close. Her bosom swelled as he held her close, and she gazed into his eyes. This is what I was meant to do, he thought. I can be Rodrigo the Rogue!
Dirk pulled Nicolette’s face close to his and pressed his lips to hers. It was the first time he had ever kissed a girl. To his astonishment, she was kissing him back. The crowd once again gasped as the two embraced on the floor for all to see, and he kissed her again. He whirled her around in a twisting turn, put his arm behind the small of her back and dipped her down to kiss her again. Nicolette reached up to touch Dirk’s face, and she grabbed him by the cheek. When she did, she knocked the mask covering his face loose, and it fell to the floor. Nicolette met his eyes again, and she gasped. Not in pleasure, but in unpleasant surprise. Dirk froze.
The musicians had stopped playing, and the guests had fallen silent. He looked around the ballroom at a sea of blank faces. The silence was broken only by the high-pitched, cackling laugh of Quinneth Vask.
“Oh, look, it’s the shit-peddler’s son!” he exclaimed, laughing once again.
The guests began laughing as one as Dirk looked down to Nicolette, still locked in his dipping embrace. “You’re a shit-peddler?” she asked with a disappointed and confused look on her face.
Dirk did not remember dropping Nicolette, but she hit the ground with a thud that resonated throughout the hall, and the guests began laughing even more. From somewhere inside the throng, someone threw a cup of wine that hit him on his head.
“Why don’t you run back to the west side of Harn’s End with all the other dung-covered paupers, Son of Dunn!” Quinneth jeered at him. “You’ve spoiled my date for me. Now I’ll have to go find a new one, thanks to you!”
Nicolette scrambled to her feet and rushed to Quinneth’s side. She immediately began fawning over him and squeaking pleas of contrition into his ear. He ignored her and smirked back at Dirk.
“What did I tell you, boy? You don’t belong here. At least you gave us all a good laugh,” Quinneth said through a toothy grin.
All Dirk could do was run. All he could think of was that he had to get away from them all as fast as he could. He charged for the door and ran straight into a seven-foot-tall guard and bounced off of him, landing hard on his backside. More cackling laughter from the guests rang out through the room.
This time, Dirk did not even bother to run. He simply hung his head and walked to the nearest exit. He walked on the lantern-lit road back toward Harn’s End, cursing the day he was born.
In the alleyway behind the Blackeyed Bully, Dirk was getting drunk. He still had remnants of the Rodrigo outfit on him, and the buxom woman who ran the bar had given him a very large tankard of the special reserve out of pity for his long face. He had experienced quite enough of being awkward in front of beautiful women today, so he took his drink and went to sulk with it outside.
Dirk heard the subtle plucking of a balatier, and he looked around for its origin, but could not discern from where it came. For a moment he thought it might only be in his head. He took another drink and let out a deep sigh, this time trying to drown his dark thoughts in beer rather than water. How did things go so wrong when they were going so right just a moment before? How could he have been on top of the world one moment, and down in the mud the next?
The sound of light-footed steps came toward him, and a tall handsome man plucking a balatier entered the alley. Dirk could not see the man’s face as he looked down at him. “Well, I’ve seen happier sights,” the stranger said.
“What do you want? I prefer to drink alone. Go away,” Dirk said irritably.
“One can never drink alone when he carries an imp on his back,” said the stranger. “And you, young man, have a big one.”
“You don’t know what I’ve been through today, sir,” said Dirk, taking another big pull on his tankard.
“I know enough to see that you’re living deep in the well of misery that only a young man of your age can seem to dive into. When was the last time you weren’t up to your ass in mud and getting drunk on the favors of tavern wenches that felt sorry for you?” said the man, idly plucking on his balatier.
“Today I tasted what it was like to be a legend and a hero,” Dirk said, “but it was just a fantasy. I’ll never be anything other than someone who slings dung for a living.”
“Sounds like you’ve been around the wheel today, young one,” said the stranger. “Tell me, when you were feeling like a legend and a hero, did it feel like it was going to last forever?”
“I didn’t think about it. I was just feeling so alive I didn’t have any fear or sadness for once. Then something silly happened and it all fell apart,” Dirk sighed.
“And how did you get to feeling so invincible? Did it just fall out of the sky, or was it something you came to on your own?”
“I had a plan. It worked for a while. I had a bunch of fancy people convinced I was someone better than who I am. It didn’t last.”
“Ah, but you did convince them? People you didn’t know, in an unfamiliar place?” the stranger probed.
“People I don’t normally look in the eye,” Dirk said.
“You see, that’s the thing about who you are from one moment to the next. If you don’t like what you are in this moment, you can always change it in the next one. If you don’t like where you are, get on your feet and move on,” said the stranger. He turned on his heel and walked away, the music retreating with him. Dirk craned his neck, to see where the stranger was going, but he had passed out of view. Dirk got to his feet and walked around the corner after him, but the stranger was nowhere to be seen.
Then the stranger’s voice seemed to speak from nowhere and everywhere. “If you don’t like where you are, Dirk Dunn, you can always change it. If you don’t like the shoes you’re walking in, kick them off and get new ones.”
Dirk looked around, bewildered and confused. Into the air he shouted, “How do you know my name?”
But the music faded, and his only answer was silence.
Dirk woke in his bed that morning with no recollection of going home. He rose and found the usual orders. One ton to Bruckrochen, two to Greenpine, three bound for Fel’s Hope. Prickwith’s hammering had indeed found his head this day and was exacting a terrible vengeance upon him.
He trudged downstairs into the yard and began lurching about his duties. This can’t be all there is, thought Dirk. The day stretched on and on, and that thought kept repeating in his head over and over again. This can’t be all there is.
He washed himself and then went directly to his room with the intention of simply going back to bed. He didn’t want to be part of this world today. Maybe not ever again. He felt like pulling the covers over his head and shutting out the world forever.
A knock came at the door, and it opened. His mother appeared with a freshly cleaned bundle of clothes that she laid at the foot of his bed.
“Well, it seems you did truly follow my advice to get something nice to wear, Dirk, “ his mother said, smiling at him. “There was a hole in the cape, and it was a little gamy, but I think I’ve fixed it up to be quite the dashing outfit for you.”
“Mum!” Dirk said. “You didn’t have to… I mean you shouldn’t have done…”
“Shhh, it’s all right, Dirk,” said his mother. “I think you made a good choice. It takes a strong heart and a clear head to make bold choices. I had a young man in my life once who was bold and dashing and took chances all the time. By the time I met your father, he’d convinced me that the safe way was the right way, and that having security and safety was more important than a life of adventure. But I always wondered what would’ve happened if I’d gone with that young man. I was always partial to boys who could play the balatier.”
“Wait, the balatier…” Dirk sputtered, but then collapsed back into bed.
“I’ll see you soon, my son. Always know that we love you,” his mother said to him, closing the door after her.
The mask of Rodrigo the Rogue sat at the foot of Dirk Dunn’s bed, staring back at him. In that moment, Dirk knew what he must do.
The next morning, Dirk Dunn did not report for his morning duties. An hour after he was scheduled to begin, a very irate Derek Dunn went stomping down the hallway to Dirk’s bedroom. He pounded on the door and yelled, “Get on your feet, boy! There’s work to do and the brown gold isn’t gonna shovel itself!”
No answer came from within. Derek Dunn, master of the Dunn and Son Manure Company, pounded even harder on the door. He kept pounding until the door’s stuck frame gave way and the door swung open. Inside the room was nothing, and the window was open. Dirk had gone away.
At a pub in Tankaash, Rodrigo leaned forward into the table as the next hand of Kings and Devils was dealt. This game was going well for him, mainly because he was cheating. With each slight misdirection or trick of the fingers, he’d pull another fortune card from his sleeve and slip it into his hand, narrowly defeating all the monied merchants with a taste for gambling that had congregated in the tavern that night.
“How do you keep winning like that?” said one particularly gruff grain merchant with a Zelaadi accent.
“I bet he’s cheating,” said another, this one clearly from Sira Kepala with his clipped accent and aloof bearing.
“My friends, my friends, let me assure you that I have no more interest in cheating you than I do in facing the great Stormbringer of The Spur,” Rodrigo said with a flourish. “Games of chance are oft ruined by such petty suspicions cast upon gentlemen such as me by gentlemen such as you. So let us all just be gentlemen and deal the next hand, shall we?”
Rodrigo gestured to the grain merchant to deal the next hand, and as he did, a King card, hidden in his sleeve, flew from his cuff and landed on the table. Everyone turned to stare at him.
“Well, Izurra, you’ve done it again, you bastard,” sighed Rodrigo. Before he could say another word, a punch from the Zelaadi turned his world dark and his lights winked out for a time.
When he came to, a sturdy set of bars separated Rodrigo from the rest of the outside world. Ah, jail. He thought to himself. Well, I suppose it could be worse.
From beyond his field of vision, he heard slow clapping. As his applauder came into view, his attention was piqued. A weedy man who looked like he knew how to con someone faced him down from outside the cell. “You’ve certainly got a unique way of dealing cards, don’t you?” he said.
“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, sir. I am Rodrigo Sahasi Rath, highwayman, overdone, and lucky one, at your service. And who might you be?”
“How very dramatic,” the man smirked. “My name is Rexus Novo, and I have a business proposition for you. Ever been to Sira Kepala?”