The Tyrant of Kepala
The Humbling of Rodrigo
The low road from Sira Zelaad to Sira Kepala was always the more treacherous of the two, in dangers both natural and unnatural, but the unnatural dangers on the low road also meant less of a chance of running across one of Old Ash’s gangs of enforcers. The odd bands of regular soldiers with their bullying swagger wasn’t the concern on the low road, nor was getting in the way of the terrifying Hollow Men.
Out here it was brigands, cutthroats, and any number of creatures that howled in the night that beset the nightmares of common folk as they cowered at night behind high city walls. But all this was nothing unfamiliar to someone who made their living dealing with such brigands, cutthroats, and monsters. It was all just the cost of doing business.
Rodrigo considered himself a fancy man. His tongue was silver and his hands were soft under his doeskin gloves. His smirking grin and easy tone was enough to set people at ease – or put them on edge, depending on the circumstances and who they were. He rarely had difficulty eliciting a reaction from anyone, as he played the game of carousing like a finely tuned balliteir, and played it well. If he wanted something, or someone, it tended to fall out of the skies and into his lap. Those who believed in the old gods were sure that they favored him.
And it was on the low road that he made his way one fine autumn day, taking the southern fork away from Lake Tilian, through the low passes on the way to the Capital. His saddlebags were laden with grain… and a letter of transit that he was hired to bring to a certain nobleman at an inn somewhere on the road through Strata Treva, the hinterlands between the strongholds of men. Such a letter would allow a wealthy man to move vast caravans of goods between the cities with The Conqueror’s blessings and protections. It was worth a large fortune. Now all he had to do was work his magic and pass this forgery off as genuine.
Still, being alone on the road was not without its dangers for a lightly armed single man who was not of the roughest-hewn stock. So he moved only in daylight, only on the heels of other caravans. A week into the journey, he found himself talking late into the night with a Zelaadian grain merchant’s underlings while camped by the wayside. He enthralled the semi-toothed simpletons with tales of swashbuckling chicanery and feats of death defying guile. He thrilled them with stories of high stakes gambling and the bedding of unattainably exotic women, only to swoop from their bedchambers before dawn. He did not remember falling asleep, but he did remember waking up… without his hat. The caravan had gone, the hatless Rodrigo frantically ran to his horse, inspecting the saddlebags for the letter of transit that was mercifully still there. Thank the old ones for illiterate thieves, he thought.
He dusted himself off, and prepared to resume his journey, dangerous though it would be by himself. At least they won’t steal my fucking hat again.
He approached a great oak tree upon which to relieve himself of last night’s ale as he swore to himself that he would someday recover his hat. The finely plumed thing would never suit an ass like the tradesman he’d been amusing the night before. As his eyes wandered skyward during his rumination, he saw it straight above him – bright eyes flashing in a silhouette of blackness meeting his own.
He could barely cry out before the shadow had darted from view, only to reappear behind him with a cold feeling of steel at his throat.
“Do not make a sound, pretty man,” said a voice ephemeral as the morning mist.
“I WON’T!” shouted Rodrigo.
“Shhhhhhh.” The blade pressed further into the flesh of his throat.
“Right! Right… I’m very very quiet! See!” Rodrigo hissed.
“You are headed to the inn at Strohut are you not?” said the voice… definitely female.
“I am… how did you…”
The blade left his throat and she turned him around. Expecting a savage bandit, he was taken aback by the sight before him. An elf. A Dark Elf – and a woman, dressed head to toe in black with white eyes that shone like the old gods in the sky. Oh, this will be easy, Rodrigo thought.
“My lady, allow me to introduce myself. I am Rodrigo Sahasi Rath, highwayman, overdone, and lucky one, at your service,” he said, beginning his usual affected bow.
“Shut up and put that away,” the woman said.
Crestfallen, he did as he was commanded.
“Sit down.” she said, and he did. “So the imbeciles did not find the letter you were carrying?”
“How did you…”
“Silence! The letter for Virago Opulus, you still have it?”
Sensing that he was cornered, Rodrigo chose the sensible route.
“I have a letter for a man of that name, yes.”
“Very well. Off we go, then,” the dark lady said, turning on her heel towards his awaiting horse.
“WAIT, what do you mean we? We are not… who are you?” Rodrigo sputtered as he followed her to his own horse.
“You may call me Zerkanti,” the elf said, casting a glance his way, “we have a common goal.”
“Very well but… you are taking my horse! That horse is mine!”
“The horse belongs to who would spur him on, Rath. We go to Strohut.”
Feeling the beginnings of the morning’s hangover truly taking hold, he did the only thing he could do. He climbed onto the back of his own horse behind the elf. She clicked her tongue, and they were moving down the road.
She handled the fell nag like she had known her all her life. Better than Rodrigo had.
“Zerkanti, Zerkanti… this is not a name I recognize from Kepala, and I have been all the way around. Are you foreign?” Rodrigo chattered at her as he sat awkwardly on the hindside of his own saddle, “I mean, I’ve seen scrad women before in the north but never alone and never…”
“You will not use that word again,” Zerkanti breathed, the well of contempt brewing within her.
“Foreign? But I’ve got a few foreign friends, and I’ve never seen a scrad…”
”SILENCE!” she shouted.
“Oh… oh. It’s okay. I’m sorry! I’m sure you’re one of the good ones! I’ve heard tell of… women of a darker hued elven nature… being good servants in the big cities, and some of them even… “
A kick of her heels, and the horse reared up, and dumped Rodrigo flat on his back. He landed in the dirt with a heavy thud.
“This journey will go much more smoothly if you refrain from speaking,” said the dark lady.
For miles they rode in silence with only birdsong and the rhythm of the horse’s hooves to listen to. But Rodrigo was a creature of instinct. And at times of boredom and when a lady was nearby, he let his instinct take over. He put his hand on her thigh. The pain of a blade slid delicately beneath his fingernail was her answer. He got the message.
After another few hours of silent riding, they arrived at the Inn of Strohut.
“Go inside and conduct your business,” Zerkanti said as she dismounted the horse.
Incredulous, Rodrigo slid off of the back of his horse, and retrieved the letter from the saddlebag. He took a moment to compose himself and went inside.
There, in the furthest corner at the largest table sat Opulus, a large Virago of Sila Kepala in every sense of the word. His enormous mass took up two normal seats at the largest table, and his heavily plumed and bedazzled vestments were free of the usual wear of the road. His retinue of mercenaries ringed the table, and an inner gaggle of sycophants cackled obediently at every hackneyed jest and jape that dripped from his overstuffed mouth.
“…I knew because I heard your father say it to you in the other room, said she!” he chortled, finishing a joke that his gang of yes-men laughed at obediently. He looked up from the table and noticed the newcomer, “Rodrigo! Mister Rodrigo Rath! Come and join the Virago at the table!”
“You honor me, sir,” Rodrigo curtly bowed and took a seat at his table.
After an appropriate amount of small talk and braggadocio, a serious air came over the Virago.
“You have it, I presume?” Opulus said, leaning into a low whisper.
“I do, sir.”
“Then I will have it now.”
Rodrigo slid the leather tube out of his jacket and placed it on the table. The Virago placed his ham-like paw over it and drew it close to himself, emitting a pleased squeal of pleasure.
“And the matter of the agreed upon…”
“The finest ale for all in the house!” the Virago boomed, interrupting Rodrigo, “No cup is to go dry this afternoon! Make yourself useful, boy!”
Awestruck, Rodrigo stood from the table and walked to the bar. He’s making me get him drinks now?
Zerkanti appeared as though out of nowhere at the bar next to him. “He’s not going to pay you, you know.”
“Why wouldn’t he pay me? I’ve just given him the keys to the fattest trade route between the biggest cities!”
“Because fat rich men like that do not continue being fat and rich unless they take the bread from the mouths of starving people like us. That’s why. Follow my lead,” she breathed, and turned on her heel.
She walked away from the bar and toward the table. It was only now that he noticed that Zerkanti was dressed in the outfit of a barmaid, and carrying a tray stacked with eight pints of frothing ale. When she spoke, she spoke in a high, pretty voice he had not heard before, peppered with laughter and inviting flirtatiousness.
“Only the best in the house for the biggest man on the low road!” she chirped, swirling down onto the table with the drinks neatly setting before the Virago’s gang. She skipped over a table leg and landed accidentally-but-on-purpose in the lap of the fat man himself.
“The scrad bitch is light on her feet and has a pretty mouth! Such a decent cut of dark meat should not go uneaten!” blurted Opulus, his wet mouth pressing against her cheek.
Rodrigo felt bile rise in the back of his throat.
“Oh, your voluminousness! I’m sure you’ve said that to all the girls on the low road, and oh my, you’re such a big load to handle,” Zerkanti the barmaid wooed. The Virago flung his head backwards in pleasure.
I cannot believe he is buying this, Rodrigo thought. He wandered away from the bar in disbelief. From the corner of his eye, he saw a man turn his head from the spectacle of carnality in the corner to his direction. It was a simple man in a mud splattered tradesman’s outfit.
“Dirk? Dirk Dunn?” he exclaimed, “It’s been three years! How have you…”
Rodrigo sat down next to him quickly.
“I’m sure you think you know me, but I’m sure you don’t. My name is Rodrigo Sahasi Rath, and I am a man for hire. Now I’m sure you can either hire me for my services or leave me be, good sir!” he whispered.
“But The Digger has been looking for you high and low! He has your face on posters of his own make from here to Ironfall! Wait’ll I tell him that I’ve found…”
An uproar came from the gang in the corner, and every head in the house turned to see the fat head of a merchant prince buried in the indigo breasts of a barmaid, his muffled giggling still audible above it all. As he came up for air, he bellowed, “Let’s raise a cup to the dark meat here and the good life! To Villar Kotu and his peace! To the men who keep the night’s hounds at bay! To good riddance to the silver worm, may he never darken our skies again, and to the bright future! Verower! Verower! Protector of us all…” the fat man and his retinue began to chant the familiar state tune of hero worship directed at the tyrant. After a threatening glance from the mercenaries, the majority of the other drunkards joined in as well.
Over the cacophony, the stranger spoke again to Rodrigo, “He’s going to be so happy to…”
The rube was cut short by Rodrigo’s surreptitious cudgel to the back of his head. He slumped forward into his own drink, and a round of laughter went up in mid-song from the crowd.
When the song finished, Zerkanti dislodged herself from the Virago and sauntered to the bar beside Rodrigo, grabbing more drinks from the barkeep.
“You… work here?”
“I do what I must, and the king’s coins are the clear way to this barman’s heart,” said Zerkanti, sharing a wink with the barkeep. “More feed for the cow, Sirolean.”
“Aye, Sliver,” said the stout man.
“Sliver? Sliver, what does that…?” Rodrigo was lost. The tip of the knife blade under his chin stilled his tongue.
“You want your money? You follow me,” she said, serious as death.
Another peal of laughter fluttered from the dark lady as she approached the table with a fresh round of ale for the fat man’s crew. More laughing. More singing. More bad jokes. More groping of the somehow too accommodating barmaid who just barely avoided the advances of the jolly whale of a man. And then he saw it. A plume of purple on a wide brim, sitting proudly atop one of Virago Opulus’ men.
That bastard is wearing my fucking hat! Rodrigo seethed.
He stood up, sober as dawn, and walked to the Virago’s table. The fat man was booming to the barman now, “Yeoman! Set me your finest room upstairs! I’m going to plough the scrad bitch’s fields!”
Rodrigo stood tall before the Virago and his gang. “Sir! There is a matter that we need settled! And THAT MAN,” he pointed at the thug, “is wearing MY BLOODY HAT!”
Silence fell like a gavel on the room.
After a long moment, the Virago barked, “Well he can keep it then can’t he? PISS OFF! HAAAAA!”
After that it was all a blur. Rodrigo remembered his fist flying and doeskin glove connecting with the teeth of the wearer of his stolen hat. After that a whirling shape of black and white spun out of the corner and a loud booming noise filled the room. Smoke was everywhere. His head hit the floor, and he felt agile hands grasp his collar and spirit him toward the door. In the rush of the clatter, he could make out the sound of the fat man bleating indignation in his direction and the tavern erupting into violence. Then all went dark.
When he came to, he was on a hill, leaning against a tree overlooking the inn. Four of Old Ash’s regular soldiers were shouting at the barman while another eight were leading men out of the front door.
“Shhhhhh,” Zerkanti said, once again clad in her midnight clothes and a serious look upon her face.
“What happened?” Rodrigo whispered.
“The fat man got what was coming to him. Possession of a forged letter. The Tyrant takes a dim view of counterfeiters,” the elf said in a low tone, almost whimsically.
Virago Opulus was led from the inn, head bowed in shame, his hands wrapped in a swaddling cloth dripping from the inside with his own blood.
“What happened to him?” Rodrigo blurted.
Zerkanti held a single finger up to her lips.
“His hands wandered where they shouldn’t. He’ll have a hard time scratching his ass without any fingernails, though,” she smirked.
Crying like a baby, the fat man was led in shackles into the Tyrant’s custody.
At his feet, Rodrigo heard a jangling drop. He looked down, and there it was. His hat. His magnificent hat, filled with king’s coins. Three times the agreed upon bargain with Opulus.
“For your trouble,” Zerkanti said flatly.
Rodrigo looked down to inspect his unbelievable bounty, letting the coins cascade through his fingers. He looked up in awe… and the dark woman was gone.
As he rose and walked around to the hitching posts at the backside of the inn, he mused that the Old Ones had smiled on him today. Finally things were going to start going his way. Rounding the corner, he nearly tripped over an unconscious red headed girl clutching a barmaid’s tray. She was dressed only in her underclothes lying in a heap by the tavern’s back door. Rodrigo laughed to himself and looked around at the scene around him. And a single thought came over him.
Where the bloody hell is my horse?!?
Rodrigo trudged back to Arrain. A passing caravan was kind enough to get him to the high road, for a small bit of compensation, of course. He had them drop him near the outskirts of town and set about his plan. There in a mostly empty field to the south of Arrain stood a lone Elderwood tree in a field. It was probably spared the cutting for the conqueror’s fleet due to the superstitions of the locals that those trees were enchanted in nature, and that to fell one would bring bad luck. Good luck for me, Rodrigo mused. He dug a deep hole, and threw the gunny sack containing three hundred gold pieces bearing the smiling face of King Jory in. “Thanks, your highness,” the rogue uttered under his breath. He laughed wistfully to himself.
The walk back to Arrain was pleasant enough. Rodrigo was delighted to head down the winding streets toward a village where he was sure to get a decent meal in a pub. Probably some decent shelter, too. What’s more, he knew he’d see the smiling face of Gia Corin. Since smuggling her out of Sira Kepala all those years ago, he’d made it his business to hide her and see to her safety, keeping her safely away from the public eye. No mean feat when her face was emblazoned on every penny left over from the old kingdom.
“Greetings, m’lady, I trust you have staved off the forces of boredom in my absence!” Rodrigo said as he entered the back chamber of the Porter’s Barrel, the place where he had been currently sheltering the fugitive princess.
“Contrary to what you may think, sir Rodrigo, you are not the only source of excitement in the world!” Gia retorted, not entirely as annoyed as she usually attempted to appear. She embraced him as he entered the room.
“Well, your highness, how could you possibly get bored with all these… books… and dusty pieces of junk everywhere…?” he gestured to the surroundings of the princess.
“Do not disparage my choice of enlightenment, provincial boor! These books are a source of entertainment and enlightenment, and these artifacts are a doorway to wisdom from other worlds.”
“Yeah, well. Let me know if ‘Jane Flaxen’ wants any food from the kitchens in case she’s too tired to conjure up any,” he said, mocking the assumed name Gia was currently hiding under.
“Shhhh, you. Yes please,” the bright eyed girl said with a grin. “You always know what will agree with me.”
“As you wish, your eminence,” he said with a deep bow. He exited the room with a mockery of a supplicant backing away from a royal personage.
Today had gone well, Rodrigo thought. He had gotten out of the scrape with the dark elf woman with his skin intact. He had a sizable fortune hidden where nobody else knew. And there was a young woman who seemed taken with him in a way that saw through every single ounce of bravado he threw at the rest of the world. For a moment he mused on the idea that maybe if he’d just been the humble Dirk Dunn, she may have still seen the worth in him.
Crossing into the public space of the tavern, he immediately knew all was not right from the lack of noise on the floor. A small, mean looking officer bearing the Mark of Kotu was poking his finger into the chest of Moorland Finch, the proprietor of The Porter’s Barrel.
“You had better stop running me around, you uppity little twat!” the officer said, “I come here bearing the mark of The Sovereign and defying me is tantamount to defying him. You were caught giving aid to a pirate who was in possession of His Highness’ grain. What’s more, you’re trafficking in this illegal coin that bears the faces of the defeated enemy on it! Where’s your sense of patriotism? I could have this place seized from you and throw you in irons for the rest of your miserable life for this alone.”
“No need to get cross, Commander Vask, I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding,” Finch said diplomatically without raising his tone to the level of his tormentor.
Seeing the scene unfold before him, Rodrigo began to withdraw to the safety of the shadows from whence he appeared.
“Cross? Cross?!? Well far be it for me to agitate a good working man,” Quinneth Vask held up a fistfull of the old coin in his little hand, “All of this junk you are trafficking in is a mark of your treasonous intentions.”
Commander Vask began holding up one coin at a time and pelting Moreland Finch with them from accross the room.
“All of these shiny bits of shit are relics of a byegone era. Look at the faces on these fools! What could they do when His Excellency came for them?”
Pelt, pelt, pelt
“I’ll tell you what, nothing. They just let themselves get murdered like the stupid, weak kine that they were. Oh, look! Here’s your sweet King Jory! Look at how happy he always was! How happy is he now?”
“Look at a pair of the queens in silver! I wonder if His Highness enjoyed her before he killed her in front of her own children?”
He held up a copper.
“Oh, and the child! How sweet and innocent the child must have been when she saw a display of true strength from a real lord! I wonder if she knew she was the last of…”
Behind him, Rodrigo heard the door creak and you saw Gia’s face peering through. NO!, his thoughts screamed.
Rodrigo saw the mean little man’s eyes flick back and forth from the copper piece to Gia’s face, and back again. He saw the rat-faced commander think for a moment, and then his eyes widened.
Instinct took over for Rodrigo. He wheeled on his heel and bolted through the door, hauling Gia back with him. “We need to disappear. NOW!”
“We can’t just… but, all of my books!” Gia protested.
“Now, ‘Jane’. We’ve been made. We ride for Sira Zelaad this hour,” he said, hastily grabbing what he could and barring the door.
Then a terrifying smash lifted the door off of its hinges and before them stood a figure in shining dark metal, silent as the grave. The young commander followed it into the room. “We seem to have a doppelganger in our midst, I think,” he said, letting out a terrifying high-pitched cackle. “You won’t mind spending a little time with us while we figure out just who you are, would you?”
As they found themselves herded into the local magistrates jail, terror gripped them as they were stripped of all their possessions and shoved into a room with a tall, muscled man with a fire in his eyes.
Then a familiar dark elf woman was shoved into the room, and the door slammed behind her. Rodrigo’s heart sank.
“You!” Rodrigo and Zerkanti said simultaneously.