Chapter II: The Vagabond's Inn
Haldiros and I trudged through the darkness on our way southward, out of Ilthuul'xtat, from whence we had been exiled. Even though the wastelands of Hrauk lay far to the east, not the south, it was necessary to travel south in order to reach them. Ilthuul'xtat was the northernmost of Umbraltide's three great cities, after all. On our journey, we would first pass through the Woodlands of Zelyon, beautiful throughout the year, and reported to be haunted. Secondly, we would come to Ir'xtat, the City of War and the Ebon Elves. His Highness Ir himself, an Ebon Elf, paid homage to Vysoldat, the Consummate Warlord. I thought I'd suggest to Haldiros that we make a pilgrimage there once the time was right. Even though Haldiros followed no god, I believed it would be wise to pay my respects to the Lord of War if I was going to be fighting one. Thirdly, to the east of Ir'xtat, lay the green Plains of Suhar, and then finally, at their very edge, the wastelands of Hrauk.
For now, however, Haldiros suggested that we find a room for the night.
I agreed. "I'm exhausted," I said, "but I don't have a copper coin to my name! When I was imprisoned in Ilthuul'xtat awaiting execution, the guards took my weapons and money. I have nothing, and that's a sorry state for a warrior to be in! You don't suppose we could lie down in some field out here?" I smiled.
Haldiros snorted. "I'm an Elf," he replied, "not a beast! As for your having no coin, I suspected as much, and that's why I'm offering to pay for our room if we do find an inn. If it wounds your pride, I'm sorry, but I am your benefactor and rescuer. Allow me to rescue you once more," he said, nudging me gently. I grunted consent, my pride indeed wounded a bit, but for the moment, I didn't care. As long as swallowing it earned us a roof and a bed...
I thought we'd have to wander for at least two more hours before finding a place to stay, but soon Haldiros and I spotted the glow of torchlight in the distance. As we approached it, we also heard merry shouts and laughter, echoing from a run-down and dilapidated tavern called The Vagabond's Inn. "How about this?" I asked Haldiros. "The sign says that this place is an inn, so if it has rooms for the night, would you be willing to pay for one?"
"Indeed. A palace it's not, but a palace is not what we need right now."
Thus we both stepped toward the doorway and entered the Vagabond's Inn.
"Hail! Ha! Ho-ho! Raise your steins!"
The bellowing of drunken toasts reached our ears as the heavy scent of fresh-brewed ale reached our noses, mingled with frying grease. The smells turned my stomach and made my mouth water at the same time. How long had it been since I'd eaten? The gruel that the old crone had brought me in my prison cell had lasted since this afternoon, and Vysoldat knows that's not very long! Haldiros escorted me through the labyrinth of rickety tavern tables and tavern-goers, and we both sat down at what was perhaps the only empty table in the place!
A tavern-maid approached us, with a broad chest and narrow patience. Haldiros, to my surprise, did not even seem to consider staring at her. "What d'ye want?" she asked, placing a hand on her hip. "I haven't got all day."
"Does this inn rent out rooms for the night?" asked Haldiros. The wench nodded, and my friend the Ebon Elf reached into a velvet pouch that he carried on one of the loops of his belt. "Then rent us out one, with two beds, and make sure it's free of all the usual vermin. Also, send someone with a plate of dark bread and butter, ale and meat if you have it." I looked closer in the dim candle-light at our table and saw that Haldiros had offered her silver and gold, not the usual copper. Where did he find such coin? I was curious. The tavern-maid blinked at it, nodded hungrily, and went to prepare the room and fetch our meals.
"I earn my coin honestly, Secundant,"
said Haldiros, noticing my utterly surprised look. "I am no thief, nor am I a beggar. That man isn't, either," he said, gesturing to a very tall and muscular man with sandy-golden hair and a stubble of beard. "He is only a drunkard, and I suspect he wants a seat."
"Drunkard?" whooped the man, pulling up a table-stool and grinning at us. "Ha! I may have had an ale or two, but the only thing I truly get drunk on is battle." He winked, and I could see that this man had greasy shoulder-length hair, some coarse whiskers which gave him the rugged air of a pirate or brigand, and a scar underneath his left eye. "My name is Bryan Borneblade, and that's because I was born to bear a blade." He smiled and unsheathed a strange weapon, which to my eyes was a cross between a dagger and a sword. "It's called a khopesh,"
he said, "and I forged it myself."
"Hey! No weapons in here!" cried a girl, or rather I should say a young woman, with fiery hair in a braid down her back. "The inn's rules, ye know."
"Sorry," smiled the man as he shrugged his shoulders and sheathed his blade. "I was just showing it off. No harm, no foul. Say," he said, turning to the both of us, "who are you? I've introduced myself, so why don't you?"
"My name is Haldiros," said the Ebon Elf, "and I am a refugee from Ilthuul'xtat. My companion and I just came from there, and we were searching for a room for the night. It seems we have found one, and we've found you as well."
"I'm a Secundant,
" I said quickly, fearing that either the man would soon tire of Haldiros' dry sense of humor, or Haldiros would tire of the man's quick and ale-fueled jabs. "At least, I was one before I was suddenly exiled from Ilthuul'xtat." I decided not to mention the part about nearly being burned at the stake; I would reveal such details only if and when I trusted Bryan Borneblade fully. "I was one of the reservists for the Emperor's Guard, and now I'm just a hapless warrior with no weapons and not a copper to my name." I folded my hands and put my elbows on the table. "I've been sent on a mission by my Emperor, since I've fallen from his good graces. Haldiros here has offered to assist me." I winked slyly at my Ebon Elven friend.
Another tavern-maid, much thinner than the first, brought large plates of food for Haldiros and me. Bryan Borneblade signaled imperiously for one of his own. "What's the mission?" he asked, scratching the stubble of his chin. "I could help you, if you'd have me along. Anything for the King of Fear." Bryan rolled his eyes and scoffed, and I began to like him already. Anyone who had the unmitigated gall to make fun of Ilthuul like that was great in my book!
"The Emperor says there are bones that roam--skeletons, I believe--and dead men who walk out in the wastelands of Hrauk," I said. "Ilthuul wants me--us--to venture out there and see if the rumors are true, or if they're merely the superstitious ramblings of superstitious folk newly come to Ilthuul'xtat."
Bryan Borneblade rolled his glazed hazel eyes. "Harrumph! It's the latter."
A female's voice, cold and dead-certain, rang nearby. The red-haired lass that had cried foul when Bryan Borneblade revealed his weapon stood up from her barstool, tipping it over, and weaved her way toward us. "My name is Yradne Tenyar, a sellsword, and I know for a fact that it's true. I have family who live in the very eastern Plains of Suhar, and they say they hear the wails of the dead from the direction of Hrauk. They've seen shadows in the night. My uncle swears he saw a skeleton who walks. I am no superstitious woman, or a mad one. The choice is yours--believe me, or return to Ilthuul'xtat and let the dice fall where they may. What will ye do?"
"Well, we're certainly not going back to Ilthuul'xtat," grumbled Haldiros, rolling his steel-gray eyes. "Yradne, if what you say is true, you could be useful on this endeavor." He took a bite out of his thick slice of dark-brown bread and gestured toward Bryan. "You too, Borneblade, if you're up for it. What do you say, Secundant,
since you are in fact our leader?" I nodded. What Haldiros said made sense, and besides, we needed allies if this was in fact a bona-fide mission and not a wild-goose chase out into the middle of nowhere, where we'd either die of thirst or get bitten by deadly snakes and scorpions!
"I say you're right," I told Haldiros. "Borneblade? Yradne? Are you with us?"
"Aye," said Bryan, biting into his roasted hen drumstick. "All for one and one for all, as some heroes much older than I used to say! Say, Yradne," he said, gesturing toward the red-haired woman, "what's with your armor? It's red, yes, and it looks like woven chainmail, but why does it look like a robe?"
"It's more useful for my other practice," replied Yradne with a sly wink. "I said I was a sellsword, which is true, but I am also skilled with the--arcane arts." She glanced hastily around her; fortunately, no one else seemed to have heard. "By trade, I'm a wizard, though I wear chainmail for extra protection. I crafted this myself out of voynatine, the metal of the Consummate Warlord himself. Please do not reveal my true occupation to anyone else. Wizards and other mages are marked for death in Umbraltide. Please--don't betray me!"
Bryan Borneblade scowled. "No?" he asked. "I don't traffic with witches."
a witch," hissed Yradne through clenched teeth. "Witches, by their very nature, intend to do evil. That is not my way. Second of all, a witch casts dark spells that leech the life out of her victims slowly. I do not. I cast the spells of fire, earth, water, and air, not those of necromancy. If you intend to turn me over to the inn guards and have me burned, do so, but don't toy with me, mercenary! I'm only trying to help, whereas you--!"
"Ah!" Bryan Borneblade waved his hand at Yradne dismissively. "I was just joking. I meant no such thing. Let's go on this mission together, with our Elf and Human friends, and we'll pound those skeletons to a pulp!" He guffawed.
"Agreed," answered Yradne dryly, "but we have to trust each other if we do. Otherwise, this mission, and it is
a mission, will fall apart before it even starts. That means no backstabbing, no turning against one another, and especially no petty bickering." Yradne folded her arms across her chest, blazing in the candlelight with the red metal of the Warlord covering it.
"No petty bickering?" asked Bryan Borneblade. "Ah, ye witch, you're no fun!"
This time, we all laughed, although a bit uncomfortably. Our merriment mixed with the noisy chewing and chomping and slurping we all did before bedtime. Haldiros, being the hero and good sport that he was, coughed up a bit more silver and gold for a second rented room. I was in with Yradne, and Bryan and Haldiros shared the extra one. We were now four wandering warriors on a dangerous quest instead of two, and one of them even knew a bit of magic! Who knew what awaited us now, except walking undead and a few quarrels?
Watch that one,
said a voice in my head. Watch those two, Yradne and Borneblade. The Elf means you no harm--in fact, he may be of great benefit to you--but Borneblade and the Wizard bear a closer look. Who says that one will not turn against the other, especially when Bryan says that he doesn't 'traffic with witches'? He may be a joker, but that was no joke.
I settled into a deep, uneasy sleep, brought on by Yradne's calm breathing.