“What brings you this way travellers?” Aloysious questioned Uthyll, as they sauntered along behind Eli.
“We simply seek to visit a contact of Father’s in Winterhaven” She replied, but Pravus glared at her over his shoulder and she fell silent.
“My Daughter Uthyll and I have private business to attend to, halfling. It is not your place to question our intent”.
The halfling stared at his huge scuffed boots for a few moments as he plodded along next to Uthyll.
“Miss,” He whispered, “Did you know that the spirit messenger Marla was in that… that thing?” Aloysious stared, wide eyed at the haughty blonde as she pulled sarcastic faces at the back of her father’s scaly head.
“Yes. Of course I did” She smiled, as the halfling’s mouth fell further open.
“As did I” coughed Eli, starting over his shoulder briefly.
“Indeed” huffed Pravus, and rolled his yellow eyes.
“Look, the path narrows through those trees” The Half-elf piped up. “do you think you might perhaps unchain me, as I wouldn’t be surprised if there were bandits around these parts.”
“Must you herald every change in the scenery, Elf!” Pravus said, irritably.
“She’s right” Said Uthyll. I don’t mean to worry anyone, but there are a lot of aggressive strangers around of late, I fear we may struggle.”
“We’ll be fine, child!” commanded Pravus, and she dropped her next utterance quickly.
The light faded through the thickening branches and dappled the gleaming iron shoulders of Eli’s armor as he swept the bushes aside nonchalantly, carelessly letting them spring back and thwack Pravus lightly in the face and chest. He spat and snorted, becoming quietly more irate. Aloysious chuckled for a moment, before he was glaciated by Uthyll’s stare and fell reverently silent.
After a few silent moments, but for the crunching of leaves underfoot, another giggle rang into the canopy.
“Shut up or I’ll flense you” growled Uthyll to the Halfing, who was staring up at the patches of sky and cloud swimming over the mesh of branches and leaves.
“I said nothing!” he hissed at her, and his eyes widened as Pravus and Eli glanced angrily over their shoulders once more, Pravus hissed as a branch flicked his nostril.
“I heard it too” whispered The Half-Elf. Uthyll furrowed her brow and her eyes darted around.
A spear sliced the air in front of Eli, and thudded into a keeling and rotting ash, sending white flakes tumbling onto the fungus and rocks below.
“Kobolds!” Blurted Eli and Uthyll simultaneously. Without pausing for a breath, Uthyll pushed past him, leaving him frowning as she hiked, determinedly up the one of the banks that flanked both sides of the path. As Eli lunged forward with his sword, Uthyll darted further up the bank, knowing only her hunting instinct to gain a height advantage. Eli drew his sword, and thrust it forward into the air, nostrils flared and eyes darting around. Aloysious drew his daggers, and dutifully stood back to back with Eli. Pravus rolled up his sleeves angrily, and dragged the Half-Elf forth.
“No you don’t” Roared Eli, and raised his sword skywards. The half-elf whimpered and Pravus hissed obscenities as the Tiefling brought his sword heavily down upon her chains, knocking her to her knees with a thud but splitting the metal loops wide open.
The half-elf threw her arms wide, wincing as her shoulders stretched for the first time in over a day, only to be thrown to the floor again as a thick wooden spear pierced her satchel, shattering the glass bottles that made up the sparse contents and tearing her small clutch of parchments in half.
“You foolish girl” screeched Pravus, his yellow eyes ablaze. “You did not see that coming, you are lucky to be alive!”
He threw his hood around his head, and slipped behind a tangle of thorn bushes, all jostling for the top spot on a huge rotting tree stump at the side of the rocky path.
The woman blanched, but tore her satchel fiercely from the wooden spear now embedded in the path, and rolled away from Eli and Aloysious, who had steeled themselves above her. Aloysious, grunting an alert to Eli, threw his first dagger into the shoulder of a hissing and thrashing kobold who was snaking down a gnarled oak upon the embankment.
“Dragon slaves” he spat over his shoulder to Eli, who swung his blade at an approaching pair of attackers, both wielding dual daggers. He knocked them prone, and as they scrambled away from him, two arrows whipped through the air, one hitting the first kobold in the shoulder, his partner taking the other to the shin. They writhed, angrily, wrenching the arrows from their scaly limbs and limping towards Uthyll, who, having fired two arrows at once was throwing up dirt trying to scramble further up the bank.
“Fall back” Pravus hissed from his hiding spot at Eli and Aloysious as they made to march after the pair, and they stopped in their tracks, confused. He pointed with a solitary clawed finger at the canopy above, and they spied six more kobolds swaying on their branches, daggers drawn. Wild-eyed, they stared at Pravus as he crawled out from the mess of hedges and elegantly stretched his leathery hands towards them.
“ROLL!” He cried to Uthyll and she threw herself down the hill with wild abandon, knocking the pair of advancing kobolds back to the path with her. Eli and Aloysious pounced upon them, cutting them swiftly with their blades as Uthyll came to a halt in a cloud of dust beside them.
Lightning illuminated the sky, causing the pathway to fall into darkness as flames erupted in the papery sprays of autumn leaves that adorned the trees around them. The ‘dragon slaves’ that clung to the branches of the canopy fell around them, as the pungent smell of burnt scaly skin permeated the forest floor. Pravus drew the invocation back into himself as the flames died to smoke, breathing harshly and flexing his tired hands. He lowered his hood, and ran to his daughter who was struggling to stand, aided by the sheepish half-elf. The redheaded woman pulled leaved and twigs from her hair, and aided her walking with a strong arm.
Eli, sheathing his blade, strode over to Pravus.
“Keeping a civilian captive is poor practise under threat of ambush. The Elf walks freely”
“She goes nowhere without our say so” hissed Pravus, agitated and weary.
“That is your desire, then it is your work to keep her. I am not your mercenary” Eli spoke slowly and carefully.
“I don’t recall asking for assistance detaining my own prisoner. In fact, by unchaining her you create me more work, sir” said Pravus.
Eli grunted at him, and turned to Aloysious who had retrieved his dagger and was reassembling his belongings fussily.
“My name is Adriana” offered the Half-Elf, who was gently anointing Uthyll’s grated arms with a handful of wet leaves. “and I will not attempt to run from you. I know you will kill me if I do. Just give me leave to walk freely and defend myself, I will keep you all healthy, or, I might at least try”.
Pravus, speechless and undermined, sighed.
“Very well. We move to Winterhaven now” announced Eli, uncomfortable with the silence and the indifference of his new comrades.
“It’s about a days walk from here. If we move, we’ll get there by dusk” Adriana offered, to more glares from Pravus.
The walk was free from attacks thereafter, but often steeped in stony silence. Aloysious would, from time to time, attempt a polite flow of conversation, and every now and the Adriana would point out a healing herb, or tell of her memories of certain areas of the hillside or the forest path, but both Pravus and Uthyll remained tacet. The bloodshed had had a profound effect on them both, as if it had seeped into the clouds above them, only to rain down again and again. Visions of Anghammer draped across the wreckage of Pravus’ study bore into them both, her golden braids unwound and her face glassy and pale. Erik’s wild cries of anger, the feel of his hot head in Uthyll’s hands, and the stickiness of his blood as she dug into his cheek. Both father and daughter were ill, their stomachs both churning and their fear thundering louder with every mile closer to Winterhaven.
By the time the sky had begun to turn an ash grey, and the stars began to struggle through the thick clouds that had begun to hang over the horizon, they spied a modest watchtower stoically planted at the side of the winding path. A solitary figure sat in the grass by a battered cart, an old, thin, white pony grazed at the front of it.
As the band of travelers drew closer, they could see that the figure was a young elf maid, who sat weaving a basket among the weeds. She eyed them suspiciously as they passed, with almost a hint of fear in her eyes. The cart, almost empty, held sprigs of lavender, ferns, poppies and wildflowers of all colours. In the distance, a flat stony settlement glowed with lazy yellow light, smoke winding from a few crooked chimney towers, whilst ravens screeched and coughed from a ramshackle wooden attic towering above most of the rooftops.
As they approached the gates to the city, they were eyed by bleary guardsmen, who did not ask to see their papers, only nodded. Pravus noted that ordinarily, it would have been considered strange to welcome a Tiefling into any Nentir settlement, but the guards seemed unphased. Almost expectant.
A fat little Inn poked out of the tightly wedged houses and stables that lined the main street of Winterhaven. It looked, through the webs of hanging lanterns and signage, as though it led towards a square with a large grimy well, however, Pravus ushered the group towards the smell of roasting pig and into the Inn.
“Father, we have very little gold” Whispered Uthyll to Pravus, as the landlord, a grizzled elderly man with streaks of white hair tamed into a band behind his head, stared at them impatiently.
“Worry not” he whispered back. “Good sir!” He jovally strode upto the bar. “My entourage and I require two adjacent rooms this evening, I have here enough to cover the cost of this, and a few jugs of mead for our party!”
The man blinked at him slowly. “One room left upstairs, one room left down here.”
“Ah. Well, I imagine a fine proprieter such as yourself might find it all too easy to arrange another client to perhaps be upgraded to a finer room. Even at, say, my expense?”
“Not moving anyone.” Grunted the man. “you take what I got or you go stay in the stables”.
“Delightful!” breezed Pravus. “We’ll gladly take them.”
As Pravus wearily handed over the appropriate amount to the innkeeper, Aloysious tugged at Eli’s sleeves.
“M’lord, those dwarves over there, they must be staying here, maybe they could swap with us?”
“Why do we need to be in rooms so close, Aloysious?” Eli was growing tired of following Pravus’ whims.
“Did you see the way he burnt those kobolds to ashes? He is a talented mage, my lord. Surely we’d rather keep close to him, and keep an eye on what he is doing. He must value your sword arm more than he lets on, as I certainly don’t think he needs our protection. He must feel otherwise.”
Eli listened, eyeing the pair of dwarves, who were throwing small metal cubes into a bowl, and periodically laughing or cursing.
“They play some sort of game” Eli mused. Eli had never been one for games, nor laughing. “I will ask them if they will trade rooms.”
“Wait! Maybe I should address them!” hissed Pravus, but Eli had already begun to make his way across the inn.
Aloysious placed his head in his hands. He had seen Eli Dajaal’s powers of persuasion in action. His diplomacy was not one of his strong points. As surely as he expected, Eli returned within moments, red-faced and irritated.
“The gentlemen do not agree to a trade” he spat.
“What happened?” quizzed Uthyll.
“Yes, they are staying in the room opposite upstairs.”
“and?” she pressed.
“I asked them nicely for a trade.”
“Well?” Uthyll grew impatient.
“Let’s just say they have no appreciation for fine Ishvali manners, the metal pigs.” grunted Eli.
“Oh hush! My Lord, such language!” Squeaked Aloysious, turning red at the slur.
“I assume this is another example of those fine Ishvali manners, Mr Dajaal” Pravus drawled. “Well, since our experienced diplomat hasn’t managed to convince them to trade rooms I imagine we may have to assume another approach.”
Aloysious glanced nervously at the two Dwarves, who were now staring at the flustered group of travellers. One whipered to the other in a broad harsh dialect, then they roared laughing, slamming their tankards on the table. Uthyll flushed with annoyance. How dare these stout little commoners laugh at us.
“A drink, all.” She commanded and pouted at her father before he could suggest his idea for a “different approach”, and he rolled his reptilian eyes, shuffled to the bar and set about rummaging through layers of robes for his gold. Uthyll knew that any more attempts to negotiate with the rough and boisterious dwarves would be met with further ridicule. She had seen many a frustrated merchant lose their cool at the hands of Berg and his mocking, rouguish temparament. Once those dwarven men had decided you were to be the butt of their joke, it was hard to escape, until something funnier came along. She wondered whether they had wives or sisters with them, as usually the dwarven women were a little more willing to give you a chance, despite their bullish ferocity and skill as axe-warriors. Uthyll often saw them as the lionesses of the mountains. The male dwarves had bigger manes and louder roars, but the females would get the kill more often than not.
Her fascination with the Volkan way of life had led her to ride alongside Berg on many a hunt and beg him to tell her tales of his home. He had hailed from Garunsen, a stony city north of TeufelTor, the Volkan Capital. He was often happy to regale her with his stories, usually becoming carried away, gesticulating wildly, impersonating everyone from tavern floozies to thunderously angry Kings. He’d wobble side to side on his mount, almost falling off, as he weilded and jabbed his imaginary greatsword at trees and hedges, re-enacting battles for a delighted Uthyll and an amused band of men.
Often Berg had fishished a long tale by pointing at a piece of his chunky bronze jewelry and said “An’ thas where I got this little beauty!” or “and all the wench left me was this bauble!” It was customary for the Dwarven folk, according to Berg, her only real source, to gift each other a piece of handmade jewelry to mark a romance, a battle, a raid, a marriage or a birth. Berg had several torques from women he’d romanced, and a fair few stones from the war cheifs of Volka. Their comrades, Especially Groden and Fest, had thought it hysterical that a War-Chief would gift a battle-victor a ring or a necklace, and had hooted about how romantic the Dwarven men were to one another. They had also found it bizarre that romances could fizzle out but be looked upon so calmly by the Dwarves, choosing to part and remain friends, even lovers, after a marriage had ended. These partnerships seemed to stack up with no tension, confusion or jealousy, and once again, Uthyll and the men would be baffled.
She studied them closely and saw that they wore few rings and bracelets. She could see a fine golden chain on one of them, and a simple gold band on another. Perhaps they were young, she pondered, or just awful in pursuit of both battle-victories and women. Either way, she thought, they don’t seem as much of a threat as they might think.
Pravus clattered back to the group, who had gathered sheepishly round the table, with his bony hands full of tankards. He dumped them unceremoniously on the rough-hewn table and picked the fullest, drinking deeply from it.
“Looks like we’re to split up tonight then” offered Adriana, cautiously lifting her brimming mug of ale to her lips.
“Not if I can help it, Elf” Muttered Pravus, staring hard into his drink.
“They’re playing some sort of dice game it seems” Aloysious pointed out. “Do you think they’d bet on it?”
“Bet?” Grunted Eli
“Yes, sorry my Lord. To bet is to gamble something on the unknown outcome of a game or event. If you’re correct, you win gold, if not, you may lose”
“This seems how a fool lives” complained Eli, clearly troubled by the concept. “Why would you enter a battle if you were unsure that you could win?” He growled crossly.
“Some… Some folks might find it thrilling” Muttered Aloysious
“Fool men!” Punctuated Eli, quite satisfied with his rejection of the idea.
“I know this game” mused Pravus. “The idea is to score the lowest number with the most throws. He who might roll six ones will fare better than he who rolls three twos. It is a very old Volkan game based on their philosophy of small, significant victories, choosing your battles, quitting while you’re ahead and evenly spreading your influence and resources. I quite like it. I was never any good at it, but I do quite like it.”
“It’s a folly based on luck!” protested Eli. “There is no skill in this!”
“Yes, Yes. Well observed Master Dajaal” Pravus soothed. “It’s certainly worth a punt.”
“Punt?” Eli looked confused once more.
“He means a bet, a gamble sir.” Squeaked Aloysious.
“You know so much, maybe you are the man to play” Grunted Eli. “Show me how it is to be done”
“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly!” Aloysius looked horrified. He glanced around the table for help, but Uthyll, Pravus and Adriana stared grimly back in silent nomination.