Three Winds was burning – brilliant flames ranging from dark purple to teal, beautiful and terrifying all in the same breath. Clenching at the star pendant hidden beneath my shirt for comfort, I found my eyes casting towards the harbor. It was burning. Everything was burning. My stomach twisted in uncomfortable knots as I saw a pair of sails peeking over the horizon erupt into violet flame. Was it the Night Maiden?
“Shall we look for survivors?” I heard someone ask. My mouth twisted into a sour grimace as I reluctantly turned away from the heart-wrenching scene. There truly was no going back. “I think we should get out of here before the fire spreads,” I snapped, glancing at each of my companions in turn. What an odd bunch we were.
And then the sad little dwarven man who had gotten himself kidnapped by a bunch of grade-D bandits was speaking. Something about not being able to pay us until we reached the next town. Typical. Dor Odir. The name tickled at the edge of my mind, as though I should know it. Perhaps I had seen it on a map somewhere? It was a dwarven city no doubt, since Mister Let-Me-Smoke-a-Pipe-While-People-are-Burning-Alive was so keen to go there.
“Now, wait a minute. I’m not going anywhere further until I know your names,” I groused loudly. Was I truly the only one present who had a problem with traveling about with a band of nameless strangers? But they offered up their names rather easily. The boy was Faereth. The misplaced employer was Thimber. The two dancers were Yo and Kaye. And the dwarven warrior was Dudeman. Odd name.
“I’m Elle,” I offered simply, trying out my new name. Hopefully it would only be a temporary alias, as I wasn’t particularly partial to it; but it was the best I could do on such short notice. I wasn’t the best at fabricating half-truths on the fly (as had already been exhibited by my bungled bluff earlier).
And then it was off to Dor Odir we went. Walking. And more walking. And more walking. And then, you know what? We walked some more. We passed a few travelers coming from the opposite direction on the way and I watched amusedly as my companions attempted to warn them away from the now non-existent town of Three Winds. Unsurprisingly, their warnings went unheeded and were even laughed at by some. What was the point in warning them away? Let the bastards see the truth for themselves.
Twelve hours later (or as well as I could guess):
As you can well imagine, I was miserable at this point. My feet ached, my legs throbbed – even my back was knotted in the most uncomfortable of ways imaginable. Teeth gritted against my discomfort, I fantasized longingly of my snug bunk with its solid mattress and view of the night sky from the porthole located conveniently beside my bed. But, I suppose one good thing can be said for sleeping out-of-doors. I could see for miles.
Throwing back my head, I let the starlight wash over me, taking as much comfort I could from my constant friends. In all my years, through all the hardships, not once had I been apart from my starry companions. Even in daylight, I knew they were above me, lingering out of sight until night fell once more.
But I have to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to the whole sleeping on the ground bit. My background lacked a definite lack of camping experience and as such, I was without a bedroll or any form of cover – unlike my companions. As we made camp for the night on the side of the road, I found myself scouting out a soft patch of dirt, my boots scuffing tiredly over the dusty ground. I now understood the saying “bone-tired.”
“Want to share my bedroll?” I heard a gruff voice call from behind me. Dudeman. Shooting him a sharp glance over my shoulder, I then gave him a dismissive sniff before flopping unceremoniously to the ground. It was even more uncomfortable than I had imagined. Curling up into as tight a ball as I could manage, I then wiggled my hand beneath my shirt to grasp at my star pendant. (I couldn’t sleep without it nestled into the curve of my hand). I’m sure I would have looked quite silly to any who dared to come over and inspect my sleeping arrangements, but to be honest, I didn’t much care what my companions thought of me.
“I thought I already told you that you’re not my type,” I grumbled back. I thought I heard the dwarf chuckle in response, though I couldn’t be sure. Cheeky bastard.
As my companions tossed around the idea of setting up watch shifts and then discussed who would take watch first, I felt myself begin to slip into an unconscious state born primarily from exhaustion. I can’t quite call it sleep because the word sleep brings with it an image of restfulness. My slumber was far from restful.
That night, I dreamt of my father. Over the years, I had begun to forget what he looked like and my dream-father was appropriately blurry and a bit vague about the face. But I was sure it was my father. Tall, confident, leaning over the railing of one of his ships, rushing off to yet another adventure while his family impatiently awaited his return . . .
“Elle, something’s approaching us.”
Yanked reluctantly awake, I rolled over, my body stiffer than I would have liked, and blinked accusingly upwards. It was the female dancer. “What is it?” I grumbled, fully prepared to roll back over and try to return to my dream. It hadn’t been wholly unpleasant . . . at least it had been more satisfying than my current position sleeping amongst the rocks.
“Something’s approaching us and I was wondering if you would please heal me,” Kaye implored. Damn it all, but she had seen me healing myself back at the mine.
As my sleep-fogged brain slowly grasped the full weight of her words, I rolled to my feet with a curse and snatched for my crossbow. It was unloaded – because I didn’t trust to not shoot myself in my sleep if it was otherwise – but that was a state easily remedied. Well . . . perhaps it would have been easier if I wasn’t still half-asleep, but damn if I couldn’t get my own weapon loaded. Glancing back to the dancer, I then turned my back to her with an indifferent shrug, brushing off her request for the time being.
“Sorry, but I have to have my priorities straight.”
With the familiar weight of my crossbow in my arms, I trudged forward to join the others with a well-placed yawn. A rather indignant yawn, to be exact. But, I suppose the sooner we dealt with this, the sooner I could get back to sleep. Squinting out into the darkness, I could just barely make out two hunched shapes armed with . . . spears? Ah well. Shoot first and ponder their motives while looting their corpses later. Stifling another yawn, I lifted my crossbow, aimed towards the murky figure on the left, and fired. I was only vaguely aware of my companions moving around me. Had I made contact? . . . I had. I had hit the bastard.
HA! I HAD HIT THE BASTARD. That’s right. Bask in it a little. Not too much . . . okay, I might have cried out. I might have jigged around a bit . . . in a dignified way, of course. I can’t quite remember, okay? All I wanted was to get back to bed. Really.
As Yo stepped into my line of fire, I slung my crossbow back over my shoulder and waited impatiently for the big, burly men . . . and Kaye . . . to finish off the beasties. My next yawn I didn’t bother stifling. Arms crossed, toes tapping, I tossed a lazy glance towards my right as I suddenly felt a presence materialize beside me. Fae, I thought with a dark smugness. What a girly name.
“What do you want?” I asked point blank of the boy. And more importantly, why wasn’t he out whooping ass with everyone else?
“He got boring,” he drawled simply, gesturing back towards Thimber who had crouched well out of the way of any sort of danger. I rolled my eyes at the both of them before turning my attention back to the fight just in time to see the last beastie drop. Finally.
Hitching my crossbow’s strap farther up my shoulder, I began to jog towards the others, making a beeline for the creature I had hit. I had to keep my priorities straight – retrieve my bolt first, then pilfer its valuables. As I drew closer, I noticed two things. One, the beastie was, in fact, a Gnoll. Two, my bolt had somehow disappeared into the Gnoll.
Sinking to my knees, I began my search for valuables, grumbling softly to myself as I went. What a mess I had managed to get myself into. Towns burning, kidnapped dwarves, bored half-elves . . . oh what horrors would I be forced to be endure next?! Ah, but maybe the night wasn’t all lost. The pleasant jingle of gold met my ears as my fingers closed about a small purse the Gnoll had been carrying. A quick glance inside confirmed my suspicions. 20 gold would more than make up for my lost crossbow bolt.
“I’ll be taking this,” I announced to the others before tucking the purse neatly into my own pouch. Surprisingly, no one challenged me. However, when five platinum were turned up on the other corpse, I did have the decency to decline my share. I am a lot of things, but greedy is not one of them. Well, okay, I can be greedy, but 20 gold was enough to placate me at the time. As long as I could get some more sleep, I was going to be a happy camper. But first thing first . . . I had a debt to repay.
“Here, take a quick walk with me,” I grumbled as I took Kaye by the arm and pulled her off into the darkness. “And keep this quiet,” I added before I took hold of my star pendant and uttered the incantation I needed to heal her. There. Maybe now I would get a little peace.
My task done, I began looking skyward, trying to ascertain the time by the position of the stars . . . and failing miserably. Bugger it all, I was just going back to sleep.
The next morning proved to be much like the previous day. Yes, more walking. This time, I didn’t even bother hiding my discomfort. Head down, hands clenched, I merely focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Left, right, left, right, left, rock. Damn rocks. Damn dirt. Damn road. I would have rather been locked in a ship’s hold with a dozen unwashed men for a month with nothing to eat but oranges and salted cod rather than walk one more bloody mile on that godsforsaken road.
At this point, I was pretty sure my blisters had blisters – and they were quickly reproducing.
There’ll be gold in it for you, I reminded myself after each step I took until I began chanting it like a mantra. Gold, gold, gold, gold, gold. Oh, and a bed, too. Damn if I was going to sleep one more night on the cold ground. Gold, bed, gold, bed, gold, bed, gold, bed.
As night began to fall, we reached a crossroads. Right to Dor Odir, left to only the gods cared. Every muscle in my body ached. Why was I the only one in obvious pain from the inhumane amount of walking we had been doing?! . . . That settled it. I was obviously in the company of freaks. Masochistic freaks. And, of course, as our luck would have it, the last mile of our journey was uphill. Really? Really. At that point, if the dwarf had asked if I had wanted him to carry me up the rest of the way, I would have gladly paid him to do so. But, grumbling and all, I made it. Dusty and sore, I made it all the same – and on my own two feet no less. But did I get my gold and bed then? No! Of course not. Then we had to wait in line for what seemed like an age just for a pair of burly guards to question our intentions. Or, at least, I assumed they were questioning our intentions. They spoke in dwarven and Thimber did the talking. I was too tired to bother casting a spell to be able to understand their words and to be quite frank, I could care less. They could have been pondering ways to serve me up for dinner and I would have happily hopped into a pot. Besides, there was no need for everyone to know the extent of my abilities this early on.
And then we were walking into the mountain, into the city of Dor Odir – the capital of the dwarven kingdom, as I was to learn. But as the stones closed up over my head and the sky became hidden behind layer of rock and earth, I felt a cold fear begin to creep about my throat and slither down my spine. I could not see the sky. My hand groped for the pendant at my chest and I immediately drew it out from beneath my shirt, my fingers closing about the silver and grasping as hard as I dared. The metal bit reassuringly into my skin. Breathe, I reminded myself sternly. Thimber was talking. Tune into the money bags.
I listened just long enough to hear, “I’ll be paying for your stay at this inn for the night,” before I immediately perked up and began looking at street signs. Of course it would all be in dwarven. Thankfully, Dudeman seemed to know where he was going. Trudging along after him, I let my body gratefully slip into autopilot for the time being. The establishment was much like one I would have expected to find in a dwarven capital – heavy on the ale and root vegetables. But dinner was warm and I had a bed waiting for me upstairs. But as I took the short stairs two at a time, my pendant felt a little heavier than usual about my neck. The stars are still there . . . just farther away . . . I thought with an uncomfortable lurch of my stomach. Maybe I should go a bit lighter on the ale next meal time.
Thankfully, my sleep was dreamless that night – when sleep finally came to me.
But, the next morning . . . the voices had returned. I awoke to them all gathered about my ear at the same time, their whispers mingling into one great sigh, as though they were all impatient to make up for lost time. Oh, such glorious time it had been – such silence! But all good things must come to an end, I suppose. “Shove off, you buggers,” I groaned disagreeably as I waved my hand uselessly through the air, as though to dispel the spirits – my other constant companions these hundred and some odd years. It was all in vain, of course, and we all knew it. But a girl has to try, right?
And the bastards had hidden my socks again.
When I finally managed to join the others downstairs, my trio of otherworldly stalkers in tow, it was to find Thimber impatiently waiting for us. “You have been summoned by the Council,” he informed us seriously. I tried my hardest to not roll my eyes. Oh gods, not the great dwarven Council. My heart was all aflutter with excitement. But at least I was getting breakfast first.
I followed the others on tender feet as we all marched along after Thimber as he led the way towards our meeting with the Council. To be honest, I wasn’t really all that excited. Nor was I paying attention to where we were going. My feet hurt and I still hadn’t been paid yet. I tuned back into my surroundings when we found ourselves in a waiting room of sorts. Dudeman was summoned first. I arched an eyebrow as I watched him leave us. We were to be interrogated privately? My spirits’ whisperings grew a little more agitated in my ear and I gave my head a violent shake before I reached for my pendant once more.
“I don’t like this place,” I admitted quietly to the others as we awaited Dudeman’s return. It seemed no one shared my sentiments. Well, bugger them all. The boy was next. And then the dancers, Kaye and Yo. But when it came time for my name to be called, I was conveniently skipped. I couldn’t keep the wry smile from my face. Of course, why would the dwarven Council want a full-blooded elf in their midst? Ah, well. Their loss.
And thus began the next leg of our little adventure. We were called into the Council as a group and given a task . . . with a pay attached to it that was too high to ignore. I could feel my eyebrows scaling my forehead as the conditions of our payment were made known. 1,000 gold up front and 1,000 gold upon the safe delivery of a message to . . . somewhere. I wasn’t really paying attention. Something or other Crown. My mind heard 1,000 gold and blanked on all else. But then my eyebrows were knitting as the corners of my mouth plummeted into a frown. Something wasn’t quite matching up. The Council was saying something about how this attack on Three Winds was obviously born from the Eastern Kingdom.
“And what makes you think that?” I heard myself asking.
The next thing I knew, I had been fixed with a stern gaze as I was fed an equally stern explanation about how this could not possibly be anyone other than the Eastern Kingdom. I felt my nose wrinkle in response. I wasn’t satisfied by the explanation – not by a long shot. It seemed weak, somehow, utterly lacking in substance. And the pay for this task didn’t necessarily match up with what we were being asked to do. Deliver a message . . . for 2,000 gold? A steep price.
“And you would trust an elf with this task, Your Majesty?” I asked of the king directly. But before he could respond, Yo intervened, steering the conversation in another direction – probably before I had my bony ass kicked out of the Council room for contrariness . . . of the pointy-eared variety.
But it didn’t change the fact that the gold was still too much for the task at hand and I said as much to my companions, hopefully low enough so that the Council couldn’t hear me. “Just food for thought,” I added glumly as the others seemed to disregard my warning. My ghostly companions seemed to approve, though, as they all murmured in my ear at once again. At least someone agrees with me. But all the same, the gold was too much to refuse . . . and perhaps that was what they had been aiming for in the first place. “Fine, I’m in,” I agreed, adding my voice to the rest of my companions. The sooner we were out of that mountain, the happier I’d be.
100 platinum richer and with my supply of trail rations replenished and with a new dagger nestled on my hip, I returned to the inn with my pendant clenched tight in my fist once more, a sheen of sweat glistening on my blue-tinged skin. I have to get out of here. I barely tasted my dinner and sleep that night was slow in coming . . . in part because of Dudeman’s less than quiet sport taking place in the adjacent room. Tangled in my own sheets, though I was thankfully alone, I glared reproachfully at the door as the points of my pendant pricked my fingers into numbness. But, at some point I must have slept because I did eventually awake. I dressed quickly after a borderline frantic hunt for my left boot . . . and then I was down the stairs and out the door of the inn.
After what seemed like bloody forever, my companions finally joined me and we set out once more, Thimber in tow yet again. And still, we had yet to be paid for saving his ass. I began to think we were never going to be paid . . . but all thoughts of gold left me as we broke out into the sunlight once again, the sky stretching above us for miles and miles of glorious blue. Sky. Beautiful, beautiful sky. A shuddering sigh of relief passed from my lips as I finally released my pendant. The points of the stars had left indents in my fingers that I hoped wouldn’t prove to be permanent.
And so south we went. More walking. My feet were never going to be the same again. We made camp that night somewhere in the middle of nowhere and I grudgingly took the third watch. Thankfully, the night passed uneventfully. And then there was more journey to be had in the morning (oh joy).
Walking, walking, walking, a tree, another tree, a farm, some travelers, walking, walking, walking . . . well, you get the picture. And then a man was talking to us. I made a point to shift about impatiently as the rest of my companions stopped to talk to the stranger on a cart. Well, at least it gave me a chance to catch my breath. Still, I did my best to openly roll my eyes where someone might see it. I may have succeeded. But I had little time to be contrary, as Kaye was then announcing that there were men sneaking up on us from the woods, much to Cart Man’s apparent shock. I was a little shocked, too. What was Kaye? A walking watch tower? Or simply paranoid? Cart Man seemed to believe the latter and I was keen to agree as well . . . until I was suddenly overcome by a sharp pain that caused black spots to bloom across my vision. What. The. Hell.
Too staggered to think, I simply drew my rapier and spun to face my assailant. Well, it was more like staggering to face my assailant rather than spinning, but you get the idea. Lunging towards the bastard, I felt my stomach turn over as he easily deflected my blow into a simple graze across his arm. It was deflected so easily. And gods, I was going to be sick. But then Kaye was beside me once more and I felt a flutter of gratitude for the dancer as my mind began to go black. No, I couldn’t black out now. No, no, no, no . . . My hand groped for my pendant once more as I began to utter the right incantation and slowly, I felt a sort of warmth wash over me and my mind began to focus once more and the wave of nausea ebbed, just in time for me to see my assailant drop at my feet. It took all the willpower I possessed to keep from kicking the man . . . repeatedly . . . in the groin.
Only a coward would strike someone from behind like that.
Scowling darkly, I touched my fingers gingerly to the back of my head. There was no blood. Well, wasn’t that a relief? . . . Actually, it was. My head still hurt too much to be genuinely sarcastic. Glancing about at my companions, I quickly assessed the situation, and managed to notice a couple of things.
One, Thimber and Fae had proved to be as useless as ever . . . again.
And two, it seemed we had now acquired a cart. Huzzah.