Karnak sighed, blowing air out through his tusks. Being a musician in Riddleport was tough. Being an ork musician, doubly so. Most taverns simply turned him away, leaving only the dives down by the docks that tailored to the manual laborers who worked long back-breaking hours for a few coppers.
More worrisome was that most of the workers in the Basking Shark seemed more interested in their ales than in his tunes. Even the bawdier songs that he had learned as a youth in taverns just like this had provoked little response. It seemed that the strange haze that had muted the sun’s rays for the last few days had put a damper on everyone’s mood.
‘One last try’ thought Karnak to himself, plucking softly at the strings of his lute. He launched into an old ballad, one of love and betrayal, of revenge and loss. He drew deeply on his own experiences; his deep bass voice filling the tavern with such anguish and woe that even the most drunken of patrons lifted their heads to listen.
When he finished, there was but a moment of silence. Then tearful patrons began cheering and banging their dented tankards on the scratched and worn wooden tables. He even spied one of the barmaids clapping loudly, her eyes damp but a broad smile on her face. She had that worn beauty that comes from a hard life as a tavern wench. He gave her a saucy wink and was rewarded with a blush and a wry grin.
The audience was his, and when they quieted down he began his tale.
“Once upon a time there was a brave, yet foolhardy young man. One day while out walking he came across an elven gentleman. The gent was having a disagreement with two particularly burly orkish dockworkers. The disagreement eventually came to blows, but the elven gent was clearly no match for the two angry dockworkers. So, without a thought to the consequences young man stepped in to help him.
“Together, they managed to overcome the orks, who fled to nearest tavern to lick their wounds and drown their sorrows. The elf was grateful to the young man. A bard and historian, he had little coin to spare, but he offered to teach the young man what he knew as payment instead. The young man agreed and for the next year, the elf was true to his word.
“He taught the young man how to sing and play the lute. He taught him about the history of Barsaive and of the mighty weapons used by its heroes. He even taught him his own language, Sperethiel, the tongue of the elves. The young man drank in all that knowledge like a fine wine. He dreamed of one day being one of those heroes of lore, of wielding one of those mighty weapons.
“Then one day, the elf came to the young man distraught. He had been employed by Boss Kroat, a powerful ork and not one to be crossed, to discover the history of a particular weapon. However, it seemed that the weapon was a fake and the elf feared what would happen when Boss Kroat found out. He asked the young man to speak to Boss Kroat on his behalf.
“While the young man was also afeared of Boss Kroat, he agreed to the task for he now felt indebted to the elf for all he had taught him. He took the weapon back to Boss Kroat and explained that it was a fake. Boss Kroat was angry. He claimed that the weapon the young man had returned was not the one he had given to the elf. He accused the young man of trying to steal his magical weapon and did beat him sorely.
“The young man lay abed many a day recovering from his injuries. In all that time the elf never once came to see him. When he was again well enough to leave his bed, he went to inn where the elf had been staying, but he was long gone. All that the young man had left was a few scars and debts, broken dreams and a worn lute. And that is the truth.”
Karnak bowed his head as he finished the tale. A few of the patrons banged their tankards again, but most only muttered back, “And that is the truth.”
Karnak passed amongst them with his cup and even though they earned little, most of the patrons added a copper or two to his cup. He then found a space at the end of a table and waited until he caught the eye of the pretty barmaid. She swayed over to him with a practiced grace and leaned forward giving him a good view of heavy breasts straining against her low cut bodice.
“Might that young man have been yourself?” she asked with a sultry voice, filled with smoke and promise.
Karnak raised an eyebrow. “Both wise and beautiful,” he quipped. “Might I have a tankard of your finest ale and a room for the night?”
“Our finest ale is watered piss and all our rooms are full,” she laughed. “But for three silver pieces, you can share my bed. Just as long as you don’t try to take advantage of me while I sleep.”
“And what if I am unable to resist your womanly wiles, my lady?” he asked.
She smiled again and he found that he liked her smile. “Well then, that would cost you an extra five silvers.”
Carrick stood up to his knees in the stream, contemplating the texture of the cold water as it flowed past his legs. For the last three days of their journey the weather had been pleasant, with clear skies and no rain. So, although the air was still cool in the first light of dawn, he knew it would become warmer as the sun rose higher.
He became aware of a melodic voice calling his name and opened his eyes to see Juniper coming down the hill towards him. She was lithe and tall, like most elves, with long violet hair that hung in twin braids down her back and sparkling eyes the colour of emeralds.
“The caravan is ready to leave,” she scolded. “Everyone is waiting for you.”
Slowly, Carrick plodded out of the stream. Standing next to the young elf girl, he was more than a head taller than her. And he was perhaps three times as broad. His dark muscled skin was the texture of slate, covered with the dark brown of his living bark armour. Juniper had told him that when she had first seen him, she thought he must be an earth elemental. He had found that amusing, the first time he had felt that particular emotion.
“It will be warm again today and it has been several days since I had an opportunity to tend to my armour,” he explained. “It was beginning to look rather wilted.”
Juniper leaned close to him, examing the living bark. She made a few complex gestures and muttered under her breath.
“Well, it’s fine now,” she said after a moment. “It has drunk enough to last a few days at least and we will be in Riddleport in just a few hours.”
“Did your magic tell you that,” asked Carrick, intrigued by the young elementalist’s ability.
“No, silly,” she laughed in reply. “Your armor told me. The spell just let me talk to it.”
Aardel’s father was worried. And that worried Aardel. His father was a blademaster, an adept skilled in the art of combat. So what could possibly worry him?
“Son,” said his father. “I need you to deliver a package. It is rather urgent, so you will need to leave as soon as you finish your breakfast.”
“What is it?” asked Aardel, his mind still focused on what was worrying his father.
His father gave a weak smile. “It’s for Qet’chiqan. And the contents are for his eyes only, so I don’t want you sneaking a look. Now finish your breakfast, while I go and get it ready.”
The package was large and rather heavy. His father had fashioned a sling so Aardel could carry it over his shoulder, leaving his hands free. As he left, Aardel tried one last time to find out what was worrying his father, but the older elf just frowned impatiently.
“The only thing that’s bothering me is that Qet’chiqan is waiting for that package, while you dither around here asking foolish questions. Now get going and keep your wits about you.”
Riddleport was still quiet at this early hour. Aardel passed only a few people as he strode purposefully across town. Qet’chiqan lived on the other end of the town and it was going to take Aardel the best part of an hour to get there.
He set a brisk pace. Tall and lean, Aardel was all angles and sharp features. His long legs, toned from weapon practice with his father, covered the ground quickly. While the day looked like it was going to be fine and sunny, his father’s nervousness had infected him, and he kept a wary eye around him as he walked.
And lucky for him that he did. For as he crossed a quiet square, he noticed a couple of rough-looking humans loitering at the entrance to street he needed to go down. They also spotted him, and with a nod to each other started towards him.
Aardel changed direction and picked up his pace, trying not to be too obvious about it. He quickly thought out an alternative route in his head, while checking if the two men were following him. They were. So, as he turned the next corner, he also surreptitiously checked the dagger at his waist, loosening it in its hilt.