Chapter 2 - The trouble with Elves
Karnak arrived at the market early. Too early. The sun was just creeping over the roof of the merchant’s guild building on the East of the main market square, casting long shadows over the teamsters unhitching horses and leading them away to the stables of the nearby inns.
Merchants were only just starting to set up there canvas tents; here a spice merchant, there a silk trader. Unfortunately they were not selling yet. Karnak ground his teeth and approached one of the merchants, a trader in arms and armor.
“Good day, sir,” he smiled. “I was hoping to purchase a new sword but I see you are late in setting up today. Trouble on the road?”
Short, even for a dwarf, the merchant looked up at Karnak with a snort that was half frustration and half laughter.
“No troubles my tall friend,” grinned the dwarf. “At least none beyond getting a pile of rocks twice your height moving of a morning.”
The merchant nodded towards the north end of the market and Karnak’s eyes went wide as he spotted the tall figure of an obsidiman. At least a head taller than Karnak, the large figure was standing in the middle of the thoroughfare, its head swinging slowly left and right, taking in the all the sound and chaos of the merchants as they rushed around setting up their stalls.
“Now that is something you don’t see every day.” said Karnak, a glint in his eye. “If you will excuse me, sir, I will return later in the day to examine your wares.”
Without waiting for the dwarf’s response, Karnak set off at a brisk pace towards the obsidiman.
“Good morrow, stone brother,” called Karnak as he stepped up to large slate coloured individual. The obsidiman was an impressive figure, His dark skin rippled with strength and was covered with living bark armour. A massive shield was strapped to his left arm and at his waist hung a massive spiked mace.
“Hello friend ork,” rumbled the large figure, its gaze settling on Karnak.
Before Karnak could say another word, a slim figure appeared from behind the Obsidiman. “Another beggar, Carrick?”
Karnak gave an involuntary hiss as he spotted the long pointed ears of an elf. Although on a further look, the ears belonged to a rather pretty young elf girl with long purple hair and emerald green eyes. From her simple attire and the spiky fernweave armor she wore, she certainly wasn’t from Riddleport.
Recovering quickly, Karnak put on his best smile and launched into his spiel.
“Milady, I did not see you there behind your large friend. I am no beggar as you can see. I am but a humble citizen of this fine city. I can direct you to merchants that offer the finest of goods at the fairest of prices, inns serving the best food and ale, and with beds free of bugs. All my knowledge of what this city has to offer is yours for the cost of only a few silver pieces. So, how can I be of help to you?”
The obsidiman seemed on the point of answering, but the elf answered first.
“We are going to the Tower of the Magi. And we already have directions, so thank you for your kind offer but your assistance is not required. Come, Carrick. Let us be on our way.”
And with that, she turned on her heel and with the Obsidian lumbering after her headed off in exactly the opposite direction to the Tower.
Karnak shrugged and after spending a few more minutes circling the market to check out what the various merchants had on offer, he swung past a local fish merchant and picked up a still warm eel pie. With a tune on his lips and his mouth full of eel pie he ambled off in the direction of the Fool’s market.
When he arrived at the Fool’s market, Karnak was surprised to spot a pair of familiar figures.
“Stone brother, milady elf. Was your visit to the Mage‘s Tower a success?”
“We have still to make our way there,” snapped Juniper.
“Well, should you need my assistance you can usually find me in the Sea Serpent of an evening. Although it is not one of the places I would normally recommend for such as you.”
“I thought there would be more people,” interrupted Carrick suddenly.
Karnak looked around, the hairs on his neck rising as he realised they were alone in the square. By this hour, it should be filling up with hawkers, con-artists, snake oil salesmen and other disreputable traders. But the square was empty, not even a city guard to be seen.
“Trouble.” muttered Karnak, unstrapping his shield and loosening his sword in its scabbard. “I hope you can use that mace my stone friend. And milady, do you have any magics that can help us?”
“Well I…but not in my matrices. I would need to…” stammered Juniper.
“Then do it” grunted Karnak.
Aardaal was really worried now. He had been forced to change direction three times since leaving home. Every route he had taken towards Qet’chiqan’s house had been blocked by gutter thugs. He had spotted the first two easily, too easily he now suspected.
The second pair had been lurking in a narrow alley and he had only spotted them at the last moment when he caught a reflection off a drawn blade. The third pair had simply been standing in the middle of the road, clearly waiting for him.
All six of them were following him now. He realised they were herding him and needed to lose them. He hoped that cutting through the Fool’s Market would give him that chance. But as he turned into the square, he realised this was exactly where they wanted him. Apart from an unusual trio of an elf, dwarf and an Obsidiman, the square was empty.
Aardaal hesitated only an instant then headed towards the threesome. The goons following were mainly local thugs. It seemed unlikely that these three were in league with them. He was halfway across the square to them when he caught a movement from the corner of his eye.
Another two goons stepped out from an alley. The first was a large ork, the second a weasel-faced human holding a loaded crossbow. Aardaal hissed out his breath. Behind him, he could hear heavy footfalls as the other six goons entered the square. He closed his eyes for a second to focus his thoughts and then with brisk effective movements, drew his dagger and charged towards the two goons.
It almost worked. The human loosed the crossbow in surprise, the shot going wide. Then Aardaal performed a forward handspring that took him clean over the head of the human. But he landed slightly off-balance and the ork was quicker than he looked. He swung a heavy club at Aardaal’s head. Aardaal twisted, avoiding getting his skull crushed, but the club clipped the side of the head and he tumbled to the ground.
‘Passions‘ thought Karnak. ‘Why is it always elves?’
Clearing his throat, he took a step towards the goons. One of them was a large gap-toothed ork with silver capped tusks.
“Hoi tusker,” called Karnak. “You been hanging around these breeders so long you need six to one odds to take down one scrawny elf?”
The big ork turned with a grunt, “Hey, dey are wit him. Get em too!” The cap-toothed ork and three of the other goons turned away from the elf and started moving towards Karnak.
Karnak drew his sword and prepared to fight. But before he could act, Carrick moved. The Obsidiman seemed to glide across the ground at a pace much faster than Karnak believed such a large humanoid could move.
Carrick braced his heavy full shield as he charged the lead ork. There was a crunch as the two collided. Carrick stopped, but the ork was flung back several feet and landed on his back unconscious.
Then the other three were on them. Blades clashed as they thrust and parried. Karnak drove his blade towards one of the thugs but overextended. As he tried to recover, the thug thrust his shortsword into his side finding a weak spot in his armor. Karnak tumbled to the ground with a groan, feeling hot blood running down his side.
Behind him, Juniper yelped as one of the other thug’s blades nicked her arm. She focused through the pain and drew together the threads of her spell. The earth at her feet writhed and a dart of stone surged up, slicing open the face of the thug attacking her.
Aaardaal flipped back up to his feet and shook his head. The big ork grinned and swung his club back and forth in lazy arcs. Aardaal feinted then thrust, his dagger scraping the ork’s armor but failing to penetrate. The ork grunted and took a wide swing, which Aardaal easily dodged. Aardaal’s blade darted forward again scoring another hit but again failing to do any real damage.
Carrick turned his attention to the thug standing over Karnak. His spiked mace crashed into the thug’s side knocking the breath out of him and forcing him back several steps, allowing Karnak to get back on his feet.
Seeing the carnage that the Obsidiman was wreaking, Aardaal performed another flip ending up near the flat out ork. He scooped up the ork’s shortsword and tumbled forward, slicing one of the other grunts as he passed. Together the four quickly dispatched the remaining thugs, but not before one of them scored another hit on Karnak.
“My thanks”, whispered Aardaal. “But perhaps it would be best if you accompany me to my destination. It is not far from here.”
“He needs urgent care” said Juniper kneeling next to the bleeding Karnak.
With a smooth motion, Carrick scooped up the bleeding ork despite his feeble protestations. They crossed the Fool’s market and entered the King’s Way. After a few minutes hurrying along the street, they turned down a short alley and Aaardaal knocked at a heavy wooden door.
After a brief wait, the door opened. A look of relief came over the craggy face of a worried-looking obsidiman, which immediately turned to concern when it spotted the bleeding ork.
“Bring him in. Quick.” rumbled the obsidiman. The four hustled through the door and the obsidiman closed and barred it behind them. He led them across a tidy courtyard and up a sturdy wooden staircase to a narrow balcony.
“Put him in here” directed the Obsidiman. “I will fetch water and medicines.”
Carrick eased Karnak down onto the bed and helped him out of his armor. Underneath, his fine shirt was stained with blood.
“Give me room, Carrick” ordered Juniper pushing the obsidiman out of the way. She cut away Karnak’s shirt and wadded up the bloody rags into a compress to stop the bleeding. Qet’chiqan returned with water and bandages. She cleaned the ork’s wounds, sewed the cuts and bandaged him up. Throughout it all the big ork made no complaints, beyond an occasional hiss of pain through gritted teeth. When she was finished, he looked deep into her emerald eyes and whispered a soft thank you.
Juniper felt her cheeks colour. “No thanks necessary. But perhaps you should be more careful about whom you pick fights with in the future.”
Karnak gave a weak grin at that. ‘Elves’ he thought to himself. ‘Nothing but trouble.’
Fortunately no-one else had more than minor cuts and bruises. Still Juniper made sure that everyone’s injuries were properly cleaned and bandaged, including her own. The group then spent the next few days at Qet’chiqan’s house while Karnak recovered from his wounds. In any case, Qet’chiqan warned them that it would be unwise to leave the house until he was able to find out why the thugs had attacked Aardaal.
Aardaal and Carrick spent most of their time practising with their weapons and sparring in the courtyard. The package that Aardaal had brought to Qet’chiqan had turned out to be his father’s swords, which had only made him even more concerned. Qet’chiqan had given the blades back to Aardaal, saying that he should have them. The obsidiman also seemed worried by the blades.
The news, when it came, hit Aardaal like a hammer blow. His home had been burned to the ground. Neither of his parents had escaped the flames. Qet’chiqan could not stop him from visiting the burned out remains, but both obsidimen went with him to keep him safe. The house was a charred ruin. The roof timbers had given way and all that was left was charred wood and cracked tiles. The houses on either side were also badly damaged but the fire had been contained from spreading further. Aardaal stood there rigid for a long time, with silent tears running down his face until Qet’chiqan led him away.
Aardaal retired to his room and spent the next days coming to terms with his loss. Karnak recovered quickly, helped by Juniper’s chirurgery skill and a healing potion from Qet’chiqan. He was soon able to sit up and asked for his lute. He strummed lightly on the chords and hummed a few tunes. Juniper and Qet‘chiqan told him about Aardaal’s parents fate and Qet’chiqan gave him a small bag of silver coins for saving Aardaal from his attackers.
Juniper spent most of her time talking with plants in Qet’chiqan’s garden. The obsidiman took good care of them, for the most part. But he could not talk to the plants, so there were a few plants that needed some extra care.
After a few days, Qet’chiqan told them it should be safe to leave his home again. Carrick escorted Juniper to the Tower of the Magi. This time, with directions from the obsidiman, they reached their destination quickly.
The mages at the tower were a snooty bunch. They informed her she needed to take a test of initiation before they would allow her access to the tower’s library and teachings. She was permitted assistance from her companions, as the trial could be dangerous, they warned. But should they succeed, only she would gain access to the tower’s facilities. She explained this to the others when she returned to Qet’chiqan’s house.
Aardaal spoke first, “I owe you my life, you have my blade.”
Karnak gave her a broad grin. “And you tended my wounds. Plus it is not every day that one gets a chance to see inside the mages tower. So I would have come with you regardless.”
“They said it could be dangerous,” repeated Juniper.
“Then all the more reason for us to come with you,” rumbled Carrick. The others nodded in assent.