Vythe Varrintine whistled a pleasant tune as he walked along the dirt road leading from Sanholm in the east of the Grassy Downs towards the centre of the Halflings realm in Old Nobbin. It was a beautiful Winter’s day with clear skies, the morning frost had given way to the warm light from Inüer, and a crisp breeze blew in from the east. The Grassy Downs were a pleasant place with rolling green hills as far as the eye could see, farms and crops littered the country side and lush trees followed the line of merry creeks as they channelled through the hills.
The land of the Halflings was divided into five different areas in the open downs, Old Nobbin in the middle of the downs, Sanholm on the eastern beaches, Saflin Steep on the foot hills of Thienlin to the south, to the north on the borders of the Woodwater Forest and on the banks of the Wynbree River was Laifdon, and on the western most borders of the Grassy Downs was Arland.
Although all farthings were occupied by Halflings, Vythe was ever amused by their suspicions of each other. Folk from Old Nobbin thought Halflings over in Sandholm were a queer bunch living by the beach. Those from Sandholm thought Halflings from Laifdon foolish in their love for the forests. Laifdon folk forever talked about the peculiarity of the Saflin Steep Halflings and their overly friendliness towards the elves from Thienlin. Those of the Saflin Steep were suspicious of the Halflings from Arland for living on the outlying border of the Grassy Downs. And those from Arland thought the folk living in Old Nobbin were queer folk without good Halfling sense.
A smile came to Vythe’s face as he thought of the trouble that was caused when ever a young Halfling decided to marry another from a different reach of the Grassy Downs. He chuckled to himself and ran a hand through his raven black hair and continued to whistle a tune.
A lot had happened in the past two years, Vythe, along with Bārdin and Fairris, had escaped from the being crushed by the crumbling air crafts at the battle on the Morrow Plains. Although saved would have been a better estimation for it was Barlo Braywood and his company of Halflings that had teleported them all far away from the battle and to the rolling green hills of the Grassy Downs. In the quiet pleasantness of these hills they had time to recover and relax, but Fairris had not wanted to sit idly around and soon he, Fairris and Bārdin had headed off in search of Lieut.
For near on two years they had wandered the lands, from the stormy highlands of Scaroul to the forests of Vhasden they travelled, hearing news of the treaty between King Lienthor and Lord Cardonian. They had stopped in the recently appeared Aierthian for a time as their curiosity had been too great to pass it by, but soon Fairris had insisted that they continue on. From one side of Essinendeür to the other they had trekked in hope to hear word of Lieut’s passing but always they were disappointed.
Their division came suddenly with Bārdin leaving to take up his rightful position as a dwarven King, and led many of his kin to the places where dwarven craftsmen were needed. Although Bārdin’s departure had been sudden they parted on pleasant terms and Vythe and Fairris continued their search for Lieut.
Not long after Vythe began to realise the obsession that had started to consume his elven companion and decided to end the search for Lieut before it became worse. Fairris had not wanted to quit and Vythe left her company after a big argument.
Vythe had then returned to the Grassy Downs and had been enjoying the beautiful serenity of the country side for nearly two months now, but the sudden arrival of an old Peddler had changed his plans of retiring in the Grassy Downs.
Tornie Frogman Henry, the Peddler, had brought words of the increasing hostilities between Lord Cardonian and Vythe’s own house in Port Na’brath on the western seaboard of Essinendeür. The news had destroyed his hopes of an early retirement and having only recently been reunited with his family he had a duty to aid them.
His time in Sandholm had done much to invigorate his spirits though, and had also given him time to meditate on his magicks. Unlike most Vythe had not completely lost his connection to the Fog and could still use some magicks. Vythe had also discovered that with some mental exercises and a great deal of concentration his magicks had gradually become stronger. And the white sand beaches of Sandholm had helped immensely in honing his skills.
Sadly it was now time to leave the relaxing and beautiful land of the Grassy Downs and head home, but not before stopping by in Old Nobbin to see a friend.
It was still early morning by the time he wandered into Old Nobbin, or as the Halflings here liked to think, the capital of the Grassy Downs. The dirt road wound around the base of the gentle hills and across a quaint bridge where beside it was an old mill that turned in the fast current of the stream. The road led from the bridge into a flat area by the bend in the creek where a single long house sat. It was the only building in Old Nobbin for, as everyone knows, Halflings live in houses built into the ground. But this long house was by no means an eyesore in Old Nobbin for it was in fact the tavern.
Vythe looked at the old sign hanging above the entrance which read The Crystal Ale and continued along the road that led into the residence of Old Nobbin. An old tree sat in the centre of the flat area by the tavern and was used as the town centre where many things were posted upon the gnarled trunk. The wide canopy covered the road and filtered the light from Inüer as Vythe moved past it and further into Old Nobbin.
Many of the Halflings were just rousing themselves for the work of the day as he moved past the small mounds that marked their underground houses. Small windows and large doors peered through the neatly trimmed grass with cute benches and meticulously cared for gardens around them. Some of the little folk recognised him and waved, but most ignored him as they had done ever since he had showed up, but that was their way.
The path led along the base of the many hills and wound up several of them, and Vythe took the road up the tallest of the hills and to Number Ten Woody End and the house of Barlo Braywood.
Since the battle on the Morrow Plains Barlo had in fact done very well for himself, gaining much fame for his antics, and had been appointed as mayor of Old Nobbin. Barlo had been given a new house at Number Ten Woody End, and had seen much wealth come to his door.
Vythe smiled widely when he saw his friend Barlo sitting upon a bench outside his door smoking a long pipe and blowing smoke rings into the air.
“Do you lot actually work around here?” Vythe asked with a smirk as he stopped by Barlo’s gate. “How do you feed yourself, if all you do is sit around smoking and drinking?”
Barlo blew out a smoke ring a smiled, “It would be a crime not to sit and enjoy this splendid morning. Besides I am a war hero remember.”
Vythe laughed and shook his head, “How have you been my friend?” Vythe asked as he moved through the gate and sat next to Barlo.
“Well enough,” Barlo replied, “Even better on a fine morning such as this. Come, join me for a smoke.”
“Thank you, but no,” smiled Vythe, “I am trying to quit.”
Barlo burst out laughing and shook his head, “And just when I thought you were starting to get some good sense.”
Vythe shared the laugh, “I fear I am losing more sense, for I have come to bid you farewell. I feel I must return home to Port Na’brath.”
Barlo took his pipe from his mouth and looked at Vythe seriously, nodding his head slowly.
“In that case,” Barlo smiled, “You should sit and smoke the day away with me, as we talk of grand adventures.”
Vythe laughed, and he pulled out his pipe from his extra-dimensional pouch along with some fine Halfling pipe weed.
“Your pockets are still deep I see,” Barlo remarked, as Vythe filled his pipe.
“Thankfully extra-dimensional pouches are created with Runes,” Vythe gave the Halfling a wink, “And Runes are still very operational even though the Fog seems to have vanished.”
Barlo shook his head and smiled, “Humans are a queer bunch.”
Vythe laughed at that, “As are all who are not Halflings, I am sure you would say.”
“Except for those Arlanders,” Barlo was quick to say, “Just as queer as humans them folk.”
Vythe smiled to himself and lit his pipe, and together he and Barlo sent smoke rings into the clear morning air. When they had finished their pipes Barlo invited him inside for a second breakfast.
Vythe had to duck as he moved through Barlo’s house and the table and chairs seemed like that of a child’s, but the house was very cosy. People would not expect houses in the earth to be cosy, but those of the Halflings were very comfortable with wooden or tiled flooring, plastered walls and wooden beams. A small hearth sat in the living room and many rich rugs lined the floors, portraits and other paintings hung on the walls as a cool breeze flowed in through the open windows, and, of course, it always had a full pantry.
The day drifted by and they talked merrily as they drank and ate, lunch past along with afternoon tea and soon it was dinner and then supper, followed by desert. It was well into the night when they finally decided to turn in, before Barlo headed to bead he found some thick rugs and pillows for Vythe to sleep on the floor in front of the dying fire.
The next morning came quicker than Vythe realised and after a second breakfast it was time for him to leave.
“Which way will you head?” Barlo asked as they moved towards the garden gate.
“I think I shall go through Lancer and by Midway,” Vythe shrugged, “The shortest route.”
Barlo nodded, “Take care my friend, watch for elves on the road as well as other unpleasantness.”
“I shall,” Vythe smiled and clasped Barlo firmly by the wrist, “Farewell Barlo Braywood.”
With that Vythe headed down the road and out of Old Nobbin, his heart heavy with sadness at the farewell, but his dark eyes sparkling with the thought of the road before him.
“I think it unlikely that I will ever see him again,” Vythe lamented as he left Woody End and Old Nobbin behind.
The convoy of three carriages, two of them laden with diamonds and pearls from Scaroul, moved slowly along the road, the wheels of the wagons creating deep ruts in the muddy road. Fairris sat easily in the first carriage at the head of the convoy and watched dreamily as the flat land drifted by her.
One long year had drifted by since she had parted company with Vythe after the heated argument between them. Now as she looked back on that day she regretted her words and she realised that her search for Lieut had consumed all her thoughts. But Fairris had by no means given up the search and in fact she believed all the more that Lieut was still alive somewhere similarly looking for her. She knew that they would meet again, she could feel it.
But in the past year her situation had changed greatly, and after wandering the land she had found herself in the lawless city of Lancer, where it just so happened that the Grey Company had decided to make their new home. At first she thought it simple curiosity that drew her to their headquarters, but now she could see that by joining the Nevāranciens she somehow felt closer to Lieut.
They had only allowed her to join their ranks after she defeated five of their warriors in combat. The trial had been difficult but she had somehow managed defeat all five of the warriors and after many days of constant sparing with others she eventually gained some respect, even admiration, from the warriors from Nevārance.
The leader of the Grey Company had then placed her in a team with two others and instructed that they were to trek around the continent and find work and coins. Only ever were there three to a company, for the warriors said that if three of them could not accomplish any task set then they did not deserve to live. It was a harsh rule and the warriors were even harder, but Fairris had discovered during her time with her two companions that they were not all that cruel, and were very much like herself.
Jar’nesh and Ty’far were the two female warriors she had been teamed with, and from their first meeting neither of them had been overly happy by the development. But Fairris had proved herself many times in battle and had even beaten them both on occasion during their sparing sessions. As the time went by they had all become friends, and their time on the road had been enjoyable.
Fairris stretched her stiff back and adjusted her new grey top that she had been given as a member of the Grey Company, it reminded her of the top Lieut wore, except hers was much more feminine. It was a simple top with two silver clasps under the bust which left her midriff exposed and was cut low at the cleavage. It was designed for manoeuvrability over defence, as all of them knew that a warrior’s greatest skill was in speed of movement. Apart from the different top she still wore the same old red skirt interwoven with chainmail, her high black boots and leather gloves. At her left shoulder was still the small guard with the glowing lines of military rank upon it from her time as Captain of the Gaia Mountains Penitentiary. Strapped to her hips were still the marvellously crafted dwarven gunblades in their soft leather sheaths that she had been given by Bārdin in the ancient dwarf halls of Grün Narād.
The grey top was the only difference in Fairris’s garb and Jar’nesh and Ty’far wore ones similar to her own, with tight leather pants and their own black metal swords at their hips. Fairris looked at her two companions as they all sat in the back of the wagon, boredom clearly marked upon their faces.
It had been three long days since they left Nivalna in Scaroul with the precious load. A poor miner had found his jackpot and was looking to sell it at the markets of Pentra, and she, Jar’nesh and Ty’far had been hired to see the man safely to the city.
“There be the Foglornt,” Brentford, the middle aged miner remarked, “Near on half way there ladies.”
Fairris looked ahead of the wagon to see the southern fingers of the immense forest loom out of the flat green country.
“If only we were moving quicker,” Ty’far mumbled as she brushed back her long dark grey hair.
“Or there were some bandits to kill,” Jar’nesh remarked with a smile.
“Too true,” Ty’far smiled back, “It has been too long since we had a decent fight. These days, as soon as they see the grey of our tops and hair they turn tail and run. They are nothing but cowards that prey on the weak.”
“I am thankful of that,” Brentford called over his shoulders, “I feared elves might attack us every step of the way, I sure am glad I hired you three.”
“You do realise that our third companion is an elf?” Jar’nesh replied sternly.
The driver glanced frightfully over his shoulder, “My apologies Miss Fairris, I meant no offense. It’s just that the elves are the ones making most of the trouble on the roads. It used to be just your random thugs. But now, it be fully orchestrated ambushes from them deadly Elder Races. I got nothing against them personally, but they never care, just want to make life hard for all humans.”
“Perhaps if they had been treated more fairly by the humans, this would not have happened,” Ty’far said, her light grey-blue eyes narrowed.
The miner again looked frightful and stumbled over a few words.
“Or you humans more organised and stronger to quell any uprising,” Jar’nesh added.
“No apology is needed, Brentford,” Fairris said, calming the man.
“Fairris, why did you never think to join your kin in their fight?” Jar’nesh asked curiously after a few moments of silence.
Fairris shrugged, “Perhaps because I never considered myself their kin.”
Jar’nesh’s light grey eyes studied her for a few moments and she nodded.
“Damn, looks like trouble found us after all,” Brentford grumbled, “Time to earn your wages ladies.”
Fairris, along with Jar’nesh and Ty’far jumped to their feet and looked ahead to where the road divided. To the left was the path to Pentra and to the right to Crydon, and standing below the road sign were three people with grey hair and tops.
Brentford pulled the wagon to a stop and the other drivers in the line did the same, a worried look upon his face.
“Cly’strif,” Ty’far exclaimed and jumped from the wagon, “What are you doing here?”
Fairris and Jar’nesh followed Ty’far’s lead and moved in front of the wagon to face the three other members of the Grey Company.
“Orders from Gar’lin,” Cly’strif replied, “We are to take this wagon load to Lancer.”
“What?” Fairris balked, “We were hired to see it safely to Pentra, as per the client’s behest.”
Cly’strif ignored her, “This is an order directly from Gar’lin, the contract between the Grey Company and this weakling is terminated. We will take his wagon load and head back to Lancer.”
“What?” Brentford called in shock.
“How can this be a direct order from the High King?” Ty’far balked, “Lancer in thousands of miles away. And as Gar’lin knew we were even transporting this load.”
“Don’t be ignorant Ty’far,” Cly’strif berated, “Gar’lin has ordered that any monetary cargos we are hired to protect will be overtaken by us and brought to Lancer.”
“This is wrong, Cly’strif,” Jar’nesh said, “Not only is it dishonourable but if people should hear of this we will lose clients.”
“Honour is not the issue here,” said a tall warrior at Cly’stif’s side, “Money is if we want to get home, and besides none will hear of what will happen. This man is but an unknown merchant and miner, so no one will care when their bodies are found.”
“What?” Brentford cried again, and the other two drivers looked around in fear.
“Enough of this debate,” Cly’strif said and looked to his two companions, “Kill the merchant and the two drivers.”
“Stop,” Fairris jumped in, “By doing this we are no better than the bandits we were hired to protect them from.”
“You have no voice here new blood,’ Cly’strif glared at her, “Stand aside or fall with them.”
“Watch your words Cly’strif,” Ty’far snapped, “Fairris may be a Blood Elf, but she is also our sister, and I agree with her.”
“This is a command by Gar’lin,” the tall warrior said ominously, “You will all stand aside or you will all fall.”
“This is wrong,” Fairris yelled, “I cannot stand by and let this happen.”
“Fairris, no,” Jar’nesh intervened before anything could happen, “We do not have to like it, but it is a command from our High King. As a Captain were you not given orders that you did not like, but did none the less?”
Fairris clenched her jaw and nodded her head.
“We cannot go against the command of Gar’lin,” Jar’nesh said with a sigh.
Fairris glared dangerously at Cly’strif but she did not argue the point, understanding the tentative position she was in. Having only become a full member of the Grey Company she could not go against the instructions of Gar’lin else find herself no longer a part of the Company, or worse. But at the same time she could not go against her morals and let this murder happen.
Cly’strif smirked back at her burning gaze and motioned to his two companions.
“Kill the merchant and his drivers,” Cly’strif said with a smile.
“No,” Fairris growled as she pushed past Jar’nesh.
Cly’strif looked at her dangerously, “I said, stand down new blood.”
“And I said no,” Fairris replied, her blue eyes burning.
Cly’strif’s eyes narrowed and his hand moved like lightning to grab his sword, but Fairris moved just as quickly. Her hands snapped down and drew forth her twin gunblades, and at the same time kicked a small rock hurtling towards Cly’strif’s head. The Nevārancien was quick enough to twist out of the way but the missile skipped across his scalp and she was on him in a flash. Cly’strif gathered himself quick enough to ready himself just before she darted in with a flurry of stabs and slices.
Fairris knew that this would be a tough fight for Cly’strif was very good with a sword in hand, as were all from Nevārance. But she would not lose this fight. She could not lose it.
Fairris pushed ahead into a deadly spin, her blades cutting from every angle, but Cly’strif deflected them all and responded with deadly counters. Fairris sent a kick low for Cly’strif’s knee, but he blocked it easily with his shin and tried to slice the inside of her thigh. Fairris was quick enough to only suffer a shallow cut and responded with a deep cut on Cly’strif’s forearm.
The Nevārancien jumped back in pain and quickly changed sword hands, but Fairris gave the warrior little reprieve and pushed her advantage. Although Cly’strif had changed sword hands, he was just as skilled with his non-preferred hand.
For many minutes she and Cly’strif battled, sweat beaded down her face and stung whenever it went into the shallow cuts she was receiving from the fight. Suddenly Cly’strif kicked low and Fairris’s legs went from under her, the wind was blasted from her lunges as she landed heavily on her back. Cly’strif saw the opportunity and his sword tip darted down at her face.
Quickly Fairris twisted her body and crossed her blades and caught Cly’strif’s sword and pushed past her shoulder and into the dirt. In the same moment she kicked out at Cly’strif’s knee and swept out his legs from under him.
Fairris tried to roll away, but the angle was wrong and Cly’strif fell on top of her, twisting his sword so it sliced across her neck. Her gunblades stopped the sword from biting into her flesh but Cly’strif pressed his attack strongly and she could not find a way to roll away.
“You should never have been allowed into our ranks,” Cly’strif sneered in her face, “You are all weaklings, and weaker still without your precious magicks to aid you.”
A slight smile came to Fairris’s face as she managed to twist around a bit.
“Runes still work,” Fairris said coldly.
Cly’strif’s head exploded in a shower of blood and brain pulp as she squeezed the trigger of one of her gunblades that she had managed to manoeuvre when Cly’strif had spoken.
With a great sigh she pushed the limp body of the Nevārancien off of her and staggered to her feet. Relief washed over her as she saw that both Ty’far and Jar’nesh had killed the other two members of the Grey Company and were just heading towards her. Blood flowed freely from many wounds on each of them, but none seemed too severe.
“That was a foolish move,” Ty’far smiled, “But fun one none the less.”
Fairris let out a small laugh and wiped the blood and brain matter from her face.
“We cannot ever speak of this again,” Jar’nesh said with concern, “If anyone asks, we never met Cly’strif and his company here.”
Fairris and Ty’far nodded in agreement and Fairris wiped the rest of the blood from her gunblades and face.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Brentford stammered and cautiously moved over to them, “By the Five how can I ever repay you?”
“Forget that this happened,” Jar’nesh replied seriously.
Brentford nodded hastily as he stared in horror at the bloody mess on the ground.
“Let’s go,” Ty’far said with a sigh and headed for the wagon.
They all readily agreed and Fairris joined her companions in the back of the wagon, very soon the bloody remnants of the battle were behind them and they had cleaned and dressed the wounds that they had received. That night they made camp on the left side of the road, choosing to be as far away from the edges of the Foglornt Forest as they could be. Brentford and his two drivers kept to themselves and away from Fairris and her two companions making another fires place several metres from theirs.
As the night drifted by Fairris stared into the fire and listened to Jar’nesh and Ty’far talk between themselves. This was the way nights usually went by, Fairris spoke little still not completely comfortable around her new friends and they respected her privacy.
“The first time I killed someone was during the Mol’tev rebellion,” Ty’far was saying, “He was an Agar Captain, all bravado and arrogance. He came at me with a great broad sword, slashing and roaring, but he was crying in the end. I had his sword of Mylar Steel melted down to reforge my own sword.”
Ty’far drew forth her delicate long sword, it was straight and with only one side edged, the flat of the blade had been blackened leaving the razor edge shining bright in the fire light. The cross guard was made of brass and was round and moulded in an intricate design, and the handle of woven fabric over leather.
“I will never forget that glorious day,” Ty’far smiled as she sheathed her sword.
“You were lucky,” Jar’nesh sighed, “My first kill only had a traditional Syn’is blade. I killed her during my first scouting mission out of Sentrin Gate and through the Old City Ruins. She fought well but died quickly.”
Fairris looked to the brass pommel of Jar’nesh’s sword which was a simple flower shape. The handle was hard wood and the cross piece small and delicate, also made of brass. Having seen the blade out of its sheath before Fairris knew it was thin and double edged with a black face and silver sharp edges, like all swords from Nevārance seemed to be, and just as Lieut’s had been. The memory brought a sting to her eyes and she looked back to the flickering of the fire.
“What about you Fairris?” Jar’nesh asked pleasantly, “Tell us of your first kill. You do hold such moments in similar reverence, don’t you?”
A slight smile came to Fairris’s face, and she shook her head, “No, here in Essinendeür a first kill is not something considered to be grandiose.”
Jar’nesh and Ty’far looked curiously at each other and shrugged.
“Tell us anyway,” Ty’far implored, “That is, you do remember your first kill, don’t you?”
Fairris nodded absently, “Like it happened yesterday.”
“Go on,” Jar’nesh encouraged curiously.
“I was thirteen when it happened,” Fairris began quietly as she stared into the flames of the fire. “Having lived in the streets of Elestarl after my parents were killed, ten years previously, I had made a close friend with another girl a few years older than myself. There were a few elves in Elestarl that looked out for us street urchins, and now that we were nearly young women more attention had been coming our way. There was one rich human merchant that lived in the city, who aided us more than most, but it was soon clear why he did.”
Fairris paused, her deep blue eyes staring to the flames that reflected the anger she still felt.
“One night I was by myself,” Fairris continued stiffly, “The rich merchant was my last hope for eating that week. This time he wanted something I was not prepared to give, but he did not concern himself with that. I was in his house when he attacked me and drove me to the ground. I don’t really remember what happened then, but the next thing I do remember were the tears running down my cheeks, the aching of my body and bloody mess that was left of the rich man’s head. In my hand was some sort of stone statue, half crumbled and covered in blood and brain matter.
“After my parents had died I always thought I would be ready to kill, but at that moment I had forgotten everything, like who I was, where I was. I had forgotten where I had come from, and where I was going. My whole world was blank and all I could think about was the red pulp splattered across the tiled floor of the rich merchant’s house,” Fairris finished with a sigh and took her gaze from the fire to the stunned expressions of her friends.
“He deserved it,” Ty’far said, breaking the silence.
Fairris smiled softly, “He did. But there was nothing glorious about it, I did not feel proudly victorious, just simply afraid.”
“People in this land are strange,” Jar’nesh remarked and Ty’far laughed, and even Fairris cracked a smile at the comment.
The next day moved along slowly and they soon found themselves in the Aierthian Plains with the deep forest of Foglornt on their right and the rolling green of the plains before them. The day came slowly as well and the clumps of vibrant trees that passed them by, such spots were a good hiding place for bandits, but their trip was uneventful. Although they did pass a broken skeleton of a cart, its goods plundered and the previous owners lying bloated on the road with many arrows protruding from their bodies. A flock of crows flapped noisily into the air as the convoy rolled past and Fairris and her companion looked sharply around for signs of an ambush, though none came.
That night they spent in the city of Aierthian in a small and empty tavern, and it was not just the tavern that was empty. Since the vanishing of the Fog and magicks the city of Aierthian was barely active at all, many of the great stone buildings stood deserted and gathering dust. Only those who remained were Magi who could still use some magicks and refused to abandon their research, and those who owned the shops and tavern, determined to stay open for travellers.
“Could make a good college for learning,” Brentford remarked as they left Aierthian the next day.
“With the money you make from this shipment you could start one,” Fairris replied as she watched the beautiful stone rooves drift further away from them.
“Might just do that,” Brentford said as he stroked his ruddy chin.
It was another uneventful day as they moved across the plains and forded the river Slynt, which was a branch of the River Myst from the Foglornt, and moved into the town of Vennald which sat on the land between Slynt and the other river that branched from Myst to the north named Milt. At the entrance of the small town they were greeted by a wealthy individual and three muscled and ruff looking men.
“Greetings to Vennald,” the wealthy man said, “I am Taxation Officer Ablen, and these are my associates. I gather you are heading over the border and towards Pentra, am I right?”
Brentford nodded stiffly.
“Excellent,” Ablen smiled and clapped his hands, “My associates will now look through your wears and an appropriate tax will be claimed. As you are moving from I’ender to Krnōrel you will also be required to pay a large Border Tax.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Brentford burst out as Ablen’s associates began to look through the wagons. “After the treaty between Krnōrel and I’ender was formed in the Forth Age border taxes were dropped.”
“I am just doing my job sir,” Ablen replied defensively, “I get told what to tax for and I do it. If you have a problem then you can take it up with King Lienthor in Crydon. Now, what are you transporting?”
“Pearls and diamonds from Scaroul,” one of Ablen’s associates spoke up, “And lots of them.”
“Excellent,” Alben beamed as he wrote something down on his parchment, “Add the pearl and diamond tax, three cart tax, weight limit tax, labour for my associates and myself.”
“What?” Brentford roared in outrage, “I have to pay for your time while you are taxing me?”
“Should we not get paid for our work?” Ablen asked back, “We are working up a great sweat here and everyone deserves to be paid for their hard work.”
Ablen mumbled a few other things and continue to write on his parchment. Brentford also had a few things to grumble about, but they were mostly curses at the Taxation Officer and payment he was required to pay.
Fairris sat quietly with Jar’nesh and Ty’far in the back of Brentford’s wagon and waited patiently for the inspection to be completed.
“Excellent,” Ablen spoke up and handed Brentford the piece of paper that he had been writing on. “Here is the summary of the payments which you are required to pay now, or else we will confiscate your wagons until you can pay.”
“What in the Abyss is this?” Brentford spat as he pointed to the paper, “Undisclosed Tax, what is that supposed to mean?”
“By law I have the disclosure to list undisclosed taxes that I deem appropriate,” Ablen said officially.
“And by law I have the right to know what they are, and ‘cause I asked you, you have to say,” Brentford rebutted.
Ablen mumbled something under his breath and looked annoyed.
“Very well,” the Taxation Officer huffed, “The tax is for the Nevāranciens you have hired, as well as the elf in company.”
“That’s absurd,” Brentford growled.
“It is blatant discrimination,” Jar’nesh added, having become interested in the conversation.
“It is the law,” Ablen countered, looking haughty, “Pay the taxes or we will confiscate all your goods.”
Fairris sighed, not bothering to object to the clear racism and gazed around the small town.
“Cursed bureaucracy,” Brentford spat and he pulled a small pouch of cut diamonds from his belt and tossed it to the Taxation Officer.
“Excellent,” Ablen said as he looked in the pouch, and he and his associates moved out of the way of the wagons.
“Careful on the roads,” the Taxation Officer called after them, “I hear there are bandits about.”
Brentford urged the wagons quickly through Vennald and thankful they soon moved over the river Milt and continued across the Aierthian Plains.
It was barely an hour later when Fairris saw another problem in their path. Ahead on the dusty road stood a dozen men, blocking the path, three of which were Ablen’s associates.
“It seems that Ablen has set us up to be raided,” Jar’nesh remarked as she looked ahead to the group of bandits.
“Curse that man to the Abyss,” Brentford swore, “I hope you three are worth the coin.”
“Ride through them,” Ty’far said simply, “They have only a couple of horses, run them down.”
Brentford laugh aloud, “I like the way you think.”
With a yell Brentford flicked the reins of the horse and urged them on faster, the two driving the carriages behind realised the intent and followed the lead.
The smug smiles of the bandit quickly turned to looks of horror as the three wagons thundered into them. Most jumped out of the way, but several were trampled, including two of Ablen’s associates.
As the wagons tore through the ranks Fairris drew forth her gunblades and sent several magickal blasts into the remaining bandits, sending them running for cover. Several arrows whistled from the bushes and trees, but all missed and imbedded into the wood of the wagons or fell short.
It was many minutes later before Brentford eased the horses back to a slow trot and there came no pursuit from the bandits. The rest of the journey across the rolling plains was peaceful and even though they passed many raided wagons no more assaults came and despite the word of elves raiding the road they encountered none and were thankfully nearing the Pentra at the end of the third day. Pentra’s great white archway glowed in the afternoon light, burning orange and shining off the metal spires that speared from the rooftops of many buildings. Proudly Brentford drove his convoy of carts right up the main gate and past the curious expression of the guardsmen.
Here they were stopped by another wealthy looking man who claimed to be another Taxation Officer. Taxes for entering the city were given out and Brentford continued to curse and reluctantly pay. But thankfully it was not as expensive as the taxes in Vennald had been and they soon left the main gates.
Instead of taking the lower road into the great gorge where most of Pentra’s populace resided he steered the cart along the lip of the chasm and to the gates that lead into the rich section of the city atop the Pentrin Arch. At these gates the guardsmen stopped him and demanded an explanation from them, but with one showing of Brentford’s wares and the receipt of taxes paid, the guards quickly stepped aside and let them pass. Inside these gates a wide marble road lined with green hedge ways and shady trees greeted them and it was there that Brentford thanked them for their service.
“It is because of you three that we made it here at all,” Brentford smiled, and they did not dispute him, “Here is the pay agreed upon and extra for the event that did not happen.”
The middle aged miner winked at them and smiled before bidding them farewell and leading the convoy further into the rich buildings along the Pentrin Arch.
“He was very thankful,” Ty’far beamed as she looked inside one of the pouches and to the hand full of diamonds within. “Time for a little indulgence ladies.”
They all shared a laugh and Fairris followed Jar’nesh and Ty’far into the city, glancing over edge of the railing and to the main metropolis below. The rich section of Pentra was built upon an incredibly wide bridge which arched over the expanse of the ravine where most of the people lived. The Pentrin Arch was where the rich resided comfortably amid the marble houses and beautiful plants, and was, of course, where the chamber of the High Commission was located.
As Fairris followed her companions through the streets and past the many statues and skilfully painted pictures that hung on the outside walls of the tall houses, she wondered if the High Commission was still plotting to bring the rule of Essinendeür under theirs. They had failed to do so after the battle of the Morrow Plains, but she thought it unlikely that they would give up that easily.
Fairris shook the thoughts away and turned her attention back to her companions and the fact that they were heading into a fancy spa house.
“A suite with three beds and a large bath,” Ty’far said to the receptionist with a wide smile.
The receptionist nodded and took their money before calling to a servant to lead them away. A look of surprise came to Fairris’s face when the servant asked them to follow her.
“You are of the Valenthōr,” Fairris exclaimed as she followed the servant, “But why are you working here?”
“I must make a living m’lady,” the Wood Elf replied curtly.
“But why here?” Fairris continued in surprise, “Why not with your people? Free of the hate and discrimination.”
“Hate I can live with m’lady,” the Valenthōr replied, “But living in the wilds and watching my family suffer and die in the mud I cannot. At least here my children have a future. At least here we receive some form of respect, not like out there with the bandits and murderers.”
“Besides,” the elf continued, “You lot from Nevārance receive just as much hate as we Elder Race do. Yet you do not return home, because Essinendeür is your home now, just like Pentra is my home.”
Fairris said no more and the Valenthōr led them into a room that had an in-ground bath with steaming water and several doors leading from the main area.
“Ring the bell if you need anything,” the Valenthōr said and left, closing the door behind her.
Ty’far and Jar’nesh giggled like young girls as they stripped off and splashed into the warm waters. Ty’far grabbed a few bottles by the pool and emptied the contents into the water. Almost instantly many coloured bubbles began to form, accumulating on the surface and floating lazily into the air.
Fairris was a bit more discrete and undressed in one of the rooms, neatly placing her things at the foot of large bed and wrapping a towel around her as she moved to the bath and quickly dropped the towel and slid below the cover of the bubbles. But Ty’far and Jar’nesh did not really notice her as they laughed and splashed around.
Soon it became evening and some food and drink was ordered and brought by the Valenthōr. Perfectly cooked meat and delicious vegetables filled their plates as they dined among the bubbles and water that was kept at a constant pleasant temperature. When the meal was finished they sat on the steps of the bath with the bubbles gently lapping against the shoulders and sipped their expensive wine and talked happily. It had been a very successful contract with Brentford and despite the incident with Cly’strif things could not have gone smoother, so all things considered they felt that they deserved to relax and indulge themselves.
“Have you two ever thought about returning to Nevārance?” Fairris asked curiously as she sipped her wine.
Ty’far shrugged and looked away.
“I have thought about it,” Jar’nesh replied, “In many ways the reason why the Grey Company started was to raise money to find a way to return.”
“You cannot use the crafts you came in?” asked Fairris.
“No,” Ty’far replied, “They have no launch or sustained flight capabilities anymore.”
“I have never really asked either of you about your homeland,” Fairris remarked, “I always thought you would be reticent to speak about it. But what is Nevārance like?”
Ty’far looked wistfully into her chalice.
“I would not have said anything before now,” Jar’nesh replied honestly, “But we three have come close. In truth there is not much to say, it is much like here, less green perhaps, but similar. Ty’far and I come from a great metropolis the size of the Foglornt Forest with tall buildings that scrape the clouds. There are many other cities of similar size, but Metrā is the grandest.”
Fairris blue eyes sparkled in wonder, “Are all people from Nevārance as skilled with sword as either of you?”
Jar’nesh shook her head, “No, we are a race of Warriors.”
“Wyner, in our tongue,” Ty’far added, “The Wyner were always the strongest and most intelligent, so naturally all other races bent to our rule. There are many races living in Metrā but all are subservient to the Wyner race.”
“The pure blood of the Warrior has been diluted by the lessor races over the years,” Jar’nesh said, “Though some can still trace their blood line back to the greatest of Wynar.”
“And we do have samples of the oldest bloodlines which we use to …” Ty’far started to say but Jar’nesh cut her short and gave a disapproving shake of her head.
“Anyway,” Ty’far continued on a different line of topic, “I for one can trace my heritage back to Svarieth the Great,” she said, a proud smile on her face.
“Ty’far, you never told me that,” Jar’nesh exclaimed in surprise and flicked some water at her friend.
Ty’far wiped the water from her face, “I never really liked to boast.”
“Until now,” Jar’nesh was quick to reply.
“Shut up,” laughed Ty’far and splashed some water at Jar’nesh.
Jar’nesh responded and a water fight suddenly erupted, Fairris joined in with a laugh and bubbles and water flew through the air along with the giggles and squeals of the three of them.
The splashing soon stopped and the wine pitcher was soon empty, and as the glow from the crystals on the wall, which operated through the use of Runes, grew brighter Fairris decided to call it a night. She bid her companions good night and walked from the warm waters of the pool, gathering her towel and drying herself as she moved into her room. She was just about slip into bed when she heard a commotion coming from the main room.
“Good evening ladies,” a man’s voice had greeted from the shadows of an arch and Fairris peered through her slightly opened door.
Jar’nesh and Ty’far were surprised but they kept their composure well.
“Perhaps you should leave sir,” Jar’nesh snapped, “Before you lose your eyes.”
“Among other things,” Ty’far added angrily.
“Is that how you should speak to your commanding officer?” came the reply and the man moved into the light.
“Kil’dar,” both Jar’nesh and Ty’far exclaimed in surprise and jumped to their feet in attention. Stark naked with soapy bubbles and water dripping down their skin they stood ridged and at attention.
“Be at ease, I did not come for a perve,” Kil’dar waved at them, “Despite how alluring it might be.”
Both Jar’nesh and Ty’far quickly shrank back into the water and the dignity the bubbles provided.
“Then why are you here?” Jar’nesh asked angrily.
“Business, of course,” Kil’dar smiled, “I have a job for you.” Kil’dar glanced around the room, “Where is the third of your company? You still travel in threes correct?”
“She is around,” Ty’far shrugged.
“Could this business not have waited until tomorrow?” Jar’nesh asked, not bothering to hide her displeasure.
Kil’dar sighed and let out a soft laugh, “This city is filled with unwanted ears. Believe it or not such a place as this, is one of the few places I can talk openly.”
“Well get to the point,” Ty’far huffed, blowing away the bubbles that had come too close to her mouth.
“A simple task,” Kil’dar said and he knelt by the pool and played with the bubbles, “Kill Vincent Varrintine in Port Na’brath.”
Fairris gasped quietly and seriously considered grabbing her gunblades and killing Kil’dar then and there.
“Who is he?” Jar’nesh asked curiously.
“Someone we want dead,” Kil’dar replied, his pale grey eyes unblinking.
“We being the High Commission?” Ty’far asked, “Or we being us Nevāranciens?”
Kil’dar smiled calmly, “Both.”
Jar’nesh narrowed her eyes suspiciously, “You have not spoken with Gar’lin for a long time, why should we do as you ask?”
Again Kil’dar smiled coldly, “Then perhaps I should talk with Gar’lin now. I am sure he would like to know how Cly’strif died.”
Ty’far’s eyes widened, “How can you. . . ?”
“Ty’far.” Jar’nesh cut her off.
But it was too late, and Kil’dar’s smile became even nastier.
“Do we have an agreement?” Kil’dar asked seriously.
Jar’nesh and Ty’far looked to each other in search of an escape but there was none, and hiding in her room Fairris bared her teeth angrily.
“Fine,” Jar’nesh sighed, “We will do it, but we expect to be paid, and handsomely.”
Kil’dar stood up, his expression cruel, “Your payment will be me not saying how Cly’strif and his company met their demise.”
With that Kil’dar strode from the pool and out the door, slamming it behind him.
Fairris let out a deep breath and turned from the door of her room wondering what she was to do.