I t all began with a sea voyage and oh how he hated to travel by sea. The cabins were always small and cramped, that is if one was lucky enough to book passage in a cabin. Many ships took passengers in their cargo holds and traveling with dozens of nauseated, unwashed people in a space usually reserved for crates and livestock was an experience Bennue El Sammi did not look forward to.
Bennue stood on the deck, feet apart to brace him against the roll of the ship. The wind tugged at the priest’s robe and pushed forward the hood that shaded him from the mid-day sun. He closed his dark eyes and breathed in the fresh salty air, letting it linger in him. He had retreated back into the depths of his robe where he could assume the guise of a Holy man meditating and communing with his God, but all the while he was using the dark recess to survey his surroundings without being noticed. He had, throughout the years, learned how and when to withdraw himself from his surroundings. It was a habit that had served him well.
From within the dark gray folds, Bennue opened his eyes and studied the dockside as they approached. Dockworkers carried crates of cargo from a ship to a large wooden storehouse along the wharf. The worker’s muscles strained under the weight of their heavy loads. Yet they worked quickly, without hesitation or thought to their task.
Dock Masters were perched high on platforms to supervise the unloading of the great water vessels. Their voices rang out as they barked orders that sent workers scurrying.
It was much like any other port he had seen in his journeys, except this was a free dock. There were no slaves working here, no slave pens, no flesh sellers. The Dock Masters bore no whips or slings. This was a free land and that was good.
Scattered among the dockworkers were sailors, merchants, passengers and the inevitable pickpockets and pirate. The air was alive with a mixture of many languages, Bennue could pick up a few phrases and words in common here and there, but it was mostly the melodious chatter of the Celtic tongue the dominated.
Bennue sighed softly. He did not have the most remote idea why he had traveled to this land. It was his God that had led him to this small Crymerian town for some unknown purpose. His God was Forsetti who had, on many occasions, heard Bennue's opinion of the Celtic people, so he would not have led him to the land of Tree Worshipers without a good reason. Bennue was a priest of justice and somewhere in this land a great injustice was being committed and he, Bennue El Sammi, was sent here to right that wrong...whether he liked it or not.
Unfortunately he did not travel alone.
A tall and exceptionally muscular body pressed against his back, pushing him very close to the ship's rail. Towering a good two and one half heads taller than Bennue stood Fitzen Graer. He was in a state of wonder, looking at the new land before him. Never in all of his eighteen years had he wandered so far north, so far from his home in Germania.
Fitzen was hard not to notice. He was tall, extremely muscular, skin of gold-brown and golden hair that shone almost white in the full sun. Large blue eyes that looked at the world with innocent anticipation and wonder. He wore finely tooled leather armor and a very large sword strapped to his back. Many heads turned when he walked through a crowd and many women openly stared. To put it bluntly, Fitzen Graer was hard not to notice
Fitzen leaned forward and lost his balance as the ship rolled in the wake he pushed Bennue into the ship’s rail. The shorter man reacted with an elbow in the Germanian's mid section. "Damnation boy...don’t touch me” Benneu’s voice was low, but stern. When Fitzen did not move, Bennue struggled for a brief moment and turned to face him. Although Fitzen could not see past the shadows of the dark cloak he knew that Bennue was becoming angry. "By Forsetti's sword", she growled in Norse, the switched to common when he remembered the boy did not speak his language. "Get off me." He emphasized his point by giving Fitzen a slight push.
Fitzen did not hesitate to step a way from Bennue. After three moon cycles with the moody Priest, the young swordsman knew Bennue was not in a congenial mood. Both Fitzen and the other passengers close by gave Bennue the room he so desired.
"I am sorry Bennue," the lad said in is soft and hesitant common. "I am afraid the deck is rather crowded."
Bennue looked at the people who were gathering together. Many faces stared at him as if he had grown an extra head. He hated when people stared, it made him feel like an outsider. In the village where he grew to manhood, he knew that feeling well. Everyone there had light hair, light eyes, pale skin while he was the one with the hair and eyes the color of a raven's wing and skin dusty and darkish red. He was the outsider, the so-called spawn of a daemon.
Bennue snorted once and lifted his pack. "I'm getting off this rat breeding wreck, do what ever you want."
All Fitzen could do was shrug his massive shoulders. He wanted to ask Bennue where the rats bred, since he never saw a rat on the entire voyage, but then he thought better of it and instead began to part the crowd as he made his way toward the lowering gangplank. If it was up to Fitzen he would have patiently waited until everyone was ashore before taking his turn to disembark, but he knew it would be better for everyone if he escorted Bennue off the ship now rather than risk making his black mood worse.
As Fitzen pushed his way through the crowd, he realized that it was Bennue's bad temper that first brought them together. It had been just before the last large snowfall in his homeland. Fitzen had been sent by his family to track down one of his elder brothers, Gunther, who was off on his latest drinking binge. His family had not seen Gunther since harvest time and they were very worried about him. Following a lead from one of Gunther's drinking companions, Fitzen found himself about to enter a small waterfront alehouse when he heard the sound of glass breaking. When he opened the door he saw his brother Gunther squaring off to fight with an equally intoxicated man in a robe. They were both yelling at the top of their lungs, Gunther in Germanian and Bennue in Norse with some colorful common added in. Fitzen had no idea what the fight was over, except it had to do with a bar wench who was leaning against a table with her tray held in front of her like it was a magical shield.
Fitzen thought the stranger was insane to even consider a fight with his brother since Gunther was even taller and broader than Fitzen. Silence of horror and wonder filled the room as the first set of punches were thrown. Although Gunther resembled a small mountain, the shorter, stockier man managed to stay on his feet and plant two very hard punches into the larger man's abdomen before Gunther retaliated with one well-served uppercut.
Fitzen helped to remove Bennue's unconscious body from the bar and into a nearby Inn while Gunther reaped his rewards of free drinks. It was from that moment that Fitzen felt obligated for the welfare of Bennue El Sammi, whether Bennue liked it or not.
Now Fitzen cleared a path for Bennue as they disembarked. It felt strange to once again stand on a solid surface. He stopped for a moment to adjust to the feel of earth beneath his feet. Bennue, however, strolled past him as if the change from rolling ship to solid land did not faze him. He took long strides and came to where the dock walk met a road. He stood there, hands clenching his ornate staff and surveyed the town before him. "Great..." he muttered to himself. It was just like any other small port town in Germania, Gaul, Iberia, Norse, Eriu or any other place he had been. He saw Inns and taverns, stores and taverns, guilds and taverns....
"So Bennue", Fitzen said as he caught up with his companion.
"What do we do now?"
Bennue sighed and lowered the dark maroon hood and turned to face the tall Germanian. "We, my Germanian Giant, are going to do nothing. I, on the other hand, am going to find an inexpensive Inn with clean linens and no bed lice: get myself a private room, find a hot bath, eat a decent meal and drink quite a few drinks. Then, I am going to locate a woman, better yet two women with large overwhelming breasts, take them to my private room and make them scream praises to their Gods that I chose them to relieve my last ten days of celibacy on." He lowered his voice to a harsh whisper. "And then, if I can get a certain portion of my body back into my breeches, I’ll go find two more whores, if I can't get my breeches on I'll just continue with the two whores I already have. They just won't be able to work for the next several days or to walk for that matter. Maybe I'll just keep them upstairs for a week and then maybe I'll have spent this celibate build up and get some rest."
Fitzen's face turned as scarlet as a red dragon's back, he nervously looked from side to side to see if anyone had overheard Bennue's outburst. Bennue, on the other hand, turned away from his companion with a complacent smile on his lips. May Forsetti forgive him, but oh how he loved to make the lad turn red. In all his days and in all of his travels, Bennue had never known anyone as innocent as Fitzen. Hel's domain, he was probably still a virgin...that was the only excuse for the way he acted...that or he just plain didn't like women.
Bennue leaned against this staff; he gazed over his shoulder at Fitzen. "Why don't you go get that Germanian Body of your laid...I'm sure there would be quite a few women willing and able to please." He paused and then added "Or men, if that's what you prefer." He watched Fitzen's face as it deepened with uneasiness. Slowly he shook his head. "That's okay Bennue, I think I'll just get some food and some sleep instead. Just remember, Forsetti could call upon you at any time."
Bennue rolled his large dark eyes toward the sky. For just a few short moments he had forgotten about Forsetti and allowed his thoughts to oblige his own needs. "Forsetti...yeah...” he whispered as he headed into the heart of the town.
He had not walked more than a couple of yards when he spotted his prey. Leaning against the side of a warehouse were a nominal selection of women. Their eyes were as cold as birds of prey as they took a survey of the ship's passengers. A couple of randy sailors were already negotiating a fee, and by the look of the sailors, they were ready to go at it the moment the deal was done.
Bennue very carefully took account of the group. They were older whores trying to pass off as fresh stock, cheap to the purse, but very well used. He shook his head as if convincing himself it was not a practical investment and continued on into town, all the time aware of the person that followed behind him like a well-heeled dog.
Bennue became acutely aware that someone, other than the ever-present Fitzen, was watching him. He stopped in the middle of the dirt street and looked around him. Through the swell of people he spotted her, standing on the wooden walkway that ran in front of the business district. Her midnight black hair gleamed in the rays of the sun, but it was her clear violet eyes that pierced his very soul and made him shiver. She was tall, slender and carried herself with an heir of royalty. Her head was held high and her chin slightly uplifted, the cape she wore could barely disguise the swell of her breasts. And she was looking directly at him.
It was one of those rare occasions when Bennue could not react immediately. He stood his ground, staring like some lovesick adolescent, unable to speak or to move. He barely felt Fitzen's hand on his shoulder. "Are you alright, Bennue?" he asked. Bennue nodded, he had to swallow several times before he could speak. "Look at her Fitzen." Fitzen looked around, he saw many women, but none that seemed to stand out that would cause Bennue such a moment of being unsure of himself. "Uhhm, look at who?"
"Her, the one on the walkway in front of the apothecary. The one with the Maroon cloak." He whispered as if the sound of his voice would make her vanish.
Fitzen gazed over at the buildings. He had not learned to read common and knew no Celtic at all, so he had to guess at which building Bennue was referring to. Looking at each building in turn, he saw no one that matched Bennue's description.
"Bennue, are you seeing things? I don't see anyone with a maroon cloak."
Bennue sighed. Fitzen was big, dumb and color blind.... just what he needed. Fitzen might not see her, but Bennue did. He found his footing at started toward the woman, pushing his way through the crowd. He cursed aloud as he lost sight of her. It was then he realized that it was either a festival or some kind of a market day in the town to attract so many people. "Gods Damn It All." he swore as he tried to see around or over the people. He felt Fitzen brush past him and began to walk toward the shops, people parting to make a path for the swordsman, Bennue following in his wake. The kid came in handy once in a while.
When they reached the shops, Fitzen turned toward Bennue. The puzzled, yet compliant look on his face told Bennue that Fitzen had not seen the beauty that Bennue had seen and that she was not there waiting on him.
"Where did she go?" he asked as if he expected someone to answer him, he turned from side to side, letting the hood of his robe drop to his shoulders. The walkway was almost deserted; the crowd was in the street and milling about the tents that were set up in a village green just above the warehouses.
"She's gone on about her business,” a low voice said from the doorway of the shop. Bennue turned. He had not seen the man standing there, nor had he not sensed him. Half-hidden in the shadow of the deep recess, the man leaned against the building. Even with his face obscured, Bennue could tell the man was smiling at him, an almost cold discreet smile.
Bennue regarded him with the same defiance he regarded pickpockets and highwaymen. The man did not attempt to move, nor did he give any indication that the conversation was anything but over.
"Well if you see her," Bennue said coldly. "Tell her she missed the opportunity of a lifetime." He turned and walked away, down the wooden planks.
"Oh, you can tell her that yourself, when you see her again." The voice from the door said. "And trust me, you'll see her again."
Bennue turned. He saw that Fitzen had not moved from where he first set foot on the walkway. He stared puzzled at the shadow, that blank expression on his face that annoyed Bennue to no end. It was then that the shadow moved. It was a man...no an elf, taller than Bennue and shorter than Fitzen. He wore a fur cloak and not much else. His hair was two-tone silver, Light on the sides and dark on top. His eyes were almost an amber color. As with many elves, it was hard to determine his age but Bennue had to guess he was youngish, but not a boy. The cloak revealed a very well developed body, taunt with muscles, but not big like Fitzen. The elf was strong enough that Bennue did not want to get into a fight with him unless he could not help it. His smile was not as threatening as it had seemed in the shadows, but it did not show warmth either.
"Who are you?" Bennue asked, his hand lightly resting on the coiled whip at his side.
The elf regarded him for a moment, looked him up and down, eyeing him as if he were to be his supper. Then he spoke with a voice that mimicked a low animal growl. "My name is Marcovia and I have been asked to escort the two of you to your Inn. We have two rooms waiting on you, hot food and baths and," He gave pause to his words then he continued speaking very slowly as if to add meaning to the rest. "I have arranged for some very talented diversion for your night...all night."
Bennue cocked an eyebrow. "Really. Thanks anyway, but we'll get our own rooms, our own baths, our own meal and I'll find my own whores."
Marcovia nodded as if he expected this argument. "The seer said your would be stubborn, bullheaded and full of yourself, until now I was wondering if we had found the Holy Man we sought, now I am positive we have."
Fitzen, who had remained quiet until now, looked at Bennue and began to laugh softly under his breath. "Stubborn, bullheaded and full of yourself ...they sure know you, Bennue."
Bennue did not find anything amusing about this. He was relentless, not stubborn; pertinacious, not bullheaded; self-assured, not full of himself, and he didn't like this elf, Marcovia, one little bit.
Marcovia had turned his attention to Fitzen. He looked up at the young man and smiled a sincere warm smile. "I hope your voyage was good. The seer said to expect a man with valor and skill of the sword."
Fitzen shrugged. He accepted the word of a seer, his Mama taught him better than to disagree with them. "My Papa taught all his children how to use a sword. Papa is a Garrison Commander at home. He wanted all of us to be soldiers, but Mama put her foot down and when Mama puts her foot down, not even Papa would disagree with her."
Marcovia laughed. "Then would you accept our hospitality of a room, bath and a meal?" Marcovia looked at Bennue. "Both of you. In the morning we will all gather together and discuss why we are all here. Trust me gentlemen when I tell you that it is much more than fate that brings us together."
Bennue stared at the elf, his eyes narrowed into slits that were as black as ebony. "Very well, it's your call. I'll go along for now, I'll hear you and the woman out...but I won't guarantee I'll stay."
Marcovia smiled, that eerie almost animal smile. "Oh, you'll stay.... I know your type, Priest, you'll stay, if not for the sake of your God, you'll stay for your own damn curiosity."
Bennue raised his hood and watched the elf as he sauntered down the walkway, Fitzen following in his puppy mode. "We will see about that," he murmured to himself and followed.
The Inn was nice, very nice: quiet and clean. The floors had rugs covering every inch of wood. The walls were not painted, but rather covered in finely woven tapestries. The scones were polished brass, not pewter and there were plants everywhere. Fitzen looked around in awe, Bennue with a slight glance shrugged it off. Although he had never been in such an Inn as this, he refused to show any sign of being impressed. They walked pass the desk clerk, who only gave them a passing glance and went about his work. They saw no one else nor did they hear anyone.
The elf led them up the stairs and down a hall. He stopped in front of a door and opened it. Then turned and opened the one directly across from it. "I hope you will find these accommodations...suitable."
Bennue looked in the room. It had a low ceiling, large bed, table chairs and a separate room for bathing. He whistled a low whistle. "Are you sure you have the right people?" he asked.
Marcovia nodded. "Your bath has been drawn for you. I hope you approve of my choices."
Bennue looked into the room once more. Standing by the door to the bathing room were three very beautiful women, all human, one blond, one brunet and one redhead. They were naked from the waist up and all three possessed breasts that were more than two hands full. He drew in a sharp breath and looked back at the elf. "What's the catch?"
The elf shook his head. "No catch. We were forewarned that if we did not take care of your... urges, you would be no use to us and any females that would accompany us would be in danger of your licentious approach." He paused to let it settle in. "Your meal will be sent up to you, when or...how you choose to eat it is your concern. The women are not maidens, but highly trained professionals from a very reputable brothel. You will have them until the sun peaks the eight o'clock hour in the morning. I would suggest you try and get some sleep, but I will assume you will spend the entire night satisfying you’re...needs." Marcovia glanced into the room. "I personally have a wager that they will wear you out before you tire them."
Bennue scoffed. "A bet you shall loose, elf." He stepped into the room. "It's been ten days and after ten days even a sailors asshole was beginning to sound tempting. Now leave us alone." He slammed the door shut; all Fitzen and Marcovia hear were three women gasping at once.
Marcovia looked at Fitzen and pointed at the door in a questioning look. Fitzen shrugged. "He said his God blessed him with many things and. well...that was one of the things." Fitzen's face turned red as they heard one of the women shriek. "If you don't mind I think I would like to go eat something...other than here." Another female shrieked and a third one moaned aloud.
Marcovia shook his head to clear the thoughts going through. "Is he always like that?" he asked.
Fitzen tossed his backpack into the room and shut the door. He regarded the elf's question for a moment. "I have not known him too long, but I know he is dead serious about his work and equally serious about his pleasures. Whenever we have been in a town, he...finds women. Personally I think he is very lonely." There was silence as the last sentence Fitzen said weighed heavily between them.
"And what about you, sir, I was not told if I should prepare the same...accommodations for you."
Fitzen shook his head; his long hair fell across his face. "It might sound...ridiculous, but when I find the right woman...I will know it and then I will...." He looked away from the elf. The moment was awkward for both of them especially as they descended the stairway with the sounds that lingered in the air following them.
Marcovia cleared his throat. "I'll tell you what. Why don't you and I get something to eat? Then I have to go locate another of the ones the Seer spoke of. Why don't you come along? I'm thinking I might need a strong arm. From what I understood, if you think your friend is a handful, then this one will make him look tame."
"Is it the woman Bennue saw?"
"Oh, by the Gods, no. That was Scatha, she and I are working together...on this project. No she is out finding us a Ranger to take us to our destination." Marcovia paused at the door. "To tell you the truth, Scatha does not know what I have arranged for Bennue, up in his room. I just think I know enough about her that he in his frame of mind and her with her temperament would not have mixed unless there was blood shed. She is not one to mince words."
"Is she your...girl?"
Again Marcovia paused, only this time to laugh aloud. "No, no far be it from that. She is just a...associate. I believe she is from my homeland; she has yet to confirm that. No we met about two weeks ago when we both found ourselves summoned to this town by messengers from this Seer." He took a moment as they settled themselves down at a table in the bar. "She came from the south and I from the North. I do not know much about her and she has asked very little about me. I just know that the Seer spoke to both of us separately and if he told her the same type of things he told me...well let's just say I was very shaken when I left his chambers."
Marcovia waived to a woman with an apron on. He ordered them both the specials and two tankers of ale. Fitzen quickly changed his from ale to milk. Marcovia glanced at him and gave him a toothy grin. It was then that Fitzen noticed that Marcovia's canine teeth seemed longer and sharper than normal. He decided not to mention it. "Milk?" Marcovia said as the waitress walked away.
Fitzen nodded. "I don't like the taste of alcohol nor do I like what it does to me." He looked down at the table. "I don't like what it has done to my brother Gunther. Papa said he is going to drink himself to death...and I know he does not care."
Marcovia swallowed a little of the dark liquid from his glass. "Why does he drink so much?"
"Anya died." was all Fitzen would say. Marcovia did not push the subject. They ate their meal in silence. Each man caught up in his own thoughts and occasionally wondering how Bennue El Sammi was doing.
Scatha was secretly glad she had not had to deal with that priest. Just the way he looked at her, like he was undressing her with his eyes, was enough to make her stomach churn. She hoped Marcovia had enough sense to make sure he was sexually spent before they pursued this matter. She did not want to spend the next few weeks fighting off his advances nor did she want a cause to have to castrate him. She pulled her maroon cloak tightly around her. It was a warm spring-tide day, but a sudden cold chill clenched her in her grasp.
She made her way down the dirt street. There were not many people in this part of town. The market was held at the other end of town, close to the docks where the traders could access their wares easily. She saw her destination at the end of the street, nestled at the beginning of a glen of trees. There was a wooden building almost hidden among the branches of the great oaks. Horses whinnied at her as she approached. Several mares pranced around an enclosed pasture just before she reached the building. One pressed its nose out toward her and she lifted one hand in passing to rub the velvet softness.
She lowered her hand and hurried along her way, going boldly to the door and knocking loudly. It took a few moments, but an older man finally opened the door. He was as bald as could be with a bushy gray beard that made up for his lack of hair. He gazed at her with momentary curiosity and then stood back.
"Might I be of service to you?" he asked in Celtic, the accent thick enough you could cut it with a knife. Scatha shrugged back her cloak. "You might, if you are the master Ranger of this town." She spoke in clear, unaccented Celtic. The man raised an eyebrow, but kept his comments to himself. "I Am." he replied.
"Good. I have need of your services...my companions and myself wish to leave tomorrow about the noon tide." The man tugged at his great beard he bade her to enter and then shut the door behind her.
"You wish to hire me...to lead you where...may I ask?"
Scatha looked him in the face. "To the forest Keep."
There was an amused chuckled arise from the man as he patted the stomach that draped itself over his belt. "You want me to lead you to Forest Keep. The road is well marked. You and your companions do not need to hire me to take you there."
Scatha reached into her cloak and removed a small poach of coins. "After you take us to Forest Keep, you will lead us on to the cave of the Winds."
The man stopped in mid breath. "Not for all the money in Crymear, young lady. I am alive and I prefer to keep it that way."
Scatha placed her hand on the door before he had a chance to reach for it. Her eyes glowed with a violet surge of untold power. "I don't think you understood, sir. I am not asking, I am telling you. If you value your life and you value your country then you will do I as I bid."
The man shook his head. "No, my Lady, I beg of you...I have heard stories.... there have been sightings of...monsters most hideous...no one wants to go to the Cave of the Winds."
Scatha narrowed her gaze. "I do." she said in a low even tone.
"Then I shall take you," came a soft, yet stern voice from the back of the house. Out of the shadows of the hall a slender female approached. She was looking directly at Scatha; her gaze never wavered. "The Cave of the Winds is but four days from my home. I know the land there well."
"Child, the trip is too dangerous." the Master Ranger protested as he turned to face the female.
As she approached, Scatha could sense the presents of Elf or Shei as the Celtic referred to them, but the impression was not strong. The female was not tall; her dark red hair was cut short, just above her shoulders. She was dressed in simple clothing of one who had spent much time in the forest and on horseback; her eyes were slanted, but slightly rounded giving credence to the suspicion that one of her parents was a human. She looked up at the Master Ranger and smiled. "It is never dangerous, uncle, when one is going home. I would have journeyed there a week ago if you would have let me, now I will have companions and have no excuse other than those unfounded rumors you have heard at the tavern."
The older man began to protest, but she held her hand up to stop him. "Besides, both you and Father have taught me well. How to track, hunt, fight...if you do not think I am up to the task, then you are doubting your ability to teach. Surely you would not like for word to get out that you are losing your talent at training Rangers, would you?"
Her Uncle huffed a couple of muted swear words as he shook his head, unable to rebuff her. "Child.." he finally said. "Very well..." He turned back to Scatha.
"Madam." he began with his voice as sharp as a double edge sword. "I would like to introduce you to...your Ranger. Aventar O'Shanasay, my brother's youngest daughter. She is young, but has been roaming that forest with her brothers and father since she was a toddler. She is more than fair with a sword and can bring down a deer with one arrow. You will neither get lost nor starve with her. All I ask is that you do not place her in harm's way if it can be helped...I would have her mother to answer to and that is one thing I wish to avoid."
"Don't Uncle me, young lady. You know very well your mother can be difficult, why is it that you and your brothers spend so much time here?"
The young half-elf's cheeks turned slightly pink, but she said nothing. Her Uncle nodded and then turned back to Scatha. "You and Aventar may use my office to conduct this transaction. I...need to tend to a mare who is about to foul." He bowed slightly to Scatha. "Madam."
He opened the door, letting in a strong stream of sunlight and the smell of the fresh spring. Aventar slowly pushed the door shut after him. She took a moment before turning to face Scatha. "If you would please, Madam, the office is right behind you."
The Ranger's office was specious. The windows were open, allowing the breeze to keep it cool. There was a table in the center of the room with chairs arranged around it. The walls were lined with shelves that seemed to be packed with books, scrolls, maps and boxes. There was no real decoration, no frivolous tapestries or decorative vases. It was a basic, business-like room.
Aventar motioned to the table. "Please have a seat, I am afraid I did not catch your name."
Scatha smiled slightly. "That is because I did not give it."
There was uneasiness in the room as the two women stared at each other. "You wish to remain...anonymous."
"Does that bother you?"
Aventar picked up a charcoal stick and a sheet of parchment. She tapped the stick on the table. "I like to know who I am dealing with. There is a lot of empty road between here and your destination."
Scatha nodded. "I can give you no references, only that my name is Scatha and so far my company consists of three others. One Holy Man, a swordsman and a Psionoist. There is the strong possibility we will be accompanied by one other, that is still not certain. When we arrive at Forest Keep we will rendezvous with two others that I have engaged. We are not expecting you to accompany us any farther than the outer perimeter of the Cave. If you feel you we are untrustworthy, or are not secure in this engagement, you may hire up to two others whom you trust to accompany you."
Aventar was making notes on the parchment; she glanced up at the dark haired woman at her last statement. "I doubt if that would be necessary. You would not come to the Master Ranger of this district if your intent was dissension, you would have engaged one of the less reputable trackers from one of the taverns down on the Southport. For enough coin one of them would lead you to the Aarown's domain and back."
A brief flash of emotion crossed Scatha's face at the mention of the Celtic Lord of the Underworld. It was as if she held her breath for a moment, and then remembered to release it. "I don't think it is necessary that we go that far, but I am afraid in the course of time, it might feel as if we are knocking on his door."
Aventar stopped writing. "Really, and why is that?"
Scatha sighed. "I would prefer to go over this when everyone is gathered together in the morning and the Seer we have encountered can be there. Until then I will leave you with this." She dropped the sack of coins on the table. "There is enough there to purchase supplies and horses. Meet us at the 'Bodach an Storr' at seven in the morning."
She pushed her chair back and stood, Aventar set down the parchment and rose also. "If you have any second thoughts tonight and change your mind about going...I won't be happy, but I will understand."
Aventar smiled slightly. "I don't think I really wish to see you unhappy. Something tells me that would not be a very pleasant experience."
Scatha gathered her cloak around her. "You are correct child, it is not a very pleasant sight." She nodded to Aventar "Until tomorrow."
Without a rustle of a breeze she was gone, leaving Aventar with a cold feeling that she had somehow been in the presents of death or at least one of its handmaids.
Marcovia and Fitzen walked down a rather steep incline toward the older part of the town, the area the locals called the Southport. Two large sea faring vessels were docked at the wharf and cargo was being loaded onto one. Many of the local people avoided this end of town as it had a rather unsavory reputation of being a bit on the roguish side. Marcovia found it quaint. The houses were old, but most of them were in fairly good shape. The atmosphere was a little more on the relaxed side, since the passenger ships docked at the newer facility to the north. There were few people on the street, some children were playing in a vacant lot, and a couple of aged seamen were heard arguing over a game of skill. Marcovia could sense that unseen eyes were watching their every move, but as long as they were only being watched and not bothered he ignored the threat.
The row of building that had faced the waterfront had once been grand, but now sagged with age and neglect. The town had once been the high city for this region, now it was reduced to a mere Port.
"This kind of reminds me of home." Fitzen said as he looked around. "At least the part of home that Mama said not to go to."
Marcovia snicker lowly. "And, unless I miss my guess, the Graer boys missed no opportunity to go there."
Fitzen smiled. "Papa took us whenever he went. He said there were many interesting people that lived there and that Mama sometimes could be a bit of a snob. Papa and Mama see some things differently. Papa says men fight and women stay at home...of coarse he has never said that around Mama."
Marcovia looked up at the Germanian. He was secretly amazed at how Fitzen's life seemed to revolve around his family. Marc had never really experienced the true family feeling, yet he harbored no resentment to the man who seemed to love his with such great feelings.
"Who are we here to find, Marcovia?" Fitzen asked.
Marc shook his head and the sun caught the gleam of his silver hair. It shone like the metal itself. "I don't know his name, Fitzen. I have a vague idea what he looks like and approximately where he will be. Just like you and Bennue, I am working from the Seer description."
Marcovia studied the buildings carefully. One in particular stood out. It was a tavern in the middle of wooden structures called 'The Laughing Wolf'. Inwardly Marc chuckled to himself the irony of the name, something he alone would find amusing. "Let's try there,” he said pointing to the structure.
Like most businesses in every land, the sign held a painting that depicted the nature of the establishment, in this case a Wolf, grinning impishly, clutching a foaming drink in it's paw.
Fitzen cocked his head as he studied the painting. He appreciated the tradition of paintings and helped immensely when he did not understand the language. This one however made him pause and study.
"What's wrong?" Marc asked as he put his hand on the doorknob.
"Just wondering if Wolves really laugh."
Marc smiled a broad smile. "Some do, Fitzen. Maybe you'll get to hear one laugh someday."
Fitzen shrugged. "It would be a tale to tell."
Marc nodded and opened the door.
The Tavern had a slightly stale odor of aged ale and unwashed bodies. Marcovia's eyes adjusted to the dim light immediately and he took count of the number of customers present. Eight. The barkeep gave him a very cold, calculating stare. Marcovia felt as if he were coins that had been tallied up. The man's expression changed when Fitzen entered behind Marc. Fitzen stood just a bit taller than the doorway and had to duck slightly when he entered. Marc noticed the man's eyes moved from Marc and never leave Fitzen or the rather impressive sword he had strapped to his back.
Marc nodded to the man in a silent greeting and moved toward a table along the far wall where he could see most of the bar. As the barmaid approached Marc whispered to Fitzen in a low tone. "Order a ale...you don't have to drink it...just order it."
A questioning look crossed Fitzen's face, but he held his tongue. The woman approached the table quickly but her eyes never left Fitzen. She spoke in a heavily accented Celtic directly at the Germanian. Marc held up a hand with two fingers extended. "Ale" was all he said. The woman lingered for a moment before she walked back to the bar.
Marcovia leaned back in his chair. He tossed his cape away from his body to reveal a soft leather tunic with an elaborate design stitched across the chest. A bronze medallion dangled from his neck, in the dim light of the bar Fitzen could nearly make out the design. It was a wolf.
When Marcovia saw what Fitzen was intently gazing at he tucked the medallion back inside his tunic. "My Father's clan emblem." he said lowly. Fitzen nodded and then turned his attention to the barmaid as she returned with their beers. She set both of them on the table and then placed one hand on Fitzen's shoulder. She gazed down at him, her brown eyes intent on him, but showing a hardness that came with her life. She smiled at him and spoke in the thick accent. Fitzen looked up at her and spoke in Germanian. The woman laughed with an almost cackle in her voice and grabbed for his hand. Marcovia leaned forward and intercepted the gesture. He stared at the woman and said something in Celtic that she understood immediately. She grabbed the coin that Marcovia held in his other hand and turned on her heels, disappearing into the dark of the bar.
When she was gone, Fitzen questioned Marcovia. "What did she say?"
"She was offering her services to you..."
Marc swallowed and rolled his eyes, very much like Bennue did. "Services...take you to the back room and let you...have your way with her." Fitzen's eyes grew big. "Don't worry I discouraged her."
"What did you tell her?"
"Never mind, just accept that she won't be trying to get you in a compromising position again." Marc's eyes brightened as a door, half hidden in the shadows opened and three men entered the bar from a side room. He gently nudged Fitzen with his booted foot and nodded slightly to the group. None of the men were speaking all three wore expression that told they were not pleased with something. A fourth man sauntered out of the room with a very slight swagger about him. He was blatantly bouncing a sack of coins in his hand and the sack was rather heavy. The three who exited the room before him glowered back in silent anger. His long curly dark hair that grew down to the middle of his shoulder blades obscured the fourth man’s face. It blended in with his dark shirt and further into the dark atmosphere of the room, almost obscuring him from sight.
"At least allow me to buy you gentlemen a round of drinks." he said in a harsh, accented common. His voice was low and slightly husky but carried well over the bar.
One of the men glanced over his shoulder. He was large, dressed in leather armor and had a ragged patch over one eye. "I would rather drink with a pig than allow you to buy me a round,” he snarled.
The bag stopped in mid toss. "I was being hospitable, sir. It is not my fault that luck has chosen not to shine on you today."
The man snorted and the other two nodded in agreement. They all three were dressed like out of work mercenaries and Marcovia detected the odor of not bathing for quite some time. "You, stranger, are a cheat."
The bag disappeared deep within the stranger's cloak. "I do not cheat, friend, I play to win."
"I'm not your friend, and I know a cheat when I encounter one. A cheat and a thief. And you made your mistake by cheating the wrong men."
The three at the bar turned to face the stranger. Another man, seated at a table not far from Marc and Fitzen stood to join them. Fitzen heard the unmistakable sound of swords being drawn.
"Come on boys, let’s show him how Southport treats a cheat."
The stranger raised his hands, palms uplifted. "Gentlemen, please, as you can see, I am unarmed."
"Then it won't take long to gut you."
The bartender began lowering bottles of spirits to the safety of the floor. The barmaid disappeared into the room the four had just left. The seven other occupants of the bar picked up their various drinks and moved swiftly to the other side of the room. The four began to move in a steady, menacing fashion, like a pack of wild animals surrounding their prey. The man with the dark hair positioned himself so he could watch all four men. Marcovia caught a glimpse of his face. His skin was a few shades darker than those native to this land, he wore a full beard but it was his eyes that caught Marc's full attention. Even through the dim conditions of the bar, Marc could see that they were ice cold blue.
"That's him." Marcovia said to Fitzen in a voice so low that only Fitzen could hear.
"What do you want to do?" Fitzen asked backing away from the table.
Marcovia's eyes narrowed. "Just wait for a few moments, but intercede before he is too badly hurt or killed. I want to see how he handles himself."
The stranger backed against the wall, placing a table between him and his would be assailants. "Gentlemen...let us be reasonable."
"Gut him." one man growled.
The dark stranger raised a leg and shoved the table toward two of his attackers. He moved with the reflexes of a cat and caught the men off guard. He grabbed one of the more sturdy looking chairs and swung it, catching another man in an upper cut to his chin. While the two were trying to catch their breath the fourth man leap forward and thrust his cutlass in a downward motion. The nimble man in black leaned to one side avoiding the attack, but countered with a swift upswing of his arm and his attacker was face to face with the point of a very sharp looking dagger.
The two that had encountered the table had regained their breath and began to menace forward. Fitzen had sat as long as his honor would allow him. He rose and drew his sword at the same time. His eyes narrowed slightly and he made his way across the bar floor toward the ensuing fight.
For just a brief moment the dark stranger glanced at the oncoming swordsman and his eyes almost cursed until he realized the blond man was coming to assist him.
"This fight does not seem to be fair." Fitzen said in common. When the attackers glanced back they saw the towering Germanian standing behind them, feet place squarely on the floor sword gleaming in the low light, expression hard and fixed.
"Oh pooh." someone muttered.
Marcovia moved in from behind Fitzen. He saw the stranger still held his dagger to the one man's face. In his other hand was a dagger of equal sharpness. Marcovia's eyes narrowed slightly and the assailants felt a ringing in their ears and a sharp pain in their heads just behind their eyes. Swords clattered to the floor and hands went up to aching heads. Marcovia snorted slightly. The weaker the mind, the easier the attack.
"Fight over,” he growled in a menacing, almost animal like growl. He received no argument from any of the hooligans. He heard a slight shuffle and when he turned to speak to the stranger, he was gone. The door of the bar was slightly ajar.
Kiel adjusted the hood of his cloak as soon as he stepped out into the sunlight. He stopped for a moment and listened from behind. No one was following. He didn't know where those two fighters had come from, but their intervention granted him the time to slip quietly out the door. He really wished them the best and hoped those mercenaries did not have friends that would come crawling out of the shadows. Kiel was glad that he would be back aboard ship in just a few moments and out at sea in less than an hour's time. Not even a scratch this time, how lucky can one thief get? He smiled to himself and reached into one of the pockets of his cloak and drew out some imported tobacco and rolling paper. He started to walk away from the door as he rolled the tobacco in the paper. He heard a voice whispering to him, not far from his right ear.
"Going somewhere?" It asked and then he felt a cold steel tip brush his neck.
Slowly he turned his head to face the metaphysical voice that whispered in his ear. He found himself staring into the most hypnotic pair of amethyst eyes he had ever seen. They were clear, crisp and not very happy. They also belonged to the most sensual woman he had ever seen in his life. Hair long and black as the night, skin as pale as porcelain and as perfect as an unflawed diamond. She was the most beautiful woman who ever held him at knifepoint.
Kiel glanced down at the knife, it was just inches away from his throat. "That depends," he said in common. "If you mean to rob me," he paused "or if you have another agenda." His voice was deep, almost hypnotic. Kiel's was a voice that could be used to seduce women or distract someone while picking their pockets. Scatha was not in the mood to either be seduced or distracted. She pricked pushed the knife a little deeper into his skin.
"Shut up." she said bluntly. He got the point.
The door opened behind Kiel, and Marcovia stepped out. If he was surprised to see Scatha there, he did not show it. Instead he walked around Kiel until he stood in front of him. Marc slowly shook his head. "That was rude,” he said. "We saved your neck..."
"I didn't ask you to."
"..and you leave us standing in there like fools."
"That was your problem, not mine."
"That's not very grateful of you."
"What do you want, me to fall on my knees and kiss your ...feet?"
Marc considered it for a moment. "Don't tempt me. As I see it we have a few choices to select from. One, the big guy behind you can throw your ass back in that Bar. Two, the Lady can cut your throat. Three, you can come with us for we have a job for you to do."
Kiel looked at Marcovia and then at Scatha. "There is a forth choice." Kiel said.
Marcovia lifted an eyebrow. "Yes?"
"You can let me go and forget you ever met me."
Marc grinned. "I don't think so. My associates and I have been looking for a...thief..."
Kiel shook his head. "Sir, thief is such a harsh word, especially in a land that sentences thieves to death. I prefer to think of myself as a liberator of unprotected goods."
"Thief." Marcovia said abruptly. "This is not the time and absolutely not the place to discuss any of this. We have rooms set aside in another part of town if you will just give us twenty-four hours to hear our proposition. After that if you decide to join us, you will be more than welcome, if not, you would be free to leave. No questions, no law, just walk out the door."
Kiel crossed his arms. He scrutinized Marcovia for several heartbeats. "How much of a guarantee? Charity work does not pay the bills."
Marc patted Kiel's cloak where the pouch of money lay nestled safely away. "Consider the fact you'll be spending the night in a nice safe Inn, rather than the local garrison. I think that should suffice for starters."
Marcovia nodded to Scatha, who lowered her dagger with some hesitation. "Now, let us leave this place before the men in that bar recover themselves and come after us."
Marcovia started to walk away and nodded for the others to follow. Scatha walked beside Kiel and Fitzen brought up the rear. Kiel was caught in a triangle of strangers, but more so he was caught up in his own curiosity. Scatha gave this thief a sidelong look, but all she saw was the outline of the cloak and his beard. She had a bad feeling about this. The seer had told her the thief they were looking for would be of foreign birth, yet his heritage was here. They would recognize him for his eyes were clear pale blue. He would be one in search of more than he realized, coming home for the first time to meet his destiny. A thief with no equal, but a thief with values and morals. It was hard for her to believe this black clad rogue had any morals what so ever.
"If you don't mind, I need to go down to the dock and retrieve my belongings that are aboard ship." He pointed toward the smaller of the two vessels. Marcovia turned to him and stared at him in silence.
"I would like to have what belongs to me. If I am going to be your guest here, I think a change of clothing would be nice."
Marc flipped his fingers at the hidden coin pouch. "You can buy what you need."
"I am going to get my things. Come with me if you don't trust me, but I am going no matter what you say. I gave you my word I would stay for twenty-four hours, and my word is a good."
Scatha's voice dripped sarcasm. "A thief whose word is honorable, oh please don't make me laugh."
A breeze from the ocean caught Kiel's hood and pushed it away from his face. For the first time Scatha saw the man clearly. There was something about him that took her breath away. Black curly hair, a full beard, high cheekbones and swarthy skin with a slight olive cast to it. He might have been good looking if it were not for all that hair. His blue eyes narrowed as he looked directly into her eyes. There was power there, within him, just below the surface, bubbling, ready to erupt. She swallowed hard and for the first time in her life was taken unexpectedly by such boldness. He spoke to her, emphasizing every word in unflawed common. "Listen lady, I am a man of honor. Just because one is labeled a thief, does not mean one robs whoever they damn well please. Not once have I taken food from a child, not once have I taken from anyone who could not afford the loss and some even deserved it for they had stolen the money from those who could not afford it ... Now I am going to that ship, I am going to get my belongings and not you nor that knife are going to stop me. I said I would stay and I will stay."
He raised his hand and gently pushed her aside, striding down toward the water. Scatha stood, unable to speak or move. Marcovia was even taken with this man's brashness, but recovered when Kiel was only seven paces away. "Scatha, you and Fitzen go back to the Inn, I'll go with his majesty and make sure he returns."
"Will you be alright, Marcovia?" Fitzen asked concerned.
Marc nodded. "I don't know why, but I believe him."
"Does he remind you of someone?" Scatha said quickly and then wished she had not even mentioned it.
Marc nodded. "Yes, but who I can't place."
Marc hurried toward the waterfront without another word. Scatha watched them until they were almost to the wooded dock. This man was going to get under her skin and she didn't like it one little bit.
V Kiel heard him coming but did not turn to look. He knew it was the elf even before Marcovia caught up with him. They walked in silence toward the ship.
"You took a mighty big chance with Scatha." Marcovia finally said.
"Scatha, is that her name?" Kiel asked.
"Yes and from what I have learned I don't think many people would get away with talking to her like that and live."
Kiel shrugged. "I don't like when someone will not accept my word. My word is my honor. If decide to join your little group, you had better learn that fast. By the way, thank you for interceding back there in the bar. I am afraid I would not have come out of that situation unscathed."
"You’re an arrogant son of a **TOS VIOLATION**, aren't you?" Marcovia said bluntly. He figured this man did not mince words.
Kiel laughed a little. "I have been called that many times; that and other things. By the way, if you're interest, my name is Kiel, my last name is a little hard for you Celts to roll around, so let's just leave it at Kiel."
"I am called Marcovia. The female is Scatha and the tall Germanian is Fitzen Graer. Your from Hellis, aren't you?"
"An Island off the cost, actually." he replied. He was looking up at the ship they approached. Some of the crew was lounging near the bow, taking in a few minutes of relaxation before they set sail. They glanced up at Kiel and smiled, greeting him in their native tongue, he returned the greeting and asked a question. One man nodded and pointed up to the ship. Kiel waved to them and headed for the gangplank.
The ship had seen better days, but was well taken care of. A strange looking flag flew from the main mast; it whipped in the wind as the breeze blew a little harder.
Kiel took the gang plank two rungs at a time, Marcovia moved with the caution of someone who had never been aboard a sea going vessel.
The deck was devoid of sailors, however two rather large dogs lounged in the sun on the main deck. Kiel looked around and then called out. The door to below deck opened and an elderly gentleman stepped out. He blinked once in the sun and then saw Kiel and smiled. He raised his hand in greeting and called Kiel's name. The tall thief walked over to him. Marcovia stood at the head of the gangplank and listened to them converse in a language he had never heard before. He could have mentally scanned the old man to gather the gist of his thoughts, but he felt that was uncalled-for so he stood quietly. Kiel turned and saw Marc standing there. It was then Marc heard words spoken in common. "Forgive me Marcovia, that was rude." He turned to the older man. "Grandfather, I would like you to meet Marcovia, this is the gentleman who wishes to engage my services. Marcovia, my Grandfather Apollos Papindopolise; you are aboard his ship."
The older man gave Marcovia a polite nod. "Please, come aboard. My Grandson tells me you have offered him a job."
Marcovia smiled slightly. "Yes, we are negotiating terms."
"Good, good. Keep him out of trouble; honest thief is still a thief in your land, not good. My boy is good." The older man patted Kiel on the shoulder.
"Grandfather, I will get what I need from my quarters." Kiel reached into the cloak and removed the bag of coins. "You remember those mercenaries that cheated young Eppis and Armina when we were in Erue last week?"
The older man nodded his head as he eyed the money pouch.
"Here is their money...with interest. I trust you will divide accordingly."
"Yes, of coarse...they will wish to thank you."
Kiel shook his head. "That is not necessary." With that Kiel pushed past his grandfather and disappeared below deck. The older man smiled at Marc as he put the coins in his pocket. "My Grandson can not abide cheats that prey on innocents. Eppis and Armina are apprentices on ship first time, they run into trouble at last port of call. He is good boy my Kiel." The man's eyes spoke sincerity, and then they turned serious. "He follows a destiny, my Kiel does. It is here and I feel you are a part of it. I do not know how many more years the Fates spin my life thread, I do not know if I will see my Grandson again..." He broke off in mid-sentence as Kiel appeared from below.
The two men embraced quickly, patting each other on the back and then Apollos kissed his grandson on each cheek. They spoke quietly in their native tongue before Keil turned to leave the ship. He walked past Marc, but did not look at him. Marcovia gave Kiel's grandfather a smile and a wave before he followed Kiel off the ship.
As the walked away from the ship Apollos Papindopolise yelled something to Kiel who in turn sighed heavily and nodded.
"What did he say?" Marc asked as they left the dock.
"He said 'Get a haircut'."