Chapter One:The King's City
The city streets were packed with people and carts fresh in from the outlying farms and villages. Dust rose in thick clouds from the meandering footfalls of the passersby and the roaming cart-peddlers selling their wares. Everything reeked of freshness and of the freeness of the summer day. Galaukiir Amanodel walked to and from cart to cart idly inspecting various wares for sale. Some held weapons for travel and use on the King's Road. Others held freshly picked produce of all kinds. Corn, peas, carrots and more were to be had for the asking.
City guardsmen walked here and there amongst the crowd, pushing and shoving their way through it to get to their destinations. Galakuiir nimbly sidestepped a passing guard and bumped into him lightly with his shoulder. "Hey! Watch where yer goin'!" the guardsman grunted roughly through a thick mustache of brown bristle. The sun baked down on the inhabitants of the City and sweat beaded lightly on the guards' upper lip as it curled into a sneer. "Next time I'll clout thee a good smack 'cross that pretty head of yers, Elf!" he said gruffly as he hurried to catch up to his companions. Galaukiir smiled politely and nodded to the guard, signaling he'd be more careful next time.
"Heh," he chuckled lightly as he walked away. "Too easy." He looked down at his left hand and squeezed the purse a little more tightly, feeling the gold inside it shift lightly in his rough hand. He pocketed the gold into his own travelers' backpack and started searching the crowd for another playmate. Walking ahead of him some distance away was one of the nobles, dressed in their usual finery of silks and satins.
Brightly colored as a peacock, she wore a pointed hat with silver beads around the brim to mark her status as one of the City's Elite. Galaukiir noted the level at which the beads rested on her hat. They were about half way up the brim of the hat and, unless he was mistaken, Galaukiir could have sworn he saw a glint of gold amongst the silver beads. "So,"
he thought, "You’re a wizard as well as one of the elite. Good."
He picked up his pace, but not too much as to be directly following his target. He moved casually down the aisle of carts and peddlers in the Market Square of the City at right angles to the peacock-robed woman he was tailing. Slowly the space between the two of them started to shrink. Finally after going down several side streets and then back into the main street of the Market, he was within arms' length of the stranger when he felt a tight pinch at his elbow.
A female elf stood next to him with blue eyes glinting in amusement in the bright sunlight. She stood just a little taller than his five foot five inches, a respectable height for Elves and had deep ravens' black hair to his golden blond. He sighed as he watched the noble slip further and further down the street. "Blast!"
"What are you up to now?" the woman said with a light accusing tone in her voice. "You aren't stealing again are you?" She poked him in the ribs through his leather jerkin with a slender pale finger. When he failed to answer, and merely sighed and looked longingly at the stranger walking away from him, she poked him harder in the ribs.
"Well?! Are you or aren't you?" she said, annoyed by his silence.
"Oh, get a grip, Valanthe. It was just a bit of fun. I was bored!" Galaukiir said with a sheepish grin. Valanthe sighed and glared down her slender nose at him. His violet eyes sparkled innocence in the hot sunlight.
"Just a bit of fun, eh? What happens when you go too far and get yourself arrested
?! How would your father take to that? Huh? I'll tell you! He'll be furious with you. We're here to buy supplies for the shop, not to steal them. Now come on," she said angrily as she grabbed his arm and led him down the way he had just come. "I've been looking for you for half the day and you haven't gotten a single thing done. Must I do everything
They walked briskly down the main street and turned into a shaded side street where it was less crowded. Valanthe sighed again and looked back at her friend to make sure he was still following. "Your father wants freshly prepared wood for the arrows and bows he's got to make, so I say we would do well to start purchasing those supplies. Come, I've found a shop that will sell to us for a decent price compared to the hagglers in the Market Square," Valanthe said crossly as icy fire hung on her every word.
He sighed resignedly and followed dutifully after her. She continued down the street a little ways further and then stopped in front of a wooden door with an arrow and bow painted on a hanging sign above the door. They entered a small shop that smelled strongly of freshly mowed hay and cut wood. A man was standing with his back turned to them as they entered. He was wiping dust from a long slender rod of wood and inspecting it critically.
"Mmmm....not the best, but it'll do for the guards at least. Maybe I can get a few pieces of gold out of them for once," he mumbled as they walked the short distance to the counter. Upon the wooden counter sat only a silver bell which Valanthe picked up and rang. It tinkled like soft music in the daylight air and the man turned around. A bright smile lit his lips. His face was a mass of wrinkles and seams. Bright intelligent eyes stared out from under bushy eyebrows. "Ah! Miss Galanodel, you're back and so soon? I would have thought you'd be gone a while longer," he said with a soft chuckle.
"Yes, well, I managed to find what I was looking for a lot sooner than expected, Markis. Is the order ready yet?" Valanthe said with a light smile. She poked Galaukiir in the ribs again to keep him from wandering around the small shop. He had been inspecting a bow shelf when she poked him and jumped slightly at the roughness of her touch.
"Yes, yes. The order is ready. Have you the money to pay for it? I won't take Credits. Gold bullion is all that shall line my poor pockets these days, lassie!" He laughed heartily and stepped from around the counter then disappeared into a back door of the shop. A few moments later he came back with a slip of parchment in one hand and a bundle of wooden rods in the other.
"Ah, here we are. Sixty oak and cedar arrow rods all notched and feathered. All they need are the heads and they'll pierce just about anything you shoot them at. The best I made so far," Markis said gruffly as he set the bundle down on the counter. "That's going to cost you one gold, lassie. Which is a deal I make to very few. I normally sell them at three gold coins for a bundle of twenty rods." Valanthe nodded and reached into her purse, then handed him the coin. Taking the bundle of rods, she plucked Galaukiir on the sleeve of his jerkin and walked to the door with a wave of thanks to Markis.
Back on the side street again, she turned north and headed down another side street. She stopped at another shop with the same sign as the previous one and entered. The tinkling of silver bells above the door greeted her as she entered and an elderly woman smiled up to her.
"Ah ha! You're back again today and you've brought young master Amanodel with you, have you? Well, well, today is just full of surprises!" The old woman chuckled as they entered the shop. Valanthe quirked a slender eyebrow when she heard this.
"Like what?" she asked. Galaukiir looked around the shop as the two women spoke to each other. It was full of various sized arrows and bows all on neat and tidy racks and shelves. He wandered over to one rack and pulled from it a long bow of yew wood. He looked at it quizzically. The bow was nearly as tall as he was and strung with a thick piece of rawhide rope, which he pulled at experimentally. It bent nimbly to his touch. "I could launch an arrow through plate mail with this!"
he thought excitedly. The bow itself was notched and carved into the shape of a deer's antlers with two protrusions of wood jutting from the handgrip which were meant to be thrust into an opponents' throat or face at close range. Upon further inspection of the bow itself, Galaukiir let out a soft whistle beneath his breath.
"This bow is designed to look like something harmless rather than a weapon! With this design, I could quite possibly sneak it past even the Black Crown of the City Guard themselves! All I'd have to do is remove the paint!" he whispered. It was painted a light shade of teal with an etching of a thunder bolt going down one side of the leather wrapped grip.
"Careful with tha' one dearie," the old woman said. "Mind ye now. Tha'll blast ye into the middle of next week, it will, if ye were to be shot with tha'. Very powerful 'tis." Galaukiir smiled politely and put the bow back onto the weapons rack. He then wandered over to a small shelf about waist high from the floor and examined different sized arrow heads. Some were as black as night, others were nearly invisible in the dimly lit shop. He picked one up that was a double pyramid shape and looked at it closely for a moment before setting it back down on the shelf.
It was silver and notched like a saw with a flame symbol painted on it near the base of the head. "Tha' ones good fer hurtin' the undead, lad. Tis best to find yerself wit sumtin' tha does fire damage as well as piercing the flesh o' the undead when yer serroun' by them buggers!" the old woman said with a faint smile. Galaukiir quirked an eyebrow and then walked over to stand next to Valanthe.
"Can you hurry it up please?" he asked. "I would like to get on with this sometime before the next Harvest Festival arrives!"
Valanthe rolled her eyes at him, then she sighed and smiled to the old woman. "Anyway, if you'll pardon my friends' rudeness, we're here for the order of arrow heads Master Amanodel asked that you make for him. Have you got them ready yet?" she said quietly. The wrinkled old face creased into a bright smile.
"Ah, yes! I remember that order. Not more than two days ago and wha' a rush ter get it done. Must be sumtin importan' if so many o' the blasted heads be needed," she said cheerily. "Yes, yes, all o' them are done and ready to go. I'll be right back." With that she turned and disappeared into a side door of the shop.
From where they stood waiting, the two could hear sounds of muttering and bustling in the back of the shop. A few moments later the old woman came back to the counter with a large wooden box tucked under one arm. She placed it on the counter and looked up with a twinkle in her beady green eyes. "Tha'll be six Credits dearie," she said with a smile. Valanthe looked into her purse and bit down on her lower lip.
"Will you take six gold bullion instead?" she asked. The old woman thought for a long moment before nodding consent.
"Great!" Valanthe said and handed over the coins. Outside once again, Galaukiir tugged on her green jerkin sleeve.
"No Credits, eh?" he asked with a smile playing at his thin lips. He unstrapped his backpack and set it down on the street, then started poking through it. "Ah, here we are. Take these. That should be enough to help you out." He handed a small white and red bundle to her.
"Where did you get all this?" Valanthe asked, shocked as she took the bundle. She opened it up and examined it. A thick stack of the King's parchment Credits lay clutched in her hand. She began counting them then looked up in shock. "Why, there's over five hundred Credits here! Galaukiir! You little rat! You've stolen these, haven't you?!"
She exclaimed worriedly and shoved them back at him hurriedly. Galaukiir merely grinned.
"So? I was merely testing my skills. That's three weeks of work worth there. Father doesn't deal in Credits, but just over half the City does, so I had to get them on my own. Besides, I'm only borrowing them. I've remembered each and every person I've taken money from and when I'm rich and famous, I promise I'll return the money," he said with a grin that spoke otherwise. Valanthe glared at him a second longer and then sighed. She looked down at the Credits still clutched tightly in her hands. She counted the money one last time, taking stock of the different colored parchment notes.
"Well...I suppose they will come in handy when we go to get the rest of the supplies. But even still! You shouldn't have stolen them. Get yourself a decent Task and earn the damn money for once in your life," she said with a hiss at the end. Then she hurriedly shoved them into the hidden pocket of her purse.
"Come on. We still have to get the tie strings for the arrows and the wood for the bows," she said taking his arm and leading him back down the street into the main portion of the Market Square. Later that day they stood in front of a brick and mortar building that was a single story with a gold thatch roof and smoke curling lazily into the air from the chimney.
In a small cart that was pulled by a rented donkey they held their treasures of the days' activities: rods for the arrows, sacks of various bird feathers, balls of twine and rawhide rope, and three large chests containing one hundred twenty arrow heads apiece.
"Most of this junk I could have made for Father, but he doesn't trust my work yet, does he?" Galaukiir grumbled as he surveyed the carts' contents. He reached up to it and unlatched the back gate of the cart, letting it thump loudly against the baseboards.
"No, he doesn't and there's good reason for him not to," Valanthe said in response. "Remember the time you tried to enchant his arrows yourself? Half of his customers brought them back complaining of being hit with their own arrows! And the time before that, you put the wrong feathers on the wrong arrows so they fell short of their targets or went too far afield. If you'd only pay attention to your father, he'd trust your work more."
"Okay, okay, I get the picture, Valanthe. At least he trusts my work with the jewel settings I make for him," Galaukiir said defensively. They began to unload the cart. As they were doing so, the door to the shop swung open and a slender looking elf stood in the doorway. He had long blond hair and green eyes. His pale flesh glistened with sweat in the early evening heat of the day and he held clenched in his teeth a long stemmed pipe that slowly puffed out thin curls of bluish smoke into the air. He grinned at seeing the two of them.
"Ah! It's about time you two finally showed up," he said as they started hauling the goods into the shop. "I've been waiting for half the day for you to bring this order to me. Now, if you would please set them all in a row on those empty work benches, I can finally get some work done." He pointed to a neat row of empty benches in the back of the shop and the two of them set each crate and bundle onto them.
The interior of the shop was small, but well cleaned and smelled faintly of sulfurs and cherries. It wasn't an unpleasant mixing of the scents, but it did give Valanthe and Galaukiir pause as it wafted into their nostrils for a moment. When they were done, Galaukiir glanced over at the elder elf.
"Anything else, Father?" he asked quietly. The other merely shook his head and went to one wall of the shop that was covered with tools of every size and shape. He selected a few of them and brought them over to another workbench.
"Here you go. Your payment as ordered by the King of all whom work past human childhood age," he said with a small smile and handed to them each a pouch that clinked as they took it. "Thirty gold apiece and mind you don't spend it all in one place now." He turned to Valanthe.
"Valanthe, dear, you ought to head home. It's getting late and your mother will be wondering where you've got off to this time. Go on now. Shoo!" he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. Valanthe nodded curtly and pocketed the money.
"Good night, Amil. See you on the morrow's morn Galaukiir," she said with a slight toss of her hair and a quick wave.
"You've yet some work to do still, son. I need some ring settings finished before the night is out in full if you please," Amil said softly. He smiled to his son as he handed him another leather pouch that clicked softly in his hands. Galaukiir walked over to another work bench, this one lined with a jewelers' loop, several pliers and a burning torch. There were differently sized cutters and saws lining the back end of the bench and on the wall within arms' reach were ring and pendant molds and display cases.
With a sigh Galaukiir set to work mending a few of the ring settings and reshaping the rest to better hold the jewels that would be set into them later in the week. An hour went by swiftly and the Night's Toil Bells slowly began to peal through the City, first starting at the Palace Watchtowers and then working their way through each of the five districts of the City. Each district had their own sound for the bells that rang through them at every hour of the day.
In the Market Square, the bells sounded of running brook water and humming birds' wings. In the Magic Quarter, the bells sounded of the wind in the grass on a summers' night and crickets chirping their love songs to each other. In the walled off Elite district, where the Nobles and the King himself lived, the bells there sounded of gold coins clinking together in a purse. In the Poor Homes Quarter, the bells sounded of wind chimes in the early morning of predawn and birds singing in the forests. In the Librarians' and Scholars Quarter, the bells sounded faintly of quills scrapping on parchment and words being softly whispered in the dead of the night.
Only once during the entire day did all of the bells in the King's City ever sound together and with the same song. That was Night's Toil Bells, signaling an end to the days' activities and time to rest. All of the shops closed down for the night, except for some very few in the Poor Homes Quarter and slowly light would creep from the lanterns that dotted the City streets to chase away the nights' shadows.
As the Night's Toil slowly pealed out of the Watchtowers and into the lower quarters of the City, lantern lighters made their way through the slowly thinning crowds to light their various lanterns. Galaukiir leaned back on his wooden stool and stretched a moment before bending back over the work he was doing to a silver ring with a blue gemstone. The ring had broken at the base of the clasp where the gem met with the ring setting and he was busy trying to meld it back into place. He sighed and looked through the glass paned window. A thin line pursed his lips and he set the work aside for a moment. The stars in the night sky were slowly winking into view and clouds drifted over the horizon.
A light breeze slowly rattled the summer leaves of the oak tree near the front of the shop and a small squirrel climbed up the trunk with an oversized nut in its mouth. Galaukiir blew a deep breath out in a single puff and looked back at his work. He picked up the melding torch again, gave it a sharp tap on the butt of the tools' handle and the flame spurted to life once more. Green and blue, it flickered hungrily awaiting the next piece of metal it could devour for him.
He sighed, quirked an eyebrow for half a second, then set back to work. Night's Toil rang out a second time an hour later and he finally set aside his work. Freshly polished and mended, the ring gleamed as if it had never been broken. All he had to do was invoke the spell that would re-enchant the ring to bring better protection to its owner and he could finally stop for the night.
"Bahuydristdrunyra," Galaukiir whispered softly into the cooling night air of the shop and concentrated hard on the ring. The ring slowly began to glow a deep violet color. It faded almost as soon as it started to glow. He smiled thinly.
"Father should think more highly of me. I'm better at this than he realizes," he whispered."At least my work is done for the night. Time for some sleep!"
he thought as he blew out the lantern near his workbench and slowly made his way to the back of the shop.
He reached a wooden door in the back wall of the shop and turned the handle. He set the ring on a workbench near the door where his father would find it in the morning. Then he walked down a short hallway and turned left. He opened the door in front of him and was greeted by the warm smell of apple blossoms and chill winter wind. He smiled a little more deeply this time as he slowly peeled off his jerkin and tossed it into a heap by the open door. He walked into the room and looked around for a moment. In front of the door against the far wall was a standing writing desk and simple wooden stool. A pace away to the left of the desk was a straw pallet with a down pillow and a soft wool blanket. On the wall facing the bed was a standing mirror of highly polished bronze decorated with a dragon and flower motif around the perimeter.
If he looked closely enough through slightly sleep filled eyes, he could almost say that the dragon was alive and that the flowers were waving in a light summers' breeze. A small wardrobe encased the wall opposite the bed to the right. The sliding doors of the wardrobe stood slightly ajar and he could see some of his clothing poking out into the darkness of the room on the wooden pegs that they hung on. Hung from a peg on the rear of the door was a green travelers' cloak made of wool.
He yawned and stripped himself bare. Then he went to the wardrobe and pulled the doors open and removed a wash basin and a soft linen sponge. He dabbed the sponge into the cool water and began to wash himself clean of the dust from the day. When he was finished, he put the basin back into the wardrobe after dumping the water out into the street through his open window. He walked over to the desk and replaced the lids on the scented jars of dried flowers that sat to the side closest to the bed. He lay down in his bed and was soon sound asleep.
Daylight crept over the wooden window sill as a pale light announced the beginning of a new day. Birds chirped and cawed in the trees in the City Park that was a few blocks from his house. The light of the rising sun stabbed into his eyes like molten daggers and Galaukiir groaned and rolled over, pulling the blanket over his head. Everywhere in the City there were signs of life beginning to stir. Shops were opening, people were beginning to bustle about on their various errands, and the smells and sounds of the City all came unwelcome and unbidden into Galaukiirs' ears and nose. He slowly cracked one eye open and then the other and stretched luxuriously, sighing.
"Alright, alright, I'm up," he said to the open air of his room. He dressed quickly, this time choosing a brown leather tunic and trousers with a simple belt of leather. To this he strapped a dagger and his purse after counting out some of the money he had from the previous day. He blew a breath of air into the room, pursed his thin lips together, and then walked down the short hallway to see if his father was awake. He found him in the workroom of the house, bent over a collection of arrows. Several pieces of parchment lay scattered on the floor, their ink slowly starting to fade.
"Ah, Galaukiir, I'm glad you're finally up and about!" Amil said to him without looking up. "I need you to take these arrows to the Dragons' Run Inn over in the Poor Homes Quarter of the City. Bring them to a man named Tardek and make sure you get gold, not Credits from him. I want a profit of three hundred from him for these and not a piece less. But be careful. There is trouble in the Homes today." The arrows glowed a malicious looking green for a moment and then the color faded. Galaukiir sighed and scooped them into a quiver which he strung across his back.
"Anything else, Father?" he asked quietly still yawning the sleep from his brain. When his father didn't answer but merely set another bundle of arrows down on the workbench, he shrugged and went back to his room. There he grabbed his traveling cloak and went back into the shop. When he got there Valanthe was waiting for him. She smiled as he entered the room.
"Hello, Galaukiir. Up bright and early for once. I thought I'd stop by and see how things lay here with you. Mind if I tag along? Oh! Have you heard what happened in the Poor Homes last night?" she said. Galaukiir quirked an eyebrow at her. "Why not?"
"The more the merrier, I guess. And no, I have not heard. What happened?" he said after a pause. She smiled again and winked at him.
"I would have gone with you whether you had said “yes” or “no.” Someone needs to keep you out of trouble!" she said with a light giggle. Then she turned serious. "As for the Poor Homes, I'll tell you outside." Galaukiir looked taken aback for a moment and mouthed out "who me?" to her as his father busily laid parchment scrolls out on the workbench.
She rolled her eyes for a moment and said, "Come on, already. We'd best get going. I have a lot I need to do today!" With a quick word of good day to his father, the two of them set off down the street to the east. As they walked Valanthe seemed slightly withdrawn and quiet. Galaukiir poked her in the arm.
"Hey! You said you were going to tell me what happened in the Poor Homes last night. So tell me already!" he said. Valanthe sighed, glancing at the bright blue cloudless sky.
"It was a murder. Someone died there," she said simply and fell silent again. At this Galaukiir knew better than to press for more information. A half hour later they stood near the large double gates of bronze that led into the Poor Homes quarter of the City.
"Well, here we are," Galaukiir said. He glanced skyward and pressed his lips into a thin line. The sky was westering already towards midday and they were no closer to their completed goal. They stood in a long line of people facing the gates while a battered old soldier bent over a scroll of parchment with a thick black quill in one hand.
"Come on, any day now!" Galaukiir said under his breath. He felt a sharp poke in his ribs and glanced over at Valanthe. She glared at him.
"Ever impatient aren't you? Complaining isn't going to help here, you know. You're just going to have to wait like the rest of these people, City Elf," she said bitterly. He glared back at her for a long moment then pointedly looked away. They hadn't always been City Elves. Galaukiir could still barely remember when he and his father and mother lived in the Western Forests in peace and quiet, making arrows and bows of magic for travelers that were going to the Sandhearth Deserts or the Azer Moors. There had been lots of Elves back then, but that was before the Blight came and withered all the trees.
His people had fled before its might when it struck their home city of Maelyinno and decimated the forest there. Most of his people now lived in bustling towns and cities like King's City, but it was taken as an insult to be called "City" anything if one were of Elven blood. There were still tribes of wood elves living in the east and south, where the Blight had not yet struck but they would have as little to do with the refugees as possible, fearing that they would spread the Blight further east.
He thought back to his childhood and could picture himself running through fields of tall green grass where birds lay hidden on their nests and sung throughout the day and night. He was only a small boy then in the way his people measured time. A soft hand brushed his cheek and a light tinkling of musical notes reached his ears. He laughed aloud as he stared into the fiery purple eyes of his mother. She spoke to him gently in their native tongue.
"Dos ph’ussta Xukuth lu’Quortek,” his mother said softly whispering into his ears. He giggled and raised his hands into the air, wanting to be held closer to her. She smiled as the moon pale flesh around her mouth wrinkled as she stooped to pick him up.
"Ussta ssinsrigg dos, I’lhar," he said in a soft voice back and laughed some more as she twirled him around and around in the air. Suddenly the sky grew dark and ominous. The stars winked out one by one and the birds fell silent. A soft snapping of twigs underfoot could be heard from the gardens outside of their home. His mother held him close and buried his face into her breasts. He could feel her heart beating loudly against his ears and hear her ragged breath as he felt her leap into the air and start running. They ran for what seemed like hours. It was dark when he dared to peek from the protective shell of her breasts and he felt himself being lowered into a hole in the soft earth. He whimpered, too afraid to say anything. She smiled down to him and handed him a small pendant shaped like a leaf with a drop of dew at its tip. Then there was darkness. "Hey!"
someone was calling to him from far away. "Hey! Wake up!"
he felt something sting him across the face, hard. "What?! Ow!"
Galaukiir said angrily. He stared into the bright eyes of Valanthe as she slowly recovered from her twisted stance after having slapped him. "Valanthe! What! What was that for? I didn't do anything wrong!"
he said indignantly.
"You looked like a walking carcass! Come on, get with it already! The line is moving," Valanthe snapped. "What were you doing, anyway? I'm sorry I slapped you so hard."
"I...I was just thinking," Galaukiir said sheepishly. "Well try to stay here in the present while you think, okay?" "Yeah, sure. Sorry.""Must have been some thought to drag you away like that. Your eyes were glazed over and turning a milky sort of color.""Really?" "Yeah, anyway, looks like we're next."
The line moved forward a moment more and they were standing in front of the guard with the parchment. "Names please," he said in a monotone voice. He barely even looked up at them as they told him their names.
"What's with this huge line, sir?" Valanthe asked. She looked back the way they had come and quirked an eyebrow then glanced at the sun. It was after noon. She sighed.
"So much for getting my chores done in a timely fashion," she muttered quietly.
"Because of the murder in the Poor Homes last night we're checking yer names with the royal libraries' birth certificates. Any one that doesn't have a name listed there gets the boot," the guard said as he pointed with a jerking motion with his thumb towards the Southern Gate.
"People die in the Poor Homes all the time. Why the sudden alarm now?" Galaukiir said rather harshly. The guard squinted up at him with a bored look on his face and sighed.
"For the thousandth time, it's because of the way the murder took place. There's not a drop of blood left in the body. All that’s left are two little puncture holes in the side of the neck...well what's left of it anyway," the guard said. "State your business please." Galaukiir stepped forward a little more and offered the quiver of arrows.
"I'm the son of Amil Amanodel and I'm here to make a delivery. Valanthe is just here to make sure I give these to the right person," he said. Valanthe nodded and the guard shrugged.
"Which person would that be, sonny?" he asked quietly.
"A man named Tardek," Galaukiir said. "Are you going to let me through the gates or not?" The guard didn't answer, but merely motioned to the next person in line and so Galaukiir shrugged, shouldered the arrows and walked through the gates with Valanthe. The Poor Homes were aptly named. Many of the streets were narrow and dirty with refuse lying about in heaps on the corners of a few of the streets. The buildings were old and in disrepair. Many of them had holes in their thatch roofs and the thatch was so pale yellow that it looked like the buildings were covered in a perpetual winter snow. Some of the buildings had cracks forming in the mortar of their walls. The air was dense and felt claustrophobic.
"Let's get this over with, shall we?" Galaukiir said to Valanthe as he offered her an arm. She took it gratefully and pulled in close, enjoying the familiar warmth of her friend in an unfamiliar place.
"You haven't been here much, have you?" he asked after a moment of silence.
She shook her head that she hadn't. They continued down the main street for a while in silence. A few birds chirped from scraggly looking trees with iron grates wrapped about the trunks. The trees were bent and twisted as if a malicious hand had reached down from the heavens and tried to unsuccessfully uproot them. Many of them had peeling bark and twigs and dead leaves lay in small heaps about their bases or were blown through the streets by a gentle summer breeze.
The air was thick and heavy with the scent of sweat and filth. They wrinkled their noses in disgust at it as it played with their burning nostrils. Thick billows of smoke rose lazily into the air from some of the larger homes and seemed to choke their throats with its nauseating stench. They turned down a side street after about a half hour of walking and then stopped in front of a large building with a thatch roof that was creamy yellow instead of nearly white with age like the rest of the roofs they had seen. This building was three stories tall and built of red brick that had turned a dingy sort of grey from the sunlight.
Light could be seen from under a thick redwood door and thick grey smoke puffed out from many chimneys in the roof. Galaukiir sighed and looked at a sign hanging from a post a few feet from the door. A large green dragon was painted on it and looked as if the dragon were running after a knight in plate mail armor.
"This is it. Welcome to the Dragon's Run Inn, Valan," he said softly. She quirked her head at him a moment and smiled.
"You haven't called me that since we were children. Is everything all right?" she said with a touch of concern in her voice.
"Oh, yes, everything is perfectly fine. I just want to get this over with and deliver these stupid arrows and be done with it," Galaukiir said quietly. He looked over at her and grinned. "Besides, I have other things I wanted to do today." Her eyes darkened a moment with anger.
"Oh, no, you're going to go stealing again
, aren't you?! Tell me I'm wrong," she exclaimed. When he didn't answer she let out a soft slow moan of despair. "Look, if you must do this, why not do it at Hyln Villiage? They don't have any rules about stealing there because they're nothing but thieves and brigands anyway."
"Because I get more fun from the people here. Don't worry. I'm always careful not to get caught. I'm the best there is. Trust me, Valan, I know what I'm doing," he said over his shoulder as he entered the Inn. Inside there was music coming from one corner as a man and woman played on violins. The tune was fast paced and lively and filled the air with its sweet sound.
In front of him was a long bar with stools set every few paces and nearly all of them were full. A plump woman in her later years tended the bar. To the left of the door was a common sitting area and a roaring fire helped chase back the shadows of early evening. People milled about in oversized stuffed chairs or on an occasional wooden stool. There was a stuffed head of a monstrous creature above the roaring fireplace, its many eyes staring out at the world with malice and seeming to dare anyone to approach it too closely.
Smoke rose into the air from many pipes and laughter could be heard from the crowd. A few of the patrons looked up from their various activities as Galaukiir entered closely followed by Valanthe. He pushed through the crowd a moment until he was standing at the bar with Valanthe at his side.
"What'll it be?" the barmaid asked as he approached the bar.
"Nothing for now, thanks," Galaukiir replied. "I'm looking for a man named Tardek. Could you tell me what room he's in?" The barmaid stopped wiping out the fired clay mug she was holding and set it down on the bar then squared her shoulders and looked him directly in the face.
"Who's asking?" she said with a hint of suspicion in her voice. She looked him up and down a moment and then shrugged.
"My name's Galaukiir Amanodel. I've got a delivery for him. Can you tell us where to find him?" Galaukiir said. "And what is that thing
above the fireplace?"
"It's a Beholder. Ugly brute of a critter isn't it? You mentioned a delivery?" the barmaid said with even more suspicion in her voice. "What sort of delivery?"
"Sleep arrows from my fathers' shop," Galaukiir replied quietly. "Are you a friend of Tardek?"
"What if I was? It's none of your business. Now that you don't seem to be hunting him down for anything bad, he's stayin' on the second floor in the first room on the left," The barmaid said. She picked up her mug and started rubbing it down with a linen towel again. Galaukiir thanked her and moved off into the crowd towards the stairs in the back of the Inn. Valanthe followed a pace behind him.
"That didn't seem to go very well. Wonder what her problem is?" she whispered into his ear as they reached the stairs. Upon reaching the landing of the second floor, they looked around. There was a short hallway to their left and another one to the right. In front of them was another staircase leading to the third floor of the building. They walked down the left hallway and stopped in front of the first door they came to. Galaukiir knocked and a burly human opened the door. He had a seamed face of white scars and lines, but most of it was hidden behind a large brown shaggy beard. He wore a leather tunic and trousers and soft leather boots.
"What do you want?" he growled at them with a voice that sounded like mountain rain water rushing over a cliff in the winter. He glowered down at them from heavy set watery eyes and his breath, when he puff it out, reeked of ale.
"Delivery for one Tardek from Amil Amanodel, three hundred gold bullion, please," Galaukiir said, handing over the quiver of arrows.
"It's about damn time these arrived. Here's yer pay, Elf and next time be a little more punctual please!" Tardek said and with that he tossed a heavy leather pouch at him and then slammed the door closed in their faces. Valanthe blinked for a moment and grinned at her friend.
"Well! The nerve of some people!" she said huskily. Galaukiir shrugged.
"Come on, let's go home," he said and took her by the arm gently. They retraced their steps downstairs and were about to leave when they heard a voice behind them shout. "Stop, thief! I want my money back!"
They turned and were faced with a red faced and very angry Tardek holding the quiver of arrows in one hand and a wicked looking dagger in the other. The Inn had fallen silent.
"Is something the matter with your order, sir?" Galaukiir asked politely. He eyed the dagger a moment, but did nothing else. Valanthe breathed deeply a moment and blinked slowly. She reached behind her and pretended to scratch an itch on her back, but really was releasing the hidden dagger from the sheath at her back. Tardek glared at them. "Yes, summthin' wrong!"
he spat at them, "These are the wrong ones! I wanted crossbow bolts, not arrows! These things are useless to me. I want my gold back and I want it now! Obviously you Elves can't tell a crossbow bolt from a hole in the ground. Maybe you should have stayed in the Forests where your kind belong, you dankish idle-headed bugbear’s backside!"
It was Galaukiirs' turn to be angry. He squeezed his hands into tight fists.
"What are you saying, rivvil
? That my father made a mistake! He never does. You ordered arrows, I delivered them. Perhaps you should concentrate more on your manners instead of your ale. You reek!" He shot back vehemently. He felt a hand on his shoulder. He glanced over and Valanthe raised a warning finger to his lips.
"Calm down, Gala. He's drunk. Let's just leave, okay?" she said softly.
“Elg’caress, you wouldn’t know drunk from a mule’s—“ Tardek said gruffly but was cut off by the sound of a sharp slap across the face. Valanthe eyes burned in anger."How dare you call me a bitch?! I am an Elf!"
she said, seething. Galaukiir placed a restraining hand on her shoulder and pulled her towards the door. Outside he took a deep breath of the stagnant night air and then turned to face Valanthe.
"You could have ignored him, you know," he said.
"Yes, I could have but I hate being called a bitch. It's dirty and makes me feel less than what I am," she responded coolly. "Let's go home, Gala. Please." He nodded and together they started down the street towards the gates that led into the Poor Homes. They didn't get very far when they heard soft footfalls on the road behind them. They stopped and turned. Tardek stood staring at them a few paces behind, anger clouding his face in a dark mask.
"I said I want my gold back, Elf, and I mean to take it back one way or another." he said gruffly.
"All sales are final, human. Now go back to your ale," Galaukiir said and turned. He started to walk away but stopped as he heard metal scraping on leather. He turned back. Tardek was holding the same dagger he had used in the Inn in his hand and was walking towards him intently.
"The gold or your life, Elf, so make it quick," he said with a sneer.
"How about I simply take your life for myself, you bawdy base-courted dick?" a stranger spoke from the shadows. Tardek stopped and looked around, but he saw no one through his thick haze of alcohol. Something grabbed him by the throat and he screamed as he felt his life's blood suddenly drain away from him. Galaukiir stood there in mute silence for a moment before the shock wore off enough for him to react.
A humanoid shape materialized out of the nights' shadows and clenched around Tardeks' throat. He struggled but was unable to break the grip of the assailant. It wore a suit of leather armor and a thick black wool cloak and hood covered its face and body. One moon pale hand held tightly on to Tardeks' throat as it stooped down and bit into him. A dry gurgling sucking sound emanated from near the head of the creature. Slowly Tardeks' eyes fluttered closed. "Valanthe, run!"
Galaukiir shouted as he darted by her into the night. She turned and ran after him. The night enclosed around them and they ran until their lungs burned and their eyes watered with the strain. Finally after what seemed like hours of running, they stopped and looked around. They were deep in the Poor Homes. Many of the buildings were dilapidated and falling apart at the seams. The thatch roofs were caved in on a few of them and the mortar was thick with grime and dust.
"Where are we?" Valanthe asked as she doubled over with her hands resting on her knees, breathing heavily. "And what
was that thing
that attacked Tardek?"
"I have no idea where we are, nor much clue as to what our friend was back there," Galaukiir replied. He leaned heavily against a short wall that had once been a house, breathing hard. When they were calmed down enough, they looked around at their surroundings again. The stars winked down at them from their heavenly thrones and the street lamps burned brightly to chase most of the night's shadows away.
"We're not that far from the South Gate, Valanthe," Galaukiir said softly. "Let's get out of here." He steered a slightly numbed Valanthe down a side street and then out onto the main thoroughfare. A few minutes later they were standing in front of the bronze South Gate. They walked through the open Gate and stood still a moment longer to get their bearings. They had entered the Magic Quarter and could smell a faint sulfuric taint to the air. Many of the homes in this sector were built of grey cinderblocks and the thatching on the roofs were all cream yellow. Smoke rose lazily into the night air from several dozen chimneys as they walked down the street. Galaukiir took Valanthes' hand in his own and squeezed it tightly a moment.
"Don't worry," he said reassuringly. "I'm sure we weren't followed by that thing. Let's go home." They continued down the street for a ways and after another hour they stood in front of Valanthe's home. It was a modest cinder brick building with a golden thatch roof. Smoke curled lazily into the night air from the single chimney in the roof. Valanthe thanked Galaukiir for walking her home and then said good night to him.