The subtle hiss of an arrow whispering by his left ear made his stomach sink in anxiety. Another arrow swiftly hissing by him once again forced Xioth into action. Carefully analyzing his surrounding he took a deep breath to calm the nerves and his initial instincts to flee. The nearby thump of a sharp tip of an arrow piercing the ground next to him accelerated his thought process and without a pause, he leapt forward without looking behind him.
“HALT!” someone shouted with a heavy Dravian accent. Xioth swiftly darted seeking shelter from the tress with a zig zagging pattern. His newly stolen hide boots attacked the damp floor of the Plainfil Forest. A slight breeze caught his hair as moved swiftly, making it fly behind him. Xioth ran as fast as he could searching for a place where he could make his stand.
“Come on, come on there needs to be place around here,” Xioth murmured to himself between labored breaths. The whistle of another arrow exasperated a newfound sense of urgency in his steps. The arrow landed a few feet behind him, Xioths heart leapt to his throat, as the echo of it piercing the ground was far too close for comfort.
The trees around him still standing proudly and strong. The tops scattering and swaying about as if dancing to the sounds of the winds up high. His eyes set on a spot, it was only a short distance away; he found what he was looking for. At that, moment is as if silence surrounded him, the whisper of the wind was gone. The patter of his feet slowed down, he had found an inner peace with the situation.
“You must have known we would be coming?” the soldier yelled at him. “After you attcked 3 of our men in Talliue! We are ready for you fool and this will be your last day in Kia!” collecting his breath Xioth glanced to see the rest of the soldiers gathering around him, his back carefully placed against the wall of rocks. The wall was a former structure from the first cycle of time. Ruins like these can be found throughout the old Lancashire Empire and for Xioth it fortuitous that one such place appeared before him.
“You are the fool,” Xioth said with a heavy grin on his face. Heavy laughter echoed through the dense woods. “Why?” the most senior soldier called. “You think we should coward in fear and run away?” this last remark gathered more laughs from the other men.
“No,” Xioth replied, meeting his eyes with a stern stare. “Because you will force your men to attack me in short while. And now I can blame you for their deaths.”
The group of soldiers scoffed at him carefully maneuvering closer to Xioth. The two tallest soldiers made the first move; both fully armored in traditional Dravian armor. They stepped towards him with their claymore swords out. The senior Dravian soldier smiled.
“So I guess this is it then?” Xioth said, breathing deeply while he reached for his sword. Years of self-survival as an orphan in the streets of Vassion forced Xioth to develop his skill as a swordsman. The trait came natural to him as if his instincts were naturally inclined to yield a sword. His movements in battle being fine-tuned by his many years of observation, high from the roofs of the Grand Vassion Temple, which looked down to the Paladin training grounds. He spends hours a time mimicking the movements of the Arcanum Paladin Aspirants. He developed a unique form of attack suited to take advantage of his build. Xioths skills have never been fully tested; his true potential has never been exposed. Today he will need every single one his traits. This encounter will be a graduation of sorts. His legend starts today, it all starts now or it ends now but today his life will change.
The two larger soldiers charged at him first, the rest of the men only a mere heartbeat away, soon they would reach him. Xioth spun into motion, his heart pounding even faster now pumping blood throughout his veins. He dodged between the blows of the initial sword attacks; he grabbed the arm of an attacking soldier and spun him towards himself as to use him as a shield. Simultaneously he drove his sword upward from the lower part of the soldiers back through his heart. The man cried out in agony, falling into the ground as Xioth ducked another sword thrust. He gashed the attacker’s leg, while rolling away to the side. Within the blink of an eye, he lashed that man twice more to finish him off.
The others soldiers cursed, slashing at him, their bulky armors and heavy swords suddenly becoming a nuisance to them as Xioth gracefully and rapidly moved among them. His sword waved about in a graceful dance of sorts as it touched arms, legs, shoulders; sending the dozen or so men staggering back in all directions heavily wounded. Xioth jumped back as the squad of soldiers once again came at him. He climbed to the top of the stonewall and spun into the air tip toing, going towards the other end getting every step closer to the Senior Dravian Soldier.
“Kill him!” The Senior Soldier said. “MAY THE CREATION ELDERS STRIKE YOU ALL! WHAT ARE YOU DOING! KILLLLL HIM!”
Xioth leaped of the wall landing with one knee on the ground in front of the Senior Dravian Soldiers Horse. The horses’ hoofs clicked on the ground surprised by the sudden movements in front of it. Xioth was close to delivering his blow but he had to lurch away as one of the soldiers swung a blow with such force that it would have cut Xioth in half. His sword absorbing the blow flew out of his hands leaving Xioth bare handed.
The soldiers came at him again once again but Xioth danced between them, using the ancient martial art of the Elders of the Creed of the Elements, which used only the hands. It is a less deadly form of attack, more focused on grappling with the enemies and using their weight against them, immobilizing them.
He was focused in his element his natural instincts guiding him on every step. At his pleasure men flipped into the air, two more men attacked him, but Xioth was too quick to limber. It also did not help the men the fact that they did not work together. They were all accustomed to dominate on the battlefield and now against a more nimble opponent their two-handed swords made them sloppy.
Xioth was light on his feet as a claymore sword hissed through the air beside him. Xioth exhaled a deep breath trying to regain his focus and rethink his approach. The men continued to push forward this time with the most senior soldier behind them rapidly approaching, weapon ready. The two men once again swung their oversized swords at Xioth. He swiftly spun away from the attacks, reaching out and snatching a shield from the ground. Xioth leaped at one of the men deflecting his sword with the shield and pushing past him. The other man startled by Xioths offense swung his sword too. Xioth caught the blade on his shield, which cracked by the heavy blow barely holding. Xioth Lashed himself behind the soldier while jumping forward.
The move flipped Xioth up and over the larger man, he grabbed at the soldiers wrist manipulating his movements so that he can leverage his weight as a shield against the oncoming second wave of soldiers. He carefully moved towards his sword while maintaining control of the bewildered soldier. Upon the groups approach Xioth shoved the soldier into the oncoming group forcing them to stumble backward. This slight hesitation from their part gave Xioth the final advantage he needed, holding up his sword, he charged forward in quick methodical motion slashing away to the men who stood in his way. A gust of wind was heard when his final attack started, Dravian soldiers were slayed, dead around him before that gust of wind stopped.
The final breathing soldier was lying dazed on his back. Xioth approached him readjusting his grip on the sword and then drove the weapon down through the soldiers’ breastplate. The sword sank deeply through the man’s chest and into the earth underneath him.
Witnessing the attack the senior Dravian Soldier realized his plan had failed, he started to flee. Xioth dashed across the ground trying to make up the space between them, the senior soldier looked over his shoulder with a cry of bewilderment and horror. Xioth wove through the woods trying to angle out the direction of which his final adversary was heading. The senior soldier realizing his fate turned and cried out as he saw Xioth, then threw up his shield and readied his sword. Xioth reached him with tremendous speed striking the shield twice with such force that it shattered the shield and forced the senior one backward while dropping his sword.
Xioth stepped over the man as he struggled to reach for his sword. He struck the soldiers arm breaking it and then kneeled on top of the soldiers’ chest pinning him to the ground. Finally, Xioth raised his Sword over his head, looking down on the senior soldiers’ eyes.
“Who are you?” the man exhaled, his eyes showing fear and pain.
“The man you should not have followed!” Xioth said as he drove his sword right between the man’s eyes and into the forest grounds below him.
Xioth struggled to his feet tired he looked for place to rest his sore back. The struggle had taken a toll on his body and he needed to come down from this battle rush. He walked cautiously towards what remained of a wall of the ruins; he placed his sword down on the ground and sat with his back to the wall. He looked towards the tree tops watching as the winds gently waved them from side to side, hearing the noise of his heart as it beat by beat tried to settle itself down. This smell, of death around him always made him uneasy; he preferred the scents of the trees around him of the flowers in the woods.
In the distance, Xioth caught a glimpse of the Senior Soldiers horse. He carefully approached it making sure not to startle the beast. He removed any items that could give way that this horse was a military horse. A split second later Xioth and the horse were running full speed through a gap in the trees. The forest disappearing behind him. The Village of Bamomble was insight not a long ride away.
Xioth arrived to the village square, his thoughts wandering away as Mannie, the blacksmiths son, stared at him from where he rested.
“Are you well, Xioth?” he called as Xioth came to a stop.
Xioth took a quick glance over his shoulder; he could not shake the feeling that someone or something was tracking him. The glance confirmed to him that no one had followed him but the uneasy feeling still lingered deep within him.
“All is well.” Xioth exclaimed as he struggled to produce a fake smile onto his face. “Have you seen Noreanor?”
Pointing towards the inn, Mannie spun on his heel and went back to work. Xioth once again checked behind him as he made his way over to the inn.
The city of Bamomble was the smallest of the 9 great cities of the old Empire. The nobles of the village had always maintained an amicable relationship to the common folk. The towns’ folk for the most part knew each other very well and never really threatened one another. The surrounding Forest was of great importance to the villagers of Bamomble. They would gather fruit and nuts as well as hunt for deer, boar and rabbits. For the most part, they all lived a simple but very enjoyable life. Even though the city was now part of the Dravian Empire the military presence was virtually non-existent here due to the low importance of the city both strategically and financially.
There were no more than 50 stone buildings in the city. For the most part the stone buildings were mainly establishments, An inn, a market place, a clothes maker, a couple of book shops and apothecary. The remaining structures were houses for the nobles that lived in the village. The Lords Manor stood prominent, the big red doors opening only when the noble men met or for village meetings. The rest of city folk lived in wooden huts dispersed around the main square.
Xioth pushed the through the heavy wooden door of the inn. The Stench of unwashed men, mead and ale crept up Xioths nose as he walked inside. He hated coming into the loud, dark and dingy inn, but unfortunately, Noreanor often found himself inside these walls. Even though Xioth did not like coming into the place, the men that frequented the inn were simple folk who just want to enjoy their mead and ale. The innkeeper was in fact now a very close acquaintance of Xioth.
“Ya arraight there Xioth?” The barkeeper called from behind the shadows of the bar. “Whatcha lot been up too today?”
“I’m well, struggling to survive the day just like the rest of us.” Xioth strode towards the bar as he looked over the faces of the men and women who nursed their jugs of mead and ale. “Is Noreanor here?”
One man caught Xioths eye as he glanced over the establishment. His features standing out from the rest of the bunch. Xioth returned his eyes towards the keep. He shook his head; his eyebrow’s slightly raised in the direction of the newcomer. Newcomers stick out, they are hard to ignore, this one in particular.
“Afraid just missed him yea. He skidded away not too long ago. Said ya needed to deal with ya things.”
Xioth turned to leave but the tapping on his shoulder made him pause. Spinning around quickly Xioth stared at the new comer fearlessly in his eyes. How had he moved so quickly? It was not so long ago that he was half way across the room.
“Can I have a word with you? I’ll only take a moment of your time.” The newcomer said in a confident and serious tone. Indicating to his table, he glanced at the barkeep and ordered more ale.
“Whatha ya wanna with him? We wants no truble here!” The barkeepers shoulder squared as he narrowed his eyes on the stranger.
The stranger was tall; his lithe figure was dressed in a fine silk maroon tunic. The golden linings of his garments reflected in the dim candlelight lighting of the inn. His garments stood out, he was of wealth more wealth than is usually found in these areas. In fact, most of the surrounding villages have never been places of wealth; villagers for the most part desire a simple life. A philosophy that still lives on despite the old empire being gone for over 50 years. The country villages of the old empire tend not to think about the lands beyond their closest borders. They prefer to live in ignorance of the rapidly growing cities.
“I am nothing but a messenger of Emperor Ardisio Dravia, I have business in Vassion and have been separated from my caravan. I thankfully stumbled into the village and currently I am in need of a hired companion.” His light green eyes rapidly flicked between the barkeep and Xioth.
His shoulder length silver hair, which brushed the collar if his tunic, was neatly styled with a topknot. His strong jaw and sharp cheekbones gave away his Nupkalian origins. The man’s expensive cut clothes, precise speaking voice and clean face, screamed nobility.
“I have been told your skills are for hire and simply want to bargain a rate for your services,” The man exclaimed “Worst case you enjoy your mead and be gone in peace.”
“Datta sounds fer enough!” the bar keep said. Whatha ya say Xioth?”
Xioth nodded firmly eyeing the stranger. “Shall we?”
The men walked over to the table. Xioth sat down on the hard wooden bench. The coolness of the wood on his behind made him glance over to the fireplace. He took a deep breath with a longing of wanting to sit closer to it. The wooden beams that decorated the ceilings of the inn lit up in shades of amber red as the flames of the fire jovially danced about.
“What’s your name?” Xioth asked affirmatively as the stranger lowered himself to the stool opposite of him.
Pouring mead from a jug, the stranger motioned to Xioth that he drink first. Xioth watched him over the lip of the mug, studying the man’s demeanor. The stranger starred back not wavered by Xioths attempts of intimidation.
“You move well with a sword…..” The stranger said cupping his hands around his jug, he rolled his shoulders trying to find a comfortable position “I am sure that I pose no threat to you.”
Something about his demeanor screamed liar. Xioth was not going to underestimate the man. His instincts were rarely wrong and they have helped him survive. His instincts told him that the man across from him was more skilled in battle than what he led on; he needed to be wary.
“My name is Alokian.” The stranger said as he lifted his mug towards his lips.
“I’m Xioth.” he exclaimed as he checked over his shoulder. He noticed the barkeep monitoring their interaction hoping that things would remain civilized. “Now that we are acquainted with one another, maybe you can tell me the true nature of your visit here.” Xioths directness caught Alokian by surprise, jolting him back to the reality that the man across from him just killed a dozen or so Dravian soldiers.
“Yes, of course,” Alokian muttered as he reached down. Coughing, Alokian took a sheet of parchment from his dark brown weathered satchel, which laid on the ground by is feet. Xioth watched him flick out a quill, the feather exotic to this region. Xioth wondered to himself how the stranger had managed to maintain it so pristine on his travels.
“This letter will secure you admittance to the Paladin Academy of Arcanum Teachings in Vassion.” The quill gracefully hovered over the parchment. The ends to the sheet stubbornly curled up, with a longing to reroll. “Our encounter was by chance your skill with a blade is not.” Lowering his eyebrows at the same time as he continued to write, Alokian watched the quill as his hands moved it.
“Where does this ink come from?” Xioth asked with an inquisitive tone, he had noticed that that Alokian had not once dipped the nib of the quill in an inkpot, and yet, black letters took form the parchment piece of paper. How was this possible?
“There are many mystical things in this world, things we are not all aware but that are there. In time you will get a better understanding.” Alokian was his hand in a dismissive way.
Xioth understood well what he meant, he thought of him as common brute. He remained calm, he will not allow this man’s offhandedness irritate him.
“I can read and what you are writing does not reflect the truth.” Xioth said as he traced over the words written on the parchment.
Alokians gaze shot up to Xioths and with widening eyes said, “You are of noble birth?” Alokian dragged the parchment closer to him and tried to cover over what he was writing with his free arm. “You are full of surprises Xioth and maybe someday you can tell me your story. But right now what matters is getting you to the Academy.”
“Grateful as I am for your new found desire to sponsor my higher learning, I have learned that in this live everything comes at a price, so I wonder, what is the cost that I will need to bear for this opportunistic encounter?”
“I’ve traveled a long way, Xioth.” Alokian turned his head up to stare at him with piercingly, luminous green eyes. “I’ve spent many years researching the history of our worlds” — Alokian turned his burning gaze now towards the innkeeper — “and I discovered that our world is connected by a common thread of destiny. I believe it led me to you and that you will play a role in our world. It is this believe that motivates my actions here today and why I will ignore your discrepancies in the surrounding cities as well as what I just witnessed in the Plainfil Forest.”
“You were there!”
“I was sent to kill you, before I knew what I know now. You have become a bit of nuisance to the nobility of the surrounding cities; the crown was forced to act.”
Xioth sat still at the table, unable to move, frozen by the comments. He realized that his hands were shaking. So even without revealing all the secrets sleeping within him, Alokian could induce this deep, visceral fear in everyone he encountered. Xioth knew little of the secrets of this world but he did know that this man sitting in front of him is capable of things he could not even imagine.
Alokian pulled out a seal from his satchel. The Royal Dravian seal was unmistakable and was used only by very high-ranking citizens of the empire. He warmed the wax stick on the candle separating the two men and then proceeded to seal the letter close. He looked it over and handed it to Xioth as well as papers of authority, which are required for travel.
Bewildered by all that had happened Xioth took the letter as barkeep strode from behind his resting place.
“Wiall ya be wenting a room far tha night?” the innkeeper inquired.
Alokian glanced past the man, straight at Xioth. His bright green eyes blinked slowly before he shook his head. “No thank you. I must set course to Talliue, my plans have changed.”
Gathering his things, Alokian kept glancing at Xioth, the intensity of the gaze echoed throughout the room setting of a wave of uncomfortable feeling. The few men in the inn felt the disturbance in the air and were now observing the encounter.
“Travel well and travel fast, our paths will cross again soon. Until then take the letter and make haze towards Vassion.” Picking up a scabbard, Alokian placed it around his hips, continuing to stare Xioth down as he tightened it.
Nodding, Xioth tried to break a smile, but the energy of the encountered unnerved him and as much as he tried, he could not find the words to reply.
“Godday sir!” The innkeeper said as Alokian strode by, his long black boots stomping across the stone floor.
As he neared the door, those in the inn went back to their business. Xioth watched the stranger walk away until the door closed behind him hiding his broad shoulders and stiff spine.
Xioth and Noreanor had sailed towards Vassion two moon exchanges ago, little did they know that this would be the last journey of their old lives. Their thieving skills always coming very handy, they managed to smuggle themselves in the back of a little transport ship bringing wood from the Plainfil Forest to the western capital of the new empire, Vassion. Noreanor was Xioths dearest friend, thieving mentor and all around pain in his rear end, who always managed to charm his way through live with an infuriating great sense of humor.
Three full rotations of the sun had been lived in Bamomble. For Xioth it had grown to become a familiar place full of moderate comforts and a sense of routine. In Bamomble, they knew everyone who might interact with them, highborn or low, and what they stood to gain or lose. However, in Vassion they will be forced to rely once again on their judgment alone in assessing new threats and challenges. It had been many rotations since they last visited the mighty city. The many roofs and alleys of the city had once been their playground as children, providing a sense of distraction as they struggled day by day to survive on their own. This city introduced them to thievery and mischief, which has predominantly ruled their lives over the last eight rotations.
The boat passed under the great harbor gate of Vassion, breaking the force of the wind and bathing the travelers in the emerging smells and sounds of the great city. While the captain handed over weapons and negotiated passage, Xioth nudged his friend from a light doze. Noreanor came alert and stood without any apparent stiffness. No matter how uncomfortable their accommodations tended to be, Noreanor could relax without a care in the world even in the most awkward of places. “That didn’t take too long,” he said cheerfully.
Xioth gave him a disdained look as he rolled his eyes and gathered the last of their belongings. “Sure, that tends to be case if you sleep through most of it, and then spend the rest of time drinking with the crew.” He loved socializing with men and women, he had a way with people and his charming ways always lead them to useful information. Noreanor always managed to establish a great social network wherever he went. This trip was not very different in fact; he had already secured himself a business venture in the great city.
He turned his easy grin on Xioth. “Practicing the ways of the tongue, my friend.”
On deck, they leaned over the rail as the boat negotiated the busy harbor, enjoying the sun’s warmth as it hit their weary faces. The fierce nervousness, which dwelled in the pit of Xioths stomach, had kept him mostly below deck on the trip. Standing there under the sunlight that fell upon him, he finally felt comfortable for the first time in a while.
The magnificent towers of the Selsmire Citadel loomed in the distance before them, a grand masterpiece of masonry from the old empire. The Citadel and its white stones gleamed radiantly against the late summer sky. To the east, they could see the all too familiar domed roofs and zigzag streets, which rose from the harbor. Its harbor was a sight see, the largest river port ever made, was full of boats, foreign and local. The many docks hosted many traders and visitors of all descriptions whom tried to navigate their way out from the docks onto the sprawling, industrious city. Dravian military officers weaved through the crowds, their presence assuring law and order. The notorious, Brambedine River, black-billed gulls swooped unwary workers unloading barges, and their shrill squawks mingled with the distant sounds of ships unloading and the lively orchestra of commerce.
They disembarked the boat and joined the mixed and colorful soup of merchants, workers, and tourists moving from the docks into the lower part of the city. Vassions lower parts were a new addition to the older historical parts of the town. It had outgrown the older part recently and these days nobility tended to avoid this area of industry, trade, and residences of varying levels of respectability. The smell of a dozen different spices and frying oils assailed the two men’s nostrils as they walked through the area. Tiny-canopied stalls were wedged between elegant old teahouses and subtle gambling dens. Illegal vendors melted in and out of the shadows with cunning spreads of goods ready to fold up and disappear at the first sign of the city guards. Near the river’s edge, a bit drunken foreigner bickered with a preacher kneeling by a shrine, which seemed to honor the Creators of the Elements; the shrine was made of element stones carefully stacked over each other.
“What’s going on there?” Xioth said as he gestured towards the rivers bank.
Noreanor followed his gesture. The confrontation between the drunk and the street preacher had escalated. The foreigner had a hold on the preachers wrist and was shaking his arm, shouting, while the smaller man clutched prayer charms around his neck and half-sung, half-moaned some kind of chant. “It’s a bit early for that, isn’t it?” Noreanor muttered. The foreigner wore a crumpled jacket and wide trousers in a fabric too heavy for the climate of this region. He also displayed an air of belligerence far stronger than the smell of alcohol and gaming houses scents, which he seemed to have enjoyed throughout the night.
Xioth moved closer towards the two men, Noreanor reached out and caught his arm. “Leave it to the City Guards.” Noreanor whispered as he looked through the crowd in vain; no Yellow-and-black uniforms insight. “Or a Dravian soldier.”
The drunkard had taken offense at the preacher’s rantings and his accented Trade tongue grew to a roar. “—eh, eh, I’m talking to you, bloody street scum! Look at me when I talk to you!” He kicked out roughly at the shrine, toppling one of the balanced piles of stone.
The preacher, who until then had been avoiding eye contact and allowing his arm to be shaken like a loose streamer on a festival day, stopped his warbling chant and snapped his gaze to the bigger man. He said something, which enraged the foreigner. He reached into his billowing pants and the glint of a weapon flashed in the morning light. Someone shrieked and the surrounding crowd drew back from the altercation.
“Guard!” Noreanor yelled, but as he turned to usher Xioth back to safety, he had already lunged for the man’s knife hand. He grabbed the wrist two-handed and pivoted in a half turn back towards Noreanor. The drunkard dropped the preacher and fell backward with the pressure on his elbow and shoulder, and the knife clunked to the ground. “Lem— lemme go!” he bellowed, struggling as much with confusion as pain.
Noreanor cautiously shuffled in and kicked the blade out of reach. It was illegal to use weapons in the city walls as means of unwarranted aggression, but fools will be fools, and sometimes drunkards did not adhere to the rules of the city. With Still no sign of the City guards Noreanor edged closer to Xioth. The crowd looked on in embarrassed fascination, and a few people started to gather around Xioth. “We should—” Noreanor started.
“Are you finished here?” Xioth rested his own knee on the man’s bicep.
His arm released, the man rolled onto his side, shaking his wrist and moaning. Xioth turned to the preacher, who was hastily restacking stones and muttering. “Are you all right?” He crouched beside him. “Can I help?”
“The spirits are displeased,” the man muttered, scowling without taking his eyes from the shrine. “This city is corrupt and the spirits are angry. We will be punished.” He shrugged Xioth’s hand from his shoulder. “We will all be punished.”
“Let the city guards handle this, please, Xioth,” Noreanor said.
The preacher continued to reassemble his shrine and mutter dark warnings and curses.
Noreanor sighed and continued, “Technically the man shouldn’t be bothering people by the harbor but you know how these religious fanatics can be. He probably cursed the foreigner for drunken behavior or otherwise offended him. Let it be now Xitoh, let the Guards handle this.” As he said this, his minded wandered; Where were the Guards? On a busy trade morning, the place should have been swarming with them as a deterrent. Vassion was a famously nonviolent city but the City Guards were a necessary precaution to prevent escalation of any heated trade or tariff disputes, especially with an influx of foreign merchants and visitors who did not necessarily share the cities peaceful outlook.
Noreanor slightly irritated bend over, took Xioth’s arm, and tried to pull him to his feet, trying to steer him away. “Do I really need to tell you not to—” With a whoof the air was punched out of Noreanor as the drunken foreigner plowed into them from the side, sending Noreanor to the ground and Xitoh scuttling back from the man’s tackle and crashing into a canopied stall selling fried Jigbeetles. The beetles and paper cones crashed everywhere and the woman running the stall shouted in annoyance.
By the time Noreanor regained his breath and got back up, Xioth had scooped behind one of the man’s knees and with a precise blow he overbalanced his opponent. The drunk fell into the leg of the stall with a loud curse in a language not easily recognizable, almost toppling it entirely. Xioth slipped and fell with him and the two scuffled and wrestled in the pile of spilled food.
Noreanor cursed under his breath and circled the pair, looking for a way to help. When the bigger man managed to pin Xioth underneath him, he launched in and locked his arms around his neck. “This is not a subtle way to make our return,” he panted as he tried to pull him off. “Where were the bloody City Guards?”
The man released Xioth and struck him in the solar plexus with his elbow. Winded, Noreanor loosened his grip and the man pulled free, shaking him off like a bug. He roared, his intoxicated rage-presence making him seem at least twice the size of the two friends, and swung a fist clumsily at Xioth, who ducked it and delivered two short hard punches to the man’s stomach before dancing back out of reach. “He’s a big one this one,” Xioth said. “Forced me to break a sweat!”
Noreanor felt like giving his friend a whack instead when he saw the enjoyment sparkling in Xioth’s eyes.
Around them, the crowd continued to scamper back out of the way. The spectacle was either making or ruining their morning, but no one seemed inclined to assist. Xioth dodged a stray blow that came in his direction. The man launched himself heavily at Xioth again, his drunken focus on this new target of his rage, Xioth gracefully pivoted to the side and punched into the drunkard’s stomach as hard as he could with his fists.
“Xioth can we please leave this to the guards” Noreanor pleaded with a frustrated tone “All I want is a cup of tea,” he told him bitterly.
Xioth laughed, he sidestepped another one of the man’s attack and hit him one final time; with that last blow he folded in half like and sat on his backside by the canal with a sickening groan. “Get back,” Xioth, warned me, “He was full of ale!”
We skittered out of range just in time to avoid the sudden torrent as the man’s overfull body gave up its contents.
Finally, a City Guard appeared at a run, errant hair springing out of his Warrior-Guild braid and a sheen of sweat on his brow. He pulled up to a stop and his tense expression melted into shock as he took in the participants and the chaos around them. “Halt in your movements! Prepare your papers of authority!”
Xioth handed the man his papers provided by Alokian as well as Noreanors falsified merchant’s license.
The guard looked over the papers and then the surrounding area. “You sure made a fine work of this one. What exactly happened?”
“Unfortunately this foreign fellow couldn’t handle his Ale cups and was disturbing the poor gentleman by the shrine, there.” Xioth exclaimed in a calm and collected tone.
“He had a knife,” Noreanor said, and gestured to the area where he had kicked it.
“No weapons in our city,” the City Guard barked at the man by the canal, but he was still slumped over and heaving. The guard glanced over to Xioth once again with a somewhat impressed and curios look and said, “This says you are on your way to the Academy, seeing as you can handle yourself against much larger foes I am sure you will finish your learnings in no time, High General Alokian would have been impressed here.”
“Thank you. I will strive to do my best” Xioth, knelt and straightened the bent leg of the stall they’d crashed into, while Noreanor helped the merchant pick up her paper cones and sweep up the ruined beetles. Her earlier agitation forgotten now that she realized that Xioth was a Paladin candidate sent by the great Alokian himself.
“We’ll pay for the food,” Noreanor told her as he scooped up the last of the mess.
“No, that isn’t necessary, not necessary at all,” The merchant said, but Noreanor pressed a silver Dravian coin into the wax tablet on her now-wobbling tabletop with a weary glance at Xioth.
“It was entirely our fault for getting involved,” Noreanor said firmly.
Xioth helped the City Guard haul the big drunk to his feet. As if his stomach contents had been the source of his aggression, he slumped meekly on the spot and let the Guard fix his wrists behind his back with the wire-centered cord hanging from her tunic. “I’ll take him to the Guard barracks with you,” Xioth offered.
“That’s not necessary!” the Guard said, his tone more serious. “You’ve done quite enough; continue on to the Academy, I will deal with this.”
After the guard left, they rinsed their scraped hands and shins in one of the many canals fingering out throughout the city. Xioth took Noreanors irritation with good humor but made no effort towards an apology. “No one else was helping him,” Xioth pointed out.
Noreanor frowned. “No, but that doesn’t mean—”
“Would you prefer the old man got stabbed?” Xioth stood, a bit distracted. “We should check on him. I think I offended him somehow.”
In the distance Xioth could see that several city guards now moved about the area, directing the cleanup and the preacher had long since disappeared either voluntarily or at their direction. It was not illegal to preach the old religion, of course, but it was common to see preachers moved along for disturbing trade or obstructing traffic.
I checked the position of the sun. “We’d better head up. Jael is probably waiting for us and you know how she gets if we are late.”
Xioth gave Noreanor a thoughtful look. “Let’s walk, at least. Let me enjoy the last bit of freedom I believe I will have in a long while.” Noreanor raised an eyebrow, unsure about what Xioths comments meant, suddenly Xioth grinned. “We can have that cup of tea at least, I promise to add extra honey.”
The two friends walked side by side both drowned in their own thoughts. They crossed one of the many canal bridges to the eastern shores of the city. A calm contrast to its commerce-driven sister, the east shore was all long silvery grass and white sand, dotted with groups of Vassion’s wealthier classes enjoying the morning sun. Bathers splashed in the shallows and daring gulls snatched at unattended food.
As they came off the bridge, they dodged a stack of squealing children playing “The Mule of Andreas” on the grass. The game was a favorite in this area and they recalled spending hours at a time playing it when they were young. They both stopped to follow the action. This round was almost over, the last kid ran eagerly towards the mule as they all shouted the last line: “The great old mule can save us all!” the mule link came tumbling down and all of the children joined in a heap of giggles and cheerfully squashed limbs.
The game was simple to play but very demanding on the body. The teams where made up of 5 to 6 players. Each of the teams would take turns being the mule and the whips. The object of the game was to try to break the mule chain by “whipping it.” The mule team always had a head mule who would stand upright with his back against a wall facing the whipping team. The next player would place his head between the head mule’s legs, wrapping his arms tightly around the head mule’s thighs. The remaining players would then also place their heads between the legs of their other partners, holding tightly around their thighs forming the body of a mule. Once this was done, the whipping players would then one by one run towards the mule and jump on the mules back trying to break the chain while not falling off. If the mule chain held together after all the whips had jumped, they would get 5 points for surviving. If the link broke, the whipping team would get 5 points and then the teams would switch sides. First team to 20 wins.
Both men laughed and continued on their walk. This side of the city was more homogeneous than the docks and had a very wealthy feel to it. Jael had really done well for herself, but she always was the smartest and most business savvy of the group. The summer heat was staring to overwhelm the two friends so both were grateful when they finally made it to Jael’s apartment.
The tinkle of the tiny hanging bells in the doorway rang out into emptiness. No movement stirred the green necklace of plants framing the curved walls (some decorative, some medicinal, some lethal). A suggestion of Jael’s earlier baking or experimentation hung in the air by way of a faint smoky scent. No sign of her though.
The two proceeded to make themselves at home falling easily into the familiarity of the surroundings. Noreanor changed, grateful for clean clothes—Xioth waved off the offer of the same, unfazed by his rumpled state—and had already begun to prepare the tea when Jael finally arrived.
She froze as she saw the two, furtive. Or perhaps it was just an involuntary flinch, as she followed it with several successive sneezes. Noreanor laughed and sprang to his feet. “There’s a sound I’ve missed!”
“Are you all right?” Xioth blurted out.
“Yes, yes just my allergies acting up again.” She smiled towards the two and proceed to embrace them in a joyful greeting “Welcome back home, I missed you both!”
“It feels weird to be back,” Xioth said somewhat pensive. Up close, her hair was damp and springy, and her skin prickled faintly with cold. “Where were you? Are you well?”
“Just walking. And I’m the same as usual.” Soft voice hoarse, she did not meet Xioth’s eyes as she slipped past the two men to settle on a cushion by the table.
Noreanor checked the color transition of the brew and found it a satisfying rich gold. He settled the pot among the three of them and listened to his own breath over the comforting warm gur-gur-gur sound of the tea pouring into each of the cups.
A few sips in, the blanket of routine wrapped around them, it was as though they had never left. Noreanor entertained Jael with tales of their time away, somehow turning their time away of monotony and stress into amusing escapades. Xioth mostly sat in peaceful silence. The tea was a new one, which Jael had carefully picked out for their return, delicate in aroma, but surprisingly pungent and earthy. Jael was good at many things but the genius of her palate for tea was undeniably her best quality at least that is what Noreanor thought to himself as he drank his last gulp.
“Enough about us and our pathetic efforts to make something of ourselves,” Noreanor said at last. He left the table and began rifling through our bags. “We have gifts! And you tell us your news. You haven’t been working too hard, I hope?”
“Oh, much of the same,” Jael murmured vaguely. Noreanor bought her a set of polished wooden beads. Xioth found an old Dravian book of Eastern Continent Flora with gorgeous painted illustrations.
Noreanor wound the beads through her dark cloud of hair—the wood was same warm brown as her skin, and gleamed like dewdrops in her curls—while she pored over the book. The old Dravian scriptures looked nothing like our written language; indecipherable to the two men, but no obstacle to Jael. Her fingers stroked the pages and she read hungrily.
“I wish we would have written more often,” Noreanor said quietly, Jaels hands quivered a moment on the page before she shrugged with artificial nonchalance. Noreanor cursed himself for saying it and hastened to change the subject. “Is it just me or is there more troops stationed here. The empire seems to be very busy here?”
“Trouble is arising, Military presence has increased and I get the feeling that the empire will soon declare war on the Freemen of the northwest,” she said. “First there was the mess with the raids on the mines, and then I think there was some kind of problem getting the fish quota delivered from the northwest. Add to that the the rains still haven’t come to the rice fields and you have a brewing pressure on the Prince to make sure that rations are enough for the winter.”
“What happened with the mines?” Xioth’s voice was a touch too casual. Currently the Dravian Empire had longstanding disputes with various factions of the freeman about ownership of some of the mines near the northernwestern border; nowadays it wasn’t unusual to see raids in the mines, but the most recent ones had been larger and better organized than the earlier ones. There was also the issue of the so called “Fish Quota” imposed by the Empire as a penalty fee to the factions of the freeman for supporting and assisting Emperor Danyll Lancashire defend the old empire.
“Some of the attacks started getting close to Perpivin,” Jael said, and twisted ever so slightly so that Noreanor’s hands fell away from the beads in her hair. “One of the outskirt villages got attacked. The Council sent the whole army to force the faction to either retreat or move to a full confrontation.”
“Did the Freemen retreat?” Noreanor asked honest curiosity in his tone.
Jael’s lips tightened around the fine porcelain of her cup, mid-sip. “I haven’t heard anything.”
Feeling the peace of their reunion breaking away from them, Noreanor tried again to reel it in, topping up the teacups with a forced smile. “What did you call this blend? It’s very good. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dravian Emperor himself is drinking this tea now.”
“It’s called pale needle.” She cleared her throat. “Actually, I leave on the new day to visit the country estate and the current status of my crops.”
“What for?” Noreanor asked with an inquisitive look.
Jael shrugged, swirling her tea and avoiding eye contact. “There is a huge demand on me to provide more potions for the empire and frankly I am more useful there than in your escapades.”
Noreanor noticed the slightest emphasis on your escapades.
Jael was the eldest and was once Noreanors closest friend and confidant, almost sister like. For as long as he could remember it had been the two of them. With time, Xioth had replaced her, and neither of them could ever forget that sore spot that existed between them.
Jael was bright, quiet, unobtrusive, and desperate to please. Noreanor remembered lying awake as a young child in alleyway somewhere in Vassion and seeing as she sat up searching for a shed of light, face screwed up in concentration. She studied so hard, memorizing quantities and names and drawing elaborate labeled pictures of plant leaves, trying to prepare herself for what in time would provide her a better life. He didn’t understand, back then. He had his own problems—as a child his compulsions had been overwhelming, and he had lacked tools to fight them. Jael had been his anchor, calming him when the anxiety drove him to fits, and helping him develop the patterns and order that would eventually help him manage the problem.
Jael taught him the invisible rules and tricks of the streets almost before he learned to read ordinary language. Through her Noreanor inadvertently learned early the many varied fauna of the nearby lands as he held up pictures of plant parts she’d drawn and she named them in turn. He loved that game, its methodical calming repetition. He didn’t realize until years later that for her it was no game. She was constantly pushing and testing herself.
But no matter how hard she worked, it wasn’t hard enough always pushing herself even more.
This perseverance eventually led her to create new variants of herbal medicines. Demand for her potions grew and within a matter of years, her reputation grew as well as her wealth and status in Vassion. She never abandon them, never letting her success and wealth drive a wedge between them. Instead, the betrayal came from them when they announced to her that they would be leaving Vassion to seek their own fortunes. This scar remains and will forever sour the once tight bond shared between them after the many years surviving alone on the streets of Vassion.
Noreanors tea was cold and the conversation had fallen away. The comfort they all found in the three of them being back together had been spoiled, and none of them could think of nothing to bring it back.
A messenger arrived soon after, sparing them further awkwardness. Jaels caravan was ready for the early departure and she was needed to oversee the last preparations.