A beam of sunlight shot through the east window of the barn loft and blasted into Marius Levant’s head, igniting the headache he had known he would have after last night’s entertainment. That sunshine, though, was why his hammock hung where it did; when he had business that required daylight attention, he could leave the window uncovered. Otherwise, the heavy canvas drape would have been blocking out the dawn rays, and he would have been snoring contentedly, and this blasted headache would be hours in his future.
He rolled out of the hammock and stretched, then reached for his water skin and took a long swallow. Then he doused himself with the remainder of the skin’s content and ran his fingers through his shaggy brown hair. Wincing, he gingerly poked at a lump he didn’t recognize.
“I guess I shouldn’t have had that last shot after all! Have to ask Kelson about this one,” he muttered before shrugging into his armor’s chestpiece and tugging it neatly into place. Studded with bronze rivets, the breastplate and shoulder protectors were creased in several different places by folks who had a different opinion on the value of its owner’s life than Marius did. After tugging on his boots, he stepped towards the window and gazed out at Lowtown in all its squalor. From this vantage point, he could just see the Septarch’s Tower off to the southeast. Between there and here, though, squatted several shabby hovels, leaning against one another like a family of sad drunks just trying to carry each other home. But there wasn’t anywhere to go, he mused as he looked to the north, to the bluff that divided Fallcrest into Hightown and Lowtown. Oh sure, there were a few closely-watched trails that connected the cleaner, more prosperous and respectable heights to their dirtier, shadier cousin – how else would the porters’ guild keep its river of dirty coin flowing from the pockets of their members to every official in town?
But his eyes narrowed and his thoughts reddened as his eyes fell on the mansion whose gables he could just see over the edge of the bluffs. Yes, there was another reason he had chosen this particular loft for his home, wasn’t there? “Oh yes, it all comes down to CHOICES, to DECISIONS, doesn’t it?” he spat before turning away from the window and reaching for a leather strip to tie back his thick hair. He had business for Kelson in Hightown today… So he’d better look at little less scruffy than usual.
Marius unhooked a spiked chain from its place on one of the ceiling posts and wrapped it over his shoulder, clipping the larger link in the middle to his shoulder and tucking the spiked end into a special leather pouch on his belt. Throwing his heavy grey cloak over his shoulders, he grabbed the odd hat he’d taken with him from his last residence, tugged it on, and headed to the Red Dragon Inn.
The Red Dragon… Clean and classy in some places, rough-and-tumble in others, there were Red Dragons up and down the river and even farther away than that. You knew whether a place was important, or just some backwater wide spot in the road, by whether they had a Red Dragon Inn. Marius mused on which came first, the Inn or the importance, as he rode the early ferry across the Nentir River. There were four main trails up the bluffs – East, Straight, West, and Over-the-River. When he had a bit of coin to spare, or had special business in Hightown, he ferried over the river and caught a wagon headed up to the west side markets. Easier to remain unnoticed there than on the quicker, more direct route. He tugged off his distinctive hat as the wagon rumbled slowly across the wooden bridge that spanned the Hightown Nentir. No sense giving the clowns on guard detail something obvious to stick in their puny little brains for later. But he pulled it back on after he hopped off the wagon and strolled into the Red Dragon. Kelson said that his contact would need it to recognize him. Pushing through the doors, he stopped (as usual for a Red Dragon regular) and scanned the message board. The management encouraged folks to post items of note, odd jobs, and even had a scroll tacked up for travelers to make their mark and let others know that they’d passed this way en route to wherever. Marius shook his head as he saw a note from the Arnlief Exchange and Emporium, looking to hire some sellswords to deal with bandits harassing their stock caravans. Arnliefs were good people, and Marius did what he could to keep Kelson’s greedy gang otherwise occupied, but this might be trouble worth looking into.
“Pot of tea, and some bread,” Marius growled to the serving lass he passed as he moved to a table near the back, turning so he could see the door he’d entered through. He shook out a few coppers and laid them on the table, then gently took a scroll from the folds of his cloak and began reading. His eyes scanned over the top of the scroll from time to time, watching for… nothing in particular. But the script on the paper grabbed more and more of his attention, so he was startled when the dwarf yanked out the other chair at his table and nearly transformed it into kindling as he landed in it.
“You got something for me?” he grunted in Dwarven.
“Maybe,” Marius replied carefully in the same tongue. “What do you have for me?” The dwarf tossed a book on the table, and Marius grabbed it eagerly. TALES OF HONOR AND VALOR, from the pen of Winslow the Red and collected by Thatian Stonebard, the cover read in a fine script. Marius gently riffled the pages and found the note tucked inside. Careful not to read the note, he closed the book again and tossed a small pouch of regs to the dwarf.
“This is a fine tome, and rare besides. Much appreciated, good dwarf. Would you like to share some of my breakfast? I can order some salt pork as well.”
The dwarf shook his head and rose. “Must be on my way. Don’t lose that or it will be your head, Reader.”
“No kidding? Thanks for the tip!” Marius laughed, a loud and merry sound that hardly fit his sour face and disposition. He tucked the book away in another folder of his cloak and stood, getting ready to leave. Then his eyes widened and his jaw dropped a little as he saw what, or rather, WHO was strolling up to the message board. Purple skin with a slight sheen to it, a glitter in its eye, and a rakish grin shining out from under an odd little helmet (bronze, maybe?)… Is that a SPELLSCALE? What in the Nine Hells is one of those doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Well, not as middle-of-nowhere as Winterhaven, but still strange to see such an uncommon sort of creature. But that was the Red Dragon for you – you never knew what you might see.
Marius arched an eyebrow and eased a little closer to the board, as he saw a big human, heavier but a little shorter than himself, moving towards the little guy, who was reading the Arnlief note with interest. The human shoved the spellscale, who was fully a foot shorter and much lighter, into the wall and took his place.
“Let me get a look at this! Ha! Just the kind of work a fellow like me is looking for! See ya later, scrappy!” the man guffawed as he pushed through the doors and out in the street. Marius wasn’t quick enough to work out the device on the obnoxious fellow’s shield, but the sword on his hip looked like more than a toy. By then, two more humans, a burly pair who also almost matched Marius inch-for-inch in height, had approached the board. One, wearing the symbol of St. Cuthbert around his neck, was helping the young spellscale to his feet while the other, a heavily hooded fellow with a few strands of long blond hair left uncovered, read the note.
“Zoltan, look at this! Says a merchant here in town needs help, and will pay solid coin. Want to check it out?”
“Hey!” The spellscale piped up in a high-pitched but friendly voice. “I saw that first! Come on now, that other guy is already trying to get the job… Now you guys are going too!?”
“Why don’t we all go… Together?” the priest replied, dusting off the protesting spellscale. “I bet it’s the kind of job that will need more than just one or two people.” The three of them headed out together, but not before Marius noticed a strange bulk around the little fellow’s shoulders. Did he have a pack stashed under his cloak? Was he some kind of hunchback? Curiosity thoroughly aroused, Marius slid out the doors behind them and kept them in sight as he, too, headed for the Arnlief Emporium.
Pete, a grey-haired man of about sixty, sat at the counter at the Arnlief Exchange and Emporium, riffling nervously through some papers that lay scattered there. He was supposed to be checking Lisbet’s count against the shipping records, but he couldn’t focus. He bolted up from his stool and began pacing behind the counter.
“What will we do? Oh what will we do?” he muttered over and over. He nearly jumped out of his skin when the front door swung open and slammed into the inside wall. A man strolled in, sword at his hip and a shield strapped to his back.
“Hey there, buddy! My name’s Christopher, and I’m here to speak with Lisbet Arnlief. Saw her advertisement on the board at the Red Dragon, and here I am! Tell her all her problems are solved!”
But before he even finished, another trio burst through the door, led by a shorter, slight-built fellow with… Pete’s eyes widened as he saw PURPLE skin… what kind of creature has PURPLE skin???
“No way! NO WAY! My name’s Delvin Skycharge, and I saw that note FIRST. I’M here with my friends Kovac and Zoltan, and WE want to work for Mrs. Arnlief!” Completely at a loss for words, Pete’s mouth opened and closed like a fish several times, before another voice spoke from behind the trio.
“Perhaps, Pete, you should go tell Mrs. Arnlief that she has business with us?” Marius said quietly. The clerk nodded several times, still looking a bit lost. He turned towards the storeroom, but misjudged the doorway and bounced off of the doorframe. Delvin’s giggle made Pete jump again, but he finally stopped, gathered himself, and hurried into the back. A few moments later, a human woman with a pale, freckled face and flashing blue eyes stepped forth. She looked to be in her fourth decade, but not too far into it, and her curly red hair showed only a little grey.
While Marius leaned against the entryway, the other four all started talking at once. After a few moments, she spoke sharply. “Gentlemen! Please! I am Lisbet Arnlief – please come with me and we will see if you can be of any use to us.” She led the group back into the warehouse area after patting Pete’s arm gently. The creaks of wood and clanking of metal could be heard from farther back in the shadowy warehouse, but Lisbet led them towards a lit room with a large table and several chairs. She stood at one end and gestured for her visitors to sit. From the corner, another elderly gentleman stepped forward.
“Well-met, worthy sirs. Might I offer you any refreshment? A bite to eat, perhaps?”
“ALE! Tankards of ale would not go amiss for my brother and I,” the priest ordered happily, while Christopher asked for some fresh water. Marius took a large pipe of meerschaum from inside his cloak and signaled questioningly with it to Mrs. Arnlief, who nodded her permission. After that, he leaned against the back wall, filled his pipe with aromatic pipeweed, and lit it from a nearby candle. Puffing quietly, he listened as she explained her situation.
“Gentlemen, let me get right to the point. My husband Ronald left Fallcrest several days ago, leading a caravan of goods to Harkenwold. He should have sent a raven three days ago. We lost the last two caravans we sent to Harkenwold, and he wanted to accompany this one to find out what was going on and put a stop to it. He knows his way around, and like anyone in shipping, we’ve learned to deal with our fair share of brigands. But he’s never been this late before, and he always sends word when he arrives.” She paused for a moment, took a deep breath, and said, “I think he’s been captured.”
“Well, ma’am, lucky for you that I saw your notice!” Christopher blustered. “I can leave right now… although there is the matter of payment that you haven’t mentioned yet.”
“Yes, lucky,” she replied dryly. “First, I need some assurance that you people can even work together… do any of you even know each other??”
Zoltan, the priest of St. Cuthbert, introduced himself and his brother Kovac. “This is exactly why St. Cuthbert has blessed me with strength and power! To mete out justice to evildoers! I pledge my mace to your service — we will not rest until you’ve been reunited with your husband.” Marius rolled his eyes through his pipesmoke and said nothing. Religion in Fallcrest was a joke – why would this guy be any different?
Zoltan continued, oblivious to Marius’ skepticism. "My brother is mighty in battle, and Delvin here clearly has magical power that will help us greatly. We don’t know anything about these two – " he gestured towards Christopher and Marius – “so you should probably just send the three of us. We will get it done.”
Christopher protested, “Do you really want to pay three people to do the work that one true warrior can accomplish? Sure, those two are strapping enough, but size isn’t all that matters in combat. What matters is skill, and skill is what I have. And trusting magic is for fools. None of it is as trustworthy as THIS!” In one fluid motion, he drew his longsword from its sheath and laid it on the table. Marius flexed his fingers and wrapped them around his chain, ready to defend himself at a moment’s notice. He tensed as Christopher turned towards him, and challenged, “What I want to know is what this quiet one is doing here. What’s your name, longshanks? And what’s your business, eh?”
“Marius. Marius Levant. I’ve a bit of skill with a blade, as well as other talents that might prove useful in… all sorts of endeavors.” He leaned forward and blew a bit of smoke towards the ceiling, his grey-blue eyes never leaving the sellsword’s face.
“Stop it, you idiots,” Lisbet said in a tone that brooked no argument. “There’s no time for this. Beggars can’t exactly be choosers, can we? I want all five of you to go and find my husband. I can provide horses and rations, and ammunition if any of you are lacking arrows or bolts. But you must leave today!”
“We can leave right now, my lady,” Zoltan replied. “Let’s go!”
Marius growled a negative. “No. Let us meet at noon at the east gate. I know this road, but I must gather my gear.”
“Unprepared? NOON? Why are you coming again?” Christopher retorted. Marius glared back, but said nothing.
“Then noon it will be. May the gods go with you, sirs, and speed you back with my beloved,” Lisbet intoned.