By Alex Mykals (AKA PsiDraconis)
The tavern was typical of its kind: smoky, smelling of spilled spirits, and echoing with good-natured insults, jokes, and the occasional outbreak of painfully off-key singing. In the darker corners, a few seeking less attention were engaged in other business, ranging from the embarrassing to the outright illegal. By and large, the patrons were simply dressed, menial workers and labourers, including a few tradesmen, as the Five Willows was too low-class to attract the affluent.
It was just the right class of tavern to attract mercenaries, however, and Tial held back a curse with the ease born of long practice as one of them took advantage of her position, bent over to place the latest double-handful of ale mugs on the table, to steal a quick feel. Rather than blackening the oaf’s eye, as her first instinct urged her, she instead smiled thinly and scooped up the few coins that were paying for this round.
As she wound her way through the tables away from the adventuring company she was grateful for the general din as it gave her an excuse not to respond to her admirer’s more explicit suggestion. Holding back what she really thought of his offer, Tial absently caught two more orders from other patrons on her way back to the bar.
Mereth, the short half-Dwarf who owned the Five Willows and acted as chief bartender, was busy filling another order, giving Tial a brief break from the bustle. Glancing back at the table of mercenaries, she didn’t bother to hide her scowl this time.
Adventurers, she thought in disgust. And moderately competent ones at that. Of course, that’s all we get here. The incompetents always end up either filling some unmarked grave in the wilderness or finding that the farms they ran away from aren’t such bad propositions after all. And the truly skilled are able to find a position with some Noble’s guards or army, or a local militia. Somewhere with a more secure future and a more regular income than bounties on bandits or Orcs. And the unfortunate thing is that those who are only half-incompetent are usually deluded into thinking they’re the greatest heroes since Grent the Swordsman. Another glance their way. They think that because they get such grateful receptions from some hamlet they’ve just rescued from Goblin raids that everyone should be lining up to kiss their boots… among other things. That persistence was a relatively regular occurrence. So far Tial had managed to avoid anything truly serious on that score, but the outcome had been frighteningly close on a few occasions.
And then of course is the fact that when they get a few jugs in them, they tend to have few qualms about demonstrating their fighting techniques on anyone in the vicinity. That was the reason Mereth always surreptitiously charged any adventurers an extra percentage on the cost of services, hoping to defray any possible cost of damages due to enthusiastic revelling. After all, it isn’t like they ever offer to pay for damages afterwards. And the Power-skilled among them are even worse. They don’t even have to be nearby to create havoc. Those were the adventuring types Tial hated most. Once, an inebriated Thaumaturge had not taken her rejection of his advances very well at all, and had reacted by placing a curse on her. Tial had been inexplicably dropping plates for two days before she and Mereth had figured it out and been forced to pay a local Magus to lift the enchantment. Thankfully, there didn’t seem to be any kind of Power-user in this night’s group. They could be tricky to spot at times, but at least none of the mercenaries had the charms, amulets, or typical distracted expression that signalled that sort of trouble.
There were more adventurers around now than there had been twenty years before, at least according to Mereth and a few of the slightly older inhabitants of the town. That had been before Tial had been born, and before the last Dynast had been destroyed for consorting with Demons. Since then, the Council that had taken over running the Imperium had been engaged in a series of continuous campaigns against the Orcs to the north, Goblins and Ogres to the east, and the rebellious inhabitants of the former Satrapy of Suman to the west. That left too few Imperial troops to adequately defend against the persistent minor Unhuman tribes within the Imperium's borders itself, and so the Council had doubled the bounties, turning the bulk of the problem over to independent mercenaries and so-called adventurers.
Coming back to herself, Tial realised that she had only been still for a few heartbeats, and Mereth was only just finishing up with her last order. The internal rant Tial had engaged in was so practiced that she could run through it in moments.
Sighing, Tial ran a sweaty, stained hand through long black hair. That hair was probably one reason for her difficulties with adventurers. That black hair and rich brown skin—which, along with the subtle points to her ears, were legacies from her Elven mother—combined with striking blue eyes—a completely Human feature—gave the young woman an exotically attractive appearance, however much she tried to hide it under sweat, grease, and grime. The magnetic effect on patrons was evident, and left more than a few mistaking her for one of the genuine “ladies of negotiable affection” who plied their trade in the byways of this district. Of course, by the time any customer was fully into his cups—or her cups; the occasional woman could be just as obnoxious—he was quite willing to try to snatch whatever caught his fancy.
Grimacing, Tial wistfully considered once again the possibility of finding other employment. Unfortunately, those with the poor judgement to be Unhuman in Stylok found it very hard to find any job whatsoever, and more than once Tial had wondered just what her mother had been thinking to choose to settle in such a backwater in order to bear and raise her half-Elven child. The few Unhumans who were successful businesspeople, such as the half-Dwarven Mereth, were usually sitting on long-established family businesses, knowing that new opportunities were rare. Tial had heard that other parts of the Imperium, such as the capital city of Cynestol, were more accepting of those who were Unhuman, but even travelling to one of those cities required a fair amount of money, which Tial certainly could not afford.
Tial’s increasingly depressed thoughts were interrupted by Mereth, and she almost eagerly turned her attention to the bar owner.
“H’rth?” Mereth asked shortly.
The single word in Lomadda Dwarven was typical of the half-Dwarf woman. Of course, most of the Dwarven languages espoused extreme brevity. Words were handled almost with suspicion, and even syllables were doled out grudgingly.
“Three ales, a dark uluth and a pear wine,” Tial ordered promptly.
Mereth just grunted and set about pouring the drinks. “Mercs quiet?” she muttered as she worked.
Tial looked back at the adventurers, who seemed to be regaling each other with highly suspect boasts of their feats in the field. “They’re fine for now,” she admitted.
“Not that I saw.” Of course, that didn’t mean as much as it should. In theory, every mercenary who entered was to give up all weapons at the bar, but Tial knew—again from personal experience—that adventurers had a knack for secreting all sorts of deadly items about their persons. And nobody was going to actually suggest searching some forty-stone-weight warrior who looked like he could snap a table in one hand.
Mereth grunted again and handed Tial an armful of mugs, which the serving girl juggled and balanced with nonchalant skill. Part of that skill was due to years of practice, but her Elven heritage brought with it a greater sense of balance and quicker reflexes than the average Human.
Much of the rest of the evening passed without incident. A couple of patrons returned their borrowed ale onto the straw on the floor, and there was one minor altercation that devolved into a pushing match, but ended with the combatants staggering out of the tavern with their arms around each other’s shoulders. Even the mercenaries had remained fairly well-behaved, if loud and boisterous, and Tial began to relax and anticipate her bed when the tavern closed in a couple of waterchimes.
Returning to the bar with a handful of empty mugs, she waited while Mereth filled yet another order. “Corner,” Mereth said with an inclination of her head. Tial nodded, although her brows rose in surprise at the drinks that had been poured. The one mug of ale was typical, and the metal goblet of frostwine was served only infrequently, but the rytin was a surprise. Imported from the hot lands to the northwest, the liquor was expensive, looked and smelled like water, tasted of berries, and two moderate glasses would kill a grown man. The surprise made Tial look to the corner table to see just who had ordered this eclectic collection of drinks.
That particular corner, to the left of the door, was perpetually dim, making it a favourite of the less law-abiding types who frequented the tavern, as well as those simply making assignations they shouldn’t. The criminal element was a fact of life this far down the social scale, and Mereth had learned that a few small considerations to that particular economic group made life a lot easier.
Even so, Tial didn’t know what to make of the trio sitting in the corner now. As she got closer, features became clearer. One was obviously an Elf, black-haired and with a skin darker than Tial’s own, and clad in the light, colourful garments typical of his race. Night-black eyes looked back at her with interest, but without the barely concealed suspicion or outright disgust most Elves displayed towards one whose superior Elven blood was polluted by that of some lesser being. There was some curiosity in the Elf’s dark gaze, but his expression was probably due to simple surprise at finding a half-Elf working here.
The second man was a Human, as far as Tial could tell, but he was quite possibly the ugliest person she had ever seen. His swarthy skin was weathered and worn, and a long, wicked scar ran from his upper lip and along his nose, just missing his left eye. That nose had obviously been broken at some point, and set poorly, if at all. It now bent severely to the right, and was probably twice as wide as it had originally been. The man was solidly built, not massive, but with the unyielding musculature of someone who worked hard every day to become as strong as was needed. Seen next to the slim cool attractiveness of the elf, the contrast was jarring.
As for the third…
Tial’s thought faltered. The third man was a mystery. He was wrapped completely in a long black cloak, even to the point of the deep hood hiding his features. Just about the only visible detail was the silver clasp at the front of the cloak, worked into the shape of two claws clasping each other. The man himself was practically invisible, even when Tial tried to surreptitiously peek under the hood as she laid the drinks on the table.
“Thank ye, lass.” The ugly man’s voice jarred Tial from her attempts at spying. Like his features, the man’s voice was equally harsh, with a deep, almost rolling accent that reminded her a little of Mereth’s.
A foreigner, then, she thought. Maybe from somewhere around Fyrheard? She smiled back hesitantly.
The Elf said nothing, but dipped a finger into his wine and raised the drop of liquid to Tial in salute before bringing it to his own lips. The respectful act surprised Tial; the aloof, superior Elves were rarely so considerate of the feelings of the “lesser races,” even—or perhaps especially—those who shared only partial Elven blood. Of course, no “proper” Elf would ever travel with a Human as… rough as this one’s companion, so he was obviously bucking proper behaviour as it was.
The cloaked man said nothing, but a hand emerged from hiding to drop a few coins on the table. Tial looked almost eagerly, hoping to at least catch a glimpse of detail, but was disappointed when even that was foiled by the fine black gloves he wore. The hand was large, yet long and graceful, and it paused a moment before dropping another couple of coins.
“For the service.”
The first words the man had spoken seemed to match the hand, soft and fluid, and Tial’s mind added another clue to her mental image. Possibly nobility, then, or at least an upper class merchant. Those types visited the Five Willows occasionally, when they got bored and were seeking the “excitement” and “thrill” of mingling with the lower classes. That would make the ugly man and the Elf bodyguards of some kind. The Human was probably the more physical muscle, while the Elf could be either another armsman or some manner of hired Magus.
The other possibility was that this person was involved in some kind of illicit activity, perhaps one of the lords of the ever-malleable criminal underworld. Such types ran the gamut from psychotic thugs, to pampered dandies, to those who projected exactly the image of this individual: mysterious, elegant, generous, yet with a subtle aura of danger. Naturally, there was nothing stopping a crime lord from also being a member of that same merchant class, or even the nobility.
Tial looked at the extra coins on the table, and hesitated, uncertain. While the sum there was more than she made in gratuities in an entire typical evening, she was also wary of just what kind of “service” she was being paid for.
“Thank you, my lord,” she said humbly. “If you wish I can find you some appropriate company for the evening…” It was a fairly safe statement. If the patron really wanted a bedwarmer for the night, Tial could send word to the Red Petals down the street and have Madame Refade dispatch one of her hosts or hostesses, as the situation required. It also subtly informed the asker that Tial herself was unwilling to perform such services.
The hand froze, and Tial had a moment to fear she had made a grave mistake. Then the suggestion was waved away with a graceful gesture. “Such is not necessary,” the voice under the hood said. “I have merely the wish to reward your… efficiency for the evening.”
Even as Tial relaxed, the ugly man guffawed. “Speak for yerself, my lord,” he grunted around chuckles, placing an odd, almost mocking, emphasis on the final two words that seemed to confirm Tial’s guess as to her customers’ vocations. The cloaked man could either be a noble “incognito”, or a crime “lord”. “For meself, I be interested in knowin' where one might be findin'… appropriate company.” Tial blushed as he echoed her words back at her in an innuendo-laden tone. “So, lass, where would you be goin' t' find some friendly sorts?”
Tial blushed darkly again, quite relieved now at the humorous twinkle in the ugly man’s eye, and found herself warming to him despite his rough appearance. “I do not frequent them myself, sir,” she said diffidently, “but the Red Petals down the street is quite… popular, and I can vouch for the honesty of the hostess and the health of her… staff.”
“Aye, but can ye be vouchin' fer their energy, lass?” Tial flushed again, as the Elf rolled his eyes. “Ye seem t' be knowin' an awful lot about this establishment fer someone who ha’n’t been there.”
Tial could only clutch her coins and hope the Gods disincorporated her right there as the Elf sighed and finally spoke. “If you cause the lady to lose her job by not allowing her to work, she will be learning all too much should she be forced to inquire after employment there, Krev,” he said lightly, his airy, flowing tones as much a contrast to his companion’s as their appearances.
“Ach, fine. Off ye go, lass. O’course, if ye do end up workin' at this Red Petals I just might be stoppin' by and visitin' the next time I be in town, eh?”
There wasn’t much Tial could say to that, so she settled for a simple bow to the table in general. “My lord,” she said to the cloaked figure, who had remained silent during the exchange. Tial could not tell what he thought of the whole affair, but it still behoved her to treat the dangerous figure with respect.
As she hurried back to the bar—she really had spent far longer than she should have delivering a simple set of drinks—she heard a chuckle and a gravelly, teasing voice behind her, and briefly wondered just what made her address of “my lord” so amusing. The cloaked man was obviously either not a true noble at all—again the possibility of crime boss sprang to mind—or was trying to pretend he wasn’t, thus drawing the teasing of his bodyguard when the disguise failed so easily.
Tial’s lips twitched as she thought of this “Krev” and his shameless, yet harmless, advances. Despite his off-putting appearance, there had been a playful twinkle in his eye that made her feel at ease, telling her that it was all just a game to him. The Elf had been as aloof as she would have expected, albeit surprisingly polite to someone who was obviously his racial inferior, except for the dry humour he had displayed at the end.
The cloaked man was still a complete blank, but even watching his bodyguards react gave some clues as to his identity. He had shown no anger or even impatience at the ugly man’s antics, and the bodyguard had felt comfortable enough to tease his master, even if Tial couldn’t see exactly what the joke was. That suggested at least a friendship between employer and employee, and made the “disguised nobility” possibility less likely. The highest classes rarely formed such bonds with their servants, quite often forgetting that they were even present. That made the “crime lord” hypothesis more possible. Such figures were known for travelling with very small numbers of bodyguards, a group of hand-picked men and women who were trusted implicitly. That told Tial that Krev and the Elf were most likely far more dangerous than they looked, and the easy way in which Krev had spoken to his master suggested that the loyalty in this case was especially strong, which made the cloaked man someone who could command the greatest respect from those who served him. Such a man would be very dangerous, no matter his true vocation.
The next waterchime passed without great incident. Thankfully, the adventuring company finally decided that they were likely to find more excitement elsewhere and left, breaking only a hand's worth of mugs in their drunken enthusiasm, and Tial breathed out a sigh of relief even as she gathered up the smelly, sticky remains. Five mugs were a bargain compared to a few of the legacies mercenaries had left over the years.
She had kept an eye on the cloaked man and his entourage throughout the evening, still fascinated by the exotic differences between its members. She had refilled their orders twice over the waterchime, and been flirted with shamelessly by Krev, while the Elf—whose name she had learned was Dalen—remained courteous yet aloof, and the cloaked man said little beyond a thanks for her service.
Returning from disposing of the detritus she had cleaned, Tial glanced at them again, and this time saw that they were speaking in low tones with a disagreeable-looking woman dressed in a rough tunic and breeches. The woman was obviously the one whom they had been awaiting throughout the evening. She was unmemorable, apparently just another labourer from the town, until she shifted slightly and Tial caught a glance of a dagger in an intricately decorated scabbard. That design was only worn by members of the Imperial Army, few of whom ever came to the Five Willows.
As Tial watched surreptitiously, the soldier pushed a small wrapped package across the table, and a hand emerged from under the mysterious man's cloak to place a small pouch on the rough wooden surface. The woman tipped a few of its contents onto her palm and Tial caught a flash of silver before she nodded in satisfaction and closed it again. The soldier stood without a word and strode nonchalantly out the door.
Tial nodded to herself. Whatever the cloaked man's true profession, his business here was obviously not legitimate. Of course, the exact nature of that business was still a mystery, and could be anything from buying stolen jewellery, to a noble paying for blackmail material on—or even an assassination of—one of his rivals. Whatever it was, it was certainly nothing a simple barmaid should get involved in beyond the generous nature of the tips he offered.
Still, she felt oddly disappointed when they got up to leave.
Over the next three Eyes the Cloaked Man's group returned on a semi-regular basis, always sitting at the same shrouded corner, and always meeting with some shady individual who would inevitably be paid some unknown sum for some equally mysterious product. The most common contact was the female soldier Tial had seen the first night, but she also recognised a flat-faced man as a runner for Unkas the Night, the crime lord who "owned" the part of the town in which the Five Willows was situated, and a tiny, twisted man who looked like one of the town's ubiquitous beggars.
At first, Mereth had been nervous about having that much probably illegal coin passing through her tavern, but as time went on and no repercussions emerged, she had relaxed slightly. Not that anyone who knew her less well than Tial would have been able to recognise either anxiety or relief in the half-Dwarf's stony face. In fact, for some reason the Five Willows seemed to become an island of tranquillity within the low-class district—beyond the usual friendly brawls that still broke out occasionally—and business picked up as the word spread. Tial couldn't help but wonder if the Cloaked Man had for some reason placed the tavern under his protection.
Tial had learned a little more about the group, but not much.
Krev was apparently married to a woman named Arnel—who must have loved the man deeply, considering his appearance—and was from somewhere to the north, although Tial never learned exactly where.
Dalen the Elf was a minor Magus, but had little Power beyond the Elemental affinity possessed by most of his kind. His homeland was Llygedyn-trwy-Dalenni, far to the east, but he had not returned there for many years, for reasons he never explained.
And the Cloaked Man remained a total mystery, even down to his name. He always wore exactly the same cloak—or an almost identical one—right down to the silver claw clasp at the throat, and never once showed even the slightest hint of himself. Krev continued to call him "My Lord" in a mocking tone, something the mysterious figure seemed to accept without comment. He was always courteous, generous with his gratuities, not only to Tial, but to anyone who served him, and implacably distant to everyone.
A few days after the Waking Eye of Gyr, Tial headed back into the main room of the tavern, rolling a new barrel of ale from the storage room. Behind the bar, she and Mereth hefted the heavy container into its slot, although Mereth did most of the actual lifting, while Tial helped balance the barrel. Even so, she was sweating by the time she was done, while Mereth hardly looked winded.
Tial leaned against the bar for a moment and caught her breath, while Mereth began pounding in the spigot.
"Lordship's here," the half-Dwarf grunted, nodding towards the main floor without looking. "Rich. Fancy."
Tial's gaze immediately went to what she had begun to privately call "The Cloaked Man's Table," and it was with only mild surprise that she saw it was indeed occupied by its unofficial owner. What was surprising was that the Cloaked Man was alone, his two bodyguards noticeably absent.
Then a loud laugh echoed throughout the room, and Tial's eyes jerked to a spot near the central fireplace, where a well-dressed and groomed man was currently holding court, and Tial instantly knew that he was the one to whom Mereth had been referring.
The "Lordship" was far more sophisticated than any of the other petty nobles who had occasionally patronised the Five Willows over the years, and his entourage was only slightly less impressive. Gold gilt was prominent, as were yards of fine fabrics and copious jewels, any one of which could probably buy the entire tavern, if not a large portion of the district in which it stood. The gold- and enamel-work extended to their swords, but even Tial could see that the weapons were not mere showpieces such as the more dandy-ish nobles tended to wear.
And the mere fact that they were still bearing those weapons made Tial's heart sink. The common folk who frequented the tavern knew better than to display weapons openly—if they even owned a weapon more deadly than a butcher's knife—and even mercenaries occasionally acknowledged the unwritten code that they surrender their swords and more obvious weaponry at the bar. These nobles obviously felt that the requests of those who were infinitely their social inferiors were utterly inconsequential. It also meant that they would have even less compunction about casually destroying tavern property, since the Town's Thane, much less the Commoners' Council, would be extremely reluctant to impose any penalties. Only the Lord of Stylok might raise an objection, and he would be far more likely to side with those in his own social class.
Mereth jerked her thumb in their direction. "You. Anything. On the house."
Even as Tial's stomach churned, she reluctantly acknowledged the wisdom of Mereth's decision. The best way to avoid unnecessary trouble tonight would be to give the noble and his retinue anything they wanted, free of charge, keeping them as happy as possible until they chose to leave. Getting them too drunk was risky, since while it could make them more amenable to a suggestion to seek more entertaining locales, it could have the opposite effect of making them stubborn and prone to violence instead.
Tial strode towards the nobles' table, carrying the tray of replacement drinks Mereth had provided, trying to become as unassuming and unobtrusive as possible. Unfortunately, her movement drew the attention of the man who appeared to be the leader of the group, and he looked up, grinning lecherously as he slowly looked her up and down.
He was actually a very handsome man; young—probably not long past his twentieth birthday—long blonde hair tied at his neck in a ponytail, and even white teeth that gleamed as he grinned. Tial absently wondered whether some Magus had performed a Bodymorph on him, removing any imperfections in his appearance. Proper Bodymorphing, as opposed to a simple Glamour, was a very difficult procedure, and demanded correspondingly high payment, but the obvious wealth this man was displaying made it a distinct possibility. His very impressive musculature was real, however, the result of someone who was more interested in showing off for the ladies than doing any actual work.
Tial set about distributing mugs, trying not to meet the eyes of anyone at the table. She was uncomfortably aware of the open scrutiny the primary noble was giving her, and forced herself not to shy away. Completely avoiding contact could easily be "misinterpreted" as playing hard-to-get, and end up actually encouraging unwanted attention.
That didn't seem to be an issue this time.
"Mmm, looks like I made a good choice, didn't I, lads?" the noble asked his companions, and Tial stiffened as a hand trailed up her leg until it squeezed her thigh firmly just under her buttocks. His friends laughed and nodded their agreement. "What's your name, lass?" His voice was just as smooth and cultured as his appearance would suggest.
Tial couldn't help but compare this man's use of the term to the way Krev commonly addressed her. Despite his harsh voice and rude speech, the way the rough man said "lass" was somehow much more pleasant than this noble's.
"Tial, My Lord," she said diffidently, standing where she was and trying not to tense up too visibly. She looked around the table under hooded lashes and was surprised to see one of the men looking at her with a sympathetic—in fact, almost apologetic—look in his eyes.
"Tial," the noble said, rolling the name around in his mouth. "Well, Tial, my name is Warmaster Oannis kel'Parnas. I'm sure you've heard of me."
Tial had actually never heard of Warmaster Oannis kel'Parnas in her life, but knew better than to let on. "Only by reputation, My Lord," she said softly. "I heard that you once defeated Supreme Sword Likos Massas in single combat."
Lord Oannis laughed heartily, and Tial breathed an internal sigh of relief. She had heard no such thing of course, but stroking egos was an effective way to disarm hostility. "Alas, that honour is not mine," the Lord said with false modesty. "I have fought the Supreme Sword, however, and I have come closer than many to defeating him. However, one can understand how such rumours may become enhanced in the retelling." His tone was condescending, the sophisticated noble instructing the ignorant peasant on her mistakes.
"Of course, My Lord," Tial murmured.
"I have, however, been spending the last several Eyes cleaning out Goblin nests along the borders of Suman." Reaching into a pocket, he pulled out a silver coin and flicked it at Tial. She caught it automatically. "Go get yourself a drink, and when you come back I'll tell you all about it." His order was punctuated by a final squeeze of her thigh before he let go.
"Yes, My Lord," Tial said, turning to head back to the bar. Behind her she could hear Lord Oannis commenting on her attributes in a loud whisper that could be heard throughout the tavern.
Reaching the bar, she handed the coin over to Mereth—it would make a tiny dent in the losses she would undoubtedly incur this night—and looked at her friend helplessly. The tavern-owner looked at her sympathetically, but could do little more. If matters became serious, she would likely send to the Red Petals down the street in an attempt to obtain some… distractions.
As Mereth pushed the mug of ale across the counter—it was certainly watered down considerably, since Tial would need all of her faculties to navigate the evening—Tial caught a glimpse of the Cloaked Man out of the corner of her eye. The figure hadn't moved, but Tial thought she could detect a very faint tension in the form under the cloak, but then dismissed it as unlikely. Regardless of how courteous he had been in the past, he had no reason to feel any sort of concern for the well-being of a common tavern wench. More likely he was uncomfortable with the attention that might be drawn to his own shadowy activities.
The mug in hand, Tial took a deep, fortifying breath, and made her way back to the table, where Lord Oannis and his companions were laughing uproariously at some joke. When she arrived, Tial reached out to pull another chair closer, but was stopped when the Lord snagged her around the waist and pulled her closer.
"No need to be shy, lass," he proclaimed, tugging her down to sit stiffly in his lap. "We're all friends, here." He grinned at her, and she managed a tremulous smile of her own.
With that, he launched into a loud tale of his recent campaign against the Quasserech Goblins. His companions seemed to play lesser roles of varying consequence, and Tial soon realised that their exploits appeared to be directly related to the esteem in which Lord Oannis held them. Gargin Ban, for example—the fourth son of some minor Armiger, if Tial understood correctly—was clearly Oannis' closest confidant, and was therefore rewarded with an impressive retelling of how he had single-handedly slain the Goblins' Shaman, just in time to save a child the beast had been about to sacrifice. On the other hand, Than Nuab, the young man who seemed to be the most sympathetic to her plight, received only a passing mention. None of them, of course, matched the prowess of Lord Oannis, who had defeated the Goblins' champion, along with eight, or six, or twelve—the exact number varied slightly with each mention—of their best warriors all at the same time, receiving only minor injuries in the process. To Tial's eyes those injuries seemed remarkably well-healed for wounds taken supposedly only a few hands of days before. She had also overheard enough stories from more serious adventurers to know that Goblins were weak, scrawny beings, only truly dangerous in large numbers.
"… and the local villagers were very appreciative of our efforts," Oannis said, finally wrapping up his tale, and Tial murmured appropriately impressed phrases, even though the story had enough logical holes to sink a war galley. The Lord didn't notice, however, as he expounded his thoughts. "Their daughters were particularly appreciative, of course, but you know how those types can get." His voice lowered conspiratorially. "All that… associating with members of their own family can leave them… undesirable, you know. Besides, after living that close to Goblins for so long, you never know what they've got up to." He laughed. "So we had to come back to civilisation to find suitable companionship." Oannis squeezed Tial's upper thigh for emphasis; his hands had been roaming all evening, and she knew she'd have bruises aplenty in the morning. "Young Than, here, has never actually been with a woman, you know." The young man in question flushed deeply at the comment and tried to hide behind his ale mug. "Perhaps you could… suggest something for him." Oannis leered. "After you've helped the rest of us, of course."
Tial's heart rate spiked. This was the point she had been half-expecting and wholly dreading for the entire evening. To her dismay, the Lord had not drunk nearly as much as she had thought he would, and his constitution meant that he was very nearly completely sober, and therefore less susceptible to suggestion. Still, Tial had to try.
"Of course, My Lord," she said with false cheer, deliberately misunderstanding his suggestion. "I would be pleased to send for some companionship from the Red Petals down the road. The company they can provide will be most enjoyable, I assure you."
The glitter in Oannis' eyes let her know that he had seen through her scheme and was relishing the chase to come. "Now why would I wish to patronise this common brothel you mention? I am quite certain none of their whores are nearly as enchanting as you, lass."
That ploy having failed, Tial desperately moved on to the next, although she was sure it would fail as well. "Please, My Lord, I really am not worthy of your attentions. Someone of your stature must surely deserve one far more beautiful than I."
Lord Oannis' friends were obviously enjoying the show, except for the hapless Than, who was trying to sink through the floor.
"Nonsense," the Lord scoffed, reaching up to stroke Tial's long hair. "You are the most enchanting creature I have seen in many a year." He leered, and one of his hands slipped to the last intimate place that had theretofore been untouched.
Tial jumped, thanking the lean limberness that her Elven blood bestowed as she managed to worm out of the man's grasp. "Please, My Lord," she begged again, holding her hands in front of her in a futile warding gesture. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Mereth making frantic gestures towards the barmaid near the door. Tial's fellow server slipped out the door, and Tial knew that Ullin was running at full speed to the Red Petals. Tial could only pray she would be on time. In the meantime, she continued to stall. "I beg of you, My Lord, please do not do this. My… my husband…" There was, of course, no husband. This particular ploy had worked once in the past, although that time Mereth had stepped forward, claiming to be her wife.
Oannis' hand shot out with blinding speed, grasping Tial's jaw in a painful grip. "Surely your husband would not be so selfish as to hoard such a treasure for himself," he murmured, leaning in, and Tial could only close her eyes and give in to the inevitable.
The hard, bruising kiss never came. Instead, there was an indrawn breath throughout the tavern, which had become apprehensively quiet during the little drama. Tial hesitantly opened her eyes.
The Lord's hand was still gripping her jaw, tilting her head back at an uncomfortable angle, but the eyes were no longer on her. Instead, they were looking down, and Tial slowly followed them. It was an awkward view, but the first thing she saw was Oannis' thick, muscled arm being held by a slim-fingered, black-gloved hand. Her eyes slowly traced up the arm, also slim and black-clad. The arm had emerged from a night-black cloak, and Tial's eyes shot up to see a familiar deep hood. The face under that hood was still invisible, but it nevertheless radiated an aura of calm menace.
"The lady has respectfully declined your advances, My Lord." The voice that emerged was just as quiet and unassuming as Tial remembered it from the Cloaked Man's rare utterances. "The chivalrous act would be to thank her for her company and seek companionship elsewhere."
Oannis' face darkened in anger, his lips twisting in a snarl, and Tial shivered. This was the face of a man who would enjoy punishing the one who had thwarted him, along with the rest of the tavern in the process. "The business between the lady and myself is private, Sir," he gritted out. "If the lady truly does not desire my company I'm sure she will say so." His hand tightened on Tial's jaw, and she winced in pain.
Abruptly, the grip was relaxed, and Tial stumbled back. Lord Oannis' arm remained where it had been, the Cloaked Man's hand still grasping it, but now the Lord's fingers were stiff and contorted, and his face had taken on a pained pallor.
He was a strong man, however, and as Tial watched he visibly pushed down the pain and tensed his arm. Tial froze, torn between getting more distance and coming to the Cloaked Man's aid. No matter how gallant, her mysterious saviour would surely be unable to withstand Lord Oannis' strength.
Which made it all the more surprising when the Cloaked Man didn't move. Tial gaped as the Lord's arm flexed and pushed, but the black-clad arm holding it could have been made of stone. Oannis snarled in disbelief, and his companions looked on in shock, obviously unaccustomed to anyone overpowering their leader. Lord Oannis' temper finally snapped, and Tial shrunk back as his free hand drew back and launched with devastating power at the Cloaked Man's head.
The target didn't flinch, his only response a lightning-quick movement as his other hand shot out of his cloak and stopped the blow in mid-flight. Both of Oannis' hands were now held, and the Cloaked Man slowly, and without apparent effort, drew them apart so that the Lord was almost spread-eagled. Then he squeezed, and Oannis blanched again as he was slowly forced to his knees. Tial swore she could hear the bones in his arms grate against each other, even from several paces away.
"The lady has declined your company," the Cloaked Man said, and while his voice was still quiet, it also had a deadly quality. "I would respectfully suggest that you accede to her wishes. It would be most boorish to dishonour her marriage and her person for the sake of your own baser needs."
Tial almost spoke up to say she had no husband, but managed to hold her tongue. The door to the tavern opened, and Ullin slipped back inside, followed a moment later by three provocatively dressed women whom Tial vaguely recognised from the Red Petals. Mereth's back-up plan, arriving with commendable speed, but too late.
The Cloaked Man must have sensed them somehow, and after a momentary pause relaxed his grip on Lord Oannis' arms. His hold gentled, and he drew the Lord up from his knees to stand upright, and then carefully opened his hands and took a graceful step back, his arms disappearing into his cloak once more.
"It becomes my belief that our host has most graciously made available some friends who will be amenable to your company, My Lord," the Cloaked Man said, and now there was a very subtle undertone that tickled Tial's inner ears. "I feel quite certain that everyone here will be quite willing to forget this… incident."
"A simple misunderstanding, Sir," Mereth spoke up for the first time. "Nothing interesting enough to tell tales about." It was the longest single speech Tial had ever heard from the half-Dwarf.
Tial nodded vigorously. "My words were likely unclear, My Lord. After all, the honesty and chivalrous nature of Warmaster Oannis kel'Parnas is well known."
There was a general murmur of agreement from the remaining tavern patrons, who were willing to agree to anything in order to avoid unpleasantness.
Oannis nodded dazedly, looking around at his companions, who were looking equally uncertain. "A misunderstanding. You are likely correct, Sir," he said, trying to reassemble the threads of his dignity. He glared around the table, and his friends nodded quickly. "Had I understood that the… lady was indeed married…" His smile was sickly.
The Cloaked Man simply nodded graciously.
With a gesture, the Lord signalled his companions to follow him, several of them bowing hesitantly towards Tial as they went. At the door, the three prostitutes recovered with professional efficiency, beginning to practice their art on the men who would be providing their livelihood that night. Tial found herself hoping that Than kel'Nuab found a good one.
Then silence reigned as the group slipped out into the evening. Mereth slowly worked her way towards the site of the "battle." She looked up questioningly at Tial, who drew a shaky breath and nodded that she would be well. Then the tavern owner hesitated by the Cloaked Man, whose hood remained pointed towards the door with a speculative air.
"Thanks for your help, Sir," Mereth said awkwardly. "Tial and I are grateful."
The Cloaked Man shook himself and turned to face her. "It was… a service, Madam," he said softly. He paused, then a hand emerged from his cloak bearing a small pouch. He handed it to Mereth, who took it automatically. Tial heard the clink of metal. "I am confident you will be able to ascertain how this may be best spent."
Mereth didn't even look inside, although Tial knew she would certainly use the money to buy the silence of the current patrons, the neighbours, the Town Patrol, and anyone else who might express an interest. "I'm grateful, Sir," she rasped. "But... maybe a more… useful tavern would serve you after this."
The hood nodded. "You need not concern yourself, Madam. My business is now concluded in this town for the nonce. I wish you well."
Mereth just nodded curtly, her vocabulary for the entire Eye obviously used up.
The Cloaked Man turned to Tial, bowed, and said simply, "My Lady." Then he was out the door.
A chill breeze whipped through the alley behind the Five Willows. Summer was definitely ending, and harvest would be arriving soon. Business would drop for almost an Eye as the farmers of the region focussed exclusively on bringing in their crops. Once they were done, however, the tavern would become full again, as they spent the profits they had made selling their produce in a last burst of camaraderie before the snows stranded them in their homesteads for the winter.
Tial shivered through her thin blouse and skirt, hurrying to the end of the alley. The sun had already set, leaving the narrow way lit only haphazardly by random patches of light from a few windows on either side. Disposing of garbage was an unpleasant task at the best of times, and would become true misery in the heart of winter, but Mereth insisted that all trash be left far from the back door to the tavern, where it would otherwise begin to permeate the kitchen with its stench. The tavern owner's half-Dwarven nose was more sensitive than that of the average Human, so she was highly intolerant of the smell of rotting garbage. Putting the discarded food elsewhere also drew rats away, and while Dwarves were known for eating rodents as a perfectly acceptable dietary component, Mereth had never acquired the taste.
Which meant that a rotating schedule had been set up determining who would be on trash detail for the evening. Actually, the night before had been properly Tial's, but the emotional aftermath of the evening's events had caused Mereth to give her the night off her rota in a rare overt display of compassion. That had been the limit of Mereth's understanding, however, and tonight Tial was back on duty.
It was hardly a hike from the back door to the spot where the alley met the main road, but Tial hurried even more than the cold warranted, feeling an additional chill. The alley seemed to be longer than usual, and odd shadows and noises kept her on edge. It was nerves, she knew, emotional remnants of the events of the evening before, but that didn't make them any less real. She found herself straining her Elven senses, trying to place and identify each sound.
Despite her vigilance, Tial missed the most important sound, and before she knew what was happening, a heavy, muscular body slammed into hers, crushing her against the wall and winding her before she could cry out. She gasped for breath, but before she could draw enough air to scream, a strong hand slapped itself over her mouth. Tial could only whimper inaudibly as the face near hers came into focus in the dim light.
Warmaster Oannis kel'Parnas sneered at her with cruel satisfaction.
"My Lady," he mocked, his tone just as smooth and cultured as she remembered, and just as devoid of compassion. "It seems we are destined to meet. I must admit I am flattered that you deigned to come out to meet me. It was very chivalrous of you."
Tial twisted and tried to slip out of his grasp, but even her Elven agility was no match for his strength. In desperation she tried to plant a fist, knee, or elbow anywhere she could reach, but the Lord deflected her with absent ease, and when she tried to bite the hand over her mouth she was thwarted by his thumb under her chin, holding her jaws closed. It dawned on her with rising panic that Lord Oannis had experience with subduing women who were unhappy to find themselves in his grasp.
"You are full of surprises, My Lady," he said, and his mellow, almost friendly voice was disconcertingly at odds with his rough, painful actions. "The enchantment your… friend cast upon me last night was unexpected, I must say. I very nearly forgot about you entirely, as incredible as that may sound."
Tial's eyes widened as she remembered the Cloaked Man suggesting to the noble and his friends to forget the incident, and the odd sensation that had buzzed in her ears. Anyone capable of casting an enchantment of that sort with only his voice was even more dangerous than she had thought. Despite the peril associated with such people, Tial found herself wishing desperately that her mysterious rescuer would suddenly appear.
Lord Oannis shook his head. "It was most fortunate that I happen to possess an amulet that protects me from such… uncouth attempts to intrude on my mind," he said mildly. "A most expensive trinket, to be sure, but the Magus employed by my family has many talents, and is quite willing to share them when offered sufficient monetary inducement."
It was probably the most disheartening thing Tial had heard yet. Full Magi, especially those capable of imbuing items with Power, were incredibly rare, and their services could only be bought for a correspondingly incredible amount of money. To actually employ one full-time was something only a dozen noble families in the Imperium could afford. All of which meant that Oannis likely commanded enough resources to buy the entire town of Stylok several times over. No matter what he did, the local Lord would be manifestly unwilling to take the side of a single tavern wench, let alone an Unhuman one. That meant that the Patrol would intervene in nothing less than mass murder, and likely not even then.
"Your friend… Is he your friend? Perhaps your lover? Ah, my apologies, My Lady. It is most impolite to inquire after a Lady's intimate affairs, after all. As I was saying, your friend's little spell did muddle my thoughts for a time, in fact. Quite an impressively puissant enchantment indeed," the Lord's maddeningly conversational tone continued, and Tial squeezed her eyes shut as one of his hands began invading her intimate places. "Over the night my own charm fought against the spell, and this morning when I awoke it had been defeated utterly. A most happy circumstance, I am sure you will agree." His voice was low and hot in Tial's ear, and she whimpered inaudibly again. "The first thing I recalled when I awoke was your beautiful face. I knew you would remember the fire that passed between us last evening, and immediately set out to find you again." He pulled back minutely and lowered his head in false modesty. "Forward of me, I agree, but men have always been moved to great deeds by passion." The eyes rose again, and Tial shivered at the look in them. It was impossible to tell whether Lord Oannis was insane or simply soulless.
"I knew that given the chance our souls and bodies would yearn for the chance to join in passion. The location is not the most romantic, I admit, and is hardly an appropriate setting for a jewel such as you, but I promise you that once we have joined, I will install you in surroundings that are due such beauty."
Oannis' face was back at her neck, and tears poured from Tial's eyes as he nipped roughly at her skin. One hand was engaged in holding her body against the wall, but the other was fumbling at her skirt, awkwardly sliding up her leg. One of her hands was completely immobile, and the other felt blindly within her reach, searching for something, anything. To her dismay, there were no loose planks, dropped tools, or even convenient stones that she could find, and her weak flailings merely bounced off his back and shoulders.
Oannis' hand finally worked its way under Tial's skirt to touch intimate flesh, and her frantic scrabblings increased. In blind panic, her fingernails finally caught on a tiny piece of wood that had split from the wall of the building behind her. Her fingers instinctually wrapped around it, tearing nails as she ripped it from the wall. It was small, a sliver barely as large as her hand, but she swung it at Oannis' head with all her terror-born strength.
There was a yell of pain in her ear, and the Lord lurched back, hands flying to his head. They came away covered in blood, and he stared at them blankly before his gaze lifted to Tial, who was panting against the wall, barely able to hold herself up. As she looked at him, her hands coming up in front of herself defensively, his mouth opened as if to speak, but no sounds emerged. Then, with almost gentle slowness, he folded, collapsing to lie in the middle of the alley.
A random reflection of light illuminated his head, where a finger-length piece of wood had been driven with astounding accuracy into his ear.
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