Thursday, January 16, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 2

It was nearing sunset, and Cadmus was trying to mentally catalogue his belongings as he hurried along the busy streets. He had his sword. He was wearing his chainmail, as uncomfortable as it was, since it provided better protection than his simple chain-link shirt he wore for work. Normally they didn’t allow weapons and armor in the taverns, but on Quest Day, everyone was willing to make an exception. His pack, heavier than he would have liked, held rope, sticks for torches, chalk for making marks on stone, dried food for the road, and a generous waterskin that could be easily refilled. He had a bedroll, a spare set of clothes, and some flints for starting a fire. He thought he had everything he needed, but he still felt like he was forgetting something.

He had begun to work up a sweat as he climbed the steep zig-zagging road that allowed travel between the upper and lower wards. The town he had lived in for the past five years, Archdale, had been split in half by something- exactly what varied depending on who you asked- several decades earlier, and since then the local tradesmen had done their best to keep commerce moving. That meant cutting a series of paths into the wall of earth that now separated the higher level of the town from the lower, and someone had to design a sophisticated system for raising and lowering goods from the waterfall that now spilled the region’s main waterway down the split countryside. The zig-zagging road was steep, and difficult to traverse on foot, to say nothing of taking a wagon or cart up or down the path. Every day the already-clogged passage was blocked for hours at a time by someone who had misjudged a turn and broken something.

And that’s when Cadmus remembered what he had forgotten- a ranged weapon! He had neglected to bring a bow, or even the set of throwing axes he had specifically bought after last year’s Quest Day. They were sitting, perfectly sharp and unused in months, next to his bed in his cramped hut on the edge of the lower ward. There was simply no time to go back- not if he wanted any sort of choices when he got to the tavern. He would just have to rely on someone else to supply-

His large frame suddenly came into hard contact with another man’s as he rounded one of the last corners of the sharply-turning path. Cadmus was large, especially for a trystborn, but this man- a Human- was even larger, with broad shoulders and arms that could probably have picked up an average person and thrown them. Suddenly thrown off balance, he fell to the packed ground, narrowly avoiding getting stepped on by passersby and momentarily fearing he was going to roll all the way back down to the bottom of the pass. He managed to keep himself from rolling away, but the setting sun was eclipsed by the silhouette of the man with which he had collided.

Cadmus prepared for an insult or a reprimand from the burly Human, and his mind nervously spent a moment searching for an appropriate comeback in case one was needed. But, instead, a strong hand reached down, offering to help the trystborn back to his feet.

“I’m terribly sorry, my friend,” came the stranger’s voice, much to Cadmus’ surprise.

Friend? Cadmus wondered who this person was. Nobody addressed a stranger as “friend” around here, especially a human to a trystborn. Nevertheless, he took the offer with his own red-skinned hand and climbed to his feet.

“Uh… no, no, it was my mistake,” Cadmus responded. “I should have been paying more attention.”

The man looked young, perhaps thirty years at most, but his dark hair and goatee were going prematurely grey. His skin looked weathered and tanned, like he had either worked outside for a long time or had just finished a long journey. His eyes, steel-grey, had a certain intensity about them. Cadmus felt a little unnerved at first, and for more than one reason was eager to continue on his way.

He started to turn and hurry along with the rest of the people passing, but then he realized why this man was simply standing in the middle of the pass- a covered wagon, one axle broken, leaned against the earthen wall on the northern side of the road. A young woman, possibly his daughter, with long red hair and a simple peasant’s outfit, stood comforting the two horses that had been pulling the wagon, both growing restless from being stuck in the bustling crowd.

As Cadmus paused to survey the wreck, the burly stranger spoke again, noticing his pause. “Sir, I was wondering if I might be able to trouble you,” he said, putting a large hand on the trystborn’s shoulder. “As you can see, we’ve had a problem travelling and, well, it’s been exceedingly difficult getting someone to stop and help us.”

Cadmus let out a deep breath. He was already in a hurry- he didn’t have time to stop and help someone. He glanced back toward the lower ward- he was fairly certain he could see his home from where he was- and he thought if he was going to be late getting to the tavern, he would have rather run back home and grabbed his bow and arrows or some throwing axes or something, and that way he’d at least be more effective in combat- but then he looked back to this man and the girl with him. They both looked like they’d been through a lot- the girl especially, despite her youth, looked like she’d seen enough horrors to haunt her dreams every night. And this man, in his plain clothes, looked like he’d been working hard his entire life. Cadmus wondered, if he didn’t stop and help these two, would anybody?

The two of them stood, people pushing their way past them, crowds forming on either side of townsfolk and traders trying to get wherever they needed to be, for what felt to Cadmus like too long. With another deep breath, he nodded.

“Sure. I’m in a hurry, but tell me what you need me to do.”
The two of them quickly got down next to the earthen wall, with the man climbing underneath the precariously-leaning wagon and Cadmus kneeling next to him. Using their combined strength, they were able to lift the broken side, and, with Cadmus holding it in place temporarily, the man was able to remove the broken axle, and with the girl’s help, the two of them managed to quickly jury-rig a makeshift axle out of some wooden spokes and a length of rope. Once finished, the man climbed back underneath the wagon, got everything connected, and decided to try it out.

By the time they were finished, the sky was dark, and the crowds had thinned out. Cadmus, his hands and back aching after holding up the cart for so long, wiped a sheen of sweat from the red skin of his face, brushing his black hair back against the small horns that crested backwards from his forehead. He remarked to himself that it all would have gone so much smoother had he not been wearing his armor, but it would have taken too long to take it off and put it back on again.

The man thanked him warmly, and shook his hand, and might have even offered to give him something as thanks but by that point, Cadmus was just ready to finish up their meeting and hurry along on his way. At this point, he told himself, it was likely all of the best jobs were taken, if there were even any left, but he had made the decision to do a good deed for the day and now he had to live with it.

As he was trying to leave, the man caught his attention one last time.

“Are you here for Quest Day too?”

He stopped in his tracks. If he wasn’t frustrated at having to spend so much time helping this stranger out already, that certainly pushed him over the edge. So not only did this man probably ruin his chances of getting a good job, but he was competition, too? He balled up his fists for a moment, then released them. Even if this stranger was another adventurer, he’d have a hard time making it to any of the taverns in time to get work with a wagon in such bad shape.

“Yeah, I am,” he called out, not even turning back to face the man. “I’m heading up to the Drunken Dragon, here in the upper ward.”

“Well,” replied the man hopefully, “maybe we’ll see you there. Good luck!”

Cadmus continued walking, shaking his head, sure he was going to miss his chance.
He approached the tavern all disheveled, his pack uncomfortable and his breath heavy, his tail flitting around in the creeping chill. He glanced up at the familiar tavern sign swaying in the night, one side painted with a dragon pouring a mug of ale down its fiery throat with the words “Drunken Dragon” emblazoned proudly, and the other side showing a drunk man and the same dragon both walking down the road, each with drink in hand, with this side spelling, “Drunk & Dragon”. Cadmus grumbled to himself. Judging by the noise coming from inside, Quest Day was well underway.

He passed through the doorway to a raucous din of clinking glasses, arguments waiting to turn into brawls, and conversations being shouted over the rest of the noise. Cadmus walked over and stood by the bar- near several others outfitted similar to him- his dark eyes scanning the room, looking for any groups that still looked open. The Drunken Dragon was a large tavern by most standards, with most of the seating normally reserved for special events, with a stage on one end. At the moment, a Human woman sat on a stool, a lute in her hands, playing something fast and melodic, setting the tone for adventuring parties preparing to fight armies of Orcs or recover lost treasures from hidden tombs and deadly traps. Around the room, all of the larger tables were fully occupied by Humans, Dwarves, Elves, and even others, all with weapons and armor and packs full of adventuring gear. At each table, one person held the others’ attention as best as they could, laying out the groundwork for a quest that was going to force every participant to risk their lives, but with rewards befitting such a risk.

In accordance with tradition dating back nearly forty years, Quest Day was a huge event in Archdale. The town, typically an average center of commerce and the crossroads of two major trade routes, set aside one day every year where adventurers, thrill-seekers, and mercenaries gathered at all the town’s taverns, where anyone in need of help- the wealthy, the desperate, and occasionally even the supernatural- could gather a group to fight off evil creatures, retrieve stolen artifacts or simply escort someone of importance through dangerous locales. Quest Day attracted so much business for the town, even in its early years, that even the taverns in the upper ward allowed in the most unsavory of patrons through their doors.

But now Cadmus looked around the room, watching as group after group was given their quest and went off in search of treasure and glory. He wanted to arrive early, to ensure a good chance at getting work, but with the unexpected delay it looked like he had missed the main rush. There was always the chance other questgivers would show up as the room cleared out, but nothing was guaranteed. The music came to a close, and after some applause, the woman gathered up her tips, and stepped off stage.

Disappointed with the night’s prospects, Cadmus turned towards the bar. He recognized the barkeep from the previous year- a big, hairy man named Mitchifer, who stood wiping out a mug with a wet rag. After getting his attention, Cadmus ordered an ale and waited for it to arrive.

Someone came up and stood next to him, and Cadmus turned his head to see the bard from the stage slinging her lute onto her back, rapping on the countertop. Her face was flushed and sweaty from her performance, and she caught her breath as Mitchifer came back with two ales, one for Cadmus and one for her.

The woman took a long drink of her ale, and turned to Cadmus. “Nice turnout, wouldn’t you say?”

He simply grunted in response, taking a drink himself.

She raised her drink to her lips, raising an eyebrow. “I take it you didn’t find any work,” she continued between sips.

Cadmus shook his head. “No. I was late getting here, and… well, you can see the result.”

She nodded. “Don’t worry. There’s usually some stragglers at the end.”

He shrugged. Draining the rest of his mug, he set it down loudly on the bar, along with a silver coin. He couldn’t remember what an ale cost here, but certainly a silver would cover it.

“Hey,” the bard yelled as he turned to walk away. “If you find work, let me know. I’ll do the same if I see you.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You’re looking for a quest as well? Do you have much experience?”

She snorted out a laugh. “You’re asking if I have experience? Instead of answering that question, let me just give you a bit of my wisdom. Look around this room. See him over there?”

She directed his gaze to the dark figure sitting in the one shadowy corner of the room, his face hidden in darkness.

“And now, look over there.”

She pointed at an adjacent corner, slightly more well-lit but still dim, where another man stood, this one wearing black clothing and spinning a dagger around in his fingers, a long scar across one cheek and a scowl on his face.

“You don’t want either of those in your group, and I’ll tell you why. Whether they mean to be or not, both of them are loners. They won’t work well in a group and you, and more importantly they, know it.”

She then pointed at another fellow, this one near the door, wearing dirt-covered leather armor, with twin swords at either hip, a vicious dog sitting vigilantly at his side.

“Don’t expect many places to allow his dog indoors. Also, he has parent issues. I can tell.”

Cadmus nodded, recognizing these people from previous Quest Days.

“And of course,” she continued, pointing at a woman in the middle of the room, “you definitely don’t want HER in your group.” She was at a table with a large group that was currently being given a quest by a cloaked man wearing several rings on each hand. The woman was Elven, with something that vaguely resembled metal plate armor that somehow barely covered her ample bosom, and a sword wider than her waist was strapped to her back. The rest of her group, all men, were finding it difficult to focus on anything but her, including the questgiver.

“Trust me,” the bard continued, shaking her head. “You can bet she’s going to be committing lewd acts every chance she gets, with whomever or whatever is nearby. That may sound exciting for some, but in this line of work, it WILL get everyone killed. If you want a whore, go to a whorehouse, not a dungeon.”

The two of them looked around the room a little while longer. There were a few more people, drawing less attention to themselves, but Cadmus wasn’t sure what he wasn’t looking for.

“And I don’t see one,” she said after a pause, “but I’m sure there’s someone sneaking around from group to group, pickpocketing all of his prospective team mates while still expecting to be trusted once things get going. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you why you don’t want him anywhere near you.”

Cadmus stared at the remaining people in the Drunken Dragon, then turned to the bard. “You’ve been very helpful,” he said, extending a red hand to her. “I’ll be sure to let you know if I find work. I’m Cadmus.”

She shook his hand while taking a swig from another mug of ale. “Mel,” she said after a gulp. “Pleased to meet you, Cadmus.”

He turned and walked towards the door, wanting a breath of fresh air. As he got outside, he heard a familiar voice call out to him.

“Hello, friend!”

He turned towards the road, and saw the wagon, its axle still held together with spokes and rope. The weathered man and red-haired girl waved to him as they rode up, their faces barely illuminated by the moon and the light coming from the tavern.

Cadmus sighed as he saw them, waving back awkwardly. “I think we’re both out of luck,” he said once they were close. “It seems all of the questgivers have already found all they needed.”

The man jumped down from the wagon after the horses came to a halt.

“No, no, friend. You misunderstand me. It seems we’re both in luck, then.”

Cadmus raised an eyebrow, confused. “What do you…“ he began.

The man extended his rough hand to him again. “It seems I never got your name before.”

Cadmus shook the man’s hand, still not piecing it together.


“Cadmus, my name is Leclerc,” the man continued, “and this is my good friend, Esprit. We are in need of some adventurers. Seeing as how you helped us in our time of need, I would be honored if you would be willing to work for us.”

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