Archives: A New Balance
Chapter 9: Camp on the Raiden Road
Anisa had long since cooled off as the sun began to set. Guess wed better be pitchin camp, eh? Anisa said to the group, knowing that near by there was a good campsite. Honto wasnt too far away, but to reach it, theyd have to ride at night. Anisa was a little saddle sore and more than anxious to be on her own two feet again.
The half-elf turned her horse sharply off the road, causing her horse to toss its head in discomfort of the rough tug on its bridle. I know a spot down ere, Anisa said, waving for the mercenaries to follow her. Anisa rode it into the woods, following what appeared to be a deer trail.
Sounds good to me, Toan said in agreement, and gently directed his horse to follow after Anisa.
Anisa led them to a small clearing in the woods, which showed all the signs of a used campsite. The ground was cleared of rocks and twigs, there was a fire pit, and a little garbage strewn about from people throwing away useless items. The half-elf dismounted as her horse was still walking, leaving the creature to stare at her curiously before it wandered to a patch of grass at the perimeter. ere we be! Anisa announced.
* * *
After few moments the sounds of a mounted rider could be heard approaching, the horse and rider when they finally were visible the level of noise was apparent. As Ultarik approached the group he dismounted and looked at them as if he was appraising them, probably just to make sure they were not enemies.
Are you headed to Raiden or anywhere nearby? If you are, would you be willing to allow me to travel with you? I am Ultarik Grimeye, who are you? He then waited for an answer, ready to defend himself in case of attack. The roads at night were dangerous for many, though he often had no trouble from bandits or their ilk.
The party had barely gotten settled in since riding into the camp, so far they had only just dismounted. Anisa looked back at the newcomer, her half-elven ears perked upward in surprise. It seemed he was just another traveler. An imposing one, but a traveler just the same. Im afraid we be leavin Raiden, Anisa replied with a salty lilt to a beautiful elven voice. Yer welcome te share the camp. I be Anisa Amri.
Granite watched the man curiously, but it seemed Anisa had taken the lead, so she was the first to welcome him. The female dwarf?hough apparently male with the way she dressedturned to the fire pit and moved some half-burnt logs left behind by previous campers to the center of the pit.
Ultarik nodded as he replied, perhaps they could use the extra help. He never knew, he had to find out about them. Leaving Raiden, I see. Good to meet you, Anisa. I was heading to the Mercenaries Guild to see if there was some work posted, I would be happy to share your groups company. Perhaps you could tell me if there is any current news locally, I cannot read anything that is posted up anywhere. He looked to his horse as he tied off the reins to a sturdy branch, after that he helped gather some wood for the fire from the ground around him and piled it near the pit.
Anisa watched as Ultarik went to work for them. Well, we found a job, the half-elf said. We aint employed yet, were on the road to find the guy who wants to pay us. She wasnt sure just how much to tell him, that was just one more way to split the rewards. But, the message was probably still up at the Guild, so more mercenaries were bound to find it. Besides, the employer did say he was looking for the bravest, maybe that would weed out any who werent strong enough to handle the quest. Anisa glanced to her companions to see if they had anything to add.
Ultarik listened to her as he gathered wood, maybe she could tell him what he would have to have read to him. Can you tell me about it, I have to have another read the jobs to me. I cant read, and a warrior has no need for books. Just their blade and skill, but then I usually work with others as some things I cannot do. He then carried on working and looked at the others, they by now could figure out he was probably from an area where that was not really important. Maybe he should tell them some more, so they knew enough about him. Im from the barbarian tribes of Marmo, how I wound up here is another story.
Havent you ever heard the saying Force without wisdom is useless? A warrior should have just as much use for books as a mage, Fenix said flatly, cocking his head slightly to the side at the end. Of coarse, if he couldnt read, he could always find some way to get any part of the share through slick dealings and legal theft. The whole thing has to deal with dangerous and likely powerful ancient magics. Leaning back, he yawned. Ill leave taking this guy along up to you guys. I would prefer a mage going along with us, but I suppose a barbarian could be useful.
Ultarik replied with a hint of understanding, maybe this man was right, but then he would not admit to much himself. Though learning to read would not hurt, maybe to also write beyond his signature. My people had no use for them, if they are of use then maybe I am wrong. We relied on tales handed down from generation to generation, if reading is so important maybe then I should learn. He took a note from what was said into consideration, but then he was a warrior and still he tried to resist the notion books were still important. Magic was something he had seen little of and for the most part for evil uses, he also had seen good uses. Magic is not part of my peoples culture, for all I know it could be used for one of two reasons. To help those in need, or to hurt those already suffering...
ey, ye got two shammys, Anisa told Fenix. We be just as good as any sorcerer, right Toan?
Without waiting for a response from Toan, Anisa looked to Ultarik. I bet readin and writin aint got no use fer yer people if ye never leave yer homelands, but for the rest o the world, tis importent to be knowin. It be a skill thatll take ye further than just swingin a sword. Anisa was taught to read as a child, unique for a pirate. Most of the crew was illiterate, except of course, the highest ranking officers. Her mother made certain Anisa knew the written common tongue. Reading was an advantage.
Toan nodded at the mention of his name and hurried to do whatever he could to make himself useful.
So it seems, I need to learn that now then. Perhaps traveling with others who can read would help, if that is possible to teach me how to read. Ultarik then sat down by the fire and rested his weapons on his lap, he had seen enough of the main island to know this much. He had just skimmed over much of it since he had companions, maybe he should not ignore it.
Granite only listened to the conversation with the stranger as she prepared the fire. She didnt want to talk much, she thought her man voice wasnt genuine enough, not to mention it made her throat hurt.
With the arrival of Ultarik, it made the situation just that much harder. She meant to inform everyone that she was really a woman, but the longer she carried out her fa?de, the harder it would be. Now everyone was focused on Ultarik, and if she brought it up, the situation would be a surprise to her party members.
Oh, quit making up excuses Granite! her mind chastised. You are a proud woman. Just because these people dont like beards on their women doesnt mean they cant accept you! Its not like you should care what they think, youre not interested in any giants or scrawny elf-boys, and you wouldnt want them to be interested in you.
So, with that pep talk in her mind, Granite decided that she would just let everyone know that she wasnt Velfur in the most abrupt way at the moment.
Speaking in her normal voice, a full alto and quite feminine, the dwarven womanwho was dressed in a rather gender-neutral garbsmiled warmly across at Ultarik and introduced herself, Im Granite Stoneheart.
Huh? Toan was somewhat knowledgeable about dwarves, and to him that sounded like a girls name. Being not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it came to gender, gender confusion, sexuality, and so forth, he blinked twice and did a double-glance.
Anisa started to unpack and unsaddle her horse after Ultarik settled by the fire. As she worked, rather roughly in the opinion of her horse, she heard something that caused her half-elven ears to nearly stand up in surprise. She thought it was another stranger, but when she looked back, it was obvious Velfur had said. Velfur was no man, nor Velfur, but a woman named Granite!
Anisa turned around, confused. When she first met Velfur, or Granite, she knew he, or she, had something to hide. But, now that Anisa knew what it was, it didnt make much sense. Why would she lie about her gender? Why did she have a beard? Was it false?
Anisa, of course, knew little more about dwarves than the fact that they loved to work with their hands and were the most renowned metal smiths in Lodoss. The men always had beards. But women? It had to be fake.
Umm... Anisa groaned first, trying to sort the situation out. Yer...a woman?
Glancing over at Granite, Fenix cocked his head to the side, scratched his head, then squinted, as if trying to read extremely fine print. The beard, and the garb, threw him way off in this case. If it wasnt for that voice, even as a man it had been high pitched, he would have thought that the dwarf was either drunk or jesting. Finally, apparently deciding what she said was true, he spoke. May Falaris blind me, so you are. So, why the game of gender swap?
Ultarik looked like he was surprised, seeing the dwarf was a woman he chuckled. This was indeed a varied group, he could easily appreciate why she would hide her real identity. Doesnt surprise me, Marmo is a place that has always been different than most of Lodoss. Good to meet ya Granite, Im sure they were not expecting this. He then watched as the fire burned and looked back to his horse, he was not even paying attention chewing on a patch of grass that was in reach. This was going to be a very interesting journey, perhaps it would also be his most memorable.
Granites cheeks turned beet red with the reaction she received, but it wasnt as bad as she expected. Well, most humans make such a big deal over dwarven women and our beards, usually its just easier for us to not deal with them, or let them think were men. I was worried that if any humans knew I was a woman, they wouldnt want to travel with me. I figured Id tell everyone after we left Raiden, so you couldnt leave me behind in the city, the dwarf explained.
Fenix, or Brahms, shook his head slightly and sighed. This woman was either really mistrustful, or really blas? Either way, it wasnt his place to judge. After all, he had fraudulently gained access to the mercenaries guild. Well, theres really no difference. We could leave you out in the wilds as easily as we could have in the city. Me, I dont care if your male or female as long as you can fight, forge weapons, or are especially skillful in another useful trade.
Anisa raised her eyebrow as Granite explained her reasons. Honestly mate, I dun be givin a damn whether yer man nor woman. I don think any of us do, Anisa replied to the dwarf. However, this now brought her to consider Granites worth the party. Could they count on her? It sounded as if shed never left home before. If she were left behind, it had nothing to do with her appearance.
Oh... Granite simply said in response to Anisa and Brahms, her cheeks as red as ripe apples. She made a fool out of herself; working her anxiety up over something they didnt really care about at all. The dwarf wondered what sort of perception theyd gained of hernot because of her identity, but for hiding it for such trivial reasons.
Well, Im a goldsmith by trade, but I can repair weapons and armor; my parents specialize in them, so thats how I first learned about metal crafts, Granite said, hoping to assure them that she was still useful, even if they had a low opinion of her bravery.
Ultarik listened as everybody spoke. Granites confession was brave of her and earned her a lot of credit in his mind. Dwarves were respectable in his mind, considering they were excellent with metalworking, but they were also worthy drinking partners. Fighting and forging weapons are valuable skills; one never knows when their weapon will give out or be lost. Granite, you have my trust for this revelation, not knowing what would come of it, though I trust my ax like I trust my family.
Hey, Toan said and smiled kindly at her, trying to repair whatever damage was done by his reaction a moment ago. You know, I have a lot of dwarf friends! So its no big deal. Ill have to remember that youre a goldsmith. Im in the business of treasure retrieval after all, and things sell much higher if theyre fixed up.
Ultarik then sat back and sighed, the memory of the dark elf that he followed here sat in the back of his mind. She had been beautiful and when she died. He was angry. Many died that day and now she was buried somewhere near Raiden which was his destination. Excuse me a moment, I have somebody I need to visit. Its why I was heading out this way, I should be an hour or two... He then stood up and headed southwest of the camp, he seemed to not show much emotion in this but it was obviously something important to him.
Well, as you can see my weapon is oak, so I doubt Ill use your services to often, Granite, Fenix said in a matter of fact tone, then looked at Ultarik with an incredulous look. Oh for the love of Cha Za! Dont go to far, I doubt any of us will wait for to long. After all, the less in our party, the less we have to split the reward, he said, a bit annoyed with this. The longer they waited, the more likely someone else would beat them to the proverbial punch. And in the sword for hire line of work, second place was the same as last place. Looking at Toan, he chuckled lightly. Treasure hunting eh? I would imagine with all those ruins about thats a lucrative, but dangerous business.
Granite grinned behind her well-trimmed beard as Toan assured her how helpful she could be. Things werent nearly as uncomfortable as she had expected, and by now she was feeling pretty damn foolish for pretending to be someone else.
As Ultarik left, Granite took some biscuits and jerky from her pack and began to eat. Cooking wasnt really necessary, and it wasnt likely that anyone any fresh meat or food that needed to be cooked. She wasnt too concerned with where Ultarik was going for two hours, he seemed like a nice enough guy, and he was here on his own business. Granite just leaned back, relaxed and munched on her biscuit.
* * *
Ultarik reached the lonely grave that sat amongst the forest, sitting down he looked at the sword that was its only marker. Along the way hed found some wildflowers, setting them down he watched and the talked to air as if she were able to hear him.
Ive been fine, its still not the same without you. If I could turn back time I would still have you, I miss you after all this time and I carry on in your memory. Kayali, Im going on another job here and Ill bring you back something nice to add to your collection. I just had to come back and rest aside all that remains...
He then laid back and his thoughts wandered from now to their days, and also what she had done to change his life. She had died here and now this was her final home, if only he could change the past.
Ultarik was soon aware of a presence near his beloveds grave site. In the shadows of nearby trees, a tall blonde man swathed in a black cloak came into view. He wore a heavy circlet on his brow that was reminiscent of a face, strange adornment for a man. He was obviously a sorcerer, but he was more masculine than most, and his movements were vaguely feminine.
A human and a dark elf. Commonly, its the former that passes on first, the man spoke, his voice was deep, but eloquent.
Ultarik noticed this newcomer rather quickly, looking at them warily he scanned them up and down. He was skeptical of sorcerers still but he had seen enough to not be completely mistrustful.
Usually it is unless your a mercenary, you just passing through or do you have business with me? I dont ever recall one like you, you seem so different than the other magic using weavers I have dealt with.
Their demeanor and movement came across as odd, about as odd as that jewelry on their head. He was going to have to be careful around this one, last one he had helped was trustworthy but not all hold the same ideals. Perhaps this one was just as honest or trustworthy, he would however require a small token of faith from them before anything as well. He was now sitting beside the grave and looking at the stranger, he was now waiting for him to make his move. Your move, speak your mind.
Your companions, I dont believe they told you of their mission? No doubt they want to try and keep the reward for themselves, the sorcerer spoke. Taking a rolled parchment from within the darkness of his cloak, he unrolled it and began to read. The wizard Kaladron seeks stout hearted adventurers for an urgent mission. Though it be a difficult and dangerous journey, so only the bravest should apply! Be assured the reward offered is a vast fortune to most, but the risk could be fatal. All such interested parties should seek out Kaladron, in his stone tower, just north of the Forest of Mirrors, and east of the mountains. Apply soon, for wasted time will be an enemy to this quest.
The sorcerer rolled up the scroll, aware of the fact Ultarik could not read. This is the mission they took. I made certain that only those with enough will and might could read it, however, there is the chance that some of them heard about the mission second hand. I must make certain they indeed fit the standards and are worthy of the cause I need them for. I would request your assistance in proving their might. I will reward you for that alone, the wizard, who Ultarik could now assume was named Kaladron, glanced obviously toward the grave of the dark elf. But I would think that your heart yearns for something more than riches of gold and gems...
Ultarik listened to the job and what the man had to say, he was right and he did yearn for more than mere gold and gems. What he yearned for he could not have, but perhaps this mysterious stranger had more to offer.
Gold and gems are good to have, but what I yearn for is something I lost years ago. I yearn for love again, but for only one woman who lies in this grave. What will you give me if I help you, what is it you can offer me that can give me what I yearn?
He looked at the man with a look of less mistrust and now one of more curiosity, for one such as him he would have not considered such offers in the past. Though now he was listening, considering they did not know him at all.
The means to resurrect your love are within my grasps, the wizard replied with a smirk. The Kastuulian items for resurrection, the Soul Crystal Ball and Staff of Life, were widely believed to be the way to bring anyone back from the dead, and they were shattered during Kardis Resurrection. However, Karla knew of other ways, granted they took longer and required more mana, but she could accomplish it far easier than the whelps of wizards of this day. All I ask is for your aid in testing these mercenaries, and your silence, he added, punctuating the last comment with a sharpness to his voice.
Ultarik listened to the man and the reward was worth it, for what he would gain the job and silence was worth it. This was acceptable to him, and this sorcerer was obviously trustworthy.
You have my help and silence, and I shall do as you require until the job is done. We have a deal, my love returned to my arms in exchange for helping you and my silence.
Karla smirked. The man was easy enough to convince. Taking another scroll from within her/his robes, Karla passed it to Ultarik. Follow the path I have laid out in this map, tell them its a shortcut. If you veer off the path or become lost, watch for a raven to guide you back, the wizard explained. Return to your party. I will gather your beloveds remains.
Ultarik took the scroll and looked at the map, he would have to keep the scroll from them. He would have what he wanted in the most, sometimes the risk one had to take was well worth the reward.
I will ensure they follow this path, but I will not let them see the map either... Until they must be challenged again, I take my leave and return to their company.
He then headed back to the encampment studying the map, sometimes the best shortcuts were often quite dangerous and risky. Though they would not know the little game he was now involved in. Tucking the scroll away before he got within sight of the camp he carried on.
* * *
While the barbarian was gone, meals of rations and whatever the mercenaries carried was eaten, and most had turned in to sleep. Anisa volunteered for first watch, and the half-elf now sat in a tree above the campsite waiting for Ultarik to return.
Returning to the camp almost two hours later he stood by his horse and rubbed its neck, he seemed kinda quiet now and almost like he was looking a little calmer than before.
I found a shortcut to the destination, it can make the trip there a lot shorter. I had some personal business to attend to, as well as scouting out the area. I know the path well enough to guide you down it, thats what took me so long, he spoke after sitting by the fire and staring into it, one day he would see her again in death or life. looking up after that he looked around to get a general idea of their reaction, if they were serious about this job they would listen to him as he seemed very serious about it.
A shortcut through the Wildlands? That can be dangerous, Anisa said from her perch above the camp. Not that I be carin, facin death only makes life worth livin.
Toan was a light sleeper, and awoke when he heard Ultarik return. His ears flicked at the sound of him approaching. Im sure we can handle a trip like that with our combined skills, he added to what Anisa said.
Ultarik nodded and rolled the map back up before putting it in his pack, this would be fun indeed and he would have to be on his toes. Ill show you the map in the morrow then, for now Im going to rest up. I need to save my strength for the trip, goodnight. He then rolled out his sleeping material and fell asleep by the fire, somewhat more peacefully now that he had a deal.
* * *
Alm sat on a stump pondering his next target when his nose caught the faint scent of a campfire. Immediately his mind clicked from food to the thought of heavenly women cooking. Figuring it was better than eating dried rations, Alm snuck through the underbrush and made his way towards the smell. His conscience stopped him moments before arrival at the camp. Alm, this isnt a wise idea. Going into a camp the way we are? Youll just raise unneeded questions. The best bet is to draw pity from the people so they wont throw you out on your ass.
Alm nodded to the suggestion and tore his shirt, then grabbing a stick, Alm put it into his mouth and bit down. Take one for the home team... He drew his rapier and cut into his arm and side. This better work, or Im never taking your advice again.... Alm threatened. As the pain subsided Alm spat out the stick and sheathed his rapier.
He crawled into the clearing, using his good arm to gain the most amount of ground. Crying still from the pain, Alm began his act.
Mommy... He whimpered. Wheres my mommy? Looking around his eyes stopped on the dwarven female. He blanched. What the hell is that thing? Help me please...Ive lost my way and my mommy...wheres my mommy? He bites down hard on his tongue to start the waterworks and just bawls there in the dirt.
Anisa saw the boyat least she assumed he was a childwander into their camp from her seat in the tree. He looked like a grubby little elf child, and was wounded. Anisa wasnt exactly the most caring or maternal woman, but even she couldnt help but feel concerned for the kid.
Slipping down from the tree slowly, so as not to startle the child, the exotic half-elf strode to Alms side and knelt beside him. ey kid, what happened to ye? she asked in her strange combination of a musical elven voice and a pirate lilt.
looked up upon the woman who talked. Too easy... his perverted conscience stated. Following my advice made the yield that much easier to reap. Now youve got to think of an excuse.
I...I got injured, he stammered. Umm...Im dead arent I? I didnt think goddesses came to visit us lowly mortals... Alm pressed his wounded side into the ground, winced, and then pretended to pass out. This should make it so she comes and tries to nurse me back to health. Oh Alm, you devil you, youve really topped the cake this time. Now just dont mess it up or well be dragged behind horses at a full gallop... his mind continued to spill out the details of his twisted and dark imagination of the worst case scenario, but alas, poor Alm, so much like the wind, couldnt sit still to listen to it all and rose to his feet.
Oh? What am I doing here? he asked rubbing his head. He sat down and began to chew on his already half-eaten rations. Smooth, idiot...you just ruined the entire plan... Thus is the tragedy of Alm, with his five-second attention span.
Anisa chuckled, it was the second time shed heard such a line today. Ye be soundin like Brahms, kid. As the boy wandered off, Anisa stood up and observed as he so casually sat down and began eating. The half-elf crossed her arms over her chest, feeling rather confused. The last thing she felt like doing tonight was being a good Samaritan and finding whoever hurt this kid, but for the fact that he was now suddenly being so casual, she doubted that he was even attacked. Perhaps he was just a thief, looking for a safe place for the night and maybe to lift a few coins. She hadnt even considered that he were a grassrunner from the fact that he acted like a child.
So...ah...what exactly happened to ye? Anisa asked, sounding suspicious with her eye brow raised and arms still crossed over her chest.
Alm grinned wildly. I cant remember. The last thing I remember is smelling wood burning so I came to investigate. He shrugged. Other than that, my memory tends to fail me.
He stood up and winced. Wow, I really am hurt. He poked at his wounds nonchalantly, and stumbled over near the fire. Im Alm, by the way. You seem like a nice enough girl, so I dont mind telling you my name. I dont have much in the way of coins, so Ill work to pay off my debt to your hospitality. Youre an elf right? Im related to elves, though kind of distantly. He yawned. So whos this Brahms guy, and what is he to you? Is he your boyfriend? Are you married? Would you like to be? He pointed at the dwarf. Who is that? What is that? Alm closed his eyes and lay back on his hands. What is left to do once the world crumbles to ash, is it not the fallen who are to blame. Souls of fallen, dead reborn, to hell with life and game. he laughed lightly and looked to the elf. What say you?
Anisa paused, stared blankly at Alm after his barrage of questions. Instead of wasting her breath trying to answer all of them, Anisa finally replied. I say it be time for ye to go to sleep. Ye ken stay ere for the night, but well find yer folks in the morn.
All of the talking roused Granite and the dwarven woman sat up in her bedding to see what was going on. Most of the camp was still asleep, but Anisa was talking to what looked to be an elf child or grassrunner. From the conversation she woke to, he sounded enough like an adult to be the latter, but he was dressed like a ragged little street urchin. It was hard to tell a little elf from a grassruner anyway.
Granite rose from her bed and stumbled over to the boy. With her long black hair down and without her armor to hide her shape, Granite looked quite feminineapart from the beard, of course.
Are you alright? she asked, kneeling by Alm to examine his wound.
Yeah, Im fine, but thanks for your concern. Alm smiled at the dwarf. Actually, youre kinda pretty if you look past the unneeded facial hair. Im Alm. Alm thrusts out his little hand. Dont worry about the wounds, theyre only flesh wounds, Ill sleep on them, and theyll eventually heal. This isnt the first time Ive woken up with wounds like this. He sighed deeply and looked up into the night sky. The night is always my favorite part of the day. During the night, the sins of the day are washed away in the tide of darkness. What are you anyways? Im kind of new to the area, and my memory is almost always foggy when it comes to these sort of things. The elf girl said I could stay here for the night, but... he laughed softly. Sorry, I cant remember my parents. Its kind of like having two lives. The life I remember is when Im awake and the life I dont remember is in my dreams. Have you ever heard something so silly before?
Granite was a little frustrated by Alms way of talking. He didnt give her a chance to reply before moving onto another subject. So, Granite decided to take the simpler questions. Well, Im a dwarf. My name is Granite, what did you say yours was?
My name is Alm. He sighed. So you are a dwarf? He shrugged. Sounds good. His mind danced around trying to grasp a single coherent thought but nothing came to the surface. Have you been traveling long? He paused waiting for an answer, wiggling his toes near the fire. What is wrong with you Alm? Shes of the opposite sex, pull yourself together. Alm ignored his minds urgings and lay back, staring up at the night sky.
With Granite taking Alms attention, Anisa took the chance to slip away and climb back up into her tree to continue her watch. She didnt trust Alms story, and she never liked kids much anyway. The half-elf settled onto a thick branch and watched the camp from above, peering through the foliage.
Oh, I just left home today as a matter of fact, Granite replied, then her jaws cracked with a large yawn, which she covered with her hand. You should really get some rest. We can talk more in the morning, alright? I can give you a blanket if youd like.
Thank you kindly. Alm responded in kind. My clothing doesnt help to fend the chill off that well. He yawned as well as his eyes began to droop. Not another word was issued from little Alm for he was already fast asleep, dead to the world around him.
Granite left Alm to fetch a blanket for him, and when she returned, he was already asleep. The dwarven woman covered him up and fashioned a pillow from the blanket that was large enough to cover four Alms. She tucked him in just like a loving mother before she returned to bed.
It didnt take long for Granite to fall back to sleep, leaving Anisa to watch over the camp.