Narriwenn returned through the Northern gates of Ganthas just as the sun passed its midway point in the sky. She rode with her eyes closed feeling the warm sunlight caressing her face. She relished days like this when the air was cool and the sun shone brightly. There was an electrical charge in the air that made everything cleaner and fresher.
She went to the stable she liked and found the stable master. He knew her well and they had done much business together. She sold him three of the horses and kept the strongest for herself. As always, he gave her a fair price. He was a good honest merchant but could be very shrewd about giving out coin and she could’ve gotten a better price from the stables across town but she didn’t like the way they treated their animals.
She left her horse with the stable boy tossing him a coin to take care of him. He was the son of the merchant and from the looks of it, he’d grow to be like his father short and broad at the shoulders. She crossed town to her employer’s home to give him the box and collect her fee. She didn’t care about what was inside, just that the contract was met. To her, a deal was a deal and she wasn’t going to break it first. Her rate was reasonable but recently she raised her price because demand rose as her reputation increased. Even in a large port city, word got around. Many others worked her trade, some honest some not, she was honest to a fault. Once she gave her word, she kept it her word was her bond.
Her employer was a local merchant who imported and sold different items from all over. He owned two of the stalls in the market place and did well for himself. A servant opened the door and announced her arrival.
Master Franks called for her from deep inside the house. She walked through the living space noting the fine tapestries and handcrafted furniture. She found him behind a large wooden desk. The wood was dark, polished and gave the impression he was a man of power and status. He got his money’s worth. His grey hair and lined face showed his considerable age but some of his features looked elven.
“I’m glad you made it back,” he said looking up from a ledger.
Narriwenn retrieved the chest from her pack and laid it on the table before him. He reached for it but she snatched it back before he could grab it.
“First my fee,” she said.
“Yes, of course, here,” he said tossing a sack of coins on the desk in front of her.
She picked up the sack feeling its weight. “The deal was 500,” she stated, tossing it back on the table with a loud clink.
He looked up at her, noticed the blood on her clothing, and the look on her face stopped him in mid sentence.
“Ah...Yes, I must have been mistaken,” he said and counted more coins.
He held out the now full sack towards her. She took it, feeling its weight.
She smiled and started walking out. “Nice doing business with you,” she said over her shoulder.
With enough coin in her pocket to last her several weeks, she took a meandering path back to her home, walking through the market where the smell of cooking meat made her stomach protest for lack of food. She bought several skewers of cooked pork and stopped at an alchemist and friend she purchased from regularly.
“Narriwenn!” he shouted in greeting.
“You look taller today!”
Espen laughed as he stood up, “And you look more beat up than usual!”
She nodded. Even standing on a box the gnome was no taller than her chest. She guessed he was middle aged but the spectacles that sat on his large nose made his him look older. His hair, which was mostly grey and fading across his wrinkled forehead, added to the effect. He spotted the blood on her shoulder.
“What happened to your shoulder? Let me look at that!” he said jumping off the box and coming around the table. She leaned over and he examined the wound gently touching it while watching her expression.
“Ah, just a scratch, I’ve scrapped knees worse!”
“I’ve just the thing,” he said picking a small sachet from the arrayed goods on the table.
He tossed it to her, “Mix a pinch this with fresh water and wash the wound out twice a day. It’ll be fine in a few days.”
“Thanks, what do I owe you?”
“Nothing, on the house. I like seeing your pretty face, whole that is!” he said laughing.
“Thank you Master Espen of the House Tunneldigger,” she said, with an exaggerated bow.
He laughed again, “Come back and see me in the next few weeks, I will have something to promote to you.”
“Till then, old friend.”
The door to her home closed with a satisfying thud. She heated water for a bath, stripped off her bloodied gear, and cleaned and mended her armor. She sat on the edge of the tub and rubbed her sore ankle then cleaned her wounds with Espen’s wash.
Just another scar, she thought, examining the wound. The events of the battle played over in her mind as she soaked in the tub. What could I have done differently, what should’ve I done better? The bow would have been handy, she thought but she broke the old one in her last outing and the new one wasn’t finished. She made a mental note to visit the craftsman later to check his progress; she let out a deep sigh and fell asleep in the comforting heat of the water.
A couple of hours later she woke, shivering in the cold water with her fingers resembling dried prunes. She stumbled out of the tub and dressed in her most comfortable garments ready to call it a night. She brushed her hair by the window when the voices of her neighbors drifted across the way.
They were a young couple, she worked in a tavern and he was an apprentice of some sort. They laughed and giggled as they chased each other around the house, the laughter brought an unintentional smile then she looked back at her own home, empty as always. Loneliness was a feeing she knew well, her only constant companion, happiness was something for some one else.
She wished someone were in her life, but fate chose a lonely path for her. No matter, she thought, life was dangerous and cruel, loneliness felt safer. What if her mate were hurt or killed? She saw what happened to people when they learned of a mate’s death. Could she survive that? Would she want to? She slammed the window shut, her mood darkening.
Thoughts of the couple haunted her and half the night was lost to tossing and turning. Something about tonight felt different, something gnawed at her. Frustrated, she threw her covers onto the floor, dressed, strapped on her weapons and stormed out into the night slamming the door with enough force to rattle the thick panes of glass.
Frigid night air closed in around her clawing at her skin like an unwelcomed touch. She pulled her cloak tight against the wind as her steps echoed on the hard cobblestones. Pale yellow fires of the street lamps flickered like gyrating dancers, casting long shadows on the buildings. The few people out this late walked with a quick pace from one place to another, not hesitating in the cold and weary of the darkness.
Travel during the day was risky in this neighborhood but at night, it was close to suicide. Thieves and cutthroats lurked in the shadows ready to strike the unsuspecting. Movement in the alley caught her eye but she paid it little attention, they knew how to pick their victims and she wasn’t an easy one. She strolled for some time in no particular direction letting her feet find their way before deciding to get a drink at her favorite tavern.
The Crow’s Nest perched along the edge of the main dock casts a tall outline over the boardwalk below. Rumor is the owner won the old warehouse in a card game and converted it into a pub and the Crow’s Nest was his favorite position on the ship from his days at sea.
From heart of the building, noise and light spilled out into the dusty streets, through the windows, doors and cracks. The place stayed open all hours of the day and night welcoming locals and travelers alike. It was the first place shipmen headed to after a long voyage and the last place they visited before leaving again. The drink was strong and the food good and plentiful. The bar took up the first two floors and living quarters and guest rooms took up the third and fourth.
Several brothels opened around it serving the clientele who wanted a meaningful overnight relationship. Escorts and patrons stumble from one establishment to the other, a few drunken revelers bumped into her slurring apologies. A man stumbled into her. She felt quick hands searching for her purse. She grabbed his arm and wrenched it, tossing him to the ground as her dagger sprang from its sheath.
“Please, Slayer! Spare me!” the man shrieked in terror, shielding himself with his arms, his drunkenness vanishing as quickly as her dagger met his throat. Her blade flashed in the light and a thin red line crossed his cheek. The thief flinched but was too terrified to speak.
She pulled him off the ground by his hair, “You’d do well to get out of my sight, thief.” He nodded, fear and understanding in his eyes. A few patrons stood watching from a safe distance. She pushed him away and watched as he fled into the darkness. Moments later the scene was as quiet as it was before, just as if nothing happened.
Mixed conversations floated past as she walked up the front steps, a few people stared at her but kept their distance. With a heave, she pulled open the heavy wooden door. The place was very busy. The tavern owner served drinks behind the bar with the deftness of a swordsman and glanced up at her when she entered. A look of recognition flickered in his eyes but little else crossed the leathery face. His hair was long gone and his stomach grew wider with each season but he was still strong as a bull and could easily toss out rowdy drunks. At one table sat half a dozen men with identical uniforms drinking and laughing. They wore the insignia of the Zastamonu Imperial Common Fleet, the combined military power of all the nations on this continent. With a truce between the nations, war was a fleeting memory, pirates and smugglers were the only enemy and the sailors were now known more for their drinking than their fighting. This was a reputation they upheld regularly.
She spotted a small table in the far corner near the bar. She stalked across the worn wooden floor, noting that the crowd tonight consisted of more shipmen and travelers than locals. A splash of red caught her attention and she turned to see a Sleeper Priestess sitting at a table by herself. She was young and attractive there was something familiar about her that made her stare. Sensing her stare the priestess looked up from her drink and she smiled. Narriwenn smiled back and gave her a slight nod as she made her way to the table. She sat down and could still see the back of the priestess. A barmaid came, took her usual order of ale and stew and disappeared into the back. Sitting so close to the bar, she overheard part of a conversation between a patron and the owner.
“She comes here often?”
“The good lookin' elf woman sitting in the corner”
“Aye, she's a regular.”
“She always alone?”
“Aye, if ya looking for a strong blade she be the one to talk to, but stranger if ya lookin' for company, I hear she prefers the company of women-folk. If you know what I'm meanin'.”
He nodded and went back to his drink. Narriwenn smiled to herself and looked up to see a hooded figure standing at her table. She recognized him immediately. “Zaraphin, welcome!” she said to the figure.
He nodded and took a seat, his quick smile replaced by a grave look on his face.
“You don’t show up unless there’s trouble.”
He laughed, nodding, “How true.”
“What’s going on? I see more of the fleet these days.”
“The rumors of war, you’ve heard?”
“Yeah, but those are always floating around.”
“But this is true, the Dwarves are stirred up and something darker is happening.”
“What do you mean?”
“Haven’t you noticed? Look around, you can see it in their faces. They’re uncomfortable and scared but they don’t know of what.”
She looked around the room, “I didn’t notice.”
“Trust me; my sources say that something is happening in the Isles of Al Kun.”
“Like what?” she asked, leaning in.
“A few months a go, a merchant ship got off course in a storm and ran aground on the southern most isle. A number of them survived,” he looked around. “They saw men in strange colored armor.”
“What does it mean?”
“The armored men slaughtered a number of the sailors but one got away on a makeshift raft. He made it to the shipping lanes and a passing merchant picked him up.”
“Do you believe the story?”
“I wouldn’t have, but he brought back this,” he slid an object across to her.
She took in and unwrapped it in her lap. It was a piece of a gauntlet made of red metal.
A curious look crossed her face, “Is this real?”
“But it’s too light to be armor, what’s it made of?”
“I don’t know, I’ve shown it to several master armorers and they think it’s magical-”
“But it doesn’t radiate magic.”
“They say it’s as strong as the finest armor but light. Bang it on the table,” he said.
“Knock it on the table.”
She rapped it on the table and a confused look crossed her face. It barely made a sound. She did it again but harder and still the metal barely made a sound.
“An army dressed in this could walk up to a fort and strike before anyone even knew what happened.”
He nodded gravely, “and we know nothing of them.”
Rowdy laughter interrupted their conversation. They turned to see a card game at one of the larger tables, all with stern faces and staring blankly at their cards. She recognized one of the men playing. He was a successful local gambler and from the stack of coins in front of him, tonight was no different. Every time he won, he bought a new round of drinks for the players. How can you hate losing to a guy like that?She mused.
She turned back to find Zaraphin standing from the table.
“I’ll be in touch, be ready,” he said.
He disappeared out the door just as her food came and her stomach reminded her with a loud grumble she that was starved.
A sudden scuffling of chairs and raised voices caught her attention. She looked up to see three men standing by the Priestess’s table. She couldn’t hear them but figured they were making some lewd proposal. The tavern owner rushed over with two of his bouncers and threw them out. They cursed at the priestess and the owner but they eventually left.
Having enough local life, the priestess paid her bill and left the tavern. Narriwenn, more curious than concerned, tossed some coins on the table and followed her out a moment later.
Outside the bar, her breath formed clouds of steam in the cold night air. She scanned the shadows and listened for her prey. She heard men laughing from the northern corner of the tavern, the three men from the bar surrounded the girl and took turns grabbing at her breast and pulling at her cloak. She pushed them back and held them at bay with her dagger. Her eyes, wide with panic. A thin line of blood rolled from her mouth.
“Hey is it true those tattoos go all over your pretty body?” one said pulling at her cloak.
“Step away from her!” she yelled in challenge, her voice echoing off the brick walls.
“You best be off whore or you'll get what's coming to ya!”
“You man enough to give it to me?” she taunted him.
He snarled and his partners turned with him. One grabbed the priestess and shoved her into the side of the building knocking the wind out of her.
The thief closest to Narriwenn rushed forward and lunged at her with a dagger, she side stepped the awkward attack and landed the pommel of her blade on the back of his skull with a satisfying crunch, he sprawled to the dirt.
The remaining two attackers spread out trying to circle her, quick sidesteps slowed their advance. The smaller one attacked first and she parried his blade and riposte causing him to loose his footing. The second man tried to grab her but she kept out of his reach. Regaining his footing, the drunk feinted and slashed at her. In reply, she feigned her own attack then slashed his thigh to the bone. He cried out in pain as she moved to follow through. She miscalculated the attack the second assailant grabbed her from behind but the desperate move left her arms free.
She locked her foot around his leg blocking his attempt to pick her up. The wounded man attacked and slashed at her but his leg slowed him down and she landed a well aimed kick that snapped his head back knocking him to the ground. She reversed the grip of her weapon and stabbed at the leg of the man holding her.
She struggled with him as he attempted to squeeze the breath out of her. Suddenly his grip slackened and his strength faded. He dropped her to the ground and she turned around ready for the next attack.
Behind him stood the priestess, her blade covered in blood, a look of shock across her young face. Narriwenn had seen this look before, the face of many of her guild in their first kill. She looked around for the city guard who were surely coming. She grabbed the remaining man by the hair, exposing his throat to her blade, he shrieked.
“St…stop please!” the priestess said, her voice small and lost.
Narriwenn paused and looked at her. “She saved your life,” she whispered. “Don’t let it be a mistake.” He nodded and she let him go. She grabbed her hand and hauled her away into the night.