To recruit and to scout,
To fight under fortune's boon,
To spread profit and protection,
To provide employ for those willing;
-- La Confrérie Mercenaire,
Page III, Paragraph Two,
the Mercenary Guild's mission statement
Narrator: Lehrann de Quende
I was upstairs in The Glücksritter, Quende's central outpost of the Coress Mercenary Guild, when I heard the wizard enter. With my irregular ears, I could pick up on much through the floorboards. His breathing was calm, but nervous. And his heartbeat was like none I'd ever heard. At first, I thought it was an echo. It took me a while to realize it was more than just one heartbeat.
I had no idea what he looked like, then, but I could tell that Master Halden was on edge.
While I was puzzling over this, having brought my left ear to the floor, Halden's daughter gave me a peculiar look. Of course, she wasn't hearing any of it. She leaned toward me slowly, her head ducking out with interest.
A smile slowly spread across my lips.
"A customer?" asked Maybelle.
Rising, I nodded to the Master's daughter.
"I'll miss you," she told me, "if you have to go away again, who will play with me?"
I shook my head, "Maybelle, I'm not cut out for guard duty. And there are no bandits left in the countryside. There is little for me to do here in Quende. If this stranger takes me away from all this, there's nothing but good that can come from it. I'll still visit when I can!"
Maybelle shook her head in dismay, and then continued sewing away at the doll she was mending. It was so mundane. No wonder she took an interest in someone as unusual as me. Not many people did. I am a misfit.
I put my ear back against the floor, in time to hear Master Halden turn away the stranger.
"Damn!" I swore.
Maybelle glared at me.
"I'm sorry," I told her. "He has no money."
"Good," she said, rather cross with me. "Wait..."
"What!?" I said, not amused by her futile attempts to distract me.
"Maybe he's the wizard! The one Bennoire told us about this morning! What's he sound like?" she was suddenly interested in her father's business, like never before. I knew it would pass. She always took an interest the moment things became irregular, like when the Coresska commissioned me to help deal with the Bandit Lord.
"What does it matter what he sounds like?" I said. "I can hardly tell when you keep talking."
She kept silent.
"Coinage be not the best payment one can offer! These are soldiers of fortune, and there are things in this world more valuable than coin, guildmaster!"
Maybelle was onto something. It was the wizard. His Eastongue came so fluidly from his lips that it drew breath from my own.
"You're right," I whispered to her.
Maybelle was perplexed to hear this, for she knew not whether it bode well or ill for her own sake. I then began to repeat everything I heard from below, trying to imitate their voices as best I could. But men's voices were not my forté.
"Fine," said Master Halden in his gruff, most defensive voice. He sounded ready to haggle for a higher wage, though there was no money to haggle for. "What can you offer?"
"That depends, oh guildmaster, upon the individuals in question!" said the wizard. "Do you have any magicians in your keeping?"
"Just one," said Master Halden. I knew this was a lie, for he had two. "A mere fledgling though."
When I repeated that, Maybelle snorted. It was family business, I gathered. Master Halden was not fond of magic, contrary to the talents of his eldest son. However, it was not my place to judge.
"I offer you an apprenticeship for that one," said the wizard. "He will earn as I will earn, and I will earn as his teacher."
"He?" said Master Halden. "I see magic in your eyes, but not in your actions!"
"He," said the wizard. "Your son."
I gasped, and then repeated his words for the eagerly attentive Maybelle. But after a while, she too put her ear to the floor to listen for herself.
"What has my son to do with magic? He is Captain of the Guard! Quite talented with his bow and arrow, and rather beyond your employ!" Master Halden was outraged.
"Calm yourself, guildmaster," said the wizard, working a soothing and persuasive magic with his voice. "I speak of your eldest son, not of the Captain."
Master Halden remained silent.
"I will need a literate bard, and two skilled in the fray of hand to hand combat."
"If you had done as much research about my guild as you had about my family, you would know that a fellowship of such sodality takes wealth you do not possess!" argued the guildmaster.
Then, the door swung open.
Iron-toed boots stepped in against the hardwood floor. A voice full of youth and enthusiasm spoke, "Good, I knew I'd find him here!"
"What is it, Bennoire?" asked Master Halden.
"Bennoire!" exclaimed Maybelle, peeking through a hole in the floor. I saw the look on her face and knew there was a fond affection there. I envied that, for I doubted I would ever feel such a way for anyone. A cursed misfit, after all.
"I'm in your retinue," Bennoire told Master Halden.
"Since when!?" exclaimed the guildmaster.
"Since now!" proclaimed Bennoire.
The wizard smiled.
"I take it you'll be joining this traveler's employ?" asked Master Halden.
"I have felt his magic firsthand," said Bennoire. "And... what is it they say in the west? It is only one fruit from the tree! The water's surface is not the water's depth."
Master Halden nodded, "Shall I pull out your old scroll, and add a new annotation to include your last two years of guard service?"
"Yes please. Captain Halden will clear me of duty for a year, and I will stay in communication with him," said Bennoire, the guard who relayed his experiences to Maybelle, Fonda and I earlier.
"And how, gentle-tongued traveler, will you be paying my client?" asked Master Halden.
Nothing was said for a long, slowly passing moment. I suspect that, during this time, the wizard stared into Master Halden's eyes.
"Debt," said the wizard. "I shall pay him with debt!"
"That satisfies me," said Bennoire. "If only you knew what this wizard did in the tavern this morning. I wasn't there, but it's the talk of the town!"
Then, I heard footsteps. They were Master Halden's. He walked to the base of the stairs and called up, "Lehrann! Come down at once."
"Yes, Master Halden!" I answered, getting up from the floor. I walked downstairs to see Bennoire signing a document, while the guildmaster stood back and the wizard looked at me with curious, all-encompassing eyes of empty black.
Maybelle stood behind me, and began to tremble.
"Go back upstairs, darling," Master Halden told his daughter.
She promptly obeyed, without revealing her inevitable disgust.
I was quite nervous. His reputation preceeded him. My eyes were lost in admiration of the fringe of his off-white cloak. At the top, it looked commonplace, but down below it became elegant and sophisticated in a manner rarely seen anywhere near Quende. It became silver and gray, with white stars, and sparkling holes.
A hand, soft like a newborn lamb, touched under my chin and raised my head higher. He was appraising me. And in that motion, my eyes locked with his. My body stiffened, and my stomach lurched. The black nothingness there gave way to colour that danced in and out of my perception. And then, like a fleet of fireflies, they converged brightly.
"This little girl you bring before me is not a little girl," the wizard said slowly.
"We know that," said Master Halden. "She is older than Bennoire by seven years."
"When I was eleven," I whispered calmly, "I was abducted from my parents by a group of local bandits. They killed my father and, after unspeakable acts, my mother too. Fire was set upon their farm. I, however, was unharmed. The bandits said they wanted a daughter of their own. Another said I looked too much like their chieftain's daughter who had died of the stinkcough."
"The Coresska of Quende prayed for her," recalled Master Halden, knowing it was a detail of blame I would not care to cast upon anyone.
"That night, a racheträger came and killed their watchman," I recalled sadly. "He was the first bandit that I actually liked, the first I forgave for the atrocities they committed. He took only what he needed to survive."
"Rache-träger," the wizard repeated the word. He turned to meet Halden's gaze. "Racheträger, hmm..." he said again, as if making a request of Halden. "Ah, yes, I now know the sacred evil of which you speak."
"Rumour of the racheträger reached the town guard, and through my late father they hired a Coressland Fluteblade," said Master Halden. "He was dispatched swiftly, and began to hunt the cunning beast."
"As I began to adjust to the life of a bandit; the Fluteblade, Himoeym, succeeded in tracking the offending racheträger and its kin," I continued the story. "There were six adults and a child. He succeeded in slaying four of the adults, and pursued the others deep into the northern woods of Quendlasche."
Halden interrupted me, "That was when he began to seduce the child with his enchanting music."
The wizard chuckled. It was a hearty laugh I had never imagined anyone could possess. Then he smiled at me. "Of course, he means the racheträgers' young!"
I tilted my head back and lifted my sword from its sheath. The buttons and holes glistened. All was silver and polished. Sharp. Refined. Beautiful.
"You are a Fluteblade!" exclaimed the wizard.
I put the instrument away. I hadn't brought it out to show off. To be honest, I was irritated by the notion of Himoeym's charm working on me. Had I aged alongside him, perhaps. But there was no blossoming for a heart like mine.
"I take it that you are not a naïve girl, as you first seem, because..."
"Of a racheträgen curse," I confided, lowering my head but keeping firm eye contact. "I have been an ageless oddity since the day the last of those racheträgers found their destined prey. Much to his chagrin, Himoeym chased them right into the bandits' camp. He has never forgiven himself for that accident."
I paused to swallow a gulp of well water from my flask. "The bandits were slaughtered, as they were meant to be, while Himoeym slowly brought the racheträgers themselves down one by one. Except the child.
"I have a strange memory of standing in the midst of the mayhem and carnage that happened there and then. The child stood on all fours, spikes glistening, and watched me watching him. There was an odd calmness to him, instilled by Himoeym, and it was contagious.
"The mother came, grieving the loss of her mate, and chastised her son for having not fought. She beat her young, and I drew my bronze shortsword, that the bandits had trusted me with, against the spikes of the injured mother rachträger. She roared in that battle, and from her open jaws came forth a multitude of spoken prayers in Coresstongue. I understood them not. And that was when the curse befell me.
"Himoeym and four bandits came to my aid. Though they lost a third of their number, the bandits won. They quickly dealt with her as they had her mate. Nobody touched the child. Except me. I slept through that night in its arms.
"And when all was done, Himoeym took me and the enchanted racheträger back to Quende. He sold the tamed racheträger to a foreign merchant. Then, after I had impossibly eavesdropped on his meeting with the local orphanarium, he decided against leaving me there. You see, the curse has done funny things to me. My hearing, for instance, is far better than it used to be. So, he registered me with Master Halden, and granted me an apprenticeship."
I didn't tell him the whole truth, not about the apprenticeship. All that mattered was that Master Halden knew I was as skilled as any Fluteblade, regardless of my unfinished training. Himoeym feared the loss of his rank more than anything. His loyalty was to the higher-ups. And when he realized I posed a threat, he cancelled my apprenticeship and sent me off to Quende.
"I've spent a couple years," I told him, though it was really only two years, "traveling the land with Master Himoeym, under his tutelage."
"Splendid," said the wizard. "Are you literate?"
I shook my head.
"Neither am I," said the wizard. "She has music, but she is no capable bard."
Master Halden looked down at a document. "You can hire her for combat, and to assist your bard. But I did not mean to pass her off as a bard. See, she's a wildly lithe little thing. She looks weak, and that works to her advantage."
"What can you offer me, other than the reapings of your employ?" I asked the wizard.
He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Racheträger," he muttered to himself.
"Have you got a name?" I asked him.
"Good question!" said Master Halden.
Bennoire shook his head.
"Not yet," said the wizard. "And yet, if you furnish one that seems apt, do pass it on."
I was taken aback, despite what Bennoire had told me. I didn't think he was entirely serious then. But I could tell, now, that he was.
"May I remove your curse?" he asked me.
I gaped. I stepped backwards. Then I grabbed the paper with my name at the top and signed my signature as best I could along the bottom. That, at least, I was literate enough to do.
"You may!" I bubbled with much excitement.
"Then I shall, once our party is assembled," said the wizard.
"Is that truly within your power?" asked Master Halden.
"I don't doubt it," said Bennoire.
"We shall see that it is," the wizard foretold. "Your hearing shall wane not." He turned to the guildmaster once more. "Now, that's Miss Lehrann, the younger Halden, Mister Bennoire and... a bard from your retinue?"
"Come tomorrow morning," said Master Halden as he gave his beard an absent-minded scratch. "I will have another name for you, and-" He paused, there, making the reluctance in his gut plain to see upon his face, "I will have discussed this with my eldest son."
"Very well," said the wizard. "I shall pay the inn a visit. And now, Miss Lehrann, and Mister Bennoire, please come with me. You need not gather your belongings just yet, but I would like to brief you upon the outlines of your employ. I assure you well that all is within your potential."
"Am I to be cast aside from this?" inquired Master Halden.
"I answer to the Coresska, and I reckon they would not take fancifully to your further involvement," the wizard told him.
Master Halden grimaced.
"Good day, Master Halden," I said, as I followed Bennoire out of The Glücksritter.