Chapter One: A Friend In Need
The planks of the Dekatris groaned with the sudden change in temperature. Meanwhile its crew bustled about tying down crates and securing ropes, shouting through the winds. A storm was coming in. Rotten luck, most of the crew thought. On the order of their captain, they had worked themselves to exhaustion, nearly breaking the record for the journey from Korr to Krendal, only to be snagged by a storm they almost certainly would have avoided had they not rushed. Already they felt the cold Krendal breeze coming in, and their breath was beginning to linger in the air. Rotten luck. Krendal storms were icy this time of year, and you were just as likely to die of hypothermia on board as you were in the frigid waters. Not for the first time, the crew members glared at the person of interest on board- the sole reason their captain had pushed them headlong into the mess they were in. His name was Torrin, and aside from that, his habit of lounging on the bridge, and his obvious size, none of the crew knew anything about him. Their “guest” had stood nearly one and half times as tall as any of them, and any two of them standing shoulder to shoulder were still not quite as wide as he was. But he had not lifted a finger or offered aid when it came to lifting or rowing, he merely sat there and muttered prayers while they toiled. Many of the crew believed him to be a wanted dignitary of some sort, hiding within stilted and padded armor to ward off trouble and suspicion. A few of the crew even swore they had heard him clink whenever he walked around the ship, and while his enigma had been a welcomed pass time, now they resented him for it. None of them even knew what he looked like. It bothered them to no end that he always wore such long, baggy, robes which hung off his massive body and pooled into wrinkled puddles on the wooden deck. It bothered them even more that his hood covered his face completely, and that he made no effort to remedy this, seemingly able to see through the gray-white material. But if Torrin noticed the glares, he paid them no attention. His mind was elsewhere at present. He hadn't even registered the crew acting any busier than usual and this was somewhat unusual for one as observant as he was. Simply put, he was troubled. From the moment the Dekatris had entered Krendalian waters he had felt uneasy. An ineffable weight had begun pressing on his powerful shoulders, and he could not place his finger on the feeling. It was familiar, in a way, this subtle dread looming over him. He had been summoned to Krendal for tragic reasons, but the loss of a friend was not cause for-apprehension? Yes, that was it. What reason was there for him to be nervous? It occurred to him that the temperature had dropped significantly when he saw the steam coming off his body, something that did not go unnoticed by the ship's, currently shivering, crew.
“I run rather hot.” Torrin explained to the disbelieving stares. His voice was gravelly, but even sounding. The kind of sound you would expect from someone of his size.
They felt the first few drops of rain then, and grumbled in complaint as it was promptly replaced by sleet and accompanied by harsh winds. Thicker and thicker sheets of icy rain began hammering the Dekatris, eventually forcing Captain Laurence to call for the anchor to be dropped. With visibility this terrible, and with the storm showing no sign of letting up, their best hope was to wait it out. Amidst the cacophonous rattling of rain on wooden planks, Torrin stood up and approached Laurence.
“How far out are we from the mainland, Captain?”
Laurence looked puzzled by the question before answering.
“Abou' three days, guardian, why?”
Torrin's shoulders slumped slightly, indicating a sigh.
“Captain, this storm is not nat-”
He was interrupted by the crashing sound of splintering wood nearby. The crew ran to the source of the sound and discovered a chunk of ice the circumference of a large apple.
“Take cover.” Torrin bellowed.
The ship was now being pelted by abnormally large hail while the crew made a mad dash below deck. The guardian ripped a crate from its ties and lifted it over his head, not realizing Laurence had taken cover behind him. Torrin's gauntleted fingertips entrenched themselves into the soft pine, insuring a secure grip. There were thunderous thumping and crashing noises coming from around the ship now, many from directly above Torrin's head as his makeshift shield did its job. Every chunk of hail rattled the crate, but his arms were sturdier than iron. Moments later, the hail and rain had stopped, but a fog had settled in.
The guardian dropped the crate with a dull crash and surveyed the area. Three of the men hadn't made it to safety, one currently lay bleeding from his head on the broken planks of the deck. At a glance he knew he couldn't help them so he focused on protecting who was left. His eyes, keener than most, could see beyond the fog, and the cloud cover. The “storm” only extended three hundred yards beyond the ship in any direction. This was no act of nature, they were under attack. A flicker of a shadow flew past the corner of his eye. Another flicker, this time from the left. Another and another. What are you? He thought.
There came an ominous series of cracking noises from around them, followed by a violent rocking of the ship. Torrin rushed to look over the ship's starboard side and openly swore. The ocean water was beginning to freeze from right underneath them. The planks continued rumbling and groaning before stopping just as suddenly as they started. The Dekatris no longer rocked or swayed because there was nothing to rock or sway on. They were stuck.
The flicker made itself known to them then, careening through the ship's mast and plowing through the remainder of the deck. Splintered wooden shrapnel flew in all directions, injuring many of the remaining crew. A veritable blizzard surrounded the creature so that all save Torrin saw only a mass of whirling ice and snow. Guttural barks sounded from the blizzard and Torrin responded by throwing his robes to the wind.
Captain Laurence had known what Torrin really was, but knowing and seeing a Draconian are two entirely separate matters. The ochre colored scales that were his skin looked nearly luminescent against the stormy back drop, but it was the way he moved that truly startled Laurence. He could see the sinewy muscles bulge as Torrin reached behind his back and unslung his over-sized axe and shield. His clawed feet and three fingered hands looked entirely alien to Laurence and yet seemed completely natural on the guardian. No longer needing to hunch, Torrin stood a proud two and a half meters tall, dressed in gleaming plate mail and sporting the white-gold symbol of his church. He was a sight for all present, all save the beast within the storm. Another series of husky growling sounds came from within the miniature flurry.
“Oh, is that a fact? Listen, and listen well. I am Torrin Silverfang, Guardian of Den Forste, and my story will not end here, scum.”
Here the dragon's head on Torrin's shield began to glow a bright silver, and he rushed the beast, planks thumping beneath his feet and a roar escaping his throat.
Ten had been summoned, but only nine had arrived to see Baron Krendal III upon the death of his son Derrick. These nine were of vastly different lifestyles and resided in some of the most obscure locations anyone had ever heard of, but had all convened on this day, and now sat around a great table in the hall of Krendal Keep. They sat in silence for a long while, too unsure or perhaps too uncomfortable to initiate any serious conversation. It seemed an odd time to start a socializing hour. The cedar table in front of them was barely visible under the collection of platters, mugs and goblets sitting on top of it. Broiled fish, roast mutton, steamed potatoes, freshly baked bread, and a vast array of dried fruits filled the platters to overflowing. Never one to turn down a free feast however, The Bard helped himself to heaping portions of everything, making sure his mug was always full. It was not until his stomach was satisfied and his thirst for ale whetted that he decided to begin speaking with the group of interesting strangers around him. Filling his mug half with pear cider and half with the dark Krendalian ale, he crafted himself a “snake-bite” and asked the obvious question.
“How did you all know Derrick?”
The old etiquette teacher, Hamish, spoke first. He had once taught the young Derrick Krendal, and was familiar with a few of the others present, the Lord Lostaroth especially seemed to garner a fair amount of Hamish’s attention, though not exactly in a good way. One by one they introduced themselves, briefly explaining their former relationship with their late friend. Aside from the three mentioned and TobiAna, The Bard's Toreg companion, there was Xosia, the long haired brunette, who had known Derrick when she was much younger, Baal, the grum fey monk, who had encountered Derrick while training, Yenlannan, a slender man The Bard had noticed earlier in the village, who described himself as an amateur magician of sorts and knew Derrick the most recently, Urolf, one of Monith's people and thus a family confidant, and Benjamin, a tall fellow with rust colored hair and an axe slung across his back who had known Derrick when they were children. It was then explained that Lostaroth had been a member of the court in the barony, along side Hamish no less, that TobiAna had known Derrick before she uprooted her life to become a Toreg warrior, and that The Bard, knew just about everyone (even the reader of this little story).
Vague and general histories were exchanged, but began getting more detailed as The Bard continued pouring ale, mead, and cider into every empty mug. Of particular note was Baal’s reaction to the steady stream of hard cider. Upon being surrounded by a group of odd and dangerous looking strangers, the grum had begun glowing. It was an interesting sight for all those present, as the dark sylvan’s very skin seemed to light up and then dim in a steady pattern. After a friendly, “Drink this.” From The Bard, Baal’s glowing had become inconsistent and finally died away altogether.
“So you know a good amount about the rest of us. But I didn’t catch your name.”
“Just call me The Bard, Hamish.”
“ Yes, I’m also known as The Battling Songster. That’s really all you need to know about me for now.” The less you know the better, he thought. “More ale?”
“Hmm, well The Bard, I may not know a great deal about you, but I believe I’m starting to take a liking to your style.” he half slurred.
TobiAna’s gaze fell on The Bard then. For just an instant, there might have been a look of sorrow in her eyes, but then she resumed her watch. She hated calling him by his alias and not his real name, she hated its necessity all the more, and she was not the biggest fan of his Songster persona. As such, she continued distracting herself by mulling over the information she had just acquired. Tobi had learned a great deal of the people around the table, some of which she was not sure she liked. She could tell that these people could all take care of themselves in a fight, even if they chose not to show it. Lord Lostaroth, for instance, did not openly display a weapon like the others but she could see he was carrying at least a pair of concealed knives, possibly more. On the other side of the leaf, she had taken an instant liking to Xosia, admiring the woman’s hair as well as her reserved demeanor. They had sat in comfortable silence for a while, simply nodding and smiling at each other when they happened to agree with something someone said. A pair of hours passed this way, with the group slowly coming to a middle ground of good food and free flowing alcohol.
“Well, everyone, I’m just going to play a short instrumental for you, because-I want to.” The Bard laughed.
He silently tuned the strings of his walnut instrument, occasionally plucking them to test his work.
“What is that thing any way? A sitar?”
“This, Master Hamish, is a lute. The trick is to look at the back. If it's rounded it's a lute, no matter the rest.”
“I have never heard of a lute with only eleven strings…”
“That is because there is only one.” The Bard patted the dark stained lute affectionately. “It was made for me by a craftsman in repayment for saving him from a simultaneous bear and bull attack.”
All save TobiAna and Xosia raised their brows at this. Tobi had heard this story before, and Xosia seemed altogether uninterested.
“A bear and a bull?” Hamish asked dubiously
“Why yes. I managed to grapple the bear into submission just in time to use its body as a shield for the bull’s rush. Once the bull gored the bear, with its horns stuck deep in the bear’s pelt the fight pretty much resolved itself. Although I did get nervous when the second bear snuck up behind me and got me in a bear hug.”
The majority of the group looked at him with unbelieving stares, with Lostaroth and Yenlannan openly appreciating The Bard’s humor.
“Now where was I? Ah, yes.”
The Bard began his tune with a few resonant notes layered behind a series of light finger plucking. It gradually gained momentum, syncing up to the slow and methodical tapping of his boot on the floor, all the while maintaining its airy and melodic resonance. He closed his eyes and the tune picked up in speed and intensity, evolving into a flourish of intricately plucked notes and forcefully strummed chords. The song’s speed grew and grew, his boot steps matching its new alacrity, pushing the rhythm of the song to go even faster only to slow down to its former pace. His music maintained the old pace now, focusing more on the finger plucking, but hinting at its desire to run and soar. Then, there was a flurry of fingers and the sound of the lute permeated the room in a small roar before a final strum ended the piece. He opened his eyes and a loud crash resounded in the hall as a broad shouldered man strode in.
Following the lead of Urolf, Lostaroth, and Hamish, the rest of the group stood up as the blue eyed Baron walked into the room. He was a powerful man, loud and full of temper, but known to be methodical and calculating in all of his dealings.
“It would appear you lot have finally decided to arrive. Now that you’re all here, I expect one of you can explain to me what is going on in my Barony, and tell me why my son made arrangements for you nine in the event of his death and not for myself.”
“Your gander is as good as ours, your lordship.” The Bard replied.
The baron's cold gaze fell on the Songster then, and he defused the glare with an open handed shrug.
“Lord Krendal, as far as I can tell, most of us were only acquaintances of your son. The rest knew him well, but had not seen nor spoken to him in years. We would like to know what is going on here as well.”
“How did the young master die?” Hamish asked.
“As if someone like you would actually care.” the baron spat.
The intensity of Hamish's glare now matched the baron's.
“He was my student, you ignorant son of -”
“Gentlemen.” Lostaroth intervened. “Let us lay the past to rest, and mourn our shared loss.” He paused. “Under what circumstances did Derrick perish?”
Both the baron and Hamish huffed at this but eventually the baron relented.
“We believe it was a form of suicide. He disappeared from the castle more than two months ago, and not a single soul saw him leave the grounds. Two days later one of our cargo ships found his long boat on the shore of an island within the Barony.”
“Was there a body?” Xosia asked, suspicion creeping into her delicate voice.
“We have not recovered his body.” Baron Krendal sighed. “Crow's Rest Island is taboo for my people. None ever return from its shores and it remains unexplored.”
“So he could still be alive.” TobiAna noted.
“It is unlikely that he is...” at this, the baron's face fell a bit. If memory served The Bard correctly, Derrick was the last of four children, and had been the only surviving heir to the Barony.
“You mentioned arrangements?” The Bard asked.
“Yes...upon his death the ten of you were to be summoned and given this unsealed envelope.”
Baron Krendal produced an off white envelope, removed the parchment it contained and read aloud.
“My friends, if you are hearing this than I am most certainly dead. My final request from you is that you recover my body from Crow's Rest Island, and bury me with my journals. Father will see to it that you are well provisioned and properly equipped.”
They looked at each other, wondering how Derrick knew where his body would be. Foul play could easily have been involved as suicide...
“You said ten, but there are only nine of us Master Krendal.” Urolf commented.
“The tenth was summoned, as all of you were, but his ship capsized on its way here. It was within two days of arrival, as best we can tell. There have been reports of unseasonal blizzards around those waters...” the baron trailed off. “ One other thing, Derrick's journals have gone missing. We believe he either took them with him, or they were stolen.”
This was met with silence. All of them had a memory of Derrick with a thick journal of some sort or another. Even when he was a child, Derrick regularly carried a journal and writing kit. He was constantly scribbling into it, or reading from it before acting completely unsurprised at obviously unexpected events. Something was clearly amiss, and somewhere in the back The Bard's mind he felt a touch of paranoia. A familiar feeling of apprehension washed over him before he banished the thought and cemented his resolve to be worthy of his Advocate's Badge.
“I will go.” The Bard said. “I will retrieve his body, and get to the bottom of this.”
In a matter of moments, the nine of them had agreed to make the two-day sail to Crow’s Rest Island in an attempt to recover the young lord. While it frustrated him to be cooped up on a boat again after having spent two weeks at sea, The Bard accepted Tobi’s challenge to avoid acting up out of boredom. He passed the time conversing with Yenlanan, playing his lute, and complaining about the effects of cold on the sound of his precious instrument. On the second day, after encountering a storm of storms, the Seahawk’s captain chose to drop anchor off the coast of the party’s destination, and the crew instructed the adventurers to seek shelter further inland. Against all of their better judgment the nine did exactly that, jumping (or in the case of Xosia, tripping) off the vessel into the slushy waters of the coast. The nine had only walked a mile inward when it became very clear to The Bard why no expeditions ever returned from investigating Crow’s Rest Island. He felt them before he heard them, and gave a quick signal to TobiAna just as arrows started whizzing past him. The raspy voices he heard were not unfamiliar, but minori were far from common. They were facsimiles of life, formed from the residual negative energy of the land and becoming borderline sentient agents of chaos. Something between a ghost and a demon, they reveled in violence when they had the advantage of numbers but were well documented as cowards individually, this was because-
“They're mortal!” The Bard shouted. “No matter what they look like, they bleed. Take heart, we can fend them off.”
His voice carried through woods, in spite of howling winds and the echo of an explosion nearby. It was then that the lizard looking minori came into his line of sight and charged at him with a vicious looking pair of daggers.
The Bard had read once that battles were always hot, no matter the climate or location. It wasn’t until now, in the midst of this skirmish, did The Bard truly grasp the concept. Gone was the blustering cold biting at his extremities, it had been replaced by a fire burning in the hollow of his chest, and the drums of war pounding in his ears. The razor’s edge of his blade bisected the air around him in swift, silky, motions, and its whisk like hum drowned under the sounds of combat around him. His lizard like foe fought with a broken rhythm, the wild thrashing of a brawler whose only teacher was the harsh experience of battle and death. It was this broken rhythm that made the minori hard to hit directly, cleanly. The Bard’s blade cut through falling snow, angled through hastily formed defenses, and yet only struck glancing blows. The minori was either extremely lucky, or had unnatural reflexes.
Meanwhile, TobiAna danced with the pike wielding reptile whose rush she had narrowly avoided. The creature’s style was sloppy and untrained, but what it lacked in grace and skill, it made up in sheer grit and tolerance for pain. She had impaled it no less than three times, but it refused to be hindered by its blood loss and apparent agony. It lunged in, swinging its black pike high and TobiAna dipped under the bladed shaft, realizing her folly too late. The spinning pike changed direction as she attempted to move under it, forcing her to back pedal and get within its optimum striking range. Out of the corner of her eye she saw The Bard get struck in the back by an arrow. It was enough of a distraction for the minori to capitalize on. The creature lunged forward, throwing itself into the deathblow. The snow under her left boot was slippery, her spear was over extended, the pike was moving too quick… Blood and acid splashed inside her throat as the pike entrenched itself in her abdomen.
The Bard’s scream punctured the air, clamoring against the metal echoes of steel on steel. A pike blade was embedded into his frozen, leather, armor. His sword squelched through the neck of the minori assaulting him, and he rushed towards the Toreg, not bothering to pull the pike free from its new home in the layers of his protective shell. Another minori moved to intercept him, charred black pike flashing through the snow, but the Bard would not be slowed. Deflecting the oversized spear with the flat of his blade, he swung his sword in a mid ranged arc, the blade biting into the lizard’s midsection, before spinning and hamstringing the brute.
“TobiAna!” he yelled again, rushing to where the pikeman had deposited her.
He slid through the wet snow, trying to ignore the growing amount of red already staining the ground around her. She clutched at the ragged gape in her stomach, her skin turning pale. The Bard put his hands over the wound as well, hoping to somehow stop the hot liquid from seeping out of her, through his fingers, and onto the whiteness of the island.
“Tobi” was all he could say.
Looking into her hazel eyes, which even now twinkled with a warmth his songs could never capture, he felt his throat begin to tighten. Not a sound passed between the two, she let her gaze do all the talking. It said one thing to him: It’s okay. I’ve prepared for this.
He stopped himself from reflexively brushing snowflakes off her brown and silver hair, but his eyes never left hers. Finally he felt he could look no more at her lovely face, and instead stared at his blood-covered hands, still pressed against her. It wasn’t meant to be this way… A metal armored hand landed on his shoulder then. He looked up at the grizzled munnith with flakes of snow caught in his reddish beard.
“Fear not, comrade, for Monith Kai is with us.”
Urolf’s eyes flashed as the last word was spoken. The Bard felt the hair on his arms prickle and the air around Urolf began to hum with mystic energy. The storm clouds parted for the briefest of moments, shining a single bar of blue-white light on the priest, infusing him with power granted him by no less than the will of a god. Within the cascading waves of divine radiance, The Bard somehow knew there was nothing more to worry about, grief and sadness melting into the loamy sea of hope, serenity, and hardened resolve. Urolf now shone brighter than a star, emanating a blue tinged aura of light. The light worked of its own accord, soaking into TobiAna’s wound, repairing the damaged organs, and neatly sewing together the layers of skin tissue. In a matter of seconds, the gaping hole in her stomach was gone, and no sooner had she thanked Urolf, was she returning to the thick of battle, spears whirling, her musician rushing after her…
AUTHOR'S NOTE: What do you all think?! Some new, some old, and a clear beginning to something mysterious. I wonder if it's a bit rushed, but I'm trying to follow the U.K. LeGuin style of writing. Start here, go there, don't waste any time in between. More to come, as I'm just getting started!