The thunder may roar,
The storm may rage with terrible fury.
The Forces of Darkness may stalk the eerie night
seeking to torment the weak
But within your heart
Be at peace, gentle Pilgrim.
God is aware of your fears. He feels your
He will not abandon you in your time of need.
-From the Book of St. Albans-
The crowd within the inn was loud, mostly Dragon, and well into their cups. Outside the cold drew in more to the warm hearth burning brightly to one side of the great hall. Here and there within the crowd were a few tables where humans and Dragon sat sharing a drink and talking business. But mostly what few humans there were sitting to one side and out of way from the vast majority of the Malaweian clientele.
A Dragon peasant woman and serving wench beckoned to us and pointed to an empty table. With me in the lead we made our way through the crowd and seated ourselves just as the wench threw down three empty tin tankards followed by an over-full pitcher of warm Dragon ale.
“Food?” she hissed, eyeing the two Zhintii warriors and then myself suspiciously.
“Yes,” I nodded and flipping one of the silver Rogarian donatii into the air, “and lots of it. I am afraid we are going to be here for a while.”
She caught the coin in mid air with one hand, checked to see if was authentic by putting it between her teeth and trying to bend it, and then grinned as she turned and departed. Smiling I leaned back in the rough wooden chair and turned my gaze toward the Zhintii.
“Far from your homelands you are, Pilgrims. Here in Malagna to do some trading?”
“Traders we are not, human.” grunted Bellus, lifting the tankard to his lips. “Let us just say we are too late in our intended journey. There is nothing for us but to return to our kin with empty hands and little to say.”
“Or we could become bandits, brother,” Hakim said, grinning and lifting his tankard as well. “We could begin our nefarious careers by roughing up this Croi peasant and taking all his money.”
“Hmmm,” Bellus grunted, lowering his tankard and smacking his lips in pleasure. “An interesting proposition, brother. What do you say to that, human? Care to donate a sizable portion of your wealth to a needy cause?”
“If your cause is to agitate and confound the Hartooth I would be more than pleased to donate a coin or two.”
Lifting a hand up I smiled and made a small gesture with my fingers and thumb. From between finger and thumb appeared a brand new double-measured Rogarian Gold Eagle. A Gold Eagle is more money than the vast majority of Dragon or human would ever see in their brief life times. I smiled, seeing I had captivated their interest completely.
“You mentioned you were on your way to see Ankor Mauk. He is here? In Malagna?”
“Yes.” nodded Bellus, his eyes fixated onto the Gold Eagle. “Here and close by. But, if I were you, I would not flash such wealth around so freely. It could be hazardous to your health.”
“And to ours, I might add,” Hakim grunted, turning around slowly in his chair to see if the gold in my hand had been observed by others. “Return the coin to your purse, warrior. We mean you no harm.”
“This is yours if you will take me to the paladin as soon as you have finished eating. I bring him an important message.”
The coin disappeared from my hand without moving a finger in the process. For a moment or two the two warriors stared at the empty hand of mine before turning to look at me.
“How would a simple Croi warrior be in possession of so much wealth? Perhaps you are the brigand and we are but imposters.”
“Does it matter, brother?” Bellus grunted, reaching for his tankard and grinning with sardonic pleasure at the same time. “He is willing to pay gold for us to do mischief on the Hartooth. My opinion of humans improves with each passing day.”
I smiled and leaned back in my chair. I was sure no one saw the gold coin I held for a moment or two out in the open. But the Zhintii were intently looking at me. I could feel their curiosity and their suspicions. They were interested with my proposal. In their souls I could feel their desire to harass and confound the Hartooth whenever and where ever an opportunity was offered to them.
“Why do you seek the last of the Mauk? You have heard the amount of gold his enemies offer to anyone who brings them his head?”
“That is one of the reasons why we seek him, Croi.” grunted the astute Hakim. “Because he is wanted by the Hartooth and because he wars against our enemies.”
“That, and the fact we were hurrying to join the Anktooth in their fight against the Hartooth when word came the barony was consumed and all was lost.”
“All is not lost, pilgrims.” I grunted, smiling and shaking my head slowly. “Nothing is lost if one’s heart is strong enough to continue the struggle.”
“The words of a philosopher, brother.” Bellus grunted, leaning forward over the table and lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper at the same time.
“Or the words of a monk, ” his brother retorted, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully as he too sat forward and leaned close to me. “You are not from Croi, are you.”
I said nothing. Hakim glanced around to see if anyone was listening. Satisfied no one was he turned and gazed straight into my eyes and smiled knowingly.
“We have heard tales of a warrior-monk, a somewhat famous warrior-monk, who arms himself with a Dragon’s blade of ancient lore. It is said this monk is a swordsman of unparalleled talent. Some say over a hundred or more have faced him, claiming this blade as their rightful possession.”
“Only to fall before him,” Hakim’s brother put, smiling and glancing down at the sheathed blade lying across my lap. “One hundred swordsmen. All defeated. Remarkable.”
“Yes, remarkable,” nodded Hakim as he too glanced at the sheathed weapon. “And even more remarkable is the curious fact the blade described matches the one you carry.”
The Dragon wench, holding above her head a large platter heavily laden with various dishes of steaming hot food, arrived and expertly threw each dish onto the table with uncanny accuracy. The Zhintii sat back in the chairs just in time as hot dishes slid across the rough table top and came to a halt directly in front of them. Various plates of meats, steaming hot vegetables, two types of bread. All fresh from the oven with aromas which would make a starving man almost faint with anticipation.
The brothers Zhintii were true to their word. They were starving. The moment the serving maid left us they dived into the many plates with a savage intent to eat everything in site. Smiling, I reached for the pitcher of ale and poured for the three of us.
“This monk must be some extraordinary fellow,” I began casually as I poured for the two before filling my own tankard. “But what has this to do with me? Do I look like a monk? I am what I am. Nothing more and nothing less.”
“Ha!” snorted Bellus loudly, his mouth full of food as he pointed half a loaf of bread at me accusingly. “That’s the point. Just who are you?”
I said nothing but smiled and folded arms across my chest. The two before me were too busy eating everything in sight. Our conversation ceased for the time being. Reaching for my tankard of ale I turned to gaze at the crowd around us. Using my Inner Eye I felt the pulse of the crowd and detected no unusual activity around me. My disguise as a Great Wing rider from Croi seemed to be effective. Effective except to the critically observant and very astute young Hakim.
The inn’s crowd was loud and boisterous. A number of serving wenches were working their way through the crowd with platters of held over their heads and filled with various drinks. Remarkably little of the precious fluid was spilled. From the back of the inn the aromas of a number of different foods being prepared added to the overall pantheon of odors filling the room.
Loud. Boisterous and basically amicable. I felt little ill-will within the room and nothing whatsoever of anyone being curious at a Great Wing rider from Croi sitting with two Zhintii clansmen far from their high desert sands and sub freezing nights.
All that changed the moment when the four wine red and black clad warriors of the Hartooth entered the establishment. Curiously they fanned out to naturally block the inn’s main exit. All of them rode a hand on the pommels of their sheathed swords. None looked as if they were here for a passing drink or a casual conversation. They seemed intent on finding someone as they gazed across the inn’s clientele.
From Hakim and Bellus I felt and saw a subtle change in their auras. Both outwardly continued to eat with a ravenous intent to consume everything setting on the table in front of them. But both were quietly coiling their strength like powerful springs ready to be sprung suddenly and swiftly when called upon to do so.
“Pilgrim, if I were you, I would move away from this table before our friends yonder finds us,” Hakim whispered just loud enough for me to hear as he tore into the side of a large turkey leg.
“Yes friend,” his brother grunted, pouring another tankard of ale, spilling a sizable amount onto the table in his hurry to sip before the fight began. “Our thanks for feeding us. If you seek Ankor Mauk all you have to do is go to the Inn of the Brown Pig. Word will reach him you wish to see him. This I promise.”
I slid two double-weighted gold coins across the table toward them. Slowly rising I turned in such a way as to speak to the two sight unseen.
“Trouble with the Hartooth already? My . . . my, lads. I suspect neither of you can stay out of trouble without someone standing over you and keeping you tightly reined in.”
“A curse, Pilgrim.” nodded the sharp eyed Hakim, half grinning as he reached for a large ear of corn lying on a platter stacked with freshly baked corn. “Even our father told us we are too much for him to handle. He sent off on this quest to fight with the Anktooth in the hopes we would come back as seasoned, and more sedate, warriors.”
“Ha! Wishful thinking, the old coot!” snorted Bellus, half turning to stare at the closest
Harktooth. “If you value your skin, friend, perhaps you should beat a hasty retreat now.”
I smiled at the two and then glanced at the Hartooth. The one in charge was a young officer standing by the door with hands on his hips and a look of arrogance painted on his maroon and black face.
“Do nothing for the next few moments,” I said, just before standing up and turning to glare at someone setting at a table close to where the young Hartooth officer stood. “When the riot begins meet me in the alley behind this building.”
“Wha . . .?” Bellus began, looking at me with a confused look on his reptilian face.
“You!” I shouted at the top of my lungs and throwing up hand and pointing to someone at the same time. “You foul piece of pig’s offal! You lying bag of Rogarian filth! I will skin you alive!”
With a lunge I leaped atop the table of the brothers and, with bounding leaps, jumped from one table to the next as I screamed in rage. Perhaps ten tables from where the Zhintii sat two Rogarian wine merchants, along with their body guards, huddled around a large group of tables. All this time they had quietly conversed with each other and made no effort to converse with anyone else. They were stunned and astonished when I leapt from a table and landed on my feet in front of theirs, kicking the table to one side violently as I reached down and grabbed one of the wine merchants with a hand and lifted him bodily out of his chair.
“Aaughh! Don’t hit the face! Not the face!” the treble-cheeked Rogarian merchant screamed, throwing both hands up to cover his fat features as I reared back with a right fist and prepared to, apparently, smash in the man’s face.
When the blow fell it did not smash in the nose of a Rogarian wine merchant. As the others around the table jumped to their feet several stumbled and fell onto other patrons setting close to them. Drinks went flying. Curses were uttered. Fights erupted like the sudden explosion of a volcano between patrons who had been sorely abused. In less than the blinking of an eye the entire inn was in a uproar.
The blow I hurled swept past the side of the Rogarian’s fat cheeks and landed solidly into the nose of the unsuspecting young Hartooth officer. The red and black clad warrior staggered back into the closed inn’s door behind him, blood gushing out of his now disfigured nose. Tossing the still screaming wine merchant to one side I was pleased to see the remaining three Hartooth warriors racing back to assist their commander. By now the inn was in a brawling mass of flying bodies and flailing fists. Objects hurled in anger sailed through the air! Several wooden chairs were smashed across the backs of others. A hand grabbed me from behind and, without thinking, I twisted and latched onto the foe’s wrist with an opposite hand and hurled him over my shoulder. The from of a Hartooth flying though the air only to land with a grunt into the middle of a mass of fighting opponents pleased me immensely.
Through the din and carnage of the brawling patrons I tried to make my escape. The Zhintii were not to be seen. Pushing and shoving my way through the crowd I refrained from partaking in the festivities but searched for a safe exit to withdraw in. I found one, or should I say, the exit found me when two powerful hands grabbed my shoulders and bodily lifted me out of the brawl and over a balcony railing .
“This way, friend.” shouted a laughing Bellus as he turned and disappeared into a darkened room who’s door had been roughly kicked open.
In the darkness I heard a woman scream and man grunt in surprise. I remember the dim image of a large bed with hundreds of small pillows littering its surface. I remember the aromas of various perfumes and candles scattered on the floor beneath or boots.
Fortunately we did not linger within the room. Through an open window I followed the dark figure of Bellus. We leapt into the darkness from a second story window and landed on the rough stones of the alley behind the inn. Hakim waited for us, a grin on his youthful face as he watched me come to my feet.
“You are no stranger to stirring up trouble yourself, old man,” he said, grinning in a pleased fashion before turning and disappearing into the darkness. “ Come! We go this way.”
The darkness of a cold night hid us as the bedlam of the rioting inn filled the blackness behind us. Down side streets, through several alleys, even scampering across a few roofs of various buildings finally brought us to a narrow street lit by a series of brass tripods holding large pans of burning oil lining both sides of the street.
“There,” Bellus said, pointing at a building in the darkness. “The Inn of the Brown Pig.”
“As promised. Your meeting with the paladin, Ankor Mauk,” hissed Bellus’ brother as he slid over the lip of the building wall and sailed into the night to land on the street below.