The Lord Baltrog stared at the body of Yorg. There was no expression on his long, bland face. He might have been looking at a flower, an animal, or a rock. He noted the dried blood and the broken bottle. He picked up the smell of alcohol and something else, a smell of dirt, of unwashed bodies. But that might have been the orc.
“Who was he?” He asked quietly.
His chief advisor, an ancient gnome, stepped forward and checked the scroll he had in his hand.
“Yorg,” he said. “Three-quarters orc. Recruited five years ago. A good hand at collecting taxes and enforcing law. Stupid and venal. Accepted a lot of bribes.”
“No sir,” said the gnome. “Easily replaced.”
“Still,” said Lord Baltrog.
“Still,” agreed the gnome.
“I’ll start with the tavern,” said Baltrog. He walked back to the main street where his retinue of bodyguard, advisors, and sycophants waited. They were a strange crew, made up of half-orcs, humans, a few halflings, and a few drow. They were all well-dressed and armed.
Baltrog opened the door to the tavern. When his largest bodyguards surged forward to join him, he waved them off.
“I think I can handle it,” he said, and went inside.
The tavern was dark. Tallow candles and smoking oil lamps lit the room. A small coal fire sputtered in a grate in the corner. Behind the bar was a crude painting of a merchant ship being tossed on the waves. Beneath it were written the words “The Merry Hope” in crude letters.
As soon as Baltrog entered the twenty or so customers who had been chatting loudly about the spectacular news – Yorg was dead! – fell silent. A few pulled off their caps.
“Good evening,” said Baltrog. No one answered, though a few bobbed their heads.
Baltrog crossed to the bar and sat on a stool. Harry Bandle stood behind the bar, frozen in fear.
“A drink, please,” said Baltrog.
Harry could only repeat the request: “A drink?”
Harry forced himself to smile. “A drink! Of course! A drink for the Lord Baltrog. Only the best from Harry’s tavern.” Harry ducked under the bar, rattled a lock, and came up with a dust-covered bottle sealed with wax. “I’ve had this for twenty-one years. Never had a reason to open it until tonight. The Lord Baltrog in Harry’s tavern!”
Sweating furiously, his hands shaking, Harry managed to break the seal, pull the cork, and pour a glass of the green liquid into the best glass he could find. He placed it gingerly in front of Baltrog and stepped back, once more frozen in fear.
The bar patrons watched Harry. Every one of them knew the story of that bottle. Harry had bought it from a merchant twenty-one years ago when he had heard that his brother John, captain of the trading vessel Merry Hope, had been lost at sea. He had sworn to everyone in the bar that his brother was alive, and that one day he would walk through his tavern door and the two of them would open the bottle and share a drink together. He told that story to everyone who entered his tavern. Everyone except the Lord Baltrog.
Baltrog savoured the attention of the crowd. He took up the glass, examined the colour of its contents by the light of a lamp, swirled the liquid around, smelled it deeply, and finally took a delicate sip. He held the fiery liquid in his mouth for a second, and swallowed. He smiled.
“It’s very good.”
Everyone in the room breathed a sigh of relief. A few coughed and hummed to cover the sound.
Harry let out a great breath of relief. “Only the best for the Lord Baltrog,” he said.
Baltrog took another sip, then rested his elbows on the bar and leaned forward. He motioned Harry to come closer. Harry, surprised by the intimacy of the gesture, awkwardly leaned towards the Baltrog. Baltrog grabbed hold of Harry’s earlobe and held it tight.
Baltrog said, very quietly, “Someone killed my man.”
Harry almost lost control of his bladder.
“Who didn’t like him?” Asked Baltrog, still holding Harry by the ear.
Harry was about to protest his undying love for Yorg, about to declare his intention to marry and have daughters so he could offer one to the enforcer as soon as she was of age. He would have gone to explain how Yorg was universally adored by the citizens of Oakborder and how the townspeople were devastated by his untimely death. He would have said all of this, but he felt something in his head. A twisting, painful presence, as though there was a small worm eating at the front of his brain. He was about to scream in panic and pain when he realized that the worm was the Lord Baltrog probing his mind.
“If you lie to me,” whispered Baltrog, “I will know.”
“Everyone hated him,” said Harry. “But we were afraid of him. We wouldn’t have killed him.”
Baltrog stared deep into Harry’s face, then smiled and let go of his ear. “Good,” he said. “The truth.”
Baltrog spun on his stool to face the room. “So,” he said, “Any ideas? Who killed my man?”
The customers shuffled uncomfortably. No one would look Baltrog in the eye, but several looked at Harry.
“It might have been the dwarf,” said Harry quietly.
Baltrog slowly turned back to face Harry.
“He came into town yesterday afternoon,” said Harry. “He looked down on his luck, like he had been sleeping rough. But he had gold and he paid to have his battle axe sharpened at the smith’s.”
Tom Irontone, the town blacksmith, a massive man, spoke softly from a corner of the room. “It was as fine a weapon as I have ever seen. It held an edge that would split a blade of grass.”
Harry continued: “He came in here later in the day and had dinner. Then he made me a wager.”
“A wager?” asked Baltrog.
“He bet me two gold pieces against a two pitchers of ale that he could hold onto to this bar with one hand and touch the far wall with his finger at the same time.” The wall was a good twenty feet away.
Intrigued, Baltrog asked, “And what did you do?”
“I took the wager,” said Harry. “The dwarf held onto the bar with his right hand, then used his left to reach into a pouch he carried on a thong around his neck. He pulled a finger from the pouch, his own he said. And, in truth, he was missing the pinky on his left hand. Then he threw it against the far wall.”
Harry looked embarrassed. “He won the bet.”
“Then?” asked Baltrog.
“Then he got drunk,” said Harry. “And asked about a couple that he said he was seeking. A woman dwarf, by the name of Griselda, and an elf. A bard. By the name of Songsinger, or Songweaver. Something like that.”
“Why was he searching for these two?”
“He didn’t say,” said Harry. “But I wouldn’t want to be that elf if he every catches up with him.”
“Did he give his name? asked Baltrog.
“Grimm,” said Harry. “He said his father was the thane of the Grimm mountain tribe. It meant nothing to me.”
Baltrog processed the information. A vagabond dwarf was odd enough, but one who had a masterwork weapon and was pursuing a vendetta against an elf and a female dwarf, well that was very odd indeed. Baltrog knew dwarves to be fiercely territorial and devoted to their clans and caves. This did not make any sense at all.
He concluded that it was probably true.
“And which way was he going?” he asked.
“My lord, I don’t know. But he said he had come from Luganton, so he was probably headed on the western road towards Torn,” said Harry.
Baltrog thought. There was only one road into Oakborder. If the dwarf had come from the foothill town of Lugaton, there was only one way out of Oakborder. He would be headed west, over the crest of the mountains, and down to the peninsula. It was a journey of two days on foot, one by horse, but there was no way to go except forward. The valleys that framed the road were steep and so densely wooded that they were impassable to all but wild creatures.
Baltrog stood up quickly, causing some of the more nervous customers of the bar to gasp. “Thank you,” he said. “You’ve been most helpful.” He placed a silver coin on the bar. “And thank you for the drink.”
“My lord,” said Harry, “There’s no charge.”
“Oh, but I insist,” said Baltrog. He spun on his heel and swept from the room.
There was a moment of silence in the tavern as the door slammed shut.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” said Harry as he ran into the back room.
The Lord Baltrog sat in the town hall’s main room, the gnome at his left elbow and three of his best bodyguards standing before him.
“My representatives in the towns of the range must be accorded respect,” Baltrog said as he examined the back of his hand. “They are my representatives. They stand for me. So this dwarf must be found and made an example of.”
One of the guards cleared his throat. “Shall we chase him, my lord?” he asked. “We can catch him by tonight.”
Baltrog considered before replying. “No, I think not. The village is volatile. We need a solid presence here for the next few days. And we have to teach them a lesson.”
He thought for a moment. “Remind me about the village,” he said to the gnome.
The gnome closed his eyes and began to recite, “Oakborder, population 450, mainly human. Trade, some crafts, hunters, waystation for the road. One tavern with rooms, blacksmith, leather worker, the usual guilds. Liberated seven years ago. Punctual with the taxes. Quiet. No problems.”
“Well,” said Baltrog, “Not the sort of place that we want to lose. And its position on the road is strategic. “
He turned towards the gnome. “Who do we know between here and Torn?”
The gnome reached into the leather bucket that he wore on a strap over his shoulder. He pulled out a scroll and examined it. His brow furrowed and his lips moved silently as he worked his way through the many scripts and languages. After a minute he found something.
“Oh,” he said. “This is nice.”
He looked up at the Lord Baltrog. “It’s an old friend,” he said.They both smiled.