The sun split the clouds and beamed down a warmth and radiance that broke serenely through the cool breeze. The glossy green leaves of the trees rustled, the birds chirped their harmonious chorus and the glorious colours of so many wildflowers painted a canvas that would have made any artist fall weeping to his knees in wonder. An ancient, well–travelled trade wagon jostled and clattered down the cobbled road, accompanied by the tuneless whistle of the driver who was lost in his musings of what it was that made such a day so beautiful.
The driver broke his daydream when his soft focused eyes registered the turn in the road that would lead him through a small wood of densely packed trees. With one hand grasped tightly on the horse’s reins, he reached down slowly and flicked the latch on the hidden compartment behind his calves in the driving bench. Calmly and without breaking his whistle, he brought out his equally well–travelled crossbow and rested it between his feet as a precaution, hidden from any eyes that may have already been upon him. He patted the head of his canine companion and the dog licked his hand in an almost human reaction to her owner’s sudden and obvious discomfort. Through years of experience he had learned the hard way that you couldn’t be too careful on these kinds of roads, no matter how pretty they were. Especially with bloody bandits popping up like moles in a garden, the verminous swine that they were. He thought.
“Easy, girl…” He murmured to the dog, but secretly for his own reassurance. He stroked her head and rubbed a silky soft ear between his fingers out of habit as he said, “It’s only a wood. We’ll be through it soon enough.”
When the cart continued its ponderous journey it sped up slightly in an echo of the driver’s desire to exit this area that seemed ripe for ambush. The driver’s neck prickled with instinct and as he glanced nervously around the woodland, his eyes searched shadows and crannies for any hidden problems.
His brain finally caught up with his instinct when he realised the birdsong had suddenly fallen silent, and it wasn’t until he looked up that a blurred shape dropped down from the tree canopy in front of the cart. The driver hauled on the reins with a startled yelp and when his horse whinnied and reared madly, it kicked its great hooves in alarm. The dog then sat up ready to defend her master, hackles raised and sharp teeth bared as she growled a feral warning at the stranger.
The shape unfolded into the shape of a man, clothed entirely in dark brown garments, light boots and – more disturbingly – a head covering that only showed his eyes. The bandit pulled an evil looking black–oiled crossbow from his back holster and aimed it directly at the driver.
“Looks like you took a wrong turn, grandpa.” The bandit said menacingly with the hint of a smirk in his voice, “Get rid of that crossbow you got there, that’s a good boy.”
The driver complied with a sinking heart and when he nudged the crossbow off the cart with his foot, he didn’t dare to remove his milky blue eyes from the bandit. His pulse quickened when he heard the crossbow clatter against the ground noisily and he raised a hand.
“Ok, ok. Please…don’t hurt me!” He quavered and held tightly onto the rag tied around his dog’s neck with his free hand, “I’m just an old man! I’m no threat to you, I promise!”
“Wise move.” The bandit growled with a humourless laugh and he whistled a call for his companions to come feast upon this fine carcass like patient desert vultures.
But when a body fell out of the canopy and messily collided face first with the cobbled road with a horrific crack, the bandit shot his eyes towards the leafy canopy in alarm. “What the –” Was all he managed to utter, for two arrows slammed into his chest and quivered with impact.
The bandit gasped as he sagged to his knees and when he blinked in shock at the feathered shafts buried within him, he dropped his crossbow from nerveless fingers. But before the life left him he watched as the driver reached into a pocket for a tired looking cigar, his old man nervousness chased away by a newfound ease.
“Now him on the other hand.” The driver said casually as he struck a match against the carriage seat, “He’s a different story.”
When two more bandits crashed through the brush with yells of confusion and defiance, yet another body fell from the branches above with an arrow that protruded from its neck. With near hysterical breath they brandished their swords and searched the canopy with terrified eyes, eager to avenge their companions’ deaths.
The driver raised his eyes slightly towards the heavens when the carriage shook almost imperceptibly with a silent impact, as though something had dropped stealthily onto the roof. He folded his arms and blew smoke rings as he watched a shadow leap off the roof of the carriage and onto the back of one of the bandits. Under the force of the collision the bandit crumpled to the ground with a choked cry and arterial blood sprayed from a terminally deep knife wound in his throat. The last bandit spun towards the shadow with a yelp of surprise and as the newcomer rolled toward him with quicksilver fluidity, the blade of a wicked looking long knife was dragged up the bandit’s leg, severing the femoral artery. Even before he had stood to full height, the newcomer had grasped the bandit’s shoulder and pulled him down into the blade that rose wickedly for the bandit’s heart. The bandit’s body sagged heavily against the newcomer and when he was pushed off unceremoniously, he fell awkwardly to the ground with a clatter of un–bloodied steel.
The driver’s saviour then bent down, casually wiped his blade on the dead man’s clothing before he stood up and addressed the driver with a deep theatrical bow, one hand behind his back. When he raised his head and grinned hugely at the slow applause of the driver, he brought the hand behind his back forward and presented the purse he had cut from the felled bandit.
The driver caught the tossed purse with a bellow of laughter. “Hazard pay, right?” The driver asked as he hefted its weight.
“Absolutely,” the man replied and as he strolled casually over towards the carriage, he sheathed his long knife and said, “it’s only fair.”
The driver shook his head with a smile, “Some ranger, you are. You had me worried there for a while, Minsc. I thought I was on my own for that one.”
The man known as Minsc snorted as he leaned against the carriage, ankles crossed and thumbs hooked over his sword belt, “Of course not, Finlan. If you died, then who’d pay my fee?”
Finlan laughed good naturedly and jerked his thumb towards the back of the wagon, “Get in, jackass. We’ll be there in an hour.”
Minsc slapped Finlan’s arm with a grin as he climbed into the wagon and boisterously ruffled the ears of the dog, who welcomed him with a familiar lick to the face. To the driver’s relief the birdsong resumed its wonderful chorus before it had been interrupted and remained strong until they reached the city.
The city of Ardeshuan sprawled across the landscape like an oil spill and as it had expanded in its inexorable way, it had enveloped several outlying villages and farmland alike. Its skyline was dotted with beautifully designed buildings, towers and spires that were both expansive and expensive, and industrious factory chimneys belched smoke of many smells and hues by day and night. Ardeshuan’s architecture could be described as eclectic at best: several of the ancient buildings served as foundations for other structures, while some were simply renovated, dependent on their purpose.
Ardeshuan was an ancient city with a rich, illustrious history and as such had seen so many architectural styles and fashions come and go, invented and reborn, adapted from other countries and emulated of others. Like most hubs of civilisation it had its good places the tourists loved to see, such as the opulent internal city dedicated to the Pantheon of the Gods – known as the Holy City – which was a wonder in modern architecture. There was also the cleverly heated and gorgeously decorated outdoor theatre, which was home to the wonderful angel song of the world renowned Ardeshuan opera.
But Ardeshuan also had its own dark places no one really liked to talk about, like an embarrassing family member one couldn’t ignore. Crime and violence wasn’t exactly rife in Ardeshuan, it was more grudgingly accepted as a necessary part of its complex society. This wasn’t to say Ardeshuan was lawless, far from it, in fact. The city guard – or ‘table cloths’ as Ardeshian citizens liked to call them on account of their decoratively embroidered tabards – knew the reality of their city better than anyone and as such understood that sometimes in order to maintain the greater good, hands needed to get a little dirty on occasion.
For example the city’s economy would surely have collapsed decades ago if not for the bloodthirsty black market trading syndicate; not to mention the loosely legal whore houses, gambling pits and drug dens that brought in more tourism than the Guild of Merchants would have liked to admit. In these parts, money was what kept life flowing and it was for these particular reasons mercenaries and the like could find a steady source of work in Ardeshuan. Some Guild official, clergyman or merchant always seemed to need someone or other to protect them, kill for them or steal for them.
As a ranger Minsc was counted among the throng of sell swords and thieves available for hire and – given his particular skillset – was always a top choice to track or locate people or items, escort wagons, conduct investigations and similar assignments. He drew the line at assassination, however. Even he wasn’t exactly sure why that was, but he had a shaky set of – albeit contradictory – morals that he tried to keep to on occasion.
If a client could get past the particular personality of Minsc they found him to be a ranger of an outstanding, inhuman tracking skill and an exceptional fighter. He had a lithe agility that could rival any well–seasoned thief that had taken years to hone and was an excellent climber, whether outdoors or urban. To be polite one could say that Minsc was an acquired taste…however to be more precise one would say that Minsc was, in fact, a bit of an arsehole – a viewpoint he would cheerfully verify himself.
He stood not far under six feet tall, with broad muscular shoulders and powerful legs and an arrogance and self–assurance that only a complete knowledge of one’s own body’s capabilities brought. His hair was kept at rarely more than a stubble, after years of experience had taught him that a life on the road and around caverns and ruins didn’t exactly call for long, luscious locks. And thanks to his habit of hooded overcoats, he didn’t have too many facial scars that could spoil his unconventional good looks. His deep and expressive brown eyes however, would – and frequently did – melt the hearts of most women who made the mistake of looking into them. He was a notorious womaniser with a loud mouth and an unbelievable cockiness when faced with impossible odds, which suited him just fine.
Most people like this were hated by everyone – including themselves – but the thing was: Minsc had a certain charisma that made him so damned likable. So much so, in fact, that most men happily raised ale tankards with him when in his company and women practically swooned at his feet with his brazen sexuality.
This wasn’t to say Minsc was loved by everyone, far from it in fact. “People either want to fight me, or fuck me…and I’m always up for both.” He would laugh, which would either deliver him a punch in the mouth or a shake of the hand.
Minsc flipped a lazy salute at one of the gate guards in particular as the cart passed through the eastern gate of Ardeshuan and he noted with a chuckle that the guard still had a beauty of a shiner, where he had punched him a treat a few weeks ago. The guard’s eyes bulged when he saw him and had to be held back by his fellow guard’s mailed hand against his chest. Finlan noticed the commotion and when he nudged Minsc with an elbow, he indicated his head towards the clearly distressed guard.
“Is he a friend of yours? He doesn’t look too impressed to see you.” He said.
“Miklos? No, not really,” Minsc smiled widely and as he turned the salute into an enthusiastic wave, he winked at the increasingly enraged guard, “I gave him that shiner before I left. A disagreement over a hand of poker: he accused me of cheating.”
Finlan whistled, “Oh right? And were you?”
“Of course.” Minsc admitted simply with a shrug, “Still decked him for being a dick about it.”
Finlan barked in laughter as he led the wagon through the main thoroughfare to his destination. Yes indeed, he thought,at least you could say it was never dull travelling with Minsc.
Finlan made the final payments as agreed with Minsc when they reached his employers warehouse: one third of Finlan’s own fee for delivery of the goods. This may have sounded like a hefty loss for Finlan, but he knew bandits and he knew that a third of a trade route fee – which was considerable if he were honest – was better than no fee and no life. Besides, enlisting an escort was one of these things Ardeshians took as a matter of course, so any employer worth their salt usually adjusted fees to suit their situation. Fair was fair, after all.
Parting with a brotherly handshake, Minsc found himself at a rare loose end and a restlessness he always felt after the immediate completion of an assignment. He jingled the purse Finlan had given him with a smile, and swiftly disappeared it into the layers of his overcoat away from prying eyes and sticky fingers. He ought to leave this booty in the care of his ‘banker’ but…what the hell, you can’t take it with you when you’re dead, Minsc thought impulsively and headed home for the tavern he lodged at. As far as he was concerned, he had earned himself a night of fun and games after three weeks of travel with Finlan.
The Crossed Bow was one of the city’s better known taverns, if for the wrong reasons: cheap yet un–watered booze and serving wenches that were easy on the eyes, and just plain easy. It was a place for people to either drink themselves into oblivion in sullen silence, or fist fight with someone for the sheer fucking joy of it. The owner of the Crossed Bow was a former adventurer, a stout dwarf called Marlock, and as such he harboured a certain camaraderie that would never extinguish for those of the adventuring stock. Within reason Marlock allowed just about anything within his hall, however if you crossed the line you would get chucked out by the never disarmed clientele – for asking them to relinquish their weapons just made Marlock feel dirty – who acted upon an unspoken agreement as the tavern’s bouncers. Or you found Marlock’s other half, his beloved warhammer named Mathilde, embedded in your skull. As far as he was concerned, if you stepped foot over the threshold you took responsibility for yourself.
To add strength to the rule, Marlock liked to keep a couple of skulls lying around the tavern’s shelves and mounted on the walls as a warning in the traditional dwarven way. He didn’t kill all of them himself, of course, but liked to pretend that he did. This fiction was upheld by his regulars who loved to pick on the untested rookies and upper class fops, who came in every now and then as a trembling tribute to their entry into manhood. It always raised a laugh.
The Crossed Bow was therefore seen as an ideal place for the arrangements of certain business transactions, clandestine meetings and alliances. It had been the main source of Minsc’s employment and proverbial pigeon coup over the years, particularly as a meeting place for his clients and the few colleagues he would actually work with; like the elven thief Nis or the barbarian Barsa.
Minsc pushed open the heavy oak door and as he brought the hood back from his head, he was hit with the not entirely unpleasant, but cloying atmosphere of sweat, smoke, stale beer and piss. He slapped palms and bumped fists in greeting with some of the patrons he was acquainted with and as he made his way over towards the bar, he waved away tendrils of blue–grey smoke that curled in the thick air. He caught the glance of one of the serving wenches whose company he sometimes enjoyed alone and when she crossed his path, he slapped her on the rump with a leery wink. She squealed like a delighted schoolgirl and rushed away into the brownish gloom of the serving area with her empty tray.
“Hello, wanderer.” Marlock announced in greeting from behind the bar as he polished the well–oiled wooden handle of the beer tap in front of him, “Your rent’s due.”
“Missed you too, Marlock.” Minsc acknowledged with a wry smile as he tossed onto the counter another small purse from one of the other many bandits he had killed on his way back to Ardeshuan.
Marlock brought the rag down onto the counter and, with a sleight of hand that would have impressed any cut–purse, he made the purse disappear. Marlock’s stern bearded face then dissolved into a genuine grin full of wrinkles and laughter, and Minsc offered a hand in greeting to the barkeep.
Marlock shook it heartily and poured a tankard for him without the need to be asked. “That you just back, then?” He asked conversationally.
Minsc nodded wearily and replied, “Three weeks. I thought I’d enjoy the night and spend some coin,” he reached out for the tankard with eager hands and raised his eyebrows in question at Marlock, “begging the Banker’s permission, of course.”
As well as owning this particular tavern Marlock served as certain adventurers’ banker, or at least keeper of their coin. It made a strange kind of sense to those who chose to do business with him: whoever in their right mind would rob the Crossed Bow? It would practically be suicide to undertake such an endeavour. In turn they all made sure Marlock’s establishment was well looked after, both in customers and protection; it was a win win situation that worked out well for everyone.
Marlock snorted and smiled at him, “Shit, son, I’m not your mother.” He said and inclined his head and pointed towards a table at the far right corner, “There’s a game over there that’s not been on long. Your friend Miklos isn’t around, though.”
Minsc wiped foam from his lips as he thought of the gate guard in question with a smirk. “Ha. Yes, I saw him on the way in.” He said and he tapped a cheekbone lightly, “Still plenty colourful.”
“Ah, serves him right,” Marlock replied with a dismissive wave, “I don’t care if his brother is one of us; I don’t like encouraging his type in here. Bad for business, fuckin’ table cloths.” He spat.
Minsc laid three coins as payment on the counter for Marlock to remove quicker than a card sharp and he said, “I think a bottle of whisky is in order. Keep the cup.”
Marlock passed over a medium–sized uncorked bottle and moved towards another patron who had sidled into the space beside Minsc. Minsc took the bottle in hand and turned around to survey the room languidly through the haze of smoke and sweat. A four–man group of minstrels were on a tiny stage at the back and even while they played their hearts out, they casually stepped out of the way here and there from a jubilantly thrown glass or patron. There were also the rowdy resident mercenaries, who currently revelled in the foulest versions of hymns at the tops of their lungs. If the Gods of the Pantheon did indeed listen to the blue hue of the language, They would no doubt have been left blushing from boots to roots.
Minsc walked towards the back table where the game was in mid hand and slunk his gaze around the circle of barely old enough boys. Each one of them tried to outdrink the other in such an exaggerated manly fashion that would have been comical, had anyone else been bothered enough to watch them. Ah, a handful of young pups in need of an education. He thought with a sly smile.
Minsc stood and watched for the current hand play to its end before he threw yet another bandit’s purse onto the table, such a brazen gesture that made the boys stop suddenly in their conversation.
“Is this a private shindig or can anyone join in?” Minsc asked with the grin of a shark.
The young men looked up at him in unison, youthfully awed at the easy confidence that oozed from this stranger before them. In a boyish attempt of emulating Minsc’s swagger, some tossed their cards at the dealer while others took manly pulls from their tankards and, Minsc noticed with a smile, one man in particular tightened his grip on his woman’s thigh. One of the men closest to Minsc sullenly nudged a chair out for him, a sign that Minsc was welcome to join in their game.
In an answer Minsc bit the cork from the whisky bottle and spat it out onto the floor before he sat down in the offered chair. He was aware of the woman’s eyes on him and more than a couple of the young men sized him up as they noticed his bow shift on his back when he sprawled in his chair. As a rule Minsc travelled light when it came to weaponry; for his short bow, long knife and riveted knuckle dusters tended to be more than enough to take care of any eventuality. His opponents rarely got close enough for a melee with his long knife, which was more akin to a short sword, but sometimes it was unavoidable and did well in ending conflicts swiftly and silently. His riveted knuckles on the other hand were purely because, in a tight scuffle, Minsc liked to be a total bastard. Speaking of which…
It didn’t take long for the territorial young man to get pissed off. Not only had he suffered significant losses, in money and in face, but he couldn’t help but notice they had gathered a small audience and this only made his embarrassment worse.
He was also acutely aware that his woman had been making eyes at Minsc from the moment he had approached the table and as such, he felt drastically emasculated in the shadow of this man’s easy confidence.
The lad ground his teeth and the remainder of his temper twanged like a frayed bow string as he glared at Minsc with steady eyes. He looked at his two friends that were left, angry that the other two had gone home after being completely cleaned out by this arrogant man.
When he finally fanned his cards on the table, he revealed his hand with a grin. “Two pair.” He said, and his voice dared Minsc to reveal a better hand.
There was total silence as Minsc, who lounged back in his creaking chair and played absentmindedly with the lip of his nearly empty whisky bottle, looked straight back at the man. With muddy heels on the table top adjacent to their own, Minsc plonked the bottle back down beside his hoard of coins and folded his hands behind his head. He calmly regarded his opponent, who waited impatiently for his card reveal, but when the moment dragged on the man’s face ticked perceptibly. In his peripheral vision, Minsc took in the background scene with an inward chuckle and smiled slightly when he saw that some of the patrons within the smoky, dully lit background had shifted in their seats.
Minsc’s smile widened when he heard the man repeat between clenched teeth, “I said: two…pair.”
Minsc breathed in deeply and as he raised his eyebrows in a facial sigh, he reached for his cards and flipped them over. “Three of a kind.” He said in a voice that suggested boredom.
There was a cheer from the crowd and as Minsc sat back, he picked up his whisky bottle and took a deep pull. The young man hung his head with a moan and as he pulled at his hair in a display of maddened frustration, his friends groaned in empathy. Minsc’s eyes then drifted over towards the woman, entirely aware that she had completely lost interest in the man she had come with, for she now stared at Minsc with undisguised attraction.
“What the fuck are you looking at?” Minsc’s opponent spat with anger as he jumped on the indiscretion as an excuse to vent his rage on the ranger. There were a couple of groans and subdued jeers from the crowd, for the Crossed Bow had no time for sore losers, and many turned from the scene.
Minsc sighed wearily and as the man stood up, he watched him round his shoulders and fluff himself up like a kitten ready for a fight. The boy’s friends pushed themselves back from the table, still seated, and their faces indicated that they would get dragged into whatever was about to happen whether they liked it or not.
The aggressor stalked around the table and stood directly behind Minsc, presumably a gambit for intimidation as he hissed, “Are you deaf? I said: what the fuck are you looking at?”
It was typical, really…all Minsc had wanted was to go back to the tavern where he rented his room, have a relaxing drink after his assignment, maybe take a stroll afterwards, get some food, take a bath, who knows. But now this pup had decided to pick a fight with him, all because he had destroyed him at poker and was enjoying the scenery. Minsc brought his legs back down slowly and as he rested his elbow on the table, he turned slightly and looked at the young man.
Minsc rubbed the stubble on his chin. Like a terrier barking at a bear. He thought as he slowly took another drink from his whisky bottle. He then smiled in a predatory fashion as he slid his gaze towards the woman, now sat right beside him in the boy’s chair. Well then…if it was a fight the young lad wanted, Minsc would give it to him in spades.
“I was appreciating this fine example of woman sitting there.” Minsc rumbled with an indication of his whisky bottle and his eyes outrageously played over the woman’s wonderfully corseted full breasts. “Yes, she is a beauty.” He mused.
In spite of herself, the woman couldn’t help but blush under the heat of that slow, steady gaze, flattered by the unveiled animal desire that lurked behind Minsc’s eyes.
Much to Minsc’s amusement the young man then squared up to him, all wiry muscle and peach fuzz chin. In the background he could see that money had exchanged hands already and among the impromptu betting pool, people spoke behind hands, laughed in embarrassment and rubbed palms. This was not an uncommon scene in these parts, particularly when Minsc was involved; it was practically local theatre. As appropriate, the music stopped and the audience pretended not to watch the proceedings with electric silence.
“She’s not yours to appreciate.” The young man said darkly as he clenched and unclenched his fists, his rage barely contained.
Minsc practically ignored the man and when he stood up, not only did he tower over him, but he exuded a sense of masculinity towards the woman that quickened her heartbeat like a hummingbird. Minsc noticed the creep of her blush and smirked when he saw her eyes sweep the contours of his strong body; for he knew with practiced certainty, in that moment, he had her.
Minsc faced the boy again and as he nodded slowly in the woman’s direction, he smiled crookedly and said, “She’s sure as shit not wet for you, son.”
“You son of a –” The man sputtered and he snatched up an empty wine bottle from the table Minsc had rested his feet upon. He then smashed it against the edge and brandished it at Minsc with a shaking fury as he shouted, “I’ll kill you, you bastard!”
To his credit the lad had broken the bottle in the correct fashion; too many times had Minsc seen a fistful of broken glass and gore due to an inexpert smash, so that was a pleasant surprise. Perhaps this would prove to be good sport after all. He thought.
Minsc sighed, narrowed his eyes and cocked his head at the man. “Sit down, son. This’ll only end badly for you.” He stated plainly and turned slightly as he spied the boy’s two friends shifting tactical positions in his periphery.
Excellent…booze, fighting and, he thought and as he glanced at the woman’s heaving chest, he winked roguishly at her,ha…well…the best way to spend an afternoon.
The man roared in indignation and when he lunged at Minsc he aimed the broken bottle at his kidneys, all rage and no finesse. But the lad had projected his move a mile away and so Minsc unleashed a lightning fast side kick straight into the man’s stomach in counter. The man sprawled back onto the empty table and as the breath knocked out of his lungs with a painful bark, his friends entered the fight with raised fists.
The boy on the left was first then; Minsc blocked the wild punch intended for his head easily with a forearm while the friend on the right, who thought he could catch Minsc on the hop, scrabbled up on the poker table. Before the punching man could retaliate however, Minsc had already brought his other hand up, grabbed the boy’s arm and twisted the elbow in a pivot that brought him against his back. Minsc then grabbed the boy’s head and when he smashed it mercilessly into the table, the nose splattered into a bloody mess. The startled boy grunted in shock when Minsc brought him heavily to the ground and brutally stamped his heel on the exposed chest.
The young man on the table had picked up Minsc’s whisky bottle with an aim of smashing it over his head like a club, however Minsc had raised his arms and blocked the attack at the boy’s wrist with crossed forearms. He pulled the attacking hand down with one hand and pushed the boy’s face to the side with his other, exposing the neck. Minsc then punched the soft flesh of the throat, a blow that stunned the boy into a red faced choke and made his eyes water. Minsc grinned with malice as he grabbed the boy’s ankles and when he yanked the feet from under him, the lad smacked his head off the table top before he rolled painfully to the ground.
The young man who had started it all rushed up and grabbed Minsc from behind, only for a cruel fist to be hammered into his crotch with agonising precision. The lad doubled in pain and as Minsc brought his head back sharply against the boy’s nose, blood erupted everywhere. Minsc then turned, grabbed the boy’s shirt with both hands and flung him at the poker table like a ragdoll with such force that the table toppled.
When Minsc triumphantly stood over his would–be aggressors, they groaned and clutched their wounds protectively and only the second boy had enough sense to look up at him in fear.
“Get lost, kid. And take your shit with you.” He suggested and the boy looked frantically at both his companions as they rolled on the floor in agony.
With a collective gulp of fear the boys stumbled over one another as they gathered themselves together and ran from the tavern, accompanied by raucous laughter, applause and jeers shouted at their backs. The clientele of the Crossed Bow really didn’t like sore losers.
Minsc laughed when he heard the groans and cheers of the patrons as they settled their bets and the minstrels began to play again. He glanced over at the landlord Marlock, who simply rolled his eyes at him and gestured in hopeless despair at the toppled table, broken glasses and bottles. Minsc grinned an apology at him before he slid his eyes back towards the woman, who stood with a hand on her chest and stared at Minsc with huge eyes.
He slowly sauntered over towards her, a deliberate movement that forced her to step back against the nearby support beam and for a moment, he simply stood intimately close and studied her face. He suddenly grabbed her lower back and when he pressed her abruptly against his stomach, the woman gasped in surprise. He loved this part, watching their reactions as he bombarded them with his aggressive confidence and sexuality, promises of his capabilities and experience made obvious in his eyes. He looked deeply into her eyes and when he slid his gaze to her mouth, he smiled when he felt her breath quicken against his chest. He raised his free hand to her neck and watched her eyes flutter when he trailed his fingertips slowly down towards the curve of her breast.
“So…what’s your name?” He murmured as he stared at her mouth.
“C–Caitlan.” She whispered, entirely enthralled with this animal of a man.
“Caitlan…” Was all he had to purr for her to launch herself at him, and as she kissed him deeply, she moaned into his mouth with a passion that made him stumble.
Well I don’t need to be told twice! Minsc thought happily and eagerly lifted the woman’s legs around his waist. He raised a triumphant fist in parting to the laughter and cheers from the familiar patrons and, when he made his way up the stairs towards the room he held to claim his most recent prize, the mess left behind him was entirely forgotten.
On his way back down the stairs, the landlord called Minsc over with a wave and a freshly poured beer, “Minsc, got something here for you.”
Minsc opened his arms expansively. “Marlock, my dearest friend, to what do I owe the pleasure of your fine company and sample of excellent libations?” He said jovially and swaggered his way over towards the bar with a twirl of an imaginary moustache.
Marlock snorted as he wiped the counter with his rag and waited for Minsc to pull out a tired and battered bar stool and sit down. Minsc picked up the offered tankard with a contented sigh and gulped down about half of it before he looked at Marlock.
“So what’s up?” He asked.
Marlock started to polish some of the glasses that sat hidden underneath the countertop and said, “Thought you’d like to know, there was someone in here earlier on scouting for someone with your particular talents, while you were…heh…exercising your other particular talents.”
Minsc chuckled and nodded slowly. “Yeah I was,” he drawled happily, “and?”
“First of all, that there is courtesy of Finlan.” Marlock said with a nod toward the tankard in Minsc’s hand, which he raised in silent thanks to Finlan. Marlock then brought a folded piece of parchment out from under the counter between two fingers and continued, “And the person asking after you told me to give you this.”
Minsc raised an eyebrow as he reached out for the parchment, curious in spite of himself, and when he unfolded the crude material his lips pursed subconsciously at the message within. It was barely an address written down with a skilled hand, which struck him as odd: commoners didn’t write that prettily and it was a wonder why anyone would bother wasting good parchment on something that could easily be spoken. That means there’s quite a bit of money to be earned here, Minsc though as he folded the parchment once more and placed it reflectively in his pocket.
Minsc looked up at the landlord with squinted eyes and asked, “Did they leave a name?”
“Hmmm…” Minsc uttered and rubbed his chin in thought. He suddenly drained the rest of his drink and pushed the tankard back towards Marlock, “Well, I suppose I’ll go see what all the fuss is about.”
He pushed himself off his stool and started to walk towards the door, but as he pulled his hood over his head, Marlock called after him.
“Here, is that wench still up there?”
“Yeah,” Minsc said and turned briefly with a cheeky grin, “make sure she’s gone by the time I get back, would you kindly?”
As he closed the heavy door behind him he heard Marlock roar indignantly, “I’m not your bloody madam, ranger! Clean up your own mess!”
Like all good taverns anywhere, the murky interior had given no indication of the time of day outside and Minsc squinted slightly from the late afternoon sunshine that bore down on him. He sniffed the air as he adjusted his sword belt and checked the quiver on his back was empty of arrows before he set off into the throng of the city, still bustling despite the late hour. The westerly wind blew stale brewery air among the tails of his deep green overcoat as he walked down the busy street and when he felt the complaining rumble of his stomach, he decided to take a detour through the market for something to eat.
The familiar sounds of market stall holders as they hollered their wares and prices, laughter and the occasional burst of music assailed his ears as he threaded his way through the busy crowd. The clucks of chickens for sale, fatty sizzle of grills and barks of excited dogs joined in the cacophony and mingled perfectly with the scents of cooking food, spices and the smoulder of barely legal herbs and tobacco. The dirty faces of street children poked out here and there among the sandy brickwork of the nearby buildings, beggar children or little thieves in training most likely. And from above, pigeons cooed and patrolled the walkways, ready to swoop down or shit on the non–vigilant food stalls and the people who perused them.
Minsc nodded a greeting at one of the merchants, who lifted his hands and made the general noise of recognition all merchants make when they see a ripe customer. When he was close enough Minsc tossed a coin towards the rotund, brown skinned merchant and he in turn tossed a sweet–rice and raisin stuffed apple to Minsc.
“How’s it going, Darmas?” Minsc asked through a mouthful of apple. He leaned back on the stall and watched the crowd reflectively as he chewed noisily on the deliciously sweet fruit.
“Minsc, my friend! Life is good, yes? I haven’t seen you for some time, you know?” The merchant replied jovially and his face beamed with a genuine smile.
“Ah you know how it is, Darmas,” Minsc replied as he continued to murder his apple, “I find it necessary to work on occasion. These things are unavoidable.”
Darmas laughed. “Yes indeed, good friend, indeed!” He said and as he rearranged his display, he continued in a much quieter voice that indicated worry, “Things in Ardeshuan have been a bit heated as of late.”
“Oh?” Minsc replied. He then picked fragments of apple from between his teeth with his fingernails and asked, “How so?”
“It would seem that the relationships between certain gangs have suddenly become quite difficult.”
Minsc frowned and inspected the merchant’s other wares as he asked, “Since when have gang relationships ever been content? Any idea who the casualties are affiliated to?”
“I am unsure. There are rumours of these skirmishes involving the Guild of Merchants and Henso’s mercenaries, but no one really seems to know for definite.”
Minsc smiled kindly as he licked nutmeg from his thumb, “That’s not exactly breaking news, Darmas.”
“Perhaps, Minsc,” Darmas conceded before he came closer and continued, “but bodies have been turning up here and there looking like patchwork quilts.”
Minsc frowned in concern; Henso hadn’t mentioned any particular bother with the Guild of Merchants lately, at least nothing beyond their usual bickering and brawling.
Darmas shrugged at Minsc’s expression and said, “It could just be pure fiction, right enough.”
“Hmm, let us know if you hear more. I’ll keep an eye out for any trouble, thanks.” Minsc said as he tossed another coin towards Darmas.
“Any time, my friend! Take care!”
Minsc continued his walk through the marketplace as he thoughtfully digested the information Darmas had just given him. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another; you couldn’t stop street violence outright, that was something that just happened. Besides it wasn’t a matter for one single ranger to take on and if it was Henso’s boys in strife, then Henso would not be best pleased if Minsc poked his nose in without being asked. Unless it got in the way of an assignment or he got dragged into it due to a ‘wrong place, wrong time’ scenario, Minsc wasn’t concerned: Henso’s mercenaries were not shy when it came to dealing with their enemies.
He took out the parchment Marlock had given him and read the address again: Statue of Clatha, Carnival Square. He sighed and put the parchment back into his pocket, What was the bloody point in wasting good parchment on that? He thought with irritation.
When Minsc reached the ironically named Carnival Square located in one of the poorest districts in the city, the moon was out and there was nobody anywhere near the statue of Clatha. Clatha was the Ardeshian God of Generosity and Charity, who was a favourite among beggars, thieves, monks and lepers and as a result was a fine patron for the paupers who lived in the mass slum that was Carnival Square. Clatha stood there proudly with His lamp held up high against the darkness of poverty like a beacon of hope and in His other hand, He cradled a newborn baby wrapped in a blanket, a turned shoulder to shield it from harm. Even though the God stood on His pedestal like a stone scarecrow, it was undeniable that Clatha cut an imposing and inspiring figure.
Minsc stood in front of the statue with his hands in his trouser pockets and sniffed; someone had pissed against the base recently. He glanced around and, with a chuckle at the recollection of Marlock’s comment, decided to put his ‘particular talent’ to good use.
“Palpo.” He whispered and gasped slightly at the familiar rush of adrenalin that came whenever he intoned the rangersight into his being.
The rangersight gift was one passed down from ranger to ranger, dependent on whether or not a particular stage in the ranger’s life had been passed, like a rite of passage. Only rangers who had passed this rite could use this gift; even if one knew the word or heard it somewhere, unless that person had the knack to activate it – which took years of training – they would only appear to be some fool talking to themselves.
Minsc himself had learned the skill from his mentor, a man whom he had idolised as a child and practically worshipped every word he spoke like an adoring acolyte. There was no other ranger better than his mentor Stafos, or ever would be, as far as Minsc was concerned. In his prime, the man had moved through the world like a ghost and knew everything about anything.
Stafos had taken ten year old Minsc under his wing after the boy’s village had been decimated by ogres, hungry from the winter. Minsc had miraculously survived with only a broken leg, perhaps unseen by the ogres as he had been hidden by what had been left of the roof of a fallen hut. Stafos had found the boy, delirious from hunger and weeping for his dead family, and he had healed his leg and took care of the lad. From there on in, Minsc had dedicated himself to learning the ways of the ranger and eventually learned the secret of the rangersight. It was Stafos who had encouraged Minsc to strike out on his own ten years after, as proud of him as any father could be, and so Stafos had retired in peace to some little village in the south.
He never did tell Minsc where he had gone, for he believed that if he had taught the little bastard anything it was how to find him again if he ever needed him.
All five of Minsc’s senses were heightened beyond the level of normality, his vision burned brightly and the slightest fleck became as sharply noticeable as a virgin’s blush on her wedding night. He could hear the quietest of thieves as though they stomped on glass, feel the most worn of textures as though they had just been created and scents burst like fireworks across his sinuses.
A trickle of effluence ran down the poorly constructed gutters beside the roads and mingled with the scents of dead animals, rotting food and damp moss. He could hear the occasional scream from an unfortunate victim, cheers from lively taverns and gambling dens, shattered glass, running feet, a whore as she enthusiastically earned her living, arguments and the cry of a baby. Minsc turned his head and took in his surroundings: every blade of what was left of the grass stood out individually, old bloodstains washed away years ago stood out as if spilt that second, the stars in the night sky blinked in a dazzling display like dusted confectionary and footprints emblazoned the ground as though their owners had walked through a paint spill.
Suddenly he became aware of someone whispering his name and he spun towards the sound to see a cloaked woman stood in the ruin of a doorway on the far side of the square, impossible for someone other than him to see her with such clarity. He blinked in surprise when the woman motioned for him to come toward her and she whispered, “Follow me.”
The woman left the security of the shadow and rapidly dashed around the corner, without a single glance to check that Minsc had indeed followed. He kept his distance carefully, curious as to why this meeting was so clandestine, and when he turned the corner he found himself utterly alone in a dead end alley. He glanced around for the woman’s location and spotted her route by following her pleasant rose water scent that disappeared up the side wall. He ran towards the wall and sped up at the last moment for enough momentum that he could grab the ledge at the top. He then pulled himself up with a grunt and teetered across the lip of the ledge towards the signpost of the nearby bookshop. He leapt catlike onto the frame of the sign and jumped up and over onto the balcony the sign was attached to.
Not bad, he thought, the woman must be pretty nimble to get up here. He followed her scent towards a nearby window and pushed the water damaged shutters open slightly for a furtive peek inside, the rough grain of the wood feeling as deep as a ploughed field against his fingertips. He opened the shutters fully, no glass, he realised and eased his way inside the room.
“Well done.” A powerful male voice said from the shadows, “At last I get to meet the ranger known as Minsc. I have heard a great deal about you.”
Minsc arched an eyebrow at the source of the sound. “I’m sure you have.” He remarked as his eyes settled on the expansive form of Lord Chancellor Arnestus of the Guild of Merchants.
If Minsc was surprised at this outcome his face didn’t show it, and his eyes shifted towards the woman who had led him here. Minsc saw she had discarded her cloak and the corner of his mouth lifted in admiration at how well the dusk light shone off the seat of her leather leggings when she bent down and spoke into the Lord Chancellor’s ear. She stood back up and glared at Minsc, who didn’t bother to remove the expression of male admiration from his face even as she frowned at him. She pulled a dagger from the sheath at her side and pointedly tapped the blade against a thigh as she stood a vigil beside the Lord Chancellor.
The Lord Chancellor…well now, Minsc thought, surprised in spite of his apparent indifference that the great man had set foot outside the confines and luxuries of the Guild hall. The seat that creaked in protest from under him was nearly in danger of disappearing up his backside; the man was so large after years of luxurious foods and exquisite liquors. He was swathed in the most expensive silks and furs a person could buy, both in sumptuous texture and vibrant colour. Jewels glistened in each ear, his nose, every finger and thumb, and his headdress alone was enough to make a princess green with envy. His beard was perfectly groomed, trimmed in a flawless line that highlighted where his jaw would have been, if anyone could have possibly located it under the layers of fat. His companion, on the other hand, was a svelte jaguar in disguise and Minsc could only imagine what intoxicating wonders waited under that layer of tight leather.
“My apologies for the song and dance, but I had to make sure you were as good as people say you are.” Lord Chancellor Arnestus said.
“You could have just asked.” Minsc replied plainly.
“Yes indeed, however I do like to indulge myself when curiosity strikes.”
Minsc was flattered, but not so flattered that he was blindly impressed by Arnestus’s trappings and power, and he muttered unconcernedly, “If you like, Arnestus.”
“That’s Lord Chancellor Arnestus to you.” The woman coldly growled in warning.
“Oh…aggressive.” Minsc purred with a playful half–scowl, half–smile on his face that inflamed the woman’s temper and made her tighten her grip on her dagger.
Arnestus raised his hand and rolled his eyes. “All right, all right. Karilla you can wait outside, he’s a ranger, not an assassin,” he said and raised his eyebrows in question at Minsc as he added, “despite previous offers, so I believe?”
Minsc watched in impressed silence when Karilla left the room without protest or a second glance at either Minsc or Arnestus, and when he fixed his gaze upon Arnestus once more, he made no apologies for not calling him Lord Chancellor. As far as Minsc was concerned a title wasn’t a name and to give Arnestus credit, he didn’t call him on it either.
“I’ll get to the point, shall I, Minsc?” The Lord Chancellor said in the powerful voice that had made him his fortune, “I called you here to propose a contract to you. I need a man with your specific talents and I need the job done quickly and discreetly.” Minsc inclined his head and waited for Arnestus to continue, “Naturally I shouldn’t have to explain to you the importance of silence with this mission of retrieval. A man in my position cannot be seen to be playing at affairs of cloak and dagger sensitivity, even if it is secretly accepted as a necessary avenue.”
Minsc nodded and as he prowled around the room his eyes flicked through the shadows in thought. “Naturally.” He responded flatly and asked, “Where and what?”
Arnestus smiled and stroked his beard in satisfaction as he rested back on his chair; he had heard Minsc was a blunt man who didn’t ask too many questions and that suited his needs perfectly. Truth be told he was enjoying himself immensely with all this secrecy and it was refreshing to not have to go through the rigmarole of diplomacy to get what he wanted.
“A scroll.” Arnestus answered, “Have you heard of Pilgrim’s Keep?”
“At the outskirts of the Causeway Woods?” Minsc nodded and said, “Yes I’ve heard of it.”
Arnestus nodded once in confirmation and expanded on Minsc’s job, “I need a scroll to be recovered from somewhere within the Keep. It has been well hidden for centuries. As such no one knows its exact location, but it has remained undisturbed if facts are correct.”
Minsc folded his arms and asked, “Not that I’m complaining, you understand, but wouldn’t this job be better suited for a thief?”
“Ordinarily, yes, however the Keep has new lodgers: Kirrah.” Arnestus explained as he leaned back in his chair and rubbed the expanse of his belly in enjoyment.
Minsc’s lip curled in disgust: Fucking kirrah…the little bat faced bastards were nothing but trouble. On their own the child sized, filthy demons were nothing but a nuisance, but a nest of them could spell trouble if an adventurer became overrun. Talk about a humiliating way to go.
“That could complicate things.” Minsc said slowly.
“Five hundred crowns should un–complicate matters considerably, wouldn’t you agree?” Arnestus intoned magnanimously.
Minsc controlled his face carefully; usually he would charge three hundred for any commission. He sighed as though the figure was a common payment for his services and said, “That’s acceptable. When do you need this done by?”
“As soon as possible. It’s unlikely, but I want that scroll found before the kirrah get their filthy paws on it. Or anyone else for that matter.”
“Very well, I’ll leave at first light. I’ll be back within a few days.”
Arnestus turned his head slightly toward the door and called, “Karilla!”
The woman came in, bowed slightly to the Lord Chancellor and effectively ignored Minsc, who smirked in amusement at her indifference. Arnestus stood with the assistance of the opulently jewelled cane she had brought in with her and waddled in front of Minsc.
“Karilla will finalise the rest of the details with you. Good evening to you, Minsc. It was a delight meeting you.”
Karilla walked towards the window and when she passed Minsc she glanced briefly in a way that silently instructed him he was to follow her. He watched her climb out the window and drop to the ground skilfully and yet again, without a backwards glance, began to walk back the way they had come. Without a final farewell to Arnestus, Minsc followed her out the bookshop window and when he caught up as she rounded the corner, he walked alongside her and waited silently.
“You’ll receive one hundred crowns today; the rest will be awarded to you upon completion of your assignment.” She rattled off in a clipped voice and manner that suggested military training. She reached out a hand with a purse and again didn’t look to see if Minsc would take it from her.
When she felt the purse leave her hand she continued in that peculiar, sharp monotone, “As the Lord Chancellor stated, this assignment is of the utmost secrecy. Do not attract attention to yourself; do not enlist outside aid and do not feel the need to exterminate the colony of kirrah.”
“What does it matter to you what happens to the kirrah?”
“Like I said: do not attract attention to yourself.”
Minsc had had enough of this tiresome wench and her cold manner, never mind being spoken to like a wet–behind–the–ears rookie. He stepped forward in a longer stride that blocked Karilla’s path and when he stood directly in front of her, his shoulders expanded with indignation and intimidation.
“All right, Kitten, I understand.” He condescended with narrowed eyes, “This isn’t my first time.”
“So I’ve heard.” She remarked drily as she bristled at the pet name he had given her. They stood and stared each other down for a few moments and Minsc realised from her posture that she was sizing him up, gauging whether or not she could take him.
But Karilla seemed to remember herself then, for she continued her instructions with a sharp intake of breath, “When you return, leave a message with your friend Darmas at the marketplace. Only then will I arrange payment to be brought to you. Is that understood?”
“Implicitly.” Minsc drawled with smooth sarcasm through pulled lips and momentarily leaned towards her purely to make her uncomfortable. Then, with a firm knowledge that nothing would be gained by staying with the frosty bitch, he turned and headed back for the tavern, acutely aware that his good mood had turned most foul indeed.
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