Elgrin Halfhanded hunched closer to the fire, hungrily inhaling the aroma of his simmering stew. It wouldn’t be ready for another few minutes, but his belly was impatient. Of all the things he hated about a Quest (and there were many), camping out was the worst. At least he’d be back at Adran Keep by tomorrow evening; happily, he’d been able to accomplish his task with dispatch. The outlaws of Atonia Forest would no longer be troubling passerby, and the Order could put the bounty to good use. The king had been somewhat reluctant to pay at first, arguing that the Abbot should have requested authorization for Elgrin’s Quest, but once Elgrin reminded him that the Order took a dim view of monarchs who reneged on their agreements, he’d paid.
Elgrin jingled the purse at his side reflectively. All fifty gold coins were there, but not a cent more. The king was foolish not to provide a bonus for the speedy service. The Order was a formidable enemy, and its good will, once lost, was hard to regain. On the other hand, King Bottus kept irritating many powerful groups, both within and beyond his borders, and if the gossip Elgrin had heard at court was reliable, there was every reason to think that Bottus would be ousted within a sixmonth. Elgrin made a mental note to ask the Abbot whether the Order’s services had been requested for the coup. If so, he was ready to volunteer; Bottus had been truly obnoxious.
A rustle in the bushes behind him made him spin about, his sword at ready. Then he realized that the sound could not have come from anything so large as a man. A fawn, perhaps, or a noisy badger. With a shrug, he reseated himself. The fire would keep the animals away, and the only creatures Elgrin feared walked on two legs. He couldn’t believe that even Bottus would be foolish enough to send a party after one of the Order. Licking his lips in anticipation, he reached forward for the pot.
When the rock hit him on the back of the head, his first reaction was one of disbelief, closely followed by fury. Leave it to Bottus to have a retinue of midget warriors in his guard. And incompetent ones at that: his vision was marred by a red haze, but he was still conscious.
His attacker clambered over his still form, but rather than slitting his throat or snatching his purse, the small form went directly to the stew. As the attacker struggled to lift the heavy pot, Elgrin’s hand stealthily closed upon his sword. The instant it was firmly in his grip, he sprang up with a bone-chilling yell.
The intruder started violently, dropping the pot. Most of the stew sloshed out, dousing the fire and further infuriating Elgrin. “That was my dinner!” he howled in outrage. “I’ll have your ears for that, you back-stabbing thief!”
Instead of drawing a sword, the intruder snatched up a burning log from the sputtering fire and thrust it at Elgrin. He parried the amateurish attempt with ease, advancing on his foe. “So Bottus even skimps on his soldiers’ training, eh?”
The other, still hidden by shadow and Elgrin’s dimmed sight, backed away, casting about for a suitable weapon. Finding none in the small clearing, he turned to flee, but Elgrin brought the flat of his sword down on the intruder’s back, knocking him to his knees. “You owe me your ears, remember?” Elgrin snarled, towering over his downed foe.
A feeble kick to his shin was the only reply. Elgrin didn’t even flinch. “Get up!”
When that prompted no immediate action, Elgrin reached down and jerked him to his feet. “I said get up!” he bellowed.
The shoulder within his rough grasp was curiously thin and bony, even for a midget. Elgrin blinked, trying to clear his vision, and dragged his captive over to the sputtering fire. “By the gods!” he gasped as the light showed him his adversary’s features. “You’re nothing but a little girl!”
“Let me go!” She spoke for the first time, twisting under his grip.
He clamped down, preventing her escape. “What are you doing here?”
She glared at him. “Let me go!”
“Don’t be a fool, girl. You need my help. Where are your parents?”
“I’ll tell you nothing! Turn me loose!”
Elgrin shrugged, releasing her. “Very well. Have you lost your appetite then?”
She stopped at the edge of his camp.
Elgrin pretended not to notice, busying himself with salvaging the remains of the stew and dividing it between two bowls. That done, he seated himself and began to eat from one. “Not bad.”
The girl crept closer, one reluctant step at a time, eyes fixed on the second bowl.
“Well? Take it.” Elgrin was not a patient man, and he quickly tired of the child’s wary progress. Picking up the bowl, he held it out to her. “Come on then!”
She scuttled away, regarding him with deep suspicion.
“By the eighteen eyes of Kardor! I don’t mean you harm, girl!”
“You said you’d have my ears off,” she replied coldly, keeping her distance.
“Don’t be a fool. That was before I knew what you were. Now do you want this meal, or do I eat it myself?” He made as if to add the contents of the second bowl to the one in his lap.
“No!” She shot forward and snatched the bowl from his hands.
He grinned, but made no move towards her, and clutching the bowl, she retired to the far side of the fire. Never once taking her eyes off Elgrin, she settled herself, then whistled softly. At her signal, a small boy, no more than six, crept out of the forest and came to her side.
“There are two of you?” Elgrin exploded in surprise. “Or is it more?”
She shook her head. “Only us.” She gave the stew to the boy, “Careful, Jory; it’s hot.”
“Where are your parents?”
“Dead,” she answered shortly.
“The plague?” Elgrin guessed.
Her eyes flashed. “Murder. Jory and I were in the woods; that’s how we escaped. They killed everyone else -- our parents, brothers, sisters, even the baby.”
The girl’s chin came up. “That’s my affair.”
“Kardor’s bones, girl! Do you still think I mean you ill? And what if I did? What could you do? Say I decided to take the lad there and sell him in the slave pits of Markettown, who would stop me?”
The girl had risen to her feet. ”I would,” she snarled.
Elgrin stared at her, entranced. Her body was that of a scrawny ten year old, but she had the heart of a warrior.
“Jory, get up,” she told her brother, her eyes still locked on Elgrin’s. “Get up!”
“But, Kalleen, I’m not finished,” he protested.
“Now!” She crouched, ready to defend his retreat.
“Enough!” Elgrin waved a hand at her. “Let the lad finish. I mean you no harm.”
“The slave pits at Markettown came too quickly to your mind,” she retorted. “Jory, I said get up!”
“Think, girl; if I planned to bring you to Markettown, I wouldn’t announce my intentions. You’ve nothing to fear.”
She didn’t deign to reply, and Elgrin’s patience wore out. Seizing his sword, he jerked it out of the scabbard far enough that she could see the Guild insignia inscribed along its length. “Do you see that?” he demanded. “I’m Elgrin Halfhanded, a warrior of the Order. Do you know of us?”
Grudging respect replaced some of the suspicion in her eyes, and she nodded.
“Then you know you needn’t fear me; I’ll help you and your brother.”
Slowly, she reseated herself. “How?”
He held out his bowl of stew to her. “Do you have any relatives? Friends who would take you in?”
She shook her head. “There’s no one.”
“Here. Take the food.”
She looked at it hungrily, but declined. “That’s yours.”
His eyebrows rose. This child had potential. “You gave yours to the boy; take this.”
Again, she refused. “He’s little.”
“Ah. So you think of yourself as a warrior already?”
Her chin came up. “I do.”
“Bashing people on the back of the head with a rock doesn’t make you a warrior, girl. There’s more to it than that. Now take this stew before it gets any colder.”
She bit her lip, torn between pride and hunger.
“Take it before I pour it out on the ground.”
“Well, if you’re not going to eat it...” Her speed in grabbing for the bowl belied her words.
“That’s better,” Elgrin grunted. “How do you expect to learn anything if you can’t follow orders?”
“Why should I follow your orders?” she challenged around a mouthful of food. “Who are you to order me?”
“Who are you that I shouldn’t?” he retorted.
“I am Kalinara, daughter of Thomas Silversmith and Elysandra Weaver,” she replied huffily. “I am the eldest of five -- ” Her voice faltered as she realized that her family no longer existed. Her only kinsman was the big eyed six year old seated beside her.
The mask of haughtiness and defiance slipped for an instant, and the frightened little girl peeked out. Then she regained her composure and levelled an angry stare at Elgrin. “I am Kalinara, sister to Jory and protector of my clan,” she snapped. “And I am so a warrior,” she added, with a ten year old’s indignation.
“Not yet, you’re not,” Elgrin replied. “But that will change.”
She looked at him, puzzled and wary, but he said nothing more.
“Finish your stew. In the morning I’ll take the two of you with me.”
“Why should we go with you?”
“What choice do you have? If you remain here, you’ll slowly starve to death. At the castle you’ll be well cared for.”
“What about Jory? He’s too small to work.”
“Kardor’s bowels! You think I mean to make you a drudge? You’d be wasted in the kitchens. It’s clear the gods have made you a warrior; let’s give you the training they neglected.”
Kalleen stared at him. “I don’t understand.”
“Do you wish to join the Order?” Elgrin snapped impatiently. He always grew irritable when he skipped a meal.
Her eyes widened. “Me?”
“No, the babe there! Yes, you!”
“Yes! Yes, of course!”
“Good. Then tomorrow you will. Now go to sleep.”