There are many sights a man could see to lift his spirits in the morning. A clear blue sky with the sun peeking just over the horizon, fresh snow blanketing an evergreen forest at the first sign of winter, a beautiful woman curled up next to him after a night of revelry and pleasure. For Helbram, even the site of a roof over his head would have been a small, yet reassuring comfort.
The knife at his throat? Not so much.
“Don’t move,” sneered his would-be assailant, a lanky, yet stocky man wearing clothes both too big and too small for him.
Helbram had to admit, any bystander would believe that the man had the obvious advantage. He sighed and raised his hands in surrender.
“Well, you’ve certainly caught me unawares,” he said, his resignation sounding hollow through his helmet, “but you can hardly expect to shake me down properly while I’m propped up against this tree, can you?”
The bandit paused, grip still firm on the weapon lodged at the armored man’s throat. He grinned shortly after, “You’re right, better for you to take that armor off for me anyhow. Up you go, slowly.”
Helbram obeyed, keeping his hands up as the blade never left his neck. He had to admit, the thief was quite professional, something that was further enforced as the man circled around him and positioned the knife at a gap in his armor. One small slip and he’d have the knife in his armpit. A not so glorious, but quick way to die. The bandit also dealt him the displeasure of keeping a hand wrapped around his other shoulder, albeit a bit too close for comfort.
“A shame you weren’t a woman,” the bandit said, hunger in his voice.
Helbram shivered, “I was already aware you were a sour sort but you didn’t have to go and turn it to poison.”
“Shut it,” his assailant spat, “You’re in no position to judge me.”
“Oh I do believe I am in the perfect position to do so,” Helbram said in a relaxed tone, “but go on, take stock of your spoils by all means.”
The bandit paused, “What are you up to?”
“What could I be up to I wonder?” Helbram said, “Perhaps I am just a man that realizes when he’s lost and would like to walk away with his life, or perhaps I am the one that has you cornered and you just don’t know it.”
“Or perhaps you’re just someone who talks too much until they get gutted.”
Helbram shrugged, feeling the steel adjust further towards his armpit as he did so, “Also possible, but taking armor off a dead body is quite troublesome don’t you think? Not to mention all the blood involved. Nasty business, that.”
“Oh enough of this, step forward. Let’s take a look at what a wordy man like yourself has in stock, eh?”
The bandit urged Helbram forward by pressing the knife against the gap in his armor, to which the armored man responded with a resigned sigh and stepped towards the center of his small camp. Small embers emitted the remaining vestiges of last night’s warmth as thin, smoky wisps, curling from the gentle breeze that drifted through the trees. A rucksack lay near the campfire, his sword and shield placed right next to it. The bandit kicked the sword away, prompting a frown from Helbram, not that it could be seen through his visor.
“A bit much don’t you think?” Helbram said, but he motioned towards his rucksack in an unceremonious fashion, “Behold, your loot.”
“Bah, a bloody ruck?”
“I’m afraid so, fortune has not been so kind to me as of late.”
“I’ll say, your bed roll isn’t even undone, was our knight so tired he didn’t even have time to set that up?” He snickered, “A knight sleeping with the hedges? A hedge knight you could say.”
“Oh, you are a clever one.”
“Aye, and if you know what’s good for you you’d develop a sense of humor yourself, hedge knight.”
Helbram sighed once more, “This charade has gone on for long enough.” Before the bandit could respond, Helbram turned his hand towards the man’s face and focused the small traces of Ether in his body to the center of his palm. A bolt of pale white light surged from his hand, striking the bandit with enough force that his head snapped back, dragging the rest of his body with him. He struggled to maintain his footing, allowing Helbram to turn around and punch the bandit square in the jaw. The blow collapsed the man to the ground, his body unable to respond as Helbram kicked the knife out of his hand and delivered another closed fist to the man’s face, knocking him out for good.
Helbram dusted his hands off and grunted, “Blasted bandits these days, always thinking they’re so witty.”
Helbram had hoped that his trip to Silverglen would be nice and quiet. His prisoner was providing the opposite experience.
“Please let me go good sir, I swear I’m a changed man, truly,” the bandit said, tears welling in his eyes.
“That would indeed be quite the speedy change,” Helbram said through a yawn.
“Yes sir it was, the justice felt from your fist has given me perspective.”
Helbram stopped and eyed the man through his visor, “I understand that you want to appear weak and harmless but by the gods have some dignity man.” He yanked the rope tied to the bandit’s wrists to urge him forward.
“Bloody… at least unbind my godsdamned feet will ya?”
“There it is.”
“What, do you expect me to hop my way back to town? My legs burn and I feel a twinge in my groin.”
“Truly unfortunate. Perhaps that is something you should have considered before robbing people on the road.”
“You, I’ll have you-”
The ranting of the bandit faded into the background as Helbram nursed his neck.
“Mellisandra’s tits that hurts something fierce,” he muttered to himself.
He should have expected such pain from spending the entire night sleeping against a tree in his armor. Something he normally wouldn’t have done, but he had to set bait, and there was no better bait for bandits than an easy score.
“What in the five hells was that back there anyway?” The bandit spat, “What are you some mage that fancies armor over those breezy robes your lot wear?”
Helbram snorted, “Hardly,” he tugged on the rope harder, “Children could come up with such tricks given enough training. I’m afraid I’ve no storms or fireballs to conjure for you.”
The bandit grumbled and hopped forward with a series of curses muttered under his breath.
Helbram continued down the road, taking a moment to appreciate the trees that bordered the trail. Silverglen Forest was much like any forest; thick, green, and teaming with sounds of ambient life. Some of it was familiar, some unfamiliar. The road ahead was flat, but the twisted nature of its path suggested that it may have been an animal trail prior to man’s influence. He was grateful for the gentle breeze that wisped through the road. Even with the beginnings of Fall brushing against the leaves the Summer heat still lingered enough to be bothersome. He supposed he could take off his helmet in this situation, but with a rather loud prisoner in tow there was always the off chance some other bandit or wandering predator could make their way onto the road and he’d rather not take any chances.
His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden tug on his rope. He turned around and saw the bandit laying on the ground, motionless. Helbram sighed.
“Come now, have some decency will you?”
“Have some decency? What kind of decency can a man have when he’s been roped up like an animal?” The bandit wiggled on the ground to emphasize his point.
Helbram paused, turning his neck and pondering off to the distance.
“See? I have a point d-”
Helbram snapped his neck the other way, producing a loud series of pops as he did so. He groaned in relief.
“Ohhhh, much better,” he rolled his shoulders and rotated his head once more. After he was done he pulled on the rope again. “Come now, we musn’t dawdle”
“Don’t speak to me like some child! Even I have some pride…”
“Do you? It matters not to me. It’s been quite some time since I’ve gotten some decent exercise so I suppose I could just drag you back to town to compensate.”
To emphasize his point he pulled on the rope once again, expending little effort to drag the bandit for a few feet.
“Alright alright,” the bandit relented, “Bloody bastard… about to wear a hole in my clothes…”
Helbram did not help his prisoner back up to his feet, for as the bandit struggled with his bound limbs he heard the familiar bellow of an Auroc in the distance.
Turning the corner behind them was a wagon drawn by a large, four legged beast of burden. Two horns barely peaked through the thick fur coat of the beast as it trudged forwards, placing it as female. Its hooves packed the dirt beneath it further with each step, making a steady pace towards Helbram. A portly dwarf sat at the seat of the wagon, scratching his thick, short cut beard and adjusting his floppy, wide-brimmed hat as he urged the beast forward. The wagon itself had no wheels to carry its weight, and it instead levitated above the ground with the assistance of the magitek contraption strapped to its undercarriage. A soft green glow emanated from the device, indicating the circulation of Wind Aether through its circuitry. It was an odd amalgamation of rudimentary and Esperian innovation, but one that was becoming increasingly common in the Freemarks of late.
“Oh thank the gods,” the bandit exclaimed as he finally got to his feet, “transport.”
Helbram eyed his prisoner with a mix of annoyance and pity, but directed his attention to the driver of the approaching wagon.
“Ho there Joldir,” he said, holding up a hand.
The dwarf lifted his hat, eyes widening briefly as he caught sight of him, “Sir ’elbram? And here I’d thought you’d moved on from our little town.”
“Not quite yet,” Helbram said, “had some unfinished business to take care of before I set off entirely,” he pulled on the bandit’s rope to emphasize his point.
Joldir smirked at the sight of the bound criminal, “Ah, so this is the bastard whose been robbing our good folk? Bring him closer will you?”
Helbram obliged, and bore witness to a slap across the bandit’s face. When said slap comes from the large, muscled hand of a dwarf, the sight was enough to make Helbram flinch.
“Ow! Bloody- I’ll have your head old man!`` The bandit tried to lunge for the dwarf, but Helbram pulled on the rope once again, this time with enough force to drag him back to the ground.
“That’s enough of that,” he walked over to the struggling bandit and addressed Joldir once again, “would you be willing to provide transport back to Silverglen? As pleasant as present company is, I’d rather be done with this business as soon as possible.”
“Why certainly sir, it’s the least I could do to contribute.”
“Wonderful, but please, I am no knight, just Helbram is fine,” he said, his smile hidden but evident in his voice.
Joldir chuckled, “Understood Helbram, toss the bastard in the back, you can ride up front.”
Helbram nodded and knelt down, lifting his prisoner and tossing him into the back of the wagon in one smooth motion, prompting another tangent of curses as he secured the bandit to one of the wagon’s posts, He took a seat next to Joldir and stretched his arms.
“Onwards good man.”
“So, this is our bandit?”
Helbram nudged the thief forward. His feet still bound, he stumbled into the guard captain’s desk. The bandit cut Helbram a glower.
“Eyes forward thief,” The guard captain commanded, his deep Freemarks accent radiating with the gruff authority of an Orc. So much so that the bandit snapped his head forward out of instinct and righted himself up.
The guard captain eyed the bandit with a look of impassivity, which radiated intimidation from his burly features. The bandit opened his mouth to say something, but quickly closed it when the guard captain regarded him in silence. Helbram had to admit, he was jealous of the captain’s ability to command such a presence. It would have helped with the noise from before at the very least.
“Did you manage to retrieve what he stole?” the captain asked, his eyes fixed on the bandit.
Helbram shook his head, “Afraid not. Bringing him in was my first priority, but the thief did keep his coin purse on him,” he said, tossing a ragged bag onto the table. It landed with a heavy thud, “Judging by the weight it doesn’t look like he spent much of what he stole,” he smirked from behind his visor, “Perhaps he was saving up for something nice. A fancy suit, maybe?”
The provocation was enough to break the bandit from his controlled posture as he cut Helbram another vicious look.
He ignored the daggers glared his way, “I trust you’ll get the money back to the victims then?”
The captain nodded, “Yes, thank you again for your help.”
“It was my pleasure,” Helbram said, “Now about my pay…”
“Ah,” the captain produced a smaller cloth bag from his desk drawer and tossed it at Helbram. The purse landed in his palm and he examined its contents.
“200 marks, as agreed,” the captain said.
The armored man counted the coins within the bags, noting the mix of silver, copper, and sparse bits of gold, “Everything looks to be in order. Do you have any other tasks that require my attention?”
The captain opened the notebook that sat neatly at the center of a well organized desk. After a moment of checking its contents he shook his head, “Not at this moment. A shame really, I could do with an excuse to keep a man like you around.”
Helbram chuckled, “Hardly, wanderers such as myself should be taken at small doses.”
“Well if you do ever find yourself back in Silverglen do drop by will you? This town could always do with the help,” he motioned to the bandit, “Loathe as I am to admit it most of my men are still too green to handle things such as this.”
“Noted, I’ll be sure to stop by should my travels guide me back to this quaint little town, though I suppose in time that won’t be so true anymore, will it?”
The captain sighed at that statement, but said nothing.
“I do believe I must be going, have yourself a pleasant day captain.”
“The same to you Helbram, may the gods bless you with safe travels.”
Helbram waved and left the captain and bandit behind, leaving the guardhouse and stepping into Silverglen’s town square.
In its current state, Silverglen was much like any town in the Freemarks. Small, its buildings clustered around some semblance of a town square with perhaps one or two of them reaching higher than a story tall. In some cases you’d see farmland in the outskirts, perhaps a logging station if the town was located deep within the woods. Silverglen, however, was in the fortunate position of expansion. The beginnings of new houses, new buildings dotted the relatively flat plains that surrounded the town’s origin, and much like the wagon he rode into town, some semblance of Esperian magitek wires and circuitry could be seen within their foundations.
The town square itself was alive with midday activity and his thoughts receded at the presence of chatter that rang throughout the square. Though Silverglen was growing, it had not quite grown out of its small town shell. There were no shops within the town, and instead the vendors hawked their wares to young and old alike. Some lined their stalls with simple produce and others with finely crafted clothes or other sundries. The square was quickly becoming too cramped as more people flooded in during the peak of business, and Helbram was eager to make his way out of town before it became too packed to navigate.
He shouldered his rucksack and proceeded into the crowd, making his way towards the main road. He bumped a few shoulders on his way out, giving a small apology to any irritated glances that were thrown his way. He had not quite inherited his father’s large build, but crowds still proved to be difficult to navigate for his size, and he’d resigned himself to shouldering a few others out of the way unwillingly.
As he finally emerged from the crowd he gave a sigh of relief and could only shudder at the prospect of navigating the larger crowds of cities. Alas, as soon as he set his sights upon the road ahead a voice rang from the crowd behind him.
“Hear me, all, for I come to you seeking aid,” a man said, his voice loud, but unnaturally so.
As Helbram turned, he could see why. For at the center of the square stood a halfling man atop a large wagon. His hair was cut short and combed over and he held one hand up to the side of his throat, a chain wrapped around his fingers akin to a piece of jewelry. Even from his distance Helbram knew it to be a magic focus, indicating that the halfling held some talent in Thaumaturgy. Of course magnifying one’s voice was hardly a complex spell, but the robes that hung from the Halfing’s gaunt frame indicated that, on first impression at least, the man was practiced in some regard.
The chatter from the crowd died down, the intrusion of this new voice enough to grab their attention if only for a moment. One that the halfling wasted no time capitalizing upon.
“I speak at the behest of my master, the renowned Tristan Bereton, owner of the Goldshire mines,” he said with a bow, “It is with much distress that I come to you, for the mine has been occupied by a band of vicious bandits.”
Gasps rang throughout the crowd.
“Now how did that happen?” a man from the crowd asked, “Goldshire is bigger than we are, how’d some band of thieves come and stink up the place?”
Mutterings spread throughout the crowd, a tide of discontent that was interrupted again as the halfling’s voice boomed through the square.
“Were it some common rabble I would understand your confusion, dear sir,” Helbram detected the hint of an edge to the halfling’s voice, “but this is no mere band of rudimentary thieves. They are well armed, organized, and numerous. We were caught unawares, and they struck quickly and decisively. Rather than die in the chaos we elected to retreat to retake the mines at a later date,” the halfling swept his hand over the crowd, “and that, my good people, is why I come to you for succor.”
Helbram pushed himself back into the crowd, noticing a group of men and women already surrounding the wagon. Most were adorned in fresh leather armor with a spear, sword, or bow at their side. Their faces were young, their chests puffed out with pride as the crowd directed their attention towards them. The remaining few, he noted, were outfitted in much more weathered, robust gear, with one notable member clad in brigandine.
“My master requests the aid of any able bodied man or woman willing to take up arms, for he intends to take back the mines within the next few days. You will, of course, be handsomely rewarded for your contribution.”
Chatter once again surrounded Helbram and he made his way further into the crowd.
“Didya hear that? I could do with more marks in my pocket,” a nearby adolescent said.
“More marks? You’d be lucky to come back alive from something like that, don’t be a fool boy,” a deeper voice responded.
This sentiment appeared to be the majority opinion of the town, as no one stepped forward to the halfling’s request.
The halfling cast his eye over the crowd, the disappointment clear on his face, “Truly? None of you wish to offer your aid for such a dire situation? The very Aether crystals that this region relies upon are at stake.”
Still, no one stepped forward. Helbram could not blame them. As it was now, Silverglen was no military power and while it was still growing there were hardly any armed travelers around to offer their service.
Except one in particular.
“Ho there,” he called out, “I’ll join you.”