↑Map of Forsenite Kingdom and the Free City of Meerstrand
There was no wind that night on the road, not a single leaf swayed in the ether and the edge of the forest stood still. Old oaks stood tall, surrounded by younglings of ash, birch and hazelnut, briefly intersected by congregations of evergreens. This unmovable and endless conglomeration stood still in luscent midsummer night, harboring many lives, yet sharing the source of all life – soft, yet constant rushing of water interluded the silent night. The spring burst out of the forest, running through the grassy field parallel to the dusty road, winding and bending. Then, suddenly, at the roots of the very first oak at the tree line, a single orange light sparkled into life, adding its own gentle crackle to the minimalist cacophony of the night.
Four figures surrounded the bonfire, their clothes dusty and slightly tattered, their humble belongings dropped on the ground around the fire. One figure moved towards the rushing creek, kneeling next to it and dipping the waterskin into the stream. As the figure pulled back and hungrily drank from the now full waterskin, its black hood slumped down, revealing an equally black skin, so black, it reflected blue in the starlight and hair of equal sable, elongated ears with many piercings of small fangs and bone jewelry and dim green eyes. The features of the elf were slender and hawkishly feminine as she handled the waterskin back into the running stream, wiping her lips with thin fingertips. She then returned to her company that have already settled around the bonfire. All were large compared to the she-elf and without their travel cloaks looked distinctly and intimidatingly different from her, all having lizard-like features: elongated snouts, scaly skins and their carnivorous fangs flashed in the light of the fire whenever they opened their mouths to speak in deep bass voices.
The differences came out only when inspecting closer, not from so far away and in this limited light. Two of these bipedal lizards had scales as black as the elf and one boasted a dark blue shade. Coming even closer, the features of each lizard starts to show: one of the black ones was visibly larger, shoulders wide and hands – three fingers and a thumb – with claws so big they would crush the elf’s head into a pulpous mass without much effort. Its bare feet, also with four clawed toes, dug into the grass as it began a complex dance of fists thrusting through the air and feet lifting off the ground, kicking the air soundlessly.
The other black-skinned lizard kept its travel coat on, yet even through the baggy, dusty cloth one could observe a much leaner build than the companion, his snout, not covered by the hood, appeared bonier and bright yellow eyes under a hardened mosaic of scales instead of eyebrows were narrow and shrewd. The yellow eyes appeared to be smirking while looking straight at the blue companion across from what seems to be a board of strangely shaped chess. Every time the lizard would move a piece, its silvery claws flashed in the light, revealing smaller, but quick hands.
The blue lizard companion was still smaller than the fighter, yet somewhat larger than the game opponent in front of it, his eyes, also yellow and equally shrewd, contrasting with cobalt blue skin followed the movements on the board with great attention. The lizard’s claws were also dark blue, black almost, one hand moving the pieces, the other holding on to a wooden quarterstaff, mounted with cast iron handles on either end. The blue one had the travel cloak off and wore another one, lavishly indigo underneath, reinforced with hardened leather and embroidered with silver threads.
“Your move, blues” the slender black lizard spoke, mockingly. They spoke in deep, guttural voices, fit for the strange language they produced.
“You are always in a such a rush to lose, it baffles the mind” the blue one talked back and moved a piece almost across the board “check. You have two more moves at best.”
“So you say every time!”
“So it happens every time” the blue one exhibited superior calmness over his game opponent “now make your move, Decebal.”
“Alright, alright” the black one called Decebal lowered his head and crossed his arms. Few minutes passed during which the third lizard patiently continued the martial training and the she-elf returned from the stream with three full waterskins and took out some dried jerky from her pouch, chewing on it while watching the game board.
Finally, Decebal moved a piece through the chequered surface. The blue one exhaled loudly and moved his own piece a few spaces.
“Check mate” he dropped the largest piece on Decebal’s end on its side “not even two moves, I was wrong.”
Decebal visibly tensed up and when he exhaled, two miniature balls of fire escaped his nostrils and dissipated immediately with a flash.
“No need to be angry, D” the blue one leaned back against the gigantic oak, crossing arms behind his head “you win sometimes, when you keep a cool head.”
“Pff, you always bank on me losing my temper, that’s all there is. And you shouldn’t” Decebal collected the chess into the board the pieces were standing on and closed it into a portable box. The said box disappeared within large leather backpack.
“I bank on it, because you do lose your temper, too often at that” the blue one stretched his legs in front of him “I told you many times you should learn to control it, since it gets us in trouble more often than not.”
“Are you done now?” the she-elf spoke with croaky voice, in a completely different language, with elongated vowels and quite musical. Both looked at her.
“Sorry” Decebal responded in the same musical language “we didn’t realize we switched back to draconic.”
“Don’t apologize” the she-elf walked up next to Decebal and plopped down on the grass next to him, her back to the fire “teach me how to play.” Her tone was commanding and slightly impatient.
“Or don’t? If Decebal doesn’t have patience to play, Shey certainly won’t” the blue one took a small booklet and a portable quill and inkwell and started noting something.
“Don’t listen to him” Decebal said earnestly, rummaging through the backpack for the chess board “I will teach you, it’s not difficult to learn, but to master…well, Quenfar has it easy.” the black lizard narrowed his eyes at the blue one, but Quenfar didn’t pay the slightest of heeds.
“I’m not listening to him” Shey folded her arms, her eyes darting around the board Decebal was setting up again “show me how it’s played again, this time with explanations.”
“Well, you could play against me-”
“No. Play. I want to see again.” Shey lifted her eyes up to Decebal and he felt a little bit of Quenfar’s commanding presence in this tiny she-elf. Yet, unlike Quenfar, she didn’t cause him to feel inferior.
“Well, I won’t play against blues” he gestured towards Quenfar, silently filling in his notebook. He only scoffed at the implication “hey! Balckfist!” he yelled in guttural draconic again “wanna play? You have to! Come on! Enough with the training, you’ve been on your feet all day.”
The largest of the lizards froze with his right foot midair, bandaged hands up against his head in a fighting stance. He slowly returned his balance on both enormous feet and turned his oval yellow eyes over to the rest of the party.
“I’m not finished yet” he said slowly with even deeper voice than his counterparts “play amongst yourselves” he turned around and jabbed the air with his fist, exhaling two small balls of fire from his nostrils.
“Oy, come on, you need to train your mind too, don’t you?” Decebal smirked to Blackfist’s suddenly frozen back, where several tensed muscles spazmed. He turned around slowly.
“You’re calling me dumb again, aren’t you?” Blackfist narrowed his eyes into slits.
“No, I didn’t say that. I merely said you need to keep your mind sharp. Now come here and play.” Decebal discretely winked to Shey. She smirked back and proceeded to watch dragonborns play.
The game was intricate, figures in four colours moved on checkered board along the lines, knocking each other over, each knock out sending curses and yells from either side of the board and occasional chuckle from Quenfar, who stopped scribbling and came over to watch the match.
“I think I get it” Shey finally said, when Blackfist sat defeated in front of Decebal and practically breathed fire. She was astonished his linen pants didn’t catch fire.
“You cheated!” he pointed at Decebal.
“I did no such thing!” Decebal defended himself, putting the pieces back on the board “tell him Quenfar”.
“He didn’t cheat” the blue one shrugged and returned to his notebook.
“So you say” Blackfist mumbled and stood up, demonstratively returning to his practice. Decebal sighed.
“He never liked loosing.”
“Who cares if he’s a sore looser” Shey plopped herself in front of Decebal, set-up board between them “let’s play” the determination on her face made Decebal smirk.
“Alright, you move first.”
They were halfway into their match, which surprisingly was quite tied between the two, given the fact that Shey played for the first time. In the middle of the said match, Blackfist suddenly stopped his exercise routine and nudged at Decebal while staring into the distance.
“I see movement on the road” he pointed into dark field, illuminated only by the presence of the young moon. Shey stood up and looked where Blackfist was pointing down into the shallow valley. Her pupils widened as her gaze ignored the darkness.
“It’s a wagon. Two horses. Two figures sitting at the reigns” she reported without hesitation “heading this way.”
“Should we move?” Decebal stood up as well, picking up the backpack.
“They probably saw the campfire already” Quenfar closed his booklet and hid it away in the small purse on his side. Yet he didn’t move from the comfortable seat under the oak “nothing to be done about it. Are they human?”
“Yes” Shey replied almost instantly as the wagon moved closer “two men, it seems” she said that sentence with a considerable amount of distaste. The wooden wheels could be heard grinding against the dusty road already and in a distance, a shimmering lantern light could be seen buoying in the air.
“Well, we ARE going to Meerstrand” Quenfar sighed and stretched again “we might as well get used to it. Everyone familiar with Common, I presume” he directed the question mainly at Shey, who looked down at him as if he suggested she spat in her own plate.
“Not much to be familiar with” she said with considerable accent. Quenfar suspected she did it on purpose, but said nothing.
“Well, if they stop, just be polite and go about your business as usual” he said, taking out a silk scarf to polish his already spotless quarterstaff “how about you continue your game?” The wheels of the wagon could be heard loud and clear, the soft snorting of the horses as well. Blackfist walked over the fire and sat down close to Quenfar. He looked tense. Decebal knelt down to the game board and was about to make another move, when he noticed that Shey wasn’t moving.
“What’s the matter?” he asked in elvish.
“Just the curiosity” the sudden lack of emotion in the tone of her voice sent chills down Decebal’s spine as he followed her gaze to see the wagon emerging from the darkness into the circle of light their bonfire formed.
Just like Shey said, there were two men, peasants by the looks of their tattered clothes and long beards, both sitting at the driver’s seat. One was significantly older, with white hair and beard, wrinkled, tanned face and grubby hands. The other one was significantly younger, his hair and beard light brown, skin, although tanned, was much smoother. The younger man was missing a middle and ring fingers. The wagon was also indeed pulled by two work horses, well fed and sturdy, although short and of unidentifiable colours that might have been bay. A small lantern hung on the side of the driver.
What Shey didn’t say was that the wagon turned out to be an iron cage, with locked slammer at the back, some hey on wooden planks inside and four young elven men, not even men, but boys, barely left teenagehood. Or so it seemed, for it was darn difficult to tell an elf’s age. All young men were dressed in clothes barely holding together, all had dark hair, sad, slanting, tired eyes and pale greenish skins. All had their ears cut off and rounded: the job was badly done as they became lopsided while healing into rigid scar tissue. Shey couldn’t take her eyes off of them.
The wagon stopped in the middle of the road and the two peasants stared at Shey with large, frightful eyes. Their gaze widened even more when they observed the lizardous company she kept.
“Evening, my good men” Shey jolted as she heard Quenfar’s voice right behind her. He was standing tall, looking straight at the peasants. His Common sounded like he was born and raised here, rather than on the islands that dragonborns came from.
The older peasant with reigns in his hand got so spooked by a lizard that speaks, he pulled on the reigns by reflex, causing the horses to take a few jolted steps backwards. The cage rattled, the dust under wooden wheels rose into the air, the horses started neighing and pulling backwards. The younger peasant tried to take the reigns from his older companion, but didn’t make it in time, as Quenfar grabbed the reigns near the closest horse’s mouth and calmed the animal down. Blackfist and Decebal stood further away, Decebal glancing nervously at his larger companion. Shey just continued to watch the malnourished elves in the cage.
“We mean you no harm” Quenfar continued, looking straight at the two “we are travelers, Meerstrand-bound.”
The two peasants looked at each other. Quenfar noticed the older man kept the reigns at the ready, while the younger one kept his right hand behind his back. Both looked petrified. Shey used the momentary stillness of the situation and moved behind the wagon. She leaned closer and looked carefully at the four elven prisoners, like examining a new animal never before seen. Decebal approached her, while Blackfist stayed back, arms crossed, looking at Quenfar trying to speak with the peasants.
“What are you doing?” Decebal asked in elvish.
“Just looking” Shey replied. She stared at the four young elves intensely “where are you from?” she demanded. None of the elven boys answered. They all looked scared and defeated, all except one, who stared back at Shey with a sliver of curiosity.
“Can’t you speak?” she then switched to Common.
“Elvish is not a language we address others in. It is serf’s language” the staring boy explained.
“What’s a serf then?” Shey continued in Common.
“Well…we are” the boy looked at others, they all shrugged “we…serve others, like our fathers and mothers did before us, you know? It’s what we do.”
“Disgusting” Shey proclaimed. Decebal nodded.
“I mean, look at their ears” he pointed to the lopsided mess “is this…normal? Forsentum didn’t seem to have elves like this.”
“These are not elves” Shey stated, her expression turning to anger and disgust “these are merely sheep, not worth our time.”
“But they can’t have chosen this?” Decebal doubted. Looking at the four brought out sense of pity in him, same one he would feel for fish stuck in nets before they were pulled out and gutted.
“Sure they did” Shey punched the bars, scaring the two elves that were sitting closest to the very end of the wagon “they could have fought this. Better to die fighting than to live like this, as cattle to be sold.”
“Well, should we help them then? Let them go?” Decebal was already checking the lock on a rusted chain: it didn’t look too complicated.
“Why would we? Do you help cattle in a corral?”
“But that’s it” she walked away, around the wagon, leaving Decebal alone in front of four frightened elven boys. Decebal felt great pity swelling up in his chest and helplessness: even if Shey was cold about it, she was right – why would we help these four? And even if we would, how would that help the others? And how many are there, exactly?
One of the boys crawled towards Decebal on hay-covered wooden planks and stared closer at him.
“I’ve never seen anything like you.” he said in Common.
“There are no dragonborn in Meerstrand?” Decebal leaned against the bars.
“I’ve never seen Meerstrand before” he lowered his head “there were no one like you in our village.”
“Where’s your village then?”
“South east of the great forest, this one” the boy explained, pointing at the massive tree expanse, but it said very little to Decebal who was not familiar with the geography of the surrounding region.
“Do your parents live there?”
“No. We follow our parents to Meerstrand, but I’ve never seen mine, so I don’t know.”
“Follow your parents? They leave without you?”
“The caretaker told us they were sold after I was born, so I never seen them.”
Decebal felt angry. He restrained himself from opening the cage and letting the elves out. Instead, he walked back towards the fireplace, sat down and stared at the dancing flames. Looking at fire always calmed him down.
Meanwhile, Shey squatted on the side of the road, looking at the wagon. She could hear the conversation Decebal had and then his light footsteps walking away. She now listened to Quenfar’s attempt at coherent communication with frightened villagers. As the conversation went along, she rummaged in her numerous small pouches and took out a dry piece of snake tongue, then drizzled a few drops of translucent oil from a miniature vat while whispering old elvish incantations. The dry tongue warmed up in her hand and she felt a heated rush go through her entire body.
“You…you speak our tongue, yet…” the younger of the two men spoke with rattling voice. Quenfar could now observe subtle similarities between the two men: the shape of eyes and nose, the build of the jaw. He deduced they were probably father and son.
“Yes, we are travelers from distant lands of Misty Isles, the birthplace of dragonborns” Quenfar explained patiently “our elven companion we acquired on our journeys through Forsentum. Our destination is now Meerstrand, for we heard great things of the merchant city. Pray tell, what is your heading?”
Another exchange of nervous glances later, Quenfar noticed that the arm behind the younger man’s back slightly relaxed.
“We are headed to Meerstrand ourselves, strange ser” the man said, his voice significantly less trembling “market day draws near and here we have some elven sefs to sell” he pointed his thumb to the back of the wagon.
“You…shell them?” Blackfist approached Quenfar, his Common with much thicker accent. Blackfist was also taller and bulkier than Quenfar and many other dragonborn, in fact. Fear returned to the faces of peasants.
“Yes, ser” the younger peasant confirmed “thirty silver pieces per head. They’re young ‘uns you see, will grow into it. Better start training young, no? Perhaps you need another serf for your journey, ser?” the last sentence came in as rapid fire, almost as if the peasant knew the lines by heart.
“Another…serf?” Quenfar didn’t catch the meaning immediately, but before he could ponder whether this was an unfamiliar figure of speech, he saw a face in shadows lean between the two peasants and whisper something in their ears. Men’s eyes became foggy and they immediately sat down on the bench and urged the horses, turning the wagon around and going back where they came from. Only Shey was left standing on the dusty road.
“What did you tell them? More importantly, why? They would have been good sources of information about the city!” Quenfar spoke in obvious annoyance.
“They will go back whence they came from, will probably loose a few days. As to why…” she attempted to walk past Qunfar, but he caught her by the arm in his strong dragonborn grip.
“Let go of me you lizard!” Shey demanded, struggling.
“Answer my question first” Quenfar didn’t seem to have trouble holding the lean elf in her place.
“They deserve worse” Shey looked up at the blue dragonborn with distaste “and you will too if you won’t take your paws off of me.” Quenfar released her and fixed his cloak.
“You’re projecting. Stop it. You and those sorry-state elves have nothing in common.”
“I know that!” Shey protested even louder.
“Then act like it!” Quenfar stepped closer, his posture much grander than hers it should have felt intimidating, yet Shey didn’t flinch.
“I act as I want!”
“Whoa, time to stop now” Blackfist put his enormous arms between them and pushed both aside “you’re arguing over some scardy humans. Not worth it, I say.”
Quenfar looked at his cousin and nodded. Having no interest in creating a ruckus or drawing attention, he fixed his cloak and looked at Shey, who was still visibly fuming.
“It may be hard for you to believe, but I understand your anger. I didn’t like seeing those kids like that either. But you have to understand it’s going to be common once we get to Meerstrand.” Shey huffed and crossed arms on her chest. Blackfist still watched both of them suspiciously. “Remember, we’re looking for the staff, that’s all at matters.” Quenfar continued “we have to do it quietly. You can’t help all the elves here, but you can get what you came for. So remember your objective. Deal?”
Shey mumbled something underneath her breath but nodded and went back to the bonfire. Quenfar sighed and looked at Blackfist who was shaking his head in disapproval.
“I told you from the beginning it’s a bad idea to let her tag along” Blackfist said in silent draconic “she’s unpredictable. And while I can’t say I care about what humans think, like you said, we need to find the staff quietly. I’m having doubts, cousin. I don’t like doubts.”
“I know. But she must join us from the fact of knowing too much. Rather keep tabs on her rather than wait to get stabbed while attaining the staff.”
“Are you even sure it’s in Meerstrand?”
“What the blazes are you speaking of? You heard the alchemist describe it perfectly and said it’s there.” Quenfar was fighting severe annoyance “there is no time for doubts, cousin. Get some sleep, that might help you.”
Quenfar went past the giant dragonborn and returned to the bonfire, where Decebal and Shey returned to their game. Shey demonstratively didn’t look at him.
Quenfar took his bedroll, placed it on the grassy ground and slipped into it, turning away from the fire. Blackfist volunteered to take the first watch and sat down at the fire, looking at the end of Decebal and Shey’s chess match. They finished in silence with Decebal winning, but just barely. Shey nodded in understanding as he explained why he won. The determination in Shey’s eyes told Decebal next time it’s going to be even harder. They both took out their bedrolls and set them on opposite sides of the bonfire.
The silence of the night was only interrupted by gentle crackling of fire and songs of crickets. The four travelers spent sleepless night, all haunted by their own thoughts and the inevitable approach of Meerstrand and their objective.
The next morning started in silence as they packed up the camp, put on their black hooded travel cloaks and set on the road through the forest. Meerstrand awaited.
To be continued…
Picture credit: Portrait of a Noblewoman Dressed in Mourning by Jacopo da Empoli, 1595–1605, Italy.