Tales of Urth is a serialized novel, to read the previous chapters, click here, and scroll down for each chapter.
“I haven’t had much luck in towns,” Damar said. “I’m pretty sure this country hates anything that isn’t human.
“The lad is right, I have been avoiding most of the towns myself. The most I can hope for is spiteful looks across the room and the polite refusal to be served,” added Titan. “Maybe an elf has better luck passing for human, but neither of us ever will.”
“Do I look human to you?” Jamfire retorted. “I haven’t had any more luck thank either you in the towns to the north. But we are all running low on supplies and my back could use a real mattress at least one night a month.”
“What makes you think the next town will be any better than the last?” Damar asked, his mnd quickly falling back to his past encounters with the citizens of Merridale.
“It might not be, but I am not opposed to trying.” Jamfire was confident. He didn’t seem the type to barge in blindly, but it wasn’t nearly as cautious as Damar.
Titan seemed more concerned with the hassle than with the possibility of any danger.
Jamfire pressed on without waiting for any further discussion. The other two fell into step behind him, unsure about the plan, but not willing to make much more of it.
Jamfire spent much of the walk talking about the forest, its creatures, and the wonders to behold back home in Ayne. He talked almost as much as the dwarf, but could fill an entire conversation with facts about a single species of tree. The others were less impressed with his vast knowledge and more with how many words on a single topic he could fit into one breath.
Damar listened absently. He was pleased to have the company, and with two heavy talkers, it left little for him to have to find the words to say. He wasn’t bored, nor was he lost in his own thoughts, reliving the moments from the past as the trail wound onward. He listened to the two intently, and realized he had learned more about the world in an hour of conversation, than he had in a month of walking.
“What do you do?” he found himself asking the dwarf.
“Huh?” the dwarf mumbled.
“Do you have a profession or something? Like he’s a Watcher,” he motioned to Jamfire. “What do you do?”
He was curious about the dwarf, though he half regretted the question as soon as it left his mouth, as he knew it would ultimately be turned around on him. He tried his best to listen to the dwarf’s response as he searched his own mind for an answer.
“I have had many jobs. I was training as a blacksmith once. That’s what my father did, and his father before him.”
“Hard to train as a blacksmith way out here,” Jamfire said, his staff sweeping across the open field below a short-topped mountain.
“I left my clan behind me,” there was a sense of shame in his voice. “I am dishonored.”
A silence fell over the trio. They continued to walk, but refrained from talking. It was not for the lack of curiosity for Titan’s transgressions. But each of the travelers felt their own sorrows in those words. Each of them had left trouble behind and sought something new. They were outcasts in their own lands, only to find themselves wandering in a land that wouldn’t accept them.
Nothing was said, but in that silence they felt a kinship with each other. A conversation left unspoken, that cemented their companionship. And like that conversation, when it came the topic of traveling together, no more needed to be said.
- - -
The bright light of the midday sun soon gave way to clouds and the dimming light of evening. As their stomachs began to rumble with desire for an evening meal, the keen eyes of the elf spotted the telltale signs of a village.
Wisps of white smoke curled from warm cook fires inside simple wooden homes. The cool evening breeze brought with it the smells of civilization. Their stomachs growled again at the scent of cooking meat.
“Gods, I am starving,” mumbled Damar half to himself.
“It looks like we should make it there before nightfall. And it looks as if this village is large enough to have a tavern. That should make it much easier to get a meal than to bother some poor farmer at home.”
Titan and Damar looked at the elf, unsure where he managed to find the eager optimism he so easily shared with the group. But they welcomed it. Even if it just gave them the hope to try once more.
Damar checked the hem of his hood, pulling it down over his head as much as possible. He always tried to pull at it lightly for fear that is constant paranoid checking would eventually give his horns opportunity to wear a hole. He kept his gaze down as the approached the town. His curiosity begged him to look up, to see something other than trees and rocks, but he knew not to risk allowing even a passerby a glimpse of his face. It was not to say he was ugly, in fact Damar had the strong jaw and symmetry often found quite attractive in human males. They say beauty is skin deep. He often wondered if they had it in reverse. It wasn’t what was on the inside that bothered people. He caught himself snarling in frustration, quickly snapping shut his lips covering his less than human teeth.
A man walked past them as they entered the center of the village, where the buildings gathered in greater concentration. Damar looked away, though at the least opportune moment as he caught the eye of a small human girl walking with her mother on the edge of the lane. The little stared in fright at what could only be a monster in a man’s cloak staring back at her.
He silently thanked whatever unknown gods were out there, that the little girl did not scream. She held closer to her mother and they carried on down the road. The woman seemed more distracted by the dwarf. Damar could cover his face and horns, he could even tuck his tail into a cloak or baggy pair of trousers, but Titan couldn’t do anything to hide his size.
Titan was tall for a dwarf, reaching a full five feet in a good pair of boots. But he still looked like a dwarf. He was stout, his silhouette more like the trunk of a tree than a man. In ideal circumstances he could pass for human in a large city made of all shapes and sizes, but he did little to help himself by the things he chose to adorn himself with.
Dwarves, Titan would later explain, pride themselves in their culture. It graces everything that they do. And their clothing is no exception. From the distinct style of their boots, to the helmets on their heads, Titan, in particular, chose to wear a massive iron cap decorated with two white-tipped cave-bison horns. On his back he slung a large shield, covered in the intricate geometric patterns of his clan. And if all of that weren’t enough, his long red beard lay down his front. The pride of every dwarf, it was knotted and braided, not in the particular pattern of his clan and caste, but in the design of the ‘wanderer’.
Jamfire too chose not to hide his heritage. He had the easiest of the three of them. A simple hood or headscarf could easily cover his ears, and his elven skull structure could pass for a gaunt and strange looking man.
“There!” Jamfire said at last. “A tavern and inn! What luck! We can dine and sleep well tonight.”
Titan looked up at the squat plain looking building. It looked no more significant than any other building in town. It looked like a house, stretched to fill the space of a small barn. A thick wooden sign swung from a post over a door that looked like it needed repair back when the dwarf was learning to crawl.
“Winterwolf Tavern,” read the elf.
“Sounds warm and inviting,” replied the dwarf sarcastically.
Jamfire pushed forward through the door and the other two had little choice but to follow.
“Well, here goes,” mumbled Damar to the dwarf as he held the door for him.
Once they had entered, Damar let loose the door and the ancient heavy slab of wood and nails slammed shut with a loud crack. The entire population of the tavern looked in their direction. Titan was right, thought Damar, this place is as cold as its name.
Cold judging eyes watched them as Jamfire continued on. They found a table that had once been sturdy but since seen a half dozen repairs, and sat down. They huddled together in the dim light of a flickering lantern.
“You go,” Damar said to Titan.
“Me? Jamfire should go,” the dwarf suggested, turning to the elf. “You look the most like them, and it was your idea to try and come in here in the first place.”
“Fine,” said Jamfire resolutely. “I’ll see what I can get for food and lodging.”
“Of course, Titan, I’d never forget a dwarf’s need for beer.”
Jamfire stood and walked to a crudely made bar sat in front of the kitchens. Behind the bar was a heavyset man. His arms were nearly as thick as Jamfire’s waist. The human man sported a long mustache that wrapped down around his mouth, his chin and jaw were once clean shaven, but now had at least a day’s worth of grey stubble.
“I’d like to inquire about a room and some supper, please.” Jamfire eventually spoke up.
“And who do you expect would provide this service for you?” the barkeep asked with a heavy voice as heavy as paving stones.
“You are the owner of this establishment? No?”
“Then it is you I ask of these things.”
“You’ll have a hard time finding the things you want in this town,” he leaned in close and Jamfire could smell that he samples his wares while he worked, “especially from me.”
Jamfire turned to walk back to his friends. Not looking to be any further bother. He shook his head to the group to let them know the result of his inquiry. When he looked to see if they understood, both Damar and Titan had a look of unease on their faces. But they were not looking at Jamfire. That is when the elf noticed the two massive shadows fall over his shoulder.
- - -
The old window broke easily as the elf was thrown through it. Shards of thin age-warped glass and splinters of wood flew in every direction as Jamfire suddenly found himself lying on the muddy street outside the tavern.
The door to his right burst open with a clang as it slammed against the wall. The tavern sign fell from its post, narrowly missing Damar and Titan as they rushed through the open door. They were prodded and poked by the loosely held axe of one of the men. Titan stumbled as he tried to step backwards, away from the giant man. Losing his footing, he fell backward. Reaching for purchase, he managed to grasp Damar's cloak and pull the Tar down with him.
As the two men exited the tavern, Jamfire got a better look at them. They were tall for humans. Rough, filthy men with months of dirt and ale caked in their long beards. The elf's heightened senses could smell the stink of booze on them from four yards away.
"I don't know what you think you are doin' here," said the first man, his eyes dark points glaring out from under a bushy grey-brown brow. His speech was slurred, and his posture wobbled slightly with drunkeness, but he was still a mountain of immovable muscle.
His partner emerged behind him. The second man nearly as tall as the first, bore a strange little hat that seemed of little use for keeping off the sun. He was just as dirt caked and smelly as the first, but perhaps a little less tipsy.
"It's getting so a man can't even have a simple drink without running into a bunch of encos," the second man spat out the last word with a devilish sneer.
Jamfire couldn't help but laugh at the use of the elvish word for stranger, that had somehow become a racial epithet for any non-human.
"Something funny?" the first man said, suddenly towering over Jamfire as the elf tried to stand.
The large man's muddy caked boot suddenly pressed against Jamfire's thigh as the behemoth shoved the elf back to the ground. He crouched over the elf, his breath rank with days of binging.
"I didn't think so," he stood back up, taking a moment to let his head spin from the sudden movement, then spoke to his companion. "Collyn, what do you think we should do with the trash that has washed up in town?"
The smaller man grinned, random missing teeth giving his smile a sinister gape.
"Run'em outta town?" he suggested. "String'em up like you did those gobbos that went rooting through your barn? I bet the peb squeals louder than they did."
Titan had heard enough. Pushing himself back to his feet, he huffed with frustration. He took a yelling run at the shorter of the men, but it was all the warning the drunk needed to step out of the way. A carefully placed boot, tripped the running dwarf and sent him flying face first into the mud.
The men laughed drunkenly.
Collyn, the shorter man, reached to his belt and pulled a short stilleto from its hidden sheath. The triangular blade glinted in the dim light of the tavern windows.
"Blade!" yelled Damar as he picked himself up and moved toward the newly armed man. Once again, the vocal outburst was enough to alert the drunk of the oncoming attack. He turned and swung the dagger in a large sweeping arch. The tip cut through the wet air narrowly missing Damar's face.
The Tar stared wide eyed at the tiny knick in the edge of his hood. It was damn close he didn't lose his nose. Damar snarled in anger, his lips curling back to reveal his pointed teeth.
"You will regret that," stated Damar. His voice was calm and cold. His mind returned to the darkness inside him. A tearing pain from his past. The anger that brewed to the surface was not hard to find after that. The daemon's eyes shimmered from under the hood, their mirror like reflection of light making them visible in the shadows of the old cloak.
"Toren's shadow," the man blasphemed, his eyes sinking in fright as they linked with the shimmering orbs of the Tar. "He's a...a..."
The bigger brute looked over at his companion, his attention drawn to the cloaked figure being pointed at.
"Ulric's spit," he continued to curse. "Hellblood!"
The larger man, ignoring his domination over the fallen elf, moved to the suddenly spooked Collyn.
"Shuddup," he commanded, pushing Collyn away. "Tar die like everything else, their corpses just stink more."
The tall man moved up to Damar and sweeping his leg under him, returned the Tar to the mud. He bellowed over his fallen foe.
"Enough," said Jamfire, his voice stern and commanding. The elf stood behind the two tavern patrons. "We will leave your town if you wish. There is no need for any more of this."
"I'm not so sure we're givin' you that option anymore." The grey-brown bearded man replied as he turned to face the elf once again.
The two humans crept forward menacingly. They gripped their weapons tightly in their dirt stained hands.
Jamfire kept his gaze confidently on the two approaching men, but his eyes caught movement behind them. The three travelers had barely known each other more than a few days, but an unspoken plan of attack was forming. It wasn't as if each player knew his role in the game, they each acted of their own volition. But individual intentions quickly snowballed into something far more cunning.
Only feet away from the elf, the larger man held up his axe threateningly. Damar and Titan moved in behind them. They learned from their previous mistake and neither made a sound. They didn't leap in attack, but crept up swiftly and quietly. As the large man moved to speak before delivering his blow, the weary travelers sprung into action.
Damar dove to his knees behind the two men. A swift abrupt kick from Jamfire sent the larger man stumbling back into an equally surprised Collyn. The two humans tried to step back to regain their balance as their drunken heads swam with sudden movement. Their feet found no purchase in the wet mud as they backed into the crouching form of Damar. Both humans tumbled over the Tar, landing hard in the mud.
The men yelled in anger at the ridiculous move. Their muscles twitched as they made to right themselves, but Titan was there. Brandishing a small smithing hammer, the dwarf swung down. Secretly he held back as much as he could. Imagining their soft heads like ripe melons rather than cooling iron on the anvil. He hoped he wouldn't strike down too hard, letting the weight of the hammer do all of the work. The cold wet steel struck one man and the other.
Jamfire looked at Titan in shock at what he had just done.
"They are out cold, not dead, if that is what you are thinking, elf. They will certainly feel it in the morning, however." The dwarf grinned.
"Then let's get the hell out of here before they wake up, or anyone else in this town decides to pick up their fight," suggest Damar as he pulled himself from under the legs of the two men and began scraping the mud from his cloak and trousers.
"I agree, lad." Titan tucked his hammer into his belt, checked the straps of his pouches and slung shield and hurried off into the night.
The others followed as they moved swiftly away from the tavern. The sky rumbled and a flash of lightning threatened more rain. They weren't going to make it far if the weather turned foul again.
"In here," Jamfire motioned. He beckoned them into an old wooden overhang of what used to be an awning. The rickety roof was so riddled with holes that it hardly provided much protection if the rains did come. It has once covered the feed troughs and hay storage for an old barn, but much of the barn it was once attached to had collapsed. The structure sat on the edge of the town, perhaps an older farm that had since been consumed by the established village center.
If the wooden ruins didn't provide protection from the rain, they at least allowed pools of shadow to gather, enough for the trio to hide from any wandering village eyes.
"We should be able to rest here for now. At least until the light of morning. If that storm comes, we may need to find better shelter, but at least we won't be caught out in the fields when the rain comes." Jamfire wasn't trying to lead their ragtag group, but his voice was calm and confident, and that was what they needed in that moment. Not someone to command them, but someone calm enough to come up with a plan.
The trio settled into the shadows, trying their best to sit comfortably on the piles of wet straw and dirt. The night grew darker and the village became nearly silent. The sound of rumbling thunder was all that cut through the quiet night as the hours passed. No one slept. None of them was tired after the excitement of the unexpected fight. But none of them trusted the surroundings enough to let down their guard.
A rustling broke the silence.
"Did you hear that?" Damar said with a start.
"I didn't hear a thing," replied Titan, the dwarf's voice gruff with fatigue.
"Psst," came a voice in the darkness of the ruined barn behind them.
The trio all turned at once, the sound unmistakable.
"Who's there?" called out Jamfire, his voice a harsh whisper. They waited, but no sound came in return.
"I swear someone was there," stated Damar, scanning the darkness in confusion.
"No, I heard it too, lad," replied Titan, his hand was on the pommel of his hammer.
"Psst," beckoned the voice again.
"What in Moradin's beard..." the dwarf commented.
"Over here," came the small voice again. It certainly seemed to come from the shadows of the fallen barn. "I need your help."
"If you need help from us, then show yourself," commanded Jamfire, the crack of his voice betrayed his worry of a trap about to spring.
The boards and debris of the fallen building shifted and clattered and they heard an unmistakable rustling from behind the wall they leaned against. Their ears followed the noise as it moved around the piles of debris hidden in the darkness until it terminated at the edge of the wall. They waited for the figure to emerge.
"Well...show yourself," said the dwarf, impatiently. His hand was now gripped around the base of his hammer.
"I am, you fools, I managed to get stuck in all this old crap." The voice was distinctly feminine, young, almost girlish, with more than a hint of adolescent attitude.
"Calls us fools, yet manages to get stuck in a collapsed barn," the dwarf scoffed out of the side of his beard.
"I heard that." They heard a crash of boards as one of the piles of debris toppled over, spilling out from behind the wall. Dirt and wooden splinters scattered into nearby bushes. An upset white hen stumbled out of the dust cloud, looking disheveled and confused.
"Shh," warned Damar.
"Stop stirring up dust and chickens, and show yourself." The dwarf had obviously lost his patience. Fear of a trap was all that was keeping him from springing around the corner.
"I am here," the girl said flatly.
"Where?" Jamfire spun around, his keener low-light vision scanning the darkness for sign of the girl.
"Uh, guys," Damar tried to interject.
"I am right here you idiots."
"You are trying my patience, girl," grumbled the dwarf.
"Guys?" the Tar pointed downward.
Feathers fluttered in annoyance as the chicken hopped over a fallen piece of lumber to land at the toe of Titan's boot.
"I am right in front of you," the perturbed chicken squawked.