Chapter Thirty-Eight – Strangers

Somewhere between Gumberwood and the Carethian mountain pass

27 July – Year 465

“For the thousandth time, would you stop looking over your shoulder?” Damien rolled his eyes. “It’ll be fine.”

“You keep saying that, but you know how much I trust it?” Naelen gripped the reins with one hand in order to form a small gesture with his other. “This much.”

The wagon rolled behind them, blocking the worst of the sunlight hitting against their backs. To some degree Naelen was right to be vigilant, but it didn’t warrant a constant paranoia in the form of sleep-depriving fear. He had circles under his eyes, and between the two of them, Damien certainly had more wits about him than Naelen at the moment.

“My father has no doubt sent a search party by now,” Naelen said. “They could show up on our tails at any moment.”

“And when they do, we’ll confront them. I’ve seen you fight, Naelen, you’re…pretty good.”

“And what help will you bring to our defenses, hmm? I’ve seen you fight– if you can even call it fighting.”

“Hey, don’t forget I actually stabbed a person. Have you ever done that? I don’t believe so.”

“You got lucky,” Naelen scoffed.

“Excuse me? Luck had nothing to do with it. Lila even admitted it herself, she said I was gifted and that I had guts. Do you have guts, Naelen? I don’t believe so.”

“Hehe,” Naelen chuckled at his comment. “Alright, you have guts, I’ll grant you that.”

“I can bring a lot to a fight,” Damien added.

“Eh, you could at best bring a little.”

The day drifted on as they traveled, with strings of conversation here and there. Inevitably, the sun sank down behind the western hills and they pulled off the dusty dirt road to make camp for the evening. Naelen lit the two lanterns hanging on the back of the wagon and pulled out a map.

“Let’s see…” He scanned the area with his eyes and fingers, locating the next traveler’s outpost. “At this rate we should make it to the start of the pass by this time tomorrow. Let’s go easy on our rations tonight. It’d be best to restock once we get there.”

Taking one of the lanterns, he went over to where Damien was already building a fire and pulling out the cooking supplies. Naelen sat down beside him. “I didn’t expect to be sharing all my food with you.” He waited, hoping Damien would continue the conversation. But he didn’t. “I’m not sure if I even have enough money to afford all the food we’ll need for the rest of this journey. Father only provided so much.”

It was a valid concern. It was so like Naelen to think ahead and prepare. Damien already felt guilty, though he didn’t say it. He had acted rashly by coming along, impulsively. Unprepared. And now Naelen’s resources were strained because of it.

Damien bent his head forward, stirring the fire fuel with a metal poker. Well into his meal for that evening he finally spoke. “When we get to the next town, I will find a way to pay you back for my share.”

“That’s just it, Damien, there isn’t a next town. There’s an outpost. No blacksmith, no services, just food and shelter really.” He rubbed his sore eyes. “Unless you happen to have a ton of coins on you.”

A long moment passed before Damien said, “Alright then…you can drop me off at the outpost and I’ll find my way from there.”

Naelen sighed. “I wouldn’t take you this far just to leave you. We’re safer together you know. I’d just be worried about you.”

Damien looked up, a bit surprised by Naelen’s words. “What? You would actually worry about me?”

“Well, of course I would. You have no way to survive out here. The mountain pass is usually crawling with vagabonds and common bandits. Not to mention the risk of going through troll country.”

“Trolls? No one ever said anything about trolls! They actually exist?”

“Well, it’s not like they come out of their holes to bother people but you know…trolls happen. Sometimes.”

“Gosh, I am way in over my head.” Damien took in a calming breath. “Now I think I should have just stayed home.”

“Oh, so the thought of my father doesn’t scare you, but the possibility of trolls does? You should get your priorities in place.”

“I just wanted to see Lila.”

Naelen raised his brow. “I know. And you will. She’ll be escorting us through the mountain pass, it should be fine.”

“Okay…that makes me feel better.”

Naelen chuckled, shaking his head. “Trolls. We’re more likely to be ambushed out here.”

“That’s not exactly helping.”

“And don’t forget…you’d bring a little aid to a fight.”

By the next late afternoon, they pulled into the long-awaited outpost for a good rest and a chance to re-supply. Damien had expected a certain welcoming vibe like the other travelers’ outposts had along this road to the mountains, but this place had a colder feel to it. The outpost itself was a single building with a stable extended out to the side. In a word, the whole area was dusty. A heavy wind swept the rocky debris back and forth, coating every surface with a fine layer of sand.

Damien made out three rather unbecoming figures standing in a skewed row, all leaning against the wooden structure that barely passed for a tavern. They all seemed to look at him as he passed inside the doors. One of the figures was a peculiar-looking elf, Damien realized upon glancing, with a shade of dark black hair he had never seen back in Gumber. The elf also had a ravaging scar across her face, marring her otherwise pronounced and fierce beauty. What was it about elves, he wondered? For such ill and un-feeling creatures they were rather beautiful. All of them.

The other two figures were human, one distinctly older in age and the other in his prime. Both were armed in their own ways, one with a sword and the other with a bow. The lady elf did not appear to have weapons on her but Damien suspected they were hidden somewhere on her person.

The moment he nodded and greeted the three loiterers he regretted it. “Good day. We’re just passing through.”

The lady elf caught Damien with her wide, pale eyes. She scanned the small sword at his waist before getting a close look at Naelen soon after.

“Another would-be swordsman,” the elf laughed in a rather mocking way. “Good luck to you. Hope you don’t get crushed.”

Damien glanced back at Naelen in confusion. Who was she talking to?

“Uh, thank you.” Damien cursed at himself before he was finally indoors and free from the wind. And the strange stares. Inside he found a barkeep working in her little corner of the tavern. She was a kindly figure, with a round bosom and curves that protruded from her hips and thighs. There was one other stranger inside the tavern already sitting and eating his meal, but the place was uncomfortably empty. Quiet.

Damien walked up to the barkeep. “Excuse me, do you know if there’s any work to find around here?”

The barkeep placed her rag down and leaned in. “Why do all you run-down travelers have to come in here asking to partake in my fair share? I run a fair business, a hard business, and I ain’t gotta share it with anyone. Now…can I get you somethin’?”

“Uh, sorry to bother you I just– just need to make some coin.”

The barkeep pointed at the door directly in front of her. “You might try asking one of those agents out front. I’m sure they could find you an opportunity. Provided you got the right skills.”

Behind him, Naelen was stepped into the tavern and planted himself at a table. The barkeep looked at him, squinting one eye as he sat down. “You need something?” she called over.

“Yes,” Naelen said softly. “We need everything, apparently.”

Damien squared his shoulders and went over to Naelen, placing his fists against the table. “Would you come with me?” he whispered. “I need to talk to…one of those people out front.”

Naelen grimaced. “Are you dense? They all seem pretty unsociable.”

“Please just watch my back or something.”

“Ugh, can’t we eat first? I’m starving.”

“This might be a fleeting thing. Come on.”

Groaning, Naelen followed Damien out the door. The first stranger loitering out front who made eye-contact with them was the older man, graying along his crown and beard. He wasn’t keen to say anything, but eventually Damien found the courage to face him.

“Uh…we heard you were–“

“Not we,” Naelen interrupted, “you. Just you.”

“Right. I heard you were supposed to be an agent? And that you might possibly have some…work for me?”

From the side, the lady elf cackled at him again, but Damien paid no mind to her. He waited for the older man’s response. It was the older man who seemed to be in charge, if only by his authoritative aura.

The gray man stroked his beard, letting out a deep groan from his dry throat. “Hm, I don’t see a suitable weapon on you. Unlike your companion over here.”

“I have a weapon,” Damien said, pulling out his black-handled blade. “I know it’s not much, but I can use it.”

The old man squinted at the peculiar metalwork. “Let me see it.”

“Oh sure, sure.”

“This is a child’s weapon,” the man decided, testing the blade for himself. “I have little use for a thin-boned pipsqueak who can’t wield a full blade.” His hand brushed over the rune etched into it. “What is this?”

“Oh, that’s a…destruction rune.”

The man made a double take. Beside him, the lady elf came over to take a closer look at the rune as well. Her pale eyes glazed over in fascination, then her gaze shifted from the blade to Damien.

“You can use runes? But you are no elf.”

“Oh, no, I can’t do elf runes,” Damien explained, gesturing to Naelen. “His father is the one who put that there.”

The lady elf turned to Naelen, pointing. “You, Lor elf, let me see your blade.”

“I’d rather you not,” Naelen replied, clearing his throat.

“Then forget about your work contract.” As she began to turn, Damien flashed Naelen a desperate look.

“Please,” Damien muttered. “Just show her.”

Naelen rolled his eyes. “Alright, just don’t touch it. It was a gift.” He pulled out his sword for the woman to see, and as the runes flashed across her scarred face with a shiny glare, she smiled.

She turned to her colleague. “I think they would be perfect. Their elf runes could prove useful for this job.”

“But they’re merely boys,” the gray man groaned. “It’d be wrong to put them in mortal danger.”

“Are you not understanding me? With a destruction rune, that town will be cleared out in no time.”

Naelen gulped. “Listen, I’m rusty at best with difficult runes like that. The last time I used a destruction rune it…went wrong.”

“What can be so difficult about it?” the woman asked. “You are a Lor elf, yes?”

“Well, yes, but my father always made it look easy to use runes. It’s not.”

“Sounds like a common case of self doubt.” She bent low, meeting Naelen’s eyes. “You want to be a hero? Stop worrying over what you might not be able to achieve and rise to the occasion. There are bigger problems than your…insecurity.”

Damien stepped forward. “What do you need us to do?” he asked. “You said something about clearing a town? We won’t kill innocents if that’s what you’re suggesting.”

“Kill innocents?” The bowman standing a few feet away scoffed at them. “What do you think we are, mercenary bandits? We are agents of the crown, and we’ve taken a contract from a group of nomads up in troll country. The problem is…we’re down a few men. They had other prior commitments over west.”

“We’ve been biding our time here,” the lady elf explained. “A lot of would-be fighters make their way up the mountain pass this time of year. You two just might be fit, especially if you can use runes.”

“But we’re not agents of the crown,” Naelen said slowly. “It’s illegal for us to go on mission with you lot.”

“It is,” the elf winked. “But, seeing as it’s also illegal for a group of nomads to be wandering about in troll country, this contract is going to stay off the books. We handle this discreetly and without a mess to leave behind. You two interested?”

“Oh, shards.” Naelen rubbed his brow. “Even if I could handle my runes well I can’t spare the time. Sorry, but no. I’m not interested.”

“Come on, Naelen, don’t be like that.” Damien turned to him. “You said we need the money. Seems like our options are scarce. Unless there’s some other quick way to bring in coin around here.”

“Ugh…” Naelen sighed. By the look on his face, Damien knew Naelen was conflicted. And why wouldn’t he be? In the deep part of his gut, Damien knew this was a dangerous task, let alone a bit reckless. But his instincts whispered that whatever the task was, it was dire. Why else would three agents be so desperate as to ask young, inexperienced strangers for help?

Naelen failed to give a reply, so Damien looked at the scarred elf and the gray man saying, “I’ll go with you. I’m no good with runes, but I’ll help however I can. If you can use it.”

The bowman closed the gap between him and Damien, smirking. “I like his spirit. It’s not every day a total weakling volunteers for a job like this.”

“I’m not a total weakling.” Damien grit his teeth.

“He just looks like it,” Naelen muttered from behind him, then stepped forward, offering his hand. “Call me Naelen. If Damien goes, then count me in as well. I can’t let anything happen to him on my watch.”

The lady elf shook his hand. “I’m Maya,” then she gestured to the bowman. “This is Tak, and our captain over there is Elias.” She allowed a moment to pass as Elias came over and joined them, forming a sort of semi-circle. Maya’s elfin face beamed with a dark smile. “Have either of you been through troll country before?”