Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Jade Dragon Stone

The Preliminary Negotiation

… and so Hermel sat on the other side of a long narrow table across from Mr. Rokkafellah, who was gazing intently at him. It was late in the afternoon, as the setting sun filled the room with a golden glow.

“One million Iron,” said Hermel pressing one finger on the marble table in front of him with emphasis.

“Why, why, that’s far too high!” stammered Mr. Rokkafellah, who had been prepared for a large number, but not that. “I don’t know of anyone in the Realm who could afford that price, young man,” he said, trying to recover his composure.

“I have to ask,” said Hermel, changing the topic while he thought over Mr. Rokkafellah’s reaction, “Didn’t Mr. Stouthart tell you what I asked him to convey to you about the whereabouts of your son before I left Hobbington?”

“He did,” said Mr. Rokkafellah.

“Did you go to search for him at the location I suggested?” pursued Hermel.

“I did,” said Mr. Rokkafellah.

“Might I ask what happened?”

“Nothing. We found no secret door in that filthy sewer. I sent a troop of men to look, in fact, and after three days they found nothing. I was, myself, skeptical regarding the existence of this mystery door, especially after the third day,” concluded Mr. Rokkafellah with furrowed eyebrows.

“I see,” said Hermel, and switching subjects again, asked, “Would you be willing to take me to a local jewelry shop that I might find out what the value of the Jade Dragon Stone is?”

“It could be arranged,” replied the wealthy Hobbit. “Why don’t we meet again early in the morning and I will take you to the finest Jewelry store in The Heights?”

“Would you agree that this is one of the finest pieces of jewelry you’ve seen?” asked Hermel.

“Indeed, it is magnificent,” answered Mr. Rokkafellah.

“And as it is, I would like to have it appraised officially, before I set a price. You agree that this would be fair?” pressed Hermel.

“I do,” said the Hobbit, a with a combination of slight annoyance and begrudging admiration for this country bumpkin who was behaving more like a seasoned business man every minute.

“I hope you don’t mind,” answered Hermel, hoping not to sound overly suspicious, “but if we could go to the jewelry store now, that would be even better. I’m in a bit of a rush, you understand.”

“Yes, we have just enough time if we hurry,” said Mr. Rokkafellah looking out the broad high windows at the setting sun.

“By the way, I do want to say that I really am sorry about Ischandar,” added Hermel as they stood up to leave.

“Yes, well, I was going to ask you if you can …” Mr. Rokkahfellah began to say when Hermel’s face suddenly took on a pained expression. He was going to blurt out “no more side-quests!” but held his tongue, although his body language spoke volumes about his thoughts just the same.

“I, uh, well,” Mr. Rokkafellah stammered, “…I understand… I was going to ask if you might at least be able to take me to where the secret door is located and show me how to open it,” he finished, rubbing the back of his head with his hand, and giving a look of reassurance that no more would be requested of the young hero.

“I would be happy to… it’s just that you have to understand… those people really hate me. I think it has to do with my kicking one of them in the face,” said Hermel with some anxiety in his voice.

“That could be.  However, I’m not so sure you need to worry about that anymore,” answered the affable Hobbit stroking the gray hairs on his chin. He was thinking of the four corpses dangling over the edge of Hobbington Wall from earlier that day. That event had in fact been precipitated by Mr. Rokkafellah’s steady, though unsuccessful attempts to find a way into the underground lair of the Five Animal’s Society. Though nothing directly useful came of it in so far as finding his son, he felt a certain satisfaction at having helped to clean up a rather noxious threat from the dark underbelly of the township… yet, as so often was the case, one mystery leads to other mysteries, for which there were as yet no answers.

Hermel had not noticed the comment and was saying, “The thing is, I don’t know what that Dr. Lobe was up to, but … it seemed like very strange things were going on inside that tower on Dunn Street; very strange. You’d look in a room, and it would seem normal, but then you turn around and it seems like years had gone by. I can’t explain it. And Dr. Lobe kept saying this odd phrase… ‘There’s no time left’. It was very strange.”

“Yes, the Doctor was a strange man, as I recall,” said Mr. Rokkafellah in agreement. “In any case we should be off if we are going to make the shop in time,” he added as a servant helped him with his coat.

The Luxurious Jewelry Store

They went downstairs and out to the street. There was a bitter wind blowing snow flurries in long wisps from the rooftops. They wrapped themselves as best they could and hustled along toward the shopping plaza. It was a beautiful area of The Heights, with a broad square of marble tiles in checkerboard fashion in the center, where an elegant marble fountain statue stood covered in ice. They passed by it and made their way to a shop with two marble columns holding up a triangular portico gorgeously adorned with carvings of the Elkron most ancient, engaged in a triumphant parade toward the sun which was represented by a small gold rimmed circular window. The lights, however, were out, and it seemed the shop was closed for the evening.

This did not deter Mr. Rokkafellah in the least as he reached for a long leather band next to the door and gave it three gentle yanks. Inside a bell was heard ringing. After a minute or two a light appeared, and a man came to the door and opened a slot in it to peer through. Seeing Mr. Rokkafella, who had intelligently stepped back far enough to make his presence viewable through the slot (he was no taller than Hermel’s chest, being a Hobbit, of course), the man on the inside quickly opened the door and ushered the two men inside where they found the richly caparisoned owner and his faithful butler. The owner was beside himself to welcome Mr. Rokkafellah, and as an afterthought his guest, for whom the gentleman showed little regard, if not actual distain.

After brief introductions the men got down to business. The butler brought a silver tray with glasses of brandy and placed it on a small elegant table. Around them were cases with glass doors, filled with objects of exceptional value. Heremel looked around, an expression of awe unwittingly on his face.

“My friend here is named Hermel,” Ishcandar’s father said politely. “He has an item of value that he would like to have appraised.”

“Of course, of course," said the Merchant, adjusting his monocle, in expectation of seeing the object in question. Hermel, however, walked over to one of the cases and pointed to a beautiful artifact.

“Oh? That fine jade incense bowl was crafted locally. It is valued at 2000 Iron,” said the Merchant. Hermel considered. A laborer in the town might earn 10 Iron per week. A doctor in the town might earn 100 Iron in a week. The incense bowl was valuable indeed.

Hermel held out the stone from his pocket and held it up in a beam of light coming from a gas lamp on the wall. The merchant came and adjusting his monocle gave it a careful look.

“Is that ... a Jade Dragon Stone?” asked the Merchant, his eyes expressing extreme interest.

“I can guarantee to you, it was not carved by human hands, sir,” said Hermel.

“Indeed. I would be willing to give you 10,000 Iron for it,” he said, apparently eager to conduct the transaction immediately.

“Thank you very much. Thank you for your honesty,” answered Hermel cooly.

“Of course," the merchant said, realizing he had been too hasty, "...our reputation stands on our integrity, sir."

“I'm going to have to speak with Mr. Rokkafellah about this,” replied Hermel.

“Certainly,” said the merchant, not quite concealing his disappointment. “If you should decide to sell, we would be happy to conduct the transaction … tonight,” he added while giving Mr. Rokkafellah a significant glance.

“I will be taking the young man back for further discussion to my mansion. However, should he decide to sell I will ring again later,” said the portly gray haired Hobbit, now quite pleased.

“We will be listening, sir,” said the merchant. And with that, and various courteous goodbyes, they returned to the Rokkafella’s mansion on the hill. Along the way, Hermel reflected silently on how many ways he did not trust Mr. Rokkafellah. The night air was cold with frost, as a wind howled through the crevases along the cliffs surrounding Hobbington.  The moon poked through the clouds casting rays of light downward.  The view from The Heights was spectacular.  Hermel, however, scarcely noticed it.

At the door, Hermel stopped and shook hands with Mr. Rokkafellah.

“I do need to speak with my friends about this, and must be departing Hobbington soon. Of course, since you are Ishcandar’s father I’d be happier to sell it to you if you’re interested. It’s the least I can do is offer you first dibbs. Would you be willing to meet at The Fountain Hotel early in the morning tomorrow to discuss it further?” asked Hermel.

“I look forward to seeing you then,” said Mr. Rokkafellah with a bow.

“I do feel bad about your son,” said Hermel.

“If you would be willing to show us the entrance to the underground, it would be helpful,” said Mr. Rokkafellah.

“I can do so tomorrow. Once you know exactly where the secret door is located, perhaps, you could set a trap for the Five Animals,” Hermel mused.

“I don’t think that will be necessary, frankly,” replied the portly Hobbit, speaking loudly over the wind. “The Five Animals have been captured, and were executed on Hobbington Wall this morning. Unfortunately their leader escaped, however.  Nevertheless, I doubt we will have any more trouble with them, I should say,” concluded Mr. Rokkafellah with evident satisfaction.

“What?!” exclaimed Hermel. “How? How? Who?” he sputtered in surprise.

“Fortunately Constable Barnstormer was able to track them down and bring them to Justice. He’s a good man, that Constable.”

“Yes, I’ve worked with him before!”

“So I understood from your story,” replied Mr. Rokkafellah, smiling.

“Well that’s good news, sir!  Good night!” said Hermel shaking hands happily with Mr. Rokkafellah. “I will see you in the morning!” he said, and with that he pulled his broad straw hat down over his eyes and made his way back to meet his friends.

Reunion at the Wood Carver’s Shop

And so they all gathered at the Wooden Dog Shop, near Hobbington Gate. The greasy haired merchant was shooing disappointed customers away.

“Sorry, so sorry, folks, but we’ll be open again in the morning,” he was saying as he ushered the last of the customers out of the door, when he noticed Bantum heading his way with Dr. Chickenhiemer perched on his head. The other adventurers were in close train behind him.

“Ah well if it isn’t Mr. Wuldcarva’s friends,” said the Merchant amiably. “I hope there are no hard feelings… we are treating him quite well, you know,” he added.

“I’m sure you are,” said Hermel.  The merchant informed them that Konar had just sat down for dinner, and boasted of his wife’s fine cooking.  By the look of the man’s girth, they believed it.

“I’m so glad to know that someone as kind as you has taken him in,” commented Hermel. “I was afraid someone was going to abuse him, and then I would just have to do horrible horrible things to them,” added Hermel with a ominous look from under the brim of his hat.

“I would never let that happen, sir!” said the merchant putting his hand nervously to his throat, taken aback.

“What’s your name, by the way?” asked Hermel of the merchant.

“Johan Brikinbrak,” said the merchant puffing out his chest. “And what’s yours, may I ask?”

“Herman,” answered Hermel. Everyone gave him a sideways glance.

“I thought your name is HerMEL,” said Bantum, confused.

“Um, no… it’s Herman,” said Hermel, annoyed.

“HermMAN?” repeated Bantum.

“Yes, Herman,” repeated Hermel more annoyed and wishing to drop the subject.

“But your name is Hermel,” said Praymar in his squeaky voice, but no one paid attention to him. “Herman is a stupid name,” he added, and was again ignored. Hermel for his part glared at Praymar, but the young albino was already gazing off into the snow speckled night trying to catch a snowflake with his little red forked tongue. Hermel wondered if the Elkron had not conspired to bring all of these events together for the sole purpose of providing this bizarre little albino the attention he desperately needed in order to not turn into some sort of pathological monster sitting in a basement talking to no one about how everyone ignored him in life.

“And this is why you, yes YOU, are” he imagined Praymar grimly speaking some day to a dark basement room within which were a dozen heads on spikes, “here at last with your eyes fixated ONLY on ME, and ME alone … with ADORATION!” But then he shrugged, and chuckled to himself. He was often amused by these sorts of dark fantastical images, which roamed around in his head at times like a troop of wayward ghoul-clowns. “Now bring me your gut-blood, I am THIRSTY!” he heard the imaginary Praymar saying as the image faded. Hermel smiled at himself and shook his head. Such a silly idea.  Ha.  Ha.

Hermel declined the invitation to have dinner with Konar and the merchant as he wanted to discuss important matters in private with his comrades. They were offered a private room instead, but he declined that as well, suspicious least the busybody merchant might eavesdrop on their plans.

Taxes and Politics at The Iron Horse Pub

And so they left and headed across the plaza toward a local Inn called The Iron Horse where they planned to stay for the night. They stood in the cold winter snow across the street from the pub, which was downstairs. It was at the end of a triangular corner of the block where there was a wrought-iron fence and a small statue of a man on an Iron Horse hunting a bear with a trident. Hermel recounted what had transpired at the Rokkafellah Mansion to his friends.

“Here’s the thing,” Hermel was saying as they huddled around the statue on the corner. “Rokkafella asked for the appraisal.”

Arik took a look at the Jade Dragon Stone and recounted to his friends that he had heard in a tale among the Dwarves that once in a long while a Dragon will shed a tear, and whomever finds it may become a famous hero and have good luck from the stone for some time. Among the Dwarves such stones are called Dragon’s Tears, he said. Hermel went on to explain how he had gotten the stone.

“After I had returned the money that Ischandar had pick pocketed, the old blind man gave me a reading of the Tarot as a reward. He had me pick a card and the one I selected as the Dragon card. Later that night I dreamed that a dragon flew over Hobbington and before it passed into the clouds it shed a tear which landed on the tree in the courtyard of my flat. I went down to find it and an old man who was there explained to me that it would provide good luck to me if I called upon it. But only for eight days, on which day I might use up the last of the good luck if I were careful, and at which time the stone would be worth a Prince’s ransom. But if I used up the luck before the eight day then the stone would become worthless.”

Now that Hermel thought it over, the directions of the old man in the dream were in fact a little ambiguous. Did he have to use up all of the luck? What would have happened to the stone if he had not used it up? This puzzled him briefly, but as everyone was freezing they continued their debate without his mentioning it.

Arik observed that Heroes had always kept the stone, and he could not recall any hero ever selling it, though some had passed it down their family lines, and their progeny went on to also become heroes as well. Hermel considered it. He thought however that since his intention was to use the money from selling the Stone to rescue his village and improve his people’s lot in life, it could not be a bad use for it.

Outside the pub two men exited into the night, cursing and complaining. The barkeep charged out after them and yelled “Come back! You have to pay the tax!”

“We won’t pay it! How dare there be a new tax on everything we could buy yesterday without it!”

Bantum, who the two men were rushing past, picked one up by the scruff of his neck, saying as he did, “You have to pay the man!” The man hit Bantum with his club with a loud smack on his knee.

“Ow! That hurt!” roard Bantum and threw the man at the other one. Both of them went tumbling into a snow drift and landed in a heap. Bantum charged over, picked them both up by the scruff of their necks and then carried them over to the barkeep who was standing outside the pub door gawking at the huge child with the bandoleer of chickens.  Dr. Chickenhiemer was on his head flapping with the others as Bantum carried his two captives to him. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. Not something you see every day, thought the barkeep.

“Now you pay the nice man!” ordered Bantum in a booming voice.

“Easy Bantum, easy big guy!” said Arik coming up from behind with the others.

The merchant thanked Bantum, and said that if the men don’t pay the bill that’s one thing, “But if they don’t pay the tax, then I’m the one who will be in trouble!”

“What tax is this?” asked Star of Justice.

“It’s a food tax. Every restaurant has to charge an extra 1 Iron per meal. It was just legislated!”

“Did you tell everyone about the tax?” asked Hermel.

“It’s on the menu!” said the Barkeep.

“What … you told them … with words on paper?” asked Hermel, not for the first time annoyed by this reliance on the written word that people in the big city seemed to have. “First you have words on paper, then you get lawyers. Then everything goes to hell,” Hermel was thinking to himself.

“Can you two read?” asked Star of the two men. They shook their heads, indicating that they could not. Star pondered this, and recalled an interesting story he had read in the temple a while ago. As it happened once upon a time long ago, the Elkron held Council in their Celestial Hall when the Lord of Knowledge introduced a new gift for mankind. It was, he said, “Letters”. This caused a great deal of commotion as one of the Elkron opposed this and argued that the gift would make men stupid and debase their race by stealing from them their need to use their own brains to remember. Instead, once it became habit for men to write, then nothing would be remembered anymore, and the mind of man would atrophy. The matter was settled by the King of the Elkron who decreed that it should be tried, and so the Elkron would see for themselves what the results might be. Naturally, of course, the King knew the answer already, and had smirked behind his beard. This was a favorite old story among the followers of Eldrik.

“We’ve been coming to this restaurant for years,” said one of the men. “We ordered what we usually do! Why should we look at the menu every day when we already know what we want!?”

“You should have paid the man anyway,” said Bantum.

“No, he should have told them,” argued Hermel.

“How can I know if they didn’t read the menu?" asked the Barkeep heatedly.  "I have many customers! I can’t watch every one of them to see if they read it or not!” he insisted.

“Well, why don’t you pay for half of the tax then, since this was a mistake on both of your parts. And in the future, make sure to tell your customers to mind the new tax when they come in,” offered Hermel.

“At least a large sign on the wall,” suggested Arik.

“Ok… fine, fine… I’ll agree to pay half of the tax this one time, if you two agree to pay the other half,” said the Barkeep. The men agreed, looking at Bantum anxiously, and so the matter was settled, though no one was satisfied, and everyone grumbled again about the new taxes.  Those politicians would suck the town dry as a bone they all agreed.

Praymar, meanwhile, had slipped into the pub and took a look around. There were plenty of patrons at the tables and the bar. And the food smelled very good. He realized how hungry he was, and thought it would be a grand thing to have a bite to eat. But what fascinated him most were the many multi-colored drinks that the waitress was bringing around to the customers. When they would drink, he noticed, their faces would take on a look of great enjoyment. Some of them looked like they were giddily dreaming, and enjoying themselves immensely.  How grand, he thought.

A Marvel of Minvar

Outside Hermel had decided to heal the man whom had been injured by Bantum's throw.  He chanted the Mystical Invocation of Healing that he had learned from the Priests of the Golden Haired Elkron of the Grain, but try and try as he might (and he really tried), Minvar ignored his appeals and would not heal the man. Hermel tried again. He felt drained by this effort, but he tried again. 

“By the Elkron, man, did you EVER go to a temple in your life?” asked Star incredulously after the sixth failure. He’d never seen such a stubborn case.

“Well, no,” replied the man. “I don’t believe in that claptrap about the Elkron. Ain’t no such thing, I say. And judging from the effectiveness of your friends efforts, I’d have to say…”

“Minvar is going to help you!” shouted Hermel angrily and tried a seventh time. This time, somehow, Minvar decided to help the unfaithful blighter, and so he was healed completely at that moment. Hermel felt faint.

“I believe!” shouted the man as he stood up, completely whole and healed.

Hermel blinked a few times and looked up smiling as the man, shouting for joy, ran off toward the shrine of Minvar to pray and give thanks. Meanwhile, Star took a look at Bantum’s injured knee. It didn’t take him long to bandage it and put a sprig of herb on it to ease the pain.

Everyone decided it was high time to go inside, warm up, and have a meal. Once inside and seated near the fire, everyone ordered, and took note of the new tax with some dismay as it nearly doubled the price of each meal.

“The Elkron,” said Star in his most pious voice, “decree that we should give to the government as the government shall deem necessary from the citizens.”

“But what if they demand everything?” demanded a man angrily who overheard him.

“Then,” replied Star calmly, “we must go to the temple and ask the Elkron for help.”

There were more than a few groans in the pub when he said that, and most of the folk thought less highly of the priestly class that evening. They expected the priests, who didn’t pay taxes on their earnings at the Temples, to at least stand on the side of the common man, if not actively get out in front on such matters. But nevertheless, Star was more interested in quelling the rabble than joining any sort of revolution against the Town Council. He agreed that injustice should be fought, of course, but when it came to questions of taxes and related matters, Star was your basic law and order kind of man, and thought that the best way to tackle such questions was through governmental conventions. But, no one spoke that night of revolution, and so Star was spared from having to tolerate that kind of talk. They all just grumbled instead, and most folks left the pub earlier than usual, due to the fact that the new tax caused them to run out of money half way through the evening.

The Plot Thickens

“There’s food shortages every year, but I don’t recall the taxes having gone up on account of that before,” said Arik as he bit off a chunk of bread slathered with butter. “I wonder if the Town Council membership has changed recently,” he thought out loud as he hefted his flagon of ale.

“Speaking of membership changing,” said Hermel, sitting back in his chair, “did you find out who it was that got thrown over the wall?”

“Eh? You mean those four poor bastards who we saw get hung on the town wall on our way up the Long Stairs?”

“Those were four of the Five Animals,” said Hermel, thumping his hand on the table for emphasis.

“Eh? Well, good riddance, I guess,” said Arik, scratching his beard.

“There’s one left,” added Hermel quietly.

“Eh? Which one? The poodle?” Arik asked with a wry smile.

“Don’t know… Anyway, we might as well stay here for the night,” said Hermel. “Barkeeper, are there rooms available for the night at the Inn upstairs?”

“Yes, but I have to tell you – there’s a new tax on the rooms,” said the Barkeep.

“Eh?” grunted Arik. “Is there a tax on breathing, yet?”

"Don't give them any big ideas," said the Barkeep looking out the window up toward the Mayor's Hall.

“What?’ said Bantum to the Barkeep looking up. “After I helped you, we still have tax?”

“Its not my fault,” said the Barkeep. “I didn’t make the tax.”

“Tell me who did!” shouted Bantum. “I don’t like these taxes!”

“Calm down, big guy,” said Arik reassuringly. “Folks like us can’t do anything about taxes.”

Hermel ruminated on that fact. “Sure, we’re Adventurers of the Guild who get sent on missions to fight Ogres, wild beasts, brigands and Dragons – no problem. But taxes? Can’t do a damned thing. It seems strange to me, and yet, there it is. You can’t fight city hall.”

More patrons went out into the cold night, only half satisfied. They’d run out of money early.

“Looks like I’ll be closing up early,” said the Barkeep unhappily.

“I’m thirsty,” squeaked Praymar. No one answered. “Hello?” No answer. “Barkeep!” But the Barkeep had gone to cleaning glasses and was doing his best to look the other way.

“Fine, well I’ll get my own then,” said Praymar with a huff and started to walk around the side of the bar to get drink for himself.

“Woah, woah… where do you think you’re going?” said the Barkeep now taking notice of the white haired, crimson-eyed youth.

“I want a drink!” squeaked Praymar again.

“Ok, Ok… how about a nice glace of water. Nice and fresh.”

“Water? I want whats in one of those bottles!” he said pointing to the large selection of liquours on the shelves behind the bar.

“You’re not old enough for that kind of drink,” said the Barkeep, still wiping a glass.

“I’m an Adventurer of the Guild, thank you,” he squeaked proudly. “I’m old enough!”

“I don’t think so,” said the Barkeep matter of factly.

“Oh yeah? Give me your hand!” said Praymar, planning to Drain the poor unwitting fellow.

“Haw haw,” the grizzled Barkeep laughed. “I know that one – and you won’t be pulling my finger, young man!  Haw haw!”

“Now, now,” said Star coming up to where Praymar was standing. “The Elkron frown upon drunkenness.”

“Well, you’re a wuss, anyway,” answered Praymar angrily.

“Ok, ok, how about this?” said the Barkeep as he handed a pitcher to Prayar. It was tea with ice in it. Praymar, thinking this was what others in the bar must be drinking, thanked the man, and drank it down with relish.

Bantum, having finished his third steak and fourth loaf of bread, and sixth flagon of mead, let the poor flailing chickens loose from the bandoleer, and so they clucked happily at his feet pecking at seeds and breadcrumbs on the floor around him. Dr. Chickenhiemer, also quite hungry by then, hopped off of Bantum’s head and fluttered down to enjoy the fine dining as well. Breadcrumbs and seeds are a chicken-favorite, don’t you know. Some of the remaining patrons sat at their tables and gawked.

“You know,” said Hermel to one man, “you can have a pretty good life down in the provinces.”

“What? That’s dangerous living,” replied the man. “Why there’s wolves, and beasts, and they say monsters are in those accursed hills. Too dangerous for my blood. What do you think we live up on this mountain for? It’s protected. You have to be crazy to live down there, I say.”

“Well, if you arm yourself, it’s not so bad. And there aren’t as many taxes there,” answered Hermel, somewhat indignantly.

“Well, there will be,” said the man.

“Oh? Have you heard news?” asked Arik suddenly interested.

There was quiet talk in the pub about the suddenness of the new tax, which was only mandated that morning, after an emergency session of the Hobbington Grand Council. In fact, the man said he was privy to the council meeting and so he gave an account of what transpired. As it happened, he said, “… something put a bee in the bonnet of Mr. Senior Borge! He ordered up a Grand Council Meeting, complained vehemently that the city was on the verge of bankruptcy due to the 'those damn fools and brigands' out in the provinces, and demanded something be done about it immediately. There was a lot of commotion, and in the end he proposed that they raise the taxes – especially in the provinces! Har har. When has any other plan come out of the Town Council? All those little villages out there are going to feel the pinch pretty soon. Dry up, most likely. Won’t be a provincial town left in a year or two if Senior Borge has his way, I should think.”

“Sounds like Senior Borge is in a bad mood,” said Star. “I can’t imagine why.”

“Yes, well, some bee got in his bonnet, that’s for sure. That’s for sure,” said the man finishing up the last of his ale.

It was getting late. Most patrons had already left. The chickens were clucking, fat and happy. Bantum called to them and they all gathered around his feet. He put them one by one back on his bandoleer. The other adventurers were tired, and looked forward to heading up stairs to their room.

A Friend at the Old Stone Shoppe

“Arik, why don’t you take a look at this odd piece of stone that a dying miner gave to me before he died in the Prancing Unicorn Inn,” said Star of Justice pulling out the leather pouch it was in. He opened it and handed it to the Dwarve. Arik looked it over, and somehow it seemed to ring a bell in the back of his head, but he just couldn’t quite place it. "The man said I should give it to 'Aaaaaahhhh' before he died," Star said, a bit puzzled.

“Interesting. Well, I don't know off hand, but in the morning I can take it to an old friend of the family who might know what it is,” offered Arik. “I agreed to find out for Hermel what the value of goodly carved jade objects are in the town, so I can kill two birds with one stone, so to say.”

And so, it being late, everyone went to their room and settled in for the night. They all slept dreamlessly until first light. With the crowing of Chickenhiemer everyone woke up.

Just after dawn Arik headed through the snow across town to the Old Quarter. He made his way through an area known as The Maze, to a dark alley and passed under a stone arch and down a winding flight of stairs, at the bottom of which he found an old Dwarven jewelry shop named “The Old Stone”. He pushed the big oak wood door with the iron bands open and made his way inside. The shop was dark and empty except for an old white haired Dwarve who sat behind a long wooden counter polishing a bit of stone by lamplight.

“Hallo,” said Arik. “I’m wondering if I might be able to get an appraisal here?”

The old Dwarve looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “It’s a free country,” he said as he continued polishing.

“Well with the taxes the way they are, maybe it won’t be for much longer,” answered Arik as an aside.

“Don’t mention it,” said the old Dwarve.

“Alright, I won’t. Anyway, I have two things I’d like to discuss with you. One, I’ve got a bit of stone… It reminds me of something but I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s a friend of mine’s. He wants to know what it is, if anything.” And with that he put the rock on the counter. The Dwarve took the stone in his gnarled old hand, and looked at it under the light. He pulled out another flat black stone from his apron and took a rubbing. He hefted it in one hand and took a smell of it.

“Well, I can tell you what it is, for the usual appraisal fee,” he said.

“Ok, well, how much is that?” asked Arik.

“Ten Iron,” said the Dwarve.

“Fair enough,” answered Arik as he placed ten iron on the counter.

The Dwarve took up the money, and said, “Well, young fellow, what you have there is an ingot of Red Iron, sometimes called Red Steel.”

“Red Iron, is it?” said Arik, now remembering what the Dwarven Miner had told him about the secret findings within the salt mine.

“Mind if I ask where you got it? It’s a rare thing, you know," asked the old Dwarve, who had gone back to polishing.

“In a mine, about a day’s journey from the city.”

“I haven’t seen it in a long time,” said the old Dwarve. “I’d be willing to buy it from you for a good price,” he added.

“Well, thank you for that. I’ll mention your offer to my friend. I’m also interested in stone work. Carvings. Preferably in jade. Animals would be the best. I’m shopping around and I’d like to see some pieces if you have any.”

“Jade is hard. Difficult to carve. But I do have some pieces here,” said the old Dwarve as he hobbled over to a drawer and slid it open. Inside were a number of beautifully carved jade animals.

“I was never cut out for carving stone, as it happens,” said Arik to himself as he recalled the time he had tried putting his hand to it. The results were less than satisfactory, and he managed somehow to break an anvil in the process. So he admired the workmanship all the more. They were very finely crafted pieces indeed.

“Well, it just takes practice,” grumbled the old Dwarve. “Most Dwarves have the patience for it. But you don’t, I suppose.”

“Oh? You heard about the anvil incident, then?", asked Arik.

“I know your father. He’s an old friend of mine, you know. At any rate, your father says you haven’t been home for some time. He’ll be interested to know you’re still among the living, I suppose.”

A Brief Family Visit

Arik thought about his old father. He hadn’t been home for a year or more. His old Dwarven dwelling was not far from there, actually. Further down in The Maze in an underground warren of apartments, far from the hubbub of the upper city. Red Beard Dwarves lived down there, mostly. It was comfortable, made of solid black granite, and near a warm spot in the earth, so it was not cold in the winter like most places. And highly defensible, too, which didn’t hurt. He wondered how his old mum was doing, as well. He felt a slight pang to go for a little visit while he was near by.

But business first. He looked at the stone crafted pieces and selected the best one. It was a beautifully carved bear, made of white jade. The design was flawless, though without much detail, yet almost alive with the impression of alertness and motion.

He asked the price for that piece. It was expensive at five thousand Iron. Not many people made that much money in a year. And in fact, he considered that even after his adventures thus far, he hadn’t profited nearly that much from it all, as of yet. But soon, he hoped, his luck would change and he would be rewarded by Omri, one way or another.

“Yes, that’s a good piece, there,” said the Dwarven carver. “I’m working on a dog, now, but it isn’t finished, yet. They’re really popular lately.”

“Yes, well, anyway, the bear is great. I don't doubt you spent a lot of time on it. I’m impressed," said Arik sincerely.

“I’d trade the bear to you for the stone you showed me before,” said the Dwarve with a sideways glance.

“I’d consider it, if it were mine, but I’ll have to talk with my friend about it. He might be interested. I’m sure I would be glad to, if it were up to me. But it isn’t. At any rate, thank you for your appraisal. I’ll be going now,” said Arik and without further ado left the shop and shut the great oak door behind him with a soft thud.

From there, Arik headed southward, and downward, deeper into The Maze. He decided it was high time he went home for a brief visit. After a lot of windings, and archways, stairs, and hidden doors, he found his way home. There was the old place. A wide vaulted square with a spiral stair winding along the walls heading down into dusty darkness. Ah home sweet home.

When he got to his father’s door on the fourteenth landing he fluffed up his beard and straightened his hair with his hands, and then knocked loudly six times as was customary. As he waited he hoped that the visit wouldn’t ensnare him in any sort of side-quest as he promised the others to get back as soon as possible. He recalled the last time he’d been home his father commissioned him.

“Your mother wants to bake some bread, son,” he had said that day. “So I need you to go across Hobbington and get a sack of flour. And then you must walk to the bottom of Morris Hill and get Jarrow seeds from old Lady Grey. And then you must find one juniper berry from the top of the highest peak! And the tail feather from a Roc to stir the tea … hehe … just kidding about that last one, son. But the others – she needs those. So hurry along.”

It was one of the reasons Arik had not been home in quite some time. Such requests among Dwarves were not entirely uncommon, and Dwarven sons didn’t quarrel with their parents about such matters. They just left home, and rarely returned. A simple, yet effective strategy. The bread making quest had taken him a week, as he recalled.

The door opened. There was Old Ignatius Wagonbeard standing in the door, looking as grim and proper as ever he was.

“Son! How’s the anvils treating you?” he asked from under his bushy gray eyebrows, and waggling his enormous gray beard.

“Yes, yes, well they’re treating me better than I’ve treated them, mostly,” he replied, clasping his father with both arms.

“Come in, come in!” said Wagonbeard. “Wife of mine! Wife! Come out and say hallo your son! He’s come for a visit, and food, and money, I should think,” he said with a smile beneath his beard.

“Well, food perhaps, but the Adventuring is going well. I’m doing fine, fine. In fact I just came back from The Old Stone. The old Dwarven carver says hallo, by the way.”

“Ah, good, good,” said his father. “But what brought you there, son?”

“I needed an appraisal. While I was adventuring around the provinces I had chance to meet a Dwarven Miner who let on about a secret load of mystery ore he’d discovered. Anyway, a friend of mine was given a bit of ore, an ingot, and he wanted it appraised. As it happened the ore he got was the same as what the miner had mentioned to me. In confidence, you understand,” added Arik with a wink and a nod.

“Son!” called his mother, entering into the room carrying a large stone tray filled with bowls of meats and hard breads, and flagons of Black Ale. “Eat! Eat! Eat!” And so they sat at the table eating and drinking while Arik recounted all of his adventures of late. His parents beamed with pride. How their son had grown up! Finally. It was about time.

“Oh say,” said Arik over his ale, “have you ever heard of a Dwarve that could fly? I’ve had this hair-brained idea for some reason that I could fly, but then I found out I couldn’t. I wonder if you knew anything about it.”

His father looked at his mother with a crestfallen expression. They nodded wearily.

“Oh Omri… forgive the Mrs and I whatever sins it is that we did against you... Oh Great Omri we’ll try to make it up to you somehow,” said his father wagging his huge beard in front of him.

“No, son. There’s never been a Dwarve known to fly. We Dwarves are bound to the earth like old stones, don't you know. Flying is not something Dwarves should strive for, no. Omri, please don’t give my son any ideas about stone planes and flying, no. That would be bad,” he concluded grumbling. His mother wagged her beard, too. It was to be hoped that Omri would not give their son any more ideas of flying. They hoped that a lot. Flying Dwarves would be, well, unnatural.

“So you’re getting on with the humans ok, then, Arik, is that so?” asked old Wagonbeard after a while.

“Yes, I’ve met some nice humans. There’s one with a green cloak he’s very proud of named Hermel. He’s got a level head on his shoulders. Not half bad.”

“Well, just remember, they die early, son,” said Wagonbeard. “Don’t get too attached. They’re not long-livers like we are, you know.”

“There’s one little guy with pasty white skin and red eyes who keeps talking about ‘gut-blood’. He gives me the creeps, to be honest.”

“Well, don’t show him your belly, son,” offered his father dubiously. “You don’t want to make him hungry,” he added. His mom nodded in agreement as she downed another flagon of ale and wiped her beard with her hand.

“And then,” continued Arik over a chunk of hard bread, “there’s been a lot of talk lately about Hobbits. They’re even flightier than humans, they say.”

“True, true,” his father agreed, “but they’re long-livers. You can get to be friends with them. I have a few Hobbit friends who live up in The Heights. Not bad folk, entirely, really. They eat well, and drink better, they do.”

Breakfast being finished, and the ale barrel run dry, Arik's father ushered him to the door. “Well, good to see you, son. Glad you could drop by. You made your mother very happy. Glad you came back. Don’t come back too soon.”

Arik muttered agreement about that, and they both half-smiled secretly at the jest. It was a habit among Dwarves to joke around in this fashion when sentimental emotions were running high. In truth, his parents were quite proud of him, and overjoyed to see him.

“Just remember son, Dwarves live long lives. We don’t need to see each other too often. It’s ok,” he said, concealing his grin. “Unless, that is, you’ve reconsidered joining the family business, there. I don’t suppose you’ve given it any further thought, then, have you?’ asked his father with a gleam in his eye.

“I’m thinking I’d be more of a drain on the family business than a boon, I’m afraid,” said Arik as he picked up pace on his way up the stairs.

“I know you’re enjoying that adventuring thing," said old Wagonbeard as his son hastened himself up the stairs.

“Yeah, yeah, adventuring. It’s great stuff, yeah, yeah. An axe, I think, treats me better than a hammer,” said Arik.

“Good bye son! It was almost good to see you!”

Arik with a final wave vanished under an archway. Ah it was good to visit home. He’d have to do that again some day, he thought cheerfully.

The Selling of a Dragon's Tear

Meanwhile back on the other side of Hobbington, Hermel and the others were holed up at the Inn. Hermel recuperated his energies by meditating on his bed. Chickenhiemer pecked at seeds on the ground along with the other chickens. Star was sitting at a desk reading the Holy Book that every Inn provided. The others were still sleeping as Arik walked in.

After settling down on his bed, Arik told Star that the stone the miner had given him was “Red Iron”, but said nothing more of it. Star didn’t make much of the name, and so he considered the mystery unsolved. As he was putting the rock back in his pouch, Praymar asked if he could take a look at it. Star held it up for Praymar to look at. Somehow, the color of the stone, the redish hue, reminded him of something, but he could not remember what. It was as though he had seen that color of stone before long long ago. But when he thought about it, the impression he had was that he’d seen it so long ago that he could not have been born then. So he thought that perhaps he had seen it in a dream sometime, but he could not quite remember when.

Meanwhile Arik went to speak with Hermel about the Jade Bear, and told him how much it had cost and what his impression of it was. The bear, he said, was not as high quality as the Dragon’s Tear. Not by half, at least.

Hermel was concerned that the selling price for the Dragon’s Tear would turn out to be far higher than what he was being offered for it. Ten thousand Iron seemed too little to him somehow. Perhaps it was because the man in his dream had said it would be worth a Prince’s ransom. Would a Prince only command ten thousand iron? He was not very good at math. But he somehow felt ill at ease with that price.

In any case, it was time to go the Fountain Hotel and meet with Ishcandar’s father. He decided it would be best to get paid in gold. It would be easier to transport. He figured he could rely on the Adventure’s Guild to hold the money for him while he went around town making arrangements for the expedition to Yellow Clay.

“I will need all of you to help me with this mission. I need you to protect me while I transport the gold.”

“I’ll protect you,” squeaked Praymar.

“I’ll also need to show Mr. Rokkafellah the way into the Five Animals Hall. I think we can get through to there from the basement of the Five Crows Tavern.” Suddenly it occurred to him that there was a strange similarity between those two names, and the fact that they were in such close proximity... it made him wonder what the connection was. But he couldn’t answer it, so he didn’t think further about it.

They made their way to the Fountain Hotel where they found Mr. Rokkafellah sitting at a table in the main room drinking a fine brandy from a crystal glass. He greeted Hermel, and his friends, and suggested they adjourn to a side room where they could discuss matters privately. The room was quite elegant and private, a well stocked library, and nicely adorned with a fireplace, comfortable chairs, gas lanterns, and plates of food. And a cabinet with bottles of fine liqueurs. Everyone took a seat, except for Bantum who stood near the door and played with his chickens.

“Care for some brandy?” asked Mr. Rokkafellah of Hermel.

“No thank you. I prefer to keep a clear head,” he replied.

“Just as well,” said the stately Hobbit as he poured himself another glass.

“To get to the point, I want twenty thousand Iron. Mortal hands did not make the piece. I think that is a fair price,” said Hermel bluntly.

“I think you will have a hard time finding a buyer at that price. To be honest I was thinking that 10,000 Iron is overly generous. But I will tell you what. I am prepared to offer you twelve thousand.”

“I intend to make a certain town very prosperous. To do so I would like to engage your services. I want to improve the town with better trade, jobs, services, and construction. This is my dream. I want to use the money for that purpose. But I wouldn’t know where to start. I’m hoping that I can ask for your help in this matter,” said Hermel earnestly. “So perhaps there is money for you to be made in the process.”

“Well, that’s an interesting proposal. I would need to know more. What village are you referring to?’

“Yellow Clay,” said Hermel.

“It is not a prosperous town. Far out of the way. There’s no good road to it, I suppose,” said Mr. Rokkafellah, thinking out loud.

“Building a road would be a good start,” said Hermel.

“Building a road is very costly!” said Mr. Rokkafellah. “If you want to make a town profitable, it must have some natural advantage. You can’t just throw money at a town and make it prosper. Yellow Clay... what does it have?”

Hermel considered his impoverished home village. There was lots of yellow clay just on the other side of the river below the cliff. It stank, generally. And there wasn’t much in the town to speak of. The villagers barely scratched a living out of the dirt there. There was a low lying bog not far away, but people avoided it on account of the large man-eating lizards that lived there, ...and the noxious gasses.

“Well this is why I need your help,” said Hermel. “I need someone who knows how to think about these things and provide advice, and backing.”

“Yes, but the real question is whether or not the entire enterprise is worth the effort… and the financial risk?” queried Mr. Rokkafallah while sipping his brandy thoughtfully. “I could send a man down to appraise the town of its potential, I suppose.”

“Not yet,” responded Hermel. “There are bandits at the town. They are holding some of the townspeople hostage, including my sister. I am intending to rescue them. And when that is done, I also wish to fortify the town as well.”

“It is noble and admirable, but I’m afraid your plans may be overly ambitious. Even a fine Jade Dragon Stone such as yours is not worth as much as it would take to do all that you have in mind, young man. You might want to consider investing.”

“What?” asked Hermel, not understanding what the elderly Hobbit was suggesting.

“If you invest your money, then that money can earn more money, so that you grow your money. After a period of successful investing you may find that you have enough money to do the things you have in mind,” offered Mr. Rokkafellah.

“Money doesn’t make money. Hard work makes money,” said Hermel emphatically. Dr. Chickenhiemer clucked in exasperated futility from Bantum’s head.

“He doesn’t get it,” said Praymar.

“And you do, young man?” asked Mr. Rokkafellah.

“Yes I do,” squeaked Praymar.

“I see. And what do you think, Praymar?”

“I think it’s a fools errand,” answered the young albino boy.

“Hmm... you're an interesting young man. People might want to pay more attention to you in the future, Praymar,” said Mr. Rokkafellah, toasting him with another swig of fine brandy.

“In any case, I will tell you what. Since you have good intentions, and I think I may possibly profit by it, I will offer you 15,000 Iron; but that is my top offer. Take it or leave it.”

Hermel agreed and they shook hands on it. As it happened Mr. Rokkafellah had the gold with him. It was in a chest. He passed it across the table, and Hermel passed him the Dragon Stone. Inside the chest were one hundred and fifty ounce pieces of gold. They were flat square coins stamped with the image of the sun on them.

“Now that we have settled that matter, I expect you will show me where the secret entrance to the Five Animals dungeon is located,” said Mr. Rokkafellah.

Hermel took the gold out of the chest and handed some coins to each member of the party who stuffed the coins in their pouches. Including Praymar.

“Let’s meet in an hour and take care of the business with the secret door. It could be dangerous, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Would you be willing to have a brandy for an hour or so until we return?” asked Hermel. It did not take any arm-twisting at all for Mr. Rokkafellah to agree with that plan.

Rothmon's Reaction

Hermel and the party walked through the freezing streets to the Guild Hall. Fortunately they left the chest behind with Mr. Rokkafellah. Otherwise, their passing through the streets might have been unduly noticed by any of the many thieves in the town who happen to know what such chests might be worth. It did not take long, therefore, for the adventurers to make their way to the Guild Hall. Rothmon was there, and eager to meet with Hermel.

They went to the Library and Hermel gave his report. He recounted his viewpoint on the entire adventure. When he got to the part about the Dragon’s Tear and went on to explain that he’d sold it in order to save his village by hiring mercenary archers with the money, Rothmon was shocked.

“How can you consider selling a Dragon’s Tear?” asked the old stalwart, amazed. No hero had ever contemplated such a thing as far as he had ever heard.

Rothmon went to a shelf and pulled down an old dusty tome. From it he read a number of legends regarding various Heroes and Paladins who had obtained Dragon Stones, and recounted how they had become famous monster slayers, and passed down the sacred stones to their heirs, who then also went on to become Heroes.

“I am using the money to rescue my village. I don’t think the dragon would mind.”

“And for that matter,” put in Arik, “the Dragon Stone came to him, so it would seem it is up to him to decide what to do with it.”

Rothmon was dismayed. In his mind it was inconceivable for a hero to relinquish an appointed Dragon Stone for any reason. He offered his perspective on the matter, saying that Hermel risked his reputation by giving up a sacred relic. Hermel countered that he had no reputation. He was, after all, only a poor dirt farmer from a poor village. Rothmon went on to argue that if he wished to save his village that there was more to it than simply rescuing villagers. It was a matter of leadership. Hermel countered that his plan included his leadership.

"But if you have sold your Dragon Stone, won't people question your integrity?" asked Rothmon. Yet, Hermel was determined. And in fact, he had already sold it. Rothmon nodded his head slowly, wondering what might come of such an event. “It does not bode well,” he thought.

“If you can keep a secret, and not tell anyone about this matter, then my integrity will not be questioned,” suggested Hermel.

“I can surely keep a secret. But can everyone who knows of this do likewise?” asked Rothmon, staring pointedly at Praymar, who flicked out his little red forked tongue.

“Rothmon, I understand your reservations about this, but what is done is done,” answered Hermel.

Rothmon looked disappointed.

“You know, they say each Hero must forge his own destiny,” said Star, "and not tread on the path already walked by others.”

“You know, I don’t mind being that fellow. As long as it sets me apart from the others,” commented Hermel philosophically.

“Yeah… Loser,” said Praymar with a flick of his tongue. Everyone laughed. Except Hermel. And Rothmon.

“And what stories do you think they will tell about you, Praymar?” asked Star.

“Who knows? I’m not even there yet,” he answered.

“We’re all in a story, Praymar. You just don’t know it, yet.”

“That’s very true,” said Rothmon. “More than you know.”

At that moment a bird tapped at the window. That seemed a bit strange. It was a small blue bird. It tapped again. Hermel walked to the window and looked at it. It tapped the window again. He opened the window and the bird hopped onto his hand. On it’s leg was a small flat bead tied with a red string. On the bead was written a small glyph. Hermel knew the symbol. It was from Yellow Clay Village. Each of the Villages had it’s own glyphs and birds that carried messages like homing pigeons. Only these birds were able to track according to scent like dogs, and as such could track individuals, instead of being only able to find places. Hermel read the glyph. “Come quickly,” read the glyph in the secret language of Yellow Clay.

On the reverse side of the bead he made his own mark with ash from the fireplace. A circle with a cross-wise ‘X’ in it. He tied it to the bird’s leg, and let it fly out the window back home.

And with that, Hermel sat down and began to think about how to spend the money he had obtained, and where he would hire the archers, and how much bows and arrows would cost, and how many doses of the Misty Cloud Venom he should purchase, among other things. Hermel was not good at math. Not good at all. Everyone stared at him as he held his fingers in the air and wiggled them around while counting on them ineffectively, and starting over.

Dr. Chickenhiemer clucked a few times, and shook his head. He wondered just how good a logistics expert Hermel would turn out to be, and whether or not he had it within him to correctly calibrate all of the necessary variables in relation to combat tactics in order to derive an effective military plan. He clucked again, shaking his head dismally.

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