Wednesday, January 23, 2013
The Battle at Black Dragon Inn
... The mysterious figure in the wide brimmed hat vanished into the ally and disappeared. Star of Justice stood in the doorway of the mule barn debating with himself whether or not he should test the dart for poison, or dash down the dark alleyway after him. He examined the dart more carefully. It glinted golden in the firelight. It was in the shape, definitely, of a winged swallow.
“Come back!" he yelled into the frigid darkness. "You’re supposed to tell me what to do, or help me, or something. It’s not fair.” Nothing stirred. There was no answer.
“I’ve got one of these too,” he said, taking the pin from his lapel and holding up to the light, and comparing the two. They looked exactly the same.
Hermel came over to him and looked at both darts.
“They are the same,” said Star. “The Abbot at the Twelve Harmonies Pagoda told me that I should wear the dart on my lapel, and it would help me at the right time.”
“Cryptic,” replied Hermel as he took a glance down the street to where the Brigands were brawling.
“The Black Sun amulet is in the hands of the Abbot. I am to return to my Temple at Star Cliff as soon as possible and complete the ritual of purification to Eldrik, and then go after the other missing pieces of the artifact. Somewhere along the way, I was led to believe, I would acquire help, in some fashion, in relation to the Golden Swallow dart here. Well, it seems we’ve stumbled across my benefactor, but he ran away.”
“Perhaps,” clucked Dr. Chickenhiemer from atop Bantum’s head, “that had something to do with the fact that Hermel had ordered twenty archers to point their bows at him. I would reckon that might be accounted as a sign of intelligence on that fellow's part, possibly. What do you think, Turkenator?”
“I am thinking,” gobbled Turkenator, “that perhaps this was not the right time or place to engage with the young warrior priest.”
Bantum was occupied by other thoughts at the moment, mostly having to do with the ongoing brawl up the street, and missed most of what Chickenhiemer and Turkenator had said.
“That could be,” replied Chickenhiemer, clucking quietly. “That could be.”
“Well,” said Hermel to Star, “if the dart is supposed to help you, and the guy who threw it has run away, I’m wondering if it will help you to dash off into the night to try to find him, which is what it looks to me like you're about to do.”
“Well that does sound kind of silly, now that you put it that way,” replied Star. “I suppose what you’re saying is that maybe I should wait, and let the help come in it’s own way. Perhaps the Elkron shall guide me when the time is right.”
“In the meantime,” said Hermel, “let me see the dart. I will try to sense whether or not it’s magical.” Star, curious about that as well, handed him the dart. Hermel waved his hands, wiggled his fingers intricately, and chanted, intoning each letter of the spell very carefully. It was a perfect casting, and he discovered for a fact that the dart was not magical at all.
Star meanwhile was still looking longingly down the dark alleyway where his supposed benefactor had disappeared. He had the look of one who might venture off into the darkness alone.
“Ok. I gave you a horn,” said Hermel, staring at Star through half slitted eyes. “If you get into trouble and you need help, blow the horn once. If you need a lot of help, blow it twice. If the situation looks hopeless, don’t blow it at all. We’ll put a flower on a hill somewhere for you.”
“You know,” replied Star, still looking in the direction of the vanished figure, “I think what I’ll do is go with you. If Eldrick wants me to pursue my benefactor, I think I’ll wait for him to give me a better sign.”
“Are you sure?” asked Hermel. “I want you to help me with Yellow Clay Village, but I don’t want to stop you from following your calling.”
“Besides, I am supposed to purify myself at Star Cliff Temple before I leave on my Quest,” said Star, looking more firm about his decision.
“I hope you do that in private,” quipped Praymar with a squeak. No one paid attention.
Star put the darts in his pouch. The wind blew with a icy chill through the narrow streets. It had stopped raining, but there were still puddles on the ground. Not far off from where they were standing, the Brigands were still brawling, having stumbled out of the Black Dragon Inn into the street.
The Ishcandar Gambit
Arik watched them through one of the barn windows. There were ten Brigands dirty fighting both in and out of the tavern. One of the waiters was caught up in the melee and trying his best to avoid being hit while carrying a bottle of hot mountain wine to one of the tables at which sat a one figure, still, and unmoving. Arik could see the figure through the window. A body flew past, and slammed into a post near by, but the patron barely gave a sideways glance. A cool customer, thought Arik. Outside, however, things were much more interesting. It was a motley crew of fighting men, those Brigands. Not one had a leather vest without a hole in it, or a boot that didn’t have patches on it. They looked mean. And hungry. And in a bad drunken mood. They swung at each other with the ferocity of wolves.
“I’ll put ten Iron on the brigand with the big beard!” said Arik to Bob as the the archer Captain came up to watch with him.
“I’ll bet ten that the guy with scar will take him down,” replied Bob, pointing to the one he meant who happened to be in the light as he was swaggering out of the tavern.
“Ten Iron for whomever is left standing!” shouted Ishcandar down the street.
One of the Brigands stopped and turned around. He wiped the blood off his forehead.
“Did someone say ‘ten iron’?” he asked one of his mates, who had also stopped fighting and stood next to him peering up the dark street towards the barn. The others stopped fighting and began to walk towards Ishcandar.
“What are you talking about?!” yelled Arik suddenly. “You don’t have any kind of money!”
The Brigands in a loose band came to where Ishcandar was standing at the door of the barn trying to look innocuous, but failing.
“Did you say you’d bet ten Iron on the last man standing?” said the Brigand with the scar on his face. It was a long jagged scar that went from his chin, up his cheek and ended near his left ear.
“Don’t listen to this guy,” said Arik, quietly unhitching the leather buckle of his battle axe behind his back. “He’s a moron. He doesn’t have any money.”
Arik looked over to Hermel, who shrugged and had a calculated smile. “I see an opportunity,” he said enigmatically.
“Leave my friend alone,” said Bantum in a booming voice as he stepped outside the barn. The Brigands stepped back an inch. Lido hopped up onto a windowsill where he had a good vantage point for his sling and took out a stone from his pocket. The archers, who happen to be standing in two rows along the wall of the barn looked over to their leaders.
“Hey, Bob,” said Arik, but he was cut off immediately by Hermel.
“No,” said Hermel, holding his hand up to prohibit the archers from interfering. “How will he learn?”
“He’s not going to learn,” commented Arik to himself, but went unheeded. “You know,” he went on, this time directly to Hermel, “this is Ishcandar we’re talking about. The luckiest Hobbit ever to walk on two feet, probably. What’s more likely to happen is a meteor will come out of the sky, hit the town, kill everyone in sight, and burn the entire place to the ground. But he’ll be fine, and watch the whole conflagration over a nice sip of brandy. That’s what is more likely to happen than he’ll learn anything, if you ask me.”
Hermel just nodded his head.
“You really want him to get beat up? After all, he only bet ten iron,” Arik said.
The Elkron, high up in their Celestial Hall, were curious. What was Hermel’s true motive? There was a debate among them. Was the motive friendship? They stared. No. What was the motive?
"Hermel thinks", said Minvar, Queen of the Golden Grain, "that his motive is ‘The General Good’".
"But this was really not quite right", said Omri, as he gazed down at Hermel from his great stone chair.
“Yes, there is a deeper level, I agree,” said Eldrik, not necessarily liking what he saw. Hermel was angry. He was angry at Ishcandar’s nature, which had caused so many problems. He really felt that if Ishcandar got beat up, he might finally learn why he should stop causing these problems.
“Or is that a rationalization?” asked Omri, stroking his long ancient beard thoughtfully. “The question is, will Hermel enjoy watching Ishcandar get beat up?”
“It seems so,” said Valanir, Lord of the Elkron, while pushing a pawn forward and putting Omri in check. “There is an element of evil there, I think.”
“Even if Hermel is doing this for good reasons, if he’s happy to see Ischandar hurt, then yes, I’ll have to agree,” said Omri. “After all, Ischandar did only a little more wrong than the others in this deed.”
“On Hermel’s behalf,” said Minvar from her golden throne, “Ishcandar was inciting them to fight.”
“They were fighting already,” said Omri, grimly staring down at the chessboard as he stroked his beard.
“And,” added Minvar, “Ischandar is not only instigating further violence, encouraging it, but he’s dragging the entire party into the fray, which he always does.”
“Yeah, so he did something stupid,” said Omri, fingering a knight, “but it wasn't wrong. He was going along with the crowd, after all. The others had started the gambling first. Why, I think it was that bird-brained Dwarve, Arik, who started it all, actually.” He looked down over his shoulder at Arik disapprovingly.
“Well, Ischandar went too far. He directly antagonized them, whereas the others were making bets on the side, and the Brigands would have not taken any notice of them had not Ishcandar shouted down the street to them, and brought down their thieving wrath upon himself – and the rest of the party in the process,” said Minvar, now clearly having taken Hermel’s side in the matter. “It was wrong.”
And so the Elkron, great and mighty, sat in their high Hall, debating this way, while on Elthos ten Brigands had come over and surrounded Ishcandar.
“So you really want him to get beat up?” asked Arik again.
“Well, a little,” said Hermel, still holding his hand up to stay the archers.
Seeing this, Ishcandar, who had tried his best to be a loyal friend to Hermel all along, became immediately crestfallen. He dropped his silver flask on the ground. He took out his pouch of iron pieces and threw it on the ground.
“Here take it,” he said to the scar faced Brigand in front of him. “It’s not worth having. Do with me what you will. I have no friends in this world. I might as well just go to the Elkron.”
So pathetic was Ishcandar's suddenly despairing tone, a tear came to the eyes of all of the Brigands, who knew just how the poor blighted Hobbit felt. Each in his own way had been abandoned by all that was just and good in the world, and had turned to a life of crime, for it seemed there was nothing left for them.
“Who did that to you friend?” demanded Scarface, turning on Hermel. Ishcandar hid a smile behind his hand, pretending to cry.
“I told you this would happen,” said Arik. “He hasn’t learned anything. And look. You’ve just pissed off ten cutthroats. And now you’re going to have to have the archers kill them after all.”
The Brigands had angry eyes on Hermel. “So. You. You’re the one,” said Scarface. “Hurting this poor little Hobbit’s feelings like that. We may be Brigands, but we’re not inhuman, you know. He wasn’t hurting no one. You should be ashamed of yourself. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Hermel stood there dumbfounded staring. How was it possible that Ishcandar could be so unbelievably lucky? It was monstrous.
Scarface, who was not as much of a brute as you might have thought, waited for a few seconds, and seeing in Hermel’s eyes the mixture of petulance, annoyance, dismay, and fiery willingness to fight to the death if need be, decided against taking things any further. He half admired Hermel, in fact.
The Ironic Backstabbings
“Ok, ” he barked to one of his men, “take the coins. We’re going back inside. Let’s have some drinks.” The men all brightened up at that news. One of the Brigands bent down and picked up the pouch heavy with coins, and hefted in his hand. Scarface turned to Ishcandar and said, “Common. You can come have a drink with us, little buddy.”
“Well, I won’t turn you down,” said Ischandar sounding to all the world disconsolate to the point of despair, “seeing as how I have no friends left in this world.”
“Common. I’ll buy ya a drink,” said the Brigand, putting a big bloodstained hand on Ishcandar’s shoulder.
“Ishcandar, Brigand King,” thought Hermel to himself, imagining that by morning the Hobbit would be sitting on a huge pile of treasure with a hundred Brigands raising their glasses and cheering him.
“Hey, kid,” asked Scarface as he walked with his hand consolingly on Ishcandar's shoulder, “you want an eye patch?”
“Wow!” said Ischandar, suddenly enthused for the first time in over a minute as he took the brown leather eye patch in tried it on. He didn’t need one, of course, but still, it felt quite tough and brigandish to wear it.
“I know how you feel,” Scarface was saying as they walked to the door of the tavern. Above the door a black sign with red letters read ‘Black Dragon Inn’. It smelled of beer, and garlic, vomit, sour milk, and brazed beef, and sweat, and wood-smoke. “It’s a rotten world, isn’t it? Yer friends turn on ya and stab ya in the back like that. It’s rotten to be sure. Here, have a drink. Have a drink.”
The drinks began to flow. Mostly down Ishcandar’s gullet, actually. The Brigands didn’t quite realize just whom they had invited to the bar. He was quite prepared to drink them out of every drop of liquor they had with hardly a burp.
Outside, everyone stood staring at Hermel.
“You’re a mean person,” said Praymar.
“One day, Praymar,” said Hermel with tone flat enough to level a playing field, “you’ll find your fate, too.”
Meanwhile the archers relaxed and unknocked their bows. Everyone made their way back into the barn. Arik went over to Lido, who was still standing in the doorway looking out across the way toward the tavern.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “Everything will turn out fine. In the morning all the Brigands will be dead, most likely, and Ishcandar will still have some brandy left, too. Don’t worry.”
But Lido was worried anyway. Perhaps he even felt a twinge of remorse that Ishcandar thought he didn’t have a friend in the world, when after all, no one could have been a more loyal friend than Lido to begin with. As everyone else settled in for the night, Lido made his way across the street, climbed up on a crate and peered in the window. There was Ishcandar, sitting at a table with Scarface, swigging down a shot of whiskey straight from the bottle. Of course, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Lido, but made no move to suggest he had, and he continued to survey the room, while looking more drunk than he really was. There were ten Brigands in the room. Two on the overlooking balcony upstairs. Two waiters, one cook, and the barkeep, who appeared to be the owner.
The Mysterious Stranger
A door on the far side of the tavern opened. In walked a young woman with long black hair, neatly tied in the back, with a wide brimmed black hat, and a black cloth, and neatly arrayed wrap around robe. She was dressed like a man, and one might have mistaken her for one, had she not been quite so pretty. She carried her sword in her left hand by the middle of the scabbard. Her expression was cool as a glass lake. Her frosty eyes did not even dart around the room. She simply stepped inside, and stood still while a waiter came running over.
“Come in! Come in! Please! Have a seat! Have a seat! What may I get for you?” asked the waiter obsequiously, as was the custom in those days.
“A bottle of hot mountain wine. The good wine,” she said. Everyone in the room stared at her. There was not a sound being made by anyone. She was a beautiful looking woman. Yet she radiated an aura of danger that was so palpable you’d think you could cut your hand on her eyebrows. She sat down at a table near the door.
“Waiter,” said Ishcandar. “Get her the finest wine, on me.” Then turning to her he added, “Welcome to the Ishcandar pity party.”
“That’ll be three Iron,” said the bartender.
“It’s on my friend here,” said Ishcandar patting Scarface on the shoulder.
“What?” said Scarface. “Bold little imp, aren’t you?” he added under his breath, but he wasn’t speaking about Ishcandar. He stood up, and walked over to where the stranger had sat herself down. She stared straight ahead and watched him very closely out of the corner of her eye.
“So, where are you from?” asked Scarface of the stranger.
“From the west,” she said.
The big bearded Brigand joined Scarface, and both stood in front of her table.
“I’m here to clean up this town,” she said, turning to look Scarface in the eye with deadly menace. All the Brigands stared at her. Scarface smiled cruelly.
Ishcandar Turns the Tables
At that moment Ishcandar had come up quietly beside Scarface, wanting to get a better look at the mysterious young woman. She was sitting quite still and calm, only her eyes revealed flashes of the dangerous lightning within her. Her hand was still on her sword, which she had placed on the table in front of her. The waiter came and put the tray of wine on her table, and backed away, looking around nervously. The atmosphere was charged with tension.
For some reason, only the Elkron know why, perhaps, Ishcandar noticed the corner of a worn out parchment sticking out from a fold in Scarface’s cloths. It suddenly looked extremely interesting to him. All eyes were in fact on the girl, so he felt confident that neither Scarface nor anyone else would notice if he slid the parchment into his own pocket while obscuring the deed with a suitable turn of his shoulder. With nothing in this world to lose, he decided to try that.
It failed. Scarface had a subconscious reaction to anyone getting too close to him, and without thinking about it, because his mind was focused exclusively on the dangerous stranger, he brushed Ishcandar aside, not even realizing that his little friend had tried his darndest to pick his pocket. Without thinking about it he shoved the parchment further into the folds of his cloths.
Ishcandar glanced around. No one noticed. Except the woman at the table, who had, he thought, seen what he had tried to do, and ever so slightly raised one eyebrow and smiled, ever so slightly. With that Ishcandar decided that the stranger-lady outclassed everyone in the room, and that she had in mind to clean up the town of the Brigands. Seeing this, the young Hobbit considered his position carefully. He realized that by drinking and carousing with the Brigands she might get the wrong idea about him. What if the deadly looking swords-lady mistook him as being one of them? Why she might kill him, too, he thought. He reasoned that he needed to show the pretty lady just whose side he was really on, before things got out of hand and turned fast and ugly, as it looked like things were about to do.
Ishcandar, without a moment’s further hesitation stepped quietly behind Scarface, withdrew his knife, and stabbed the unwitting Brigand in the back. The rather awful irony of this was not lost on the Elkron who observe all things and took note of it.
“Now, that’s a bit of irony for you," comment Valanir. "Having rescued the Hobbit from dissolute friendship, Scarface himself is stabbed in the back, having so recently commiserated with his newfound friend on that very point,” he went on, turning a grave eye back towards the chess board. "Is it any wonder, really, that desparate men feel bereaved of all that is good and just in the world, and turn to a life of crime?" Omri let out a grunt that shook the all of the hills in the vicinity of Hobbington. The tremor was felt far and wide, and in the Black Tavern Inn dust fell from the ceiling. But no one noticed that. There was too much else to capture the attention of the people there.
Lido gawked at all this from the window where he was peering into the room. While he was always ready to help Ishcandar in most any scrape, this time he really thought his friend had utterly stepped in it. Surrounded by vicious Brigands, having attempted to stabbed their chief in the back, and only one lady with a sword in the vicinity to help save his life. And she wasn't really leaping up and helping him either. This most certainly did not look good.
Meanwhile Scarface had heard the ‘shint’ sound of Ishcandar’s dagger being unsheathed behind him, and so the backstab, which should have laid the villain low, missed entirely as Scarface suddenly pivoted, unsheathing his own sword. His counter attack was severe, cutting the hapless Hobbit across the shoulder, leaving a red gash. All the Brigands leapt to their feat, all swords were withdrawn in a flash, and the fighting men all clammered angrily.
“Young lady,” shouted Ischandar, “I’m here to help you!”
At this the pretty young woman raised an eyebrow. Other than that, she sat quite still, one hand on her sword, one hand on her cup of wine. She raised her cup and took a sip. It seemed to suit her, and she took another.
Lido, seeing how the Brigands were surrounding Ishcandar, and the young heroine was apparently not going to lift a pinky to help him, decided that something needed to be done. He considered trying to hit one of the lamps on the ceiling to knock it down and hopefully cause a fire. But looking at the solid materials from which the tavern was made, the heavy dark wooden tables and benches, the stone slabs on the floor, and the thick and solid doors, he had the impression that this was a tavern built to last. Burning it down, even with proper fire making materials, seemed to him on second thought to be highly improbable.
“Help! Rothmon! I need help!” thought Ishcandar into his telepathic ring. Unfortunately, the ring only had a range of about a mile or so, and Rothmon, back in Hobbington, was quite out of range by then. Lido heard him loud and clear. And little did either of them realize, but so did someone else. But she was not surprised at that, though had they known, the two Hobbits certainly would have been!
Guess Who To The Rescue?
Lido hopped up on the window sill and shouted, “The Calvary has arrived!” and then turning about and facing the barn across the street shouted, “Ishcandar’s in trouble!”
In the barn, Hermel sat up. He threw his blanket off and shook the straw from his hair. He felt very ambivalent about it. After all, who was shouting to get their help? Lido. Ishcandar’s henchman. He considered flipping a coin to see what he should do.
“I guess things turned out for the best anyway," he said finally. "Ok, lets go get Ishcandar’s bacon out of the fire,” said Hermel to the group, all of whom were in various states of unreadiness.
“Who is this guy?” asked Praymar. “How stupid can he be?”
“I will help,” said Bantum loudly, and ran for the door with his blanket still wrapped around him.
In the tavern Ishcandar was surrounded. The Brigands, having seen the error of their ways in taking in the untrustworthy wretch, had their knives and daggers and swords in hand, all glinting with sharp edges, ready to carve the misguided Hobbit into pieces. Possibly for a stew.
Fight Like a Man, You Hobbit
“I challenge you,” said Ishcandar boldly to Scarface, “to a duel. One-on-one. Mano-a-Hobbito. You're not a real man if you have to have all your buddies fight your battle for you. What are you? Scared?”
Scarface looked down at him with a raised eyebrow. He smirked as he held his men off with a raised hand.
“Ok then. You and me,” said Scarface, staring at Ishcandar with glowering eyes, testing the edge of his blade with his thumb. It was sharp. "One on one."
“Lets go outside and settle this like real men!” said the Hobbit.
“Fight now, or die now,” said the Brigand, still smiling.
“You’re not a real man!” shouted Ischandar.
“You’re afraid of a Hobbit?” laughed Lido from the windowsill scornfully. A man took two steps from where he was and knocked out the wooden window bar and the shutter slammed down, due to which Lido leapt backwards into the street. He landed on the crates, and scrambled to his feet.
Inside Ishcandar prepared to fight Scarface with his dagger. The Brigand circled around the diminutive Hobbit, half crouching, sword in his right hand glinting along it's razor sharp edge. He was waiting for Ishcandar to leap at him. He planned to smack him down with one hand and stab him through the back with his sword. It would have been a bit of justice, thought Scarface. And the Elkron didn't entirely disagree with him, at that.
Ishcandar lunged forward. His attack missed, but he managed to scramble behind a table before being pinned to the floor. The Brigand struck with his sword, but the Elkron were apparently against him after all. As he swung the deadly blade, he sneezed, fumbled over the leg of the table, and let his sword fly out of his hands. It winged across the room and ‘shunked’ into a doorpost. Everyone stared at the Hobbit with their eyes bulging.
“That lucky bastard,” said one.
"Scarface never misses!", said another.
“You see, young lady!? And you were scoffing at me before!” shouted Ishcandar. She looked over and gave him an infinitesimal smile.
Scarface, infuriated to no small degree, went to punch Ishcandar. He was, as it turns out, known far and wide for his boxing skill among those who took account of such things. He stepped forward and took a swing at the little Hobbit. A bone-crushing blow knocked Ishcandar across the room, and landed him into the post just below the still vibrating sword.
“Wow, you’re a really big man,” shouted Lido from the door, “beating up on a little Hobbit, aren’t you?”
“You see?” said Ishcandar to the young lady, with a flourish of his dagger hand as he slid down to the floor on his butt, “I’m still standing!” His other hand mopped the blood from his shoulder with a handkerchief. The hankie went from white to red rather quickly.
At that moment Hermel arrived at the door with the members of the AAA Group, followed by the archers who formed up in two groups and readied their weapons. Lido turned around as Hermel and the others approached.
“What happened?” asked Hermel.
“Ishcandar tried to backstab the Brigand leader,” replied Lido. Hermel looked at him. He looked at the crowd surrounding Ishcandar in the tavern room. He looked back a Lido.
“It's not going so well. Even I didn’t think it was such a good idea at the time,” said Lido. “Nobody thought it was a good idea. But he did it anyway.”
“Alright,” said Hermel, resigned to go in and save Ishcandar. After all, he really didn’t want the obnoxious Hobbit killed. He just wanted him beat up some. And that for his own good, and the good of society.. And so far, that seemed to be working out to his satisfaction.
“Do you think it had anything to do with the pretty lady sitting at the table in there?” asked Lido. “Would he have wanted to win her favor by picking a fight with all ten Brigands single-handedly? It is rather brave. I… I don’t try to figure out why he does things, anymore.”
With that Hermel marched into the room followed by as many archers as could fit in along the walls on both sides of the door facing into the room, which happen to be six of the twenty archers, lead by both archer Captains. Bantum pushed his way past the archers and stood next to Hermel. The others were pressing the door eager to enter, or at least see what was happening.
“He’s a miserable little Hobbit,” said Hermel to the Brigands. They all turned to face the door. “But he’s MY miserable little Hobbit.”
“I knew you were still my friend!” cried Ishcandar, delightedly.
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