Thursday, January 26, 2012

Interlude - The Cantankerous Tutor

Master Greggin Stouthart
An Unexpected Guest

After a long night of dreamless sleep Hermel awoke at the edge of dawn to the sounds of loud banging on the door of his meager third floor apartment. As he had been through much lately he leaped up from his straw bed, banged his knee on the broken closet door, and scrambled for his sword. Pulling it out and standing ready, sweat forming on his forehead, his eyes not yet unglazed from sleep, he shouted, “Who is it?!”

“It’s Hornmel, cousin!” he heard from the other side of the door. Hornmel? His cousin from Yellow Clay Village?! What a surprise! He had not seen his cousin since he moved away to Hobbington. Delighted, he immediately went to work neatening up a corner of the straw bed, and placing the broken closet door against the hinge so it didn’t look quite so much like it was broken. It fell off the hinge, but he caught it, and placed it carefully against the doorframe. He then ran over to the cracked mirror spit on his hand and slicked his hair back neatly. Satisfied that he and his apartment now looked proper for an honored guest, he opened the door.

“Cousin Hornmel! What a delightful surprise to see you! Come in, come in!” he said pulling his cousin into his room by the arm. Hornmel for his part was largely covered in mud and sweat and was wearing the usual village garb; leather boots, a torn brown shirt, ragged bottomed black pants, an old worn out headband that once may have been green but was now gray, and a leather vest spotted with holes and peppered with tears. At his side he carried on old knife in a rough leather scabbard, probably the only sturdy piece of equipment he owned, other than his own hard body. He looked around the room with great appreciation and relish.

“Nice place, Hermel,” he said after a minute of admiration. “City life is treating you well. You’ve gained weight,” he said without a hint of mockery. “But cousin, I came to bring a message from Grandfather. He says all of the fighting men who left the village should return. Bandits have attacked and taken hostages. Their chief is demanding the spring seed for their return. I’m sorry, but I must add that your sister, Iliza, is one of the hostages,” said Hornmel.

“Well, then, we have no choice but to return. However, I have business in the town I need to wrap up before we go. In the meantime I will show you around a bit of the town. It is very impressive. I’m sure you’ve never seen anything this grand before,” offered Hermel enthusiastically. Hornmel for his part was quite happy to hear this arrangement as he’d never been to Hobbington proper before and was always curious to know what went on in such a teaming metropolis. Nevertheless, he kept his emotion to himself, and simply nodded affirmation that he understood and was willing. Such is the way of the Yellow Clay villagers that they seldom make an overt display of emotion.

Hermel thought about the old village he’d come from. It was a very small village, one of the smallest in fact. It had no wall but only a wide double ditch surrounding it, and a few mounds within that were shaped in circles or squares that had been chosen as locations for the larger barns and homesteads. Outside the ditch boundary were the farms, on which were hovels and ramshackle barns, whose families eked out the most meager livings imaginable. Nevertheless, no one thought village life was unbearable, and during planting season songs were sung, and in winter the old stories were told. Most years people had enough to eat, and enough wood from the surrounding forest to keep warm. He remembered his sister Iliza with her long straight black hair and proud young eyes. She had wanted to be married to Hruza Tangtao, one of the village wheat-monks, but she was as yet too young. If Hruza was still in the village then Hermel knew that he would have at least one additional warrior to rely on. The town was long famous for the kung fu of the wheat-monks who practiced there, but few were left since the town’s kung fu teacher was offered a better position teaching at Bear Claw Village on the far side of the forest. Many of the young men in the town went away then, some to follow the teacher, and some to Hobbington or elsewhere, since there was so little to keep anyone in Yellow Clay Village otherwise.

But now, it was time to return home, and see what could be done. But first there was business to attend to, and Hermel knew full well that given how life moves at snails pace in the villages no one would expect him to return immediately. Even if his own sister was a hostage, he felt sure that the bandits would not risk molesting her and so a few days more or less would make no difference. In all likelihood the bandits would not show up again for a few weeks while letting the village elders consider their terms.

“You need some iron to live in the big city,” said Hermel.

“I came with this,” said Hornmel emptying his pocket into his hand and show his three tin pieces proudly. That would be enough money to buy one chicken leg in Hobbington, thought Hermel to himself with a shrug.

Fruitful Visit to the Guild Hall

As it happened, Hermel still had Ishcandar’s pouch which had a large amount of iron pieces in it, but he had no intention of spending any of Ishcandar's money.  He just took it to teach the Hobbit a lesson. But he still planned to go to the Guild Hall and get his payment for the successful accomplishment of their last mission, which was to help Jeremy save the Hagglesmiths. That being done, he expected a handsome reward.

Meanwhile, Hornmel was looking out the narrow window to the courtyard below where the old walnut tree stood.  It had ice hanging from the branches, and was dusted with snow.  He was very impressed with the tall buildings and amenities like doors, closets, mirrors, and the like.

“Let’s go,” said Hermel intending to head to the Guild Hall first. Down they went to the street below, winding their way through the snow dappled ally ways, over bridges, up and down flights of stairs, and finally came to the Guild Hall. Hermel lead the way up to the red brick building and pushed the door open after knocking three times. Inside the entrance at a desk was a man sitting with a pen in one hand, peering into a large book and taking notes.  He pulled his collar close around him as the freezing wind from the open door swept into the hall.  Hermel closed the door quickly and stamped the snow off his boots, as did Hornmel.

“Greetings,” said the pepper haired man at the desk as the two walked in. He raised an eyebrow and tipped his glasses forward when he looked at Hornmel, who looked very much like the lowest sort of vagabond. But since he was with Hermel, the man said nothing about it. He just smiled and asked if there was anything he could do to help.

“I’ve come to settle affairs with Mr. Rothmon,” said Hermel.

“Why of course,” said the gentleman. He offered them a seat and went off to fetch Rothmon, who came downstairs in a few minutes, adjusting his cloths as he entered the library.

“Gentlemen,” he said politely, and ushered Hermel into his private study. Hermel instructed Hornmel to sit quietly and not go anywhere, which the lad agreed to do.

“Rothman, sir, I believe we have concluded the Hagglesmith mission, and so I would like to collect my reward, whatever it may be,” said Hermel politely.

“That’s fine, of course,” replied Rothmon, “but I do wonder… what became of your two Hobbit companions?”

Hermel looked momentarily uncomfortable, and then told the short tale of his return to Dunn’s Bridge with Ishcandar and Lido.

“Um, I’m not sure. I went with them and we got separated in the fog, I suppose. Ishcandar and I went to the secret passageway into the underground, and I waited there while he went in. After a while a man came out and demanded I return inside with him, which I was not inclined to do. He threatened me and so I fought him briefly and escaped. I’m not sure what became of either Ishcandar or Lido, frankly. To make matters worse, I have just received word from my hometown, Yellow Clay Village. My cousin Hornmel, who is sitting outside at the moment, has brought a message from the village elder, saying that all the fighting men must return, since there are bandits who have taken hostages, my sister Iliza being one of them. So I have no choice but to return and see what help I may be able to provide. That leaves me in an awkward position in regards to my friends of the AAA Group, I’m afraid. I do not have time to investigate their circumstances I don’t think. Our village is in peril, and my duty first of all must be to my family.”

“Understood, certainly,” said Rothmon stroking his long grizzled beard. “In fact perhaps the Adventure Guild can offer some assistance to you in this regard. There is a new group of adventurers who have recently signed on, and I believe at least some of them may be interested in joining you. Why don’t I arrange for a meeting between you and them for this afternoon, say at 3pm?”

“That would be very much appreciated,” exclaimed Hermel. “And as for our other business, then, I do not suppose I can ask you for payment now?”

“Certainly, of course,” replied Rothmon. “Now let me see… this was an unofficial mission as I recall,” he said talking mostly to himself as he pulled some papers from a drawer and began pouring over them while flipping beads on his abacus. “Yes, hmmm… at first I supposed it might be a 1st or 2nd level mission, but in the end I was compelled to believe it was 3rd level after all, given the dangers. And you did complete the rescue and all the children of the Hagglesmith Horde were rescued. And you uncovered a long standing mystery and brought new revelations regarding Doctor Lobe to light. And as well, you made some interesting discoveries regarding the underground layout of Dunn’s Bridge and its link to the Five Crows Tavern. And not least of all you managed to help break up a kidnapping ring, and bring those villains to justice, two of whom sit in jail at this time, and one of whom died what I believe was a very unnatural death indeed. He was withered with old age on his left side, if I get the story straight… is that correct?”

“So I was told by Drake Barnstormer, the constable who retrieved the body, yes. There was a very terrible black knight in armor who was reaching for the poor man as we were escaping, but I did not turn around to see what became of him. I just ran.”

“Well, fine then," said Rothmon after a long pause. "Taking these factors into account, and dividing the sum by the members of your group, I come to a total of 400 iron pieces for you. I hope it will suffice,” said Rothmon, taking out two leather pouches and placing them on the desk. Hormel was surprised to see so much money at one time. He’d never seen this amount before. He took the two pouches with a great show of gratitude and stuffed them into his vest.

Hermel exited the library with many thanks to Rothman. He then took Hormel with him through the winding streets and ally ways to the Rat’s Den where he hoped to meet Bernie in order to pay him the fee he had promised him. That came to one half of what he’d made from the mission, which in fact was quite a lot of money. But Hermel was an honorable man, and so he intended to pay what he owed.

Down the Rat Hole

There was a bitter wind, the sky dawned a dark gray, and it had begun to snow. Already there was an inch of snow covering the cobblestone as they walked through the alley ways and over the foot bridges. They arrived at the long tunnel stairs leading down into the 'Rat’s Den Underground Tavern', as the sign above the tunnel, edged with frost and ice, read in red letters.

“Stay close, Hornmel, these are people who live as they must, and not all that they do is right, but not all is wrong either,” said Hermel to his cousin as they walked down the stone steps toward the landing at the bottom. Hornmel nodded assent. When they got to the bottom they stopped at the heavy oak door. Hermel knocked three times.

The door opened into a broad wide and dark room in which there were a dozen tables and at the far end a long bar. A serving wench was scuttling to and fro bringing ales and food to the various groups of patrons at their tables. A fire roared in the hearth on the western wall. Behind the bar stood Hagan, the owner of the establishment, who seemed quite happy when he saw Hermel walk in.

“And so the hero returns!”, he said jovially. “Come in! Come in! Warm yourselves by the fire. Have an ale! I have heard that your mission was successful, and the Hagglesmiths are safely released from imprisonment. Very good, young man, very good.”

“Thank you, for your advice and generous provisions. It helped us tremendously,” replied Hermel a bit embarrassed by the praise. “I’ve come to see Bernie, frankly. Would he be here at this time?” he asked.

“I’m afraid he’s out and about at the moment. He said he had some business or other to attend to, but I’m sure he will be back by nightfall, as he usually is. I can leave a message for him if you wish,” said Hagan in good humor.

“I’d like to ask if you’ve heard anything of a man in yellow robes at any time along the way?” asked Hermel.

“Hmmm… yellow robed man? There was a rumor of such a man a few days ago making some sort of commotion at the Palace gate, but I have not heard anything more of him since then. Odd you should ask about such a stranger,” answered Hagan.

“Ah well, there were many strange events along the way of our adventure. In fact we met with a very frightening man in black platemale down in the tunnels beneath Dunn’s Bridge who … I know it sounds unbelievable… who sucked the time out of a man’s body. He crumpled into dust along his left side after that, I’m told”

“Oh my,” answered Hagan, looking alarmed. “But nevertheless, I heard you young heroes broke up a ring of kidnappers at the Five Crows Tavern.”

“To be honest, I don’t know much about that. All I saw at the time was that we came upon the Hagglesmiths, and there was a fight and we rescued them somehow. When the black knight came in it provided enough of a diversion for us to escape with the Hagglesmiths. Then the constables came and arrested some of the men there. That’s about it, really,” said Hermel modestly.

“Well, I’d like to tell you that I’m impressed. If you need a job at any time, money on the side, or that sort of thing, feel free to drop in. I can always find something for a man like you to do,” he said smiling.

“Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind. Now we must be off,” said Hermel, and taking his leave with a short bow, took Hornmel with him back up to the street. Hornmel was still finishing off a leg of chicken he’s purchased with his last three tin pieces as they walked.

“Mmmm… city food isn’t so bad as they say back home,” said Hornmel wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Not as good as home cooked, maybe, but not too bad.”

The New Heroes Arrive

Hernmel nodded as he considered the options as they walked; his mind clouded by mysteries and unanswered questions. Most urgent were his thoughts regarding his Hobbit friends. He considered heading to The Heights to find Ischandar’s wealthy father and let him know what had happened to his son. The two young men walked back to the Guild Hall, shook off the snow, and took a seat outside the library waiting for Rothman to arrive with the new adventurers he’d mentioned. After a while Rothman did arrive and he brought with him a number of men.  They all stepped into the study to converse.

The first was a stocky red haired dwarf who carried an axe and a broad grin on his face. He seemed quite ready to leap into any adventure that came along, as one could tell by his swagger and boisterous laughter. Hermel commented to himself that the dwarf looked uncomfortably similar to Hobbits, though the latter never had beards, and this fellow had a large billowing one. Decidedly not a Hobbit, Hermel decided with satisfaction.

“I am Hermel, and this is my cousin, Hornmel,” said Hermel to the Dwarf extending his hand.

“I’m Arik Anvilbreaker, at your service, sir!” announced the Dwarf in a loud gravely voice and shaking his hand vigorously. “Good to meet you! I hear you need a hand vanquishing bandits down below in the farmlands. Is that so?”

“Yes, in fact,” said Hermel.

“Fine! Fine!” proclaimed Arik.

Next stepped forward a lanky somewhat sad looking man with his hair tied in a knot behind his head. He introduced himself as Garrison Graybolt. Next came Konar Wuldcarva who shook Hermel’s hand somewhat awkwardly. A thin man with a narrow face and light brown hair introduced himself as Selig Courtsman. He had frosty blue eyes and wore a wry smile. There was another man with an austere expression, close cropped hair, and wore a tunic on which was emblazoned the symbol of the Elkron of the Sun, Eldrik. He gave a courteous bow of the head, and indicated he was interested in listening to the proposed adventure.  This man was named Star of Justice, but he did not introduce himself.  He simply stood and listened intently.  Lastly, a redish metallic tinged grasshopper landed on Rothomon’s desk. Hermel looked over and thought to swat the insect before it leapt away. However, before he did so, Rothmon stayed his hand with a quick intercession of his hand on Hermel’s arm.

“That is not an ordinary grasshopper,” said Rothmon sternly. The grasshopper rubbed his legs together making the classic grasshopper chittering sound.  It sounded quite fierce, somehow.

“Hornmel,” said Hermel to his cousin, “Please tell us, how many bandits are there?”

“Perhaps thirty. They have spears and bows, daggers and swords,” answered his cousin. “Yellow Clay Village is the smallest of the six villages. We produce grains and chickens in good years. The bandits threaten all our lives, and none of the men in the village are heroes. We need what help we can get, but we can not afford to offer much in return, I’m afraid,” concluded Hornmel stoically.

“That’s nothing! We’ll make short work of them!” said Arik confidently.

“So you all accept the mission?” asked Rothmon.

However, not everyone did. The grasshopper, about whom little was said but much was thought, leapt onto Selig’s shoulder and the two of them left together. It was presumed that they did not join because the village offered too little to make it worth their while. The rest of the warriors were resolved to help the poor villagers.

“Perhaps we should take some time and leave tomorrow,” said Hermel to the group.

Enter Master Greggin Southart

Greggin Stouthart walked into the Library. He’d checked every tavern, pub and watering hole along his route to the Guild Hall. He was an orderly man. Elderly, firm, and distinguished by his intense bushy brow and beard, thin lips and fiery demeanor. Mr. Stouthart was in fact searching for Ishcandar, his wild and wayward student. Mr. Stouthart had been Ischcandar’s tutor since he was young, and so he knew the lad quite well. “He’s a good upstanding Hobbit, at heart… deep deep deep deep down somewhere inside,” he used to think to himself. Yet, the idea that Ishcandar had landed up on a bar stool was all too familiar a one. Having not found him in such a wise was in fact a bit of a surprise to him.

Mr. Stouthart walked into the room, looking around briefly spotted Rothmon and immediately said, “I heard you were corrupting my charge!”

“Corrupting?” said Rothmon indignantly.

“I won’t hear anything of it! Where is he?” cut in Greggan firmly. Rothmon was not one who you found often taken aback, but in this case he seemed quite taken aback indeed.

“My dear sir, he isn’t here, I’m afraid,” replied Rothmon after a pause.

“And you, you there,” he said pointing to Hermel, “I understand you are one of the members of the so-called AAA Adventurer’s Group, here at the Guild, am I not mistaken. Come come, take me to where Ischandar is. Let’s go.”

“Well, um, there’s a village that needs saving,” Hermel said without much conviction.

“No, no, there’s a young Hobbit or two that need saving right now. I won’t hear of such nonsense as your running off!” exclaimed the elder putting his hand significantly on his sun-patterned jade and bronze amulet.

“And who is this Ishcandar?” demanded Arik in a booming voice.

“He’s my charge,” replied the tutor cantankerously.

“Well, you don’t seem to have been taking much charge of him so far then,” commented Arik dryly.

“We’re going to amend that situation immediately,” insisted Mr. Stouthart.

“I say we go forward then, and get something done,” answered Arik with a firm clout of his hand on the top of his axe hilt.

“Look," interjected Hermel, "the Hobbits voluntarily went to see some people. So don’t just go in there bashing the place up. We don’t know what is going on down there.”

“Pardon me, but you’ve been talking as if the Hobbits are in some kind of danger,” said Star of Justice. “And yet now you say that they went to this place voluntarily.   Are you saying that they may not be in danger after all?”

“Well, the fact is we don’t know if they are in danger or not, but I suspect it,” replied Hermel. “Their wills are not very good, and they have a habit of wandering into trouble,” he added.

“These are the people whom you want to have help us with the bandits?” asked Arik incredulously.

“Well, they tend to cause trouble for everyone around them, if you know what I mean,” said Hermel.

“I see,” replied Star of Justice.

“Well, we ought to do something, anyway,” Hermel concluded finally.

“Indeed, you must!” stated Mr. Stouthart.

“Ok! Lets go,” said Arik, and with that the party left the Guild Hall and headed down the freezing cobblestone streets toward Dunn’s Bridge. Hermel stopped to buy two new wool cloaks in a shop along the way.  He gave one to Hornmel who accepted it with a nod of thanks.  Hermel was delighted.  It was nice and new and clean! Along the way he’d even observed himself in a glass window and thought it looked rather majestic as it billowed behind him in the wind.  Eventually they came to the iron grate on Dunn’ Street along the side of the canal where Hermel had last seen Ishcandar.  Arik lifted the grate with two hands and threw it down into a snow bank with a dull thud-clang.

Hermel went down the ladder into the dark sewer tunnel first with a torch, gathering his nice new cloak around him to keep it from getting dirty.

“Can somebody come down with me and hold a torch?” he called up from the bottom of the ladder. Everyone climbed down, walked the twenty feet south to where the secret door was located, holding torches. Hermel reached in and began looking for the hidden mechanism that would open the secret door. As he felt around he reflected on the fact that once the door is open he had no idea at all where within the dungeon Ishcandar was. All he know was that he’d heard that there was a red and gold sign above a red door with bronze studs that read “Five Animals Hall”. He figured, however, that he knew roughly where the iron gate was located as Jeremy had told him about that spot. From there, he didn’t have a good idea where to go, but he’d manage somehow he figured.

Hermel searched diligently for the secret door, but to no avail. He could not find any kind of latch to open the door.

“You know, I can’t find it,” said Hermel. “Why don’t some of you guys try,” he said. Everyone took their turn but no one could find it. And so Hermel decided there was no way except to find Bernie, who had opened the secret door for them the first time. Back up the ladder they all went. Back to the Rat’s Den went Hermel with Hornmel. Everyone else warmed up by the fireplace at the Guild Hall and waited.

A Debt Paid

When he got to the Rat’s Den Hermel found Bernie sitting in a corner booth by himself eating a bowl of tater soup. When Hermel said he’d come to pay Bernie what he’d promised, and dropped a bag of iron pieces on the table, Bernie commented that he’d not expected Hermel to honor his word on that. But he had, and Bernie looked at him a little bit differently after that.

“You know, I didn’t expect you to follow through on that,” said Bernie with a note of respect.

“Well, I try to keep my word,” replied Hermel. After a brief conversation Bernie agreed to head back with Hermel to show him how to open the secret door, and give some advice if necessary. He wasn’t going to go further than that for him, but he’d do that much.

Along the way Hermel’s mind was on the fate of his sister, Iliza. On the one hand he felt compelled to hurry back to the village, but he also knew that there was no real need to rush. While it was possible that she might be molested, Hermel thought it was not likely. What the bandits wanted was the ‘spring seed’ from the Commons Barn probably with the intent to sell it to a wealthier village.  If the bandits defiled the women then their fathers would not accept them back into the family, and so as bargaining chips they’d be rendered useless.  Life in rural Hobbington was harsh, and this was one of the realities.  Defiled daughters could not be married, and would prove a deadly liability.  Therefore, he expected that the bandit chief would keep discipline among his rogues. It would be unnatural and hasty, in fact, if he rushed back too quickly, for in his time, unlike ours today, no one expected anything to happen immediately. Things moved according, not to the minute, or the day, or the week, but most generally by season... slowly.

Meanwhile back at the Guild Hall, the adventurers had convened downstairs in the Bar and Grill. Arik was singing a drinking song over a steel banded goblet of ale, while the others drank their fill of beers and wines.

“You know,” Bernie was saying as they trudged through snowdrifts towards the Guild Hall, “I guess I like you after all, kid, so I got to tell you… If I were you, I’d be laying real low around town, if you know what I mean.”

“What do you mean?” replied Hermel.

“What I mean is that you and your little group… well, let me ask you, what do you think those people who Barnstormer didn’t catch are probably doing at this moment?” Bernie asked pointedly.

“Umm…” said Hermel.

“Drinking to your good health, happiness and long life, maybe?” added Bernie.

“Ummm… no, I don’t think so,” said Hermel thoughtfully.

“I’d be laying real low, if I was you,” concluded Bernie.

“Oh,” replied Hermel, “that’s a good idea.”

Bernie took Hermel to the secret door in the tunnel along the side of Dunn Street Canal where Ishcandar was last seen. He showed Hermel the secret of how to open the door and warned him about not doing so the wrong way. There was a trick, and if you didn’t know it, there was a trap. And then he took himself up the ladder and vanished down the snow-fogged street. Hermel headed back to the Guild Hall to get his new friends together.

When he got to the Bar and Grill he found the group being badgered about money by the host, and Arik was saying, “Well, you’re not going to kick me out, I can tell you!” and he noticed a nearby tablecloth was on fire, and several chairs broken. A patron he didn’t recognized shuffled past him with a limp and a black eye.

“Shades of Ischandar!” Hermel swore to himself under his breath.

“Why my uncle Arlok Iron-Whiskers once stopped a sharp saber from slicing off his head with his beard!” exclaimed Arik with relish to the barmaid and the waiter who laughed at his wiggling eyebrows as much as at the story. The owner had come out and after a brief negotiation over tab that was settled amiably, the group ascended the stairway and held a conversation in Rothmon's study. Hermel expressed his misgivings regarding going down into the sewer and dungeon, now that he was given to understand by Bernie the nature of the threat he faced in Hobbington from now on.  In fact he was quite inclined to head off sooner rather than later to the village and see what they could do down there about the bandits. He offered to Mr. Stouthart another plan.

“Why don’t you take a message back to Ischandar’s father and tell him you know down which sewer and into which doorway his son has lost himself. He’s sure to hire strong fighting men and rescue the boy from whatever trouble he’s gotten himself into. I will explain how to open the secret door to you, and the trick is simple once you know it. Just don’t do it the wrong way, that’s all I can say.”

And so the plan was agreed upon. With a determined face and no small heap of frustration Mr. Stouthart hustled himself off through the snow toward The Heights where Ishcandar’s father’s mansion was. Everyone else began their preparations for departure from Hobbington. Hermel wondered if the Hobbits would survive whatever ordeal they might have landed themselves in. And then he wondered if he’d be able to rescue his sister somehow. He even wondered if he'd ever see Hobbington again.

Lastly before he and Hornmel fell asleep that night he wondered if he’d ever fulfill his ambition of the Dragon's Eye as he had hoped.  He felt in his pocket for the comforting hardness of the strange green stone he kept there. It was hard, and warm, and gave him some comfort as he slipped away into dreamland.

Previous Episode: The Hapless Hobbits
Next Episode: The Descent from Hobbington

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