Morgan Derek folded the letter and set it on the table in front of him. Frowning, he crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. "Typical," he thought, "Just typical."
"Were the instructions clear?"
Morgan looked up. The rider who had delivered the message was standing next to him, peering down quizzically.
"He didn't even write this himself, you know." Morgan answered, "He probably has a room full of them." Morgan leaned forward and snatched the letter from the table, glowering. "Once a year, I get a few days to come home and rest and without fail - one of these, every time." He shook the letter in his hand half-heartedly and sighed with resignation.He sat in his favorite tavern, in the village of Tursh. It was spring in Thestra, the winter snows had melted and the pleasant feel of a new summer had begun to gently settle over the small farming community. The tavern was bustling with activity as farmhands, weary from long days in the fields, arrived to eat, drink and share a laugh. The smells of an oaken fire filled the room, its snapping and popping just barely audible over the jovial voices of the patrons. For Morgan, this was a rare luxury.
As a young ranger pledged into the service of the great city of New Targonor, Morgan's assignments kept him from home much of the time. He liked traveling the lands though, it was one of the reasons he had sworn his service six years ago. But since then, Minister Adlus had assigned a steady stream of road patrol duties and scant else. It was a bland job and Morgan cared little for it. Long periods of little to no human contact gave him time to wander in his thoughts though, and for that he was thankful.
Yet somehow, every year when Morgan was granted a small amount of leave, a crisis had managed to arise on the small stretch of road he guarded. And every year, Morgan was pulled from his home by Minister Adlus and sent to deal with whatever minor disturbance was threatening the freedom of Thestra that particular day.
He should have learned to expect it by now, but Morgan had remained purposefully optimistic that this year he would be able to enjoy his leave and spend some much needed time getting re-acquainted with his boyhood home. But once again, it seemed as if he would have to wait another year. Duty had called, and he would answer.
"The instructions," the rider repeated, "Do you understand them?"
Morgan stared at the man standing before him; he was certainly unlike any rider Adlus had sent before. The man looked more like a hardened soldier than a message courier. He wore a simple, yet elegant suit of green tinted ring mail that fit snugly across his broad shoulders. Across his back was strapped a large, powerful looking sword. The blade was covered, but Morgan was sure that it was no toy. The man shifted his weight, gazing back at Morgan coolly, waiting for an answer.
"Yes," he replied, "they're quite clear." Morgan pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. He reached into a dingy pouch secured to his belt and emerged with a few small coins. "Thank you," he said and offered them to the messenger.
The man grinned for the first time, amused. He bowed his head slightly, turned and exited the tavern.
"Ah, in it for the love of the job," Morgan said to himself, "...that'll change." He looked down at the unfinished meal on his table, it seemed somehow appropriate.
"I knew what that man was here for the second he walked in." a friendly voice said, coming up behind him. Morgan returned the coins to his pouch and turned, smiling.
"Oh did you now, Gillian?" he said.
"Sure did!" the young barmaid chirped with a grin, "I'll just put the rest of this away for next year. That way you can pick up right where you left off. Maybe you'll even get to finish!" Morgan grinned as Gillian began to remove the remnants of his dinner from the table. "We don't get too many like him in here," she paused, "you're not in trouble are you?"
"Too many like who?" Morgan asked.
"Your friend in green! You are in trouble, aren't you! What did you do this time Morgan Derek?" Gillian demanded.
Morgan laughed, "You're awful quick to the stern tone! I didn't do anything. There's nothing for me to do. A mouse probably got ran over by a wagon on my road and Adlus wants me to go pick it up. You know, the usual," he made a face; "…you're right though, something about that rider made me a little uneasy. He was…," Morgan searched for the word.
"...Green!" offered Gillian.
Morgan rolled his eyes, "I was thinking more like… intense."
"That too," she agreed with a nod.
Morgan sighed inwardly. "Well, it'll be dark soon," the young ranger said, peering out the front of the tavern, "If I leave now I can make it to New Targonor by morning." He did not want to leave.
"Well you're not going anywhere until I get a hug," Gillian said reaching out, "last time you just took off without a word to anyone."
He chuckled, "Very well then." Gillian wasted no time in wrapping him up in her arms, and gave Morgan a tight squeeze.
"Now you listen here mister," she said, stepping back, "When you find that big bad mouse squashed in the middle of the road, I want you to be careful. It probably had friends, lots of them, and they're probably quite angry about the whole thing. So… just be careful, all right?"
Morgan nodded and picked up his traveling pack behind the chair. "Don't worry; I'm sure it's nothing big. Besides," he added with a grin, slinging the pack over his shoulder, "it would take at least thirty mice to do me in. And I can run much faster than they can."
"At least thirty, and much faster," Gillian echoed.
Morgan smiled and turned towards the door. "I'll try to get back as quickly as I can," he said and with a small wave the young ranger stepped out of the tavern into the night.
The sun was already setting as Morgan stepped into the street. Its pale orange glow slowly sank below the horizon and the pleasant breeze of the day steadily turned frigid as night descended upon northern Thestra. Morgan pushed his sandy hair from his eyes and wrapped his heavy woodsman's cloak tightly around his body. Not summer yet, he thought to himself.
The streets were quiet. Only a few people still milled about. Vendors, mostly, still cleaning up after a tiring day of selling their wares. Morgan kicked at a loose rock in the muddy dirt road that led through the center of the village. He was not looking forward to walking through the night; at least he'd be able to get a horse from the stables once he got to New Targonor. Still, he thought, that doesn't help me much tonight.
Morgan lingered in the center of the village briefly - savoring what he knew he'd not see again for some time. After a few moments he muttered to himself and began to walk, determined to put as much distance as he could between himself and Tursh, the quicker the better.
The buildings of Tursh soon faded from view in the darkening sky, as Morgan walked briskly out the east end of the small village until soon its flickering torches were barely distinguishable from the twinkling stars above. For a ways, he followed the oft traveled winding road, listening to his heavy boots thumping on the earth beneath him. The steady cadence calmed him, on this clear, cold night.
As he trudged through the darkness he wondered what the real reason behind his summons was. Minister Adlus's notes were always so brief and cryptic. Morgan understood the necessity of keeping some things quiet, but he half thought Adlus did it on purpose - just to keep him unsettled. Truth be known, he was not overly fond of the Minister. He seemed more concerned with writing reports and filing papers than actually solving problems. That is unless Morgan had taken leave, in which case there were always an abundance of problems to be solved - and nobody else to do it.
Morgan wondered if Adlus knew of his resentment, but doubted it. They rarely spoke and when they did it was often too cluttered with formality to have any real meaning. Such is the way of cities, Morgan thought.
The path suddenly veered to the right, Morgan stopped. He'd gone as far as the road would take him. Having traveled between the village and New Targonor many times he had learned early that he could save many hours by crossing the Weatherfall River himself, rather than following the road south until he reached the trade bridge.
Stepping off the path into the tall grass of the plains, he drew a short sword from his side and waded into the knee-high brush -- poking here and there to avoid any hidden burrows or gnarled stumps that could play a potential hazard to him. There was a time when small farms occupied much of these lands, but now none remained. They had all been razed or abandoned during the centuries before and for a good many reasons, had never been fully rebuilt. As a result, the region had largely been left to its own, and after many years of relative peace was entirely grown over.
Morgan liked it though, much better than any city in fact. In his far removed, solitary outpost he had learned the value of silence. Travelers were infrequent and days would go by where he spoke not a word - and spoke it only to himself when he finally did. There was a peacefulness to it, and while it was at times a lonely one, it comforted him a great deal.
This was a comfort no city could provide, least of all the teeming New Targonor. Never was there a time when someone was not out roaming the streets. There was always someone, something moving and that far off voice echoing through the alleys. It could never attain that perfect stillness only the plains seemed capable of. Still, the city did have a unique charm of its own. In these dangerous times there were very few places Morgan felt completely safe - secure from any outside aggression. New Targonor's walls seemed to block out everything beyond the gates. While inside of the city, the rest of the world ceased to exist. It was a place where all civilized citizens of Thestra are free to come in search of protection and so long as they abide by the laws of the great settlement, protection was granted.
For several hours, Morgan walked in quiet contemplation - occasionally rustling up a small group of rabbits or a skulking musk hog with the tip of his sword. The tall sweeping grass gradually thinned and was replaced by shorter, bristly underbrush as he drew nearer to the river.
Morgan could hear the gentle streaming of the water before he was close enough to see the river in the moon's pale glow. Merely a faint shadow at first, but as he approached the source it began to slowly materialize in front of him. The Weatherfall River wistfully wandered through the plains, peacefully twisting about as it split the landscape. The night darkened the shallow water, giving the illusion of depth. Morgan knew better though -- the water was shallow, and quite safe. He'd crossed here many times before.
He waited a moment as his eyes adjusted to the reflecting moonlight. Morgan began to scan the bank, searching for something until he had found the familiar sight he was looking for; a fallen tree lay partially submerged in the river. Its branches had long since been ripped from the trunk but its roots still clung tightly to the shore, creating a natural bridge that led slightly past half the width of the water.
Morgan sheathed his sword, removed his boots and hiked up the legs of his pants. He then carefully crept onto the tree. Once he had gained his balance Morgan began to slowly make his way across. He stopped just before the trunk dipped into the water and peered across the river -- he could just make out the silhouette of the opposing shore. He set himself, took a quick step back then threw his boots the rest of the way across. Morgan heard two dull thuds as they landed in the grass on the opposite bank. Next, Morgan removed his traveling pack and holding it high above his head he began to wade into the river.
The wet cold engulfing his foot sent a chill running up through Morgan's body as he took his first step. He took a second step and carefully set his foot down as to avoid any sharp rocks hidden beneath the surface. The water came up to just above the young ranger's knees, though the summer rains would soon change that. Morgan quickly waded across the rest of the river and climbed up onto the embankment. He rolled his pant legs down, located his boots and sat in the grass to put them back on.
He looked up at the sky - sunrise was still a few hours away, he was making good time though and would be at the city gates shortly. He finished strapping on his boots and stood up. Morgan swatted at a small insect buzzing around his head and began to walk again.
He continued to plow through the night for a time, quietly humming to himself as he went along. Soon, thin streaks of light began to sneak over the horizon, streaming from the dull orange glow which lingered just out of sight. Morgan squinted; he could just barely see the shadow of New Targonor's great walls. He picked up his pace, anxious to reach the gates and hurried towards the city.
As the sun began to rise over the far horizon, filling the landscape with a dim morning light the massive walls of the city became clearly visible. Inside of them, mountainous towers leapt into the air spiraling upwards towards the sky. Morgan paused a moment to take in the sight before him. Regardless of how many times he came to New Targonor or how much he preferred the open wilderness the sight of the colossal fortress city never ceased to astound him. New Targonor was set, like a mountain on the northernmost coast of Thestra. With its back to the sea, it was a pillar of strength and might to all of those whom inhabited it and was the backbone of the human kingdom. No force had ever breached the strong stone walls.
The closer Morgan got to the city the more immense it became, what started as a shadowy block in the distance now dominated the landscape. The cool ocean air blew pleasantly around the walls, rustling the thick grass with each pass. Morgan could begin to hear the sounds from inside the high stone walls as New Targonor awoke for the day. He made his way to the east gates, where a steady stream of workers and their carts were already coming in and out of the city. Large billowing banners flew proudly in the wind above the entrance as dozens of armored guards patrolled the ground below.
Morgan passed through the crowd, stepping up to the gates.
"You there!" a chain mail clad guard barked to him, "What is your business here?"
Morgan smiled and flashed the guard the note he'd been sent, Adlus's seal plainly visible on the edge. "I was wondering much the same myself," he said. The guard nodded and waved him in.
He passed through the gate and into New Targonor's parade grounds. Large tents were erected on both sides of the busy street. They were filled with all manners of knights and tournament combatants, preparing themselves for the day. To Morgan's right two men rode horses through the jousting fields, practicing their timing. Several children lounged about in the wooden grandstands watching the two riders below. The stone cobbled street continued on to the left past the city's stables and down a slight hill until it reached another gate that guarded the entrance to the inner city. And looming over it all was the central keep, its numerous high towers keeping a watchful eye on all below. This was New Targonor, pride of the human kingdom.
Morgan followed the endless flow of people along the street as they streamed under the raised portcullis and into the heart of the city. As Morgan stepped through the gate the world around him changed once more. Large buildings were packed tightly together for as far as he could see. Busy streets, teaming with activity, ran through the center of them, darting this way and that. Vendors were already in their stalls, hawking their wares. Workmen hung from the sides of buildings endlessly pounded away from their scaffolds - forever expanding upon the already massive city.
Morgan exhaled and pressed into the crowd. The streets, even in this early hour, were already tightly packed with people eager to get a head start on the day. A loud metal clanking rang from a building to his side as a blacksmith began his day of work. He looked up at the keep towering over the rest of the city. Somewhere inside of it Adlus would be waiting in his office to see him. Morgan quickly weaved through the throng of people in the streets, dodging carts and the animals that pulled them.
It didn't take him long to reach the inner gate that led to the keep. It was nearly the same size as the outer gate and looked to be at least as thick. The crowds had thinned considerably in this part of the city but there were still a goodly amount of guards posted at the entrance to the courtyard. They stood in pairs, and talked idly with one another pausing only to wave the occasional government official along. Morgan showed the guards his letter and passed through the gate.
He walked briskly through the courtyard and up the ramp leading to the giant stone fortress; Morgan had been here before many times and knew where he was going. He passed another guard at the main door of the compound and once inside quickly made his way up a flight of stairs and down several corridors until he had reached the Ministers' district.
The hallway opened into a large room with numerous adjoining offices. A chandelier dangled from the ceiling, hovering several feet over the large rug covering the floor. Padded benches lined the walls and deep, cozy looking arm chairs sat sporadically around the room. At the far end of the chamber a clerk sat behind a desk busily shuffling a stack of papers. Upon hearing the ranger, she looked up; Morgan nodded in acknowledgement and walked across the room to Adlus's office.
As he raised his hand to knock on the wooden door the clerk spoke up, "The Minister has yet to arrive for the day," she said with a smile, "You may have a seat and wait for him if you'd like."
"Thanks," he replied, "Do you happen to know when he'll be in?"
She wrinkled her brow and shrugged, "Hard to say, within a few hours I would imagine. Sometimes the Minister is later though."
Morgan grumbled quietly to himself, so much for that pressing emergency. He thanked the clerk and walked back to the center of the room. He removed his pack and set it on the floor next to him. Letting out an exhaustive sigh, he sank into one of the large armchairs. The muscles in his leg ached from a night of walking and no sleep, and the weight of the pack had stiffened his back. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back on the cushioned headrest; it felt wonderful to sit down. There were certainly no chairs like this back at his outpost, or in Tursh for that matter.
"Wake up," came a deep voice from above him. Morgan felt a pair of large hands plant themselves on his shoulders. Suddenly, his entire body began to shake. "Wake up!" the voice repeated - more insistent this time.
Morgan's eyes shot open. The room surrounding him was a blur; he blinked, trying to bring it into focus. The hands on his shoulders shook him harder, Morgan let out an involuntary yelp.
"I'm up! I'm up!" he sputtered frantically, flailing his arms about.
"Are you sure?" the voice asked him.
He rubbed his eyes and looked up. Towering over Morgan stood one of the biggest men he'd ever seen. He was powerfully built and clad fully in thick scale armor. Two large, heavy looking swords were crossed in sheaths over his back. Their pommels jutted out over either of his shoulders. His blue eyes gazed down intently at Morgan.
"Yes, yes, I'm awake." Morgan answered. He stretched his arms out in front of his body and yawned. "How long was I out?"
The big man shrugged and ran his fingers through his dark hair. Streaks of gray were just beginning to make themselves visible. "I don't know. I've only been here about an hour."
Morgan frowned, "What time is it?"
"About midday," the man answered, "Minister Adlus arrived a few minutes ago. He'll see you now."
"Ah, thank you." Morgan said, standing up. The large man stood easily a head and a half above him. He stretched again, his aching muscles feeling much better now, and walked to the door - the big man following closely behind him. He took a deep breath, and knocked.
"Come in," a nasal voice called from the office.
Morgan opened the door and stepped in. The office was by no means large, but was comfortable. A large wooden desk sat in the middle of the room, papers stacked all over its top. Behind it sat a balding, heavy-set, middle aged man. His beady eyes squinted at Morgan over his large round nose.
"Enjoy your nap?" he crowed.
Morgan stiffened, "Forgive me Minister. I spent the night traveling from Tursh..."
Adlus cut him off, "Yes, yes and the walk left you quite tired, I'm sure," he said shuffling some papers, "Now then, let's get down to business, shall we?"
The Minister cleared his throat loudly, "You're probably wondering why I called you back from your leave," he said, and continued before Morgan could reply, "Well the reason is simple. It seems something has the blasted Halflings all up in arms. Stories of "monsters" killing their livestock and frightening their old women or some such nonsense."
"You don't sound too convinced," Morgan said.
"Pure rubbish, I'm sure, it's probably just a pack of wolves." He sighed, "Halflings scare so easily. None the less, we're obliged to go and see for ourselves... Well, you are anyway," he added with a grin.
"Forgive me for saying so Minister, but--" Morgan started.
"Yes I know, Rindol Field isn't normally your responsibility." Adlus interrupted. "It is this time though, so don't bother trying to argue with me about it."
"Can I ask why?"
"No!" Adlus cackled gleefully, leaning back in his chair.
"My apologies Minister," Morgan said, "I wasn't questioning your judgment, it's just that this is the first time you've assigned me...well, anything really. I'm just curious as to why is all."
"First time I've assigned you anything!" Adlus said incredulously, "I spoil you for years and this is the thanks I get."
Morgan nearly choked. He stared at the Minister coldly. Adlus coughed and straightened himself, "Oh all right, if you simply must know," he said, "it's because you're the only one I can spare at the moment."
"Oh?" he asked, his interest piqued.
"Our able men are scattered about the Highlands and Falgarholm." Adlus continued, his tone more sober, "Troublesome reports coming out of there..." he said, trailing off, "But that is of no consequence. Your assignment is to investigate what has the Halflings upset - and to calm them down if at all possible. Some warm milk and a blanket ought to do the trick." The Minister chuckled quietly to himself.
"What sort of trouble could be coming from Falgar--?" Morgan pressed.
"Never you mind!" The Minister said irritably, "You're to go deal with the Halflings. You'll be leaving immediately. Stop at the stables and get a horse, then gather supplies if you must but I want you on the road by dawn tomorrow at the latest."
"Very well then," Morgan said as he turned to leave, accepting defeat.
"Oh, and one other thing, Morgan," Adlus added and gestured towards the entrance of the office, "Zanadar will be accompanying you."
Morgan turned - the big man who had woken him had quietly slipped into the room and was standing straight against the wall. Zanadar bowed his head slightly to the ranger.
Morgan paused. "...all right," he said hesitantly, "It will be nice to have some company for once."
"Good, now off with you," the Minister said with a flick of his wrist, "I've a lot of work to get done and can ill afford to waste time with idle chatter."
The two men quickly exited the room. Morgan opened his mouth as if to say something, but Adlus' shrill voice called out behind them, "Close the door, please!"
Zanadar reached back into the office and quietly shut the door. He looked back to the ranger and grinned. "Ass," he said.
Morgan blinked. "What?"
"The Minister is an ass," he placed a hand on his stomach, "I'm hungry, are you hungry?"
Morgan grinned devilishly, "I could eat."
Zanadar smiled as he headed towards the hallway, "Don't forget your pack."
Morgan snatched his traveling pack off the floor next to the chair and rushed to catch up with Zanadar. "The messenger found me during supper last night; I had to leave without finishing."
The big man looked back over his shoulder, "You could have finished."
"I should have."
Morgan frowned, "I'll finish next time."
The big man grinned, "No you won't."
He thought a moment. "No... I probably won't," Morgan conceded. He looked around, "Hey, we're not going the right way. The entrance was back that way," he said, pointing the other direction.
"I know," Zanadar replied as they began to ascend a flight of stairs, "We've got one short stop to make first."
Finding a FriendEdit
A small but busy looking group of government workers carrying stacks of documents rushed onto the steps and began to hurriedly make their way down, chattering incomprehensibly to one another.
"What's that?" the ranger asked, dodging an oblivious official.
"We've got to pick someone up."
Zanadar turned back to Morgan as he reached the top of the stairs, "You're just full of questions aren't you?"
Morgan suddenly felt a bit sheepish, "Sorry... this is just a bit... unusual. I can't say I've been given too many big assignments yet, but I was under the impression the rangers didn't employ any real outside help unless matters were quite serious."
"What? You don't think I could be a ranger?" Zanadar said with a feigned hurt.
"Well," Morgan shrugged, "You aren't, are you?"
The big man grinned, "No, you are correct -- I am not."
"Is your friend then?" Morgan asked.
Zanadar laughed deeply. "Ah...No."
"If you don't mind me asking then," Morgan said, "Why are you here?"
"That's a bit complicated I'm afraid, let's just say I owe Adlus a favor," he answered.
Morgan wasn't convinced, but decided to let the matter drop for the time being. As much as he disliked the Minister he was grateful to be given this opportunity. He knew it wasn't much, but it also wasn't guarding a nearly forgotten road by himself for weeks on end. Still though, Adlus' mention of trouble to the east in the highlands gnawed at his mind. He tried to push the thought out of his head, but to no avail. Something big may be happening there. Morgan chuckled softly to himself, maybe something big was happening in Rindol Field.
"What are you laughing at?" Zanadar asked, as they rounded a corner.
"Nothing," he answered. "Do you know anything about what's happening in the highlands?" Morgan asked suddenly.
"No," the big man said.
He narrowed his eyes, "I don't know if I believe you."
"The fact that Adlus saw fit to send every available ranger--besides you that is--to the region has me uneasy as well, Morgan. But I assure you, I haven't the slightest idea what is going on over there."
"Fair enough," Morgan said, still not entirely satisfied.
"And here we are," Zanadar stated as the hallway opened into a wide room.
Bookshelves were set wall to wall in neatly arranged rows. An elderly librarian stood behind a table at the far end of the chamber, sorting a stack of tomes. In the center of the room were a small number of long wooden benches. Behind them a large window overlooked the city below. The sea dominated the horizon, as it splashed against the rocky cliffs upon which New Targonor's outer wall was built. Great waves threw themselves at the exposed earth sending white foam spraying all directions before retreating back into the ocean. In the city, antlike workers scurried about the streets busily, negotiating the crowds as they moved from one small building to the next.
Zanadar stepped into the room and looked around. He walked slowly down the side of the chamber, peering down each row of overflowing shelves. After a moment, he came back to the center of the room, shaking his head.
"What?" Morgan asked.
"He's not here. I knew he wouldn't stay, blast it." Zanadar cursed under his breath and walked over to the librarian's counter. "Excuse me," he said. The librarian looked up.
"What?" the old woman asked, somewhat irritably.
"I was hoping you could help me with something, I'm looking for a friend." Zanadar said.
"Unless your friend happens to be a book, I'm afraid I can't help." The librarian went back to her stack of texts.
"He was in here a while ago," Zanadar pressed, "Big white beard, silly hat. Hard to miss, probably very loud. Come to think of it," he added, "you may have kicked him out."
The old woman scowled, "Oh that one. I'm surprised he has any friends. Foulest man to ever set foot in my library. Don't you even think about bringing him back in here. Good riddance, I say."
"Ah, you remember him!" Zanadar smiled, "I don't suppose you know where he went do you?"
"Probably back to the gutter where vagrants like him belong," she growled.
"But he didn't say which gutter specifically?" the big man asked.
The librarian huffed, "That one said a lot of things. A lot of mean things."
Morgan stifled a laugh, "It sounds as if you keep good company," he said quietly. The librarian shot him an icy stare.
"You stay away from that man," she said, "He's a bad influence."
Zanadar nodded. "I agree completely ma'am," he said, "Unfortunately, due to certain circumstances, I must see him." He smiled widely to the librarian, "and it would help me greatly if you had any idea where he went."
The old woman frowned. "Well, he did say something about being thirsty. He mumbled about getting a drink on his way out," she said somewhat begrudgingly.
The big man set his hand on top of the old woman's. "Thank you very much, you've been a wonderful help," he said, still smiling, "And the Great Library itself is not so well kept as yours, I must say."
The librarian began to smile, but caught herself. She straightened, "All right, I told you all I know. Please leave me to my work, these books won't sort themselves."
"Oh, of course," Zanadar apologized, "Again, thank you for your assistance. Keep up the good work!"
Morgan leaned in as they left the library. "I get the feeling you've practiced that," he said. "So where are we going then?"
Zanadar grinned, "To get a drink."
"There's a lot of places to get a drink in the city," Morgan said, "Your friend could be anywhere."
"I've got a good idea where he went. For as much as he'd like to think he isn't, Elandar is fairly predictable. Don't worry, we can find something to eat there too."
"That's his name?" Morgan asked, "Elandar?"
"Among other things," Zanadar said, "Yes."
The two men made their way out of the keep and back down to the city streets. The sun was now high overhead but the morning's hustle still remained. Zanadar led the ranger back towards the edge of the city, where the buildings were packed even tighter together. He stopped outside a seedy looking tavern; its sign was worn and cracked and hung lopsided on the front of the building.
" 'Tavern'," Morgan read the sign aloud, "Well, that's pretty straightforward, I suppose."
A series of loud unmistakably female shrieks came from inside the building, followed by the sound of something breaking against the wall and much laughter.
Zanadar nodded. "This is definitely the place," he gestured towards the door, "After you."
Morgan winced, "Are you sure he's in there?"
Another scream followed by laughter rang out from inside the tavern.
"Very sure," Zanadar said.
Morgan opened the large wooden door and was blasted by a rush of warm air. It reeked of watery ale and sweat. He made a face and stepped inside, Zanadar right behind him.
The tavern was dimly lit and packed tightly with patrons. The stained wooden floor creaked unpleasantly as the two men made their way into the crowd. Rickety old tables were scattered about the floor in no particular order. Men sat in chairs around some, and stood around others while talking loudly amongst themselves, pausing occasionally to shout for more ale.
An angry looking barmaid was doing her best to negotiate through the crowd towards the far end of the tavern. Her dark shoulder length hair stood nearly on end, sticking out in all directions. She had a decidedly murderous look about her.
The barmaid pointed to a skinny old man who sat grinning fiendishly in the corner and shrieked again violently. "Stop it you demented old rat! Stop it right now!" She snatched a tankard off a table and hurled it in his direction.
The old man ducked as it smashed against the wall and raised his bony hands innocently. "Crazy woman!" he shouted back indignantly. The crowd around them roared again in laughter.
The barmaid made a quick grab for another tankard, but Zanadar was faster. "Sascha!" he said pleasantly, "So nice to see you again. You're looking positively radiant, as always."
Sascha spun to face him, a threatening look in her eye. "Make him stop," she demanded.
"You know what!"
"No really, what's going on?" Zanadar said with a feigned innocence.
"This!" she grabbed at her hair, "This is what's going on!"
"Oh that? Nonsense, I think your hair looks lovely. It's very becoming," he nodded assuredly.
Sascha stared at him a moment and growled angrily. "Don't even start with me Zanadar, you're just as bad as him." She looked back to the old man in the corner, "You have to the count of three to stop it or I am going to tear you to pieces. Do you hear me?"
"No!" the old man shouted back, shaking his fist.
Sascha glared angrily at him and began to count, "...One...Two..."
"You don't scare me!"
Sascha opened her mouth to say three, but suddenly her hair began falling back to its normal position, settling comfortably. She shot the old man a dangerous look and stomped off to the kitchen. Morgan followed Zanadar over to where the old man sat.
"Enjoying yourself?" the big man asked.
The wiry old man grumbled irately, "What kind of world do we live in when a man can't even sit down to enjoy a cup of brew without having to dodge flying crockery!"
Zanadar nodded solemnly, "It's a sad reflection of our times."
The old man's eyes widened as he felt the tip of his hat. "She got my hat wet!" he complained. He removed the pointed cloth cap from his head; its end tipped slightly backwards and was splotched with wetness.
"Morgan," Zanadar said and gestured towards the elderly man at the table, "This is Elandar."
Elandar looked at Zanadar expectantly as he dried the tip of his hat on his robes, as if waiting for something.
"Forget it," Zanadar said, "I'm not saying it. I told you last time was it, no more."
Morgan blinked, confused, "Say what?"
Elandar cleared his throat deeply, "Mighty Wizard! Elandar, Mighty Wizard!"
Zanadar shook his head and sat down, "Mighty indeed. Have a seat Morgan."
Elandar tugged at his long white beard, eyeing the ranger suspiciously. "So you're the pup we have to watch after?"
"Oh I'm sure he's quite capable, try not to offend him until after we eat at least," the big man interjected.
Morgan looked at the old man. Elandar was taller than him, but still not nearly as large as Zanadar. His wiry frame was hidden from view under thick dark purple robes which Morgan got the feeling also concealed a goodly amount of other things he'd rather not know about. His long white unkempt hair rolled off his head in seemingly random directions and landed in a tangled mess just past shoulders. The old man's beard was in an equal state of disarray. Leaning against the wall behind him was a worn wooden staff which looked to be older than Elandar himself.
The ranger spoke up, "Speaking of eating..."
"I think it may be a while before Sascha is ready to come back over here," Zanadar said, "Why don't I just go let her know we're ready myself so she doesn't have to?"
"An excellent question, what is keeping you?" Elandar asked.
The big man stood up, "I'll be right back." He looked to the wizard, "Elandar, be nice."
The old man waggled his finger wildly at Zanadar, "I'm no child! I'll not be ordered around by some sword swinging meathead!"
Zanadar rolled his eyes and wandered off to find Sascha. Elandar put his hat back on his head and stared at Morgan, narrowing his eyes.
"So..." Morgan said, a bit uneasily, "...that's a nice staff."
"Don't you be getting any bright ideas, nobody touches Elandar's staff but Elandar! It's very powerful and very-"
"Mighty?" Morgan grinned.
Elandar folded his arms across his chest and frowned. Morgan leaned back in his chair and scanned the crowd for Zanadar, who was nowhere to be seen. He sighed, and set his chair back down on its legs again. He absently tapped his fingers along the top of the table, trying to avoid eye contact. Morgan glanced up; the old man was staring at him coldly.
"All right, I'm sorry," Morgan said finally, "I take it back, your staff isn't mighty."
Elandar's frown deepened and his stare intensified. For a moment, Morgan was positive the old man was going to start shaking and explode.
"You and Zanadar are friends then?" the ranger asked. Elandar stared back stone like, unblinking. He coughed anxiously and looked around again.
"There's a roasted boar on the spit this afternoon," Zanadar reported finally, coming up behind them. He was carrying three large cups of a dark groggy ale. He set them on the table and looked to Elandar. "Sascha said she's going to bring some out for us and that if you try any funny business she's going to stab you with a meat hook."
The old man broke his stare and took on a contemplative look. "Fair enough," he decided, "I'm hungry enough to risk it."
"That's comforting," Zanadar said as he sat back down. He grinned "So, are you two old friends yet?".
"I didn't say a single mean thing." Elandar boasted. The big man raised an eyebrow at Morgan.
"Well, technically that's true," he said.
"Well then," Zanadar said, placing a hand on each of their shoulders, "I'd say this is going very well!"
A thought suddenly occurred to Morgan. "Does Minister Adlus know Elandar is accompanying us?"
The big man took a small sip of his ale and set it down. "No, he probably doesn't."
"Well I'm not a mind reader. I supposed it's possible he could know, yes. But I find it highly unlikely."
"You didn't tell him then?"
"Me? No, I didn't." Zanadar answered.
"Does he know Elandar?"
The wizard smirked darkly, "We've met."
"Is that why you didn't tell him Elandar was coming with us?" Morgan asked.
Zanadar looked to the old man. "I told you this one was capable. I had a good feeling about him from the beginning."
Elandar shrugged, "I'm still undecided. He disrespected my staff."
"Oh," Zanadar said seriously, "You've got to be mindful of that Morgan." He grinned at the ranger.
"I'll... be more careful of that in the future," Morgan said, unsure quite how to respond. "So Adlus doesn't know Elandar is coming with us," He continued, "and if he did, he'd most likely disapprove. Is that right?"
"Think of it this way," Zanadar answered coolly, "He didn't say Elandar couldn't come, now did he?"
Just then Sascha appeared out of the crowd, carrying a large plate of steaming roast boar. She scowled at Elandar. The old man snorted defensively. Sascha looked to Zanadar, "Did you tell him about the meat hook?"
The big man nodded, "Yes ma'am. I wouldn't dare think not to." She glared meanly at Elandar.
"Egads woman!" he said, "I didn't do anything! I'm hungry!"
Keeping a watchful eye on the old wizard she carefully set the plate down on the table in front of them. She took a step back and looked at Elandar suspiciously. "There's your blasted boar, don't even think about trying anything."
The old man sputtered indignantly and muttered something under his breath.
"Thank you Sascha," Zanadar said, smiling pleasantly, "This looks very good. We appreciate it."
"You're welcome," she said, still watching Elandar closely. The wizard eagerly reached for the boar and began to tear off a large chunk of meat. Satisfied, Sascha slowly backed away from the table and went back to the other patrons.
Morgan helped himself to a fair sized portion and began to eat. He hadn't realized how hungry he actually was. "I'm still not comfortable with this," he said between mouthfuls.
"Morgan," Zanadar said, "Do you always do everything you're told?"
"Not always, no." he replied defensively, "But if Adlus wouldn't like-"
"Adlus doesn't know, he doesn't need to know and as much fun as it would be if he found out, he probably won't. I think you overestimate your beloved Minister, Morgan. I don't know if you'd noticed or not, but he's not exactly the most astute person in the world."
"Look at it this way," the big man said patiently, "What is the worst that could happen? He'll send you back to what you were doing before? That's the fun part about being at the bottom, there's no room to get demoted."
"Oh that's really reassuring." Morgan replied.
"But true!" Elandar cut in gleefully.
"All right, I couldn't get demoted. But I could be dismissed from the rangers altogether," Morgan said.
"Even better!" the old man said excitedly, "Then you'd be able to actually make something of yourself."
"The rangers are a good organization, you know." Morgan said, a bit annoyed. "We keep the roads safe, risking our own well being to do so, we keep a constant lookout for any danger even in the harshest conditions, and we don't ask for anything in return."
"And you're humble." Elandar added, "Don't forget humble."
"Well if you think the rangers are so useless then why are you so eager to work with one?"
Zanadar grinned. "You stepped right into that one, old man."
"I stepped into nothing!" he replied indignantly. "There was a time when the rangers provided a valuable service. Now they're little more than a foppish bunch of ne'er-do-wellers more worried about impressing the ladies than doing their jobs."
"Now that's just a bit unfair Elandar," Zanadar said, "look at Morgan - how many ladies do you think he's impressed lately?"
Morgan looked to the big man. "I thought you were on my side!" he said.
"I am on your side, I was defending you."
"I'm the one attacking you, you dandified little tenderfoot!" Elandar said, shaking a piece of meat wildly at the ranger.
Morgan rubbed his eyes wearily and looked at the two men sitting across from him. Well, he thought, at least it's not the road.
"You're not going to cry are you?" the old man asked, "that would be terribly embarrassing."
"No," Zanadar said, "But I think he may just brain you with his mug if you aren't careful." He gave Morgan an appraising look, "Isn't that right?"
Morgan brought himself back into focus. "I don't know," he said, smirking, "He may be too mighty."
The big man laughed deeply. "Yes, he very well may be."
It did not take long for the three men to finish their meal. Morgan still had reservations about keeping Adlus in the dark, but decided to let the matter drop for the time being. Elandar accompanying them may upset the Minister if he found out, but Morgan was willing to take that risk if it meant getting a real assignment. And although he was quite sure they'd never met before there was something about the old man that seemed oddly familiar.
Zanadar yawned expansively and set down his mug. "That was quite pleasant."
"If you say so," the old man complained, "I've had better."
The big man glanced at Elandar's empty plate. "You sure ate a lot of it," he said.
"Don't you look at me like that, I was hungry! I hadn't eaten all day."
"Poor neglected old man," Zanadar teased. "So then," he asked, looking to Morgan, "Now that we're fed, what is the next order of business?"
"Why are you asking him?" Elandar demanded incredulously.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Did you want to ask him?"
Elandar scowled deeply at the big man. Zanadar laughed heartily and looked back to the ranger. "He looks positively silly when gets himself all worked up like that," he grinned, "We've got a few hours before night fall yet. Why don't we make any preparations that are needed in that time and then head back here?"
"You want to spend the night here?" Morgan asked, "Adlus seemed to want us on our way as soon as possible."
"Adlus said we needed to leave by tomorrow morning at the latest, and I don't know about you but sleeping in a nice comfortable bed sounds much more appealing to me than sleeping in a nice comfortable pile of dirt off the side of the road. This is the last chance we'll likely have to get a good night's rest for a while, I'd take advantage of it," he grinned crookedly and gave a brief shrug, "But that's just me."
Morgan thought it over for a moment, weighing his options. He was eager to get back on the road but the big man had a point, and a warm, cozy bed sounded very appealing to him just now. "A good full night of sleep in a bed does sound fairly pleasant," he admitted.
"Oh, fairly pleasant!" Elandar echoed mockingly, "Offer the pup an alternative to sleeping on the cold ground and its only fairly pleasant. Old enough to carry a weapon but too young to appreciate a good, soft bed. I'm already frightened of him."
Zanadar rolled his eyes. "So we'll stay the night, Morgan?"
Morgan thought for a moment and then nodded. "I suppose if we leave early it shouldn't be too big of an issue. We'd just need to be quick about it."
"And so it shall be! King Tenderfoot has spoken!" Elandar proclaimed loudly. Several of the taverns patrons turned their heads towards the group, amusement in their eyes. "The world may continue now," the old man finished, with a dramatic sweep of his arm.
Morgan suddenly felt a bit foolish. He started to say something but Zanadar, seemingly sensing his discomfort, spoke up. "Oh hush you old windbag, Morgan just has a conscience. I know the great lengths you've gone through to lose yours, but despite what you think, it's still a good thing to have."
"It certainly is!" Elandar retorted, "Look how far it's gotten you, after all."
The big man narrowed his eyes, "How would you like me to tie your beard in a knot?"
The old man huffed, and turned away. Morgan couldn't help but laugh a bit at that. "Thanks," he said to Zanadar.
The big man smirked, "I tie good knots too. He'd never get it undone," he paused a moment, "We should probably be on our way then."
Morgan nodded as Zanadar waved his hand in the air, gesturing for Sascha, and began to unfasten the coin purse from his worn belt.
"There's no need for that Morgan," Zanadar stated simply, "I'll take care of this one."
"Nonsense, I ate my share and I'll pay for my share," the ranger said as he reached into the purse and pulled out a few small coins.
"Its quite alright, it was my idea to come here anyway."
"Actually it was my idea," Elandar reminded the big man.
"Why, you are absolutely right old man," Zanadar agreed, "Why don't you pay then?"
Elandar frowned, his bushy eyebrows moving seemingly independent of one another. "Never mind, it was your idea," he said.
"Just like I thought," the big man grinned.
Just then Sascha reappeared at the table, squeezing her way through the crowd. She gave the three men a severe look, "Are you ready to leave?"
"I think we just about are, dear Sascha," Zanadar answered, "It seems we've just got two small issues to resolve before we're on our way. Maybe you could help us out."
"If this is some kind of trick..." she said dangerously, trailing off.
The big man laughed. "No tricks, I promise."
"Then what is it?" she asked suspiciously.
"Well," he began, "first, it seems our new young companion here is under the impression I'm going to let him pay for this absolutely delicious meal you've provided for us. Now, I tried to tell him that I would take care of it but he's insisting that he pay his share. Would you please be so kind as to tell him that I always pay?"
Sascha brightened a bit and looked to Morgan. "Zanadar always pays," she said sweetly, "because Elandar never can."
"See?" Zanadar said to the ranger, interrupting Elandar's lively protest, "I told you I always pay."
"That doesn't settle anything. I could have told you Elandar never paid for anything before you even asked Sascha," he said, as the old wizard sputtered indignantly, "And you can pay for Elandar if that makes you happy, but I will be paying my own way."
"Morgan, is it?" Sascha asked.
Morgan nodded, "Yes."
"He's impossible," she said knowingly, "believe me, he will not quit. I suggest you just let him pay for you and then try not to kill him when he acts all smug about it."
Morgan frowned. "Fine," he said after a moment, "But only if I can pay for the room tonight."
Her smile faded immediately, "Room tonight? I thought you said you were leaving?" She looked to Zanadar, "You said you were leaving!"
The big man leaned back in his chair. "It's so nice to be appreciated, you know. People can try to say that it doesn't matter, but they're just being humble. When someone loves your company this much..." he gestured at Sascha, "it really is heartwarming."
"You said you were leaving!" Sascha insisted.
"Well that was actually the second bit. You see, we're about to undertake a perilous, and very heroic mission to save the world," Zanadar explained, "but after thinking about it we decided it would be really very nice if we could get a good night's rest, just one last time, on a nice, soft bed before we go. Now, this fine establishment has rooms, I've stayed here before. So we figured... we're already here, why not just stay?"
"Do you really want me to answer that?"
"You act all mean and tough," Zanadar said pleasantly, "but I know you'd be disappointed if we left."
"Oh I simply do not know what I'd do," Sascha responded, her voice laced in sarcasm. She sighed dramatically, "How many rooms do you need?"
"Two." the big man answered cheerfully, "That way Morgan can pay for his own still."
"That was a mean trick," Morgan accused.
Zanadar grinned. "I know, I'm a mean person."
"Our last two rooms for tonight," Sascha said. She held out her opened hand expectantly, "And not that I don't trust you, of course. But we'll need that upfront."
"Oh, of course," Zanadar replied, counting out a small number of coins. He piled them neatly in Sascha's outstretched hand and smiled, "There you go!"
"Thanks," she said with a forced smile. She turned to Morgan, who was loosening the strings on his coinpurse, "And you," she continued, "can pay in the morning." With that, Sascha turned neatly on her heals and went back to the kitchen.
Morgan looked up in bewilderment, "Well, she seems nice enough."
The big man frowned, "She did that out of spite, you know."
"Maybe she just likes me more."
Elandar narrowed his eyes, "No, that couldn't be it."
Zanadar took one last drink from his tankard and set it down on the table. "Well," he said standing up, "We'd best be off then. There aren't many things that I need to get before we go, but I'd like to get as much sleep as possible tonight. So let's get moving."
The three men gathered up their belongings and exited the tavern. A brisk sea breeze greeted them as they emerged back onto the streets of New Targonor. Although evening was fast approaching, the sun still shown brightly and the city streets remained a hive of activity.
"What do you need to get, Morgan?" Zanadar asked.
"The only thing I really need to do is notify the stablemaster at the keep that we'll need our horses ready for tomorrow morning." He tapped the large traveling back slung over his shoulder, "I've got just about everything else I need in here."
"Good," the big man said. He glanced at Elandar, "most people don't come that prepared."
"Don't you look at me that way, I've got everything I need!"
"Anyway," Zanadar said, ignoring the wizard, "the smithy isn't far from your stables. We can stop there on the way."
"Fair enough," Morgan replied, "what do you need from the smithy?"
The big man tugged at the hilt of one of the large swords strapped across his back. "Repairs," he answered slyly.
Zanadar lead the way into the crowded streets, maneuvering with surprising agility through the throngs of people. Morgan struggled to keep up, dodging in and out of the way of workers and pushcarts. He was sure they would lose the grumpy old wizard moving at this speed, but every time he looked back to check, Elandar still followed closely, muttering to himself all the while. The old man certainly had spirit, Morgan gave him that.
At their pace, it was not long before they were standing in front of a slightly run down, old looking building. Its two stories were splotched with dark smoke spots and the tiled windows were covered by a thin layer of ash. The piercing, heavy metallic clang of metal striking metal rang out from inside the building, sending vibrations down Morgan's spine. Zanadar opened the door, just as another loud strike rang out from inside. Morgan winced involuntarily as he covered his ringing ears and followed the big man into the smithy.
The blacksmith's forge was dimly lit, and smelt of burning coals. A grimy smoke wafted through the air and seemed to stick upon everything it touched. Racks stuffed with various weapons and tools lined the walls and a long wooden counter split the room in two. Metal spikes and bolts lay strewn across its scarred top. Behind it an aging, barrel chested man stood hunched over the forge, his back to the door. He held in one hand a large hammer. The other was wrapped in a dirty looking rag and clung tightly to an iron handle protruding from the pulsing orange glow of the forge. He drew back the hammer to strike at the hot ember once more.
"Ho there, Grodek!" Zanadar called out.
The blacksmith brought the hammer crashing down, filling the room with a shrill ringing as sparks leapt silently away from his blow.
"I said, ho there, Grodek!" Zanadar called out again.
The smith brought his hammer clanging down upon the forge another time, paying the big man no attention. Zanadar frowned. Elandar muttered under his breath and pushed to the front, making his way towards the counter.
"Why do I always have to do everything myself?" he grumbled as he snatched one of the large metal bolts from the countertop and flung it at the oblivious blacksmith. The bolt sailed across the room and collided against the smithy's backside with a dull thud.