Ding, dong, ding, dong. The bells of the Corincia Military Training Academy toled the time: six o'clock.
“Alright, let’s move out!” said Durall.
Lagh cracked a whip in the air to get the horses moving. He was wearing a makeshift robe composed of an old, thin sheet they found lying over the wagon—it was all they could do for a disguise. Riding out into the street, Lagh breathed the morning air—he was really enjoying this.
“All is well down in the city, dooh dah, dooh dah,” Lagh sang. They all agreed that Lagh would (attempt) to sing a song that would inform Durall and Jooret as to what was going on in the street.
Lagh set the horses in the direction of the gate. Corincia’s communal livery stable was right on
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Durall muttered underneath the straw. “I’m never having him do this again.”
Jooret began to snicker.
“It’s not funny! That either means there is nothing suspicious or everything’s suspicious!” Durall sighed.
Lagh was really getting into it now—this was his favorite song. He began to snap his fingers.
“Caught in a trap, I can’t fall out! Because I love you too much baby!” He looked around—everyone on the street was staring at him (even a couple of folks he knew). He began to get red with embarrassment.
“Uh, fine day today, isn’t it?” Lagh said, hoping to break the ice. Everyone just went back to their business. Suddenly he realized that Durall was probably fumigating with anger underneath the straw.
“Bur it was just my imagination (just my imagination!), running away with me…” he began to sing as an explanation.
“You don’t need to apologize,” muttered Durall, even though Lagh couldn’t hear him. “Just get us out of here!”
The gate was in sight now; in minutes, the wagon was rolling underneath the entryway to the city.
“I think we’re out!” whispered Durall excitedly.
“That’d be great,” said Jooret. “I can barely breathe in here!”
Out of the blue clear sky, an arrow flew into the straw and hit Durall’s saddle, which was lying over his legs.
“That was close!” he whispered.
“I’m free, free falling!” Lagh sang. This was the agreed upon song for when they left the city.
Jooret began to stand, but Durall pulled him down.
“Wait—in a few minutes we’ll be in the forest and around a corner; then you may stand up,” said Durall.
“I’m just tired of lying underneath this straw, where you can hardly breathe.” Jooret said.
“I know it’s stuffy, but it could be worse. I’ve hidden within furniture, crammed into barrels, and once, even a coffin. Trust me, this is airy.”
“Wow,” said Jooret. “How did you get into those fixes?”
“Well, it began like this…” Durall and Jooret passed the time talking about Durall’s former adventures, until Lagh gave the signal for them to climb on out.
“Nice singing, Lagh,” said Jooret, breathing in the crisp, fresh air.
“Thank you, Jooret—it’s nice to see someone who appreciates my talents.”
“I tell you what, I sure don’t appreciate your talents right now!” said Durall. “If you weren’t my partner in business, I’d clobber you!”
Lagh gave a hurt puppy look at Durall. “Do you really wanna hurt me? Do you really wanna make me cry?” sang Lagh.
“Very funny,” said Durall. “Did you see that arrow fly into the straw?”
“Yes—or at least, I heard it. Do you think it was from the people back at the inn?”
“Yes, I do. My guess is that those men will send out some riders. At the nearest town, we’ll have to lose the wagon—we go to slow riding it. Once we hit Illana castle we’ll be in the clear; until then we need to lay low. What do you think, Jooret?”
“I agree—that’s the most logical explanation I can think of.”
“When we get our assignment, they should lose track of us,” said Lagh.
“I agree,’ said Durall. “I can’t wait until we reach Illana castle.”
Conversation ceased, and the wagon rumbled on in silence. It was a beautiful day— the sun was shining, the birds chirping, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. For several hours, the group traveled in content silence. As they rounded a bend in the road, a lone figure stepped out in front of them—it was a woman in a black dress, carrying a broom over her shoulder.
“Do not proceed to Illana castle,” the woman said in a creaky, screechy old voice. “You will fail.”
Everyone was so shocked, they were lost for words.
“I’ll be watching you,” the woman said.
A big wave of light suddenly hit the group, temporarily blinding them. When they recovered their sight, no one was there.
“It’s nothing,” said Durall. “Just that group I got into a scuffle with, trying to scare me. It won’t work.”
“Are you sure?” asked Jooret.
“Durall’s right,” said Lagh. “It’s nothing.” Jooret missed the worried glance Lagh shot Durall.
The group rode on in silence, but this silence has a different feel to it. This wasn’t the happy, content silence of a lazy day. This was the half shocked, half not believing it silence. Jooret thought he was the only one taking it seriously; but if it didn’t faze Lagh and Durall, then he decided he shouldn’t be worried about it. The shadows were beginning to grow long—night was coming.
“There’s an inn few miles ahead—we’ll rest there,” said Durall.
The shadows had barely moved before the wagon was pulling into a little inn, quite a few miles off the road. The inn was small, but well kept—it had a small front porch, and a tall chimney that was puffing out smoke. As they neared the front, a tall, bearded man walked outside.
“The stable is just out back; I’ll un-harness your horses for you, if you wish.”
Jooret began to say something, but Durall cut him off.
“We prefer to take care of horses ourselves, but thanks.”
“Yes sir,” said the man, slightly taken aback. “I’ll be inside if you need anything.”
Jooret looked at Durall, slightly confused.
“You must always see to your horses personally,” explained Durall. “They are your life’s blood; never forget that.”
After making sure the horses were settled, the trio entered the inn. Unlike most places the group had stayed in, they weren’t greeted by raucous music upon entry. Instead, dead silence met their ears—there was nobody in the bar room besides a few folks playing chess in the corner. Approaching the bar, Durall ordered two drinks.
“Excuse me,” said Jooret, “but I believe I’ve merited a drink of my own.”
“You’re nineteen—I don’t think you’re old enough yet,” said Durall, not even turning around to address Jooret.
Jooret looked stunned.
“Let the boy have a drink,” argued Lagh. “You never know—maybe he’ll find it disgusting, and never desire liquor again.”
Durall turned around. “Hmmm, a good point.” He tapped his fingers on the bar. “Alright—but just this once.”
Inside, Jooret was bubbling with joy. On the outside, he allowed a small smile to reach his lips—but just a small smile.
The group sat down at a corner table and awaited their food. While their meal was being prepared, Lagh took a thin rod out of his pocket. Showing it to Jooret, he said, “I received this from a wealthy baron in Valk. It will detect most poisons inserted into food or drink. I have never come across it’s like; if you’re good, you may receive this one day.”
The food soon arrived, and all three men began to dig in. The meal consisted of pork, potatoes, and ale—a humble but filling feast. When they were finished eating their hearty course, Jooret wandered over to the two people playing a board game.
He scanned the two men—one was dressed in a black shirt, pants, and cape, had brown hair, and was wearing some sort of glass thing over his eyes. The fellow he was playing against was old, had a grizzled beard, and donned an entirely green tunic. To Jooret’s untrained eyes, the game appeared to be equal. Glancing over his shoulder, he observed Lagh and Durall deep in conversation.
“Uh, hello—how’s the game going?” Jooret asked.
“Things are looking pretty good for white,” he said, trying to break the ice.
He got a muffled “humph” from the man in the green tunic.
Jooret heard door shut, and saw a man descend the stairs. Taller than most, and broad in the shoulders, the man had a black mustache and hair.
“Best not interrupt Nathan and Gib when they’re playin’ chess,” the man said. He had a deep, rich voice. “I’m Formendacil.” He extended his hand—Jooret shook it.
“We’re the Gaming Guardians,” the man explained further. “We can be found here most nights, playin’ chess, cards, and all sorts of other games. We’re authors by trade; well, except for me. I’m one of the Corincia Police, The Brute Squad as they’re known. I try to make it here on weekends and furlough, though.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Jooret said sincerely. There was something irresistibly likeable about the man.
Jooret heard the sound of chairs scraping on the floor, and the creaking of bones; it appeared Nathan and Gib had been playing a long time.
“We’ve decided to take a little break,” Nathan said to Formendacil. “Tell us who you think will win.”
Formendacil went to check the board while Nathan introduced himself to Jooret.
“We’re the Gaming Guardians, incase ‘Cil didn’t tell you.”
“He told me,” Jooret said. “You’re in here most evenings?”
“It’s rare when we’re not,” said Nathan. “Do you know ho to play chess?”
“Sort of—I’m not very good.”
“I’ll see if ‘cil wants to play; chess isn’t his strong suit either.”
Jooret soon found himself at a table, playing against Formendacil. The man was good—not quite the caliber of Nathan or Gib, but good enough to beat Jooret.
Lagh and Durall were conversing in low tones.
“I’m telling you Durall—that was creepy.”
“I know. Do people randomly walk out on the road, deliver a warning, and disappear? I think the man behind it is the fellow I fought with back in Corincia. He must be part of some sort of group—that’s the only thing I can think of.”
“I think you’re right; once Lord Daravon gives us our assignment we should lose him—hopefully.”
“We should. In the interim, I suggest we tack the backcountry, try to get them off our scent.”
“Do you know of any roads we could utilize?”
“If memory serves me, a few miles ahead of this inn is a little path running into the woods; this path gradually broadens into a road. There’s one little village on the road— the rest is all timber and a few farms.”
“That’s great, but how do we do this without worrying Jooret?”
“We’ll tell him that a good mercenary, whenever he has reason to believe someone is on his trail, should try to get them off his back. Basically, we’ll turn it into a lesson—but no mention of the lady in black! I’ll say that I suspect the man in Corincia to be on out trail.”
“Well, it looks like everything’s in order. Look—Jooret has made a few friends.”
Durall glanced up from the table—Jooret was indeed having fun. “Good—it’ll keep his mind off things. A good mercenary should always be alert, but it never hurts to make new friends.”
As the night wore on Jooret played against one other player, Gib. Jooret sat down after being slowly (but eventually) defeated by Formendacil.
“Are you very good at chess?” Gib asked as they sat down.
“Oh, I’m decent,” Jooret replied. “Formendacil beat me; I held out for a long time though.”
“I’m afraid you’re out of luck; chess is the Green Knight’s favorite game.”
“Who’s the Green Knight?”
“Why, that’s me—I’m rarely seen outside a green tunic, and even my armor is green. Sadly, not too many people know of my colors; we freelance knights rarely receive recognition.”
“Freelance?” Jooret asked, beginning to move his bishop.
“A freelance knight is a knight who answers to no lord, baron, or duke. He is his own master, offering his services wherever he may please. A freelance knight is not a mercenary; we are merely wandering warriors without a home. Well, at least most wander—I have lived here for several years now.”
The two opponents silenced themselves. Jooret knew that he would suffer a quick execution, but this didn’t stop him from enjoying the game.
Durall and Lagh were still in their seats.
“Would you like anything else?” The bartender asked, clearing the table.
“No thanks,” Durall responded. “However, there is one thing. Have you seen a lady dressed in a black dress, coat, and hat pass this way?”
“No sir,” the bartender replied. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Thank you for your information.” Durall nodded cordially at the bartender, signaling him to leave; the man took the hint.
“That lady must have traveled though the forest,” Durall whispered to Lagh.
“Aye—that’s the creepy part,” said Lagh. “If she came from behind, she would have passed us. If she came from ahead, she would have probably stayed in this inn. Maybe she was behind us and passed us through the forest?”
“I don’t think so. This whole situation is creepy; I’ll be glad when we’re within the protective walls of Illana castle.”
“I can’t wait to get to the capitol too.”
Leaving the table, Lagh walked to where Jooret was playing Gib.
“Well, we should probably be hittin’ the hay,” he said.
Jooret looked up from his desperate situation.
“Just a few minutes?” he asked. “I’m hoping for a stalemate.”
“There’s no way you’ll draw a stalemate from that situation,” said Lagh. “There’s absolutely no way that pawn is making it across the board, especially with that rook blocking its way—best to call it quits.”
Gib said, “It’s been a pleasure playing with you.” He extended his hand, which Jooret shook. “Better luck next time.”
“Thanks,” Jooret said.
The trio began to ascend the stairs; their room was down a short, dark hallway, lit by small sconces. There was no key for their room—such luxuries were only available in large, fancy inns in the city.
Like the hallway, the room was dark. Durall stumbled around until he found a kerosene lamp. Once it was lit, he examined his surroundings.
There were two bunk beds, a small table, and a fireplace. Lagh lit the fireplace, and soon everyone was snuggled underneath their sheets. Lagh and Jooret occupied one bunk bed, while Durall took the bottom bunk of the other.
The soft, feather beds and clean linen felt wonderful after their long ride; all three men fell asleep in record-breaking time.
A dark figure was creeping through the night.
“Hurry up, you fool!” It was a women’s voice; she whispered as loudly as she could.
“I’m going as fast as I can!” said the voice of a young man.
Suddenly, a light appeared through the trees.
“Be silent; we are approaching our target,” said the women.
The young man became more wary of his step—no longer was he stepping on fallen branches.
They snuck up to the walls of a small building—there was a light shining inside, but no voices pierced the night air.
“How are we going to get inside?” the young man whispered.
“Trust me,” said the old woman, motioning to her broom. “I have a way.”
Durall was snoozing away in his sleep; in fact, all three of the mercenaries were. He was deep into dreamless slumber, when a sudden, very loud bang and a flash of bright light awoke him.
“You idiot! You excuse for a magician!” It was the same voice that had given them the warning the day before.
Durall was just beginning to recover from the blinding glare. He sat up in his bead, still shielding his eyes. He heard pottery break, and a knife hit the wall. Just as he fully re-gained his vision, Formendacil broke down the door. Swinging his sword high over his head, he charged the two figures in the center of the room. Another flash of light, this one more blinding then the first, hit Durall’s eyes.
Once all of the commotion was over, he examined the room. All that was left of their assailant’s attack was a few pieces of broken pottery, and a throwing knife stuck in the wall.
“Who threw the knife?” Durall asked.
“I did,” Jooret answered.
“You fool! You could have easily killed the wrong person, or hit Formendacil as he came through the door.”
“Sorry,” said Jooret.
“Do better next time.”
“Who was that?” Formendacil asked.
“I don’t know,” Durall answered. “She saw her yesterday; it was very creepy. She just stepped out in front of us, and told us not to go to Illana castle. Very portentous, isn’t it?”
“Very,” said Formendacil. “Well, in the light of recent circumstances, I suggest you leave right now.”
“Good idea,” said Durall. “Lagh, Jooret,” Durall gazed at each of his companions. “Start saddling the horses—I’ll be right there.”
Durall’s two companions followed his orders, leaving him and Formendacil in the room. Suddenly, Gib and Nathan burst in.
“What was all of the commotion?” Gib asked.
“We heard a thud, and a horrible scream,” said Nathan.
“We were attacked,” said Durall flatly. “By—” Durall was cut off by the voice of Gib.
“Is Jooret and that other man safe?”
“Yes,” said Durall. “By the recommendation of your friend, I’ve sent them to saddle the horses.”
“You’re not leaving tonight, are you?” asked Nathan.
“Yes; Formendacil and I both agree that it will be the last thing our attackers would expect.”
“We’ll go with you,” said Nathan.
“Aye—we’ll escort you as far as you want,” said Gib, with great enthusiasm.
“Many thanks, gentleman,” said Durall. “Formendacil, how will that work with you?”
“Not good—I must leave for Corincia tomorrow.”
“ Do you know Kert, the stable master?”
“Could you deliver a note to him for me?”
“We’re going to saddle our horses,” said Gib.
Durall grabbed a quill and inkwell and began to write.
Please excuse me for borrowing your wagon; some men were after me, and I had to flee the city incognito. The wagon is now sitting comfortably in the stable of “The Green Acorn” inn. You may retrieve it at your convenience.
Durall & company
Durall put his pen down.
“This should do; please take this to him upon your arrival in the city.”
“I will—now, you better get downstairs; I’m sure the horses are saddled by now.”
Durall and Formendacil both descended the stairs. The whole inn was awake, and everyone was curious as to what happened.
“Let’s try to sneak out un-noticed; is there a back door?” asked Durall.
“Aye—follow me,” said Formendacil.
Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, Durall followed Formendacil outside the inn. The first thing that struck Durall was the full moon that graced the sky; they would not be lacking light to guide their way. Just as he reached the stable doors, Lagh led the horses outside.
“What were you doing inside?” asked Lagh.
“Writing an apology note for Kert,” said Durall. “I told him that the wagon is still here, and that he may retrieve it at any time.” Durall turned to look at Jooret. “Remember, Jooret: a mercenary may have to borrow sometimes, but he should always try to amend the situation whenever possible.”
Once everyone was saddled, the group of six set out. The sound of crickets and the clopping of horse’s hooves filled the night air. The full moon lit the night as if it was day; if their attacker was near, they would surely be seen.
“If memory serves me, the road we’re taking is only one league ahead,” Durall whispered to Nathan.
“It is—you will take that path?” said Nathan.
“Yes—we’re hoping it’ll throw our assailants off our trail.”
“Good idea. There’s a small village that boarders the road, about ten miles in; I have some friends that could help you there.”
“I’m interested; what’re their names?”
“I have no particular names; it’s more of an organization.”
“Well, what is it?”
“The Friendship Guild; they’re everybody’s best friend. They have lodges across the kingdom; the one in Duexton is the nearest for several miles.”
“Would they be able to board us for the day?”
“Certainly—the guild goes out of their way to help people. They say that that’s what being friendly is all about.”
“Interesting—I have never heard of these people,”
“They are rather unknown; most of their lodges are in small towns and villages.”
Satisfied with this information, Durall ended the conversation, and the group traveled on in silence. It seemed to take eons, (although it was only a half-hour) before they left the main road, and set off down a side trail.
The road blazed a path through the forest; one might assume that the night was silent—think again. The hooting of owls and chirping of crickets filled the traveler’s ears.
Hours passed without speaking—there wasn’t anything to say. The night grew old, and the riders tired; Jooret began to slouch in his saddle. Durall was wondering if the lad was going to finish the ride without falling off his horse; from then on, he kept a close eye on Jooret.
Night was just beginning its yield to day when the troupe rode into a small, crude little village. There were few people wandering the three streets at this hour.
“The lodge is that big building right over there,” said Nathan, pointing to a big, old structure. The building was made of shiplap siding, and, despite several years of aging, would have been quite beautiful if weren’t for the color it was painted.
“Ugh, pink,” said Jooret.
“That’s the color of every lodge,” said Gib. “They claim that that’s the color of friendship.”
“They could be my friend by re-painting their lodge,” said Jooret. “But who am I to complain? They’re boarding us for the day; speaking of which, let’s head inside.”
It was evident that Jooret was completely drained of energy, along with everyone else. Even the horses seemed to mope rather than walk; but before they could ride to the village livery stable, a man walked out of the building. He was of average height, had a brown moustache, and a wide, brown hat.
“Hello!” the man said. “It appears you are in need of The Friendship Guild? You’ve been waiting outside for several minutes now.”
“Indeed we are,” said Durall, wedging his horse to the front of the row. “Would you be able to lodge us for today and tonight?” Inside, Durall was full of anxiety—they’d be in a tough spot if the man didn’t help. Outside, however, he was calm and expressionless.
“Of course!” the man said. “Oops, it appears I’ve forgot my manners—I’m Athos.” He let out a hand for Durall to shake.
“Durall Lambrodos.” Durall shook Athos’s hand. “We’ll be back as soon as we stable our horses.”
“Oh no!” said Athos. “We’ll do that for you—that’s what The Friendship Guild is all about, helping our fellow brethren.”
“Thank you,” said Lagh, climbing down from his horse. “We’ve been in the saddle for hours.”
“Don’t mention it,” said Athos, who began to shout. “Elephant Knight! Elephant, I need your help.”
A man with some of the biggest ears ever seen came outside. It was obvious as to why this man was called Elephant Knight; his ears seem to hang down with their own weight.
“I’ll take your horses,” said Elephant Knight. “They’ll be in fine care—Stergen takes good care of his animals.”
Elephant Knight went to grab the bridles of Nathan’s horse, but Nathan gently removed his hand.
“I’m afraid we shall be going,” said Nathan. “We said we’d escort you as far as you wish; we’ve more than fulfilled our promise. It was good to meet all of you.” Nathan, Gib, and Formendacil all nodded in agreement.
“I enjoyed playing chess with you, Jooret; even though I beat you,” said Formendacil.
“Me too,” said Gib.
“Well, we’re off,” said Nathan. “Fare thee well, and may we meet again.”
“Good-bye,” said Durall, Jooret, and Lagh.
“If you’re ever in Corincia, find me,” said Formendacil, ere he rode out of sight. “I’ll be in The Brute Squad’s Barracks.”
“I will!” said Jooret.
With one last look at the three men they had spent so much time with, The Gaming guardians rode away. However, Formendacil took one last look over his shoulder before disappearing into the forest.
Durall sighed. “Well, I guess that’s the last we’ll ever see of them. It sure was kind of them to help us.”
“The Gaming Guardians are good people,” said Athos. “I’ve known them for quite some time now. Come—I’ll see you to your rooms.”
Following Athos, the tired, weary, worn-out mercenaries strode through the pink doors of the lodge.
Chapter IV Table of Contents