A stiff breeze blew through the streets that cool, bright morning. Flocks of birds flew over the stucco and marbled buildings. The markets were full of people- merchants hocking their wares, mothers purchasing food while keeping an eye on their children. Friends met in many of the town’s squares, and priests gave food to the less fortunate. All in all, one would call this day normal…average. What the unsuspecting world did not know was that this day was anything but normal. It was a start of something completely unexpected.
My name is Tarathon Auriul.
I had no idea what was to come- who could? Nevertheless, I found myself in a stuffy room with fifteen other people in the Rodigan city of Granz- one of which was my beautiful wife, Eriniel Lhalorn. We had been summoned by the Grand Council, yet they did not tell us why. Then again, we couldn’t have refused to come anyway. That would have been like refusing a king- a thing that is simply not done.
The room we were in was quite warm, despite the chilly weather outside. The high windows in the room kept out the wind, but let in the harsh sunlight, which heated up the room along with the body heat of the sixteen of us sitting there. The heat did not bother me much since I grew up in the tropical nation of Kram, which was to the southwest of Rodigar. Some of the others did not have the same sensibilities and were fanning themselves or just sweating profusely. A great variety of people from all over Aarken were represented there. It made me wonder what the Grand Council wanted with all of us in the first place. Many of them had grown anxious as we had been waiting for quite a while and had not heard anything for at least an hour.
Finally a clerk emerged from the council room to let us know that the Grand Council was ready to see us. As the large double doors opened, my eyes searched the hall, trying to take in all the details. While the rest of the building was nice, the council room was exquisite. The floor was made entirely of marble and white stone columns lined the room. This probably led to the cooler temperature in the hall, along with the high, vaulted ceiling. The whitewashed walls were lined with statues of ancient heroes, frescoes of past battles, and paintings of the gods and goddesses.
The focal point of the room however was the Grand Council. They were all seated at a semicircular table made of dark wood that was situated on a raised dais in the center of the room. The group before us was just as varied as we were, yet they had a more regal, wise, and sophisticated feel and look about them.
The Grand Council is one of the ruling groups of Aarken. It is comprised of all the Grandmasters and mistresses of all the martial professions. Each country has its own ruler who makes most of the decisions, but in an effort to keep the peace; all matters of war or issues that involve more than one nation are left to the council to take care of. One of the major things that they had done was to ban nations from having standing armies. Rulers were allowed a certain number of city guards as well as a few personal bodyguards, but all other soldiers reported to their respective Grandmaster.
Now I had never been summoned by the Grand Council before, let alone a king or nobleman. Most of my work up to that point had been with my commanding officers and with Grandmaster Graegor- leader of the Riders. We were basically the cavalry of the army, though there had not been a large conflict since long before I had even begun my training in Rhimlach decades before. I spotted Graegor sitting between two gruff, serious looking dwarves near the right side of the table. I felt Eriniel grab my hand and interlock fingers as we walked into the room. While she was smiling, I could tell that she was nervous. To be completely honest, so was I, though I don’t know if anyone could tell. Holding Eriniel’s hand was as much of a comfort to me as it was to her.
When everyone had filed in, an elderly elven man stood up from the table and addressed the crowd.
“Greetings to all of you, and thank you for coming on such short notice. My name is Grandmaster Alaren Uriol, and I lead the wizards of Aarken. You may be wondering as to why we asked you to come. We need you to go on a mission, of which you will be informed further shortly. Due to the delicacy of the matter at hand, we will be splitting you up into four groups of four people each. Your group will be debriefed by the councilor that calls your name.”
“Alright, let’s be quick about this!” A middle-aged dwarf got up from his chair. He had a large red beard flecked with grey, multiple visible scars, and a patch over his left eye. “My name is Grandmaster Merrik, son of Olrik. I command the fighters. I would like to speak with Lucius Bhern, Gottfried Hagen, Eoghan MacKragg, and Kaila Xiulong.”
As the dwarf stepped away from the dais and walked to the right corner of the room behind the dais, I watched the four follow him over. Riders are trained to be very observant- not as extensively as Rangers or Rogues are from what Eriniel tells me, but we are taught to be detail oriented in our studies. Even though we would not be traveling with all of these people, I thought it would be beneficial to know what they looked like in case something arose in the future.
The first was a tall, pompous-looking human man whose hair was blonde and demeanor stuffy. The second was a skinny Lupraeg who did not look old enough to have passed his training yet (but he obviously had, or he wouldn’t have been here). His fur was mainly a dark grey color, but the tips were black, which gave it a singed look. A fairly muscular man with a crazed look in his eyes followed. His skin was pale and contrasted with his brown hair and green eyes. The last was a slender Morben woman whose stride was very smooth, which reminded me a bit of Eriniel. Her eyes darted about the room, trying to take it all in at once.
Next, a tall confident-looking Nendren woman stood and called to the group, “My name is Grandmistress Liliana Fellweave, leader of the sorcerers of Aarken. Would Rowan Lightfoot, Assher Haghen, Ithiliel Glanthar, and Edmund Rallstohne follow me to the back left corner of the hall?”
From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of who Grandmistress Liliana was referring to. A thin Moghir woman walked past me, and I couldn’t help but notice her beautiful fur coat. It was a light golden color with small black spots all over. She was wearing a golden necklace around her neck with the symbol of the god Aodh imprinted on it. The next one honestly frightened me a little. As an elf, I’m fairly tall, especially compared to humans and dwarves, but a huge Lupraeg warrior brushed by me, following the Cleric woman. He was at least a foot taller than me, very muscular, and had small bones braided into his grey fur in various places. The next person was a short Elven woman who had lots of flowers braided into her long light brown hair. She walked very lightly on her bare feet across the marble floor to join the other two. The last one to catch my eye was a human man with fiery red hair and hazel eyes who for some reason had the mannerisms of a wolf. His movements very much reminded me of Eriniel’s animal companion, Connacht, who was a huge timber wolf.
“My name is Grandmistress Cynwine, leader of the Clerics of Aarken.” A short, soft-spoken woman with grey hair slowly got up from her chair, “ Would Sirith Glintgleam, Aengus Crasmorg, Airediel Sirroch, and Aedan Belhok follow me to the right of the platform?”
A fit, young Nendren woman with black hair and beautiful blue eyes to my left stepped forward, along with a male Moghir whose fur was as black as midnight and had piercing green eyes.. A shorter Lupraeg man followed quickly- I could only see a brown blur blow past me. The last to move was another male Moghir, who I knew to be a Rider- I had seen before in Rhimlach, but I did not know his name.
“Will everyone that is left follow me to the back corner opposite of the one Liliana went to?” The question came from a Morben woman with shockingly white hair, yet she did not look old in the slightest.
My wife and I followed the woman to the back of the room along with a pretty blonde human woman and a Dwarven man with a medium length grey beard.
“Okay, let’s make this quick so that you can be on your way as soon as possible. My name is Grandmistress Aessa Farafuin, and I’m in charge of Aarken’s Rogues. Your task is simple, yet important to the council. We have been getting strange sporadic reports from areas around the Aegis. The thing is, is all of these reports were made by scared, uninformed civilians, so the accounts are unreliable at best. What we want the four of you to do is to travel to Endra, Ceranne, which is the closest settlement to the Aegis, and find out what’s really going on- if anything. Making sure that the Aegis is okay is your top priority! We cannot afford to have anything happen to it!”
Sounds simple enough,” I replied.
“Well, let’s hope it stays that way. We really have no idea what’s going on over there. This has been our first chance to send troops to investigate.”
“Are the other groups going to be on the same mission as we are?” the human woman inquired meekly.
“No, they will have different missions- at least for now. You may be collaborating with them on future endeavors, but who’s to say for sure now?” Aessa shrugged her shoulders and continued on, “The Council will furnish you with whatever supplies you may need- within reason. You’ll need to see the quartermaster, stable master, or any of the blacksmiths in town. Show them this badge and they shouldn’t give you any trouble. Just try to get on the road as soon as possible. Be careful out there, and remember: you are our eyes and ears out there, so be alert. Let’s hope this fiasco is just a bunch of superstitious farmers scaring themselves with nonsense over nothing!”
“We should probably get going- don’t want to waste the daylight yapping away!” the dwarf finally spoke.
* * * * * *
After exiting the council building, we headed down to the markets to pick up basic supplies and horses for us- well, everyone but me. I had my cat mount, Daerruth, but Eriniel, Diedra, and Haelgar needed something to make the trip easier and also to keep up with me.
Getting the supplies was easy enough. All we had to do was show the trader or shopkeeper the badge that Grandmistress Aessa gave us, and they gave us the items for free! We picked up some simple rations, rope, lanterns, oil, basic camping gear, and food for the horses. The problems came when we actually tried to get the horses themselves.
The stables were at the lowest point in the city, since Granz was built on a hill, near the city gates. When we got there, we were approached by a tall, skinny, smelly man with thinning brown hair.
“What can I do you for today?” When he spoke, I could smell the alcohol on his breath from ten feet away. It made me want to vomit.
“We need three of your best horses- we’re have orders from the Grand Council,” Eriniel informed the repulsive man.
“Okay, I think I can do that, but it’ll cost ya’. I want a thousand gold pieces each for ‘em.”
“But we were told that if we showed you this badge, that we could get whatever we needed for free right away, and the Council would pay you at a later date!” Diedra sounded anxious.
“Lemme see this…’badge’ of yours.” Diedra handed him the small metal disc which had the Council’s symbol on it, and the stable master snatched it out of her hand. He then proceeded to put it in between his rotten teeth and bent it, as one would a coin to see if it was real gold or silver. The badge bent in half, which he obviously didn’t like, and threw it behind him, and it landed in the horse’s water trough.
“That ain’t gold! I don’t care who sent ‘cha- king, council member, or goddess- I always get my money up front! How am I supposed to know you’re actually from the Council, an’ not some bunch o’ crooks tryin’ to scam me out of my stock an’ fair pay?” the disgusting men was apparently so insulted that he spat on the ground near our feet.
“I’m not one to just throw away a potential deal though. I’ll let the three horses go for eight hundred gold pieces each…and a kiss from that pretty Elven girl,” he offered as he chuckled to himself and licked his chapped lips.
That’s where I drew the line. In a flash, I got to him, grabbed his shirt, and had a sword to his throat.
“That ‘pretty Elven girl’ is my wife, you vashtet scum! I’ve had enough of your disrespect, scamming, and lustful ways. Either you give us the horses, or we’ll take them and your life!” I threatened angrily through gritted teeth. The man said nothing, but pulled a knife from his belt and spat in my face. That was all I needed. I took a step backwards and swung my sword from left to right, cutting off the fool’s head. The now limp body fell to the ground with his detached head.
Haelgar had faster reflexes than I thought because he was already to one side with an axe ready to back me up.
“Good riddance!” he exclaimed, then kicked the head away into the stables, “Are you ladies okay?”
“Yes- he never even had a chance to get to us,” Eriniel replied.
“Don’t you think that was a little…excessive Tarathon?” Diedra inquired shakily.
“No, I don’t. I am very protective of Eriniel,” I replied. That was one of the most important things I do, even though she can handle herself most of the time. I just make it a point to always be there in case it isn’t ‘most of the time’. I could feel Eriniel wrapping her arms around my waist as a silent thank you. I knew she understood my intentions. “I want to keep her safe. Besides, he shouldn’t have acted like that to anyone in the first place! I would have done something similar if he had said that to you. He doomed himself by pulling out his knife. I would have just punched him if he had simply spat on me. That man was a greedy, lecherous fool anyway, and the world’s better off without him.”
Before Diedra could respond with a clerical ‘all life is sacred’ spiel, Haelgar emerged from the stable.
“You’re right Tarathon- come look at this!”
Eriniel, Diedra, and I rushed into the stable, curious as to what Haelgar found. When we got to the stall he had indicated, we found a middle-aged man and his young son tied up, gagged, and blindfolded.
“These must be the real stable owners. Let’s get them untied and find out what really happened here,” Eriniel deduced. I could tell from her eyes gleaming that she was curious, though her facial expression conveyed empathy.
After we cut their bonds, the man was overjoyed, happy tears filled his eyes, and he embraced his son before turning to face us.
“Thank you all so much for saving my boy and me! We are most certainly in your debt!”
“To be honest, we only came upon you accidentally after we dealt with your captor, but we’re glad we were able to help. How long did that scum sack have you tied up?” Haelgar inquired.
“I don’t really know…what day is it?”
“It is the third Monday of April,” Diedra replied as she healed the burns and cuts on their wrists from the rope.
“So we’ve been tied up for a week! Is there anything I can do to repay you?”
“Well…the whole reason we were here in the first place was to get some horses. We have been given a task by the Grand Council.”
“Say no more. Take four of my best horses as my thanks.”
“Thank you very much, that is very generous of you, but we really only need three since I am a Rider and I have my own way of transportation.”
“In that case, wait right here please. I will be right back.” He quickly got up and shuffled off into a back room. When he came back, he had an axe in his hands. “Take this instead of the extra horse. I have no use for it anymore- it has been hanging above my fireplace for years.”
Haelgar saw the axe and his eyes lit up with excitement.
“This is fine Dwarven craftsmanship! I recognize the maker’s mark on it too. It was made by my cousin Gorim! Where did you get an axe like this?”
“Well then, your cousin served me well when I was in the army. I bought that axe from a Dwarf trader while on a mission in Ostanel, but that was many years ago. I’m glad you like it! Keep it- it will serve you better than if I kept it hanging on the wall.”
“Thank you sir for your generosity, but we really must be going,” Diedra interjected.
“She’s right,” Eriniel agreed, “We’d love to stay and chat, but we should really put as much distance between us and Granz today as possible.”
“Oh, I understand- official business and all. Good luck on your mission! Come back and see us if you’re in Granz again with some time on your hands!”
After we quickly exchanged handshakes and goodbyes, we walked out of the gates of Granz.
Before we could be on our way though, we needed to get Daerruth, my cat, and Connacht, Eriniel’s wolf, from the special stables the Riders use. Since Rider’s mounts are…wild, they are housed in larger, more comfortable spaces outside cities so they don’t frighten the civilian citizens.
“Well, that certainly took a lot longer than I had anticipated!” A welcoming and familiar voice came into my mind as we arrived at the stables. The voice was Daerruth. As he rounded the corner out of his room, one could see that he was a huge cat whose shoulders were level with mine. His fur was a dark charcoal grey color with burgundy stripes. His canine teeth protruded out from his upper lip past his jaw. His dark red eyes seemed to glow a bit, even in the daylight. I saw Diedra jump a little out of the corner of my eye.
“We had to wait to be seen by the Council quite a bit longer than I had anticipated, but we have a mission, and we can now be on our way,” I replied to him out loud, not thinking about who I was with.
“Who were you talking to? None of us said anything,” Diedra inquired, looking very confused.
“Have you never met a Rider before?” I asked of her in return.
“No, I haven’t…other than you. Why?”
“Sweetheart, Riders and their mounts have a special telepathic link that lets them speak to one another. I would have mentioned it sooner, but since I’m already used to it, it slipped my mind.” Eriniel answered for me.
“They are also much more intelligent than any normal beast- and often more wise and intelligent than the average human. They demand respect, so just treat him like you would any human being, and you’ll get along just fine. If you want to say something to him, he can understand you, but if he responds back, I’ll have to translate.” I had a feeling that things would be okay between Daerruth, Diedra, & Haelgar. Diedra, while a bit naïve, was a kind-hearted young woman. Haelgar, while he did not show any apprehension, looked unphased by the giant cat. I also know that by him being a Dwarf and a fighter that he knew the meaning and the importance of respect.
“Daerruth, this is Diedra and Haelgar. They will be joining us on this mission of ours.” Eriniel announced. When she said that, Connacht slunk out from the room Daerruth had been in and went over to Eriniel and licked her hand. While Daerruth and Connacht’s first couple encounters were…trying, they had become good friends despite the fact that they couldn’t verbally communicate.
“Nice to meet you Daerruth. I hope I did not offend you,” Diedra replied.
“Don’t worry Diedra- he understands. Beasts like him are not a common occurrence.” I assured her. Haelgar simply nodded his head once in acknowledgement, nonverbally stating his approval.
“Okay, let’s be off!” Eriniel exclaimed excitedly.
Without any further delay, we mounted up and rode off under the afternoon sun towards Endra and the gods know what else.