An Epic Fantasy

Chapter 1: The Man at Skylark's

"Is it just me, or is everyone staring at us again?" Seth whispered to the young woman walking beside him. His hand grasped the hilt of his sword, not so much out of nervousness as to make himself look intimidating. He needn't have worried, though. A minor but dangerous change in the expression of his companion was enough to make the gawkers turn their gazes hurriedly away.

"You know why that is, Prince Charming?" Shanyese asked playfully, her expression relaxing again. "It's because of your outfit. Who wears a cape like that anywhere outside of a palace?"

Seth glanced down at himself. The upper part of his cape was a wolf pelt from which hung rich silk. Gold chain-like links lined the cape. "You know what I think," he said, looking back again at Shanyese, "I think it's you that everyone's looking at. Your outfit might be great for blending in during the nighttime or in a forest, but here you stick out like…"

"Yeah, I know, people just can't take their eyes off me." Shanyese waved her hand dismissively and flicked the edge of her cloak so that it caught the wind and billowed out impressively behind her. Her outfit was dark-green, not as bright as Seth's cape but still something that stood out among the brown and gray tunics of the peasants milling about. "It's a pity, though. That wolf would have made a much better mount for me than fashion statement for you." She eyed the wolf pelt unhappily.

Seth shook his head. No matter how many times he'd told her how unreasonable it was to try to go riding around on a wolf, Shanyese wouldn't drop the idea.

The two turned their steps toward a tavern called Skylark's. A peasant who wasn't looking where he was going bumped into Seth.

"Pardon me…" the man said, turning to go away.

"Not so fast." Seth grabbed the man by the wrist and retrieved the pouch of coins that had nearly been stolen. He shoved the pickpocket to the ground and resumed his walk toward the tavern.

"You're lucky," Shanyese called over her shoulder. "If you'd tried to steal my purse you'd have a knife between your ribs."

Continuing on as if nothing had happened, Seth secured his money pouch. "I'm not sure how I'm liking this job stuff," he grumbled, only half-serious. "Sticking around the castle and ordering servants around without all this work was the way to go."

"You're the one who wanted to see what it was like to be a mercenary," Shanyese reminded him.

Prince Seth shrugged and they entered the tavern.

As they walked in they got a few glances, but most people ignored them. The tavern patrons were more interested in their drinks than either of the newcomers' unusual outfits. The owner of the pub waved at them from the bar, and they walked up to him, Shanyese smiling with familiarity.

"Hey, Skylark, how ya been?" Shanyese asked the large man. "This is Seth, by the way. The one I told you about?"

"Oh yeah, good to finally meet you," Skylar replied, holding out his hand, which Seth shook. "I expect you're here to ask about jobs. Unfortunately, it's been a pretty weak time for the kind of business you're after. I did hear that there were some conflicts up north in a place called Belling, though. Might be able to find a job, there. But in the meantime, care for a drink?"

"No thanks, Sky. You sure there's nobody looking for a couple good fighters? Local law enforcement, even? Seth nearly got his purse snatched on the way here."

"Sorry, I don't think anyone's too concerned about getting rid of a pickpocket. There is an interesting customer over there you might try, though. Rich merchant type. Came from the East." Skylar pointed back toward a corner table. A narrow-eyed foreigner sat there alone, mixing something from a small battle into his mug. He slipped the little bottle back into his coat before mixing the drink with a quick swirl. He took a sip and smiled sinisterly with satisfaction at the taste. A bow, strung and with an arrow ready to nock sat on the tabletop well within his reach.

"Suspicious…" Seth said, raising an eyebrow.

"A bit sketch," Shanyese concurred. "But…" she looked up at Seth.

"He does look rich." Seth finished her thought for her.

The man was wearing unusual but very good-looking clothes, simple and distinguishing. They would attract some attention in a place like this, but it was unlikely that this man would get the same kind of stares Shanyese and Seth usually experienced with their somewhat more extreme styles.

Shrugging, Shanyese began to make her way through the tavern toward the man, Seth following close behind. They watched the foreigner carefully, making sure that his hand didn't move too readily to his bow. Seth involuntarily flinched as the man took another sip of his drink. The way he was savoring the beverage was somehow disquieting.

"Hello, Sir," Seth announced as they drew closer to the table.

"Mind if we sit down?" inquired Shanyese, moving to do just that whether he said yes or not.

The man looked up at them and blinked with what at first looked like confusion, but the expression quickly changed to a knowing smile.

"Ah, you two must be interested in my wares. What are you looking for? I have some fine young elves, male and female if that's your fancy." His tone of voice was rather suggestive. "Or," he said with a change of inflection, "I've got plenty of hardy dwarves that make great laborers. A few of them can make you up some nice jewelry, too, if you give them the equipment and materials." This last statement was more directed toward Shanyese.

"Uh, actually," Shanyese gave the man a bright smile, "we were hoping you'd like to hire us."

The foreigner's smile immediately fell. "Huh?"

"We're mercenaries," Seth explained. "Heard you might be interested in giving us a job."

"You mean for pay?" the man asked with an expression of horror. "Give my precious money to a couple sellswords?"

"So, I take it that means you're not interested…" Seth began, but he was interrupted by a powerful female voice ringing from across the tavern.

"SAM!!!"

Both Seth and Shanyese turned to see a short, fiery-haired woman bearing fiercely down on their table. Next to her walked an elf, slender and pretty but armed with a bloodstained shortsword.

"That so-called well-behaved ogre slave of yours turned on me!" the woman shrieked. "I had to have Dana slay it! I demand that you give me back my money!"

Seth turned back to the foreigner – whose name was Sam, apparently – just in time to see his reaction to the woman's demand.

"You signed the contract. Not my fault you didn't read the fine print." Without hesitation he picked up his bow and fired the arrow he had prepared at the offender.

The woman flinched as the arrow flew over the heads of the tavern patrons right toward her face. Seth was too slow to follow its path, but he did see the flash of the elf's shortsword intercepting the arrow. The projectile was knocked aside like a fly, and its target's expression of fear turned to one of contempt.

"Well done, Dana! Now, show that lying slaver what it means to cross Duchess Lindsey of Belling!"

The elf flew forward.

"You guys, help me! We can worry about the contract later!" shouted Sam as he pulled out another arrow. After a few seconds of dodging slashes from the elf he looked at the two who were trying to comprehend the situation. "YOU GUYS ARE DOING A BAD JOB!"

Shanyese and Seth just took enough time to give each other a smile of success, and drew their blades for their encounter with the elf.