'Come on Grindel, we'll be late, and you know Baleon hates to be kept waiting.' Olfrid cast a scowl back down the trail as the hulking Grindel struggled with the two large sacks of pilfered goods hey had collected during the week they had been on the prowl. For his part, Grindel grumbled into his bushy beard, cursing the smaller man to the seventh circle of Ysomir, the fiery pit reserved for the worst of people. The two bandits had been lumped together out of necessity, with the Imperials constantly patrolling the highways they could never travel alone, as they once had.
So their leader, Baleon, had decreed they had to travel in pairs, much to their general distaste. Disagreeable as it was, they had made a decent haul from the outlying farmhouses and the occasional merchants travelling unguarded. One look at the hulking Grindel, whose preferred weapon was a two-handed steel mace covered in brutal spikes that looked like it could crush a four-horse wagon with a single blow and most people were more than willing to hand over whatever valuables they had. If not, Olfrid was more than happy to help them to meet their forebears, with a dagger between their ribs.
As he looked back to the trail ahead, Olfrid smiled cruelly to himself with the memory of so many victims, their last twitch as their heart beat its last, the pulse transferred through the hilt of his long-bladed dirk. He especially liked the women; sometimes he'd save killing them for after he'd sated his carnal thirsts on their bodies. Olfrid was of a different breed to the run-of-the-mill bandit thugs, which was why Baleon valued him so. Where most bandits were happy just to pillage and steal with minimal bloodshed, Olfrid took pleasure in ending life. One of the many reasons he and Grindel disagreed so often was that the giant, whilst menacing and by no means soft-hearted, was averse to ending life without reason.
Be that as it may Olfrid was Grindel's senior, and therefore called the shots when it came to how they operated. Olfrid knew, for he was a cunning man, that his penchant for violence bolstered the reputation of their band and further drove the villagers to fear their footsteps. Even the Imperial guardsmen went out of their way to avoid Baleon's lair, and all too often they would miraculously "disappear" when the bandits were on the scout. Many a complaint had been raised with the lairds of the surrounding fiefs, but nothing was done. Baleon's band were numerous and wide spread and the lairds knew that to attack the lair was tantamount to declaring war on a small nation.
Baleon reigned in his bloodthirsty brigands so that the violence was kept to a level that the Imperials could ignore, whilst still sending a clear message to those within his circle of influence. Situated high in the mountains that overlooked the highway to Archaeon, the main city of Valmour, Baleon had created for himself a fortress, buried into a hard stone quarry, the tunnels of his labyrinthine domain twisted and turned through the very heart of the snow-capped giants. It was rumoured that it would take an army of epic proportions to winkle Baleon from his caverns.
So, confident in the reputation of their band and the power of their leader, the two bandits trudged up into the snow, only occasionally taking the time to look for potential enemies. As high as they were, it was unlikely they would come across anyone, though they knew too well that the bears and other wild creatures that called the mountains home didn't take too well to being disturbed, so they took care to skirt any unfamiliar caves or dense brush.
Eventually they reached a break in the snow where the lush, hardy green grass that covered the plains below still had a foothold and Grindel set down his massive burden. Olfrid's leathery features set in another scowl as he saw his large companion sit on a fallen log. He took three quick strides over and came to a halt in front of Grindel, even as the giant sat he was still taller that Olfrid, who wasn't considered by many to be short. Grindel raised his eyebrows in question at Olfrid's obvious frustration.
'What do you think you're doing?' Olfrid kept his voice low and menacing, a tone Grindel had heard him use to frighten those they chose to rob. Grindel sighed and leaned back, familiar with his partner's tactics.
'I'm resting, it's as good a spot as any and carrying all that loot is doing my back no favours.' Olfrid could see that trying to scare Grindel wasn't going to work, so he changed tack and relaxed his posture, theatrically stretching, the picture of ease.
'It sure has been a slog.' He ignored Grindel's baleful glance, 'but it's only another league or so, not that far, we could make it by sundown if we just keep going.' Grindel shook his head.
'It'll be nightfall by the time we get there even if we continued now; by Jorrval I'm not going another step uphill until tomorrow.' Jorrval was the Nordic god of rest and relaxation, one of several lesser gods from the second circle of Ysomir. Olfrid sighed bad temperedly and kicked a stone savagely off towards the base of the mountain. Grindel smiled quietly to himself, Olfrid may have been the senior of the pair, but Grindel knew the smaller man feared him. Suddenly Olfrid's head perked up and he spun towards the direction he had kicked the stone. Grindel sat up straight.
'What is it?' He asked in a whisper, Olfrid held up his hand for silence, casting a quick glare back at his large companion.
Olfrid slowly turned a small semi-circle, twisting his head left and right, looking for something. After a few moments of deathly silence he shook his head and turned back to Grindel, who cocked an eyebrow at him. Olfrid made a negative gesture.
'Must be imagining things, didn't hear that stone hit earth.' Grindel cocked his head to the side.
'Now you mention it, neither did I.' Then a voice came from right beside the two bandits.
'Oh you mean this thing?' The two cutthroat brigands, harbingers of fear, killers of men, squealed like children and dashed backwards, Olfrid slipped on a wet patch of grass and went sprawling on his buttocks, his right hand desperately scrabbling for the dirk in its sheath on his belt. Grindel, for his part, fell backward off the log; he quickly righted himself and picked up his gigantic mace from the ground, facing the apparition. Ghosts and other demons were known to frequent the mountains around Valmour, so the bandits stayed their attack, unsure of what to do.
The apparition was a shadowy figure, slightly built, cowled and cloaked in a dark fabric, not black or blue, or any colour, it seemed to be made of the void, darkness made solid. Though there was barely a whisper of wind, the fabric luffed and rippled as if it was in a steady breeze. Waning as the sun was, the stranger seemed to shift and fade as they watched; giving credence to the possibility the two bandits were facing off with a being from the other side. Visible within the cowl was the tip of a nose and most of the lower jaw of a man, pale and clean-shaven. The lips, barely visible, turned up in a smirk of derision and from the darkness above there were twin glints of light from the stranger's eyes.
He was perched on the broken stump of the tree Grindel had used as a seat, his left hand bracing his body at the front while he rested his buttocks on his heels. Grindel, recovering from the surprise appearance of the stranger and growing ever more certain they were dealing with a simple mage or trickster, growled threateningly and took a step forward.
'It isn't wise to come upon a man unpronounced, boy.' The stranger's smiled faded and the two men heard the diminutive character sigh.
'Contrary to my appearance, I can tell you I'm no boy, as for my coming upon you unbeknownst; I thought that was the whole point of an ambush.' The stranger's voice was smooth and deep, a man's voice. What's more, it was full of confidence and sarcasm as he stared down the two bigger, armed men.
'An ambush, is it? Well you've some practise to be doing before you're able to pull it off if you think you're right to pronounce your intentions before you act.' Olfrid rallied obstinately, the smile returned to the stranger's lips.
'I figured I'd give you a choice, and failing that, a fighting chance.' The two men bridled.
'You've a lot of talk for such a small man, or elf, or whatever you are.' Grindel said, letting his mace smack down into the meat of his left hand menacingly. Olaf barked a laugh.
'More like a dwarf, I'd say.' Then suddenly he yelped and stepped back as the stranger flicked his right wrist and a bolt of electricity exploded the ground in front of the outlaw's feet.
'That's enough of the jokes about my size, thankyou. Now, you have a choice, you can turn around and leave Winterforge fief forever and turn over a new leaf in another place, and all that you'll lose is your possessions. Or you can try and fight me and lose everything, even your soul.' As the stranger spoke he suddenly produced a gemstone, glowing a faint azure blue. Both men knew what the gem was and they both blanched and took a step back. Soul-stones, as was obvious from their name, could trap souls and let an enchanter, provided they had the necessary skill, harness the power of the souls within, slowly draining them of energy until there was none left. It was the darkest of all curses for a Nordic soul to be subjected to the slow descent into nothingness that was promised by the seemingly harmless gem. Any soul trapped and used would never enter the circles of Ysomir, never see eternity.
The stranger noticed the horror on the faces of the two outlaws and the smile widened, but there was no mirth in the expression, instead the two men felt the smile as if a cold wind on their skin, raising goosebumps on their arms and the hairs on their necks. With a quick flick of the wrist the soul-stone disappeared inside the cape, almost as if it had never been there. Grindel, large as he was and armed with his mighty mace, still felt it would be better to run, to get as far away from this cloaked stranger as was humanly possible. Olfrid, on the other hand, knew this wasn't a possibility; Baleon would hunt them to the ends of the earth if they were to abscond, seemingly, with the loot. He took a firm step forward and unsheathed his long-bladed dirk with a slithering hiss of steel on leather. Grindel looked at him, wide-eyed, but after a pause, took a pace forward to stand next to him.
'Just try and take it, scum.' Olfrid said, sounding braver than he felt. The stranger sighed and his shoulders dropped.
'I was hoping it wouldn't come to this.' Olfrid launched himself forward with a roar.
There was an echoing crack, a flash of light, and Olfrid stopped mid-charge, the ends of his hair burning slightly. He stood stock still for a moment and the stranger flicked his wrist once more and without any visible energy the outlaw's body jolted as if mortally struck and he slumped to the earth. Grindel had seen enough men die to know what it looks like, and as Olfrid collapsed in that boneless way he knew he was alone. The stranger cast the points of light that were his eyes towards the hulking bandit and cocked his head sideways slightly.
'Do you wish to join your friend?' Grindel found his throat almost too tight to talk, but he managed to mutter.
'He wasn't my friend.' Before he turned tail and dashed headlong down the mountainside, slipping and sliding through the slush.
The stranger stepped off of the stump with a sigh, his movements graceful and fluid. As he stepped over to the inert body of the former outlaw his cape ceased to flutter and turned into a rough-spun black cloak. He flipped back the cowl to reveal a fresh, angular face underneath a short crown of fiery orange hair, his ears were slightly pointed and his cheekbones were prominent, if you were to look at him, you would immediately think he was an elf, and you'd be half right. His eyes were a jade green, like the forests in the Elder Glade. He rolled the body over and inspected the man. The face was a cruel one, with plentiful scars from many fights. A piece of one ear was missing and so was the first knuckle of his left index finger. The stranger quickly produced the soul-stone and touched it to the dead man's forehead. There was a whisper of power and the gem glowed a brilliant blue.
That done, he looked at the man's chest, between two iron tacks that studded the leather armour over the bandit's chest there sprouted a heavy black shaft, topped with perfectly clipped fletching. The man smiled and turned to look into the forest behind where he had perched atop the stump just as another man appeared. This man was large and muscular, his skin a ruddy tan. His brown hair was long and held back in a ponytail. His features were rounded, apart from his jaw which was squared by the beard that ran down his jaw line and encircled his mouth. His eyes were a slate grey and pitiless as he surveyed the dead outlaw at his companion's feet, though there was a subtle light of humour behind his stern shell.
The new arrival had a massive longbow slung across his back and the tips of several arrows were obvious over his right shoulder. At his right hip there was an ornate war-axe that shone dully in the waning sunlight. The two men made eye contact and both smiled. The smaller of the two clapped his hands together and dashed to the two giant wicker baskets that Grindel had dropped when the two bandits had entered the glade. The larger man removed his long bow and quickly and professionally unstrung it, putting the tip in a special loop on the back of his boot and bending it over his shoulder to relieve the tension and sliding the string down the stave.
'I thought I was going to buy it for a second there, if that bog one had attacked I think he would have had me.' Said the smaller man as he rummaged through the basket. The larger man smirked.
'That'll teach you for showing off, though I have to say I was impressed, a binding, two illusions and two evocations is quite impressive for you.' The smaller man shrugged though bags were already forming under his eyes.
'It was nothing.' The larger man snorted sceptically and rolled his eyes.
'That is, of course, why you're about to fall asleep where you sit. You know you shouldn't push yourself, you bleed off too much excess when you evoke, it's never been your strong suit.' The smaller man, suddenly taken by his fatigue, slumped and grunted noncommittally.
'How'd you know I did two illusions?' He mumbled, the larger man smiled.
'As I said, you were bleeding energy pretty bad at the end, that cold you made them feel, the illusion shot back to me as well, so I felt the cold, but my breath didn't steam. Very impressive magic, I liked the cloak of shadows trick; that was genius for a novice like you.' The smaller man made a few incoherent noises and slumped back off of the log, falling flat on his back, fast asleep. The bigger man smiled and shook his head exasperatedly. He stepped over to the smaller man and lifted him effortlessly; he laid him on a fur kaross he found tied to one of the wicker baskets and set about building a fire. Once he had assembled the sticks in a pyramid and lumped a few large blocks he hacked from the dead tree with his razor-sharp war-axe he muttered a few words and a small fire burst into life at the heart of the tepee of fuel.
Soon after the fire had taken hold the larger man wrapped himself up in the cloak he had bundled up at his waist and went to sleep.
The next day the two fellows awoke and set to breakfast, stoking the fire that had died to ashes in the night and the larger of the two went to their camping spot, deeper in the trees, and collected their tents, packs and apparel that they had left behind when they had left to ambush the two bandits the day before. Once they had both filled their bellies with a rabbit stew, prepared the previous day and reheated on the fire, joined with a flat loaf of flour-bread, a dense, unleavened bread that was delicious when warm but tasteless when cold, they turned to their winnings.
The two massive baskets were filled to the brim with valuables from the Winterforge fief, mostly from the surrounding farms and travelling merchants that dared to travel the Valmour Highway towards Archaeon. There were jewels and trinkets, tools of various sizes and uses, clothes, weapons and armour and a variety of miscellaneous materials. The two men worked in friendly silence, selecting the choicest pieces out of the lot and placing them in a small pile to the side.
'I do so love these bandits, they make our job so much easier.' Said the smaller man with a smile as he flicked a diamond ring into the "keep" pile, the larger man smiled and nodded.
'It certainly takes a load off, knowing we don't have to keep watching out for the imperials all the time.'
'Plus,' said the smaller man, 'we don't have to threaten innocent women and children to get our share.' The larger man grunted and placed a jewelled necklace in the "keep" pile. They continued selecting the most valuable or useful items from the pile until they had sorted through it all. Most of the gold and jewels rested in their "keep" pile, while all the sentimental and less valuable items went back into the baskets.
With that done, the two men struck their camp and the smaller man cast a minor spell to remove the traces of their passing. Their equipment coupled with the loot they had gathered from the bandits made for a hefty bundle of equipment, but both men took their share of the load. They made their way down the mountain with the sure-footedness that comes from practise and confidence in one's abilities, and before the sun had reached its zenith they reached the highway.
They quickly stowed their own belongings and the "keep" bundle out of the way and the smaller man cast a simple invisibility binding over them, before they moved to the bushes at the edge of the highway with the two baskets of the remaining goods. They found a decent hiding place that afforded them a good view of the road in both directions and settled in to wait. Before long the larger man shifted slightly as he laid eyes on their goal. The Imperial patrol passed by a few scant metres from them, made up of seven men, two on horseback and five on foot. Their faces were shielded by the full-face helmets they wore and the red and gold tunics marked them as Winterforge guardsmen, headed out from Winterforge along the highway. The larger man guessed they would be reaching the end of their patrol soon and would be turning back for the home journey soon.
As soon as the guardsmen were out of sight they dashed out into the road and laid the two baskets directly in the centre, in plain view. They hurried back to their hiding place and again settled in to wait. They watched idly as a rare lacewing butterfly alighted on a milk thistle brush that had just started to bloom, its translucent wings interlaced with white fibres, the source of its namesake, glittered as it fluttered them to stabilise as it sucked the nectar from deep within the fresh bloom.
The patrol took a while getting back to the road, but the men were well practised at patience and so they waited until finally the patrol arrived, the clopping of the horse's hooves the first evidence of their presence. The pair watched as the guardsmen spotted the baskets on the road and immediately went to arms, it was common for thieves and bandits to lay a trap for unsuspecting travellers on the road. As the guards approached the two men could tell that this was no heist, some of the belongings, disturbed by an inquisitive raccoon, had spilled out on the road and it was evident they had recognised some of the articles as belonging to Winterforge citizens.
'Lieutenant! These are some of the items reported stolen last week in Winterforge, this here is Hyrold Greybeard's ring!' One of the men on horseback, obviously the Lieutenant, stiffened in the saddle.
'Are you sure?' the guard nodded vigorously.
'Yes sir, I'd know that crest anywhere, and these silk blouses were stolen from the Goldspring's farm not two days ago, I know because Adrianna Goldspring's my girl, and...' The lieutenant made a hushing gesture.
'Alright, very good, let us take these back to Winterforge so they can be reunited with their owners.' The men set to attaching the baskets to the saddles of the horses. One guardsman turned to his companion as they fastened the knots and whispered.
'I wonder, why they dropped all of these goods here in the road, it's like they wanted us to find them.' The other guard looked about himself before answering in an equally hushed tone.
'I don't want to know, perhaps they fell across trouble, all I know is I don't want Baleon finding out we have his loot back, or there might be consequences. I say we just ditch this stuff by the roadside and let the bandits take it.' The first guard bridled.
'How can you say that? You're sworn to uphold the law in Winterforge and to serve the Laird White Tree!' the other guard made a placating gesture.
'Alright, alright, I didn't really mean it.' The first guard shook his head in disgust and took up his position in the patrol once more as the Lieutenant gave the order to move out.
Once the patrol was gone the two men went back and collected their equipment from the bushes and stepped onto the highway. They turned eastward towards the neighbouring fief of Twyglen and set out walking at an easy pace. They were in no rush to go anywhere; they were two men, free of all.
The fief of Twyglen was a green place, settled deep in a valley the main city of Twyglen was famous for its fresh produce markets held once a month, when all of the farmers carted their stock in from the outer reaches, crops grown in the fertile soil of the long-dormant volcano Moruin. There were villages dotted all across the relatively small fief, as there were plentiful rivers and waterways to provide fresh water for the townspeople. So in its easy, back-country way, it was a prosperous place.
Which meant it was prime real-estate for bandits and road agents.
The roadways through Twyglen were plagued with various bands of cutthroats and thieves, which meant that no farmer or merchant travelled anywhere without an armed guard and the Jarl of Twyglen had patrols regularly scouring the countryside for bandit dens. There were more mercenaries per capita in Twyglen than in any other fief in Valmour. That was why our two protagonists chose to travel there, for there were so many places to trade and sell their loot without worrying about Imperial soldiers getting wind of it.
As they crossed the border in the hazy morning sunlight of a new day, the mist slowly dispersing in the warmth of the golden rays, the two travellers became wary of strangers on the road. They had no designs on going to the dungeons of the Jarl and the guardsmen posted to prevent brigandry would be sure to want to waylay them and question the many valuables they carried. Fortunately further to the east the majority of the Jarl's troops were tied up dealing with a Dwarf revolt in the mines that dotted Moruin's sides. The Dwarves had a trade agreement with the people in Twyglen that the Jarl would accept their sovereignty on the volcano so long as they paid regular taxes to the city.
The Dwarves had agreed with bad grace and for a few years the treaty had held, but in recent times the new clan leader of the Twyglen Dwarves had stopped payments to the Jarl. When messengers had been sent, they had returned battered and broken or not at all, and so the Jarl had done the only thing he could think to do and declared what was basically a war on the Dwarven peoples of Twyglen. The war had been raging for only a few months but already the Dwarves were showing signs of losing the battle. The Jarl had cut off their access to fresh produce and although they were sitting on some of the most fertile soil in the land the Dwarves were no hands at farming and so they starved.
One of this, of course, was of any interest to our two compatriots but for the fact there were fewer guardsmen on the roads and therefore less reason to be nervous of strangers. They stopped on the side of the road at midday and started a small fire to cook lunch. While they sat and waited for the rabbits the larger man had shot moments earlier to cook on the spits hung over the small cook fire a two-horse open-top carriage rumbled to a halt next to them and a kindly old man leaned down from the high bench, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of wheat.
'Hello there, fellows!' he called in his rough Nordic accent, he spoke the common tongue well enough for the two men to understand and the larger of the two smiled and touched a finger to his forehead in an informal salute.
'Hello to you, farmer, how goes your day?' his deep rumble of a voice carried the obvious tones of a Picton, the central lands the Scots to the northeast. The farmer raised an eyebrow at the strange accent, so uncommon in the land of the Nords.
'Well enough, I suppose, though I admit I could do with a feed.' He glanced meaningfully at the four plump rabbits that hissed and spat as the flames of the cook fire licked at them. The two travellers shared a look.
'We'd be happy to share with you, if you'd happen to have something for the pot.' The farmer smiled easily and reached behind him into the carriage, he brought out a linen sack.
'The best wheat bread you've ever tasted; made fresh this morning. I'm taking a load of it to market.' The two strangers smiled in turn.
'Sounds excellent, come, draw yourself a patch of grass. One piece is as comfortable as another.' The farmer hopped down from the carriage, displaying a strength and agility that belied his appearance. He turned and brought his left hand to his mouth and gave out a piercing whistle.
'Hope you don't mind if I invite my nephew, he's sweeping behind me at the moment, looking for what he swore was a unicorn.' He shook his head in exasperation, 'What I'll do with that boy I have no idea.' The two travellers smiled and nodded knowingly.
'The youth of today.' Said the smaller man, his cultured tone coming from beneath the cowl he kept up almost permanently at odds with his rough appearance. The farmer looked to him, as if just noticing his presence.
'I'd say hello to you, mister, but I don't make acquaintance with those I can't see their face.' The larger of the two tensed slightly as his smaller companion lifted his hands to his cowl.
'Of course, forgive my rudeness.' The farmer noticed a change in the atmosphere as the cowl slipped back from the man's face, revealing a fresh and youthful appearance. He cocked an eyebrow at the obviously youthful and handsome face, framed as it was by the fiery red hair, until his eyes alighted on the man's ears and his eyes narrowed.
'Elf, are you?' there was a long-standing antagonism between the elves of the Elder Glade and the Nords of Valmour, thus was why the smaller man kept his head covered most of the time. He inclined his head in affirmation, his luminous green eyes fastened on the farmer's.
'Half,' the farmer's eyebrows dropped fractionally in confusion, 'it's a long story.' The smaller man said in explanation. The farmer stared at the two men for a moment in silence; they could see the gears in his head turning behind his eyes. Eventually he came to a decision and shrugged.
'Ah, I'm too old to judge by birthright, might be interesting to eat with an elf.' With that he looked at the ground and settled himself down on the grass with a sigh, kicking one leg out and tucking the other underneath him. The two travellers shared a look and shrugged infinitesimally to one another.
A moment after the farmer took his seat a youth rode up on a long-legged bay, coming to a skidding halt near the trio of men and kicking up a tide of dust. The three men coughed and waved their hands to disperse the choking clouds as the youth dismounted in the lithe and energetic fashion of the young. He wore a cavalry sabre at his left hip that looked too big for him to wield effectively and a conical helmet that was slightly rusted and sat awkwardly on his head like it was too big and to make it fit he'd stuffed it with straw, which was exactly the case.
'Good day sirs, uncle!' he called jauntily, trying to affect a cultured tone, which was marred by his heavy Nordic accent.
'Quit now with that you ignorant puppy, mind yourself!' said the farmer grumpily as he batted the dust from his woollen cardigan. The youth looked at the other two men, similarly clearing away the dirt that had settled after his dramatic entrance and his face fell.
'I'm sorry uncle, I didn't mean... I didn't think.' His voice dropped off at the end as he hung his head in shame. The large Scot chuckled deeply.
'No harm done, though we're sure to get some grit in our bellies when we eat this rabbit.' The young man was shocked at the unfamiliar accent and his head perked up quickly, throwing the helmet askew on his head.
'You're not from here, are you?' the farmer made to growl a warning to mind his manners but the larger man beat him to it.
'No, lad, I'm not, though I'd think that was obvious.' Emboldened, the youth's eyes shifted to fall upon the smaller man's clear complexion, unnatural hair and pointed ears and his eyes flew wide with alarm and his had fell to the hilt of his sabre.
'An elf!' he scrabbled to bring the sabre out of its sheath, but before he had managed to remove it even a third of the way the farmer was on his feet and tore the sword from his grasp angrily, giving the young man a cuff around the ear that sent the helmet spinning away to land in the road. The two travellers winced as the boy staggered away from the blow.
'That's enough out of you, Nordel; I'll brook no more nonsense! No more I say!' The younger man shuffled his feet and looked at the ground, cowed by the farmer's anger.
'Sorry uncle, but he's an elf...' he looked like he wanted to say more, but the farmer cut him off.
'Yes, and as you can see he's not done a thing since I arrived, so perhaps you'll keep those foolish stories out of your head.' The youth mumbled something under his breath and the farmer raised an eyebrow in the terrifying expression all parents have learned and practised, 'what did you say?' the youth squared his shoulders and lifted his gaze to meet his uncle's eyes.
'Da said elves are evil, that they want to take Valmour from the Nords!' The farmer groaned and rolled his eyes to the heavens.
'Holy Akatosh, your father has been braying rubbish since he was a child, he never laid an eye on an elf before, still har'nt to my knowledge, so shut your yap with that conspiracy claptrap.' His tone brooked no argument from the young man and as the travellers watched Nordel seemed to fold up on himself until he was smaller than anyone could think humanly possible.
'Sorry Uncle.' The farmer grunted and bent to collect the helmet, shoving it roughly onto the youth's head.
'Don't apologise to me, lad, apologise to these men.' The farmer motioned to the two travellers, Nordel swallowed hard and approached the two reclining men, neither had moved since his arrival. He felt both pairs of eyes on him, but only looked at the Scot when he spoke, avoiding the soul-piercing eyes of the elfish man.
'I'm sorry, sirs, I meant nothing by it.' The two men stayed silent for a moment and the young man tensed as he feared further rebuke, but eventually the elfish man spoke quietly.
'Very well, take a seat.' Nordel mumbled his thanks and took a seat on the opposite side of the fire from the man, who looked at the farmer as the older gentleman settled himself down to the grass once more.
'Oh, my joints are too stiff for this sitting on the floor thing.' The farmer winced as he shifted himself into a more comfortable position. The Scot chuckled.
'Didn't seem so stiff climbing down from your carriage there.' The men broke into easy laughter and the tension broke. The elfish man drew a dagger from within his cloak and jointed the rabbits, serving it out onto a set of wooden plates next to the bread provided by the farmer, who broke it into chunks and shared it around. They ate in amiable silence; the only sounds were of eating.
Once the rabbits and bread had been devoured completely and the plates licked clean of the juices that escaped the tender meat the men reclined on the grass and enjoyed the sunlight. The farmer chewed on a piece of gristle idly and looked over at the two travellers.
'So what brings a Picton and an Elf to Twyglen?' The Scot shrugged.
'We're just travelling through and thought we'd stop in at Twyglen for the markets, I heard there's the freshest produce in Valmour there.' The farmer nodded proudly.
'That's for certain; Twyglen is home to the best crops and livestock north of Hael.' Hael was a small island country far to the south, famous for growing massive fruit and vegetables, fully three times the size of their northern equals. The Scot nodded, impressed.
'Sounds excellent, nothing like fresh produce to keep you going on the trail.' The farmer picked his teeth with a fingernail and nodded.
'Ar, you'd be right there, though you two don't seem to do so badly', he motioned to the rabbit carcasses, 'and where are you bound in the end?' it was the Elf's turn to answer with a shrug.
'Nowhere in particular, we're from nowhere, we go nowhere.' The young man piped up.
'But aren't you from the Elder Glades?' The elf turned his piercing green eyes to him and he winced slightly.
'No, I've never seen the Elder Glades, perhaps one day.' His voice turned wistful, the youth went along unperturbed.
'But I thought all Elves came from there.' The Elf smiled sadly.
'I'm only half elfish; they do not accept half breeds in the Glades.' The Scot growled with a look of disgust.
'Stuck up wankers.' The Elf put a calming hand on his friend's shoulder, drawing the youth's attention to the big man.
'What about you? Can't you go back to Scotten?' the big man scowled darkly and the farmer cast a warning glance at the youth, but the big Scot answered anyway.
'I won't return to Scotten for my own reasons.' All there knew his tone brooked no response, so Nordel turned to the Elfish man.
'So where will you go?' he seemed overly worried by the prospect of the men having no home country. The elf smiled.
'Everywhere, nowhere, wherever we want.' Nordel nodded as if he understood, though his expression still held a confused appearance. The farmer, distracted by this back and forth, got back to the question he had in mind before Nordel had interrupted.
'So what is it you two do then?' He cast a glance over the big Scot's massive longbow and war-axe. The Scot shrugged.
'Whatever we can to pay our way.' The farmer nodded his understanding and asked nothing further on the subject. Nordel, his interest piqued by the strangers, glanced to the bow as well.
'That's an impressive bow, sir.' The Scot barked a laugh and waved his hand in a negating gesture.
'Enough with the "sir" lad, my name's Caelian MacForn, though I prefer just Cael, and yes, she's a fine instrument, I crafted her myself.' Nordel moved closer to it to inspect it and saw that it was made of a flawless amber wood and was taller than he was, and he was no Dwarf.
'What is it made of?' the farmer grumbled, unsure that he young man should be prying into these stranger's lives as he was, but the Scot simply smiled.
'It's made from the wood of a tree from my homeland, deep in the heart of Pictus.' Nordel reached a hand out to touch the bow, wondering at how smooth it looked, when suddenly it disappeared from where it lay, he blinked. When he turned to ask the Scot what had happened, he saw the big man standing, the bow in his hand.
'Sorry, I didn't mean...' MacForn smiled.
'Don't worry too much, lad, you weren't to know, but nobody touches this bow or my arrows but me, not even Elrohir here. It took the youth, who wasn't the brightest of people, a moment to realise he referred to the elfish man. He looked at the cloaked figure just as the elf looked at him and for a moment he met those luminous green eyes and felt a chill run up his spine. The elf smiled.
'It's true, you know, he never lets anyone near his equipment, he's very much the Scot in that respect. The farmer forced a laugh to relax the atmosphere that had closed in when Nordel had reached for the bow. He quickly rose from the ground and brushed himself off.
'Well gentlemen, it's about time my nephew and I were off, if we're to make the market by sundown, perhaps we'll see you there. I'd offer you a ride but...' Elrohir picked up on the farmer's reticence.
'Can't have us crushing your goods.' The farmer cast him a thankful expression, but Nordel cocked his head to the side.
'We have plenty of room...' the farmer looked sharply at the innocent youth, but Kincaid laughed.
'Not enough room for me lad, I tend to like to stretch out, besides, a walk will do us good. You take care of your uncle now.' the farmer gave a derisive grunt and climbed onto his cart. Nordel replaced his helmet and sabre and clambered back onto his bay mare.
'Hope to see you in Twyglen.' The farmer whipped his reins and the cart horses started their trot forwards, Nordel wheeled the horse for a few moments, looking like he wanted to say something, but in the end turned his horse towards the slowly receding two-horse cart and put in his spurs, taking off in a cloud of dust.
The Scot who had called himself MacForn sighed heavily and started to pack things. As he did that he turned to his companion, who was doing likewise.
'I almost feel bad for them, you know.' The half-elf turned; a smirk on his face.
'They were awfully naive, weren't they?' The Scot shook his head in exasperation and chuckled.
'I wonder how long it will take them to realise their gold is missing, how much did we take by the way?' the half-elf who the Scot had called Elrohir removed a coin purse from his cloak and tossed it to the big Scot, who weighed it in his palm.
'I left them two silver pieces to secure their stall at tomorrow's market; all in all I think we got away with ten Imperial pounds.' The Scot shook his head in wonderment.
'This is certainly a prosperous place.' He tossed the purse back to his companion, who secreted it back in the folds of his cloak.
'At least they'll be able to make enough to see them through the winter at market.' The elf said with a smile, the Scot nodded seriously.
'For criminals we might be, but honest criminals.' The two men laughed heartily as they packed away the rest of their belongings and took back to the road.
'Which way shall we go now I wonder?' the elf scratched his hairless chin and the Scot shrugged, digging a gold coin out of his pocket. It was embossed with the Imperial insignia and the writing around the edge read "one Imperial pound".
'Heads for right, tails for left?' the elf laughed and nodded, the big Scot flipped the coin and caught it, slapping it onto the back of his hand. He lifted his hand away and smiled.
'Right it is, looks like we're going south, next crossroads.' The elf inclined his head in agreement and they head off once more. It was a common practise for the pair, as they had no destination besides places they didn't want to go. They knew they couldn't go to Twyglen for the chance that the farmer would recognise them, and also, they didn't like to work where there was an abundance of guards.
So the next crossroads they came to they turned right, to the south, and a whole new adventure.