Marrowshire — Precursor 3
Anvil Glade, south east of Marrowshire
3 Bells, Payday, 17th of Postharvest, Year 1126
Borik Elfhire gasped, swinging his body out of the way of the giant iron pike that sizzled with furnace like heat. The huge implement struck the rocky ground with a crash. Regaining his balance, he glanced back to the crater in the turf. That would have hurt in so many ways— impaling, crushing, and burning to name only three. His gaze rose to the scaly humanoid features of the massive salamander as it loomed over him. The monster’s ruddy torso glistened the color of polished ruby as it reared back on its snake-like coils. The creature’s serpentine eyes glowed with malice as it pulled its weapon back to strike. Bracing, Borik blew out a breath. Such a perfect way to end a long journey, a few furlongs short and in the gullet of a beast that shouldn’t even be where it was.
The three pace long weapon lashed forward again. Borik sidestepped and slammed his sword across the the tines. A gust of hot wind rushed over him as the pike kissed his shoulder in a slice of burning pain. Grimacing, he staggered back a step. What in hades was taking so frelling long?
The salamander flicked out a pace long forked tongue and hissed a curse at him in draconic.
“Yeah, yeah, sorry I won’t stand still for ya,” he shot back. Rolling his thick shoulder to shake off the pain, he lifted his sword. He glanced northwest across the rolling grassy landscape. Silhouetted against two low hills he could make out the thick stone walls of Marrowshire. What the hell was a critter this size doing so close, especially in the middle of the damn day? For that matter, where were the damn guards? “Taj-vet! Any decade now!”
The monster swayed back on its coils and swung the pike around. As its sinewy arms rose there was a sharp sound of steel grating into flesh and bone. Blackish blood spurted from the beast’s chest as the tip of a dagger erupted from the skin. The creature shrieked and writhed, twisting around to get at the source of its pain. Twice more the grating sounds came, followed by more splashes of gore.
Borik charged at the opening slashing up through the scaly torso and then back down against the neck and collar bone in a splash of burning hot gore.
He rolled and cursed, swiping at the boiling fluid searing his exposed skin. “Aie! Aie! Aie! Oh holy frelling steel-eating son of a she cow! Goddammit!”
“Hey, you can’t curse that,” a squeaky voice said. “That’s Aufwefkin’s word.”
“Aw shut it!” He snapped, spinning around swiping at the flaming hot goo. “Eargh. Holy puss bucket, that stuff stings.” He ripped the leather ties loose and threw off his mail shirt and tunic. Panting, he leaned forward, hands braced on knees. “What the frell took you so damn long? Were you waiting for it to pose for a damn portrait?”
Squat pace-high Taj-vet trundled out from behind the twitching husk of the salamander wiping at his glowing dagger. The halfling’s broad face was twisted in a grimace of distaste. “Gyah, smells like burned sewer dren.” He waved a long-fingered hand in front of his face. “I couldn’t get a good shot because you kept moving around.”
“How good a shot did you fricken need?” He growled. “You had time to draw a damn target on its back.”
“See this?” Taj-vet held up his hand which came to the middle of Borik’s chest. “See that?” He pointed to the huge salamander. “Notice anything of a hieght disparity? It ain’t easy stabbing a vital on something that big. Did you want me to miss?”
“I wanted you to freaking hurry up,” Borik grumbled. He blew out a breath. “Guess, I’m out of practice. We used to fight these things all the time in the deserts out east.”
Taj-vet sheathed the glowing dagger in a scabbard on his side. “Well, maybe you did. I spent a couple summers as a rock, remember?”
“We got you unstoned— well, Aradwen did.”
The halfling sighed. “Witch.” He looked sidelong at Borik. “She always wanted me you know. It’s the hairy feet and the hidden monster. Drives ‘em crazy.” He sniffed and rubbed his cheek as though in memory. “She shouldn’t have slapped me. I was trying to thank her.”
Borik shook his head. “Whatever you say. I think she’d have sooner bent over for Aufwefkin.”
“She wanted him too,” Taj-vet remarked, fists on hips. “The slut. I can tell these things you know.”
“Yeah, you’re a regular harem wrangler. You can tell by the chain of ladies we have following us.”
Taj-vet shrugged. “Can I help it if humans don’t want a piece of the hero of South Shire? Their loss.” He poked around the dead creature. He nudged the iron pike with his bare foot. “Nothing of value. Why do you suppose an ashbringer would be out here? They don’t like the cold.”
“No clue,” Borik said. He eyed the pike. It definitely wasn’t something a salamander could make. It was too big for anything other than an ogre or a giant. He frowned. Not his problem, they were done with adventuring.
“I miss Pierce,” Taj-vet said. “Would have liked to see the thing with the ears and the hopping on one foot again. He wouldn’t have been whining about me taking too long.”
“Pierce has gone on to better things,” Borik said. “I suspect he’s happier wherever he is.” He glanced down at his companion. “Did you find Pos? I thought he was coming with us.”
“Well, I found him…” Taj-vet’s voice trailed off.
Borik picked up his pack and shouldered it on. He threw his mail shirt and tunic over his shoulder and looked down at the halfling. “And?”
“Apparently, he played dice with the guard captain of the city garrison.”
“Yeah, he loved to play dice.”
“He loved to cheat,” Taj-vet said. “And he had less sense than a camel’s arse. You don’t cheat the captain of the city guard.”
“So,” Taj-vet said, walking over to his own pack and sliding it on. “The way I heard it, he put twelve men in the ground before they caught him. The captain told me he hung outside the gambling hall for a couple tendays as a message to cheaters.”
Borik shook his head. “That’s rough. Can’t say it surprises me. Always thought the boy had one foot inside the grave. You can’t keep cheating death— it pisses him off.”
They started walking toward the town.. Borik glanced back to the ashbringer. That wasn’t a good omen for their little relocation. It did seem promising though. Cooler climate, looser laws, and no taxes… he still wasn’t sure how Taj swung that. He wondered if it was another of the halfling’s scams.
“Did you find Carolous, Bor?” Taj-vet asked, kicking a pebble off the side of the trail.
“I did,” he answered. “He might join us later, I gave him all the information you gave to me. He said he had to go on some ‘pilgrimage’ thing for Wee-jas, make ninety-nine sacrifices or some such.” He shuddered. “He might have been a good traveling companion, but he always kinda creeped me out. Death and magic, death and magic… the whole skull decoration thing… meh.”
“Aufwefkin is already in town,” Taj-vet told him gesturing to the gates a short distance off. “Works in some shop called ‘Uglies Bumping’.”
“Uglies Bumping?” Borik repeated with an incredulous tone. “Sounds like your kind of place. I thought you were coming here to stay with your cousin Cupric?”
“I am,” Taj-vet confirmed. “I’ll be staying with him while I set up the mercantile.”
“How did Aufwefkin find out about this Marrowshire place?”
“Something weird,” Taj-vet responded. “Something about the temple of Groomish told him to come here. Something about some kind of alliance between Groomish and Hecate.”
“Didn’t we hear something about goddess Hecate being killed in western Ivaneth?” Borik asked.
“Yeah,” Taj-vet answered. “I don’t get what one thing has to do with the other. You know how priests are. There’s always some kind of politics. I bet Carolous’ little ‘pilgrimage’ may have something to with that as well. I think I remember him saying that Wee-jas was an ‘aspect’ of Hecate, an avatar or something like that.”
Borik shook his head. “Me and that religious stuff, I don’t get it. I pay the respects, I get the heals, I’m good with that. Seems like clerics have really lost their focus in recent days.”
“Yeah,” Taj-vet agreed. “Battle healing has changed a lot. Have you heard any of the young kids talking?”
He snorted. “Yeah, even fricken warlords can heal now. Never even heard of a ‘warlord’ when we were getting our butts kicked in the desert. It’s probably best that we’re retiring. With Pos cashing in and Pierce moving on, I think the signs are there to take a break.”
“I keep telling you,” Taj-vet snapped. “We are are not retiring. We are reorganizing!” He blew out a breath. “I hear there are all kinds of crypt runners in this town. We’ll get some young punks to carry stuff for us.”
“You mean like all the dren I’m carrying for you now?” Borik remarked. “Why didn’t you just ship your stuff with the caravan like I did?”
“It’s not dren, Borrr-ik,” Taj-vet emphasized. “They’re items of significant value that I couldn’t trust in the hands of amateurs.”
“Hot, huh?” Borik said.
“There might be a dispute over their ownership,” Taj-vet said with a roll of his eyes. “But that’s none of your concern.”
“They are in my pack,” he said with at frown.
“Details, details,” Taj-vet said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “So tell me. What about Aradwen?”
His brow furrowed. “What about her?”
“Is she coming? She can’t possibly resist being in the same town with me.”
“You’d be surprised. I think her remark was ‘good riddance’ or some such.”
“Oh come on!” Taj-vet yelled. “Did you even tell her?”
He rolled his eyes. “I told her. She liked the idea. What she didn’t like was being in the same town with you.”
“Now I know you’re lying,” Taj-vet insisted. “Once we’re situated I’ll have to send a courier myself. No way she can resist the awesomeness that is ‘the Taj’. Why else would she go to all that trouble to get me unstoned?”
“Not out of any love for you, booger breath,” he told him. “She was always hung up on the ‘right thing to do’. You know that. That’s why you always pissed her off. Kept rubbing her nose in it.”
“‘Cause she wasn’t rubbing her nose in the right places,” Taj-vet said with a sniff. “Her fault. If she would have just admitted her vast desire to rip off my clothes, I would have cut her some slack.”
Borik shook his head. As they approached the gates of Marrowshire he could only think the more things changed, the more they stayed the same…