Assets, Missions, and the fiance-seeking bombshell
Dulcet Unicorn Inn, Marrowshire
10 Bells, 3rd of Brightmoon
A contemplative look on his ruddy handsome features, Brysis Silverstone fingered the recently sharpened tip of a curving horn as he followed his girlfriend Naomi Elderbranch up the wooden steps, across the porch, and into the Dulcet Unicorn Inn. The clean, well lit establishment was already a bustle of activity, more than a dozen people already breakfasting and chatting. Immediately, he found himself enveloped in the heady aroma of fresh baked breakfast bread, steaping darkroot, roasting pork and frying eggs. Despite the other sensory offerings, Brysis kept his focus on his Naomi’s figure. From this rearward vantage, the view was, as usual, spectacular. Sune saw fit to remind him daily of things he should be thankful for; second chances, unconditional love, and short translucent skirts.
Naomi, the copiously graced daughter of one of Marrowshire’s notables, dressed in the pale blue diaphanous robes of Sune glided through the commons waving and nodding to the lanky gray-haired innkeeper. The gazes of all but a few of the males followed her movement in slack-jawed entrancement. While certainly not the most beautiful woman in town, she had a bewitching aura that commanded attention.
Brysis frowned, noting the gallery of wide eyes following his girlfriend. Sune’s blessings were not without their trials. If he had a silver for every time he’d witnessed some letch drooling over Naomi, he would be a rich tiefling indeed. As he passed, he heard jealous grumbles, some of respect, others suspicion and disbelief. While he and Naomi were long time residents of the town, the Sunnite Priestess’ legion of admirers had been extremely reticent to accept the fact she was in a steady relationship, especially with a boyfriend who had horns and a tail. Rumors ranging from horn fetishes to demonic possession to rebellion against her mother had been floated to explain Naomi’s “impossible” attraction to him. All the rhetoric had piled up to such an extent that he sometimes wondered himself.
At the table where they had their conferences, Brysis pulled back Naomi’s chair and settled her. Pulling his tail up over his shoulder, he planted himself in the seat next to hers and flagged the serving maid. “Dreanna,” he said. “Sune’s blessings on you. Could we trouble you for a darkroot demitasse for myself and mug of sweetened malachite for Miss Elderbranch?”
The maid nodded in acknowledgement and headed into the kitchen to fulfill the request.
Drumming his fingers on the wooden table-top Brysis surveyed the empty seats. They were often the first to arrive. Temple etiquette had conditioned the two of them to be prompt to their obligations. Their recent companions were all considerably less regimented for various reasons.
“I know all service to Sune is important,” Naomi said, absently turning a jeweled ring on her finger. “But I feel we accomplish more when we bring her light to others.”
“Aye,” Brysis said with nod. “Those who have not been blessed to look upon your brilliance are greatly diminished.” He blinked golden eyes at her, elongated incisors flashing as he grinned. “My love, please forgive my selfishness if at times I seem not eager to share.”
She smiled and put her hand on his. “You smooth-tongued devil, I knew there was a reason I liked you.”
Brysis wiggled his eyebrows and fingered the corner of his mouth. “Indeed.”
“Good morn all! Good morn! Good morn!” A battlefield voice greeted the inn patrons.
The voice, its volume and apparent enthusiasm made the identity of its owner obvious. Burly, baby-faced, and brash were the first three ‘b’s that came to mind when he saw Rhyval. Closely followed by blithe, benighted, and blunt. Brysis had internally nicknamed him the ‘the unsubtle man’ for his near-complete lack of anything that resembled tact. To Brysis’ eye, the man actually meant well, and that made the dark-haired warrior’s thrashing about more tolerable. He wasn’t sure whether it was all a carefully performed act or some kind of manic randomness that made him do and say the things that caused trouble with suspicious precision. Rhyval wasn’t stupid, nor was he uneducated. Occasionally around the camp fire, he would let slip a choice word or a bit of knowledge that could only have been acquired in the halls of a noble’s academy. Of a certainty, the hand that signed Remulous’ scrip notes, did not learn those calligraphic flourishes scratching letters in the dirt.
“Hail and well met Father Brysis!” Rhyval called, snatching crunch fruit out of a bowl at the end of the bar. He tossed the large red cruncher behind his back and over his head and caught it. Rolling his shoulders, he pulled back a chair at the table. The fighter was wearing a sleeveless tunic and his corded arms glistened with fine sheen of perspiration. He unbuckled his sword belt and hung it on the chair back. Flopping onto his seat, he threw his feet up on the table and bit down noisily on the fruit. As he chewed, his eyes widened. It appeared that he just realized he had left Naomi out of his greeting. He forced down a gulp before speaking. “Lady Elderbranch, the night appears to have agreed with you. You are the picture of radiance!”
Brysis noted the uncharacteristically nice recovery. He cast a glance to Naomi.
The priestess colored at the compliment, probably more for its source than its content. She dipped her head. “Thank you.”
“So,” Brysis said. “Rhy, you seem rather—moist.”
“Just finished my work out,” Rhyval answered with testosteronic pride. “Mustn’t let the sword get dull and all that. The backs of the slothful are the path by which evil roams the land!”
Brysis clucked his tongue. Really?
Naomi peered at Brysis a moment before focusing dark eyes on Rhyval. “That’s very poetic,” she said. “Is that line original?”
“Nay,” Rhyval answered. “Something my father used to say.”
Naomi tilted her head. “Used to?”
Rhyval sobered. “Well, still does I’m certain.” He chewed his fruit with less enthusiasm. His expression clouded for moment.
Naomi studied the man’s reaction. She was always trying to dig out details of Rhyval’s family and relations. It had become something of a game. She had caught him unawares a number of times. That time had been particularly telling. The man obviously missed his parents.
Naomi was about to say something else when a loud bang resonated through the room. Brysis snatched a look toward the sound, body tensing for possible threat.
Scaly emerald skin gleaming in the morning light from the porch the huge reptilian bulk of Mossss hunched in the doorway gripping his broad skull. A book and oddly shaped reading spectacles lay on the floor at his taloned feet.
The dragon man gritted his square teeth, his broad anvil-shaped face screwed up in an expression of pain. “When ssss, did you lower the lintel, ssss?”
“I didn’t lower it,” Kas the innkeeper said. “I took it up a finger-width the last time you put cracks in it with that granite-like head of yours. Boy, you need to stop growing!”
“Rrrr, not granite-like,” Mossss complained, rubbing his injured cranium. He stooped and picked up the book and glasses. He clomped through the common area toward the conference table.
Moons ago, the inn patrons would have met a giant figure like that with nervousness and hostility. Anything that even remotely resembled a dragon was generally reviled. Mossss had become something of a fixture around town. Dressed in a tunic, hooded cloak, and pantaloons, the broad figure could have been confused for a large human if not for the scales, and his thick wedge-like head. Slow to anger, and slower to violence, the massive reptile-man was the diametric opposite of the human who sired him, Som Wraithtor, a famous death spectacle gladiator known for his short temper and unpredictable explosions of hyper-violent thuggery.
Mossss waved to Brysis and nodded to Naomi. “Good day father. Blessssing ssss upon you Lady Elderbranch.” He dipped his head and put a hand over his chest.
Brysis nodded to him. He found it ironic that the reptile in their group had better manners than most humans.
“Remuloussss, and Lady Redssssteel will be with ussss sssshortly,” Moss informed. “There are two otherssss with them, I do not know.” The dragon-born went to seat beside Rhyval, and settled into it with surprising grace considering his mass. Once settled he punched Rhyval in the shoulder, almost unseating the reclining fighter. “You did not finissssh Durnick’ssss order.”
“Zounds man, we were only just back! Did they expect us to forge in our sleep?”
Mossss’ nostrils flared. “Sssshould have checked your queue. Be ressssponssssible.”
“You pick words with ‘s’ in them on purpose, don’t you?” Rhyval carped with a frown.
The dragonborn grinned with pearly white teeth. “Possssssssibly.”
Dressed in flamboyant reds and blues, RoseA Donnaprima trudged in rubbing her eyes and yawning. It was easy to tell that the bard was in no way a morning person. Here it was nearly noon, and she looked only just out of bed. The woman waved off the communication attempts of several bar patrons, stumbled up to the table and flopped into an empty seat. “Don’t tell me I got up this early for nothing,” she grumbled. “Where’s Remulous? I have to get paid and make arrangements for my next engagement.”
“You aren’t staying on, Lady Rose?” Brysis asked.
“Nay, Father,” RoseA answered, with a flourish. “Songs need to be sung, stories written, and crowds entertained. I have a responsibility to my fans!”
“What fans?” Naomi wondered.
“I have them I assure you,” RoseA answered with a sniff. “Just not in this berg—” She stopped. “Ah there’s master Remulous!”
The group turned to see the Redsteel family patriarch and his daughter Ella at the entrance. Between the two of them they completely filled the lower half of the broad opening. Flame haired and burly, they were magnifications of everything ever said about the stone-wright dwarves.
Remulous was still dressed in his heavy leather forge apron, his long beard and hair braided and tucked for crafting hot metal. The dwarf’s normally ruddy face looked pale as he stomped across the commons head down and shoulders thrust forward as though fording a stream. That did not bode well. Brysis wondered if they had done something wrong they didn’t know about? Perhaps some tactless, inappropriate and totally incorrect piece of information from Rhyval? It wouldn’t be the first time.
Ella, Remulous’ daughter, pounded after him. Big even for a dwarf male and surprisingly attractive given her burly physique, she looked sturdy enough to carry an anvil in each hand.
Her smooth-cheeked triangular face framed by masses of flaming red hair tied back with blue ribbons was obviously feminine. The fact that she carried a veritable arsenal of weaponry even to social functions assured that she would never be confused with a girl who was easy to approach.
“Da,” Ella said at Remulous’ back. “Ya need to calm down, ya do. It ain’t yer fault. Don’t go and get yerself blistered o’er things beyond yer control.”
“I’m not blistered, El,” Remulous growled. “I be truly and righteously hacked, there be a diff’rence!”
Close at Ella’s heels were two females Brysis had not seen around town before. He would not have thought them together with the dwarves except the taller female had a Redsteel shoulder-patch on her black leather hauberk. The shorter one, a halfling by the look, carried a ledger book emblazoned with the Redsteel stylized forge hammer crest.
Remulous pounded to a stop at the head of the conference table. He looked no happier close up than he did further away. He pulled on a braided mustachio, craggy brow furrowed in a discomfort. “Sorry fer bein late,” he said to them. “I—” He bit off what he was about to say, turned on his heel and began pacing back and forth. He rubbed his forehead. “El, introduce the girls.”
“Da…” Ella said, concern creasing her features. She sighed, rolled her eyes and faced the group. She gestured the two females up with her. “Good mornins to ya all,” she greeted. “As ya might have guessed, we had a wee bit o a bad news roll in las night which we’ll be gettin ta in a moment.” She gestured to the taller of the two, a thin woman with short blonde hair and amber eyes. Her sharp features and slightly pointed ears marked her as a half-elf. Her close-fitting leather armor was the dull black of night-time camouflage, and the elven rapiers on her hips were equipped with speed hilts. “This here is Moraine Skyhand, she works for my Da as a…” She paused and her brow furrowed. “Security expert. She manages and protects the Redsteel shipping assets in out East in Cillamar.” Ella looked down to the tiny (by comparsion) female halfling. “This’n is—” she stopped again. “Don’t ya have a proper name?”
The halfling brushed back her curly dark hair, and blinked over-sized green eyes. She pulled her weathered traveling jacket straight, pushed her shoulders back in an apparent effort to look taller. “Just Cricket, Lady Redsteel.”
Ella focused back on the group. “This’n is Just Cricket she—”
“No, no,” the halfling said in obvious bemusement. “Not ‘Just Cricket’, just—’Cricket’.”
Ella scratched her head. “Uh’m not hearing the diff’rence. It’s wha I said.”
“No, what you said was ‘Just Cricket’.” She held up two fingers from each hand and made air quotes. “Cricket.” She leaned forward. “Nothing before. Nothing after.”
Ella rocked her head side to side. “Daft if you ask me,” she muttered. “Namin yerself after o bug.” She spoke up. “Cricket.” She frowned at the halfling. “Nothing after. And for Moradin’s sake, nothing before.” She puffed out her cheeks. “Anyhew, she’s here from Cillamar too. You work with the Harfoot clan, right?” At Cricket’s nod, she went on. “Master Cupric’s wine exporter; Great Ring Spirits. Apparently, they be havin the same trouble as us.”
Brysis straightened. “There’s been trouble, Lady Redsteel?”
“I’ll explain,” Remulous said, holding up a hand. The dwarf took a deep breath, marshaling himself. He turned and faced the table. “Cricket,” he said. “Moraine. Get yerself seats there at tha end and I’ll explain things.” As the two females situated themselves Remulous seemed to collect his thoughts. “As ya know, I have in’rests in a number o places. Cillamar out East, sits at the mouth of the Frostward Pass through the Ul Dominor mountains. Three major mines tha provide our raw materials are accessible from there. About a tenday and half ago, we had a whole mine caravan disappear on its way down to the town. Two wagons, sixteen horses, and a dozen guards. Some four score stone of forging ore, precious metals, an gems. Moraine there investigated buh she found nothin, not so much as a drop ‘o blood. We couldn’t close our doors, too many orders to fill. So, I authorized ‘er to keep the operation goin. Eight days ago, it frellin happened again! Three wagons, some twenty odd guards, more’n a ton of mine goods. The second attack is like the first— not a blessed trace of who’r’what is responsible. An if’n that ain’t enough dross, the number two mine broke through the end of vein into an inhabited mine. I los—” He put his hand to his face. He swallowed hard. “I lost some tw—tw—twenty odd workers. Some of ’em kin. It’s all slagged up. Fifty some dwarves is dead. Either, we’re cursed or something is out to ruin us. We got to put a stop to it.” He let out a tremulous breath. “I—”
“I’m in!” Rhyval yelled, pumping a fist. “We’ll slap leg irons on these bandits in no time!”
“Rhyval,” Brysis tempered. “Your enthusiasm is admirable, but perhaps we should hear a bit more about this.” He addressed the halfling. “Lady Cricket was it? Am I to understand Cupric’s business has met with the same ill fortune?”
“Aye,” Cricket answered. “We’ve lost two caravans. The second, very close in time to the disappearance of the second ore train. Like Moraine, my own investigations have turned up nothing. I was following the second group and was delayed by barely the length of a breath. The prints of the train get confused and simply stop. No blood, no broken weapons or signs of struggle. It is as if all the men, animals, and equipment just vanish.”
“That issss not good,” Mossss hissed. “Would take big magic.”
“Or a group of giants,” Rhyval pondered.
“Ones that don’t leave tracks,” Naomi interjected. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“I have de