The Dungeoneers and the associated setting is the product of a tabletop roleplaying campaign created and managed by Tim Richey. These stories are based on that campaign and were written at the behest of both Tim and the players involved.
"We will be ready."
The words lingered long after they had been spoken. A ghost, an omen, a shadow of things to come. Their conviction gave them shape, gave them life, and in their becoming they sought the fulfillment of that purpose. Out into the world they went, silent but true, like a whisper only God could hear, until they found what they were seeking.
They drifted on the wind to a quiet valley where a young lady tended to the sick with several Sisters of Mercy. They fell with the rain in Brunde where a silver dragon practiced transforming into a fey human. They echoed through the walls of a prison in Castle Ridge as the gates swung open and a tall young man stepped out to be met by a noble figure in shining armor. The sun pushed them in a haze along a highway where the Emperor's second son recited magical formulae while the Emperor himself and his entourage sat watching in their carriage. The grass cast them about with the morning dew as two angry halflings hauled their son up a hill near New Cestin. The words shifted with the sheets that enfolded a young lady who couldn't be bothered to wake up, and whose companions were content to let her sleep in.
The phrase was curiously absent around a dwarven warrior who was tending to some animals, however. Instead, something else hung like a vapor and swirled through the braids of her ponytail. A single word, whose message and source were as intangible as the word itself.
The wide doors of Dungeoneer Mansion swung open and Moira stepped inside with heavy feet. She had served as Headmistress for sixteen years, and for all her outward humility, she had come to think of the place as her school and of the students as her children. She always thought she'd be ready to be called back into active service as a knight of Westmarch, but now that Sir Nigel had given her the assignment they had planned two years ago, she only felt regret for what she might be leaving behind.
Or perhaps it had more to do with the first member of the new group she'd be playing den mother for.
Since her admission to the Adventurer's School, Sara Tucker had been a nuisance. Since joining the Dungeoneers, she had been out of control. She was willful, bossy, and disrespectful to everyone, her companions in particular. Moira knew that pulling her out of the Dungeoneers would be difficult, and establishing her place in the new group would be even harder, but it had to be done.
Moira walked toward the dining hall, wondering if she was up to the task Sir Nigel had given her. A new group was forming, but they would not be Dungeoneers, and Moira would not so much be leading them as managing, much the same way Nigel handled had Khana's group since before Moira had ever joined. She had to be more than a teacher and headmistress now, for this she had to be a knight, someone who outranked Sara and the others not just on the school grounds, but everywhere they went with her. She remembered a story of how Sir Nigel had made that point painfully clear to Khana's Dungeoneers when he first met them and decided to use a similar method with Sara. She hoped it would work.
Inside the dining hall, the current team of Dungeoneers were standing at the long central table, looking over a map. They were leaving for a mission the next morning and Sara was engaged in a heated argument with Alexander over which path to take through the mountains. None of them took notice when Moira entered, but her voice was clear and commanding as she said "Sara," and they all stopped and looked her way. "Come with me," Moira continued, and waited.
The dark haired girl immediately began to protest. "I was just-"
Sara let out an exasperated sigh. "All right," the girl said in a long suffering voice as she followed Moira out of the dining hall.
They left the mansion and walked down the road in silence. Moira's face was impassive, and she did not respond to Sara, though she was friendly enough to allow the occasional bird to perch on her finger. The beastmaster could not understand what they were saying without the aid of magic, but she had lived in the mansion for so long the local animals had all gotten to know her and enjoyed greeting her. After a bit, Sara stopped trying to find out what Moira wanted and just followed sullenly.
When they reached a large shack Moira stopped and opened the door. "Get in," she said, face still blank.
Sara's confident arrogance vanished and was replaced by a sudden feeling of dread. The common wisdom at the school was that nothing was more frightening than being sent to the Headmistress' office, but a dark, abandoned building and no explanations certainly came close. She glanced at the shack and looked suspiciously at Moira, wondering what she was up to. Unable to think of a valid objection, she cautiously entered. Moira followed and shut the door behind her.
Rays of sunlight poked through the boards of the shack, creating an eerie semi-darkness within. Tall shelves lined the walls, holding an odd assortment of pottery and glassware. Moira met Sara's eye and said, "I'm pulling ye out of the Dungeoneers."
"What?" Sara said, outraged. "But you can't do that!"
Moira stood her ground and said. "Yer joining a new group with me."
"Oh, you want me to lead the new group," the girl said, her attitude suddenly yet again.
Again Moira met her eye and said, "No, ye won't be leading it. For the time being I'll be in charge, but yerself won't be telling anybody what to do."
Sara's jaw dropped and her face contorted as she tried to reconcile what she had just been told. "You can't make me! I'll just leave with the others tomorrow!" she blustered. Her eyes dared Moira to challenge her, and for a brief moment the dwarf imagined she was looking at herself arguing with her father. He hadn't been ready for a defiant girl like herself, and had made a lot of mistakes. Moira knew better than to repeat them.
Moira set her hands on her hips and said, "If ye even try that, girly-girl, I'll hunt ye down and haul ye back here over my shoulder, right in front of all yer friends. Don't ever think ye can run fast enough or hide well enough to escape me. Yer in the group, so get used to it."
"You don't scare me, shorty," Sara said, and took a swing at her. Moira calmly caught the fist in her palm and squeezed, just hard enough to cause the girl discomfort. In a rush of motion Moira brought her other hand up and shoved Sara back, knocking her into the shelves behind her and causing a clay pot to crash at her feet.
"Quit while yer ahead, girly-girl. This won't change anything," Moira said. The girl brushed her unkempt hair out of her face and charged, screaming obscenities and swinging her fists at the dwarf with alarming quickness. Moira easily shifted away from each blow and responded with a quick slap to Sara's face. "Do ye kiss yer ma with that mouth?" Moira chided. "Now cut that out afore ye get hurt."
Sara pulled a long dagger from her boot and said, "Oh, I'm going to cut something, all right."
Moira sighed and made a quick, dismissive gesture with her hand. Sara's movements suddenly slowed to nearly nothing, her arm creeping through the air as she tried to slice at Moira despite the effects of the magic. Moira simply plucked the dagger out of her hand and tossed it aside, then kicked Sara's legs out from under her. Still struggling, the girl tried to rise, but Moira pressed her back down with one foot and leaned over to meet her eye.
"Ye haven't even started yet and I've already had enough of yer nonsense, girly-girl," Moira said. "Ye'd best learn to do as yer told, 'cause the sooner ye do, the easier life'll be with me. And don't ever draw on me again." She leaned closer and gave Sara "the glare." Moira's glare was infamous and feared throughout the school. Rumor had it she could melt glass or stop a stampede with that glare. If looks could kill, Moira could end a cat's full complement of nine lives in a single shot. Sara's face drained of blood as Moira spoke again. "Now I'm going to leave ye here until ye calm down." She glanced at the easily breakable items lining the shelves, all of which she had arranged ahead of time to be there. "Feel free to vent yer frustrations until then."
Moira stepped away and walked out of the shack. She bolted the door shut and freed Sara from the spell she had cast. Before she even started walking away she could hear the sounds of glass and clay getting smashed.
Sir Nigel was waiting for Moira when she returned to her office, and he had someone with him. Seated next to him was a young halfling with a round, boyish face and long hair in the back which he was busy braiding. He looked up at Moira and offered her a nervous grin. The dwarf looked at Sir Nigel questioningly.
The aging knight rose to his feet and gave his well trimmed beard a few strokes before speaking. "Dame Moira, allow me to introduce Kendall Roundtree. His family asked me to look after him and I'm putting him in your group." The Roundtrees were one of the most decorated and well known halfling families in Balanor, as well as one of the largest. Among their number were the only halfling paladin and the only halfling archmage. They were a proud and close family, and there was something inherently suspicious about them suddenly asking Sir Nigel to "look after" one of their children.
Moira glanced from Sir Nigel to Kendall. The boy looked to be about seventeen, with tea colored hair and eyes to match. Thick tufts of hair also sprouted from the backs of his hands and the top of his bare feet in the manner so common to his race. She also noticed there were several suspicious bulges in his coat and a few things missing from her desk. She took a deep breath and gave Sir Nigel a thin-lipped stare. "Do ye have any more surprises for me t'day?" she asked him.
Sir Nigel cleared his throat and said, "Actually, there's a young man named Bear I've given a room to in the south wing. He already knows he'll be in the group, but you should still pay him a visit." Moira nodded as she digested this information, but her eyebrows were raised expectantly. "I freed him from jail just this morning," the knight continued, and Moira's eyebrows shot up further.
Kendall burst into the conversation, speaking in a breathless stream of words. "You mean the barbarian guy? I saw him. Boy was he big! I mean really big! At first I thought he was a giant but then I realized that a giant walking around Dungeoneer Mansion would be really weird since you guys pretty much kill giants all day so I got to thinking maybe he blew into his thumb really hard to get that big. Have you ever tried that? I wanted to get bigger once and tried that and it really hurt, so if that's what he did-"
Moira cut him off, saying, "Don't interrupt, Kendall. I'll speak with ye after Sir Nigel's finished."
"You're right," the halfling said. "There's really nothing worse than somebody who talks out of turn is there? I always try to be considerate of those types of things because nobody likes a jabbermouth do they? It's like this one fellow I grew up with who always took the last piece of cake at dessert. No matter what we tried he always managed to snag it. Oh, we just hated that guy, what was his name again? I think it was Thomas, no, that's not right, maybe it was George, hm, no. Oh, that's right, it was me, so I guess that doesn't work. Besides, I really like cake, and nobody else seemed to want it, so I was perfectly within my rights to-"
"Kendall," Moira said, with the slightest hint of ice. "Stand outside my door. I'll come and take ye to yer room when I'm done in here, understand?"
The halfling bobbed his head and rose from his seat. "Absolutely, I'll just wait outside." He walked to the door and Moira opened it, letting him walk out. "I'm really very curious to know what kind of room I'll have. Does it have a big bed? I really like big beds."
"Ye'll see when ye get there," Moira said and abruptly shut the door in Kendall's face.
"'Kay," his voice peeped through the door. Moira decided she was going to have to check with Zach later to do something about the headache she felt coming. She went behind her desk and sat down on her stiff chair. "Now before I forget, what was that ye said about jail?" she asked Sir Nigel.
Sir Nigel simply leaned forward and tilted his head politely toward the dwarf. One thing Moira had learned quickly regarding the knight was that everything he did, no matter how unpopular, was just and noble. He didn't need to hold things back out of embarrassment or guilt, nor did his rank automatically do his explaining for him. He could be counted on to speak plainly and allow objections when they were appropriate, and that was one of the many reasons Moira respected him. Moira herself knew how to speak tactfully, but never hid her displeasure from anyone, not friends, not dragons or kings and not Sir Nigel. The two had gotten to know each other well over the years, and had eliminated the need to put in words some of the more basic aspects of their relationship. They simply knew, and the look they exchanged was telling: Sir Nigel had made his best decision and Moira would not like the details. He sympathized with her and she would try to make the best of the situation.
"Bear was arrested in Castle Ridge after nearly beating a local Sergeant to death," Sir Nigel explained. "It seems the guardsman was bullying someone in a tavern and the young man took exception to it. He's descended from the great chiefs of the barbarian tribes and I think with a little guidance he can put his strength to good use."
Moira folded her arms and thought about that. "Aye," she said. She mentally went over the list of other members he had given her for the group and said, "Ye intend for that guidance to lean in the direction of leadership, don't ye." It was not stated as a question.
The old knight nodded. "He has the potential, though he's used to living on his own, so he may not fall into the role smoothly."
Moira's lips had gone dry, and she began to gently chew the bottom of the pair. "And Kendall? Is there a special purpose for him in the group?" She eyed the places on her desk where things were missing.
Sir Nigel's mustache barely hid his smirk. "He's got the drive, and with all the Roundtrees who've made their name he's got his work cut out for him. He'll do fine in the group if you can break him of his bad habits, and since you had so much luck with Dodger I have every confidence you'll do the same for him."
"Was that a joke?" Moira asked, a little miffed. Dodger, the orangutan she had bonded years ago in Apan, had been a troublemaker, prankster and kleptomaniac of the highest order, but over time Moira's efforts and the maturity of age had managed to tone his antics down. He was still a handful however, and Moira hoped Sir Nigel wasn't seriously basing his hopes for Kendall on that. She was also daunted by the implication that Kendall might be as much of a problem as Dodger had been. The dwarf knew worrying about it would do no good, however, and rose from her seat. "All right," she said, "I'd best get started, then."
She went to the door and opened it. The halls were empty, and Kendall was nowhere to be seen. "Nice," Moira grumbled. "He's gone." She looked back at Sir Nigel, who faced her impassively from his seat. Saying nothing more, she left.
))Bandit,(( she sent, calling the wolverine with her mind. ))Wake up.(( Her familiar was over twenty years old and he had grown surlier and sleepier in his old age. Moira knew he would die soon, as she was dreading the time when she would reach out to him with her mind and sense nothing.
))What?(( he sent back.
))Where are you?((
))Under a tree. It's shady.((
Moira detected the taste of dirt in his mouth and guessed he had been out digging roots again. She hoped Zach wouldn't be too upset. ))Come inside. I want ye to find a halfling for me.((
))You do it.(( he sent.
))Dinnae argue.(( Moira was pretty surly herself, but not the least bit old or sleepy. She had other things to do and wasn't in the mood for his attitude. He seemed to get that point, as she saw through his eyes that he had gotten up and was padding toward the mansion. Hopefully he'd find Kendall quickly. Satisfied, she left for the living quarters to meet Bear.
Bear lay in his bed and mulled over his turn of fortune. He was not inherently suspicious, but he couldn't help wondering what this Sir Nigel had to gain from releasing him from prison. The knight seemed to swoop into Castle Ridge, overwhelm him with his flawless nobility and sense of purpose, and the next thing Bear knew he was in this room, waiting to find out what happens next.
For the past few years he had been wandering the world, hoping that by getting to know it better he would also discover what place he should take in it. He had seen much in that journey, and experienced many things, but he had returned to the kingdom of Castle Ridge with more questions than he had left with. The frustration had combined with his hatred of bullies into a foolish display of bravado that soon had him wondering if he'd have more luck deciding what to do with his life from an extended stay in a jail cell.
A knock at his door broke him out of his reverie and he turned his head toward it. "One moment," he said, and slid off the bed. His voice was heavy and deep, like his namesake's, and his feet hit the floor with a solid thud. When he opened the door to his room he saw a small dwarven woman standing outside. She looked so youthful that if he hadn't been warned ahead of time he might have thought she was one of the students.
She had to lean her neck back to look him in the face, but she made no complaint. "Are ye hungry, lad?" she asked him.
Bear hadn't thought about it, but the ride to New Cestin with Sir Nigel on board a roc had so overwhelmed him he had forgotten about food until now. His stomach suddenly growled its need audibly.
Moira nodded and said, "Aye, then. Follow me and we'll get some lunch into ye." The young man obediently fell into step and took his measure of the dwarf. She was small and pretty for a dwarf, and beardless, which was unusual for her race. Her long hair was tied in a ponytail and she wore a comfortable outfit made for riding. Overall she didn't seem to be the fierce warrior he'd been told she was, though he did notice her toned muscles and heavily calloused hands. Still, she walked with authority and he followed without protest.
"So, yer in a bit of trouble, then?" she stated when they reached the grand staircase. Without waiting for a response she said, "Well, that's all behind ye, now laddie. Do ye know what ye'll be doing?"
"Sir Nigel wants me to join a group he has assembled," Bear replied.
"Aye, and did he tell ye who else was in the group?"
"Are ye up for it, then?"
Bear was silent for a bit, then said, "I hope so."
Moira stopped and turned to face him. "Being a part of this group won't be easy, lad, and yer responsibilities will be great," she said. A group of students rounded the corner, running toward the dining hall, but slowed to a proper walk upon seeing Moira, who paid them no mind. "I run this school and Sir Nigel runs the Dungeoneers, but this will be something new for all of us, and if we're successful, it'll be more important than ye can imagine. What I'd like to know from ye is what do ye want to get out of this? What is it yer hoping for?"
Bear took a deep breath and said carefully, as if he was confessing some deep secret, "Direction, I think. I want to find my purpose in life."
Moira gave him a gentle smile and took his hand, giving it a pat. "Laddie, I'll do my best to help ye any way I can, just as I think ye'll be a great help to us." A cat quietly padded up to Moira and jumped onto her shoulder, giving Bear a dismissive look. "But as far as direction goes, I think it's gone and found ye. The trick now is to learn how to follow it."
"But Mom," Nimbus said plaintively, "I have to practice." The young dragon hated arguing with Raina while they were flying because he couldn't avoid her.
Plus he had to shout against the wind for her to hear him.
"It wouldn't take that long," Raina coaxed. Of course, she wasn't really his mother, or even a dragon. She was a human, but the fact that she was a knight, a baroness, a Dungeoneer and hero several times over made her far from ordinary. She had fallen into the role of mother to Nimbus ever since she rescued him as an infant from some orcs and a rogue red dragon who had been using him as a glorified pack horse. He had instantly bonded to her and thought of her as his mother in every way that mattered, especially at times like this when she was nagging him to death.
"I just saw her last month," he protested. One of Raina's favorite hobbies was horsebreeding, and she had apparently decided to branch out into dragons. She hadn't said anything to that effect, but she had been so adamant about encouraging visits to Thelson, a female dragon living not far from Nimbus's cave, that he had begun to suspect her motivations. He had also reached the age where he became temperamental and sometimes said things he regretted. He'd heard others use the phrase "get off my back," casually and without rebuff, but the one time he had used it on Raina she had gotten so upset he knew never to say it again.
Raina was unrelenting. "No one else visits her. She'll get lonely."
Nimbus rolled his eyes heavenward. "Mom, dragons like their solitude. If I keep visiting her she'll think I'm casing her treasure."
"Oh don't be silly," Raina said. Nimbus hated it when she called him silly, and was only too glad to see Dungeoneer Mansion atop the next hill.
"We're here," he said, giving his wings a few extra flaps. The people working in New Cestin below stopped to wave, but he passed quickly. He circled around until he found a hidden spot where he could land and dropped into it. Making sure no one could see, he concentrated and slowly transformed, shrinking and changing until he had the form of a young half-elf. He was tall and willowy, with shoulder length blonde hair that had a slight silver sheen to it. He had been taught to change forms by a red dragon named Evrian, and in human form she allowed her hair to grow red to match her scales. He liked the idea of keeping a small part of his dragon side when walking among humankind.
He reached into the pack Raina handed him and quickly got dressed. Raina began fixing his collar. "Mom!" He said, trying to back away from her. How was he going to learn these things if she kept doing it for him? It had taken him months to figure out how to lace his boots alone.
"Hello Marl'nn," Moira said, using Nimbus's alias as she casually stepped into the tiny glen. "I saw ye flying in." She gave Raina a meaningful look and her friend returned it. "Raina, would ye mind giving us a moment? Marl'nn and I need to have a little chat in private."
The tiny woman nodded and left them alone, probably to pay Sir Nigel a quick social call. Moira gave the half-elf a considering once over and said, "Well, ye've been a student instead of a dragon for over a year now. How do ye feel about it so far?"
"Why do you ask?" he said politely. Nimbus had chosen to train as a bard, and was in the habit of asking questions, even in response to someone else's queries.
Moira knew Nimbus was also honest about his opinions, almost to a fault, and if he had any reservations, he'd tell her immediately. "I'm putting a group together, and I want ye to be in it." the youth perked up a bit at that, but Moira continued before he could say anything. "It willnae be pleasant. It willnae be like the Dungeoneers at all. There's trouble brewing in Blackmoor, and if it's ignored, we might see the second rise of the Kaimerion Empire."
She allowed him a moment to absorb that. His face grew thoughtful, and he lifted his eyebrows a notch, but he didn't look concerned. "So what's the purpose of this new group?" he said.
"For now, t' wander the world, take on some minor missions as Sir Nigel likes, nothing the bards would sing of. Later, if Blackmoor starts to gather allies in the other kingdoms, it'll be our job t' do what the Dungeoneers can't: infiltrate the core, find out whose loyalties are suspect, and cut them off before the whole Empire falls apart in a bloody civil war."
His eyebrows rose again, but he seemed pleased. "Doesn't sound so bad. Interesting even. Who else is in the group?"
Etienne held the globe of light in his hand and concentrated on maintaining it. His shock of white hair seemed to glow under the magical illumination and his green eyes became yellow at the edges. The young prince stood still, feeling the magic flow through him like a second heartbeat. He stood on a platform rigged atop the highest tower in Castle Balanor, where the wind tugged at his clothes and the ground below yawned as if to swallow him whole. These things were pushed from his mind as he focused on only the glowing ball.
Levitating on empty air next to him was the Imperial Mage, the master who served the Emperor and had trained the Prince from the beginning. The wind left him untouched while he studied his student's technique and offered suggestions. When he was satisfied with Etienne's performance, he said "You may stop." The young elf moved his hand away, and the orb popped like a bubble, leaving little specks of light that slowly winked out of existence. "Very good," the mage told him.
"I think I'm ready to try a shock bolt now, master," Etienne said, his confidence high.
The mage's eyebrow lifted slightly and he said, "Very well," and pointed downward. "Hit that pole in the middle of the courtyard."
The adolescent's eyes bulged and he glanced around. "Now? Right here?" he stammered, not expecting to be given permission for the difficult spell so quickly.
"You said you were ready. Show me."
Etienne stared at his master with his mouth working silently until he nodded his head and carefully said, "Okay." He looked down into the courtyard below and located the pole. Gathering in the magical energies, he began reciting the words he had memorized and concentrated on directing the flow. As the magic grew he weaved his hand in the proper patterns, until they began to radiate the pre-light of the bolt. His breathing became shallower as he tensed, fearful of making a mistake, and finally, when he uttered the last word, he thrust his hand forward and saw the pulse of thin blue electricity streak from his fingers.
In the courtyard, a wizened old man carrying an armful of scrolls yelped when the shock bolt struck the ground right in front of his feet. The scrolls flew out of his arms and scattered about the courtyard where the wind began worsening the chaos. Etienne sheepishly called out an apology. The man looked up at the wizards and pulled at his hair before bending down to collect his lost work.
"Hmm" the royal mage said thoughtfully, "Your aim is off."
Etienne bowed his head, but could not contain the thrill of successfully casting the spell. He could work on his aim later.
The sudden sound of breaking dishes broke Etienne from his memories as he walked the road that led to Dungeoneer Mansion. No longer distracted by memories from the week before, he tried to follow the sound. It seemed to come from a shack a few yards from the road, and he thought he heard angry screams coming from it too. He'd heard those screams before, and while he wondered what Sara was doing in a shack that involved breaking things, he knew her well enough to not try to satisfy that curiosity. Pretending he hadn't heard anything, he continued on.
He wondered why he had been summoned and what Sir Nigel had in store as he passed through the doors and into Dungeoneer Mansion. The massive stone building wasn't nearly as spectacular as Castle Balanor, but it seemed to radiate the aura of heroism, and Etienne privately felt that it might be judging him. He shrugged it off and continued his lonely walk down the hall until he found the correct door and gave it a knock.
"Come in," a voice called from the other side.
The young elf opened the door and looked in. The office was well kept, with ore samples and wooden carvings of animals decorating it. A step ladder lay next to one of the tall shelves in the room and two chairs sat in front of the large desk that dominated the office. Moira sat in her own seat behind the desk and pointed at one of the empty chairs.
"Have a seat, laddie."
))I found the halfling,(( Bandit sent.
Moira breathed a deep sigh of relief. She had just finished speaking to Etienne about the group and was growing nervous about the wolverine's lack of response. He had wandered out of her range so she couldn't even call him until he came closer. ))Good work, Bandit. Where is he?((
))In the people den,(( he replied, meaning New Cestin.
))Can ye be more specific?((
))The stone cave with metal teeth,(( Bandit said after a bit.
Moira began loosing a stream of obscenities as she rushed out of the mansion and mounted the first horse she saw. She took hold of the reins and set off at a full gallop down the road toward the town. She couldn't believe Kendall had already gotten himself arrested. Even Dodger took a week to get in that much trouble.
When she got to the jail there was a messenger stepping out who looked at her and said, "Dame Moira, I was just about to deliver a message to you."
"I think I already got it," she said, dismounting. The man nodded and stepped aside as the dwarf stormed into the building. The sheriff rose from his seat when he saw Moira and greeted her politely. She frowned and said, "I understand one of my boys is in trouble."
The sheriff gave a little grimace and said, "He was caught trying to steal some things from Alderman Storm. Most of it was destroyed when he tried to escape."
A shadow of dread fell over Moira as she said, "What were the losses?"
"Not much," The sheriff shrugged. "Some minor knickknacks." His eyes darted to the side as his voice trailed off.
"What else?" the dwarf prodded. Sebastian Storm was not the sort of man who had people put in jail for the loss of a few trivialities, and he was the owner of some very valuable and rare items. She knew she wouldn't like the answer, but she would have it anyway.
The sheriff stirred the air with his foot and confessed, "A couple bottles of his elven wine."
That explained it. Elven wine was rare in and of itself. Those particular bottles, however, were over five hundred years old and nearly priceless. Moira gave her lip a chew and said, "Will reimbursing him for the loss be enough to get the lad free?"
The sheriff nodded and Moira said, "I'll make the arrangements, then." This was going to seriously hurt her finances and she wondered how she was going to explain it to her husband, but all she needed to do was make sure Kendall never did something like that again, and she had an idea for that. "Can ye give me a moment to talk to the lad alone afore ye let him go, then?" she asked.
He nodded, and she walked into the next room where the cells were kept. Inside the one in the far back was Kendall, who looked enormously relieved to see Moira. "I knew you'd come," he said, smiling.
Before he could get any further Moira simply sighed and looked at him with a forlorn expression. "I'm sorry laddie," she said, her voice cracking. "I tried, but their hearts willnae soften for me. Yer to be hanged in the morning."
Kendall's eyes bulged and his jaw dropped. He lifted a hand to his throat and began to massage it. "H-hang me? But it was just stuff."
Moira shook her head sadly. "Aye, but it was rare and expensive. They wanted to kill ye right there, they tell me. Didnae anyone tell ye this might happen if ye take things that dinnae belong to ye?"
Kendall's lip began to tremble. "No. Well, yes, but I never thought it would happen to me. I never thought it was important."
"But ye realize now that it is, do ye?" Moira asked.
"Yes! Absolutely!" Kendall said, grasping the bars and nodding his head.
"Och, that's what makes this so tragic. If only ye'd learned yer lesson before ye did something unforgivable. Then ye wouldnae be in this mess." Moira began to pace the length of his cell door. "I blame meself for not warning ye in time. I could have taught ye what to take and what to leave be. I'm sorry lad. Did ye have anything ye wanted me to tell yer parents?"
A little tear began to form in Kendall's eye and his mouth moved but made no sound save for a barely audible whimper. Moira hated to work him up, but she was relieved to see she had his attention. "Yer right," she said, her eyebrows lowering in sympathy. "It would only upset them. I'll ask the sheriff to make it quick and painless, but that's the best I can do."
Moira walked away from the cell, and just as she was about to enter the next room she heard Kendall begin to cry, saying, "But I don't want to die." She shut the door behind her and walked to the sheriff.
"I'll pick him up in the morning," she told him. "Can ye do me a favor and measure his neck sometime tonight? Oh, and find out what his favorite meal is too."
As she started to leave the jail the sheriff said, "That was cruel, Dame Moira." His voice betrayed a slight hint of amusement however.
"Aye, it was," Moira said, returning his wry smile. Then her face turned serious. "But better that I be cruel than the next sheriff who throws him in a dungeon."
A fine banquet had been laid out at Khana's estate in Hutmont. Moira's team had traveled there to meet up with Rianne, the last of the group and Khana's adopted daughter. The only one enjoying the meal was Bear, however. Marl'nn mostly picked at his meal while Etienne and Sara spent more time arguing than eating. Meanwhile Kendall and Dodger were playing a game to see who could steal the most food from the other's plate.
It had been a week since the group had been gathered, but to Moira it felt like a year. Sara had obediently remained behind when the Dungeoneers left, and had since taken advantage of every opportunity to make life miserable for everyone else. The more the others tried to avoid her, the nastier she had become, and Etienne, whom she had known and fought with since they were both eight years old, had become her favorite target. The journey to Hutmont had been torture, and Sara had made it a personal mission to see how much she could get away with behind Moira's back.
It wasn't long before Moira decided to put an end to the chaos at the table. "Sara, go outside and take care of the horses," she said. The girl broke off from her rant and gave Moira a hateful look.
"I'm eating!" she protested.
"Ye can eat when ye get back, now go!"
Sara fumed, but did as she was told. Moira's next targets were the two little thieves, whose game was becoming a little violent and threatened to spill into the seats next to them.
"Kendall! Dodger!" she said. The two suddenly stopped what they were doing, draped their arms over each other's shoulders and shot wide, innocent smiles Moira's way. "Behave, or I'll sit ye at opposite ends of the table." She brushed her hand briefly over her mouth and repeated her warning to Dodger in the slightly altered voice that signalled she was magically enhancing her words so that he would understand them. He dipped his head a bit and grunted an apology.
After springing Kendall from prison, Moira had moved the halfling in with Dodger. The orangutan was a better thief than Kendall, and extremely protective of his things, so Moira knew that he would be ideal for keeping the boy's urge to steal in check. They had become fast friends and Kendall, for his part, had trouble understanding that Dodger was an animal and had even taken to "translating" some of what his friend said. The positive effect of putting them together did have its drawbacks, however. While the thieving had diminished, the two had become eager accomplices for other sorts of mischief, and Moira had to keep an even closer eye on them than before. It was a questionable trade.
Khana leaned over and whispered in her friend's ear, "Having fun, 'Mom?'"
"Oh, hush up," Moira whispered back. The half-elf merely lifted an amused eyebrow to the dwarf's brusque response and politely returned to her meal. Moira wasn't finished, however. She rose from her seat and said, "Etienne, I want to speak with ye in the kitchen." The young prince looked surprised but abandoned his meal and followed Moira out of the hall.
Once inside the kitchen, Moira's expression became stern and she said, "I
want that to be yer last fight with Sara." Etienne did not protest, but his tightening face spoke volumes to the dwarf. "I know ye haven't started them, but she seems to enjoy getting the best of ye, and ye haven't exactly discouraged her. That makes you the first step to changing her attitude, so I want ye to go out there, find out what her problem is and fix it. Understand?"
Etienne nodded, but he looked confused. "How?" he asked.
"Ye've been trained in diplomacy, lad. Use yer imagination."
The elf again nodded and departed for the stables. He paused outside the front doors of the mansion and thought about what to do. Etienne considered several possibilities for what was making Sara so cranky and how he could deal with it, and he rapidly discarded each idea as he came up with them. Somewhere along the way, his ship of thought sprang a leak and capsized, making the next idea seem perfect. Sara, he figured, wanted to be thought of as important, and feared being dismissed or ignored. If he could make her believe she was important to him, she might be less inclined to act out. Back in Castle Balanor, the prince had read a few of his mother's romantic epics and poetry. They were filled with willful women who softened in the embrace of men who cared for them and thought that perhaps the same might work with Sara. At the very least, he might offend her so much that she'd focus all her ire on him and spare the rest of the group. That was the worst that could happen, wasn't it?
He walked into the stables and saw Sara gently brushing one of the horses while grumbling to herself. Her own long black hair was neat and tied in a high ponytail that danced to and fro as her head moved. Etienne steeled his nerves as he approached her and said, "You brush those horses very nicely."
"As if you'd know anything about grooming horses," she said arrogantly.
"Well, I may not know as much as you," he conceded, "But I recognize good work when I see it." He edged a little closer to her, trying to look casual.
"Go away," Sara told him. "It's your fault I have to do this anyway."
"Then let me help you," he said. "I owe you that much, don't I?"
He reached for the brush she was holding, thinking this would be the moment to strike but she backed away, saying, "Hey, stupid! You'll just mess things up!"
Etienne was starting to lose his patience. He approached her again. "I said I want to help."
"You can kiss my ass!" Sara retorted, thrusting her face at him with an ugly, childish and snotty expression.
"Or this," he said. There was no turning back now. He wrapped his arms around her in a clumsy embrace and leaned in to kiss her. Sara's eyes widened in shock when his lips touched hers, and without even thinking, her fist swung wide and bashed the side of his head, knocking Etienne out cold. He dropped to the ground like a sack, face down in the hay.
Sara's hands flew to her mouth and she stared over them with a mixture of panic and confusion. She knelt down and reached nervously toward the elf, brushing his platinum blonde hair away from his face and checking where she hit him. She noticed he was still breathing but he wouldn't wake up. She began to tremble.
"Etienne? Etienne, wake up," she said, nudging him. He didn't respond, and
Sara bit her thumb, unsure of what to do. She looked about and finally whispered, "H-help." Her voice grew stronger. "Help!" She was soon shouting, but she refused to leave the stable or Etienne's side.
It had been two days since the incident at the stables, and still Rianne and the Sisters of Mercy had not arrived at Khana's estate. No messages had been sent either, and the Baroness was growing nervous. Moira offered to take her group out to meet Rianne on the road and escort her the rest of the way home and moments later they were following the wooded trail that led to the last place the Sisters had visited. Etienne stayed behind to finish recovering from his injury, and the others rode with grim expressions.
Summers in Westmarch were mild, with cooling winds and occasional showers sneaking past the mountain walls that ringed the frontier kingdom. The noon sun peeked through the forest canopy, dotting the woods with great rays of light. The ride was tense and silent as everyone concentrated on their surroundings. The party passed rocky brooks and lichen encrusted trees, but never heard the sound of approaching horses. Their concern grew as they neared the edge of the forest, for the woods were only a day's ride from the last village they were known to have visited. The trail was infrequently traveled and broken up with occasional spots of overgrowth, but it was the quickest route back to the estate and Rianne had stated in her last letter that they planned to use it. If they had, they should have arrived in the morning.
Moira followed a curve in the trail until she saw drag marks on the ground ahead. She tensed and signaled the others to slow their mounts. The tacks led a short distance to a busted wagon that hung like a beached sailing ship, one wheel broken off and resting against a nearby tree. "No," Moira breathed, spurring her horse up to the wreckage. Looking past the trees, merely a few yards away she saw the bodies of all those they come to meet.
It had been a slaughter. The women had been torn to pieces and scattered about the woods carelessly. Whomever had killed them had done so deliberately and without remorse, and yet the sloppy disposal showed an alarming lack of concern over the discovery of the crime, almost as if they couldn't be bothered to hide it. In the center of the chaos lay the body of Rianne, face up, eyes staring blankly in disbelief and terror. Bear and the others slid off their mounts and walked onto the scene with solemn expressions as they looked about Moira's eyes burned with rage and anguish as she sought out evidence of the assailants. Some broken twigs, a crushed plant, a footprint, the trail grew plainer with each new discovery, though the signs stood out more like a beacon, rather than a shroud. "The trail is fresh," she said finally. "It leads this way. Bear, take the others and hunt the people who did this down. I'll clean things up here and join ye as I can." She looked each of them in the eye and her lips were thin as she said, "Make them pay."
Moira was almost thirty years older than any of the others, and looked to be in her mid twenties, but among dwarves she was barely more than an adolescent. Her thirst for vengeance was the hot temper of youth, and the others shared in her vigor.
Bear was dressed in a suit of heavy steel, but he moved as if it were no more than stiff leather. He nodded and led the others at a quick run deeper into the woods. The thick foliage was too tangled and uneven to take their horses with them, so they ran, not knowing if they were expected or not, and not wanting to let their prey escape. They followed the trail for over an hour, and just as fatigue began to creep into their bones they caught sight of a clearing and smelled the faint odors of a cooking fire.
There were eight unshaven men in the center of the clearing. They were seated on some rocks and a log in front of an oddly shaped arch created by a large tree that had fallen and was held aloft by two large boulders. A freshly killed pheasant was roasting on a spit tended by what looked to be the most unkempt man of the assembly. They had paused to wash themselves of the blood they had spilled earlier, and were eying the food hungrily while they conversed among themselves. When Bear and the others stepped into the clearing, the bandits fell silent and turned to face them.
The first to rise was a tall man with a deep scar and an air of command about him. The others followed suit and chuckled at the sight of the youths. "They're just kids!" one of them declared, pointing at them. Bear and the others were about twenty yards away, and the same man shouted at them, "Go back to your mothers, children. We don't have any sweets." The others laughed at the joke but fingered their weapons in a way that made it clear none of them were about to let the group leave.
Sara was the first, but they all responded by drawing their weapons and approaching the camp. By coincidence or training, they all happened to wield a weapon in each hand, but their choice and styles were different. Bear had two large swords, held high, arms forward and elbows pressed to his side. Marl'nn's twin sabers were pointed downward, fanned out as if he meant to sweep the ground with them. Sara's thin swords were held out and tilted up, and she kept them both to her right while she walked at an angle, crossing one foot over the other. Kendall and his two daggers had disappeared back into the woods, nowhere to be found.
"Oh, so you want to play?" the scarred man said as they drew closer. He signaled the other bandits with a quick jerk of his head, and they began to form up ranks. "Well I'm up for a game or two. Come on then, little rabbits."
Six of the scraggly men paired off against Bear, Marl'nn and Sara, while the other two ducked under the arch and vanished behind the boulders. The leader was among the two facing Bear, and he rolled his sword in his hand, hoping to impress the barbarian with his swordsmanship. All the bandits snickered confidently as they prepared to attack.
Sara hadn't uttered a word. Her eyes were like coals and her voice silent, despite the taunts the bandits had flung their way. It was unlike her to hold back when the opportunity to unleash her acid tongue presented itself. Marl'nn had made it his business to be aware of the actions and behavior of those around him, and he made note of Sara's change in mood before the fighting began, demanding his full attention.
The cook and a man with tattoos on his arms confronted Marl'nn. They swung at the same time, and the half-elf raised each saber to parry their blows. Then, in a burst of speed, he sank low and spun, kicking a leg out and sweeping the tattooed man. Rithgar, a mighty red dragon and trusted friend, had taught him that tactic. The tail sweep was a favored attack for many dragons, but very few had bothered to incorporate it into a mortal equivalent. Marl'nn had not learned to shift forms from him, but the elder dragon believed that it was important to fight like a dragon no matter what form he was in. Even his blades were held and swung more like teeth and claws. The results were satisfying. The tattooed man hit the ground hard and the wind was knocked out of him.
"You're a spirited one," the wisecracking bandit said to Tucker's daughter as he and another approached her. "The others just screamed and tried to run, but it'll be sporting to take you."
Sara's silence broke. She yelled wildly as she sliced through the air with her two swords and the smartmouth raised his own to block. She merely tapped his blade with hers, suddenly reversing her momentum and striking at the other bandit. He barely had time to raise a defense, and one sword got through, digging deep into his leg. He grunted in pain and the sight of blood seemed to encourage Sara. She swung again, more fiercely this time, and cut the man's shoulder to the bone as she prepared to move in for the kill.
Bear charged toward the leader, but the other bandit, a bald man with body piercings, jumped in to bar his way. The large young man thrust together with his two swords, and the bandit closed in, suddenly twisting his body between the swords and stabbing forward with his own blade. Bear was new to two weapon fighting and tended to attack with his off hand in an identical manner to his primary. Raina, who had urged him to learn the style since he'd joined Moira's team, had tried to break him of that habit, to instead move each hand with its own rhythm, but he was still early in his training. The bald man thought he was taking advantage of Bear's mistake by getting inside his reach, but he was merely playing into another kind of fighting Bear was much more familiar with. He smashed his forehead downward, colliding brutally with the other man's skull. The unfortunate man's eyes rolled back and he fell to the ground while Bear proceeded to finish closing on the leader.
Sara sensed danger at her flank and turned away from her opponent to avoid an attack from the one who had taunted her. She raised one sword to block his and thrust with the other one, catching him in the side. He cried out and clutched the wound, losing his grip on his weapon. Before she could silence him forever, though, the other man dove at her from behind, catching her about the waist and sending all three of them into a tangled heap.
One of the bandits who had ducked behind the boulders climbed onto the fallen tree and began walking along the trunk, waiting until he got into a good position to leap down on one of the unsuspecting youths. he smiled to himself as he found a promising spot above Marl'nn and readied his dagger. Just then, Kendall dropped from the trees above and landed near the shriveled roots of the dead behemoth, less than twelve strides from the bandit. The little halfling darted toward him and slashed with his daggers. The bandit jumped out of the way, but one of the blades sliced into his knee and he landed clumsily. Kendall pressed forward, shoving him off the trunk behind the arch and away from the fray. The boy then stole the bandit's idea and dropped from above, landing on another man's back and sank both daggers to their hilts into his flesh.
Marl'nn stepped back in surprise at Kendall's sudden arrival, but was glad for the assistance. He took his two sabers and spun them at the tattooed man he was facing, now that he didn't have to concern himself with a second opponent. The blades began to blur and the bandit edged away as he tried to follow their course. When the half-elf finally changed his motion and struck, the bandit moved to knock the blades aside but his guess was wrong. The sabers crossed each other, cutting his belly open and sending his guts spilling out. He barely had time to acknowledge the wound before he collapsed and died.
The cook had fallen face first into the ground, but Kendall stayed on his back and stabbed his daggers down twice more in rapid succession, ending his life almost as quickly. The halfling and the half-elf looked at each other, nodded, and left in opposite directions to aid their friends.
Bear pounded at the leader, bringing each sword down with so much force the scarred man was barely able to block them with his own weapon. Meanwhile, the bald man lifted himself from the ground, shaking away the dizziness from Bear's headbutt, and reached for his sword. Kendall ran up and kicked it away, leaving the man without a weapon. Sara busily kicked and squirmed her way out of the pile she was in, and was ready to start battling the men again when Marl'nn arrived to assist her. She didn't seem to notice as she dived at the wisecracking bandit, weapons out.
Behind one of the boulders, the last bandit finished loading his crossbow and crept around to choose a target. He set his sights on Bear, who was causing the leader to weaken with every blow, but one bolt in the right spot would put an immediate end to that fight. He slowly began to pull the trigger.
"Not t'day, laddie!"
He jerked in the direction of the voice, ready to loose the bolt at the source, but as soon as he had finished turning, Moira's axe cut through the crossbow and split it in twain. The cord and bolt snapped back, striking the bandit in the face and leaving ugly red welts. He screamed in pain and his hands flew to the wounds, covering his eyes so he was unaware of the return stroke. The axe did to him what it had done to the crossbow, and his life ended instantly.
Moira had just arrived from the scene of the ambush. While it had taken her some time to repair the wheel and load the bodies onto the wagon, she had the magic of the beasts at her disposal. Her magic was simpler than the sort Etienne was learning, and not as powerful, but it did what she needed. Once she had draped a cloth over Rianne and the others, she cast two spells. The first had allowed her to instruct the horses to pull the wagon back to Khana's estate. The second gave her the ability to run as swiftly as a gazelle, and she had wasted no time catching up with the others.
The bandit facing Kendall was still lightheaded, but he was steady enough to pull a knife from his belt to replace the sword he'd lost. He darted forward, thinking his size would overwhelm the halfling. Kendall ducked under his clumsy swing and lashed out with a dagger, slicing down the man's arm. The disheveled man swung again, only to gain a pair of bleeding gashes on his legs. He fell to his knees, screaming, before a well placed shot to his throat silenced him forever.
Marl'nn and Sara traded blows with their opponents, the pairs circling each other in a figure eight pattern. The bandits were both severely wounded, but refused to yield and put all their efforts into blocking the young adventurers' attacks. Slowly they continued to revolve around each other, until Sara and Marl'nn were back-to-back. At that instant they spun, trading opponents and thrusting with each of their blades. The bandits were caught of guard and impaled. They spit blood and slid off the steel, leaving dark, wet streaks on the blades.
Bear hammered away, refusing to relent in his assault. He had brought the leader down to one knee and expected to knock the sword out of his hand soon. The leader knew he couldn't last much longer, and was slowly reaching for the knife in his belt with his free hand. When he got close enough to his belt he grabbed for it, only to find it not there. Instead, two feet away, was Kendall, holding his knife and smiling. The man looked back up toward Bear helplessly and screamed right before the massive barbarian brought both swords down with all his strength, cutting through the leader's weapon, flesh and bones.
Moira stalked into the clearing, dragging the one remaining bandit with her. He was still weak on his feet after being knocked off the tree by Kendall, but he was aware enough to know how much trouble he was in, and looked from person to person with stricken eyes.
"Good work," the dwarf said to Bear and the others. She tossed the bandit onto his rump and pointed to the sash she wore. "Do ye know what this means?" she asked. The white strip of fabric embroidered with golden horses was the mark that named her a Dungeoneer and meant she was not one to trifle with.
The bandit swallowed nervously and nodded.
"I thought ye would," Moira said as she took a length of rope and approached him. "The local Baroness wears one too, and it's her right to pass sentence on ye for killing her daughter. She's known to be merciful, but I expect she'll treat ye a bit differently."
"Momma's home! Momma's home!"
The small dwarven boy dashed to Moira as she shut the front door of their home and flung himself into her arms. Laughing, Moira drew him into a tight embrace and tousled the reddish mop of curls atop his head. "Ah, Dougan," she breathed, giving his cheek an affectionate kiss, "I've missed ye so." The return from Hutmont had not left her so weary she could not greet her son with equal enthusiasm. If anything she clung to him more tightly than usual.
"And me as well, I hope," Coldsteel, Moira's husband, said as he made a more dignified journey to where she stood. His voice was as solid and sure as the tools he used to mine the earth.
Their son obligingly slid down from his perch so that the two could wrap their arms around each other. They kissed, long and tenderly, while Dougan looked on and gave a quiet giggle. He was just old enough to find his parents' shared intimacy amusing.
"Never ye doubt," Moira said, breaking the kiss and gently caressing the dwarf's cheek with the back of one calloused and nearly slender hand. She loved the feel of his beard, the way it almost seemed a touchstone to her own dwarven heritage. She'd never spoken of it much to her fellow Dungeoneers, but when her father had banished her from the clan long before she'd journeyed to Westmarch, it was a blow to her very sense of self. Her own lack of a beard hadn't done much for her self confidence in that regard, such women often having a reputation for being simple-minded creatures, the objects of pity and crude jokes. Coldsteel's love and admiration of her had never once been influenced by that, though it had taken her some time to believe he saw her that way.
"Pappa took me digging," Dougan announced, adopting a more sedate, almost detached disposition. Outside of the enthusiasm he displayed his affection for his parents with, he normally behaved as if he was observing everything he saw from a great distance.
Moira arched an eyebrow at her husband, and Coldsteel, nearly as old as her own father, cringed slightly under her measured gaze. "Mining's in his blood," he explained weakly.
"Aye…" Moira said dubiously. He knew how she felt about him pressuring their son to take up the family business, as well as the fact that she could claim the call of the beastmaster was also in the boy's blood. The fixed look she gave him made it clear she expected to talk to him about it later, and Coldsteel barely avoided wincing.
"He's been talking to his friend again," the miner said, eager to change the subject, though his posture conveyed equal discomfort with the topic he was switching too.
Moira gave her husband a slight, reassuring nod. "Not to worry, Love," she told him. Dougan's imaginary friend had troubled his father since he'd first mentioned him two years ago. Moira leaned to the side to look around Colsteel and smile at her son. "How is Venture doing, lad?"
The boy tilted his head slightly, still eerily calm. "He's happy," Dougan reported. "We played a new game today. He knows lots of games."
"That's nice, lad."
"He says he's coming to see me."
Moira felt Colsteel's hand stiffen against her waist and she lowered her own to give it a gentle squeeze. "Does he nae see you when ye play together?"
Dougan shrugged. "I guess. But he's very far away."
Despite herself, Moira felt a dryness creep into her throat. "Well, it should be nice for him t' visit. When did he say he'd be here?"
The quiet little boy smiled lazily and tilted his head to the other side before answering with a single word.
Breakfast at Dungeoneer Mansion a week later was the first sign things were returning to normal. Marl'nn was tuning one of his instruments while Bear worked on a bet with Kendall over how many sausages he could eat. Kendall and Dodger were slipping extra sausages onto Bear's plate every time he wasn't looking and Sara was arguing with Etienne.
Moira was about to intervene again when Sir Nigel stepped into the dining hall with two young men behind him. One of them was a dark haired man roughly twenty years old, dressed in cleric's robes and looking generally dissatisfied with everything. The other was a striking boy a couple years older than Sara and Etienne, with fair skin, piercing blue eyes and lush blonde curls descending past his ears in cascades of gold. He examined everyone with a harsh confidence, though Moira felt she detected a hint of nervousness behind his stare.
"Dame Moira. Everyone," Sir Nigel said, once everyone's attention was on him. "Allow me to introduce the newest members of your group. This is Barnabus Stein. The church has assigned him to me in light of our recent loss." The dark haired man's look of dissatisfaction grew at that, but Sir Nigel simply shifted over toward the curly haired boy.
In a disturbingly neutral voice the knight said, "And this young man is Sir Matthew...