No Rest for the Weary ((Part Three))
- - by Diedrich
My back was killing me. Im getting old, arent I?
The fire had dwindled to embers several hours ago, and the early spring air was chill on my arms and face. Shivering, I wrapped my blanket around my shoulders and rubbed tired eyes. I can remember a time when sleeping outdoors didnt make me feel like someone had rolled me around in gravel for an hour, but that was years ago.
Damn, I really was getting old.
It took me a few minutes to get my armor on and strap the sword baldric to my back, the leather-clad blade heavy on my shoulders as I stood. I was still a few hours from Stormwind, and I was looking forward to taking a break and a hot bath. Argos, my tea-colored horse, pawed the ground in mild agitation as I began to saddle him. The horse wouldnt tolerate a bit though, and I had removed it from the bridle entirely. Sometimes I wondered if the damned thing was intelligent, the way it reacted to things and glared at me whenever I made innuendos about mounting to the ladies.
He must have been in a generous mood, though, since he didnt try to dump me to the ground the first time I mounted up. Argos was a bit reluctant as I tapped his flanks with the heels of my boots, but he started forward without complaint. The dead fire left behind us, we headed west down the forest road with the songs of morning birds and the wind in the trees as our companions.
I rode for several hours before stopping, not bothering to tie the horse down. He wouldnt stay even if I chained him to something. The sun came in streams through the leafless oak and birch trees, doing little to warm the air but at least giving the pretense of a milder season. Lunch consisted of a few bits of hard cheese and some dwarf ale from the waxed skin in my saddlebags, while Argos munched away on grain in his feed bag.
Argos snorted derisively when I packed the remaining food away. What, its not like youd like ale anyway, I objected. He gnashed his teeth at me after I removed the feed bag from his muzzle, though I wasnt surprised. Temperamental overgrown donkey, I muttered under my breath.
There was the soft crunch of twigs off to my left, and I froze. With a slow turn, I brought my hand to the hilt of my sword and hoped it was simply a curious forest animal. I was rather disappointed when I saw two armed men slinking from the shadows of the trees, blades in hand.
Dont you ever give up? I complained, lazily bringing the enchanted steel sword from its sheath and tapping the flat of the blade on my armored shoulder.
Our master hasnt forgotten about you, one of them rasped, a scarred man in dark leathers and a gray wool cloak.
Who? I demanded. Who the hell is trying to kill me, and why?
The second man sprang forward, his sword raised high above his head and his eyes full of violence. These were not bounty hunters, I could clearly tell. These were just hired murderers, everything about their posture spoke of many shadowy killings and a complete lack of regard for life. Steel rang when our blades met, the sound carrying through the trees and into the countryside. The other ran to join his friend, and I was hard pressed to keep their swords away. I had to end this quickly, or they would wear me out.
I brought my foot down heavily on the dirt, bellowing at the top of my lungs, and it seemed to startle them enough for me to launch a counterattack. My enchanted greatsword crashed into the defenses of the scarred man, who reeled under my furious attacks. I knocked his sword wide and cut him down, blood pouring onto the forest floor. There was a heavy thud and a cry of pain from behind me, and I spun around to see Argos glowering down at the prone body of the other assassin as he clutched his horse-kicked ribs.
Kicking his sword away, I knelt down on his wrist and put my own weapon against his throat. Now, mind telling me whos trying to kill me?
He sneered. Go to hell!
You first. I was merciful in my cut, even though he didnt deserve the mercy. Wiping my blade clean on his tunic and standing, I peered curiously at Argos, who had resumed looking bored. Um thanks?
Argos snorted and shook his mane. I returned the greatsword to the sheath on my back and went about examining the bodies for some unlikely clue. There was nothing, no notes, no incriminating contracts, not a single sign of who hired them or why. I guess I shouldnt have expected it to be so simple, until I found the bag of coins hidden beneath the scarred mans cloak.
It was gold, thick and heavy. At least fifty pieces of it, and the coins looked extremely old. The metal was tarnished and worn, the engraved writing illegible and the stamped image on it being only vaguely familiar. It appeared to be the sun rising over some sort of building, but other than that it looked like nothing special. I tossed the bag into the air and caught it with my other hand, nodding my thanks to the corpse with a grin. This will keep me fed for a long time. Thanks, friend. Easiest money Ive ever made.
The Jester was as busy as ever, a crowd of occupied patrons busily engaged in their individual conversations, the smell of spilt ale and roasting sausages mixing with the pungent perfumes and arcane ingredients to create a scent that said personality. It also made my head hurt, but the alcohol was helping with that.
I pushed away the empty plate, patting my stomach happily. The rest of the day had gone about as it usually did, though I had made some luxury purchases in light of my newly acquired small fortune. My new armor was safe enough back at the Gilded Rose, and I even was able to pay the stablehand enough to re-shoe Argos. Last time, the horse had almost broken his leg, and he swore never to help me again until I got a new mount. Things were starting to look up.
The serving girl, whose name had escaped me in the haze of fine stout, bounced up to the table with a smile, wiping her hands on her apron. Can I get you something else? she asked.
I shook my head and slipped one of the coins from the pouch at my side, laying it on the edge of the table closest to her. Warm brown eyes grew as large as saucers and she quickly bowed, several times in fact. Thank you, sir! Thank you so much!
Think nothing of it, I said, flashing the pretty girl a smile. She scooped up the coin and began to take away the plates, and I waited until a few minutes after she had left to get up and make my way out of the tavern. As I wove through the crowd, Dominik, the proprietor of the Laughing Jester, caught my eye and offered a smile and a nod, which I returned. I rounded the hall and finally stepped out into the cool air of the Stormwind evening.
The strange glow of the elvish lanterns lit my path as I walked, leaving the busy tavern behind me and heading for the Gilded Rose. I might as well turn in early and get all the rest I could; after all, with that much gold, I was going to take a vacation for a few days, and I wanted to be well-rested for the debauchery that would come. The streets grew quiet as I left the park, the only sound being the lapping of the canal waters upon the stones and the soles of my boots on the walkway.
Hell, the city even had a smell that I liked. It wasnt the typical city-stink of livestock, beggars, sweat, and filth. Stormwinds scent was a mixture of cool spring breeze, the faint whiff of burning firewood, the hearty aroma of baking bread, and the burning oil that kept the street lanterns going. It smelled like civilization, and I loved every breath of it.
The bridge ahead was clear but for a youngish woman heading the opposite way. She was pretty, her hair tucked up under a short, cylindrical hat of yellow and black, and her full figure was garbed in a robe of similar material. She offered me a smile as we crossed paths, stopping and bringing a hand to her face to push back an errant strand of hair that escaped from the cap. Good evening, sire.
It wasnt the first time a woman had stopped to greet me, but I was intrigued nonetheless. I returned the smile and made an exaggerated bow, every motion of it a mockery to true nobility. Evenin, miss. A young lady as pretty as you shouldnt be walking alone.
She arched an eyebrow, the smile becoming more mischievous. Her hand, still behind her ear as she tried to bring the strand of hair under control, flickered with a mystical light. Im not as defenseless as one might perceive, she mentioned casually, seemingly unconcerned with the possibility that I could be a mugger. Her gaze became more appraising, though not in the way I might have hoped. You seem an able-bodied man, have you been to the Arathorian Embassy? We are always looking for strong soldiers to fight the good fight in the Arathi Highlands.
I fought to control a wince, finally recognizing the symbol on the front of her robes. Um well, I cant say that its crossed my mind, really
You should think about it. The good people of the League of Arathor deserve better than to be chased off their ancestral homelands by the monstrous Defilers. She then quickly added, And the rewards are great indeed.
My palms began to sweat, and Im sure my face showed something I wouldnt have wanted to reveal. Ill consider your offer, miss. Be careful walking back, and stay close to the lights.
She curtseyed and smiled again. Good night, sir.
We parted company and I hurried across to the far side of the bridge. My mind was racing, and I grasped at the laces of the pouch at my side, withdrawing a small handful of the coins won earlier in the day from my attackers. I took one and turned it over in my hands again and again, peering at the engraved image on the face of the metal disk.
It was the same as the symbol on the girls robe. They were Arathorian coins.
I swore under my breath and yanked the pouch off of my hip, hurling the gold into the canal. The coins sank into the dark water, never to be seen again. It was them, all these damned bounty hunters and assassins were hired by the League, or at least someone using their money.
Nothings ever easy. I hurried back to the Gilded Rose, sticking to the shadows and avoiding anyone wearing a yellow robe.
Elarans tiny, delicate script was starting to fade. Yet again I was holding the sheet of paper in my hand, reading the words of the letter and wondering, hoping that what she had been so concerned about would never come to pass.
Now I had other worries. What if they started going after my friends to get to me? Even if I managed to beat all of the bounty hunters, all of the hired killers, eventually they would find another way to bring me down. All for this stupid crap I uncovered in an old book.
I didnt understand any of it. I was barely even of the same bloodline of these people, yet they came after me expecting me to be some horrible betrayer. Yeah, I read what the book said, and I know theres supposed to be some awful prophecy that the last of the Asylrith lineage would betray humanity in the most horrible of ways, but how could they even be sure it was me?
It occurred to me right then that they werent going after me specifically, they were trying to cut the line off entirely. I began to wonder just how many people throughout the centuries were subject to the same attacks, and unfortunately werent able to defend themselves. Fortunately for them, the Scourge took care of my father, and illness claimed my mother. Maybe I really was the last Asylrith, and I was alright with that.
It still didnt make sense though. The League of Arathor was supposed to be a noble remnant of a forgotten age, not the type to hire assassins. Desperation makes men do strange things, though, something I would do well not to forget. Even with this, I continued to harbor an uncertainty about the whole damned thing.
I looked down at the letter again, the page having been crumpled and stuffed into my tunic several dozen times. I had not been kind to it at all, mostly out of frustration from not only its contents, but how it related to what I had encountered these last few days. Frelle. What a silly little thing Elaran suggested. I mean, of course I cared about her well-being, but Im not the type to break hearts, or have my own broken.
Now there was another card thrown into the deck. Elaran and Meris may be untouchable for them, the former because shes a tiny vault of fireballs and the latter because she is so entwined in things that its formed an impenetrable net around her, but Frelle was neither. She was frail and naïve, despite being a master of a science I didnt know the first thing about.
Maybe that was unfair and extremely egotistical of me, but I never claimed to be perfect. Now that the situation had reared its ugly head all over again, it was all that I could think about. I wasnt going to run away again, Elaran said shed freeze my ass to the floor or something similar, but I couldnt put Frelle in the middle of all this.
Argos snorted, and I was shaken from my thoughts by the sound. The horse pawed at the cobbles impatiently, staring at me with accusation in his eyes. He obviously didnt take kindly to me stopping for a few minutes, even if all I was doing was sitting on a crate and reading. There was a muffled crash from inside the wine shop behind me, followed by a stream of cursing. It was time to move on.
I hopped off of the crate and saddled up, settling onto Argoss back comfortably. It had taken me a while to get used to riding again, though my swordsmanship still had a ways to go. I wasnt the warrior I once was, and time was working against me. Maybe Frelle had a point with all of her work, much as I hated to admit it.
Stormwind was as busy as ever, the citizenry going about their daily business with their usual level of noise and chaos. I averted my eyes and looked away when I passed where the League ambassadors were attempting to recruit adventurers, and I did their best to ignore shouts for my attention. Oh, I would be heading to Arathi, no doubts there, but it wasnt to work for them or fight the Defilers. I was going there to find answers.
Argos had better not be skittish around the tram cars.