The capital city of Volyumenth didn’t look like much from a distance, but after three weeks on the road in the back of a rickety cart, hounded by the elements every step of the way, it might as well have been a palace of gold to the weary travellers. Warden’s were usually carefully chosen to manage the most difficult territories under human dominion, often on the very edge of the known world and, as such, their seats of power tended to reflect this attitude. Halmstead, it seemed, stood as a testament to this idea.
A squat, stone keep sat atop the highest peak on a craggy outcrop of grey stone that plunged skywards from the heart of a broad plain. A dozen smaller buildings clung to the slopes beneath wherever they had found purchase on the jagged slopes of that mound. Even from where he huddled in the back of a cart, Hulbard could see that most of the buildings were a mixture of stone as ancient as the keep itself, and wooden structures with thatched rooftops.
The base of this outcrop was encircled by a thick wall of soaring, bulky grey stone dotted with towers along its length at regular intervals. Small farms sprawled outwards from that wall to make the most of the landscape surrounding it, hemmed in by stone walls heaved into place one piece at a time and left to stand under their own weight throughout the ages, or more humble wooden fences. Cottages stood among these fields, each of them small and meek.
A primitive backwards town in comparison to some of the magnificent cities they’d been to in the past, but Halmstead was where their path had led them. Primarily, Hulbard couldn’t help thinking, because of Shankhill, though their reluctance to enlist in the Akarthian civil war had definitely played a part. Still, it hadn’t helped that their erstwhile guide had stirred up enough trouble to get them ejected from the last city they’d been holed up in before making the trek into Volyumenth.
Their time in The Fissure outpost had been blessedly short compared to their stay at The Hunter’s Rest, before a caravan of fur traders from the north had come through, bound for Halmstead to restock their wares. Shankhill had worked his usual magic and struck a bargain with them; passage to Halmstead in their wagons, in exchange for the promise of their aid in the event of any trouble they might find along the way.
Thankfully, they hadn’t been forced to uphold their end of that particular bargain and Hulbard assumed it was because of two simple facts; there didn’t seem to be organised bands of raiders in the territory capable of doing much damage and the size of their group had likely deterred any smaller parties from doing anything rash.
Instead, Hulbard had spent most of his time rocking in the seat of a wagon towards the rear of the column, normally huddled against the driving rain or biting wind. The man sitting by his side might very well have lost his tongue for all he used it throughout their journey together, which only made the armoured giant appreciate the sight of civilisation all the more.
The traders had proven a grim, secretive company for the most part and viewed their new companions with a mixture of distrust and outright revulsion. Most reacted so badly to Semekt’s mere appearance that Knox started taking the Dramaskian with him as he ranged ahead. Trastgor, likewise, had been given such a wide berth that he’d been left largely to his own devices, which seemed to involve disappearing for days at a time. Shankhill, on the other hand, seemed immune to the traders silent scorn and had abandoned them all to become quite popular among the traders.
Most nights he regaled their travelling companions with tall tales of heroic feats around their fires, often only after being first plied with ale. That had always been Shankhill’s way though; he’d survived his entire life by turning enemies into allies where he could. That had been how the rogue had ended up in the company of Semekt and when you had a Dramaskian to swing four blades for you, it didn’t matter that Shankhill was possibly the worst fighter Hulbard had ever seen in his long years of combat.
Meanwhile, Quintus and Skye sat in the back of another cart just ahead and, from what Hulbard had overheard, the Sorcerer had spent the entire journey lecturing his apprentice on their surroundings. Namely history, from what he’d been able to gather, but that subject changed now as they began to make their way between the scattered farms and, close behind, Hulbard could easily overhear them with a little concentration.
“And that?” he was asking, pointing towards the nearest field and Skye craned her neck to peer over its wall.
“Eh...” she drawled, then left it hanging and turned back to her master with a blank stare.
“Potatoes!” Quintus threw up his hands in exasperation, “Gods be damned, girl, they’re potatoes!”
Hulbard had to smirk at that and wondered if she really was that ignorant, or if it was all just an act to rile the old man up. Ahead, the gates of the city swung open at their approach and the caravan was waved through by a bored looking group of guards standing outside in the grey livery of Halmstead. They gathered their things and dismounted their carts just inside the gate with the few farewell’s there were directed towards Shankhill and him alone. Then, they began their climb.
Here, at last, there seemed to be a mixture of young and old among the people. They passed children kicking a crude pigskin ball back and forth alongside adults going about their daily business. Hulbard saw a group of them in plain, homespun clothing gathered around a small building, chopping and shaping wood. Another stood with its doors thrown wide to reveal a smithy inside. It seemed everyone was keen to take advantage of the weather while it was dry.
Along the way towards the summit of that rocky spur, they passed a general store, an apothecaries, two different alehouses, an inn and several stalls erected in whatever shelter they could find, their owners hawking a variety of wares ranging from hand crafted necklaces to supplies for the road. Shankhill led his companions past them all, an eager and hungry glint to his eye, likely impatient to finally meet the ruler of Volyumenth.
Next, though, they began to pass Halmstead’s houses; the same large and imposing structures he’d seen from below, with little space set aside for anything not wholly necessary. Their gardens were kept small, neat and thronged with useful household items ranging from chopping blocks to iron tubs for washing clothing, ropes where they could be hung to dry, fishing and tanning racks.
A small temple stood on a circular shelf of stone above these, overlooking everything below and this alone seemed the exception to the rule with a rule area given over to grass in front of its dull grey walls. A willow tree almost as big as the place of worship itself stood in the middle of this garden, its limbs swaying gently in the wicked wind. It seemed a peaceful place, though empty as they passed.
Crowning it all, at the very summit of the stone ridge rising from the plains far below, stood Eirik’s keep. Hulbard, even before falling into Shankhill’s company, had seen his fair share of capital cities and now, he found himself standing in front of the most humble he could imagine. Though tall, it was a squat, angular structure clearly built with one purpose in mind; defence. The keep was, in every sense of the word, a fortress. It spoke of antiquity, with archaic brickwork, arrow slits for windows and crenulated battlements standing high above a door of ironbound wood a foot thick.
It was in front of these that two more soldiers stood in Eirik’s drab livery. Shankhill spoke to them in that silky, persuasive voice he reserved for wheedling his way through any doorway, while his companions milled awkwardly around the killing ground in front of the keep.
Hulbard idly amused himself by pondering the building before them as one of the guards disappeared inside to seek an audience, considering how best to besiege the place. He considered how many men he would need to conquer the glorified town, what supplies they would need, how best to assault the outer walls and move through the streets before finally tackling the keep. It wasn’t much of a pastime, but it kept him occupied while he waited.
Shankhill busied himself with trying to shine his boots, leaving the others to wait impatiently for several long minutes before the guard returned and waved them through the doorway. The little man led the way into a huge hall. The vaulted ceiling was supported by four thick pillars of solid stone artfully carved into the semblance of writhing serpents. A vast light fixture of bone and antler hung between them, wreathed in candles, their flickering glow joined by the light from torches set in sconces all around the hall.
Three large, scarred and pitted wooden tables dominated that space with one set directly ahead on a squat dais and two running lengthwise on either side to create a rough, three sided square facing the doorway. Several high backed chairs of polished and lacquered redwood loomed opposite them behind the raised table, though only three of them were occupied. An ancient, heavyset man sat in one, eyes dull and heavy lidded like he’d just been roused from a particularly deep sleep, while a pretty young woman sat in another. Between them lounged a figure that could only have been Eirik.
Hulbard had been expecting many things from a Warden, but not the man that sat before them now. For a start, he looked like he’d only just reached his mid twenties; a pale and slender man that bore more resemblance to a scholar than the ruler of a fringe territory. Despite his youth, his eyes were sunken in dark sockets, waxen skin drawn tight over sharp and hard features while his hair had already receded to leave him with a scruffy widows peak. A band of iron, with a faceted ruby at its heart, did its best to hide this fact.
The hide vest he wore only served to highlight his scrawny arms, alongside the bands of gold encircling his wrists, inlaid with precious gemstones. His fingers and neck were likewise bedecked with jewellery befitting a king. He watched them approach with a sardonic twist to his thin lips. Shankhill fell into a long stride to match even Hulbard’s, swaggering ahead with a smile already prepared.
“Warden” he called, throwing his arms wide, “Ladies and Lords of the court! Thank you for accepting our audience”.
“No need to shout” Eirik winced, “And there’s no need to stand on ceremony either. It’s never been much use around here”.
“Shame” Shankhill slid into one of his most elaborate bows, “But if you insist, I’ll do my best to restrain myself”.
“For the best, I’m sure” the Warden waved a dismissive hand, “To the point, however. I am told you killed some deserters up near Karensford”.
“Indeed we did” Shankhill said and Hulbard could tell that his companion was disappointed by the lack of ceremony.
“And some form of hag, they say?”
“We have the head to prove it, if you’d like to see it?” Shankhill offered, brightening up at the prospect of waving it around again.
“Sure” Eirik magnanimously waved his hand again, “Why not brighten this place up with a severed head?”
Beaming now, Shankhill delved into the bag offered by Quintus and triumphantly hefted the gruesome trophy into view, lifting it high for everyone to see. Eirik’s eyebrows rose before he glanced towards the older man on his left, while the woman on his right clasped her hands to her mouth.
“Yeah” the ancient one nodded with exaggerated wisdom, “That’s the head of something worth killing. Looks like it’s seen fresher days, though”.
“It was a long journey from where we slew this thing to your doorstep, I must say” Shankhill grinned, dropping the offending trophy back into its canvas bag.
“Then you have truly done us a service” the Warden allowed, “Someone, fetch them a bounty worth their efforts”.
“The sum of which is...?” Shankhill prompted gently, steepling his fingers greedily.
“I believe the bounty was twenty silver Cloves for the deserters” Eirik said before another sidelong glance towards his heavyset, ancient friend, “What would you suggest for the...creature?”
“Back home, the standard bounty for a witch such as this would be fifty Cloves” the older man said thoughtfully, “But I would be happy to take it off your hands for...say...sixty. If you were willing to hand that head over into my care, of course?”
“Ninety sounds closer to the mark I had in mind” Shankhill returned and Hulbard couldn’t help glancing towards Knox, restraining a knowing smirk with ease.
“Fine” the pudgy man grunted, “Pay them”.
An attendant, half hidden in the shadows nearby, bowed, turned and moved away, presumably to do just that.
“While that matter is tended to” the Warden said, “Come, sit with us. It’s a long road from the Fissure to our doorstep and we rarely have the opportunity to entertain visitors”.
Eirik clapped his hands and sent another nearby attendant ducking through a nearby archway into what Hulbard could only assume to be a kitchen of some sort. He followed Shankhill’s lead, dumping his backpack by one of the pillars and making his way across to the left table. They’d scarcely settled into place a guard emerged from another nearby passageway, carrying a small lockbox. This was handed over to Hulbard, who settled it at his feet under the table while the Warden and Shankhill made small talk.
Attendants returned as they spoke to set platters of food in front of the weary travellers; slices of ham, cuts of cheese, loaves of bread alongside clay jugs and cups of water, all nearly arranged before each of them in turn. Hulbard, despite how his stomach growled at the sight of all that food, kept his eyes on the Warden, saw his older friend lean in to whisper something in Eirik’s ear. The young ruler grimaced with something like annoyance, made a show of sighing heavily but waved his hand in a half hearted gesture of assent anyway.
Once the table was set, the older man pushed himself upright with the screech of wood against the floorboards, drawing a hush over the hall even before he imperiously cleared his throat.
“I would like your attention, please” he began, only to pause and look inquisitively towards the end of their table, eyes narrowing.
Hulbard turned to see Skye, half a block of cheese already stuffed into her mouth, eyes widening as the entire assembly turned to regard her. She looked from the speaker to him, then back again. Somewhere, Quintus heaved a forlorn sigh.
“Before you begin eating...” the speaker drawled balefully.
Skye noisily spat the cheese back out and flopped back into her chair with the air of a chastised child.
“Excellent!” he continued, “Now that I have your undivided attention, let me introduce myself. I am Cervanus Atatius, a tutor, scholar and representative from the Akarthian Library, and I was sent here almost three months ago to oversee a developing situation that I believe you might be able to help me with”.
That got Hulbard’s attention; the involvement of a Sorcerer from a Library meant something big. The institutions were few, far between, elusive and highly influential. If a high ranking member like Cervanus was in Volyumenth, there had to be a very good reason.
The man smiled gently before gesturing airily towards Quintus.
“I see before me a fellow Sorcerer,” he continued, “Is it reasonable to assume you know of Dalághast?”
“Vaguely,” Quintus told him in a guarded tone but Hulbard could see the gleam of hunger in the old man’s eyes, “Little beyond the fact that it’s a lost city”.
“Not lost,” Cervanus told him, “Only inaccessible. Though a closely guarded secret, we have always known the location of Dalághast. It was just always hidden from us by a barrier. Recently, we at the Akarthian Library noticed certain irregularities surrounding where we believe the city to lie, on the very edge of this very country. The nature of the disturbance has led us to believe that the barrier may be weakening. Weakening to the point where an entrance into Dalághast might possibly be affected”.
He paused to clear his throat and when he continued, the Sorcerer spoke in the same well mannered, clear tone Hulbard had often heard Quintus use whenever he started lecturing Skye. He sank back into his chair, suddenly alert, peering from one adept to the other but his companion seemed intent on betraying nothing of his thoughts.
“When Dalághast was sealed away from the world, between five and eight hundred years ago, great efforts were made to breach the barrier,” Cervanus continued solemnly, “Teams of Sorcerer’s from all across the world came together but none of them could devise an effective way to reach the lost city. They constructed great buildings to house complex and intricate mechanisms, but all of them failed and were eventually abandoned. Most fell into ruin over the last few centuries, but I believe one still remains that could possibly work. With the barrier weakening, it is also my belief that an entrance to Dalághast could be forged”.
Cervanus spread his arms to either side, beaming towards their table.
“When my superiors learned of my findings, they tasked me with affecting an entrance to Dalághast and, quite frankly, other things that I am not best suited for,” he continued, “So I have sat in this hall ever since, seeking a way to do what they decided. I’m but a single man though, and their demands are high for someone of my disposition”.
“They sent you here alone?” Quintus asked sharply, “One man to investigate a ruin lost for several centuries? From a Library world renowned for its War Mages?”
“Our resources are spread quite thin at the moment,” Cervanus admitted with an uncomfortable grimace, “We are but a small library, with few members and even those divided by this issue. Akarthus is in the grip of a civil war and, as such, we could not spare the numbers necessary to launch our own expedition into Dalághast. Instead, I’ve been waiting here in the hopes of contracting a band of suitably experienced mercenaries to aid me in my endeavours”.
“Then...” Shankhill spoke loudly now, “You are in need of bodyguards?”
“Oh no,” the Sorcerer chuckled brightly, clapping his hands on his flabby gut, “I am not, as you may have noticed, particularly suited to working in the field. I was sent here because of my mind, not my ability to go scurrying around in ruins. No, I’m simply seeking a group of...far more capable adventurers’ to investigate Dalághast in my stead and I believe you have already proven your worth by your deeds in Volyumenth so far”.
“And how would we find this place?” Quintus asked, stroking his lengthy beard thoughtfully.
“I would provide a map to this mechanism I spoke of,” Cervanus told them, “It failed when it was first constructed, but we believe the barrier was much stronger back then. It just might do the trick now, given what we have divined of the situation. The Akarthian Library is quite willing to compensate you, handsomely, to simply inspect this mechanism and see if it does, indeed, allow access to the city”.
“And,” Cervanus spoke the word loudly, lifting a finger to emphasise his next point, “If you were to cross that barrier and find yourselves in Dalághast, we at the Akarthian Library would also ask that you try to recover a very specific object from that place. A jewel said to have been hewn from the face of a star fallen to earth and held in the keep at that cities heart. If you could retrieve that and return it to me...well, I dare say it would be a priceless find”.
“A nice word, priceless,” Shankhill smirked, his words carrying easily across the hall, “But one that means little to a practical man. I prefer to deal in numbers and, I’m sorry to say, you have already shown your hand in that regard. You mentioned that this Library of yours was short of resources. How then do you intend to pay us anything for your time and expertise?”
“Resources in terms of manpower,” Cervanus allowed, “However, I feel the reason for that is quite important. Would my colleague like to hazard a guess as to why we have so few Sorcerer’s available for this little adventure?”
“The Akarthian Library pledged a contingent of War Mages to the civil war,” Quintus supplied, glancing towards Shankhill.
“And would you like to guess what those War Mages fight for?”
“Money. A lot of money”.
“To put it mildly,” Cervanus’ smirk was sharp as a blade, “I can assure you that our coffers are quite full”.
“Full isn’t a number,” Shankhill said, but Hulbard could see the greed in his narrowed eyes.
“Very astute,” Cervanus nodded amiably, “But, for this jewel, one hundred is”.
Shankhill was already scoffing at the number when the Sorcerer continued, silencing him in a heartbeat.
Hulbard’s grip tightened on the arms of his chair; a single Gold Clove was equal to two hundred and fifty Silver Cloves, more than they’d made the previous year by a substantial margin. Even split seven ways, it would be enough to keep them all in the lap of luxury for months to come. His mind was still reeling at the sum when Cervanus leaned forward and spoke the next word very slowly.
Shankhill visibly froze for a very long second. His mouth opened but for once, words seemed to fail him. Hulbard gulped loudly. Seven hundred Gold Cloves. It was the largest sum of money he’d ever heard spoken of, more than he’d ever dreamed would possibly be within his grasp. It was enough to send them all on their merry ways with more coin between them than he figured even Eirik possessed. Some governments survived with less in their coffers.
“That...,” Shankhill had to pause to lick his lips, “Is a rather generous offer”.
“Five hundred Silver Cloves without the star, to be split between you,” Cervanus drove home his advantage, “Though it is my assumption that it is not the kind of thing that can easily be missed, especially with a Sorcerer among your number. It has been described as a magnificent jewel worthy of rivalling the sun, if that helps?”
“I don’t rightly see how we could say no?” Shankhill offered with a shaky smile.
“Then we have a deal?” Cervanus asked.
The rogue cast a quick glance along the table and, meeting his gaze, Hulbard nodded. The other’s must have done much the same, given his next move.
“Then it is a deal” Shankhill said, shoving back his chair and rising.
He strode up onto the dais, smiling brighter than he ever had before, and shook the Sorcerer’s hand. Hulbard exhaled the breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding in a heavy sigh as the deal was made. He tried to focus on the job in front of them but found his mind already racing ahead to everything that sum of money would mean for him. He would never have to wear his armour another day so long as he lived.
A hundred Gold Cloves meant a mansion. It meant land, a stretch of farmland to keep the coins rolling in for the next several decades if he wanted it. The finest horse he could get his hands on. Custom made weapons, armour and a fresh supply of gems to power his own. It sang of security for years to come; for him, a wife, children. Anything they could ever want for.
“Then, with this deal struck” Cervanus smiled, “I think some sort of celebration is in order, no?”
“We might as well” Eirik allowed, turning to glance at his wife. “Layleth, prepare some chambers for our honoured guests and put out word of a feast”.
Hulbard splashed his face with ice cold water and massaged it into the soft flesh around his eyes for a long moment. Setting his hands on either side of the clay bowl on the dressing table, he peered into his reflection, met his own eyes as he willed his thoughts towards stillness and clarity. The price was so absurd that it made him automatically suspect some kind of double cross on the Sorcerer’s part, but he’d fought alongside War Mages in the past and knew that where their skills were concerned, no price was too high.
Whatever this ‘star’ turned out to be, the Sorcerer’s had a keen interest in getting their hands on it. If it had been in the possession of a King, they would need to seek out a keep within the ruins, some sort of palace and scour it for their prize. They’d raided several ruins in their travels, but had never sought anything specific in any of them. All had been scoured clean long before their arrival, left empty save for whatever quarry had fled into them that Hulbard had been a part of tracking down. Much like the deserters and their ruined watch tower they’d already dealt with in Volyumenth.
There’d been mention of ‘breaching’ some kind of barrier, but that was Quintus’ domain, not Hulbard’s, and he was happy to leave it to the old Sorcerer. His mind wandered again to the gold pieces, to everything it could get him and Hulbard realised he was already pondering which cities would be best to settle in once everything was said and done. Sighing, he pushed the thought from his head, firmly reminding himself that they needed to find this object first.
Returning to the present, he dipped a cloth into the warm water and used it to scrub the dirt of travel from his bare torso. The room he’d been given was small and drafty, but the linen sheets on the ill fitted bed felt more like satin after sleeping in the back of a cart in full plate armour over the last three weeks. The heavy, iron grey plates lay nearby, neatly arranged in one corner of the room and it felt good to shed himself of the weight.
Beneath, his body was honed from years of hard travel, untouched by blade save for a dull scar here or there. He quickly donned a faded blue shirt and a pair of plain, brown pants before dragging on his cleanest pair of leather boots. One last glance towards his reflection to make sure his dreadlocks were arranged in as presentable a way as he could manage, and Hulbard left the room to make his way back downstairs towards the great hall.
He returned to a hall in the throes of preparing for a feast and, it seemed, he was the last one of their number to return. Great iron braziers had been dragged into each of the hall’s four corners, piled high with wood and set alight to keep the creeping shadows at bay. Several thick blankets had been spread on the ground near one of the pillars, where he spotted Trastgor lounging in a sea of soft pillows, a selection of flavoured tobacco already spread before him. The Kurgal was puffing from his pipe, seemingly completely at ease, while Semekt lay coiled near him, watching everything with the impassive gaze of a reptile.
Quintus and Skye sat near their end of the table. The Sorcerer sat deep in thought, while his apprentice chattered away regardless with a far away gleam to her eye, likely talking about what she would do with her share of the gold. Knox and Shankhill were already waiting in the same seats as before, one slumped in his chair with the most insufferably smug smirk Hulbard had ever seen, the other sitting rigid and uncomfortable.
“I’m surprised that you didn’t try bartering for more” Hulbard said as he approached.
“Alas,” Shankhill chuckled, “I am only a man. Seven hundred hold pieces is a paltry sum for men such as us, I know, but I figured we’d lower our usual rate just this once”.
“Hmmmm,” Hulbard hummed as he sank into the seat between the two men, “I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to forgive you for this one. I just might have to hold it against you until we part ways”.
“Understandable,” Shankhill affected a deep sigh, but couldn’t hold back the almost animalistic grin that followed.
Hulbard smiled along, unable to help himself as he watched attendants come and go. They moved between the hall, where they busied themselves cleaning away the refreshments Skye had so readily devoured, and the kitchen. Among that bustle of activity, Hulbard was content to sit still, sinking back into the comfortable chair and allowing his entire body to relax into its embrace. He caught a whiff of fresh food and it set his mouth to watering, made him wish he’d scoffed down some of the food on offer before it had been tidied away.
News of the feast had spread fast, it seemed, because it wasn’t long before people began to arrive. Dressed in clean and fresh clothing, Hamstead’s inhabitants began to trickle into the hall as the sun descended outside, clearly eager to see Eirik’s guests. That eagerness didn’t tend to last long when they saw Semekt and Trastgor resting to one side though, their laughter trailing off into nervous gulps. Even so, most of them made some sort of effort to welcome them to the city with nods and the odd brave soul even offered up a pleasantry in Hulbard’s direction.
Now it was his time to gulp, nod back and smile as best he could. He’d never been the face of their group, only the immovable muscle, and too much attention only tended to leave him feeling uneasy. They filled the hall in a matter of minutes, occupying every available seat until more had to be called for and set wherever space could be found. Hulbard and the others were left alone at their own table, which seemed to suit everyone just fine. He surreptitiously watched them eyeing his group, leaning close to whisper and joke among themselves, while he tried his best to look as unapproachable as possible.
He spotted a trader or two from the caravan that had brought them there, but for the most part, it seemed like all of Halmstead had attended, from shopkeepers to innkeepers to craftsmen of all ages. Some sat at the high table alongside Eirik, Layleth and Cervanus, though these were the most opulently dressed of them all. While the adults sat and laughed, kids raced to and fro between their legs, filling the hall with the pleasant hum of good natured conversation.
As the sun slunk towards the horizon, the hall’s doors were swung shut on groaning hinges, sealing them inside and the chill night air outside. What followed was a procession of food befitting a far grander setting. Huge platters were brought forth from the kitchen, piled high with steaming vegetables and arranged on the tables before Eirik’s centrepiece’s were unveiled; three freshly slaughtered boars swimming in their own juices, one given over to each of the tables. Hulbard’s mouth watered at the sight of the succulent meat in the fire light, even before the scent of it struck him like a warhammer.
Other meat was produced as well, venison alongside slices of pork and lamb, though none could compare to the wild pig. Remembering himself, Hulbard closed his mouth with conscious effort and spared a glance for his companions. Skye was staring open mouthed at the food being arranged before them. Quintus, for once, looked suitably impressed as well, while even Knox cracked a smirk. Shankhill was rubbing his hands together greedily, while Trastgor grinned, flashing his prominent canines to the obvious discomfort of the serving girls. Of their number, only Semekt looked unimpressed and Hulbard had a suspicion that was because the Dramaskian was physically incapable of doing otherwise.
It was, without a doubt, the finest meal they’d been presented with in over two years, but exactly the kind of meal he’d be eating once a week if they found what they were looking for in Dalághast. Eirik rose to his feet as the last of the food was set in place and clapped his hands together, drawing the excited hum of conversation to a quick close.
“Welcome friends” he called, his voice far from as fine as the food arranged around them, “Tonight, we are gathered to honour our guests from the west”.
At this, he gestured towards their table and Hulbard managed a smile in response as all eyes turned towards them.
“They have taken up the cause or our good friend, Cervanus” the Warden continued, “And set their sights on his lofty quest. To mark their courage, I bid you all to be merry this night. Eat your fill. Drink as you please. You are all my favoured guests before the dawn”.
He clapped his hands again and this time, as the sound died, it was replaced by the sound thud-thud of a drum. As Eirik sank back into his throne, the townsfolk hammered their cups and fists against the table opposite, baying, cheering and calling their appreciation. At the same time, a procession of musicians marched into the hall and took up their positions in a shadowy corner.
With that, the feast seemed to commence and there was a flurry of activity as everyone hurried to fill their plates. Hulbard wasted no time carving slices of dark, succulent meat from the boar’s rump and piling it onto his plate. They were joined by freshly boiled potatoes, green beans, an ear of corn and a serving of mushrooms, all drizzled with a helping of thick gravy from a nearby jug. The band struck up a low, rhythmic tune, filling the hall with a merry melody as they ate.
“Not too shabby at all” Shankhill commented with a near delirious smile.
Hulbard grunted in response, wasting no time with words as he dug into the meal. If anything, it tasted better than it had looked and he savoured every bite as he tore through his plate of food and helped himself to a second, paying little attention to anything else around him.
Knox tore into the meat with abandon, despite his slender frame and normally slight appetite. Catching his eye, Hulbard winked and the hunter grinned back. Looking past him, he saw Skye digging into her own meal with a vengeance that would have put either of them to shame. Below, Trastgor eagerly picked over a selection of fruit and cold meat alongside Semekt, who’d begun tearing them to shreds with a set razor sharp fangs.
Hulbard couldn’t resist the briefest of pauses to watch the Dramaskian eat; Semekt only rarely consumed anything, but when the serpent did, it was always a sight to behold. Holding a leg of lamb, the creature leaned down and, because he knew exactly what to listen for, Hulbard heard the distinctive crunch of an unhinging jaw. He stared as they gaped wide and the leg was fed past a row of retracted fangs. Rearing backwards, Semekt swallowed the entire leg, bone and all, in one throaty gulp. The Dramaskian gulped several more times, hacked a bestial cough and then reached for another.
Interesting as it was, the sight was nothing compared to the horrified expressions of the people sitting at the table opposite, many of which looked like they’d just lost their appetites. Meanwhile, the Dramaskian seemed to be steadfastly ignoring them. In truth, Hulbard wasn’t even sure if the serpent knew he was being stared at. He’d long suspected their companion had difficulty recognising different people in their own group, let alone distinguishing the expressions of strangers. Pushing those thoughts aside, he returned to his own food with relish.
Once he’d polished off every morsel he could, Hulbard slumped back into his chair with a breathless sigh of otherworldly pleasure. Everywhere he looked, others were doing the same, from his companions to those gathered across from them, settling in to relax after the sumptuous feast.
As conversation resumed, Hulbard saw Cervanus excuse himself from the top table and make his way down towards them. He spared them a pleasantry or two in passing, but passed all the same to draw up a chair next to Quintus instead. True to expectation, Skye didn’t last long before she made up some sort of excuse and meandered her way up the length of the table towards them instead.
Hulbard scooted his seat aside, letting her slip between him and Shankhill to plant herself on the edge of the table.
“Not interested in talking with your peers?” he asked her with a wry smile.
“I’d rather pluck an eye out, to be honest” she replied, “Preferably not my own, but anything to avoid listening to two boring old men bullshitting their way through a conversation. Why ruin a good night?”
“You might learn something” Knox told her in his best imitations of Quintus’ deep drawl.
“Not likely” she snorted, peering around.
This time, it was her turn to smirk wickedly as she spotted a group of attendants manhandling several barrels into the hall from the kitchen.
“Those, on the other hand, look like my idea of a fun time” she told them.
“I could use a drink” Hulbard said, “Knox looks like he’s about to die of thirst as well here, the poor man”.
“No problem” Skye chirped, slipping off the table.
“I’ll take one” Shankhill piped up.
“Sorry Shanks” she tossed over her shoulder, “I don’t think they have anything weak enough for your stomach”.
Hulbard had to laugh and Knox spared the comment a rueful grin. Even so, when she returned, Skye was carrying a tray with four cups on it. Taking one for herself, she let the others take their own tankards before finding a stool and planting it nearby, pointedly ignoring the dire glare Quintus shot in her direction. Hulbard thought little enough of the gesture; the old man disapproved of everything.
“Alright” Hulbard said, lifting his tankard, “A toast then. To Dalághast!”
“Dalághast and the gold it promises” Knox said softly.
“To me for bringing us here” Shankhill grinned.
“Dalághast” Skye repeated with a delighted glint to her eye.
A sharp whistle from Hulbard brought Trastgor’s head around and he lifted his own cup in response. The mead was fine. Finer than he’d been expecting and in spite of this, he drained a full half of the tankard in one fell swoop, noisily gulping it down. Thumping it back down on the table, he belched thunderously, before grimacing at the acrid aftertaste. The others, even Skye, drank just as deep and slammed their tankards down onto the table alongside his.
“Now that” Skye sighed dreamily, “Is exactly what I needed”.
The already gentle music died towards silence before Hulbard could respond, but only for a second. When the musicians resumed, the drum set a faster rhythm and was quickly joined by the high pitched piping of a lute. Next came the softly plucked chords of a harp, all combining to create a swift, upbeat and merry tune that filled the hall to the brim.
The people of Halmstead cheered and called to each other as they rose to their feet. Pairing off, they took to the space between the tables and began to sway wildly to the beat of the tune. Here, at last, it seemed like they’d found some semblance of life in Volyumenth. They gave themselves to the music, filled the hall with the thunder of their feet as they spun this way and that in time with the thumping drums, lilting flute and tinkling harp.
Hulbard had never been much of a dancer to begin with but between his size and how his head was already swimming after the mead, he figured his involvement with the coordinated mass down below could only end in tragedy. So instead, he sat and drank with his companions, calling to the attendants stationed around the hall whenever their cups were running dry.
Shankhill laughed and joked by his side, bright eyed and teeth gleaming, interrupted liberally by Skye with quips of her own. Her smirks were full of veiled mischief, her remarks biting and razor sharp, though she spent most of her time glancing over her own shoulder. Knox loosened up as the drink flowed, his lanky frame slumping into his chair instead of sitting ramrod straight, his dark eyes restlessly scanning the room while he tapped his foot in time to the music. After three hastily downed tankards, he seemed to notice something and quietly excused himself, bowing out of their conversation before Hulbard could ask where he was going.
Assuming the hunter had simply gone to the latrine, he was caught off guard when he spotted Knox a few minutes later. The hunter had taken to the dance floor, a serving girl swaying in his arms. They spun together, their hands intertwined as he led the way, movements smooth and full of confidence.
“I’ll be damned” Hulbard chuckled, “Who knew he could dance, eh?”
“Look at that old bastard go!” Shankhill laughed, “Never seen that before”.
“Awh” Skye cooed, “I think that’s sweet!”
It was another hour of idle chatting before she slammed back the last of her latest tankard and disappeared as well, leaving Hulbard with Shankhill at one end of the table and Quintus with Cervanus at the other, deep in conversation. He could hardly blame them for wanting to mingle with other people for a change, but he’d never been much good with social graces. Drink helped with that little problem but it also tended to create a host of others, as it had done many times in the past. That knowledge made it easy to resist some of the temptations that wormed their way into his mind though, such as the urge to speak with Eirik’s beautiful wife.
Turning away from her at the high table, he gestured for another tankard from the nearest attendant before he caught a glimpse of Skye by one of the kegs, talking to one of the grey clad guards. She held a drink in one hand and was running the other through her blonde hair, tossing it over one shoulder with a bright smile.
The sight made him gulp as a pang of sudden anger stabbed through his chest, irrational and unexpected. He couldn’t place the sensation exactly, knew only that he took a vehement dislike to the guard, an emptiness blooming in his chest like a physical blow. Averting his eyes for fear of what he might do otherwise, Hulbard returned his attention to Shankhill, seeing him gently swaying in his seat, boots thrown up onto the table and tapping in time with the music. Here was just the distraction he needed.
“Shanks” he called, leaning drunkenly close, “Why don’t you regale everyone with one of your famous tales, eh?”
“Ha!” Shankhill barked, “And ruin the music?”
“They can have music any night of the week but they’ll only get the chance to hear you spin your yarns the once” Hulbard told him pointedly, groping for his tankard and only managing to find it on his third attempt.
Shankhill turned his fever bright eyes on the hall as the latest song wound its way towards a conclusion and Hulbard saw a smile tug at his lips, knew he’d won. The applause from the dancers had scarcely faded before the rogue threw back the last of his latest pint, wiped his mouth on his sleeve and then rose imperiously to his feet.
“Friends!” his strident voice cut through the hall, “Indulge me!”
All eyes turned towards him and Shankhill beamed down at them, hands already lifted in a heartfelt plea for silence.
“In reverence of the hospitality you have shown myself and my companions this day, allow me to do what I can to repay the favour”.
The townsfolk clapped and bayed their approval before trickling back from the floor to their seats. They flopped into their chairs, called for a procession of attendants with fresh drink while Knox parted from his dancing partner with a gentlemanly kiss to the back of her hand.
“First!” Shankhill held up a hand, one finger extended, “Let me tell you about our time in Volyumenth, for it has not been without incident. Even by our standards, our time here so far has been worth noting”.
And so he launched into a tale, strutting down to take centre stage on the now empty floor between the tables. He began to gesture as he walked to and fro, effortlessly weaving a tale around their time in the territory. A hush fell over the hall and Halmstead’s residents watched, enthralled, while Shankhill cast his spell over the assembly.
Naturally, he left out any mention of their less interesting time waiting around The Hunters Rest and the uneventful weeks of travelling through their countryside. Instead, he spoke of lawless deserters fleeing justice, only to be hunted down and made pay for their violent crimes against king and country. Next, he told them about the misty bog and the witch that lurked therein, fearlessly slain for the betterment of all mankind, her wicked reign brought to a swift and brutal end by their combined efforts.
Even Hulbard was so caught up in Shankhill’s performance that he barely noticed Skye returning to sit next to him. With drink flowing freely, the night disintegrated into a merry haze of breaths held in suspense, laughter at jokes his companion seemed to pluck from thin air to dispel any tension and the pounding of his fist on the table in appreciation.
Once he’d brought their adventures in Volyumenth to a close and had his audience practically begging for more, Shankhill began to speak of how their merry band had fallen in together throughout the years. He told of the hulking warrior from the north in gem encrusted armour, the Kurgal Blademaster, the peerless archer who’d only recently dazzled all present with his dancing, the loyal Dramaskian with his lethal blades, the grand Sorcerer and his soon to be even more grand apprentice. Skye laughed at that comment and Hulbard fancied he saw even Quintus crack a smile, though by that stage in the night, he could hardly see anything beyond two foot in front of his face.
The hour was late by the time Shankhill called his show to a close and took a final bow to another round of thunderous applause. By then, the fires in the braziers were burning low and, with an end to their entertainment, the townspeople began to drift home. They made a show of praising both Eirik and Shankhill in equal measure as they departed, many staggering and stumbling along, singing as they stepped out into the cold night air. Eirik too excused both himself and his wife, retreating upstairs with Cervanus in tow.
Knox didn’t last much longer, practically passing out where he sat. Shankhill, exhausted after his performance, bid them all a goodnight with several hugs and clapped hands before he stumbled his way upstairs. Skye disappeared at some stage as well, leaving Hulbard, Trastgor and Quintus to drink late into the dawn.
I've been writing for as long as I can remember, mostly fantasy though I dabble in science fiction from time to time. I wrote commissioned pieces of work for several years but found that it was taking up so much of my time that I wasn't ever getting a chance to work on my own ideas so, deciding that life is simply too short, I left that chapter of my life behind and began dedicating all my free time to developing my own stories, whether they are short in stature or full scale novels.
At this point in time, I have several projects on the go and I'm mostly just looking for ways to branch out and reach a broader audience.