Fantasy Fiction posted April 7, 2021 Chapters:  ...11 12 -13- 14... 

This work has reached the exceptional level
Wolf meets Virriel in Malden and recruits help

A chapter in the book The Stoneseekers


by duaneculbertson

A man is tasked by a god to compete in a cosmic contest about Good, Evil, and defining the nature of Justice.
The sun set behind Wolf as he trod through the Western Gate of Malden, an unconcerned gatekeeper allowing him to pass unquestioned, his roadwarden uniform once again proving useful.

Two days of hard riding had been tough on Glamdray. Regretfully, he decided to sell the animal; he needed money and could not afford a stable anyway. He sold his horse at a nomadic shanty town hastily erected a stone’s throw from the city walls.

Wolf knew the foreign merchant had raked him over the coals, but there was little he could do. He was not bargaining from a position of power. The bearded man may not have known Vulgarate, but he understood people. He read desperation in Wolf’s face and noticed the travel-dust heavy upon his clothes before adjusting his price accordingly.

Ten sesterces felt like an insult to the proud beast, a former war-horse, no less. Such a pittance Wolf could not abide and haggled the man to twenty sesterces, still only half the horse’s value, but he needed to press on. Nightfall would arrive soon, and he did not wish to be an easy target for thieves as he made his final approach to the city on foot.  

The next logical concern was how to solve the problem of hiding twenty sesterces, the cumbersome coins ten times the weight of a denarius.  He hid some in his boots. Some in his travel bag. The majority he stashed in his body-belt. To his dismay, he noticed the grim visage of his uncle upon the face of one of the coins. The title “Aethling” sat ominously under the square, arrogant chin. This land was in trouble if he were to ascend the throne; it was unlikely the hard-headed, shallow egomaniac would give much consideration to his Counsel of Royal Advisors.

Before leaving the shop, the happy merchant had tried to persuade Wolf to buy an exotic beast, a durak, claiming the monstrosity could travel hundreds of miles without water. With blue-grey fur, a long neck, bulging eyes, and a misshapen, humped back, the creature looked more like a carnival curiosity than a useful pack animal. Wolf had no interest in buying such an oddity. Besides, the ugly thing would only make him an easy target to track and identify.

Save the encounter with Quendar, the journey had been uneventful. If a warrant had been issued for his arrest, no effort had been made to act upon it. It was possible bounty-hunters were on his trail, but he was confident he had not been followed. Occasionally, he saw a concealed highwayman hiding by the roadside, but the sight of the tall man astride the powerful warhorse was enough to discourage thoughts of robbery.

Throughout his life, Wolf enjoyed a kind of feral sense. He did not know how it worked or why he had it. But he knew the crawling numbness washing over his body warned of impending danger. He shared this atavistic trait with his paternal grandfather, Warlord Machus Kantwohner. Tales boasted of supernatural powers that endowed the chieftain with unparalleled situational awareness on the battlefield, as if he had eyes in the back of his head. Wolf thought it was just the kind of talk used to embellish stories, but one day he experienced it himself, the ability allowing him to escape a bear attack.

One day the great warlord chose to share his secret, recognizing the trait in his grandson. Eager to learn more, the younger man pressed him, but the older man could offer no explanation other than they were somehow special. Closer to the animals. Closer to the Mother. His inability to articulate his meaning did not surprise Wolf as Machus was known better for swinging his battle-axe than exercising his mental faculties.

Wolf sauntered into Malden, his slower pace a reflection of the fatigue and dread he felt. He hated this city, angrily dismissing the beggars who accosted him after passing through the gates. Some he sent sprawling. He knew the people of the streets were skilled at liberating items from pockets, and he was not about to become a victim. Always on guard for treachery, he was even more vigilant now that he carried such a large sum of money, for, no matter how well money is hidden, thieves always instinctively know the lucrative targets. And Wolf held no delusions regarding the Malden Watch. The itinerant, roving band of peacekeepers were incompetent at best, and often displayed indifference to the cries of those they were sworn to protect, whether residents or travelers.

With the approaching darkness, traffic increased, dozens rushing to get to their destination before gates closed. Passage was still possible for stragglers, but the scrutiny was unpleasant and often involved bribes. Like the guards, Wolf paused to watch these people pour into the city and disperse. He would need food and a place to stay. Searching his surroundings for a familiar landmark, he found none. He had not spent much time in these parts. Normally, he would have entered the Eastern Gate, but he had been forced to this location by his desire to sell his horse at the shanty town. He could have walked around to another entrance, but he wished to avoid circumnavigating the city walls at night carrying a fortune in silver.

Grudgingly, Wolf had to admit the ancient capital still held charm. The aqueducts transporting water throughout the city were a marvelous accomplishment, and few places in the Empire could boast such an engineering feat. Green gardens lush with plant-life interspersed and accompanying the miles of water-delivering channels was a welcome change in a land recently scorched by the unusual Summer heat. The sun had taken its toll on the countryside, leaving only yellows and browns where vibrant flowers and green grasses once flourished.

Darkness coupled with the fog of partial recollection led Wolf to hesitate, unsure which road to take.  It was in this state of contemplation that a short, stout man approached. The stranger wore a sailor’s uniform, which was odd since sailors were only granted leave certain times of year, and this was not one of them. Most of the navy occupied ports in far off Xanadu.

            “Sir, for a denarius I’ll show you some fine lodgin’s. Give ya’ a guided tour of the city as well. Ya’ can’t lose with such an offer!”

            “Thanks,” Wolf replied. “But I just want a cheap place to stay with the chance of a meal.” As soon as he had uttered the words, he regretted them; it was best to say nothing under these circumstances. The correct response would have been – “I’m all set” or “I’ve got plans.”

            “Oh sir! I know just the place! Charming and stocked to the brim with friendly characters. A little Public House known as the Blue Moon. Good food and a place to stay at a price that can’t be beat.”

            Wolf had never heard of the place, but his stomach rumbled at the mention of food and he did need lodgings. He surprised himself by considering the offer.

            “You there!” The sailor pointed at two others. An odd couple. One, tall and slender, probably a nobleman judging by the quality of his clothes. The other a dwarf, but unlike any Wolf had ever seen. Her long orange hair cascaded around her broad shoulders and framed a beautiful face with high cheekbones and full, sensual lips. Taller than one would expect, yet still under five feet, her enormous biceps drew Wolf’s attention. The soft beauty of youth residing in her face contrasted sharply with her commanding eyes that looked like they had seen many battles. A formidable presence and an exotic beauty, she would be difficult for anyone to ignore.

            “Why would we you follow?” she asked, in her curious Dwarven accent.

Not all dwarves were fluent in Vulgarate. Wolf guessed she was from one of the noble families that interacted little with the rest of the world. It was not unreasonable to assume this was her first time walking amongst humans.

            “Think we can’t care for ourselves?” she pressed.

            “Mighty dwarf, I have no doubt you are well suited to look after yourself and your charming companion. I merely wish to offer my services. My specialty is introducing travelers to our fine city. Been doin’ it for nigh on twelve years; I know everything there is to know about it, and I can find a place that will suit your needs.”

            “We can do that for ourselves,” the slender man said coldly. He spoke in High Etrurian, confirming Wolf’s suspicion the young man belonged to the aristocracy.

Undoubtedly the remark was designed to unsettle the sailor, the noble probably suspecting such discourse beyond his comprehension. While it was generally true the nobility could speak High Etrurian and Vulgarate, this ability was rare in a commoner.

            “Yes, but I’ve the advantage of knowing which Inns have vacancies,” he replied with a condescending smile. It was unclear if he knew High Etrurian or simply interpolated the meaning of the aristocrat’s comment. Regardless, his demeanor suggested they were all being foolish to resist his offer.

            “I don’t believe it,” said the slender man, reverting to Vulgarate. He spoke with such ease that it was clear he preferred the language of the common man.

             “Oh, ‘tis true, my friend,” replied the sailor. “You see, I’ve already purchased all the rooms myself.”

            “You’re just a bloody scalper!” Wolf exclaimed. “In Aachen, you’d spend the greater part of a day in the stocks for your actions. And some would insist that you be tarred and feathered.”

            “Oh, sir!” said the sailor, feigning shock. “Do they still do that there? Well, thankfully, we are not in Aachen. And your assessment of my occupation is woefully incorrect. In reality, I am a mere convenience salesman. I ensure all travelers have a place to stay when they arrive. If you check, you’ll see there’s almost no markup for my services. No one is ever gouged … at least, not by my hands.”

            “I suppose you’re compensated in other ways,” said the aristocrat.

            “The gentleman is correct. Now, follow me, I know a wonderful place where you can lodge for the night. You can pay me a denarius for my trouble later. Name’s Finny, by the way.”

The man’s last remark hung awkwardly in the air, as reciprocating introductions were not offered.

            “Well, Finny, you seem to have quite a silver tongue,” said Wolf. “Do they teach oration now at naval academies? I was unaware of this development.”

The nobleman laughed, but the dwarf beside him remained impassive. Perhaps she was not given to idle banter, or perhaps she was hindered by a limited vocabulary. Or, most likely, she was the nobleman’s bodyguard, wisely using her time to scan areas harboring potential ambushes and reading the faces of those who walked within striking distance of the man she was paid to protect.

            “No,” Finny chortled. “Tis just a skill I’ve cultivated. They say I’ve got the gift of gab, and I like dealing with people. You may find this hard to believe, but I was once enrolled at the Academy.”

            “Yes, I do find that hard to believe,” Wolf remarked flatly. He scrutinized the charismatic man. His pale complexion seemed at odds with his claims of having spent appreciable time at sea. Even the arctic traders of Norsica wore some color upon their brow. Then there was the issue of Finny’s muscular legs, inconsistent with the premise of living aboard a ship where one had little room to exercise. On the contrary, his body-type was reminiscent of the worthy competitors Wolf once faced during his sprinting days at the Aachen County Fair. He had served in the Royal Navy as well. And all the sailors he knew were suntanned, weather-beaten men with large arms and permanently blackened hands caused by the tarred ropes used in the riggings.

Cracking a faint smile, Wolf shook his head from side to side. He was using Alcuin’s method, his logical approach to deconstruct Finny’s premise; he was turning into his teacher.

            “When did you do your service, Finny?” Wolf asked, hoping to trip him up.

            “Hmmm, ‘tis hard to know. What year is it now? Ha ha! My nerves tell me it could not have been that long ago. Ten years perhaps? I saw some awful stuff while on the seas. Been in hot water more times than I care to tell.”

            “What campaign?” Wolf prompted.

            “Xanthi, I spent much time in Xanadu. That’s where I got this tattoo.”

Finny pointed to a blue crescent on his calf muscle.

            “Very nice. What ship were you on?” Wolf asked, hoping to trip him up.

            “Ah, let me see,” Finny mused. He scratched his head as they continued to navigate the labyrinthine streets and back alleys.

            “T’was a frigate,” he nodded. “The EES Bastion, I believe.”

Wolf grunted. His story was plausible. He had even been stationed aboard that very ship at one time.For the moment, he would continue to follow the enigmatic guide.

Like a bard, Finny regaled his audience, spinning absurd tales concerning the historical importance of one building or another, when it was clear to all that they were in the notorious “pleasure” district, replete with seamy brothels and opum dens.

Sweat gathered upon the aristocrat’s brow. The plush velvet tunic he wore was not the best choice for this evening. To make matters worse, he ported a rucksack over his shoulder that seemed bursting to capacity. His eyes darted, as if full of nervous energy. Perhaps he too carried an unwise quantity of silver. His companion lent weight to this theory with her habit of hefting her weapon whenever anyone approached and regarding every shadow with frosty hostility.

            “In this very archway …” Finny rambled. “Vlad the Just led a valiant charge against an invading horde of Romanians sacking the city. He vowed not to make the same mistake his grandfather made in trying to bargain with these brigands, since that particular army nearly drained the entire treasury. And there is the infamous story of how the protests of the Maldeners inspired no mercy; for when the words were heard by the ears of the invading general, the man simply said ‘Woe to the conquered’, adding his sword to the scale of weights to be balanced by an equal weight of gold. No, that would not be their fate. Not this time. And, as it is written, Vlad held fast! Outnumbered four to one, he rallied his warriors and inspired our citizens, leading them to the final charge that saved the day. Present-day Maldeners are forever in his debt. There is even a statue of him somewhere … Northtown, I think. Though, I assure you this is where it happened.”

Wolf scanned his surroundings. With every twist and turn Finny had led them past buildings with decreasing affluence. Complex architecture gave way to dwellings of lesser skill, reminding Wolf of the shanty town he had just visited. In the more prosperous parts of this city, these structures would likely be condemned. This disturbing trend drove Wolf to confront their eccentric guide once again.

            “Oh, it’s just a little further. Be patient. It’s worth the wait. You’ll see.”

Rising high into the sky, the moon bathed everything in silvery light. Wolf suspected they were in the heart of Southtown. Perhaps the Devil’s Den. He almost wished the moonlight were not present to illuminate the squalid path they followed. The luminosity was curious tonight, casting a greater offering of its pale light. Wolf swore it looked nearly three times its normal size.

Abject poverty abounded. Wolf felt embarrassed by its stark contrast with the palace life he’d seen just days before. Here, children went barefoot, loitering aimlessly, begging in threadbare rags. Stale beer, rotten food and urine formed a pervasive stench. Adults of every age sat idle. Some stared at them with hollowed eyes. Others paid no attention at all, escaping reality by means of narcotic-induced visions.

They walked in silence now, Finny having exhausted his apocryphal tales of pseudo-history. Wolf fell behind to study his travel companions. The dwarf looked like a soldier of some sort, though Wolf could not discern her allegiance. Her outfit carried no family crest or sigils of allegiance. Leather vambraces protected her forearms, while a padded blue gambeson rested beneath a chain-mail hauberk. Leather straps secured a steel-breastplate, scrupulously burnished to a mirror-like finish. Wolf wondered how the dwarf was able to wear such heavy armor, especially in the blazing summer heat. She must be exceptionally fit, as she had no trouble keeping pace. Wearing the armor was probably easier than carrying it. That made sense. No one would choose to walk around wearing full battle armor if they could help it. Furthermore, no sane warrior would wear a mail hauberk beneath a steel breastplate. They would choose one or the other. Not both.

Maybe she was the young man’s bodyguard. That would provide a likely explanation for their association. He would have loved to ask them whether their relationship was personal or professional, but he had been raised to observe proper etiquette, a habit he refused to break. Nevertheless, he could not help wondering if they were on intimate terms. Were they friends? Were they lovers? Interracial pairings were rare, but not unheard of. Wolf refused to dwell on the topic any further. He had more important matters to consider such as their situation, which had become less promising each minute.

A metal door stood at the end of an alley that widened into a circular area probably used for loading carts. A rusted storm drain punctuated the irregular pattern of cobblestones. Wolf felt a crawling numbness wash over his body, a feral warning of danger.

            “Welcome to the Blue Moon,” Finny cackled. “Enjoy your stay.”

With those parting words, their guide disappeared behind the metal door. A bar slid into place. Then a bolt drew back to reveal a pair of malicious eyes. It was then they realized they were not alone.

            “It’s a trap!” Wolf bellowed. They huddled in the center of the circular space, as the walls came alive. A dozen cloaked figures sprang from the shadows, some dropping from rooftops. Brandishing clubs, the blackened forms converged upon their prey in the silvery moonlight.

Wolf knew these thieves would offer no mercy; they would beat them to death and rob their corpses. No negotiations. Terror seized his heart. They were outnumbered three, four, perhaps even five, to one. They would be overwhelmed. Wolf shouted for the Watch, knowing it would do no good. The glacially slow, roving volunteer unit would not arrive in time, even if they heard their cries. They were on their own.


Note: To those of you who have followed the story faithfully: there is an eight chapter jump now. It will not impact the overall story, but some references may not have been discussed. I am excited to finish the book and have it available for sale on my website. If I publish every chapter here, I will not meet my timetable. Thank you. Dave
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