The fire crackled in the old weathered stone hearth of the Whispering Waves Inn as many beleaguered travelers huddled around its cascading warmth. They’d all ventured far from home to be here, a last ditch effort to earn coin where all else had failed for them. Some might call them heroes, but most called them vagabonds, cutthroats, waste-aways or worse.
Owen, the stout innkeeper and proprietor, announced to the crowd. “Evenin’ Stew is up for ye folks! Get over here and scuffle it down before it’s all gone!”
The shivering mass of folk scurried towards the central oaken bar where two strapping teenage boys muscled cauldron onto a platform on its interior corner before ascending steps to ladle out bowls. Their march was halted by the clank of armor of a few dingy men plodding across the creaking floor from an outlying table, a hand motioning them to stop.
“You’ll take your turn last, you lot,” he said in a firm, commanding tone. “Realmseekers eat first!”
The crowd grumbled and shuffled but dared to get no closer. “That’s Gareth Ironheart,” one of the rabble whispered. “They say he single-handedly defeated the Iron Golem of Obsidians’ Labyrinth and ripped its cold heart out to replace his own impaled organ.”
Gareth’s chiseled jaw and scarred armor confirmed the credibility of the rumors and demanded respect and fear for those who dare cross him, but a single lass pushed to the front, bold and reckless. With her teeth gritted in frustration and hunger, she chucked a mug at the back of his head. “Says who? These rules are just things you lot made up on your own! I don’t recall having a say in any of it!” Ravena shouted as her tangled black mane cascaded down over her left eye as she palmed her hair pick, ready for a fight.
The glass twirled through the air as the rabble watched with bated breath and the ensuing drama about to unfold, but Gareth Ironheart snatched it in a quick snap. “Thanks for the mug! You’ve got good aim, but telegraph your intent. You’d never last down below!” he said as the other Realmseekers erupted into laughter.
Everyone was distracted during the raucous. Every single person except the frustrated Ravena, eager to put Gareth’s pompous ass in his place. She watched him with the focus of an eagle spying its next meal while the crowd of Hearthjockeys shouldered past her, returning to their pitiful accommodations near the fire, waiting hopefully to be picked up by a troupe of Realmseekers in need of a bag carrier or torch wielder. Anything to get their foot in the door.
That’s when she noticed Gareth’s hand reaching behind the bar while everyone was distracted with stew and laughter, palming a distinctive stone disc into his belt pouch. It was green and bore wavelike etchings on its smooth surface. “Thief!” Ravena shouted as she pointed at Gareth.
The crowd stopped and stared as she marched up to confront him. “He stole a Realmkey from behind the bar!” she said.
Owen bent down to double check. “No lass, they’re all here, all accounted for.”
“I just saw him take one! It was green and had waves on it!” Ravena said, thrusting her hand into his pouch as Gareth placed his hands in the air, smirking. Her search turned up empty. Frustrated, she pivoted to explain to Owen, meeting his gaze.
Owen’s blue eyes matched the water at the shore outside and he had a softer look that was inviting but belied a firm manner. “Lass, ye know I don’t like people accosting my customers, now get your hands off Gareth here. Ye are, but just an upstart and haven’t contributed a thing to the Whispering Waves yet. These men understand where they eat. Besides, the disc you’re talking about goes to the Emerald Seas and its green glow is known to poison the body of those who venture there without proper attire.” Owen said, holding up Realmkey.
“And those who could tame its crystalline waters would hold the power to forge the waves as he saw fit!” a patron announced, sloshing his mug into the air before gulping it down.
Ravena relented. The key was plainly in Owen’s hands, but what did she see Gareth take? She faced him to stare him in the eyes as he chuckled and responded. “Look girl. You’ve got some spirit, I’ll give you that, but you’re the one with the biggest motive to steal around here. Why don’t you turn out your own belongings since you’ve already turned out mine?”
The crowd gasped at Ravena’s hesitation. Owen nodded as his two bouncers grabbed her by the shoulders and Gareth stepped forward to rifle through her pockets, revealing a bit of unpurchased bread from her tattered dress. “What have we here?” he said, holding the food up to her eye and then aloft for all to see before handing it to the innkeeper.
“Egads girl! Ye could’ve asked me. No need to thief your way to the top! Get her to the dungeon for a few days until she shows some respect, then she can take on some cleaning duties after that!” Owen demanded.
“No! You can’t! That wasn’t even in my pockets. It’s a setup!” Ravena shouted as she was dragged to the basement steps that were known to descend into the dark depths of the Inn’s jail cells. Out here in the wilds beyond civilization, law was kept by coin, agreement, and force if necessary.
As the light of the common room faded, she saw Gareth turn to her and grin. Before she knew it, she was hurled into a dank cell below with a stinky filth of a man bearing sharp teeth and an unsettling look of excitement on his face. She grasped the back of her head that had impacted the rocky ‘furniture’ chiseled out of the hewn stone and felt blood. Her attempts to remain conscious as the crawling, disheveled prisoner approached failed as she slipped from the surly bonds of wakefulness.
Merci pour la lecture!
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