Chapter 1 - A Gathering of Heroes

“Hey, I’m here to relieve you,” the fresh guard said as he approached the younger guardsman.

The younger man snapped to attention and saluted, “Guardsman Viselys Mortaum, duly relinquishing patrol duty this day, the twelfth of Nieumont, 1247.”

The newcomer rolled his eyes, returned the salute halfheartedly, and replied, “Whatever. At ease, fall out, dismissed.”

“Sir, yes SIR!” replied the younger guard with another salute. He took the ‘at ease’ stance.

“Viselys, please, you don’t have to be so formal at all times. It’s just routine guard duty,” the older man said, kindly putting his hand on Viselys’ shoulder.

“Permission to speak freely, sir?” Viselys inquired.

“By the gods! Yes, boy! What?”

“My father is the captain of the Taskerhill personal guard. When I am on duty, I not only represent him, but the Taskerhill family.” His words showed no haughtiness, as though his position demanded respect. Rather, it hinted at someone who doubted that he was up to the honor he was burdened with. “I will be as firm and steadfast in my duties as is humanly possible, no matter how routine, in the defense of the Cudgel District and all of Sasserine, as a testimony to my father and Lord Taskerhill.” After a pause, he realized his lapse of protocol and quickly added, “Sir.”

“You do NOT Have to call me ‘sir.’ I work for a living, too, you know. It’s Granger. Not Patrolman Granger or Officer Granger or even Mr. Granger. Just Granger. In fact, Jeb would be even better, but I think being on a first name basis might make your head explode. I worry about you, kid. You’re gonna fret yourself into an early grave. Now git! And I don’t want to see you for the next 22 hours.”

Viselys understood and appreciated what Jeb Granger was saying, but there was nothing to do about it. His duty, as his father’s oldest son, was why he was brought into this world. He couldn’t relax in it, ever. However, Granger had caused him to think very deeply as he crossed Hill Street in the direction of Taskerhill Manor; so deeply that he didn’t even notice a diminutive figure approaching him.

“Viselys Mortaum?” the wizened Hobbit woman inquired.

Viselys stopped and looked around, then down, “Yes, ma’am. How may I be of assistance?”

Her response was humble, but assertive, “My name is Kora Whistlegap. I am in the employ of Lady Lavinia Vanderboren of the Merchant District and am tasked with delivering this message to you.”

* * * * *
It was the first time in nearly a month that Saris Van Sky set foot on dry ground. For the past year he had been serving as a mate aboard one of the whaling vessels in his father’s company. As the youngest son, he had to work if he was to ensure his stake in the Van Sky Mercantile Consortium. Of course, he intended to do as little actual work as possible. In fact, this homecoming marked the end of his obligation. Now he was free to seek his own fortune. Saris figured someday he’d ask his father for command of one of the smaller caravels delivering goods to nearby ports like Shard or Freeport. That is, unless something else presented itself.

Indeed something did present itself in the form of an older Hobbit woman, “Saris Van Sky?”

“The one and only!” he replied, with his usual sardonic grin

“My name is Kora Whistlegap. I am in the employ of Lady Lavinia Vanderboren of the Merchant District and she has sent me with this message to you.”

Raising an eyebrow, and smirking, Saris took the letter, “Oh, really?”

* * * * *
The old dwarf rubbed the whiskers of his red, but graying, beard against his shoulder as he laid out the produce to display on the cart in the market.

“Thank you, Ornrik,” the human on the other side of the cart said. “Your vegetables should sell very nicely. I’ll send Lars by later with your share?”

Ornrik nodded with a somewhat distant look, “Aye, sure. That’s fine, Burt.”

Burt stopped his own unpacking and looked at his old friend and business partner, “Are you sure? If you really need the money, I can front you your portion right now.”

Furring his brow, Ornrik shook his head, “No, no. Money’s not a problem at all. Fact is, I don’t much care if I get my cut or not. At my age, I’m not working for the money anymore.”

Burt thought he understood, and smiled, “You just love farming, huh?”

The furred brows rose in surprise, “No, not really. I just don’t know what else to do. You know, farming has just been a job – literally to put food on the table."

“I always did want to ask you about that,” Burt confessed, “Kinda wondered what brought you to the outskirts of Sasserine, where there are so few other Dwarves. Don’t get me wrong – I have no prejudice. Don’t think I know anyone around here whom much even …”

“Never had so much as sideways look from anyone around here, no,” Ornrik confirmed.

Burt nodded and continued, “But, don’t you miss your own culture? Your … how do you say? Clan?”

This was the question that Ornrik had been avoiding for years, “Well, you see, I’ve lived among Humans for so long … I think longer than I ever did among Dwarves. I didn’t enjoy mining any more than I do farming, and as for the ‘culture’ … well, let’s just say that, even if I don’t fit perfectly here, I fit better than I did where I came from.”

Resisting the urge to bend down to meet the dwarf eye to eye, which might have seemed condescending, Burt looked hard at Ornrik, “You fit just fine in my opinion, but you have to, er, ‘find your passion.’ I heard one of the Academy girls using that phrase. You gotta find what will make you happy and go do it.”

Ornrik nodded, “I just have to figure out what that is. You know, I have a unique skill set. Unique by Dwarven standards anyway. I’ve always wanted to find a way to apply them.

Suddenly, as if by way of some cosmic response, a voice behind him said, “Excuse me. I’m looking for a Dwarf named Ornrik?”

Burt laughed, “Miss, I’m pretty sure this is the ONLY Dwarf around for miles. If this ain’t Ornrik, then I don’t know what.”

Kora smiled politely, but still looked to Ornrik for confirmation.

“Yes, I’m Ornrik, Miss …?”

“I am Kora, and I am in the employ of Lady Lavnia Vanderboren. She asked me to deliver this message to you.” She handed him the note with a smile and departed.

“Maybe your Dwarven gods are smiling down on you, buddy. I hope so.”

“So do I, Burt,” Ornrik said absently as he read the note.

* * * * *

Viselys and Ornrik arrived at the Vanderboren Manor almost at the same moment. They were greeted by the same Hobbit woman who had delivered their invitations, Kora Whistlegap. They exchanged pleasant greetings and moved into the foyer. “Lady Lavinia will be with you shortly,” Kora informed them, “Can I get you anything while you wait?”
Both men declined the offer graciously. They then turned their attention to each other as Kora left. After a polite introduction, they sat in awkward silence,

After a while, four figures emerged from the hall, heading towards them, with Kora racing behind. There was a jaunty male half-elf dressed in leather armor and armed with a half dozen daggers of different shapes, a dark-skinned dwarf with a sour expression dressed in green and brown robes and clutching a large curved spear, an attractive but haughty-looking woman dressed in dark purple robes and with a tattoo of a crescent moon on one cheek, and a tall, handsome man dressed in a polished breastplate carrying a bastard sword. They clearly had little time or interest in Viselys and Ornrik, but Handsome Breastplate did stop to size them up for a moment before announcing, "Hmm. You must be the help Lavinia's bringing in to do the chores. Best of luck to ya! Don't let this place fall apart while we're gone…"

After seeing the foursome out the door, Kora tuned back to the odd couple, “I’m very sorry it’s taken so long. We are waiting on one more person, but I will take you to the dining hall now.”

The private dining hall was comfortable and cozy, panelled in rich woodds from the Sanjaara Jungle; softly lit by wall-mounted lanterns which gave off a pale yellow glow. While they waited, the group gazed at a large portrait hanging on the wall, depicting a handsome young man with a short beard. A window overlooked the manor's central courtyard and the carpet was thick and soft. Soon, an attractive human woman wearing a long, flowing blue dress came down the stairs and entered the hall. She smiled warmly at Ornrik and Viselys. With her was a rather roguish-looking character, dressed rather shabbily.

“Hello, I am Lady Lavinia Vanderboren and I wish to thank you all for coming. I hope this will prove to be a wonderful and profitable opportunity for all of us. I suppose you two have already met. This is Idae,” she indicated toward the shabbily-dressed stranger, standing quietly behind her, “and we shall have one other joining us; he must be running late.”

Everyone immediately noticed the strong resemblance between this beautiful noble-woman standing before them, and the portrait of the man on the wall.

Idae bounced forward with his hand outstretched, first towards Ornrik, “Good to know ye!” Ornrik was a bit started.

“Ornrik,” Lavinia informed Idae with whom he was shaking hands.

Then Idae turned to Viselys. He gave a firm handshake, and then made it a two-fisted deal, “And, Viselys Mortaum. It is my very sincere pleasure.”

Viselys smiled awkwardly. “Likewise, I’m … sure…” he replied, uncertainly, “I’m sorry, do I know you?”

“Not at all,” Idae replied with a tone that seemed to convey bewilderment at the question.

Just then, all attention turned as Saris boisterously announced himself, “I’m here. You can begin now.”

Lavinia smiled, “Saris Van Sky. Indeed, I can, thank you.” She then turned her attention to the group as a whole.

"As you may have heard, I recently inherited my parents' estate. Along with this fine house, unfortunately, came a fine amount of debt owed the Dawn Council, the harbormaster, and quite a few guildhalls. It seems my parents, for all their success as adventurers, were not as skilled at finance as one might expect. If I'm to get these taxes paid, I'll need to access my family's vault under Castle Teraknian.

"And that's the problem, you see. The vaults are magically locked—-keyed to special signet rings. Both of my parents had these rings, at least, until recently. My mother lost hers a few months ago. She arranged for a replacement, but it won't be done for another month or so, too late for me. Which leaves my father's ring. He never wore it-he had a thing about men wearing jewelry. He kept it hidden somewhere on his ship, the Blue Nixie. The problem there is that the harbormaster's men seized the ship until someone pays for the last four months of mooring. I've paid the fines to the man the harbormaster's put in charge of my ship, a brute named Soller Vark. Yet when I went to claim my ship, Vark's men wouldn't let me onboard; claiming that I hadn't yet paid the fines. I spoke to Vark again and he denied ever receiving my payment. My complaints to the harbormaster office have fallen on deaf ears-he's a doddering old fool who trusts his man and won't relent.

"Vark and his men are up to something on my ship, I know it. What I need is to find out exactly what they're up to. Unfortunately, Vark's not the type to react well to diplomacy or logic. I need someone who speaks his language… which is where you come in. If you can find out what he's using my ship for, or even better, recover the money I paid him, I'll pay each of you 200 gold in return once I've access to my vault."

Viselys thought for a moment and then asked “Have you already reported this to the city watch?”

Lavinia nodded, “I approached the watch and the Dawn Council with my complaints, but unfortunately I have no proof of wrongdoing. I know, it was foolish to hand over the money to Vark without witnesses and no bill of receipt, but what's done is done. The city watch has promised to look into the matter, but without proof, the investigation takes a back seat to other, more pressing matters, so I’m told.

“This could stir up a powerful hornets nest,” Idae pointed out. “Not that I got ay problem with it, but are ye sure ye want that kinda heat?”

Lavinia set her jaw, “Do your best not to throw the first punch if it comes to that, but in the end, why would Vark's men put up a fight unless they were up to no good? It's my ship, after all!”

“What about the four that left when we got here?” Ornrik asked. “Did they turn this job down?”

“The Jade Ravens,” Lavinia said, by way of explanation, “A mercenary company that's been in the Vanderboren employ for several years. I have been relying more and more upon them, but I suspect that their loyalty to my family name is wearing. Plus, lately I think that Tolin has taken a fancy to me.”

“You can hardly blame the chap,” Idae said in a tone that seemed a bit too familiar to the others.

The warmth of Lavinia’s smile demonstrated that she did not share that opinion. Implausibly, it seemed they had known each other for a time before today. “Thank you, Idae,” she chuckled lightly. “I’ve asked the Jade Ravens to travel south to the city of Caldera to contact my extended family for aid, and they were anxious to be on their way”

Saris seemed to want to be a part of the conversation, “I’ve been out to sea for a few months, so I’ve been a bit out of the loop. So, What happened to your folks, exactly?"

Such a direct question takes Lavinia aback, while the others winced inwardly. After taking a moment to gather her thoughts, she replied in a quiet voice, “They burned to death in a ship fire in the harbor about a month ago. They were taking the recently purchased ship for a cruise when something caused the ship to catch fire and burn to the waterline. There were no survivors.”

“Well, that was unfortunate,” Saris blushed.

Idae covered his eyes in disbelief, and then chimed in to change the course of the conversation, “Ye know I’ll do whatever I can to get yer stuff back.”

“And the lawbreakers will be brought to justice,” Viselys added.

Ornrik raised an eyebrow, “This could be just the sort of thing I need. Aye, I’m in.”

Saris nodded, “Sure, I've got nothing better to do.”

Continue to Chapter 2...

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