The fog hung low and thick as we walked down the dirt road back to Falinde. The road itself was just a little tacky from the morning’s dew. Gaston and I made good time, refreshed after a night under the stars.
After several hours walk past farmlands and woodlands, we arrived at the outskirts of the town. I spotted a bandit, hiding behind a thick tree trunk, leather armour sodden with mud.
Gaston hollered out a greeting, “Lo, Aerie,” and the woman stepped out and onto the road, the Brotherhood’s red shank logo emblazoned conspicuously on her chest. Gaston continued, “Seen anything out of order?”
“A couple of elf stiffs came through, papers stamped,” she said, nonchalantly sweeping a glob of mud from her face. It landed with a soft smack on the dirt, and she continued, “There have been rumours of a Hero down south. Someone either bloodthirsty enough to kill off all messengers or subtle enough that nobody quite knows where they are. Hence, maximum camouflage.” She gestured to herself, short brown hair caked in mud, face blackened and even her staff turned down to a dull green glow. Her wild witch from the forest getup provides a great show for customers, but it must be a nightmare to apply every day.
“We’d better turn in these papers and get back out on the road as soon as we can,” I remarked to Gaston. The road east to Enyhelon was quiet, and unlikely to be troubled by any rampaging Heroes.
He thanked Aerie, and we headed into the town proper, along well-worn cobbled roads. Falinde still showed faded signs of the glory of Old Nargal, with the ornate old stone and marble architecture clashing with newer, simpler wood. The extravagant columns of the local Temple to the Weltgeist still bore the dragon’s insignia, dating them back to an earlier time. Most Heroes weren’t so sacrilegious as to burn down temples, even if they did get looted occasionally.
The shops lining the road promised glory and ancient treasures for sale from gaudy banners. They were all made of wood. Haggling prices with Heroes is a dangerous game. Some of the more ramshackle structures also offered farming equipment and stock feed, usually at side entrances, where they hoped to make enough from locals to keep them running until the next Hero might come to town.
As we approached the town centre, we turned down an alley between The Helmsman’s Quiver and Gyleon’s Magickal Oddments. It was tight and smelly, a dead end used for garbage disposal. But this was merely another piece of thug theatre. Behind an oddly stacked collection of boxes lay the entrance to the Brotherhood’s local headquarters. Gaston hefted them aside with a grunt of effort, and beckoned me through the battered, unmarked door.
Inside, the mood was subdued. In the central hall, groups gathered together on the benches to swap stories over drinks or to practice their theatre in informal games of Offices & Overseers, the futuristic role playing game. But today, the drinks were teas and wildly coloured potions instead of booze. The tones were of hushed gossip and rumour, instead of boisterous union songs.
I sidled up to the Undersecretary-on-duty in an alcove to the side of the hall filled with yellowing paper invoices and forms. Fulmina offered a brief smile beneath her copper glasses as she looked up from signing documents. She had to get them custom-made to fit her protruding kobold’s snout, which still bears the scars of an earlier life in banditry. Now, she’s my favourite of the band of accountants and clerks who rotate through the Brotherhood’s backroom functions.
“Gaston, Hodrick, what a pleasure to see you two back so soon,” she started, breaking into a wide toothy grin of recognition. “I trust that our little math genius has all the records of your takings?”
I pulled the forms from my rucksack, and handed them over. At the top, my neat tiny handwriting had started with the details, but halfway down, this stopped. A roughly scrawled ten covered the bottom half of the form in overlarge, childlike letters.
Fulmina’s scaled tail whipped from side to side twice upon seeing this, before settling back beneath the folds of her elegant white dress. She suppressed a scowl, and seemed to consciously reject her annoyance, as she offered, “Well, that’s not quite ideal, but you’ll get the hang of it.”
“You should have seen how scary he looked. Gaston’s a stone cold killer,” suggested Hodrick.
“Certainly. But there’s more to thuggery than just intimidation, so next time, please try to keep the paperwork in proper order,” said Fulmina.
I offered a curt nod and continued, “We took in ten gold pieces, and it seems there’s a big art show in town. Could be an opportunity for some of the goons to find rich clients.” The coins clinked together as I placed them on the desk.
Fulmina split the stack with her clawed hands, nails long and painted black. “One for the Brotherhood, six for the council,” she said, as she slid the coins over into slots in the desk. She continued, “Two for you, Hodrick, and one for you, Gaston,” She reached out and dropped the three coins back into my hand, and I wordlessly passed Hodrick his share.
Then she dropped her voice to little more than a whisper, “Don’t be startled, but everyone’s trying to keep a low profile. It’s not the time to go chasing dilettantes, no matter how deep their purses. Rumours are that there’s a powerful Hero on the way, an elf on a crusade to cleanse the land. Cleanse it of people like us.”
“Aye, we should celebrate your first successful thug posting, anyway,” suggested Hodrick, as he pocketed his coins and turned toward the bar.
I replied, low enough to avoid looking like a spoilsport in front of the other thugs, “I’d rather something to dampen these nerves. Can you get me one of those fancy teas?”
Hodrick called out to the barman, an ogre who stood twice my height, wearing a rough leather vest and said, “Hey, Brent, a big mug of lager for my friend here, he’s just finished his first posting.” He turned and winked ostentatiously at me, then continued, “I’ll have a chamomile tea, you know I’m trying to cut down on the booze.”
A cheer went up from the assembled Brothers, and I took a sip of the beer and raised the mug to the air. The hubbub gradually died down as groups returned to chat or O&O, and we swapped drinks as Hodrick and I took seats on a free table.
“To brothers!” I offered, as we clinked mugs together.
“To brothers,” Hodrick replied.
As the afternoon wore on, the crowd gradually approached its normal levels of raucousness. Hodrick was committed to drinking enough beer for the two of us and regaled me with tales from his early days, keeping the roads safe from freelancers. Once Fulmina joined us after her shift finished, Hodrick’s stories became more and more ludicrous, culminating when he claimed to have frightened off a dragon by pretending to be the Lich King reborn. It was a great afternoon with friends. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. Soon, we would find out just how wrong.