“Ma lowds! Ma lowds! Tank da gods you’ve been come!”
The dirty man smiled with a wide and open mouth, showing off stumps rotted from a local pipe and a great lack of hygiene. His filthy tunic hung off his scrawny frame and hopped about, left and right, shoulder to shoulder, as the peasant jigged about in jubilation. The other villagers and farmers gaped in stupefied wonder at the wealth and power apparent in the fresh-faced youth before them. It pulled at Yenrab’s heartstrings to see such ignorant confidence.
Carric Smith strung at his lute, looking about with shy trepidation, but making a concerted effort to be confident and cool.
“I, um, well, I am Carric, a bard of Icegard. I can see that, well, you know. You have a problem here.” He broke off, uncertain with his words. “Um, you do have a problem here, right?” The man nodded. “Right, well and I assume you have sent off for help?” He gaped back at Yenrab and Tracy, his eyes pleading to be relieved from this duty. They had all drawn straws and his had been the shortest.
Carric’s face had a pained expression as he regarded the poor folk before him. He really wanted to help these people. He didn’t really know why, but he did. And he was also uncertain that he could actually help them.
“I know that you have been waiting, perhaps months, for help. But that isn’t us. We weren’t sent here by anybody. We’re just passing through,” Carric spoke, smoothly and in a more convincing manner. He glimpsed back at his traveling mates for support.
Yenrab shook his head to the negative then stopped himself. New life, he thought. A life of adventuring, into ruins, rooting around for treasure and fighting monsters. Not this. This is not my problem. But he couldn’t shake it and his doubts persisted. Plus, he couldn’t disappoint Ghost Dad.
He let out a massive, very orcish, sigh. It howled more than a little and spooked the peasants, they cringed as they backed up slightly. Every bird in the vicinity flocked and fled, excepting those trapped in pens.
Fortunately, the good name of Yenrab, Folk Hero of the Reaches and Helper to those in Need, was known by song and description. His years of good deeds during his time with his tribe had become the stuff of legend. Everyone was slowly coming to accept the idea of the neutral orc who’d help you build a barn for the right coin. But a good orc? A man who helped just because it was right? That was something the people of Freehold, otherwise known as the Freeholder’s Republic, ate up from corner to corner and pole to pole. Indeed, somehow, many more people had been helped by him than he had actually ever helped.
“What are you thinking, Yenrab?” Tracy asked, stifling a yawn. A small flock of children were slowly creeping up on her and the fabulousness of her robes. Their eyes shone with mischief as they pleaded to touch it.
Tracy Riley was an odd one. She had been a he until yesterday, which confused the heck out of Yenrab though Carric seemed accepting enough. All Yenrab could say for sure was that the half-elf was of indeterminate gender. Carric spent some time trying to teach Yenrab about the phenomenon the night before, after the half-orc had emerged naked from his bath in the river to see an attractive half-elven Freemeetian woman studying him curiously. His high-pitched squeak of pubescent embarrassment in front of the other sex had roused Carric into coming to his aid and the Icegarditian minstrel had laughed with tremendous mirth after he realized what was happening.
They watched as Tracy Riley clapped her hands and a small unicorn appeared in the air. It shimmered all of the colors of the rainbow as it bounded through the village children, causing all to ooh and awe.
Carric had spent the night explaining that the people of Coraellon were sometimes genderless, or genderful, or a different gender every day. It was complicated. Yenrab soon realized, though, that he didn’t need to care about it. The whole thing probably served those elves quite well. They lived lives measured in multiple centuries, so it’d get boring being just one sex all the time. Heck, he didn’t even know if elves could die the normal way. They didn’t sleep the normal way. He knew that. The most common cause of elvish death, as far as he could tell, was orcish axe. It wasn’t old age.
“I think I don’t have a choice, Mr. Riley. I want to hear what these good people have to say and, ya know, what is bothering them,” he stated and paused for a second, his eyes cast skyward in thought.
“Mr. Smith, Mr. Riley,” Yenrab continued on, “you have paid me to deliver you halfway across Athatia to Gennopolis. But, ya know, I have to be honest. I really, really feel like stopping here for a bit and seeing what is bothering these fine folks. If you think this is a breach of our agreement, I happily accept that you can leave my services and I will return the coin you have given me.”
Carric looked a mixture of relieved and nervous. Tracy Riley studied him without expression while Carric nodded with assent.
“I’m good with whatever, really.” Tracy yawned. “Just so long as the bard comes with us.”
“Huh?” Carric stuttered, his face contorted in confusion.
What made him say that? the man thought.
As a youngling outcast of a land in constant conflict, Carric sought a different life—one with a different kind of danger than perpetual war one with adoring crowds of accepting people and, occasionally, a lithe yet bountiful body to share his bed. He never thought he’d be questing.
Maybe I have to quest a little if I want to be famous. He pondered the idea. And part of his heart went out to them. The villagers were happy to have help. They were so poor and so luckless. Now here were this barbarian, this bard and this strange Freemeetian, broadcasting power, station and rescue. What the hell, he thought. Might as well see what we can do.
A girl squealed and all three of them turned to look at her. Standing at the edge of the crowd neat a tall and shady elm, she was in no trouble. Instead she and her brother and seized up sticks and were dueling against the tree. Behind the trunk of it a skinny old man growled. “I’m a mean old troll. No adventurers can hurt me!” The children both slashed and parried, showing him that they could.
“Good people of, well, whatever this place is, maybe we can help you out. What, exactly, is your problem and how can a man of song, some weirdo half-elf with fancy robes and Yenrab the Animal Chief help?” Carric asked.
Tracy Riley interrupted him, “I am a sorcerer.”
Both Yenrab and Carric turned to gape at him in disbelief.
“Yeah, I harness wild magic and turn it into, well, stuff. Like this!”
The growing mass of villagers oohed and aahed as the spectral image of a nude and embarrassed Yenrab flashed into existence beside him. The real Yenrab’s face pinkened and yellowed.
Forgetting his shy demeanor for the moment, Carric spoke, an edge to his voice.
“Do you mean to tell me that a few days ago, when it was pissing down freezing rain and we were all trying to dry off in that cave and we were all as cold as the frosts of Nordenverft, you could have warmed us?”
Tracy, apparently a half-elf wild mage, smiled. “Sure, man. All you had to do was ask.” Then, in a loud conspiratorial tone, she said, “Us half-elves need to stick together.”
The dirty villagers sat beaming and smiling as the conversation went on and applauded as Tracy finished her statement of support. Yenrab browsed the sky for signs that he was stuck in some sort of cruel and cosmic joke.
Carric just stared at Tracy in disbelief, turned that gaze onto the villagers as they clapped their hands at the mad woman and cleared his voice, deciding to ignore insanity in favor of progressing the plot.
“So, what is your problem, villagers?” Carric asked in a kind voice.
“Ma lowds. Dere be a trull an’ ‘is band. A drue, uh, ‘Sem blaj of Ee-vil’”, the man stated, gesturing wildly while enunciating the last word with pride evident upon his face as he attempted to be proper like the lords before him. The words were in no way colloquial and he earned a few confused looks from his neighbors, which made his smile that much larger.
“Dey tuk ma pigs. Da orkis hed un each. Da trull be carryin us in ever hand. We was a hollerin and whistlin and we trow dem rockis, but no and no, dere was no way, no how dey was gonna drop ‘em.”
The other villagers and farmers had gathered very close now in a ragged throng, some spitting brown juice and one teasing an unlit pipe from the corner of his mouth. Others had come from out of nowhere. Barefoot children with hardened feet and torn rags gawked and pointed. They tittered about this comment and that comment, all the while whispering hurtful jokes with childish ignorance. A woman tottered in exhaustion, shifting a big-boned baby from one hip to the other to ease the strain. Meanwhile, her orcish husband, bent from years of labor, gazed with admiration upon the youth and look of Yenrab. For some in the Freeholder’s Republic, he was more than a token good orc. For some, he was the hero they hoped their children could be.
As the rumpus expanded and village excitement swelled, a well-dressed man arrived and stepped through the growing crowd. While he wasn’t big-city rich, he was well enough off around these parts, as his cleanliness attested to.
“Well, Mr. Yenrab and others, if you didn’t comprehend the fine words of farmer Tuck, let me speak for us all when I first welcome you to whatever-this-place-is, as yon minstrel so finely put it. We folk like to call it Turner’s Plot, if you will. I’m the shopkeep and the leader here, as often as not, so it ought to be me anyways.”
The man smiled, an action which caused his beard whiskers to quiver in excitement. And, after a brief hesitation, he proffered his hand. Yenrab took it and shook it in the way a settler had once shown him after a rescue from a bog. Tracy’s eyes widened in ecstatic amazement and wonder at such an odd custom.
“It seems there is some trouble round here. A troll and a few orcs came to our farms. They grabbed some livestock and they legged it to yonder hills. Or so Tuck sez and I hearken. We ain’t fighters, really, though we can put together and fight the odd raider, when it comes to it. But outside of the village and the farms, no, that ain’t us. We need those pigs, Yenrab and sirs. And we can’t lose any more of our animals. Not with winter on its way soon enough.”
The three viewed one another quizzically. Carric, with his long—slightly unruly in a cool sort of way—dirty blond hair, smirked as he puzzled upon the way life had decided to keep him in the fight. Better here than on the battlefield, he told himself as he loosened a dagger and juggled it with one hand. Tracy, meanwhile, seemed content. Her both beautiful and handsome face held no apparent emotion, while truly her eyes showed a propensity for mischief underneath her cloud of brownish and wild, multidirectional hair. Tracy Riley hopped up and down, eager for this quest. And Yenrab, as usual, just stood there holding a big goofy smile on his face.
“Give us a moment, mister . . . ?”
“Jored” the man filled in, “Just call me Jored.”
“Jored, we must talk a bit on our own and consider this problem. We will be back to you . . .”—Yenrab scanned about, making sure to include everyone at least once in his friendly gaze—“all of you, in just a spike of the dial, or a burn of the candlestick, or whatever time you guys use, ya know? Let’s talk at that time.”
The adventurers moved away from the corner and formed into a huddle. Carric was the first to speak.
“Look, guys, we don’t need to do this. We really don’t. I mean, yes, they need help. But a troll?! And what can we get out of this? What can we even ask from them in return? They are dirt rich and money poor. Ask for a copper and we’ll bankrupt them,” Carric said. Despite his words, though, the man’s eyes spoke a different story. I want to help them, they said. Just give me a reason that my mind can accept. Just argue with me so that I can tell myself it wasn’t my idea.
Yenrab stood stoic and silent for a moment, preparing his thoughts.
“I say we do it,” Tracy broke in.
“Why would we do it? I just said we won’t be paid!” Carric Smith protested.
“I have spent a decade training to harness the wild energies of this land, Mr. Smith. I don’t know why I did so if I wasn’t going to tussle. It’s just some dumb orcs anyways,” Tracy noted, waving his hand dismissively. Yenrab frowned at that..
“And a troll. A fricking troll!” Carric pleaded, looking amazed that they were considering this.
“A big dumb beast, Mr. Smith,” Tracy stated with confidence. “I say we can do it.”
“And I say we can’t. I say we have a duty to help these people, yes, but that duty does not in any way involve sacrificing ourselves to whomever trolls worship,” Carric said, defeat creeping into his voice and cracking his resolve.
Yenrab’s voice was quiet as he stated, “I honestly don’t have a choice, good people. I can’t explain my motivations other than that I have a totem that I follow, the Gamer and it imbues me with a guiding spirit, of which I have no understanding. But I can feel his will. He compels me to do this. And I can feel that he is a good spirit. One that I should obey.”
The other two nodded. They would do the quest.
The three walked back, their faces determined, to that dirty mass of poor and filthy peasants, there arose a ragged cheer. One which the three joined. There would be a quest, a wrong would be righted and the people of the land would be saved. While words were said and Yenrab’s name was chanted, the questors set off to the hills in search of a troll and his orcish fellows.
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