by Sean Sandulak
Cravan idly swirled the last bit of his beer around in the bottom of his flagon. It was a weak brew, wholly unsatisfying, but it also represented the last of his coin, so he had been nursing it for almost an hour. Adventuring was not always the profitable endeavor that he’d imagined in his youth. With a little luck however, that would soon change.
He stroked his beard as he debated whether to ask his companion for yet another loan. On his left, Mor stared into one of his musty books, entranced by a world only he could see. He would sit like that for hours sometimes, lost in his own thoughts with his nose buried in some obscure tome. Cravan mulled that he would have preferred the company of a young woman of questionable morals, or even a bog troll to slay — anything to cut through the boredom of sitting here waiting. He tossed his head back to drain every drop from the cup before bringing it slamming down on the wine-stained tabletop.
“Dammit, where is she?”
“Right behind you.”
Cravan turned toward the voice and frowned. It was Rieki, the mysterious elven thief and vagabond. She wasn’t the girl of ill-repute that he had been hoping for, but at least with her arrival there was finally hope of some excitement and, more importantly, profit. As she slipped into the chair across the table from the two men, Mor continued to stare down at his book. Cravan snorted and turned back to the girl.
“Did you find her?” asked Cravan. “Are we in business? What took you so long?”
“One question at a time, my friend,” she answered. Her voice had the lilt and musical quality that all of her race possessed, but she added a sarcasm that was all her own. “I have located a girl who bears the Mark. She works as a milkmaid on a farm on the far side of the next valley.”
“A milkmaid!” His outburst filled the common room and heads turned in his direction. Rieki flashed him a stern and mocking glare, but he had already realized his mistake. He leaned in close to the elf and whispered, “Not a warrior? Or even a mage? Just a run-of-the-mill, gods-damned milkmaid?”
“So it would seem,” said Rieki. She tipped the empty flagon towards her and peered inside. Frowning in disappointment, she set it back down.
Cravan folded his brawny arms across his chest. “Maybe Mor has missed the mark again.”
“The prophecy is true,” said Mor without looking up. “The girl is our salvation. She will slay the beast and deliver us to prosperity. It is written.”
“Oh, decided to join us in the real world?” asked Cravan, but the wizard just ignored him. Cravan grunted and turned his attention back to the elf. He held out his arms and looked up at the ceiling in his best imitation of a travelling preacher. “It is written,” Cravan repeated. “You can’t argue with that.”
“Now, now,” she said. “You know as well as I do that the wizard’s aim leaves something to be desired, but when it comes to interpreting dusty old scrolls there are few who can match his skill.”
“Aye, I’ll give you that,” he said. “But a milkmaid?”
“Sometimes great destinies are born from humble beginnings. Who can say what the fates hold in store for each of us.” Rieki stood up and moved behind Cravan to whisper over his shoulder. “Speaking of humble beginnings, I assume you bought the supplies we need before you drank your purse dry?”
“Then let’s be off,” she said. “I want to be back at the farm before the sun gets too low.”
“Oh? Good-looking was she?”
“On the contrary, she was rather plain and smelled of the stables.” Rieki paused for a moment and then smiled. “However, with the right lighting and a good bath…”
“You’ll never change,” said Cravan. “Need I remind you that’s how you nearly ended up in the gallows in Homelyn.”
“How was I to know that she was the magistrate’s daughter?”
“Your lusting will be the end of you,” said Cravan. “I swear you’ll hump anything that moves.”
“That’s not true,” she said. “I would never touch the likes of you, for instance.”
“Fortunate am I to be spared the plague between your legs.” He gave Mor a rough shove to roust him from his daydream. “C’mon. Let’s go before Lady Firecrotch starts groping the innkeeper. We’ve got a dragon to slay.”
They collected their horses from the stable, plus the two extra nags that Cravan had just bought – one for supplies and the other for the girl. It was a long walk to the dragon’s lair, and the time until the alignment was short. The stars would not be in this particular pattern again in their lifetime. Not that such things mattered to Cravan, but Mor was the expert in things mystical. If they needed to spend all their money on a couple of mangy ponies to get there on time then so be it. Besides, it would make hauling away all that gold that much easier.
They made good time across the valley. The roads were practically empty and the recent lack of rain had left the trail hard-packed and dry. Rieki led them to a place where they could hide and watch the farmhouse. She had seen only the farmer and his daughter, the one with the mark. There were usually three other men around explained Rieki, but a neighbor had told her that the two eldest sons were in the next town selling their extra cheese, and the youngest was sick in bed. The wife had died of a fever years ago.
From his vantage point in the bushes, the girl sweeping the porch seemed unremarkable. Cravan studied her for some hint of a great destiny waiting, but all that he saw was a farmhand with a dirt-stained, sackcloth dress and greasy hair tied up in braids. She could have been any of a thousand farm girls he had seen in his life. “Are you certain she’s the one?” he whispered.
“If there’s one thing I know, it’s women,” answered Rieki.
“Aye, and men,” he said. “And probably dogs and horses from what I gather.”
“Jealous?” she quipped. “Look there, the five pointed star on her neck poking out above the collar.”
“Looks more like a rash than a mystical sign of prophecy,” he said.
“She is the one,” said Mor. His monotone pronouncement was apparently meant to end all debate. He strode forward from their hiding place directly towards the girl. Rieki looked at Cravan and shrugged before following the slender man towards the farmhouse. Cravan felt stupid sitting alone in the bushes, so he had no choice but to go after them.
The girl leaned on her broom as the three approached and she frowned. “Good evening to you,” she said politely. “What business do a dwarf, an elf, and a mage have on our little patch of dirt.”
“I’m not a dwarf,” insisted Cravan.
“Oh gods, here we go again,” Rieki muttered at Mor.
The milkmaid looked perplexed. “I’m sorry…what?”
“I’m not a dwarf,” he repeated. “I’m five-foot-two. That’s a respectable height for any man, if a wee bit on the lower side of average.”
Rieki turned to Mor again and whispered, “Aye, but four inches of that is in his boot heels.” Mor broke from his usual taciturn expression to giggle at that one.
The girl continued, “I’m sorry, but what with the beard and the axe…”
“Now that’s just racist,” said Cravan. “Let me tell you…”
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” said Mor, “but we are on a mission of some urgency. It seems you have been selected by the Fates to perform a sacred duty and rescue the land from its torment.”
She looked at Rieki and asked, “What’s he saying now?” The elf just shrugged.
Undeterred, Mor went on, “We need you to come with us and slay a dragon.”
She burst out laughing. “No, I don’t think so.”
To be continued…
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