The merchant sat huddled in his tent allowing a pair of slaves to keep him warm as snow and wind battered at the sides. Thinking over his situation, he should have agreed to pay some of the slum-building owners to house him and his men. At least they would have been able to have a central fire pit to keep warm. As it was, only the animals had buildings. He rented them as soon as it became clear this was not going to be a quick storm. In some ways he found it sad that so many people would agree to rent their houses for stables, but under the despicable conditions of these slums it was understandable. He clutched both slaves a little more firmly as he made up his mind to seek out one of the families and offer them money to stay in their abode until the storm passed.
Looking back he could see this storm probably meant the swing of luck for this journey was going back in the direction of bad. He couldn't believe his alternating good and bad luck over the past few months. It had started out like any other long haul run. He found several young Swordsmen to augment his usual guard force before leaving Twisted Oak, stocked up on normal trade goods then headed out.
He made a stop at the Dwarvin fortress of Greystone, unloading his wagons of ore for the customary strong Dwarvish spirits, fine crafted weapons, and more than enough silver to make the first leg more than worth it.
From Greystone he turned south to the hilly Blue Water Knolls. There he made even more money selling the kegs of Dwarvin ale to the Halflings. He also loaded up his wagons with bags of semi-precious gemstones such as smoke quartz, carved wood items, and other minor goods the Halflings had in abundance.
Trouble hit the first time as he headed west along the coast. His caravan, totaling twelve wagons was ambushed by a large group of bandits. One of his wagons took a flaming arrow and burned. He lost seven draft animals and of his twenty-two guards, ten were killed and five injured too seriously to fight. The real loss, in his opinion, though was the arrow that found his oldest daughter. Her loss weighed on his wife and meant many of the cooking chores had to be shifted to her and his youngest daughter.
On the plus side the destroyed wagon was carrying the gemstones so the cargo remained intact and his men managed to take down every single brigand. The cut for the surviving men made them extremely loyal. He took the five remaining injured attackers and limped into Eaglecrest. Once settled, he paid a small fee to get papers before he sold the captives into slavery which replaced the wagon, draft animals and allowed him to pick up two more wagons. He also replaced his entire guard contingent and added two spell casters and a pair of cooks.
He sold the gemstones and crafted items for a massive profit. He ended up with so much money he briefly thought about heading home, but greed took over. He chartered a ship with a couple guards to get 80% of his profits home and made sure to pay the Swordsman guild to fly their flag on the ship. Only the truly foolish would attack a guild ship, especially a Swordsman ship. This also gave him an excuse to get rid of his wife and daughter who had really become unbearable.
With the remainder of the money he loaded up on coastal trade goods and swung northwest. Money continued to roll in as he made deal after deal. By the time he hit the mines of Silverton he had enough to buy another two wagons and split his caravan. He sent the smaller one with his two oldest sons telling them they were to head home and make as much as they could. He didn't expect much, but they needed the experience and he figured his seventeen-year-old boy would take good care of his fourteen-year-old brother. He would have to; the younger boy had his father's knack with languages, while his oldest had the money sense. They could work well together. Besides, he would give them 50% of all profits.
In Silverton, he learned of the problems of trade caravans trying to head up to the Silver Spine Plateau. The more he heard, the more he was sure money was there for the making. Food was relatively cheap, even this time of year, below the Silver Spine Mountains. It was bulky, but so what? He had plenty of wagons and would make great time.
The next problem centered on his men. Only half were willing to go and the men in Silverton were not fools. Very few were interested, and the Guild was of no real help either. The facts were simple. Too many Swordsmen had been lost trying and unless the money was extreme, no one wanted to risk their necks. Aggravated, he turned away from the mountains with loads of silver ore from the Gnome villages surrounding Silverton and headed west. He made a few deals along the way, but actually lost huge amounts of money. Making matters worse, some of his hired men started dropping off deciding the trip was getting too long. Only the ones who had survived the bandit attack, a couple of Swordsman trainee kids, one cook and one spell caster remained with him as they pulled into Junsac. Morale was at an all time low for any one of his seventy plus trade runs. Even he thought about calling it quits.
Seriff, goddess of mystery and luck, returned her smile on the weary merchant and his caravan almost from the instant his wagons entered the west gate. He found a Metal Worker who paid good money for the ore and he sold off almost all the weapons he had been trading for to a mercenary group going in search of a Dragon and its marauding forces.
Junsac turned out to be a proverbial gold mine of trade goods at low prices, including food, furs, clothes, and glass. He decided to put everyone up at an inn for two weeks with pay and start fresh. He picked up a new contingent of swords, including four young trainees all of whom were left hanging out to dry when their teacher was caught strong-arming merchants and bolted leaving them to take the blame.
As soon as he found out about them, he paid a bribe to get them off the day auction block, and told them he would have his men complete their training and would pay them as long as they would be his guards. He then added, he would be happy to pay another bribe and get them as slaves if they decided to say no. With such a threat hanging over their young heads, they all readily agreed.
He tried to pick up a spell caster the same way, but it became clear the boy had friends in higher places than the man taking the bribes. When a member of the Barony Watch informed him to back off and leave well enough alone, he did as he was told. In a way he kind of found himself in the same boat he had put the four trainees in. With the threat of the Watch hanging over his head, the choice wasn't hard to make at all.
In an attempt to placate them, he even bought the boy at day action three times in a row and gave him the royal treatment. His actions seemed to have been noticed, because he found more "bargains" for his act of "kindness". Everyone knew of the Watch, it just never occurred to the seasoned merchant they had such a wide range of influence. He even had a pouch returned that had been picked off his belt one day. A young woman simply tossed it to him and flashed the dagger pin. Nothing had to be said. His respect and fear of the organization went up a great deal.
Rested and restocked, he set out for the Plateau making money all the way. As they entered Dark Ridge Pass, Seriff's protection again seemed to vanish. Five straight days his caravan was attacked by Gnolls, often times three or four attacks in a single day. Each attack seemed worse than the prior. Three wagons were captured and fourteen men killed over the trip up the pass. One of the trainees was captured, raped, and returned the following night. The boy had been covered with bruises and welts from head to toe and was barely conscious. Still he managed to tell the horrified guards and merchant that they would never make it up and if they turned back, they would be allowed to peacefully go.
Fortunately, this only enraged the remaining men. One of their students had been violated and they next to demanded revenge. The one thing the guilds stressed was a pupil's safety was up to the teacher, and all the men had taken time teaching the boys. Being stuck between determined Gnolls and angry Swordsmen was not a fun place to be, but the merchant decided his safety rested with the Swordsmen so he ordered the caravan forward. They would not turn around.
The following morning, when the wagons didn't turn and run as expected, the Gnolls attacked. They quickly discovered they had made a grievous error in judgment. This time the guards didn't circle and defend, they counter attacked. The remaining Outdoorsmen circled into the woods and took out the three spell casters. With magic support cut off, the Gnoll warriors were outmatched and their superior numbers didn't seem to matter at all. Two hours into the attack four Swordsmen had injuries too bad to fight, while the Gnolls had suffered three spell casters dead, nineteen warriors dead, sixteen captured, and another twelve seriously injured. The rest fled in terror.
Two days later the exhausted, yet satisfied, caravan entered the gates of Slome. Almost all of the men looked like barbarians. Many wore tattered armor, carried captured weapons and had the swagger to scare the living daylights out of normal peasants. Their look, coupled with food goods not seen in several months, made the whole thing worth more than the merchant could have dreamed. Money was not plentiful on the Plateau, but gems and other rare goods such as spices, healing herbs, and scented oils were.
Often times a stingy merchant found himself staring at two or three of the hardest looking Swordsmen he had ever seen. More often than not, this changed the mind and tone of those who didn't want to give top trade for his goods. The funny thing was, even the boys looked scary to most and they had learned to be mean. It occurred to the merchant after watching two of the boys spar with one of the adults that the constant fighting had most likely given the kids enough experience to be able to test into Primary Echelon.
Having seen enough of the sordid state of his men's equipment, the merchant gathered his guards together the day before they left Slome and passed out new armor and gave them whatever they wanted as far as captured weapons. He did the same for each trainee then took them all to a Weapon Smith to select one new weapon of their choice each. The cost to him was more than offset by the faces of the men and the loyalty he knew they would feel toward him. He then bought new supplies and tents for all the men. After all was said and done, he figured he had made over 15,000 silver worth of profit in trade goods plus the massive amount of actual silver and gold he made along the way. Furthermore, he had one of the best-equipped guard contingents of any caravan he had ever traveled with.
Seriff continued to look down favorably until he passed by the squalid Swamp Slums. One of the wagons developed a wobble so they stopped. It didn't take long to discover the axle had cracked and would have to be completely replaced. This meant cutting down a tree and working one from scratch or heading back to Slome and spending money to get it fixed. Such a massive caravan attracted the residents of the slums attention. Many came looking for handouts, while others wanted employment. At first his men turned all comers away, but the merchant finally stopped them, deciding on using the cheap labor of the slums to get the needed labor done.
He offered work in fixing the wagon to a few hardier men and went around flanked by guards looking at the deplorable conditions. Several of the skinny urchins looked close to starvation as they held up filthy fingers begging for even a scrap of food. Many of the guards took a degree of pity, selecting a couple of kids to give a meal to in exchange for cleaning of weapons, mend clothing, or whatever else they could find for the kids to do. The rest stood guard over the wagons and goods, threatening anyone who got too close.
One woman caught the Merchant's eye as he continued to look around. She was Elvish, which was rare in and of itself. Elves tended to take care of their own, and even the poor would be given servant jobs from those more fortunate. This woman held the hands of two young children and had two older ones standing in front of her. Clearly all four kids were as hungry as the rest but didn't come over to beg.
Ignoring the pleading looks of those underfoot, he made his way over to the woman. As he approached one of the older ones started to raise his hands to beg. Instantly she reacted, slapping the hand hard enough to echo in the swamp. Much to the youngster's credit the hand was lowered along with eyes without a complaint or a cry of pain even though the hand had already started to turn red.
The woman looked him straight in the eyes as she spoke, "Can I do something for you my lord?"
"You need not address me as such." He stated in Elvish with a degree of authority, "I am a merchant, not royalty."
"You may as well be royal," she also switched into Elvish, "you are rich and have food which is even more important."
"I wouldn't say rich." He smiled as he looked over the family.
"Look around good sir, everyone here would."
The merchant laughed nervously, "You have a valid point. How would you and your children like to have a meal with me after getting seen by my Healthman?"
"I am very interested in your offer, but I would like to know the price." The woman reached forward yanking the hair of her child who was nodding in agreement. "Darmoth you ever agree without my permission again and you will no longer be considered a child. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Mom." The child squeaked out in terror.
"I'm glad he does, but I don't." The merchant stated with a confused scowl.
"Not that it is any of your business, good sir," The woman stated coldly, "but when he starts speaking for himself in my presence he is basically telling me he is old enough to no longer have me provide for him. Should he wish to continue partaking in whatever meager meals I find, he needs to act like a child should, not a man."
"Oh, I see. I am sorry if my question was out of line. I do thank you for the clarification, however." He studied the family noting their clothing was quite a bit nicer than the others and they were cleaner, although clean was strictly relative in this case.
"I understand. You probably have never lived a harsh day in your life, so would not understand what I go through to bring my children up properly. My question still remains. What price do you attach to your hospitality?"
"Your company and some information. Nothing more."
"Very well. We will be happy to join you then."
"My guard will take you to my Healthman, if it is all right with you."
The woman smiled showing perfect white teeth, "Have him point the way."
The women came into the tent washed and in a clean rough weave dress. Her pointed ears had been hidden from sight by silverish blond hair. Likewise her children came in quietly and stood off to the side much like group of good servants would do. They were dressed in poor, but clean, clothing. All eagerly looked at the Dagger Boar roast, potatoes, and star mint leaves along with real butter, milk, and wine: Yet, none moved forward. Such politeness and manners were all but unheard of from such poor children. The merchant nodded his approval.
He pointed, "Please be seated." Carefully he watched as the woman sat at the far side of the place settings while each child took up positions from oldest to youngest. None of her children sat until he stated they could. They all lowered themselves without using their hands folding their legs properly to eat in a tent. Clearly they had been taught properly.
He started with a short prayer to Seriff then passed around the plates of food. He watched carefully noting each child took good-sized helpings without overloading their plates, he smiled in earnest, "You have done a good job with your children."
"Thank you. It has not been easy, but I am fairly proud of three of them."
He glanced around and saw Darmoth lower his head. Obviously he was the exception. He adjusted his gaze to the children, "Eat slowly and do not be afraid to ask for seconds. You will get more in the long run by chewing and eating slowly. My tent is yours for this meal."
"You are most kind sir." Darmoth stated as he forced himself not to wolf down the tender meat. Never before had he remembered such a well-prepared meal.
"My pleasure." He turned his gaze back to the mother; "Do you mind me speaking frankly in front of the children?"
"Worry not. Their young ears have heard much more than you can imagine. Remember Darmoth may look to be nine but he is actually thirty-three years old, the last twelve of them spent living here. There is nothing you can say that will insult, scare, or confuse him, the others are slightly younger, but all have lived here for twelve years."
"I see. Well, let me get straight to the point if you do not mind."
"Not at all. Please do."
The man took a breath; "There are two things I am interested in. The first is a night of pleasure with you."
"I do not have a problem with such things, but this dinner is not part of my price."
Such a frank answer in front of children shocked him, but he recovered quickly. "No, no, the meal is on me. What type of price are you asking?"
"I must decline to answer. If my price is too low you will accept and I will lose out. If it is too high, I will not get anything and my family will go hungry again. You must set a price you are comfortable with. Then I can accept or decline."
"Fair enough. How about two silver?"
"I can agree to such a price." The woman didn't look happy with the price, but she didn't look insulted either. Her dignity remained even as she sold her body for the night.
"Excellent! Now on to business matters." He again glanced somewhat nervously at the children. They hadn't batted an eyelash as he offered money for their mother. He shrugged. This was his first time in a real slum so he had to adjust his thinking, especially if he wanted to see if the rumors he had heard were true.
He took a deep breath before speaking again, "I have heard some slum parents sell their offspring to get money. Does such things happen here?"
Instantly Darmoth swallowed hard and the other older kid looked down at his plate. The younger two slid a fraction toward their mother.
"Knock it off Children." She scolded, "He has every right to ask such questions. He invited us to dinner to gain information. Darmoth, answer him!"
Darmoth took a long gulp of milk before turning to meet the man's questioning stare. He felt like there was a chunk of wood lodged in his throat as he started speaking about the unspeakable, "Sir, it is not a good thing."
"Darmoth!" The mother growled, "Give him a full answer!"
Darmoth cleared his throat, "Sir, it happens here quite often. Many women have children just so they can sell them. Others get sick and need money. They have no choice. Those who have children just to sell are outcasts, even from here, and tend to live closer to the deep bogs down the hill from the rest of us."
"Very interesting…" The man started only to be interrupted.
"Darmoth." The woman now hissed, "I said to tell him a full reply to his question. Do not disobey me again."
"Sorry, Mom." Tears threatened to spill out his eyes, "But not about…"
The merchant watched the exchange wondering what was going on, but decided to get the information out of the boy since it was his mother's wishes the boy answer. "Young man, you were the one who wanted to take my invitation without even looking to your mom. You are also the one who tried to beg from me when the rest of your family stood proud, yet you will not even answer my question. I have to wonder if you should even be allowed at this meal. Now you are in my tent, eating my food. If I do not get an answer from you, I will take you over my knee and switch you."
A look of horror spread over all four young faces while their mother simply nodded, "As is his right. I will not stop him."
Darmoth quickly recovered, he knew his mom was serious and the look from the merchant was equally harsh. "Sir there are a lot of kids for sale right now. This has been the hardest winter anyone can remember and almost everyone is near starvation. My best friend's dad took him into Slome a week ago looking to sell him, but couldn't find a buyer. It is no longer a matter of pride, but survival."
Darmoth shook lightly, then continued in a voice just slightly higher than a whisper, "My brother had been supporting us and paying my way through school, but his employer left. I didn't tell my teacher we didn't have any more money and still went everyday, so my mom now has a debt, so I am for sale as well."
The words stunned the merchant, "How much of a debt for sending a boy to school be?"
"Five silver, and climbing every day." The woman answered in an icy voice. When it reaches twenty-five he will belong to the teacher by order of the Captain of the Guard of Slome. I will lose a son and his worth too."
"Where is your oldest now?"
"He is Halfelf so he is not my oldest, but he is by right of age equivalency. I do not know where he is now. He went into Slome to find work. I have not seen him in four days. He knows nothing of this shame Darmoth has brought to my home."
Gablon ignored her disgust; "How old is he?"
"Equivalent age of a human, eleven."
"He is too young to look for work on his own!" The merchant realized his voice had crept up and made a conscious effort to lower it, "Surely there is another way."
"None I have found." The woman seemed remarkably calm for someone put in such a terrible position.
The merchant thought for a moment then came up with an idea, "You know how to read and write?"
"Yes sir." Darmoth answered with just a hint of pride.
"Northman, Common, and some Elvish. I am best at Northman."
"Very well. I am about to make you an offer that will spare you a life of slavery, but will require you to submit totally to me for a period of time."
The woman raised an eyebrow, "Indentured servitude, good sir?"
"Yes. And please call me Gablon. I could use your son's abilities. I sent my two oldest back home and have been trying to keep the books ever since. I have done it, but it has cut down on personal time. I will also not hesitate to use your boy in other ways of my choice."
"As would be your right Gablon. My name is Kaylaria, by the way. What is your offer?"
"One silver per month, minimum of six months. It is way below minimum for any city, but he will have his freedom eventually and I will get him tested for proper training. I sense he is not mundane."
"Such an offer should be an outrage. Indentured servitude in Slome is a minimum of ten copper or one silver per three weeks, and that would be for an old hag."
"True, normally. His status, however, is not much above a thief. If you would prefer, I will buy him outright. I am interested in purchasing slaves."
Everyone sat eating in silence for quite a while before Kaylaria broke the uneasy tension. "Let me think it over. To be honest, I am inclined to sell him. He has added yet another dishonor to our family name."
Gablon looked down at the boy who was clearly crushed by his mother's words. Tears ran down his cheeks as he finished off his plate of food. He wouldn't even look up, nor did he join his siblings in getting a helping of seconds. His heart went out to the boy who had only done what he did to learn to read. It crossed his mind to have a couple of his men eliminate the debt at the source, permanently, but doubted Kaylaria would let the child off. Family honor clearly held much weight for her. He wondered what dishonor had sent her to this dismal place.
His thoughts were interrupted by one of the trainees standing guard outside the tent, "Sir, there is a man here looking for the Elf Chick."
"Elvin woman, not Elf Chick." The merchant glared at the boy.
"Oh, yea, sorry ma'am." The young Swordsman bowed an apology.
"Not a problem young man. Do you know who it is?"
"No Ma'am. He's a big bastard though."
"Emroc!" Gablon turned red with embarrassment, "You are talking to a lady!"
Emroc shrugged and again bowed; he figured he'd never understand all the nicey nice bullshit the boss seemed to expect. He just wanted to be a trained Swordsman. Besides, the chick wasn't even human. Why should he care if she was insulted or not?
The merchant just wanted to get the boy out of the tent before he said something else. "Usher him in and chop some wood, it smells like a storm is blowing in."
Emroc bit back a reply. His mouth had just got him put on wood cutting duty as it was. He showed the man into the tent and left without a further word.
The man knocked off a few snowflakes as he entered; "Already blown in and getting worse." he chuckled lightly.
"So, I see." Gablon stood looking at the monster of a man, noting the guy had to bend his knees to stand in his tent, even though it was over two meters tall in the lowest areas. The fact the guy was armed and armored in combat scared gear also didn't go unnoticed. "You here to see the lady?"
"Only for a moment." He assured the nervous merchant before turning to face Kaylaria; "Do you know Kandric?"
"He is my son. Is he hurt?" concern clouded her face.
"No, ma'am. Quite the opposite. He is fine and safe but quite a ways away. I am here to deliver food and some money."
Kandric's mom stood, "Money? For what?"
"He asked me not to say more than I had to, but he saved our butts today. This is a portion of his bounty payment." He handed over a full pouch.
Kaylaria, Kandric's mom, opened the small leather bag and poured the coins into her hand. She counted the silver and copper quickly, "Thirteen silver and thirty five copper? What type of bounty was this?"
"I'm really not at liberty to say, ma'am. All I can tell ya is that there ten silver is straight out his and the rest was a quick pool I took from my men. Almost all of 'em pitched in. He earned every copper. Of that, I can guarantee. You have one damn tough boy!" He then handed over a small bag; "This here is enough dry ration rolls to keep yer kids feed fer a few days."
Kandric's mom put the coins back into the pouch; "You must give me more information. Surely a child could not make this kind of money legally."
"Look, I gave my word to yer boy not ta say more than I had ta. He saved our lives today in an attack from Hobgoblins, takin' out three and injurin' their leader. I don't think he wanted ya to know this, but I will not have his ol' lady thinkin' he be a thief. I need ta get to Slome and find a room fer da storm get real bad. As soon as this storm let up, I'll come back and do whatever I can ta help ya out for a few days. That's all I'm a gunna say."
"My son is a warrior?" she looked in shock as the information sank in.
"He damn sure ain't no servant, not the way he fights!" The man left without even giving his name.
Everyone in the tent stayed silent long after the sounds of a galloping hoofed animal pasted by. It was Gablon who finally broke the ice, "Looks like your oldest is off the hook."
"Oh, no he isn't. I'm not about to let his brother pay his debt." Kaylaria stated matter-of-factly, confirming Gablon's supposition that honor was all the lady had left and clung to it like a lifeline from a sailing ship in storm tossed seas.
"Surely you would not have your oldest become a slave?" Gablon asked hoping to push her toward a rational decision.
"To tell the truth I have not made up my mind what to do. I never even suspected Kandric had received training, let alone enough to take on a Hobgoblin. If he indeed did kill three Hobgoblin's single handedly, than I cannot allow the honor he is giving my family name to be soiled by this one's deceit."
"Mom, please do not sell my brother." The other older boy spoke up for the first time. "You are the one who demanded he go to school."
Kaylaria slapped the boy, "You do not tell me what to do. Do you want to stop being a child? You know I have done it once before!"
The boy looked terrified, "No, Mom."
"I thought not." Kaylaria grunted, "You are a child and best remember your place."
"I'm sorry. I just don't want to lose Darmoth too." The boy cried.
Darmoth looked up, "Please Mom. I will never do it again. Promise!"
"Your reputation is too soiled for a promise to mean anything, Darmoth. I would have never sent you to school and wasted your brother's income if I had known he was getting proper training."
Gablon had heard enough. He dug into his pouch and tossed Kaylaria a pair of silver coins. "That is for tonight. Right now I have a better idea for all of us."
Kaylaria turned her attention away from her boys. "Oh, and what does this idea do for us?"
"Why don't we speak of this in private and let your young ones finish eating?"
"Could they take their meals home?"
"Yes. I have no problem with such a request. I expect any plates to be brought back clean, however."
Kaylaria thought it over for a second, "Children, take what food you will eat tonight and go home. Rathiter, the house is yours tonight. Make sure all the chores are done and the fire stays burning. I expect you to bring all the dishes back cleaner than we found them."
Darmoth's slightly younger brother stood and bowed a proper Elvin bow. "Yes, Mom."
Quickly the children left the tent carrying only what they could eat tonight, plus the bag of food the stranger had given their mom. Curiosity could be seen written across the older two boy's faces and Darmoth looked back once with huge blue eyes begging Gablon to save him from slavery or worse.
"Now we are alone, I would like to hear what you have come up with as far as Darmoth's future.
"I think what I have in mind would work well." Gablon stated trying to put his idea into words. Darmoth's pleading look stuck in his thoughts as he continued to think aloud. "It allows you to destroy the tarnish to your honor and makes the boys here earn it themselves."
"An Elf child cannot earn honor or dishonor, they can only pass it on to their parents."
"I have been around many Elves and have never heard this before." Gablon spoke in a strong voice, "What Elvish law is this?'
"The only law I worry about any longer, Ancient Alphar law."
Gablon took an involuntary step back, "You are Alphar?"
Kaylaria cheeks reddened as she realized her error. For an instant she wanted to lie, but couldn't bring herself to do so. "No longer. I am simply Elf. My father expelled me from my home when I fell in love with a lowly Forest Elf. He knew my status and was killed when he demanded a duel for my hand in marriage. I was already heavy with his child so it was too late for me to make amends. My first child was taken by my father and, as soon as I was fit to travel, I was sent away."
"So Alphars do still exist?"
"Yes, but very few stay where lesser folks can find them."
"You are one. How can you not include yourself?" Gablon asked with a bemused look.
"As I said, I am Elf. The term used when an Alphar is disgraced to a point of being disowned by his or her family. She briefly looked down. I had to swear never to use my abilities nor stake claim to my once royal status among lower races of Elves."
"I am sorry." Gablon stated with feeling, "Love should not interfere with such matters."
"You are wrong. I did what my father forbade. I deserved what I got. Kandric may be able to claim his place back among my family if he truly took down three Hobgoblins by himself. If he succeeds, his brothers and sister will be elevated with him."
Gablon's brow furled, "I don't understand. How could a Halfelf be allowed among the Alphar?"
"This must stay between us." Kaylaria waited to get a nod before continuing, "Kandric is Halfelf, but the first generation of any offspring of an Alphar will change to full Alphar. Magic runs extremely strong in Alphar blood. He will slow down in aging very shortly. Actually he already has, he just does not realize it yet. If he mates with any Elvin race his offspring will stay true Alphar as well. If he does not his children will slow to the aging of an Alphar about his age, but their children will be of the lower races of Elves. The next generation will be the ones who can have Halfelf children and the like. You noted you sensed my boys already radiated some power. They are already Alphar in blood, but cannot know this. Right now they are simply Elf. Almost all Alphar blood can be trained. I am just surprised I did not see some signs of this in Kandric."
"He may have been found by someone who saw something early and offered him training. I just don't understand why you haven't at least taught your children how to read yourself. You obviously have the teaching necessary."
"I do. I even started out working like any educated Elf, but after my husband, Kandric's father, died in a mining accident I was treated as a widower. My father would never have allowed me to depend on the charity of other Elves. One way or another he would have found a way to punish me, so I packed up and left. My only chance of having any of my children return to their Alphar heritage, would be to get them trained without using any of my past privileged training.
"The interesting thing is you. You must have a field of magic to be able to detect the flows of magic around my boys. They have not yet harnessed whatever their powers are so it is easy to see, but only by the upper Echelons within the guilds. I am not even so skilled. Yet your men do not treat you as trained nor do you act like you are." Kaylaria finished with a questioning look.
Gablon lowered his voice so the guards outside the tent couldn't hear. "I am a Shaman. I just refuse to let anyone know this. No one, including my children, knows I am not mundane. I pay the guild dues away from home so only a very few really know anything about me." Glancing around making sure the guards outside were not paying attention, he flipped over his silver and tiger-eye belt buckle revealing a Teaching Echelon Shaman pin and Teaching Echelon Sailor pin. Both showed him to be step 5, meaning he was only a stone throw from Expert Echelon. "What about you? You stated you were not to use your training, so you must have some special skills as well. I assume from what you have said thus far you are not exactly defenseless either."
"I am a Secondary Echelon Sorceress. My Subfield is a Channeler of Vindayin, Elvin goddess of the forest and healing. I have not used my powers except one time in the forty-five years or so since my first born was taken from my arms by my father. The one time I did use my powers probably got my son expelled from his servant position assigned to him by my father, but I do not know for sure. If so, he would have been abandoned to fend for himself. There is a chance this did not happen, since the attempt to save the father of my oldest failed and he died anyway."
"Is Alphar law really so harsh as to throw a child out when the mother breaks her word?"
"Yes, depending on how my father saw my actions. He took some of my essence and stored it in a glass ball. It would have glowed the second I used my magic and he would have surely peered into the crystal to find out why. It would then be up to him if my child was thrown from his household. As young as he would have been, he would have surely died or become a slave by now."
"I cannot imagine anyone being so cruel!"
"Children are nothing more than extensions of their parents in Alphar tradition. By hurting my child, Father really only would see his actions as himself hurting me. Children are not people. It is just the way of my people." Kaylaria shrugged. "The same goes for my boys.
"Speaking of which, how do you plan to accomplish turning their treachery from soiling my horrible name even further? The only reason Darmoth is not sold now is no one would give me a good price. The people of Slome have had a very hard winter and funds for extras such as slaves just do not exist at the moment. Rathiter's adult like tone today further influences me to get rid of both of them. I will not allow my younger two to be corrupted by their older siblings' Un-Elf-like behavior."
Gablon thought over Kaylaria's words carefully before answering. He saw a way out for the boys and her, but to suggest such a course of action would surely seem very extreme to both Kaylaria and her boys. First he would have to get her over to his side a little more. "It seems your boys are quite strong headed. If what you have told me is true, you must be very displeased."
"You have no idea. I have spent twelve years living in this swamp trying to give one of my boys a chance to reclaim their heritage. Darmoth's actions may well seal their fate."
"But only if you are the one disgraced by their actions, right?"
"There is no one else, Gablon. I am responsible for them, and their actions will reflect on me. Any Alphar who decides to check will see it as a proper decision by my father to make me Elf."
"There may be another way." Gablon felt as if he had just dangled a lifeline to a drowning woman instead of tossing it all the way out. She would have to swim for it. She didn't hesitate.
"Let me hear it than!"
Gablon smiled to himself while keeping his facial expression neutral. "I think you may want to consider tossing their child status and making them fend for themselves."
Kaylaria gasped, "What?"
"Think about it. Your younger children would never forget such a powerful lesson and I could then hire both of your boys. Darmoth would have to sell himself to me as an indentured servant for a time to get money up front. He could then pay off the debt he created, restoring his honor, while keeping yours clean. Then he and Rathiter would be in a position to receive training you could not hope to pay for. You could end up with three trained children if your Halfelf boy is really trained already."
Kaylaria's expression changed slowly for shock, to befuddlement to a slight smile. "You know, it just might work. If Darmoth pays off his debts, then it would not fall to me to be dishonored, nor would he, because he as a non-child would have fended for himself properly. You are much craftier than your looks let on. The only problem would be if Darmoth refused to indenture himself."
"Such a choice would be far more foolish than I believe the child is, Kaylaria."
Slowly the woman took in a few breaths before speaking, "You are correct. From this point on Rathiter and Darmoth are non-children."
The following morning Gablon trudged through the ever-worsening storm over to Kaylaria's shack. As he made the offer to Darmoth and Rathiter, it became clear the boys had already talked it over. Both boys were shaken to the core, but readily accepted. Darmoth would first spend six months as an indentured servant, but both children would get training and would learn real trades. This alone perked both children up. Neither could imagine a chance to learn a real trade let alone get trained to be one of the elite. Rathiter in particular was thrilled. He would learn to read, write, fight, and travel plus would get three copper a week for it!
As the storm really began to slam into the Swamp Slums, Gablon had his Mage cast a spell on each boy to see what they could be trained as. He made the request sound as if he suspected nothing, but his Shaman powers were confirmed after only an hour. Rathiter had the Druid talents coursing through his veins so strong it astonished the young Mage. Likewise, Darmoth had huge untapped Mage potential. Both would begin studies immediately under the direction of the Mage and Gablon's other spell caster who, as luck would have it, was a Druid.
This information gave Gablon a moment of thought, however. When he first heard about Kaylaria's boy killing three Hobgoblins he had assumed the boy was a Swordsman or at best a Warrior Adept. This was unlikely knowing what he now knew. The mother was a spell caster as were the two oldest. It was unlikely their Halfelvin sibling was simply a Swordsman. When magic ran this strong within a family, all the children would grow to be spell casters, almost without exception. Yet the stranger had said the youngster had taken down three Hobgoblins in combat. If the child was a spell caster and had dropped even one without the assistance of a spell, than he was more than just trained, he was experienced. How good can an eleven-year-old equivalent Halfelf be? I don't think I have seen more than twenty kids below the age of fourteen trained at all!
Shaking off the thoughts he set his guards' routine for the storm. After the basics were attended to, he went to meet with his newest caravan members. The first assignment Gablon gave the brothers was to brave the storm and bring parents who wanted to sell their children to his tent. He had the money, food, and resources. They had the need. Slaving was a new business for him, but it sure looked like it could be profitable.
Having finished thinking over the last few days, Gablon shivered one more time. Enough was enough. "Darmoth!"
The boy came in to the main area of the tent with wide eyes, "Sir?"
"Go find us a building to rent. There is no reason for any of us including these two slaves to be this cold when I have money!"
"At once sir!" Darmoth turned to leave.
"Stop!" Gablon's voice commanded harshly.
The boy froze, "Sir?" he squeaked.
"Your brother can turn and leave when given an order, but you are a servant. You will bow when dismissing yourself!"
Darmoth bit his lip as he turned, "Sorry sir." He lowered himself to a proper servant's bow. "I will not let it happen again."
"Next time it will be four lashes with a switch across your back child. I told you what I expected when I agreed to take over your debt. Do not forget your current status again."
"I will not, sir."
"Very well. While you are out, find our if your brother has found anyone else who wishes to speak to me about a fair price for their children. I expected to have more interviews by now."
"I am sure you will, sir. Would you like for me to tell my brother to send people to whatever home I find for you to rent as well sir?"
"Yes. Very good idea my boy. Send someone to fetch me and then pack up all of my things. It will be up to you to get us moved in before you are allowed to eat."
"Of course sir." Darmoth bowed again and waited for a dismissal before heading out of the tent. His temper flared for an instant as he glanced back to the tent and saw the two slave girls Gablon had just purchased still sitting inside a somewhat warm tent while he had to do all the work. It didn't seem fair.
Once outside, a clump of snow fell from a tree hitting his face and open necked coat. This time the shock of the extra cold and his already burning anger caused him to nearly explode. A rush of power filled him as he grabbed as much snow as he could from inside his shirt. The unfocused anger and frustration suddenly manifested itself, as the boy wished the snow would all melt.
Searing hot sparks blasted out of his fingertips, down his shirt and into the snow he had been trying to dig out. Ice turned to steam under the Autospell's assault. Darmoth screamed as his skin blistered on a large patch of his chest.
Gablon ran out of the tent as two guards moved to look for what had attacked the boy. Seeing the child's shirt still smoldering with glowing embers, Gablon grabbed a handful of snow and slapped it onto the thrashing child. He noticed Darmoth's magical reserves had dropped dramatically as he touched the child. Instantly he knew what had happened. Looking up at one of the bigger guards he yelled, "Hold him still. There are no threats out here. He just accidentally tapped into his magical abilities."
Upon hearing this, the other guard nodded understanding and re-sheathed his sword; "I'll get the Healthman."
"Yes, do." Gablon acknowledged as he ripped Darmoth's shirt open and applied more snow. Looking at the damage, Gablon realized the Mage had been understating the boy's innate magical abilities. Normally, only a trained spell caster could cause this much damage with an Autospell. With such power at his disposal, Darmoth would have to begin classes in magic control. Another thought also occurred to him. Maybe his brother is really advanced enough to fight a group of Hobgoblins single-handedly.
Rathiter would have to be taught control before he made a similar mistake. Magic this powerful and uncontrolled could easily cause deadly accidents. The legendary power of the Alphars surely rested with in this family!
Morning came far too quickly for both Aster and Pocet. The youngster in the other bed had kept waking up in delirious stupors and had to be tended to very closely and carefully. Once Shade barked alerting the sleeping pair to the boy's attempt to get up and walk out the door. Pocet reacted first, getting to the lad only to find a glazed over look coming from the child's eyes. It took a couple of minutes to figure out why he resisted being put back into bed. Once he guided the child over to a chamber pot, the battered boy relieved himself and almost fell to the floor.
Pocet carefully picked up the boy and tucked him back into bed. Pocet sat next to the child running his hands through dirty tangled hair until he was absolutely sure the boy had drifted off into a slumber. Even after steady breathing of sleep could be heard, it took almost an hour before he returned to bed with Aster.
For Aster, this only increased his love for the powerful Swordsman. Pocet could have easily enjoyed the feel of the boy's body, but didn't. His clear concern centered on the boy's feelings not his own. Just watching Pocet do everything he could to make their unexpected guest feel safe brought a smile to Aster's tired features.
For a good portion of the remaining night they held each other and looked at the child sleep. More than once, thrashing told them of a nightmare. Each time Pocet would move over and again gently stroke the boy's hair until fitful, if not peaceful sleep returned. Aster eventually moved over to the other bed and the two of them took turns comforting the child's tortured sleeping thoughts.
Pocet moved over to the window as he started to dress. Small wispy flakes of snow fell from skies no longer dark and heavy with moisture. The storm was ending. Already some merchants busied themselves doing what they could to clear snow so their shops could open. City guards escorted groups of spell casters who used magic to clear the largest of the drifts so people could start moving about. Junsac was getting back to the business of being a barony capitol city.
Aster joined Pocet at the window; "Handri will want to move out very soon, won't he?"
"Yes." Pocet wrapped his hands around Aster giving him a loving squeeze, "But look out there. Our wagons will not be able to move for four or five days once we get outside the city. We had to get almost two meters of snow and it still isn't done."
"The faster we move out, the less problems we will get from the Lizardmen."
"Your knowledge will guide Handri's decision my friend. My only input on the matter will consist of telling him to listen to you."
Aster smiled as he savored Pocet's warm hug and words of trust. "Thank you."
"You are welcome." Pocet glanced over to the occupied bed; "My concern is for him. What are the laws here?"
"I do not know. He doesn't have a slave collar or brand, so technically he is free. If he is indentured, his running away would probably be justified by his condition. In such cases his servitude would have to be broken by any member of royalty overseeing his home. On the other hand if he is being rented out, then he is from outside the city. By law he would have to be taken back to whatever noble oversees his home for judgment. Renting out is not a legal practice without a noble's consent in Junsac, but is almost everywhere else I have been.
"Why isn't it allowed here?"
"I really do not know for sure. I think it has something to do with the day slave program. If people could rent out others, the market for the day slaves would diminish a great deal."
Pocet nodded after a moment of thought, "Yes. I can see how demand for day slaves would drop if someone could rent out a child for a few days. What happens when a rented child is brought to Junsac?"
Aster shrugged. "I do not know. But we cannot let whoever had him before last night reclaim him. I will not allow it."
"You will get no argument from me." Pocet replied reassuringly. "First we need to find out who he is and what his true status is though. If he is a slave then there is little we can do."
"You are wrong. He has no markings, so I can challenge for possession of him by combat. I have every right. I saved his life, albeit with your help, so I can stake a legal claim."
"Legal claim?" Pocet gave Aster a bemused look and lightly tickled the Elf's ribs
Aster squirmed and giggled, "If someone owns him, they owe me for services rendered. It is no different than a parent bringing in a child. If they can't pay after I heal their child, I could take them to royal court for reimbursement. Likewise with a slave, the master would be responsible for paying me. I decided to help him thinking he was free. He has no marks to prove otherwise. Therefore, I can now charge the owner whatever price I want because no agreement was worked out. My price will be ownership. His only recourse would be to challenge. Since I have the outstanding bill, it would be up to me to choose method of challenge. I would declare a duel. As a guild certified Animal Adept, my pets qualify automatically for the combat."
"Junsac sure has strange laws."
"This is a kingdom law. It keeps down the need for royalty to get involved because more often than not, one side or the other will relinquish claim rather than face the chance of death. There are only about three to four combats a year over such matters in Junsac and they always involve a large crowd. The winner gets a quarter the coliseum gates entry because the attendance goes up over the normal gladiatorial games."
"So here might makes right?" Pocet asked unenthusiastically.
"In some cases yes. But you are in one of the fringe kingdoms here. Might is what prevents the whole kingdom from tumbling down." Aster leaned back and allowed Pocet to brace his weight. "Just like now. You are supporting me."
Pocet stroked Aster's smooth chest; "Nothing could make me happier."
Aster closed his eyes relishing the secure feeling of being held and loved. He knew within a very few days they both would be depending on each other to keep everyone safe. But right now for the first time in a very long time, Aster could forget about being the youngest Secondary Echelon Animal Adept Elf in guild history and just be a boy.
Pocet draped a robe over Aster's shoulders and kissed him on the top of his silky hair. "I better arrange for a private bath for our guest and a meal for us. What would you like to eat?"
"Steak and eggs." Aster replied with a grin.
Pocet chuckled, "I should have guessed. An all time favorite of yours?"
"Every chance I get!"
"I will not forget then." Pocet placed another kiss on Asters head. "What about for our guest?"
"Soft bread with a broth we can dip it in and juice would be best. He got up on his own, so he should be able to handle minor solids. Let me know what his and my meal come to, so I can pay you back."
"No, let me handle his food. You get his clothing today while I bath him. Your food is on Handri remember?"
"Oh yea. I keep forgetting about that."
"You will get used to it soon enough."
"Don't forget to get Shade and Dart some lightly cooked meat chunks."
Pocet scratched Shade behind the ears, "I won't. Anything else you need?"
"For you to give me another kiss would be nice." Aster turned with a wide smile.
Pocet picked Aster up and gave him a long loving kiss. "I dare say I needed that every bit as much as you did!" The Swordsman stated as he headed out the door with a smile.
Aster continued to smile well after Pocet left the room. He moved over to the empty bed and played with Shade for several minutes, not wanting his beloved animal to feel left out. For years Shade had comforted Aster when he had felt lonely, scared, or sad. He had to make sure Shade understood he would not be abandoned just because his master had a new friend. A pecking on the window alerted Aster to Dart's presence. He quickly opened the door to the balcony allowing the massive bird to come into the room.
Shade barked in delight. Hopping off the bed, the canine came over and gave Dart a quick nuzzle.
Dart returned the greeting. Using its beak, it lightly scratched Shade's muzzle while making light squawking noises. The meter and a half tall bird then spread its wings out and briefly wrapped them around Aster. Anyone looking on would have sworn the actions of the animals were more human than many real humans cared to act.
Dart next noticed the boy lying on the bed and hopped over looking on the sleeping figure. In a touching display, the great bird used its long lower wing feathers to stroke the child's cheek until it saw a smile. Seeming satisfied, Dart hopped over to the fire and extended its wings again soaking up the warmth.
Aster added a couple of logs to the fire so Shade and Dart could enjoy each other's company while he moved over to check the boy. Even as he reapplied herbs and bandages to some of the nastier injuries, he couldn't help but to smile. Never in his wildest dreams could he have foreseen being so lucky as he felt right at the moment. He had a great new friend, decent employer, two beautiful loving pets, and most important of all the trust of all of them.
Slowly the boy stirred as Aster examined the welts he had treated the night before on the child's arms. Abruptly, his eyes opened and he looked around in alarm. He saw the surroundings as his little feet pushed him away from Aster toward the headboard of the bed, while pushing the blankets down in bunches with each thrust of a foot.
Aster put up both hands; "You are safe here." His words seemed to have no effect so he switched to Northman. "What is your name?"
Still the boy looked at him with phobic eyes. He pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, clasping his dirty fingers in a tight interlocking pattern. He didn't seem to realize or even care that he wore no clothing.
Shade scooted from underneath Dart and let the bird stand before the canine moved to boy, jumping up on the bed.
The youngster let out a whimper as his eyes grew even wider. He tried desperately to pull himself into a tighter ball.
Shade slowed and came up offering a paw. When that didn't seem to work it started rubbing the boy's legs with his soft fur.
It took a few minutes, but finally a hand reached out and started stroking Shade's side. His little fingers disappeared in the massive expanse of fur as he slowly got up more courage. The opening of the door stopped the brief glimpse of him being a boy.
Pocet entered with a few plates of food. Seeing their guest up he put the broth, juice and bread on the end table. He motioned to the boy that the plate was for him as he nodded for Aster to come out into the hall.
Aster shut the door and turned, "What's going on?"
"There is a man downstairs who claimed our little friend in there belongs to him. He also knew we had him, so I had no choice. I invoked a challenge under kingdom law and he accepted. It will be you and me against him and his bodyguard. The problem is I think he is a spell caster."
"Why two on two?"
"He said since two of us saved his life that we both have to fight for him and one of your Watch friends agreed."
Aster shrugged, "Fine with me. If a member of the Watch agreed than he did so for a reason. When is it?"
"Tomorrow. What about the spell caster?"
"Tomorrow you will find out what Shade and Dart are all about!" Aster grinned with total confidence. "Until then we better take turns keeping an eye on him. I'll go get him some clothing."
"Take one of our men with you. Until this is resolved I don't want you going out alone."
Aster's eyes twinkled. "They would be committing suicide if they laid a hand on me Pocet. The Watch knows about the challenge and will be keeping me under constant protection. Which member agreed to the terms?"
"Your Hawkling friend. Said to tell you something about your friend will be there with us."
"Yea. He said slaves were allowed to fight beside their masters and could earn their freedom by doing so." Pocet looked over Aster hoping for a clue as to what this meant.
Aster beamed, "I am getting Conner as a slave and will be able to free him right after combat! He is a Primary Echelon Mage and a Sect Warrior."
"He is the spell caster you were telling Handri about?"
"You never mentioned him being a Sect Warrior!"
"He didn't ask." Aster chewed his lip for a second; "Does it make a difference?"
Pocet chuckled, "Only in the respect we will not have to defend him like we thought we would. What style?"
Pocet whistled in respect. "Not many of them around at all!"
Aster nodded with a hardened look of a war veteran. "I will get with Master Lannet and make sure he is armed and gets the spells I captured the other day. Whoever hurt that boy is going to go down hard."
Kandric moved over to the window and watched the snow continue to fall. He couldn't stand the inactivity any longer. He hated being cooped up regardless of the situation, but being in a strange place made it even worse. It was almost like he was a prisoner.
Of course he knew better. Vondum made him as comfortable as physically possible. He also received a tour of the entire compound. One of the sergeants introduced him to the men and had the armor worker size him for a full suit of reinforced leather armor. In addition he got to select whatever he wanted from the supply storage area. He now looked like the Secondary Echelon Shaman he actually was.
He wore brand new Sword Deer leather armor with Dwarvin metal plates over his chest, shoulders, abdomen, and thighs. His feet now had some of the nicest sized, soft fur lined boots he had ever seen. The compound's cooper stopped everything to size him and make them from the best material on hand. A tailor also put aside other work to make a new coat for Kandric, along with three changes of nice dyed cotton clothing. The leather worker was equally as kind. He made a rugged leather outfit, including a fancy vest with fringe work. He also was given a new belt with two leather pouches. The man assured the sergeant taking Kandric around he would have a backpack sized for the boy within a day or two along with a bedroll. As promised it had been delivered with a second lighter weight leather outfit for the warmer weather everyone hoped would come soon.
The magic sword with its sheath hung over his back with the pummel sticking out over his left shoulder. His chest held a bandoleer of Elvin Silver Steel throwing daggers. On his left hip he received an Elvin Steel dagger and his old trusty Dagger Bore knife was relegated to a boot knife on his right boot. As he looked in the mirror he almost laughed. He really looked like a miniature seasoned scout of any number of kingdoms he had visited with Glaster over the past few years.
His new look got an even greater respect from all the men in and around the secret outpost. Most knew he had taken down more of the Hobs than anyone else during the recent attack and seemed very grateful. He wasn't sure how it had started, but before he realized what was going on the men started calling him 'sir'! Even the sergeants in charge of most of the activities treated him as some sort of military officer. It seemed so weird. Only Vondum, Gormel, and Sy seemed to be above the sergeants in command of the men. Yet, he now seemed to be one of the lieutenants.
He knew Vondum worked for, or at least with, the Illorc, so how much of this hospitality was nothing more than smoke and mirrors remained to be seen. One thing occurred to him though. It would be difficult to find this many swordsmen willing to fight for an Illorc, so many of them were probably in the dark. If this were true, it would be very hard for Vondum, or anyone else, to turn on him without causing a great deal of suspicion.
Realizing his thoughts were starting to go in circles he grabbed his new coat and went around back to the woodpile. He could see Jamon having all sorts of problems trying to cut the wood. Obviously, the boy had never had to use an axe before, and to make matters worse he was not used to hard work. "Plant the axe in the log and stand back."
Jamon shivered wearing only a ragged set of sackcloth clothing and worn boots but did as instructed.
Kandric removed his heavy fur-lined coat. "Put this on so you don't freeze and watch me. You have to look at the grain of the wood and split it how it wants to be split." He pointed to the log Jamon had been working on, "You are wasting it. Look at all the splinters you are making."
Jamon pulled the coat around himself, "Sorry master."
"I'm going to show you how easy this is, then I'll work with you to make sure you understand. You better pay close attention, because I will not take kindly to you not learning."
Jamon swallowed hard but nodded. "I understand master."
Kandric didn't feel guilty about the way he was treating Jamon this time as he yanked the axe out of the wood and split over a dozen logs. He had gotten almost the same speech the first time he had split wood. After showing his temporary slave just how easy it was, he started teaching him how to look at the wood and how to swing the axe. Once he was sure Jamon had the basics he took the axe back and cut up another thirty logs.
The cold fresh air and blowing snow felt great as he worked off some of his boredom. All of his young life he had to work, no matter how nice it was not to have to do anything, he just couldn't for very long. Finally he handed the axe back. "Let me see you finish up this pile."
Jamon looked at the thirteen logs remaining then back at the massive mound of wood Kandric had cut. He realized he had absolutely nothing to complain about. The red-haired boy could have easily made him do all of it, but instead had not only taught him how to do it, but had done well over two thirds the work. As much as he hated being treated as a slave, he actually couldn't help respecting his current master, at least a little. He had seen men cut wood for his father before, but couldn't ever remember seeing this much cut this quickly. He moved forward to pick up the axe to finish the job when he heard a combined cry of pain and fright. It was close, but the snow prevented him from seeing anything
Kandric spun in the direction of the sound as well. His infravision allowed him to see far more than his charge. A humanoid was bleeding, while a being even colder than the blizzard that surrounded them moved forward. Knowing he had to act instantly he shouted. "Roll to your left!"
The bleeding figure rolled hard away from the horned ice-cold form. Whatever the creature was, it turned toward the shout forgetting about it first victim.
Kandric spoke a few arcane words and closed his hand. Magical fire shimmered around his hand for a moment before he turned his hand and opened it at the same time. Bright orange and blue fire spun forward leaving a trail of spiraling sparks in its wake. The Spark Blast spell ripped into the nasty ice-clawed form with a sizzle and cracking of ice. One arm fell off completely as it fell with the most hideous sound Kandric had ever heard.
"Jamon," Kandric shouted pulling his sword, "get inside and tell Vondum we are under attack!"
Jamon froze, never before seeing such a wicked spell nor hearing such an unearthly scream.
Kandric turned and slapped the boy. "Move, and take the axe with you!"
Jerked back to reality, Jamon started to run around the corner of the woodshed only to see an icy form move toward him. He tried to backpedal, but fell in the snow.
Kandric saw the boy reappear and fall as he started to move in the direction of the injured person. He stopped and spun only to see the axe Jamon had been carrying ripped from his hands and tossed several meters away.
Kandric dove swinging his sword as he went, missing Jamon's nose by only centimeters. He felt the blade make contact with something but its ruby runes flared as the blade bit in. It kept moving as if it had suddenly become a red-hot knife cutting through soft butter. The beast let loose with a screech of pure evil torment as it lost both legs.
Kandric didn't let the surprise of seeing the blade flare to life stop him. He rolled over Jamon, swinging the blade in a backhand motion catching the creature's chest. This did the trick as it stopped it pitiful cries and fell into the snow.
He used his infravision to scan the area again and saw two more of the forms. One moved toward the wounded figure while another advanced on a small form that could only have been Conth or Tyfod. Calling up his magical energies again, he twirled both hands in counter clockwise directions while he wiggled his fingers. With the addition of an arcane word, twin Fire Darts leapt out of both hands. One smashed into each ice critter. The splitting of the magical spell meant that neither was killed outright, but both staggered back and the one advancing on the boy fell and started trying to crawl away.
The injured man took full advantage of his adversary's shock, smashing it to bits with a mace. Holding his leg with one hand, he waved letting Kandric know he would live.
Kandric glanced around and rolled off Jamon. He bolted forward past a stunned Conth and slammed the tip of his sword into and through the crippled ice thing. "Get your brother in the house now!"
Conth reacted a little better than Jamon had. He raced over, pulled Jamon to his feet, grabbed the axe sticking out of the snow, and moved rapidly back to the cabin. Kandric could hear him shout for Vondum even as the door slammed shut.
Kandric caught his breath and surveyed the scene. He had taken down three of the creatures and knew the other man had destroyed another. He searched his knowledge of legends and lore and quickly recalled the description to what he was fighting. His gray eyes went wide in sudden revelation. "Ice Hellions!" He shouted at the top of his lungs, hoping others were listening he continued. "Torches! Fire! Oil! Whatever burns!"
His limited knowledge of the vile things from the lower areas of where the plane of water meets the plane of air was enough to know Ice Hellions were the lowest form and had to have a leader. Whatever form the commander took, made little difference. It could only be harmed by fire or magic and would be a true demon.
Fortunately, Kandric had bought the enclave time. As with the Hob attack the Swordsmen mobilized with amazing response times. This time, however, the enemy was much harder to see and had the strength and pure evil meanness of the lower planes. His shouts saved more than one, as several backed up and pulled torches out of their cabins.
Kandric felt the blade impart a small amount of knowledge on how to activate and deactivate it as he sliced into yet another Ice Hellion. He digested the information with a little apprehension. For some reason the weapon wanted to select him to attune to. He didn't even know a magic item had this ability, let alone a weapon. As he moved forward he decided it couldn't be all-bad so he thought OK, if you want me to own you, so-be-it.
Instantly he felt the blade grow lighter and knew it was now his, and his alone. He pushed on ducking under an icy claw and driving the blade deep in an Ice Hellion's side. It fell into two ice chucks as he again applied the backhand return attack drilled into him by the Master Swordsman of the Falcon Loft School of Training.
As latest foe dropped, he felt a wave of arctic cold wash over him. The blade rippled with energy as the sapphire runes absorbed enough to prevent damage and the ruby runes wrapped a cloak of protection from cold around him. There was no question he had stumbled on the leader.
A young swordsman, Kandric couldn't recall the name, came flying through the air past him screaming in terror. His left hand looked stiff and black from frostbite and his head had a horrid gash with ice crystals sticking out of it.
"Get behind me and pull out a torch!" Kandric commanded as he stepped over the fallen man.
"Run! I'll cover you!" The man shouted digging into his pack for a torch. He started to grab for flint and steel, but Kandric snapped his fingers blasting out a Spark Autospell. The torch burst into flames.
Kandric glanced back with a smile. "Cover my back. The big bastard is mine!"
The wounded man's eyes lost some of their fear seeing the young boy looking so confident, "You got it sir!"
Kandric's eyes widened as he saw a real Ice Demon. At worst he expected the leader to be a Frost Demon, but this was far worse! There was little chance he would be able to defeat such a powerful enemy on his own without some trickery. As it glared at the two fallen Ice Hellions and thundered toward him, he quickly came up with a plan. "Do you have oil?"
"Fall back along my footprints as you dig it out. We need to draw it into a trap!"
The young Swordsman tried to hold onto the torch, but his useless left hand made the task almost impossible.
"Forget the torch! Just get the oil ready!"
"But how will I light it?"
"You won't!" Kandric replied pushing the man to hurry.
The man tossed the torch in the Demon's direction hitting it in its chest. It eyes flared a glowing frosty blue as it continued to pursue. "Oh, now I made it mad!"
Kandric laughed, "The madder the better."
"How can you laugh about this?" Exasperation and fear sounded in the man's voice.
"Just watch." Kandric stepped over the wood he had just cut throwing a pair of daggers as he did so. He knew they would have no effect but wanted to keep it fixated on him. It worked. He backed over the last of the wood, and waited for the demon. "Come on. We too fast for ya!" he taunted.
The Swordsman didn't have a clue what the boy was up to, but figured after what he had done to the Hobgoblin spell caster he must know something. He stopped just behind Kandric and waited with the oil ready. "What are you going to do?"
Kandric waited until the Ice Demon was in the middle of the cut wood, "This!" He extended his hands as he spoke a magical phrase. Sparks blasted out of both hands setting most of the wood on fire. "Throw the oil now!"
The man needed no prompting, suddenly realizing exactly what was happening. He tossed the oil over the pile of wood and the demon. The fire flared even brighter as the Ice Demon tried to find a way out of the instant inferno. There was no escape though.
Kandric had waited until it was in the middle of over 40 split logs worth of firewood. As he backed up, he fired off another pair of fire darts knocking the bellowing hell spawn to the ground. The flames had weakened it too much for its natural magical defiance to have any effect. The darts sent radiating cracks throughout its ice body, insuring it could not get out of the inferno Kandric had created. As it expired, screams from the remaining Ice Hellions resounded off the surrounding forest and cabins. Without their leader, they fell to the ground unable to exist off their plane without a master.
The Swordsman grasped Kandric in a bear hug "That was fantastic!"
Kandric grunted, "Thanks, but can you put me down so I can take a look at your hand?"
"Sorry. I got a little over excited." The man dropped Kandric to the ground and held out his hand. "Are you sure you have enough magic for this?"
"Barely, but yea."
Vondum's voice sounded from over Kandric's shoulder, "Then save it. There may be more out there."
Kandric looked back seeing Vondum had several nasty cuts, "Not without a leader sir. And he will lose this hand without a Channeler or Shaman to heal it."
"Positive on both sir."
"Very well then." Vondum watched as Kandric's spell restored some color to the Swordsman's hand.
The man gripped his hand while stifling a scream.
Vondum grimaced, "There is the problem with frostbite. You can't feel it till it starts to thaw." He hefted the man to his feet. "Get inside and have our Healthman take a look at you."
Kandric started to stand but wobbled. He felt Vondum sheath his sword on his back and pick him up. He looked around and noticed the wood pile was still burning in sheets of flame. "Sorry about the firewood."
Vondum laughed, "We can cut more. That was one very impressive use of magic my talented young Shaman. I highly doubt any of us could have taken on such a formidable foe. You have earned every gram of respect my men have given you and much, much more."
"You making it sound like I am some sort of Master Shaman or something." Kandric complained, "It was sheer luck all this wood was cut."
"Luck that the wood was cut maybe, but your use of it had nothing to do with good fortune. I heard what you did and the planning it took to pull it off. Give yourself all the credit my men and I will, because I would never have thought up such a tactic, nor do I think I could have defeated a demon like that single handedly."
Kandric really didn't feel the praise was due him, "I didn't do it alone."
"Kandric, all he did was follow your instructions." Vondum knocked on the door to the cabin, "Unbar the door Tyfod, it is me."
He then looked back at the boy in his arms. "I had my hands full with three of those smaller Ice Hellions as you called them, so I couldn't get over to help you, but I saw and heard everything. I must admit I had some doubts after the Hob attack, but now I have none.
"You have saved us twice now. Your actions alone would have probably taken down whatever that was, but you gave all the right orders, made all the proper moves. I instructed the men to make you an honorary officer here, but now it will no longer be honorary.
"I don't think I have ever been in a position before of owing anyone two favors until now. You covered for my mistake when I brought in slaves and left a trail here, and now you single-handedly took out a very powerful demon. I am grateful."
"You have done more than enough for me." Kandric replied as he was put on a couch next to the fireplace.
"No I haven't. I have not even paid you for the new spells you let me catch!"
Kandric motioned for Jamon to sit next to him and put his arm around the boy, "How about you give me the slave and get me proper paperwork on him and we'll call it even on the spells?"
"Your spells are much more valuable than a single slave Kandric." Vondum saw his eyes go to Conth and shook his head, "No, Conth is not up for discussion on this."
Kandric forced a laugh, "Kind of figured as much. How about trying to get me Conth's little brother and Jamon's little brother?"
"Both?" Vondum grinned, "Getting greedy?"
Kandric flashed a huge grin, "I may have really burned a lot of my magic energies today, but I am still an apprentice of a very good merchant."
"So you are!" Vondum's booming laughter shook the windows, "You have a deal. I will find both of 'em for you."
"Fair enough. Any chance of getting an early dinner?" Kandric shook his head as his stomach growled. Never before had he used so much magic in such a short period of time. It had taken its toll. But something was very different about this. He felt a new power coursing through his very core. Magic expended seemed to be re-manifesting itself in a more powerful form. Only twice before had Kandric felt such power. The first was when he managed to cast his first primary echelon spell, and the second time was the day before his Secondary Echelon spell casting skills unveiled itself. He would have to wait for the moon to come up before he would know for sure, but he knew the feeling. The only question in Kandric's mind centered on the guilds. How would the Shaman guild react to having a Teaching Echelon certified child?
He knew of only nine other Secondary Echelon children under the human equivalency age of fourteen. Only one of them looked like they were close to Teaching Echelon. From what Glaster had told him it was some Elf down in Junsac who was an Animal Adept. All the others were Swordsmen or were just barely Secondary Echelon.
Tyfod interrupted Kandric's thoughts, "What would you like for dinner, master?"
Kandric looked over to Vondum who merely motioned for him to order whatever he wanted. "How about roast, potatoes, carrots, juice, and anything else you care to throw in?"
"I will get started immediately master. That will take some time though. Would you care for a snack to tide you over?"
Kandric nodded, "How about a couple slices of that strange bread you served for breakfast?"
"At once master."
Kandric stretched with a smile. Everything seemed to be working out perfectly. He was getting more combat and spell casting practice than he could have dreamed, had infiltrated a potential enemy stronghold, had been promoted to an officer, and hadn't quite made it to the human equivalent of twelve yet. Life sure seemed to be smiling on him!
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