The Stacked Deck Chapter 4

Copyright Ronald Soller © 2006

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"They both headed forward, trying to fence Paul in between themselves and the rock base of the mountain behind him"

Outside the Walls: Part 1

Paul hid in a darkened recess as he watched the window to the equipment shop swing silently closed in the back alley. He had followed the blond slaver as the man took a roundabout course after leaving the Raging Threk, but this is where he ended up. There were no other stops made, the slaver did not stop to speak with anyone and Paul was very sure that he had not been noticed shadowing the blond man. Paul waited, but there was no further activity in the alley nor did there seem to be anyone about on the streets of Kelfor's Landing. It had gotten very late and he started to feel tired, so he headed back to his room for some sleep.

***

Paul stepped back from the bench after squaring off a piece of iron wood that was the beginning of his last two talismans and looked at his yew staff that was lying across a rack over the heat of the coals. He had applied the final coating earlier. After it dried and cured over the heat, his second talisman would be complete. With a smile of satisfaction, Paul wiped off his hands on a cloth and headed over to the washbasin to clean up.

The last few weeks had been uneventful, plenty of time to finish the second great blade for Gerdar and work on his staff. Paul ate dinner at the Raging Threk most nights, ever since he spotted that woman in the robes but he had not seen her since then. Who was she? Paul didn't even know what she really looked like, but even that quick view of her had left him spellbound. When he asked Keltos about her, all he got was a wink, a smile, and the reply that she came around once in a while.

Paul rubbed some cleaning resin on his whole upper body to help scrub off the sweat, soot, and pitch of his days work, and rinsed the mixture off with some water.

Millie hadn't been the same since that reading. She refused to talk about it, or much of anything, except some polite chatter. There had not been any news in Kelfor's Landing regarding the missing trappers. The town held little hope that there was anything good left to be heard regarding that lumber crew.

He finished drying off his face, arms, and torso and headed back to his room to put on a tunic. It was close to dinnertime and as usual Paul was headed to the Raging Threk.

The sun was on its way down as Paul was nearly ready to leave the shop. He had just strapped on his blade when he heard voices and the scuffling of feet from out on the street. He glanced up to see the blond man and his tall dark-haired companion walking past the shop. Paul stepped into the shadows so they wouldn't notice him as he watched the two of them walk past. The sounds of their conversation were too muted to make out distinct words.

After they had passed out of view, Paul moved over by the entrance so he could see them as they made their way down the street. When he was sure they were far enough way, he stepped out from the shop in the direction the two slavers were headed. He watched them walk past the corner where the equipment shop was and then turn left. Without trying to be in too much of hurry, Paul stepped up his pace a little to get to the corner and maybe see where they went.

He made it just in time to see them veer off towards the river front gates. After a minute or so Paul made it to the corner and he peeked around; the two hoodlums were having a small discussion with the guard. The blond man and the sentry looked up the road towards Paul's direction, but he had already hid himself back around the corner. The thought of heading out of Kelfor's Landing right behind them didn't seem too bright, so Paul quickly crossed the street at a place where they couldn't see from their vantage point, and then headed over toward the wall behind the gate house.

When Paul got to the spot where he saw those two climb over a few weeks ago, he started to look for a way to get over the wall. After a few minutes he noticed some small knots and notches that made the palisade easy to climb, so up he went. When he got near the top he looked over and saw the two slavers as they walked down the road in the direction of their rendezvous point with the Ice Kral.

Paul finished climbing over the wall and made his way through the scrub and boulders towards the road, angling himself to connect further down so as not to be spotted by anyone at the gate.

As he got closer to a clearing, he started to duck behind available cover and slink his way toward the edge. Paul took a few minutes to survey the scene and make sure there was nobody on the path at this point. A bluff rolled down into a small sand bowl with the path wandering through before heading up into the crags of the mountain base. He became very quiet and listened, but the sounds of the water washing up on the shore kept any small telltale sounds hidden. 'I am sure that they have gone through here by now,' he told himself.

Regardless, Paul cautiously waited for a little longer before he assured himself that they had to have gotten through this point. Then he made his way over the edge and worked his way down the sandy bluff to the path, where he stopped and looked back towards Kelfor's Landing. Paul quickly headed toward the path up into the crags; he saw no one there, and the town couldn't be seen from this point either as the hills and the curve of the shore that the path followed worked as a natural screen.

"Who might ye be lookn' fer? That's wat I's wonderin'."

Paul stopped dead in his tracks as the tall, dark haired man stepped out from behind the crag at the top of the path. Turning to head back toward the bluff, Paul saw the stocky blond man standing right in the middle of Paul's escape route. He had a short bladed sword in his right hand hanging down towards the ground.

"Still can't keep yer nose to yerself." said the blond man.

"Guess we'll have to teach 'em some manners, Dugg", the dark haired man cackled to his partner. He started walking toward Paul as he pulled his own short sword out of its scabbard.

Outside the Walls: Part 2

Paul started to back up in order to keep both of the slavers towards his front. His talent with the blade was lacking and although his sword enhancement spell was instantaneous, he was only skilled enough to make it last a few seconds, and could use it only three times before his mana was drained too low.

Instinctively, he pulled his sword as he stepped away from the hoods and assessed the terrain in an attempt to find a way to escape or lessen their advantage in numbers.

"Should we kill 'em, or just 'urt 'em real bad?" Dugg asked his dark haired companion. Paul was sure he saw drool hanging in his mouth.

"Don't 'urt 'em so bad the Kral won't take him," was the other's response.

They both headed forward, trying to fence Paul in between themselves and the rock base of the mountain behind him.

Paul lunged towards Dugg in the hopes of a quick take down before his partner could get in on the fight. Dugg brought up his blade and a metallic ring echoed off the rocks.

As the dark haired man prepared to spring into action, he heard a 'twang' and the sizzle of an arrow in the air behind his head. The arrow broke on the rock base, and pieces of wood splintered along the bluff.

The surprised slaver turned to see three people; a tall dark haired man who was pulling another arrow from his quiver, a woman in a tight robe with a gnarly oaken staff. He had seen her somewhere before, and a foot....

The dark haired hoodlum felt his head snap back and felt lighter than air just before the ground suddenly rushed up to meet him. The unarmed warrior followed through with a stomping move but the hoodlum rolled over twice to get away.

Spitting sand out of his mouth, he pushed himself up, stood and readied his sword.

"This is none of yer business, so be on yer way b'fer I get angry." The ruffian now had time to look over this unarmed warrior, who wore a loose robe with baggy pantaloons and bare feet. There was no weapon to be seen on his person.

"When I see an unfair fight, and the advantage to someone the likes of you, I just can't help but even things out," was the monk's response. "Now you can leave these two to fight, or you can fight with me; your pick." The monk stood up straight from his battle stance and crossed his arms over his chest.

With a growl the slaver stabbed his short sword towards the monk's gut.

For the third time Paul struck out with his glowing sword, but the blade was turned aside yet again, and this time Dugg slid his blade around and cut a gash across Paul's leg. Paul heard a startled cry off to the right but couldn't place the source. Then a searing pain distracted him and he began to falter. He realized he was about to fall so he took control of the situation, and dropped down on one knee. Paul brought up his sword to protect himself from Dugg's next swing, when he saw a spear fly in and lodge itself right in Dugg's hip. Following the path of flight with his eyes, it led right back to....

Something in Paul's brain screamed at him. Then he realized his advantage and he straightened out his sword and lunged forward while standing up. Dugg was in total shock and stood there for a moment while his brain registered that he had been pierced twice in as many seconds.

Off to the side a sickening crunch could be heard as the dark haired slave dealer went head first and upside down into the side of the rock base. The monk, who was lying on his back at the end of that maneuver, flipped himself off the sand to a standing position, ready just in case his opponent's flight was not as deadly as it sounded. After a moment, he stiffened up to give a quick bow to his vanquished adversary and then began to dust the sand off his clothes.

Paul didn't even watch as Dugg fell down to his knees, pulling Paul's weapon and arm down with him, and then slid off to the side as his lifeless body removed itself from the sword still held firmly in tarot mage's hand. Paul didn't watch because he was too busy looking at the beautiful woman who threw that spear at Dugg. He recognized that she was the same woman he saw weeks ago at the Raging Threk, and she had just possibly saved his life.

Outside the Walls: Part 3

Paul stood there for a minute, dumbfounded as the woman stood her ground with a staff in her hand. Then Paul noticed the other two people who were with her. There was a tall dark haired man and a shorter one dressed like a monk. The monk was slightly behind the other man, bent over to retrieve a long handled pole arm of some sort.

They all stood in uncomfortable silence until Paul remembered his manners. "I am much obliged for your assistance here." Looking down, he noticed the blood dripping off his blade, leaned over and wiped it on Dugg's clothing. He looked back at his rescuers. "In fact, you probably just saved me from a life of servitude." As he slid the blade back into its sheath, the three strangers visibly relaxed a little.

The tall one piped up, "What did you do to earn their wrath?"

"I did nothing more than showing up at the right place at the right time, they just didn't see it that way," Paul said with a shrug. "My name is Paul, and I am at your service." He nodded a small bow in their direction.

The dark haired man spoke up, "My name is Haf Asle. My monk friend here is Yau Sh'en."

"And my name is Parri," said the woman. She walked toward Paul and then right past him as she bent down and pulled her spear from Dugg's body. She jabbed the bloody tip into the sand and spun it around a few times, then with a few more quick jabs the tip came out blood free.

Parri spun the spear over her shoulder and stopped the maneuver with it pointing forward and down at a safe but protective angle. She looked around at the battle scene, "I can assume that these gentlemen will be missed, so I suggest that we make them a little harder to find."

They carried the bodies and put them behind a stand of bushes and covered them up with brush and leaves. Haf Asle and Parri took other branches and swept the areas where the struggles caused the most disruption to the ground, covering up the blood stained sand.

As Yau Sh'en and Paul put the finishing touches on the brush pile the monk asked him, "What was this you mentioned about servitude?" He tossed a final branch on the stack and dusted off his hands. "I know the Kral take slaves, but never have I heard of humans making slaves of their own."

"When I arrived I witnessed these two handing over a man to two of these Kral, about a quarter days walk down that path," Paul told him as he pointed to the path in the direction they arrived from. He looked down at the brush pile and scowled. "I do believe they intended on doing the same thing with me today."

Yau Sh'en's mouth turned up into a grim smile as he looked up at Paul. "Well, it wouldn't have worked quite as well as they would have liked, because earlier today we came across two Kral about that far away, and now they are floating back to Trelkinaark'est."

Paul's face screwed up in confusion.

"Trelkinaark'est is the island," Yau pointed out to sea, "in the middle of Claedasbrim Bay where the Ice Kral live."

When the four finished and all the evidence of a struggle was well hidden, they headed back towards Kelfor's Landing. There were a few embarrassing moments as Parri caught Paul staring.

Paul was lost in his own head as they walked. 'Her name is Parri. Parri, that is beautiful....'

"So how much farther to the town?" Haf Asle asked Paul.

Paul was brought back from his reverie, "Ohh... Kelfor's Landing? It is..."

"You will be able to see it right after we round this bluff," interrupted Parri. "We should head in and get you two situated at the Raging Threk. You do have some coins to pay for room and board I hope?" she asked as she looked to Haf Asle and Yau Sh'en. They both nodded and the four of them headed down the path towards the seaside gate.

"Does this Kelfor's Landing have a lot of people living there?" Yau Sh'en asked.

Parri piped up before Paul had a chance to speak. "Usually not, but at certain times during the year the population can quadruple for weeks at a time, which is pretty typical of a mining boomtown."

Paul was back to quietly wondering about his new "friends." The monk knew a lot about the area, but almost nothing about the town. It seemed that Haf Asle was from out of this area completely; he was even physically different than most people Paul had met. Paul looked up and watched the dark haired man walking in front of him. He was taller and thinner than average, but very lithe and graceful. Then there was Parri, she was obviously from around here, but what was she doing with the other two and how did they all end up together?

As they made their way to the gate, the guards looked at the group and then just waved them through. They continued up the road heading toward the inn, and had just arrived at the smithy.

"Paul, you will find us tomorrow at the Raging Threk, I will get these two set for the night. Be there before the midday quintar." Parri didn't even wait for a response; she just nodded and directed the others up the road towards the tavern. Paul was stunned. How did she know so much about him, and yet he just saw her face for the first time today? And another thing; was she always so dominant?

Outside the Walls: Part 4

"Do not leave the shop until I get back." warned Tyron.

Tyron removed his tunic near the forge and then pulled a leather breastplate from out of a foot locker. After donning the armor, he put his tunic back on and strapped his sword across his back. Other than the obvious weapon, the tunic masked the fact that Tyron had prepared himself for possible trouble.

Paul watched him walk out the door and into the night. He went back into his room and sat down on his cot. Tyron was not mad, but it was pretty obvious that after Paul told him everything that happened, Tyron was concerned. Now he suddenly rushed off into the night after getting combat ready.

Paul was totally restless at this point and he really wished he could take a walk to calm his thoughts, but he would mind his mentor and stay put. Paul decided to do the next best thing, and he pulled his card bag out and laid out the spread cloth before starting to shuffle, then he cut the deck and pulled off three cards.

The first card showed a knight on horseback, wearing the wreath of a champion while those around him seem to cheer and hail the rider; the Six of Wands. Paul wondered if the card of victory was related to the fight that they had earlier.

He flipped over the second card to reveal the Nine of Pentacles. Depicted on it was a woman sitting regally on a throne engraved with symbols of a crown atop the head of a griffin. She was dressed well and ornamented with bands of gold. Paul was even more confused with these two cards. What did victory and financial independence have to do with what was happening to him at the moment?

Paul reached out impatiently, and turned over the last card to see the Prince of Swords. The young man, mounted on a dark horse brandishing his sword. The steed is rearing as if prepared to charge into battle.

All three of the cards sitting side by side brought a picture to Paul's mind that made him completely uncomfortable. He gathered up the cards and carefully put them away in the pouch before he blew out the lamp and climbed into bed for what was destined to be a fitful night of sleep.