During the day, the gorge walls cast deep shadows across the floor, and at night, the darkness was near absolute. I walked through the rocky pass an hour after the sun had set, and my eyes refused to adjust to the complete darkness. Regardless, I could see the campfire flickering against the stone walls in the distance. You never know who or what you might encounter at night, so I approached cautiously. The nearer I came, the more details of the trio sitting around the fire began to materialize.
A surly looking dwarf sat across from a human musician and between them was the largest tabaxi I had ever seen. Glancing at their fire with envy, I decided to simply introduce myself. “Good evening gentlemen.” If they turned out to be hostile, I felt certain that I could easily outrun them. “Mind if I join you for the evening? I’ve been traveling far, and could use a break.”
“Sure,” the musician spoke up. They didn’t seem surprised by my stealthy entrance. “Say, would you like some gold? Here . . .” He reached into a bag and started counting coins. Yes, my jaw dropped, and I looked over to his companions. The tabaxi rolled his eyes, and the dwarf sighed with exasperation.
“Put yer blasted coin away! We don’t even know this fellow,” hollered the belligerent dwarf. “Fer all we know, he could be a crook.”
“I-I really don’t need your gold,” I stammered.
“Are you a crook?” the musician asked, temporarily discontinuing his counting. The thick foundations of face paint cracked slightly as he smiled at me. Never before had I seen a man with so much makeup on, except in the circus, but this guy clearly intended to look normal.
“Of course not!” What a strange group of people to encounter on the road. The musician immediately went back to counting coins, and then held out nine gold coins in his gloved hand.
“Fine!” the dwarf said, followed by a heavy sigh. “Ye can stay the night by the fire, but yer not taking a watch. I’m keeping an eye on ye!”
Lifting my hands up in a gesture of peace, I said. “Look, that’s fine. I really mean no trouble.” I sat cross-legged across from the tabaxi, and the bard dropped the coins in my lap. “Well, thank you,” I said.
“We’re searching for a group of goblins. The guards in Nicodranas are paying us for clearing out the rabble,” the musician continued. “Would you like to help?”
“Sure . . .” I started to say, but the dwarf interrupted.
“Oh no ye don’t,” the dwarf bellowed, glaring at the musician. “They offered the job ta the three of us, and the reward is for the three of us.”
“Look here,” I said gently, and the dwarf set his glare on me. Smiling at him, I said, “I’m not here to take anything from you guys. I’m just trying to get to Nicodranas and was hoping for a good night’s rest. Consider my help with the goblins payment, as well as this gold your companion just offered me.”
The tabaxi chimed in, his voice deep. “That sounds reasonable to me.”
“Fine!” the dwarf grumbled.
“Thank you,” I said, smiling at each of them in turn. An awkward silence followed, and I decided to break it by introducing myself. “So . . . my name is Elohel. I’m from Trostenwald, and if you haven’t heard of me already, I’m the local swimming champion and I was the team captain of the Trostenwald Brewers.”
After I received some blank looks, the musician spoke up. “My name is Fred. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I shook his hand.
Then the tabaxi introduced himself. “You can call me Jerry.” Tabaxi were not common in Trostenwald, but not unknown. I had run around with a few when I was younger, but this guy was massive and his mane hid the back of his head and his neck. Thinking back, I hadn’t met a tabaxi with a mane before, but I had seen a few in story books.
Turning to the dwarf for an introduction, I received a glare from under bushy brows. “None of yer damn business, elf. Now get ta sleep. If yer goin’ ta help terminate some goblin pests, then ye’ll need some rest. I hope yer as good with that bow o’ yers, as yer at games.” Then the dwarf lay down on his mat and pulled some covers over himself. “Fred, ye keep the first watch; Jerry, yer next; and wake me if there be any trouble.” At that, he glared pointedly at me before pulling his wool over his head.
Chuckling, I also lay down for the evening. Many people confused me for an elf or at least a half-elf because of my ears. Genasi are a rare breed, and I never felt the need to correct people’s misunderstandings.
I woke before the sun lit up the gorge and saw the dwarf stirring the coals of the fire. Sitting up, I stretched my shoulders, hearing the bones crack. “What are ye doing up, elf?” the dwarf asked.
Standing up, I stretched my calves and hips. “I always wake up before the sun, to do my exercise routine.” I dropped and started doing pushups.
Grunting, the dwarf said, “That’s fine, but don’t wander too far. I can hear the little green buggers prepping an ambush over yonder.” He indicated the direction with a nod of his chin.
“Noted, and thank you.” I spent the next thirty minutes going through part of my routine, skipping the jog. When the sun started peeking over the walls of the canyon, I stopped. The dwarf woke the rest of the party.
“Alright, time to wake,” he said, as he gently shook his companions. Then he explained the situation about the goblins to the others. “Are we ready, then?” he asked the group. We all nodded, and I picked up my bow and shouldered my quiver.
After everyone packed their gear, we cautiously moved forward. This is where I suppose I should admit that I have never killed a person before, and although some don’t consider goblins people, I figure that if it can talk, it’s a person. I’ve been hunting, and I’ve killed game and other beasts, but . . . let’s just say, I was very nervous.
Sweat poured down my forehead, and butterflies danced in my stomach, as we neared some massive boulders that had fallen from the cliffs, now serving as sentries to those who pass.
The wind blew from behind us, whistling through the gorge and funneling through the rocky walls. As we passed the rocks, I turned to peek around a rock, and my eyes locked with a tiny snarling goblin who aimed at us with a bow. I watched in dismay as an arrow glided in the air directly at me.
~ Michael C. Sahd, author of The Unfettered Child and Assassin Marked