“There’s fairy creatures in them trees!” The man dropped his tankard onto the counter with an audible thump, and wiped his mouth with the back of his tunic sleeve. “Always fomenting trouble and causing mischief. I tells you, we oughta march on that forest and annihilate every last one o’ them.”
I shook my head, sighed, and reached for my tankard, sipping the warm ale within. ‘If only he knew,’ I thought to myself, a smirk touching the corners of my lips.
“What say you, stranger?” the man asked, thumping the back of a meaty hand against my shoulder. “You look like you’ve seen a thing or two; you ever laid eyes on any fairy folk?”
I placed my tankard back on the bar and regarded the man, my smirk creasing into a frown. Weary from my travels, I hadn’t come to the tavern to make conversation. All I wanted was to drink my ale in peace and be left alone. These small town bumpkins were all the same. Go to the big city, and people ignore you; travel to the outlying villages and the townspeople all want you to regale them with tales of your grand adventures.
I sighed and peered up at him, tempted to tell him no, but I furrowed my brows and rested my hand on the pommel of my sword. “If you knew anything about fairies, you’d keep talk like that to yourself.”
“Oh, yeah?” He grinned, exchanging glances with a second tavern patron. “What makes you say that?”
“A dwarf once saved my life,” I said, retrieving my tankard for another sip.
“A dwarf?!” The stranger guffawed and slapped his knee as if I’d just said the funniest thing in the world. He held a hand about half way between his knee and his hip. “A wee little man about yea high saved your life?”
“Nah,” I replied, shaking my head and held a hand just above his bulging belly. “A wee little man about this high saved my life.”
“What he do, keep you from falling into a hole?” he asked, again erupting into a fit of uproarious laughter.
I gritted my teeth and glowered at the man. Fingering my blade, I contemplated removing his head from his shoulders. I’d killed men for less, but on this occasion, it just felt like too much work.
When I finished the last of the ale, I paused, savoring the lingering taste in my mouth, already wishing I had enough money for another drink, and turned to regard the man with a shake of my head. “He fought off some bandits.”
“Bandits?” a third man asked. “Sounds like you have an interesting story to tell.”
See what I mean? Always with the stories.
I suppressed a groan, and despite my better judgement let them cajole me into sharing my tale.
# # #
Ten years ago I was as green as they came, but eager to leave my sheltered life in Imber, a village on the outskirts of the kingdom. I took my ash bow and my father’s sword and departed town with high hopes and dreams of fame and glory. There were no princesses for me to rescue or dragons to slay, so I took work lending a helping hand wherever I could for a spare bit of coin.
I never made a home for myself. No matter where I traveled or who I met, I felt an itch to move on, and so I never stayed in one place for more than a few weeks. About six months into my wanderings, I was traveling alone through the Eldar Woods and that is when it happened.
Times were tough and a weapon like mine was a rare prize. A sword of solid steel was often an indicator of great wealth, and could fetch a pretty penny almost anywhere. My father served in the local earl’s guard during the war and was awarded the weapon after saving the nobleman’s life in battle. When the war ended, the earl offered my father a place in his household, but weary from war, he returned home to the simple life of a farmer. As our village was nestled in an isolated valley in the mountains and self-sufficient by necessity, we’d never had need of monetary wealth and so the weapon sat within our home collecting dust, until I found it and took it for my own.
I wasn’t stupid enough to travel the woods after dark. While I knew bandits made them their home, I was young and naïve, convinced that a lone traveler would not be enough to draw their notice if I moved along the outskirts.
“Don’t move,” a voice said and I froze at the touch of cold steel kissing the back of my neck.
A man stepped out of the trees a few feet in front of me, a roguish smile stretched across his disheveled features. “Well met, stranger. Mighty dangerous territory to be traveling alone. Rumor is there are bandits in these woods.”
I clenched my jaw, but did not answer him, instead following his movements as he strolled toward me. The blade at my neck lifted away and I spun around to face the other bandit, reaching for my sword, but my as yet unseen captor beat me to it, sliding the weapon free before I could retrieve it.
I eyed this bandit, getting a good look at her, surprised to see that she was a woman. Though her voice was deep for a female, it was the cadence with which she spoke that had thrown me off. She slipped a dagger into her belt and held my sword before her, a smirk touching her lips.
“A well wrought blade,” she said, holding the flat of the weapon in her gloved palm. “I believe it’s much too good for the likes of you.”
“Oh, I agree,” the other bandit flashed a smile. “Peasant stock by the looks of him. Methinks we’ll do the rightful owner a bit of service and liberate this fine weapon from him. It’s the right thing to do.”
I had no illusions that the pair were lying through their teeth, but it was just the sort of game these types played, or at least it seemed in keeping with what I’d heard. Like I said, I was young and inexperienced.
“Now, the question remains, what do we do with our young friend?” the man asked, his face drawing back in a wicked grin. “Anyone willing to steal such a weapon is a menace to public safety. It would be downright unneighborly of us to–”
The man stopped mid-sentence, eyes scanning the trees just off to his right. I followed his gaze, but saw nothing. He returned his attention to me, cleared his throat and smiled. “As I was saying–”
Again, he stopped before he could finish, a loud thwack sounded somewhere behind him, and his eyes rolled into the back of his head. He fell to the ground in a heap, revealing a compact fellow with a beard so long it almost touched the forest floor. A loud wail escaped his lips and he clutched a long-handled battle-axe like a lute, gyrating about like a frenzied beast. He was broad-shouldered, more so than any man I’d seen, but only came up to my mid-chest.
“Good evening, the name’s Delek Stormwood.” He nodded to the pair of bandits, one arm windmilling in the air.
“Dun dun dun, durrrr dun durr dun. Dun dun dun, duh duh!” he called out at the top of his lungs singing the notes to some unknown tune.
The dwarf–for he was a dwarf; I’d heard descriptions of them and he fit the bill–paused, stopping just long enough to throw a thumb over his shoulder before continuing with his strange wild jerking movements. “Say, you haven’t seen Townshend or Daltrey lurking about, have you? We’d planned to meet up for a jam session.”
“What?!” my female captor asked, raising her blade and brandishing it at the intruder. “What are you talking about?”
The dwarf did not respond; instead, he continued to thrash about, blazing a trail toward the woman in a jagged and erratic path.
“Back away!” She raised her voice, holding the weapon before her as if to shield herself from him.
He seemed to pay no heed, arm spinning around, strumming the flat of the axe as if it were a musical instrument. It took him several long moments to get close to the woman, and she pounced when he was within a few feet. The dwarf dropped to his knees, sliding across the well-worn dirt path, and emitted a high-pitched wail; the bandit’s sword swung through the empty air without touching a single hair on the dwarf’s head. Before she could attack again, he jerked to his feet, swept sideways and slammed the haft of the axe into the side of her head. She went down and he paused, peering down at her.
“Huh.” He shrugged and turned to meet my gaze. “Some people just don’t appreciate good music. Never thought I’d meet someone who didn’t like Smoke on the Water.
“Well, I guess if the boys aren’t going to show, it’s time to be off.” The dwarf slung the axe over his shoulder, and walked into the trees.
I stood there for a moment, mind racing as I struggled to come to grips with what had just happened. I bent over, retrieved my weapon, and ran after the little man, but as I passed into the treeline, I could find no trace of him.
# # #
“To this day, I search for the dwarf every time I step inside the Eldar Woods,” I finished, regarding the empty ale tankard, wishing I could spare enough coin to purchase another.
The trio of townsmen stood around me, the leader regarding me with a frown. “You spin a fine tale, stranger, but methinks you’ve imbibed a few too many drinks. A woman outlaw—perish the thought!”
I did not respond, but slipped a hand about my waist, procured my coin purse and peered inside. Again, I considered purchasing another drink, but seeing how much remained within, I discarded the idea. What little remained would pay for some much-needed supplies. With an exaggerated sigh, I returned the pouch to my belt and shook my head.
Ready to retire for the night, I started to rise from my seat, but a man stepped into sight and I did a double take when he slipped into the vacant seat beside me. Though there was a fair bit more gray in his beard, the man’s image had been burned into my mind and I recognized him at once. So taken aback was I, I slid back into my seat.
“Be that as it may, he has provided us with an evening’s entertainment. I believe that’s at least worth another round of drinks. Whaddya say, boys?” The newcomer slapped a pair of coins down on the counter and motioned at the barkeep without waiting for the others to reply.
When the barkeep returned with a fresh set of drinks the bandit I’d encountered all those years ago in the forest nudged me in the shoulder and winked. “No hard feelings, eh?”
I nodded, fingered my blade to ensure he hadn’t somehow swiped it off my person, then snatched up my tankard and took a good long sip. Who was I to turn down a free drink?