The Unfinishable Tale

Posted: February 14, 1994 in Writing
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[Note: This was a document circulated around my college group of friends, mostly D&D players, all of us poor writers, but the idea was to try to pass this around and write something that would, at least, entertain us later on. I know at least Geoff Stearns and I wrote on this.]

The Eternal Campfire burns somewhere in a valley deep within the Wombat mountain range north of the town of Hell’s Purchase, or so the old minstrels tell. Those individuals foolish or wise enough to give up their dreary but safe lives to follow quests hidden in old stories journey first to Hell’s Purchase where they inevitably end up in Braco’s Tavern, a large but unimposing and comfortable structure constructed of wood from the forests covering the mountain slopes and stone brought from the old quarry by the river.
Many folks who have tales to tell of their visits to the tavern speak of the plaque made from an unidentified metal that hangs over the fireplace, and on which is written wise words to the weary traveller. Every traveller who speaks of it seems to recall a different moral or a different saying upon the plaque. Legend has it that each sees something different and personal written there – especially if one has visited the bar first.
One night at the tavern, the usual motley group were playing darts upon the far wall and buying up rounds of ale. It was dark, windy, and raining brutally, and all were glad of the fire. Suddenly, the door burst open with such force that the wood of the frame made an audible cracking sound, and the wind drove hard enough to put out the candles on the tables within ten feet of the door. A smallish, slight, hooded figure stepped in the door, accompanied by a large dog with a luxuriant, though drenched coat. Although two young men had been attempting, unsuccessfully, to close the door against the rain, the hooded figure stepped in, grasped the door’s edge with one hand, and gently closed it.
“Stranger.”, the barkeep said, “We allow no animals in here. You’ll have to leave your dog outside.” The figure, which had been in the act of taking off its gloves, paused, and seemed to bend slightly toward the dog, which had sat upon its haunches. An almost inaudible whisper came from under the hood, and with a glance up, the dog moved quietly to the corner of the room and made itself compact beneath some chairs.
“We mean you no trouble. Surely my friend will be of no offense to you in that corner. As you see, he can make himself unobtrusive.” It was a lady’s voice that had come from beneath the hood, and the barkeep, appearing a bit confused, swept an unreadable look over the bottles behind the bar, and then tapped his finger on the bar surface.
“All right, I love me dog myself, and such as its raining… he can stay if ya can keep ‘im quiet.”
She nodded her head, for now all could see that the figure was a she. Her hood was let back, and her dark hair was caught up in a rope that disappeared into her travelling cloak. She made herself comfortable in the same corner as her dog, in front of a steaming cup of coffee, to which she surreptitiously added a dash of blue powder from a jewelled bottle with a cork the size of your pinky-nail.
“A wee bit rainy out an’ about in tha wind t’night.” An old broad-shouldered man with a Gaelic accent leaned over and said to the young lady, startling her. As she turned and looked at him quizzically with her piercing green eyes, there was a bang and a shout from the dart-players.
“What in Hades…?” questioned the young lad at the fireplace, who was attempting to roll a hot log back into the hearth proper, “It just popped right out – almost hit me in my eye, right!” He turned around, a little sheepish from having yelled, and recieved similar looks from his two friends at the dart board. The two in the corner traded glances, then went back to their respective drinks.
The grey dog leaped up on to the wide window ledge behind the seat of the broad-shouldered man, who spilled part of his Guiness. He cursed something under his breath, and then, smiling tiredly to the traveller, got up and sat at the bar. The bartender looked like he was about to say something, but grimaced and poured another stout for the older gentleman. Silver was exchanged, along with a wink and a nod at the dog, now sitting and looking out of the window, into the rain, as if waiting for someone else to come in from the cold.
One of the other patrons, a rather short and stocky individual with a huge flaring beard and moustache and a balding pate brought out a small wooden flute, and began playing a simple rustic melody, reminding the other individuals of the mountain streams and high forests which surrounded the tavern and its curious plaque. His eyes were closed and almost obscured underneath his bushy white eyebrows as he played his tiny instrument, and the few conversations on that rainy night died down to nothing as the bard told tales of secrets hidden under rocks and in the boles of trees with the lilt of his flute.
The voice that issued forth from the bard’s lips was one which, almost magically, transported his audience into the depths of his tale. This golden voice blended with the notes of his flute so well that no one at the pub ever noticed when the bard was singing and when he was playing. The entire pub seemed to be transported. The fire roared and flared at the mention of strife, but, just as easily, it resumed its soft crackling and playful bouts when the bard wished it to be so. The song he sang was that of the story of the plaque.
Flashing a smile to the lady and her dog in the corner and raising his flute to his magical lips he began,“This is the ballad of which I may be the only soul who knows,” This was the only introduction he made, and after hearing the ballad, even it was unnecessary.
Being that it was a song that the regular patrons had never heard, they all gathered around the bard. They had all heard this man’s magical tales before, but no one had heard the ballad of the plaque. The woman in the corner turned her attention towards the bard and all one could focus on was her flowing black hair and sparkling eyes that seemed that they knew more than the others ever would know. As the bard began his tale, the dog looked up at the woman from over his shoulder with a look which can only be described as a knowing smile. The three gamers quietly put up their darts and turned chairs towards the bard and the fire, and the barkeep leaned on his oaken bar next to the old man, who sipped from his mug thoughtfully.
The minstrel tripped through a keen melody, and after a small pause, in which he caught everyone’s eye with his own twinkles, he proceeded to sing.

It was a time of Dragon’s fire
That the souls of Kings were born
From the fear of Demon’s ire
Rose a hope for those forlorn.
The simple men whose lives were led
With doors barred shut and fires high:
Those women who feared to tread
After the dark had seized the sky:
These common folk, no sorc’rous king
Did bring the Magic to the World.
Not in Swords or Magic Rings,
But in the form of boys and girls,
Who, taught the strength of father’s might,
And told the lore of mother’s art,
Grew tall and strong against the night,
Grew wise and bold and good of heart.
This plaque which no one sees the same,
Is said to be a craft of Elves
To whom the tricks of Magic came
With ease; it is one of their spells.
Yet others call it Dwarvish make,
Their skill with metal’s not unknown,
But who had such the time to take
And sink this plaque in fireplace stone?
It took not Dwarf or Elf to cheer
The Hearth, the heart of every room,
It is the men and women here
Who saved us all from Demon’s doom.

The sound of his voice trailed away for a moment, and then the bard’s flute spilled a short melody which spun hauntingly to the smoke-stained rafters to pool and dissipate into the old wood. The Dwarf stopped with a sigh and looked around. Movement resumed in Braco’s Tavern after a moment of reflection, but the patron’s voices were quieter; some of them spoke of other legends that the Dwarf had reminded them of. The dart game resumed and more silver was exchanged at the bar between the ‘keep and the gentleman.
Thunder rumbled outside, with force enough to rattle mugs on tables. One of the gamers walked to a window and stood looking out into the storm through the violence of the rain on the glass. Turning to the bar, he said jokingly “Well, Braco, it doesn’t look like any of us are leaving anytime soon…”
“In a cloudburst like this, nobody’s going anywhere,” Braco answered over his shoulder as he absentmindedly dried a mug, “Funny how it was clear until around sunset. Didn’t see a cloud in the sky ‘till then, and then the darkness came fast and quick up the river, like if it was following someone here.” His bushy eyebrows raised as if to point to the mysterious woman. The dog turned and looked at him as he hung up his towel on a peg. Looking out the window again, the young man started and turned white.
“Hey Marco!” he motioned to the two dart-playing youths, “Lito! I…I think I saw someone out in the rain.” The two men at the bar exchanged another glance and the older man shifted from his stool to face the door; the other young men joined their comrade at the streaming panes.
“Sure enough,” said Marco, “I think there be seven or eight visitors arrivin’.” Marco turned away and headed back to the dart board.
“Brandon…” started Lito, who was next to him at the window, “What are they ridin’?”
“I can’t rightly see through the storm,” replied Brandon hesitatingly, “They got water down their necks alright, though. Look at them runnin’ around all hunched over.”
A snarl from the grey dog startled the patrons, including his owner, who turned and looked askance of the noise. Again, she whispered a few indistinguishable words in his ear, but rather than calming the creature, his hackles rose higher. He glared out of his window into the rain.
The traveller turned a questioning look to the gentleman and Braco. The gentleman returned her gaze, and starting to speak, looked over to Lito and Brandon. “How many?”
The door crashed open and a flash of lightning illuminated several figures in long black hunting cloaks. Striding into the bar, the newcomers dumped water out of the folds of their gear, the ninth one in shutting the door against the storm with an idle hand. Braco opened his mouth to say something about the moisture on the floor when the lead traveler flung his cloak aside and rose to his full height.
“The map, runt!” the Bugbear growled at the Dwarf. Seven and one-half feet tall, his head barely cleared the beams of the open A-frame ceiling. Water dripped from the grey fur on his face; his semi-canine features were twisted in the semblance of a smile, his eyes glittered in the firelight. His companions shed their cloaks.
“Bugbears! All of ‘em!” whispered Lito in a small, frightened voice. Bugbears were rumors from explorers who had been past the first escarpments of the Wombat mountains and deep into the Northern Wastes beyond. Brandon shuddered next to him.
“Ah, Gulash! What a pleasant surprise,” said the Dwarf calmly, “If you really want the map, like I know you do since you’ve been following me for years now, I guess I’ll co-operate.”
The Bugbears rumbled among themselves and the tallest one, obviously the one referred to as Gulash, placed his hand on the wicked scimitar at his belt and stepped forwards with an open hand. The bard reached down and opened his large leather backpack, rummaged for a moment, and carefully drew out an ivory scroll case, studded with emeralds and wrought gold. Marco’s eyes went wide; he loved his silver enought as it is when he won at darts – this was unheard of. Handing it over with a great regretful sigh, the Dwarf spoke:
“Well it’s been a great conversation piece, but I wasn’t going to do anything with that map – I’m too old now.” The Bugbear chief looked confused for a moment, then a crafty look stole over his face.
“How do I know the map’s really in here?” he asked with a grin at his companions who grunted agreement.
“Maybe you should read it, Gulash,” replied the Dwarf, playing with his flute, “I can help you if you…”
“I can read!” growled the Bugbear. The dog bared his teeth at the dripping Bugbears and was shushed by the lady. After a few seconds of struggling to open the scroll tube, Gulash pulled the end cap off with his teeth while Marco winced at the lack of finesse. Turning it over, Gulash shook it until a lavender-tinted piece of parchment slid out and into his furry palm. He chuckled and unrolled it, looking at the Dwarf. His gaze turned to the paper and squinted hard.
The bard put his hands over his ears, provoking puzzled looks from everyone in the tavern; Gulash emitted a choked question and the paper exploded in his hands, running blue fire up his arms and around the edges of his studded leather armor, knocking him back into his gang. The smell of sulfur hung in the air for a moment with the laughter of the Dwarf who was doubled up in tears.
“Oh my, my,” gasped the hysterical bard, “The same trick worked on him two seasons ago.”
A broadsword slid across the surface of the bar to the old Gaelic-accented man, who hefted it in one hand and drained his beer with the other. Braco looked at the Bugbears with an oaken club resting on his countertop.
“There’ll be no fightin’ in my tavern.” The Bugbears slowly pulled out various ugly looking short blades: curved, straight, hooked and sharp. Gulash was hopping around with smoke wafting from several charred patches of fur.
“Alright, Dwarf!” said Gulash in a guttural snarl, “Yer goin’ down.” He yanked out his black tulwar and menaced the bard.
“You heard Braco,” piped up Marco, standing by the dartboard, “No brawlin’!”
“Shut the pipsqueak up, an’ be quick about it,” spat Gulash to his Bugbears. Two of them moved surprisingly quickly for Marco, and grasped his arms firmly before he could draw his shortsword which he had quietly retrieved from the back of his chair.
“I said shut him up!” Gulash gestured across his throat with his index finger.
“Marco!” yelled Lito and started towards him. A hairy Bugbear grabbed him by the arm and hurled him over a table into a corner by the fireplace, where he slumped and groaned. Brandon backed slowly around the table to Lito, and fell to his knees to tend to him, glancing over his shoulder nervously at the Bugbears grinning at Braco, the Dwarf, and the gentleman. The Dwarf had suddenly recovered from his laughing fit.
“Hey, now. No need for violence, just as the good ‘keep says.” The Dwarf took his feet off of a low stool and stood up. “You were never very good at diplomacy, and I see it is time for you to learn another lesson.” Reaching behind his chair, he seized a good sized battleaxe and removed the leather sheath.
“Not this time, fat little rodent!” said Gulash smugly. He barked an order in his native tongue, and a smaller, shadowy Bugbear stepped forwards. From a fold in her ragged clothes she produced a glowing red vial the size of her fist.
“Numinmentat sthaass quo Demontum voothat Volatum! “ she cried, dashing the glass to the floor. The Dwarf stepped back, surprised, and the silent woman in the corner slowly got to her feet, the palms of her hands flat on the tabletop. The dog was still grimacing at the Bugbears, but had regained some control over itself. Smoke spun towards the ceiling in thick coils; the firelight died unnaturally in the haze and the candle-flames spat sparks. Braco cautiously stole a sip from a bottle and surreptitiously passed it to the gentleman. The vapors were rising rapidly from the glowing red liquid that had been in the vial, evaporating it into the folds of the smoke, leaching from it a bloody aura which was coalescing into some sort of creature. All of the Bugbears were shifting between their feet uneasily, forgetting about silencing Marco or keeping an eye on the other patrons; even the Bugbear incantatrix was watching fearfully. The Dwarf muttered something under his breath in Dwarfish and gripped his battleaxe firmly. A blue-silver twinkle played across the blade of the axe; he backed up as the smoke curled around his feet.
A voice erupted from the column of vapor like the strike of a serpent: “Toluwait Rockthain, we require a Map which is in your possession.”
“I…don’t believe I have made your acquaintance,” the Dwarf stalled for time, “You are…”
“We represent the interests of a power that does not appreciate your trifling in matters that do not concern you in the least.” The eerie red vapor began to swirl into a more definite form. A heavily muscled torso appeared first with little licks of orange lightning wrapping like chains around its curves and corners. Two eyes the color of metal hot from the forge winked on, and twin stag antlers, gilded with copper, materialized above the smoke that veiled the creature’s face. Lito trembled at the sight of the Demon; Brandon clutched at his tunic and prayed under his breath. The bottle was quietly passed from the gentleman back to Braco.
“Can you fight him?” asked Braco under his breath to his friend.
“I don’t know, Tuledan,” replied the gentleman, using Braco’s little-known last name, “I dunna think you need a sword but a good clean-shaven priest.”
“Look here Mister Sean Murdoch, I just run a cosy tavern,” said Braco, half-turning to the gentleman, “You’re the one with the fifty years of military service.”
“Yes but spikin’ an Orc here an’ there dasn’t give ye experience with the spawn o’ the divell, ya cretin!”
“Shut up you fossils!” Gulash tried to assert some authority, “And I thought I told you to kill that boy!” He pointed at Marco, and Lito struggled to his feet, leaning on Brandon, a horrified expression on his face.
“Leave him alone, you bastards!” yelled Lito. Passion consumed his features, twisting them in pain and rage. Brandon looked quickly at his friend, then at the mass of Bugbears. The incantatrix glared at the interruption of her Demon’s business, and flung an arm towards the pair. Speaking several words of power, energy started to crackle at the ends of her fingertips. The woman’s dog snarled loudly and started forwards, but was restrained by his owner with a tense grip.
“Oh, no! My bar!” said Braco.
Two blue missiles of light flared at Brandon and Lito; Lito threw himself behind the Dwarf’s table, Brandon froze and shut his eyes. But the table in front of him leaped as if thrown, and intercepted the two missiles. An extraordinary talent, Brandon had always been a little wary and frightened of his psionic strengths; now he found them handy for saving his life. The Bugbear magician howled in surprise and disappointment as the table absorbed the missiles; Marco still struggled helplessly against two seven foot tall smirking beast-men.
“Rockthain,” rumbled the Demon.
“Bite it, moron,” countered the Dwarf. Lito stopped climbing up from behind the table and stared at the bard.
“There’ll be no fightin’ in my goddamn tavern!” screamed Braco. He ducked just in time as a Bugbear throwing axe embedded itself through a bottle of whiskey into the rear wall of his bar. Thunder stormed outside, and the Demon waxed a glowing scarlet. “Kill them. Kill them all!”
The Bugbear holding the squirming Marco was gibbering at his comrade, who had thrown the axe at Braco. Lito picked up a stool and brained the axe-thrower. Gulash pointed at the Dwarf and spat a command; several burly Bugbears warily approached through the smoky skirts of the Demon, who fumed and glowed brighter.
“Alright, enough of this nonsense!” said Murdoch rising from his barstool to meet a pair of the brutes. Easily cutting one in two, he caught a blow from an axe in the ear and rolled under the bar holding the side of his head. The Bugbear, leaning over to cut at him again recieved a solid crack on the skull from Braco, wielding his short club with both hands. The Bugbear was thrust out of the way with Murdoch’s sword point as he clambered out from the bar’s shadow.
“Drink?” asked Braco, lobbing a bottle to Murdoch, who, catching a look from the woman in the corner who was being threatened by a single Bugbear, turned and slid it across a table to her She caught it deftly as it dropped off of the end and reversed it in her hand, braining the incoming Bugbear neatly. As it fell to the floor, the dog leaped upon it and savaged it. The two creatures rolled around knocking chairs about and upsetting tables.
The Dwarf was engaged with several Bugbears at once, but his battleaxe was making quick work of them; several of them had already fled past Gulash and into the night clutching ragged rents in their flesh and light armor. Brandon crouched behind a table in the corner by the window and watched, appalled at the situation. The Bugbear incantatrix, avoiding the great swings of the Dwarf’s axe or Murdoch’s deft blade, pulled out a vicious curved knife and stalked Brandon. Caught in the corner with no weapon about, he looked about him hopelessly. The magician grinned at him evilly across the table, then shoved it out of the way carelessly, approaching him with the knife held in front of her glittering eyes. With the sound of shattering glass, an enormous sword plunged through the window from outside and impaled the Bugbear neatly between the shoulderblades. The knife dropped out of her hand, and she slumped forwards to the ground with blood pouring out of her mouth. A short curse was heard from outside through the rain being swept into the window: the greatsword was stuck firmly in the body of the Bugbear and was standing straight out of her back out of reach from the window. A great wet shaggy head was stuck though the broken window pane for a moment, swore horribly, and then disappeared.
The Demon screamed his disapproval of the Bugbears’ teamwork, or lack thereof, and, forming two enormous fists within his cloud of vapor, struck the bard, hurling him into a table which buckled underneath him. His axe flew backwards and chopped into the leg of the Bugbear holding Marco, who bellowed ferociously and released his captive to clap his hands to the wound. Lito, who had barely dodged the Dwarf, the table, and the axe, danced around with his stool and clubbed the other Bugbear that had been threatening Marco. Marco grabbed the darts from the dartboard, and as the Bugbear turned to slash at Lito, he jammed them down solidly into the back of his neck. Lito beat the confused creature senseless with the stool, and then found shelter behind the bar with Marco – the Demon was approaching the stunned Dwarf and its forge-fire eyes were showering sparks.
The door flew open for the third time that night; a Bugbear was propelled backwards out of the rain and into a chair, out of the way of the owner of the two-handed sword which saved Brandon’s life. The man was well over six feet tall with a great mane of curly hair and a bushy beard. He was drenched from the rainstorm and lightning illuminated him in the doorway as he sighted Sean Murdoch.
“Yer late for dinner, Sean!” he bellowed above the fracas, “The missus missed you an’ sent me to fetch ye.”
“You could be a better help than a windbag, Joffrey” grunted Murdoch. He was keeping a Bugbear at bay while the mysterious woman was chanting and making mystical signs with her hands. Gulash turned around and screamed a challenge; Joffrey Marcus balled his big blacksmith hands up into mighty fists and charged him. The two of them fought wildly, but Marcus bit the sword arm of the Bugbear and forced him to drop his wicked scimitar. Gulash ripped at Marcus with his horny claws, drawing blood in several places, but Marcus’ strength from his work at the forge prevailed: Gulash was throw bodily out into the storm, and the tavern door slammed on him. Brandon was still crouched in his corner, gaping at the Demon who was picking up the Dwarf’s body.
A boiling of icy energy wrapped around the joined hands of the lady behind Murdoch. With a sharp cry, she hurled the spell at the Demon as Murdoch ducked. It removed the head of the last Bugbear and slammed into the smoky form of the evil being. It dropped the heavy Dwarf to the floor with a thud and spun around to face the other side of the tavern.
“I dunna think a bottle is going to work on this one, Braco,” muttered Murdoch as he hefted his broadsword. Marco and Lito looked on helplessly from behind the bar as the Demon swept over towards the gentleman.
“If ye got another ball o’ ice, toss it now,” said Murdoch over his shoulder to the mage. She gave him a quick, frantic glance and continued drawing sigils in the air. Marcus stepped behind the creature with his huge sword and swept it clean through the smoke; nothing happened – the Demon didn’t even seem to notice.
“Vistakir Aleph-Doksari; hail and well-met!” said the Dwarf from a sitting position. He had recovered his axe and was drawing on the floor in a pinkish chalk. The Demon flared yellow for a moment and whirled on the bard.
“How dare you speak one of my names!” flashed the Demon menacingly, “We have such delights for you in our domain, bug. The map is nothing; your soul shall be ours!” It flew at the Dwarf, who had set his axe aside and grabbed his flute. The bard blew an incredibly quick melody and brought the Demon up short, right over his little chalk drawing; a circle with a few odd characters around it. Playing a short but forceful tune, the bard started to walk around the Demon, who was suspended over the drawing. The Demon’s eyes followed him, but he made no move. Murdoch and Marcus exchanged glances, and Braco passed his bottle down to Lito and Marco; the woman stopped her low chanting and watched the Dwarf carefully.
The bard kept playing and walking around the Demon, and some of his awful red glow was dissipating; the dog, muzzle covered in Bugbear blood, began walking around the circle, also. Brandon came out from his corner and also began to circle the Demon; he didn’t know exactly why, but it seemed to be working for the smoke was floating away into the rafters, without the evil reddish tinge that the presence of the creature lent it. Murdoch sat down heavily in a chair to have Marcus look at his ear; the lady shook his tired hand.
“My name is Tishan Willowtree, my Lord,” she spoke and cast her hood back, revealing slightly pointed ears and delicate features; an Elf, or at least there was quite a bit of Elven blood in her veins. “Thank you for your defense.”
“Thank you for the timely incantation, my lovely lady,” replied Murdoch, who was wincing under the blacksmith’s inquisition into his wound.
The Demon was nothing but a pair of fading eyes as the patrons of Braco’s Tavern watched the Dwarven bard banish it into a pall of smoke. Drinks were replenished all around, and the three young men helped right the tables that hadn’t been splintered and place the chairs back into order. The Bugbears were dragged out into the rain by Joffrey Marcus and Braco, who came in white-faced after cutting their mounts loose.
“I never seen such big wolves,” said Marcus, shutting the door tightly behind him.
“It’s good that they eat Bugbear,” replied Braco shakily, “I hope they don’t bother anyone on their way out of town.”
“Bard,” called Tishan to the Dwarf, “What map is this that you own that attracts the attention of such doubtful company?”
“Ah, my lady,” said the Dwarf, bowing deeply, “My friends, I owe all of you a great apology for this inconvenience. You see, I don’t have the map that these monsters were bothering me for – I just know where it is.
“I am the bard Toluwait Rockthane, son of…”
“Yes, yes, sir. I can guess. I have met enough Dwarves to pass on hearin’ your family’s history,” interrupted a gruff Sean Murdoch.
“Well, as I said, I don’t have the map, I just know where it is,” continued Toluwait, “It is a treasure map, which shows where there are great riches and greater perils. I have been waiting to go get the map because I was doing… research on the veracity of the information regarding the locale and the indigenous life.”
“Were you?” questioned a grumpy Braco, who was fixing a sheet over the broken window, “Well, where’s the map?”
“It’s right there,” said the Dwarf, and pointed to the plaque above the fireplace. The company gathered around the plaque, but saw nothing but its normal proverbs and useful sayings; no map was evident.
“There’s no map here, old Dwarf,” said Marco disappointedly, “It’s just tthe same old plaque.”
“Ah, yes, my boy! But it is a Magical Plaque!” Toluwait lifted his flute and played a haunting melody that hung in the air like the Demon’s smoke, and the plaque changed. The lines of the letters grew and swirled into a map of landmarks: mountains, forests, creeks and valleys, with an X at the foot of a certain hooked crag. Marco hurriedly pulled out a piece of parchment which he had bought to write love-letters on and began carefully copying the map. The bard played his simple melody on until everyone had seen the map for a minute or two, and then let the notes fade away into the nighttime rain. Thunder growled around the tavern.
“So, is anyone interested in a fortune in gold, Magic, and jewels?”

# # # # # # # # # # #

“I dunna give a damn what time it is in the mornin’, Braco!” yelled an irate Sean Murdoch, banging a flagon repeatedly on the countertop of the bar,“Where’s the Glenfiddich?!”
“You’re crazy, old man!” retorted Braco wearily as he shuffled around the end of the bar rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. “I still can’t believe you believe that old Dwarf’s tale of the Eternal Campfire. I tend this bar and I have yet to hear a whopper like that one the Dwarf told last night.”
“What about the map?” Murdoch pointed at the plaque above the mantel.
“What about the bottle of Glenfiddich we drank last night?”
Murdoch put the mug down with a thump and turned half away from Braco. Willowtree was making her way down the steps from the rooms above the tavern, keeping one slender hand on the railing, the other one massaging her temples. She sat down gingerly on a barstool and groaned.
“Do ye remember what ye promised last night, lady?” Murdoch winked at Braco, who rolled his eyes and started a kettle over the fire.
“I need a cup of coffee, a new head, and a gag for the gentleman over there, Braco,” she said over her shoulder, pointedly ignoring Murdoch.
The door to the tavern opened, and several youths came bounding in, carrying all manner of implements and bags. Among them were Marco, Brandon and Lito; there were several others, including a girl who was clinging to Lito’s arm as if he was about to disappear for good, and the majority of the teenagers in the town of Hell’s Purchase.
“You can’t go! We’re supposed to be betrothed!” cried the girl.
“Marisa,” Lito tried to pry her fingers from his shirt, “I’m going and that’s final — my father doesn’t like it either, but I’m my own man, now.”
“But….” stammered Marisa, her lower lip trembling as if she was about to cry, “But you’ll never come back! Who’ll take care of you?”
“I can take care of myself,” replied Lito, almost proudly. Murdoch and Willowtree exchanged resigned looks. Murdoch banged his flagon once more to remind Braco, and turned to the gaggle of teens.
“Alright ye miscreants!” he barked out. The commotion stopped as his voice cracked like a drill seargeant’s through the pub. “What in the Devil is all that crap?” he said, pointing to the equipment that occupied several chairs and a table. Murdoch strode over to Marco, Lito and Brandon and started looking at their possessions. “Ten foot pole, six changes of underwear, breath mints,” Murdoch rustled through an open rucksack, “What the hell ye think this is gonna be, a walk in yon woods?” He started throwing their equipment out of the open door into the courtyard.
“Sounds like a corporal,” Willowtree commented to Braco, who was pouring her a cup of coffee.
“He actually retired as a captain,” Braco nodded at Murdoch’s back.
“Get rid of all this worthless junk!” roared Murdoch as he kicked a skillet out of the tavern to bounce on the flagstones outside. The group of youngsters beat a hasty retreat outside to reorganize. Marisa was still hanging on to Lito and the sound of her cries were redoubled. Murdoch slammed the door behind them.
“Better get him his Glenfiddich,” said Braco, looking under the bar.
“Bloody sassenach,” growled Murdoch, sitting down at the bar again and looking for his flagon.
“There there, now, Sean,” soothed Braco, putting a glass of whiskey down at Murdoch’s elbow, “You needn’t turn them into soldiers overnight.”
“I dunno why the damned Dwarf invited them along in the first place.”
“He said that the composition wouldn’t be right without them,” said Willowtree from down the bar. Rockthane entered the Inn laughing at that moment.
“What a fine group of heroes we have outside,” laughed the Dwarf, “I don’t want to hear a word about it, Mister Murdoch.” He waggled a short finger at Sean as he took a seat. “I dropped by Joffrey’s smithy on the way here. He’ll be along with a friend, he said.”
“When are we leaving?” asked Willowtree.
“As soon as we’re all assembled,” said Rockthane, “And, of course, the courtyard is cleaned up.” He winked at Braco, who smiled in spite of himself.

# # # # # # # # # # #

It was quite a large group of people who assembled in front of Braco’s Tavern. Not all of them were going along with the Dwarf and the adventurers, but the sight of people gearing up for such an outing was always something of a commotion. Murdoch passed his helmet around and collected enough spare change to finance a public keg of Hairfoot Triple Stout, and that added to the draw of the event.
The three young men, Marco, Brandon and Lito were considerably better equipped. Each wore a decent leather jerkin for protection and a grey-green travelling cloak. They each had a knife on their belts as well. Lito carried a old mahogany shortbow that he swore was a family heirloom from the Hobgoblin Wars of ‘23, and wore a motheaten quiver of arrows that looked like they were about the same age. Their “equipment” had been miraculously compressed into a backpack apiece.
Murdoch wore his chainmail and his traditional green military gear.
“Thought soldiers never wore skirts,” said Willowtree, her eyes twinkling.
“Thought you’d ride a unicorn, Elf,” grumped Murdoch in reply, “And it is not a skirt; it’s a kilt.”
“Well, sir, I’m only half-Elf, so a whitish horse will have to do.” Willowtree’s canine friend was sitting in the shade of a large tree along the avenue that ran through Hell’s Purchase some distance away. It kept its eyes on its master protectively.
Joffrey Marcus thrust his way easily through those assembled with his broad shoulders, making way for a second person.
“Good morning to you all!” he said cheerfully. A man in a foppish hat with a jaunty white feather stuck in it stepped out of the crowd behind him. “This is my friend Karza. He’s on his way out of town anyhow, and he’s invited himself along for the journey.”
“That’s the Baron Karza,” he pointed out testily, sweeping his hat off and performing a graceful bow in the direction of the Dwarf, “I need protection from the thieves and brigands who wish to make off with the riches that I carry.”
“Yes well anyway,” smiled Marcus, “I’m about ready. Ah, yes…wait one moment.” He turned and thrust his way back through the crowd again.
“I am pleased to make your acquaintences,” said the Baron, smoothly making his way for the keg and pouring himself a flagon.
“Wow! A real Baron!” said Lito to his friends.
“I think this is going to be pretty exciting,” replied Marco.
“My head hurts,” said Brandon, receiving a sympathetic look from Willowtree.
Marcus returned leading two strong horses loaded with gear. Murdoch took one look at the mass of items strapped to the two mounts and groaned. “I hate travelling with Joffrey,” he muttered.
Marcus unstrapped a trio of shortswords from his steed’s saddle and handed one to each of the young men. “There’s no use adventuring without a bit of steel for good luck. May the great Goibhnie keep your blades sharp and true.” Marco and Lito took their presents with wide eyes, and strapped them on under their cloaks awkwardly. Brandon hesitated, then took his and tied it on to his saddle. They thanked him.
“Alright, alright,” grumbled Murdoch, refilling his mug at the tap, “Who are we waiting for now?”
“Good things come to those who wait,” grinned the Dwarf, who was behind him in the line for the beer. Marisa had reappeared, this time in a rather provocative dress, and was again trying to persuade Lito not to leave her in a piteous voice.
“I hope we don’t have to wait too long,” said Marcus, switching his empty mug for Sean’s newly refilled one. Willowtree smiled and watched the Baron throw copper pieces to the children.

…to be continued…?

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