Chapter Six, Part Two
“It was quite fortunate you came along when you did,” Melias tells Percy. “What brings you out this way all by your lonesome? I saw you praying, too. Are you some sort of Paladin?”
“Believe me, Melickus, it is my pleasure to allow one of the ancient races to hoist my sword,” Percy says with all sincerity. “I did very well against the Fire Giant. But truth be told – I hid when his cousins came. There are no songs sung of heroes who die before they complete their greatest deeds of honor and battle. My god was on my shoulder that entire battle. I was injured, as you are, but I used the creature’s own stock of potions to heal myself. I still have one left. Here, you look as if you can use it. I had it identified by a traveling Wizard outside of The Dark City and I’m certain it is safe. The others were.” He hands a potion from his pack to Melias. “As for your other question . . . I’m no Paladin,” he says sadly.
Arturus had turned around when Percy mentioned the Fire Giant. He made mocking faces of Percy as he talked but stops when Percy glances over his shoulder while reaching into his pack. Arturus hears Rastorn chuckling up until that point.
Smiling and nodding, Melias accepts the potion. “It is very kind of you to be so giving with a mere stranger in need. Please, do share your stories. I’d love to hear them.” He uncorks the potion and takes a sniff of it before sipping carefully, and then drinking the whole thing. The sensation of his ribs popping back into place makes him smile and he feels better than he has since they left Darkuth. Even his saddle soreness is gone. He lifts his shirt and looks at his now unbruised chest and sides. “Amazing. I only wish we could find a fountain of this elixir.” Capping the empty vial, he offers it back to Percy, “Do you want your empty, or can I have it?”
Percy gently pushes the bottle back toward Melias, then tells his story.
“I grew up in Homeland. Of course, when you grow up there you see the Purple Paladins as the heroes they are, so I practically worshiped them. I studied martial arts from the time I was a lad in the pursuit of one day joining their ranks. Alas, there is more to being a Paladin than mere skill at arms and I learned this when I sought to be granted knighthood by the Queen Mother. I promised then I would do whatever I could to better myself, so I could one day be worthy of such an honor. That is why I am on this pilgrimage: to develop wisdom, honor, and mental agility to match my strength and skill. Capra led me here – to you!”
Melias’ eyes break with Percy’s as SeLiem approaches. Seeing Melias nod at someone behind him, Percy turns to nod a greeting at SeLiem.
SeLiem does not mince words. “Although you helped us in battle, we barely know you. I wish to see if you mean us harm. Will you allow me to check?”
Percy smiles and holds out his hand.
Melias smiles at SeLiem and chuckles. He already knows what the result will be.
Rastorn drops his bundle of sticks and small logs on his foot and curses when he realizes SeLiem asked permission to cast Know Alignment on Percy. “Sorry . . . stumbled,” he says, as he moves back toward the fire, leaving the pile where it landed.
SeLiem casts the spell, stares at the stranger for a full minute, then turns to the others and says, “He’s exactly what he appears – for better or worse. He is indeed aligned with Capra.”
“You may trust in spells, Priest Ceilin, but I trust in deeds. Everyone reveals their true self eventually,” Percy says, in an almost practiced manner.
“Wonderful. So, we have a real do-goody-good with us. Great.” Arturus says slightly under his breath.
Stifling a laugh, Rastorn says quietly, “Yes, with a short Elf’s lips planted firmly on his buttocks.”
Melias hears this and looks over Percy’s shoulder at Rastorn. Miming a kiss, Rastorn turns, lifts his robe, and points at his butt.
Arturus roars with laughter.
Melias’ eyes narrow. He clears his throat, stands, and moves into a position so his back is to Arturus and Rastorn. He nods at Percy. “I agree completely. It’s perhaps a good underlying reason why I left the comfort of The Elven Forest. I was guilty by association there, and I’m a much better person than I was given the opportunity to be.” He bends over and unrolls his bed, as he tells Percy, “Personally, I headed South-East from The Elven Forest some two weeks’ ride, got to Dumas, met up with these fine gentlemen companions, and traveled south three days to Darkuth. The ocean bordered the road to the east that entire trip. It made for quite a scenic trek.” He pauses to scan the area, before slipping under the covers. “After Darkuth, we headed West on our way to Metava which is three days’ travel, and then onward to ASU, which is about three and a half days past that.” He rubs his chin as he tries to picture the entire area in his mind. “I’m assuming you came up from the south to Darkuth then, up Lava Trail, then the Eastern Tradeway, is that right? How far is Homeland from Darkuth?”
“Lava Trail isn’t a road. It’s just a bunch of black rock and some fire that crosses the Eastern Tradeway,” Percy says with a chuckle. “Homeland is many, many days from Darkuth . . . I’m afraid I lost count.”
“Yeah, sorry… I just assumed it was an actual trail, you know?” Melias leans on one elbow. “Tell me, what’s your take on Lord Darkuth? I guess it’s safe to talk freely of him now that we’re out of that city. I don’t know anything about him, but he certainly seems to enjoy having power over his people – as demonstrated by his excessive taxes and oppressive ways.”
Arturus interjects. “Lord Dorkus is like any other evil man in power. He’s power-hungry and cares little about anything other than himself and his properties. We’ve all seen the corruption and the evil that seeps from them spread like a plague amongst all in the land. Personally, I say we either fight it or just get the hell out of the lands and away from the plague before we too become its slave,” he says with a dead-serious tone and the joking expressions and the playful attitude gone.
Melias turns back toward Percy to get his opinion on the matter. This, he believes, will tell him whether the want-to-be Paladin had any place in their cozy little group.
Percy seems oblivious to Arturus and Rastorn’s antics and answers Melias simply. “Well, Lava Trail is a trail – the trail that the lava made when the volcano in Metava erupted. It flowed from Metava to the ocean. I didn’t mean to be rude. I forget we don’t share common histories. Please forgive my rudeness, friend Elf.”
Melias shrugs indifferently, lifting a hand to ward off the apology. “Think nothing of it. Rudeness seems to be thick in the air this evening,” he says with a quick glance to Rastorn.
“Concerning the Dark Lord of Darkuth, I only know Lord Darkoth is powerful and ancient and aligned with dark forces. I dared not enter his city during my travels. It’s not safe there for decent people. Like everyone, the merchants of Homeland must trade with Darkuth, but that doesn’t mean we approve of their ways. The only good thing they ever did was help destroy the great enemy . . . and sign the 100-year agreement. Before that, Lord Darkoth was a much-feared warlord and invader. He still hasn’t signed a new treaty. I think he is using The Cube of Power issue to delay talks. Well, that is what a Wizard I met on my way here thought. I can’t really take credit. Although I do agree with him.”
“It’s funny you should mention that Cube of Power. We came across a wanted poster for the people who allegedly took it. We thought maybe we’d head off to see if we could find these people and see where their hearts were. What happens after that is anyone’s guess, really.” Melias looks westward and adds, “They were last seen in ASU, and that’s where we are headed. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
After taking a deep breath, Percy delves into the topic. “Lord Darkoth has The Cube now and – to tell you the truth – I’d rather the thieves had it. I’m sure he would never use it to call back Our Greatest Enemy, but it may have other uses. Then again, he helped hide it, so I guess he isn’t really interested in it. It would be safe with him, so no one would dare attack him. I . . . I guess I’m not sure. Maybe talking to those people on the poster would clarify things. Oh, I did learn something that might help! A Cleric I met on the way here said the people on the wanted poster cannot be tracked by magical means. They have some sort of protection against it. Many people gave up their plans to gain the reward after they spent time and money on spells that didn’t work. I guess that means there may not be that many people with a jump on you fine people.”
SeLiem nods. “Well, this Lord Darkuth is someone whose bad side we really don’t want to get on anytime soon. He is up to something. I am sure we all know that whatever he is doing, it should be stopped.” He closes his eyes in concentration and thinks about all of this. “The group must have some sort of object or spell to prevent it. If we meet them, I’ll have to take a close look at it. If it is a spell easy for me or the Wizards to learn, we could use it if we ever need to get away from Darkoth or any evil force. Of course, that is if they come out to be on our side.”
Rastorn rubs his chin. He is thinking more about The Cube of Power than the wanted group’s magic. He sits and opens his spellbook.
“It could be some sort of magical trinket . . . another stone that flies about like a bug around their head perhaps?” Melias says. “But what are we saying here, these people can’t possibly hide from the gods, could they? We have a direct line to the heavens, right SeLiem?” He asks SeLiem, “Couldn’t you ask your god for some answers or point the right way for you once we get closer?”
“We might need a more experienced Priest for that,” SeLiem answers, as he lays down for the night. “Sorry, Melias, those are divination spells. I can look to see what may happen, but since I am not that great with divination, I would only be able to use a weak spell which wouldn’t tell me everything . . . only half of what might happen”
Rastorn takes the first watch and Percy stays awake the entire time. During Arturus’ watch, Percy sits and smokes a pipe. During Melias and SeLiem’s turns, Percy sleeps soundly.
During the night, Orjulun has a vivid dream. Like a moth to a flame, he is drawn to a light shining through the darkness. It makes him feel . . . safe. As he gets closer, he discovers the light shines down on an ornate metallic cube as big as two fists. He looks around into the darkness and sees the cube is surrounded by bars. It is caged in. Imprisoned. Protected. Huge, oddly curved eyes look down at the cube from the darkness. He recognizes these eyes from somewhere. Backing up, he sees another person shrouded in darkness standing outside the cage. The only thing visible is the keys on this person’s belt. The person appears to be guarding the prison. The large eyes disappear. The guard looks to the left and right. Orjulun moves closer, but still cannot see the guard’s features or even discern race or sex. The guard produces a key, unlocks the gate, and sidles to the cube. As the guard – if it is truly a guard – reaches for the cube, Orjulun has an overwhelming sense of dread and doom. As their hand touches the cube Orjulun wakes! Coated with sweat, he jerks into a seated position, eyes wide. It is Percy’s watch, the final watch of the night, and he seems to be the only one awake to see Orjulun catapulting from slumber. If they did notice him, he does not see them react. Percy says nothing. He slowly scans around the camp in the opposite direction and relights his pipe. Orjulun tries unsuccessfully to fall back to sleep.
An hour later, at daybreak, everyone is either packing, eating, or preparing the horses. Percy rides a white and gray heavy warhorse, with a heavy lance hooked to the saddle.
The early hours are monotonous with only the thick forest in view during their travel. Near mid-day, though, the company comes to a small roadside shrine with the symbol of a coin prominently displayed. The coin has a dagger emblazoned on it. SeLiem says it is the symbol of the god Tarantin, god of War and Luck. A plate is built into the front of the shrine and the plate holds two pearls, a gem, some hand-made jewelry, a dagger, and over 20 copper pieces. The shrine is not new. It was likely constructed over twenty years earlier. Melias shrugs and flips a gold coin into the bowl. It isn’t that he is religious, but he is slightly superstitious. “Better safe than sorry.”
An audible smack is heard. As the party turns toward the sound, they see Rastorn smack himself on the hand again as he mumbles, “Damned blood-sucking parasites.”
Melias waits as the others pass, then takes a position near the back of the group. From the start, he had made certain Percy retained the place of honor at the front of the group, which was also out of earshot of whatever comments the rest of the group whispered. He starts up a conversation with Arturus and Rastorn, although he can be heard by Orjulun and SeLiem. “Look, it’s obvious you two aren’t comfortable with this fellow around. I don’t know why, exactly. He seems like quite a noble and helpful man. But if you would rather, we can ask him to find some other group to tag along with at the next village.”
Rastorn answers first. “He makes me uncomfortable. Especially when he eyeballed me all damn night. Well, at least the portions when I was awake. Did he sleep on any of your watches?”
“Maybe there was something about the way you shook your pasty white ass that he found intriguing?” Melias says, chuckling.
“All he did was stay up and smoke that pipe of his. He never closed his eyes once,” Arturus answers.
“He slept on my watch. I am not certain if we should trust him, but my spell says he is on the side of good,” SeLiem says. “There is no reason not to trust him. He has done nothing but help us. I can say, some of you I do not trust, even if you saved me.”
Melias smirks. “I’ll drink to that,” he says, lifting his water canteen to his lips and taking a long drink. Turning to the others, he says, “He probably figured you two would just as soon slice his throat as let him sleep peacefully. You aren’t the most trustworthy sort, Rastorn. In fact, I have my suspicions about what you did with your last party.” He looks at Arturus, “You’re a brigand probably sought by several authorities. We’re guilty of waylaying the Dumas city guard. If this man is noble and good as I suspect him to be, perhaps he is just as uncomfortable in our presence as we are in his.” He shrugs and urges his horse to a faster pace. What was said was said; no unsaying it now.
“Woah, now! You think I’m not trustworthy?” Rastorn hisses, his voice rising a few octaves above its normal, almost-whispery, tone. “Are you questioning what happened to my last party? I already told you the truth.”
Rastorn rides up next to Melias, who slows back down to grow some space between them and Percy.
“We were set upon and captured by Ogres who set a trap for us. They ate the other party members and figured me to be too sickly or ill to be good for food. I had to ‘make friends’ with those freaks, learning their language and all that, just to assure my survival!”
Percy retains the same pace he has the entire trip, with Orjulun following close behind him. SeLiem tries to catch up to Melias and Rastorn. Arturus starts speeding up, then slows down when he realizes the trotting of his horse makes his many injuries hurt even more.
“I had to walk from the middle of nowhere for weeks, with no food and no equipment, other than my spellbook, back to Dumas, where I met with the two of you just after getting some well-deserved rest! Stereotyping . . . that’s what I heard from my father about most haughty Elves. He did much trading with your kind. Just because I’m pale, bitter, older, and I practice Necromancy, which most unenlightened individuals consider a ‘Dark Art,’ I’m ‘colored’ something? By the way, healing is Necromancy in its purest form. Just ask our healer over there,” Rastorn says. “I’m truly hurt at your mistrust. As I see it, you’re buddying up with a total stranger and preferring him over the party. Your mistrust is misplaced and your smarmy gestures with this ‘noble and good’ Warrior who popped up out of nowhere – for all we know to slit our throats – is disturbing.”
Melias slows his steed to a walking gait, allowing Arturus an opportunity to catch up with them.
“I’ll have no more of this talk of trust and mistrust,” Rastorn says. “My mind is wracked with worry concerning this person in our midst that we know little about and now all this talk of untrustworthiness. My heart hurts and my mouth is too dry for more talk.” He stops on the side of the road, slumps over, shudders, then falls limp onto his horse’s mane.
Arturus passes him without a word.
Orjulun tells Percy to continue, while he sees why the rest of the group is lagging. He has his horse gallop back to Melias and SeLiem.
Springing up in his saddle, Rastorn spurs his horse all the way back to Melias, reaching him at the same time as Orjulun. “I apologize for my actions which have led you to believe me to be untrustworthy. I apologize for the harsh words I said. I know the two of you are only doing what you feel is best for the party. Just remember, it was I who first approached SeLiem to free him from the debris. It was I who first pulled you aside to bandage your wounds when that Owlbear had mauled you, Melias. It was I who used all my focus on the beast that plagued Arturus in the same battle. I am not trying to bolster myself or place myself above others, but I did act in accordance with what a loyal party member would do.”
Melias rolls his eyes. He leans closer to SeLiem and whispers, “Any chance your god can tell you if someone is lying their ass off?”
“Look, my trust in the group is obvious,” Orjulun says. “There are a few of us I would trust over others. And you, Rastorn, well, all we have is your word about all your history. The fact of the matter is you speak Goblinoid rather well and managed to live when all your previous party perished. You may be telling the truth with what you say, and your actions may have been genuinely-placed, but I find it strangely comforting to know my mistrust is paralleled by this noble knight’s own suspicions. Percy slept quite soundly while I was on watch.”
Melias nods, then says, “I have an idea. If it was alright to check Percy out, maybe we should have SeLiem check us all out, discover if we have any snakes in the grass. We could get all this unfounded suspicion out of the way. What do you think? I’m willing to subject myself to this inspection.” He wishes there was a way he could tell truth from lie on his own. He believes Rastorn slapped his own hand to remind himself not to steal from the offering. He is right. He also believes the story Rastorn tells about what happened to his last group is not completely accurate. He is wrong.
Melias’ thoughts are disrupted when Percy speaks up very loudly. “I’ve got ears – you know!” He turns his mount around and trots back to the rest of the party as he says, “In fact, darn good ones. I’ve heard most of what you said last night and today and I can figure out most of what you’ve done behind my back. Let me tell you all something! I’ve seen distrust tear a party apart. I’ve seen it do the same to a family and a business, too. I thought letting you cast your spell on me would increase the trust within the group, but all it has done is plant the seed of distrust. ‘Is this man the same as me’? ‘Does this man worship as I do’? Listen, I grew up in Homeland – which has a state religion – so I have seen how religious intolerance can turn very, very good people into suspicious, discriminating bigots who think only their way of thinking is the right way!” He lowers his voice from the yell it had been to a normal volume. “My friends, as I said before, actions speak louder than words or the results of any spells. You have supported each other in battle. I saw each of you place his life on the line for the other last night. That should be proof enough, friend Melickus.”
He turns his horse around and starts riding west again, adding over his shoulder, “I watched you at night because I held anger in my heart over your mimicry of me, not because of fear. I’m over it now. I have forgiven you. Let us see what new challenges this day will bring – together!” He spurs his horse to a gallop without looking back to see if the party follows.
Frowning, Melias watches Percy ride away and shakes his head. “Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread,” he says. “I’m no fool, and some haughty young shiny knight with good ears and a gallant tongue isn’t going to sway my distrust so easily. I knew none of you before just a few days ago and self-survival is enough of a reason to keep your companions alive. I’d still like to know who I’m teaming up with. I’ve run too far to fall into the same crowd again.” He crosses his arms and stares at the other men to see if they will take the challenge he posed.
Rastorn responds very quickly. “The newcomer has a point. While there may be dissension in our ranks concerning trust, I believe the worth of the party is more important than one person’s opinion over the other. Distrust me if you must; it matters not and only increases anxiety. I will remain as I am, and I will do my part in the group. Cast your spells if you wish, I have nothing to hide. But you’ll be casting them at my backside as I have no time for petty quarrels.”
Having been cut off several times when he attempted to interject since his last comment, Orjulun decides to stop trying. He spurs his mount to where Percy rides. “Friend Percy,” he says, “I hope you don’t think ill of us because of our recent actions. I’ll admit I don’t agree with my party members at times, but I trust each of them and believe they all have good hearts. I hope you will see that, rather than hear their harsh words.”
Without making eye-contact, Percy nods.
“But enough of that talk. Let us change the subject to something more pleasant. I know a bit of your god, Capra, from my readings on Scorses, but I would like to hear more in your words if it pleases you.” He looks at Percy, then glances back at Melias, who is leaning off the side of his horse to whisper something in Arturus’ ear.
Melias whispers, in Elvish, “I hope you know it is not you whom I have serious questions about.” In Common, he speaks to those still present. “You are all fools if you think some specially chosen words are going to alleviate suspicion – it’s not that easy. I’d rather deal with it right here and now than do nothing and regret it later. Think me petty if you must, but know this. I would more trust an evil man who was openly so than an evil man trying to pretend he is good. The latter will find an inopportune time to show his true colors. If none of us are truly evil, then none of us have anything to fear from a quick test by the healer.” After a deep breath, he says, “However, if we are going to do this, we should all do it, willingly and without reluctance. Running away from it only brings more suspicion. Of course, it matters not to me. In the next city, we can split our own ways. I’ll gladly avoid unsavory, untrustworthy individuals. After all, I left all I knew and loved for the same reason.”
Rastorn had begun trotting ahead of the others, but he is still listening.
“This has gone far enough,” Arturus says, “I have no problem having a spell cast on me, even if I did, I hurt too badly to object anyway. My whole problem with Percy is a petty one that has sadly blown into a huge ordeal. It has to do with a Warrior’s pride. He basically came in and saved the day when I couldn’t. I know he’s a better Warrior than I am, and it bothers me. That’s my problem with Percy, petty and stupid.”
SeLiem, Melias, and Rastorn all bring their horses to a stop as Arturus does.
He continues, “But, as a group, we need to stick together. We’ve all helped in different ways and have trusted each other to certain degrees. Some of our ways are different and strange to each other, but over time we’ll be more accepting,” After a long pause, he smirks and says, “I mean, Melias dresses like a woman, but we still trust him.”
“I have no qualms with having the healer cast upon me, as I had said: I have nothing to hide. But, as I have also said, this seems petty to me, and the spell will be cast at my backside as I trot away on this here fine steed,” Rastorn says with a chuckle and a glance cast back at the group. “It matters not to me how you are all aligned. It’s offensive in many ways to many people to be so bold in nosing into others’ business, but I am not offended. Do as you must, but as my back is turned and I am trotting away, your own secrets are safe from me because, frankly, I don’t want to know.”
Melias laughs. “Funny, no one seemed to care too much about how rude it might be to cast it upon Percy behind his back. Now, suddenly, it’s petty and offensive to do the same thing we did to the brave man who saved my life.” Melias looks at SeLiem. “Cast it. Please.”
“Enough!” They all turn to look at Arturus after he shouts this. “The five of us have fought together, shed blood together, risked our own necks for one another, and have healed together. If you can’t trust your brothers in arms, then who can you trust?” he says heatedly. In a softer and more pleading tone he says, “Melias, I am your brother by virtue of being graced to be an Elf. We have the same racial attitudes towards life and death, and I understand the part of this man’s career that you find distasteful, so do I. But honestly, he has done nothing to show we cannot trust him. I will begrudgingly be grateful to Percy for saving your life, it should have been me though – your Elven brother – not a Human. Please, let’s have SeLiem cast his spell and get this over with, so by tonight we can laugh about this.” He leans forward in his saddle as if it took all his energy to make that statement. After a few moments of heavy breathing, he sits up. He holds his arms wide open as if inviting SeLiem to cast at will on him.
SeLiem frowns. “Why do you all keep calling me ‘Healer’ when I told you that is what they call Priests of a different god entirely.”
Arturus dismounts and sits down against a tree. He is dizzy and his ribs are extremely sore. He’s a little shocked when he spits blood.
Melias leaps off his horse and walks toward Arturus, then looks down the road, noting how far ahead Percy and Orjulun and even Rastorn had gotten.
Slowing his mount, Percy speaks quietly with Orjulun. “Capra is the god of Peace and Justice. Priests of the faith work together with the Paladins toward the end of a peaceful and just existence for all mankind. And Dwarf-kind and Elf-kind and the little people. Some say the Clerics are the Peace and the Paladins are the Justice! The Queen Mother of Homeland has always made sensible decisions guided by the principles of Capra, so it must be at least a workable doctrine, right?” He pauses for a while, then adds, “Listen, all we of Homeland want is for everyone to follow just and fair laws for the good of all. Some end up hating those who have a difference of opinion as to what is fair and what is best and even going to war over these disagreements. I am considered different because I am tolerant of other religions because I place actions ahead of labels. What I mean is, someone may worship the Dark God or may have grown up in Darkuth or be of mixed Human and Orc heritage, but that doesn’t mean they cannot do noble deeds or be a good friend or a powerful ally. Maybe I am naive, but that is what I am on this journey to find out. Sadly, I find that prejudice is even prevalent in the Elven community. And I thought they had evolved above that. I guess I should have known since they are still at odds with the Dwarves.” He looks down and says softly, “Listen, I’d like to tell you about my god and my beliefs, but right now all I can think about is how touting one’s own religion and beliefs has caused so much strife in the world already. All the major wars were about such differing views.”
“Percy, if you are looking for guidance in your life, follow the teachings of Scorces. I’m sure the Lord of Light’s plan for you doesn’t include delving too deeply into the word of other gods.”
“No. Capra is quite clearly my god. He speaks to me. Even directly, sometimes, in my dreams.”
Orjulun quickly turns to look at Percy, then he slowly turns to look straight forward again, although his focus is on Percy’s words and his own dreams and not the road ahead of him. He is jerked back to reality when Percy’s huge hand swipes out and slaps him in the chest. Instinctively, he reaches for his spell components and uses his knees to steer his horse away from Percy’s. Then he sees what Percy was trying to alert him to. On the road ahead of them is the bloody body of a Dwarf.
To be continued in Chapter Six Part Three next week!
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