Chapter XXII


Stalkers, Talkers And Hawkers
A Collaboration Between: Dru Driver, FragmentFour, KENICY And Novareinna



Lying in bed was all warm and cozy, but the rumble in his mid-parts made Darvón wonder he'd ingested something he shouldn't have. He swung his feet off the cot and reached for his clothes. Nice of Ricóre to have put him in his nightshirt. Would of been nicer if she'd helped him out of the horse. He might consider overlooking that particular slight if there was something good to eat in the kitchen. He pulled on his boots and went to find out.

The whole place was empty.

So much for maternal instincts and other assorted rot. He took himself off to the kitchen at the Inn.

Two chicken legs and a sweet roll, later, things were looking up. With all the commotion in the public room, the kitchen help had been too busy to notice a few missing items. Swallowing the last bite of something juicy pilfered via the back door, he hiked around to the front one and sauntered in, pretending to have been just out for a stroll during the last few hours.

Thunderbolts have been known to strike without cloud cover. The one that jolted Darvón got him just inside the common room and left him very little balance which made him scramble to find something to keep him upright. Hangover, he lied to himself. Has to be. But it wasn't, and he knew it. It was recognition.

He took two deep breaths, made mental note that both Trey and Ricóre were present, and looked around, bringing his eyes back to the circular table with a forced deliberation designed to steady his nerves. The white-blond girl hadn't been the entire cause of his abrupt halt, but she'd certainly been at least half of it.

Magic, he muttered to himself. Unpredictable stuff, magic. Thought I was used to it by now.

Evidently, he was not. At least, not in this concentration. A head count was in order. Trey. Ricóre. The Girl. Scat...Scat? He double checked the waves again, wondering why he hadn't noticed it before. Yup, Scat. Reeked of magic. Huh. Okay.

There were a few other trails coming at him from folks he didn't recognize, but they weren't the ones who interested him. The important one was The Girl. The White-Blond Girl at the round table with the grinning idiot, Hansom Neibor at her side.

That girl.

Tri-Nova looked up when the front door opened and looked at the fellow sauntering in. She felt a twinge of familiarity but was certain she had not met the man before. He was handsome enough that she would surely remember a previous meeting.

As he made his way in, his eyes swept the room. Spotting the empty chairs at Tri-Nova's table Darvón ambled over and asked, "Are these seats claimed?"

"No, not yet," answered Neibor, "you are welcome to join us if you like."

Darvón took a seat on the other side of Tri-Nova and smiled a hello to both of them. "Thank you. As crowded as it is, these must be the only seats available. What's the occasion?" He leaned back to get a better look at the comely maid, whose trails of magic wafted his way.

"It's a citizen's meeting to decide the course of action against the attacks in the valley," she replied. "Just a few evenings ago I was attacked by night stalkers on my way here. A frightening experience I can tell you!"

"Night stalkers! Are you certain of that? They've been gone from the Talos Valley for many years!"

"It was Karl is who identified them." As she answered, a loud clanking caught her attention.

It was the knight who had earlier tried to enter through the door to the public room in full body armor. His sword had become entangled in the heavy ironwork of the door's handle and he had been at great pains to keep his visor raised so he could see to free the unwieldy weapon. When the sword had suddenly broken free, it had sent the knight reeling and staggering in order to catch himself from tilting all the way over on his be-knighted backside. Tri-Nova had tried not to laugh aloud, but had failed in that endeavor as the knight had tripped over his sword once more.

"Talk about a grand entrance!" she had laughingly remarked to her companions, also obviously amused at the spectacle.

This time, however, the source of the Knight's metallic serenade was due to a chivalrous gesture, as he stumbled to his feet in order to execute a gallant bow in the direction of a young woman who was being escorted into the room on the arm of Karl Strange. The rest of the males around the table quickly followed suit...it wouldn't do to be outdone in the courtesy department by the clumsy knight who called himself Sir Scat...especially when the object of his gallantry was such a striking beauty. Deay Drudeaux, the focal point of Sir Scat's blundering but gentlemanly attention, covered her mouth to hid an involuntary smile elicited by the knight's awkward gesture.

Tri-Nova also stifled a bubbling chuckle as every masculine eye in the room followed the gliding gait of the newcomer. At one table, a drooling orc dribbled mead into his bushy beard while his companion simply gaped with open and toothless mouth. Even Darvón was momentarily distracted from his adoration of the platinum-haired enchantress at his side.

Few had seen her like before. There was something dangerously exotic about her frame and appearance. Of course, the form-fitting gown with the enticing thigh-high slit added much to the ambiance of mystery which surrounded her.

Nevertheless, Tri-Nova sensed an air of innocence about the raven-haired girl, who seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the gathering before her. Squeezing past Darvón, who enjoyed the experience immensely, Tri-Nova moved to greet the stranger as she hovered at the entrance to the public room.

"Karl Strange, at your service, young maiden," the benevolent proprietor was saying as Tri-Nova approached. "Welcome to the Red Gryphon Inn where hospitality is the order of the day. I am sure you will find yourself in good company. I have just a few rules here, and I hope I am not assuming inappropriately, but I allow no magic in my establishment." Karl eyed the snake around the girls' waist as he bowed in front of Deay, spreading his right arm towards the crowded dining hall before offering to escort her.

"Thank you, kind sir," Deay found herself almost whispering. Her senses were almost overwhelmed by the flood of stimuli. "I have never seen such a place or such an array of people. What has brought them here...is it the same thing that brought me here?"

Karl laughed heartily. "I'm not sure, but my establishment welcomes many people for many different reasons. I trust you will make many new friends here. Please take a seat where you can find one and..."

Before he could finish, however, he noticed Tri-Nova at his side and smiled affectionately at the beautiful young woman with white-blonde hair who issued an invitation to his recently-arrived guest. "Please, come and sit with us," urged Tri-Nova. "We are here at this round table seeking new friendships, adventures...and a full stomach."

Deay gratefully followed and took a place at a well-set large, round table while the other girl made introductions: "Deay you said your name was? This is Hansom Neibor on your left, and Darvón beyond him. Our armored knight here is Sir Scat, and my name is Tri-Nova."

Gratefully sitting, Deay nodded to each in turn and smiled politely. The aroma of freshly baked bread reached her nostrils.

Days of depravation proved too much for her; Deay found herself fairly cramming the food into her mouth. "Oh, dear...I am afraid that I am embarrassing myself!" she said with her mouth full, hoping that the handsome men surrounding her did not think her as being rude.

"Nonsense!" declared the knight.

Deay, eyeing him as she chewed, was enthralled by his armor and wondered if perhaps, her father was a knight. She gave little thought to the tiny people surrounding Sir Scat, for she had seen many in the swamps and knew that they were mischievous but mostly harmless. These were a bit unique it seemed though, for on their heads were an array of many-colored caps. Scat propped his elbow on the table and, as he did so, his arm hit a large plate of food sending it flying across the room where it made an unceremonious clatter as it hit the floor. Everyone else, already engaged in conversation, seemed not to notice, but Deay, as she watched the plate fly through the air, thought the whole scene was more than a little unusual.

Once her appetite was satisfied, Deay's attention turned toward the long bar-like structure just past the dining hall. A group of men surrounded a short, dumpy, pockmarked little fellow who was bragging shamefully about his "amazingly, magical wares" stored, presumably, in an awkwardly-fashioned chest of roughened wood which was tucked beneath his arm. Deay turned to Tri-Nova and asked, "Who is that, and why is he talking so loudly?"

"I'm really not sure, being something of a newcomer here myself."

A patron who was passing by during the interaction between the two beautiful young women chimed in, "Oh, him? That's Walter, one of the locals. I wouldn't pay much attention, if I were you. Karl's tasty ale is like power to him. It goes to his head, poor devil. When he's had a few too many, he likes to spout off about being a mighty wizard who manufactures enchantments to suit every need. " The patron leaned forward with a knowing wink and confided, "He really only has ampules of colored water and pots of tinted sand...but he likes to imagine they're potent spells which he can sell for a large amount of coin!"

It was hard for the group at the round table to ignore the loudly-talking little man and the louder he got, the more their attention was drawn toward him.

Walter, assured that all in the Inn could hear him, yelled, "I tell you all! I am the only true Wizard of the Realm...Master of Magic and Sage of Sorcery! There is not one throughout the entire kingdom who can match my prowess in the creation of mystical elixirs!"

A riot of laughter rang through the Red Gryphon.

"You laugh, you laugh! But it is the truth I speak. You are privileged to be in my presence on this occasion, for I have decided to sell some of my fine, unique potions...but be prepared to dig deep into your purses, for rare spells such as these do not come cheap." Walter opened the lid of the chest and displayed its contents to the grinning crowd. A few grains of purple sand trickled onto the floor. Walter hastily swept them to one side with the sole of his boot before continuing his sales pitch.

Pointing his index finger to each person he laid eyes upon, Walter stated with conviction, "Elixirs which endow strength upon the weak!" He flexed a puny bicep by way of illustration. "Concoctions of mysterious ingredients which will add height to your frame and iron to your muscles!" He stood on tiptoe, all the better to prove his point and then wished he had refrained from overtaxing himself. The last tankard imbibed began to take effect. "The poshibilities are almosht endlesh," he slurred. "Mock me and you will shuffer the conshequenshes!"

Deay, listening carefully to Walter's bellowing, turned back to Tri-Nova. "Is that why I was compelled to come here, to listen to some hawker deliver a speech about his would-be enchantments?"

Tri-Nova shook her head. "No, of course not. As I was telling Darvón, this is a citizens' meeting to see what can be done about my attackers. They were Night Stalkers!"

Deay thought she might ask more about these 'night stalker' creatures later, but for now, her attention returned to the stubby little soul who was rapidly becoming quite red in the face. Sir Scat seemed totally unperturbed while Hansom and Darvón were nearly choking with derision.

Karl Strange, not the least bit worried that the loud talk would turn into anything more than just that, smiled to himself. He started toward the group of men and, when he was sure the Gretest Wizard of the Realm could hear what he had to say, began: "Now, Walter, you know you are welcome at any time to drink here at the Red Gryphon. But I do believe your any time is running out for tonight and you need to find your bed."

Without the least trace of hesitation or resistance, Walter set down his precious chest of potions and, as Karl turned back to the dining hall, pondered the proposition. Perhaps he would retreat from the bar soon but he would choose his own time. His sharp chin jutted defiantly, but at least he kept his mouth shut. His companions, apparently not wanting to embarrass the little man anymore than he had already embarrassed himself, did their best to ignore him.

Deay's attention returned to the table, treating Karl Strange to a charming smile as the tall proprietor pulled up a chair up and sat down. She looked at his handsome features and wondered to herself if her father were anything like him.

Karl, Darvón, Hansom and Tri-Nova discussed the stalker business at hand while Deay listened intently, sipping Karl's finest wine from his finest glassware.

Sir Scat, though taking no part in the conversation, beamed happily at the company around him. He had not expected to be invited to join the group when he had stumbled through the door, his entourage of seven attendants in tow. The tiny Brownies rarely left him to his own devices these days, often chanting (somewhat in unison...they were after all, musical little fellows) as they followed in his wake: "Hi-ho, Hi-ho, to serve Sir Scat we go!" The knight was immensely flattered, although they sometimes startled him by appearing at his side when he had all but forgotten their existence.

Meg, the Inn's apprentice seamstress, had sewn for each one a different colored cap. Nevertheless, the knight was still unable to tell one from the other. There had been much squabbling over who would get to wear the one fashioned from red fabric. As Sir Scat understood the dilemma, a legendary Brownie by the name of Tomtar, who had hailed from the Glacial North Region of the Realm, had been famed for his unique red cap. A particularly revered character, Tomtar had been especially adored by children, upon whom this charitable old Brownie would, apparently, bestow gifts at Yuletide. Eventually, the Brownies had determined that the caps would be rotated, with each Brownie wearing one color for seven days. Sir Scat had been quite dismayed...so much for the brilliant notion of identifying each wee fellow by the color of his headgear!

The knight, however, was not dwelling on this problem as he smiled happily at his table companions and nodded amicably at everything being said. There appeared to be something of a Quest in the air and Sir Scat was ever-hopeful of such a pursuit. He ignored the continued bickering going on behind him between his seven followers, who appeared to have found yet another reason to argue now that the "red cap" affair had been somewhat settled, and leaned forward to better hear the conversation. In doing so, he tipped up the table. Several pewter goblets brimming with raspberry cordial rolled into his lap. His table companions, feeling relaxed from the effects of Karl's wonderful brews, paid little mind to the knight's clumsy antics and adjusted themselves accordingly. Sir Scat dabbed ruefully at the puddles with an embroidered lace kerchief that had been thrust into his gauntlet earlier that day by a young starry-eyed, love-struck scullery maid. The stains upon the white cloth were reminiscent of blood and the knight found himself feeling quite woozy. The hum of voices within the room grew faint and Sir Scat feared he was losing consciousness as the faces of his companions blurred before his eyes. He was vaguely worried that the liquid would rust his metal codpiece just before his head hit the table.

The knight regained his senses to the sound of accusations from across the room. It was Master Walter, protesting loudly that his valuables had been purloined. "I've been robbed, I tell you...robbed!" shrieked the little, dumpy, pockmarked man. "Some of my most potent spells are missing!" Hysteria appeared to have cured him, for the moment at least, of his slurred speech. He jumped up and down, scrutinizing everyone in the room with suspicion. "Who has my elixirs?" his shrill voice demanded to know. Excusing himself, Karl left the table and hurried over to the agitated Walter. It really was time for the fellow to go home!

The seven Brownies had suddenly become strangely subdued. Sir Scat turned to make sure they had come to no harm and watched benevolently as they passed around a collection of tiny vials, muttering excitedly to one another. The knight was delighted they had found something with which to amuse themselves. They were dear little chaps after all!

Craven Justice was famished and in need of sustenance, so he picked up Odellis and left the Pit in search of food. Upon entering the main dining room of the inn, he was amazed to see the throng of people. There were few, if any, seats left, and the only place available was near the long bar where he took a stool.

Craven turned to the barkeep and asked, "Is there food available or has the serving hour passed?" He was relieved to hear that he could indeed order a meal which he did in short order. "Is the inn always so popular?" he inquired.

"There is a meeting tonight to discuss the recent events both within our Talos Valley and in Mordock our near neighbor" answered the keep.

"Mordock?" queried Craven.

"Yes, the village is being attacked regularly by the dragon hoard and its townsfolk have sent for help."

"Then it was more than a mere rumor," thought Craven. Indeed, he would be seeing Elineen and Inod in the very near future. Moog and the Pit would have to wait.

Heavy clouds smothered the Talos, cutting off the tops of the Fyrestorm Mountains, and pressing their dampness into the valley. Their presence fit into Pedrín’s mood like an extension of his thought patterns, and he found himself using the cover to gave himself a sense of privacy, albeit an uneasy one. The dinner crowd inside the public room had grown too loud for thinking at the moment, so he’d opted for an after dinner recess, hiking north along the Lir.

"Well," Darvón’s voice slid toward him through a slight mist, "what‘cha think, Older Brother?"

"That’s what I’m out here working on." He stood still, ostensibly pulling at his boot tops but actually waiting to see if the wizard was going to show himself.

"Me, too." The crunch of gravel was to his left, and he turned as the smaller man stepped close enough to be seen. "Lots of trouble in the offing."

"Seems a sure bet." A few steps farther up the road three massive firs created a semi-circle of swooping branches and he ducked into them, making a seat out of one of the log sections he’d deposited there years before. He kept having a nagging feeling of being examined. "What does all your magic tell you?"

"All my magic says we’re off to war." Darvón took a stump for a backrest and propped his boot heels on another. "At least most of us."

"Looks that way." Dealing with Darvón was easier in the dark where he didn’t have to contend with satirical facial expressions. "You going?"

"Me? You betcha. You?"

"I can’t see any alternative at this point. Can’t say I like this mess though."

"It do promise to be messy." A shuffling sound indicated a change of position before the next question came around. "Pedrín, how much magic did Ricóre give you?"

"Give me?" There was a hint of bitterness in the soft laugh. "None that I know of. Why? You’ve come up missing some?"

"Oh, she gave you some, Big Brother. Or at least some hard protection."

"Did she now? Protection from whom?"

"Me, I suspect. At least initially. But..."

"But?"

"There’s something in the air here lately. Something...I don’t know quite how to describe it. A kind of watching."

"That I’ve noticed." He hadn’t credited the awareness to magic, just to over active nerves. "A sort of somebody-looking-over-your-shoulder kind of feeling?"

"That’s the one." Darvón’s fingers flicked his brother’s knee in warning, and sent a faint light to illuminate the enclosure, a small ball of luminescence that ever so briefly outlined a small oak sapling tucked back under a low slung bough before it winked out again. "Hasn’t got it exactly right yet, does he?"

"He tries hard," Pedrín grinned. "And it’s that much more than I can do."

"You know, you just might be surprised there."

"Yeah, I would be."

"Hey, don’t let it get to you. Magic is highly over rated."

"I wouldn’t know."

The spiral down Aulofu’s mind washed across the wizard’s memory. "I would!"

A host of questions pounded at Pedrín, trying to find a way outside, but the niggling sense of being watched took precedence over the curiosity he didn’t think Darvón would satisfy anyway. "So what do you plan to do with this...awareness? Invade it? Talk to it? Ignore it?"

"Good question. I haven’t quite decided yet, and don’t know if it’ll work if I do. I get the feeling it’s not magic."

"Uh-huh. Great. So what is it?"

"I wish I knew. There’s this name that I keep hearing...sort of softly in the background."

"Yours?"

"Hardly! It just sort of wisps-in, and wisps-out, and doesn’t mean a blasted thing to me."

This was a new one...something Darvón didn’t claim to know before it happened. "So, have you asked Ricóre?"

"No, and I don’t really think I’m going to. However..." He reached out and flipped the spindly sapling. "Hey! Trey! Get out here. Do we know anyone named Ranos?"