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A Wider Worldby jcbarbarossa
Like most of you, I began playing D&D when I was a teenager: thirteen years old to be exact. For my thirteenth birthday party, I had a bunch of friends over to spend the night, and we did our best to figure out how to play the game and make it through The Keep on the Borderlands. We had no clue what we were doing, but it was incredibly fun. With this story, I'm trying to recapture the innocence and joy we experienced playing D&D the first time, and I hope you all enjoy it.
More chapters will come in the future.
His name was Jasper, and the parents of Cusp hated him.
Just seeing him stroll coltishly into the town square, whistling in seeming innocence and swinging his long arms, was enough to send the prim and proper mothers and fathers of the village scurrying to get their sons and daughters indoors and out of sight.
Perhaps 'hated' is too strong a word. They dreaded Jasper, they feared Jasper, Jasper caused them endless worry and countless, sleepless nights. "What if my son starts lollygagging around with him?" a typical Cuspian mother might fret as she hung her family's newly-scrubbed laundry over a worn, wooden fence. "What if he takes a shine to my daughter?" panics a work-worn father as he lies in bed at night, struggling to embrace the Sandman.
No, it wasn't that they hated Jasper. He wasn't a rotten boy, as far as boys went. There was never any malice in his actions as far as they could tell. Though he seemed to do a lot of wrong, it was never intentional. When Jasper (and his reckless cohorts, never forget them) burned down old Jonas' barn, they were sincerely trying to kill the rats which had overrun and conquered the ramshackle edifice. When 'the tousle-headed little outlaw' (as he was known in some circles) invaded the travelling carnival late one night and freed 'Gnarak the Orc-man', challenging him to a duel, most of the townsfolk acknowledged that, though unutterably foolish, Jasper was acting out of an odd sense of honour. 'Gnarak' was shown to be nothing more than a hunch-backed old man in green grease-paint, and Jasper was severely disappointed, going so far as to demand his admission price be returned (though it is almost certain he never paid admission). The carnival avoided Cusp from that day hence. No, he was never malicious, but he was always causing problems for which other people paid a price
If all be told, what truly crawled under the skin of Cusp's parental population was merely that they could not control him. He was an orphan, so they thought, one of the many left-over children who were products of the hard frontier life in the Dymrak Forest. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos was but recently established. Those who moved to this ancient, untamed land, carving out a life and a future for their families, faced many struggles. Death was their ever present guest, his presence looming always over their shoulder. Many abandoned children were strewn like autumn leaves throughout the Duchy, the unfortunate consequence of giving birth to a new nation. As an orphan, they had no real claim over young Jasper, found difficulty in punishing him. This rankled deeply in the souls of those who found comfort in the relative peace and order of Cusp. This troublesome stray was a problem they could not solve.
Unsurprisingly, Jasper claimed that he was most definitely not an orphan, that he had a father out there somewhere, who would return for him once his apprenticeship was finished. Basically, he claimed the thing every orphan claimed. His supposed apprenticeship was to one Ivan Topov, the tinker who travelled from village to village offering various wares and services. From the back of Ivan's disreputable wagon one could purchase an iron pot in which you could cook your vittles or a rusty dagger with which to stab your enemies. Services ranged from knife-sharpening to horse-breaking to placing bets on almost anything. Ivan had an eye for the ladies, a hand ready to gamble and a throat ever thirsty for ale.
Needless to say, Ivan wasn't much help when it came to reining in his apprentice. When furious or distraught people came to Ivan to complain about the behaviour of his young charge, he was as likely to belly-laugh and compliment the boy's audacity as anything else.
The untidy circumstance of Jasper's existence could perhaps have been more tolerable had it not been for one simple fact: he was contagious. He carried no disease, but others often caught the wildness that ran through him like the plague. The other young folk of Cusp were fascinated by him, watching his every move with minute interest. Whether it was snide condescension or obvious admiration or drop-jawed astonishment, they watched him. And many of them followed.
There was that time when he led all the school children in revolt and held their teacher for ransom. And that time he convinced the Ruttledge boys to run naked through the town square. Don't forget the time he talked the girls of Lord Morridon's household (daughters included) to sneak out for a private rendezvous with him during the Feast of Revels. No doubt about it, the boy was a menace to the well-being of everyone.
The wise parents of Cusp quickly severed any connection between Jasper and their own progeny. Those caught even speaking to him were sentenced to extra chores or a sound whipping with a leather belt. Every avenue of access to Jasper was hunted down, discovered, and broken. He was no longer allowed at the tiny school, of course. He was disallowed from entering the Karameikan temple. At the many festivals and hootenannies celebrated by the small community, Jasper was watched like a fox peeking through the henhouse window.
However, some parents were not so wise. Yakov and Magda Petrovich foolishly let their youngest boy run amuck with Jasper. But they were originally city folk, and there was no accounting for those types. The grey dwarven smith, Atur, was too free with his boy too, though few knew the name of his reticent son. Atur himself was somewhat of a mystery to the Cuspians. He was the only dwarven member of the town, and though he did excellent work with their horseshoes and other smithing needs, he kept very much to himself. The fourth member of Jasper's patchwork crew was an undersized lad named Coy, an altar boy from over at the Traldaran temple. He spent more time in the temple's stable than the altar. Like Jasper, he was orphaned, and was taken in by his people's temple to raise.
Jasper and his band of brigands were considered the terror of the sensible little town. Therefore, it was considered one of the great tragedies of Cusp's uneventful history that, on one fateful day in early spring, Rufus Darizen, a nice boy, a respectable boy, son of Roddy and Emma, two pillars of society, entwined himself with Jasper and his dubious companions..
Here is how it happened.
Rufus was desperate and desperately searching. His father was gone, and they needed him back. Over a fortnight ago, Rodikus Darizen travelled with his brother to buy supplies for their farm; an awl, a plough, other odds and ends they couldn't find in Cusp. The trip should have taken no more than a week, there and back, yet fourteen days passed and they had not returned. Eight days after his father departed, Rufus' mother became a bit worried. Ten days and she was scared. Eleven days and she was frightened to her core, and that fear transferred itself to her children. Rufus was the oldest son, almost a man at his sixteen years, so he took it upon himself to find his father and bring him home.
They had no other kin in Cusp, so Rufus went to the men who were friends of his father. When Rufus told them what they were well aware of, that his father had not returned, they responded in one of two ways. The younger members of the community laughed hesitantly and assured Rufus that his father would return soon. Rufus felt the hollowness and fear in their laughter. The older heads, those who had hacked and slashed into the heart of that dank wilderness, who had peered more deeply into the horrors of the Dymrak, merely shook their heads regretfully and walked away. Those encounters spurred Rufus' growing fear into a blind panic.
Of course, Rufus approached the few soldiers who were stationed in Cusp. Brusquely, they told the farm boy that they had better things to do than chase down drunken old farmers. His father would probably crawl out of the *****house where he was holed up and come home when he sobered up, Rufus was informed. Closer than any other time in his life, Rufus almost assaulted the armed and armoured soldiers, but instead he turned and hurried away, angry tears in his eyes.
He went to the church to beg their aid and succour. Benignly, the priest who received him said that he would offer prayers for good Roddy, even venturing to light a candle for his well-being if Rufus could donate a copper or two for the glory of the church. Rufus told the priest that, although prayers and candles were good, he wanted someone to go with him to find his father. A bit befuddled and put out that his pale palm was not yet filled with copper, the priest told him that the Immortals didn't work that way. Prayers and faith (and donations) were the work of the church.
Rufus left the holy edifice feeling a little ill.
Pursuing all those dead ends took the frantic farm boy a few days. He expended every option he could think of, even attempting to gain an audience with Lord Morridon. This too failed, and Roddy's boy was at the end of his rope. Frustrated beyond hope, Rufus crumpled, sitting in the dust of the road, numbly watching people walk back and forth in front of him.
With increasing dread, he realised that he would have to go alone to find his dad. Raised on a farm outside of town, he had never travelled more than a day or so away from home. Should he take his brother Michael? He was only thirteen years old. Wouldn't it be better to leave him at home? But Rufus didn't want to go it alone. Could someone give him directions to the next town? Would he have to buy a map? How much food would he have to bring? What would his mother do while he was gone? A torrent of questions and worries flooded his mind, and with a groan, he threw himself back upon the dusty road and covered his face with his hands.
"Um. Excuse me. Excuse me? Um, friend? Are you, you know, entirely well?" A small voice cut through Rufus' moment of despair. "'Cause if you're not," it hesitantly continued, "I could maybe, you know, help or something."
Slowly, Rufus spread his fingers and peeked between them. Over him, and upside down from his viewpoint, stood a small figure wearing a much oversized, woollen jerkin. This inquisitive creature restlessly chewed his lip and brushed the dark hair from his eyes, waiting for a response.
His voice muffled by his hands, Rufus replied, "Who are you?"
Shifting from one foot to the other, the boy said, "I'm Coy. You're not cursed or anything, are you? If you are, that's fine by me, but it might take us more time to deal with, if you know what I mean." He continued knowledgeably. "These types of things aren't just all cake and pie you know. Not that we can't handle it, you know, 'cause we could, but I'm just telling you it would take more time."
Rufus was a bit bewildered, and all he could stammer out was a weak, "What?"
"Well, I'm just saying not to expect any miracles right from the outset. Not that miracles don't happen or anything; I'm definitely not saying that. But trying to predict them can be tedious and shaky and really, we just don't know do we? It could happen or maybe not. We've just got to go ahead with things, don't we? Yeah, we do. But if so let me know and I'll talk to the fellas, if that's by your book."
Now completely lost and a little riled at his slight fit being interrupted, Rufus sat up and stared at the boy, wittily replying, "What?"
The boy named Coy drew his eyes together in a discerning stare. "So, you're cursed?" he asked a bit hopefully, "Or are you just simple? That's fine, too, but I don't know a thing we could wring to make that a jot better, you know? So that's it, eh? Or is it something else?"
Very slowly and carefully, Rufus rose to his feet and stood face to face with the curious boy. Proceeding with caution, he said, "I'm Rufus. Rufus Darizen. I'm not cursed that I know of and only occasionally simple. I'm just in trouble that's all, and no one will help." He felt a tremble in his voice at the last so he shut his mouth.
The other boy nodded sagely. "Hmmm. Trouble, eh? Well, come with me then. That seems to be our expertise, or at the very least," at this he shook his head ruefully, "our constant companion," and, spinning on his heel, he marched off down the street.
Surprising himself, Rufus hurried after, trying to catch up.
"Where're we goin'?" he huffed. The smaller lad set a quick pace.
"Well, we're going to meet with the fellas. Lucky for you we're getting to gather today. Or blessed really, you're blessed. Don't really believe in luck. Maybe we can help out with whatever your problem is. We meet up just outside of town. But," and the dark-haired boy stopped abruptly and wagged a finger in Rufus' face, "you definitely can't tell anybody where we are, you know? Wouldn't amount to much of a hide-out, then, now would it? Everyone knowing its exact locality and all." And he returned to his blistering pace.
Rufus didn't have much time to wonder why he followed. Really, he could think of nothing more productive to do.
The boy who called himself Coy took Rufus straight out of town and onto the road that led back to the Darizen farm. After a little more than a mile, he dove into the brambles on the southern side of the road, Rufus close behind. They ducked into a small path leading through the underbrush and into the forest beyond. This section of woods was dense and the ground rocky, unsuitable for productive farming. Picking their way between the trees, they encountered a shallow stream and leaped over it. Clawing their way up a slight embankment, they plunged into still deeper woods, the canopy of leaves above blocking out the intense sunlight. Rufus felt the temperature drop as they tromped through the wilderness.
"My dad told me not to get too far off in these woods," he said, feeling a little cowardly as he did.
"Yeah," Coy responded gravely, "It's not a good idea. No tellin' what could happen if you got lost back up in here. Don't you worry, though. I know the trick," and he continued steering a path through the tree trunks.
Soon, the forest thinned and Rufus could see a small row of hills in the distance. Hopping two more creeks, they drew near to the low-lying hillocks. Coy stopped when they crossed the second creek and raised his hands to his lips.
"Keee-yoi! Keee-yoi!" He made a sound like some kind of bird with his mouth. Immediately, he was answered back with another "Keee-yoi!" Nodding his head, Coy plodded forward, Rufus in tow. They approached a thick stand of trees growing at the foot of a hill. Raising some branches, Coy slipped under and disappeared.
"What have I gotten myself into?" Rufus asked himself as he meekly followed.
Ducking under the branches, he found himself enveloped in darkness and it took his eyes a moment to penetrate the gloom. Between the hill and the branches, the sun's light was almost extinguished. Noticing what appeared to be a small deer-trail, Rufus stumbled forward awkwardly. His perplexing guide had vanished.
"Coy? Coy!" he called hopefully, fear creeping into his mind. The trail wound around and around, but eventually, Rufus could see a bit of light ahead. "Coy? Are you there?" he called again, hurrying forward. Panting a bit, he stumbled into a small, well-lit clearing. The branches above the open space had been thinned out and sunlight streamed through. The light blinded him, and he raised his hand to shadow his eyes.
Just as he did, he felt something whoosh past his head. Jerking aside, he lost his balance, slid on a loose rock, and sprawled flat on his back.
"Well, now. That was a nice bit of acrobaticry, wasn't it?" A tall figure stepped over him and walked past. "Didn't know farm boys was so talented. Hey, Grotto?" This query was answered by a noncommittal grunt.
As Rufus' eyes adjusted to the light, he saw the figure stride over to a thick tree-trunk and try to jerk a knife from its gnarled bark. Apparently, that same knife had just skimmed within inches of his face. The vague outline of a human body was painted on the tree in red, and the blade was sunk in deep somewhere in the area of the armpit.
Rufus sighed as he lay in the soft soil of the clearing. He seemed to be spending a lot of time in the dirt today.
"Leave him be, Wink. He's not well." Rufus looked over to see the dark-haired Coy sitting on a stump and shoving a loaf of bread in his mouth. "Cursed, maybe. Can't tell yet, though. We got to hear him out." The boy walked over and extended his hand down to Rufus, pulling him to his feet. Rufus judged him to be a couple of years younger than himself. "Anyway, he's in need of some help, so I brought him here for us to hear."
The knife-thrower, who was apparently Wink, retrieved his blade and stepped off ten paces from the tree. He reached back and threw, this time stabbing his target in the right thigh. Frowning, he sallied, "Wonderful. Bring back every stray from the village. Then everyone will know where our hideout is. Maybe they could bring a bunch of sacks and haul off all our loot while they're at it." Then he glanced sideways at Rufus and true to his name, winked, breaking off a bit of a grin.
Rufus looked around and got his bearings. He stood in a circular clearing, no more than fifty feet around. The remains of a bonfire lay in the approximate middle, ashes scattering outward. The sun streamed through thick overhead branches which had been pruned and trimmed, either to let in the light or to see through to the stars. Wink, a gaunt scarecrow of a boy who looked like someone had just shoved him out of bed, measured off his paces for another throw. Coy had returned to his stump and was chewing contentedly on his lump of bread, smiling encouragingly in his direction. On the very edge of the clearing, in the shadow of the trees, Rufus found the source of the grunt he heard before. There stood an open lean-to with a small fire built under it. Bending over the fire was a squat, stocky man, the colour of baked earth. His hair and short beard were the colour of new iron. In his hands he held a straight dagger and was testing its edge on his thumb.
Awareness washed over Rufus like a cold waterfall.
"A dwarf? Wait! And you," he pointed a finger accusingly at Wink, "You're that Petravich boy, aren't you? Hold on just a minute," and he turned to Coy, "You're that boy who lives at that Traladaran temple aren't you?" Wink frowned again and Coy chewed his bread. The dwarf looked on enigmatically. Rufus shook his finger wildly at all of them. "Oh! I shoulda known, I shoulda known! What was I thinking?" His mother would work him dusk to dawn just for talking to these people.
"Oh, no. If you're them, then where is..."
The creaking of heavy branches was his only warning as someone or something swooped over his head, blocking out all light before landing lightly not five feet from him. There, holding a rope tied to an overhead branch, stood a too-innocent looking teenaged boy, the object of Cusp's fear and chagrin.
"Where is Jasper Barbarosa?" the rascal asked, grinning crookedly. "Right here in all his glory," and he laughed deeply at Rufus' crestfallen face. Then, he grew suddenly sober.
"And you, Rufus Darizen, are in a whole heap of trouble."
"Your dad and uncle have gone missing and you've got no clue how to get them back, but you've just got to. That pretty much sums up your problem, doesn't it?" murmured Jasper as he stared intently into Rufus' eyes. There was something disconcerting about the directness of his gaze. People in Cusp were normally too polite or too timid to look so unswervingly at one another.
The five boys sat sprawled on a lush patch of grass under the shelter of a huge, gnarled tree, drinking in its shade and wishing for a breeze. Coy lay back in the grass, eyes closed, a small smile flitting across his face. The gangly Wink sat cross-legged with his back against the trunk. He had a copper coin laying across the knuckles of his hand, and sent it flipping back and forth across his fingers as he undulated his digits. He was having a hard time of it, but seemed determined to succeed. The dwarf (his name was Grotto) crouched nearby rather than sat, his gaze roving watchfully over the entire clearing. Jasper sat facing Rufus, chewing on a long blade of grass and wholly intent on their conversation.
"How did you know that?" Rufus asked.
Leaning back a little, Jasper told him. "We like to keep up on anything amiss going on in the town. Never can tell when things go awry or where troubles might spring up. That's where we step in."
"What do you mean?"
"Well...let me think a moment." Jasper sighed and leaned back. "Remember when Hookum's Well dried up there in the middle of town?" Rufus nodded, recalling the event. "People were hurting for water, some were set on leaving town it got so bad. One night we went down that well and sorted it out. It was a near scrape, too. That was one of many. What else, fellas?" he asked, looking around to the others.
"Well, we discovered that beast that was tearing up the mill. Ran it off, too," Wink contributed.
"We found that little girl, Sheila, when she got herself lost by that abandoned logging encampment," Coy added. "Grotto almost got his neck broke that day." Coy looked over at the dwarf who continued to ignore them all.
"We figured out what was haunting that old Traldaran keep outside of town." Wink again. "And we ran down those two rogues what swindled poor, stupid Darren Tomason out of his inheritance and returned it. Well," he added thoughtfully, "most of it." He gave a sly smirk.
"Early on, some of us liberated a roomful of school kids from an evil tyrant of a teacher." Jasper and Wink smiled wolfishly at each other. "And," Jasper continued, "don't forget when we invaded that cursed carnival and delivered Daith'ril from his chains." And all four of them looked at each other, the childlike altar boy, the gangly rogue, the impassive dwarf, and their wild-eyed captain, and a strange sense of remorse passed between them.
All of this was news to Rufus, who was taken somewhat aback. He'd heard rumour of some of these exploits, but never from this perspective.
"So," he began, "You're not really new to this kind of thing?"
"New to it? Garn! We eat this kind of thing for breakfast!" Wink proclaimed, standing up to resume his knife-throwing.
"According to some, we eat little puppies and newborn babies for breakfast," Jasper said to him as he jerked his knife from the trunk.
"Well, that's only when we get really hungry," said Wink.
Grinning at his friend, Jasper turned back to Rufus and queried, "Where exactly was your dad heading?"
"He was just going down to the road to Brian's Ferry, to the trading post there. We just needed a few supplies. Really, sometimes I think he and Uncle Gerald just like to take the trip for the fun of it. It shouldn't have taken them more than six or seven days to get back, though. Eight at the very most. I asked some people to help me find 'em, but nobody wanted anything to do with me. I reckon they just didn't have the time," he finished bitterly. Apparently the problems of one small family of farmers didn't mean much to people. Briefly, Rufus imagined what he would do if someone came to him with a situation like his. He'd do anything within his power to help them, wouldn't he? Or would he? Doubt crept into his mind. Life was difficult for folks in these parts, everyone working hard to carve out a living for himself. It took a lot of effort just to get by, and shouldering the troubles of another could become an impossible burden, especially if you had a family depending on you. Truly, he wasn't sure if he would've helped them before all of this happened. Now, though...
"I've been to Brian's Ferry," Jasper broke into his train of thought." "More than once, as a matter of fact, with Lomas. Getting there should be no problem. Grotto, have you been through there?" The dwarf just shook his head absently. "Once on the road, we'll have to determine if your dad even got to the Ferry or not. I guess we could ask along the way if anyone saw him. Then, we'll have to follow up any clues people give us. This could take a long time, if your father is even still alive," Jasper stopped abruptly when he saw the effect of his words on Rufus. "Sorry, I don't mean to be harsh at all. But it is very possible that your dad ain't alive. But I promise you," Jasper said, rising to his feet, "if he is alive, we'll do whatever is in our power to..."
"Wait, wait, wait, WAIT!" Wink stormed over, cutting Jasper off. "Getting a little bit ahead of yourself, ain't you? Don't forget, it's my turn to decide on what terms we take our next job. As I recall, you used up all your turns for the rest of the year, so don't be steppin' on my toes." He stood there in righteous indignation, hands on his hips.
"But Wink, look..." Jasper began.
"No, no, no. Don't you 'but Wink' me! It's my time to decide and I'm tired of doing these things for free. This time, we get paid for sheddin' our own precious blood."
After a pause, Coy called out quietly, "Now, when was it exactly in all our adventures that you shed your own precious blood?" A sharp bark of laughter escaped the normally silent dwarf.
Exasperated, Wink replied, "Well, of course, there was the time when we were holding the fort for Deemus and his clan. Lots of blood that day I can tell you."
"Yes, a lot of blood that day," Jasper countered, "I bled. Coy bled. Grotto bled a lot. But as I recall, you were behind a boulder the whole time, slinging rocks into the fray. You even hit me with one!" he claimed, pointing at a tiny scar on his forehead.
Fanatically, Wink defended himself. "I'm not saying I bled in every single encounter we had, but you know I did in most of them."
"Name one," from the prone Coy.
Wink was speechless for a moment. Composing himself, he continued.
"Look, what I'm saying is this: we bled. I see the blood of my brothers-in-arms as my own blood, kind of like we got compunal blood, and their pain is my pain when they suffer." He finished virtuously, a pious look on his face.
Jasper laughed. "What kind of blood?"
"You know. Compunal. We all use it."
"Do you mean communal blood?" Coy's voice rose from the ground.
"Communal. Compunal. Who gives a rip? I'm just saying that...!" He stopped himself. "Regardless! It don't matter. It is my turn to decide the terms and I'm deciding!" Turning to Rufus he said, "Look, you'll be getting a great deal. You're getting the combined expertise of an experienced and highly trained party of adventurers. Including a fighter, a cleric, a, um, dwarf, and...me." Jasper raised an eyebrow at this, but Wink smiled like a man selling magic beans. "The job may take over two weeks to get done. We'll be out of pocket for food, lodging, travel costs,...all kinds of things. There is no telling what kind of danger we will face, probably bandits from what you're telling us. We'll have to buy some equipment just to get us on the road. Then there's worn-shoe leather, wear and tear on our bodies, we might get killed..." He ticked the items off on his fingers.
"What I'm saying is that you can have us for the pitifully low price of twenty pieces of gold." A wide smile graced Wink's hard-bitten face as he looked benignly down on the poor farm boy.
Rufus just gaped at him. He'd never even seen twenty pieces of gold in his whole life! How could they expect him to pay that?
Jasper's laughter cut through Rufus' astonishment. "You'll have to forgive Wink, Rufus. He's more than a little money-hungry. Comes from his big-city raisin', I guess. You see, we have it worked out like this. I adventure because I'm an adventurer. It's what I do, who I am, the nature of the beast. Therefore, I will take on most any quest, as long as it is not dishonourable. Coy adventures because he hopes to add to the glory of his church. Halav, Petra, Zirchev...those guys. Wink, here, adventures to line his meagre pockets with filthy lucre. At least that's what he says. In those exact words. Grotto adventures...," as Jasper's voice trailed off, he scratched his chin, "because he is really bored, I reckon. Anyway, everyone has a voice here and the fellas let me have my way the past couple of times..."
"The last little escapade lost us every coin we owned," Wink interjected.
"I could've sworn that race was fixed! Anyhow..."
"And the time before that," chimed in Coy, "almost landed us in the stocks."
"But we didn't land in the stocks! That's what is most important. Now, so as not to over-burden ourselves with all the adventures that need worked out, we set up a system. This mission, I set the terms for duration, compensation, and so on. The next time, Coy does..."
"And now its my turn," said Wink.
"Yes. Its his turn," Jasper agreed.
"Unless..." threw in Coy.
"Unless," said Jasper, "it is a really worthy cause."
"Or a really worthy person," Wink added, then frowned at himself.
Rufus looked from one to the other. "But isn't saving my dad a really worthy cause!"
"Well, yes," Jasper again, "If we knew for a fact that he was really kidnapped or taken as a slave or thrown in jail unjustly. But we don't. All we know is that he is overdue in returning. And, considering some of the other things that might occur while we're gone, we don't know if this is the best use of our time."
"Unless, of course, we get paid twenty pieces of gold," threw in Wink, smiling. "Doin' all this stuff ain't cheap. And we really, really need some new equipment.
"True," said Jasper. "But that leaves the 'really worthy person' part." He scratched his chin again. "Have you done anything really worthy? Brave? Heroic? That would help your case a lot."
Rufus looked at him, at a loss. "I don't know. I work on a farm. I'm a farmer. I can't think of anything, really..."
There was silence in the little clearing as Rufus Autwell was weighed in the balance.
"Well," a gruff voice offered. "'e wouldn't let those drovers make off with Daff Hugood's horse." Rufus turned in surprise to see the dwarf, Grotto, raise to his feet. His black eyes shone beneath his heavy brows.
"Really? What is the story with that?" Jasper turned to Rufus.
"Well," Rufus began, a little uncomfortable, "There were these men coming through town and they said they needed horses. Daff's horse was tied up over by the well, but he had gone with some others out to help with someone's crop. I can't remember who. Anyhow, I was by the well when I seen 'em untie his horse and toss a bag of coins on the ground. I said, 'Hey! Where're you going with that horse?' and they stopped and told me they really needed it and that they paid for it and they pointed at the sack on the ground. I told 'em they had no right to that horse and grabbed the reins. Then some other people showed up and ran 'em off. It wasn't any big thing."
Grotto spoke again. "'e took quite a quirtin' from 'em though, while he kept the horse from them." Rufus ducked his head and repeated, "It wasn't any big thing." He looked up to meet Jasper's intense gaze once more.
"Anything else?" said Jasper.
This time, Coy spoke. The slight boy still lay with his back in the tall grass, gazing dreamily at the hot, blue sky. "Wasn't he the one who won the Gallow's Race last year?" "That's right," Grotto agreed. "That weren't no easy race, neither. That fella from Rugalov came over and was the talk of the town with that mare of his. Didn't help him in the end, though."
"You seem to have a thing for horses," Jasper observed. "This is all in your favour. Do we know anything else?"
There was a moment of silence, and then Wink sighed deeply. "Alright. Rufus here stood up to old Biscuit Head and his cronies. They were teasing that little blonde girl, Taran, and then they stepped it up and started hugging on her and trying to get a kiss. They had her kinda trapped in that alley between Nodo's place and the tavern. Rufus here came outta nowhere and ploughed right through 'em. He grabbed the girl and backed into a corner, ready to fight. Then her dad called for her and the rest of them scattered. The timing was just right, because young Rufus here was about to get pounced on." He sighed again. "Anyway, it was the right thing to do. And it took some guts to do it."
Rufus' face was burning. He looked down at his feet.
"So, you men would deem Rufus here a worthy person?" asked Jasper. The dwarf and Coy raised their hands, and grudgingly, so did Wink. Jasper looked around at them all.
"Hmm. Well," said the leader of this small band of heroes, "I don't."
"What?" exclaimed Grotto and Coy.
"What?" murmured Rufus to himself, eyes wide.
"After all that," said Wink, shaking his head.
"No. I think we require something extra, some firsthand evidence of his character. Rufus," Jasper looked squarely at him, "tonight we have a little job to do. It should be an easy matter for us, but if you came with us, we could more accurately judge your mettle. What do you say?"
Rufus swallowed. "Wh-whatever it takes. What must I do?" He stood there nervously, shifting from one foot to the other. Eight pairs of eyes locked on him.
"Oh, its nothing really. Tonight we put a stop some cow-stealing that's been going on around here. Over at the Pickard's farm. Some desperate thieves have been purloining some beef. We've been on it a week and finally figured out what was going on."
"Should've known from the start," said Grotto.
"Yes, but we finally did get it. Tonight we put a halter on these thieves."
"Only thing about these thieves is," Wink whispered slyly in Rufus' ear, "they ain't exactly human."
Rufus returned to town from his meeting with Jasper and the rest and walked around in a daze, thoughts chasing themselves madly through his head. He went back home and told his mother that he was going to set out with some friends to try and track down his father. She was so torn by hope for her husband and fear for her child that she never asked him with whom he travelled. He told her that he was setting out that very night. She hurried to prepare him some food and a bedroll for travelling. Rufus lay down and tried to catch some sleep. It seemed that he was in for a long night.
When he woke, darkness was falling. His mom handed him a large sack and threw her arms around him, though, strangely, she did not weep. His brother and sisters stood silently against the wall as he awkwardly waved a farewell to them and walked out the door. He was only thirty feet from the porch when he heard his little brother cry 'Rufus!' He turned to see his brother running to him, something gripped in his hand.
"Here," Michael Autwell said as he extended that something to his brother. It was a hatchet. Looking oddly at his brother, Rufus took it from him. "Just in case you get in trouble," Michael explained. "Don't be afraid to use it." Rufus tucked it in his belt and looked back at the small farmhouse. His mother stood in the doorway, light shining behind her, daughters clinging to her skirts. "Bring your dad back, son. Come home soon. And come home safe." She raised her hand in farewell, and he returned the gesture. "Thanks, Michael," he said as he strode off into the gathering twilight. "Bye Rufus!" his brother called after him.
He walked from his house to the road leading to Cusp. A mile before town he turned off onto a wide path that led through an open field. The full moon shone brightly over the grass, turning it from green to silver and shadow. Rufus followed the moon-lit trail for a couple of miles, then turned onto a smaller trail. After another two miles, he stood in front of the gate that opened up to Pickard's farm.
He stood there in the silence, leaning against the worn, wooden fence. Jasper had told him to meet them there an hour after nightfall. Looking up the pathway and down it, Rufus saw no sign of them.
"Hssst!" a voice hissed in the darkness. Rufus turned to find a pale figure approaching from the other side of the gate. As the figure neared, he realised it was Jasper. "Come on inside and follow me." Rufus climbed through the slats of the gate, pulling his sack with him. He was led silently up the path a bit where one other was waiting.
"Well, I'll be," the other whispered. He loomed tall and stout in the darkness. "Rufus Autwell! What is a good boy like you doing with these reckless scoundrels?" Rufus peered through the darkness and finally discerned who it was, Farmer Dane Pickard. Suddenly, he was overcome with embarrassment. "Well, sir, they uhhh. They're going to help me get my dad back. So I'm helpin' them tonight."
"Have mercy," Pickard replied. "Boy, I don't blame you for a'wantin' your dad back, but this ain't the way to go about it. These boys'll get you killed if you ain't careful."
Jasper cleared his throat noisily, and they turned to find him glaring at them both. "Well Pickard, you didn't seem too choosy about us when you started losing all your cattle. I guess you don't need help from the likes of me and mine. I'll just take myself and my boys elsewhere where they're not so picky. You can find others who'll save your worthless farmstead." He whirled around and stalked back down the road. "Hope you have fun starvin' to death this winter!" he called over his shoulder.
"Wait!" exclaimed the aged farmer. "Wait, boy! It ain't like that!" He ran after the disappearing Jasper. "Look," he said as he caught up to the angered lad, "I'm not sayin' nothin' bad about you! I'm just sayin' that I know his dad and all, and that Rufus is a decent, respectable boy from a good family..."
"And I'm not. No, I think I understand you perfectly."
"No no no! I'm just tryin' to...I'm sorry, alright! I sincerely apologise. Please don' leave. I've done lost half my stock. You boys are the only ones who seem to have any answers. Don' leave, now!" And the farmer stopped and stood there, his arms hanging helplessly at his sides. Jasper slowed and stopped. He bowed his head and said, "Well. Alright. I accept your apology. But it ain't goin' to be easy, putting a halt to this cow-theft. I'm going to need some things to get it done."
"Whatever you need! Whatever you need, boy, it'll be yours." The old farmer's head bobbed up and down as he swore.
"Alrighty then," said Jasper, and Rufus could've sworn he caught the flash of a triumphant grin crossing his face. "Let's go to the barn."
They headed up the path, past the darkened farmhouse and into the barn. A cloud hung over the face of the moon, so Rufus smelled and heard rather than saw the pens full of sheep and pigs. To his right, he heard the clucking of the henhouse. They approached the barn and entered. Farmer Pickard grabbed a lantern off a peg on the wall and, using flint and tinder managed to light it. He shone the light around the barn and said, "Whatever you need boy, pick it out and let's get going."
The light discovered the interior of the small barn. Two draft horses in the first two stalls and a mule in the stall at the end. A stool for milking and a bucket lay on the hay-strewn floor. Rope, hay forks, sickles, a plough and other instruments for farming were everywhere.
"Hmmm," Jasper rubbed his chin. "We'll need a couple of those lengths of rope. At least a hundred feet or so. We'll need that lantern and two others, as well as some more oil. How much have you got?"
"Well, there's a whole barrelful over there..."
"We'll need it in flasks. At least a dozen. You two fill 'em up and I'll look around for anything else we might need."
Rufus and the farmer went over and started filling up some leather flasks with oil while Jasper investigated the rest of the barn. Pickard kept looking over his shoulder, trying to keep an eye on the untamed boy. Hence, he kept spilling the oil.
"Careful there, Mister Pickard," Jasper said without looking back. "Don't get that oil too close to your lantern. Barns can get burned down that way." The farmer's face reddened and he paid closer attention to his business. As they finished up the last flask, they turned to find Jasper waiting on them. He had a coil of rope around each shoulder, a lantern in each hand, four torches and a small hammer tucked in his belt. "You understand, Mister Pickard, that all equipment required by the adventuring party becomes the property of said adventuring party whether they use it or not."
"What?" was the farmer's dim reply.
"I'm saying, Mister Pickard, that we keep the stuff if we use it or not."
The old farmer frowned but grunted his assent.
Jasper grinned. "Excellent! Now let's get on out there before we are too late." They left the barn and stepped out into the moonlight. Following a fence line, they walked for a half hour before they crossed the fence and entered out into a rugged pasture. Jasper turned and held a finger to his lips, signalling that Farmer Pickard should hand him the lit lantern. Setting down his two lanterns, he waved the lamp toward a small stand of darkened trees. Three figures detached themselves from the darkness and approached.
"Welcome boys! It's about time to get this shindig started!" Jasper's eyes looked bright and feverish as his friends approached. A smile etched itself on his face and Rufus thought that he was trembling. As the three stepped into the lamplight, Rufus and farmer Pickard were taken aback. The gangling Wink was dressed all in black with a dark hood thrown over his head. What they could make out of his face had been blackened by coal. Two sheathed daggers, one curved and one straight, hung at his side along with a large pouch that looked to be filled with stones. He looked menacing in the darkness. Coy's face was darkened, too, making the whiteness of his eyes and wide smile shine all the more. A maroon cloak hung from his shoulders and his dark hair hung limp over his face. In his right hand he gripped a hammer, not some farmer's tool for pounding stakes or fence-posts, but a steel war-hammer, crafted to break bones and smash skulls. On his left arm was slung an oval, metal shield. On a cord around his neck, the holy symbol of Traldara hung, carved in wood. Hope and resolution rested in his eyes. Somehow though, Coy's boyish face looked at odds with his warlike apparel.
Grotto, however, looked quite at home in his attire. Like Coy, he wielded war hammer and shield, identical in make and design. He wore a breastplate of hardened leather, and a horned helm covered his iron-grey hair, his dark eyes glowering darkly beneath. Over his shoulder was slung a crossbow and a quiver full of quarrels. He looked every inch the warrior, born to battle and the shedding of blood.
Pickard stared at them in awe, and a new respect shone in his voice.
"My stars! You boys don't play around at it, do you? This may be more than I thought. Where did you get all that get-up, anyhow?"
"What? The weapons and stuff?" Jasper said. "We got those from the gnomes that live beneath Cusp. Where's all my gear?" he asked of the newcomers.
"Oops. We left 'em by the trees," Wink replied.
"'Oops', eh? Those could be our famous last words if we're not careful. Wink. Grotto. You take this oil, these torches, and these two lanterns. Go to the spot and get everything situated. You know what to do." The two gathered the equipment and departed. "Coy, you take these two," gesturing at Rufus and Pickard, "and go on out to our observation point. I'll get my gear and join you shortly. When you get there, kill the lantern and for heaven's sake, keep quiet!" He turned and ran towards the copse of tree, the coils of rope bouncing with his stride.
Coy turned to them, his entire body a curious blend of excitement and calm.
"Come with me."
He took the lantern and, wordlessly, they followed him deeper into the pasture. Crossing the grassy plain, they eventually came to the dark hollow of a small rise. The altar boy halted and lay down with his back against a rock. "Take your ease," he commanded. "Barbarossa will be here soon." And it seemed as if he went to sleep.
Rufus lay back next to him and looked into the night sky. What in the great, wide world was he doing here? What was he doing mixing with this crowd? They lived in a world that wasn't his, that he never wanted to be his. Why was he wasting time like this when he should be finding his father?
He looked over at Farmer Pickard. The man looked back at him and shook his head in bewilderment. Rufus could keep silent no longer.
"Coy. What are we doing out here? I feel like an idiot out here. Why do you have those weapons? My father is missing, and you..." He was interrupted by Jasper sprinting towards them. He had a shield on one arm and carried a sword in a scabbard in the other.
"It can't be long now! Hurry, Rufus, and help me soak these torches." He had taken out a flask of oil and was drenching the head of a torch with it. "All right. Now, Mister Pickard, keep the shutter on that lamp shut tightly and away from the edge of this hummock we're behind. They should be coming soon." Jasper's dirty-blonde hair stood straight up and he wore a maniac's grin. He adjusted the shield on his arm and pulled the long sword quietly from its sheath.
"Who is coming?" the farmer hissed.
"Mister Pickard, your cows have been disappearing for weeks now, but you could never find any trace of them, right?"
"Once it came to our attention, we searched out all the land around here, trying to find a trace of where they went..."
"So did I! But I couldn't ever..."
"After that, we searched the land all around yours to find out where they might have crossed your fences."
"As did I! But..."
"It took me awhile," Jasper grinned, his eyes alight, "then the thought hit me. Maybe they never left your land!"
"Well, how could they never leave, and yet be gone? You think someone butchered them and carried off the remains? That couldn't..."
"Actually, what I mean is, they never left your land on land."
Pickard looked angrily toward Rufus. "Land sakes! Rufus, what is this boy talking about?"
"PICKARD!" Jasper almost shouted in the darkness. He gestured menacingly at the farmer with his blade. "You call me 'boy' again, and I'll take it outta your worthless hide! You got me?" His brows traced a hard line of anger across his normally smiling face. Rufus had never heard anyone so certain about anything. "I've taken your guff one too many times. One more time," and he shoved the point of his sword in the frightened man's direction, "and you won't live to speak of it. Do you understand?"
Farmer Pickard took a step backward, nodding his agreement. "I understand...Jasper. Didn't mean no offence by it."
Jasper exhaled sharply and looked away. "I know you didn't. That's why you're still standing."
Looking back, he continued, "These thieves never took your cattle off your land. They took it beneath your land. You see, we're not dealing with normal robbers. My friends and I should've known it sooner, considering that we've battled them before..."
"Hush!" called Coy softly. While they'd been talking, he had risen and been peering over the small hill. "I think something's happening."
They all pressed themselves against the side of the hill and crawled up beside Coy. Fifty yards to the north, there rose another small hillock. Coy watched it intensely.
"Are the others in position?" asked Coy.
"If they're not, they're going to miss out on all the fun. Look!"
To Rufus, it seemed as if a nest of huge, ink-black spiders erupted from the hillside. A dark hole appeared on the face of the knoll and dark shapes poured from its mouth, red eyes shining in the night.
"What are those things?" he blurted out.
"Wink calls them 'reeking scabs'," Coy smiled nervously. "But Grotto says they are called kobolds." The name sounded like a croak deep in his throat. "We faced them once before, in the caverns of the Thane Deemus, bless his name."
Rufus looked closer. Though night had fallen darkly, he could make out several small, man-shaped creatures creeping into the dimly-lit field. They were no more than three or four feet tall, but their eyes shone faintly, red as blood.
"Those scabs are some nasty, vicious brutes let me tell you," Jasper whispered. "Almost killed every one of us, that last time. We won out in the end, but only by the skin of our teeth...and the bursting of a dam." His breath was coming more quickly. "What's the count, Coy?"
"I've got nine of them."
"Hmm. That's more than I anticipated, but no more than we're prepared for."
"What do we do now?" Rufus interjected, scared half to death.
"We wait for the signal," Jasper told him. "Here. Each of you, take a torch." He handed an oil-soaked brand to Rufus and one to Pickard. "Now, you fellas might want to stay out of this particular scuffle and let us experts handle it. As soon as it all goes down, light your torch and come give us what light you can. If one of 'em comes at you, wave your flame at them. If that fails, bash 'em with the torch. If that fails...well, just yell for one of us and we'll come help you out."
Just then, Rufus heard a cry of agony from among the kobolds. Peering over the small hill, he saw their dark forms mill about in confusion. A few seconds later, another screech rang out in the gloom and he actually saw one of the dark figures pitch forward and lie still.
"Get ready," Jasper said, hitching up his shield.
Another cry rang out from among the kobolds, and suddenly the mass of small creatures were running back toward their hole, stampeding each other on their way. Without warning, the mound in front of them burst into flames, a huge bonfire scorching the night sky. The kobolds shrieked and covered their faces. Backlit by the flames, Rufus still couldn't quite make out what they looked like.
"Let's go!" Jasper roared and hurled himself over the hill, sprinting pell-mell towards the screaming mass. Coy was right behind him, shouting 'Halav! Halav!' at the top of his lungs. Rufus and the farmer stood there gaping, until Pickard snapped them out of it. "Quick, boy! Let's get those torches lit!" He fumbled with his lantern and Rufus got the torches ready. Lighting the torches, they leaped over the mound and stood looking at the sight below.
Jasper and Coy were in the thick of the kobolds, blade and hammer whirling in the firelight. Two of the small creatures already lay unmoving on the damp earth. As he and the farmer ran closer, Rufus gained a better view of the kobolds. Wink was right when he said they weren't exactly human. Truth be told, they weren't remotely human. Just over three feet tall, their scaly skin was the colour of ancient rust. They were completely hairless and their two ruddy eyes gleamed above a dog-like snout. Small fangs gleamed in their snapping mouths. Iron spears and hooked daggers were clutched in their greedy fingers. As Jasper and Coy waded into them, they screamed and cursed in an unknown tongue, wild in their fear and ferocity. As Rufus watched, he saw Jasper deflect a stabbing spear with his shield and rip his bloodied sword across a swart face, extinguishing its shining eyes. He turned to see how Coy was faring only to see the young altar boy stumble over a dying kobold. As he fell sharply to the earth, a pair of the evil creatures overcame their fear and leaped towards him, spear and knife flashing in Rufus' torchlight.
Shocking himself, Rufus roared 'No!' and hurled himself in front of the prostrate cleric. He swung his torch wildly at the vile beasts and they briefly gave way.
"Get up! Get up!" he screamed at Coy, but the other boy was rolling on the ground with one of the dark creatures, striving to keep it from driving its blade into his breast.
A kobold slashed at Rufus with its spear as its companion sought to edge around him to get at Coy. He swung his torch in their direction, seeking to stand over Coy without actually getting tangled up in the fray beneath his feet.
Then he remembered Jasper's words and yelled, "Hey! Hey! I need help over here! HURRRYYYYY!"
The spear-wielding kobold narrowed its eyes and readied itself; Rufus knew it was about to pounce on him. He turned towards it, extending his torch and bracing himself, wondering briefly what a spear wound felt like. Suddenly, he felt himself being grabbed around the knees. He looked down to see one of the small, wiry creatures grappling his legs. It cried out in its strange language, and he looked up just in time to see the kobold advance with its spear, rearing back its arm to skewer him. Rufus yelled and threw his torch at it, missing completely. The vicious scab sneered at him and drew back his arm again for a fatal thrust.
All of a sudden, there was a roar and a shining hammer leapt out of the darkness and crushed its skull from behind. Grotto the dwarf stood over it, his shield and breastplate covered in ichor. Seeing the kobold about Rufus' knees, he roared again and rushed forward. The helpless creature released its grip and tried to flee, but the dwarf smashed into its backside and, as it fell, finished it off with another blow.
Rufus turned to help Coy, but saw Jasper helping him to his feet. Wink came running up to them, a shadow amongst shadows. Glancing around, he saw that there was not a living kobold to be found, though the pasture was littered with twisted corpses. The hillside fire was almost out now, and the only light that shone over them was from the torch in Farmer Pickard's hand. Rufus looked at the poor man, seeing his wide eyes and pale face.
"My stars!" the distraught man swore quietly. "You boys don't play at it, do you? I mean...whew!" he exclaimed and shook his head in amazement. "Alla that for a bunch of cows."
Coy stood shakily on his feet and advanced on Rufus, flinging his arms around him in a grateful hug. "Thanks, my friend. Many, many, many thanks. I thought I was a dead man until you showed up." The slight boy was trembling like a leaf. Rufus patted his back awkwardly and couldn't seem to speak around the lump in his throat. Grotto, too, threw his arms around Rufus' waist and gripped him tight. "Ye saved my friend. I will repay the debt with joy." Looking into the dwarf's misty eyes, Rufus realised that Grotto was younger than he originally thought.
"Excellent work, Rufus!" Jasper exclaimed, gripping his shoulder. "I am honestly impressed." Rufus ducked his head and blushed.
Wink stood a bit apart from them all, his arms folded across his chest and a sour look on his face.
"Well," he murmured with regret, "there goes twenty gold pieces."