I slumped on the edge of the platform and squeezed my eyes shut while fumbling for the water Beidrick had put beside me. Others had joined the regatta celebration and were drinking the Shatterhammer ale from the spare barrels that Bromm and Sig had negotiated. Even some of the new Giant's Head stout was also making its rounds. I could hear from announcing that there would be "Giant Head" at The Sea Witch, which brought on fits of raucous laughter.
I was distant from the scene, feeling unwell, to say the least. A belly full of ale and a sleepless night behind me. I was holding Silah in my hands, running my fingers along the flat of her glittering blade and traced the etched runes as I ran over them.
Can I trust her? Avorra? I thought absently.
Even while asking the question I realized that I wasn't feeling well enough to be all that interested in the answer.
"She knows much more than she lets on." Silah echoed with an uncharacteristic reverence. "I believe she's one of the good ones."
I nodded, still only partially aware. My head was starting to right itself, but being shirtless in the sun was sapping me of energy each moment. I looked over at the others, the large albino man had engaged them, glowing brightly in the sun. I thought briefly how he managed in the bright sunlight, but it slipped away as quickly as it came.
The others had been offering him some of the new stout and he kept waving it off, putting a hand to his belly. After enough egging on, though, he put a hand up and turned to the side and let loose a foamy spout of vomit splashing to the street. I cringed at the sight, seeing the others look at each other with some horror.
See, you could have had it worse. There was a quiet tremble of revulsion coming from the blade, but she said nothing.
The man took the mug from Floki's outstretched hand and sipped first, then drained the mug. Apparently, the man had two drinking strategies. He nodded vigorously and I could hear the word "Good" through a thick guttural accent.
I strapped on the sheath, feeling Silah secure against my back again. She settled easily into my mind effortlessly. Her presence moved forward, resting gently on my shoulders as she seemed to look at the unfolding scene along with me.
I stood and approached the table where he and the others were now realizing that Nida was still accompanying Sig. I gave her a nod and she smiled widely, raising a mug, while tucking into his shoulder. Danin nodded smugly in my direction, sitting close to Rana, and I bowed slightly with a salute. The large gleaming white man stood and looked at me. He was perhaps a hand taller than I and looked me over and nodded with a wary respect.
"Name's Hakaar." I offered a hand and he regarded it with some apprehension for a split second.
"Aegliffe." He took my hand and did a single firm shake.
Just his grip said a lot, the grasp itself was a little unpracticed. He didn't try to smash my hand, though. It was as if he didn't have anything to prove, but there was just enough tension to determine my own strength. It was something I had gotten used to, myself, using physical contact to weigh an opponent.
"Where do you hail from?" I asked.
"Small village, North and West of here." He said with his thick accent through his pale lips.
"Are all people your size there?" I said with a smile.
"Ah, a few." He grunted, sounding a little like a challenge.
I nodded. He was a man of few words.
"I saw you manning the oars by yourself. Do you sail much?"
"Oars are easy. I let others steer." He said, letting out a low gruff laugh.
Sig was eyeing the two of us.
"Care for a wager? How about you two arm wrestle and I'll give ten gold to the winner?" Sig finally said.
I looked on Sig with disdain.
"Put it on the table and I'll concede so he can just take your gold." I grumbled.
"Why would you do that?" Floki said, sounding incredulous. "C'mon. What's the harm?"
I sighed and shook my head. This sort of thing was happening all too often. There were moments where I had felt like a trained animal performing tricks.
"No. Is a good bet." The large tattooed man said with a nod, putting down the empty mug. "You know arm wrestle, yes?"
I nodded with a grimace.
"Heh. Good." He settled in on the table and looked up at me.
"Nothing good came come of this." I mumbled toward Sig.
Aegliffe patted the table and nodded to me with a good natured smirk.
I settled in and gripped his hand. His muscled jumped to attention as we locked hands.
"Do well, my love." Silah whispered as she grinned behind my tired eyes.
"Everyone ready?" Sig looked between us and the began to slap the table. "One, two, three!"
I pressed into him, seeing red, gritting my teeth. I was giving him the last of my effort. The tension in his face told a similar story. He looked impressed, although I felt fortune begin to reverse as I started leaning toward his side.
He took a tremendous breath and bellowed. His muscles hardened and his veins begin to pop as he called on his inner strength. I grunted as he moved my hand over the zenith and pressed it quickly to the table.
We let go and I pulled back, feeling my anger getting the better of me. I took a moment to calm myself with deep breaths. He seemed to go through a similar process, the throbbing vein in his temple slowing its pulse and he gave a satisfied smile.
"Very strong. Not as strong as me, but very strong." He stood up, sweeping the gold from the table.
He moved over to the side of one of the closeby buildings, lifted his kilt, and being to empty his bladder against wall. I was aghast and Silah rattled a laugh echoing through my skull. The rest of the table looked back to their mugs with wide eyes. Rana was the only one who openly shook her head at him.
"What do they feed him where he lives?" Rana said, looking away as the blood drained from her face.
"No idea, but they should probably stop." I said, rubbing my already tired arms. "He's impressive. I don't think I've seen any man—human or half-orc—quite as solid as that.
"What?" I asked as their eyes turned to me.
"You are pretty comparable in size." Bromm said, looking between us.
I gave him a look of disdain.
"Try being on the other side of that arm." I said, now working on my shoulder.
Aegliffe came back and joined us and picked up his mug and went back to the barrel of Shatterhammer ale. The conversation went more gracefully as he settled in. The captain he sailed in with had gone on to see what he could do about the boat lingering just below the water. There were crews with lines attempting to retrieve what they could.
He seemed happy to be here, even if not particularly interested in the actual reason for the festival. We asked him about home, and while his words were short, we understood that he was just to the North and West of Dowry in a town or village called Glaf-raa, just beyond near the Osterman Flats.
The brute had a fairly simple, but ornate, weapon. It was a large sword, like my own, and it was clear that it had seen considerable use. I began to pull Silah and, as he saw the runes that line the flat of the blade, he drew a sharp breath and shook his head at it, looking at it sideways. I returned Silah to the sheath and nodded.
I understood his reaction. While I had grown somewhat accustomed to the use of magic for war, I still didn't quite understand it. With Silah that had changed to a sort of acceptance. Although, I had seen the damage it had done, putting her in this eternal state.
The next event was announced to be starting soon. It was Danin that wanted to go, but I thought to run with Aegliffe to see how our luck would fare. Danin was disgruntled by my change and enlisted Bromm as his partner.
Aegliffe, who was more than willing, laughed heartily and I was immediately wary.
The wheelbarrows rattled around the streets, rushing up stairs, turning corners, and hitting ramps at full speed. We were neck and neck with the others for most of the time, but on the way down, my skill and exhaustion got the better of me.
The large tattooed man jumped from the wheelbarrow as soon as we stopped and laughed heartily, clapping me on the shoulder. He then walked away as if it was a fun ride and nothing more. I stayed and congratulated Bromm and Danin as they took the first place prize.
"Looks like I've got two on you." Danin said with a wink.
I smiled, but felt more than a little sour about the whole thing.
Even with the sun heading to early evening, I knew I wasn't going to last much longer. I bid the others well and wend my way back to the apartment. I sighed heavily as I pushed into the single room and began to shed my breeches.
I drew Silah from the sheath and had her stand with me. She was wearing her purple dress with gold trim. It had been the most suited for the festivities. Seeing her reminded me again of how stunning she was in it.
"Ah, dear. You shouldn't feel slighted. You could blame me if you'd rather?" She said with a smirk as she moved up to me.
"I know better than to do that." I said with a chuckle. "But, tonight? I sleep."
"How about I draw you a bath." She said, tilting her head as she looked at me. "I bet that would work some of that tension out."
I looked at her sidelong, realizing that she had more in store for me.
The next day slipped away as the festival continued. Silah and I checked into The Sea Witch in the morning to see what was next, but, increasingly, we found ourselves finding our own entertainment. Though, tonight, there was a famous bard who was visiting from a distant land with tales and stories of heroic adventures. I found myself interested in the tales to take my own mind off of the wreckage the lay in my own recent past. Perhaps others had had a better time at it?
Silah had become insatiable. She showed restraint at first, when we first arrived in town, but now she would grumble loudly the first pangs she felt. Her being drained of all the life energy she had absorbed in previous battles had left her achingly deficient. And, unlike before, because of her newfound power, it seemed that her capacity had also increased, leading to a mystifying mixture of manic giddiness, unfathomable longing, and wide-eyed lust. I often felt the need to bloody the blade just to bring her right so I could find some peace. Yet, at the same time, I revelled in the attention it brought me, being the one who could fully grasp what she was going through.
It was a little humorous to know that, when she shared the experience with me, it was little more than that stretch of discomfort between meals. I caught a glare from her as I expressed the thought, but this was a being whose eternal nature was not used to such feelings. And here they were, constantly picking at her in ways that should couldn't sate for herself.
We met up with the others and attended the concert. It was in a wide area set up for the sole purpose of this event, consuming a massive part of the most open and central part of town. As it grew dark, the man crested the stage and bowed with a flourish, sending cheers up from the crowd. He didn't introduce himself, but his name was whispered on the lips of all of those around us, Durid Rhymkeeper.
Hlodreden was almost too small for such a thing, but they managed by creating a stage in the round that the man could wander and speak to the crowd. His ability to project himself in all directions, even behind him, was a bit befuddling, but it made some of his stories all the more poignant.
While some of the tales were from overseas, and some from my homelands in Southern Pallidorn, he launched into a tale that happened closeby. It wasn't long before Sig, Floki, and Danin started elbowing each other ahead of us as Nida gave Sig a confused look as she asked questions. Rana was listening, knowing that something had happened, but intent on learning more.
Bromm, Robyn, and Tagaern were sitting behind them. And it was Bromm who looked back to me jerking his head toward the stage with a sly smile and a wink.
"Brave men, standing at the foot of a great rise, watching the two great and loathsome giants look down on them. They steeled themselves against the coming tides." He raised his hand, sweeping across his vision capturing the imagination of those he looked on. "‘I'll take the banner', the dwarf, a holyman of Derrum Ebbar spoke, showing his faith and his steel by doing so. The others looked on, nobly forward, charging against the tide that was sure to break over them."
Danin was grinning at the mention of him and the Bard continued.
"Down from the incline stormed a slick black beast that stole the light from the night and cast shadows over the hearts of the men below. The stolid old soldier faced the beast, armed with the faith in Qinnah and she backed his strength with the visage of her Seven Shield Maidens. They were not there to take from the field of battle, but to lend strength and turn the tide in the favor of men."
The bard's eyes glimmered as he paused, the gravity of his words setting in with each silent moment.
"The beastman, a half-orc of uncanny strength looked on, his prize lie dangling from the belt of the most fearsome giant, the head of his friend that he swore would find rest in death. His great stride lengthened and he made his way, his large, uncanny blade held high, plunging forward to almost certain death."
I squinted at Silah, who gave me a warm look. She touched my hand.
"It appears we need to get a new look for you, beastman." She whispered, her voice breathless in my ear.
He missed the part where I panicked and nearly ran off, leaving my friends to die. I thought with some misery.
She pinched my hand painfully. I pulled back with a grunt. She tsked and put her finger to her lips to silence me.
"The bold young ranger flanked by his gigantic wolf sought higher ground and sped away to engage on his own terms, from the silence of the darkness. His wolf followed close, a gift from Yollari, guarding his every step with its great glowing red eyes."
Floki nodded, feeling suddenly better about what had actually happened.
"The clever wizard sped towards the sky, his magic lifting him weightlessly to gain advantage, while his friend, the skilled gunmaster, let loose volleys of fire and metal at any monstrosity that he could lay his eyes on.
I could see Sig's brow furrow as he looked to Bromm and shook his head. But the words played out on stage, and the story waxed greater and greater, while spinning us as heroes with little concern for our lives, the only thing missing beyond that, between the fits of truth that somehow managed to find their way into the retelling, was the fear of the experience. The intimate understanding of knowing that this could very well be each and everyone's last breath. As he spoke, I heard him talk of the half-orc falling and I remembered seeing the plains again with Silah calling out to me while my childhood self stood to see his entire world on fire.
I shuddered and felt instantly cold. An ache raging away in me that seemed to be timeless and infinite. Was it fear that drove me on? Simple, primal fear? I felt my eyes wet as I remembered that fear as I stood there, finally in control of myself again, hearing Silah's face whispering her sorrowed apologies while I watched death descend on me in the form of a giant's great sword.
Then there was Duncan's face, not his healthy vibrant self, but the sunken and dead face, his eyes gouged with ropes strung through in the place and it haunted me, staring back at me from the giant's belt. I must have seen it, recognized it, stared at it from the ground. Perhaps my mind had willed against it, forcing me to forget each time I laid eyes on it. It was only until Danin pointed it out to me that I had to accept it for what it was. Strangely, I didn't recognize that memory. Until now.
"The rush of troops from the giant's village began to storm forward in defense of their new gateway, but the men felled the other brutish protectors. The dwarf called on the name of Derrum Ebbar and Kols while driving the banner in place. The Shield Maidens of Qinnah saluted and the mythical blade of the half-orc Beastman danced as the magical barrier returned. And, with the heroes triumphant, the lands of men were safe once more."
The crowd began to cheer and clap, some standing and whooping loudly. I could only hear a distant roar as my head bent circles around everything I had chosen to forget up to this point. The experience had been washed out of me, but its residue remained. It would never disappear. It would come back to me in those weaker moments when I least expected it. This was the haunted memory of a simple soldier. Far from the grand and impervious countenance of a hero. And yet it was the first words on the lips of that Bard. I couldn't accept it until I, myself, felt worthy of it. If there hadn't been so much avoidable lives lost, perhaps I could?
Silah had been clapping, but looked on me and moved close, holding me as my eyes blurred while looking toward the chanted lights that rounded the stage. I shook my head at the thoughts, trying to clear them again as the others patted each other on the back and smiled at their story now immortalized.
In the distance, I could see the bard leaving the stage, and a woman, dressed in Acionna's garb moved to meet him. It was Elena. She pointed in our direction, and he shielded his eyes against the light while leaning in to her words.
I wiped the moisture from my face and looked on, aching and fevered.
So much for keeping our secret. I thought, pining for a simple past that no longer existed.
(Get to know Akeron.)