Bree awoke before dawn. Her comrades were gone and she was alone. She slipped out of her bedroll, put on her cleanest pair of pants and blouse and laced on her leather boots. She belted Tempest around her hip and strapped her buckler onto her arm. She walked out of the Shrine without pausing, towards the dining room.
She found Santon and Kelesteir together, huddled at a table, munching on day old bread. In the corner sat Trevvis, slumped over a bench and snoring loudly. A few empty bottles lay scattered about him. He stunk of booze and stale sweat.
Bree furrowed her brow. Trevvis was an enthusiastic drinker, but she had never known him to abuse alcohol. Perhaps it was fear that had driven him to over indulge? Bree frowned but forced herself to ignore him. Now was not the time to worry about Trevvis. Now was the time for action.
Bree strode over to Santon and Kelestair, grabbed a piece of the bread they shared and nodded for the door. “Let’s go.”
Santon smiled. “Aren’t you eager, this morning?”
“We all should be. Now isn’t the time for hesitation.”
Santon nodded. But Kelestair shook his head.
“Eat something,” he said.
Bree held up the bread in her hand. “I will.”
The corners of Kelestair’s mouth tilted down slightly. “Drink something.”
“I’m not thirsty.”
“You will be.”
“I said I’m not thirsty.”
“And I told you to drink something.”
“Who says you have the right?”
“If you took care of yourself, I would have no cause to.”
“Excuse me?!” Who did he think he was?!
“Whoa, you guys!” Santon cut in with a wave of his arms. “Save the fighting for the enemy.”
Bree pursed her lips. Kelestair stared at her deeply for a moment. His eyes lingered upon her face, and then her mouth. Was he staring at her lips?
“You are paler than normal. Your breathing is shallow and your lips are chapped. You have spent much of your time these last few days…” he paused, searching for the right word. “…expending more liquids than you have taken in. You are dehydrated. Once the sun rises you will wilt like a flower.” Kelestair raised his red eyes to meet Bree’s. She shifted under his gaze, swallowing the insult she had been preparing to hurl at him.
“Eat your bread instead of waving it around, and drink at least a full glass of water. I will procure you some cheese, which you will also eat. Your body needs the fats it contains. When you are finished we will leave together. Not before.”
Bree opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again. Kelestair was right. She was hungry, thirsty and weak from crying. If she left now her hands would be shaking within the hour.
“You could at least say please.”
Kelestair’s eyes never left her as she sat at the table beside him. His lips formed a thin line. He opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it again. Eventually he rose from the table and left the room.
Bree munched on the bread and poured herself a cup of water from a nearby jug. Kelestair returned with a hunk of cheese, and a handful of dates. He placed them before her on the table, careful not to make contact with her.
Bree nodded and smiled. “Gladly.”
She loved dates.
Kelmarane was empty.
Bree frowned as she walked the silent streets. “Where are they?” she asked, for the fifth time. “This place was crawling with gnolls yesterday, and now it’s bare.”
Santon shrugged. “Perhaps they heard I was coming, and fled.”
Bree rolled her eyes.
“Stay alert,” Kelestair reprimanded. “Empty streets does not signify an empty town. The enemy could be in any one of these buildings.”
Bree shuddered. “An ambush?”
Bree tightened her grip on Tempest. A small ball of tension formed in her stomache. She frowned and continued scanning the streets. Truthfully, she found the empty roads terrifying. It gave the whole place an eerie, almost ominous presence. As if the town itself were worse than the gnolls. A shiver ran up her spine.
“Easy,” Kelestair said aloud.
His gravelly voice was a balm on her nerves. She relaxed slightly. She was not alone. Kelestair was with her. Santon was with her. Whatever the town, or the gnolls, had planned for them, they could handle together.
They continued along the crumbling streets and alleyways for the better part of the morning, but found not a soul. Eventually, the slopes of Upper Kelmarane came into view. A small pair of towers and a wooden gate blocked access to the town square. Beyond they could see the Battle Market, a domed building in good repair where traders would have gathered in happier times. Voices drifted towards them, carried by the winds.
Bree frowned. So that’s where all the gnolls were. “They’ve holed themselves up in the Battle Market.”
Kelestair nodded. “A wise move. It is a defensible location.”
Santon smiled. “That’s good. Now I won’t have to hunt down any stragglers.”
Bree smiled. Her thoughts drifted to the battles in her homeland. “Won’t they worry about being trapped within? We could set fire to the building, or starve them out. They would have no where to run.”
Kelestair shook his head. “The building is all stone and metals. It would take hellfire to set it alight.”
He was right. It seemed that most of the buildings in this country were of stone construction.
“And as for a siege? We are too few for tactics of that nature. We could never hold them, let alone outlast them. They likely have some measure of our numbers and know they have nothing to fear.”
“So how do we get to them, then?”
Santon laughed. “We go in the front door.”
“The front?!” Bree shrieked. “That’s madness!”
Kelestair inclined his head slightly. “One step at a time. We must bypass the towers first.
Bree nodded and turned her attention back to the towers and the gate. “But how do we -“
“Oh, let’s just go, already!” Santon grumbled, cutting her off. He drew his broadsword, and strode purposefully down the road towards the gate.
“Froth and foam!” He would get himself killed! Beside her, Kelestair stirred. Slowly, he walked down the road after Santon. Bree cursed as she followed him.
Santon stood before the wooden gate and pushed on it with his arm. It swung inward.
Hadn’t it been barred? Locked? Anything? Were the gnolls this foolish?
Santon turned back to them and smiled, beaming. “Come on!” He disappeared into the town square.
Kelestair inclined his head. “Be on your guard, Bree. It seems we are invited in.”
Bree froze. The empty streets, the unmanned towers, the open gates. Cayden’s curse, Kelestair was right… The gnolls had something planned and whatever it was, the dogs wanted them in the Battle Market. This was not good. And Santon was…
“Come,” Kelestair ordered. “Before the trap is sprung.”
“Santon.” Bree gasped. She tightened her grip on Tempest and took off at a run.
The gate was still part open and she slipped through it easily. She scanned the square. It was deserted. She could see no ambush and spot no traps. She cursed. What a dirty glass this was turning out to be!
Across the square Santon walked up to the Battle Market’s front doors. Bree sprinted after him, turned the corner and found Santon speaking with a goblin.
He was a strange creature, no more than two feet tall, with green wrinkly skin. His head was squat, but excessively wide and filled with sharp, dagger-like teeth. He had beady red eyes and a round, protruding belly. He wore garishly coloured clothes, a jester’s hat and carried a wand covered in jingling bells which he waved about incessantly.
Bree stopped dead in her tracks. She wasn’t sure what she had been expecting, but she was sure it wasn’t this.
“Greetings, humans and half-humans!” the goblin said. “Welcome, welcome!” His voice was rough, and high-pitched. It bordered on screeching. He spoke the common tongue perfectly. “I am Jank of the jingles-lots-bells and fancy-clothes, door keeper of Kelmarane!” He waved his wand around, and smiled a toothy grin that split apart his whole face.
Well, he spoke the common tongue almost perfectly.
Goblins were known to be vicious little beasts, slightly smarter than an animal, but very cunning. They ate almost anything, but preferred the flesh of humanoids – while they still lived. Bree suppressed a shudder and opened her eyes to the auras around her. The goblin radiated evil, but faintly. Bree frowned. He couldn’t be a little evil. It was impossible! One was either evil, or good. Perhaps he bore something evil upon him, or his actions did not agree with his heart? Or perhaps –
No. Bree pushed all thoughts of the strange little goblin out of her mind. She couldn’t let herself be distracted now.
“You have been expected!” Jank rasped, waving his wand for emphasis. “The Mouth of the Carrion King seeks an audience with you immediately!”
“Lead the way, Jank,” Santon chuckled. “I have cause to meet your master.”
Jank frowned slightly, but then smiled widely and nodded vigorously. “Yes! This way, this way!” He gestured at the Battle Market with his wand. “This way!”
Santon laughed again, sheathed his sword and followed the goblin without a second thought. Kelestair followed behind him, eying the structure with hesitation.
Bree screwed her eyes shut and prayed frantically to her god. Please, my Lord, smile upon me. Don’t let it end here. She breathed deeply once, and then again. Slowly, ever so slowly, she crept over the threshold, and entered the Battle Market of Kelmarane.
Cayden’s will be done.