A Chance Encounter

BY : Revenant
Category: +A through F > Dungeons & Dragons
Dragon prints: 860
Disclaimer: I do not own Dungeons & Dragons or Forgotten Realms. All original characters belong to me. I make no money from the writing of this story.

William grimaced as he took another drink of ale. It tasted like swamp water, but then again, all of the beer in these shithole taverns did. What did he expect? Towns that smelled of piss and manure had shithole taverns. Fact of life. Should've known better. In his travels across Northwest Faerun, Rugar had to be one of the most miserable places he'd seen. Sitting on the edge of the High Moor, the village had the sullen disposition of a beaten dog, its people hunched and gray. The soldier who met him at the gate as he strode in looked well-fed, however. The ugly cur had a broken nose and a massive scar across his face.

"In the name of His Lordship Baron Rugar," he had whined, "you are to surrender your arms while in town." William almost argued, but the guard's stony glare and sharp halberd convinced him otherwise. He handed over his sword with a grunt and made for the tavern. He had found a squat, sad-looking building perhaps twenty feet from the gate, the sign above depicting a gnoll engulfed in flames, eyes bulging, face frozen in a silent scream. Hitching up Mirabelle (the mare had always been a steadfast friend), he had entered and walked up to the barkeep, a pear-shaped man with the face of a mangled troll.

"Welcome to the Flamin' Gnoll," the bartender had said. "Whatcha want?"

William had put on his best "I am a humble adventurer and eager to help" face. "Greetings! Might there be anyone with need for a sellsword?"

The bartender had stared at William as if he had asked if there were any dragon penises under the counter. "No," he had said.

"Oh. Pint of ale, then," William had said, throwing down a copper. Probably for the best. From the look of the place, the villagers had problems keeping the town sanitary. Gods forbid he had to explore any dark corner of it. Not that he had much to look forward to in other towns. Most work involved scaring off highway robbers and killing the odd goblin. People didn't need sellswords these days.

William took another swig of beer and ran a hand through his dark hair. So, here he was, in a tavern that reeked of vomit and served ale that tasted like it was run through a gnoll. How in the hells did he get here?

###

He remembered when he was young, brimming with passion, eager to face evil and paint his sword red. Back then, every day was a challenge, one he faced with derring-do and a thirst for more. He remembered the first time he faced a band of orcs, some eighteen years ago. They had waylaid and slaughtered a group of travelers, and he had been hired by the nearby town to find the orcs and take revenge. Five days spent tracking them, poring over every footprint and broken branch. Every hour, he prayed to Lady Luck to deliver his quarry. On the afternoon of the sixth day, he found them camped in a clearing. Five of them. They sat in a circle around a fire, gorging themselves on whatever creature they had caught.

He remembered how he felt, watching the orcs. His palms were sweaty and his guts were taught springs. One orc was dangerous. Five would be deadly. Along with the fear was anger, anger at what they did to those people, the suffering they had left behind. They didn't care. They lived to kill and devour.

There was something else too. Beneath the fear and anger was a twinge of excitement. If he survived, he'd be a hero. Well, a small one. But he didn't care. How many could say they bested five orcs?

He remembered pulling out his bow, unleashing an arrow at the nearest orc's skull. It slumped to the ground, the others pausing in surprise. One spotted him and pointed, shouting some guttural word. A second arrow silenced him. The element of surprise was lost. Throwing down the bow, he unsheathed his sword and ran at them, howling like a banshee. It was a poor attempt at intimidation, but it worked -- the orcs were stunned enough for him to cleave the head of another in two.

The remaining two were on their feet, snarling and waving swords. William's eyes darted from one to the other. He remembered his training. He wasn't the biggest or strongest man, but he was fleet of foot and could grasp tactics well enough. An orc's tactics consisted of being powerful and aggressive: tiring it out would spell victory. He kept the orcs at a distance, dodging when one rushed forward, feinting to provoke a missed strike. William still felt the anger, the fear, the excitement, but they were being overtaken by an eerie calm. He focused on reading the orcs' movements, the way their arm muscles rippled before a swing. Dodge, feint, parry. It was like a dance, except the other party wants to murder you in many slow, painful ways.

Both orcs started to slow. One, a wretched-looking fellow with a nose ring, stumbled with another missed blow. William swung his sword, burying the blade deep between Nose Ring's ribs. It howled and clutched at the wound as William spun towards the other orc, this one with a hare lip. Hare Lip was incensed, foam flying from its mouth as it charged, weapon held high. William sidestepped and thrust at the beast, his sword piercing the orc's flesh like a thorn piercing a ripe berry. It slumped against him, bringing both of them to the ground. William sucked air, trying to catch his breath.

A sharp, raking pain at his back. Stupid, rookie move! he thought. Nose Ring wasn’t dead. William yanked his sword out of Hare Lip and turned to face his attacker, a warm stickiness running over his shoulder blades and down his spine. Fury welled up inside him. Not going to die to this bastard today. Screaming, he swung, severing the orc’s hand at the wrist. Another swing and he silenced Nose Ring’s howls of protest at the source.

William remembered collapsing in the clearing, chest heaving. He had done it. He had single-handedly fought the orcs and survived. As the rush of adrenaline ebbed away, he felt the pain in his back intensify. The grass was becoming tacky. Get up! his thoughts shouted. You’re bleeding to death! He pushed himself off the ground and ran, back through the forest. By the time he reached Mirabelle (still waiting where he left her, thank the gods), he had slowed to a stumble, using the last of his energy to throw himself onto the saddle. As Mirabelle broke into a gallop, he saw black brambles creep into his vision, and then there was nothing.

He remembered waking up in a warm bed, his back throbbing. Mirabelle had carried his unconscious body to the town, where he’d been helped by the villagers. Good girl, he thought, nothing but sugar cubes for you from now on. He remembered the reactions of the widows and widowers when he told them what he’d done. Some cried in relief and hugged him, others smiled and shook his hand, more gave a resigned nod. William felt as big as a mountain, his heart swelling with pride and joy. The reward money was nice, but that feeling was better, and he swore at that moment he’d keep pursuing it. It had been an experience: a new scar to show the ladies, a new story to tell in the taverns, and a valuable lesson in stocking up on healing potions.

###

Now he was older, (somewhat) wiser, and had more scars, but no new stories. Not that it mattered; no one cared anymore. William shook his head. Useless memories, he thought. Another drink, another frown. He leaned back and surveyed the room. The barkeep was busy cleaning mugs, although it wasn’t helping. Waning red sunlight shone through the window, illuminating the countless dust motes floating in the stagnant air. Most of the patrons were nursing their beers, no doubt stalling to avoid returning to the daily grind. Some muttered to each other, eyes towards him. He turned to the barkeep.

“Fine town you have here,” William said.

The bartender snorted. “Don’t lie, stranger,” he said. “It’s a hill o’ troll shit.”

“Indeed?” said William, acting surprised. “What’s wrong?” The barkeep eyed him, his beady eyes scanning his face and clothing. William raised a hand. “Don’t worry, I’m not a spy or anything. On my honor.”

The barkeep stared at him for a few more seconds, quickly looked around the room, then leaned close. “Problem is the baron,” he said.

William reeled from the stench of raw onions wafting from the barkeep’s mouth. “Go on,” he said, fighting back tears.

“Suppose he’s a good enough sort, but he’s taken ill. Dunno how long he’ll last. Sir Roderick’s taken over as the baron’s executor.”

“Who?”

“The commander of the guard.” The barkeep lowered his voice further. “Iron-fisted type. Demands food and valuables from the townsfolk. Says it’s payment for protection.”

“Why don’t you do something?”

The barkeep frowned. “A bunch o’ peasants against armed, trained soldiers? Are you mad?”

William frowned back. “Surely you outnumber them.”

“We’d be slaughtered to a man. Hopeless. ‘Sides, this town is dyin’. More and more leave every year. What’s the point?”

William, briefly, considered trying to convince the bartender that all hope was not lost, they could band together and make things better.

Fuck it, he decided. He was no Drizzt Do’Urden. Those days were long gone. The conversation over, he returned to staring at his mug. Glancing out the window, he saw the sky shift from pinkish-gray to bluish-gray. Guards were lighting torches. Night was approaching.

William swore under his breath. How’d he waste so much time? He debated asking for a room, but dismissed that thought. He hated traveling at night, but he hated staying in this town even more. Sighing, he drained the last of his beer. One last reminder of this garbage heap.

The door burst open and a kobold walked in. It strolled up to the stool next to William and clambered onto it. “Bartender!” it said. “A pint of ale, please!”

The scene had the absurdity of a juggling ogre. Everyone stared, but the kobold didn’t notice (or pretended not to notice).

“Don’t serve your kind here,” said the barkeep, looking at the kobold with the sort of affection he’d give to something on the bottom of his boot.

William paused and studied the kobold. Blue-green scales with ivory-colored horns and orange eyes, wearing a simple, sleeveless leather tunic and breeches along with a red scarf, and carrying a satchel.

“But I have coin!” it said, its tail twitching. Female. And a surprisingly good grasp of Common, though she had a hissing lisp. She rummaged in her satchel and brought out a copper piece, dropping it on the counter. William almost interrupted to discourage the kobold from drinking anything here, but thought better. 

The barkeep shoved the copper away like the kobold had plopped down a child’s skull. “Don’t care! We don’t serve your kind here!” he insisted.

The kobold stared at him, her tail swishing at a quickening pace. “Fine!” she growled, grabbing the coin and shoving it back into her satchel. She leaped off the stool and stormed out. After a few seconds of silence, the patrons returned to their drinks. The show was over.

William pried himself off his stool and shuffled out. Back in the street he glanced around for the kobold, but she was nowhere in sight. Mentally shrugging, he walked over to Mirabelle and gave her an affectionate pat on her ebony neck. Unhitching from the post, he climbed onto the horse and was about to spur her on when the silence was shattered by a clanging bell.

It was coming from the nearby manor. A large group of soldiers were gathering its front gate, and judging from the shouting and waving, something big was happening. He groaned. So much for leaving town.

“Hey! You!” a voice called. A guard was jogging towards him, halberd extended. “Off the horse!”

“Why? I’ve done nothing wrong,” said William.

“There’s been a burglary. Now get off the horse!”

William eased himself off Mirabelle, but his hackles were up. “Listen, you can go into the tavern and ask anyone. I’ve been there since I arrived.” He raised an eyebrow. “This isn’t some attempt at extortion, is it?”

The soldier’s eyes bulged. “What? No!” He pointed the spike of his halberd at William’s throat. “Watch your tongue, cur.”

“Fine, you don’t want me to bribe you. Be that as it may, I’m innocent.”

The guard’s eyes narrowed to the size of poisoned darts. “We’ll see what Sir Roderick thinks of your story.” He waved to a passing soldier. “Oi! Keep this smartass here while I fetch the commander.”

The second guard, a weedy youth not older than eighteen, nodded and planted himself in front of William. The first one ran off towards the manor. William swallowed, his throat dry. Fighting was out of the question: he could’ve taken the weedy soldier, but the others would be on him in an instant, and he didn’t like his chances of outrunning an entire garrison.

A few minutes passed. Suddenly, a gleaming white horse appeared from behind the walls of the manor and strode through the gate. Atop it was a man roughly William’s age, with closely cropped blonde hair and steely blue eyes. From his polished armor and the way he carried himself, William would bet his life it was Roderick. The steed approached, followed by the first guard.

“What do we have here?” asked Roderick with the calm, even tone of someone conversing about the weather.

“Milord,” said the first guard, smirking. “I found this stranger attempting to leave just as the alarm was sounded. Seemed suspicious to me, so I stopped him and came for you.”

Roderick stared at William, studying his face. William could tell he was a killer, of man and beast alike, and he exuded confidence and charisma. Dangerous. Very dangerous.

A subtle smile emerged on Roderick’s lips. “Hail, stranger. Who are you and where are you from?”

“My name is William, from” -- he paused -- “from the North.”

Roderick’s gaze didn’t falter. “I see. And what brings you south?”

“I’m a traveler, of sorts.”

“A likely story!” the first guard broke in.

Roderick shot him a withering glare. “Shut it, Roland.” Roland nodded and stared at his feet.

Roderick turned to William, the smile back. “You know of the burglary?”

“Not the details, milord,” said William. Men of Roderick’s type liked it when you called them “milord.”

Roderick dropped the reins and adjusted his gloves. “Terrible crime,” he said. “I had returned from my patrol and was about to retire when I noticed something amiss. You see, I keep the key to His Lordship’s vault in a strongbox in my room at all times. Well, I discovered someone had broken the lock! Imagine my dismay!

“Naturally, I ran to the vault to alert the guard, only to find him on the floor with a lump on his head and the door wide open. Some of His Lordship’s gold and finest jewels has disappeared!” He sighed. “I fear poor Percival will never be the same. He has a constant ringing in his ears now.”

Roderick stroked his chin. “Tell me, how does it look to have a stranger arrive and a burglary to occur on the same day?”

“Merely a coincidence, milord,” said William, mentally reciting a prayer to Tymora. “I was explaining to this man that I had been in the tavern all day.” He pointed at Roland.

Roderick raised an eyebrow. “Really?” he said. “Roland, why don’t you make inquiries?” Roland snapped to attention.

“Yes, milord!” he said and hustled through the tavern door. A second later, William heard him bellowing that a crime had been committed, and in the names of HIs Lordship Baron Rugar and his loyal commander Sir Roderick, no one was permitted to leave until questioning was finished.

The minutes passed glacially. William shifted from foot to foot, looking from the weedy youth to Sir Roderick. The former was tree-like, while the latter kept his penetrating gaze on William. He half-expected Roderick to suddenly pronounce him guilty and slay him on the spot. As benign as he appeared, William knew men like Roderick hid a cruel streak that would put a devil to shame.

Roland burst out of the tavern. “Sir! Inquiries are complete! The villagers confirm this stranger has not left the tavern since he arrived. Furthermore, they say a kobold entered shortly before the alarm. It left right before he did.”

“A kobold? Strange,” said Roderick. “As a matter of fact, I thought I saw a small figure climbing over the walls while I was walking through the courtyard a few hours ago. I put it down to a trick of the shadows.” He shook his head. “Ah, if only I had investigated. I fear my senses are dulling with age.”

His eyes were still fixated on William. “So, it seems you are not the thief, William of the North. However,” he leaned back in his saddle and smiled again, “that does not mean you are not an accomplice.”

William felt a chill run through his body. He was going to end up in a jail cell, at best. At worst, his head would be on a pike outside the town gates. “Milord,” he said, struggling to keep his voice from quivering, “I swear on the gods I am innocent.”

Those cold, blue eyes refused to waver. “See it from my point of view,” said Roderick. “An outsider comes to town and occupies the same building as a thief, then decides to leave shortly after said thief does. The evidence seems clear.”

William almost remarked that sort of evidence incriminated everyone in the tavern, but he bit down on it. He bit down on it hard.

“Surely, if you are innocent, given the short gap between your departures, you saw where the thief went?” Roderick said, his lips curling.

William eyes darted around. Run, said a voice in his head. Scream, beg for mercy. Maybe he’ll kill you quickly if you beg. He shoved that to the back of his mind. Think, dammit, think! Something, anything!

Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw it. Someone had abandoned a wooden cart perhaps ten feet away, but it wasn’t the cart that struck him. Rather, it was what was under the cart. It was difficult to see in the darkness, but his keen sight spotted something, something with glowing orange eyes.

William inhaled slowly. “As a matter of fact, I did,” he said. He locked eyes with the kobold. Even from here, he could see her tense up.

“Truly?” said Roderick. “Do tell.”

William swallowed. He was about to send this kobold to her death. Yes, she may not have been the smelly, barking, murderous kind he was used to dealing with on his journeys, but the fact was his life was on the line. His days of being a nice guy were over. He had learned it was a gnoll-eat-gnoll world and sometimes, you had to harden your heart. Right?

The kobold’s eyes had widened. He could almost hear her thoughts. Please, they were saying. Please, don’t.

He almost screamed. Gods damn me for a soft heart.

“I saw it,” he said, “go that way.” He pointed at the gate where he first entered. “It scrambled over the wall.”

Roderick continued to stare, no doubt debating if he was telling the truth. William stared back and tried not to sweat.

Finally, Roderick sighed and looked at Roland. “Looks like we have a chase on our hands. Roland, take some men and horses and search along the roads. Gods willing, that filthy creature hasn’t gone far.” He turned back to William. “Very well, William of the North. You may go about your business. Do be careful.” He steered his horse back towards the manor.

“Wait!” William blurted without thinking. “What about my sword?”

The horse halted. Roderick turned around. The subtle smile.“Of course. Fetch this man’s sword and see him on his way, would you?” he said, addressing the weedy youth. Then, he rode towards the manor, followed by Roland. The young soldier uprooted himself and jogged towards the guardhouse, leaving William by himself.

He blew out a blast of air, not realizing he’d been holding his breath for the past minute. He bent over, hands on his knees, waiting for the sound of his heart to stop thudding in his ears. Lathander’s balls, that was close. He hadn’t felt so afraid since he fought that pack of dire wolves, or the time he was caught in bed with a swordsmith’s daughter. He hoped this place rotted in the hells.

He straightened as the young guard returned with William’s sword. “Here,” he said, holding it out. “Now be on your way.” William took the sword and the youth headed to the manor to join the others. Shorty afterward, half a dozen torch-bearing soldiers on horseback galloped past and out the gate in pursuit of the thief.

William glanced at the cart. The kobold was still there. A quick look around. No one watching. He strolled over, faking an interest in the cart’s construction. “You can come out now,” he whispered.

For a moment, he thought the kobold was staying put. Then, she poked her head out.

“Why did you lie?” she asked.

“Because I hate assholes,” he said. “Can you get out of town?”

She nodded. “Yes! The soldiers are slow and stupid.”

“Then go.”

She blinked. “Thank you!” she said, smiling. Scurrying out from under the cart, darting from shadow to shadow, she made her way to the town wall and deftly scaled it, disappearing over the top.

She’s nimble, he thought. Still shaken, he mounted Mirabelle, who, horse that she was, had spent the whole event scratching at the ground. Spurring her into a canter, William threw a curse back at the town of Rugar, praying a plague of locusts or a roaming pack of wyverns paid it a visit.

As the village receded into the distance, he thought about the kobold. Part of him was interested in her: was she really the thief? How did she learn to speak Common? What was she doing away from other kobolds? Despite his solitary lifestyle, it would’ve been a nice change to have someone, something on the road with him.

He shook his head. Too late now. He’d never see her again.       



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