A thoughful halfling barbarian from a broken home who is writing an autobiography.
A positive tiefling rogue from the salt flats who wants to become a famous singer.
An adventurous half-orc rogue from a boarding school for the children of middle-class wizards who is in way too deep with the wrong sort of people.
And a boisterous dwarf bard from a quaint little village on a hill who has anger problems.
Here we go:
The group caught my attention as soon as they stepped through the archway. We didn’t get many foreigners in the Lofty Ladle, or in the Faelin Forest at all.
The other elves in the inn all looked up in surprise a moment after I had, noticing the odd party as they took their seats at the corner table.
“Get to work.” A swift kick to the shins sent me hustling off the take the group’s order. I didn’t even have to check who it was—Laithen, the owner of the inn, was fond of handing out kicks to his workers.
Up close, the party was even more unusual than they had seemed from behind the bar.
Cramped up against the druidcrafted wall of the inn, a large half-orc was trying to sit comfortably. The tree had been shaped into elf-sized seats, and his bulging muscles stuck out into his neighbor’s space.
Luckily for him, his neighbor was a halfling who was too small and too engrossed in a book to care. Propped up against the halfling’s seat was an axe nearly his height.
“Would you mind putting your axe elsewhere, sir? We don’t want to damage the tree.” I directed the question to the half-orc, which I thought was perfectly reasonable.
The orc seemed to agree, as he leaned over the halfling to grab the axe, but the third member of the group, a fire-haired dwarf, leaped to his feet. His height didn’t change noticeably as he left his feet.
“So you think every half-orc is a axe-toting savage, do you?” His face was almost as red as his hair. “Gromsk over here is a rogue, and a refined one at that!”
“I’m sorry, sir,” I stammered. The dwarf’s reaction was extreme. Sure, I had made an assumption, but it had been an innocent one.
“And you think that Arren can’t wield an axe? My halfling friend is one of the most feared warriors this side of the Westernach!”
“Leave the poor boy alone, Eberk.” A tiefling woman, the final member of the party, stepped in front of the fiery dwarf, quelling his tirade. She flashed me a winning smile, her teeth stars against her purple skin.
“You must forgive Eberk,” she said, “he often gets quite agitated over the smallest of things. The unfamiliarity of your city has him quite on edge. Dwarves, generally speaking, stay away from trees.”
“’Cause they’re usually full of birds, bugs and elves, “ Eberk muttered. “Nasty buggers, the lot.”
Gromsk kicked him under the table.
“Ignore the dwarf.” The tiefling extended her hand. “My name is Larinea.”
She shook my hand as I offered it, and then took her seat. Eberk was grumbling to Gromsk as Arren continued to write in his small book. His axe now sat across his knees, I noticed appreciatively.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Is there any way I can help you? Food? Drinks? Lodging?”
“We would like all three,” Larinea said, “but we lack the coin for any of them.”
“Then I’m afraid I cannot offer you any of them.”
She held up a hand. “We would like to make a trade. Eberk here a preeminent dwarven bard, and I am a passable singer myself. A performance should bring you business enough to cover our cost.”
“I’d have to check with the owner,” I said, skeptical. I didn’t even know dwarves had bards, and one performance was unlikely to cover the costs of four rooms and meals, especially if Gromsk ate as much as I thought he might.
“Please do,” Larinea said, “and tell them if we fail to impress, we will pay double with scullery work.”
Laithen had grudgingly agreed to Larinea’s proposal, and after grumbling around the kitchen about “beggars”, he sent me around town to tell the other elves about the performance.
Now, I sat with Gromsk and Arren at the corner table. I had joined them when my shift ended.
“What are you writing?” I asked the halfling. Throughout our meal, he had stayed focused on his small book while Gromsk and I talked.
Arren draped a small ribbon over his page and closed the small book. “It’s an account of my journey,” he said. “I hope that one day my children and my children’s children will know my life and the lessons it has given me.”
Gromsk laughed. “And that the humans in the Westernach will print it for you,” he said; then to me, “He wants to be famous as much as Larinea does.”
“And how much is that?” I asked.
“Enough to pretend not to have coin for the chance to perform at every inn we come across.”
I nearly choked on my mutton.
Arren pointed to a small raised stage across the room where Larinea and Eberk stood. “It would be a shame to miss the performance after all that.”
Eberk set a small drum on the stage and tapped a very particular beat on it. As he did, it began to glow, and expanded into a large array of different drums.
“I stole that from a carnival for him,” Gromsk said proudly.
Eberk began to play his strange drum array, hitting them with long wooden sticks and using a contraption down near his feet. He beat out a slow, rolling rhythm as Larinea began to sing.
She had a beautiful voice, one more suited for a hall than a tavern, and it swept through the room. The patrons all turned to listen, many forgetting their meals as they were ensnared by the soaring voice and mesmerizing drums.
As the performance continued, Eberk upped his energy, switching to a driving, intense beat. At one point he even left his drums behind, instead jumping onto tables and pounding any flat surface with his sticks.
It was during this part of the act, when the tavern was full and the patrons were cheering loudly, that six men stepped quietly through the door. I would never have noticed them if not for Gromsk, who gasped and tensed up as the entered.
They looked like trouble, with black armor and long blades, but Gromsk calmly handed Arren his axe. “Carten Vong,” he whispered. “Six at the door.”
“Blend in,” the halfling said. “I’ll greet them.”
Gromsk shrunk back against the foliage of the wall, his grey-green skin masking him in the darkness, and Arren strode towards the door.
“What is going on?” I asked, keeping my voice low.
“I may or may not owe the Carten Vong a bit of money.” Gromsk’s face was indistinguishable among the shadow.
“How much is a bit?”
“A few hundred gold.”
Across the room, Arren was talking to the leader of the Vong. Their conversation seemed to rise in tension until the armored man drew his sword and tried to stab him.
“Big mistake,” Gromsk muttered.
Arren ducked the thrust and brought his axe in a sweeping crescent, decapitating the man instantly. He leaped among the group, yelling at the top of his tiny lungs, and laid about with his axe, shearing through skin and sinew.
Some of the patrons began to take notice of the fight, but Eberk leaped onto the bar and began drumming on the bottles of ale while shaking his ass at Laithen. Naturally, the refocused their attention.
Arren dispatched all six of the Carten Vong with ease, and Gromsk appeared at his side to help him clean up. That shocked me, as I hadn’t even noticed the big half-orc leave the table.
They slunk back to the table just as Eberk returned to his drums and the inn erupted into applause.
“Do you think your boss will charge us for that little fiasco?” Gromsk asked.
I shook my head. “He’ll be happy to overlook it—especially after you drummed up all this business.” I raised an eyebrow in expectation.
Arren groaned and shook his head in disgust. “Let’s all agree to leave the puns to the bard, please.”