Chapter IX: Caravan
Copyright © 1999 C.E. by Dustin Jon Scott
[Last Update: June 6th, 2018]
13th Month, 19th Day, 4,632nd Year
Note: All of this is going through heavy revisions.
The ground shook with each of Baelzathoth’s footfalls as he trailed Lodin and Gail through the expansive catacomb tunnels. The bones of long-deceased centaurs rattled in their niches in the catacomb walls, threatening to break loose with every step the iron golem took.
“We need to be careful,” said Lodin, “to stay near the surface. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of these tunnels lead down into the Underdepths themselves.”
“It’s gotten lighter.”
“It’s gotten lighter in here,” said Gail. “There’s a faint light coming from up around that next bend, about a hundred feet or so ahead of us.”
“I can’t see any farther than where the light from Baelzathoth’s eyes stops, about twenty-five or thirty feet,” said Lodin. “Everything further than that is pitch black to me.”
“You purebreds have an even more pathetic sense of sight in the dark than you do in the daylight,” Gail teased.
“At least we purebreds have olfactory senses,” replied Lodin with a slight chuckle.
“Even purebred Elves and Drow have olfactory senses, you know,” said Gail, narrowing her eyes at the paladin.
“Yes, but only trifling. In Humans, those senses are much more highly developed.”
“And in vultures those senses are more highly developed still,” Gail added with a roguish grin.
“Are you honestly comparing humans to vultures?” asked Lodin.
“Not at all,” said Gail, with a not-so-faint tinge of impious levity in her voice as she smiled coltishly at the paladin.
“Speaking of olfactory senses;” said Lodin, “I smell fresh air.”
“We’re coming up to the bend,” replied Gail.
“I see that,” said Lodin, as the light from Baelzathoth’s eyes illuminated the twist in the catacomb tunnel.
As the trio turned the corner, the light coming from the presumed outlet of the voluminous catacomb tunnel became visible to Lodin and Baelzathoth as well -- albeit as only a slight milky haze set against the livid canvas beyond the reaches of the golem’s eyes’ rubescent glow. It was unclear to Lodin as to whether this light was being cast from some source straight ahead, obscured by the smoke from Baelzathoth’s eyes steadily filling the chamber and centuries of dust being shaken loose from the catacomb walls by the impact tremors of the golem’s footfalls, or whether there were still a number of twists and turns in the tunnel yet to come. To Gail, whose eyes were far more adapted to the task of subterranean location, it seemed a combination of both factors.
Suddenly, a long, skeletal arm came flailing out from the wall. Gail shrieked girlishly and jumped back out of its reach, unsheathing her longsword. She charged at the bony limb, and with a precise and skillful swing of her steely blade, she hacked at the flailing arm, severing it from the catacomb wall.
Another arm reached forth from within the wall of bone, and then another, and another, and another still. Soon the catacomb wall had come alive, with flailing, skeletal arms and hoofed legs, and Centaurian skulls whose jaws quivered in silent, mocking laughter. The clatter of the bones was nearly deafening. A great roar of tortured voices came barreling down the tunnel from behind them; screams of agony, wails of sorrow, and grief-stricken laughter of most wicked vilement rushed upon their ears with a nearly deafening force as the shambling horrors that’d overcome the wall to their right spread not only throughout the length of the catacomb tunnel, but to the ceiling and then the left wall as well.
“Baelzathoth,” hollered Lodin, “get us out of here, now!”
With those words uttered, the smoke rising from Baelzathoth’s eyes shrouded him once again in darkness, and once again Baelzathoth began to transform into a roughly equine shape of similarly monstrous proportions to the nightmare he’d changed into earlier. The squealing moans and sharp clangs of twisting, popping metal filled the tunnel, nearly overshadowing the tortured wails of the catacomb spirits. Yet when the darkness faded, this time, Baelzathoth hadn’t transformed into a nightmare at all, but instead had become a great iron-skinned cerapter with glowing red eyes.
“That’s great,” said Gail, her voice raised so that she could be heard over the macabre bellows echoing throughout the tunnel. “Now, how do we ride it?”
Lodin scratched his head, staring up at the enormous creature; “That’s a good question!”
Baelzathoth lowered his right wing to the ground.
Gail quickly scaled the iron-feathered wing and mounted the mammoth equine. Lodin immediately followed, seating himself in front of Gail as he took up Baelzathoth’s chain-link reigns.
“Hold on!” said Lodin, snapping the iron cerapter’s reins as Gail grasped his waist.
Lodin snapped the reins again, then again.
“Baelzathoth, run!” Lodin shouted.
With that, Baelzathoth took off as a cannonball from a gun, rushing forward at breakneck speed with his hooves pounding into the dirt beneath him.
The catacomb tunnel was shaken by the hammering of Baelzathoth’s iron hooves, and the bones that comprised the walls and ceiling began rattling free from their niches. Lodin and Gail looked behind them briefly to see the warren collapsing in on itself, caving in just behind them as Baelzathoth moved quickly enough to stay in front of the debris shaken loose by his own footfalls.
Lodin and Gail turned their attention ahead as the light grew brighter. Baelzathoth took one corner after another, maneuvering through the catacomb tunnel with an almost ludicrous precision for a creature of such great mass moving with such alarming momentum. Soon the faint light they’d seen in the distance was a blinding radiance, piercing their eyes as Baelzathoth rushed toward it.
Baelzathoth burst out of the cave and into the open air, folding his legs beneath his body and stretching his iron-feathered wings as he cleared the small ledge at the mouth of the catacomb. He soared away from the cliff-face, hundreds of feet above the ground.
“I wonder how we’re staying up in the air,” said Lodin. “You’d think, even with a wingspan this great, a creature made of solid iron would fall like a stone if it attempted to fly.”
“I’d be more inclined to wonder how Baelzathoth managed to transform into a winged unicorn in the first place,” Gail quipped, squeezing Lodin’s waist and then flashing him a mirthful smile as he looked back over his shoulder at the prepossessing young thief.
“You’ve got a point there,” said Lodin, an amused smirk gracing his cheek.
“Or a nightmare or fire demon, for that matter,” Gail appended.
Soaring through the air aback the iron cerapter, it wasn’t long until Abigail beheld far beneath them a caravan, inclusive of a wide array of carriages, from simple coaches and wagons to cars large enough to haul livestock. Traveling along with the caravan were short cavalcades scattered about on either side, with the majority of the horsemen grossly under-armed. It seemed, to Gail, that this was a civilian escort, and that the caravan was most likely populated by traders.
“Lodin, look!” said Gail, giving his waist a quick squeeze as she pointed down at the caravan. “I think we should land.”
Lodin skimmed the ground below, quickly spotting the caravan and its accompanying cavalcades.
“I think you’re right,” he said. “Baelzathoth, takes us down there.”
The iron cerapter obliged and began descending upon the caravan in loose circles as Lodin attempted to steady himself by tightly gripping the iron reins. Gail held firm to Lodin’s hips as Baelzathoth dropped faster, until within a few moments they were nearing the ground.
A bombardment of arrows launched toward them from two of the cavalcades below, as some of the others began turning around to join in the assault on Lodin, Gail, and their cerapter mount.
Baelzathoth backflapped his wings, generating a great flurry; a torrent of air that deflected the arrows, creating a practical shield in front of him as he carried the paladin and the thief safely to the ground.
The cavalcades stopped firing upon them as the cerapter golem touched down, and the nearest horseman, a Human in unkempt attire and scant armor, rode up to greet them with bow in hand.
“What’s your business here?” the horseman demanded.
“We need food and provisions,” answered Lodin as he jumped down to the ground.
“We have money,” Gail added, hopping down off of Baelzathoth’s back.
“What manner of demon is that?” the horseman asked, as Lodin jumped down alongside Gail.
“It’s not a demon,” said Lodin, “it’s an automaton; a golem of some kind. We found it in Necropolis last night.”
“You’ve come all the way from Necropolis in a single night?”
“Yeah, why?” asked Gail. “Where are we now?”
“You’re a half-day’s travel south of Bay City, we’ll be arriving about this time tomorrow, since we’ll be stopping to camp tonight.”
Gail, confused, looked to Lodin. “We were only in those caves for a few hours,” she said. “How could we have surfaced over five-hundred miles away?”
Lodin shrugged. “We must’ve crossed into the Underdepths briefly.”
“So you were in Necropolis, and were somehow lured into the Underdepths?” the horseman asked. “Count yourselves lucky that you managed to get out of there alive. I can only imagine what sorts of deviltry you were subjected to.”
“More than I care to think about right now,” replied Gail, putting her shades on.
“Same here,” said Lodin.
“Of course, forgive me. You’re a paladin, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” said Lodin. “Kha Lo Din, of the Knights of Aradia, and of the Kingdom of Béowyn.”
A troubled look suddenly graced the horseman’s face.
“What’s wrong?” Lodin asked.
“Béowyn isn’t a kingdom any longer, it’s a nation-state of the New Sovereignty.”
“Since when?” inquired Lodin.
“Since nearly a week ago, when a massive army of blackguards, Orcan warriors, Drow balisters, and Saurian troops stormed Grandshire. From there, they swept through the kingdom faster than word could travel. No one had time to warn anyone else. No one could’ve been prepared. There might still be one or two free cities, but rumor has it the High Empress of Faelore, who orchestrated this whole thing, is rallying for reinforcements from the Centaurs and the Tritons so they can finish securing what’s left of Béowyn.”
“I’ve got to get to Hathor,” said Lodin. “If there’s anything left of it, I need to get to my paladin camp.”
The horseman turned around; “Kyros!” he shouted.
Within moments, a stout, portly Onocentaur began making his way toward Lodin, Gail, and the horseman.
“Yes?” said Kyros. “What is it?”
“These two want to travel to Hathor,” said the horseman.
Kyros smiled brightly and began to laugh, his belly shaking and his cloven hoof stamping the ground.
“We’ll smuggle you as far as Bay City, soldier, but you’re on your own from there,” Kyros explained with a chuckle. “We’re carrying enough illegal goods as it is, the last thing we need is to be caught harboring an enemy of the New Sovereignty! Besides, after Bay City we’re heading south again anyway, and I sincerely doubt anyone here wants to go so far off course just to help a paladin get to his camp.”
“That’s fine,” replied Lodin, “we’ll find our own way from Bay City.”
“They say they also need some food and provisions,” said the horseman.
“And we need someplace to sleep tonight,” added Gail. “We have money.”
“It would appear they have money,” said the horseman.
“Well,” said Kyros, “if you’re looking for foodstuffs, I suggest you talk to Eadwig the Average, about four cars up. For other provisions, you’ll want to talk to Jenessa; she owns a small coach two cars past Eadwig’s. Tharbogg the Mad owns that car up there, just in front of Jen’s, and he’ll be happy to offer you a place to sleep, but you’ll have to mind his eccentricities. Tharbogg’s bow ain’t strung too tight, if you know what I mean.
“Whatever you decide to do, get it done quickly, because we’re going to get moving again in a few minutes.”
Lodin looked to Gail; “I’ll talk to Eadwig for some food, you go ahead and see what you can get from Jenessa.”
“Gladly,” said Gail as she began walking away. “Oh wait!” she exclaimed, spinning around. “Don’t you need money?”
“Yeah,” replied Lodin, smiling embarrassedly as his cheeks grew faintly pinkish. “Money would come in handy,” he added, strolling up to Gail.
“Here’s five shales,” said Gail, pulling five silver coins from her satchel. “Be sure and get a lot of food,” she added, handing the coins to Lodin. “I haven’t eaten in days.”
With that, Gail walked off to procure some basic supplies as Lodin began to follow, several beats behind her and at a much slower pace as he looked about the caravan.
“Paladin!” the horseman shouted, dismounting his steed.
Lodin turned around.
“Paladin, I’ve something you’ll be interested in seeing.”
“What would that be?” asked Lodin.
“I’ve come across something, supposedly from Necropolis,” the horseman replied, brushing past the Onocentaur.
“What would that mean to me?” said Lodin.
“Well, it’s an artifact, something that I’d imagine would be of importance to the Knights of Aradia, if for no other reason than to keep the Order of Blackguards from getting their hands on it. I bartered it away from an Elven trader who said he’d discovered it in Necropolis.”
‘The Grimoire of Chthonicus?’ thought Lodin. “I’ll be glad to take a look at it, and tell you what it might be worth to the Knights of Aradia,” he told the horseman.
“Great,” the horseman replied. “It’s just over here,” he continued, gesturing to the carriage nearest them, escorting Lodin to it as Baelzathoth followed. “You see,” said the horseman, “I’m a trader. I deal mostly in ancient artifacts, so I generally have no use for carriages most of the time. He,” said the trader, pointing to the coach driver sitting atop the carriage’s bench, “is the owner of the cart, but he’s letting me use some of his carriage space due to the size and value of this particular artifact.”
The trader opened the carriage door, stepped halfway inside, and retrieved from it a small bundle. He took no time in unraveling the bundle and presenting the artifact to Lodin.
The relic was in fact a helmet; a barbut helm with a comb of large, backward-curving spikes, a t-shaped opening in the front, and a pair of spiraling, ram-like horns on either side which seemed a bit outsized in relationship with the rest of the helm. The material of which the helm was made shone in the sunlight despite its dark color; though completely black, it had a metallic shimmer that put obsidian to shame, rivaled only by the most finely polished hematite.
The trader handed it to Lodin, and as Lodin took it into his own hands it seemed to leap into the air due to its lack of weight. Lodin fumbled with it for a moment, and then looked to the trader, confused.
“Is this chthonite?” asked Lodin.
“Yes.” The trader nodded. “It took me months to identify it, seeing as how not a soul in all of Borea has ever seen real chthonite. I always thought it was just a legend. Sometimes I still can’t believe it. It’s everything the legends say it is. It’s completely impervious to heat and cold. You can dip it in liquid steel for minutes at a time and it stays cool to the touch. How it was even forged to begin with is beyond my understanding. It doesn’t rust or tarnish, it doesn’t even accumulate dust. It’s stronger than the strongest adamant steel, yet so light that the full plate weighs only a bit more than a single linen tunic.”
“You have the full plate?”
“Yep. Every last piece, even the codpiece, plus a long shield and glaive. The trader I procured it from claimed to have found it --”
“In the secret trove of Rha Kai Tan,” said Lodin, “in the catacombs beneath Necropolis.”
“Yes,” said the trader. “So I take it you recognize this artifact?”
“The armor of Rha Kai Tan himself,” said Lodin. “You can’t put a price on something like this. According to the legend, it was forged in the fires of Hell’s deepest mines, smithed by Sindri the Dwarf, and conjured from the Abussos by Chthonicus. Rha Kai Tan dispatched entire armies single-handedly while wearing this armor before he finally succumbed to old age. He was invincible.”
“I never would’ve believed such things, but this armor seems to watch me at times. I can feel it, even when it’s bundled snuggly in wraps of wool. I’ve been wanting to be rid of its evil for some time, though I couldn’t possibly part with it without knowing I’ve received a fair reimbursement for its worth. That would just make poor business sense, after all.”
“Like I said, you can’t put a price on this.”
“I beg to differ,” said the trader. “The Order of Blackguards would pay any price to retrieve this armor, and I’m sure the Knights of Aradia would pay any price to keep the Order from getting it. But, since I am rather desperate to be rid of it, I’d be willing to sell it to you right now for one hundred-thousand shales.”
“A hundred, thousand shales? I could buy a mansion for less money. Besides, what makes you think I even have a hundred thousand shales?”
“You may not, but I’d be willing to bet your lady friend does,” said the trader.
“As would I. Unfortunately for you, I don’t decide how she spends her money. I’ll be sure to discuss it with her, though,” Lodin assured the trader, handing him back the helmet.
“You’d better discuss it quickly,” said the trader. “Once we get to Bay City, I’ll have no trouble finding someone willing to pay four times what I’m asking now.”
“Rest assured,” replied Lodin, “you’ll have your answer in the morning.” Lodin began to walk away, proceeding to Earwig’s car to obtain some foodstuffs.
“Tomorrow morning isn’t good enough!” the trader shouted, as Lodin stopped dead in his tracks. “I’ll give you two hours,” he continued, placing the helmet back inside the carriage.
Lodin turned slowly around, unsheathing his longsword, and came trudging back again to the trader, his eyes steely and stoic. He breathed from his nose, his nostrils slightly flared, his eyes narrowed, and an arrogant, chillingly calm grin creasing his cheek on one side.
With one hand he lifted the trader by the front of his shirt and slammed him back against the carriage. Before the merchant had even time to gather his thoughts on the matter, a blade of adamant steel came swiftly upon his throat, stopping mere fractions of an inch from the trader’s sweaty flesh, it’s unusually sharp edge threatening to slice his laryngeal prominence as he gulped down his fear. Lodin breathed heavily, gritting his teeth in the most horrid smile, losing himself in the morbid pleasure he felt from knowing the marvelous terror he was inflicting upon trader’s heart. Lodin’s heart pounded, and unconsciously he grew evermore excited by each bead of panic bleeding out from beneath the man’s skin, his mind delighting deeply within as each drop of sweat rolled down his captive’s forehead.
“It is unwise, trader, to deliver an ultimatum to a man who could just as easily deliver a deadly blow without you even having the time to blink. Tomorrow morning will do fine, won’t it, trader?”
“Forgive me,” replied the trader, “I thought you to be a Paladin.”
The air of Lodin’s face changed suddenly; his eyes grew wide, his mouth fell ajar, and upon his face grew a countenance redolent of a man that’d just been confronted with some appalling and hitherto clandestine truth. Lodin took back his sword and sheathed it once again into his scabbard, releasing the trader as he did so.
“No,” said Lodin, “it’s you who must forgive me. I am indeed a Paladin; it’s just that I lost my entire brigade to Blackguards in Necropolis. Last night the maiden and I crossed paths, and we were attacked by some rather unpleasant creatures. Neither of us slept last night nor have we eaten in days. I’m tired from travel, sore from battle, filthy from wearing the same aketon under my armor for weeks, and as a final embarrassment, I haven’t even shaved in three or four days. I’m not yet myself again. I’m weak, hungry, and unkempt, and completely at your mercy in this matter. Would you please consider allowing me until morning to give you an answer?”
The trader, still shaken from his near clash with death, looked back into Lodin’s eyes, as if pondering what sort of cursed things could’ve befouled the Paladin’s mind during his stay in Necropolis.
“I suppose,” the trader conceited with a sigh of aggravation, though recognizably mixed with the relief that his life had just been spared. “If I’d been through so much in such short a time, I’d want a chance to rest before doing any business myself. It was rude of me to press the issue. Still, as I said before, it won’t be difficult for me to get four times what I’m asking now. So go rest up for now, but if I don’t get an answer from you by this time tomorrow, then the offer’s off the table.”
“Thank you,” said Lodin. “Baelzathoth, come!” he bellowed, walking off toward Eadwig’s car. Baelzathoth followed, his hooves pounding against the ground, causing it to shake as he trotted up behind Lodin.
Meanwhile, about five cars ahead, Gail knocked on the door of a large freight car.
“Come in!” a young, feminine voice shouted from the other side of the door.
Gail walked up onto the car’s stepladder and pulled the door open, climbing inside. The freight car’s interior was like that of a small grocery, less the food. To Gail’s right there were two shelved isles; a single set of shelves in the center of the freight car and a set of shelves on either wall, with an isle separating each from it’s neighbor. To Gail’s left was a counter, with a remarkably attractive, blonde Human girl standing behind it, and another set of shelves behind her.
“Are you Jenessa?” asked Gail.
The young woman nodded. “Yep, Jenessa Payne,” she said, beaming luminously. “Or Jenessa the Blonde, Jeni the Cute, Jenessa the Naughty, Jen the Flexible, Jenessa the Beautiful, Jenessa the Luscious, Jen the Busty, or whatever it is the guys are calling me this week.” Jenessa then let her eyes drift downward momentarily. “Although,” she added, “I think you’ll likely end up stealing those last two or three epithets from me.”
“Keep them,” said Gail, rolling her eyes. “I’ve heard enough of those to last me a lifetime.”
“Tell me about it.” Jenessa laughed slightly. “You can call me Jen or Jenessa or Jeni; I don’t really care which. What’s your name?”
“Abigail, but I prefer ‘Gail’.”
“Pleased to meet you, Gail,” replied Jenessa. “So, what can I help you with?”
“I’m just looking for some basic provisions.”
“Well,” said Gail, biting her lower lip, “is it alright if I just take a look around a bit?”
“No problem,” said Jenessa.
Gail smiled, and then turned to inspect the first isle. As she looked up and down the shelves on either side, she quickly located the lanterns and lantern oil. She bent down, tossing her hip-length hair behind her, and took three pints of lantern oil and placed them under her arm, and then grabbed two lanterns by the handles, stood back up, and resumed her search.
Each time she found her arms full, Gail returned to the counter to set the items down and then continued exploring the shelves. By the time she’d finished, she’d found not only the three pints of oil and two lanterns, but also several boxes of matches, two bars of soap, a bottle of Nyanna perfume, a vial of Anyndar cologne, a razor, a bandage roll, two flasks of antiseptic ethanol, a bottle of burn ointment, a small jar of insect balm, a hairbrush, a silver-plated mirror, a small whetstone, a set of silver-handled lock picks, a magnifying glass, a spyglass, and two linen robes.
“You’re not going to leave me anything to sell when we get to Bay City, are you?” asked Jenessa, smiling as she looked at the heap on the counter before her.
“I like to be prepared for anything,” answered Gail. “I’m going to be on the road for the next few days anyway, or however long it takes to get to Hathor on horseback.”
“May take a while, what with this new ‘political system’ we have now.”
Gail nodded. “I’ll also take that bong up there,” she said, pointing to a smallish yet ostentatiously decorated crystal and silver hookah on the shelf behind Jenessa, “and an ounce of Mary Jane buds.”
Jenessa grabbed the narghile-bong from the shelf behind her, as well as a large jar of Sacred Herb that sat next to it on the same shelf, and placed them both on the counter.
“That’ll be twenty shales,” said Jenessa.
“Pardon me? That’s quite a bit, don’t you think?”
“It should actually be closer to twenty-five shales. It’s the hookah and the Nyanna perfume -- they aren’t exactly cheap. The hookah is real crystal and silver, not one of those glass and polished steel mockeries, and Nyanna perfume stopped being made after the Unseelie Court took control of the Faelore government. Everything else you have would add up to just under six and a half shales, and that’s including the Sacred Herb which usually goes for about two and a half shales per ounce; but instead of counting everything up, I’m being nice and giving you a deal.”
Gail pondered over her impending bounty for an instant, her nether lip tucked pensively below her front teeth. “You’re right,” she said with an affirmative nod, as Jenessa hurriedly bagged the provisions into a canvas satchel. As she was finishing, Gail fumbled eagerly through her shoulder bag and quickly produced an electrum coin, nine silvers, and ten bronze coins, and reached out to hand them to Jenessa, who pocketed them without hesitation.
“If you need anything else, don’t hesitate,” said Jenessa, simpering in a dallying manner the sensuous half-Drow found all too heavenly after her lonely extent in Necropolis.
“Thank you,” replied Gail, returning Jenessa’s superficially affable yet tryingly coy visage. Gail found herself enticed such that the return of pleasantries almost instantly degraded into a state of awkwardness in which Gail found her cheeks growing decidedly red. She placed the canvas bag’s strap over her head, blatantly turning her gaze away from the alluring blonde merchant before her.
“Thank you,” Gail unconsciously repeated, allowing her eyes to drift back up to Jenessa’s as she smiled impishly at the businesswoman one last time and headed out the door, closing it behind her.
Once outside, Gail was met by Lodin, who walked toward her carrying a bag of groceries obtained from Eadwig the Average, with his equiformed golem closely in tow.
“What’d you get?” asked Gail.
“Some pork jerky, smoked herring, pastrami, a jar of pickled eggs, some dried figs, bread, cheese, a small bottle of ___ jam, and four bottles of mead.”
“How much did it all cost?”
“One shale and thirty-eight prints,” said Lodin, dropping three silver coins, six bronze coins, and two coppers into Gail’s hand. Without word, he then politely relieved her of the canvas shoulder bag full of the supplies she’d just bought.
“My pleasure,” said Lodin.
“I’ll show you pleasure,” replied Gail, her heart still pounding from her discomfiting moment with Jenessa; only a split second later did she realize what she had said, and could not have caught herself before she misspoke. She would never have intended a remark
Lodin’s mouth dropped slightly a gap, and his brow furrowed in confusion. “You know very well that I have a fiancé awaiting me in Talenburg.”
“I’m sorry,” said Gail. “I didn’t mean ... I would never.... Talenburg?” The expression on Gail’s face suddenly turned as mystified as that on Lodin’s. “If you’re so concerned about this fiancé of yours, then why are we going to Hathor, and not Talenburg?”
“With the Unseelie Court in control of the throne of Béowyn, the Neutral Zone has undoubtedly been conquered as well, and most likely absolved due to its lack of necessity. It would be foolhardy of me to attempt to go to Talenburg to retrieve her on my own, especially since, if she’s alive, she would most likely seek refuge in either Hathor or Krendor, and we have to pass near Krendor on our way to Hathor anyway.”
“So why did you say she was waiting for you in Talenburg?”
“Well, that’s where we were originally supposed to meet. A few minutes ago, when that Centaurian fellow told us that Béowyn is now under enemy control, my first thought was to go to Hathor and assemble a small party to retrieve her from Talenburg, which I may still end up doing if -- ”
“First,” said Gail, “we need to make sure that Hathor is one of those few cities that hasn’t been overtaken yet.”
“It’s the most fortified city in all of Béowyn.”
“Then Hathor is where we need to go, right?”
“Right,” said Lodin.
“So the plan hasn’t changed, has it?”
“Then why are we standing here talking about this instead of talking to Tharbogg the Mad?” said Gail, pointing to the immense eight-horse wagon that the Onocentaur had directed them to for shelter.
Lodin shrugged, and then turned and began toward the door of Tharbogg’s freight car. Gail followed, as did Baelzathoth. Before reaching the door, however, Lodin was intercepted by a Hobling armed with a halfspear.
“Halt!” the Hobling ordered. Lodin of course obeyed, as Gail stopped beside him. “Who is it you’re looking for?”
“My name’s Kha Lo Din, I’m looking for Tharbogg the --”
“Shhh! Whatever you do, don’t let him hear you calling him ‘Tharbogg the Mad’. He despises that epithet,” the Hobling explained.
“What will he do?” asked Lodin. “Is he dangerous?”
“Not exactly. His real name is Bebo Buggersby, and he’s a Hobbe like me, but ever since that nasty fall he took a couple years back, he’s been calling himself ‘Tharbogg the Mighty’, and apparently believes that he’s an Ogre.”
“That’s so sad,” said Gail, her face swathed in genuine concern for the self-deluded Hobling.
“I wouldn’t call it ‘sad’ exactly. It’s actually sort of an improvement. Before he had his accident, he believed he was the Princess of Vinland, and was growing a garden of slave-turnips that he believed would build his castle for him. That didn’t start until he was struck by lightning about six months before this ‘Tharbogg’ thing, though.”
“But before that he was alright, right?” asked Lodin.
“Well, no, not as such. See, the only reason he was struck by lightning is because he was outside in an electrical storm, in the rain, flying a kite with a metal key tied to it. Before that, he did nothing but rant on and on about how he believed he could harness the power of lightning. He had all these insane ideas about houses being heated without fire and lit without candles or lanterns, carriages moving without horses, and other such nonsense. It was really quite sad.”
“Well, it would seem his current condition is a definite improvement, anyway,” said Lodin.
The Hobling nodded in agreement.
“We were directed here to requisition a night’s board from Kyros,” the Paladin explained, fingering the hilt of his longsword as it sat in its scabbard in an attempt to intimidate the half-sized Faerykin.
“I’m sorry,” said the Hobling, “but Tharbogg doesn’t wish to be disturbed right now.”
Lodin was beginning to become agitated, and so Gail put a gentle hand on his shoulder and then stepped past him, approaching the little Hobling.
She leaned forward and removed her shades, her hands resting atop her bent knees, giving the Hobling an exquisite view of her scarcely covered, massively rotund breasts, and the nigh unfathomable fissure of cleavage between them. The Hobling stared into her bust, gawking at what seemed, from his miniature perspective, to be a boundlessly vast pair of orbs.
“Listen, you little half an Elf,” said Gail, her smile warm and inviting, her eyes dreamy and sensually heavy-lidded, and speaking in such a soothing and melodious tone that the Hobling seemed oblivious to the clearly pejorative intent in Gail’s choice of words, “we really need a place to sleep tonight.” Gail then raised her left hand to her neck and allowed it to drift down slowly, her fingers tracing the inside edge of her bodice.
“You have no idea how much I would appreciate it if you could have Tharbogg speak with us...” she said, still letting her fingers dance along the pink, silken flesh at her bodice’s edge as she reached up with her other hand and began fondling the Hobling’s ear.
His face red and beaded with sweat, the Hobling broke mindlessly into a nervous chuckle, unable to keep his composure as Gail continued playing with his pointed little ear.
Gail withdrew and straightened up, replacing her shades. With one knee bent slightly forward and her hands on her bare hips, she looked down past her entrancingly obtrusive bust and with a smile said to him, “I prithee to at least speak with him on our behalf.”
“I dunno, he was very clear about not wanting any company...”
“Prithee please?” she pleaded, pouting her lips and batting her eyelashes.
The Hobling retreated with a harrumph to Tharbogg’s freight car. He peaked inside, and stood there for several moments -- apparently attempting to coax Tharbogg outside.
It wasn’t long before the Hobling began making his way back from the freight car’s door with yet another Hobling in tow. This second Hobling was dressed almost entirely in pelts bound to him with leather thongs, and was brandishing what looked to be a tiny replica of an Ogren war axe. This was undoubtedly Tharbogg the Mad.
“Who dare disturb Tharbogg the Mighty?” the fur-clad Hobling bellowed.
“Kha Lo Din, son of Kha Ri Oric, Paladin of the Knights of Aradia, and of the Kingdom of Béowyn,” said Lodin.
“Ah,” replied Tharbogg, “you must truly be a knight of utmost bravery to approach an Ogre of such great stature as I, Tharbogg the Mighty!”
“Tharbogg, I must humbly request from you a night’s board,” said Lodin.
“It is unwise, Paladin, to make requests of an Ogre of such great stature as I, Tharbogg the Mighty! But I will consider your request, since you’ve brought me a wench to appease my rigid phallus!”
Gail huffed furiously and drew her longsword at the bantam Hobling.
“You weensy little mouse-wanker!” she blurted, pointing the tip of her sword at Tharbogg’s face. “How dare you presume me a bond slave to be bought and sold and given at whim!”
Tharbogg eeped and darted behind his halfspear-wielding guard, cowering shakily as he peeked out from behind his fellow Hobling. “I’m sorry!” Tharbogg pleaded.
Satisfied that Tharbogg was now regretting his vulgar presumption, Gail sheathed her weapon and placed her hands on her hips. Both Lodin and the other Hobling found Gail’s behavior somewhat odd, as only moments before she’d exerted her incomparably feminine physique in her own favor, seemingly without thought of what bystanders might think of her, and yet now seemed more concerned with her own repute. Although to portray herself as a sexual object when advantageous for her to do so was one thing; to have the assumption made without her having intentionally given reason was quite another.
‘Still,’ Lodin thought, ‘why not keep with the act? Surely the Hobling she swayed with her unrivaled allure must’ve told this Tharbogg fellow that there was a beautiful, petite, immensely full-bosomed young brunette awaiting him outside. Why the sudden change in attitude?’ Then, suddenly, three simple words occurred to Lodin: hard to get. She had Tharbogg precisely where she wanted him now, where he would offer the night’s board in a desperate attempt to woo her with his generosity. Certainly she knew subtlety would have no effect on a creature suffering from such madness, hence her dramatic performance.
Lodin strained not to grin, mustering all he could not to let on to what Gail was doing. This was truly a glamour the likes of which would impress even the most practiced Witch, Shaman, Druid, or Warlock.
Gail then turned to face Lodin. “Oh Lodin, I’m so hungry...” she said, rubbing circularly her enticingly smooth, sinewy stomach; her hand drifting down occasionally to the rise of her trousers. “If only someone would be kind enough to offer us a place to bed tonight, and to rest and eat this food we bought, I would be eternally grateful to such a man. Surely I would allow that man to conquer me!”
“You’re not going to fall for this, are you, Tharbogg?” said the Hobling with the halfspear.
Tharbogg stepped out from behind his guard and cleared his throat. “An Ogre of such great stature as I, Tharbogg the Mighty, would never allow such a fair maiden to go without proper shelter! You and your Paladin companion will take the bunks in my freight car, and I will bunk with my guard in his carriage!”
The other Hobling smacked his forehead and walked away.