"The Prettiest Maidens Sing the Saddest Songs"
Morah, A bard’s tale
Morah had broken out in a sweat keeping up with the other musicians. The pretty halfling with long blonde hair and soft beige eyes had been asked to play as part of a celebration for the Order of the Sword and Rose. Mopping the water from her brow, she glanced across what had become a dance floor. There, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed watching her, was Saldez Boromar. He had been in the Order’s infirmary under the care of clerics for several days following the incident where he rescued her from a group of halfling ruffians known as The Halfling War Counsel.
They were supposedly in Stormreach to procure the ingredients for a lethal poison whose purpose was the subject of much speculation among Order members as well as the Port Authority of Stormreach. Thus far, an official investigation had yielded no results.
Excusing herself from the stage, she practically ran across the dance floor to him. “My hero!” she said giving him a genuine hug and a warm smile.
“It doesn’t look like you were too lonely while I was out of commission.” he said in a half-hearted jealous remark.
She kissed him on the cheek and ran her fingers playfully through his hair. “Don’t be mean to me!” She teased, locking her arms around his waste she leaned close to him and whispered, “besides, you still owe me a night at the Golden Wing Inn.”
He smiled at this, took her by the hand and led her to the door of the atrium. “Why bother,” he began, “I bought a villa in House Jorasco.”
Morah squealed in surprise, “you’re kidding!”
The handsome halfling awarded her a reassuring smile, “would you like to see it?”
In response her facial expression dropped suddenly into a frown. “That depends,” she said with a hint of sarcasm, “on whether or not you are going to abandon me there for my own protection.” She said chiding him alluding to the last time he had asked her to stay with him over night he had made her stay alone in the Golden Wing Inn until she was kid-napped by the Yarbarrow’s.
He fixed Morah with a long overdue look of purposefulness, touched her cheek with the back of his hand and replied, “my Lovely, the only thing in danger this night is your virtue.” He kissed her ever so gently on the cheek and then the neck.
Morah responded at first with no words, and then said, “lead on my lord.” The pair disappeared under the watchful eye of the new moon.
Chapter 1 : The Halfling’s Conundrum
Saldez Boromar had been the favored son of the Boromar clan since he began winning races at a very young age. He distinguished himself in every athletic even he entered, often using his smaller halfling size and youthful appearance to lull his opponents into a false sense of security. In his early days of racing, this always resulted in the competition placing heavy bets in favor of his opponents. The athletic halfling considered it an insult to loose when the odds were against him and had accumulated a very respectable fortune from his winnings.
The Boromar clan had managed to utilize his fame to their advantage. Keeping the family name respectable with the city officials of Stormreach. After all, the Boromar were still establishing a foothold of organized crime in the budding city. Saldez was given logistical responsibilities for the clan’s very lucrative drug trade. It would be harvest time very soon, and the deep forest of tangleroot gorge had proven to be a more than adequate field for growing the Dream Lily, a flower that had hallucinogenic properties and was more than mildly addictive. The authorities of Stormreach recognized this, and were working to slowly eradicate it in its natural habitat, it was also highly illegal. This made it much easier for the Boromar clan to hone the market on the flower, and as a result, made them richer.
He sat on the grounds of the shooting range he had set up out of the way on the south reaches of House Jorasco. His bright blonde hair, which he kept very short, and even shaved the sides of his head occasionally, was dripping with sweat. He wore only a thin white shirt and leggings, and had stripped the shirt off after his long run and discarded it on the ground next to him. His green eyes were fixed on the trigger mechanism of the light crossbow he carried, his fingers busy fixing a spring that would make the device fire much faster.
Every moment would count in his upcoming Race of The Eight Winds, and shaving much needed seconds off of the devices’ reloading sequence would give him a slight advantage over the other racers. The weapon would be enchanted, he realized, so the damage it dealt would not kill his opponent. All the same Saldez wanted to send a clear message to the other racers that he intended to win.
Thinking about his upcoming race made his thoughts turn to his Glidewing. A great flying lizard of gray and green that had been hand picked for its ferocity and intolerance of other creatures. Saldez made a mental note to arrange to have his family transport the beast to Stormreach so he could work with it daily.
He heard a click then, and smiled to himself. The crossbow would now fire almost twice as fast and Saldez squared himself off with the target across the grassy field from where he stood, took careful aim, and fired 6 shots in rapid succession. It pleased the handsome young halfling that all of his bolts had found the target.
"Saldez!" A male voice called from the bottom of the rolling hill behind him. Pointing the crossbow down at his side, Saldez waved to cousin with a smile. "Well met Telano! I hope you bring good news with you, or did you simply come to watch me train?" He asked half teasing his cousin. Telano had saved Saldez’s life when they were children, and neither man had ever forgotten it. As a result, he favored his cousin with positions of greater responsibility and power within the family.
The little halfling approached, and Saldez’s expression changed immediately from welcoming to concerned. The halfling’s body was covered in dried mud and he had several scratches on his face and arms as if he had been crawling through coarse vines. He was equal in height, but less defined in muscle tone, and had shoulder-length black hair that was so dark it made his skin seem very pale especially with the contrasting redness of the scratch marks.
"What’s Happened?" Saldez asked.
Telano responded almost exhausted, "The south field, the one in the gorge, it’s been sacked!"
Staring at his cousin in sheer disbelief, Saldez responded, "What?" His cousin was referring to the crop of Dream Lilies that they had been working so hard to establish outside Stormreach. "How did this happen?" Saldez demanded trying hard to control the anger he felt growing within him.
"Last night," his cousin explained with fear still behind his eyes. "It was the Dassk, they surrounded the field and killed the guards! I narrowly escaped with my life!" He explained.
Saldez was already using all his mental discipline to control the rage he felt at loosing a very large portion of his income to invaders. He closed his eyes tightly, unable to corral his reaction to the immediate, intense anger he felt at the mention of the name Dassk. It was of a clan made up of fiendish brutes of goblinoids and ogres who mercilessly competed with the Boromars for control of the drug trade. They were long hated enemies of Saldez’s family and thus far had not made a real appearance in Stormreach.
The Dassk were too brutal, too notorious to be free to walk the streets of Stormreach. The presence of ogres and hobgoblins in the city would draw unwanted attention from the magistrate. Saldez thought to himself that something was missing.
"Who are they working with?" Saldez asked suddenly opening his eyes.
"What do you mean?" Telano asked not quite understanding.
Saldez looked around quickly, grabbed his cousin by the shoulder so Telano could walk with him towards the target he had been using for shooting practice. "Think about it Telano," he explained. "The Dassk didn’t take the field because they are addicted to Dream Lily, but they are far from conventional businessmen. It’s not like they can enter Stormreach."
"So the Dassk want control of the trade in this part of Xendrick." Telano reasoned.
"They wouldn’t mind seeing all of the Boromar clan dead either," Saldez added. "It seems to be an agreeable situation for them, using Boromar money and effort to gain power." It was a statement that gave Saldez renewed anger; it was his pocket that would be missing coins if he did not act quickly. Saldez had reached the target and began pulling his bolts out of it.
"What are we going to do?" Telano asked apprehensively as he watched Saldez wrap his crossbow bolts carefully into the quiver he carried and secured with a thin leather strap.
The Halfling looked his scarred cousin up and down. "Get yourself cleaned up," Saldez ordered. "Make some inquiries with our city contacts," he explained. "I want you to find out who is working for the Dassk in Stormreach."
"I will Sal," he paused, "what of you cousin?"
Taking a deep breath the young Saldez furrowed his brow, "I have to go see Popi, I need more men." He explained with utter seriousness on his face referring to the head of the Boromar clan in Stormreach, "If the Dassk want war, I’m going to give it to them."
They agreed they would meet later at the Phoenix Tavern, and Telano ran off towards the warded gates that would take him out of the Jorasco province. Saldez began making his way back to his villa thinking of how he was going to break the news to Popi, his great uncle, that the family had suffered a major loss. From his small, private garden in the back, he could hear Morah’s harp. He reached his villa, and sat on the stairs trying to allow the music to drown out some of his more troubling thoughts. The task ahead, he knew, was going to be far from easy.
The music stopped and he heard Morah open the arched door behind him. The pretty bard looked down at him with a trace of amusement in her golden eyes and her blonde hair falling around her face, "are you alright?" She asked.
He shook his head to indicate that he was and entered his home. Morah had taken the liberty to lay out fresh clothing for him, as well as a basin with warm, soapy water for washing up. He said nothing to her as he absently started using it. Instead his thoughts were on Popi, a shrewd businessman who could be quite brutal if he needed to be. He would want action, and he would expect Saldez to have a plan to solve this problem. It was something the athletic young halfling was still thinking about when he walked into his kitchen.
"How did it go?" He heard Morah say from behind him.
"What?" Saldez broke from his thoughts.
She asked again, a bit more timidly, "your practice, I trust it went well?" Morah could see the distraction in him, in truth the girl was still worried that he would decide he wanted to be all-alone in his new home. He had not said anything to her either way thus far, and he seemed very distant now. She had no desire for him to pick this moment to send her back to Lessah’s tiny apartment, so she began looking around for something to do.
"I need a favor," Saldez said finally.
She nodded her head and smiled a bit, "of course my lord." She said and sat down at the table to slice some bread.
He went into his study and grabbed a coin purse that had been very generously filled with gold. "I need bolts for my bow. There is a craftsman in the House Denith whose skills are unmatched," he explained placing the bulging purse in her small hands. "Would you do this for me Lovely?" He caressed her cheek quickly.
Morah nodded her head slowly in reply, never taking her eyes from his. Something was wrong, something was there, but the girl could not place the situation properly. Saldez leaned into her then and lightly kissed her forehead. "I appreciate this, you have no idea." He took a slice of bread from the table and walked out the door pausing only for a moment, he turned and said over his shoulder, "I’d like to see you in a new dress by the time I come back."
Closing the door he took off at jog in order to close the distance between himself and the House Kundrak as quickly as possible. He knew his great uncle, called Popi by almost all of the family, the man would be having his noon meal very soon inside the Anvilfire Inn.
House Kundrak was unique with its structure and architecture. The entire community was quite literally all gray, with high walls of stone, paved streets and grand staircases and bridges that seemed to reach right into the sky. Running past a cache of great stone pillars he made his way up a tiered stairway that would lead to the Anvilfire Inn where Saldez hoped he would be able to seek a private audience with Popi.
Inside the tavern, however, customers were everywhere. They lined the long foyer eating their noon meals on free-standing tables, and all the barmaids were hustling around trying to fill the orders of their customers. The longer tables were also filled with patrons. One long table in particular, was laden with dwarves drinking dwarven ale and singing of a grand adventure they had just returned from. Saldez held his breath as he passed them as they smelled of swamp and bog water.
In the rear of the tavern was a private dinning room with one long table set in it. Saldez pushed the door open lightly and peered in to see if his uncle was there. "We need more wine and more bread!" A booming male voice declared before its owner could see Saldez.
In the center of the table lengthwise, sat Popi, a middle-aged halfling with a double chin and a puffy face. His silver hair grew only on the sides of his head, leaving the rest quite bald and shiny, and his beady dark eyes were set way back in his head. The man recognized that the person entering was his nephew and not a waitress as he had hoped.
"Sal my boy!" He greeted the young halfling, "make yerself useful and fetch me a waitress!"
Turning around to search for a waitress, Saldez thought that he might argue the point, but decided against it. Bad news is best served with more wine, he reasoned, and he flagged a busy, tired waitress down. He ordered the bread and wine and awarded the tavern maid a few extra coins for the trouble.
"She’s on her way uncle." Saldez said as he entered the room again. On either side of Popi, were two very young and beautiful girls, twins, Saldez realized. They each had long brown hair and brown eyes, and wore matching toga dresses that had been dyed a beautiful light green. On Popi’s right the twin sat pouring what was left of the flask of wine into his glass. On his left, the twin was standing over him pulling grapes off of their stems.
Saldez bowed a bit to the ladies, and addressed Popi, "I am afraid I have grave news Uncle," Saldez began uncomfortably, not wanting to discuss business in front of anyone other than family. He looked to the girls and then back at Popi who immediately understood.
"Ladies, take a breather!" Smiling and waving to the twins he said, "yes goodbye beautiful girls…" He wiped his face and mouth with a napkin, and threw it down on the table as the twins made their way past Saldez, smiling at him and giggling to each other a bit as they did. "Now," he began, "what’s so bloody important that my lunch must be disturbed?" Saldez explained the situation, and watched his uncle’s face turn to a look of utter disgust.
"Aye, things were too good for too long," Popi reasoned, "It was only a matter of time before the Dassk showed their ugly, thieving heads." He fixed Saldez with a serious expression, "what do you want to do boy?"
He leaned across the table to his great uncle, "let me use the boys, Popi, let me take back the field before it is too late!"
Looking down at his wine and swirling it experimentally, Popi retorted, "it may already be too late Sal, going back to the gorge is certain death, even with an army, and what are ye to do even in that case?" The man argued, "You gonna make such a ruckus that all o’ Stormreach is gonna come running after ye! Is that what you want fer yer family son?" Popi fixed the young halfling with a look that suggested he wanted Saldez to think of another option.
Never wavering in his stance, or looking away, Saldez answered. "So the field is lost then Uncle? Without a fight?" He could not believe the Boromars of Stormreach would be taken advantage of so easily.
"Did ye hear me say that boy?" Popi scolded his nephew. "Stop letting yer anger do the thinking, and start looking at the long term." Popi leaned forward and explained further, "If you think you got what it takes to reason with a stinking Dassk and work out a deal, then go ahead and do it!" He pointed a finger in warning at Saldez as he spoke, "you’ll be dead afor the first words get passed yer lips! Yer in over yer head boy, and there ain’t no easy way out of this mess."
Saldez looked down trying to understand why his uncle would not be faster to defend his own territory, and then asked, "what if I am unsuccessful in negotiating with them Uncle?
"Have ye not heard a word I’ve said boy?" Popi yelled at him, "Let me give this one to ye slow so there’s no mistake. I don’t want those bloody ogres making even one copper off of Boromar labor." He lowered his voice and leaned very close to Saldez across the table, "you get it all back, or ye burn it, all of it, and better luck next harvest." Popi concluded implying that this would be a very costly lesson for the handsome halfling, and with a sharp wave of his hand, he dismissed his nephew.
Saldez walked out of the dinning area into the tavern. He could not understand why Popi would so easily let go of so much profit, but he also understood that his great uncle did not come by his position lightly.
The twins placed them selves in front of him as he was making his way to the tavern’s door, "Are you leaving so soon Master Saldez?" One of them asked. The second twin came very close to her sister and placed her arm around the girl’s waste suggestively and pressed her forehead against the girl’s cheek.
"Can’t you stay a bit longer?" The other twin added.
He bowed slightly and smiled, "ladies I am afraid I cannot, I have pressing business that wont wait."
They frowned slightly, and the first twin remarked, "then let us wish you luck for your next race." The girls flanked him on either side, and lightly kissed his cheeks simultaneously running a hand over his shoulder and down his back.
"There’s more luck where that came from." The second twin whispered very close to his ear, and the girls walked back toward the private dinning room.
Saldez looked around and realized that a dozen or so envious patrons were watching him intently. One halfling male wearing glasses and sitting alone was shaking his head in harsh judgement. Saldez realized he was one of the writers for the Stormreach Chronicle, most likely preparing his next scandalous story fueling evidence that the halfling was a playboy. Saldez shook his head in utter disbelief of how he manages to get himself into such messes. He left the tavern and made his way down the long path that would take him out of the gates of Kundrak.
His cousin Telano was waiting for him just on the other side of the gate. "There you are!" Telano exclaimed, "I was afraid I might have missed you!" Telano seemed anxious to share information.
"What news cousin?" Saldez asked, not wanting to spill Popi’s cryptic orders to the man just yet.
"I have a name, of the man who is managing Dassk interests in Stormreach." He explained. "He’s a thug, and rumored to be an escaped prisoner, but from where my sources could not say." Telano admitted, "in any case, his name is Corvile. We might find him doing business at the Leaky Dingy or in the harbor along the warehouse district."
Saldez flinched, the last time he had been to the harbor, he had to battle with the Halfling War Counsel for his life as well as Morah’s. It was a sticky situation he did not want to repeat, and the Stormreach harbor was far from his favorite place.
"Did you get permission from Popi to use the men?" Telano added hopefully. "When do we attack the Dassk?"
Saldez explained to his cousin what had transpired at his meeting with Popi. They walked along the West side of the Marketplace, making their way to Silversmith Road, which would lead them through the Marketplace proper, past the open-air vendors that was overlooked by Lessah’s small apartment, and through the city gates to the harbor district.