As the fifth day after the initial summons drew to a close, the Council surveyed the small band of mercenaries who stood before them. After nearly a week of harrowing investigations and debate, the pool of candidates had been sifted out until only six remained: Selas, the middle-aged human mercenary; Clayton, the young forest ranger; Jill the Librarian, representative of the dwarfs; Prince Søren, representative of the Etelä; Taberlin, the defunct and default representative of the Elves; and Halvin, the mysterious vagabond. From among all the throng who had opted to offer their services, only these six received the approval of the Council to undertake this mission. On the morrow these volunteers, coming from such widely varying backgrounds, would embark together on a journey from which it was quite possible they might never return.
As the session drew to a close, Supreme Chancellor Alveris stood to address these brave souls on behalf of the Council:
“Friends, we thank you for your patience in putting up with our deliberations and proceedings. More than that, we thank you for offering your lives and services to us for this mission. Of the many applicants who have swarmed Algaman these past few days, the Council has deemed you six alone to be qualified and suitable to undertake this quest. Know that we of the Council are incredibly grateful for your service, and that we believe the day will soon come when all of Narod Rada – and perhaps the world – will share in this gratitude towards you.
You all know why you are here: A star has fallen into the farmlands west of here, over a month ago now. What you may not know is that this is not the only reason you are here. I think you should be aware that another group of soldiers had already been sent out before you. However, we have not heard back from them, and therefore we are sending you out after them. They were a group of stout fighters, yet not one of them has returned or been heard from since.
So know that this mission you set out on upon the morrow is fraught with danger and shall require the skills of each and every one of you. But let none of you feel him – or her – self superfluous, nor let any of you suppose your comrades to be such. You embark on this journey as a team, and a team you must remain, for you will all need each other before the end comes. Therefore trust each other, even when you cannot trust yourself – for not all you will encounter will be as it seems.
We are depending on you to seek out and eliminate this impending threat lurking in the West. I fear the survival of Narod Rada itself may be in the balance, so I beseech you to do your utmost to fulfill your task. Be strong and very courageous, and may Al Nirrin bless your journey.”
After the Chancellor’s speech, each of the remaining Council Members in turn took it upon themselves to speak a few words of encouragement and exhortation to the emissaries. Some of the more long-winded Council Members (in particular Boyle) spoke a great deal more than a few words, much to the annoyance of everyone else present. However, at last even the rambling Boyle brought his speech to a close, and the day’s proceedings officially came to an end. Hereupon Alveris clapped his hands, calling everyone’s attention back to him.
“Very well, my friends, we have done a good day’s work,” he announced. “Now it is time for some feasting and refreshment before our worthy mercenaries retire for the night, in preparation for their departure tomorrow.” Here he turned to the mercenaries. “I would be honored if you would all join me for some repast and conversation at my table this evening. Thus you may all make each other’s’ acquaintance before you set out on your journey in the morning. For travel is always more pleasant in the company of friends than that of strangers, is it not?” The Chancellor smiled amicably.
A tall, dark-haired servant appeared and bowed politely. “Stephanus here will lead you to my quarters, where a feast has been prepared for your entertainment. I myself will join you there shortly,” Alveris stated. Stephanus bowed again and motioned for the chosen six to follow him. He led them out the door of the Conference Room and down a few flights of stairs to quarters reserved for the Supreme Chancellor.
The mercenaries were ushered into a simple but elegant room of white alabaster walls and an ebony tiled floor. A single crystal chandelier, reflecting all the shades and nuances of the rainbow, hung suspended above a spacious mahogany table. But what was of most interest to Taberlin was that this table was spread with a diverse assortment of meats, breads, wines, and other edibles. At the sight of this bounty, he put a hand on his stomach and looked reproachfully at his midsection for the loud growling noises it was emitting at that moment.
While they waited for the Chancellor to arrive, Stephanus showed them to their seats. In a few minutes Alveris joined them and sat down at the table.
“I have tried to provide you all with such foods as you are accustomed to in your own lands,” he remarked, nodding at the dishes on the table, “but I am afraid it may not be quite the same as you are used to. Nevertheless, I hope you will find it to your liking.”
The way that Taberlin was heaping food on his plate and shoveling it into his mouth indicated that it was indeed very much to his liking.
Selas looked around and was not quite certain on what criterias the council chose the other mercenaries, but it was completely different from all the other missions he had been to. Do they have actual battle experience? Are they tough enough for such a long journey, not to mention the battles and the hardships they will face. His gaze came to a halt on Søren.
‘Søren, I believe, yes? You sure look like your blade knows battle. Does your kin also know how to fight in a group of people?’ he asked with a hint of scepticism in his voice.
“Don’t worry about that; human.” , Søren replied with a stern face, “We Etelä have an ancient tradition of hunting together. Have you not heard of what my people did to the hordes of the undead when they tried to invade this country from the east? I will fight alongside with you; if you prove worthy.
“They talk about you, Selas Serawen, good things and bad, but they all agree on one thing: You are tough. I shall look forward to see you in action, and if you can live up to that reputation.”
“I don’t have to prove anything to you, proud Etelä. What if there are others in our group that don’t live up to your expectations? Do you just leave them behind?” Selas stared him provocatively in the eyes. It was dead silent.
Even Taberlin stopped chewing for a minute and looked quizzically back and forth between the two proud warriors. Holding up a plate of desserts, he broke the awkward silence the only way he could think of: “Pie, anyone?”
Søren looked at Taberlin, then back to Selas, and then back to Taberlin. For a moment he sat there silently, looking at both of them.Then he burst out into loud laughter.
“Sure, I will take a slice.”, and with another laughter he turned to Selas, “Here, take some pie as well, my friend. Don’t worry, we shall become as a family in these next week, and in a family the stronger protect the weaker.”
With this last sentence Søren had thrown a quick look at the female dwarf sitting on the other side of the table, but he did not let his eyes linger on her. He then brought his attention down to the pie in front of him, signalising that, for him the issue had been resolved in this moment.
Taberlin’s grin stretched from ear to pointed ear at the apparent success of his fumbled peace-making attempt. “Anyone else want pie? Jill? Halvin? Clayton?”
It was not the offering in itself that took Jill aback, but the simple fact to be addressed so bluntly by the elf. Of course she had tried to prepare herself for all the kinds of characters that she could encounter in this group, but she had to admit to herself that there were more barriers to overcome for here than she could have imagined. One of these was apparently that she was used to be addressed as ‘Miss’ for as long as she could remember – some basic rules of decency she now noticed that she valued very deeply and which seemed completely unknown or at least unfamiliar to the volatile elf. She wrote the feelings of offense away and put on a small smile:
“Why thank you, Mister Taberlin.”, she said, with little hope her subtle lesson on politeness would leave any trace in the elfs mind but also unable to not at least try. Also the pie looked and smelled glorious.
She had been seated at the edge on the back, a sign that the table master showed some understanding to her situation as the only female (and smallest) member of the group by not squeezing her right between all the longlegs. Someone had found an old dwarfen chair that was high enough for her to reach the foods. The elf had been seated in front of her, though he hardly stayed at his seat. So she turned to her right, where the one named Halvin sat, having said no word so far. She noticed him looking at her though and didn’t know how to react. He was clearly far older than her, so she waited for him to take the word.
Halvin smiled while seizing the dwarf, noticing her efforts to establish the suavity she was obviously very familiar with. While Selas and Søren were talking to each other, with Taberlin being busy tasting all the food and Alveris talking his servants into serving more wine, Halvin quietly bent over and said: “Don’t worry, you will get used to that, since he will never get used to proper politeness.” He paused, just to see her reaction, and continued, “but I think you will amaze him anyway with your seven-league boots. It’s either that, or some big bird that must have brought you here in time, considering that dwarfs can’t fly on their own.”
“Now I don’t know if I should thank you or not, Mister Halvin, since you’re able to be simultaneously obliging and inquisitive.” Of all the questions he could have asked, this was the one she found the worst, although it was only natural to ask this, as everyone knew the Hills lay more than one week’s travel away from the capital. “However there hasn’t been need for any special boots or birds: I was sent ten days ago from now, as this was the time the summon reached the dwarfs.”
Again Halvin smiled to himself, for though Jill tried to not show anything of what was going on inside her, he could imagine very well.
“Excuse me young Lady for being so impolitely curious, I am just very surprised to see a delegate of the dwarfs. It’s been some years that I met with someone of your people, so my
understanding of the dwarfen suavity might be both rusty and obsolete.”
“I come to think you are not the only one who is surprised to see me – or any dwarf for that matter – at this table. And it’s me who has to ask forgiveness, I didn’t intend to be so tempered. It’s just all very different here from where I came from.” She pondered the next question for some time. “So you’ve been with dwarfs before, Mister Halvin. Where and when was that, if I am allowed to ask?”
“Of course you may ask. It has been quite some time now that I was able to enjoy the delightful company of a dwarf. The last time must have been three years ago, and if I remember correctly it was a rainy day at the northern banks of the Ishderen. But tell me, why did the proud and elegant dwarfs send such a nice young Lady to join such an apparently not so nice quest?”
“Well, the most obvious explanation would be that they deemed it the best choice. And in fact I am sorry to say that this is the only answer I can give you right now. But don’t worry about me. With all of you big guys around me I feel rather save, and if it comes to it I have means of my own to protect my life. Steel and bowstrings are not the only weapons in this world, you know?”
Selas dug his teeth deep into a chicken leg and savoured every second. It had been ages since he ate this good food. Living for himself he rarely cooked, and lately, he couldn’t afford such delicious meals. He looked up from his plate. “Søren. Forgive my harsh words. The world looks quite different now with excellent food in my stomach. I am sure you will contribute your best to the group, I would not think otherwise of you Etelä. I just had a rough time lately.” He grabbed a cup, let it be refilled by one of the servants and pointed it to Søren. “Valesh! Or how you would say…?”
“Skål!”, Søren exclaimed, as he raised his cup also towards Selas. “To your health, my friend. May your enemies fall before you as before me as well!”
The chatter and the feasting went on for a while until Jill, who had endured quite the journey, left the group to get enough rest for the coming days. Little by little the room emptied itself until only Selas and Halvin remained.