As evening fell on Dargon City, the merchants closed their shops and a multitude of people made their way home. Envy crept into Lylle as he watched them pass by. Damn Art, he thought. While he had no home to go to, at least he wouldn’t be dragged into a different inn every night. Lylle looked over at Art and cursed again.
“What?” Art stopped and questioned. Lylle hadn’t realized that he had spoken aloud.
“Um, nothin’ Art. I was just clearing my throat,” Lylle quickly said as he slipped a little more into the shadows.
“Let’s go,” Art ordered and started walking again. Lylle followed and thought about his predicament. He had lived on the streets as long as he could remember. He would just have to weather this out. One of the rules he had learned was not to get into fights with opponents who were larger and more powerful. Lylle broke that rule but only by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lylle fell back onto the next rule. Go along with the more powerful opponent until there is an opening. Lylle hoped that an opening would appear before he angered Art too much and ended up with a severe beating.
“Get out of da shadows,” Art ordered. “We’re almost late. If’n we don’t get more’n a couple of Rand silver this time, you’re gonna get pounded. Ya need ta tell it better. Add somethin’ ta it,” Art said.
“Aw, Art, you know I’m no good at this story tellin’,” Lylle whined.
“Ya gonna go through that door or am I gonna have ta boot ya in?” Art threatened. A lump formed in Lylle ‘s throat as he opened the door to the inn.
Waves of laughter, shouting and music assaulted him. The inn was crowded. Lylle stopped just inside the door, unsure of where to go when several people noticed him and made a path to the bar. He was just a bit uncomfortable with his newfound fame. If it wasn’t for Art and the money, Lylle wouldn’t be here. He couldn’t believe that just a short time ago, he was just another shadow boy living on the streets. He knew the strangers were not from around Dargon City, but he would never have guessed that these two strangers would put him in the spotlight. Two strangers and Art, he corrected himself.
“Tender, Lylle ‘s glass’s empty. Jus keep it full ’til this Rand silver’s gone,” a patron yelled. “Now, Lylle, yer gonna tell us yer story or not? I heard ya wuz at da Shattered Shfere de other nite tellin all ya knew. People said yer story was a good’un. It’d better be or I’ll wring my shilver outta yer hide.”
“If you’ll quit yellin’ at me, Ian, I’ll tell it,” Lylle said. As Ian settled back, the bar became quiet and Lylle began.
“It was just before midday and I was starting to get hungry so I was making my way over to the main gates to, um, lighten people’s burdens, if’n you follow me. Just as I get there, in comes two visitors. Now we get visitors here all the time, but these two were stranger than usual. He was dressed in worn leather and cloth with boots that looked like they had seen many leagues. And the dust, whew! Both of ‘em covered head to toe in it. They must have rolled in it to get it that thick on them. The dust was so bad, you really couldn’t get a good look at him. He walked oddly enough with that wooden cane, but there was something else odd about him that you couldn’t put your finger on right away. It took me a while before I realized that it was the way he walked. The only way I could describe it was that he walked softly. I mean his head and body didn’t bob like most people’s do. It was as if he didn’t even disturb the air when he walked. With him lookin like he walked half of ‘diar, I just figured that must be the way you get when you walk a long ways. As odd as he was, though, his companion was even odder. You almost couldn’t tell if it was a he or a she from the cape and hood that covered most of her. Yeah, it was a her. You could see the boots right enough. From the dust they looked red, but I’d bet they were pink. Pink boots with frilled lace around them and a bow-tied ribbon on the front. No self-respecting man would be caught dead in them, but you never know around here,” Lylle said and winked. There was a ripple of laughter through the crowd. Lylle sipped his beer and started his tale again.
“Every now and then the cape would open some and give you a glance inside. Never the hood, mind you, just the cape. Looked like a real nice blue silk blouse she was wearin’. She walked beside him with her arm in his and her head tilted toward the ground. Her hands looked delicate and she had long, slender fingers. She was slouched some so that you couldn’t tell how tall she was, but I would’ve bet that she was taller than him when she straightened. A lot of the onlookers thought she was blind, but they were wrong. No, she wasn’t blind. It may have looked that way to most, but the thieves and robbers could tell. They’re always looking for an easy mark. They knew. So did I. I guess I’d been on the street too long, because I saw that she didn’t stumble over anything as she walked. Even if you can see and you aren’t watching, it’s easy to stumble on that street. She just walked beside him with her head down.
“Since I was hungry and they were new, it didn’t take much courage on my part to stop them. My stomach dealt with that. I ran over to them and asked them if they needed a guide through our city. I gave them the usual pitch. He stopped and looked at me. I mean he really looked at me. Scared me so bad, I almost ran then and there. Most of the new people hardly give me a second glance and then it’s just a passing one. He seemed to be searching my soul, like I had one. It was like I was being judged and if I failed, well, I believe he would have killed me. If I wasn’t so scared I could have told him he was wasting his time. Then he asked me where a safe inn was. A not-so-expensive safe inn, located away from the bad sections of town. I told him I could take him there for a few Rand coppers. He handed me ten and motioned me forward. I led him towards May’s place. She never liked me much but the stranger had paid and it was what he wanted. Everything would have been fine except we ran into Art. Or rather Art ran into the stranger.”
“Is that right, Art?” one of the patrons asked Art. Art was sitting at the bar next to Lylle.
“Let Lylle tell some more and then I’ll add my piece,” Art said and glanced suspiciously at Lylle.
“Yeah, shuttup and let Lylle say some more,” came a voice from the back of the group.
“Anyway,” Lylle said, ” Art ‘s got a way of bullying those smaller than him. And as you can see, that includes most people. Art comes around the corner and sees the stranger. He puffs his chest and bumps into the stranger, pretending he didn’t do it on purpose. The man stops and looks at Art all the while Art is telling the man he had better apologize. And then all of a sudden the man shoves the point of his cane into Art ‘s gut. Art gives a whoosh and starts to bend over, but before he gets too far the stranger reverses the cane and strikes Art right between the eyes. Next thing I know, Art hits the ground on his rear and has that far-away look in his eyes.” Lylle sipped his beer and quickly glanced at Art. Make something up, Art had said. Lylle could see the hostility in Art ‘s eyes. He hoped that this small satisfaction would ease the pounding he would get.
” Art finally shakes his head and starts to get up. That’s when the stranger did something weird. He knelt down so that he was at Art ‘s level and was close to Art. No one I know gets close to Art willingly, but this man did. To make matters worse, I could tell Art was getting real mad. This stranger leaned a little closer, looked in Art ‘s eyes, and said something that only Art could hear. Art ‘s face went white. He looked in the stranger’s eyes and then down at the cane and finally back to the stranger’s face. Art didn’t look into his eyes again. I understood why, but you’d have to be on the receiving end of one of those looks. The stranger stands up again and takes the lady’s arm in his and walks away from Art. I didn’t want to stay around and feel Art ‘s anger so I led them to May’s place. I, um, brought Art here with me to tell you his side of what happened, ” Lylle said and looked to Art.
Art looked back and his eyes narrowed in anger. Then he stepped off the barstool and those who had doubted his size before, now got a good look at him. Art stood around six feet tall and had broad shoulders. He had no beard to hide his square jaw. Cords of muscle ran down his arms to thick wrists and large hands. His leather pants were large and baggy to fit his muscular legs. While Art was large and imposing, most people had never heard about fights involving him. Of course, most people took one look at Art and didn’t care to find out how good of a fighter he was.
“It wasn’t a great morning and something was itchin’ my craw,” Art began. “I came around the corner and saw Lylle here leading two scraggly, flea-bitten strangers down the road. They just looked, I dunno what they were, but they made that itch in my craw turn sour, so’s I bump into the man. I should have known things weren’t right when he didn’t fall down. I put a lot of weight behind my bumping inta him because I had a bad morning and he was makin’ it worse, but he didn’t fall down. That just gets me madder, so’s I start yelling at him. I never would have guessed the little man would fight back. Anyways, he gets the jump on me and jabs that stick inta my gut and the next thing I know is that I’m on my rear end in the street. When I think about it, I never even felt that stick hit me between the eyes. So’s here I am sitting in the dirt looking up at this stranger. So’s I start thinkin’ about what happened and I start gettin’ real mad. This guy is in for a pounding, I think to myself. Just when I start ta get up and give him this pounding, he kneels down in front of me. I’m thinkin’ that this guy is crazy. He’s got to be crazy gettin’ that close to me, I’m thinkin’, and then he looks me in the eyes. Lylle here is right. He looks deep inside you. It’s like he’s looking for something and you don’t wanna be the one who has it. So’s he looks me in the eyes, and then he tells me that he could easily have hit me in the throat, both times. And he emphasized easily so’s that I knew it didn’t matter one way or the other ta him whether I was alive or dead and that the next time would be dead and he wouldn’t even be breathin’ hard when he did it. He said a lot in that one word, or maybe it was his eyes. I don’t know. I just know I looked down at that stick and it looked a whole lot bigger. I swallowed hard and looked back up at him, only I couldn’t bring myself ta look in his eyes again. Then he got up and walked away, leavin’ me in the dirt and there ain’t been no happier place I wanted to be,” Art said and finished his beer in one gulp. “And just because there was one person in this city,” Art thundered, “who got the drop on me and kept it doesn’t mean that I can’t pound any of you two bit, scrawny, raggedy excuses fer men inta the floor.” Just to emphasize his point, Art squeezed his thick mug until it shattered in his hand.
Art had incorporated the added something as well as he could, Lylle noticed. If anything, the crowd seemed to enjoy this version better than last night’s crowd. More enjoyment meant more money meant no pounding, Lylle hoped.
The room was quiet for a few moments and Lylle gave them no more than that few moments before he began his tale again and pulled the group deeper into his story.
“If you thought the fight with Art was something, then you just keep listening ’cause it gets a lot better. I led those two down to May’s place. We get there and the stranger looks up at the sign and stops. He looks down at me and I thought I was dead. I looked into his eyes like a fool and I saw my death in them. I started silently praying to any god that would hear me, and then I started praying to them by name. I don’t know who or what saved me, but the stranger’s eyes softened some. Then he muttered something that I almost didn’t catch, but I caught part of it,” Lylle said and then paused to drink his beer. He found that his glass was empty. Before he could say anything, Art spoke up.
” Ian told ya ta keep that glass full, bartender. If’n ya can’t do that, I’m gonna give ya a thumpin’ you’ll never forget. And get me one while yer at it,” Art told the bartender. The stranger may not have feared Art, but the bartender was a different story. He set two mugs in front of Lylle and filled them both full and then he set one of his largest mugs full of ale in front of Art. Lylle smiled inwardly. He would be swaggering drunk when this was through.
“Listen up then and I’ll tell you true. What I heard was this, ‘… he couldn’t of known, not his fault. Maybe this time, the sign is a good omen.’ I didn’t understand at the time what he was talking about, only that I would live. That and I was glad I hadn’t eaten in a while cause for sure I woulda had to take a trip down to the river to clean up afterwards,” Lylle said smiling. Laughter broke out among the crowd and continued on for a little while. A shout stopped the laughter and brought more questions.
“What did the sign say, Lylle. What did the sign say and what did it mean?” the man in the back asked.
“I guess I shouldn’t have expected all of you to have been to May’s. Her place being upstanding and all,” Lylle said and continued before anyone had a chance to speak. ” May’s place is called Spirit’s Haven. As for what it means, I guess you’ll just have to ask the stranger that. Now, where was I? Oh, yeah, we were at May’s and I opened the door for them. The stranger just stands there and ushers me in, so I go in first and just my luck, May is walking out. Caught on the cliff between the city guard and the sea, I was. With May not liking me and all, she starts to say something. It was the stranger who stopped her. He tells her that it was he who brought me there and that he only wanted a room and a meal for a few days. I thought that May was going to throw us all out, but she didn’t. Now for those of you who don’t know May, she can tell the good from the bad at a glance. May ‘s been known to spot a thief before he even knows he is going to steal. That’s why May’s place is so nice and upstanding. It’s been rumoured that some royalty has even stayed there. When May let them stay, I thought that either May had finally gone deep into the sea or that these two strangers were all right. I didn’t care much one way or the other as I had my money and I wanted rid of that man. I started to leave and stopped when he said wait. I turned around and he asked me my name. I knew that lying to him wouldn’t be good so I told him the truth. He asked me to come back the next morning and be his guide. I should have said no and stayed clear of him, but for some reason I couldn’t. Maybe it was the extra money he gave me or the way he treated me, but I said yes and ran out of there. I don’t know what went on after that in May’s place. Something happened, that I know, but I never could find out what. I tried everything I could to find out. I even took one of May ‘s lectures after I asked her what happened …”
“So have you walked the straight and narrow since then, Lylle?” a member of the crowd jeered.
“Hmmph, I see I haven’t been the only one to receive a lecture from May. It’ll take more than May to make me curb my ways,” Lylle retorted.
“Aw, shuttup already. We want to hear about the strangers, especially the female one. I heard some rumours about her,” yelled the man in the back. It was the same man who kept pushing Lylle to tell his story. Strange, he thought, and then turned his attention back to the story as murmurs of assent ran through the crowd.
“It was just after sunrise when I returned to May’s. I opened the door and peered inside. When I saw the stranger and the lady sitting at a table having breakfast, I knew it was safe to enter. When I got to the table, the stranger asked me to sit down. When I did, he asked if I would like some breakfast. The funny thing about this stranger was that for all his outward appearance and his fighting ability he spoke with a soft voice. Not a tint of hardness to it at all.
“It was at breakfast that I finally got some glimpses of the lady’s face. Not many, mind you, but some. That damned hood covered a lot. She was pale and fair-skinned for what I could see and not a hint of any type of facial coverings or perfumes that I could detect. She ate in a slow rhythmic pace. Her fingers were long and slender. She had beautiful hands from what you could see, although her hands were pale. And she did everything the stranger said. I noticed that more and more as I was with them. He told her to stop eating, drink, wipe her mouth, stop, start and a lot of other things. When he took her hand or arm, she followed where he went. I swear he acted like she was an imbecile and blind, but she acted like a broken slave and I never heard her say a word. She was more mysterious than he was.
“The first thing he wanted to do after we ate, was to visit certain temples, so we did. He had me wait outside while he went inside. I asked around afterwards about what happened, but he always insisted on talking to the main priests of each temple, and you know they won’t say anything about what he said. Damn tight-lipped priests. What’s the good of knowing important things if you can’t sell them? After we visited the temples, he asked about mages. Where they could be found and he didn’t want to see the fake ones. That point was made very clear, not that I would try to give him the run-around. I wasn’t that stupid. I told him that I would need to ask around some and that would cost money. He handed me some Rand copper and two Rand silver coins. The thought of running with the money entered my mind and left seconds later as I thought about it. He would find me, I don’t doubt. To make it short, I found the whereabouts of a few good mages and offered him the change that I had. He told me to keep it. I didn’t argue with him. It was the same with the mages. I stayed outside while he went inside. It was on our trip to a mage that we had to go into the bad part of town. That was the trip I’ll not forget. Well, one of them at least. We were walking down an alley full of drunks and winos when four of the bums got up in front of us. The first one grabbed me and threw me into the wall. I hit the wall and fell to the ground. I knew better than to get up, so I stayed down and watched. These four bums turned out not to be bums after all, but thieves and robbers, or so I thought. This is about how it went and I swear that these are the exact words:
“Ye be the one named Raphael,” the leader asked as his companions fanned out beside him. The alley was wide enough so that three of them stood side by side and the fourth stood behind them in the middle. The three in the front were armed with short and long daggers, while the one in the back readied a crossbow. Raphael studied the three men in front and then glanced at the fourth man in the back before he answered the leader.
“You have his tint about you,” Raphael said. I had not thought his reach would extend this far. I offer you the same that I offer all who have been touched by him. Leave now and you leave alive.”
“We’ll leave, right enough. After yer dead,” the leader began. He didn’t get to complete his thought as Raphael had pushed his stick into his stomach. The leader was expecting something and grabbed the end of the stick and smiled. Raphael pushed and the leader stumbled backwards still holding the stick. I had thought that the stick had broken because there was a small sound like a snap or click and Raphael turned to the right, with what looked like a part of the stick, and kicked out with his left foot catching a thief in the gut. The leader had regained his balance and stopped as he watched the head of the man to his left fall to the ground. There was a sword in that stick. The click was the sound of it coming out of the cane. It was that slight pause that cost him his life as Raphael never stopped. Just as his sword finished the cut, Raphael reversed his turn and thrust the sword into the leader’s heart and left it there as he dropped to the ground. The dagger just missed him from the attack by the thief that Raphael had kicked. Raphael punched upward into the thief’s crotch. When the thief bent over, Raphael grabbed him and sent him flying up and over into the last thief holding the crossbow. Both thieves went down. Raphael retrieved his sword and killed them both while they were down. The whole thing had taken only seconds by my reckoning.
“He killed all four of them?” someone asked incredulously.
“All four of them and he made it look easy. Afterwards, he searched their pockets and took what he wanted including their money. He gestured onward to me and he acted like nothing out of the ordinary happened. I’ve seen death and dying, but this was different. The only thing I can remember that came close was some of the soldiers returning from war who had gotten used to the killing. Even then, I don’t remember them acting like he did. He had no remorse or compassion for what he had done. He acted like it was something that he had to do and so it was done. Made me sick, it did. I threw up all over the place. After I was done and opened my eyes, I saw that my vomit had mixed in with the blood and I got sick all over again. Finally, I stood up and there he was, just standing there waiting for me. He turned and took the lady’s arm in his and motioned me down the alley. I led him to the rest of the places and when we got back to Spirit’s Haven, I told him I wasn’t coming back in the morning. Come inside, eat with me and I will explain some things to you, he said. I owe you that much, he said. I wanted to run, but the curiosity in me took over so I went inside. He sat the lady down and made sure she was fine before he sat down. We ordered and he told me some things,” Lylle said and paused as he drank his beer. Murmurs echoed through the crowd with what did he say and I heard this and I heard that.
“This story sure makes a boy hungry,” Lylle hinted.
“You finish it and I’ll buy you dinner and some wine,” the man in back called. It seemed to Lylle that this man must have something to do with the stranger. He’d find out when the man bought him dinner, Lylle thought.
“He said he owed me some explanation and what I got was some explanation alright. What he told me was like a tale a mother would tell her child to frighten them into obedience. He said he had a best friend growing up. While he learned fighting, his friend learned magic, but the magic changed him. They were slowly separating as they grew older, but most of the friendship stayed. Then a woman walked into their life and things went from good to worse. They both loved her, he said, and she loved only him. Years went on and the mage’s lust and rage grew along with his power. He said that finally the mage acted. He didn’t say what happened, but it must have been horrible because for the first time, his eyes looked different.
“He stopped talking at that point and there was a sadness in him that overshadowed all else. Ever since then, he said, he had been chased and hounded by men. He learned that the mage was behind all the attacks by these men. It was always the same. The men would not stop until they were dead. Distances didn’t seem to matter to them, as they would follow until they caught up to him. He said he didn’t know how many men he killed, but that it was many before he saw the taint left behind by the mage on the men. It was many more before he could see it all the time. They never left him any choice but to kill them. He was going to say more when the three of the City Guard showed up to arrest him.
“I thought it was awful quick of them to show up. Then I heard him whisper something that froze my blood. He said, ‘The leader has the taint.’ He left his stick against his chair and moved toward them. He was quick. He reached them before they knew what to do. Some of those men were big, but it didn’t seem to bother him. He never stopped moving and the guards seemed to just stumble around him. Just when I thought a guard had him, he would step aside and turn sending the guard sprawling. He would use one guard to smash into the others. It lasted longer than his previous fight, but he didn’t kill anyone this time. Oh, there were some broken bones and whatnot, but no deaths. He looked at me and said it would not be wise to kill a guard here at this time. Later, he said. He took the lady, his stick, and left out the back. I never saw him again and I think he’s left Dargon,” Lylle finished. There was silence in the crowd and Lylle thought he was in trouble. Maybe it wasn’t good enough for them, he thought, but his fears were dismissed as the crowd slowly smiled and people thanked him for the tale. Lylle collected the money that was given him and put it in a purse at his side.
Everyone left but one man and Art. Art stood up and grabbed Lylle ‘s arm.
“How much did we get?” Art asked.
“I don’t know,” Lylle answered.
“Don’ give me that. You knew how much ‘fore the coins hit the bottom of yer purse. Now empty that purse and let me count ‘em,” Art ordered. Lylle emptied the purse on the bar and Art counted the money. Art took all the silver and left the coppers. “Not bad for talkin’,” Art said and left. The man who stayed waited until Art had gone and then approached Lylle.
“I owe you a dinner, boy, and I aim to pay, but not here. I know a place that has better food,” the man said. Lylle knew it was the same man that had urged him on most of the night. A dinner sounded good, Lylle ‘s stomach argued. Besides, Lylle thought, I may get to find out why this man wants to know so much about the stranger. They walked out of the inn into the night headed for their agreed upon dinner. Lylle was thinking about how to dissolve the partnership with Art without getting trounced and didn’t notice where they were going.
“Now, boy,” the man said as he grabbed Lylle, “you’re going to take me to him. If you don’t know where he is, you’d better find him. You don’t find him, I’m going to kill you … ” He never finished his sentence as a sword in the back silenced his last words. As the man fell, Lylle saw his saviour and grimaced.
“I know, I know,” Lylle said,” he had the taint.” For the first time, Lylle saw the stranger smile briefly.
“You tell a fair story, but you’re slipping in the survival area. And four thieves? I don’t remember more than two, and one of them seemed to suddenly trip at the right moment. Well, maybe the fame will help dissuade others. They never stop and they do whatever they can to find me. Even though he is disguised, if you look closer, you will recognize him,” Raphael said. When Lylle first looked at the dead man, he did not recognize him. Remembering what Raphael had said about the men with the taint never stopping, Lylle looked at the dead man closer and saw that it was the guard who had come to arrest Raphael at May’s place.
“I owe you much, Lylle of Dargon. I will owe you much more, I hope, in the coming future. I need you to be my eyes and ears here in Dargon. I am looking for something, or more precisely, someone. I will pay very well for this information. Without me here, the risks are small. Will you keep my secret and help me?” Raphael asked. Lylle didn’t have to think about the answer.
“Yes,” he said,” but you have to help me with Art.”
“Agreed,” Raphael said smiling. “Let’s go and I’ll buy the dinner owed you.”
“Hey, where’s Megan?” Lylle asked as he finally realized that Megan was not with Raphael.
“Safe at Spirit’s Haven,” Raphael answered.
“May’s!” Lylle whined as he started to follow Raphael into the shadows.