'Variations' are where story ideas find their first life. They are my attempt to suss out the way I want Tharia's stories to be told. As such, they will jump around a lot in place, in theme, in focus. Some will be long, and some will be very short. It depends on what I am trying to work through in my head. In any case, I hope that you enjoy them, and I encourage you to comment kindly and critique constructively.
Rohese pulled up hard on the reins of the drake, kicked its shoulder with the steel-shod heel of her left foot, and the beast snorted and made a wide turn. Looking down from this height the abandoned castle on its little island looked like a bleached pile of bones, smoldering in places, with what appeared to be tiny ants moving in the tangled mess of it. Grum flew beside her and motioned downward. She knew where to go. The rest of the party was already there, gathered on the far end of the old stone bridge that crossed to the island in the middle of the very broad but shallow Darrow River. Pi'liu, Krem, Randolf, and Rada had arrived earlier and set up a base camp. She had been flying most of the night, having been recruited in Opal by Grum while in her cups at the Prancing Wyvern tavern in the south of the great city.
Rohese and Grum had flown the vast distance to the castle at speed, taking turns dozing in their saddles along the way. The drakes were well trained, and would follow whichever had the lead while keeping its dozing rider in the saddle. Still, Rohese had never learned to sleep well while flying, and something about flying over the vastness of the Long Sea only made sleep that much harder to come by. Her joints ached from jerking awake so often, and as the morning light grew over the land she knew that she had a very full day ahead of her.
Rohese had known Grum for years, though they seldom crossed paths anymore. He was a tough old bear of a man, with more dungeoneering experience than most would survive. She'd been in some fairly dangerous spots with the Northerman, and trusted his abilities fairly as much as her own. Truthfully, perhaps a bit more under the circumstances.
They'd sat in a dark corner of the tavern where the light of its long room's lanterns fell dimly, he with a tankard of stout and she with a tall glass of an aromatic and heady port. Both their drinks all but perpetually filled by a barmaid at Grum's behest. He'd known just where to find her, it seemed, and then known just how to lure her in.
In adventurers' circles it was fairly easy to find one another. Grum had known he'd want Rohese's expertise, so he had put feelers out in Opal a month earlier. It was unlikely she'd be anywhere else, he reasoned. Opal was, as ever and always, the hub of the world's adventure business. He knew she'd been calling it home for many seasons. His only fear was that she would already be engaged in some other outing and away, unlikely to get any message for weeks or even months, but the realms had been quiet for a time and he doubted she'd be anywhere but in the tavern most often frequented by the adventuring kind. Within days he'd received word back from her and arranged to meet. However, he held off on setting a time for that while he gathered together the rest of his group. All trusted. All known to him. This was to be no casual outing, and he needed a solid party to assault the foes he reckoned they'd run into. He knew that Rohese would not readily agree to his proposition if they weren't ready to go. He also knew that too hard a sell would make him look desperate and breed suspicion and doubt in her mind. He needed good people in place.
"You're saying to me that dragonmen have gotten themselves a wyrm's egg in the belly of abandoned Cairnwall?" She stared openly, a look of near-disbelief on her face. "And you're wanting me to come along and see that it gets disposed of ere it's hatched? And to do that, I'll need to fight my way down with you and this group to where they're keeping it, somewhere in a dungeon you've got a partial map for—which you got from—?"
"A mercenary, named Larkin Boiler, who stole it from his former employer, a washed-up dungeon explorer from Grip On The Bell. Aye. What do you say?"
"I say you're going to woo me much better with treasure than alcohol," she said, raising an eyebrow. "I don't ever get drunk enough to sign on to anything, you know."
"Have I ever let you down, Rohese," he asked, mock plaintively, spreading his hands before him palms up.
She instinctively reached up to rub the long, gnarled scar along her shield arm's bicep. "No, Grum, I suppose you haven't. But by the Great Mother's spear!—you'd better have a really good crew for this outing. No recent greenhorns. Veterans! Hey?"
He looked at her levelly, his face serious and sober. "Have I ever, ever, let you down, woman?"
They'd gone back to her room at the nearby hostelry and he'd helped pack her gear while he told her of his picks for the party. She listened in near silence, seeming at times to not even be listening at all, though he knew she was already running scenarios in her head, sussing out strengths and weaknesses in his choices. "Don't worry about the ready supplies," he said, "We've got plenty. Krem made sure of that, and Rada made sure of Krem." She grunted her acknowledgement as she hefted her packs and moved past him to the door.
"Shut it, would you? Let's go," she said, and he'd smiled at her double entendre and followed.
When they at last set down near the group, at the end of the bridge farthest from Cairnwall, their mounts began hissing at the others there. This was normal for drakes. Given a day, they'd think nothing of sleeping on top of each other, but for the first hour or so they'd have to be kept separate. Rohese remembered her riding trainer telling her it was something to with scents. Only familiarity calmed their nerves. This was why it was common practice to leave an item of clothing, one belonging to a future owner, with a drake for a day or two before they were introduced. Nobody liked dealing with a drake cold, not even their own kind, although at least they were unlikely to throw breath at anyone or anything without real provocation.
She stroked her mount's long, scaly neck and patted its cool shoulder as she unclasped her bags. Its long nostrils flared as it eyed with suspicion the other drakes, whose cluster had become tighter as they stared back. "There, there," she said soothingly, "—you'll all be friends soon enough." She looked over at the rest of her party and sighed, wondering whether the drakes had it easier. Grum's descriptions of the group were full of details, but it was different seeing them in person. Krem and Grum were already talking, while Rada and Pi'liu readied breakfast. Randolf was off scouting their perimeter, Grum had said.
She ran down her mental checklist. Krem was "just another Northerman," as Grum put it, though of a different clan than Grum's. A swordsman. He used a very large greatsword deftly—as Grum used the longsword—and was also a skilled mountain climber. He wore his long blonde hair in twin braids and his beard was also braided a dozen times over, accenting more than concealing his thick neck. Grum, by comparison, was roughhewn and unkempt, and his hair was high copper. Not surprisingly, though, standing beside each other with their swords, the two looked like they might have been brothers otherwise. Rada was from East Realm, from the Kingdom Isle itself, a member of the kingdom's merchant class by birth. Since her early childhood, when she had shown certain talents, she had studied the healing arts and magics under paladin tutelage. By Isle standards Rada was diminutive at five and a half feet tall, but with her sapphire blue eyes and long, straight black hair she was strikingly beautiful. Her own luminous health was apparent and comforting. Pi'liu, a half-elf (her father a Black elf, her mother a human of West Realm), was both a superior archer and a skilled swordsman. What's more, she was also moderately skilled in the craft of mages. To Rohese she was very attractive. Her dark skin, her short white hair, her luminous green eyes, and the tattooed patterns that seemed to cover her, made it hard for her to look away. Pi'liu's buckler bore the sigil of the chieftain Jenna se Tharía: a black rook perched on a red, gauntleted fist, a silver snake writhing in its beak. Randolf was a ranger, a human born at the border of North and West Realms, in the mountains at the western end of the East-West range. Skilled as an archer, he also wielded a dual-bladed staff, a short sword, and any well-balanced dagger. Lots of steel, in one form or another, Rohese noted, and a dedicated healer.
Shading her eyes with her hands against the morning sun, she looked down the length of the quarter-mile bridge to where Cairnwall stood, its dirty, pale grey walls like dusty, discarded bone, its central roof collapsed, its gate like a hole broken through to the hollow spaces within. It stood upon an island in the river, the bridge slowly rising some thirty feet to meet it. The short drawbridge between the gate and the main bridge still remained, dilapidated but, according to Grum, usable for crossing over. Goblins used it now, and goblins guarded it, the pests. But whatever lay beneath Cairnwall was certainly worse than the goblins. If Grum was right, as he most certainly was, there were dragonmen down there with an egg they'd protect with their lives. And dragonmen knew how to guard their treasures.
Rohese sighed wearily. At least the daylight hours would keep the goblins off the bridge and out of any too bright space. She'd seen them moving about as she and Grum flew over on their approach—already they'd holed up inside the place—but the sun had not yet risen over the walls, and by now they'd be hidden in the dark recesses, waiting for the sun to pass away once more. This was going to be a long, long day. She turned and unhooked the buckles and loosed the straps of her bags from her drake, which turned its head and sniffed at her. "I know. I bet you smell goblins from here," she said, and the drake peered at the open gate, its eyes much better than hers. It snorted, and she rubbed its long snout. "We'll get them," she said, wishing she could dive on the goblins from above and burn them all to cinders. But drakes' breath was not so potent, and nobody used them for such exercises. As for wyrms, they were more dangerous than the spirit of fire itself.
She was just bringing her bags over to the little encampment when Randolf appeared beside her, almost as if he'd popped into existence that instant. She slowed her walk. Lanky and tall, he seemed more boyish than she thought he'd be. His wavy hair, an earthy brown, was close to his head. His face was round, near dusky in complexion, his eyes like a fawn's in color. He thought to see if he would startle her, she thought, annoyed that she'd slowed automatically. "So you're Rohese," he said, smiling. "Grum spoke of you at length. Said you'd be an asset to the cause. You didn't really startle. That seems promising."
"Aye," she said, looking at him through narrowed eyes. "You have odd manners, and that's the truth, Randolf—"
"Serriana," he said, his voice lowering. "Apologies. Meant no harm."
"It's all right," she said, curious about his odd mannerisms. The portmanteau that popped into her head was "gawkward." He didn't seem like a ranger. More like a thief. Yet his clothing was not suitable for a thief, and his weapons were not those of a thief.
"I'm not a thief," he said, as if answering her mind, and then she did startle, however momentarily, and then he laughed, though quietly. "I'm just odd is all." He smiled a warm, crooked smile. "I've been all around Ersa, parts of Sabon,—and Feraliss." Her eyes locked on his in an instant.
"Are you a storyteller, then? Is that it? Nobody goes to Feraliss." She turned from him and walked faster, now. He stayed beside her.
"Oh, no. Not a storyteller, if by that you mean a liar. That I'm not," Randolf said. "I've been to Feraliss. Not far into, mind you. Not far. But there. Cove of Kiffkkillann, named so by the Northermen in their linguistic convention. Someone like you, from the free-folk of East Realm, would know the name," he said, and she stopped in her tracks and looked at him again.
"Most assume I'm long from Opal and born thereabouts," she said. "My accent is from time living there and studied blending in. How did you arrive at my heritage so quickly? I look no more from there than Opal or its satellites." She already knew the answer, of course. He was, she saw, an accomplished ranger, however odd his mannerisms. But this only made her wonder all the more, because she realized he must then actually be serious about having landed in Feraliss. And how might that be? He was alive. It was a genuine paradox.
He waved his hands dismissively at her question. "Feraliss… was my initiation, my vision quest. I'm a ranger true enough," he said softly. She tilted her head at him. He looked about and lowered his voice further. "I am also a natural shaman," he added. And then suddenly—coincidentally?—Grum was snatching him by the elbow and leading him away while asking him a dozen questions about the party's plans, seemingly all at once. Mute, she watched Grum lead him away, back toward the drakes, as Krem walked toward her with greetings all in his manner.
She stood there alone for a moment, bewildered, trying to recollect where she'd been headed, as in her mind his last words echoed. She did not notice Pi'liu gazing at her.
"It's only grouse and greens with turnips, of course, but it's been seasoned well," Rada was saying as their little fire crackled and popped. There were a few grunts and words of assent. Everyone was focused on eating, and little conversation was being made. The drakes had noticeably calmed, and Pi'liu had cast a protective spell over the area that would turn away any notice of them as they waited on the shore of the river for the party's return, not that much might happen along that wouldn't simply wind up in drake scat.
This was the group's time of mental preparation. They'd eat, clean up, gear up, and head in, fairly certain that the goblins would have left the usual traps in the usual places. Randolf would disable these as he found them, but he'd have to do so stealthily. Not terribly smart pests, goblins, but dangerous in numbers. The joy goblins took in inflicting pain was never overstated. They even seemed to enjoy their own pain, even in extremis. Their traps and attacks reflected this. Yet they were to be the least of the party's worries up top. The dragonmen were allowing the goblins to live there as a living alarm. The smoke rising into the morning air, making a dull haze about Cairnwall, was not all coming from the goblins' little fires. The little beasts didn't trust fire outside very controlled circumstances, and only their leaders lit and tended them. No, much of the smoke in the air was coming up from below, rising from other sources. Down below was where the real worries waited.
With a brief nod to Grum, Randolf was the first to head off. He did not take the bridge, but headed to the water and waded out under the bridge. As the rest finished their preparations, he moved stealthily and surprisingly quickly to the other end of the bridge. Once there, he climbed up the nearly sheer wall where the drawbridge crossed over the remaining fifteen feet. Rohese, glancing up, saw him climb up, a little dark squiggle at this distance, noting that Grum and Krem saw also. She watched his tiny form standing beside the ruined gate a moment. It was impossible to tell from so far, but she was sure he was readying himself. Then he appeared to wave, slipped inside, and was gone. She finished buckling her plated boots as Krem put out the fire.
"All right, then," Grum said, looking at everyone to see that they were ready, "Let's go."
Grum and Krem walked side by side down the middle of the long bridge, followed by Pi'liu. Rada walked beside Rohese, quietly reciting words she could not understand. Above them stretched the vault of the sky, dotted this morning with small, puffy clouds here and there, like popcorn spilled on the Great Mother's blue skirt. The sun was already very warm. The day would grow hot. Yet Rohese felt the fatigue fading away as she walked. As she approached this challenge, she felt revived. Then a thought crossed her mind, and she looked over at Rada, who smiled at her.
"Feeling better," Rada asked. Rohese nodded and smiled back. "Good. We can't have anyone falling asleep in the middle of things."
"No. And fatigue blunts both alacrity and wits," Rohese said, and Rada nodded.
They walked on aways in silence, watching Cairnwall grow closer. "Whatever my skills—and they are at your service—they would serve no-one if I perished," Rada said quietly.
"No. That they wouldn't," Rohese said, returning her gaze to the backs of those ahead.
Like Cairnwall itself, the bridge was made of a grayish-white stone that seemed lightly dusted and smudged with soot. Up close, one could see that this was simply how the stone looked. But it was also no less apparent that no-one had regularly passed this way in a long time. Testifying to this, a tree had actually grown up out of a crack in the middle of the bridge, making room for itself by splintering the stone around it, widening the crack on either side. Between the edges of the gap nearest its trunk, roots could be seen dangling down beneath the bridge some six feet to the water and into the river's bed. The tree dressed itself in red leaves, and from its pale yellow branches hung violet apples. Krem and Grum walked around it as if it was barely a curiosity, but Pi'liu stopped before it. "Hold," she said, and everyone stopped.
"What is it," Grum asked.
"We should pick as many of these apples as we can carry. We'll not see this kind of tree again for a very long time." She reached up and plucked one from its branch. It glowed softly but clearly against the shadow of her hand. Krem's eyes widened, and Rada seem mesmerized.
"Is it—" Rada began to ask.
"Sorrowsbane," Pi'liu said. "Only the second time I've seen one growing outside of Sabon's capital. We'd be foolish not to take its fruit. It's an offering of Shaotalishun, a blessing. We would offend the Lady if we neglected her gift."
Grum sighed but moved to help pick the apples. "Quickly," he said, and everyone lent a hand to the harvesting. After a minute he said, "It's a good omen, this, but we'll squander the magic of it if we take too long. Besides which, Randolf is waiting."
They stowed away the apples in their packs and continued on. There were thirteen apples in all, which Pi'liu thought fortuitous, and very likely an omen. "The sorrowsbane tree grows where it will," she said, "but you will find no more than one in any place. All attempts to plant orchards of them fail, though the ground where the seeds were planted becomes very fertile and whatever is planted there afterward becomes resistant to pests and poor weather, and proves hearty of flavor."
"It sounds like icevine berries," Krem said. "Also a gift of the gods."
"Oh, hmm," Pi'liu said, "—but Shaotalishun is not a god. She is a great ancestor, the Grandam of Chishiloa Home. She was once a mortal person like you or me."
Krem grunted, though whether out of agreement, mere acknowledgement, or outright dismissal it was impossible to tell. This did not seem to faze Pi'liu, and Rohese thought it interesting that half-elfs always seemed to be more elf than not. This was, however, thought for some other time. The party had reached the final stretch before the drawbridge, and the open gate of Cairnwell was looming before them like the open mouth of a very old, very patient, predator.
Tharia: Roads to Adventure by James Pomeroy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.