Prelude - Chapter 1
Dusk was settling over the city as my retinue and I tromped up the slight incline to the meeting place. “Why can’t these hoods ever meet in the daytime,” Kaeso, one of my heavy soldiers, growled. “You knew we were in for it as soon as the Hastatus Centurion made his way over to us,” I replied. “Now pipe down, we’re here, but I don’t see them.”
The flagstone courtyard held what would have been an impressive fountain, were it not dried out. The abandoned estate grounds look to be in need of repair, and the crumbling manor spoke likewise.
“Keep tight, men,” I said. My squad reacted instinctually, as their training dictated, forming an outward facing diamond with me at the center. No hands strayed to their weapons, but shields were at the ready.
A shadow departed from the walls surrounding the courtyard, startling my men. “Optio Mott,” a familiar, male voice said, “it’s good to see you again.” “Wish I could say the same”, came my reply. “Now Optio, is that anyway to speak to a man bringing gifts?” “You tell me, Dirk”, I said, and crossed my arms.
As he came closer, his movement hardly made a sound. He withdrew a small package from the folds of his cloak, setting it on the crumbling ledge of the fountain, followed by a bottle, and motioned me closer. “Dwarven Brandy, aged 10 years, from the Halls of Baraz-Gothol,” Dirk said, loudly enough for all to hear. Kaeso let out a long, low whistle at that, which I rebuked by slapping him across his shoulder as I stepped out of formation.
Keeping my priorities straight, I took the bottle in hand first, unstoppered it, and took a whiff. Nodding my approval, I took a swig. The fire burning in my throat was welcomed. I turned and tossed the bottle to Kaeso, who yelped and dropped his shield to ensure he caught it. Making a mental note to chastise him over that later, I began to open the package.
I slowed as untied the twine holding it shut. The package was dripping, slowly, but it was much too small for what I suspected it to be. Inside was a decapitated head with no eyes, but that of a child. “What in the name of the gods is this!?”, I shouted, dropping the package, and drawing my blade partway from its sheath on instinct. A certain hardness in Dirk’s voice stopped me when he said, “We’ve found them, Optio.” As that sank in, I visibly relaxed, and so too did my men. It was only then that I noticed another shadow, this one a crossbow atop the courtyard wall, did so as well.
“Where?”, I asked. “Here, in this city.” “Impossible. We crucified these slavers not but three moons ago.” “Not all of them, Optio, because you chose to exclude us.” I was angry now, but displacing it on this man would help nothing. “Fine, we’ll do it your way this time, but I’m not dying my armor black to match yours.” Dirk laughed at this, turned, melting into the shadows at the edge of the torchlight my men carried.
As I led my troops away, I tucked away a letter that Dirk had secreted to me in the exchange. How could the Shekelesh have recovered so quickly?