“What do you think about this?” Ricaro asked.
“What do you mean? How long have you been with the militia? You know that it doesn’t matter what I think. We are given orders, and we follow them. Just because we take orders from some merchant instead of the Captain, it doesn’t mean we get to have opinions.” Replied Artis.
“I know,” said Ricaro, “but it’s a long way to the Royal City, so I thought it would be nice to have a pleasant conversation on the way.”
“Have you ever been to Royal City?” Artis asked.
“No, have you?”
“Aye, but it’s been a while. You do know that you need to take a moongate to get there then?”
Ricaro groaned. “You know I hate those things. They make my hair stand up on end.”
Artis let out a slight chuckle and pointed to the horse that was pulling a wagon beside them. “The horses go through without being a baby about it. I have seen you charge into a group of half a dozen spearmen without thinking twice but for some reason a little blue gate that people travel through every day has you shaking in your boots. Unbelievable.”
“Shut up!” Ricaro snapped.
“Now you’re starting to get it,” said Artis. “How’s this for pleasant conversation?”
The two walked in silence until the glimmering moongate shimmered before them in the midday sun. Travelers passed in and out of the gate keeping mostly to themselves. Occasionally, one would glance toward the men and give a slight nod as a greeting. Artis finally spoke. “Let’s check the wagon real quick before we step through, I would hate to get there and see that we don’t have enough chain to hold the… erm… cargo. Be sure to keep the supplies covered, we don’t need some mouthy passerby spreading rumors.”
The men quickly took inventory of their supplies. The very slightly worn simple wooden cart contained ropes and chains of various lengths. There was enough food and water for about two weeks, though the trip was likely to be two or three days at the longest. Pete had thought ahead to put bandages, potions, and other medical supplies in the cart as well. Once satisfied that they had everything they needed, Artis muttered to Ricaro so that his words would not be overheard. “When we come out the other end, we are going to head south to the woods, to park the cart. Take note of the time of day, when we come back, we want it to be late so that nobody sees what we are up to. You go first so I know you won’t get scared of the gate and leave me in Ter Mur with my thumb up my arse.”
It was the middle of the night in Ter Mur when the two soldiers came out through the moongate. It was warm, the seasons seemed to have changed in the blink of an eye. Faint light from campfires to the north dotted the horizon. Ricaro began removing his heavy fur cloak. “Not now!” Artis rasped. “We need to get out of here before someone sees us.” They quickly headed south through the brush, avoiding the road to the west. Once they reached a small wooded area, they removed their heavy winter furs and detached the horse from the wagon. “We’ll camp here for the night. No fires!” Artis announced.
They were not tired as they were used to long marches and their day had only just begun. They made quiet conversation as they shared some of the dried rations they had brought with them. “So can I ask you again what you think of this mission?” Ricaro questioned shyly.
“What does it matter?” Artis replied. “Do you want to know what I think of enslaving poor refugees that have known only hardship and making them pump bellows around the clock only because the price of wood doesn’t suit you? I love it!” he exclaimed sarcastically. “But we have a job to do. Is the gold in your purse not enough?”
“It does pay well.” Ricaro shrugged. “It just doesn’t sit right with me. I know I have done some horrible things in my time, but that was war, and even then, the faces of the people I killed still haunt my dreams. This seems different, I may have to see these gargoyles face-to-face after this.”
“You learn to live with the dreams, Ricaro. I’m sure every man has his own nightmares. But look at it this way,” Artis said while gesturing to their horse who was grazing beside them. “The horse works all day, he gets nothing for it. Do you think he dreams of a life of freedom? I doubt it. He’s just happy to just be grazing there and to not be on the dinner plate of some desperate fool. The same goes for these gargoyles. How do we know what fate awaits them if not for the one we are about to provide? How do we know that if we don’t capture them today that they won’t starve to death tomorrow? Perhaps we are offering them a better future. We will never know, so it is best to just do our job so that we can provide the best future for ourselves.”
“It doesn’t seem so bad when you put it that way,” Ricaro said. “It’s good to have a friend as wise as you.”
“Rest up. You will get your war tomorrow. Maybe after that you will be able to just add this experience to the never ending list of witnessed tragedies that go hand-in-hand with the life of a soldier,” Artis said as he tilted his hat to cover his eyes and folded his hands across his gut.
As daylight broke in the Ter Murian woods, the two soldiers turned bodyguards prepared for their mission. “You wait here,” Artis commanded. “I’ll head to Royal City and get our new friends to follow me here. Take my axe and hide along the treeline. Once we are past, you can come out and we’ll rough ‘em up. We’ll have to surprise them and strike first so they don’t fly away.”
As Artis approached the great staircase that marked the entrance to Royal City, the sights and sounds of poverty surrounded him. Gargoyle families gathered in small groups all around. Hundreds of rickety tents had been stood up to house the refugees, but they weren’t enough. Massive, stone-skinned bodies lay in the streets at every turn. The Queen’s guard seemed unable to haul the decomposing masses away before the rats came in to feast. The sound of coughing was almost deafening as disease tore through the camp. Artis had seen his fair share of poverty and woe but this camp was by far the worst he had ever witnessed.
Quickly deciding that he did not want to stay in the camp for long, he began his task immediately. He stopped a small gargoyle child as he ran by. “Can you help me?” He asked.
“What’s in it for me?” Replied the kid.
Artis jingled a small purse of gold coins tucked under his tunic so as to not draw the attention of the crowds nearby. The kid seemed to get the message as the look on his face turned to interest. Artis repeated the lie that he had recited in his head ad nauseum on the walk from his spot in the woods to the refugee camp. “I’m looking for three strong gargoyles interested in a week’s worth of hauling stone in Minoc. Compensation includes clothing, housing, and fair wages, along with optional permanent residence in Minoc upon completion. They are to come alone, as my employer is not willing to feed their families as well. I will return in a few hours to escort them through the gate.”
The child’s eyes grew wide. “I’m sure I could find you some workers. Lots of strong men willing to do anything around here,” the boy said as he ran away excitedly.
Artis couldn’t stand to remain in the camp for long. He made his way to a clearing just outside of the bustling encampment to wait for the child to complete his task.
Upon Artis’ return, the boy stood at the entrance of the camp with three hulking figures. The gargoyle men seemed to be in relatively good health despite the conditions of squalor they had been living in. Giving a nod of approval, Artis tossed a small bag of coins to the kid. “If you can find me two more, I’ll return at this time tomorrow,” Artis said while pointing to another small purse of coins at his hip.
“Not a problem, sir!” The boy replied.
“Come along, friends.” Artis spoke to the three gargoyle men in front of him.
Artis and the gargoyle men made small talk as they headed towards the moongate. “I parked a cart a good ways south of here,” he said. “I wasn’t sure of the conditions at the camp and I didn’t want my supplies to be stolen. Do you mind coming with me?”
The gargoyles just shrugged in agreement and continued their banter as they made their way to the wooded area where Ricaro lay in wait.
As the four of them crossed the threshold of the woods, Ricaro let out a low cough that signaled to Artis that it was time for action. Artis, immediately upon hearing the sound took a step backwards, grabbed two of the gargoyles by the horns, and slammed their faces together causing a mist of blood and saliva to fill the air in front of him as the two men dropped to the ground clutching their bloodied faces. Ricaro shot out from his hiding spot a few feet away and slammed into the third gargoyle from behind, causing him to fall forward. Ricaro handed Artis his huge broad axe and placed his foot on the neck of the man he had just laid out.
Ricaro lifted his new capture to his knees and wrapped a thick chain around his arms and body, finally securing it with a masterfully crafted lock. Artis stood above the other two menacingly almost begging for one of them to get up so he could put his axe to use. The two gargoyles decided not to tempt him and laid upon the ground tending to their bloodied faces instead while Ricaro got more chain from the cart. Each man bound one of the gargoyles until all three were immobilized and gagged with strong hemp rope.
“Well, that was easy,” said Ricaro. “I thought they would put up more of a fight.”
“Yeah,” Artis laughed. “I guess we should have dinner now so we can finish this before nightfall. I’m hungry.”
Artis and Ricaro sat on the back of the cart and ate their dried rations in front of the gargoyles who grunted and squirmed in their chains. They laughed and joked about the ambush and taunted their prisoners with offerings of food. After dinner they rolled out a large log from the forest. They placed the medical supplies they had brought with them down next to the log. Muffled screams and the sounds of cracking bones could be heard throughout the woods as the sun went down and the two men began the gruesome task of removing the horns, teeth, and wings of their recently acquired prisoners.
“Sleep well my friend,” Artis said as the two laid down on the hard forest floor. “Tomorrow, we will do it all again.”
“I’m off,” Artis said after he and Ricaro had had their breakfast the next morning. “Just like yesterday. No trouble.”
Artis arrived at the gargoyle encampment midday. As promised the child stood waiting at the entrance with two more eager gargoyle men. One of them was considerably smaller than the other but still quite a bit larger than the average human. “Great job kid, Artis said as he tossed another small bag of coins.” He turned to the large men standing behind the child. “Shall we?” He said, making a sweeping gesture to the south.
Artis and the gargoyles again made small talk on the way back to the woods. He used the same line about having left his supplies in the woods and the gargoyles obliged just as the three from the previous day. As they approached the woods, the smaller of the two began to make sniffing noises, he could smell the blood that was scattered throughout the woods. In an instant he spread his massive wings and bounded into flight.
“Ricaro!” Artis screamed as he delivered a heavy fist to the face of the larger gargoyle.
“Got ‘im,” came the voice from the woods, followed by the twang sound of Ricaro’s heavy crossbow. Almost instantly after was a cry from above as the smaller gargoyle came crashing to the earth of the clearing below.
“Good shot!” Exclaimed Artis as he kicked the face of the larger gargoyle who was crawling in an attempt to get away. Artis grabbed the large gargoyle by the horns and dragged his limp body into the woods to the cart where they kept their chains.
Ricaro ran as fast as he could across the clearing chasing his limping and wounded enemy. With a forceful shove the smaller gargoyle tumbled to the ground. As Ricaro began wrapping his prey with the chain he carried around his back, the gargoyle managed to sink his teeth into Ricaro’s left forearm. Ricaro screamed in pain while slamming his right hand into the gargoyle’s exposed crossbow wound. Defeated, the gargoyle didn’t struggle while Ricaro tied him tightly with a chain and hauled him into the woods.
“Well that was fun,” laughed Artis when Ricaro returned to their camp.
“That nasty creature bit me,” Ricaro cried. “I am really going to enjoy pulling out his teeth later.”
“So much for nightmares then, eh?”
“Just hand me one of those yellow potions from the medical stuff.” Ricaro demanded. “Get one for our friend here too, I suspect he’s going to need it.”
Once again the two laughed and joked while choking down their dinner before beginning their brutal task for the evening. “We have to hit the gate at midday tomorrow so we can get to Barter Town before the moongate gets busy.”
Pete awoke with a start in the night after hearing the loud pounding on the guildhouse door. He jumped up from the chair that he would usually sleep in and ran to the door. A wave of relief swept over him after seeing Artis and Ricaro on the other side.
“Delivery from Royal City,” Ricaro said.
“Wonderful!” Exclaimed Pete. “I hope it wasn’t too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” Artis said with a smile.
“Great, remove the gags, keep them bound, and stuff them in the hole. I’ll deal with them in the morning. Have they eaten?”
The two henchmen looked at one another. “I suppose we forgot to feed them for the last couple days. I hope that isn’t a problem,” said Ricaro.
“No problem at all. You see, gargoyles and elves are like hammers or tongs. Sometimes you break one and you have to replace it. It’s nothing to ever worry about” Pete explained as he watched the men shove the gargoyles through the small hatch that led to the basement. He reached over to a sack of flour and a pitcher of water he just happened to have in his office. He began mixing the flour and water into a thin gruel. “I see you have already taken the time to clip their wings for me,” he said as he continued mixing. “I think this relationship that we have here is going to work out nicely.”
The henchmen smiled proudly.
Pete reached into another box behind his desk and removed two decent sized bags which jingled with the familiar sound of gold coins and placed them on his desk, one on each side of the bowl of gruel. He reached back again to remove a jug of fine Minoccian cider. He dumped the bowl of gruel down the hatch and watched silently for a minute as the gargoyle prisoners licked the disgusting mixture off of the filthy floor like starving dogs.
He slammed the reinforced hatch shut and locked it. “You can take your gold to the brothel tomorrow, gentlemen. Tonight, we drink!
To be continued…