For a while, I’ve had in the back of my head assorted tales of things not going according to trope, mostly for the fun of it. Here’s the first, hastily scribbled (if a keyboard counts as scribbling) in an ICU waiting room a few days ago. At some point in the future, I might edit/polish it up a bit, or a lot, but for now, it meets the standard of quality I’ve always aspired to for this site: Free, and worth every penny.
The tavern was old, dating back at least to the Second War Of The Four Lords, though some claim it was built on the spot where an even older building had burned down. Dark smoke curled like grapevines around the rafters, filtering the red, flickering, light from a dozen torches set around the walls. A crimson glow emanated from the kitchen, as did the smell of roasting meat and the sounds of the innkeeper barking orders at his apprentices.
The four of them sat in silence, the silence that comes from old comrades who know each other so well that communication doesn’t require words. Drerigari, the oldest, was eye-level with her oversized and overflowing stein, the benches here not being built with dwarven anatomy in mind. Gallian, sometimes called Blueknife or Bleeding Wind, seemed to slip in and out of the shadows, occasionally startling a server when one stopped by. Cerridian of Dry Lake was her opposite; loud, boisterous, and seemingly incapable of keeping still. Last was Sir Jerrem Mornfeld. Technically, he no longer merited the “Sir”; his oaths of service long-since voided by a matter of honor, but few would dare tell the huge man that, even if he was momentarily not wearing his almost legendary suit of giant-forged armor. He was, after all, still carrying a greatsword made of red crystal, one which muttered in dead languages and reeked of old blood.
Most of the tavern’s other patrons were wise enough to stay well away from them; even if the four lacked any malicious intent and wanted nothing but a quiet drink, everyone knew their kind, and those who drew near to such types would find themselves sucked in to their activities, intentionally or not. It was simply how things worked, as sure as the turning of the seasons. One old man, though, perhaps so old he no longer cared about his fate, pulled a chair over to their table and sat down, facing them.
The four exchanged glances. By unspoken decision, it was Sir Jerrem who spoke for the group this time.
“May we… help you?” he asked, his voice measured and eerily calm.
“No, no, no, no, yes… I can help you!” said the newcomer. “Heard you was going along the Old North Road, towards Crownbreaker Ford.”
Sir Jerrem nodded, gesturing for the man to continue. Though none but her allies saw it happen, one of Gallian’s unguessably large collection of knives made its way to the palm of her hand.
“Well, just thought I’d warn you, then, ‘bout the bandits!”
“Bandits.” Jerrem’s voice was now flat.
“Oh, aye. Small army of them. Hardly anyone can travel up the Old North Road. The weak they just plain rob bare, the strong pay a ‘toll’ to avoid too much trouble. Terrible thing.”
Drerigari snorted. “Have you no guards in this town? No patrols? No warriors?”
“Aye, of course we do! But the bandits don’t come out when they spy a great force of armed men tromping about, and we can’t root them out of their hidey-hole. No one knows where ‘tis, for one!”
Cerridian tossed a coin in the air, where it seemed to vanish, then casually plucked it from behind the old man’s ear. “So, a noseless hound could follow this trail. You know where they are, and you’ll tell us… for a small fee.”
“No, no, no, yes, a small one. Very small.”
Negotiations then commenced. When they were done, the old man left happily, and the four took out an old parchment map.
“Those bandits are ill news for this poor town”, whispered Gallian.
“True. Most trade has to go up and down that road. The bandits are causing these folk much misery.” Jerrem finished off his drink.
“Well, there’s the place the old man described.” Cerridian’s finger circled a small squiggle on the map. “An old mill. Probably part of the remains of a great castle, filled with twisty underground passages.”
Drerigari snorted with laughter. “I know something of that! I’ll bet there’s warrens all through these woods. Using them, those bandits can pop up anywhere, anywhere at all. Clever rodents. Hm. I wonder what else might be lost deep down among those ancient halls?”
Gallian studied the map some more. “Can you guess the likely bounds of these tunnels?”
Drerigari’s finger traced a complex line around the map. Sir Jerrem followed after with a pen, making quick marks. They all looked at the completed project.
“I think I see what we have to do”, said Jerram. “I don’t like it, but we all know it’s the only way.”
Cerridian flipped a slim blade into the air, caught it, and stuck it back into his boot. “Yes. We’ll end up being a day late for our meeting, but if we go here,” he tapped the map, “and then here, we’ll completely skirt the bandits’ territory. We got our coin’s worth from the old man.”
Sir Jerrem began to fold the map. “We certainly did. One pointless distraction avoided, at any rate.”
The group departed the inn, completely avoided the highwaymen, and made it to their meeting in the capital without any incident, though they were mildly rebuked for their lateness.
Rereading this, it occurs to me this band might someday run into Haldebard.