All fools aren’t young nor all young fools
but it’s a smart wager.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
Would midday ever get here?
Elric Ickär drummed his fingers impatiently on the long, heavy table that dominated his master’s workshop, its surface scarred from Zorn’s many pitiful attempts at magical experimentation. Once it had been a fine table, suitable for a king. Now it looked like everything else in Zorn’s home-combination-workshop – old, worn, and battered.
He ran a weary eye around the room, noting the layers of dust that coated everything. Vials and retorts of varying shapes, sizes, and colors crowded the shelves, along with books, boxes, bones, herbs, and all the assorted bric-à-brac associated with spell weaving. It was, he thought despairingly, the very picture of the arch-typical wizard’s study straight out of the storybooks. He sometimes wondered if Zorn kept it that way on purpose to impress his infrequent visitors. It was the kind of thing small men did to puff up their image of themselves. Brandon, a wizard across town, certainly didn’t keep his workshop in this kind of disarray. Of course, Brandon was a far better wizard than Zorn could ever hope to be, and he had the King’s ear as well. Zorn was merely a functionary in the Lord Magistrate’s office – and a minor one at that.
He shook his head at the clutter and went back to drumming his fingers on the table. Would midday ever get here, he wondered again? After weeks of planning, he and his friends were finally ready to go adventuring around the world and the time until the tolling of the noontime bells was crawling past at a snail’s pace.
He’d thought several times to leave early and head down to the tavern where they were to meet and wait there, but his friends had advised against it. Zorn knew the Smiling Waif was their gathering place. If he came back before noon to discover his only apprentice was gone, he’d head straight for the tavern to find him. Then, Elric would have to endure an extended argument with the old crank about duties and obligations until his friends arrived.
It wasn’t worth it.
So he stayed put, whiling away the hours until the noon bells tolled until finally he could stand it no more. The sun was almost directly overhead and a few minutes, either way, wouldn’t make a difference. He threw off the official robes Zorn made him wear and grabbed his backpack. He cinched it down tight. His spellbook slid into its pouch and he took up his staff from the corner.
Just as he approached the door, it swung open and Zorn marched in, muttering angrily to himself as he usually did. With his head down, he didn’t see Elric until he almost ran into him.
“There you are! We have to get over to the –” He paused, taking in Elric’s pack. “What? Where are your robes? Why are you wearing that? What’s the meaning of this?” His peremptory tones grated on Elric’s last nerve.
He gave Zorn a hard look “Even you’re not that blind. I’m leaving.” He stepped around the startled wizard and nearly made it to the door before Zorn grabbed his shoulder.
“How dare you! You get back here you ungrateful whelp!”
Enough was enough. Elric let Zorn’s hand pull him around, using the momentum to jam his staff between Zorn’s legs and twist, sending him stumbling backward to stay on his feet.
“You can’t do that to me,” Zorn blustered. “I’m your master, your teacher, and besides that,” his voice grew firmer, “if you don’t apologize right now, I have the power to make you wish you’d never been born.” A late growth spurt had driven Elric’s height to just shy of 4 cubits, and Zorn found himself looking up to meet his hazel gaze under a mop of brown hair.
Elric’s eyes narrowed contemptuously as he glowered down at him. He knew from long experience it was the weakness of Zorn’s magic that was the major reason for his lack of promotion at court. “Try it!”
Zorn’s eyes flew wide in shock. Flustered at Elric’s lack of concern with his threat, he groped for a plausible alternative to carrying it out.
Elric didn’t give him time to decide. Before the shocked mage could recover his wits, he turned and flew through the door. He bounded down the stairs, all but running down the hall to the door. Zorn’s voice echoed behind him but he ignored it, bursting onto the street.
The noise and dust of the city of Thorginbelt, the capital of the Kingdom of Fleyniria, were less intense around the palace and the city chambers than in other parts of the city, but the growing heat of Tevrei, the last month of winter, driven by hot winds from the Midbar Desert just 200 leagues south, was inescapable throughout the entire kingdom. Blinding light struck him like a physical blow after the cool shadiness of the wizard’s study. Shielding his eyes from the brightness, he turned and headed toward the docks and the Smiling Waif.
He turned down a side street and lost sight of Prince Abend’s palace. The swirling crowds drew him along and he finally realized he’d done it, he’d really, actually done it! The unwanted apprenticeship his farming family had forced upon him was over at long last. He was free!
He danced a little jig of celebration as he hurried along.
No more waiting for hours for Zorn to finish with some idiotic experiment or running around town fetching this and that. That was all over! If he fetched anything from now on, it would be for himself! Look out world, he thought, ‘cause here I come!
Jon “Fast Hand” Mitsvah dropped his pack on the corner table, claiming it and earning a black look from the pair he’d beaten to it. He sank down into one of the chairs with his back to the wall; the Smiling Waif was not a place for the trusting.
“Beer!” he shouted at the semi-pretty waitress.
The woman nodded and disappeared behind the long bar. The Smiling Waif was an average tavern for Thorginbelt, old and gradually going to pieces. The few tables were scarred from knife fights and age, warped from countless evenings of use, spilled beer, and vomit. The ancient stone on the floor was stained black with age and strewn with sawdust, long since mildewed. The only decent feature of the place was its high beamed ceiling, a remnant from its days as a blacksmith’s shop when good ventilation was a must.
The waitress set down his beer. “That’ll be a copper,” she told him. He dug out a small coin and tossed it to her. There was no such thing as running a tab in the Smiling Waif; you either paid cash up front or left.
Jon was intimately familiar with the Smiling Waif and its customers. He’d spent many an evening there, gambling and whoring, hatching plots which the city guard would have given much to learn about. And in fact they had given a lot. Not as much as he’d presumed when he first started working for them, but not bad either. Working for the guard was like any other job, he reasoned; it had its good points and its bad points. Some of his companions, moldering in the city dungeon, might disagree with him of course. Still, better them than him.
The guard had caught him at the tender age of ten, stealing a loaf of bread from the Fat Man. They’d thrown him in jail overnight. For a child, the experience had been terrifying; a black eternity of rats, dank straw, and freezing cold. When they’d come for him the next morning he’d wept and pleaded for mercy, swearing he’d never do it again.
That promise turned out to be unnecessary.
He was offered a chance to work for the city guard as a double agent, pretending to be a thief and brigand while passing information to his superiors. He was young, headstrong, and foolish so the idea immediately appealed to him with the lure of adventure, hair breath escapes, intrigue, and danger.
It was nothing of the kind.
Oh, there was the occasional tense moment, but nothing to really challenge him. The guard arraigned “heists” for him to pull to keep up his credentials among the underworld, but he knew he wouldn’t get caught so there was no thrill of danger. There was in fact, very little challenge to it at all.
He left the city orphanage and got his own place, little more than a converted closet. There was a bed, a battered trunk for his clothes, and a mirrored desk with his make-up kit. He spent as little time there as possible. Most of the time he was out on the streets, picking up tidbits of gossip, lending a hand to his “friends” or reporting them to the guard.
Working for the guard had taught him to read and write he conceded, but what good that was, he didn’t know. He sighed and ran a hand through his short brown hair. He took a swig of his beer and moodily considered his lot in life, his brown eyes staring off into the distance. About the only worthwhile thing in his whole life were his friends, he thought. Aside from that, there wasn’t much he considered either valuable or important. They weren’t his “friends”, they were his friends; people he’d known since before he’d been arrested that time so long ago. They used to play hide-and-seek in the market not too far from here, ducking in and out among the gaily colored stalls, laughing and shrieking at each other with careless abandon.
As the years went by some of them dropped by the wayside or moved away or grew apart, but a few, very few, had stuck close together. In recent times they’d taken to meeting at one bar or another at least twice a week; no particular reason except to spend time with each other. They’d found a genuine respect for each other’s growing skills and abilities, and a sympathetic ear when they were in trouble. He wasn’t the only orphan in the group, but he was the only one who had no one to look after him – the group had became his family.
When had that happened, he mused? There wasn't really any hard and fast line that could be drawn, where one could say that on this side they were just friends and on the other side they were his family. There was just this large gray area, where one emotion shaded over into another. It bothered him that there wasn’t a line of demarcation, that it wasn’t black and white. The law was black and white, why wasn’t everything else?
Of all his friends, he was the only one who saw life that way. The others thought it quite acceptable for life to be uncertain, shot through with shades of gray, with lines that were fuzzy instead of clear and sharp. He couldn’t accept that. Most of it came from his time with the city guard of course. They tended to think in straight forward terms, goals, time tables, projected costs, strategy and tactics. But still, there was a certain rightness to it that touched a responsive chord within him. The ordered goals and ideals of the guard had appealed to him from the very first and he’d found himself quite at home there. In spite of his growing urge to move on to greener pastures, he still felt that way.
When his friends had first suggested they form an adventuring company he’d tried to stay out of it, it sounded a little too disorganized and uncertain to him. To hear the rest of them talk, it was going to be one big party from one end of Gaia to the other. It was only when Elric had finally talked him into going along that the group had gotten organized, mainly because the somber, almost dour, rogue insisted. Their idea of adventuring was to go “barging around and see what attacks us”, a plan he viewed with horror. By dint of much argument he’d gotten them to agree to a travel plan with definite stops and checkpoints along the way. As far as he was concerned, it was the only way to make sure they actually got somewhere, rather than just floundering around aimlessly.
They’d agreed to head north out of Thorginbelt through the Mügard Pass to Taeljurm, south of the Northern Kingdoms. From there they would turn east along the northern side of the Akhu Plains, around the tip of the Sorgo mountains to Sairaw then, still further east across the vastness of the Biqah Prairie to the Marilas Federation on the shores of the Overdark Ocean. From there they would turn south along the coast until they reached the T’thalian Empire, west across the Plains of Aroon and the mountainous Kingdom of Ingold then, follow the famous Cliff Mountains road until they reached Namak Lake. From there they would continue west to Lake Mound then keep on going back to Fleyniria and the Twin Cities. He’d thought that was still rather vague, but it was the best that he could get them to agree to.
He’d had to put the brakes on them when Horace broached the idea of visiting the Blood Lands then striking southeast through the Bitstsah Swamp to Tabaa’d. The first two were treacherous enough but visiting Tabaa’d was the last thing they needed; the ruins of that ancient god-city, lost somewhere in the vast reaches of the Bitstsah, were an abomination where dark creatures from the First Age were said to still hold sway. Yet his friends thought it might be “kinda fun” to go see it.
He shook his head at the memory. He was going to have his hands full keeping this gang on track, he had seen that from the very first. Still, it was better than staying here, getting rusty and bored. And now all the arraignments had been made, he found himself looking forward to their departure with growing eagerness. He glanced out the window at the front of the tavern, hoping to see his friends marching down the street.