-01- Death at the Swaddled Otter
The faerie dragon gave a long sigh. Sparkling motes of magic, like starlight, danced within his breath. As the magical breath touched the small flames of the campfire it roared to life.
For a brief instant the party froze, their eyes scanning for the threat. Fell already had his sword in his hands, his eyes alight as only combat made them. Gravefoot, immediately recognizing the faerie mischief snorted in derision and returned to his maps.
“Okay, listen here bigg’uns!” Tig proclaimed. “I’m gonna show you how to tell a story. A good proper one with drama, and, and the like.”
Bemused, Kevlan, sat beside the now roaring fire. His long sword had become an enormous cheese skewer, and he happily savored his pungent meal. Not wishing to anger the fickle grig, Valen hesitantly sat beside him.
“Especially you talker.” Tig pointed at Arumn. "You spend an awful lot o’ time strutting about. Time you payed ’ttention and learned a thing or two.
Arumn flashed the grig a smile and gave her a sweeping bow. “I am ever at the service of a true master, Mistress Tut.”
“Good, good, that’s the attitude I expect,” she nodded. “Now Perl, if you’ll be so kind.”
Perlivash exhaled another breath and the fire rose even further. Within the flickering flames images appeared—two men—one old, one young. Both men were sprawled out on the ground, evidently in some discomfort. Tig began to speak, but as she did her voice changed in timbre and the images within the fire began to speak with her voice.
I woke to a world turned sideways. Raindrops thundered across my vision with the percussion of a blacksmith’s hammer, only to flow upward in swirling rivulets. I closed my eyes against the onslaught, hiding from the sight if not the sound, and dug my fingers into the mud, taking a careful grip lest I should slide off in this new orientation. For several moments I hung there, considering my options, and then extended my arms, carefully pushing myself upright.
It was not my brightest idea, but it did succeed in turning the world right-side up again. A good thing, too, because if it hadn’t, there was no way Phargas could have maintained his grip at that angle, sprawled in the ditch like some noaccount drunkard. But I get ahead of myself.
My name is Ollix Kaddar, and I am likely better than you.
It’s nothing personal, you understand. It’s just in my blood—literally. My full name is Ollix Thareus Lucitrex Kaddar, and I am the only living son of Lord Kaddar of Kadria, finest holding in all of the River Kingdoms. Not that you’d know it to look at me now, of course, or to talk to my father—he’s a tough old goat, and hardly the forgiving sort. But let’s not dwell on the past.
Across the way, Phargas was waking up, moaning and holding his head. Spying the empty jug in his hand, he made to throw it away, then thought again and checked to see if it was empty before tossing it into the bushes in disgust.
“The gods are not kind,” I said, scraping dung-scented mud from the side of my face.
“To the contrary,” he replied. “They were entirely too kind last night.” Phargas crawled out into the road and began scooping up handfuls of water from the wagon ruts and splashing them on his face, sluicing the dirt from his shaved pate and muttering prayers that sounded like curses. His ablutions finished, he stood unsteadily and gathered up his pack and walking stick. The latter he used to poke at the bits of bread and bone at our feet, swirling them around in the muck.
“Well, young master, I’d ask which way, but I somehow doubt they’d welcome us back in town just now.”
“Psht.” I kicked sludge over the top of our leavings, burying the evidence. “In my father’s court, I wouldn’t even have had to ask—they would have given us the best from their table, and been honored by the privilege.”
“Ah,” said Phargas. “But you didn’t ask this time, either, did you?” He turned and began walking away from the squalid little hamlet still visible on the horizon. “Come on. This storm won’t last forever, and I’d rather not be here when it lets up.”
He had a point. Hoisting my own too-light pack, I followed. Many young men dream of seeing the world. I was never one of them. And now that I’d seen it, I knew I was right all along—that the world outside the court was cold, dirty, and filled with stupidity. I would have been perfectly content to remain in Kadria, serving my people as a benevolent aristocrat, making the big decisions so that they didn’t have to strain their meager faculties. It was what I was bred for.
But my father—he was a different sort. Having built the fiefdom himself with steel and silver, he understood neither the sport nor the occasional unfortunate mishaps that go hand in hand with rightful rulership. You bed a few peasant girls, spend a few tax coffers, punish a few upstarts—the citizenry expects it. After all, if not for the aristocracy, what would they have to talk about? No, the peasantry need us, and if a few feet get trod upon, it’s nothing to get upset about. Certainly nothing worth exiling a son over.
I was saying something to that effect to Phargas when he suddenly threw out the hand holding his staff, blocking my path and cutting me off mid-sentence. Silently, he pointed.
Ahead, just visible through the drizzle, the path forked, running to either side of a wide-branched tree. And from one of those branches hung a dark shape, swinging ponderously in the wind.
Cautiously, we approached, and the shape slowly resolved into the drenched and crow-eaten corpse of a man. While hanging lawbreakers at crossroads wasn’t an uncommon practice, it was my first time witnessing it in person, and I marveled at the protruding eyes, the black of his tongue. I whistled.
“What do you think he did?” I asked.
Phargas stepped closer and inspected the body.
“Judging by this,” he offered, “I’d wager adultery.” I followed his gaze downward, then quickly looked away.
“Well,” Phargas said, reaching up to undo the man’s cloak. “At least we can take turns staying out of the—hey!”
I turned. He had the corpse’s ratty cloak draped over one arm, and was examining its clasp. He held it out to me—a dented pin of decorative iron, worked into a crude representation of a star over a road. I raised an eyebrow.
“This, boy, is the Glyph of the Open Road.” Phargas looked up at the corpse and patted it in admiration. “Seems our friend here was a Pathfinder. Or at least stole one’s cloak.” He looked over at me and frowned. “What?”
I was still staring at the corpse, but now my mouth was hanging open at the depth of my sudden epiphany.
Every child had heard the stories. To be a Pathfinder brought more than just fame or power—it brought respect. A Pathfinder who published his adventures could live forever in history, go boldly in any court, with his status unquestioned by anyone.
Even Lord Kaddar.
“No,” I corrected, returning to the corpse, “this is our ticket back to Kadria.” I began digging through the body’s sodden clothes, ignoring the touch of clammy flesh. My hand closed over circular metal, and I withdrew my prize, letting its light shine full in Phargas’s face.
“A wayfinder!” He put out a hand to touch the softly glowing compass. “Whoever strung him up must have been too superstitious to take it.”
“Indeed,” I said, placing its thong over my head and letting the artifact settle against my chest. “And their reluctance is my reward. Phargas, I’d like to introduce you to Ollix Kaddar—Pathfinder. You may kneel, if you wish.”
“Pathfinder!” he gaped. “You can’t mean you’re planning to impersonate one—and a dead one, at that?”
“Who’s impersonating anyone?” I asked, unruffled. “I’m just following Lord Kaddar’s orders.”
Phargas snorted. “He told you to get out, and not come back until you’d made something of yourself—or died trying.”
“Exactly! And what could be better than a Pathfinder? As of this moment, I hereby accept my new calling, with all its duties and privileges.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works,” he said, looking dubious. “You can’t just declare yourself a Pathfinder.”
I waved away his womanly quibbling.
“Please, Phargas. Maybe in your monastery the world is black and white, but out here, we deal in shades of gray. Besides, I’m sure any ceremonies are just a formality, one they’ll happily overlook when I publish my adventures.”
Phargas said nothing, clearly jealous of my good fortune.
“Fear not, old man. Serve me well, and I’ll make sure to mention you favorably in the Chronicles. Now what say we get moving out of this storm, eh?”
Phargas just shook his head, gave the corpse one last pat-down, and followed me onward down the path.