Brutus and Avianna - Chapter Four

Part Two, Chapter Four

Something was wrong. Brutus could smell smoke in the air, but could not see any on the horizon. Avianna noticed it too and they both felt uneasy as they walked south. There wasn’t any mountains in this region, just hills and they even passed a few farms as they walked. Red Eagle trotted beside them, seeming rather anxious and unnerved also.

This area was unknown to both of them. Avianna was not from this kingdom, as she had said. She had arrived here years ago via the port city Weyvin, and then had lived quite comfortably for years in the mountains north-west of Weyvin. She knew very little what lay to the south. Neither did Brutus. His home lay to the extreme north-west, in “a place fire and ice meet” he had described. A frigid cold land with fiery dragons.

As they mounted a hilltop, they spied a merchant caravan ahead on the road. One of the wagons looked to have slid off the road and broken a wheel. They were unloading the wagon to put a new wheel on, apparently no one was strong enough to lift the fully-loaded wagon.

The two warriors quickened their pace and Brutus cracked his knuckles in anticipation. Avianna had no doubt that he could lift the wagon. They both knew he was very strong and could lift the wagon easily, that wasn’t the issue at stake here. What they needed was information, perhaps even a map, and maybe even information as to why they could smell smoke.

Brutus waved as they neared the merchants and handed his bundle of things and his axe to Avianna. “I’ll let you do the talking,” he said curtly and did a few arm stretches.

While Brutus lifted and the new wheel was carefully slid into place, Avianna caught the attention of an elvish merchant amongst the caravan. She nodded politely to him and spoke in archaic elvish, the most polite kind usually used in court functions and when first meeting a person. “Well met to you on this benevolent day,” she said, bowing her head again.

“Benevolence indeed,” replied the merchant, speaking the traditional greeting. “How can we repay you and your friend for your kind services? Do you need food or drink? You are welcome to stay in our caravan and travel with us.”

“Perhaps we shall take your offer,” Avianna said. “But what would really be useful is information. What city are we near?”

“We are just north of Oraknev, the capitol city of Korovia. Are you new to these lands? I detect an accent that is not Sylvanian, for I am myself from Sylvania and that is the closest elvish city.”

“You are correct, I am from a more eastern kingdom. I hear that Sylvania is beautiful, I hope to visit it someday. I came via Weyvin, which I believe in north of Sylvania?”

“Indeed it is. I hope that you visit me in Sylvania someday, it is rare to see an elf from the eastern kingdoms. I fear my family will not believe me. You may know me as Thyrianius. What may I call you?”

“You may know me as Avianna, and my companion is known as Brutus.”

Thyrianius bowed, smiled and seemed to visibly relax. “As a foreigner, I am guessing that you have not yet acquired a map? I could draw you one.”

“That would be very helpful, plus if you know, why do we smell smoke so thickly in the air?”

Oraknev was partially in ruins, that much could be seen when the caravan was ushered through the gates of the city. Three Korovian dragons, great blue and white beasts known to be fickle and extremely violent, had attacked the city with blasts of icy breath and fiery breath.

Brutus was a bit confused by this, coming from a land where dragons breathed fire and nothing else. Apparently Korovian dragons could breathe fire and ice. He had fallen silent after the explanation, brooding and thinking.

From Avianna’s point of view, the city was not in as bad shape as she thought it would be initially. Certainly, some of the fires in the city still raged, and there was still a thick cloud of smoke over the city. Nevertheless, most of the city seemed unscathed. The fires had been largely contained and there were teams of soldiers and civilians working together to put out the last of the fires.

For three dragons, she was surprised the city had not suffered a lot more damage. She turned to Thyrianius, who had insisted on walking beside her and was very eager to learn more about her homeland and converse in elvish. “It seems like very little damage for three dragons. Where did they go?”

Thyrianius shrugged. “Korovian dragons are a mystery my lady. They can be nice one minute and furious the next. You never know what they might do next.”

“Then why would they attack a city in the first place?”

“Politics I believe. Years ago Queen Kasiya was helped into power by many dragons. The dragons believed she was fulfilling a prophecy, and thus helped her to do so. Korovian dragons also like prophecies a lot and I think only part of the prophecy has come true, thus the dragons seem to be getting restless.”

“What prophecy is this?”

“I am afraid I don’t know. I am not a diviner and the dragons don’t go around explaining their prophecies to people. All I know is that it’s a very old prophecy, dating back to the last demon war.”

Avianna nodded. Obviously Thyrianius did not know as much as she had hoped he would. She decided to speak in the local human tongue so that Brutus could understand. “You drew on the map that this road runs east towards Weyvin. Why was the city gate at the north of the city? Indeed, sorry to discount your mapmaking skills, but I thought the road ran north and south, not east and west?”

Thyrianius laughed, a hearty laugh no less. “You are definitely a foreigner! I’m sorry, that’s a local problem when it comes to mapmaking. I neglected to mention the Troll Lands on the map. It lies directly east of here, and its territory where only the brave dare travel into. The road bends northward and then goes east and then back south. Most mapmakers however, especially amateur ones like myself, simply draw a straight line instead of a curved one. Thus, the roads that leads into Oraknev does go north and south. The lake is to the west, and the Troll Lands are to the east. To get to Weyvin you must either follow the road, or travel through the Troll Lands, which is a bad idea.”

“Why has someone not simply killed all the trolls?” asked Brutus, speaking up. He had remained silent during much of their conversations in elvish, content just to listen.

“Many reasons, I am sure,” Thyrianius answered. “Korovian trolls have horns, thick skins and are notoriously hard to kill. They’re tricky too. They rarely attack out in the open during fair weather. They prefer to attack a caravan during the flurry of a blizzard or a storm so that we can’t light fires to kill them.”

“I am familiar with troll regeneration,” Avianna mused. “But still I agree with Brutus, it seems strange that the Queen tolerates trolls so close to her capitol.”

“Very strange! I have heard rumours she struck up a treaty years ago with the Troll King. The basic agreement is that she doesn’t bother the trolls, and the trolls agree to stay within their boundaries.”

Brutus snorted, finding that last idea difficult to believe. “And the trolls are actually honourable enough to do that?”

“The Troll-King enforces it. They dare not disobey their king. He is their shaman of sorts apparently. He can control fire, and there’s nothing trolls fear more than fire. He is rumoured to be thousands of years old.”

“That would date back to the last demon war,” Brutus grumbled, again dubious that even a troll could live so long.

With no real agenda in Oraknev, the two foreigners wandered through the streets following the sights and sounds. There was a lot of it today and despite the fact that the sun was beginning to set and it would be dark soon, the city continued to bustle. Hasty construction had already begun, fixing roofs and walls of buildings that had been damaged. Some buildings had collapsed or been burnt to the ground entirely and people were salvaging materials from those buildings to be used for repairs.

City guards were everywhere, along with soldiers. They eyed the barbarian and the elf with suspicion and curiosity, but otherwise left the two alone. Brutus got the impression that had it been any other day they would have been stopped and questioned. Today the guards were too busy for such nonsense.

As the sunlight grew dim the guards starting filling streetlamps with coal and lighting them. The city already smelled of smoke and charcoal anyway.

“Perhaps its time we found an inn and some stables for Red Eagle,” Avianna mused.

“Why didn’t we go with Thyrianius to wherever he was staying?” Brutus asked, guessing that he had missed something during the conversations in elvish.

“He’s staying at the merchants’ guild, and we’re not merchants. Membership has its limits.”

Brutus merely nodded and immediately accosted the man closest to him, demanding, but trying to be polite at the same time, directions to the nearest inn that had a stables. The man stuttered out an answer, rather intimidated by the barbarian’s size.

It was then that Avianna noticed that the people of Oraknev seemed rather short and malnourished. Especially the older people, as if there had been years of famine earlier and they were only now getting over it. They had seen an abundance of food for sale on the streets, but perhaps that was a new thing.

The city itself was old, with some buildings with architecture that looked like it had been built during the last demon war. Indeed, the architecture seemed to span many centuries, with architectural styles of all kinds blending together. Quite often the buildings seemed to be hastily constructed on the ruins of older buildings, suggesting long periods of war and strife.

At the same time however, the people seemed happy. Care-worn faces that had endured hardships smiled and laughter was a common sound. Avianna thought it strange that people would laugh or smile on a day when the city was attacked by three dragons. Life went on in Oraknev as if nothing too special had even happened. Life here seemed quite grand to the people living there.

Perhaps they were drinking too much alcohol? Or something in the local water? Avianna could not be sure, she would have to ask someone why the city was so jovial despite the disaster.

She was so engrossed in studying the people and architecture around her that she did not notice that they had arrived at the inn until Brutus tapped her on her shoulder. She turned with a start, a bit confused.

The barbarian smiled boyishly. “I’ll handle Red Eagle, you talk to the innkeeper okay?”

Avianna shrugged and brushed past him. She turned the handle on the large oaken door that led into the inn and stepped into a room filled with light and sounds and smells. The strong scents of roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, malt beer and unwashed men wafted to her nose.

The common-room was filled with a mixture of merchants and travellers. Some appeared to be simple farmers, bringing their produce to the city marketplace. Others were more outlandish, including a couple tattooed sailors. The most remarkable pair was a dwarf and a minotaur, who had carefully chosen seats near at the bar, quite close to the exit.

She had never seen a minotaur before, and she was impressed to say the least. His skin was a thick leathery hide with patches of rust-coloured fur on his chest and arms. He bore no weapons and obviously needed none for his hands and his horns looked to be more deadly than any mere sword. His horns were polished white and reached almost to the ceiling despite the fact that he was sitting on a thick stool. He was unbelievably well-muscled and huge. Avianna guessed him to be roughly eight feet tall and as heavy as an ox. The minotaur was dressed in nothing more than a rust-coloured kilt and the food before him was a simple fair: Carrot and potato soup.

Dwarves were a rarity too, and this one was rather unusual. Avianna had seen dwarves merchants before in her homeland. They were skilled artisans and metal smiths and their fondness for wealth was enough to make them travel abroad in search of greater fortunes. This dwarf however was no merchant, that much was for certain. He was encased from head to toe in shining steel and carried a sledgehammer in a harness on his back.

The dwarf caught her staring. “What are you looking at missy?” he barked harshly. The minotaur looked up with dark brown eyes full of intelligence. He seemed to smile and then winked at Avianna.

The elf was taken aback in surprise and tried to hide a smile. She opened her mouth to answer but instead giggled.

The dwarf’s cheeks, hidden behind a thick (but rather handsomely groomed) black beard turned red with might be either anger or embarrassment. “Now what are you laughing at? Never seen a dwarf before?”

Avianna bit her tongue to control her giggling, realizing the room had fallen silent and everyone was staring at her. “Nothing so ignorant master dwarf. I’ve just never seen a dwarf as handsome as you are.” She smiled truthfully, for the dwarf did indeed appear to be handsome for one of his kind.

“Or as shiny, either, I imagine,” grumbled the deep baritone voice of the minotaur.

The dwarf turned even more red and opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. He closed his mouth, rather flustered. Finally he managed to blurt out: “Well, are you going to just stand there with the door open, or sit down and eat? You’re letting a draft in!”

Avianna caught what looked like the minotaur smiling again and closed the door behind her. She walked forward, the dwarf watching her all the way and sat down on a stool beside him.

For a moment, elf and dwarf seemed to be locked in a staring contest. He had undoubtedly noticed the finely made bow on her back, her arrows and the scrapes on her leather armour. Closer to him, she could now see his silvery armour also was not without a few scratches and what looked to be dents that had been carefully hammered and fixed.

The portly innkeeper walked along the bar to stand across from Avianna expectantly. She glanced about and spotted the dwarf’s meal: Two large drumsticks from what looked to be a well-fed turkey plus a thick helping of mashed potatoes and gravy. There was a half-drank beer stein closest to the dwarf.

“I’d like a room for the night and double what the dwarf is having,” she said, forking her index finger and her middle finger and gesturing to her seat and the spare stool beside her. “My friend is in your stables right now. He should be here shortly.”

Wordless the innkeeper walked off and for a moment she wondered if he had even heard her. He had not even bothered to tell her the price.

She turned back to the dwarf and found him frowning at her. “Trying to cuddle up to me isn’t going to work little missy! I am wise to your elvish tricks! Keep your hands away from my money pouch and my weapons!”

“Little?” she responded, and then thought better of continuing that sentence. She had already offended him once. Again his face was turning red and for a moment she thought steam might come out the ear holes in his silvery helmet. She really should be more insulted at the fact he had just accused her of being a thief. “Do you really think I am going to take that accusation seriously? Especially from someone who looks like he robbed a silver depository?”

The minotaur laughed out loud this time, a deep throaty life that seemed to come more from his heavily muscled belly and turned in his stool to look over top of the dwarf and down at the elf. “It won’t do you much good miss. This dwarf is as thick as an anvil and stubborn too!”

The dwarf swivelled in his stool and punched the minotaur in the gut, none-too-friendly either, and yet the minotaur seemed not to notice. “Stop making fun of my name!” he shouted, talking more to the minotaur’s stomach than to the minotaur himself.

The minotaur seemed to smile again, this time showing off his thick teeth. “I’m sorry, this is Angus Hardanvil and my name Roradz. I can tell you’re a foreigner, so I should mention that we are both paladins. Korovian Knights at your service.”

Again Avianna was shocked. The dwarf she could understand, for dwarves were very honourable people in general. To her knowledge however, a minotaur taking the same vows was unthinkable to her. She admitted she really didn’t know much about minotaurs period, let alone Korovian minotaurs.

The dwarf’s face seemed to soften and turn jovial. “He’s an Ironskin, in case you’re wondering. It’s a special order of paladins… actually I think they’re more like monks, but whatever. The point is, they’re a special order of minotaur paladin monks, whuddeva you wanna call it. Their devotion and training grants their skin extra hardness, so that they become as tough as steel. They also refuse to use weapons, preferring to use martial arts and boxing.”

“Something which my dwarves friend finds funny, so used to having a steel weapon in his hand and heavy steel covering his backside.”

“And your choice of food?” Avianna asked, nodding towards the vegetable soup.

Roradz’s face turned serious. “Minotaurs don’t eat meat. We consider it to be a sin.”

Angus grumbled something under his breath. “But you do eat fish. I’ve seen you.”

“Fish doesn’t count.”

“Neither does beer, and yet you refuse to drink?”

“Alcohol leads to gluttony. Besides, it would take an unreasonably large amount just to make me tipsy.”

“Well then who the hell am I supposed to drink with? The elf?” demanded Angus, slamming his beer on the bar and sloshing some of the foam.

“How about me?” said a new voice, a deep one.

The dwarf turned about in his stool and looked up at Brutus. The barbarian smiled boyishly and sat down in the empty stool beside Avianna. Angus did a full circle in his stool and watched carefully as the barbarian sat down. He seemed to be sizing up his would-be opponent.

“I already ordered,” Avianna said, feeling rather trapped between the two drinkers. “Brutus, this is Angus and Roradz. They’re -”

“Paladins,” Brutus interrupted. “Roradz is an Ironskin. I’ve heard tales of Korovian minotaurs. Your people are exceptionally honourable and fearless warriors.”

“And we dwarves aren’t?” demanded Angus, his eyes narrowing within his helmet.

“Sometimes,” shrugged Brutus. “I’ve known a couple tricky dwarves in my time. Their greed got the best of them. Honour is something we all must earn, don’t you agree?”

Angus’s face was red, but this time it was from embarrassment. When at last he spoke it came out slowly. “Sadly, many of my kind have fallen into disrespectful ways. Very well barbarian, I shall drink with you.” He brightened up a bit. “Lets find us a table!”

As Brutus and Angus went off to drink, the minotaur swallowed the last of his soup and moved one stool over to sit beside Avianna. He looked down at her, his gaze penetrating. He seemed to see right through her. “You are Brutus are travelling together? May I ask where to?”

Avianna nodded. “Yes, but I admit its more like we’re wandering. I’ve been living in the mountains north of here for years, living the life of a ranger. Brutus comes from much farther away, to the north-west. I guess we’re both curious as to what is south. I‘ve had enough of the mountains for awhile.” She paused and smiled. “Few too many ogres left to kill.”

“Well, if its south you’re heading, Angus and I are heading south to the Holy City of Kost tomorrow. You two would be welcome to join us on the road,” offered Roradz.

Avianna pursed her lips thoughtfully and then glanced at the two drinkers. The dwarf was shouting at a barmaid to bring more beer and keep it coming. “Well, assuming those two get along, sure. We could travel with you.”

“You’re worried about Angus? Have no fear, he is truly harmless. He would never throw the first punch,” mused Roradz. He looked down at the elf, studying her carefully. “Your skill in fighting ogres may come is useful. We’ll be travelling very close to the Troll Lands.”

Chapter Five