The most valuable thing that Fort Blakely offered was a crowd to slip into.
It was the largest of the settlements that dotted the moors, and as a bustling trading outpost, it was known for its diversity–it wasn’t unusual to see dwarves, elves, and goblins browsing its shops or drinking at its taverns. Even the occasional merfolk could be found, enjoying the damp air and moist earth.
Orcs were rarer, but if there was any place outside their own encampments they might be met with a stare rather than a sword through the gut, this was it.
Akura’a kept her hood pulled low and her arms hidden under her cloak. Still, she couldn’t mask her bulk or height, and as she and Garridan moved through the throng, whispers were exchanged, fingers pointed.
“I know a small bar on the outskirts, across town. We should head there,” Garridan suggested.
“Criminals. Vermin. We’ll fit right in.”
He led her through an open air market, filled with the sound of squawking vendors hawking soiled root vegetables and the chorus of industry–pumping bellows, hammer on steel, knife on pelt as leather makers scudded hides. In the town square, a young bard with porcelain skin and a voice just as fair was singing, and she picked up a few of his gilded lyrics as they fluttered by–
When the winter weather withered away
And spring rolled round in blossom n’ bloom
The nymphs and sylphs did frolic and play
The sprites and gnomes did dust off the gloom
And barely did they notice the ground
And nary a care did they give as they did–
The fields were now full of brown mound
To mark the graves of soldiers amid
Bounteous flowers, spring’s sweet memorial,
Delicate aromas masking the dread.
But wolves too keen, and oh so fossorial
Unburied the past, dug up the dead.
The words landed in her brain like lead. She tried to concentrate on other bits of the ruckus, voices in the crowd, coins clinking as they changed hands–anything to drown out the singing.
Fortunately, they soon left behind the bustle and were making their way through a labyrinth of alleys, cramped and quiet. The buildings in this part of Blakely were older, clearly from the original settlement. Cracked stone and rotted wood decorated window casings like crow’s feet, while roofs slumped like shoulders at the bottom of a hunched back.
Garridan waved Akura’a through a small door and into a rickety tavern. The alleys were quiet because all of the vagrants that would normally haunt them were here, gathered round small tables, some playing cards, others telling stories, some laughing raucously, others studiously devouring meals.
Garridan pointed to a table in the corner. “You wait. I’ll get us some drinks. And the barkeep might know somethin’.”
“Bout which caravans would actually take you East, rather than turn you in.”
She did as he said and sat, her back to the walls so she could keep watch. A woman stood at the hearth stirring a pot of soup. She looked Akura’a over but didn’t flinch when the orc met her stare. Instead, one of her brows slowly raised, unimpressed.
At the bar, Garridan was speaking with the bartender. The barkeep was cooperative and calmly answered each of Garridan’s questions, but the whole time, he wiped the counter and sized up Akura’a. She held his gaze until their line of sight was interrupted by the frame of a tall, balding man.
“Howdy,” he said cheerily. He offered Akura’a his hand and when she didn’t take it he chortled and choked a bit and smiled dumbly. “I don’t bite,” he said. “Fact, that worry should be more on my end, no?”
Akura’a was quiet.
“Come on, now.” He pulled the chair across from her out and sat. “We don’t discriminate round here. How could we? But the one thing you gotta do is take a joke.” He leaned in expectantly, the table creaking under the weight of his elbows. Akura’a blinked heavily, said nothing. She watched as he glistened in the firelight, sweat dripping down his brow. His smile was vacant, his eyes like polished pebbles, all of the emotion and nuance rubbed out. His features were just a smooth bit of nothing. He remained perched upon the table for a moment, waiting for her to break the beat. Finally giving up, he leaned back and his smile flattened. He dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief. “Tough egg to crack, ain’t ya? Well, I’m William. Pleased to make your ‘quaintance and all that. Over there is Nicholas. And that’s Richard. And Walter. The fellas, y’know? Like I said, you ain’t gotta worry bout nobody judging you round here. Ol’ Nick, well, it’s a ‘propriate name ‘cause he was a thief. Don’t worry, he’s been rehabilitated,”–he gave a greasy wink as he said this–“least since yesterday. Nicked a few coins from a veggie vendor, he did. But he swears he turned a corner this mornin’. And Walter here, he’s a real good guy. Just the usual vices, yeah? Booze, gamblin’, whores. Richard? Well, the less said ‘bout him the better, but, somebody had to let the lout sit at their table, right? And me? Well, I admit, I was a bit rowdy in my youth, but…” He held his arms out so she could take a good look. He seemed malproportioned with long limbs that bulged at the joints and a gaunt torso. His tunic drooped around his knobby frame like a sagging bandage, yellowing with sweat instead of pus. “Well, who’s got the energy to be rowdy anymore, eh?” He wiped his brow again and panted, exhausted from his own relentless introduction.
That was all.
“Well,”–he took in a deep breath and somehow found a second wind–“I couldn’t help but overhear your friend there at the bar. Seems your headin’ out East? How far? Just curious. To Deepvale? They might be a little less prejudiced ‘gainst your kind there. But still, wouldn’t ‘spect a warm welcome. ‘Course, maybe you ain’t lookin’ for that. Maybe you just lookin’ for some warmer weather. Hear you can’t get no better than the Arukadian coasts. Never seen ‘em myself. But what I have seen is the Far-flungs. And I’m thinkin’ that’s where you’re really headin’, now isn’t it?” He raised his brows expectantly and a wave of wrinkles washed across his oily forehead. “Lotta people get it in their minds to play pioneer and head out to the Far-flungs. Most of ‘em ain’t got a clue. Life’s hard out there. Got a million stories. Suppose you got time for a few of ‘em, don’t you?”
“There a problem?” Garridan now hovered behind the stranger like a shadow.
The man turned but was completely unfazed by the simmering shade behind him. “No problem at all, chief. Just gettin’ to know each other. I was ‘bout ready to tell her ‘bout the Far-flungs.”
Akura’a had never needed rescued before, but now her eyes were pleading with Garridan.
The stranger didn’t notice. He was already off, lost in the thicket of his past. “–now you ever heard of–” he motioned for Garridan to sit. “Go on, pull up a seat. You ever heard of…”