Saren opened his eyes slowly, taking in the surrounding landscape while his vision adjusted to the influx of light after his hour of meditation.  A clement breeze washed over him as the Riwah birds chattered away in the trees of the edge of the nearby forest, turning the otherwise overbearing heat into a relaxing temperature.  He cast a desultory glance down the hill onto the road, where a couple of travelers on horseback were heading for the city of Glenwood under the cloudless blue morning sky.  A smile crept onto his face as he stood and grabbed his walking stick.  It was a beautiful day.

He was alive.

He turned his mind toward the future, as he descended the hill with typical elven grace, his simple brown robe fluttering gently in the wind.  A wave of apprehension and anxiety passed through him, as he contemplated the possibilities and unknowns that this meeting presented.   Will anyone else remember the pact we made?  What kind of people have my childhood friends become in the last 6 years?  Are they all still alive?  How will they react when they see that I’m still alive?

Had it only been 6 years?  6 years since the raid that had desolated his village, his childhood home?  It seemed like a lifetime.  Memories came back, flying in and out of his mind, impossible to recreate in their entirety, like trying to piece together a vivid dream that was just out of your minds eye.  Carefully practiced preparedness drills falling into chaos, as villagers were overcome with dread.  The smell of burning leaves.  The sound of commands being thrown out with desperation mixed with the howling of Orc warriors.  The terror was as fresh in his mind as if it had happened yesterday.

Enough, a quiet voice from within disrupted his stream of thought.  This meeting is important.  Let your anxiety go, and take comfort in the moment, knowing all you need will be provided.

Saren smiled.  When in doubt, you can always shut up and listen to yourself.

—-

Sid’s eyes narrowed as he scanned the busy Glenwood marketplace outside of the Inn.  He was being watched.  No, that wasn’t it, after all, as a Dark Elf, you are constantly watched.  No, he was being stalked.  When a person has lived in the streets, worked in the shadows as long as he had,  the mood of a crowd could tell you more than a confession from an enemy.  And someone in this crowd is following me, he thought.  Okay, let’s play.

He began moving through the streets and thoroughfares as if he were merely surveying the kiosks and merchants wares, and to a casual observer, it would seem like nothing more.  In reality, Sid was moving according to a specific strategic pattern, utilizing the reflective surfaces, alleyways, and his own knowledge of the city to try and catch a glimpse of his prey, as well as maneuver himself into more ‘friendly’ territory.  But whoever was following him had been able to elude him thus far.  Fine asshole, see if you can follow a ghost.

Picking up his pace, Sid was preparing to slip away into the crowd, when a flash of light caught a window pane and he saw a reflection.  He stopped in his tracks, stunned, and spun around to face his follower.

6 years ago, Sid had lost everything to a group of god-cursed orcs, and had been forced to live on the harsh streets of Canorate, the capital of Molthune.  He had survived.  Thrived even, making a name for himself in the underworld, the one place where a Dark Elf was, if not accepted, at least respected.  Since that time, he had shut away his past, doing his best to divorce himself from anything related to his childhood.  But he never forgot a face.

“Saren?” the word crawled out of his mouth as he found himself staring at a man he hadn’t seen in over 4 years.  A man who was supposed to be dead.

From across the street, Sid watched as a smile spread over the face of the robed wood elf walking towards him.  It took him a minute to break out of the awkward embrace that was causing a scene in the street.

“Saren!” Sid took a step back.  “Why-how are you here?  We all saw you, all of us!  We saw the orcs-“.

“My friend,” Saren kept smiling.  “It’s so good to see you!  Believe it or not, I was part of a counter attack that actually routed the attacking force and brought the fight back to the orcs in their mountains,”

Sid cocked an eyebrow, remembering seeing his old friend being run through by a marauder’s scimitar and falling to the ground.

“You routed the-”

“Joking,” Saren chuckled, innocently. “I was nearly mortally wounded and left for dead.  But the details of my escape can wait until we meet the others.  Do you know if they’ve already arrived?”

Sid’s anxiety evaporated as he laughed along, and enjoyed one of the first moments of levity he had in a long time.  He ran an ebony hand through his bone-white hair.  “Braad has arrived,” he said smiling. “he’s been inside for around 20 minutes,”

“Yet you wait outside?”

“Just being cautious,” Sid said, seemingly from miles away in his own mind, as he stared at the shadows of the alley across the street.  “You never know what a kind of welcome you’ll receive in a new city,”

Or from old friends, he thought, wondering how much of their childhood bond had survived the last 6 years.  He followed Saren back through the city towards the Horse’s Hoof, taking what comfort he could in the simple smile that remained on his old friends face.

Braad’s eyes were drawn to the woman sitting alone at one of the tables on the far left side of the Inn, for reasons he couldn’t explain.  She wasn’t particularly attractive.  She had yellow hair, cut to her shoulders, and an especially ovular face, especially for an orc.  Her brown eyes were relaxing behind eyelids which had been slowly taking over more and more territory from the eyeballs, with no small help from the mulled wine she had been nursing.  Thin lips smiled contently underneath a small hooked nose.  Braad knew this look well.  The look of much deserved relaxation at the end of a grueling day.

Even more interesting was the tattoo on her right forearm, which was peeking out from her shirt sleeve.

Braad considered himself fairly well traveled, at least as far as this country was concerned.  He had spent the last 6 years moving from city to city, town to town, and village to village.  No experience had been taboo, as he searched the land for anything and everything.

He had fought many a brave man, and loved many a good woman.  He had been hailed as a hero in the southern village of Yuri for rescuing the Hectar children after they had been trapped in a cave.  He had been arrested in the river town of Reddnale for joining a band of thieves and defrauding the temple of healing.  He had known heroes and villains of so many different races that his lack of bigotry was not a moral choice but rather an inability to suspend his disbelief.

He had seen that tattoo before.

Eventually, he, like everyone else, began to see certain realities come into relief.  First of all, he found out that he was quite fond of playing the lute, and his talent matched his interest.  Combined with his natural affability and elven charm, this was how he survived.  At first, he would play to small crowds at whatever Inn was close, hoping to scrounge enough money to pay for his room, or at least his food.

As time went on, however, he developed a modest level of local fame.  Though not recognized on sight, it had become rare that members of the audience wouldn’t recognize his most popular songs.  Innkeeps began to court him, offering him lodging and food to play at their establishments.  His diet improved considerably.

Rather than embrace his fame as most would, Braad had chosen to keep his venue small, and disappeared to the small village of Trusk, to live among its population of orcs.  A full year had passed before he began travelling again, but far from being forgotten, Braad found that his following had become more loyal and enthusiastic than ever.  He began to collect nicknames, as his songs began to reflect his worldview.  Orcspeaker.  Devil’s Advocate.  The Green Peacemaker.

It is true, he had developed a fascination for the Orc culture.  It was in Trusk that he had first found a sense of home.  It was also there that he had first found love.  A tear formed in his left eye, as his mind pictured her.  Eternity itself wouldn’t be enough time to erase those images from his mind.  The first time they locked eyes.  Their secret wedding.

The pain in her eyes as she was branded a traitor, and cast from the village.  He had begged her to let him come with, pleaded until his voice was hoarse, but she had refused.  He told her she didn’t have to be ashamed, that he would always love her.  Little did he know, it wasn’t shame, but rage that burned within her heart.  She didn’t have to tell him.  Her eyes bore into him like the rays of a vengeful sun, then glanced down to the tattoo on her arm, the tattoo that told each Orc who would see it that she was Lombrock, untouchable.  He had taken everything from-

“Wake up half-elf,” came a quiet voice. “you’ve had more than enough to drink, and the garbled lyrics to your songs are driving our patrons mad,”

Braad’s head shot up, and he cursed himself for letting his guard down.

“I’m a paying guest of this-” his voice cut off as he saw who stood before him.  “Llewer-”

“It’s Sid now,” said the dark elf, breaking into a rare smile.  “Just Sid,”

“Sid it is,” Braad was momentarily overcome by a wave of nostalgic peace.  “I can’t believe you came!”

Sid swiftly took a seat in the chair on Braad’s right (the one with the clearest view of the entrance) and removed his gloves.

“If you’re surprised to see me, wait until you see who’s bringing our drinks,”

Arturo rolled his eyes and looked towards the exit as the man and the dwarf argued.  He was bored, and judging by the light outside of the window, in danger of being late for the only part of this trade circuit that held any interest for him.  He began running through likely combat scenarios in his mind.  Take out the human first, three steps forward and one upward thrust.  Timed correctly, he could shift back and to the left in order to avoid the dwarf’s axe which would come from the right, and the dwarf would be facing the window, the light from the sun in his eyes for the remainder of the combat.  Of course the dwarf was closer, but he looked tough, and Arturo doubted he could finish him before the other man could attack.  No, best to take one out first, so as to concentrate all of his efforts-

“I’m sure Lord Vega would be most disappointed to hear that you have invalidated the contract you had agreed to in good faith no less than 3 months ago,” the dwarf’s face had reddened as the conversation had escalated and his relatively calm voice was beginning to crack with agitation.  The other man’s face had been sporting a sickeningly smug smile since he had entered the room, and had started stroking his mustache as he responded.

“I’m sure that Lord Vega, if he were here, would be able to appreciate-”

Lord Vega is here,” Arturo interrupted.  He stepped in between the two and turned first to the dwarf.  “Karn, we need to wrap this up, I’m going to be late for a high priority meeting,”

The mustache stroker smiled in victory as Karn the dwarf tried to respond.

“Art- Lord Vega, your father would-”

“My father,” interrupted Arturo.  “would have been here himself, if he thought there was even the slightest chance Mr. Reese here would walk from our arrangement,”

“I beg your pardon?” the smile disappeared from Mr. Reese’s face.

Arturo smirked, and drew his blade.  His back turned to his guests, he began to work through some basic attack patterns.  He sighed, then sheathed his blade, before turning to face Mr. Reese.

“Mr. Reese, what did we sign a deal for 3 months ago?”

“Well, as I have said, the market environments have made the rates we agreed to impo-”

“No, not the details, the reason,” Arturo looked the smaller man in the eyes.  “We didn’t go into business with you for your vast fortune.  You are one of the lucky construction magnates around this town who deals with Councilor Harmon on a regular basis.  We offered you our business at a reduced rate and the councilor started asking about overhead, naturally leading him to us.  We are now in contact with him directly in regards to his personal lumber needs, so at this point the pittance we receive from our contract with you is negligible.

C’mon, now don’t look so angry, because frankly there’s nothing you can do about it, short of telling your colleagues and friends what I’ve just told you, and trust me, they already know.  Councilor Harmon also knows, as do the other councilors in the city.  Hell even I knew, and I barely pay any attention to this side of our family’s business at all!”

Arturo turned away from the still-frozen gaping mouth and began walking out the door.

“If you’re still interested in the original deal, you can pay Karn tomorrow morning at the Horse’s Hoof.  Otherwise our business here is concluded,”

The rotund dwarf scurried after Arturo down the stairs of the Inn, and out into the streets stammering about cordiality, and keeping up good relationships with the local business community.  The sun was descending lazily while the late afternoon market bustled with the sound of business and trade.  Arturo caught his reflection in a shop window and smiled.  He looked good.

His black boots were made from a fine leather and designed to breath, keeping his feet relatively cool even on hot days such as this.  The expensive black continued all the way up, first the cotton slacks, then in the form of his silk shirt, interrupted only by a lightening to dark brown when you got to his hair, which was cropped short and jagged, currently the height of fashion.  Of course the dwarf was still talking…

“-and furthermore, you must remember that you’re speaking not only on behalf of yourself but on behalf of your father wherever you are!  That kind of-”

“Karn, enough, I get it,” Arturo held up his hand in protest.  “you’re not happy.  I’m not thrilled to be here either.  I tell you what, how about next time, we set up an all day meeting with one local farmer to discuss the benefits of goat milk,” the dwarf’s face darkened but Arturo kept talking.  “Or maybe we can have a meaningful sit down with a local street performer, see if there is any business there.  Or maybe, and I’m inclined to go this route, just maybe, next time my father can find something for me to do which has the slightest bit of significance, instead of going from town to town and glad-handing all of the shit-kicking merchants he wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole!

I’ve been doing this for 5 years for Odin’s sake!”

“But sir,” stuttered the dwarf, as Arturo left him standing in the center of the crowded marketplace.  “Where are you going?”

“I already told you Karn, important meeting.  High priority,”  Arturo shouted back.  “Tell my father I’ll be home in a week, after I cultivate some real business!”

Free of the dwarf, Arturo felt his anxiety melting away.  He made his way to the Horse’s Hoof, and stopped briefly before entering.  Am I ready for this?  He thought back to the last time he had seen his friends.  Llewertholos, the clever dark elf who had conned Avery the butcher out of 2 boar flanks in a rigged card game at the age of 12.  Braad, the dreamer.  He remembered the Half elf, and his constant dream of leaving their small town for something bigger.  Arturo wondered if he had found it.  He would miss Saren, of course, a wood elf who had been filled with an anger that seemed bottomless.  Hopefully in death he had found peace.

Hearing his stomach tell him he was hungry, Arturo opened the door and went to meet his friends.

“I can’t believe you wrote ‘Ballad of Ormus Dei’!”

“Get this,” Braad said to Sid, pointing his finger to the table.  “It was based on that fat dog the Mrs. Jonas used to have!  The one that kept running away, and then she made her husband go searching the forest for it at all hours of the night?  It was called ‘Pudge Pup’ originally!  Then some unit of soldiers on the border of Molthune thought it was this cryptically veiled metaphor for their captain’s last stand.  I’ve never even been that far south!”

Arturo smiled and took another drink of mead as he watched Sid mockingly go for his blades.

“I ought to make this your last stand half breed,” Sid said smiling.  “Do you know how many nights I’ve had to listen to the howling of drunken street youths sing that damned song?  Over and over with that goddamn refrain!”

“Do you remember how awful she was to that poor dog?” Arturo said.

Saren stopped laughing long enough to say “That leash couldn’t have been more than 3 feet long.  And did you ever see the dog without it?”

“Only when the poor bastard was able to chew threw it and run away late at night!” Sid said.

Now they were all laughing.  Everyone was feeling pretty good, even Sid had lowered his guard (at least a bit) in order to enjoy the reunion lunch.  They had been rehashing their experiences, speaking of old times, and enjoying more than a few drinks.

“Okay,” Arturo said deliberately, turning towards Saren.  “Let’s hear it,”

Saren, still smiling, gave his old friend a quizzical glance.

“C’mon wood elf!” Sid chimed in.  “We’re all sitting here going over the last 6 years pretending not to remember seeing you bleeding out on the ground, with less color in your face than a summer cloud!”

Arturo laughed.

“Seriously, we’re glad you’re back, but well-”

“How?” Saren asked quietly.  “Yes, the how indeed,”

He lowered his eyes, and for a moment seemed to go far away in his own mind.  Then he raised his gaze to meet his companions’, and began to speak.

 

NEXT CHAPTER:  SAREN’S STORY