Three travelers entered the roadside inn. First came a stout woman clad in a short, sleeveless tunic of mail. Though common in appearance, her face was stern. She had slung a painted round shield over her shoulder and a broad blade hung sheathed from her worn baldric. She surveyed the inn with the confidence of a commander of men, and then stepped forward.

Behind her came an Alp, no taller than a boy. He was white-eyed and white-haired: one of the Bergewose out of the mountains. Clad in light leather, he carried a dagger and a bow, and on his head wore a casque of crudely hammered iron. Warily, he looked about the inn with his white eyes before stepping forward.

Last came another woman adventurer. Unlike the other, her features were more refined and marred by fewer scars. She was clad in a fine tunic of cloth, presently caked with the dust and dirt of the road. Save for a quarterstaff, she was unarmed, but Deka knew from the symbols on the hems of her tunic that she was a Battlemage associated with the college in Trollby.

The eyes of the degenerate patrons of the inn followed the three as they made their way to the counter. Deka, too, watched them with interest, for now ignoring the tome that had kept him ensorcelled but a moment ago. In his mind, he took count of the coins in his purse and made some quick calculations. And as the weary adventurers sat down at one of the inn’s dirty tables, he made up his mind.

Slowly Deka rose from his seat and walked over to the table where the adventurers now sat talking softly over tankards of cheap cider. The she-mage was first to see him and hushed her fellows. They fell silent and turned to look at Deka as he stepped up to their table.

“Do you mind if I join you for a while?” Deka said.

The mail-clad warrior shrugged and moved over to make room on the wooden bench. Deka sat down next to her, although the bench was too low for him, and he had to stretch his legs so as not to have to pull his knees up to his chest.

When he had settled, he appraised the adventurers one by one, as they did him. Finally he spoke:

“I require the aid of a band of brave adventurers for hire. And methinks you are them.”

The she-mage looked at him warily. “For what?” She said.

“I seek keys,” Deka said. “Keys to a gateway of great magical power. Their locations I know, but I am fain only to proceed with an armed escort, for they lie in the wild lands.”

“That sounds like a perilous journey,” the she-mage said.

Deka laid a thick, fur-covered hand on the table. “And thus,” he said, “the rewards will be great.”

He lifted his hand slightly. The silver coins underneath shone in the candlelight, their glow matched only by the spark in the adventurers’ eyes. They exchanged quick glances and then leaned in towards him.

“Speak,” the she-mage said.

Deka smiled and began his tale. . .

[End]