Red Larch was not a big town by anybody’s definition. Built on a crossroads where the Long Road leading up from Waterdeep met the Cairn Road to the east and the Khelldell Path to the west, it was a small collection of shops, an inn, a tavern and a shrine to the gods. I had heard it mentioned several times in passing from various traders and farmers in the towns I had been to nearby, but this was my first time visiting the place.
By now it had been three days since the disastrous events at Amphail – orchestrated by my “wife” Petrona – which had caused me to flee that town. I intended to lie low for a while, maybe pick up an odd job or two to earn some coin. I felt I could certainly do with some peace and quiet for a couple of days. It was approaching midday, and the sun was nearing its peak when I arrived in the town. Immediately I could hear and see people rushing to and fro in the street. I had to admit, for a small place there was certainly a lot going on here. I passed shops of all kinds – poultry, general goods, what looked like a farmers’ market, even a small quarry behind one of the buildings. It seemed that one could more or less find anything one needed here – just the sort of place I was looking for.
I walked further on up towards the crossroads, which seemed to be the main square for the town. From there I would be able to-
I had been so engrossed in looking at the buildings and people around me I hadn’t fully been paying attention to where I was going, so when someone suddenly crashed into me, I wasn’t in the least prepared. I looked at the person who had bumped into me. It was a small girl wearing green, only coming up to just above my waist. I gently took her by the shoulders and pushed her away, ready to give her a scolding, when I saw her face.
My breath caught in my throat. For a moment I thought I was looking at a ghost. A long forgotten memory surfaced. Long, curly black hair cascaded down around a pale, heart-shaped face. I thought I saw her eyes sparkle behind the battered spectacles with a crack in one of the glasses. She smiled in greeting, her face lighting up as she saw me. She was the loveliest person I had ever seen. I remembered a small shack in a big city, warm in the cold nights. I remembered a family.
“Welcome home, Danyel!”
“Hey! Mister! You okay?”
The voice shook me from my thoughts. I looked down at the girl. The memory of Astrid’s face faded. The girl had the same long black hair, but her face was thinner, and she definitely was not wearing spectacles. She could only have been nine or ten years old. I shook my head.
“Ye…yes. I’m fine.”
She smiled cheekily. “Best watch where you’re going!” she said, her voice bright and playful. “Well, see you around!” With that, she turned and ran off to join other children – another girl and a boy who looked to be the same age. I watched her go, unable to shake the image I had seen.
After she disappeared, I started walking and then stopped as a thought struck me. I felt in my pocket. It looked like that girl had stolen some of my gold. I just shook my head with a smile. Well played, kiddo, I thought to myself.
I carried on walking along the main road. Reaching the crossroads, I saw a sign for the tavern – the Helm at Highsun. Deciding that it was a good time for some food I entered. The light inside was fairly dim, but even so, the tavern looked busy. Men and women, dwarves, halflings and others were standing at the bar, sitting at tables, all of them talking loudly. I managed to find a table tucked away in the corner and ordered some meat and vegetables. After three days on the road, it tasted marvellous.
“You look like you’re new in town,” a voice said from above me.
I looked up. The bartender was standing over me, a pair of tankards in his hands. I said nothing as he sat down and slid one across to me. I didn’t bother to look at what was in it. “What brings you here?” he asked.
“Nothing much, looking for work,” I said noncommittally.
The bartender nodded, “Well there’s plenty around here. You’re sure to find something suitable. Only…” and he leaned across the table, “Be careful who you talk to. People round here tend not to take kindly to having their business meddled with.”
I just nodded in response and finished my meal. After leaving enough silver to cover the cost, I returned to the main street and continued northwards through the town. I walked past a harness maker’s and was just passing a baker’s shop when something suddenly caught my eye, and I stopped. I took a closer look at the sign over the bakers.
Nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary except…
I had to look at the sign twice before I saw it. It was very subtle, but it was there. A mark, stained on the wood. A sign in Thieves Cant. The Zhentarim symbol for “Contact”. I looked to my left and my right. Around me, the townsfolk were going about their business. No one was watching me. I looked again at the sign. Part of me wanted to get as far away as possible, but another part was curious. After all, Sundabar was far to the north. No one would be looking for me here.
I made up my mind and entered the shop.
The first thing that hit me was the smell of baking bread. It was almost overpowering. The walls were lined with shelves carrying loaves of all shapes and sizes. At the far end was a counter, behind which stood a large man wearing a white apron and wearing a white hat. He was pounding a lump of dough on the countertop, clouds of flour flying into the air as he did so. As I entered, he looked up.
“Can I ‘elp you?” His voice was deep and gruff, suiting his build.
I approached the counter. “I was wondering what you had on offer,” I said, my voice level. Reaching out, I drew a sign in the flour – an identification mark in Thieves Cant.
The baker looked at the sign, then looked up at me, his eyes narrowed. After a moment he nodded and brushed the flour from the countertop in a single movement. “I suppose you’re here to sign up for the caravan?” he asked.
“Caravan?” I asked in return.
He nodded. “The Zhents are bringing a caravan up from Womford. Four wagons. They’re looking for hired hands to guard the caravan all the way up to Triboar. Interested?”
It sounded like just what I was looking for. “I’m interested,” I replied.
“Good. You’re hired.” The man picked up his dough again. “The caravan will arrive here three days from now. Payment is twenty gold – half up front, half when you reach Triboar.” With that, he returned to kneading the dough. Seeing I wasn’t going to get anything more out of him, I left the shop.
No sooner had I closed the door when I heard a voice. “You want to be careful, taking jobs like that!” I turned. Sitting on the fence a few feet away was a halfling with bronze, curly hair and the ruddy skin of one who spent a lot of time outdoors.
“Excuse me?” I said.
The halfling laughed, “There’s talk of caravans disappearing without a trace. Bandits, some say, but others say it’s something else. Best be careful; you know what I mean?” Before I could reply, he stood up and ran off down the street.
I shook my head and carried on walking.
The next three days passed slowly. It turned out there really wasn’t a lot to do in Red Larch. I visited the blacksmith, the market, the general goods store – several times in fact. I saw that girl a few times from a distance, her green clothes bright against the drab buildings, but she didn’t seem to see me, which was fine.
The third day finally came, and I stood outside the baker’s shop with three other heavily built men. We waited until just after noon, at which point four wagons, pulled by horses, rumbled along the Cairn Road into the town. They turned northwards along the Long Road and came to a halt.
The driver of the lead wagon jumped down and stood before us, looking closely at us. “Is this the best we can do?” he asked, somewhat dismissively. “Bah, who cares? As long as you do your jobs, you’ll get your money. Mount up!” With that, he climbed back onto his wagon and picked up the reins for his horse. One of the men standing near me climbed up and sat next to him, the rest of us following close behind.
I clambered up to the second wagon from the rear, taking my place next to a man who looked like he had seen many years. An eyepatch covered one eye – and I could see a vicious looking scar behind it. His hair was completely grey, as was his beard, which came down a few inches below his chin. He looked at me, his single eye looking like it was peering through me. After a few seconds, he grunted. “I suppose you’ll do.”
After ten more minutes to make sure we were all aboard, the caravan leader set off, leading us out of Red Larch and along the Long Road to Triboar. From what little I had been able to pick up I knew we would be passing through the small village of Westbridge. It seemed likely we would stop there to pick up more supplies.
I watched the scenery move past as we rode along the track. There were fields and farmland as far as the eye could see. Ahead of us rose the Sumber Hills, supposedly the site of an ancient Dwarf city, if you listened to vague fanciful rumours that is. The road took us through some of the distant hills, and the landscape turned from green and verdant to rocky and desolate.
All the time my new companion – whose name was Rourke, or so he said – told stories of his travels. “Easiest coin you’ll ever make! Sitting on your rear, going from one place to another! Been doing it for twenty years, I have! Made a tidy little sum from it! O’course,” and his voice went low as if he was passing on a great secret, “You got to know the roads, know which ones are safe and which ones are bandit country. Either that or make sure you travel in packs, so they’ll get the other ones first, eh? Heh Heh! Where you from?” I wasn’t prepared for the question, so I said nothing for a moment. He laughed again. “Why do I care? After this job is done, we’ll never see each other again anyway!” He carried on laughing.
The hours passed as we carried on and soon night fell. The caravan leader called a halt and instructed us to make the wagons into a circle so we could camp for the night. One of the other mercenaries managed to hunt and bring back a boar. We roasted and ate it with the easy camaraderie of those who had never met before and would never see each other again. Those of us who were hired as guards kept watch during the night. Morning came without incident, and we struck out once again on the road.
The journey was uneventful, and by mid-afternoon, we reached Westbridge, where we halted. The caravan leader informed us that we would be staying here overnight – he wanted to acquire new horses, and some of the wagons needed minor repairs.
Westbridge had only one inn – the Harvest Inn. Its proprietor, a halfling named Herivin Dardragon, seemed intimidated by the party of big burly men – and myself – suddenly turning up on his doorstep, but he acted as a dutiful host, and before long we were sitting down to more roast boar. Someone started singing – a bawdy song about a farmer who fell in love with a troll of all things – which others soon took up. I stayed quiet, lost in my thoughts. Rourke was sitting next to me.
“Hey,” he said, “You okay? You look a bit green.”
I nodded, “Just some things I’m trying to forget.”
Rourke nodded, his mouth wide in a grin, “You came to the right place for that!” With that, he stood up and joined in the loud singing. I just watched.
It was after midnight when we finally retired, having pretty much used up all of Herivin’s stocks of food and drink. I lay down on a reasonably hard bed, with Rourke and two others in the room. Rourke snored loudly. It looked like I wasn’t going to get much sleep.
Just one more day… I told myself
We set off again early the next morning, with some of our party nursing painful headaches. We planned to reach Triboar by nightfall, at which point we would be paid, and we would go our separate ways. Next, to me, Rourke seemed to be having trouble keeping his eyes open. I was currently suffering a fair-sized headache from lack of sleep.
“Not so loud!” he hissed, even though I hadn’t said anything. He held the reins in one of his hands and cradled his head in his other. I was glad we were moving slowly. At least we would reach our destination in one piece!
We travelled further up north as morning turned into noon. The sun was reaching its highest point when the guard on the wagon behind us called out. “Something in the sky! Above us!”
I turned to look. And my blood froze. In the sky, bearing down upon us at high speed was a dragon. My mind flashed back many years ago when a red dragon destroyed a trading ship I had been a crewmember of, only this dragon was bronze.
The other drivers and guards noticed and the caravan leader called a halt. Rourke looked up, shielding his face from the sun with his hand. “Would you look at that! Magnificent beast! Wonder what it’s doing here?”
The answer came as the dragon opened its mouth and a jet of lightning shot forth. It hit the ground near us, causing the horses to go into a frenzy. I threw up one arm to shield my face from the debris while using the other arm to hang on to the wagon.
“Move!” the caravan leader called frantically. The drivers fought to bring their horses back under control – I could see Rourke straining with the effort. With difficulty, he managed to get the horses on our wagon to move forward as fast as they could.
More lightning impacted the ground around us. Then, to my horror, a shadow swooped down over the wagon just in front of us. I watched as claws grabbed it, pulling it up into the air to a great height, the horses still attached. The driver and guard fell from the wagon and hit the ground with a sickening thud. I didn’t need to look too closely to see they were dead. Another guard jumped down from his wagon and tried to flee into the woods. He didn’t get far before another stream of electricity engulfed him.
“Go! Go! Go!” the caravan leader shouted. We didn’t need to be told twice. Rourke whipped the reins, and the horses went even faster. He leaned over to me. “There’s a crate of bows and arrows in the back! See if you can do anything with them!”
With some difficulty, I scrambled into the back of our wagon, just in time to see the cart behind us get swept up by the dragon. I opened one of the crates and saw a brand new bow with fresh arrows, just as Rourke had said. I picked up the bow and put an arrow to the string.
“Fire! Fire!” Rourke screamed. I had never held a bow before in my life and had no idea how to use it properly. I pointed the arrow up at the dragon and let go of the string, hoping it would somehow hit the dragon. I watched in panic as the arrow sailed harmlessly past the great beast.
“Look out!” Rourke cried. The dragon circled around and came straight for us. I dove from the wagon, barely escaping the dragon’s claws. I hit the ground as the cart flew over my head. I heard a crunching sound behind me. Turning to look, I saw Rourke’s body, his head at an unnatural angle. I felt a pang of sadness – I had barely known him, but he seemed to have been an honest man, trying to make a living.
I turned back to watch as the dragon picked up the final wagon, carrying it off to join the others who-knew-where. Soon everything went quiet and still, and I was left surround by dead bodies, bits of wood and the odd horse, with fires burning sporadically along the road.
I considered myself lucky to be alive.
I thought back to that halfling in Red Larch. He seemed to know more than he had let on. Could he have been in league with the dragon? Telling it where the caravan was? Was he even now looting what remained of the wagons?
It didn’t matter. Not really. Once again fate had conspired against me, and I was alone.
I sighed and started making my way along the road to Triboar. Maybe once there I could gather my thoughts and figure out what to do next.
I started walking. There didn’t seem to be much alternative.