By Brian Flood
Chapter 2 - Message from a Friend
The Halfway Inn
The Sword Coast Backlands
Early Evening, 28th Day of Eleint; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
The two traveling companions heads down the stairwell and into the back hallway. Turning left, they open the door leading to the tavern and step through.
The sights, smells, and sounds of the typical roadside inn immediately assault them. The dimly lit, many-pillared room is as cavernous as it is busy. The eastern end of the room, where Rashid and Yassir currently stand, seems much darker than the rest of the tavern, which has a rather cozy lighting provided by a scattering of dim lanterns. From their position in the northeastern corner of the room, where the back entrance is, the two companions pause to study the remainder of the tavern.
The entire north wall of the tavern consists of several heavily curtained booths. About half of them are apparently occupied, as their curtains stand closed, blocking any view of the occupants. Through the open curtains of the remaining booths, Rashid can see that they are completely enclosed, save for the curtained entrance. Each booth contains a table and built-in bench seats. Similarly constructed booths line the east wall as well, the only exception being the area around the back exit, where the two travelers currently stand.
The eastern half of the southern wall also sports a collection of curtained booths. The tavern's wooden bar is toward the western edge of the south wall. Behind the bar is a swinging wooden door through which a flows a steady stream of pert and nimble elven barmaids. Some carry platters filled with plates and tankards into the tavern, while others carry the empties back through the door to what must be the kitchens.
To the immediate west of the bar, a broad wooden stair fills the southwest corner of the room. A collection of hanging shields, displaying innumerous heraldic coats of arms, decorates its landings. Apparently this stairway is the primary access to the upper floors, whereas the back stairwell provides a more private conveyance of customers and visitors to the rooms above.
A broad archway that leads to the door watcher and the front door beyond dominates the western wall of the room. The center of the room has over a dozen round tables. A small collection of guests is scattered among the available seating and the buzz of countless conversations, whispered intrigues, and secret dealings fills the air inside the room. Amid the motley assortment of merchants, caravan guards, and travelers of a myriad of races, Rashid spies a few of the Lord Eleon's guard contingent as well as some of Assam's camel drovers.
Captain Melor and a handful of his guards, as well as an assortment of other customers, have gathered around a table near the middle of the room. At the table sits a stunningly beautiful moon elf maiden, with midnight blue hair and sapphire eyes. She strums an intricately crafted harp while singing a soothing tune in her native tongue.
Rashid heads for the nearest empty table to the moon elven harpist, taking the seat facing her. When the opportunity arises, he signals one of the barmaids over. "Good evening. I would like a portion of the roast duck. Fillaris recommended the house beer to accompany it, so I would like a tankard of this as well. Will you have the same, Yassir?"
The D'tarig breaks off his leering gaze at the maiden's bodice to reply. "Ah yes. Duck and beer for me too."
The elven lass smiles at the two travelers, apparently accustomed to rude manners such as Yassir's. "I'll be right out with the beer, then," she says. "It'll be three silvers each for the meal - the drinks will be included in that."
The barmaid hurries away to fill the order. As promised, she returns a few minutes later with two tankards of frothy beer. "I'll take thy coin now," she says, setting the wooden mugs on the table in front of the two travelers.
Rashid withdraws six silvers from his pouch and hands them to the barmaid. "Thank you," he says. "You would not believe how much I have been looking forward to this."
"Tell me," he asks her quietly, "What is the name of the harpist. Her music and song are truly wonderful, especially after the rigours of the sands."
"Her name is Aris," a male voice says from behind Rashid, slightly startling him. The Bedine warrior turns his attention from the barmaid to this new arrival.
The newcomer is a moon elf, apparently a warrior of some sort. His short-cropped midnight-blue hair is swept away from his brow by a headband of silver. A coat of chainmail, made of some silvery-steel alloy, is visible beneath the open front of his cloak. A long sword and dagger hang from his swordbelt. There is something familiar about the warrior, but Rashid cannot immediately place it.
"I am Aranor," he says, by way of introduction. "May I sit?"
"Please, be my guest. Will you join us in some food and something to drink?" offers Rashid. In his mind, the warrior recalls the Bedine tradition that once one has shared food and drink as a guest, one is precluded from taking hostile action against one's host for the near future.
"I would be honored," Aranor replies. The elf pulls out a seat and sits. He then signals for a barmaid.
"I do not wish to offend," Rashid continues, "but you remind me of someone, although I can't place you. Have we met before?"
Aranor grins slightly and nods toward the elven harpist. "We are kin," he says simply.
At that point, one of the elven barmaids arrives at the table. Aranor speaks to her quickly and softly in elvish, the sweet words pouring forth faster than Rashid's minimal understanding can follow. The Bedine catches the word 'elverquist' before the barmaid turns and moves away to fill the elven warrior's order.
"Although thou hast not given me thy name," Aranor says to Rashid. "I believe thou wouldst be Rashid - of the Bedine tribe Goldor. And this," the elf says, nodding to Rashid's companion, "would be Yassir of Addas Babar, I presume?"
Rashid turns to his companion. "It would seem that our reputation goes before us, Yassir."
Turning back to the elf, he adds, "I hope what you have heard is complimentary, Aranor. How may we be of assistance to you?"
The elf looks cautiously to his left and to his right. Then he looks directly into Rashid's eyes.
"Indeed, thy reputation precedes thee. In fact, you were recommended by someone with an even greater reputation."
Sensing the moon-elf's caution, Rashid leans toward him, saying quietly, "I am honored that I am spoken highly of. I would be interested in the identity of my sponsor, if you feel it appropriate to pass his name on here. If you would feel more comfortable, we can speak further either outside or in our room after we have eaten."
Before Aranor can answer, the barmaid reappears and delivers a dark bottle and a crystal flagon to the elven warrior. The elf speaks rapidly to her in elvish, his voice remaining low. At the end of his instructions, he gives her two gold coins. The barmaid turns to fulfill the elf's order. Yassir continues to watch her departure until she disappears into the swinging kitchen door behind the bar.
Aranor turns back to Rashid. "We should move to one of the booths. I told her to deliver thy meal, there. Shall we?" he asks.
Rashid stands, picks up his drink, and signals to the elf, "Lead on." Turning to his companion, he adds "Yassir?"
The D'tarig shrugs nonchalantly and picks up his tankard.
Aranor leads the pair of companions to one of the curtained booths. He lets them slide into one of the built-in bench seats and then he takes the seat across from them, closing the curtain to provide the trio a bit of privacy.
The elven warrior then reaches into a satchel at his side and withdraws a rolled sheet of parchment. He unrolls the scroll on the table in front of Rashid.
"Do you recognize this symbol?" Aranor asks.
Rashid's eyes are drawn to where the elf points. Although the rest of the page is undecipherable to him - he has never had the opportunity to learn a written language - the Bedine instantly recognizes one of the two runes drawn at the bottom of the page.
It is a trail sign - a marking used by trailwatchers and pathfinders to identify their passage, caches, and other such things. Rashid involuntarily takes in a startled breath when he sees the distinctive trail sign of Falin Strongwind, his mentor and friend.
The Bedine's mind races as he considers what he sees. The last he knew of Falin, the half-elf was travelling back to his homeland in a forest known as Cormanthor - somewhere to the east of the Desertsmouth Mountains that mark the eastern edge of Anauroch. Not that travelling is uncommon for Falin. The ranger is also a Windwalker, a chosen priest of Shaundakul the Wanderer. As such, he travels far and wide, searching new trails while also seeking to spread the word of Shaundakul's growing clergy.
It was during one of his many travels that Falin first met Rashid. At the time, nearly ten years ago, Rashid was a brash young adult. The Bedine youngster was overly sure of himself, confident that he could best even the greatest warriors - even his own father. For that reason, Rashid's father introduced the boy to Falin during a caravan visit to Addas Babar, a trading town located on the great deserts' eastern edge.
Falin was in Addas Babar to help in ending the undeserved reputation that Shaundakul had earned in the minds of the Bedine. To the desert tribes, Shaundakul was a cruel trickster - a malicious deity that led travelers astray, blinded them with sandstorms, and hid oases from them. Falin had come to the desert to try to dispel that notion and to convince the desert nomads that the cruel pranks were actually the work of another god - most likely Beshaba.
At the request of Rashid's father, the ranger took the cocky youngster under his wing. He took Rashid deep into the desert and taught him survival tricks that brash teenager eventually came to respect and mimic. It was Falin who helped Rashid to free Yassir from the wicked clutches of a Zhentarim brigand band. And it was Falin who comforted the young Bedine when he discovered that the Black Robes had razed his native town of Lundeth.
But how has this elf come into possession of a message from the ranger? Here, at the Halfway Inn, across the entire spanse of the Parched Sea from where Falin was last heard from?
"Do you recognize it, Rashid?" Aranor asks again gently, breaking the Bedine warrior from his reverie.
"I do," he replies, his mind coming tumbling forward to the present. "I apologize for my hesitation, but I was not expecting to see Falin's rune here. I had thought him a great distance from here. How did you come by this, and what are the contents of the message?" he adds worriedly, fearing for his friend and mentor.
"We were given this message along with the instructions to escort thee from here to the city of Hill's Edge," Aranor answers. "Once there, we are to put thee in contact with someone who knows the exact details of what it is that thou are needed to do.
"As for the contents of the message," he continues, "this Falin describes thee and thy companion. He explains that thou have certain unique abilities that will be needed in the near future. He also says that thou are to be allowed to make thine own decision on this matter."
"I presume, knowing Falin, that we need to get to Hill's Edge with all possible haste?" Rashid asks.
Aranor nods in response. "Our instructions are to deliver thee to the city by mid-Marpenoth. That is less than two rides hence."
Reflecting a moment, Rashid adds hopefully, "You said 'We'. I take it that is you and Aris?"
"That is correct, warrior," says a seductively smooth and melodic voice as the curtain parts long enough to allow the attractive elven harpist, Aris, to enter and sit next to her brother.
The elven lady extends her hand across the table. "I saw thee in my little audience. I assume, then, that I am addressing Rashid of the Goldor tribe?"
"You are indeed," Rashid says, standing. He takes the hand uncertainly, in the manner of the outlanders. "It is a pleasure to make acquaintance with one as beautiful as you - doubly so since I have also heard you play and sing."
"My thanks," replies Aris, bowing inclining her head slightly. "I am glad to see thee enjoy the song of the harp. A remarkable instrument, the harp. For some it is merely music - a sound that carries on the air to drift away without import. To others, however, it represents freedom. Freedom from oppression, freedom from fear."
A soft elven voice speaks from the other side of the curtain. Holding up her hand to silence the men in the booth with her, Aris responds quickly in the same lilting tongue.
The curtain parts enough for the barmaid to set a platter of food down upon the table. The fragrances of roast duck and spiced onions fills the small enclosure. With a shy smile, the barmaid bows slightly and closes the curtain, leaving the four customers to continue their conversation.
Aranor picks up the discussion. "So, what say thee, Rashid? Do thee intend to fulfill the request of your friend Falin?"
Rashid looks over at Yassir, inclining his head slightly. The D'tarig merely shrugs his shoulders and asks, "What's in it for us?"
The Bedine warrior gives Yassir another scowl that silences the greedy D'tarig for the time being. "We will, of course, travel to Hill's Edge with you," he says in answer to the two elves.
Then he gestures to the food steaming on the table, "Now, eat while the duck is still hot. We can talk further," he suggests. Turning to Aris he adds, "And perhaps you might do me the honor of playing again later?" he asks hopefully.
"It would be my pleasure," the harpist replies gracefully.
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