By Brian Flood
Chapter 3 - Reviewing The Route
The Halfway Inn
The Sword Coast Backlands
Early Evening, 28th Day of Eleint; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
The four new travelling companions set to devouring the roast duck. For several minutes, the only sounds in the booth are the light clink of silver ware and the soft sounds of tankards and flagons being set back down on the wooden table.
When all have finished, Aranor wipes his mouth and addresses Rashid. "Would thee like me to go over our route now - or would thee rather wait until the morning?"
After a moment's thought, Rashid replies, "It might be useful to go through the route now. We will need to restock on some of our supplies in the morning. If we are to make the most of our time, having the route organized tonight will save time."
"Before we begin, would you like another drink whilst we talk?" he asks his three companions. "I could definitely do with one."
"We are fine with what we have," Aris responds for the two elves, gesturing at the bottle of elverquist that they are sharing.
"I'll take another," Yassir reponds eagerly.
Rashid parts the curtain just enough to signal for a barmaid. Within seconds, one of the pert and pretty elves is standing at the booth for his order.
"Could we have another two of the house beer?" the Bedine inquires.
As the barmaid departs, he turns back to the two elves and asks, "How was Falin when you met him? It has been some time since we saw him."
Aris and Aranor exchange a glance before Aris answers. "We did not meet thy friend, Rashid." She gestures at the scroll still sitting on the table.
"We merely received that message with instructions to look for thee here, at the Halfway Inn. We were told thou would be here within a ride or so of the end of this month."
A confused look crosses Rashid's face, quickly followed by one of slight concern. "May I ask from whom you received the scroll, and what more you know of what has passed and what duty we are being asked to perform?"
A soothing smile crosses Aris' face before she responds. "Thou art not the only one with distant friends," she replies. "As for the scroll, it directs that whomever should be tasked to find thee - which has turned out to be Aranor and I - must see that you are conveyed safely to Hill's Edge. It provides a brief description of both thee and thy friend, Yassir. It further directs that we ask of thy tribe - as you do not openly use its name as your own - as a means of verifying your identity."
The minstrel takes a sip from her flagon before continuing. "As for thy ultimate task, that we do not know. Nor does the scroll provide specifics. We are merely to deliver thee to certain parties in Hill's Edge. I would presume that they alone have knowledge of the mission for which we have been sent to find thee.
"But know thee this. For all the trouble that this has entailed - and will entail - there is surely danger in thy future, should thee accept this summons to Hill's Edge."
Somewhat relieved and turning to Yassir, Rashid says, "Trouble will not be something new to us, will it, my friend. What do you think, onwards to Hills Edge? Certainly, I am interested in finding out what Falin has lined up. I have never known him to be involved in anything unimportant, or uninteresting." Winking at his D'tarig companion, he adds, "or unprofitable."
"As long as there is profit, anything is feasible," Yassir replies in typical D'tarig fashion.
Glancing from Yassir to Rashid, Aranor asks, "May we proceed with the map review, then?"
"I think that that will be a good idea," replies Rashid.
"Very well, then," announces Aranor. Then the elf produces another rolled piece of parchment. He begins to unroll it but stops at the sound of barmaid's voice from behind the curtain.
Aranor rerolls the map as Aris opens the curtain to admit the barmaid. The pretty young elf sets two more tankards on the table - one each for Rashid and Yassir. Aris grabs her hand when she goes to reach for the two empty tankards.
"We'll be needing those," the harpist purrs.
"As you wish," the barmaid replies. She shifts her attention to Rashid.
"That will be six coppers for the ale," she tells the Bedine.
Rashid opens his pouch, takes out a gold piece, and hands it to the barmaid. "I'm afraid I have no coins of lesser value," he tells the young elf.
The barmaid accepts the coin and makes her exit from the booth, letting the curtain close behind her.
In her wake, Aranor unrolls the sheet of parchment and spreads it out on the table, using the two empty tankards, the bottle of elverquist, and a whetstone from his belt pouch to anchor it down. The parchment is a map. Along its eastern border runs the desert of Anauroch. Rashid also recognizes the twin hill masses of the Greycloak Hills. The rest of the map is mostly unfamiliar to him, as it covers the area west of the Parched Sea - a region unknown to him. Strange symbols and sigils cover the page, as well - the Bedine sighs as he realizes that the map descriptions are scribed in the written language of the outlanders.
Ananor sees the Bedine's frustration and offers, "I will explain the map and its symbols to thee," he says reassuringly. Taking the dinner knife from beside the devoured duck carcass, the elf begins to name the map's features.
"This is a map of the Backlands," he begins. "Here is the desert of Anauroch," he says, tracing the area that lines the map's eastern edge.
"Between the desert and here are the Greycloak Hills. As you know, we are currently here, at the western edge of the southernmost cluster of the 'Hills. To our east, within the hills, is Evereska.
"To the north, thou has the Greypeak Mountains, the Lonely Moor, and the Forgotten Forest." The elf uses the dinner knife to point out these features to the Bedine.
"To the south are the Trielta Hills, Northdark Wood and the Sunset Mountains. As you can see, a branch of the River Reaching flows along the southern edge, here, as well.
"This area here is the Marsh of Chelimber," Aranor continues, indicating a large swamp symbol in the northwestern quadrant of the map. "And this is the Winding Water river; it begins in the Marsh and heads south, turning westerly at the town of Yarthrain, here.
"Our first leg will be southward across this big open area in the center, known as Pelleor's Prairie. It is a vast open grassland, void of any civilization and quite arid as well. Since thou are experienced in the desert sands, it should come as no surprise that we will have to pack a considerable amount of water to see us through this portion.
"It is just over forty leagues to Yarthrain. We should be able to make the trip in about half a ride or more. Once there, we can restock our supplies before continuing our trek."
The elven warrior wets his throat with a sip of elverquist before he resumes his narration.
"From Yarthrain, we will take the trail to the southeast, skirting the Hill of Lost Souls as we do. Some thirty leagues later, we will reach the town of Drawn Swords, located here - at the northeast corner of Northdark Wood. Again, we will use the opportunity to replenish our needs and then start the final leg of the journey.
Aranor's knife follows the road south out of Drawn Swords and continues a short distance off of the map's border.
"From Drawn Swords, it is another twenty-five to thirty leagues to the city of Hill's Edge. It is not shown on this map. This final leg should take us three, maybe four days to cover.
The elven warrior looks up from the map to Rashid and Yassir. "All told," he says, "the trip should take us about a ride and a half to complete - barring any unforeseen difficulties along the way. We should arrive a few days before mid-Marpenoth - the deadline Aris and I have been given. Once we arrive in Hill's Edge, we will see that thee are put in contact with the individual that knows the details of your ultimate task."
Rashid sits back to ponder all that he has been told. A few heartbeats later, there is a polite cough from the other side of the curtain.
"The barmaid," Aris states simply. The minstrel rises from her seat to slide between the table and the curtain, blocking the serving girl's view of the map. Then she parts the curtain slightly.
"Your change, sir," says the barmaid, passing a handful of silver and copper coins to Rashid.
Standing, Rashid takes the change and hands back the copper pieces.
"Thank you very much," he says. "The duck was as very good. Please thank Fillaris for her recommendation."
"I will, sir," the elven maiden says demurely before backing out of the booth once more.
Once she departs, Rashid sits back down and looks again at the map in front of him. "If I understand what you have told me, we will be travelling to Yarthrain across the sea of grass. Will I be able to see the Winding Waters from there? The blue line seems to touch the picture of the town. I would very much like to see so much water flowing."
"Yes," says Aranor with a gentle, understanding smile. "A tributary of the Winding Water - known as Serpent's Tail Stream - cuts through Yarthrain. It will be there for thee to see."
Rashid nods gratefully before continuing. "From there, we will head towards the mid-morning sun, past the Hill of Lost Souls. Is it one hill or many, as there are two big and three small bumps on the map? I trust that the souls of the lost will not bother us as we pass?"
Aris and Aranor exchange another glance. This time, it is Aris who answers.
"It is a single, grassy hill. Years ago, after the Battle of Bones, an army of humans and their allies camped upon the slopes of the hill. While they camped, they tended to their wounded and dying. It is said that the spirits of those who died of their wounds that night still remain to walk the ground.
"If we steer clear of the hill, we should be alright," Aranor adds. "However, there have been known to be tribes of humanoids that make the hill a temporary home from now and then. Mainly goblins, orcs and the occasional giant. As long as we are wary, and as long as we have our mounts, we should be able to avoid any confrontation that we cannot hope to win."
"The thought of confronting goblins, orcs and giants does not bother me. The thought of confronting the dead does not sit so well. It reminds me of the Zhents, of Lundeth " Rashid's voice fades into silence.
After a moment, the Bedine seems to come back from his reflection, and continues, "We then continue across the grass sea until we reach the edge of these trees here, where we come to a town called Drawn Swords. As the picture is larger on the map, does that mean that it is a larger town? Also, is the name a reflection of the nature of the people and the reception that we might receive? If so, we may be better to avoid it."
Aranor allows himself a slight smile. "Alor Rashid, I would ask that thee trust our knowledge of these parts - as we would trust thy knowledge of the Parched Sea." Patiently, the elf continues to answer the warrior's question.
"It is true that the town's name may cause some alarm. It is named for a number of conflicts that occurred in that area in days gone by. It also applies to the town's stern watchfulness against those that would do it harm - be it orc hordes or human brigands. Rest assured, there are those there that will provide us refuge - should we require it."
"It is not that I do not trust your knowledge of the areas through which we are to travel," replies Rashid, "but that I would wish to be fully aware of that which is lkely to confront us in our travels. Is there anything more that you feel that we should be aware of? Otherwise, I think that an early night and a comfortable bed is calling me."
Aranor glances at Aris, who shakes her head.
"No," the elven warrior replies, turning back to Rashid and Yassir. "Enjoy thy night, my friends. I know that thee just finished a long journey, but it would appear that fate - and duty - demand that you start another tomorrow."
"In which case, I bid you both good night." Rashid says, standing and reaching for the curtain.
He turns his head back to the elves and asks, "Where and when are we to meet? We will need to resupply before we set off."
"We will meet here just after sunrise," Aranor announces. "That will allow us to break our fast here in the tavern before we visit the merchants' wagons to find provisions and then set off on our journey."
With that, the four people in the booth rise and bid each other a good night. Making their exit from the tavern, Rashid and Yassir head for the stairs and the welcome beds that await them.
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