The White Badge of Deceit; Chapter 9

It was a pleasant ride to Hessra, a small town that obviously had had its share of unruly invaders over the years. There was a keep in the middle of the town, and the entire village was surrounded by a well-constructed wooden palisade. All of the buildings were safely behind this palisade, no doubt constructed because of raids from the fearsome semi-nomadic horsemen that rode out of the eastern steppes from time to time. They were called Veklars by the people of Romillia and Geldenreich. Slothjemia had never been bothered by them, because in order to get at Slothjemia the Veklars would have to cross one or the other nations, and such incursions were not usually very well coordinated nor strategically carried out. Typically they would ride across the plains, pillaging everything in their path, until they met serious resistance. Then they would turn and flee back to the east with their loot. Never in recent history had they laid siege to a fortification, and so palisades and walls such as Hessra had were sufficient to keep the Veklars at bay. Simply slam the gates shut, and the horsemen rode around you to find easier targets. Oh sure, they might set some fields on fire or shoot some arrows at you as they rode by, but usually it wasn’t an attack that needed much of a defense.

Hessra sat on a little hill, and as he approached it Twitch stopped Sixx and studied the town. The stone keep was right in the center of the town. There were a number of large buildings, clearly a place that could sustain a couple of inns and a few taverns. The road ran right through the town and it looked like the gates, which were wide open, were not guarded. It was getting close to sundown, and Twitch nudged Sixx in the side with his foot to start ahead again. He wanted to be inside before nightfall, in case the place buttoned up for the night.

Twitch rode through the gate, and got his first good look at the town from the inside. It was a messy little town. Looked a bit like the kind of town that an ambitious noble might have started, and his heirs lost interest in as time wore on. The palisade looked good from the outside, but on the inside, it was obvious that the lumber had begun to rot and go to seed. A significant majority of the buildings in town had done the same. Twitch surmised that there were enough unused structures that if they were torn down only two-thirds or less of the town would remain.

The people of Hessra looked tired. While looking for an inn Twitch rode past a blacksmith, a wheelwright, and a carpenter. All of them were sitting there staring into the street or just slouching against their open doorways. They smiled as he went by but looked as though they were just too worn out to wave. A few folks were out and about finishing up their work, but for the most part the town seemed to have just shrugged its collective shoulders and given up on the day.

The very first inn Twitch found was called the Gold Lion, and a few decades ago it must have been a marvelous place to stay. Now it was good enough for a poor wandering bard who was running low on cash. There was an attached tavern, and it had a stable. That met all of Twitch’s requirements.

He tied Sixx up out front and went inside. The interior of the place was still pretty well maintained. He smiled to the handful of people drinking at the bar and sitting at the handful of tables in the main room. His gaze settled on the fellow who must be the innkeeper, standing behind the bar cutting up some sort of roast for the guests. Twitch walked over to him and in a fairly loud and friendly tone began with “Good evening sir! Do you have a room I could have for the night, and a place to bed down my horse?”

The innkeeper, a reasonably old and crunchy man, smiled at the elf and replied “Aye, that I do brother elf. Cost is two silver for you, and three for your horse. We’ve been a bit short on grain, but we have plenty of hay.” He motioned to the food he was cutting. “Another four copper, and you can have a meal as well.”

Twitch nodded his head in agreement and fetched out his coin purse. He looked around the room as he did so. Not many folks here tonight. He decided to take a risk. As he fished around in the pouch for the coins he wanted, he cast a spell on these unwary townsfolk. Anyone close to him might have thought he was just muttering under his breath as he tried to get the coins out. The magic spread out across the room, and he produced a single gold coin. With a big smile and a loud “Ah-ha!” he held the coin up for the innkeeper to see, and then set it on the counter. “Here you go, good sir. Keep whatever is left over as a tribute to you and your fine establishment.”

The proprietor grinned and picked up the coin, completely unaware that he was now under an enchantment. Everyone in the room, save Twitch, was under the effect of the spell.

Twitch turned so that he could look at everyone present. He said very loudly and firmly “My name is Taimblore. I was born and raised near here, and you all know me rather well.”

Everyone in the room cheered and raised their glasses, repeating back to him “Your name is Taimblore, you were born and raised near here, and we all know you quite well, indeed!”

And that was that. They were firmly in his grasp, and as long as he didn’t get wildly carried away, they were now kinfolk. The next step was to cement the suggestive charm with music and camaraderie. He asked one of the young men in the room to go and bed down Sixx in the stable. He then asked one of the young ladies to go fetch his mandolin from the saddle. Once he had his mandolin he began to create for the listeners a detailed history of himself that was both fictional and functional. Everyone listening was committing to memory the idea that they had known this elf his entire life. A couple of newcomers entered the inn during the music and storytelling and became likewise convinced that this was an old, trusted neighbor. They just didn’t know him as well as the folks who were here when the spell was first cast.

It took a couple of hours to spin the fantasy but upon completion Twitch, or Taimblore to his old friends here tonight, had accomplished the first stage of his mission: he had given himself a history in Geldenreich that would stand up to a reasonable amount of scrutiny. He had some dinner with his dear friends from long ago, and then made sure Sixx had been tended to properly. Satisfied that all was well, he then took his belongings up to his room. The same room he always occupied when he was in town. Just ask the innkeeper. Always number seven, end of the hall upstairs over the stable. Always.

Twitch readied for bed and then lay there thinking about the next couple of days. He imagined the map of Debreken and the surrounding area. He would be there tomorrow evening and he needed to keep his wits about him. He rolled over and pinched the candle out. Moonlight flooded into the room. Twitch fell asleep quickly, a smile on his face.

In the morning he arose early and washed up in the water basin provided in the hallway. He put on his peasant garb and gathered up his baggage. He would study his spellbook on the road to Debreken.

The innkeeper was already tending to cleaning up his main hall with his meager amount of staff. They were so busy tidying and cleaning they didn’t even hear Twitch walk down the stairs. The little stable boy saw him first, and issued forth a cheerful “Good morning, master Taimblore!” The rest of them turned and smiled at the elf.

Twitch waved with his free hand. “Morning to you all, dear friends!” He tussled the stable boy’s hair as he walked by. “I am afraid that I must rush off though. A good day of travel lies ahead!”

The inn staff all murmured sadly and shook their heads, their disappointment was palpable. “So sorry, my dears.” Said Twitch. “But my business in Debreken is urgent. A good musician is hard to find in those big cities!” At that they all laughed. Taimblore was such a fun fellow. Everyone loved him. In fact nobody could ever recall not having liked him. That is just the sort of person he was. Spellbinding.

Twitch hurriedly saddled Sixx and tossed his saddlebags over the back of the horse. He did a quick check on his inventory. Everything was there. He hadn’t thought it would be otherwise, but then again, he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t be tampered with somehow. The mission had gone so well he was beginning to have doubts.

Once on the street in front of the inn, Twitch got his bearings. He took a deep breath, and looked down the street in both directions. He tugged the reins a little to the right and Sixx began to head down the street towards the road out of town. The town was gradually coming alive as the people began to start their daily toils. Some of them waved to him as rode out of town. They had been at the tavern last night. Others just waved to say hello. They were being polite. Twitch put his big hat on to cover his ears and settled in for the journey. He thumbed lazily through his spellbook as they plodded along. He wondered what magic he should prepare for. He hummed while he read, occasionally whistling. Sixx just kept going up the road toward Debreken.

There were no notable settlements the entire day. Twice they passed over small creeks, and both elf and horse took a break to drink and have something to eat. Sixx grazed on the grass alongside the road, and Twitch enjoyed some leftovers from the food he had pocketed last night. These brief stops were not enough to slow his journey appreciably. He would still arrive in Debreken well before nightfall. He noted that this would likely be his escape route following the task that he had to perform. Sixx was a fine horse, but the ride would be a hard one, and fast. He could not dawdle as he did now. He made mental notes of all potential difficulties. There were a handful of fortified manors that could rally up some sort of roadblock, perhaps. Hessra could be closed off easily and conscripted soldiers could be sent to patrol the frontier to try and prevent his retreat. No matter how he plotted it, it was clear that the best solution was the simplest. He laughed and shook his head. This wouldn’t be so bad. But it was going to get frantic there at the end.

Near the end of the day the road crested a small knoll and then descended to a large valley in which sat the sprawling city of Debreken. A river ran through the northern half of the city. There was a heavily defended central portion that housed the governor’s palace, the main keep, and the magnificent cathedral that had been designed by the elven architect Brelinnio. It was the only structure that he designed in all of eastern Geldenreich. This well-fortified portion of the city was where Twitch would be doing most of his work.

Beyond the center of the city there was a sizeable middle-class portion that was divided into sections roughly the same size, with walls running like the spokes of a wheel from the central fortifications out to the outer walls. These walls were not as impressive but still a formidable obstacle. The outer walls were patrolled, as Twitch could see even at this distance. The inner walls had covered battlements, but he was certain that they too were carefully monitored. Twitch was glad he had brought his climbing gear.

Outside of the outer wall was a more ramshackle city. Portions of it were protected behind earthworks and palisades, others were just left out on their own among fields and cropland. The buildings outside of the stone walls were made of wood for the most part. This would be the lower class section. It was in this outermost ring of the city that Twitch had to locate the Ettin Chins Lodge. He hoped that he had an old friend waiting there. He went over the mental image of the city map. It should be on the western side of the city, near the river. It was supposed to be a rough part of town. Twitch clapped his hands together. Sixx began to walk again. He saw a way to just ride along the edge of the city to get to the westernmost side. He wanted to avoid travelling through the city if at all possible. He would rather skirt the city and get settled in before he did any exploring on the ground.

Luckily the peasants on the outskirts of the city were done working for the day. Few folks noticed the elf as he rode quickly through their small farms and dodged between the huts and hovels. He then turned Sixx in towards the city, and began looking for the inn. He didn’t want to ask, so he paused Sixx long enough to gather his thoughts. The map hadn’t been very clear, but after a few moments he thought he might know which direction to go. He prodded Sixx gently and they made their way closer to the river.

The Ettin Chins Lodge was every bit as horrible as the name suggested. It sat next to the riverbank, and the northern section of the building seemed to teeter on the brink of collapsing right into the water. The sun was beginning to set and light was filtering out of the windows, sending long gruesome shadows into the dirt street. There was a stable but it was nothing to rave about. The whole ramshackle affair had the dismal stench of poor choices floating around it like an odious cloud. On the sign out front was a poorly craved image of a two-headed giant, or ettin, waving a club. Ettins were large, foul-smelling giants. The inn was aptly named.

Twitch dismounted. He patted Sixx on the nose and took hold of the reins. He tugged and Sixx followed him into the stable. A lantern was lit inside, and a gruff red-bearded man with a pitchfork looked up and eyed Twitch warily. “Hey there. This is a private barn. We ain’t no livery. Guests only in here.” He stood up straight, doing his best to be imposing.

The elf responded with a spell. The incantation left his lips and the stable-hand loosed his grip on his pitchfork, and his jaw slacked somewhat. Twitch spoke to him clearly and with authority. “You will guard this horse with your life. You will tend to it as if it were yours. When I reclaim him from you, you will forget all memory of having seen him, or me.” He looked the man square in the eye. “Do you understand?”

The big man nodded his head. “I understands.”

Twitch took his saddlebags and sleeping roll and headed into the inn. He was glad to have had as much sleep as he had gotten on the trip here, because he had no intention of sleeping in this place.

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