Marshall Sir Bracom, representative of the august royal power of Brythunia in the north-west corner of the realm, wiped his blonde beard free of the good Wine of Kyros the newcomers had brought, and sighed in deep satisfaction. His pleasant, open features were easy to read, and read that he was pleased with his visitors and with the chance they had offered him.
“I’m all for it! There’s been any number of scruffs, runaways and purse-poor mercenaries hanging about since I called for good scouts to learn the king’s fate. If you can make use of a few of them, all the better. For most, sending them north would be nothing short of murder.”
“But, as to actual scouts, you’ve none to spare?”
The speaker was clad in the simple homespun robe of a friar, but chainmail glinted at his open cope, and his hands were as strong, sun-bronzed and scarred as any of his companions’. This was Edric, apparently the spokesperson though Bardic, Royal Guardsman to King Luchistheyrn of Border Kingdom had made the initial introductions. Bardic was a Cimmerian, dark-haired and blue-eyed. The other three were Vorel, a senior royal borderer of Luchistheyrn’s, and Celo and Morath, also royal borderers. Vorel’s burly build, rangy arms and round head denoted his Bossonian origin, while Celo was a lightly-built Aquilonian, perhaps from one of the Northern provinces, and Morath harder to guess – perhaps some muddy mix of Hyborian and Zamoran. They seemed capable men of their hands.
“No, only the one returned, and he needs to recover,” Sir Bracom replied, “I’ll not send him north again, by Mitra.”
“But his intelligence… the information he brought back… is reliable?”
“Oh, I’d say so. He may have been wandering in his wits a little, is all. I mean – who can credit the idea of a man taking wing from the tower the King’s held in?”
Edric, Friar of the Sarpedon order, glanced at his companions without offering an opinion, then down at the notes he’d made.
“So – King Barus is not dead! Your scout thinks that he is held captive in a tower beyond Hakthru Pass in the Graskaals. And there’s a reward?”
“Aye – our senior King Ioplathes is not wealthy but is willing to reward any rescuer with royal favor, seven talents of gold and full equipage. And by Mitra, Duristan stands ready to equip you with ought you need – climbing irons and such like. We’re all grateful for King Luchistheyrn’s help.”
The lantern lights glinted off Bardic’s gilt scale Royal Guard armor as he stirred on his stool. His stern-eyed gaze met Sir Bracom’s levelly:
“Aye, I’m here to lead a rescue. Things went badly for the two kings when they tried to force the pass. A small party might succeed where main force was thrown back. Your offer of supplies is good. We’d also like something in writing to say we’re going about Brythunian business.”
“Oh, yes, my clericy fellow is a little poorly but I’ll get him onto that, if you want some writing. That will be done by morning.”
“Any other questions?” Edric asked his comrades, looking particularly at Vorel.
“I’ll have a look over these men for hire,” the Bossonian responded. “We’ll need to make sure they can stay atop a horse.”
“There was a reward…” Celo, the Tauranian, prompted. A borderer’s pay barely covered his basic household and stable expenses, prudently managed. It would be good to earn a windfall again.
“Yes, even a high price is worth it,” Sir Bracom agreed. “Brythunia needs its junior king, and Charnina needs trade with the Border Kingdom. If you do kill the Beast, return with proof and I’ll see to it you are given a safe escort to King Ioplathes’ court and the reward. As well, you can keep anything not of the royal mark.”
“Ah yes, the monster.” Morath had said very little to this point, his dark attire making him more a conscious absence than a presence. “Huge, insane, man-eating, what have I left out?”
“It’s said to be as big as a house, or hill, depending on who’s telling the yarn,” Bardic agreed, “It’s also said to be blood-red, smell ghastly, and make horrendous unholy gleeful chuckles as it rends men and beasts apart.”
“I think I covered that with ‘insane’” replied Morath, a note of disdain in his voice. Edric hastened to return to the main point:
“Well that’s as settled as it can be. If it’s all right with you Sir Bracom, I’ll sit down with your uh, clerk, and the rest of you can see about hiring a few mercenaries.”
Bidding farewell for the night, the three borderers and the one Royal Guard walked back towards the barrack buildings. The fort boasted several, some ancient and with a softened, worn look to them. Those were further humanized by herbal borders and carven scrollwork lintels. A few, nearer to the stables, had a rawer, less-permanent look to them.
“I noticed some likely-looking toughs brawling over by that one,” Bardic suggested, pointing to one of the newer-looking barracks. As the four bent their footsteps in that direction, around two dozen lightly-armored, adequately equipped types spilled out and assembled into an audience.
The four glanced at one another and in a few brief phrases, arranged as to who would do what. Then, Vorel stepped forward and spoke first in Brythunian, then Nemedian:
“I’m hiring. I’ll need three or four. This is Celo – he’ll take you through the details. Once I dismiss you, that’s it. Once I select you, see your paymaster Morath here for up-front pay.”
Celo, in a much less brusque style, soon had the hirelings sorting themselves into groups by ability. A half dozen who were equipped more for a trip to the gallows than a difficult quest were dismissed at once. Those who could merely shoulder a pike were then advised that this was not a job for them. Then Celo gestured to a horse that had been led out to be hitched to a post nearby.
“The next task is a simple test of your usefulness around horses. If you can’t sit a horse at all, you may as well go now. The others: your task is to unhitch that horse, mount it, ride it in and out of the stable, and hitch it again.”
Under Vorel’s watchful eye the near-dozen remaining attempted the task. Some fared poorly, and as the evening shadows lengthened the horse, already restive, grew fractious. Only five accomplished the seemingly-simple test to Vorel’s satisfaction. Finally, Celo told the five remaining to assemble their gear for inspection.
Vorel immediately gave the nod to two of them, one a sturdy, scarred man with an uncompromising nature, the other a very good-looking man with a cheerful, outgoing disposition. He dismissed one whose fletching was shockingly cared for, then paused to consider the remaining two.
“I’ve adventured next to a woman before, so I’ll not simply dismiss your ability,” Vorel stated as neutrally as he could. “You can use a longbow, which is good, and I take it you favor a longsword-shortsword combination?”
The woman returned Vorel’s question with a menacing smile. “I can fight up close, I can fight at range. I’m a match and more for either of those two you chose!”
“Ah, good. Well, you’re hired. Don’t make me regret it by picking a fight.”
Vorel finally looked carefully at the last potential hireling, standing slim and poised, crossbow cradled in the crook of his arm.
“I’m looking for people with experience of the borderlands. The crossbow?”
“I can use a longbow, but I’m better with this,” the little man replied confidently, twirling his neat little mustache. “You’ll find I’m as quick with it as most men with a longbow, too.”
“You don’t carry a sword?”
“Don’t seem to need one, since whoever I shoot will fall down long before he gets to me.”
“Well, you’re confident, which is good. OK, I guess we do need a fourth. You’re hired too.”
The four hirelings or retainers hired on for 100 silver for 40 days’ service, half up front. It’s much more than lightly-equipped types like them, and lacking horses of their own, could expect at a typical mercenary hiring fair. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of each. Full details can be found in the wonderful Masks: 1001 Memorable NPCs by Engine Publishing, available through DriveThruRPG or RPGNow.
Darius: tough, uncompromising Brythunian. Darius masks his intelligence beneath the stereotype of a rough mercenary. He understands military tactics and uses this to enhance his fairly basic fighting ability.
Kilp Whitebow: small, slender Nemedian. Kilp is obsessively finicky about his appearance and has a horror of dirt, but has a sense of humor and a good knowledge of the wilds.
Quinn Marxon: tall, handsome Brythunian. Quinn looks like a girl’s daydream of a heroic wanderer, with long flowing brown hair and bright green eyes. He has a cheerful and giving disposition and can act as the social oil to avert too much friction between those he is with.
Theodora: tall thin Aquilonian. Theodora has a great deal of pent-up rage and this can lead her to lash out against those in authority or around her.
Words of Encouragement
Leaving the fort, the nine became aware of the hopeful stares directed after them by one and all. A young, attractive woman dashed up. She wore widow’s garb and mourning marks which marred her beauty.
“I know you not, but say this: you go to slay the monster which took the life of my dear man, and I will pray for you, so that whatever crimes your natures have led you to, my goddess will look favorably upon you and protect you from all evil will. Blessings on you!”
She turned, and ran off. Edric rubbed his beard thoughfully. Some local variant on Ishtar, he decided, and while not actively discouraging the others, shook his head and put the blessing from his mind. Most did the same. Bardic on the other hand, whose world was populated by all kinds of spirits and gods, felt it was appropriate for departing heroes to be blessed by widows of the fallen.
The nine shook out a little as they rode quietly through the dawn mist. Vorel, taking the lead, glanced over his shoulder. It appeared that the retainers had done a good job lashing down the tents onto the spare mount, and there was nothing obvious wrong with their own stowage and horse furniture. He gestured for Theodora to catch him up and ride abreast. Celo and Kilp took a rearguard role.
After about three hours travel, the fields had given way to stock-runs on the hills, becoming scrubbier and scrubbier. Up ahead the trees grew denser, and closer to the trail. A figure, alone except for a sheepdog, rose from a tree-stump, and tugged his forelock respectfully, stepping onto the trail to speak.
A peasant of the shepherd variety by the look of him, his shrewd old eyes squinted up slyly as he again tugged his forelock and spoke to Vorel, who rode in the van with Theodora beside him:
“Beggin’ yer pardons melords, an’ cravin’ a word hereabouts.”
Vorel reined in his matchless gelding, and as the others caught up, the peasant spoke again:
“Since I’ve seen bands o’ soldiers an’ bands o’ other such come by in tatters from the beast what lies in the pass, seemed best to say what I knows to the next lot I see: which bein’ yourselves, I’ll say it. That hell-raised warlock’s nightmare can’t be hurt by a steel edge, nor any metal. Ye won’t find any o’ Marshall’s men to admit to it though.
“Now, in stream up trail a ways, there be flints a’plenty – we-uns use in slingshots, and ye can tie them onto spears or arrows, be they big or small as case is.”
The peasant eased back and away, seemingly without expecting any reward, whistling his dog to heel as he departed. Some among the adventurers distrusted the advice instinctively; others felt it was worth at least trying.
By now, the dim purple of mist-shrouded foothills had given way to deeper grays and greens as the day cleared, though still pearlescent overhead. Beyond the tree-mantled foothills the vastness of the mountains could now be guessed, fading back through paler grays into invisibility against the sky. These were the Graskaals, or at least, the most visible mountains were the Graskaals – other ranges also wound and lumped themselves into this strange corner of Hyboria. And the road the nine travelled on would lead them to a pass, and then – to what?