Thanks once more to bikoukumori, for fearlessly slaughtering my spelling and grammar gremlins. Also a big thanks to my lady love and fellow authors redskyes and Handley_Page for helpful additions and insight.
As usual, there’s only adults having fun here.
Winter was approaching fast in Storm Harbour. The first frost had hit early in the eleventh month and even now, at noon, the air was crisp, with bitingly cold blasts of wind coming in from the rough seas. The Watchmen patrolling the crowded market had their hoods up and made their way slowly along the aisles, stopping longer and longer at each food stall, trying to soak up some of the warmth the grills, ovens and boiling kettles of soup promised. Suddenly commotion erupted, with people jostling even more than usual.
A young woman, wrapped in expensive furs, pointed and shrieked, “He stole my purse! Catch that man!”
Sergeant Kreel, pudgy, tired and hungry, forced his body into pursuit of the whip-thin man dashing through the crowds. After a few short steps, he already wheezed like a pair of bellows and the passer-bys blocking his path didn’t make things any easier.
“We need a better strategy,” he huffed, slapping his second-in-command on the shoulder. “You follow him, I will try to keep a lookout. And you, rookie, go get reinforcements. We need to block off the market before he escapes! Move it, people!”
Three men ran off after the thief, who nimbly dodged into side passages, easily keeping his pursuers at bay. Thaion, the youngest member of the patrol, grumbled in indignation. He was the fastest and fittest of their number. Granted, he just had come to the big city from his homestead of River Crossing but he was proud to serve the City Watch and secretly wondered how his peers could let their stamina and pride deteriorate like this. They were happy to make their rounds, chat with long-time acquaintances and behave more like criminals running a protection racket than officers of the law. And all he ever got to do were annoying fetch tasks or signal duty. Snorting in disgust, he sprinted off towards the nearest Watch House.
Rounding a corner, still mumbling to himself about his comrades’ lack of discipline, he solidly slammed into a pillar of metal. Sputtering apologies, his eyes widened in surprise as he beheld the obstacle he had just ran into. In front of him was a veritable giant of a man. Nearly six foot eight in his massive polished plate armor, the chest piece moulded to resemble a roaring lion’s head, he towered over Thaion’s slender form. His head was protected by a great helmet, the visor fashioned to resemble a furious, snarling face which gave his already imposing presence an intimidating air. On his back, in a simple leather sling, he carried a massive hammer and had a thick, fur-lined cloak wrapped around his shoulders, to ward off the cold.
“Can I help you, private?” the man in armor inquired.
“Huh? Who are you?” Thaion shot back.
In answer, the man in armor opened his cloak, proudly displaying a Watch emblem painted onto his right shoulder plate. His left proudly bore the Scales, the holy symbol of Lord Justice.
“I am Leo, Fist of Justice and Officer of the City Watch. So, what’s the problem?”
“Oh, thank the heavens, sir,” Thaion breathed. “There’s a thief at the market and I fear he will get away if no one will help the rest of the squad.”
“If it isn’t too late already,” Leo mused. “Were you headed for the Watch precinct on Trident Road?”
Thaion nodded emphatically.
“Well, proceed and get the men. I’ll see what I can do in the meantime,” Leo said, wrapping his cloak around himself.
The shouting grew louder as Leo pushed his way through the crowds.
“Thief! Stop the thief!”
“He made off with my purse!”
“Catch him! Curses, where did he go?”
Leo let his gaze drift over the pushing and pulling throng of people milling about like a pandemonic maelstrom in the central Market Square of Storm Harbour. Nearly a head taller than everyone around him, he easily was able to spot the source of the commotion. A slender man, his hair slicked to his scalp, was ducking and weaving between the stalls, slipping from narrow aisle to narrow aisle in a mad dash to escape the pursuing Watchmen. The thief twirled and dove nearly effortlessly through the dense crowd, his cloak billowing out behind him. He even had the cheek to snatch another purse from a customer who was about to pay a dwarven smith for his wares. Tapping the small holy symbol inlaid in his left shoulder guard, Leo muttered a swift prayer. Suddenly, the mass of people parted, opening a clear path between himself and the thief, who threw a quick glance over his shoulder. He saw the Watch patrol converging on his position and bolted, directly towards Leo, obviously not believing his luck. The armored man slowly reached under his cloak, pulling a bola from his belt. The thief was nearly upon him when Leo threw wide his cloak, revealing the symbol of the Watch on his so far cloak-covered right pauldron. The thief froze for a heartbeat, then he threw himself sideways, trying to dive into the sea of people. Again, Leo tapped his shoulder. Instead of muttering though, his voice rolled over the crowd, easily drowning out the sea of sounds of market day.
“In the name of Lord Justice, I command you. stay!”
With a disbelieving look on his face, the thief froze in mid-jump. A moment later, the bolas tangled up his legs. The commanding magic evaporated and the thief finished his movement, toppling to the ground in an undignified jumble of limbs. The Fist of Justice pounced on him, keeping the thief’s struggling form pinned to the ground by the sheer weight of his armored knee.
“On my authority as Fist of Justice and Officer of the Watch, you are hereby placed under arrest on account of multiple cases of theft,” he snarled. His visor was only inches from the thief’s terrified face. Close up, the armored man could clearly see three coins tattooed onto the cheek of the thief, a sure sign he was with the Guild. Moments later, the Watch patrol arrived, saluting sloppily.
“Thanks for taking care of that weasel, sir,” Sergeant Kreel huffed.
“Lucky for you I was in the vicinity,” Leo said, rising. Without any apparent effort, he hoisted the thief to his feet. “Otherwise, the Thieves’ Guild would have made merry on your account tonight.”
“Yes sir, I know, sir,” Kreel panted. Too much standing around ogling the passing girls, not enough exercise at the barracks, Leo mused. He waited until a Watchman had safely shackled the thief, then he saluted them and strode off.
After walking through the late-autumnal streets, the tavern was overly warm. Leo unhooked the chin strap of his helmet and pulled the thing off his head, shaking out long blond curls in the process. Every eye in the room was on him. Almost every eye. An auburn-haired woman was leaning over her glass at the bar, seemingly oblivious to everything around her.
“Go on, nothing to see here, really,” the armored man chuckled, self-consciously, making his way towards the bar. Setting the heavy helmet down onto the polished wood, he took a seat next to the woman.
“I have missed you today. You haven’t been on your rounds,” he said, softly brushing her shoulder with his gauntlet.
“Oh, for Mercy’s sake, would you please fuck off and let me drink in peace, Leo?” the woman snapped, slanted green eyes blazing up at him, her words slurred by too much strong drink. She wore a simple white robe and the smell of ozone was heavy around her. She leaned back, the fabric of her robe rustling as if buffeted by a strong wind, and fixed Leo with a mean stare.
“Who do I have to bribe in this town to drown my sorrow in peace and quiet, huh?”
“Going by the amount of glass arrayed in front of you, I guess you already did a pretty good job of drowning whatever is gnawing at you, Shilana,” Leo said, motioning the barkeep over.
“What the fuck do you know, hatchling?” Shilana snapped, gulping down the rest of her drink. Shivering as the strong alcohol poured down her throat, she brushed an errant strand of hair behind a long, pointed ear. “You haven’t known me long enough to even begin to understand the troubles I’m carrying with me,” she said, almost tenderly.
“Not long enough? Shilana, we’ve been partners for almost four years now,” Leo protested. The barkeep, a bald dwarf with a mighty full beard, looked expectantly up at him.
“Tea, please. With a shot of rum, if you have it,” Leo said, before turning his attention back to Shilana, who was intently studying the row of bottles lining the back of the bar.
“What, ‘fraid to drink with the lady?” the dwarf snickered.
“Believe me, you don’t want a drunk mage and a drunk paladin in your tavern, good sir,” Leo chuckled.
“What’s this?” Shilana asked, unsteady finger pointing at a stout black flask. A menacing aura seemed to surround it.
“Oh, keen eye, good lady. ‘Tis stone water, the finest me kin can brew. But I’m ‘fraid a tender dear like you...” the barkeep began. Shilana cut him off with a swipe of her hand, tiny bolts of electricity sparking off her fingertips.
“Shut up and pour. That’s what you’re here for, fuzzy face,” she snapped. The dwarf wrinkled his forehead, beard bristling in indignation, obviously thinking about drawing whatever weapon he had stashed under the bar. A small shake of the head from Leo convinced him otherwise. Grumbling to himself in his harsh language, he grabbed the stone water bottle and uncorked it, holding the stopper in Shilana’s face. Her eyes promptly began to water.
“Ah, the good stuff. I’ll take a double-strength one,” she hissed.
“That might very well kill ya, pointy-ears,” the dwarf said sweetly but poured obligingly.
“Thank you,” Shilana smiled, saluted Leo and tipped the drink down her throat. Her delicate elven features flushed, but she didn’t cough. Smiling bitterly, she sighed and leaned against Leo, not minding the ridges of his chest piece pushing into her.
“Leo, I’m almost two hundred and seventy years old. Four years to me is a passing acquaintance,” she almost whispered.
“Yeah, sometimes I’m forgetting that you’re an elf,” he chuckled softly, fiddling with the straps holding his gauntlets in place. Pulling them off, he brushed Shilana’s hair out of her face so that he could see her sparkling green eyes. He added quietly, “But for a human, four years is much, much longer, and they can carry far more meaning.”
For a moment, just a moment, Shilana’s hard exterior almost broke.
“Must be the charming company I’m surrounding myself with,” she smirked before sitting up straight again. “Like my father always said: ‘Cities corrupt people’. Look what I’m doing here,” she said, smiling wryly.
“You’re helping the Watch tremendously with your battle magics,” Leo said, thankfully accepting the steaming cup the dwarven barkeep handed him. “Our performance so far has convinced Lord Truthbringer to hire more specialists to bolster the Watch with unusually gifted individuals.”
“I only wish I could have helped my own people when they needed it,” Shilana sighed, motioning the barkeep to refill her glass.
“What do you mean?” Leo asked softly, stirring his tea with a spoon.
“Today is the anniversary of my village’s destruction, Leo. Two centuries but still I can hear every scream, every bit of raucous laughter as the dark elves slaughtered, raped and pillaged. Two centuries... , “ she choked before wrapping her arms around Leo’s neck, burying her face in the cold, unyielding metal of his chest plate. The sobs shook her frail body. At a loss for words, Leo placed his arms around her slender shoulders and gently held her. The tears didn’t stop. Carefully caressing her hair and back, as if afraid to break something, Leo looked at the dwarf.
“I can give ya a room, if ye want ter console the lady,” the dwarf leered, “Gets her outta me face too.”
Leo just nodded and hugged Shilana close to his body. The dwarf pulled a grubby key from his apron and slid it across the bar. Leo snatched it and hooked the key around a finger, then he took Shilana into his arms, effortlessly carrying her up a dangerously creaking set of stairs.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d guess you’re trying to lay me,” Shilana slurred between sobs.
“You know I’d never do that,” Leo grumbled, fiddling with the door lock.
“Why? Am I not cute enough for you?” Shilana purred, teasing his neck with slender fingertips.
“It would be ... wrong, in so many ways,” Leo mumbled, ducking into the small room. The smell of old sheets and chamberpots, too long uncleaned, assaulted his nose. “Especially in this dump,” he growled, easing Shilana down onto the bed.
“Really, Leo, I wouldn’t mind. I could do with some tenderness right now,” Shilana moaned. Leo closed the door into the face of two gawping servants before taking one long step and pushing open the small window, letting in shockingly cold night air.
“Why not?” Shilana pouted, fiddling with the laces holding the collar of her robe together.
“You are my friend, Shilana. You are drunk. You are sad. Forcing myself on you now would just be ... wrong,” Leo answered, helplessly spreading his hands.
“Oh, your eyes say otherwise,” Shilana drawled, swaying precariously as she tried to pull open her robe. Leo enclosed both her hands with one of his.
“Stop, please. Not like this. If you want to do it, let’s do this when you’re sober,” Leo whispered.
“But I wanna,” Shilana moaned, slipping her hands from his grasp. With a snarl, she almost ripped the robe off her slender body.
“Forgive me, my friend,” Leo whispered, tapping his shoulder armor. Shilana looked at him, sudden understanding dawning.
“In the name of Lord Justice, I command you. Go to sleep.”
“You fucking ... bas- ... tard... , “ Shilana complained before crumpling onto the mattress. Leo gingerly wrapped her in her robe, making sure not to touch her small breasts. Then he tucked her in, pulled a chair up to the bed and began his vigil.
Her dreams were uneasy, that much Leo could tell. Shilana tossed and turned in bed, moaning and crying in her sleep. Whatever had happened two centuries ago, it was tormenting her still. Leo had no idea what it was, but he hated to see his dear friend suffer. Gently, as not to wake her, he began to caress her hair, hoping that somehow his touch might drive the demons away that were haunting her.
He watched her sleep. Without noticing, his own thoughts drifted off, back to the day when they’d met for the first time. Leo had just arrived from the monastery where young orphans were trained to become paladins in the service of Lord Justice. Merus Truthbringer, Commander-in-Chief of the Watch, had sent word to the abbot he was looking for a young, promising Paladin, as a member of a new Watch department, one specializing in tasks the normal rank and file was unable to tackle. Leo had been chosen to answer the call. A slow, uneventful journey up the Old Road had led him here.
Storm Harbour spread out before him, a huge, dark grey crescent hugging the ocean. His mind raced as he tried to comprehend the thousands and thousands of people who would mill around in its streets.
Shilana awaited him on the last hilltop before the city, a regal auburn-haired beauty wrapped in a simple white robe, the breeze tugging at her hair.
“Are you Leo?” she asked, not unkindly. He just nodded. Females were a rare sight in the monastery, elven females were rarer still. He had of course learned about all the different races inhabiting the Western Continent but meeting one such exotic being was excitingly new. To his surprise, she eyed him nearly as curiously.
“What?” Leo asked, a little confused.
“I’m just trying to figure out what makes you so special that I had to walk all the way out here to welcome you is all,” she mused, before bowing. “I am Shilana Elbharyl, battlemage of the City Watch and your new partner.”
“Nice to meet you, Lady Shilana,” Leo began, before his voice trailed off as Shilana laughed and shook her head.
“No ‘lady,’ Leo. Just ‘Shilana,’ please. We are to work together for the foreseeable future, until you’re familiar with the city. This kind of formality will only get in the way.” Under her breath, she added, “And on my nerves.” Leo pretended not to have heard that.
“So, what makes you so special?” Shilana asked again, easily falling into step next to Leo.
“I am a Fist of Justice, mil- ... Shilana,” he said, as if that explained everything.
“Sorry, still no idea. Care to elaborate?” the elven woman asked.
“I am what most people outside my order would call a ‘paladin.’ I am to guard those too weak to fend for themselves, to protect them from false judgment. To do so, my Lord Justice has granted me a measure of his power. I can smite the evil or heal the wounded. I can detect the intentions of those near me and I can sense if someone is lying.”
“So, you would know if I were to attack you?” Shilana inquired, eyeing him warily.
“Only if I invoke the name of my Lord, which I don’t do lightly. All this power comes at a price. I must be prudent in using my abilities, my Lord frowns upon frivolous squandering of his magic.”
“So, what does a guy like you do for fun?” Shilana asked, a mischievous grin tugging at her lips.
Leo looked at her in surprise. Back at the monastery, everyone had spoken a rather formal dialect of the trade tongue. Whenever he had pictured the long-lived elves, he thought they would sound like the monks back home. But Shilana ... she used a barely comprehensible street slang he found utterly jarring. I will get used to it eventually, Leo thought. Even if I would never speak like that.
“I don’t know. Until now, I didn’t have much in the way of spare time. I have spent every waking minute to prepare for service in His name,” Leo shrugged, shifting the weight of his small pack onto his other shoulder.
“Must have been a dreary existence,” Shilana guessed, her smile taking much of the sting from that remark.
“Not at all. But I fear all that combat training, all the prayers haven’t really prepared me for such a huge city,” Leo admitted, gazing towards majestic Storm Harbour.
“Stick with me, I’ll show you around,” Shilana said, slapping his armor-clad shoulder.
Much had happened since that sunny afternoon almost four years ago. Together, they had liberated a village overrun by an orcish warband, had fought side-by-side with mercenaries to repulse numerous pirate incursions into Storm Harbour territory and fought off monsters rampaging through the countryside, not least of them a fiendish necromancer bent on raising the dead from every boneyard surrounding the city. It had been tense times more often than not, but never had Leo seen Shilana gloomy like tonight. He thought they had become close through all the adventures. With a pang of guilt he realized that he knew barely a thing about her. Shilana kept her secrets close and she seemed to harbor a fair share of them.
His eyes fluttered open as he felt her stare on him. Outside, dawn was approaching. Shilana leaned on one elbow, eyeing him intently.
“Don’t tell me you’ve been guarding me the whole night,” Shilana muttered, her voice thick with sleep.
“You already know, why should I state the obvious?” Leo responded, smiling fondly.
“Ooh, my head hurts. We didn’t fight last night, did we?” she sighed, rubbing her temples.
“No, we didn’t. You had a wee bit too much to drink is all,” he chuckled, filling the cracked porcelain bowl on the washing table with water which he brought over to the bed along with a threadbare towel.
“‘A wee bit?’” Shilana snorted, “My head feels like some orcs are using it for kicking practice!”
“If you hadn’t set your sights on seducing me, you might feel even worse. This ‘stone water’ must be one hell of a brew,” Leo chuckled, holding the bowl while Shilana splashed water into her face. Sputtering, her head whipped up.
“What? Seducing you?”
“That’s what I said,” he said, grinning playfully. Her gaze became thoughtful for a moment, then she giggled.
“I must have failed miserably,” she groaned.
“It just takes two for a good seduction and I felt the circumstances weren’t right,” Leo mumbled.
“Aw, you and your inability to lie, damn you.” Shilana blushed, splashing some water into his face.
“I am capable of lying, Shilana. But if I do, Lord Justice would be most displeased with me. So I choose not to,” Leo explained, wiping his face with a corner of the towel.
“Ugh, and to think that we have to work today,” she groaned. “I feel awful.”
“The good news is that we are to support the guards at the Land Gate. As long as no foreign dignitaries or orcish warbands are inbound, it should give you ample time to recover. At least you could sleep, somewhat,” Leo commented.
“Actually, I wouldn’t mind a couple dozen orcs to torch,” Shilana grinned. “Would get my mind off my dreams,” she added.
“In which you are haunted by the specters of the dark elves who destroyed your village,” Leo guessed.
The elven woman growled in the back of her throat. Leo knew her well enough to stifle any further questions. To his surprise, Shilana went on.
“Leo, they raped me. They herded everyone from our village into the Speakers’ Hall and raped me in front of the whole damn village. Then they had me choose who to sacrifice to their blasted Chaos Queen. They could have killed me or dragged me into slavery like the others but they chose not to. Instead they left me in the ruins of my home, to send a poignant message to the other elven realms. How would you feel?” she whispered, fresh tears welling up in her eyes.
“I-” Leo began but stopped. There were no words appropriate to the enormity of her tragedy, no amount of sympathy could undo what she had suffered through. He shook his head, apologetically, before placing the wash bowl onto its pedestal. He wrapped Shilana into a tender hug.
“I wish I could do more,” he mumbled into her hair.
“Believe me, that’s a good start,” she sighed.
They reached the Land Gate as it was opened, six Watchmen pulling at each massive door leaf. Outside, a long line of early arrivals waited, itching to get into Storm Harbour. Shilana had the traffic stay for a few minutes more as she traced a large semicircle in front of the gate, pouring glittering dust into the frosty grass and dirt.
“What’s she doin’?” a passing Watchman asked Leo, who was watching from inside the gateway.
“She’s laying down wards to help us discover concealed dangers. This spell will alert us to any disguised troublemakers,” Leo explained.
“Won’t the carts and people destroy the dust line?” the soldier wondered, wrinkling his brow in his open-faced helmet.
“Just watch,” Leo suggested, pointing to Shilana who was standing inside the semicircle, chanting. A moment later, the dust line exploded in a blazing streak of iridescent light and vanished. Shilana strode over to them, brushing her hands off on the sides of her flapping robe.
“That should do it for today,” she sighed, wiping sweat off her brow. The Watchman waved for the anxiously onlooking farmers to proceed. No one moved.
“Go on, it won’t harm you!” Shilana yelled. Under her breath, she muttered, “Damn bumpkins!”
“They don’t know any better,” Leo mildly admonished her. Then he strode towards the first cart and hailed the nervously fidgeting farmer.
“Come, good sir. You can enter our fair city now,” he said, smiling cheerfully.
“Uhh, oi don’t know, sah,” the farmer muttered, wringing his wool cap in his calloused hands. “Last time oi was here, they wasn’t doin’ this. Ya think ‘tis safe?”
“Absolutely. Here, watch,” Leo said, stepping through the space where the shimmering line had been.
“Oh, for Mercy’s sake, husband, get a fucken’ move on,” a female voice from behind the driver’s perch snapped. Wrapped in a thick layer of hides and scarves, a hawk-nosed woman leered at Leo. As if whipped himself, the farmer tapped the behind of his oxen with his switch and the animals trotted on, mooing in confusion as the magic washed over them. Nothing obvious happened. The farmer looked around as he passed the ward, shivering as if someone had poured ice water down his back.
“See, that wasn’t too bad, was it,” Leo asked, walking alongside the cart.
“Well, oi could do without,” the farmer said, again shivering.
“We need to make sure that no hidden invaders might sneak by so that Storm Harbour can be your haven if the orcs or dark elves or anyone else decides to attack this land,” Leo said. The farmer nodded thankfully and slapped his reins. The oxen picked up speed and Leo stopped inside the gate.
“I wonder where you find this patience,” Shilana snorted, pulling her robe tighter around herself.
“It comes with the territory,” Leo smiled and opened the door to the gatehouse. “Lord Justice wants us to treat everybody fairly, no matter if they are Storm Lords or beggars. Everybody deserves that.”
“No, not everybody. Especially not those cursed dark elves,” Shilana snarled, flopping down onto a chair near the fireplace.
“Everybody, without exception. As long as they are peaceful and willing to talk, I cannot strike the first blow,” Leo emphasized.
“That will be your undoing one day, just you wait,” Shilana grumbled darkly. Leo just shrugged and unhooked his weapon from his back, a long-hefted, two-handed war maul. He leaned against the massive stone desk dominating the room and began to clean the weapon, applying oils to the richly engraved but well-worn hammer head.
The hours trickled past. Shilana mostly dozed next to the fireplace while Leo spent much of his time looking out of the window, taking in the endless stream of merchants, farmers and mercenaries who were coming and going through the Land Gate. This late in the year, many wandering bands of adventurers or merchants settled down for the winter and Storm Harbour, with its mighty walls and coastal location, was an ideal hibernating place. Leo watched the Watchmen bicker with a heavily armed band of warriors who were unwilling to surrender their weapons for inspection as Shilana brushed his hand.
“Hey, want something to eat? I’m sick of being cooped up in here, maybe a quick walk to the market-” She stopped, her eyes taking on a far-away look.
“What is it?” Leo asked, grasping the hilt of his weapon.
“The ward just went off. I think it might get interesting after all,” the mage hissed. A quick word later, a beautiful longstaff appeared in her hand. Most of it was crafted from a single straight Icewood trunk while the top was made from a glittering star sapphire, the deep blue gem flickering with arcane energies. She muttered a few more quick words and mystic energies surrounded her, enveloping Shilana in a protective force field.
Leo donned his helmet and fastened the chin strap, then he threw the door to the gatehouse open.
“Commander, keep a sharp eye out; the ward just went off,” he called to the Watchmen. Within moments, half a dozen soldiers surrounded two thickly cloaked and veiled riders, the latest in the slowly thinning stream of people seeking Storm Harbour’s hospitality. Lacking any alternatives, they reined in their horses and spread their hands in the universal gesture of peace.
“What have you woven into the ward?” Leo asked under his breath as they walked, fully prepared and armed, towards the riders.
“Oh, you know, the usual. Demons, shapeshifters, necromancers and dark elves. Why?” Shilana asked back, a grim smile tugging at her lips.
Instead of answering her, Leo addressed the two riders, hefting his maul one-handedly in a show of force.
“Please dismount. We will not harm you unless you give us reason to do so.”
Without hesitation, both riders slid from their horses. Two soldiers stepped in, covered by the long spears of their fellows, and took their reins, leading the animals to the side. Pressured by the steadily shrinking ring of men, the veiled riders had no choice but to move towards Leo and Shilana.
“Come with us, please,” Leo ordered.
The shorter of the two shot nervous glances left and right, obviously itching to flee or to attack, but a steadying touch by the taller one caused her to fall in. A few steps later, the smaller one hissed something at the larger one in a language Leo couldn’t understand. Next to him, Shilana tensed up. But before Leo could ask if she understood, the taller one whispered back, in the Common tongue:
“Because he cannot lie.”
With Shilana bringing up the rear and closing the door, the foursome entered the gatehouse. Leo strode towards the massive stone desk, removing his helmet as he went. The roaring fireplace framed his armored bulk most spectacularly and both visitors paused in mid-stride as he turned around, plonking the heavy hammer down between his feet. Slowly, as if taking in every wrinkle of their cloaks, every speck of dirt from their travels, his gaze swept down over the visitors.
“My colleague, Shilana,” he began without preamble, indicating the elven woman leaning against the door. “I am Leo, Fist of Justice. You will state your names and your business and we will judge if you may stay.”
In response, the taller one of the pair slowly reached up and lowered her hood. A flood of snow white hair cascaded over her shoulders and she fixed Leo with a friendly little smile. Her skin was black as midnight, her ears ended in a sharp point, but her blue eyes held nothing but curiosity and warmth. Shilana inhaled sharply. Leo couldn’t blame her, for right between them, at least one dark elf was standing, the very beings that caused Shilana so much suffering.
“Tear, Arach.” the dark elf said, her long finger pointing at herself and her companion in turn. “And please rest assured that we don’t mean any harm. We are followers of the Moon Maiden seeking shelter from the winter in your fair city. And if I may be so bold to ask, have you seen others of our kind pass this way?”
“What, more kinslayers from Below?” Shilana’s eyes sparked as she joined Leo at the desk, her face not even trying to conceal her hatred. Leo laid a hand on her arm, causing her to snarl in anger. The smaller one had lowered her hood as well, revealing yet another dark elven female, this one was quite a bit younger than Tear, her inquisitive amber eyes darting this way and that.
“I sense only sincerity coming from you both so I invite you into our city. Our City Watch will shelter you from any harm that might follow you,” Leo announced.
Shilana and the smaller dark elf, Arach, whispered, almost in unison: “You wish.”
Shilana cocked her head and shot her a searching look. Arach grinned at her, cheekily, and shrugged.
“To answer your second question: Yes, we know of another band of the Moon Maiden’s Faithful. They live in Oak House, in the northern quarters of the city,” Leo went on. He turned to the large city map hanging over the fireplace and pointed out a certain point in the convoluted mess of streets, squares and buildings that made up most of the city.
“Are they prisoners or under house arrest?” Arach wondered, suspiciously.
“No. What makes you think that?” Leo asked back, a little surprised.
“Because you seem to know an awful lot about them,” she remarked.
Shilana was studying her feet just now, a look of slight embarrassment on her delicate features.
“Dark elves are an endangered species around here, friendly or not.” Leo explained, much kinder now. “It is our duty to keep harm as far away from them as possible.”
He laid his hand on Shilana’s shoulder but the elven woman gruffly shook it off and stormed out of the room, muttering something about ‘having to inspect the men on the ramparts.’
“She’s from a raided village, I gather?” Tear asked, sympathy in her eyes, as the door slammed shut again in the wake of the furious mage.
“You have a sharp eye.” Leo commented.
“Nah, I’ve seen her type way too often already. It’s always the same, sadly.” Tear sighed. Then her little smile came back. “Are we free to go then?” she asked.
“Sure. Don’t do anything stupid and you shall be fine. I will order one of the men to guide you, if you want.”
“That would be splendid!” Tear smiled thankfully as she went over to Leo and wrapped him in her arms, placing a friendly little peck on his cheek which caused him to blush furiously. But he made no move to disentangle himself from her. Emboldened, she repeated the kiss on his other cheek, causing an even more violent blush. Then she had mercy on the poor man and returned to Arach’s side, picking up her bundle and, motioning her to follow, left the watch house. Leo shook his head in wonder. Women. A moment later, he put on his helmet and went outside, calling for a Watchman to accompany the new arrivals to Oak House. Then he went looking for his fuming friend.
The winter months were cold and quiet. Leo, when not on Watch duty, honed his skills at the House of Justice or spent time talking and drinking, in moderation, with Shilana. The issue of letting the followers of the Moon Maiden seek shelter in Storm Harbour was slowly, inexorably, straining their friendship. They argued more often, like on one night shortly after New Year’s Eve.
“Believe me, there are no ‘good’ dark elves. They are scum, lying, treacherous, brutal and obsessed. In their language, there is no word for ‘love’ but forty-three alone for ‘killing,’” Shilana hissed over her metal goblet. She needn’t have bothered, the tavern was bursting with chatter and noise while, outside a ferocious winter storm was howling, the snow thumping in huge clumps against the wooden shutters.
“And I’m telling you, my magic didn’t fail me. I sensed only peace and goodness from the one called Tear,” Leo said, placing a placating hand on Shilana’s. She snorted and withdrew hers, using it to guide her goblet to her mouth.
“Yeah, and what about that Arach girl? You didn’t elaborate on her intentions too much,” Shilana snarled.
“That’s because she seemed to be very conflicted about her own feelings as well. But I can sense the absence of evil as well as the presence of good. One does not necessarily preclude the other. And I felt no evil coming from her either. So my call was justified.”
“Have you ever, ever, thought about the possibility that they were tricking you, Leo?” the mage snapped, throwing her hands up in exasperation.
“That would imply hostile intent and I sensed none,” Leo countered. His composure was driving Shilana up the walls.
“Maybe because they shielded their thoughts from you?” she screamed, slamming the goblet hard onto the table top. The stem bent dangerously and she almost spilled her wine all over the place. Casting a quick mending spell, she fixed the goblet and continued, a little less vicious.
“You are not infallible. You can’t be,” she almost pleaded.
“Why? Because the idea of ‘good’ dark elves would make your world so much more complicated? Shilana, you of all people should know that there are no absolutes. You, of all people, should understand that. Your whole life revolves around altering the fabric of reality, messing with the building blocks of our world. For normal people, it’s impossible to conjure lightning out of the blue but you can do it. Who says dark elves can’t change?” Leo reasoned, trying to calm her down.
“I can’t talk to you about it,” Shilana snapped, rising from her chair. “Your ‘everything is innocent until proven’ attitude makes me sick! You are a bloody whelp, what do you know about the world?” She tossed the goblet to the floor and fled from the tavern.
As if she had drenched him with a bucket of ice water, Leo shook himself. That last remark had stung. Sure, Shilana had a flaring temper, but normally, she unleashed it only in battle. This whole situation was eating at her, and Leo wondered if he could ease her burden. But no matter how much Shilana raged against it, he knew he was right. These two dark elves, and their peers living in Oak House, were no threat. Neither to him, to his city, nor to Shilana. Sighing, he rose and went into the storm.
“You have sent for me, sir?” Leo asked, standing at attention in the sun-flooded office of Urs the Sailor, one of the five Storm Lords ruling the city. The aging merchant looked up from his papers and fixed Leo with a penetrating, steel-grey stare.
“Huh, who’d have thought you’re that young. When Merus offered me his paladin, I expected a man of more years. How old are you, son?” he asked, brushing a grey strand of hair behind his ear. Leo noticed that half his earlobe was missing, the remainder had a very irregular edge to it.
“Just turned twenty-three, sir,” Leo answered, blinking in the blazing early spring sun reflecting off every highly polished wood surface.
“Congrats. As I said, I was expecting someone with more battles under his belt,” the older man repeated.
“I am the only paladin in Storm Harbour at the moment, sir. I am also quite capable in battle. I have beaten back the orc raid on Ivy Glen three years ago, only supported by a handful of militia and Lady Shilana, who was kind enough to lend me her magic. I have also aided this city in three battles against the Pirates-”
“- of the Shivering Rocks, I know. I have read your file. But I never imagined that the Hero of Storm Harbour was such a green whelp,” the Storm Lord cut him off. Even after this sting, Leo’s face remained impassive.