Elan resumed his easy pace. Today, feeling comfortable enough with his lead, the merc would begin the next step of his plan in hopes of finding protection. He had been making his way northeast along the Mother’s Spine, but would be engaging a messenger for the next stage. The man had purloined a sheet of thick paper and an unattended stylus from some of the market stalls and scrawled a simple note:
Heard you got some good jobs recently.
Hoped I could call in that favor you owe.
Can pay my way.
His old friend had been leading his own band of mercs to the west, near the massive Czerno Forest. Last time they had spoken, just over a month prior, Raulin had intimated he had something really big coming. Elan might be able to get in on it and stick with his friend for a while, at least until he was out of danger. A careful traveler among equally careful travelers would make a difficult target.
The rest of the journey to the post house passed, as the merc expected, without incident. He contracted a messenger to travel ahead of him to a city just under Czerno’s eaves, to an inn where he and Raulin usually met. Elan himself would follow a more roundabout route, heading north to the coast and then circling southwest again to throw off his pursuers further. A messenger was a risk, but the merc palmed the office copy of the service contract as the clerk disappeared into the back room. With any luck, Elan was too far ahead to leave any footprints.
He made his way back to the inn. At first light, he would make for the coast. For the moment…
He signaled the bartender—beer and vittles—and settled into a corner table to listen for news. A few mundane conversations flitted past him but finally the words of a pair of weathered old-timers one table over caught his ear. They smelled of pipe smoke and the road and beer glistened in their beards.
“—and only then does she boot me outta bed!” The two friends cackled to each other and one clapped his comrade on the shoulder.
“Man a-live, it’s good to see you!”
“And you, my friend. I see those woods have added a few more grey hairs.”
The first chuckled. “At my age, who’s counting? But yeah, they have. Roads have been a might unsafe of late. I got one more journey in me then I’m headed south.”
“Those wood nymphs finally proving to be more than you can handle?” He laughed but his friend looked serious.
“I don’t like what’s been going on up there. Fewer travelers and fewer patrols to keep the roads safe. We got a respite when Prince Jelani came of age, just a few years ago. But he was just killed on a hunt!”
“What!?” The second man was visibly astonished, and Elan had to resist the impulse to lean forward as the old-timer lowered his voice to a whisper. “But even out here we’d heard of his skills as a warrior.”
His friend nodded sagely. “Perhaps you’ve heard of his arrogance as well? My bet is he was showing off for his friends.”
“Doing what? Wouldn’t the Greycloaks keep him from doing too much harm to himself? They’ve got special healers and all that, haven’t they?”
The first spoke directly into his friend’s ear, and Elan leaned forward to hear, using the plate of food that the innkeeper delivered as an excuse.
“They told us a boar got him,” the man whispered, “but the palace servants said the five or six Greycloaks that went with him haven’t been seen since then. Truth is, I don’t think it was a boar. I think they were attacked.”
“Would take a big group to deal with those Greycloaks, but it’s possible!”
The man’s friend shook his head. “You heard of the kingdom to the south that got taken out by a wyrm?”
“Yeah. Can’t believe it flew this far from the White Mountains.”
“Well, just short of a dragon, I can’t believe anything could get past those Greycloaks.”
“So a boar did it?”
The naysayer laughed. “Must have been a hell of a boar!”
“Either way, the region is going to be in turmoil for a while. The king is old and ill, and the only remaining heir, by his second wife, won’t be of age for years…”
“I am sick of this talk! Come on now, let me buy you another beer…”
Elan could feel something cold and strange in his gut, a feeling he usually associated with his intuition, but he could not define it yet. The merc finished his meal and went to bed, uneasy and eager to depart.