Gather round, my friends, and hear the tale of the greatest adventure ever on this continent.
It all began innocently enough as the slave girl Kiri, finally freed from her bondage and seeking to return to Conor, the land of her birth, came to the town of Natou. In that town, she heard of a party of adventurers who, like herself, had plans to cross the border into Conor, and she decided to join them. Her resolve was strengthened when she learned that the party were led by one Sebfes Wex Basufucci, a great adventurer of whom she had heard. Little did she know that the decision to link her life with Basufucci's would change her destiny forever, and would lead her into adventures which only fools would ever wish to see.
Kiri was nineteen in those days, with bold good looks and blonde hair worn long and braided, and all heads turned as she entered the Blind Horse Inn. The innkeeper came hurrying at once to meet her.
"Greetings, lass. Welcome to the Blind Horse Inn. It's rare we have a pretty lass like you drop in here..."
"I am looking for Basufucci," said Kiri, curtly, and was surprised at the man's reaction. He looked suddenly terrified.
"Basufucci? Oh, yes, Miss. Pardon me, Miss. Please forgive my stares, but I thought...I mean...I didn't realize that you were a friend of Basufucci's."
"I'm not," said Kiri, intrigued. "I've never met him. You had better tell me how to recognize him."
The innkeeper relaxed noticeably, and became talkative. "Oh, you needn't worry about recognizing him, lass. He's easily the ugliest thing in the tavern, and he always carries those wretched swords. Excuse me a moment while I grab his next ale. Foul-looking ale, isn't it? It comes from a land to the south. They say that's where HE comes from. Just between you and me, lass, I've heard rumours that the land was overrun by the messengers from Hell, though some say even those creatures would have nothing to do with The Orc."
The Orc? Kiri, who had taken for granted that Basufucci was human, suddenly wanted to change her mind about joining him, or even meeting him, but she was too late. The innkeeper was already leading her toward a booth in the back of the tavern.
"Ah, here we are, Miss. The Orc, and those daring enough to sit with him."
Kiri had been prepared to meet an orc, but she was not prepared for Basufucci. To describe him as an orc did not do justice to Basufucci's legendary and appalling ugliness, for the tales tell us that no human could look at him without feeling revulsion or even nausea. From the descriptions we have of him we know the following:
The Orc was not tall, being perhaps no more than Kiri's height, but he was broad, with arms and legs like tree trunks and a massive torso. His head was square, with large pointed ears and very little hair, and his face was a frightful mixture of orc and goblin characteristics, while retaining enough recognizably human features to make it a fearful parody of a human face. In addition to his ugliness, The Orc was the possessor of a pair of large, almost luminous eyes that had the power to cast fear into any who looked into them. This fearsome being, when Kiri first saw him, was completely armoured, in full plate mail, and was armed with two great swords. These were, of course, the devil blades of Basufucci, of which Kiri as yet knew nothing.
Kiri had been trained as a soldier in Conor and she firmly believed that a Conarian soldier is the equal of any human fighter anywhere in the world, and superior to any non-human or non-fighter. It was only this conviction, and her training against showing fear, that enabled her to look steadily at The Orc, keeping her hands still and her face quiet. Even so, she completely missed his greeting, and it was only when she saw that he was looking at her questioningly that she realized he had spoken.
"I am Kiri," she said, assuming that he had asked her name. "I seek to journey into Conor."
"Let me introduce you to the rest of my party," said The Orc. "Then you may sit with us and tell us your tale."
Kiri looked at the rest of The Orc's party and became, if that were possible, even sorrier that she had ever entered the Blind Horse Inn. Like all her people, she despised non-humans, and she had a deep distrust of magic and a hatred for all those who practised it.
"These two go by no names," The Orc began, indicating a young man and a girl, perhaps in their mid-twenties, who were obviously brother and sister, "for they are mute, since having their tongues cut out by the mayor of this town for things they said about his daughter. They are good with swords, and the boy is good with a bow. They have been living as bandits, and I've heard it said they would sell out their home town, but for this quest we take them, and I doubt if even they would betray Basufucci."
The twins - for that is what they were - did not seem to resent being talked about in this way. The girl even gave Kiri a slight smile as The Orc continued.
"The halfling is a thief whom I caught trying to lighten my pack. For his efforts, I've had my wand waver cast a spell to keep him loyal to my following. He goes by the name of Thorby, though I doubt he was born with it.
"The magician is Syl. True, he's thin for so tall a man, but he's quick with the spells, and a mean dealer in the tavern.
"At present that is all the party. I will introduce you to Tank, the dwarf, when we find him. He was recently exiled from Conor, for remarks he made about the ruling wizards" - the halfling gave a chuckle as The Orc said this - "so we probably will not have far to seek him."
Great, thought Kiri to herself. So these are his comrades, are they? Two mute humans, a wizard, a halfling thief, and eventually a dwarf. I'm surprised he doesn't suggest taking a troll or two along as well, just to round out the party.
"And now, girl," said The Orc, "tell us why you wish to enter Conor."
"It is my home," said Kiri.
The Orc smiled, which made him, if that were possible, look even uglier than he had before.
"Good," he said, "for we shall need a guide once we have crossed the border. Do you know your homeland well?"
"Very well," said Kiri. She had studied the geography of Conor at school, and had also spent a year in the army, tramping from one end of the land to the other as her Company collected taxes. "What do you seek in Conor?"
"We are seeking the Forgotten Castle."
Kiri knew about the Forgotten Castle, though she had never seen it. It had once been the stronghold of the Conarian wizards.
"I have never been there," she said, slowly, "but I think I can find the way. It is in ruins now and the common people are afraid of it, but I, too, have heard tales of the wealth that may be found there. It is said that the wizards left many valuable things to be buried in the rubble when they fled."
"It is not for wealth that I journey there," said The Orc. "I go to free the Magic Prince and bring him to safety. But, for you of my party, there may well be treasure on the way, and perhaps other rewards from the Prince himself. Now, girl, sit down with us and tell us all your story."
Kiri sat down - a little reluctantly - between the twins, who moved to make room for her.
"I am Kiri, daughter of Jerrick and of Raven," she began, formally, "and I am Conarian by birth. I was one of those chosen for the army, so at seven I was taken from my family to live at the training school until I came of age. There I was taught to wield a knife and to throw one, to shoot with a bow, to ride a horse and to shoot from horseback, to swim and to climb and to wrestle, and, when I was old enough, to use a sword. Then I was fourteen, and having survived my initiation I was placed into one of the Companies of soldiers.
"Now it was my destiny to be placed in the Third, which was led by Cully son of Cort, of whom you may have heard. For it was this same Cully, the following year, who led a rebellion against the wizards who rule Conor. There is no doubt that they rule unjustly and that their leader, Abranan, is cruel and evil - and Cully is since become a hero to the common people, so I have heard - but, be that as it may, all of us as soldiers were bound to serve the wizards, and many soldiers would not agree to follow Cully. But what choice had I, being, at that time, scarce fifteen years of age? And I had, besides, sworn loyalty on the blade of my knife to Cully as my commander, and he was a brave man and a great warrior, though not always over kind to his Company. So I followed him, and, as all know, the rebellion failed and those few who did not die in wizard-fire were taken prisoner. I was one of these, and, because I was young and pretty, Abranan let me live, but my uniform and my sword were taken from me and I was taken far to the south and sold as a slave.
"It was a hard life - though not so hard as training school had been - and I learned to milk cows and churn butter and card wool and all manner of useful things, but I had no sword, nor any chance to fight, for four years. Then it happened that I saved my mistress' life, more by good luck than by any special skill, for our wagon overturned in the river and she would have been drowned but for me. She was so grateful that she gave me my freedom, and a little money besides. So I came northward, being drawn by the call of my own land. But the borders of Conor are heavily guarded, and if I am recognized I shall certainly be killed. Also, my return is made more difficult because of this - "
Kiri held out her right hand and let the party see that her little finger was missing.
"Thus do Conarians mark their exiles. It would have been the index finger ordinarily, but that might have lowered my value as a slave, and Conarians are nothing if not practical. So you see that entering my homeland is not easy, and I should prefer to travel with a party. You may be sure that your friend the dwarf, if he was exiled from Conor, has lost his index finger and has since had to relearn his grip on his weapons."
She saw the twins exchange slightly apprehensive glances.
"Neither I nor the dwarf will be turned aside by mere border guards," said The Orc. "As for the rest of you, if any of you wish to leave now, hearing of these Conarians, then begone, but forever beware the blade of Basufucci, for, as sure as your cowardice, it will be the instrument of your death."
Not surprisingly, no one showed any sign of leaving, and The Orc went on,
"What weapons do you bring, girl? If you lack any, go to the smith down the street. Tell him Basufucci sent you, and he will give you any that you need. We shall be in town a few days yet. My comrades will help you with any practice you need, and I shall see to it that you have a room here at the Inn.
"Now, I give you this belt. Wear it and none in town will dare bother you, for these townsfolk fear the wrath of The Orc, and will not bother my comrades, or my woman. We will meet here again tonight."
It was not in Kiri's nature, in those days, to defy authority. The Orc had taken command so naturally that she found herself a member of his party despite her fear of him. She put on his leather belt over her own and, still a little dazed by what had happened, wandered out of the Inn.
And so our fair adventurer came into the company of Sebfes Wex Basufucci the Bland, an orc, and as bloodthirsty an orc as any had ever met, and yet, somehow there was the feeling that he would not betray his comrades, at least not while they were in town.
Kiri knew little about orcs. There were none in Conor, and the only thing she could remember being told about them as a child was that they liked to eat human flesh. She dismissed this now as a nursery-tale. Besides, she suspected that The Orc was partly human himself. He was certainly far uglier than any of the pure-blooded orcs she had occasionally seen in the south.
Natou was a prosperous town and Kiri spent a pleasant afternoon exploring it. She had no money left, but she soon found that this was not an obstacle while she wore the belt of Basufucci. When she examined a fine bow, with bow-ends of ridged horn, and thought how much she would like to own it, the craftsman amazed her by pressing it upon her, along with a quiver of well-fletched arrows. Clearly he had recognized The Orc's belt, and Basufucci's reputation in this town seemed to be such that everyone sought to please him, or at least not to anger him. Everywhere Kiri went, she found herself treated with great respect.
It was while she was wandering through the market that she first noticed the light-haired man. He was middle-aged, with rather protruding eyes, and was dressed as a common townsman, but he was conspicuously armed, wearing both a long sword and an ornamental dagger. It was his weapons that caused Kiri to take more than casual notice of him, and when she saw him again, half an hour later, she began to suspect that he was taking more than a casual interest in her, as well. Soon after that, she was sure that he was following her.
Kiri's immediate suspicion was that Basufucci was having her watched, since the man was clearly not a professional thief and she knew no one else in this town, but she could not understand why The Orc should bother to take the trouble, nor why, having taken it, he should hire so incompetent a watcher. She decided to follow the man and discover whether he were in Basufucci's employ. Since the man did not know that she was aware of him, he was not difficult to lose. Kiri led him into a maze of tangled, narrow streets, turned a few rapid corners, and scrambled up onto one of the roofs, where she lay flat and watched him. Normally the situation would have amused her, but she was too worried to enjoy the man's anger and his curses as he searched. Why would The Orc want her followed? What had she become involved in?
As darkness was beginning to fall, the man gave up the search, and Kiri slipped quietly down from the roof and followed him back in the direction of the Blind Horse Inn. The man's destination was not the Inn itself, however, but a house nearby. Kiri, hesitating outside, realized that she was near the smithy and remembered what The Orc had said to her about getting a sword. Possibly she would be able to get some information at the same time.
The smith was eating supper, but he showed no annoyance at being interrupted, and in fact seemed pleased to have found someone to talk to. Smiths, in Kiri's somewhat limited experience, were taciturn men who preferred working to conversation, but this one proved an exception and would gladly have talked the moon down the sky if Kiri had been willing to listen for so long. In a short time she had not only acquired a good sword, but had learned a great deal about the family which owned the house into which her shadow had gone.
This family's name, it seemed, was Diggle, and after the smith had finished telling Kiri about Diggle, and Mrs. Diggle, and several little Diggles, he at last told her about a stranger, a man from the south, who was staying in their house.
"His name is Nor Dall," said the smith, lowering his voice. "And it is my belief he is a lord in the south. Let me tell you how he came here. He came riding a magnificent horse, one of the southern breed, with a proud arched neck and long slender legs made for running, such a horse as we in the north rarely see. He was wearing a cape which looked to be embroidered with gold thread, and I caught the glint of chain mail under it. Yet now he goes about looking for all the world like one of the poor Diggles, save that he still wears his sword openly, as a man will who has worn a sword all his life and cannot bear to be without it. And the Diggles have given out that he is a relative of theirs from the south. The part about the south I believe, for his accent is outlandish. But that the Diggles should have such a relative is more than I can credit."
Having told Kiri all he knew about Nor Dall, he proceeded to tell her about some of the other families on the street, while Kiri listened absently and kept an eye on the Diggles' house. What the smith had told her only increased her uneasiness. Why should a stranger from the south be following her?
When the man Nor Dall emerged again from the house, he walked rapidly toward the Inn, and Kiri, bidding a hasty farewell to the smith, followed. The man stopped in a doorway across from the Inn and remained there, hidden in shadow. It was full dark now and Kiri could not see him once he stood still, but she was fairly sure that he could not see her, either.
Only a few minutes later, The Orc and the rest of his party passed her on their way to the Inn. To Kiri's surprise, the man Nor Dall did not approach them. There was no movement from the shadows where he stood, but she saw his teeth gleam and knew that he was either smiling or snarling. Kiri was more mystified then ever. She was tempted to pin him against the wall with her new blade and demand to know his business, but at that moment the Watch turned the corner, with their lanterns, and she hesitated. She was a stranger in this town, and she did not know their laws concerning the drawing of weapons in the open street. Reluctantly, she decided to question The Orc rather than the man Nor Dall. She walked boldly past his hiding place and entered the Blind Horse Inn.