In a time before man rose to prominence, when magic flowed like water from every rock and plant, three great races vied for dominance. They built great cities, and places of learning.
They harnessed the power innate in metal, wood, and gem; forging great weapons of beauty and power. They constructed great roads, enchanted with power to hold back the forest and field, and they built transportation platforms to make travel to different realms easier. They expanded their knowledge to include movement to other lands within their cosmos.
In their arrogance they even challenged the Gods, and almost succeeded. The Gods ensured that little evidence remained of their achievements and knowledge. That however, was about to change. The forest of Thangdaemon was one of the oldest on Andor. Power and magic still flowed from tree, stone, and animal; an old power, radiating out from the center of the forest. The forest also marked the eastern edge of the inhabited lands of man.
What was farther east was unknown in this age. It was rumored that strange beasts walked the land that could strip a man to the bone in mere moments. Other stories told of fell things that would eat the brain turning its victim into a walking zombie. What was truth and what was fiction was hard to tell. What was known for fact was that no one who ventured into the forest returned -- ever!
In a clearing, at the edge of that forest, by a section of the Old Kings' Highway, that connected the Duchy of Realto and the township of Dria, a small herd of red deer grazed. Also, in that clearing rested a large circular platform, with a slender column erected at true north, and a small tabletop, inset with gemstones. The gems were arranged in seven rows, with differing numbered columns.
An emerald in the first column of each row, with sapphires filling out the rest of the columns, and finally, a ruby inset in each bottom corner of the top. Some rows had three columns of sapphires, while others had as many as seven. Even though the clearing was overgrown, and the path from the highway was completely gone, the area around the platform was clear, and well maintained.
A young hart and two hind looked up as a hum began in the center of the platform. The emerald in the 5th row began to pulse and glow, followed by a sapphire in the 2nd column of the same row. Soon, the emerald in the 3rd row began to pulse as well. The air above the platform began to swirl and coalesce, as the sapphire in the 4th column of the 3rd row began to glow.
The hart looked over at the larger of the two hinds, who nodded her head and bolted into the forest. The air in the clearing began to hum and vibrate with power, while the swirling mass of energy began to consume itself. When it disappeared all that was left on the platform was a small bassinet, holding an infant. Lying next to the bassinet was a scabbarded longsword.
As the hart slowly approached the bassinet a large stag stepped into the clearing, followed by several other harts, and the hind. The stag was old, with a silver mane and silver velvet on his massive crown of antlers. The other deer stepped back as he approached the infant, and gazed into its eyes. The stag looked up and tilted his head toward the road. Returning from Dria with a small contingent of guards, was the Lady Tara, Duchess of Realto. As the carriage approached the edge of the forest her men became alert and ready for attack.
This section of the highway cut through the western tip of the forest and there was always fear of bandits attacking travelers, or worse, fell things dragging unwary travelers into the forest to consume their souls. The tips of the stag's antlers began to glow with a silvery light as the forest receded from the clearing's path.
A hart bounded down the path toward the highway and crashed into the lead guardsman causing the horse and rider to go down. The captain of the guard called for a halt and went to investigate. "Is everything alright?" called out the Lady Tara as she stepped out of the carriage. "Yes milady," answered Captain Damon, "Rogers took a spill when the deer hit him, but he is fine.
Lady Tara please stay in the carriage, we will be off in a moment." "Nonsense, let me see to him, he may be hurt, besides there is no one around", she responded. She moved up to look at the guardsman who had been knocked off his horse. In the clearing, the stag turned back to the infant and rose up on his hind legs, and struck the platform causing the baby to cry out.
The rest of the deer faded back in to the forest, but the old stag remained to ensure his efforts bore fruit. Lady Tara looked up, "Is that a child crying? Captain bring a man and follow me." The captain hurried to catch up as she started down the path toward a clearing. Entering the clearing he looked around and got a quick look at the stag as it stepped into the forest and then he saw the bassinet and sword.
Lady Tara gently picked up the infant and rocked him. "It is a boy, a baby boy, and there is a signet ring on a chain around his neck" she exclaimed. "I wonder what he is doing here?" The captain picked up the scabbarded sword and whistled as he drew the blade, "A remarkable sword, light and balanced".
"Come Captain, bring the bassinet and the sword," the Lady Tara called out to him, as she took the child back to the carriage. The captain hurried to follow her, re-sheathing the sword along the way. With the Duchess back in her carriage, the entourage re-mounted and continued on their journey home. The stag stepped back into the clearing, and again his antlers glowed. The fallen hart jumped up and bounded in to the forest, and the path closed over once again.
Stillness settled back over the forest, but for how long? The man (far removed from the infant in the clearing), moved like a wraith amongst the trees. A slivered moon provided excellent cover for night work. The wooded area was alive with the sounds of night insects, bullfrogs calling to one another and the occasional hoot of an owl, masking the sounds of the stalker.
All in all, an excellent environment for stalking prey. "I have been trailing this idiot for a week," he thought to himself.
"At least my woods training did not go to waste, Father," thinking of home. "Perhaps after this mission I will go home and see him," he thought, but knowing he probably would not. Back to the work at hand: in truth he thought this particular assignment from the Guild Council was petty, even for them.
There had been numerous small thefts from the merchant trains and the Merchant Guild had complained, and now here he was, tracking the thief.
He was Aaron Blackmoon, Lord Inquisitor for the Guild Council of the High City Aithen.
He was of medium height; a troubadour's build, but muscle underneath. An unimposing man, that is except for his eyes. The color of emeralds, specked with gold and slightly feline, devoid of emotion, the eyes of Death, staring back at you. White hair, not blonde, pulled back into a warrior's knot, a slight point of the ear and arch of the brow, giving him an almost Elvish look.
Although he was not an Elf, at least he did not think so, truth be told his parentage and race were unknown. He had been found as an infant, by the woman who became his mother.
He was a master of the sword, being a Warrior and a master of stealth and death, being both Thief and Assassin. That last two to the bane of his father. Truth be told, all three were an embarrassment. The House of Blackmoon had been Rangers of the Wood for generations, from father to son until now. Although Aaron started his professional life as a Ranger, his anger and his rage had ended it.
But that was a story that just brought up old pains and best forgotten. "The matter at hand, Boy!" his Swordmaster used to tell him. Back to this incompetent thief. Aaron had tracked him from the site of the most recent theft, wondering all the way how the lad knew the location of the Guild payroll.
"There must be someone else," he mused. "This is most definitely not the brains of the outfit". The thief had made camp in a clearing just ahead of where Aaron laid hidden. The lad looked to be waiting for someone. He did not have to wait long, for a rider approached the camp. "Well, well, well," thought Aaron. "If it is not Geoff Wheatstone, second-assistant to the Merchant Guildmaster." Aaron tested his sword in its scabbard and stepped into the clearing.
"Master Wheatstone, I'm surprised to find you here." "Lord Aaron, what are you doing here?" Wheatstone stuttered. "Tracking and catching a thief and his informant apparently," Aaron replied pulling his sword.
The thief pulled a dagger and threw it at Aaron, who dodged and buried one of his own in the surprised thief's throat. "Wheatstone, do not do anything stupid, I need to bring you back alive". "No, wait you do not understand," Wheatstone pulled a shortsword swinging it at Aaron. Aaron parried the haphazard attack with his dirk, bringing his sword up to prevent another thrust. Wheatstone, unbalanced by the parry, fell forward and impaled himself on Aaron's sword.
"Well that went wrong," he thought, as he cleaned the blood from his sword. Aaron still marveled at the uniqueness of his sword. Made from an unknown metal and process, and Aaron had asked every armorer he crossed paths with.
The only thing that all the masters agreed upon was that the sword was not guild crafted. He ran his finger over the runes cut into the metal.
He often wondered what they spelled out; again multiple scholars were at a loss as to the language. Even the gem in the pommel was unique, blood red like a ruby but with a fire and brilliance that rivaled the sun. The only thing that was familiar was the embossed rose in the grip. The grip itself fashioned from some type of leather, tanned red with the rose in black relief, the blade thinner and narrower than the standard long sword but strong just the same, never needing care or sharpening.
His birthright, his mother used to tell him. The sword, along with the ring on his left ring finger, was left with him when his mother found him alongside the road. Possibly fashioned from the same metal as the sword, a jeweler once told him, although said jeweler could not explain how the single rune was inscribed within the gem, also of unknown type.
His musings were costing him precious time. With a silent prayer to his patron for the deaths he caused, he pulled a sack from within his cloak. After removing Wheatstone's head, he placed it in the sack and whistled for Thorn, his horse. Aaron searched the bodies and gathered up the payroll and other evidence, and left the bodies for the carrion.
Aaron approached the city gates of Aithen after traveling for close to a week, the last two days in a rain storm. Since it was well past dusk the gates were closed and two sentries barred his way. Once the High City of a vast empire, Aithen was now the seat of a much smaller kingdom.
Built in three levels or tiers in the heart of the plains, Aithen has stood for centuries. A set of gates, the only entrance to the lower city, which was divided into quarters; Guild, Merchant, City and Central. The Guild Quarter housed the headquarters of the various Guilds of Aithen.
The Merchant Quarter housed the various shops, armories, mercantiles, and finer inns of the city. The City Quarter was the residential area of the main city, while the Central Quarter was home to the underbelly of the city; houses of ill repute, taprooms and bars, and black market enterprises of all differing sorts.
A short tunnel, gated at both ends gained access to the middle city, where the wealthier class lived and worked as well as the temples of the various Deities. Some smaller more affluent shops were mixed in as well. Another short tunnel, also gated at both ends led to the upper city, home of Aithen's wealthiest families both merchant and noble. And in the center of the upper city, within its own walls and gates, stood the palace, home of the King and family. The palace was the shining crown of the city, carved from giant rose quartz blocks, mined from vast deposits found in the neighboring mountains.
Large carved marble columns and beautiful gardens decorated the front. The main palace was home to the politics of running the kingdom. The private quarters in the rear, housed the royal family. "What business do you have at the city gates this hour of the evening?" the guard challenged him. Aaron showed him his royal papers of entry and the guard signaled for the gate to be opened. "Let him pass, he is on the King's business," the guard hollered up.
Turning to Aaron, "Milord, have a nice evening." Without replying, Aaron guided his horse up the cobblestoned streets toward the Merchant Quarter and the 'Golden Pony', the inn he currently called home.
Finding the stables, Aaron removed his saddle and belongings and began to rub down his horse. "Master Aaron, you have returned," announced Brian, the young son of the Innkeeper and current stable hand. "Yes, I am home Brian. Finish with Thorn and have the Blacksmith check his right front hoof in the morning -he is favoring it," replied Aaron. "Make sure he gets oats tonight, and an apple." "Yes sir, and sir, Mother has fresh bread and Venison tonight," the boy exclaimed.
Aaron ruffled his hair and left the barn toward the inn. Entering the side door to the kitchen, Aaron wiped his feet and breathed in the wondrous smells from the kitchen. "Wipe your feet, and did you remember the fire wood?" he heard.
"Yes ma'am, I wiped my feet, and I did not know about the wood," Aaron chuckled. "Lord Aaron, I am sorry, I thought it was Brian," Marie replied. "Now Marie, how many times do I have to ask you, not to call me Lord?" Aaron scolded. "Master Aaron, if you must, although I would prefer just Aaron." "I am glad you are back safe and sound, Master Aaron," Marie stated. "Dinner should be ready in half an hour; will you eat in the main hall or in your room?" "Hmm, in the main hall, after I get out of these wet clothes and washed up," Aaron answered.
Aaron left the kitchen, passing by the front desk toward his room on the first floor, at the end of the hall. "Welcome back, Master Aaron," Greeted the Innkeeper, Raymond. "I will see that Brian fetches your bath water." "Brian is in the stables, tending Thorn, I will carry the tub to my room if you will send the hot water, Raymond," Aaron replied.
"I will send it with Brianna and she can collect your traveling clothes," Raymond turned back to the main hall. Aaron, stopping to get the tub, carried it down to his room, balancing it to open the door. Setting the tub down, he began removing his clothes and things. First the cloak; an Elvish cloak given to him by his mother on the occasion of his admittance into the Order of Rangers.
The cloak provided him camouflage while he was stalking game in the woods or alleyways for that matter, as well as protection from the elements. After his occupational change he had it re-outfitted with numerous pockets and hidey-holes by an Elvish craftsman.
Next the sword belt; which held his treasured sword, dirk and a pair of daggers. The daggers were located in the small of his back in quick draw fashion.
The dirk was well-made, but nothing special; that could not be said about the sword. Next the leather jerkin, the main piece of armor, perhaps the only piece of armor a thief wears. It provided him a level of protection in combat, but a small level. Thieves in general try to avoid full on combat, better at sneaking and ambush. Next the dagger and sheath hidden in a sewn pocket at the back of his collared shirt.
All of his shirts had the same pocketed collar. Next the forearm bracers or simply bracers. Originally intended for archers to protect the inside of their forearms; in a sword fight they would protect the wrist and forearm from a hacking blow.
Next the rings; the signet ring worn on the left hand, the only adornment on the left hand. Two rings on the right: the first, found in a small treasure hoard during his adventuring days. Identified by a sorcerer as having magic, but type unknown, what Aaron knew however was that he felt better when wearing it.
The second ring was found in the back of an ancient tome. Aaron's passion for reading came from his mother, so whenever a book or tome crossed his path, he scooped it up.
This particular tome was again part of a treasure while adventuring, and it started him on his thieving path. A how-to book of thieving skills, engraining the information in the reader's brain, giving unbelievable skill and finesse.
The companioned ring, gave him better odds of successfully foiling traps and locks. Then off came his short right-hand glove and the longer full arm sleeve of his left hand-glove, exposing the bright pristine flesh of his left hand up to his elbow, where a red, ugly scar announced the transition back to normal flesh. His arms were a contrast of normal sun darkened, weather worn and callous; against baby soft, and untouched flesh. A reminder of the contrast within himself.
Continuing to strip out of the wet clothes, he removed his shirt and breeches, dropping them in a heap on the floor. Answering the knock at the door in just his loin cloth, he heard the intake of breathe, "It is just scars Brianna.
Nothing more." Wondering if she meant the arm or the crisscross marks of a whip over his back, a reminder of a time spent captive with Dark Elves.
"My apologies milord, I was just startled," she stuttered. Pouring the hot water in to the tub, he responded. "That is all right, I took no offense." Pointing to his clothes, "There are my clothes, and please keep the water coming." "Yes milord," she mumbled as she gathered the wet things and fled the room.
"By the Gods, his back," she thought. "Just scars indeed!" Aaron slowly lowered himself in to the water hissing as he became accustomed to the heat. "Ahh," he sighed. The process was repeated several times over until he felt whole again.
Dressing himself, including his weapons he made his way in to the main room for dinner.
The main room was bustling; a minstrel was strumming a lyre and singing a song about lost love. Aaron made his way toward his customary table, located in the back with good vision of all parts of the room. Brianna brought him dinner and a tankard of ale. Scanning the room for threats Aaron dispatched his meal with efficiency. Setting aside his plate he lit a pipe and leaned back to enjoy the after dinner smoke. He noted the entry of a young man, late teens, early twenties heading toward him, wearing the livery of the Merchants' Guild.
Aaron slowly dropped his left hand under the table to grasp his parrying dirk and eyed the youth who stood in front of him. "Lord Blackmoon," the youth began nervously, "I bear a message from His Grace, Lord Beadle." Handing the message to Aaron, the youth stepped back waiting patiently. Sighing, Aaron broke the seal and opened the letter.
"Council meeting, tomorrow morning four hours after sunrise," Aaron read, "Wow, that was fast, the Thieves' Guild sure earned their fee this evening." The Thieves' Guild was the intelligence arm of the council, and must have had watchers out awaiting his return. "Tell His Grace that I have an errand first thing in the morning, but I should be done in time for his meeting," Aaron responded, reaching into his pouch for a silver piece. "Here, this is for you." "Thank you, Lord Blackmoon, I will tell him," answered the teen as he turned and left.
Aaron finished his pipe and retired to his room, still pondering what he knew about the thefts, what he suspected and what he could prove.