Over the regular noise of the tavern, a discordant sound breaks through. A hush falls over the crowd, as the halfling bard tunes his lyre. A few more strums to test it, and with a nod of his head, he stands as tall as he can muster atop his table and begins to play.

“Listen my friends, to a tale for the bards
Of our hero Cade and his bodyguards...”

An empty tankard flies through the air and smashes at his feet. Cade looks up to see a dwarven paladin glowering at him, another tankard already prepared to be thrown.

“Fine... fine.” The halfling lowers his lyre, and plucks the strings idly, picking out a gentle melody. Under his breath he mutters, “Bloody hells, everyone is a critic.”

Clearing his throat, he raised his voice, using his experience from years in the circus to augment his normally quiet voice. His fingers continue to strum softly, as if his hands had a mind of their own. The music fills the air, combining with his words. every ear in the tavern bends in his direction.

“Ahem. Our story begins, in a tavern. Then again, don't all the good stories begin in a tavern?”

A smattering of cheers and clinking glasses raise into the quiet void left by his sudden silence. The corners of his lips turned up in a self-satisfied grin, as the lyre once more fills the air with a low tuneless ambiance.

“It was a tavern much like this one, although I forget the name. Would there be any objections to calling it 'The Drunken Ass'?“ He looks over at the angry dwarf, but the dwarf was once more lost in a tankard of ale. “Very well. The Drunken Ass was mildly busy that third-day. It was not quite dusk, and I had just started into one of the epic tales of the daring exploits of Cade Goblinsfoe, a particularly interesting halfling hero, known to have fought off an entire army of goblins single...”

Another tankard smashes into the table next to him, this one not quite as empty, soaking his feet in watered-down ale. A grinning elvish rogue standing nearby, points at her daggers, the implications very clear. “Fine! Abyss take you, you damned harpy.”

“Anyway, there I was, playing for my meals, when in strode a giant of a man, his dark cloak bustled as he hurried to the bar. This was a man on a mission, and he would let nothing stand between him and his goals. With naught but a quick gesture to the barkeep, he was directed to the upstairs rooms. As he hustled up the stairs, the barkeep provided a fresh round of drinks to all takers, ostensibly paid for by the mysterious new guest. Slowly, the man's disruption was all but forgotten as a heavy haze of alcoholic bliss settled over the patrons, aided ever so greatly by the expert story-telling of an ever-so-humble bard. Once everyone that was going to partake, partook of the offered beverages, and their fears were quashed beneath a deluge of ale, the barkeep sought the attention of the assembled drunks and weary adventurers. Once I had helped the barkeep gain their bleary-eyed attention, the call went out seeking adventurers.

“Now I'm sure it goes without saying, but being the intrepid adventurer I am, I jumped from the table, eager to volunteer my services. I was already up the stairs, and people were still struggling to find their feet to take that first step. As the first followers started to make their way up the stairs, it seemed that this shadowy man had a foolproof plan to weed out those not fit for whatever mysterious journey he had planned. He implemented a complex process of walking up, and then very shortly thereafter down the stairs, and miraculously several lesser individuals gave up on the whole ordeal. By the time all was said and done, and we finally gathered in the courtyard, only 5 of us were left. A dashingly handsome bard... and 4 others who are of little consequence...”

Four tankards simultaneously smash into the table at his feet. Two dwarves, and two elves glare daggers at him. Several serving wenches rush to provide the group fresh tankards of ales, as Cade kicks the shards of porcelain off his table.

“Would the lot of you let me tell my story? I suppose I owe you something of an apology. For a bard I am horrible with names, and I can't remember yours. To be fair, though... a lot of you tall folk look the same, and how can one tell dwarves apart? Those beards obscure their faces... I'll tell you what, talk to me at the end of the night, we can fix this little oversight for next time? For now, I am sure Caelynn would appreciate if you would stop breaking her tankards. Besides, I promised these fine patrons an epic story, and I would hate to disappoint. Can I continue?”

He waits for the begrudging nods from his four companions, then begins playing a more foreboding tune. Even though nothing had changed, it feels as though the lights had dimmed. The already silent audience seem to get even quieter.

“Now where was I?” A brief pause, as if he needed to think, then he favors the crowd with another smile, and resumes his tale. “Ah yes. There we were, assembled in the courtyard, staring at this shadow man. We learned that his name was Mograine, and although we did not know it then, he was a grumpy old paladin of some skill. He had been sent to The Drunken Ass by the mayor of Longsaddle, to recruit a team of adventurers with attitude. He favored us all with a look that was a mix od pure disdain, sprinkled with a smattering of resignation. Until his eyes fell upon me. Seeing such a world-renowned bard among the crew, he nodded and we ventured forth to the giant government building at the center of town. Where we got to meet the man who was hiring us, Sir Ardanac Harpell.”

Cade lowers his voice and favors his audience with a conspiratorial grin. “To be completely honest here, I don't think he actually earned the title of sir. It seems like the proper thing to call a mayor, though. Besides, he was offering me 10 gold, for that I'd call him daddy if he so desired.”

“Ardanac told us of a small town far to the north, that had been overrun by barbarians. He could not spare any from the town's guard to help, so he hired us out as a small mercenary force to take back this town. No reason was asked, no reason was given. Ten gold was offered, and the greedy lot of us took him up on the offer with barely a moment's hesitation. Nine Hells, I offered to go by myself, but he insisted I should take some bodyguards to keep me company. It's good to know he cared about my well-being, I suppose.

“He dismissed us, and Mograine gave us all a small advance on our salary. We were told to finish up whatever business we had in town with all due haste, for within the hour we would be setting off north, and he would do so with or without us. We were supplied with fresh horses, some moderate provisions, and a cranky paladin to ruin what could have been a fun trip. Seriously, I have no idea what crawled up Mograine's arse and died, but it had to be at least the size of a bugbear...”

He pauses to take a drink from his ale, and spits out a shard of porcelain. “Caelynn, dear... could I have a fresh pint? My friends seem to have filled mine with shattered tankards. And shredding my throat does not seem to be a good way to end the story. Thank you.”

“The road favored us with almost preternaturally perfect weather, and we made good time. To keep the mood light, I sang some of my favorite songs much to the delight of my traveling companions, and offered to pick up some bagpipes should we find a suitable village. I even tried to pick out some of their native tunes on my lyre, but it turns out dwarven music sounds like utter shite on the lyre. The elven music didn't sound so bad, though. I believe it was on the first night, that we noticed problems. One of my appointed watch-elves heard a rustling at our horse line. When she got to the line however, there was nothing there. I suppose I could have asked the horses what had disturbed them, but my bodyguards knew it was best not to wake me, and by the time we were ready to set out, it barely seemed pertinent.

“Another day and night passed with no incident. I continued playing some melodies, singing a tune or two to make the rather uneventful trip more bearable. It was as we were setting up camp on the third or fourth day that the goblins appeared. The pair seemed young, perhaps brother and sister, and by the visible ribs it was obvious they were beyond hungry. They would have to be practically starving to risk being spotted by such a large group of adventurers. One of my companions was startled by the presence of the little rascals, and in a knee jerk reaction threw her dagger practically through the young lass' head. I won't lie, we all got caught up in a bit of battle lust, and we may have said and done some regrettable things. With minimal effort though, we managed to bring down her brother without much bloodshed. We bound him, and with a little bit of gentle music, I managed to calm him down to the point we could question him. How utterly convenient that we had someone among us that could speak goblin, right? Unfortunately our interrogation was not to be long-lived, for no sooner had we begun to question him when the Captain of Grumps decided it best to decapitate our prisoner with a single swift strike of his blade... I do not think words can accurately portray my dislike of that man. He was grumpy, and ill-tempered, and he didn't even want to join in when I started playing some famous tavern songs. Who doesn't like a good tavern song?

“We traveled several more days, still favored by good weather, our spirits only slightly dampened by Mograine's brutality and general unpleasantness.. At one point a few of my companions ran off to chase after some arguing voices they heard in the distance. I did not follow along, because frankly I do not believe that settling petty arguments is really within the duties of a proper adventurer. When my companions returned, they had little to say about their brief excursion. It seemed to have been a wasted trip, and only succeeded in slowing us down, much to the dismay of Mograine.

“Our rations began to run thin. Tensions rose among our small little band. Even my jaunty little tunes did little to ease the growing hostilities. More than once one of my companions snapped and told me to stop playing. Can you believe such nonsense?

“Suddenly the path ahead of us showed evidence of recent activity. Three sets of footprints not even an hour old lay before us. Two sets were large, obviously male, one was slightly smaller, perhaps a child or a woman. The question was answered as we rounded a bend. Standing on the road before us, we saw a hulking barbarian, a slightly smaller barbarian, and a rather imposing looking lady barbarian.

“Their stances spoke volumes about their intent for violence. As ny companions tried to figure out how best to deal with them, I spoke up, and with but a few friendly words, and some playful banter, I had almost cajoled them to our side. My efforts again were for naught as, low and behold, The Cranky Paladin once more sabotaged my efforts at a peaceful resolution. In place of the tenuous peace I had been brokering, a mighty battle raged.

“We fought for our lives, as Mograine stood off to the side, clapping his hands and laughing. We were forced to kill two of the barbarians, and severely wound their leader. Once more we captured one member of their little war band alive, and we attempted to question them. Our hot-headed elf smacked the leader so hard, that Mograine actually stepped in and healed the leader. The momentary shock of Mograine doing something that almost bordered on kind, left us all speechless. I recovered first, and once more, it fell onto me to disarm a volatile situation. Within minutes, we had struck up a good rapport. The barbarian leader had told us of some other barbarian tribes that had turned against their chiefs, and become increasingly violent, causing some sort of civil war among the tribes. I apologized profusely for killing his companions. It was all very cathartic, I assure you. I almost cried.

“As a gesture of good will, I freed the leader of this raiding party, bidding him to return to his chief, and offer them sanctuary at our destination, the town of Stonehearth. The leader offered me up some sort of clan sigil, and showed us to a secret path through the Lurkwood. We thanked him for his help, and dashed off down the path.”

If it was possible the music descended into an even darker tone. The blazing lanterns in the tavern seemed to all wink out, even the fire in the hearth seemed to go out.

“The woods were dark, and time seemed to play us for fools as we made our way. Our horses were frightened, and fought against our gentle coaxing. We fought hard to keep them on track, and we managed to make our way to a cave. This cave did not seem like a hospitable spot, with the entrance littered in the bones, of innumerable creatures. We had just decided to pass up this cave of death, when we were set upon by a large hunting party of bloody kobolds!”

“They were gnolls, you spoony bard!” A voice shouted out from the crowd.

“Ah yes. The bloody things are very similar, you know, it is an easy mistake. They caught us by surprise, and managed to get in a few good licks. Not desiring to stay and fight all days, I saved my cowering companions. In a mighty display of my fearlessness, I stood tall upon my horse, drew my quarterstaff, and leapt into the fray, smashing one of the gnoll's heads in with a single strike. It was short order before I dispatched the lot of them with my quarterstaff. Not wanting to stick around in the woods, we ran on... and as the woods opened up into a clearing, there lie Stonehearth...

“And our destination was under attack! “

A bell rings in the distance. Cade stops, and looks out into the night. “Ah, sadly it is midnight, lads and lasses... we shall have to continue the story another day. Please, any copper you can spare would be greatly appreciated. My friends have several tankards they need to replace, and I would like to be able to afford a room without bedbugs for a change. I'll be back tomorrow to tell you of my exploits in taking back Stonehearth.”

With a dramatic bow, Cade jumps off the table, grabs his cloak, scoops up whatever copper was at his feet, and heads off in search of lodging for the night.


---End Part One---