The axe swept through the air in a glittering arc, splitting the log neatly in half and thudding into the chopping block beneath. Wrenching the blade free, Hulbard took a step backwards and rolled his shoulders. After so long idle, the exercise was a welcome change of pace, no matter how tedious it felt.
The chopping block sat in a patch of cleared dirt in front of The Hunter's Respite, as scarred and pitted from use as everything else around him. His shirt hung over a low wicker fence nearby, where a selection of cabbage, carrots and a few scraggly potatoes grew. None of them looked particularly healthy, but then again, the climate was ill suited to farming.
Backed up against a steep rock face that climbed into a towering, sharp edged peak, the inn was a fine example of Volyumenth workmanship, where a second story was usually considered more work than it was strictly worth. Grey smoke coiled from a chimney of teetering brown stone poking through the thatched roof overhead. The long, low building had been built from rough hewn logs and someone had even taken the initiative to build a crude porch around its entrance, likely years before from the look of it.
Skye sat on the rickety steps of the inn, elbow propped on one knee with her chin resting in her palm, idly gazing off into the distance. A heavy book lay open in her lap, though he hadn't seen her so much as glance at it since joining him ten minutes before. From the look of it, they were both just killing time. Realising he was staring and figuring he might as well make some sort of effort at conversation, Hulbard cleared his throat.
"Must be a good book" he said, gesturing towards it with the axe. His comment only prompted Skye to snort in a very unladylike way.
"I'm only here to get away from Quintus" she told him, "If I have to sit through one more lecture from him, I'm going to poison his next cup of tea".
"Sounds fair" Hulbard grinned, "Just make sure you use enough to finish him off if you want to do us all a favour, eh?"
That earned him a smirk at least. Wiping his brow with the back of his hand, Hulbard turned to survey the plateau below. The broad shelf of land was pockmarked with deep basins of steaming spring water, casting the entire area in deep mist. They were, if he had to guess, the only reason the inn hadn't already faded away into obscurity. Rumour had it that anyone bathing in the watering holes would not only be granted nine years of prosperity, but also be healed of all ailments. Hulbard wasn't sure if 'being an annoying bastard' could be considered a sickness, but if it was, Quintus hadn't been cured of it.
They were also the reason for the stifling humidity blanketing the area, despite the snow shrouded peak of stone skewering the sky overhead. Hulbard ran his gaze over a stand of trees to the east and, as if on cue, a lanky figure traipsed into view. Hares swung from one hand, while several fish swayed from a pole slung over his other shoulder. His footing was sure and smooth as he moved nimbly across the lichen and moss covered stone, winding between the pools.
"Knox is back" he commented.
Skye straightened up and craned her neck to peer over the inn's tiny farm, eyes lighting up with excitement as she saw what he was carrying.
"Ooooh" she cooed, "Looks like we'll be eating well tonight".
"We always do whenever we let him loose" Hulbard said, stooping to pick up the next gnarled log in line. He smoothly split another dozen of them before Knox reached them, loping up the gentle slope from the plateau with ease, movements smooth and loose.
"The mighty hunter returns" Skye called across the windswept patch of dirt with an eager grin.
"And bearin' gifts, no less" Knox hefted the hares, "Your favourite, Skye".
"Makes a nice change from gruel" she smirked.
"Is that what you call it?" the hunter shuddered, "I saw a beauty of a deer standin' out in the open as well, just waitin' for an arrow through the neck. Would have brought her down if I had any way of gettin' the carcass back here for butchering. If we're here much longer, I'll make up some sort of sled and start hauling some venison back for us".
"Won't hear me complaining about anything you bring back" Hulbard told him before burying his axe in the chopping block. "Venison sounds good but I'd rather we were moving on at this stage instead of getting more comfortable".
During their time at The Hunters Respite, Hulbard had fallen into several menial roles around the inn as a way to keep the costs of their rooms low, ranging from manhandling barrels of ale up from the cellar to chopping wood whenever it was needed. He couldn't complain about the labour, not when it helped keep the boredom at bay, even if it wasn't the kind of work he longed for. It had been a long time since they'd spent more than five days in any one place, and it hadn't taken long for him to start feeling cooped up.
Knox contributed in his own way, handing over the game he caught in the surrounding forests. In return, Gertrude cooked them dinner each night free of charge. A nice gesture, even if her talents in the kitchen left a lot to be desired.
"Speaking of movin' on" Knox said, "Any sign of Shanks?"
"Not yet" Hulbard lifted his shirt off the fence and dragged it on over his head, the fabric stretching tight across his chest and shoulders, "He'll show up when he shows up. Better have something good lined up for us".
"Eh, I'm not sure about that one" the hunter mused, thoughtfully running his tongue across his teeth, "Volyumenth aint known for all the coin it has to spare".
"He has a point" Skye chimed in, "I think we've seen more animals than people since getting into this province".
"Especially if we count Semekt" Knox grinned.
"If anyone can spin gold from air, it's Shankhill" Hulbard told them adamantly.
"Maybe" the other man muttered, though he sounded far from convinced.
"Well" Skye said cheerfully, clapping the book in her lap shut and rising, "I think I'll make myself scarce. If anyone asks, I'm gone to look at wildflowers or something".
"Oh really?" Hulbard arched an eyebrow, "And where are you really going?"
"Taking a dip" she smiled as she slid past, making for the plateau.
"Keep an eye out for bears" Knox told her, "They're liable to think you're food around these parts".
"Quintus wouldn't be that lucky" Skye called over her shoulder.
The chair creaked ominously under his bulk as Hulbard slumped back into it later that night. The meal he'd just devoured could scarcely have looked less appealing; hard potatoes, sliced carrots and a few strips of hare bathed in watery gravy. That hadn't stopped him digging into it with relish though. One of the first rules he'd learned on the road had been to take whatever comfort he could find, whenever it happened to come along. A hearty meal was just one such comfort he'd so regularly missed throughout the last few years. The mug of ale resting next to his now empty plate was another.
A fire crackled nearby, surrounded by a ridge of thick stone running the length of the inn to create a shallow pit. Despite the springs outside, the nights in the area were still bitterly cold and he was glad for the warmth it provided. Rain, or perhaps hail, hammered against the thatching overhead, while the wind rattled the walls all around them. A net of skewers had been arranged over the flames, several supporting copper pots and tin pans, while more utensils, game and herbs had been hung around the pit within easy reach. Gertrude, the inn's elderly owner, sat behind a chipped counter at one end of the building, busying herself with a ledger.
A lantern dangled over their table, holding the rooms' natural gloom at bay. There were no other travellers at the inn, but Hulbard knew that even if there had been, their little group would have stood out no matter what. They usually did, after all.
Hulbard looked like a walking battering ram and had lived up to that image for most of his life. Standing six and a half feet tall, he had a broad chest to match his build and thick shoulders of corded muscle. Scars criss crossed his heavy body in a variety of forms, from jagged tears to neat white ridges left behind by passing blades, but he'd somehow managed to keep most weapons away from his face. The sole exception was a notch missing from the left side of his thick jaw that his scruffy beard refused to cover.
His heavy features were framed by a mane of thick dreadlocks, a fashion from the far north he'd adopted years before. His deep brown hair was gathered into a knot at the base of his neck, but continued to fall between his wide shoulder blades. Despite his hard bitten features, he still looked younger than his thirty four years.
Almost as tall but not quite, Knox was all lean muscle and sinew. If Hulbard was an ox, here was the wolf. His jet black, shoulder length hair was greying at the temples, hung around a fine boned face of sharp and feral features. The hunters' lips were drawn into a grim frown, though his slate blue eyes were bright in the gloom, despite the mug of ale he'd already quaffed over dinner.
Then there was Skye, their opposite in almost every way. Honey blonde hair fell to her shoulders, highlighting a face of petite, girlish features. A button nose sat between two sapphire blue eyes, only emphasising her youth. That alone would have been enough to set her apart from her companions, even before her skills were taken into consideration. The same thick book she'd been humouring earlier sat on the table in front of her now, open to the exact same page.
Instead of reading its contents, she was staring off into thin air as she munched loudly on an apple. Even after the meal they'd just eaten, Skye seemed content to keep snacking on anything close to hand, in contrast to her extremely slender figure. While Hulbard considered his appetite close to legendary, she'd still polished off her plate before him. Her Master, Quintus, was slumped nearby in the deeper shadows of the inn, head leaning forward and long fingers linked over his gut as he dozed.
Where Skye's initiate robes were a plain shade of brown, he wore a cloak of deep, faded crimson with gold trim around its edges. Beneath, he wore a boiled leather jerkin over his long sleeved shirt, alongside a dull pair of roughly stitched pants and travel worn leather boots. While his scruffy, silver hair was short, his beard had been cultivated into a lengthy strip under his chin that hung down to his stomach, held in check by a dozen metal clasps. A beaten leather belt hung loose at his waist, laden with vials both empty and full, alongside a variety of pouches and other small implements.
His staff leaned against the wall behind him; a gnarled length of ash wood with the head of a glaive crudely bolted just under its tip to sweep out past it. The tip itself had a dull, cracked sapphire gem wedged into it, roughly resembling a point in shape. To hear Quintus speak of the staff, it was almost as valuable as the armour Hulbard wore into battle, though he very much doubted it.
Then there was the most unusual addition to their team, or at the very least the most inhuman; Semekt. The creature curled up close to the fire pit resembled nothing more than an overgrown serpent with tiny, jet black scales. His distinctly snake like head bore a short, broad muzzle and large, perfectly circular eyes, all supported by a thick neck of rigid muscle. Behind those orbs sat a ridge of white spikes acting as a crown of bone to protect the back of his neck.
His lean muscular build continued down to Semekt's first set of shoulder blades, which supported two long, slender arms. His second set of shoulder blades sprouted from his ribcage midway down his lengthy torso to create four limbs in total. From what could loosely be called his 'waist' down though, their companion was entirely serpentine.
In total, Semekt easily measured fourteen feet in length from the tip of his stubby muzzle to the end of his tail, though he typically stood at half that height when he reared upright. A thicker ridge of dark grey plates protected his spine, running from between his upper shoulder blades to the tip of his long tail. He was sprawled to one side of the flames in looping coils, basking in its warmth. The Dramaskian's glassy, emerald green eyes stared into nothingness; Hulbard could only assume he was asleep, but it was hard to tell sometimes when Semekt didn't have eyelids. A strange companion, to be sure, but one that had proven his worth a thousand times over since falling in with them.
All in all, Hulbard mused, they were a hard group to miss no matter where they went, even without the other two members that made up their little band of heroes and villains. That fact alone had often played to their disadvantage in the past, now that he considered it. He was dragged out of his reverie by a sudden clap of thunder overhead and the walls rattled anew with a fresh gale from the east. Boring or not, he was glad for The Hunters Respite just then. He'd already spent too many nights huddled under whatever meagre shelter he could find and didn't fancy the idea of doing it again anytime soon, no matter how much he longed to leave the inn behind.
Hulbard had just lifted the mug of ale to his lips when the nearby door flew open, clattering against its hinges. Quintus jerked awake as Semekt's eyes swivelled in his skull, all turning to see Shankhill stagger into The Hunters Respite. A gust of bitterly cold wind came with him, the darkness beyond the portal absolute.
Rain cascaded from his thick leather cloak as Shankhill paused with a breathless wheeze, entire body slumped with exhaustion. He looked around the room for a long second, taking in the entire scene from beneath a deep hood.
"Friends!" he threw his arms wide, whipping droplets in every direction, "It warms my heart to see yo-"
"Shut the door" Knox barked, interrupting their joyful reunion.
"And stop dripping all over my floor" Gertrude added loudly.
Shankhill did as he was told, swinging the heavy slab of wood shut behind him and sliding the locking bolt home to reduce the howling wind to a dull roar.
"Ever the eventful entrance" Quintus grunted in his surprisingly deep voice.
"Always" Shankhill laughed, sweeping the cloak from his shoulders in one smooth motion and draping it over a hook above the fire, "Seems I can't go anywhere without leaving an impression. I certainly did out there at any rate".
Beneath the cloak, he wore a figure hugging, black doublet over a long sleeved wool shirt of the same shade. Dark grey pants complimented the trim outfit, alongside Shankhill's pride and joy; a pair of knee high, oiled leather boots with flashy metal buckles. They were caked in muck, though Hulbard doubted they would stay that way for long. A longsword hung by his left hip in a scuffed scabbard.
"Had an adventure without us, did you?" he asked as Shankhill stepped over Semekt's tail, his teeth gleaming just as brightly in the firelight as his eyes.
"Oh, more than one" the smaller man said, speaking quick and smooth, "Rest assured though, my valued companions, nothing that will overshadow our great deeds yet to come. They were more...misadventures, anyway. Before I get into that, however, do you mind?"
He gestured to Hulbard's tankard and before he could stop him, Shankhill snatched it up off the table and threw back a deep mouthful of the ale.
"Help yourself" the warrior heaved a sigh into the words.
Gasping loudly, Shankhill slapped the tankard back down onto the table, wiped his scraggly black goatee on the back of his hand and ran his fingers through his long black hair, raking it back from his handsome features. He shrugged off his pack and let it thump to the floor at their feet with a rattle.
"Misadventures, you say" Quintus prompted.
"A miller's wife, to be exact" Shankhill told them, his hands already gesturing this way and that as he spoke, "Though by no means as beautiful as our dear Skye, we must all drink from whatever oasis we find, right? And be thankful for the opportunity. It was only a shame that her husband decided to come home partway through our lovely encounter. My escape from that situation alone is worthy of a song, even if the events beforehand weren't, but I think we'll omit it from the sagas they'll still be singing about us a thousand years from now, eh?"
"Likely for the best" Hulbard said with a rueful twist to his lips.
"And where is our bone faced fuzzball?" Shankhill made a show of surveying the room, "I don't see him skulking around here anywhere. Perhaps he's taken to the rafters and I've just missed him?"
"Outside, last I saw him" Knox said.
"Sacrificing rabbits and howling at the moon, no doubt" Shankhill waved the thought away, "He'll come back whenever he feels like it. Very much like a stray dog. But for now, let's get to what we've all been so patiently waiting for".
Reaching down into his bag, he pulled free a scroll and unfurled it with a flourish. Skye shut her book and slid it into her lap, leaning close as the others gathered up their plates, giving Shankhill enough room to spread the parchment out between them on the scarred, stained wood. Quintus unhooked the lantern overhead, bringing to close to reveal a crudely drawn map.
"Art was never your strong point, was it?" Skye commented, cocking her head from one side to the other in an effort to make sense of the charcoal sketch.
"Hush, girl" Quintus muttered almost habitually.
"No, no" Shankhill held up his hands, as if for peace between a warring couple, "She has a point and alas, dear Skye is right. I've never been much of an artist and while her keen observation has cut me to my core, I will remind her that it wasn't my artistic skills the miller's wife was interested in".
He treated her to one of his most charming smiles before dramatically lifting a single finger and lowering it to the map. Hulbard leaned closer to look at Shankhill's scribbled representation of Volyumenth; as rough a patch of land as any he'd ever seen covered in thick swathes of trees and rolling hills. Thicker lines denoted trees, where wavy ones signified hills and mountains.
The entire province was a slice of land, possibly the smallest still under human dominion and one of the furthest from anyplace of importance. It was such a backwater territory that it was ruled over by a Warden rather than any official form of nobility, a token title offered to those few individuals charged with protecting their borders. The capital city, Halmstead, sat near its eastern edge, depicted as a hastily drawn tower.
"We're here" he pointed to an 'X' on the very edge of his map, "Now, it wasn't easy but I did some poking around and think I found one or two rumours worth looking into".
Shankhill's voice was smooth, confident and sweet as honey while he began to trace a route across the map.
"There's a quaint little town somewhere around here called Karensford. Charming little place from what I heard, before a group of bandits moved into the area about two months ago and started making things difficult for everyone. I can't be certain, but they sound like deserters from Akarthus. Seems like they decided to march into town, rob the only general store, terrorise everyone and leave'.
"A right bunch of assholes, then" Knox muttered but Shankhill paid the comment no heed.
'They've been haunting the place ever since and, as you can imagine, the townspeople are offering a hefty little bounty to get them put in the dirt. The shop keeper is also offering a little extra for the return of a brass and ruby broach they took that he is sentimentally attached to. So! If these gentlemen still have it, returning it should help the overall reward. From what I can make out, the good Warden also issued some sort of bounty on their heads as well".
"Do the world a favour and get paid for the pleasure by multiple people?" Knox mused, "Been a while since we had something this straightforward, eh? Sounds good to me".
"Any idea where they're hiding out?" Hulbard asked, drumming his fingers against the side of his tankard.
"Not yet" Shankhill replied easily, "We'll stop in Karensford and I'll have a talk with this store keeper. See what sort of landmarks are in the area where they could be holed up".
"How many?" Quintus asked.
"Can't say for certain" Shankhill smiled disarmingly, "If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say a handful at worst. Deserters aren't known for sticking together once they abandon their colours. My informants in this place are not many, nor easy to get in touch with. So, bearing that in mind, I can't say the exact figure we might make off of this little venture, but even if these townsfolk prove less than forthcoming with a few coins, I'm sure Eirik will be happy to show his appreciation once we get to Halmstead and let him know about the little favour we did him".
He paused in his carefully prepared speech, giving each of them a chance to ask any other questions they had. When no one spoke, Shankhill continued without missing a beat, his fingertip winding further east across the parchment as his other hand began to gesture again.
"There's a farming community around this area kicking up a fuss because a few of their animals have been misplaced. Seems they're superstitious and think there's some sort of world ending catastrophe on its way".
"The joys of Volyumenth" Hulbard chuckled, "Where everyone's a primitive".
"The way I see it" Shankhill flashed his hungry smirk, "We arrive on their doorstep, make a show of driving off a few wolves, a mountain lion or whatever else is occupying the hills out there, collect a tidy reward for our time and be on our way. After that, it's a short trek to The Fissure. That's a trading outpost so I'm hoping to run into someone who can take us further in comfort. Any trading caravans passing through there are either getting out of this forsaken place or bound for Halmstead".
Taking a step backwards, he clapped his hands loudly and rubbed them together.
"All adventure and excitement" he beamed, "With plenty of prospects for coin along the way".
"That's it?" Hulbard asked skeptically, scratching at his jaw.
"There was one or two other people crying for help along the way" Shankhill gave an elaborate shrug of his slender shoulders, "But they were either too far removed from our route or too poor to be worth our time".
"Slim pickings then" Knox hummed, licking his teeth noisily.
"It is if we actually want to be paid for our talents. Warm sentiments and hugs aren't worth much when you're hungry".
"You're all heart" Skye pursed her lips.
"Well, there was a caravan leader willing to pay a pittance for a few extra blades" Shankhill told the table with a sigh of resignation, "Could have signed us up for that fun little trip. They were heading into the western passes, by the way. You know that place that's rife with rumours about cannibalistic cultists and ravenous Vrakenbears? I don't personally fancy their chances with or without us to be perfectly honest so I decided to give that one a miss but there's plenty of smaller jobs to keep us busy if need be".
"Probably for the best" Quintus said, eyeing Skye wearily.
"Then it's decided" Shankhill slumped into a chair, "We leave at first light". Lifting a hand, he snapped his fingers towards the far end of the inn.
"My good lady" he called, "A mug of whatever piss water passes for ale around these parts, if you please".
The table lapsed into silence; Knox drew a hunting knife and set about cleaning under his blood stained fingernails with it, Quintus settled back into the shadows to stare pensively at the map and Skye returned to chomping loudly on her apple. Semekt, for his part, heaved a heavy sigh and seemed to return to sleep, briefly reminding Hulbard of a dog.
The days ahead would likely involve long hours spent trudging across tough terrain, but the way he saw it, anything was better than spending that time idle in The Hunters Respite. The work Shankhill had chosen for them sounded the same as it had always been; just enough to earn them the coin needed to get them to their next 'adventure'. Not the word Hulbard would have chosen for the tasks ahead of them, but he and Shankhill had always disagreed on that detail in the past. He doubted their days spent hunting down deserters for coin would make it into many of the sagas, but then again, few bounty hunters ever asked for such things.
They only ever sought payment and even that notion left Hulbard feeling somewhat sceptical; Volyumenth was known for little besides its colossal financial ruination and none of them thought those living within its blighted borders would have much coin to spare for simple tasks. As it stood, the only legends circulating about the province involved its centuries long fall from grace and they all tended to be cautionary tales. Hulbard doubted their time there would change that too much.
They would meet the Warden, Eirik, see what he could offer them and then be on their way as quickly as possible. He could only hope the road ahead led to somewhere warmer.