I’ve decided to embrace the ASOIAF format.
“Be it so known that the bearer of this charter has been charged by the Swordlords of Restov, acting upon the greater good and authority vested within them by the office of the Regent of the Dragonscale Throne, has granted the right of exploration and travel within the wilderness region known as the Greenbelt. Exploration should be limited to an area no further than thirty-six miles east and west and sixty miles south of Oleg’s Trading Post. The carrier of this charter should also strive against banditry and other unlawful behavior to be encountered. The punishment for unrepentant banditry remains, as always, execution by sword or rope. So witnessed on this 24th day of Calistril, under watchful eye of the Lordship of Restov and authority granted by Lord Noleski Surtova, current Regent of the Dragonscale Throne.”
Siv couldn’t help but be a little annoyed as she read the charter. As if she needed the piece of paper to return to her home. The idea of applying for permission to settle the land had offended her at first. But Restov seemed determined to take the Stolen Lands, and she feared for the future of the wild places if they did not have an advocate among the ranks of the settlers. She also knew driving off the bandits who had come to infest the Narlmarches would take more than herself and Barry.
Still, she was surprised the Sword Lords had selected her at all. It must have been her knowledge of the greenbelt that tipped the balance in her favor. She may have exaggerated just a bit as to exactly what she remembered. No one had specifically asked her how many years since or old she was when she last resided there. It wasn’t strictly a lie, and humans never could guess her age correctly anyway.
Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a girl holding a charter identical to hers. The girl wore a hood that covered her ears, but from her slender wiry build Siv could see she was a half-elf.“I believe we are looking for each other.” Siv said while holding her own charter up for the girl to see.
As she approached, Siv guessed the girl to be in her early twenties, though most humans likely mistook her for 15 or 16. She had deep, dark blue eyes that revealed an experience and sadness that most so young do not endure.
The girl spoke as she lowered her hood. “I’m Asta. It’s…good to meet you.”
It was obvious to Siv that Asta did not frequently engage in conversations. She could make out a faint glow emanating from behind Asta’s long reddish-blonde hair.
“I’m Sivileana, you can just call me Siv. Do you know how many others we are waiting on? They didn’t even tell me how many of us were being sent into the Greenbelt.”
“Four.” The voice came from a man who was standing behind her. She turned to see a human with long black hair and blue eyes. He was dressed in leather armor and carried a sword at his side. She guessed him to also be in his early twenties. He bowed formally to both her and Asta and introduced himself as Meric Thorn. He carried himself like a noble, his speech and mannerisms seemed too formal for an adventurer. She wondered if he had earned his place in the party by way of merit, or a rich father.
“Where is our fourth then?” Siv was anxious to get on the road, and she didn’t like leaving Barry alone outside the city for so long.
“He is on his way. I met him earlier, a paladin of Kord. He seemed….eager. And tenacious.” Meric seemed to have chosen his words quite diplomatically.
Siv restrained herself from showing outward frustration. The thought of a paladin droning on and on about his deity wearied her. The gods could be relied on for one thing, not showing up when you need them. She hoped this paladin was the rare kind who had taken a vow of silence.
Meric spoke again “There is our friend now.” He raised his voice a bit to catch the paladin’s attention “Dante.”
Siv nearly lost it. This one couldn’t be 18 yet. He was a tall lad, 6’ 2” built thick with short brown hair. She couldn’t help but wonder what this child could possibly have done to impress the Sword Lords enough to warrant granting him a charter. He approached with a smile that reached from ear to ear.
“Friends! Are you prepared to purify the stolen lands of evil? Kord smiles upon our noble quest!”
Siv turned away and rolled her eyes. This was going to be a long walk.
Dante could not recall being this excited in his entire life. He tried to maintain a serious demeanor as his new companions were, but he couldn’t help but smile. Traveling with a group of heroes to test his might against those who prey upon the innocent had been his dream since he was a small boy.
He found himself slightly envious of Meric, who was the only one of the group who had a horse. He thought it spoke well of the man that he had chosen to walk and lead his horse, rather than riding easily while the others were forced to travel on foot.
He definitely needed a horse. It’s just something that a proper paladin had. He wished he had the money to buy one before setting off, but all he had went into the materials for his armor and weapon. He had only a few coins to his name. Had he not been a blacksmith and able to make them himself, he would not have been able to afford even that. The scalemail had turned out well, but it wasn’t the gleaming plate he had always pictured himself wearing when he thought about heading off on adventures.
As they continued to walk, Siv raised her hands to her mouth and made an unusual animal sound. From the trees nearby, a smaller sized bear emerged and began running towards the group. Dante immediately reached for his warhammer, and prepared to defend his new friends.
“Easy there Dante.” He felt Meric’s hand on his shoulder. Dante turned to face him. “She’s a druid, while she’s around most animals are friendly.”
Sure enough as he turned back around, Dante could see Siv embrace the bear and pet him lovingly.
“This is Barry. He’ll be joining us.” Siv’s calmness eased Dante’s nerves.
“Heh, Barry. You named the bear Barry. That’s funny.” Dante could see Siv’s eyes narrow as she looked at him. She sighed, stood and continued walking.Asta spoke up for the first time since Dante had arrived “This is probably a good time for me to go get another companion we will have along for the journey…please don’t be startled when you see him. Keep going, I’ll catch up.”
With that Asta headed off into the nearby forest. Dante was confused. What’s more startling than a bear? Meric seemed to know the others better than he did. “Is she a druid also?”
“I don’t think so. I’m not sure what she can do to be perfectly honest.” Meric seemed every bit as curious as Dante was.
They continued traveling for several minutes before hearing Asta call to them. Dante turned, and saw something far more startling than a bear. Asta strode up to the group with a white sabertooth tiger at her side. The beast was enormous. Dante swallowed hard as it walked right in front of him. He had seen pictures of them, but he never imagined them to be so large. This animal could rend a man in two with little difficulty. Asta began scratching the fur between it’s ears.
“This is Skydd. He’s sort of my body guard. Don’t worry, he won’t hurt anyone unless I tell him to.”
Dante noticed Asta’s face turn to one of sudden concern.
“I mean…I wouldn’t tell him to hurt any of you. I’d only tell him to attack enemies. Like the bandits we are after.“
She looked mortified. It didn’t seem like she was good at talking to people. Dante tried to think of something funny to say to break the tension of the moment, but Meric beat him to it.
“I doubt he’ll have to hurt anyone, one look at him and the bandits with soil themselves and flee the Greenbelt forever. Don’t worry Asta, we trust you know what you’re doing. Now let’s get moving, the journey ahead is long.” Meric’s manner was warm and Asta seemed to relax.
Already in just a half a day’s walk, they were further west of Restov than Dante had ever been. He knew they would follow the road west for a couple of days, but didn’t know their exact destination. “Where exactly are we headed first Meric?”
“A trading post just north of the Greenbelt. It’s owned by a fur trader named Oleg. We can get a room for the night before heading into the wilderness and inquire for any information on bandit activity. With luck, in just a few weeks we can secure and map the area. Then Restov will approve funds for a colonization effort.” Meric seemed to have the entire thing planned out. Dante was glad somebody did.
Asta would not have pegged the building in front of her as a trading post. It had clearly been a fort at one time. Ten foot high wooden palisade walls, with four fifteen foot towers rising from its corners. It was late in the evening and she was exhausted. She hoped its beds were more inviting then its exterior.
Oleg’s wife Svetlana was very welcoming. She had prepared a stew and freshly baked bread for them. She also opened a bottle of wine. Oleg himself seemed preoccupied with fixing a small hole in the roof. Asta suspected he was just trying to look busy. As the group sat down to eat, Oleg made his way down the ladder and approached the group.
“So you’re the ones who are going to solve our bandit problem?” Oleg was sweaty and gruff.
Asta would normally wait for others to reply, but Dante already had a mouth full of stew, and Meric and Siv seemed to be considering his words for a tad too long.
Asta spoke up “Have the bandits caused you trouble here?”
Oleg’s expression changed to one of barely constrained rage. Profanity began spewing from his mouth with no coherent structure as he threw his hands up in the air. Svetlana seemed embarrassed by her husband’s display, and quickly interjected.
“So you weren’t sent to defend the trading post from the bandits? We sent letters to Restov weeks ago and they finally replied that they were sending someone to protect us.”
Meric replied. “We have been sent to fight banditry where ever we find it. We were just unaware that you had been harassed by them. Certainly we will aid you.”Svetlana breathed a huge sigh of relief. She began recounting the circumstances of the bandit’s initial shakedowns. They first visited three months ago—they threatened to burn down the trading post and abduct Svetlana for their own amusements back at their camp if the Levetons didn’t agree to hand over all of the furs and trade goods they’d accumulated over the past month. Asta could clearly see fear in the woman’s eyes. The helpless feeling one gets when they are being encircled by predators. A rage burned inside her.
“Since then, the bandits have returned twice more, each time within an hour of sunrise on the first day of the month.” Svetlana explained.
The group met eyes simultaneously. The bandits would arrive in just a few hours. Dante’s expression went serious. He spoke with a conviction that surprised Asta. “We won’t let them hurt you again Svetlana. I promise you they will pay for what they’ve done.”
The plan fell together quickly. Oleg suggested the group hide in the stables and wait until the bandits begin loading the fur onto their horses before launching a surprise attack. Everyone except Dante agreed with the plan. He insisted on facing them head on. Ultimately, the group relented and agreed that he could stay in the building to distract the bandits, while the others hit them from behind.
Asta was tense as they sat peering out from the cracks in the boards at the stable. And when she was tense, Skydd was tense. He paced back and forth peering out in the same direction as Asta, as if impatiently waiting for the threat to manifest. Asta looked over to see Barry was not so tense. He was on his back, pawing at Siv’s leg, trying to get her attention. Siv was trying to focus, but eventually relented and began to rub Barry’s belly. His leg began to kick like a dog’s. It was a sad reminder of what Skydd wasn’t. In all her years of traveling with him, he had never shown any personal wants or needs. His only purpose seemed to be the protection of Asta. Even when he would come close to be pet, Asta could tell he was doing it for her benefit, not his own. She knew he wasn’t a regular animal, but it made her feel even more isolated that her only real companion through the years didn’t need her the same way she needed him.
Skydd began to let out a low growl. The group looked and saw five men on horseback approaching the trading post. Their bandits had arrived right on schedule. As they reached the door, the man at the front began to shout. “Oleg! Open up or we’ll burn your ass out! Maybe some fire will get your fat ass moving!” The men all laughed. Another piped in “Maybe Svetlana will open the door for us! I’m sure she’s desperate for some real men to show her a good time!” They all burst into laughter.
Asta was enraged. These weren’t men. They were wolves. The door to the trading post opened, and all five bandits dismounted. Three entered, while the other two remained outside with the horses. The moment to strike was now. She began to Stand, but Meric put a hand on her shoulder to keep her down. She gave him a confused look.
He reached out with one hand and gestured towards the bandits. He spoke a word quietly that Asta did not recognize, and suddenly she heard the sound of a rattlesnake near the two bandits. The horses panicked. The two men were unprepared and lost their hold on the reigns. They were now completely distracted. Meric gave Asta and Siv a nod.
Skydd and Barry lept into action, closing the distance between themselves and the bandits in no time. In an instant both men lay dead. The blood was everywhere. Asta leapt up and sprinted for the door. Dante would not last long alone against three bandits.
The fighting was intense but ended quickly. The bandits were not prepared for an attack from numerous opponents from behind. One of the men managed to strike a deap wound in Skydd’s neck. With a thought, Asta took much of the damage onto herself. She immediately began coughing up blood and doubled over in pain. The last of the bandits made a run for it, only to be chased down by Skydd. He showed the man no mercy.
Things were not going as smoothly as Meric had hoped. The past few days since killing the bandits at Oleg’s had been challenging to say the least. It all started well enough. Oleg had given the group good reason to think that the bandits made their camp less than a day’s ride from the trading post, somewhere in the Narlmarches.
Each day they would section off a twelve mile by twelve mile area, and search it thoroughly. The entire group had horses now thanks to the bandits, which made things far easier than it would otherwise be. But the terrain was difficult, and each day seemed to present some new challenge or annoyance. Meric had made specific note that the Skunk River definitely earned its name.
But this day had topped them all. Asta lay on the ground bleeding profusely from a wound inflicted by a bear trap. Siv healed her, but they hadn’t been able to save Skydd. He fell victim to one and to everyone’s shock except Asta, his body vanished upon death. She promised to explain later.
They had managed to wander half way through this seemingly quiet glade before triggering a trap. A quick look around revealed they were everywhere. Many were extraordinarily well hidden.
Siv was furious. “At this rate they will drive every animal from this part of Narlmarches. No one can use this much meat and fur anyway!”
Meric was inclined to agree that this was excessive. But he was more concerned about how they were all going to pass without losing legs. He tried to focus the party. “We need a safe way out of this area. Any suggestions?”
Dante spoke up. “We could have Barry lead the way.”
Siv shot daggers at him with her stare. “They are BEAR traps. Traps designed to catch BEARS. I’m not sending my BEAR first.”
Meric interrupted before things got out of hand. “Siv, you have eyes like a hawk. If we move slowly and follow you, do you think you could lead us out safely?”
Siv grabbed a walking stick and nodded. The group followed in single file. She intentionally set off a few traps with her stick on the way back. Once they exited the glade, Meric looked at his companions’ eyes and saw exhaustion and frustration. He felt it too. They were dirty and tired and needed a rest. Little more good could come from pushing the search tomorrow.
“Let’s take a break. We’ll go back to Oleg’s and get some rest and a bath. The bandits will keep one more day.” The others nodded weakly. Meric knew the Greenbelt was the worst assignment of the four regions of the stolen lands. It offered the least in terms of natural resources, and sat on no important trade routes. It was also the most dangerous. The more experienced and influential adventurers were given the better locations. Carving a nation out of this area would be nigh-impossible. But there was no other way. He needed an army at his back when he returned home.
Once the group had reached safety, Asta went off a short distance from the others. Meric watch with some fascination as the rune on her forehead began to glow. Magic coalesced in front of her. Skydd appeared before her, as healthy as ever. He was clearly a summoned creature, but Meric had never encountered one that could remain on this plane indefinitely. What kind of spell caster was she? The rest of the trip back to Oleg’s was uneventful.
Meric had harbored some fear that while they were out searching for the bandits, some would return to Oleg’s searching for their missing comrades and burn the place to the ground. But everything was in order upon their return. Unlike their first visit however, the trading post had a number of new faces. Meric took particular note of a man in full plate armor who sat a nearby table with three other men he clearly commanded.
Oleg gave a shout from across the building. “My friends welcome back! I’ve been telling our new guests about how you dealt with those foul bandits.” At this, the man in armor stood and made his way over to the group and introduced himself.
“I am Kesten Garess. My men and I have been sent to secure the trading post. A job that I am told has been made easier do to your efforts. I wish that I could join you in the wilderness in order to track down these brigands. But my orders are to remain here and keep the trading post and road safe.”
Meric was sure he had heard the name before, but could not place it exactly. This man was a noble, but this assignment was beneath one. He wondered what enemy Kesten had made to be dumped in the Greenbelt.
He shook the man’s hand. “It is an honor Kesten. It gladdens me to know you are here to keep the one spec of civilization out here intact.” He turned to Oleg. “My friends and I are in need of some rest Oleg, do you have 4 beds available?”
Oleg smiled. “Of course! Right this way.”
Meric was practically asleep before his head hit the pillow. He dreamed of two thrones. The one he would forge in the coming months and the one he would eventually reclaim.