The stench of fish and sea hung in the air; and not the good kind.
At Lygon Stormborn’s home in the Muzuban Isles, the breeze carried the ocean spray in and across the villages sprawled across the landscape. The breeze was rejuvenating, the seafood was fresh, and the scents were enough to make even the hungriest man’s stomach rumble. Here in Anoumond, where the smells hung stagnant in the air, and the fish seemed to have been lying in front of the few fishmongers’ stores for days, it was enough to make a starving man think twice before eating.
He was a long way from home now.
Sets of eyes stared at him, and at the halberd resting on his shoulder as he began to weave between the crates, pallets and people scattered across the docks. Lygon felt an awful sense of discomfort in the tight crowds; his large frame was not designed for such tight spaces, and he was continually trying to keep from bumping into those passing by, or stabbing them with the long weapon in his hand. His eyes glanced back toward the Hunter, the ship that had brought him here, and for just a moment he considered turning back.
Of course, the Hunter wasn’t going back to the Muzuban Isles, and even if it were, he had nothing left to go back to.
Breaking free of the most heavily crowded area of the waterfront, Lygon moved beyond the warehouses and moorings, and was greeted by a number of taverns, and the main road leading deeper into the city and away from the waterfront.
Somehow, the smell managed to get worse, as the stench of waste, dead animals and rodents, and all manner of refuse hung in the air between the buildings. Lygon held fast against his body’s desire to wretch from the stinging smell.
The people around him seemed unaffected; he had begun to notice that he was conspicuous in his cleanliness. His leather armour was clean, having been polished while he was travelling to protect it against the seawater. Where his clothing was clean and untorn, those around him wore old, tattered garments as they walked past him, either averting their gaze entirely, or glaring openly at him.
As he continued deeper into the city, though, the streets began to widen, and the buildings around him began to look less decrepit and more impressive. The streets were cleaner; the air was less stale, and the atmosphere marginally more pleasant.
Lygon’s gaze shifted to the sky. The sun was beginning its downward trajectory toward the horizon, although it would not set for some time yet. He had time enough to leave Anoumond behind him and make some distance across the wilderness before nightfall.
Except that he had no idea where he was going.
The sign on a tavern ahead had two bells, turned upwards, with ale foam above each.
“A drink to decide what to do.” He said to himself, and made his way into the tavern.
This early in the afternoon, the establishment was empty save for two dwarves sitting in a corner, speaking to one another quietly. One lifted his gaze momentarily, and nodded acknowledgement to Lygon before turning his attention back to the conversation at hand. Behind the bar stood a ruddy-faced man with a hint of red spattering through his otherwise grey hair.
“Well you don’t look like you’re from around here,” The barkeep commented. “Just in today?”
“Aye,” replied Lygon. “Came in on the Hunter.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Not sure yet,” Lygon admitted.
“I’m sure you’ll find something to keep you occupied.” The barkeep said, “Strapping fella like yourself, and a couple of well-maintained weapons? You’ll be on the mercenary trail in no time. I could probably help you find a gig if you like – for a fee, of course.”
“We’ll see.” Lygon said, “Right now I just need a drink.”
“That I can do for a fee as well. Will you be looking for a room?”
The barkeep pulled a wooden mug from under the bar, and began pouring ale from a cask behind him. Lygon leaned a hand on the bar, sighing.
“I guess. Sure.” Apparently he was staying the night after all.
“Throw us a silver, and it’ll cover your bed, food, and this drink. Any more of these’ll be two coppers each.”
“This won’t be the only one.” Lygon said, dropping three silver coins onto the bar.
He took the mug, and found a table to sit down at. His large hands both curled around the drink in front of him as he stared into the dark amber liquid. Now he really did need to decide what his next step was going to be. The ale swirled in the mug, and in the disturbed liquid, he saw again the pieces of shipwreck bobbing across the waves, what remained of the Howling Tide bumping lightly against the Hunter’s hull. Somewhere beneath the waves, a cage filled with captured souls, innocents, now rested on the bottom of the ocean floor.
He had heard people speak about how drowning was actually a peaceful way to die. He’d held his doubts about that theory, but now he could only choose to believe. If it wasn’t peaceful, then Mara had died terrified, trapped, in pain and unable to help herself. No, it had been peaceful. In fact, she had even been asleep when whatever happened to the Howling Tide occurred, and she had never woken up.
Even then, though, she had gone to sleep without him.
A tear slipped over his cheek, and Lygon quickly raised the mug to his lips, downing the whole drink at once. As he did so, a subtle shift of his hand allowed him to wipe the moisture from his cheek and eye, hopefully unseen by the handful of others in the tavern. He raised the mug, catching the eye of the barkeep, who gave a wave of acknowledgement and began to pour a second mug of ale.
“There you go.” He said as he walked over, “And here’s your key. Room four upstairs, corner on the left. It’s the only room that gives some view of the water.”
“Thanks.” Lygon said.
“No problem. Name’s Shipley, by the way. If I can get you anything else, give me a hoy.”
It was three mugs later that a seat across the table from Lygon slid out and a figure sat down, and a female voice spoke.
“Brooding. Dark. Handsome. Muscular. You’re quite the sight for these sore eyes my friend.”
Lygon looked away from the flickering flames in the Foamy Bells’ fireplace, and for a moment was taken aback at the woman seated in front of him. He had seen tieflings before, but they were few and far between on the Muzuban Isles, and those who came tended to keep to themselves, especially with how much attention they drew. This woman, though, seemed completely unabashed about her own existence and identity.
She had black hair that flowed easily around the two backward-curving rams horns protruding from the top of her forehead. Her skin, a dusky black-grey colour was smooth and soft. Black eyes stared across the table at him, and a set of red lips, standing out against the duskiness of her skin, were curled upwards in just the hint of a smile.
“I’m no one’s friend.” Lygon said, turning his gaze back to the fire.
“Pity,” She said, “Because I’m everyone’s friend. Let me buy you a drink, maybe we can change that up a bit.”
Lygon did not turn his gaze, simply lifted the mug on the table, sipped at it, and pointedly dropped it down again, slightly harder than was necessary, not hard enough to spill the liquid.
“Oh you can’t be drinking that swill.” She said, “Tender! Two whiskeys over here!”
Lygon pushed his chair back and stood, gathering his ale and his belongings, and moved across the room to another table.
“Fine.” The tiefling said, “More for me.”
Lygon wasn’t sure how long he sat there, but at some point, Shipley brought him out a plateful of dinner. The meal was nothing special, but the fish was at least edible, and the selection of vegetables was filling, if somewhat bland. More patrons had entered over the hours, and the noise of conversation and revelry was getting louder.
He was just finishing his plate when the sound of musical strings being plucked began to ring through the room over the sound of the patrons. Looking up, he saw the tiefling who had accosted him earlier sitting on a platform and tuning a lute. After a moment, she began to play, the tune providing a simple ambience to the room while the patrons were eating and conversing over their meals. As the crowd began to die down, though, she began to sing, and suddenly she had the room’s rapt attention. Her voice was sweet and melodic as she serenaded the patrons of the Foamy Bells with the familiar ballad of Lunan Slatehall, a warrior from ages past who saved a small village from rampaging orcs, giving up his own life in the process. It was a well-known and popular tune, and drew a strong applause as she drew to a close.
“Why thank you. You’re too kind.” She said as the last notes faded from the air, “My name’s Cadence, and I want to share with you another song, this one is for anyone who’s lost a love before – and isn’t that most of us in some way?”
Lygon’s eyes widened as a murmur of agreement made its way across the room. Cadence shifted her eyes to meet his gaze, and he wasn’t sure, but for just a moment she curled her lips up into a gentle smile before moving her eyes on to the next table.
It was a song of a couple, deeply in love, until she was taken by Clarr’s hand into the realm of death, leaving the man alone. Unable to go on, he sought his own way to follow her, until, confronted by the death god himself, the man came to the realisation that it was more noble to live for the memory of his loved one, than to see another life taken when it was not time.
Lygon fought hard, but was unable to hold back the tears that streaked his face as the song progressed. He shifted his chair, hoping to cover himself in the shadows of the darkening tavern, and drew his cloak around him to wipe his face even as he emptied another mug of beer and waved to Shipley for another. The room itself was beginning to blur with the tears, and he quickly emptied the mug before gathering his belongings and staggering up the stairs to his room.
As the sun bore in through the sea-facing window, Lygon squeezed his eyes closed tighter, trying to hide from the daylight and the hangover. The incessant pulses in his head, though, and the refusal of the sun to return to its place below the horizon soon had him making his way down the stairs.
The common room was empty save for Shipley wiping down the bar, and the tiefling from the night before. She was sitting at a table tearing bread from a small loaf and dipping it into the gruel that Lygon assumed was Shipley’s example of a morning meal. She looked up and caught his eye, gesturing for him to come and sit with her. Lygon waved to Shipley, who disappeared behind the casks to wherever the Foamy Bells’ kitchen was hiding.
“I want to apologise for last night.” She said as he sat down.
“What for?” Lygon asked.
“The song choices. I was hoping to inspire you, seemed like it went the other way.”
“How did you even know?”
“Are you kidding? You’re like a book, friend. I’m good at reading people at the best of times, but I could have read you last night with my eyes closed.”
“Yeah. I’m not in the best of places right now.” Lygon said.
“None of us are. Anyone who thinks Anoumond is the best of places probably needs serious help.” She said.
Lygon offered her a hint of a smile, and thanked Shipley as the old man brought out another bowl of stew, bread, and water.
“I’m Cadence, by the way.” She said as Lygon began eating, “Just in case you missed it last night.”
“Lygon Stormborn,” He replied.
“Well it’s nice to meet you, Lygon Stormborn.” Cadence said, “Where are you headed?”
“I don’t actually know yet.” Lygon admitted, “Somewhere far away.”
“Well then how about this.” Cadence put down the bread in her hand and looked across the table at him, “I’m leaving the city today to begin a journey around Eugios. I’m just one lass, and could certainly use some security and protection while I’m on the road. Why don’t you play the role of my hero, and join me on the adventure? At the very least, it gives you something to do with yourself while you’re not doing anything, and at the most, perhaps you find you enjoy my company and aren’t completely miserable all the time.”
“I don’t know.” Lygon said, “I haven’t really thought about what I’m doing.”
“That’s pretty much my point,” Cadence replied.
Lygon had to admit that she had a point, it wasn’t as though he had anything else to do, and her suggestion did at least provide him with some sort of direction and plan. His eyes shifted over the table to her; there was softness in those dark eyes. He could see the details now, which he had not noticed the day before; from a distance they looked shimmering black, but at this distance he could see the details of her irises and the whites – well, what was white in his own eye, anyway. She didn’t look quite so frightening from this perspective.
“Okay, fine.” He said, “I’ll join you.”
“Excellent.” She said, smiling at him.
With the completion of their meals, and a farewell to Shipley, Lygon allowed Cadence to lead him out of the tavern. The road out of Anoumond was not far from here, and it was soon enough that they were outside of the reach of the city. The lands outside the city were not quite barren; a handful of farms dotted the otherwise grey and rocky landscape with their patches of green.
“Benefit of this road, it’s almost impossible to be attacked on because there’s nowhere to hide. That, and you probably don’t want to take the chance of robbing someone in the Independent Lands. Never know who they are or what they can do to you. Funnily enough, it’s when you get into Yazia that things start getting a bit dangerous.” Cadence said as they strode at a decent pace along the road.
“How far away is Yazia?” Lygon asked.
“About a week from here at a good pace.” Cadence replied, “Although don’t push yourself too hard, there’s only a handful of spots to fill up the water skins, and the last thing you want is to be stuck around here with no water.”
He could only imagine what Mara would have to say about having to spend a week on the road.
Lygon shifted the halberd on his shoulder, and looked out across the wastelands.
“So here it begins.” He said quietly.