Chapter 1: Freya
“There weren’t always dragons in the Valley,” Freya stammered. She stood over a small crude wooden table in the corner of a dingy and crowded dockside tavern, addressing a lithe young man lounging alone with his back to the wall. His only companion was a tankard of foul-smelling ale, which he swirled around in small circles without a word. A single candle cast eerie shadows off his angular face, its flickering light revealing slices of his visage in a random dance. Uncorrupted limestone skin, dark hair, high cheek bones, and black eyes angled down, focused on everything and nothing.
“Hail Celkor's protection,” he said flatly to his tankard, its whirlpooling contents perilously close to splashing on the table.
Freya froze. She was not aware the code words functioned as an exchange and didn't know the rest. She racked her brain for anything else the wounded rogue had told her in the temple hospice, frantically trying to remember if she'd missed something.
Go to the Ruddy Bucket. He’ll be sitting alone. Say the words and you’re in. Damnit - that’s all he said! Freya thought, suddenly aware of the dirk jutting out between the young man’s black leather jerkin and chainmail. She shifted her weight nervously and tightened the ragged cloak around her shoulders.
After three heartbeats of silence that felt like a lifetime, she took a chance.
“Bahl gift him” Freya squeaked. She strained to make herself heard over the rabble of drunken sailors and knaves carousing, each of them searching for an interlude to their barbarous existence at the bottom of a flagon.
The man stopped swirling his cup.
“What can I do for you…priestess?” he asked, gesturing with a nod to the inch of white cassock peeking out from under her travel robes.
Freya looked down and swished her disguise to bury the clue. She mustered her courage and delivered the line she had practiced in her dormitory mirror the night before.
“I heard you’re a man that can find things,” she said discreetly, leaning towards the youth.
He looked up and met Freya’s gaze with a wry smile. “The only thing I care to find is coin,” he replied, “and unless our mighty Lord Celkor has suddenly had a change of heart with regard to your…organization…I doubt I’ll find any up those robes of yours.” He gave his tankard a final swirl and tossed the ale back in a single gulp.
“I have silver,” Freya said feverishly as she reached a hand in her robe to pull out a heavy coin purse. It clinked as she swung it out and tossed it to plop on the table. The sound turned a few nearby heads in their direction, their grog sodden brains responding instinctually to the ring of coinage.
The man’s hand sprung out like a viper, clamping the empty flagon over the sack of coins. He swiftly scanned the room and kicked out the chair across from him.
“Sit” he hissed.
Freya quickly complied, looking quickly over both shoulders once seated.
“What is your name,” he demanded.
“I am Freya,” she said, unclear on the cause of the sudden shift in his relaxed demeanor. “Freya Romyar.”
“Listen well, Freya Romyar – coming to a sordid Seastop tavern in the wee hours, unescorted and unarmed, to toss coin around is an excellent way to end up at the bottom of the harbor.” He gestured to the occupants of the tavern in a wide wave. “Three ships of privateers came in to port this morning, and they are here to drink. Those without the coin to do so will find it.”
“If you think ‘the hand of Creator Bahl’,” he said with faux grandiosity, “will protect you here, I daresay you will be meeting your precious deity sooner than you expected.”
As the youth was speaking, two brutish and visibly drunk sailors from a nearby table stood and meandered to a table behind Freya, their eyes locked on the overturned tankard hiding the purse. One was burly and lumbering, the other tattooed and sinister.
The youth took their measure, his dark eyes flitting between the sailors and Freya as he spoke. “Now,” he said “we don’t have much time before those two find the stones to have a go at this silver. One of them has a full pint. Once that’s dry, we need to be ready.”
The young man sat up in his chair. “You’ve ventured out of your world and into mine, priestess” he sneered.
The hairs on the back of Freya’s neck stood up, and she fought the urge to bolt to the door.
“To look at you, I would say you are merely an Acolyte. Too young to have honest access to whatever meager coffers you Bahl worshipers have these days.” The youth reached inside his jerkin and pulled out two hardened leather gloves with metal spikes on the knuckles and iron plated palms.
He continued. “You have a family name, but one I don’t know. Maybe there is some money behind it, maybe not,” he mused, slipping a glove over his right hand and flexing his fingers. “Either way, you are not the heir. No family, regardless of how pious, would ship their heir off to die in a temple – once again leaving you with no legitimate coin.”
"Who are you to-"
“My name is Shin,” he interrupted, waving a gloved hand at her dismissively as he fidgeted in his jerkin with the other. Even in her dangerous circumstance, Freya was appalled at the brazen condescension of the stripling street tough.
“No family money…no Bahl coin – and yet here you are with a sack, making me put on hitfists at my place of business.” Both of Shin’s hands were equipped with armored gloves, and he had a small vial of pale blue liquid in his hand. “So, tell me priestess, why has my night gone to shit?” he asked, exasperated. “Did you miss your moonblood and need a quick remedy? Steal some temple coin so I’ll smuggle you to your lover?”
Freya dropped an angry jaw and got out half the word “scoundrel” before being cut off again.
“Ope - here it comes” Shin said looking over her shoulder. He popped the cork off his vial and swallowed its contents.
Freya turned to see the burly sailor finishing his pint as the tattooed one pushed himself up from the table, a black skull pierced with a knife inked on his shoulder.
“Gentleman!” Shin announced, sauntering over to them. “I’ve noticed your tankards are empty. May I fetch you another round?” Shin gestured towards the bar magnanimously, attempting to usher the men away from Freya.
“Aye, and a taste of what’s in your cup lad,” the big man slurred, gesturing to the overturned tankard in front of Freya.
Shin hopped back to the tankard and pulled it up, revealing nothing but a ring ale mark on the splintered wood. “I’m afraid this one is dry friend, but I can remedy that for you yon!” Shin again pointed towards the bar at the opposite end of the tavern. The oaf looked to his comrade confused.
The tattooed mariner wasn’t as easily fooled. “We saw the silver boy. I don’t care if you tucked it up your arse right quick – hand it over and that will be the end of it.” He produced a dagger from inside his tunic and waterfalled it through his fingers.
Shin locked eyes with Freya and nodded towards a door in the back of the crowded tavern.
He then turned and punched the big man in the throat. The spikes on his knuckles punctured an artery, and a geyser of blood arched out to patter on the sawdust covered floor.
The menacing sailor became a horrified child as he fell to his knees clutching his throat, blood burbling out of his mouth as he choked and gasped. The other sailor roared and lunged at Shin with his knife, who caught it in a clap with impossible speed, and twisted to pop the weapon out of his grasp. In the same motion, Shin spun around to backhand him across the face, leaving three deep gashes in his cheek and sending him crashing to the ground.
The other tavern patrons noticed the violence and knocked over tables and chairs to make way. Some scrambled to clear a space, others stood and cheered, creating a ring with Shin and the would-be robbers at its center.
His attackers down, Shin grabbed a stunned Freya under the arm and wrenched her up from her chair. He shook her to snap her attention to his eyes and off the large sailor writhing on the ground in an expanding puddle of blood.
“Priestess! The door. Knock thrice and say Heistman. Now!” Shin shoved Freya towards the door and turned back to face the tattooed sailor who had just regained his feet.
Freya pushed her way into the jeering crowd that had formed around the melee, squirming between the slovenly ruffians towards the door. The spectators paid her no mind, excited their night out now included drink and a show. Freya could hear furniture crashing behind her, and the crowd reacted to the action with groans and cheers.
Freya emerged from the back of the crowd and clambered up two steps to the thick wooden door. She pounded three times and yelled the codeword. A peephole slid open just above Freya’s eye level, and two hard eyes peered angrily down at her.
“Please – let me in! Those men are robbing us!” Freya shot a look over her shoulder but couldn’t quite see over the crowd. Judging by their animation, the fight was ongoing. “They’re going to kill Shin!”
The peephole slid shut, and the door swung open, revealing the largest man Freya had ever seen. His wide shoulders filled the entire doorway, and from them hung the powerful arms of a smith, matched by a leather apron covered in oil stains and scorch marks. Towering over Freya, the man looked her up and down before peering out to look past the gathered crowd.
Unfazed by what he observed, the man rolled his stern eyes and beckoned Freya inside, taking a step back to allow her space to slip past.
Freya stepped past the man, and into a dimly lit landing. A single candle illuminated stone walls and a staircase spiraling down into the bowels of the tavern. Freya could hear distant voices muttering from below, the muffled sound bouncing off the stones and the giant man’s wide chest.
The man closed the door after her, sliding the peephole shut and swinging down a thick block of wood to bar the door. He turned to Freya, grunted, and brushed passed her down the stairs without a word. Freya stood on the landing, reluctant to blindly follow a tremendous taciturn man to an unknown destination.
She stood on her toes to slide the peephole open again. Craning her neck, she could see Shin was still dancing with the pirate. Both were sweaty and panting, and their corner of the tavern was in total disarray. Freya anxiously watched the fight from her perch, silently beseeching Bahl to aid the young rogue.
Shin swatted away knife thrusts and planted quick jabs on the pirate’s face and body as he bobbed and weaved around the impromptu fight ring, each hit leaving behind shallow and seeping puncture wounds. The pirate howled with frustration, wheeling about to keep a slippery Shin in front of his slashes and thrusts.
The pirate attempted a low sweeping kick at Shin’s legs , but Shin was too fast; he jumped into a front flip over the pirate, twisted in midair, and planted a double legged kick on the back of his opponent’s neck. The two men exploded in opposite directions, and the pirate crashed into the table and chairs Shin and Freya had been sitting in moments before. Shin landed on his back, a good distance away from the pirate.
As the pirate disentangled himself from the furniture, Shin popped out another pale blue vial and shot down its contents. The pirate spun around, saw Shin a few yards away, and threw his knife at his face. Shin dodged and the knife slammed into a wooden pillar behind him, quivering with the force of the pirate's throw.
Weaponless, the pirate closed his eyes and held his arms in front him, bent at the elbow so that an open palm faced a closed first. He muttered something, and the tattoos covering his arms began to swirl and writhe under his skin. The knife pierced skull on his shoulder opened its mouth in a silent twisted yowl, and a mist of ink emanated from his open palm and washed over his closed fist.
The mist stuck to his fist and seeped between his knuckles until a small column erupted from his grip, flattening and coming to a point. It shimmered as it grew, and the pirate sneered as the mist solidified into a new dagger to replace the one lodged in the support beam.
The pirate charged at Shin, who hissed out a curse and hopped onto the table next to him. The pirate rushed to swipe his conjured blade at Shin’s legs but cut nothing but air when Shin bounded off the table, stepped on the knife in the pillar, and vaulted himself up into the tavern rafters.
Shin swung himself up and skipped his way across the rafters towards a clerestory window above the tavern door. The pirate pursued him from the ground, shoving hooting spectators out of his way and hurling insults at Shin.
The young rogue sprinted towards the window with exceptional grace. The pirate threw his second blade, but Shin dodged, took one final stride, and dove like a thrown spear through the narrow window above the tavern door.
Freya noticed the crookbacked old barkeep casually move to the tavern door, open it, and gesture to the pirate to chase Shin outside. He was apparently unconcerned by the overturned tables and dead man on the floor, and patiently held the door open with his head bowed as the pirate tore out of the tavern.
The barkeep released the door, allowing it to swing shut, and calmly moved back behind the bar to tend to the fire crackling in a large stone hearth. He pulled a sliding grate out from the fireplace and prodded the embers with a poker, and smoke drifted up towards the tavern's high ceiling instead of up the chimney.
Suddenly the door crashed open again, and the inked pirate burst in at the head of a small group of dangerous looking men.
“Find his whore! She’s got the coin!” They stomped into the tavern, looking for Freya.
She quickly slid the peephole shut and scurried down the steps after the big man. The spiraling stone staircase went down longer than she expected, and the sounds of the raucous pub quickly receded as she descended, overtaken by the sound of a more relaxed conversation at the bottom of the stairs.
Freya took a final turn and found herself a few steps up from a small basement room reminiscent of the tavern above. A few tables with chairs were situated around the room, and the big man towered over a modest bar in one corner, tapping himself a horn of ale out of a cask. There was a hearth along the far wall with a fire going, and the wall sconces with lit candles, along with furs on the ground and a few hanging tapestries made the room almost cozy. Freya noticed two doors on either side of the bar, one with light coming out from under it.
Only one of the tables was occupied, by a man and woman dressed exactly like Shin. They were mid-conversation when the woman noticed Freya peeking down the stairs, tapped her companion’s hand, and pointed at her.
“Young lass! Welcome to our humble stowaway. Please sit, it looks as if you’ve been through quite the ordeal,” the man said, turning to stand and beckon her in. He was taller than Shin, and older, but had the same athletic build and casual attitude. Age had fared him well, and somehow he looked more debonair and handsome than Shin in the same hardened leather and chainmail. He brushed the salt and pepper hair framing his face aside as he waved Freya into the basement.
Freya approached apprehensively, and the man pulled out a chair for her at the table, smiling sweetly. The woman didn’t move and watched Freya approach with the lazy gaze of a lioness without an appetite. She was also rangy and beautiful, but Freya could tell immediately that she was far more dangerous than her companion. She sat with her legs kicked up on the table and wore the same hitfists Shin had donned just before killing a man in the middle of a crowded tavern.
“The big man said there was some trouble upstairs,” the man said, pouring Freya a cup of wine from the bottle on their table. A few drops splashed onto his knuckles, and he sucked it off a gilded ruby ring with a kiss.
Freya didn’t touch the cup and nodded. She sat straight backed in her chair, unsure of what to do or say.
The pair of rouges exchanged a playful glance and looked back at Freya.
“The little bird is songless,” the woman chuckled, swinging her legs off the table and strutting over to the bar. The big man lurked there, silently swigging from his horn and watching.
“What is your name little bird?” the man asked softly.
“Freya Romyar,” she said.
“Pray tell Freya Romyar – how is it that you have come to grace us with your sweet-smelling presence?” the man asked, placing a hand on hers and looking deep into her eyes.
Freya slid her hand out from under his and placed it in her lap. “I’ve come to hire men for a job. I heard there was someone here who could find things for a price and I was meeting with him when some sailors tried to rob us. He fought with them and told me to flee down here.”
“I see…” the man cooed. “And where is young Shin now?”
“He killed one of them and jumped out the window.” Freya replied, “but not before taking my coin.”
The man nodded to the giant and the serious woman, who immediately moved to the crackling hearth. The big man slid out a grate like the one in the tavern upstairs and moved it aside so that the fireplace was empty. He began patting out the smoking embers with mighty calloused hands as the woman poked her head up the chimney and yelled “Oi!”
“No need to worry about your coin m’lady – you have come to the right place! I am Relgo the Lifter,” the dashing man declared, puffing out his chest and flashing a brilliant smile “I’ve snatched purses from lords and hearts from maidens from Seastop to Greatfort. Maybe you recognize me from the City Guard's warrant posters?”
Freya did not and shook her head. Relgo looked disappointed.
“Pompous nancy,” the woman sneered, her back leaned against the stone wall next to the fireplace. “Not as notorious as you like to think, aye?”
Relgo recovered from Freya’s unintentional snub and flashed another smile. “No matter,” he chirped. “That snide cow is my sister Elif, another member of our outfit.”
Freya nodded at Elif, who raised her flagon in return. Freya’s eyes then wandered to the big man.
“Aye, my tremendous and sullen friend here is simply called Brink. Some say it’s because he is always on the edge of a murderous tantrum, but I think it’s due to the sound his smith’s hammer makes.”
Freya heard a thump and turned to see a coil of rope on the floor of the fireplace. One end was in the basement, and the other snaked up the dark and smokeless chimney. Freya heard a hissing sound, and suddenly a visibly agitated Shin emerged covered in soot. He shot Freya a glare and stomped to the bar.
He poured himself a small cup of spirits from a cloudy bottle and tossed it back.
“Oleander!” he shouted, his back turned to the group. Freya heard movement from one of the doors behind the bar. The door creaked open, and another man stumbled into the room, looking dazed and wearing stained robes tied at the waist with a pouched apothecary’s belt. A horrid smell followed him out of the back room and permeated through the basement. He looked around bleary eyed, either unconcerned with Freya’s presence or unable to see her at a distance. He was the oldest of the bunch, his mostly bald head reflecting the candle flickering in the sconce above him.
Shin slammed two empty vials onto the counter. “Our surprise guest has already purchased two vials of Windshot.” Shin pulled Freya’s coin purse from inside his jerkin and picked out two silver pieces. He slid the coins and empty vials across the bar before turning to brush soot off his legs and arms. The doddering old man collected the items and retreated to his room.
“Old Jarl will be cross with you, killing a man in the middle of his tavern,” Elif scolded Shin, taking his place at the bar and grabbing the bottle.
“It couldn’t be helped.” Shin shot Freya another glare and walked over to her and Relgo. He held her coin purse above the table and said, “I believe this belongs to you,” before dropping it unceremoniously in front of her. Shin kicked out a chair and sat at the table.
“So, where were we?” he said, leaning back and unfastening his leather gloves.
Freya looked between Shin and Relgo, surprised by Shin’s sudden reappearance.
“What did you need found m’lady?” Relgo asked encouragingly, tapping the coin purse with a jeweled finger.
Freya gathered herself and took a deep breathe. “I need an escort into Denüren.”
Shin and Relgo didn’t react and stared blankly back at Freya. Elif raised her eyebrows in disbelief. Brink stopped reconstructing the fire and stood up.
Relgo was the first to speak. “M’lady, Denüren is fallen. Nobody has been in or out of the valley in a century,” he said somberly.
Freya knew that not to be true but held her tongue.
Shin barked a harsh laugh. “Are you mad? Even if we could get past the Shieldgaurd in the pass and through the mountains – that town is cursed. No amount of coin is going to keep us alive there.” Shin pushed himself up from the table and stormed back to the bar.
“What a fucking waste of time…” he grumbled, pouring himself another drink.
Freya feared this reaction but had hoped this band of ruffians and rogues would be up to the task.
“There is a way into the valley – through the Firnwood and up a secret mountain pass only known to the Temple of Bahl. I need an escort through the woods and over the mountain –“
“M’lady, Shin is right. I’m afraid we humble rogues are first and foremost in the business of staying alive,” Relgo sighed, shaking his head.
Elif had snuck up behind Freya and placed both her gloved hands on Freya’s shoulders causing her to jerk away in surprise. Elif held a firm grip and slammed Freya back in her seat.
“Hold on, Relgo. Let’s hear her out. I’d like to know more about this hidden mountain pass…” Elif purred.
Freya continued. “It is perilous and ancient, but it is there. North of The Shield, where the western fork of the Whiterush begins running down the mountains into the valley of Denüren. It is recorded in the old texts at the temple.”
Elif released Freya and sat between her and Relgo. “I say we use this,” she said to Relgo and Shin. “Take the information to Celkor’s men and exchange it for coin. If there is an unknown pass through the mountains, he’ll want it sealed or guarded.”
Relgo chuckled. “Aye, just march up to a lordsman and say ‘Good tidings friend - I’d like to sell you a secret.’ They’d sooner throw a noose around your neck than a coin in your hand.”
“Not if we show them where it is.” Elif said, turning back to Freya.
All of the blood left Freya’s face, and she looked to the stone staircase, considering the odds that she would be able to get up and out of the basement before one of them grabbed her.
“Don’t try it girl.” Elif said, tracking her gaze. “You aren’t leaving here without telling us exactly where to find this mountain pass.”
Relgo slammed his hand on the table. “Enough Elif. We aren’t jailers or torturers.”
“But we can be escorts…” Shin proposed from the bar. The group turned to consider him.
“She wants into Denüren, we want to know the way into Denüren. We escort her through the Firnwood, a modest challenge, to the base of the border mountains. She shows us the way to this mountain pass, and we leave her to wander into Denüren and die. Then we show the way to Celkor’s men like Elif said for our big payday.” Shin opened his arms to the group in a small shrug, looking quite pleased with himself.
“Good plan,” Brink said in a thunderous bass from the back of the room.
“Good man!” Shin exclaimed, grinning and toasting the giant from the other side of the basement. “What say you two?”
Relgo and Elif exchanged a look and pondered the proposal.
“I suppose it would be a safer bet than beating it out of her,” Elif grumbled, looking disappointed.
“Aye, and less dishonorable.” Relgo replied, frowning at his sister. “But one thing I still don’t understand,” he said, turning to Freya “why in the world would a young Bahl priestess want to venture into Denüren?”
Freya stiffened. “There is something of great value to the Temple in the ruins of the city. The high priests are too afraid of running further afoul of the High Lord to retrieve it…so I had to take matters into my own hands.”
“Come now – we’ve all heard the stories. The Fall of Denüren, Brenkor’s Return…” Relgo guffawed. Freya said nothing.
“To this day Shieldguard men break their oaths and mutter in tavern corners about the things they’ve seen at The Spear and Shield. Dragonmen with taloned hands and dripping fangs skulking through the valley. Lost ranging parties. Scaleskin sickness…” Relgo searched Freya’s gaze exasperated. “Whatever could be so valuable to face all of that alone?”
Freya gathered all her resolve and stared directly back at Relgo. “If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me.”
She turned to Shin. “I accept your terms. Escort me through the Firnwood to the base of the mountains and you’ll have this –“ she tapped the purse on the table – “and whatever you can get from Celkor. I just ask that you don’t tell him the information came from the Temple of Bahl. It makes no difference to you and would cause great hardship for my brethren.”
Shin looked at his comrades, who all nodded. “You’ve got a deal priestess,” he said.
The mood in the tavern basement relaxed somewhat after that. The newly formed fellowship toasted to their accord and agreed to leave in two days. Long enough for the privateers to ship out again and the group to prepare for their journey.
Relgo showed Freya through the second door behind the bar, which opened into a short hallway with a few other doors. He opened the one closest to the bar door and showed Freya into a simple bedchamber.
“You might still get some of Oleander’s fumes in here, but it should do until we leave.” Relgo said apologetically. “I’d suggest you stuff some of those rags under the door,” he said, pointing to a pile on the bedside table.
“Thank you Relgo.” Freya said softly. She walked into the room and turned to face him. Relgo looked for a minute like he was considering something but thought better of it.
“Good night, priestess.” Relgo smirked and closed the door behind him.
Freya laid down on the cot and reflected on the day’s events. As she was falling asleep, her thoughts turned to what she was risking everything to search for in Denüren. Bahl’s greatest gift, even if the high priests refused to acknowledge it. What Freya loved most in the world.
I’m coming for you Ursla.
About the author
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme