When Elaina woke up the next morning, the blinding sun had entered the windows of the inn’s room. Trivo was lacing his boots quietly, and a cup of water was on the table beside him. The bed he’d slept it on the other side of the room was perfectly made.
Elaina, on the other hand, was a perfect mess. She still had her undergarments on, but her other clothes and equipment were in a messy pile beside her. Her breath stank of old barley malt, and her head pounded. The wages of last night's contest, she thought to herself. Elaina’d become involved in a drinking contest with a dwarven warrior, Steeven Ironforge. She couldn’t remember whether she had won or not, but knew she’d tricked him into buying all of the drinks for their binge. Like most dwarves, Elaina knew Steeven could easily manipulated, at least when it came to matters of pride. All one had to do was appeal to their warped sense of honor. Dwarves hated to lose fights or contests. They were stubborn folk, and hated to lose face. She may have drunk on the dwarf’s coin, but at least he’d have something to brag about to his friends today.
Of course, all of that revelry the night before now resulted in a sharp headache and a mouth as dry as the Dunes of Mephisto. “Trivo, do you have any of those potions you gave me the last time we earned a bounty?”
“You drank my last one, Elaina.”
Elaina was able to dress in privacy as Trivo fetched her coffee. Although less prudish than most elven women, Elaina still had a keen sense of modesty. As she dressed, she reflected on how much she’d changed since joining the Guild. She’d cleaned up her act a lot in the weeks she’d been with Trivo. She was no longer involved with her old boyfriend, Gaul, from the Ghost Thieves. Perfect wretch he’d been--a true scoundrel, and Elaina had been glad to rid herself of him. Gaul had been the one who introduced her to the drink, but even that she’d been able to limit to the occasional rowdy celebration. The Phoenix Rangers had finally offered her a sense of direction. Promotions within the Guild were based on performance, not connections as in the Ghost Thieves. And slaying Asturk, no matter how 'dishonorably' some might choose to call it, was still quite a performance for an apprentice like me...
Trivo knocked on the door and opened it slowly. He’d come up with a cup and saucer and placed it on the table. Elaina drank it quickly, ignoring the scalding pain in her mouth and throat.
“Thanks, Trivo,” she said with a grimace as the coffee burned its way to her stomach.
Trivo winced at the thought of the steaming liquid pouring down her gullet, before he turned and began gathering the rest of their equipment. “We need to hurry, Elaina,” Trivo told her. “We have an audience before the King today. I’m going to plead with King Laertes to order Hektor to stop interfering with the Guild’s business. You’ll likely be a witness to our encounter with Asturk and Ithetuuk. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ithetuuk himself at the proceedings.”
“Celinda will be there too, of course…” Elaina said.
“Yes, of course.”
“Good,” Elaina said. “She’s a woman I can relate to. Not a snob like most of the nobility.”
“No, she’s quite friendly. I can’t imagine who she inherited her humility from. It’s good for us, though. The Guild could always use another friend with deep coffers and strong convictions. Come, we only have a few hours until our hearing at the palace.”
Elaina followed him, still adjusting straps and hooks on her leather armor as she went through the door.
* * * * *
Tyrn’s palace was constructed with imported dwarven marble, and sculpted for decades by calloused hands and strong arms. The forms of hundreds of ancient kings lined the walls of the palace and from the outside, a single tower rose above all others. For most of the year it pointed toward the constellation of Sylva, water Goddess and supreme deity of the elves. It was a marvelous place, one of the few remaining wonders in all of the elves’ lands. Elaina had never been inside the walls, and as she and Trivo entered, the girl was surprised to see that the inside was even more impressive than the outside. Crimson carpets imported from the eastern lands covered the floors, and masterful portraits were hung on the walls. Armored knights walked through the halls, and well dressed bureaucrats argued loudly from their chambers. Fountains of nude water nymphs sculpted from polished stone bubbled cool waters from long reservoirs. Elaina decided she was well suited to enjoy a life of nobility.
Trivo was used to the palace. He had been called there about a dozen times to report on the Guild’s business, and he was well liked by most of the palace staff. He wasn’t gruff or rude like many mercenaries, and bore a countenance more often found in farmers than swordsmen. He received many smiles from a crowd of scribes and knights as he entered the audience chamber with Elaina and walked towards King Laertes’ throne room, where the king met with those from other lands and citizens outside of the aristocracy.
The audience chamber resembled a court of law in some respects. The king sat elevated from the rest, his throne on a platform with steps covered in red velvet leading toward it. Below him, a row of marble benches lined the back of the chamber with an aisle between them. A few feet in front of these benches were two oak tables furnished with quills and paper for those who wished to use them. Carvings embellished the legs of the table with scenes of dragons, gryphons, swords, and stories from long ago that celebrated Tyrn’s history. Celinda and Hektor stood near the table facing the king’s left while the table on his right side was reserved for the Phoenix Guild.
Trivo and Elaina bowed graciously at the feet of Laertes. Taking the king’s hand in his own, Trivo kissed the ring, adorned with the royal crest, a five pointed star that represented Tyrn’s five provinces. “My king…” he uttered quietly.
“Rise Trivo,” Laertes told him. “There’s notime for such pleasantries today. We must get down to business.”
“Of course, sire.”
“This is your new charge? What did you say her name was?”
”Elaina, sire,” Trivo answered.
“A pleasure to meet you, my dear. Celinda told me about you as we awaited your arrival.”
“The pleasure is mine, King Laertes,” Elaina told him, still quite nervous. Hektor had been staring at her and Trivo through narrowed eyes since they entered the chamber. It took all of her effort to keep her voice steady. The audience chamber was a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar faces. In addition to the king, his retinue, and his bodyguards, Celinda stood near her father, and Ithetuuk, now in a prisoner’s drab gray tunic, stood bound in manacles next to a fierce looking bailiff.
“Now then. My chancellor has told me you have a complaint that you’d like to bring before your king,” Laertes said.
“Yes, sire. I have come to represent the Phoenix Guild. On the behalf of Guild Master Roan, I have requested an immediate withdrawal of all of Sir Hektor’s troops from the areas near Crystal Lake, Hardin’s Pass, and the village of Elmsbrooke. Sir Hektor has continually interfered with the protection of these areas by attacking goblin clans without informing the Guild, angering the goblin leaders, and even putting his own family at risk. The Guild has been charged with the defense of these areas, and until Hektor’s intrusion, was doing a very good job. The Guild expects the immediate removal of his troops.”
“Hektor, do you wish to answer these charges.”
“Yes, my lord. These territories have been in the realm of my family’s enterprises for centuries, and only recently has the Guild become a presence. While Elmsbrooke and the surrounding area have hired the Guild to keep the goblins out, the Raven house still has a large stake in trading with those who live there. I have a right to protect my investments, and these attacks that Trivo speaks of are merely skirmishes fought to protect miners and timber men who work near a new quarry close to Elmsbrooke.”
“Sire, I must object. Hektor’s new assets are on the very edge of Tyrn’s domain, and I doubt the Raven Mining and Timber Company have the restraint to keep themselves outside of goblin territory.”
“You have no proof of that,” Hektor replied.
“The prisoner is our proof,” Trivo asserted.
“Goblin Ithetuuk, where is your clan’s home?” asked Laertes.
“Our chief’s hall is in Hel’Fiad, though we roam throughout the woodlands, hunting game and protecting our territory.”
“In your campaigns, have you ever come in contact with Raven elves inside of goblin borders?”
“Many times,” Ithetuuk replied, “although I relished the chance to teach this proud elf a lesson. Just yesterday, a caravan I was guarding stumbled upon Hektor and his company, including his daughter, near the elven border.”
“How would you know where the border is?” Hektor asked. “Your clan ignores the treaties we have made with the goblins.”
“Treaties made with one clan do not bind the others. I obey my chief, and no one else.”
Trivo tired of this bickering. He hated dealing with the nobles, as he had come to discover they were entirely ignorant of military affairs or goblin politics. Trivo knew all about war and death. These nobles knew of nothing but wine, feast, and money. He seethed as he listened. Hektor was completely undermining Trivo and the entire Guild. Hektor willfully manipulated anybody for a profit. Now he had to convince King Laertes. How many more lives, Trivo thought, must be lost for a bit of gold? It must end now, he decided to himself.
“Let’s hear from the others,” King Laertes suggested. “Celinda, how did you get involved in all of this?”
“I was with my father’s company in Elmsbrooke, distributing food to the villagers. The recent floods and conflicts with goblins have hurt the crops, and we had brought wagon loads of wheat and rice for the people. On our way home, I was dozing in the wagon when we stopped. I heard shouts and fighting, and looked outside. My father’s men were battling a large force of goblins that were moving a wagon caravan through the forest. I did what I could, but was captured in the battle, and taken into Asturk’s wagon. I suspect he wanted to hold me for ransom,” Celinda explained. “A few hours later, Asturk stopped in the forest, and Trivo and Elaina battled with the goblins. They won, and brought me home,” she said, smiling at Trivo and Elaina.
“I see,” said Laertes. “Do you have anything to add, Elaina?”
“I was surprised to see just one wagon in Asturk’s caravan,” Elaina told him. “Trivo told me to expect a group of foes. Our plan was to hit and run, killing Asturk and then fleeing back into the woods. I’m glad we were able to rescue Celinda, but that wasn’t planned.”
“Sire, it’s obvious that Hektor is taking unnecessary risks by expanding his business interests so far into the goblin frontier. These lands have been dangerous ever since elves settled there, and any coin that comes from this territory has been paid for in blood. Let the Phoenix Guild secure these lands. When they are safe, the Raven Company is welcome to return and take advantage of its resources.”
“With all due respect, sire, I don’t need the Phoenix Guild’s protection or good wishes to keep my mines and mills operating. These peasants know nothing about what keeps our kingdom running. There is little evidence against me, except for the words of a goblin prisoner, a bounty hunter, and a former thief. I have nothing more to say. I’m sure you will come to a wise decision.”
“Yes, I suppose I must,” Laertes said wearily. “I will announce my decision within a quarter of an hour, gentlemen. Elaina, Celinda…good day.”
* * * * *
After a few minutes of anxious waiting, King Laertes finally returned to his throne room. He had a tired expression on his face. Everyone turned to face him and gave him their full attention.
“Ahem,” Laertes cleared his throat. “I have reached my final decision. It is obvious to me Sir Hektor and his knights unnecessarily disturbed the peace near Elmsbrooke by confronting Asturk’s caravan. From now on, all military activity made near the goblin frontier must be cleared by me or the Phoenix Guild. Only the Royal Army and the Phoenix Guild have any jurisdiction in those lands from this day forth. Any entrepreneurial enterprises must be approved by me. I assure you, only the most ill-conceived campaigns put forth by the nobility will be rejected. This decision is final.”
Hektor and his representatives from the Raven Company were infuriated. They began speaking loudly of Laertes' favoritism towards the mercenaries, and knew their own troops had been put on a short leash. Members of the Royal Army smiled appreciatively as did representatives of the Phoenix Guild who were in the audience. Trivo grinned and put his arm around Elaina’s shoulders. “You did very well today, Elaina. You spoke before the king just as calmly as any I’ve ever seen. Well done. Come, we must head to the Phoenix Guild to receive our next assignment.”
“Just a moment, Trivo,” Elaina replied. “Celinda, it was very good to see you again. I hope your father’s anger does not hurt our new friendship?”
“Of course not, Elaina. You have at least one friend in the House of Raven. Celinda looked up at Trivo and smiled. “Good luck.”
As Trivo left the throne room, he looked toward Hektor. He saw the noble speaking with a dark, hidden figure in the shadows near the far end of the room. Hektor seemed quite angry, but the shadowed man was unperturbed. Trivo had an uneasy feeling as he looked towards them. As he left the room, it was impossible to keep from hearing contempt in the voices of the nobility for both the king and the Phoenix Guild. Trivo felt the trouble started the day before was just the beginning.
As he stepped into the light of the city, Trivo was struck by the simplicity of life outside the palace. Street vendors hawked their wares, farmers from the countryside carried sacks of food toward the market, and children played along the dusty roads that intersected the city. The common folk of Tyrn were hardworking, decent, and usually honest, if one did not consider the merchants. It was much easier for these poor, hardy folk to work together than the wisest, most wealthy nobility, generals, or kings. Sometimes as he walked these streets, Trivo longed for a simpler vocation, one filled with the sounds of harvest in the fields or the heat of the smithy. Sadly, any possibility of an easier life had vanished long ago. Trivo had chosen the way of the mercenary, the way of the sword, and once blood had been spilt, there was no turning back.
Trivo and Elaina eventually entered the Guild’s noisy interior. Local citizenry spoke to the Guild’s agents as the sounds of mock battles could be heard from the arena. It was Roan’s idea to open the Guild to the public. Wooden swords crashed loudly, arrows entered straw dummies, and the sweat of the Guildsmen permeated the air. The crowd loved it.
“Trivo!” Roan called out. “I have heard of your success near Elmsbrooke and in the palace. Elaina, you have also been mentioned. I am pleased with your progress.”
“Thank you, Master Roan,” Elaina said blushing.
“Nonsense! I am sure you are much easier to handle than Trivo was for me,” he said laughing.
“That has yet to be seen, Master,” Trivo said with a smile of his own.
“Come into my chamber. We have much to discuss.”
Roan’s office chambers were quite cluttered. Papers were piled high on his desk. A sword leaned in its scabbard against a pile of armor. A dartboard on the wall featured Asturk’s portrait over the bulls-eye. Cabinets overflowed, ink spilt, and a sense of order within disorder dominated the room.
“Trivo, I am worried about the nobility. They are becoming more and more open in their contempt for the Guild. I fear they are plotting against us.”
“I agree,” Trivo replied. “Sir Hektor worries me most of all. I thought he was leading the nobles, but today in the hall I saw him speaking to an unknown person hidden in the shadows. I fear this must be their true leader.”
“This news is troubling,” Roan told him. “Hektor is a thorn in our side, though quite a predictable one. More about his contacts must be discovered. Do you know of any good spies?”
“None that are not already on assignment,” Trivo told him. “We may have to wait.”
“May I make a recommendation?” Elaina asked.
“Of course,” Roan said.
“The Ghost Thieves train all recruits in the arts of espionage. I believe I could enter Sir Hektor’s office quite easily. In my…wilder days, I made quite the score at the Raven estate. I am familiar with the layout. The walls are easily scaled with a grappling hook, and I doubt the guards’ habits have changed much.”
“I object,” Trivo said. “She’s far too inexperienced. If she is discovered, the Guild will be indicted. We could easily find a freelancer for this.”
“Yes, but I am much less expensive.”
“I don’t like it much either,” Roan said, “but she’s right. Our campaigns against the goblins have been going quite well, but I’ve been investing most of our money in weapons and training so that our strength increases with each passing day. I fear there are dark days in our future, and I do not wish to be unprepared.” Roan’s face darkened for a moment. “Elaina, begin your preparations.”
* * * * *
The House of Raven was an enormous structure of elven grandeur and dwarven ingenuity. It had been commissioned four hundred years ago, in Sir Hektor’s infancy, by his father Justinian. Justinian had just received a large return on an investment he had made a decade before with the dwarven thane Theograd. The mine the two had opened in the Stonewall Mountains had just stumbled upon veins of silver. Like any elven noble, Justinian had used the money he had gained to prove to other members of the elite just how wealthy he was. After his mansion was finally complete, there was no doubt that the elven lord was quite rich. His house was built from dwarven marble, elven lumber, stained glass, and included just the right amount of silver in various fixtures scattered throughout the building. A small vineyard located on the estate supplied his family and friends with endless barrels of wine, and an obscenely large outdoor bath was Justinian’s coup de gras. Justinian lived nearly eight hundred years, a long time even for an elf, and was the envy of the Tyrnish nobility for the rest of his life.
Elaina knew very little about the Raven family’s history. However, she did know the very best way to avoid the guards Hektor hired to protect his mansion. There were two who acted as doormen who guarded the front of the estate, one with a crossbow in a tower near the southeast corner, and a trio who circled the mansion’s perimeter every quarter of an hour. Although they were armed to the teeth and well trained, their predictability made them vulnerable.
The darkness of night enveloped Elaina, dressed in black leather armor from head to toe. It was flexible and light, allowing her to bend, duck, dodge, and run if need be. She wore a black cloak to cover her head, and leather gloves to keep rope from biting into her hands.
On a night like tonight, she became one with the shadows. Her equipment included a short-bow, a full quiver, her short sword, a grappling hook, and a set of lock picks. She loved to come prepared, and was especially happy this night because the mission the Guild had offered her allowed her to slip into the familiar role of the thief. Of course she would not be stealing gold, jewelry, or gems, but the Guild’s most coveted prize of all: information.
Elaina came to the estate during the time thieves call the witching hour. The witching hour takes place between the setting of the moon and the dawn of the sun. Elaina used the darkness to aid her stealth, and when she finally saw the moon’s glow smothered behind the enormous maple trees which climbed above Hektor’s tall house, she made her move. Creeping quietly out of the woods, she watched as the guards made their way around the perimeter. They laughed and joked with each other, care-free and full of confidence.
Elaina was delighted. Most of Hektor’s guards expected nothing and could be easily avoided. The only one she had to worry about was the guard in the watch tower. He could see everything, including Elaina’s point of entry, an open window into the maid’s dressing chambers. She looked up and saw the guard’s armor, still shimmering under the pale glow of the stars. The guard looked anxious, and Elaina knew that this man took his job seriously. He scanned the estate below, and his hand never crept far from the trigger of his crossbow. Elaina also saw a rope leading to a bell that the guard could use for an alarm. Luckily, she had the means necessary to ensure he did not have the chance to cause any commotion.
Inside of her quiver, were arrows used for all sorts of eventualities: some dipped in poison, others for piercing armor, and even one to put a person to sleep. Elaina took this one out and strung it on her bow. It had been made using a special excretion produced by the slumber lily, a rare flower found in Tyrn’s deepest forests. She pulled her arrow against her bow’s string, closed one emerald eye, lined the guard’s shoulder with the point of her arrow, and released. It sprang from her bow into the night air, peaked, and dipped towards the helpless guard, biting into the flesh of his arm and rendering him unconscious in but an instant.
Elaina smiled. I’m getting better, she thought to herself. If only Trivo could see me now. Elaina knew she had to act quickly if she was going to conduct her business before the sleeping man in the guard tower was discovered. She ran quickly through a small garden, around the pool, and pressed herself against the marble of the house. The cold stone absorbed the heat from her body. Elaina decided it was a good feeling, a short respite on a hot summer’s eve. She began unraveling the grappling hook tied to her waist and swung it in short circuits as she judged the distance between herself and the window. When she was confident she would make it, she let the hook fly and watched as it bit into the stone of the ledge. She tugged upon it a few times, and when she was sure it wouldn’t budge, she gripped the rope with both hands and began climbing. The silence of the night was punctuated by short grunts and gasps for air as Elaina made her way up the side of the building. Her muscles cried for relief as she climbed higher and higher and only quieted when she pulled herself through the window and allowed herself to fall to the floor below.
Luckily, the room was empty. The maids were asleep now, in their bedchambers nearby. Elaina entertained the idea of disguising herself in one of the maid’s uniforms, but then realized it wasn’t worth the trouble since none of the servants would ever be allowed inside Hektor’s office anyway. She tiptoed out of the chamber’s door into a hallway lit by torches. It was perfectly quiet except for the sound of soft snoring coming from the maids’ chambers. Elaina turned right and headed towards Hektor’s office. Peeking around the corner, she was surprised to see Sir Hektor approaching quickly, obviously quite agitated. Panicked, Elaina pressed herself against the walls and into the shadows. Hektor walked by quickly, cursing to himself, and when he finally turned the corner, Elaina breathed a sigh of relief. She continued down the hallway until she found the door to his office. Her lock picking tools were kept in a small pouch tied around her waist, and Elaina took them out so she could begin working with the lock. She probed the locking mechanism until she found a trigger, and then prodded it until she heard a familiar click. Slowly, the door swung inward.
Hektor’s office was poorly kept. File cabinets overflowed, and papers overwhelmed the desk. An overturned inkwell spread a pool of blackness on many of the papers, and Elaina could tell that the old man was under a great deal of stress. She looked for something useful on the desktop, but was unsuccessful and began to look through his drawers. An interesting file marked “Phoenix Guild Personnel” caught her eye, and she considered leaving just then when she noticed a strange piece of parchment. It was written in an odd style that looked almost foreign. Elaina studied it for a moment. The letter mentioned some type of plan called “Operation: Cloverleaf” but it was hard for her to understand. Elaina decided it must be written in high Elven, an old, highly formal language used only by the most ancient noble families. Most commoners could only understand bits and pieces.
Elaina put them both into her pack, snuck quickly into the maid’s chambers, and began to get ready to climb down into the night when she heard sounds of an argument coming from the vineyard. It was hard to see through the ivy climbing on the lattices supporting the vines, but Hektor seemed to be arguing with a man cloaked in black.
“No, you can’t do this!” she heard Hektor say. “I am a powerful man! You’ll never get away with this. Please, I can give you a fortune…”
“You have nothing to offer me except for your life!”
Elaina caught a glimpse of steel and saw the cloaked figure plunge a dagger into Hektor’s stomach while he placed his hand over the noble’s mouth. The dagger was pulled out and plunged into Hektor’s chest. He left once Hektor collapsed, and Elaina saw a terrible image that she would always associate with that night. For a few seconds, the dagger pulsed with the unmistakable rhythm of a heartbeat until it finally slowed and stopped.
Elaina came to her senses and knew she had to leave at once. She swung her grappling hook around a huge tree limb that came close to the house, grabbed onto it and used it to swing past the pool and into the woods beyond. After retrieving it, she did not stop running until she was safely inside the halls of the Phoenix Guild.
* * * * *
Trivo hated waiting for Elaina to return, as the minutes made the slow crawl from hour to hour. He sat in a common room at the Guild, running his thumb along the rim of the wine glass he was drinking from while swirling the liquid inside. As he emptied the glass, a messenger appeared.
“She’s returned!” he told Trivo.
Trivo stood up at once and hurried to the Guild’s entrance to see Elaina doubled over, panting and trying to catch her breath. He rushed to her side and asked, “Elaina, what news?”
“Sir Hektor has been murdered!” she told him. “I saw it happen. He was stabbed in his vineyard by a man I could barely see. His voice…like ice. I fled as soon as I could.”
“This is grave news,” Trivo said. “Did you discover anything else?”
“Yes, I took a couple of documents.” She showed him the intelligence Hektor had gathered on the Phoenix Guild, and also presented a letter written in high elven. “I couldn’t understand this one,” she said.
“Hmm…we’ll have to find a translator. You did a good job, Elaina. You deserve a much needed rest. Head to your chambers. I’ll come get you in the morning.”
Trivo took the documents Elaina had given him and entered Roan’s office. Roan was at his desk, peering through his spectacles at an enormous pile of paperwork.
“Elaina was successful,” Trivo told him.
“Ah, our young spy has returned. What did she find for us?” Roan asked.
Trivo put the documents on Roan’s desk. Roan opened the Phoenix Guild personnel file and began flipping through the entries. A smile crept on his face. “Trivo, you’ve quite the impressive record. They’ve devoted two full pages to your exploits.”
Trivo smiled. "The letter will have to be translated. I’ll contact our agent in the university as soon as possible,” he said. “Elaina was also a witness to a murder tonight.” Roan appeared startled, and put his spectacles on his desk. “She saw Hektor stabbed to death outside of his estate.”
Roan frowned and then began rubbing his eyes in a vain attempt to lessen his fatigue. “This troubles me. At least Sir Hektor was a predictable annoyance. Now the nobles will be even more paranoid. I suppose I should send my condolences in the morning.”
The pair were interrupted by a loud knocking on Roan’s door. “Come in,” Roan called loudly, and the door to his office was opened by a large armored hand. Two Royal guards entered, swords at their sides, armor clanking as they walked.
“In the name of King Laertes, we are here to arrest Trivo Ibasti for the murder of Hektor of the House of Raven.