In which Veliaf leaves Northshire Valley for the wider world.
The freezing morning air numbed Veliaf’s fingers and shocked his lungs as he stepped out of the inn to face the new day. The sun had risen not long ago and a chill mist, not yet dispersed by wind or heat, still hung above the dew-covered grasses of Northshire Valley. The ground was hard and crisp underfoot, probably signifying the beginnings of a frost, and the moon was still faintly visible in the clear sky. Temperatures in the Valley had dropped dramatically with the recent transition into November, and many in the settlement were now preparing for the harsh winter months as autumn faded away.
Leaving the frosted windows of the inn behind him, Veliaf strode across the barren forecourt and out onto the road, turning south and heading for the trail which would lead down towards the hills and, eventually, the exit from the Valley. It was a shame – he liked the area, with its peaceful vineyards and its cosy community, but mercenaries generally could not afford the luxury of staying for too long in one place. Issues of reputation aside, the absence of work meant that he would not be able to afford his keep for the winter, and so regrettably he would have to move on and try to find a job elsewhere. Pulling his leather gloves tighter onto his hands, he strode on.
He had been walking for maybe forty minutes, following the stream which had earlier flowed by the Abbey and now gushed alongside the path, when he spotted the guard post in the distance which signalled the boundary between Northshire Valley and the rest of Elwynn Forest. The air was still chillingly cold, and the two lone guards were seated around a small fire just off to one side of the path. As Veliaf, approached, they stood up, chain-mail clanking, and the near one spoke:
“Now then sir, leavin’ for the forest are we, eh? What’ll be your business there then, eh?” The guard’s young features twisted into a suspicious frown.
“Well right now I am headed for the nearest stable to purchase a horse. Either of you two gentlemen care to direct me?” Veliaf replied curtly, annoyed at the interruption.
“How’s about I tell you that when you tell me what your business really is, eh? It’s almost winter. Most people don’t like t’ travel in winter.”
“Well, I don’t have much choice. My business is private, thank you.”
“Is that so, eh?” The guard took a step forward, blocking the path, and shifted his hand towards the sword on his belt. Before he could move further, the other guard, older and weathered, put a hand on his companion’s shoulder and addressed them both:
“Alright, calm down, this is silly. Sir, the closest stable is in Goldshire, just follow the path down into the town. Forgive my colleague here for being overly cautious but some strange traffic passes us these days, and it’s our job to keep folks safe from danger.”
Veliaf nodded. “It’s fine. Thank you for the information; I’ll be on my way now.”
Stepping around the still-tense younger guard, he subtly relaxed his hand from its grip on his concealed dagger under his traveling cloak and wrapped the worn garment around himself once more to keep out the cold. Walking through the guard post – really little more than a walled cover over a small stone bridge – he continued along the path and into the forest.
The morning went by slowly. The path was well trodden but deserted – Veliaf had seen no other signs of life since the guard post, something he was thankful for considering the Defias bandits who often stalked these roads. The earlier mist had faded away now but the sun shone only weakly overhead, providing little warmth, and the still air carried a bite. The silence was heavy. As he passed a small copse on his right however, the bushes seemed to rustle slightly, stopping him on the spot. He turned to face the thicket, but it now appeared completely silent once more. Time passed. His breath clouded in front of him. Nothing moved. A bead of cold sweat rolled down his back as he stood there, tense. Perhaps he had just imagined it – but no, there it was again, a tiny movement to his left. He looked up the path. It was empty.
All of a sudden he could barely turn before something launched itself out of the bushes behind him with a cry, toppling him forwards to the ground and knocking the wind out of him. And then there were more of the things, coming out of the forest from all directions now, running and jumping and scampering and scrabbling and shouting, a confusion of arms and legs racing across his vision, weighing down on his back, pinning him to the ground limb by limb, removing his sword from his waist. Veliaf struggled but could neither properly see his adversaries nor break free of them as they gradually immobilised him. They had not yet suppressed his right arm though, and he now reached for the still-concealed dagger under his cloak as small hands grabbed at him. Finding the hilt, he quickly drew it from its sheath and slashed out to the side, feeling the blade bite into flesh and hearing squeals as the hands retreated. Acting fast, he stabbed up and behind him, across his spine, and the pressure on his back suddenly lessened as warm blood splattered across his neck. Kicking out with his legs and rolling onto his back, he got his first look at his attackers.
Surrounding him was a semi-circle of short humanoids, each about as tall as his thigh. Their scrawny arms and legs were covered in patchy, gristly hair and they wore rudimentary clothing which looked as if it had been pieced together from scraps of material. Bony necks ended in pale, ugly heads with large ears and elongated noses that were really more like snouts, and on their heads they all wore tin helmets with candles attached. Thin, pink, hairless tails flicked out behind them. Veliaf recognised them instantly – they were kobolds, a vermin race of miners not uncommon in the area, although they rarely ventured out from their caves in the mountainsides. Some of them held mining picks as weapons and one was holding its arm where Veliaf had cut it. Another, the one from his back, lay dead by his side.
Not hesitating for a second, the kobolds launched themselves at him again. Veliaf had no time to recover as two of them jumped, so he blindly stabbed outwards as he rolled sideways, and was rewarded with at least one cry of pain. Getting up onto his knees he was immediately knocked down again as more of them collided with him, but now he could reach his sword which had been discarded onto the ground, and with weapons in both hands he managed to flail and injure enough of them to finally stand up, though not before a swinging pick gave him a nasty gash across the forehead. Dazed and losing blood fast, he moved right and aimed a kick at one of the weaponless kobolds even as he skewered another on his sword blade, but his injury was making him dizzy and he lost his balance, falling to his knees again. He desperately swung out with his sword, cutting one across the chest and knocking the weapon from another’s hands, trying not to faint, knowing he needed to hold out for as long as possible. However, the few remaining kobolds had now lost both their numbers and their confidence, and so with cries of anger they swiftly backed off and disappeared back into the forest. The attack was over as quickly as it had begun.
The woods were silent and empty once more. Veliaf blinked blood out of his eyes and looked around. He was sure that the kobolds would not return, and so, as darkness replaced his vision and he slipped into unconsciousness, he allowed himself to slowly collapse sideways, increasingly numb fingers losing their grip on his weapons. The last thing he heard was the distant sound of hooves.
As the woman approached, her eyebrows raised momentarily and her horse snorted. In the middle of the road lay an unmoving, badly injured man dressed in traveling clothes. By his side were a sword and dagger, and surrounding him were more than ten dead kobolds and an increasingly large pool of blood.
“Impressive”, she murmured to the seemingly empty air. “He could be exactly what we’re looking for”.