All Roads Lead – Prologue

I said to myself that I’d write more now that I have more free time, and reading through my current projects I decided that this one is one that grabbed my attention, possibly due to the fact that I’m also a member of a Pathfinder group, so traditional fantasy is more prevalent in my brain than it usually is (come on, I’m totally a sci-fi nut. Swords and sorcery isn’t my usual style). I’m going to work on this story and try to actually finish it, though it will take a while as I believe it will be the length of a full novel. If you read it and see things that just don’t sound right or have any suggestions, let me know as I will be compiling it all at the end and it’ll help on the editing if things are nipped in the bud now.

The human city of Cymeria was the jewel of Cymer. The Adalen family had ruled over the lands of Cymer from their keep in the northern section of the city, adjacent to the knights quarter and the cathedral. Cymer’s climate was temperate, far more agreeable than the majority of human lands, but nowhere near as pleasant as the Elven Empire to the east, a land imbued with pure magic energy that allowed the elven wizards and sorceresses to manipulate the very weather. Relations between the Imperial elves and the rest of the world had drastically worsened since the elves ceased trade with the rest of the world and abandoned any of their race who still dwelt on the other continent, and all out war was only prevented by the great ocean that lay between the elves and the rest of the world.

A gentle breeze sailed through the marketplace in Cymeria’s trade district, the mid morning sun casting a warm glow over the stalls and merchants peddling their wares. The trade district was full of life, commoners and nobility perusing what the market had to offer, a mix of simple clothing, gaudy and outlandish outfits worn by the nobility, tabards of the knights and the armoured forms of guards, sellswords and adventurers all roaming about the same roads. The most recent ruler of Cymer, Lord Rein Adalen, was more liberal than most other human lords and it rubbed off on his people. Over the past two decades, the Cymerian nobility had become far more accepting of the commoners, the Cymerian culture taking a more co-operative approach to the traditional human class system. There were still limitations by class, but at least the nobility did not step on the people below them.

“Oh, that’s wonderful. Is that… Dwarven craftsmanship?” a woman in leather armour asked one of the vendors as she pointed to an emerald pendant on his stall, her voice well-spoken and almost elegant, rolling off the tongue with ease; she had to be nobility, or at least have taken speaking lessons. The vendor was foreign, that much was apparent in the way he dressed, favouring the heavier clothing from the northern settlements, but also his skin tone was paler than most in the city. He looked like he was about to keel over in the heat, his clothing too thick for the Cymerian climate.

“That it is, m’lady. Made by my buddy, Rolan Ironhammer. Real quality Dwarven smithing went into that beauty.” The merchant smiled, picking up the pendant and extending it to the woman. “Would the lady like to try it on?”

The woman raised her hand with a smile. “No, thank you. I am not seeking purchase today, though I wish to commend your friend’s workmanship. It is a true work of art.” The woman was not joking; the pendant outshone most of the wares in the entire marketplace, gold surrounding a modest emerald. It was simple, but it held a simplistic beauty that escaped the more common, gaudy items.

The merchant’s expression dropped momentarily, but he persevered. “Are you sure. It would look beautiful on one such as yourself, m’lady. For you, because the most beautiful jewel in the market belongs with the most beautiful jewel, I will give you a special price. Only seventy gold mers.”

The woman shook her head. “You haven’t even seen my face, so how can you make such a claim, merchant?” she replied as her lips curled into a grin, though her lips were all that was visible underneath her hood. Her features were well hidden, though this style of attire was not too uncommon amongst travellers and mercenaries. It was strange, but not so out of place that it would raise suspicions. “Your words are most kind, but necklaces such as this would put me at a disadvantage in combat. I am a sellsword, after all, and would have no real reason to wear such a thing.”

The merchant seemed surprised, but ultimately admitted defeat; the woman raised a valid point. “Very well m’lady. If you ever change your mind,” he answered before turning his attention to another potential customer, eager to make his day’s profits. The woman turned and continued on her way through the marketplace, casually observing the bustle as she kept watch for the items she needed to buy. Food, mostly, but also various medicinal herbs not native to the Cymerian climate. What she stumbled upon, however, was not what she wished.

“Genuine leather armour. Boots, bags, coinpurses; we’ve got everything.”

The woman’s eyes darted to the leather stand, examining the goods for a moment before her eyes widened with realisation. There was a stark difference between elf leather goods and elven leather goods. The elves that lived in the human lands were viewed as nothing more than animals, perhaps the only point where Imperial elves and humans agreed. The elven clans on the great western continent were viewed as savage beasts, often hunted for sport by the humans that inhabited the lands, both civilised and hill clans, or the savage orcish tribes. If any elf managed to get to the eastern Elven Empire, across the sea that separated the two continents and to one of the many merchant ports, they would be executed or enslaved on sight; their fates were often not pleasant. That being said, creating leather goods from an elf’s skin was not commonly practised, the similarities between the races prevalent enough to largely prevent it.

The woman covered her mouth, holding back the desire to vomit and turning away from the stall, colliding with a fruit stand and drawing the attention of everyone around as she stabilised herself against a wall and acquiesced to her body’s wishes, bringing up the contents of her stomach into the gutter.

“Hey! What’s the problem here?” came the voice of one of the guards as two barged their way through the crowd that surrounded the hooded woman. Her eyes darted to the guards, vibrant violet eyes quickly moving, assessing as she wiped her mouth.

“That woman barged into my stall and then threw up in the gutter,” the fruit merchant called out, pointing a finger at the hooded woman.

“Look, I’m sorry…” she started, though the leather merchant cut her off, pointing his finger at her.

“She’s a spy! An elf come to take our secrets back to the Empire!” he yelled in an accusatory way, “I got a glimpse under that hood, she’s got ears pointy as daggers!”

“You don’t honestly believe that the Imperial elves care about a market, right?” the woman replied, venom dripping from her words but the words had already been spoken. Now the guards were suspicious.

“Lady. Hood down. Show us your face,” the first asserted, putting one hand on his sword. The other already had his crossbow trained on her.

A silence filled the marketplace for the first time since the early morning.

“Lady. I will not ask again. Show us your face,” he ordered for the second time, drawing his sword and walking towards her. The woman’s eyes were darting all around now, panicking, searching for a way out like a trapped animal.

The only thing that kept her resolve strong was the knowledge that this was how these humans would view her; a trapped, savage, wild animal. She intended to prove them wrong. If she was an animal, she would prove that she was a superior animal to them. She looked up, her eyes locking with theirs. “That’s not a good idea.”

She darted to the side, narrowly avoiding a crossbow bolt that flew past her head. Had she stayed where she was standing, she would not have been standing any longer. She darted through the crowd with unmatched speed as hands grabbed where she had been a split second before. She heard the guards calling after her, but she didn’t listen, her focus on her escape plan. She leapt upon a weapon stall, dodging the swing of the merchant as he brought his axe arcing around. She could hear more people getting riled up now, this was nothing more than a mid morning hunt to them. They were either hunting a wild animal or a spy, either was reason enough for everyone who owned a weapon to grab them. She sprung from the market stall, grabbing onto the wall that separated the trade district from the knight’s quarter. Knights and their squires were typically not suited to pursue a quarry such as her, and it was a better bet than making her way around to the keep and the town guard barracks.

“Stop that elf! She’s a spy for the Empire!” one guard yelled, loosing another crossbow bolt at her. His aim was off by a few degrees, but the woman did not stick around to risk any more shots, dropping off the wall and into the streets below. The guards had not mobilised completely yet, she still had time to follow her escape plan. She darted through back alleys, pulling her sword from its sheathe and ducking beneath another sword swing. The man wore a chain vest, cloth trousers and, most noticeably, a tabard of one of the Cymerian knights.

“If you come peacefully, you won’t be harmed,” he said as she passed by, though she wasn’t listening, darting past with a speed that she knew he wouldn’t be able to match. She broke out into the street and made her way for the guard tower at the opposite corner of the knight’s quarter, a risky move, but if the whole city was up in arms she would never make it to the sewers from where she currently was. She could hear them behind her, a mix of regular, armoured, and even hoofed steps. She burst into the guard tower, blocking a pre-emptive strike that was aimed for her neck.

“Going to make a trophy of your ears, elf,” the guard said, his face close enough to hers that his words were somewhat less threatening than his breath, the stench of last night’s ale still lingering stale in his mouth. The elf didn’t say anything, opting to artfully spin his sword from his hand and barging past. He ran after her, grabbing his sword from the floor but she was already putting distance between them. Most of the guards had already left the tower to look for her, so she met almost no resistance on her way up, breaking out onto the balcony that overlooked this particular area of town and overlooking the plains beyond Cymeria’s walls. She leapt over the edge, dropping down outside the city limits. She landed lightly, rolling as she made impact with the ground and breaking back into run. The humans wouldn’t let her go, fearing that she may be a spy for the Empire. Foolish, she thought to herself, harbouring no love for the Elven Empire in the east. As she reached the forests, she climbed upwards into the tree canopy, the familiar branches offering her cover and concealment from her trackers, as well as eliminating any footprints she might leave.

She dashed through the treetops, leaping from branch to branch as she put the city of Cymeria behind her.

The sickness spreads. We cannot hold it back.

The words played through her mind, weak, as if spoken by a dying man. She did not have time to ponder on their implications before the branch she landed on snapped and gave way, sending her tumbling through the canopy and landing with a thump on the dirt below.

“I heard something that way,” she heard someone announce in the distance. The ground rumbled lightly as her hunters closed on her position, the humans able to cover far more ground on horseback than she was able to leaping from tree to tree. Head spinning, she clambered to her feet.

Run, child!

A sharp pain shot up from her leg and she crumpled back to the ground, a crossbow bolt finally finding its mark, tearing through muscle and rendering her leg completely useless. She heard the clip-clop of horses draw closer, rolling on the ground as blood started to pool beneath her leg. Four individuals on horseback approached, wearing a mix of chain shirts and regular tunics; they all, however, wore tabards of the Cymerian knights.

A silent chuckle escaped her lips as consciousness slipped from her. At least it took the human ‘elite’ to finish me off.