For more reasons than one, Ventyr was relieved to finally see the walls of the Stoneguard Gate nestled tightly between the rocky ridges looming up beside it.
The walk hadn’t been hard that day, just a steady hike through the grain fields and gentle, green knolls south of Beetletun. The scent of budding grass met his nose and the calls of young sparrows in a tree nearby filled his ears, but the sylvari was having a hard time paying attention to much of it.
Even with the losses they’d suffered on the trip—a trip that he’d started them on—he’d admitted to himself that things could have been far, far worse. Most recently things would have been worse if not for their fortuitous run-in with Clarence.
After taking Ventyr and his party the rest of the way from the hunting lodge to his farm the previous day, Clarence had demonstrated further kindness by making room for the four of them to stay the night in his own home. The man really knew no limit to generosity.
Ventyr had stayed there before, but the reality had hit him anew as he helped carry his still unconscious crusader across the threshold. For a farmhouse, it was no small abode: two-storied, with a large lower living space that had a door opening out toward the farm and another opening back toward the pig sties and chicken coop in the rear. There were three rooms on the second floor and an outhouse outside. As Jindel had continued to sleep, the other three had spent an hour or two with their host in the main room, eating freshly made chicken stew beside the stone hearth before being shown to their rooms.
When it was time for everyone to rest, Ventyr and Minkus were given mats in the storage room at the end of the upstairs hall, while Penny and Jindel were given Clarence and his wife Melinda’s master bedroom for the night. This left the children to sleep in their own bedroom while Clarence and Melinda simply made a bed of blankets for themselves in the living space downstairs.
Then, as they left that next morning, the group found themselves blessed further. After a hearty meal of eggs, bacon, and cornmeal cakes, Melinda added apples and salted pork to each of their bags, ensuring they had food to eat at least until they were able to reach the Stoneguard fort.
When he thought back on it, Penny’s thanks that morning had seemed paltry to him, in light of all they’d received. In contrast Minkus had nearly stayed on as a farmhand, his gratitude was so abundantly clear. Ventyr understood that, though he own response had been properly stoic. Jindel had missed almost everything that had happened that previous day, which explained her subdued response to all they’d received.
Here, now, miles from Clarence’s farm, it was Jindel who still concerned him. Minkus had entirely healed her wounds, and Jindel had slept through the previous day’s travel and the rest of that night, putting her in substantially better health than she had been just two nights before when they’d dragged her from that cave. Or at least it should have.
Every time he looked back at the crusader, bringing up the rear of the group, he couldn’t miss her arched back and plodding steps, so far from the erect posture she’d held tightly when he’d led her out of Divinity’s Reach. She silently kept to the pace of the others, clearly forcing herself on, though, physically speaking, it shouldn’t have been such a challenge.
When he finally recognized Stoneguard on the horizon, it held his attention. It was a haven for them all, if only for a night.
“Gods am I glad to see that,” he heard Penny call from several yards ahead. She stopped briefly to admire the distant gates and reposition her shoulders under her load. Minkus patted her arm and offered an encouraging grin as he passed by.
Penny turned to Ventyr. He was just a few steps behind her. “Sure, this is all just rolling hills and crap. It’s easy to walk. But being beaten, kidnapped, bound, blown up, and—” The smirk in the corner of her mouth disappeared as the words did too. “Well, it really takes it out of you is all. I’ll be glad to sleep behind those walls and have all this Queensdale shit behind us.”
Ventyr nodded, leaning on his staff for a moment. He looked at its top, where there was a new gash in the head, right below the crystal that sat wedged between three short fingers of wood. It was nothing that impacted the structure of the weapon or its abilities. It was certainly not the first damage it had received in its years of service, but the sylvari knew every groove and knot intimately, and this was the latest of many new nicks and dents he’d noticed in the aftermath of the bandit caves.
Penny sighed and took another step forward, resuming her progress as Jindel caught up. Venty’r attention fell on her again as the party continued up the dusty dirt road, returning to the relative silence that had marked the day since they’d left Clarence’s farm.
Though the fort had appeared to still be far off in the distance, the remaining road proved to be much shorter than it seemed. Within the hour they were there, passing beneath the large stone archway and into the gap between the outer and inner walls.
Of course, that gap took another thirty minutes to traverse, much to Penny’s chagrin. As Ventyr described it, this gap had been built as a bottleneck to hinder any assault that might come from the western side of the pass. It offered defenders a large cushion of time to reinforce the second wall and further thin out the attackers’ ranks with arrow volleys. Whatever the case, in light of all the traveling they’d already done, the added walk seemed interminable to her.
When they finally strode past the second gate and into the main courtyard of the fort, the sun still hadn’t fully set behind them. It cast long eastward-facing shadows over passing soldiers, another few bands of travelers, and the handful of vendors beginning to close up shop. There was little remaining time for the group to scrounge up a corner of the fort in which to lay out their bedrolls and take their night’s rest when the sun was finally down.
Ventyr sought out a familiar face among the guards, but those posted around the gate were unknown to him. From the squat, balding man in heavy plate to the slender, female archer with surprisingly manly hands, he said none had been there on any of his previous travels through this region.
“There’s no one here I recognize,” he admitted. “It’s been too long since I last passed this way.”
“Can’t have friends everywhere, carrot-stick,” Penny replied dryly. “But you can make new ones. Hello there!” She dropped her bag beside her friends and strode briskly toward a young man working some twenty yards away.
“Oh, this should be good,” Jindel grunted.
Minkus stepped up beside her. “Oh, just wait,” he said, chuckling. “There’s no telling what she might accomplish. It was a conversation like this that got me here.”
“Thank you, Biggie,” Penny said over her shoulder with a nod. “I’ll be right back with a room.”
“Hey!” She called again, nearing the small sales booth the young man was bent behind.
He stood up from the crate he was filling and pointed to himself, looking more than a touch surprised. He straightened, brushing his straw-colored hair out of his face and unwittingly smearing dirt across his forehead. He extended his hand to shake.
“I would, but, ah—” She pointed to the dirt that covered his palm and then gestured gingerly to her own forehead. He got the clue, grabbing a rag to wipe both his hand and his face. It was now red instead of brown.
Penny smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “There you go,” she affirmed. “Look, my friends and I are looking for a safe spot to spend the night, and you look like the sort of guy who knows his way around this place.”
The young man, now distracted from his embarrassing introduction, thought for a moment, scratching his cheek and mumbling to himself.
“Well,” he mused after a moment, “the only real nighttime shelter is the barracks—not that the courtyard is any less safe, just not as comfortable, and it’s cold. But the barracks are full with soldiers and the few merchants who are allowed to do business here.” He paused to think again, coming up with a bit of small talk in the meantime. “Where you folks from?”
“Eh, here and there,” Penny replied, shifting her weight to lean on the counter. “Me, I’m from Divinity’s Reach—city girl.” A coy smile spread across her face as she traced her finger along the edge of his counter. “You wouldn’t happen to be one of the merchants lucky enough to sleep in those barracks would you?”
He stopped his pondering and returned her smile. “Oh, yeah? Divinity’s Reach?” He said. “I’ve been there— what a place. Huge city, tall as the sky itself, and so many things to see and do!”
“You’re very right,” she said, nodding her agreement and letting her smile spread a bit. “All the exciting things to do, fancy people to meet. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
He frowned a little. “So what in Tyria brought you out here?”
Penny shrugged, pursing her lips a moment before responding. “We’re on the road for business. Girl’s gotta make a buck, after all.”
The young man nodded, his eyes wandering back to the pigeon coop beside him. He shook his head and returned his attention to the woman across the stall from him. “I understand, miss—”
“Penny,” she interjected. “And you are?”
“That’s a pretty name. They call me Wendell.”
“Well, Wendell,” she continued, leaning in a little closer. “This city girl and her friends over there need a place to sleep until we carry on with our long journey tomorrow. Think a knowledgeable, connected young man like yourself could help us out?”
He’d been trying to keep his composure, but his face squished as soon as he fell back into thought, painfully hard thought, it seemed. “Well,” he said after another moment, “there’s nothing I can do about the barracks—” he looked around awkwardly, as though someone might be watching him from one of the coops. “But,” he continued, leaning toward her and lowering his voice, “if you don’t tell anyone, I can let you sleep here at my stall.”
Penny’s expression fell, and she took a quick step back. “Here?” she asked incredulously. “With the birds?”
“Well, yes,” he shrugged, shrinking a little. “It’s no inn, but at least the Seraphs won’t bother you for getting in their way.”
Penny stood upright. Her smile was gone. “Fine. It beats getting kicked out, I guess.”
“Great. That’ll be twenty coppers a piece,” Wendell said, extending his empty hand.
He pulled his head back at her rebut. “Twenty coppers a piece. Sorry miss Penny, but this isn’t part of how uncle Ridley told me to run his stall. If I’m to stay on his good side, I have to make money for this.” He shrugged again, without retracting his hand.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Her playful facade had now completely dissolved. “Anywhere else, a whole room at an inn is only a silver. I’m not giving you eighty coppers to share a patch of dirt with some sparrows. You’ll take twenty for all of us.”
He thought about it, frowning. “Forty,” he countered. “And they’re pigeons.”
Penny, now scowling, glanced back over her shoulder at the others. She could only make out their silhouettes against the deep orange rays of sunset streaming in through the western gate behind them. Sure, it was going to be embarrassing when they found all she’d gotten them was a foul stack of coops for a room, but in the wake of her disappointing efforts, and with the exhaustion of the day again settling in, she didn’t really care. With a heavy sigh, she dug into her hip satchel, drew out a silver, and handed it to the vendor.
“Fine,” she conceded. “Just give me my change.”
He did so, thanking her for her business and pointing out where the group could lay their mats and blankets. “I’ll be done closing up in half an hour,” he concluded. “Come back then, and the space is yours. And if you need anything, I’m just over in the barracks, room three.”
Penny crossed her arms as she listened, nodding to his instructions, before turning and walking stiffly back to the others. The sun was further below the horizon now, making it possible to once again see their faces in the evening light.
“So,” Jindel began with a raised brow. “Is he buying you an ale later?”
Penny only glowered at her.
“We saw the exchange of money but didn’t hear the details,” Ventyr said, leaning on his staff.
“Well—“ Penny started, hesitantly. “He wasn’t quite the help I’d anticipated.”
Minkus hefted his pack, adjusting the weight as he looked up at Penny expectantly. “But you did find us something, right?”
Jindel crossed her arms, clearly waiting for an answer to both of her travel-mates’ questions.
Penny eyed the awaiting faces, deciding how to put it. “Ok, fine,” she finally sighed, putting a hand to her forehead. “All I could get was the space behind his stall. It wasn’t what I was after— but at least we’re not in the middle of the courtyard.”
“So, we’re sleeping with the birds?” Jindel asked.
“Yes, with the birds,” Penny conceded, tossing a hand in the air. Instead of debating any further, she reached down and grabbed her smartpack. “You guys are welcome to sleep wherever you want,” she said, “but I’m taking advantage of this deal I just swung.”
The pack now on her back again, she took a few steps, then stopped in her tracks, lowering her head and pinching the bridge of her nose. “In half an hour.”
Two hours later, all their things were spread out on the earth between the booth and the stone wall built into the cliff on the northern side of the fort. Their mats were laid out side by side, with Minkus lying closest to the birds, who were already fast asleep.
“Great spot we have here,” Jindel remarked. “I’m particularly fond of the smell.”
“Look—” Penny started, but Minkus cut her off.
“It’s really not that bad,” he said, shuffling himself further into his blankets as he went on. ” There were worse smells in the Dynamics labs. And the sound as the pigeons sleeping— it’s— well, it’s sort of cute. Calming even.” He went silent, listening to the airy cooing of a few birds in the furthest cages, lulling him into rest. “Pretty animals, really.”
Done arguing, Penny rolled onto her side and pulled her blanket up over her head noisily. “Sure. Whatever you say, Biggie. I’m going to sleep.”
She did. They all did. Not even the ripe, ammonia-rich scent of pigeon stool was enough to keep anyone’s eyes open.
As he drifted off, a mild smile, satisfied and grateful, remained on Minkus’ lips. Terrible events had befallen the party over the first half of their journey, events that still weighed on his heart when they crossed his mind. At the same time, he couldn’t ignore his thankfulness.
Whether he spoke to the Eternal Alchemy, one of the human gods, or some other presence in the heavens, he had no idea. He just spoke, the words forming quietly on his lips. “Hello,” he whispered. “If anyone is out there, thank you. Thank you that we escaped, and thank you that the four of us are alright.” He paused. “Goodnight, I guess?”
Minkus rolled over, and his eyelids fell heavily. The sound of cooing faded, and the world went dark.
When all four figures were clearly asleep, a shadow peeled itself from the wall of the fort and crept cautiously toward the vendor stall. Crouched low to minimize any visible profile, Skixx knew he was nearly invisible, just a shadow in the night. He also knew he’d found his marks.
Laying there on the ground, beneath the open sky were the four people he believed he’d heard: an idiot of an asura, two cocksure human females, and a sylvari carrying something seemingly more precious than any of them understood. And there they were, sleeping soundly behind the very cooper’s stall he’d visited earlier that day. They were ripe for the thieving. The only one missing was the charr.
Skixx pressed himself against the splintering wood of the stall and scanned the area for any sign of the hulking feline. He saw nothing. Lurking back out around the edge of the stall again, he eyed the party, noting that there were only four sleeping pads, not five.
Hunched there, he considered how to approach his theft, when he heard heavy footfalls behind him, crunching pebbles underfoot. Skixx turned around rapidly, prepared to face the charr.
“Can I help you?” asked a Seraph guard standing over him with a suspicious eye. The sturdy, nearly rotund, man rested his hand on the pommel of a mace still hooked to his belt.
“Yes,” Skixx quietly replied, not wanting to wake the targets. He pulled back his hood. “I— was looking for a place to rest tonight. Much like these folks.”
The Seraph looked him up and down, then looked past him at the four sleeping by the pigeon coops. He winced at the smell. “These four have paid the owner to use this spot. Kid does it all the time,” he said, shaking his head. “You, on the other hand, have not paid, so there’s room for you over there.” He pointed toward the gate. “By the guardhouse.”
“Excellent,” Skixx replied, burying his fury beneath a veneer of quaint gratitude.
The Seraph walked him across the courtyard toward another group of sleeping travelers. Skixx followed, sneering.
“You don’t seem to be carrying much for someone traveling cross-country,” the man probed.
“Oh, no. I’ve travelled many times. I am quite versed in traversing lightly,” Skixx said, with a humble shrug.
The two stopped near the guardhouse, just out of earshot of other sleeping travelers, several humans and a pair of norns. “You can join them,” the guard said in a hushed tone.
“Thank you,” Skixx replied. With a bow, he held his frustration behind a clenched smile. “I am grateful for your help.”
“Yeah,” the man said as he turned to head back to his rounds. “Goodnight.” Heavy footsteps crunched off across the dirt courtyard, slightly louder than the gentle clack of the steel skirt-plates around the man’s upper thighs.
A scowl returned to Skixx’s face as he kept an ear attuned to the departing guard. Before returning to his duties, the man stepped close to a fellow Seraph at the gate. Skixx could just hear their quick conversation. “Watch that one,” the guard said in a hushed tone. “I found him snooping around the pigeon keeper’s stall.”
With that, Skixx knew his options were gravely limited. Gritting his teeth, he dropped his small pack and unrolled his sleeping mat. Already he could hear the mockery of his Inquest cohorts at being thwarted again, and now he could also imagine the smug expression on that bandit’s face, laughing at his failure as well. He dropped his blankets and took a deep breath, focusing again on his task. The next night, he assured himself, would be different.