Lanterns blazed in Fürth, a trading town on the edge of the Desert of Quills. Humans and humanoids alike came to trade their wares, no questions asked. The death rate was high in Fürth because the law of the sword prevailed. Along the narrow unpaved streets drunks lay, garbage was piled and the rats feasted on both. Steel and flesh mixed in a strange blur in the many inns and whorehouses. Hearty laughs and light giggles, at times, exploded above the constant din as the different races caroused.
A black cloaked figure made its way toward one particular inn, the Grinning Norker. The Grinning Norker was a place where mercenaries for hire went seeking employment. The lyrics of a bawdy song drifted to the figure’s ears as he approached. He frowned in disgust.
The giant wars brought many sell-swords, human and otherwise, to the area. Both sides utilized their skills in the hopes of gaining the upper hand in the bloody conflict. The need of fresh meat for the grinder ensured their purses stayed full.
After entering, he could see rude jests being made and stories being told to the approval of all. A young barmaid shrieked as she was pinched left and right. An even younger boy wove in and out of the throng picking up a few coins along the way. The figure took a seat by the fire after his initial inspection the surroundings.
His wandering eyes landed upon a motley crew seated a few tables away. This group consisted of an ogre, three gnolls, and a goblin. The ogre was a grotesque figure of glutton. He was dressed in studded leather armor. The blackish-brown hide of the ogre was laced with scars.
The reddish gray manes of the gnolls seemed to erupt from their padded leather armor. Their battle axes were of sinister craftsmanship and fearsome to look upon. They lapped at their bowls of drink. The laughter of the dog men tested the ear’s endurance.
The unlikely leader of this group was a four foot tall goblin. His face looked as though the Despiser had sculpted it himself. Malice exuded from his every pore. His dingy gray cloak partially covered his leather armor. A morningstar hung at his side. The lights of the inn played wickedly on the points of the weapon.
“Your order sir,” requested the young barmaid, breaking his concentration. She had a thick northern accent. She wasn’t old enough for her harsh lifestyle to have marred her natural beauty.
“A jack of ale and the house special.”
“Yes ma lord, anything else?”
“No, not now.”
“As you wish,” she replied.
The bar maid went about her business leaving him to return his focus to the patrons. The tavern was full. A smoky haze hovered above the throng. Trulls paraded their favors to those who looked as though they could afford an hour or two of pleasure.
A new burst of laughter exploded from the goblin’s table. The figure saw that the ogre had caught the boy trying to pilfer some coins. The youngster was red faced and wiggling with everything that he had.
“What have we here mates? A young footpad perhaps,” said the ogre with an exaggerated look of surprise on his face. He held his prize up by the back of his collar.
“Looks like a packrat to me,” said a gnoll. His voice was guttural. A fresh round of laughter went up from the group.
“How should we punish him?” asked another gnoll.
“Cut off his hands,” the last one suggested.
“Pluck out his eyes,” said the goblin. “I haven’t had a good eye in a long time.” The creature held the boy’s chin with his left hand. He looked him straight in the eye, “You wouldn’t miss one now would ya? Which shall I take, right or left?”
What was that? Something had flashed over the boy’s face. It had actually blotted out the youngster’s facial features in a burst of light. The figure blinked his eyes. What was it? It looked like a sigil, maybe a rune of some kind. The humanoids didn’t even flinch. Couldn’t they see it?
The boy’s efforts to escape became frenzied at the thought of these horrid prospects. They held him fast. The goblin produced a dirk. A contemptuous smile decorated the goblin’s face. He drew closer to his young victim.
There it was again, only brighter and more distinct this time. Again there was no reaction from the mongrel band around the boy. He could make it out. It was the Holy Shield! The gods had chosen the boy to join the order.
“Leave him be,” said a deep voice. The group looked around startled. All focused on the stranger who was now standing.
The cloak was at his feet, the man’s features were now visible. His basinet was battered and dented. A longsword was sheathed on his left hip. The gauntlets he wore were blood stained. The centerpiece was his massive breastplate embossed with a shield symbol. It was pitted and marred from where countless weapons had impacted but never pierced. This ragged plate mail covered a large heavily muscled frame. Sun bronzed skin encased his bluer-than-blue eyes. A rough black beard was peppered with gray.
“A nosey fellow, eh,” said the ogre as he set his prize down. The boy promptly scuttled to a place of safety. The room was silent. The patrons cleared out of the way in expectation of the fight to come. “Maybe you’d like to take his place, eh?”
“Leave now in peace or I shall show no quarter,” said the aged warrior in an almost pleading tone.
In an instant, the ogre lunged at him. As if by reflex the warrior planted his right fist in the ogre’s midriff. The ogre made a wheezing sound as the air was forced from his lungs. With another motion he threw the hulking figure into the opposite wall. The ogre made a loud crash and sat there gasping for air.
“Outside, damn you, outside!” yelled the barkeep.
Instinctively the knight drew his magical sword, Losch.
“Slice ‘em all,” screamed the sword in its familiar battle cry.
The gnolls howled as they charged with axes raised. Not waiting to be rushed upon, the man became a blur of motion. A mighty kick sent the first gnoll to the ground doubled over. Another one fell, its half severed neck a fountain of blood. The last one showed some skill in its attempts to dodge the knight’s onslaught.
The warrior’s head swam with stars after receiving a blow to the head by the ogre. The ogre spewed curses as he closed in for the kill. A desperate thrust ripped into the ogre’s chest. It gurgled as it fell.
The crimson knight rose and met the attacks of the gnoll and goblin. Losch licked out; the gnoll fell. Blood spurted from his stump of a leg. The goblin swung and missed. His morningstar imbedded itself in the table. The warrior brought Losch down and chopped through the morningstar’s handle. The table shattered from the force of the impact.
The goblin dropped to his knees as he begged for his life. The crimson figure grabbed the goblin. The foul creature closed his eyes and swallowed hard. The warrior threw him aside.
“Away from me dog and pray that our paths never cross again,” grated the knight. The goblin and the remaining gnoll ran whimpering from the inn.
Sword in hand, the warrior picked up his cloak. He strode out of the bar to drink in the cool night air. The sound of the innkeeper complaining followed him out of the door. The air was cool but it stank of dung and offal. The street lamps bathed him in light, protecting him from the darkness that threatened to engulf all.
“You’re becoming soft,” stated Losch.
He stopped and eyed the dripping blade a moment before wiping it off. Sweat beaded on his forehead and his temples throbbed with his pulsing blood. His muscles, full of unspent adrenaline, sent tremors through his hands. Breathing heavily he began to place the sword in its scabbard.
“Be aware of knives in the dark. They’ll seek revenge,” warned the blade as he slid it into place.
“Don’t they always,” replied the knight. Movement caught his eye. He left his hand on his sword’s hilt.
“Come here son,” he said.
Slowly a pair of eyes peered around a corner. The warrior motioned with his hand. Hesitantly, the youngster from the bar came to him. He placed his left hand on the boy’s shoulder and squatted.
Their eyes met, the old warrior of many campaigns and the boy embarking on life’s journey. He asked, “How old are you?”
“I’m six summer’s old…almost seven,” the boy added with a smile.
The knight grinned, “Seven! Why you’re almost a man. Where are your parents?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders, “I haven’t got any.”
“Where do you sleep?”
He shrugged again, “Where ever is safe.”
“How would you like to be a knight like me?”
The child’s eyes grew with amazement. He shook his head vigorously.
The veteran removed the plated gauntlet from his right hand. The knight held his hand palm up and began flexing his fingers in a strange rhythmic pattern. The boy stood amazed as a glowing tattoo appeared on the knight’s palm. It was an ornate shield similar to the one on his breastplate. Almost immediately it transfigured into an eagle. His fingers continued but in a slightly different dance.
A silver colored disk materialized on his palm. The knight put the disk in the boy’s hand. The child’s eye went wide as he examined the disk. On one side was the Holy Shield with an eagle on the other.
“Keep it safe. Now, go get whatever you own and meet me at the northernmost gate in the morning,” said the knight.
The boy ran off and disappeared from sight. The old warrior’s knees popped as he rose from his squatting position. The veteran smiled and shook his head.
The boy’s heart raced as he ran down the alley. The smile was soon wiped from his face as a gnarled hand reached out of the shadows to grab him. The boy was drawn close; the hand now covered his mouth.
“You little brat,” said the goblin from the bar. His heavy breathing was mixed with speech. “You’ve caused me too much trouble for me to let you off of the hook.” The creature drew forth his dirk. “My friends died now you must die.”
The boy’s scream was muffled. Even though he savagely bit into the goblin’s hand, it was not removed. The dirk bit deep. The boy’s life-blood escaped him. The goblin’s laughter echoed in the utter darkness.