2. Bloody festivities at Sandpoint
Year 4707, Autumn Equinox, 22nd of Rova, Starday
The Docks, Sandpoint
It was midday and the sun was in its apex, its rays warm, when I arrived to Sandpoint. Two weeks earlier I had left the city of Korvosa by cog, with a simple task at hand.
“Bring the boy back, dead or alive. Preferably alive”, my latest employer, a Korvosan merchant had instructed me. His youngest son, barely a man grown, had ran away from the city with his man-lover. “I don’t care really. That mewling, stubborn boy has brought our family so much pain and humiliation.. but his mother wants to have him back safe.. Mothers”, he had spat. I think I had been the only bounty hunter willing to work for him, so he had had to choose me, a rather young hunter he had felt inexperienced and who had just arrived with no name to himself. I had accepted the job even though it paid almost nothing – the merchant obviously cared little what happened to his son.
Now, here I was, looking for a boy who wanted to become a bard in a family of stiff upper lipped traders and who had the misfortune to born loving cocks instead of cunts. The old, worn cog slid into berth as the captain shouted orders to his crew to begin disembarkation. My composite longbow in one hand, I threw my backpack to the pier with the other and leaped off the deck, scaring a flock of seagulls. The weeks at sea had left me tired and rigid. It felt good to be on solid ground again.
The little fishing town was jubilant. All around, masses of people were making their way through the streets. Many were singing or playing music and wearing colourful clothing. Magicians and musicians entertained the folk at street sides, while vendors sold different varieties of foods and religious trinkets, shouting their prices of the day to everyone and no-one in particular. The festivities were a celebration of the harvest or other summer’s end festival and decided to head to the city center. There I assumed I’d find the best inns and taverns and would have the best opportunity to hear something about my dandy target. Drunken tongues are loose tongues, I smartly reminded myself.
Making my way through the crowd, I found myself half an hour later at the town plaza. A stone walled cathedral stood proudly over the square like a proud guardian of the city. While it was nothing compared to the palaces and basilisks of Canorate, it easily dwarfed the houses around it. The locals had erected a wooden platform before the main entrance and several official looking men and women were standing on it, waiting for someone or something. It seemed that I had just arrived in time to hear some public speaking. Since I wasn’t in a particular hurry, I stayed to watch.
People were gathering in front of the platform. I remained back, quietly observing the folk. A long-haired, muscular grunt with a massive earthbreaker slung across his back was shouting insults, shoving people and making his way closer to the platform. I frowned, feeling contempt. The barbarian was drawing the attention of several town guards, but they were unwilling to act. A wise decision, I considered. Closer to me, a stocky dwarf tiptoed, trying to see farther above the heads and shoulders of taller men. I overheard him cursing under his breath about bringing the other shoes.
I let my gaze wander. Dozens of people had arrived by now and the plaza was getting full. Among the crowd I made fleeting eye contact with a young girl in a fire red cloak. She regarded me with her beautiful, but so very sad and pained eyes before turning away and drawing her hood further over her head.
At the platform, Sandpoint’s mayor, a middle-aged, uninspirational woman called Deverin, took the stage. She looked all the administrator and spoke to the crowd like she probably had done for a hundred times before. I didn’t pay attention to her, but kept observing my surroundings, trying to find my target. There was no-one there who fit the description I had got. Instead I noticed a dirty-looking half-orc at the other side of the plaza. I could smell him, but I resented it not, rather feeling a bit of connection. He had the smell of the forest about him. People were taking great care to leave empty space between themselves and the creature. Typical townfolk, I muttered to myself. The half-orc didn’t seem to mind the others though and kept peering at the stand silently.
The mayor finished her speech and let the city sheriff forward. This time, I focused to listen. His name was Belor Hemlock. Gruff, serious, little with words this man Hemlock was, I noted. His habitus belied his age – he had seen enough of the world to age him beyond his years. He talked very briefly and was followed by a much more livelier person, Drokkus – owner of the town theater. He seemed well-groomed and flaunty in his rich clothing. I committed to memory his name and face, as he’d be a good person to ask about my target. As the last speaker, grey of hair and beard, the high-priest of Sandpoint named Zantus took the stage. Like the sheriff, the high-priest was economic with his words, addressing the deceased previous high-priest with a moment of silence before baptizing the cathedral, which I just then realized was recently built.
Thankfully, the speeches were quickly over and the crowd dispersed a bit. Normal fair fuss ensued at the plaza as vendors re-opened their stalls and music continued. Vendors and shopkeepers offered tastes of exotic foods and innkeepers let the beer and wine flow. I made my way across the plaza aimlessly for now, stopping here and there, taking it all in. One man overseeing a tent with an archery range and other martial games shouted at me.
“Hey, hey! Sir Archer”, apparently noting the longbow at my back, “do enter the competition of the best bowman in Sandpoint, yes?”
I regarded the man bleakly, but he didn’t take a hint but kept shouting at me, trying to win me over. “Sir Archer, I see you have a great composite longbow, surely you’d entertain us with your skill?” I shook my head. “I think I will pass, thank you.”
Without taking a blink the man chose his next victim. “You sir, oh great warrior!” He shouted to someone behind me. “Come and test your considerable strength! Striketh the iron goblin and maketh the bell ring”, he urged, pointing at a high striker with a leering iron goblin as the lever and bright red bell at the top. I turned my head around and saw who the operator was addressing. It was the same wearisome barbarian who had harassed the locals during the opening speeches.
“Make way, hoodman”, he told me as he stomped to the high striker. “I’ll show you all who’s the strongest in this little town”, he boomed aloud, gazed around threateningly and drew the earthbreaker from his back. His flaunting was drawing curious looks and people started to gather around. The barbarian flexed his back and biceps, clearly enjoying the attention before taking position before the apparatus. Raising the earthbreaker above his head two-handed, the brute roared and slammed his weapon down in a wide arc, striking the iron goblin right in the middle.
Nothing happened. I snorted.
“WHAT?” The barbarian bellowed and spun towards the operator. “Ah m-mighty warrior, you must have hit the lever at the wrong place”, the operator explained with a stutter, fear visible on his face. He offered the barbarian to try again, to soothe his anger. “This game is no match for Frank”, the brute grumbled as the prepared to strike the lever anew. More people were stopping to watch the brute take a swing – I noted the dwarf, the red girl and the half-orc among others. The dwarf was smiling and stroking his beard, while the red girl was staring absentmindedly. The half-orc was unreadable.
The barbarian drew deep breath and slammed the lever twice as hard as before. This time, the puck in the apparatus shot upwards seven feet and the bell rang loudly. The barbarian roared in triumph and the crowd cheered. The operator slapped him on the shoulder and handed him a prize – I didn’t see what it was exactly. I think the man was relieved to get the barbarian off his booth.
A quarter of an hour or so later I wandered to a banquet table full of various edibles and foodstuffs. The innkeeper, a young woman calling herself Ameiko was attracting carnival goers to participate in an eating competition. The dish of the competition, it seemed, was a large platter of spicy, hot fish called sushi. “Who dares to taste Ameiko’s sushi, the spicy splendour that burns the weakest and feeds the strongest? Who has the mouth to eat the most”, she called. The dwarf took the bait first. “Har, I love good food and haven’t found one yet that could best me. I’m in!” He stomped to the table, grinning widely and rubbing his palms together in eager anticipation. The barbarian, true to himself, shoved people out off his way and marched to the table as well. “I’m twice as big as you, little man, but I’ll eat four times as much”, he declared haughtily. He dwarf just laughed coarsely at the brute.
“I want to participate as well”, came a soft but stern voice out of nowhere. The red girl stepped forward from the crowd, drawing back her hood and exposing her long, scarlet hair. She was the same one I had locked eyes with earlier. Her entry caused quite a lot of murmur and whistles but she didn’t seem to notice. I forced back a smile.
Two more contestants entered the game, local men with the benefit of most likely having tasted Ameiko’s fish before. As the contestants took their places around her table, she instructed them. “Each has a plate of my sushi before him or her”, she said, addressing the last word to the red girl with a sympathetic smile, “and one-by-one, each will eat one bite.. and keep it down. Four rounds, the one who lasts all rounds will be declared winner. “Martin”, he pointed at the other local, “go ahead. The purple one, if you may”. The man forked the first piece, considered, and pushed it to his mouth. A heartbeat later he doubled down and coughed out the piece, his face and eyes blood-shot. People laughed. “Master Harsk”, Ameiko declared next, amused. The dwarf smiled eagerly and took a good mouthful of the sushi. He chewed a few times. I almost thought he could handle the fish before an unhealthy ruby crawled up his face and he spat the sushi out and emptied a large cup of water. The barbarian’s laughter boomed. “I told you, little man.” Without waiting for Ameiko, the brute threw aside the fork and grabbed his piece of fish with bare hands, attracting wild cheers from the crowd. He already had fans in town, it appeared. Without further ado, he filled his mouth with the fish, chewed and downed it with an audible belch. More wild cheering ensued.
The red girl took her time, cutting a piece with fork and knife, and smelling the aromas carefully before taking a bite. She closed her eyes and chewed slowly. Absolute silence fell in anticipation. Finally, she swallowed and gave a smile to Ameiko. “This is quite tasty, mam”. The crowd erupted in shouts of adoration. The barbarian snorted and the dwarf looked astonished. Ameiko bowed to the girl. “The town’s best, my young lady”, she explained proudly. After the red girl, it was the other local man’s turn. He managed to swallow his first bite.
“Second round, ladies and gentlemen”, Ameiko shout out, “the green one. Tomas, if you may”, she asked the remaining local. Looking a bit distressed, Tomas forked the green fish piece on his plate and had a bite. He lasted for two heartbeats. The people roared in laughter at the puking man.
Then it was again the brute’s turn. Confidently, he grabbed the green fish and stuffed his mouth. I noted a hint of red in his face, and he took longer to chew down the second fish, but he managed it. The dwarf, a good competitor, slapped the brute’s back and congratulated him. I thought it made the barbarian almost empty his stomach right now and there. Finally, it was the red girl’s turn. Again, she calmly forked her piece, savored the aromas and had a taste. With the girl showing no sign of disgust, the crowd applauded and cheered.
“Third round, sir, lady”, Ameiko said, nodding at the two remaining contestants. “The blue fish. Sir, if you may”. The brute growled, building up anger as he lifted the blue fish piece between his fingers. How the seven hells can one be angry at a fish, I wondered. It was apparent that his body language wasn’t as confident as before as he pushed back his head and dropped the piece into his mouth. Immediately, he spat it out to the ground and slammed his fist to the table, cursing various profanities. Oohhs and aaahs from the crowd.
The red girl remained. How could a young girl like her handle the fish that had outmatched a brawny warrior? Without a word, she selected the third piece and took a bite. People around me again drew breath in anticipation. To be honest, I too was eager to find out what was to happen.
Now I’ve always considered myself to be quite perceptive and able to tell if people lie, so I’m quite sure what happened next. I thought I saw a glimpse of fire shimmer in her eyes as she chewed. Something felt out of place. Then she stopped, drew a cloth from beside her and spat the fish into the cloth. “Sorry Ameiko”, she told the innkeep, “it’s too spicy for me.”
The crowd exploded, and Ameiko was forced to settle them down. “People, people, please. These two have shown such fortitude that they shall be both named winners.” With open arms, she gestured towards the brute and the red girl. “Say my regards to the town blacksmith, you’ll get a one-tenth discount the next time you visit him.” The brute beat his chest twice in agreement, while the red girl simply drew her hood over her head, shrouding herself again. And so it was over.
I ventured over to Ameiko’s booth. The dwarf had remained, accompanied by no more than four pints of beer. The dwarf regarded me with a warm smile and nodded. I nodded back. The dwarf was heavily armed like me, but radiated likeability, serenity and good will. A godly man, I pondered as I sat down next to him.
“Anything to drink?” I asked Ameiko. “Of course, master. The house beer, a local brew, is free for the duration of the festivities. Have a try”, she urged me, gesturing towards a collection of kegs before me, some full, others half-empty. I shook my head. “I’d rather have a cup of water.”
The dwarf gave a short, rough laugh. “What’s wrong with you, turning down perfectly good free beer”, he asked me before emptying his pint. I stared him blankly. “I haven’t come here to celebrate”, I answered simply as Ameiko filled a cup from a jug of water and offered it to me. I took a sip. The dwarf smiled and stroke his beard, weighing me. “Your loss, friend.”
The dwarf, Harsk, introduced himself, and I introduced myself. He tried to open a conversation but I kept to myself, observing rather my surroundings, looking for my target again after a moment of distractions. I spotted the barbarian, the half-orc and the red girl several times. “Isn’t she something”, Harsk asked me quietly as she walked past us. This time I had to smile and nod.
Evening fell. I didn’t know what kept me at the plaza for the afternoon, maybe it was Harsk with his outrageous stories he kept telling to Ameiko and no-one in particular between pints, maybe it was the mysterious red girl, maybe it was the half-orc I felt oddly strongly sympathetic towards. Maybe it was the ludicrous brute, this Frank. I didn’t know.
As the bell struck sixth hour of the day after noon, people gathered around the plaza’s wooden platform for an evening prayer. High-priest Zantus rose to the platform and began the sermons. Harsk excused himself, rose from his seat (not before emptying yet another pint) and fell in with the crowd, interested in the local cult. By that time I had came to know he was a cleric of the goddess Iomedae, which explained a lot. Iomedae was the goddess of righteous valor, justice, and honor, and Harsk seemed very much that type – very righteous, very just. I’d come to know the goddess from my childhood stories, but I had never spent any real time with one of her faith’s clerics or paladins. Harsk seemed a nice enough dwarf to know.
I thanked Ameiko and left as well, moving well behind of the mass. I spotted Frank, also away from the crowd, petting and scratching a dog, and clearly not giving a damn of what was taking place. Not a godly man, I figured.
Zantus’s sermon was simple yet powerful, his oratory moving if not inspiring. He was about the finish as a woman’s scream stopped him mid-sentence. It came from the middle of the crowd, so I had no chance of seeing the woman nor the reason for the scream. The mass of people stirred like a herd of sheep, catching the scent of the wolf. Then it exploded in a riot of screams and movement. Zantus was left standing, his mouth a gape.
I was quick to spring into action but Frank was quicker. Granted, he was closer to the source of the commotion. The barbarian pulled the earthbreaker from his back and visibly let his rage take over. I felt it almost literally washing over me, that boiling desire to kill and maim. The panic continued with people running to every direction. Some bumped into me. Then I saw what Frank saw. A tiny, greenish goblin feasting on the same dog he just moments ago had been petting and scratching. I would’ve found it hilarious if it wasn’t so gruesome. And if Frank wouldn’t been so intent on making the goblin pay for its crime. He thundered at the little beast who was oblivious to the panic it had created, peacefully enjoying its canine cuisine, cutting it into pieces with its rusty knife. Past repeated itself as Frank slammed the earthbreaker down in a wide arc and just narrowly missed the target. The brute roared in anger and lifted his weapon for another try.
Having his dinner disturbed by a raging hulk, the goblin jumped in fear, screeched at the barbarian and stabbed wildly with its knife. In panic, the little beast missed. I briskly walked closer to the melee, and with a shrug dropped my backpack and pulled my bow from my back. For a second I considered whether or not to intervene. I didn’t know this arrogant bastard, but these goblins were a menace to society. My head was racing. Finally, I drew an arrow from the quiver and took aim. The goblin was at the feet of the barbarian, making it a difficult target. I took the shot.
My hesitation cost me as the arrow flew past both combatants and burrowed into a wagon behind them.
Harsk had decided as well to remain at the plaza. He almost came to regret that as another goblin appeared on a nearby rooftop and shot an arrow at him. The arrow struck his armor but glanced, not harming the cheerful cleric.
The half-orc remained still, clearly pondering whether to act or not. At that moment, I couldn’t blame him. He was not under any threat, and the folk of Sandpoint had been anything but welcoming to him. He took a few steps towards the goblin and the brute, seemingly unsure what to do. At the corner of my eye, I spotted the red girl, who simply moved away, not wanting to draw attention to herself.
Harsk cursed at the goblin on the rooftop and surprisingly dexterously armed his crossbow and fired at the creature. As I was nocking another arrow, Harsk scored a hit in the leg of the goblin.
I was starting to hear voices of terror and battle from around the town. Out of nowhere a third goblin ran to the plaza, jumping over a wagon and attacking the half-orc. The small blade cut only air as the half-orc cunningly evaded the blow.
Frank pulled his earthbreaker up for another go and time stopped for the poor dog-eating goblin. The brute’s aim was true and hitting with incredible strength, he literally smashed the goblin in half, splattering blood all over.
Choosing the foe with a clear line of sight, I took a quick shot at the goblin on the rooftop. I missed again! I cursed the past weeks in the galley where I had had no chance to train with my bow. The little creature screeched and jumped down, ran full speed onto Ameiko’s table and launched itself at the half-orc. It managed to surprise him, and the half-orc growled and stepped back, a bleeding wound on his side.
The red girl decided then to join the fight and reveal her true nature. Summoning elemental powers of fire she took a step forward and hurled a ray of fire at a goblin next to the half-orc. Even thirty feet away, I could feel the heat as the goblin burned violently to ash. A fire sorceress, I cursed and shielded my face. The half-orc merely grinned at her assistance, stepped around and with a controlled motion of his staff struck down the second goblin. Bones cracked into pieces.
Eerie silence fell to the plaza, but smoke was arising from the south-east. Afar, sounds of battle were still audible. It was not over.
I went to retrieve my arrow from the wagon. Beside me, Frank was breathing heavily, mastering his rage. The high priest, Zantus, deciding probably now being a good time to return from hiding, stepped out from the safety of the cathedral and approached us. “Mighty friends, thank you for your aid”, he uttered sheepishly. “I have the powers of healing, does anyone of you require my services?”
The barbarian, still catching his breath, turned to the high priest and pointed at the corpse of the dog. “Can you bring the dog back to life”, he snarled, half asking, half ordering. The priest lifted his hands in front of him, as in a shielding motion. “Pardon me friend, but that is beyond my abilities.” The response infuriated the barbarian, who pulled the earthbreaker up and smashed a nearby wagon in half. This time he hit at the first try, I thought, as the priest backed down, a little horrified.
Harsk approached the half-orc, offering to have a look at his cut. The half-orc considered the priest, then Harsk, before finally muttering something inaudible and letting Harsk apply a healing potion. The wound dissolved before our eyes and the half-orc sighed.
“Is it typical that goblins roam the city unchecked?” I asked the priest, not a little sarcasm in my voice as I searched the dying goblins for valuables. To my dismay, they had nothing on them but armor and knives. “No, they typically don’t get this organized”, Zantus responded, watching around, trying to take in the sudden chaos emerging around him. Content with the situation at the plaza, he begged our pardon before walking away, looking for others to help. Me, Frank, Harsk, the half-orc and red girl were all that remained.
“Everybody all right?” Harsk asked. I regarded the fire sorceress and was about to open my mouth as goblin song hailed from the south. A group of goblins appeared from behind tents and booths, driven forward by a goblin warchanter! Drawn by the scent of battle, they ran across the plaza to face us in battle.
In a fluid motion, I nocked an arrow. The fire sorceress reacted first, casting a spell that burned the hand of a goblin and made it drop its sword. With no regard to personal safety, Frank howled in rage and charged two of the goblins at the same time. Showing no mercy, he violently reduced the first to a bloody smear in the street stones. I was starting to like the man, even if he was all strength and no finesse.
Harsk bellowed prayers to his goddess and stomped to confront an attacking goblin. He swung his longsword but missed as the goblin ducked just in time. I let loose an arrow at one running goblin, but I missed yet again. Second lost arrow, I cursed as it flew outside my field of vision.
The half-orc, ever silent, went into melee with an advancing goblin, not connecting with his first strike. The warchanter kept approaching slowly, still singing its strange song and seemingly not interested in the fate of its minions. Frank, now with less momentum, launched a sideways blow, aiming to the head of the second, unarmed goblin, but in his eagerness, missed wildly. The goblin on the other hand showed surprising restraint as it reached out to the sword on the ground and slashed at the barbarian, scoring a tiny wound on his side. Frank screamed more in anger than in pain. Wroth flew from his mouth. To avenge his ad hoc comrade, the fire sorceress hurled a ray of fire at the burned goblin. It went wide. The barbarian struck back, shoving with the earthbreaker, but he too was unable to bring down the small beast.
I glanced at the singing warchanter, nocked an arrow and shot it. My aim was finally true as I my arrow burrowed into the chanter’s leg. I allowed myself a smile. It fell to its knees but it kept singing its mindless song. Meanwhile, the half-orc finished his goblin and joined the fight with the dwarf.
The warchanter, to my astonishment, began to cast a healing spell. Across the plaza I witnessed as the arrow was pushed out of the creature’s leg by magic and the wound closed on itself. My attention was then stolen by the burned goblin, which screamed a shrill shout and moved off the barbarian to attack the fire sorceress. The goblin failed to hurt her, but in return, she cast a spell that made the goblin lose its weapon again. In rapid motion, she moved away from the suffering, whimpering goblin.
Frank realized his chance to finish the leader of the pack had come. He jumped onto the stand where the chanter was recovering from my successful hit and attacked it. Miraculously, the goblin leader managed to parry the brute’s earthbreaker with its sword. The brawl on the stand continued while I let loose an arrow at the unarmed goblin threatening the fire sorceress. I missed, and now I was really cursing my weeks of sitting on my ass and doing no training at the sea. I was better than this.
The goblin fighting Harsk and the half-orc succeeded to superficially wound the stocky dwarf. The unarmed goblin, seemingly losing his mind, ran at the half-orc’s backpack on the ground, and madly began looting it for valuables. I decided to exact payment for its insolence and hit it on the shoulder with an arrow. Still, it managed to grab a hold of something from the pack and charged the fire girl bare handed, an arrow sticking out of its shoulder.
On the stand, the barbarian appeared to get weary. I realized even his rage had limits and his fighting style was taxing him greatly. He dueled with the goblin, and landed a lucky hit, obliterating the warchanter. The wounded, greedy goblin was all over the fire sorceress. Dismayed that the petty creature still had the nerve to live, I ran across the plaza, looking for a clear kill shot. Wasting as little time as possible and trusting to my instincts, I fired another arrow. It struck the goblin, finally killing it. Now only one goblin remained. Slashing like a maniac, it wounded the half-orc, before it met its demise at the hands of Frank the barbarian, who had jumped down the wooden stand and decided that the festivities were finally over for the little green beasts.