The Blackburn House was in ruin. All of the trueborn had succumbed to illness or fallen in battle. Outside the city of Bask, their estate inches closer to crumbling to the ground with each passing day. Yet all was not lost. There remained the last of their line, the black sheep of the family: Sylias Blackburn, the Bastard Lord.
Each spring, during The Thaw, when winter relinquished its grasp on Sadinmorrow, sellswords, duelists, and knights crowded Bask wall-to-wall to compete in King Faolan's tournament and enjoy the summerlong festival. The prize: one request, within the warrior king's power, granted to the victor.
Of course, no king had the power to restore respect to a name. Sylias knew this. He had taken what was left of the Blackburn assets and opened his very own brewpub, The Hammer and Sickle. Should he prevail in the tournament, Blackburn intended to have his brew made the official beer of Valdor. It wouldn't change that his mother was a lowborn whore, but it would restore House Blackburn's fortune, which would be enough to make people forget his birthright.
There was one problem: not even the lowest stable boy in Valdor would compete in The Lord Bastard's stead. It seemed a lost cause until Yoren, an Elf from the Protectorate, freshly exiled and bearing a grudge, answered Blackburn's call for a champion.
In the days leading up to the first bracket of the tournament, the city reached a fever pitch as people poured into Bask. Though everyone came for the fight, they stayed for the myriad events of the festival. The Hammer and Sickle first opened its doors during this time.
Känz, the bartender, tapped into the spirit of festival by hosting a drinking contest. The winner would receive a free keg of ale as well as a ringside seat next to Lord Blackburn during all brackets of the tournament. In the end, the victor was, rather unsurprisingly, a Dwarf.
Yoren handily dispatched his first opponent, a villager who thought himself a knight because he had played at war with sticks as a child. He cracked the boy's skull with the pommel of his sword.
His next opponent was at least a squire, though Yoren only sparred briefly before landing the final blow.
His third opponent was a vicious Orc. As this pale grey monster entered the Colosseum, the crowd booed and threw food at him. Before rushing Yoren with his black iron axe, the Orc growled something fierce in his vile, unintelligible tongue. Yoren made quick work of him.
In the stands, Sylias made sure his Dwarven guest was well fed and never thirsty. The Lord learned the Dwarf had a friend who was competing in the tournament as well. In the northlands they were having trouble mining due to the activities of some Roden cultists. They were to ask King Faolan to dispatch a regiment of troops to rid the Dwarflands of these vermin.
Känz was cleaning up The Hammer and speckle from the days before while Yoren and Sylias attended the tournament. He couldn't be sure if he was a good bartender or it was just the festival goers, but it had been busier than he ever anticipated.
"I have a job for you," a voice said. A tall, skinny man dressed in leather with a ponytail had entered the bar. Känz was about to tell this man the bar was closed before he recognized that face. It was Anjin, an old friend from school. They had both been kicked out for their criminal activities. Känz had managed to pull his life back together since then; looking at the torn breeches and dirty leather, Anjin had not.
Känz poured Anjin a drink.
"There are some Merkavian ships docked in the harbor. I have some guys that could empty their hulls if we could just sneak past the guards. You in?"
Känz had to think a minute. "What's in it for me?"
"An even cut, of course."
"A cut of what?"
Anjin took a sip of his beer and then hesitated. "Well, I ain't sure. All we know is those ships are Merkavian. Bound to be something valuable in their belly somewhere."
Känz didn't like the sound of that. "What do you need me to do?"
"Just talk to the guard, maybe give him a drink or two. Look, I'd do it myself but no one has to look at me twice to know I'm up to trouble."
It was true. Anjin looked like every other gutter rat who tramped from backstreet to alleyway looking for a purse to snatch. Känz ditched the leather jacket a long time ago. In the last few days he took his tips and cashed in on some new threads. He wasn't rich, but that didn't mean he had to dress like he was poor.
"Okay. I"ll help you, but don't fuck this up."
Anjin put his hand over his heart. "You have my word. Head to the docks just as the sun is setting." He emptied his stein and left the bar.
Yoren was in the changing room, gearing up for his last fight. Across the room he noticed a woman with long, golden blonde hair. Her armor had mithral filigree on it, like his. It couldn't be, he thought. He had been exiled from the Protectorate alongside his commander, Sořya. He tried to get a better look when a voice grunted, "Okay Elf, time to return to the ring." He looked over his shoulder as he was leaving, but the figure was gone.
Sylias was pleased thus far. He knew nothing of Yoren's abilities when he hired him. Truth be told, he only did it because no one else had answered his ads. He just has to make it through this last fight and he advances to the next bracket. When the both of the participants emerged from opposite ends of the colloseum, the crowd roared. It had been as Sylias feared: the Dwarf's friend was squaring off against Yoren.
The Dwarf leaned over the railing and yelled, "Kill that Elf! Bash his pretty face in!" of course, no one besides Sylias heard him, but it was still unnerving.
"Would you like some more ale?" Lord Blackburn asked. Maybe he had given the Dwarf too much.
Känz walked to the harbor with a small keg of ale. Once he reached the docks he knew immediately why Anjin picked these ship. This was no ordinary Merkavian trade ship. This was a Lord's ship. The bow had been carved into the likeness of a mermaid holding a harp. Känz doubted the gold pigment was anything but paint, but still. This is no galley.
One lone guard stood watch, his back leaning against a post, poleaxe in hand.
"Why aren't you at the tournament?" asked Känz.
"Someone's got to watch the ships." The guard remained slouched against the post.
"Of course, and what a fine job you're doing." Känz held up the keg he was carrying, "Would you care to join me for a drink?"
"I'd love one, but, as you can see, I am on duty. Why aren't you at the tournament?"
"Me? I'd probably be there if I hadn't spent the last week pouring ale from dawn to dusk. Look at how empty these streets are. It's the perfect time to steal a drink and watch the sun set before the crowds return, no?"
The guard looked around and then stood up straight. "I guess one wouldn't hurt."
"How could it?" Känz popped the plug on his keg and handed it to the guard. He tilted the barrel into his mouth and swallowed a hearty gulp of the brown liquid and then passed it back to Känz, who did the same.
The guard soon asked for another.
"Where's your captain?" asked Känz.
"At the tournament, with everyone else."
"Of course he is. Don't you think that's a little unfair? Here you are, standing watch, but against what?"
The guard looked around. The streets of Bask were quiet and empty. "Just cause it looks like no one is around, don't mean nobody actually is. Besides what am I supposed to do? Abandon post?"
"Of course not! I would never suggest such a thing. What I am suggesting is a little walk. I own a bar just around the corner. This keg is empty, but I'm guessing you're still thirsty. I know I am."
The guard frowned. "You can't just fetch another?"
"Of course I can. But what happens after that one is emptied?"
The guard scanned the streets and docks again. "Okay, just until the tournament is over, though."
"Of course. It'll be like you never left." As Känz and the guard headed towards the bar he saw four figures slip out of the shadows and descend upon the docks.
The armor-clad Dwarf was charged at Yoren. He managed to parry his first swing of the hammer, but a second stroke rattled Yoren's helmet. Steel rang in his ears and he hesitated a moment. He regained composure and struck the Dwarf's arm, but the chain mail protected him. They continued to exchange blows, neither one holding the advantage for long enough to make use of it.
I will never beat him using my strength, thought Yoren. He put some distance between himself and dropped his stance to one less threatening. The Dwarf charged at him again, but this time Yoren was ready. He dodged out of the way and tripped the Dwarf. He squirmed like a turtle flipped on his back, grasping frantically for his warhammer. Yoren walked over the Dwarf and used his sword to flip the visor on the Dwarf's helm. "Yield".
The crowd erupted into cheers and Yoren thought he heard fireworks or thunder, but the sky was clear except for the stars.