Adralat returned to our room sometime after I had fallen asleep. The next morning he told Bōdric and I, “My good Melnibonéan friends, I am pleased to inform you that I now have a second dream stored in my staff. This dream is a quite disturbing one; it comes from the realm of Falador, a place of madness and horror.”
Scowling, the dreamthief paused for a moment before saying, “Having experienced this dream, I now find myself consumed with a burning hatred for the sorcerer Malagan! By the Million Spheres I wish him dead. Alas, such are the effects of travelling through the dream realms, my friends.”
I looked at Adralat’s dreamstaff with interest. Our human colleague seemed to be an accomplished practitioner of this mystical art. It was a form of magic that I knew very little about. One reason why I was eager to keep Adralat with us was to learn more about this form of magic, and the ‘dream realms.’
After we broke our fast, the three of us, Adralat, Bōdric, and myself, departed the Frozen Gem and walked along the harbour. There were about thirty boats there. The ship from the Purple Towns, the captain of which had purchased Lady Salamir, remained at its dock. We spied a few Pan Tangian ships, their bold merman flags fluttering in the breeze. Many of the other ships looked to be those of pirates, smugglers, and slavers.
At the far eastern end of the harbour we spotted a rather unusual vessel. It looked to be a Shazarian longship, and a number of mercenaries walked about on its two decks.
“Those are the mercenaries I noticed at the market square a couple of days ago,” muttered Bōdric, his brows furrowed in concentration. “I wish I could remember who they are; I’m sure that I’ve encountered them at some point during my past travels!”
One of the mercenaries was lithe warrior with long blond hair and a flowing, well-made cloak. Bōdric hailed him. The fellow looked at my half-brother, a flicker recognition lighting his face. He shouted, “Wait a moment, friend!” and then disappeared below deck.
Returning a few moments later, the blond warrior was accompanied by a tall dark-haired man with a haunted look about his eyes. He scrutinized Bōdric for few seconds, raised his left brow in mild surprise, and stated, “Greetings, sir, I believe that I know you! Perhaps you remember us, Melnibonéan? I am called ‘Tassis,’ and this is colleague ‘Edric’.”
“I am Bōdric, and you do look familiar, Master Tassis,” my half-brother replied. “We would have words with you, if it should please you.”
“You and your companions may come aboard, Bōdric,” replied Tassis, sporting a wolfish grin.
We clamoured up the plank onto the Shazarian vessel, and followed Tassis and Edric below deck. In a plain room with a simple wooden table, which supported some crude clay mugs of ale, two additional mercenaries joined us. The first mercenary had a badly burnt face, and when he smiled he revealed a set of metal teeth. He was called ‘Jurgen.’ The other mercenary was a short, stocky, and strong barbarian, with elaborate tattoos and a tiger-skin over his shoulder. He was identified as ‘Dark Sky.’ (Based on my lore concerning the realms, I judged ‘Dark Sky’ to be a savage from the Weeping Wastes, to the north.) These four, I surmised, were the leaders of the mercenary company, and Tassis seemed to be the leader of all, given his authoritative demeanour and luxurious cloak.
“Ahhhh, now I recall who you lot are,” exclaimed Bōdric, his frustration with his blocked memory finally relieved. “You’re the ‘Straw Dogs’!”
Tassis smiled and nodded in an exaggerated manner. “Glad to know that you have not forgotten us, son of Lord Yrvim.”
After some further introductions (I carefully went by my cunning moniker, ‘Ilkyn Blackviper’), we discussed the current situation in Ryfel, including Governor Boorg’s forthcoming banquet. However, our inquiries as to why the ‘Straw Dogs’ were in the town were unsuccessful; Tassis kept his cards close to his chest.
Much to my surprise, though, Tassis guessed correctly why we were here. “You’re here for the girl, no? The Melnibonéan lass with the fancy tattoo?”
Obviously our expressions betrayed us. Tassis let out a short laugh. This fellow was in possession of a sharp mind; I realized that I would have to be vigilant around him.
Bōdric sighed and said, “Aye, Tassis, you’ve guessed our mission well enough. However, we would be happy to hire you and your company to aid us, if you’re looking for work. I suspect that we will be in need of some strong sword arms before we’re done in this squalid port.”
Tassis stroked his chin thoughtfully for almost a full minute. Edric, Jurgen, and Dark Sky smiled slightly at each other, a strange knowing look in their faces. I had the distinct feeling that we were at a marked informational disadvantage.
Finally, Tassis broke the heavy silence. “An interesting, and quite bold, offer. I’ll tell you what, Bōdric, we’ll think about your proposal, and get back to you in the near future. Where might you be reached?”
“We’re staying at the Frozen Gem.”
“Ah, of course you are. We’ll be in touch.”
And so, our discussion concluded, we were escorted off the ship by Edric. Nodding goodbye, we began to walk back to the inn.
“So, brother, tell me about these ‘Straw Dogs’,” I said to Bōdric, my tone slightly testy, as I was not happy with our new vulnerability.
“Edvund, the Dogs are the most formidable mercenary band – well, human mercenary band – in the Young Kingdoms! According to legend, they have never lost a battle. Indeed, a rumour amongst many of the sell-swords of the western lands is that Tassis has sold his soul for the guarantee of eternal victory. Having them on our side would be a great benefit.”
Adralat and I looked at each other, both of us unsure as to how to take my half-brother’s information.
“Well, if they do choose to help us in our quest, it is good to know that they will be able to hold their own,” I said as we reached the Frozen Gem.
“But I quite strongly suspect, Bōdric, that their goals do not coincide with our own.”