The Adventures of Jaron and Bren
by J.M. Williams
Story One: THE PERFORMANCE OF A LIFETIME
“You’d better do something quick, Jaron, or they’re gonna kill us.”
Jaron looked away from his friend and back to the gathering crowd of goblins, which were forcing the two humans back against the decrepit stone wall of the abandoned keep. The pair stepped back onto a raised platform, alongside a rotted executioner’s block. How appropriate, Jaron thought.
“The short one’s got some meat on ‘em,” one of the smaller goblins said, his mouth moving up and down in simulated chewing, “but the other one is jus’ skin an’ bone.”
“Bones is the best part,” a bigger goblin said. “Nice ‘n crunchy. An’ you kin suck the marrow right out.” He held out his fingers to grasp a simulated bone, then made a loud sucking noise.
A dozen slime-green faces turned to look at Jaron and his partner Bren, eyeing them like a pack of starving wolves would a wounded deer. The goblins crept closer, jagged knives and axes raised to strike.
“Nice knowin’ ya,” Bren said.
He was shorter than Jaron, and less athletic—a physical distinction that also manifested in their personalities. Bren was not as brave as Jaron, nor as skilled at fighting. Then again, such a comparison suggests that Bren had at least a modicum of fighting ability, which he did not. Bren liked to think he was the brains of the partnership, and Jaron was happy to let the younger man think it. Jaron had been through enough to know not to cast aside aid when it presented itself, regardless of the form it took.
“Well, what do you want me to do about it?” Jaron said, raising his sword defensively.
The two humans were standing above the group of goblins on the raised platform. It was like a stage, the perfect place for the scene of their bloody end. Jaron wracked his brain for an answer; his mind kept settling on the concept of a stage, a show. It would take some trick to get them out of this trouble. A trick. Magic. Stage magicians, misdirection, sleight of hand…It could work.
“Wait!” Jaron yelled. The marching troops froze in step.
“Whaddya waitin’ us for?” the big goblin asked.
“Well…um…” Jaron sought the right words. “Well, you wouldn’t want to just kill the best traveling entertainers in the Southlands, would you? I mean, not without one final show.”
“Entertainers?” the smaller goblin said, spittle launching from his mouth like boulders from a catapult.
“Right, right,” Jaron said. “We are the…the…Amazing Rezzletons!”
“I ain’t never heard of ya!” the big goblin yelled.
“Of course, of course,” Jaron said. Bren stood silently and watched, his mouth hanging open, his eyes open wide in awe of his silver-tongued friend. “We don’t usually come around the goblin villages. You know, the whole not wanting to be eaten thing and all.”
“Yeh, that makes sense,” the smaller goblin said. “So whazzit you do then, Rezzelton?”
“Well…let me show you,” Jaron said forcing a showman’s smile. “I’m going to need a volunteer. You my good man…” he pointed out a small figure in the crowd.
“Goblin,” the goblin corrected. “And I ain’t good. Don’t insult me.”
“Ah, yes, my apologies,” Jaron said. “Would you mind helping me out, my bad goblin?”
“Well, since you apologized…” the goblin said, dragging his short body up onto the platform, his rusty knife clanging against the old wood.
“Break a leg, runt!” the big goblin shouted.
“Um…would you mind leaving your knife with one of your friends there?” Jaron said, a bit sheepishly. “It might get in the way.”
“These ain’t my friends,” the goblin said, but he handed off the knife anyways.
“Right, right. So what is your name then?”
“They call me Slugtongue.”
“Oh, lovely name.”
“I hate it.”
“Right. Right. Well, Mr. Tongue, do you see what I have in my hand?”
Jaron held out a gold coin, directly in the gaze of the small goblin.
“Gold!” Slugtongue screamed, reaching out for the coin.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Jaron shouted, placing a hand out to stop the grabby goblin. “You can have this coin…if…you can find it.”
Using a trick he learned as boy—when he had been forced into thieving in order to survive—Jaron made the coin vanish from sight, slipping it noiselessly into his wide sleeve. He raised the hand in an elaborate performance, feeling the coin drop down into the tuck of his jerkin where the sleeve met the torso. Every green mouth dropped in astonishment.
“Where’d it go?” the big goblin shouted.
“It jus’ disappeared!” Slugtongue exclaimed.
“Is it in my hands?” Jaron asked, revealing his palms to the still open-jawed Slugtongue. “Or in my sleeve?” He pulled open the sleeve opposite the one holding the coin, willing the goblin’s attention to the wrong place.
“No, it ain’t there,” Slugtongue agreed.
“On the ground perhaps?” Jaron said.
The goblin bent over, examining the floorboards of the old executioner’s platform. While he did so, Jaron dropped his arm, returning the coin to his hand.
“Oh? What’s this in your ear?” he said, reaching out and revealing the coin to the crowd.
“Ha! I always said yur head was full of air!” the big goblin said. The crowd cheered. Jaron bowed.
“My gold!” Slugtongue screamed, reaching more violently for the coin.
“Okay, okay,” Jaron said, backing away. “I’ll give it to you, after one more trick.”
One more trick. Jaron was out of tricks. He didn’t know what else he could do. He had so far managed to distract the goblins from their ravenous intentions, but he had no idea where to go from here. His eyes lingered on the executioner’s block.
“Come, stand up on this block here,” Jaron said, guiding the small goblin who grunted as he climbed atop the block.
“Do any of you have a large cloth or blanket of some sort?” Jaron asked the waiting crowd. “Something to cover our Mr. Tongue with?”
After some grumbling and bickering, a brownish goblin emerged from the group, a bloody cape in his hand.
“Got dis off a caravan master,” the long-nosed goblin said, handing Jaron the cape but not letting go. “Da blood is pleasantly fresh, so I wants it back.”
Jaron nodded and tugged the cloth free from the goblin’s grip. Then with an air of showmanship, he draped the cape over Slugtongue, who was still patiently waiting on the block. As the crowd waited in anticipation, Jaron stepped over to Bren.
“Be ready to run,” Jaron said.
“You’ve done well so far,” Bren said reassuringly.
“Yeah, but I’m out of ideas. I say we shank the little guy and make a break for it.”
“I don’t like our chances.”
Jaron looked around. There was a narrow path on the left side of the group of goblins, which ran along the old stone wall. Depending on how fast the goblins reacted, the two humans could have a significant fight to get through and escape. Jaron didn’t like their chances either.
“No, but I don’t see any other way,” Jaron said.
Bren looked him in the eyes for a long moment, then nodded. Jaron swung back around to where Slugtongue was waiting, but his boot slipped on the end of the cape. The cloth yanked tightly, dragging Slugtongue to the floor with a crash. An audible crack echoed off the stone walls. The goblin screamed in pain. Jaron pulled the bloody cape away to reveal to murderous eyes stabbing at him.
“Ahhh!” Slugtongue screamed, “He broke my leg! Bastard broke my leg!”
Jaron stared at the writhing goblin, terror gripping his thoughts. Then he looked out at Slugtongue’s dozen green companions, expecting them to charge the platform in a rage. He couldn’t breathe. For a moment, everything was still, the goblins looking on in confusion, Jaron and Bren frozen in fear.
Then the big goblin slapped his thigh and screamed, “Ha! Broke his leg! Ha! Whatta laugh! Whatta riot!”
The rest of the horde started laughing loudly, some slapping others on the back, some holding their bellies in pain.
“Why’re ya laughin’?” Slugtongue yelled at the others. “You no good snots! It’s not funny!”
“No, it’s hilarious!” the big goblin shouted in reply. “We didn’t know you guys were a comedy troupe. Of course we can’t kill ya now. Somebody pick up the runt.”
Slugtongue glared at Jaron. A pang of guilt rose up in the man as he watched the stupid creature; part of him pitied the poor wretch’s life.
“What’s that in your ear?” Jaron said, twirling the gold coin into his hand. Slugtongue’s eyes opened wide, his growl transforming into a bright, childish smile.
“We had a promise, right?” Jaron said, handing over the coin.
The other goblins came and lifted up the broken source of their amusement, raising the small goblin into the air like a hero. The big goblin slapped Jaron hard on the rump, still laughing hysterically. The mob stomped out of the ruins and into the valley beyond.
“You never cease to amaze me, friend,” Bren said.
“Sometimes I even amaze myself,” Jaron said with a roguish smirk.
The pair gathered their things that had been scattered by their meeting with the goblins, and headed off towards the nearest village. They could get there by nightfall, provided they did not need to put on any more shows. Jaron plotted the most probable goblin-free route in his head, directly from the ruins to the village tavern. He needed an ale, or two, or three…and boy would he have a story to tell.
Story Two: BEGGARS WOULD RIDE
Jaron felt himself flying through the air, tossed unceremoniously onto the stone floor of the jail cell. The guard’s fat and grimy hand locked the door, then yanked to ensure its security. Jaron was still shaking off a constellation of stars when Bren approached the guard, wrapping his small hands around the bars of the cell door.
“Please, sir. There must be some misunderstanding,” Bren said.
“No misunderstanding. We caught ya with your hands on the merchandise. Er heads…well doing something with the damn beast. Dirty horse thieves.”
“Horse thieves? Pray sir, we are no thieves.”
“Then how’s it you was standing right next to the horse when we caught ya? Eh? A horse that somehow jus’ disappeared from Mr. Bolton’s fenced-in ranch, several farms down the line mind, ya.”
“I wish you would just let me explain what happened.”
“Well, if wishes were horses.” The fat guard laughed.
“If they were, somebody’d be damn close to a kick in the nuggets…” Bren whispered under his breath.
“The law says you must give us a chance to defend ourselves.”
“We don’t give no chances to horse thieves around here,” the guard growled. Bren’s face contorted when hit by the rotten air.
“It followed us.” Bren put his hands together, pleading. “We didn’t steal it. Please, you must listen.”
“Enough of your blabberin’. This town hasn’t a good hangin’ in a while. It’ll be good for folks to get out for a show.”
“Hanging?” Bren looked like he would faint. He put a hand to his forehead in a melodramatic show.
“See you two in the morning,” the hairy man said with a laugh, as he lumbered off to the adjoining room.
“You dirty son of a…” Bren shook his fist, the act of begging and supplication having ended. Now only anger remained on his face.
Jaron rose to his feet and brushed the dust off his shoulders and arms. He put a hand to his head and groaned.
“Dammit. Fat bastard messed up my hair,” Jaron shouted, hoping the man would hear.
“I don’t think this is the time to worry about your hair,” Bren said. “They’re going to hang us.”
“Don’t be so sure.”
“Do you have something to pick the lock?”
Jaron patted his pockets and felt underneath his leather armor. His tools were gone.
“Nope. Must have fallen out when the guards jumped us.”
Bren sat down on one end of a long wooden bench that ran along the far wall, under a window with widely spaced metal bars. Sunlight drifted into the room between the bars, casting blocky shadows. The stink of dirt and horse manure betrayed the road just beyond, a road to freedom that now lay at an uncrossable distance.
“I’m sure our doom is only tentative,” Jaron said.
“Why do you think that horse was following us, anyway?” Bren asked.
“If I had to guess,” Jaron said, looking at himself in the shiny metal of the door’s locking plate, “I bet it’s the honey wax I put in my hair this morning.”
Jaron brushed the large square lock of the cell door, polishing it until he could see his face clearly. Watching his reflection, he rearranged the hair on the right half of his head, making the short brown locks curl outwards. Then he spun around and dropped onto the bench, the top of his head resting just below the window.
“I don’t really care for the idea of being dead,” Bren said.
“I’m sure the gods will come through for us once again.”
“It was never the gods. It was always you.”
“Are you so sure?”
Jaron leaned back against the wall, feeling the breeze pass over his head, pondering the dilemma. Something clanked against the window bars. He jumped around to see the toothy grin of a horse in the window.
“By the gods, is that the same one?” Bren asked.
“Seems like it.”
“Didn’t they lock it back up at the ranch? This thing must really love your hair wax.”
“Hmm…” Jaron hummed as he leaned towards the window. A long, sticky tongue reached out for his head.
The horse’s mouth was wrapped in a bridle, but its mouth opened and closed freely. It looked as though it were trying to chew through the bars. Jaron reached his fingers through the bars and scratched under the beast’s chin.
“There, there boy,” he said. “You don’t want to chew that. You’ll bust your teeth.”
Jaron’s fingers crawled along the horse’s jaw until they felt something hard. He gripped the object and pulled. A curved metal pin slid out of one of the bridle’s bindings.
“I told you the gods were watching us,” he said to Bren, brandishing the pin.
Jaron went to work on the lock, and in minutes had it open. He heard the horse snort encouragingly from the window. The door slid open with only a soft creak, one that could have easily been mistaken for a bird.
Waving his friend forward, he led Bred into the next room, where the fat guard was passed out, face down on a round wooden table. There were several loose coins lying next to the man and Jaron’s hand reached out instinctively, until he felt Bren’s knuckles digging into his back.
The pair crept across the room, keeping a close eye on the sleeping guard. Jaron cracked the door and peered outside. The door opened to a narrow road, across which were several buildings, including the tavern they had visited the night before. The sun was high in the sky, bathing the avenue in light.
Seeing nothing of concern, he swung the door open. The rusted hinges cackled like a pair of old banshees.
Jaron grabbed Bren by the collar and dragged him into the street. Behind his friend, he could see the fat guard stirring to life. The man glared at him. Jaron slammed the door and took off running.
He could hear the clanging of an alarm bell from behind as he dragged Bren down the side streets and alleys. All the while, he chastised himself for not heading the other way, to the clearing where the horse had been, outside the jail window.
Eventually, they did arrive at a clearing, but the space was far from clear. A semi-circle formation of villagers blocked their escape. The people brandished pitchforks and pikes—just like a proper mob—their eyes were filled with hunger.
“Thieves! Hang ’em!” the people shouted a bit too cheerily for Jaron’s liking.
“We haven’t had a good hanging in a while,” one of the pitchfork owners shouted.
There was nowhere left to go. The mob would be impossible to outrun. Jaron closed his eyes in surrender. Then he felt something chewing on his hair. He smiled.
As the horse galloped away from the village, Jaron driving it on, Bren holding on for dear life, the younger man shouted in Jaron’s ear, “I guess we can’t come back here again!”
“No bother,” Jaron replied. “The ale here is piss!”
Story Three: RIVER OF REFUSE
The forest was filled with the clamor of stampeding giant sloths. The wagon train stretched through the trees for hundreds of yards. Each of the two-dozen, open-top carts was pulled by two large horses and surrounded by metal-clad men. Wagon wheels crushed anything caught underneath and left deep cuts in what had once been a pleasantly wide foot trail. The army of Orastrada was on the march.
“What was that?!”
A muffled shout came from one of the carts at the middle of the train. The loose canvas covering lopsided cargo was pulled aside to reveal a young man with a round face and short black hair. A leather-clad arm pulled him back down inside the cart, to safety from prying eyes all around.
“Was that a spider?” the black-haired youth said. “Jaron, tell me it wasn’t a spider.”
“Stay down,” the other young rouge replied. He had a face which was longer, more seasoned than his boyish companion, and finger length brown hair. “You want to be seen?”
“I sure as hell don’t want to be seen next to a gigantic spider. I know you saw it!”
“Yeah, I saw it. And it wasn’t a spider. It was a rat.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“Be quiet, Bren,” Jaron hissed, but his friend seemed incapable.
Bren was already off on one of his typical sarcastic monologues. “Sneak a ride in an army wagon, he says. An easy trip to Kevara, he says. You know, I’ve become rather fond of having hands.”
“If you don’t shut up, we’ll be—”
“Oi!” one of the wagon guards shouted. “Who’s up there?”
Jaron peeked over the side of the cart to see the shiny length of a sword. The blade ended at an thick arm and a scowling face. The guard was dressed in light chain mail from head to knees. Jaron mused his scowl must have been from the chaffing. Suddenly the soldier’s body arched back, and he grunted in pain. Wiping wetness from his eyes, Jaron could see the man had been impaled by a wicked-looking black arrow. More arrows struck the cart. The rogue ducked down for cover.
“Aw hells, get down!” Jaron said to Bren, pushing his friend off the far side of the wagon.
“Orcs!” a nearby voice shouted. “It’s an ambush!”
“Form up and advance into the woods!” That voice Jaron recognized as the commander of the guard company.
A metal-clad figure passed around the cart, catching a glimpse of the two rouges and pointing in their direction.
“You two!” But before the man could reach them, he was cut across the back by a hulking green figure. “Arrgg!”
Jaron took the guard’s sword and dragged him to safety next to Bren, just as a second orc appeared.
“Lovely morning for a stroll, eh gentlemen?” Jaron parried a series of heavy blows from the first orc, managing a small cut across the brute’s naked belly before shoving it back. “Can’t a guy enjoy the sights and smells of nature in peace? Well, maybe not the smells.”
The second orc charged with a downward slash. Jaron dodged. The orc’s black sword deflected off the hard wood of the cart, leaving it open to the rogue’s counterattack. The dead orc toppled onto its companion, pinning the other against the cart, and Jaron capitalized with a coup de grace.
All around them, the noise of battle faded and it became clear the humans had won, though not without cost. Bren carried the wounded guard on his shoulder, as Jaron led the way toward where the company was gathered. The commander saw them and approached.
“Where in the hells did you two come from?” he said, his voice trembling with anger and fading adrenaline. Bren set the wounded man down at the commander’s feet.
“Would you believe we were just hanging around in the middle of the forest?” Bren asked.
“Bloody stowaways!” one of the other soldiers shouted.
“I beg your pardon?” Bren said, trying to look offended. “We just happen to be on our way to Kevara, and we thought, what with all the orcs running around, that we’d be safer in the company of his majesty’s finest.”
“You thought you’d get a free ride.”
“Let it go, Pip,” the wounded guard said. “They saved me.”
“That doesn’t absolve them of what is, after all, a crime of thievery,” the commander said. He had a scar across his left eye, which only intensified the old man’s glare.
“Surely you don’t—” Bren began.
“But perhaps they can make recompense here and now.”
Jaron could see Bren doing the political calculations in his round head. He cut to the chase. “How?” Jaron asked the commander. “What do you have in mind?”
“We’re close to Kevara, but the city’s under siege by those damnable orcs. The supplies in these wagons are for the relief of the city’s inhabitants. The rest of the army is assembling on the eastern flank, preparing to break the siege.”
“So, what do you need from us?” Jaron asked.
“You two seem to be very capable rogues.”
“I suppose we should take that as a compliment,” Bren said.
“I want you to find a way past the orcish lines and into the city. Find the commander of the city garrison and tell him to join the attack, once commenced. We will hit these green bastards from both sides.”
“And if we refuse?” Bren asked.
“Then we charge you as horse thieves and leave your corpses here.”
“Why does everyone accuse us of being horse thieves!” Bren wailed, throwing his hands up in emphasis.
“We’ll deliver your message,” Jaron said.
“Are you kidding—” Bren’s words of resistance merely ricocheted off Jaron’s back. The taller rouge was already striding off into the forest towards the city.
After about an hour sneaking between the trees, the two came to the edge of the woods. There was a hundred yards of orc-infested clearing from there to the walls of Kevara. After another several minutes of searching, Jaron spied their way in: a sewage drain at the end of a narrow depression that cut through the open grassland. It was, for all intents and purposes, a river of refuse. Unfortunately, as if the smell was not unfortunate enough, it passed alongside one of the orc camps. Jaron knew there was no other avenue of approach, and Bren knew his friend would not be dissuaded.
The two rogues kept low as they crept forward through the muck. The stench was dreadful. Bren had to use all his willpower to keep from throwing up. But he knew, as they closed the distance with the orc camp, that a single sound could mean their end.
They passed alongside a rickety tent, the closest structure to the river of refuse. It was constructed of poorly chopped timbers and a slime-gray covering of what seemed to be hides, roughly stitched together, though Bren could not imagine the sort of creature they came from. Suddenly, heavy stomps approached. The two rogues ducked low, their faces almost touching the filth. An orc tossed a bucket of excrement in front of them. Bren gagged.
“Hey, you slime,” an accusative voice said from further in the camp. The first orc turned back and dropped the makeshift bedpan. “Mog say you taken my meat.” There was a sympathetic grunt.
Bren looked to Jaron.
“I ain’t taken your meat, you muck rat.” The first orc’s voice was deeper, more mature, if you could call an orc mature.
“Maybe I punch you and find my meat.”
Bren’s eyes grew wide with concern.
“Try it, runt. I said I ain’t got your meat.”
Bren could see Jaron was scheming. Jaron was always scheming. But Bren couldn’t think of anything that would get them out of this real and present danger.
“I want my meat. I skinned it me self. It premium quality meat.”
Jaron put a hand to his mouth and said, in a deep orcish voice, “Your mother premium quality meat.”
The first punch was like a thunderclap, and soon a half-dozen orcs were brawling. Jaron motioned for his companion to follow. They rushed ahead and entered the sewer drain. It had a barred gate, but that only blocked their way for a few moments. Jaron applied his trade and the pair of rouges were soon inside the city.
The sewer stink followed them as they maneuvered through empty streets. Jaron cut a quick right, down a narrow alley. Bren halted, trying to get his bearings.
“Wouldn’t the garrison be this way?” Bren asked, pointing.
“Sure is,” Jaron replied. “But the pub is this way. We should probably have a chat with our old friend before the army swarms through the city, don’t you think?”
“I guess that makes sense.”
“And anyway, it would be terribly awkward if we showed up in front of the garrison commander stinking of piss and not being drunk.”
Jaron smirked then continued on down the alley like a bloodhound on a scent.