Bartholemew held his sword at his side, watching the floor of the riverbed carefully. The autumn air was crisp and cool, and scented with the fallen leaves, but the scent of drying mud, the scattered bodies of small fish, drying in the sun, and the ribbon of silt where the river once ran through the forest kept giving him uneasy feelings. There was definitely something sinister behind this unnatural event.
A sudden crack in the tree line to his right caused him to start. He raised his sword and scanned the line. A small cloaked figure darted into the trees. Goblin? No, this one didn’t move like a goblin. He was a slight bit taller than Shorty, and a bit more filled out. He was dressed more like the wagon people that were camped only a short distance away. The Tiefling had seen them setting up camp when they had first arrived. Perhaps one of their boys was out exploring the woods.
“Wait.” Bartholemew took up chase. Prowling through these woods alone, this little one could be in great danger. He had already encountered two hobgoblins in the woods, there were bound to be more.
“Wait! Stop! This area is dangerous, little one.”
As the Tiefling paladin dashed into the wood, he jumped over a fallen log and ducked a few branches before being able to stand upright and scan for movement. The little one had vanished. Bartholemew scanned the dead leaves for evidence of being recently disturbed, but he was no skilled tracker.
“Little one! Come back here.” he shouted into the forest. Several birds stirred, but nothing else seemed to have noticed his outcry.
The paladin started at a half-jog forward, deciding in himself that if he did not see the boy within the next minute, he would resume his investigation of the riverbed. There was too much at stake to waste time.
Another sharp crack sound, and the Tiefling spun to his left. There was the boy again. He looked human at a distance. For a good half second, they stared at each other before he dashed into the wood again.
Bartholemew waited. Why, he wondered. Why let himself be seen again? He had already evaded me. If he wanted to get away, why divulge his position?
Moving cautiously forward, he scanned the trees, looking for traces of movement. Keeping his sword gripped tightly at his side.
“I see you.” A voice said from his right. Bartholemew turned, but didn’t raise his sword. The young man sat on a rock, holding the end of a thin rope. He fidgeted with the rope. He was anxious but not panicked. This young man had the same swarthy complexion and dark hair that characterized the wagon people. Only his pointed ears betrayed his mixed parentage.
“You must be careful, little one.” The Tiefling said very calmly as he approached, “I’ve killed two hobgoblins today, and there are sure to be more in the area.”
“There are worse things than goblins in the woods.” He answered, ignoring the Tiefling’s warning. His eyes locked on Bartholemew’s face, and there was an edge to his voice.
Bartholemew reached up and touched the edges of his hood. Until that moment, he had forgotten that his face had been unguarded. The man had seen his true form. “I am Bartholemew.” The Tiefling introduced himself, already aware that he was being scrutinized. “Where are you from?”
“I travel with the Rom.” The young man answered. The Romani was what the wagon people called themselves. To everyone else they were gypsies. As a seeker of truth, Bartholomew was a good listener. The boy didn’t say he was Rom, but rather that he travelled with them. There was a distinction.
Bartholemew sheathed his sword and took a step forward. “Then let me escort you back.”
“You are an odd sort, to be requesting to escort me.” The young man fidgeted. “How do I know you would not try to eat me on the journey?” But he didn’t sound afraid. In fact he sounded almost excited at the prospect.
This young man had seen his face. And for the second time in a day, someone that had seen his horns had not run away or assumed the worst in him. He had a sudden rush of hope. Perhaps there could be peace for the Tiefling nation once again. Bartholemew took a step forward and knelt to be eye level with the little half-elf. “Because if I wanted to harm you, wouldn’t I have done so already? Why would I follow you, alone to this place just to hold a conversation with you.” He extended his hand, a friendly gesture, “Now, come. Let’s leave this wood. It is not safe for you here right now.”
The young man stood and held the end of his rope tightly. “You are correct—we shall go back to the camp.”
The half-elf yanked the end of his rope and Bartholemew felt his right leg being violently yanked backward as the distinctive sound of a bag of stones scraping down the side of a tree. His sword flung out of his sheathe and glanged against a nearby tree as he turned rapidly upside down. He screamed in pain as his head thumped against a stone and world spun around him in an upside-down blur of green and brown.
“And that is how you catch a demon!” The half elf laughed. He actually jumped up and down with glee. The Tiefling extended one arm and caught hold of a sapling to stop the spinning. His eyes focused on the youth he had so underestimated.
“Rom satarma!” He exclaimed in a language Bartholomew didn’t understand. “Wait ‘til they see you!” the youth continued, “The gadja will pay good money to see a real live demon!”
“Get me down from here!” Bartholemew spewed. Blood rushed to his head, making his ears ring and his face flush from the extra blood and from anger.
The boy anxiously drew a short sword from his scabbard, pointing it at the Tiefling while working upon a leather satchel to remove several darts with his other hand. “Don’t say another word,” he warned. “I know about you demons and your sorcerous ways! You’ll try to put a hex on me.” He was nimble but inexperienced. And the way he was holding that sword informed the Tiefling that his aptitude at setting traps far exceeded his skill with a sword.
“I am not a demon. I’m a Tiefling!” Bartholemew finally shouted down, resolving that just being angry would not change his situation. “And I have—had—no intention of harming you!” He reached back and felt for the dagger he kept in his belt. While he was not proficient with such a small blade, he always wanted to be prepared… although he never expected to have to use it for cutting himself out of a tree.
“A Tiefling?” The boy shook his head, “Fairy tales! They are merely legend.”
“Do I look like a legend to you?!”
“No.” The boy knelt down bringing himself to eye level with his captive. “You look like a demon. You are a demon. And I will capture you and put you in a cage. You will bring me great profit.”
“Cut me down, and I will show you what I am made of.”
Instead the boy nimbly maneuvered himself behind the paladin as Bartholomew reached for him. A sharp pain flashed in his neck. He could feel a drip of blood running up his neck, into his hair.
“I swear that if I get my hands you, little one, you will regret this.”
“It’s too late.” The little man shouted, fear in his voice.
“Why? What did you do?”
“I poisoned you. It won’t kill you, but will put you to sleep.” The boy smile was triumphant, like a young hunter over his first kill. “By the time you wake up, you will be on display.” He prattled on, waiting for the poisoned dart to take effect, “Much better than the bear! The bear is tame. Really. He doesn’t need to be in a cage anyway. Besides. . .”
The boy’s eyes suddenly grew wide in surprise and shock as he stumbled forward. About the time Bartholomew noticed the arrow in the boy’s side, he felt the bite of another arrow in his own thigh. The paladin swung back and forth, feeling along the back of his belt until his hands fumbled onto the smooth silver of the dagger. In one quick move, he swung upward slicing the rope that bound his leg. He crashed to the ground, landing hard on his neck and shoulder, looked up in time to see a small group of hobgoblins rushing forward.
“Go,” Bartholemew shoved the ignorant boy in the opposite direction, “Get out of here! Goblins!”
But the gypsy boy just stood there. He looked up from the arrow in his side and stared transfixed at the approaching hobgoblins.
“Go!” Bartholemew gave him another shove, and the boy stumbled forward, assessed the situation and then ran. Before he could turn his attention back to the approaching goblins he felt another arrow bite deeply into his shoulder. He winced and silently cursed himself for allowing the boy to have distracted him so completely from the real danger in these woods. Now he could see them clearly, bows drawn, and knew if he didn’t close the distance between them they would continue to pepper him with arrows until he dropped.
The hobgoblin leader snarled, the hatred in his violent black eyes seeming to intensify as Bartholemew charged towards him. The leader dropped his bow and drew a jagged blade that looked as brutal as it was twisted. The leader stood his ground while the other two circled around Bartholemew seeking advantage. The paladin received a few minor cuts, but moved too fast and was too accomplished a swordsman for these goblins accustomed to distance hunting to get in a good slice. He, in turn, delivered several cuts of his own, a few more than minor, and took down one of his opponents, another was sorely wounded.
But the hobgoblin leader was uninjured. No matter how good Bartholomew was, the odds were against him now. He was feeling light-headed, almost drunk, and had to shift his weight to keep from falling as the realization hit him: The gypsy boy’s poison! Not now! But the paladin continued his fight, blade flashing as the world spun around him. If he was going to die at the hands of this disgusting creature, he would do it trying to take as many of them with him as he could—if only he could keep his balance!
As the poison took hold of Bartholemew he lunged forward in a last desperate effort, swinging wildly at the leader, trying to choose which one of the shifting images actually was the leader. And missed. The Tiefling lost his balance and actually fell into the wounded hobgoblin taking him down with him as he collapsed.
The leader stood over him, laughed malevolently, his dark eyes gleaming, ready to finish the paladin off, when he unexpectedly paused—a stunned look on its face. Instead of stabbing Bartholemew the hobgoblin dropped his wicked blade and fell forward onto him, a short sword protruding from it’s back. Bartholemew used that moment of surprise to finish off the wounded goblin, who had his own rough weapon raised preparing to thrust it into the paladin’s side. He felt the weight of the goblin leader roll off and the gypsy boy knelt down next to him. He noticed that the boy was bleeding, and still had a goblin arrow sticking into his side.
“Forgive me,” the boy said. But the paladin was already unconscious.
- * * * *
By the time Bartholomew awoke, it was already dark. There was a small campfire popping and sputtering just a few feet away. Three branches had been fashioned into a small tripod and a metal pot was hanging over the flames. As his eyes focused he made out the form of the gypsy youth sitting just on the other side of the campfire staring at him.
“You’re awake.” The young man said. His voice was quiet. He got up slowly, wincing as he stood.
Bartholemew looked around and saw that they were sitting inside the ruins of a collapsed cottage. The roof had disintegrated and the upper portions of the walls had collapsed long ago. The boy had used the tumbled stones to fashion a fire ring. The walls offered some protection, at least the flames could not be easily seen in the darkness, but the paladin knew that the smell of smoke would draw any goblins passing nearby to their location.
“This is as far as I could drag you,” the gypsy said. “You weigh as much as a horse.”
The Tiefling assessed himself. At least some of his armor had been removed and stacked next to him. Some of his wounds had been bandaged—badly—but the arrows in his thigh and shoulder had not yet been dealt with. Glancing over at the gypsy, he saw that the arrow in the boy’s side had been removed and his ribs were bandaged.
“I went back to camp,” the young man began, “I would have brought someone to heal you, but. . . “ his voice faded.
“They would put me in a bear cage.” The paladin finished his sentence for him.
The half-elf’s eyes brightened for a moment, and he drew a flask out of his pack, handing it to the paladin. “Here,” he said, “I took this from Tarandra’s wagon. There will be hell to pay when she find’s it’s missing.”
The paladin took the flask and looked at it.
“It’s not a trick,” the gypsy assured him. “Really, it is a healing potion. I know you have no reason to trust me, but—” The boy paused, then began again. “I don’t know how to deal with those arrows, but at least that potion should help.” He shook his head, “I don’t know anyone around here who would be willing to help you.”
“You are not a demon?” The boy broke the silence. It was a question, but it sounded more like a statement, a realization that had come at a price.
“It is as I said. I’m a Tiefling.”
“What I did was wrong.” The gypsy youth said. “It almost got us both killed.” He paused, “Forgive me?”
It seemed sincere.
“That will take time, little one. But for saving my life, I cannot be angry with you. You have restored honor in my sight.” Bartholemew set the flask down next to his side. “Do you have a name?”
“Well, Daeson,” the paladin said as he looked at the arrows still buried in his flesh, “I’m going to need your help.” He drew himself up and the arrow on his shoulder scraped against a stone sending sharp cutting pain slicing through him. He grimaced.
This is really going to hurt.
He fantasized for a moment about the thrashing he was going to give this little one after he was fully healed, and that made him feel a little better.
The boy crept slowly forward, keeping just our of range of Bartholemew’s reach.
Bartholemew winced as he shifted position. “I will not hurt you, Daeson.”
“How do I know that?”
“My name is Bartholemew. I am a paladin of the order of Truesilver.”
The boy sat back, a puzzled expression on his face.
Bartholemew sighed. “That means, if I harm you after I have promised not to, the gods themselves will take revenge on me on your behalf.”
The boy inched closer. “What do you need me to do?”
Bartholemew turned, his tail flicked out from under his cloak and the boy jumped. “It’s okay… just grab the arrow in my thigh. Hold it very still.”
The boy did just as he was asked, but as he gripped the arrow, it shifted against Bartholemew’s thigh bone sending pain flashing up his body, causing him to scream.
The boy quickly released the arrow and scrambled backward. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“No. Again. This time, just be careful. Push straight forward.”
“But, won’t that hurt even more?”
“It will hurt, but alot less than pulling backward. These arrows are barbed.” Bartholemew relaxed and took a deep breath. “Go ahead.”
“I can cut it out.” The boy said, weilding Bartholemew’s dagger.
“No!... no.” The boy did not appear to be adept with surgical skills. “Just push it through. It’s okay.”
The boy leaned forward and gently wrapped his fingers around the arrow. With a tentative look and a strong push, the arrow ripped through his inner thigh. The stone arrow head dripped red just a few inches above Bartholemew’s knee.
Bartholemew took several long breaths, controlling the pain as he pulled the arrow cleanly through. “Okay… good…”
“Here.” Daeson held up the unusual bottle with the brown liquid.
Before Bartholemew could respond, the boy had the cap off and was nearly pouring it down Bartholemew’s mouth. A warm rush of energy seemed to radiate from his throat as the liquid flowed down. Bartholemew choked and swallowed. In a fit of coughing and sputtering, he felt a warm flow, like boiling-hot water flowing across his skin, down to the wound in his leg. In less than a second, the skin seemed to mend itself, leaving a minor yellow scab where a gaping hole had just been.
Bartholemew wiped the liquid from his chin with his good arm. “Thank you… but we aren’t ready for that yet.” Turning, he presented his shoulder. “We can’t just push this one through. It would pierce my heart if we did.”
“What can I do, then?” The boy crept behind Bartholemew and inspected the arrow closely, gently touching the area where the arrow intersected the skin. He wrapped his fingers around the arrow, sending pain radiating down to Bartholemew’s fingers.
“No! Just wait a se—”
The boy pushed forward and the pain was nearly more than Bartholemew could stand. Then, with a sudden jerk, the arrow ripped violently back through, taking chunks of meat and flesh with it. Bartholemew’s world went dim for several seconds as he’d already lost a considerable amount of blood.
When he came to his senses again, the boy had emptied the remainder of the bottle. Apparently he’d forced the unconscious Tiefling to drink it.
“There.” The boy smiled as he checked the wound on Bartholemew’s back. “It is healing nicely.”
Bartholemew closed his eyes, just thankful that the event was over, despite the fact that it hadn’t gone the way he’d planned. The smell of smoke filled his nostrils so that he couldn’t make out any other scents of the forest. The hobgoblins were sure to smell something
He pulled himself back and leaned against the dilapidated stone wall. “Tell me, Daeson. Why are you so afraid of the Rom?”
“I am not afraid.” The boy scowled. “I am Rom.”
“Then why not take me back to your camp for healing?”
“Because they would cage me for taking their supplies. And they would have caged you, or even killed you. The Tiefling are not respected with the Rom. The Tiefling elders have promised many things to the Rom, but have never held up their end of the bargain.”
“The Rom will not kill their own except for treason… I don’t see taking supplies as treason.”
The boy frowned. Bartholemew had obviously hit a nerve.
“Besides, I thought you said that you didn’t believe that Tieflings such as myself even existed.”
“I didn’t. But while I was being bandaged, I asked Keital, the leader, about the Tieflings. He spat into the fire and told me all about your kind. He thought that you did this to me. I tried to tell him otherwise, but he wouldn’t listen.”
Bartholemew exhaled… afraid to even ask. “What did he say about me and my kind?”
The boy just smiled. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t believe a word of it. Hey, look! I got your armor back. See?” he limped across the room and picked up the over-sized segments of plate armor. “You were too heavy to drag with it on, so I had to go back and get it.”
Bartholemew smiled and closed his eyes. “Thank you, little one.”
“Yes?” he answered, still keeping his eyes closed, absorbing the warmth of the nearby flames.
“Can I go with you?”
“With me?... where?”
“On your mission. To clear out the hobgoblins. I’m good with a blade.”
“Indeed, you are, little one. But I think you are too young. Too small. Too green. Besides… you don’t know.” The world seemed lighter and foggier than just a few minutes before. For a moment even Bartholemew couldn’t even remember what it was he did or didn’t know. Why was he here again? Then it came to him in a wave of fogged realization. The evil of the river.
“Jut let me go with you a little while. I have no where else to go right now.”
He felt a wave of happiness flow over. Something seemed to be taking him down into a deep sleep against his will. He really didn’t want the boy to come. He would easily get hurt, but he heard himself say, “Yeah… okay. Tomorrow.”
“Good. Now let those herbs relax you. We can start the search again tomorrow.”
“Herbs?” He managed to mumble.
“I dabbed the herb oils on your shoulder before I pulled the arrow out. It will allow you to rest, now.”
Before Bartholemew could even respond, he was asleep.