A Rangers Tale
Part Nine
By: Jeff R. Young

Although it had only been two days since Ironclaw met Decen and his band of misfit hunters, it felt like a dragon's age. Rising through the ranks of such an insidious profession as an assassin helped the Ellisar curb the impulses that impatience tended to spawn. He also believed that one never stops training and would often attempt to design his strategy around a particular skill or set of skills that he felt needed attention, and on this journey, that skill was patience.

After the revelation that both Decen and Ironclaw possibly knew of the same young man and were both preparing to set out to find him again, an arranged partnership was inevitable. Decen wanted the trophies he'd glean from the dire-wolf pack, and Ironclaw wanted the boy. When pressed by his new partner, the Elisar refused to answer his business with the lad, but he silently admitted he had no real plan.

Ironclaw was suspicious by nature. Instinct would have him openly scrutinizing the words and actions of those around him like an assassin would do; he would enhance his range of awareness through the use of other heightened senses. He was Ellisar, part man and part animal. His animalistic side was that of a Panther, which gave him particular heightened physical and sensory abilities. Ironclaw learned that a man might say one thing, but how he breaths or how his heartbeats or even subtle tones to the voice tell a different tale.

The assassin first found his patience ever so slightly wavering when Decen announced he was sending word to several nearby towns to rally his boys. Ironclaw may have backed out of the partnership had he known he would have been devoting his day to praying to Fumir, the Ellisar demi-god who holds mercy as one of his domains, for a place to hide and be alone. All through the day and night, newcomers joined, and everyone took an interest in Ironclaw.

To his genuine surprise, he uncovered a peculiar perk to being an Ellisar; most parents, particularly those of obnoxious children, made spectacular public displays in their attempts to scare the little ones away from him. At one point, as he was resting down on a pile of hay outside a horse corral, a mother caught her young daughter, who was perhaps four human years old, peaking at him around the stable wall.

"Junna!" her mother cried as she non-to-gently jerked the girl away, "Don't go near that monster! He's a devil, a demon, and he turns little children like you into rats so he can eat 'ya!"

Ironclaw didn't know why he did it, but he flashed the little girl a smile, showing fangs and all. It might have been a gesture to scare the child further, but when the little one offered a sweet, gentle smile back, he felt a touch of warmth inside. Why the mother's words did not affect the girl was a mystery, but Ironclaw smiled just a bit more as he realized that children are the most morally respectable creatures in all of Cadirath.

But as quickly as the warm feeling came, it shifted to something dark and cold, an evolution inside his heart that served as a reminder of who Ironclaw truly was, and an inescapable warning should he fail his mission. The assassin cursed himself for allowing himself the inadequacy of pleasant thoughts and idyllic futures.

He pushed up from his place of rest, and despite the anger seething inside him, the shame of his moment of failure, and the general hatred for the realm as a whole, he did allow himself one last dignified thought. It was not the little girl, or her smile, which brought this wickedness back to the surface. It was that infernal sorceress Temira Greyfell, who ruled over the Crimson Blades, a notoriously large and well-connected syndicate of organized crime. Temira had her claws just about anything she could dig them into, including political matters. Some claim she has agents within the Sanctuary, which hosts the temples to the five Patron gods, and is considered the heart of the realm.

Ironclaw left the relative comfort of the stables and began his march down the small town's main road. With Temira occupying his mind, the barrage of looks was lost on him no matter the variety. One detail the assassin did notice was the population seemed to have grown quite a bit. And the majority were armed. It seems Decen's call had an effect after all.

As Ironclaw wandered into the small crowd of men surrounding Decen, he took a moment to get an estimated count on the still-growing force of men.

"You've gathered a small army just to hunt Dire-wolves?" Ironclaw asked as he faced Decen.

Decen shrugged, "It was a large pack, but there is a need for such a show of force."

"How so?" Ironclaw asked, tilting his head.

"Well, first, there have been reports of bandits and even roaming orc parties watching the roads. And if that isn't enough, we need to impress King Wrutlulb the Rich."

The puzzled expression which twisted the Elisars face gave Decen a chuckle. "King Wrutlulb is the self-proclaimed goblin king who has claimed a vast amount of territory in the northeastern edge of the shade."

So what? Do we beg his permission to walk through the little realm? What if he declines?" Ironclaw asked curiously.

"They don't call him King Wrutlulb the Rich for nothing. He's obsessed with treasure and not just gold." Decen laughed, "I heard one man tell he had convinced the king to allow passage by offering a waterskin that had what looked like a rune inscribed on it. It turns out it was just a well-designed display of scratches in the leather. The king isn't exactly bright."

"I'll take your word for it," The assassin mumbled, "When do we leave?"

"Within the hour," Decen pointed to a healthy-looking brown horse, "That's your mount. Gather what you need. Hopefully, it will be a smooth and quick ride to King Wrutlulb's camp.

Ironclaw made his way over to his assigned horse. It was a magnificent creature. Well-fed with toned muscle and healthy teeth. Better still, it seemed to have taken a liking to the Elisar, which surprised him; most animals acted skittish around him. He was human and panther, a combination of predators most animals sense.

Something about that thought gave him pause. As he attended to readying his mount, he cautiously took stock of all the others preparing for the trip. There were plenty of swordsmen and a good handful of archers. Most wore mismatched armor pieces, probably acquired at random. These were not soldiers; they were farmers and game hunters mostly, no doubt answering Decen's call, hoping for the glory of the hunt as much as obtaining any of value.

Considering his current train of thought, he had to wonder what Decen planned to offer this King Wrutlulb the Rich. All around him, men were gearing up, but the assassin didn't notice anything of real value being packed. Ironclaws eyes turned back to Decen as suspicion formed in his mind, and he realized that he might be the perspective payment. However problematic that situation may become, Ironclaw put the thought to the back of his mind. He needed to get back to the Shade, and traveling with the group was the safest way. He'd have to deal with the other situation if it happens.

It wasn't quite midday when the mounted group, which numbered over thirty men, got underway. Decen, having taken the lead, with Ironclaw and a large, stocky man named Derrik, alongside. Derrik, as it turned out, was going to be the one factor that would test Ironclaws patience on the trip. The man had an endless list of questions, all aimed at the Elisar, and the assassin was not fond of interrogations.

"So, really," Derrik provided, determined to get an answer, "Is Ironclaw your real name? I'm no expert on the Elisar, but that's a strange name to give a child."

When it was clear Ironclaw wasn't going to answer, Decen spoke up in his place, "Look, Derrik, before our friend her decides to claw your eyes out, let me explain a little Elisar culture." Decen glanced at Ironclaw, "Or will that offend you?"

The Elisar just shrugged, "Our ways are not exactly secret."

Decen nodded, "You see, Derrik, there is a tradition among the Elisar various tribes where a child is chosen at birth to be raised for a singular purpose. It could be that the child will grow to be a priest or shaman or would be groomed as a clan leader. Sometimes they are raised with the idea of starting a new clan elsewhere," Decen glanced at Ironclaw, "But on rare occasions, the child is destined to be something a bit more unique and specialized."

"Like what?" Derrik asked casually, "Do they become the tribal cook or goat herder?"

"Don't be an idiot," Decen scolded, "No, they grow and are trained to be diplomats if they're lucky, or worse if they're not. Ironclaw here is no diplomat, so I suspect he's a hunter."

Both Derrik and Ironclaw looked to Decen, who just shrugged.

"A hunter? Like a trophy hunter? Like us?"

"No, he hunts those who earned a death mark."

Derrik shot Ironclaw a look that mixed awe with disgust, "An assassin. How come I never heard of an Elisar assassin working the area?"

"Because" Ironclaw spoke up, "If you have heard of me, I wouldn't be a good assassin."

Decen laughed, "There's the truth for you."

"I still don't get the name, Ironclaw."

This time, the assassin decided to answer the question himself, "On the day of our graduation ceremony, we Davei, which is the order of the assassin, are stripped of striped of all belongings to stand naked in the eyes of Uhdes, the Elisar god-prince of the hunt. One must stand proud because to feel shame as you stand unclothed is a sign you question your determined path." Ironclaw sighed. "One is more prone to failure if they lack the confidence in the face of the god-prince."

We are offered weapons of our choice during the ceremony, any armor we desire, and a hefty purse of gold coins. But it comes at a cost. If one is to live and work from the shadows, one must be as unknown as possible. So, we are stripped of our names."

"Wait," Derrik chimed in, "You don't know your real name? Wouldn't you remember it before they stripped it from you?"

"My ceremony took place on my third birthday, and from there, I was sent to the Davei for formal training."

"So, your birth name is lost forever?" Decen asked.

"No, there is one place where it can be found. On the day of the ceremony, the graduate name and birth family are inscribed in the Book of Ghosts. Within those pages is the only true proof I exist."

"So, how did you get the name Ironclaw?" Derrik prodded.

"Because I'm part panther, and I have claws." The Elisar stated bluntly, drawing a laugh from Decen. Leaning forward a bit, so he knew Derrik had a clear view, Ironclaw raised a hand, and with little effort, four claws sprang out of hidden sheathes, and it was easy to tell that each one had been dipped and coated with iron and were as sharp as knives.

"I get the point," Derrik aloud, "And that answers my next question as to why you don't carry a weapon. I suppose you are the weapon."

To Ironclaw's relief, the conversation turned away from him as the topic to Derrik and Decen discussing other random matters. As the issues changed, the assassin contemplated his previous speculation that this might be a trap, where he is offered up as payment to the goblin king. He figured there would be two scenarios should the trap be true. Either King Wrutlulb will cage him like a trophy pet or skin him for his hide. Unfortunately, those of his race that leave the Ebony Isle's protection are often hunted as trophies. Humans tended to only look at the animal side and forget that they have a human lineage.

Decen, being the self-proclaimed leader of the band, demanded they ride through the night to arrive at the goblin camp by mid-morning. Ironclaw remained perfectly silent the rest of the night, his mind contemplating possible actions and outcomes should his prediction be accurate. However, it did feel a bit disconcerting to think that he might have put himself into the position to be sold into slavery.

With no bandit or orc attacks to slow the trip, time passed quickly, and Ironclaw found himself entering the Shade with five other men, not including Derrik or Decen. They had made it perhaps three hundred meters into the forest before a dozen goblin guards confronted them. Decen was quick with words and spoke the goblinoid language quite fluently. After a lengthy exchange of words, the group of goblin-kin turned and motioned to follow. Ironclaw assumed they were on the way to meet with King Wrutlulb the Rich.

With Decen leading the way, the group entered the main camp. Ironclaw was a bit surprised at how spacious it was. Somehow he had envisioned a mass of goblins huddled close together, doing whatever goblins do around late-night campfires. Instead, the camp had a village feel to it. There were makeshift shelters, a few tents, with smoking firepits scattered around.

Decen's group, including Ironclaw, dutifully followed their guide to the base of a large tree, under which King Wrutlulb the Rich sat on a crude throne made of drying and cracking sticks and branches. He wore a crown of thin vines with short twigs poking up from it. It was crude and almost laughable. But were the king lacked in appearance, he more than made up for with followers. Ironclaw estimated a few hundred goblin-kin, and that was just the ones he could see.

Decen casually walked to the base of the king's throne as if he had been there a dozen times, and judging by the way the king seemed to greet the man, it was clear they had done business before.

The conversation between the two started with customary greetings, Ironclaw assumed. When that seemed to have finished, Decen went into a long dialogue with the assassin, which was the explanation for why they were here. When that concluded, it seemed as if they had turned to the negotiation phase, which is where Ironclaw cursed himself for never taking the time to learn the goblinoid language.

When it became clear the king was demanding payment, Decen waved a couple of his men forward, each laying various items at the goblin king's feet. Unfortunately, King Wrutlulb looked at the simple treasure with a yawn of boredom. Decen then upped the ante by tossing down a good size sack of coins. Wrutlub looked a bit more intrigued, but as he leaned forward, he shot a glance at Ironclaw, then grunted away to Decen again.

Decen took his turn to look at Ironclaw. He let his gaze linger on the assassin for a moment before talking, "The King wants to know if you travel with us alone or if there are others like you with us." That raised the hair on the back of Ironclaws neck.

"Tell him there are many like me in Cadirath, but I have no knowledge of where they are."

Decen relayed the words, which sent the king into a rather enthusiastic response. The two spent a good few moments exchanging words, and more than once, the king looked to Ironclaw. After a few more back and forth comments, Decen smiled and grunted out what was most likely some thank you of sorts.

"Well?" Derrik asked, "Are we safe to travel?"

"Yup," Decen stated. "King Wrutlulb the Rich has agreed to the terms and assures us his patrols with not hinder our hunt and has even offered the use of some of his warriors should we need it."

"All that for a couple of trinkets and a bag of gold?" Ironclaw asked suspiciously.

"Well," decen started, "There is a slight hitch. The only way we were going to get what we wanted was to give him what he wanted!"

The Elisar scanned the area around him as a group of goblins became too close in, two of which carried iron shackles.

"So this is how it's going to be," Ironclaw stated with little emotion. He didn't resist or put up a fight as the goblin locked the shackles on his wrists and legs.

"More often than not, you need to use whatever is in your power to get what you want in the realm. You just happened to be the perfect bargaining chip." Decen smiled a little, "It's nothing personal, just business."

Ironclaw let the full weight of his cat-like eyes bore into Decen's. "You are an intelligent man," the assassin began, "So I know that in the back of your mind, you have doubts this goblin king will hold me here for every long. You also understand that hunting people is what I do. Make no mistake, I will find you, and when I do, I will gain my trophy," Ironclaw leaned in closer to Decen, "And while I confined here, for however long it takes for me to escape, I'll have plenty of time to decide which parts of you will make the best prize." The Elisar let loose a feral growl, "Your head on my mantle would be a great conversation piece."

Decen starred at Ironclaw with a look of controlled confidence, but the fear and doubt registered in his eyes.

"Make no mistake," The assassin added, "There will be a reckoning."

With that, the goblin shoved Ironclaw off deeper into the camp, to where he suspected would be his new, if not temporary, home.

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