A Chance Encounter
Zopar had been walking for many hours. He drew back the hood of his cloak. The sun grew warm as the day wore on. His soft leather boots made quiet padding sounds on the old cobblestone road to the Hidden Vale, the realm of the halflings. The twin short swords he wore slung low on his hips, made a slight clapping sound as he walked, but slightly muffled by the straps holding the scabbards close to his thighs.
While in a tavern in Mythhold, the ancient city of the Faye and other fair peoples, he had heard of a score in the Hidden Vale. It seems that if one were to travel there and acquire a certain plant leaf, commonly known as Purple Hair, and buy it for a fairly low price, one could then resell it in the major cities and turn a profit. This leaf, or weed, is popular among the halflings of the Hidden Vale, but is frowned upon by the pious, and sometimes the common, but consumed by nearly everyone else. It has a pleasant odor when smoked in a pipe, but some varieties can exhibit a musky odor that is unpleasant for some.
Zopar never had need for such things. He was content with the occasional pint of frothy ale, or a nice goblet of good brandy. Alcohol did very little for elves, as they cannot get drunk due to their high metabolic nature, but Zopar would partake of it for the taste and the social aspect of it. He cared little for these things. His life had been spent honing his short but lithe body into an instrument of death, capable of inflicting massive tissue damage on anyone who desperately needed it. His mind was also as sharp as they come, having been educated by the southern lord who had adopted him as a small baby.
A long time ago, in the southern city of Irontide, the capital city of the southern realm of men, he witnessed the most amazing thing. He was spending time relaxing in the park with his best friend in the world at the time, Jakkie Ten-hands, a local halfling grifter, when a dark shadow appeared out of thin air, struck a local nobleman in the back with a long thin dagger, killing him instantly. The person in shadows had turned to look at Zopar, and what struck him the most was the piercing cold eyes staring back at him from under the hood, and then he disappeared into the shadows as quickly as he appeared.
Jakkie later told him that was an assassin, trained in the dark arts of death-for-hire. The skills on display that day were only taught by shadowy groups and secret societies prevalent in the world. He had said that is where the real power in the world came from. Not from muscle and brawn, not from the schools of magic and their parlor tricks, and certainly not from the pious clerics with funny haircuts, mumbling their prayers and studying their thick dusty tomes. The real power in the world revolved around gold, and ending lives with a simple nod of approval to the assassins with the skills to carry it out.
From that day forward, Zopar wanted to be that, to have that kind of power, to be well paid for his services as an assassin. The problem was, he had no idea where to look, or who to talk to about learning such dark arts. You certainly didn’t go around asking random strangers where to go to learn to be the greatest assassin the world has ever known so that you can inflict death from the shadows for hire.
Zopar wound up on the streets of Irontide as a young welp when the lord who adopted him, Reingold the Brave was his name, died of old age, and his heir did not see fit to continue allowing an elf to share his table with him. Initially he was brought to a local orphanage and was cared for. However this was also short-lived, as the old woman who ran the orphanage had passed on.
You see, elves live extraordinarily long lives, sometimes 800 - 900 years, while men are lucky to live to be sixty, or seventy, sometimes as old as one-twenty if you’re lucky. Consequently, Zopar had few friends, and the only people he could trust were the urchins like him, the miscreants, those who survive in the underbelly of the world and scrape by on crumbs. Fortunately, Zopar had a talent for certain skills. Skills that would earn most people the loss of a hand, the common punishment for petty theft, or an old-fashioned hanging.
His friends were few in number, but he trusted them with his life, and they saved his bacon on many occasions. There was Jakkie Ten-hands, who I’ve already mentioned, who helped him survive on the mean streets of Irontide, grifting, pickpocketing, and hunting the fire beetles in the sewers. Then there was Chago the brute. He was a bouncer in a local tavern in the city. Huge muscles, brightest red hair you’ve ever seen, but dumb as a box of rocks. His mawmaw must have dropped him on his head more than once when she was rearing him, because he was just big dumb and slow, but he would give his life for a friend, and Zopar was happy to call him friend. His axe was always welcome in a fight.
Then there was good old Terra Swift. She was a fair young lass of the blood of men. She was another street urchin of Irontide, but she was more skilled than most. Zopar had crossed paths with her while ransacking the treasure chest of one of the noble houses in Irontide. He had thought she was the house guard at first, and he had intended on slitting her throat if she had caught him in the act, before escaping out the second-story window through which he came. It seemed on this particular night, she had been out doing the same as he, simply looking to score. They had crossed blades for a brief moment, both startled by the encounter. However, during the brief tussle, they both came to the realization they were there for the same reason. They decided to split the haul and go their separate ways that night, but it was not the last they would see of each other.
Months later, Zopar got into a little trouble with the local knaves guild because he refused to pay their ridiculous tithe when they found out he was operating on their turf. The word soon got out that there was a price on his head for defying the rules, and Zopar got on the next ship out for Mythhold. This is where he has plied his trade ever since.
Months later, while looking to score in the area near the north gate of the city, Elf Gate as it was called by the locals, a local grifter tried relieving him of his small money sack. His elven reflexes were too much for the woman who tried to grift him, and he caught her wrist firmly in her hand. She was frozen in fear, having been caught. He quickly drew her hood back and laughed when he recognized that it was Terra. She had run into similar troubles in Irontide, and when she learned that Zopar had traveled to Mythhold, she chose to do the same, to start a new life.
Terra had learned local farmers close to Elf Gate had often hired good archers to hunt the small rodents and critters that threatened their corn crops every harvest. It was easy work, and it put a few coins in their purses, enough to stay in the cheapest rooms at the inn, and enjoy the skunkiest ales in the tavern, but it was enough to survive, at least until they got the scoop on the new city’s riches waiting to be plundered by their nimble fingers.
Zopar studied the people of Elf Gate very carefully in his free time. He would sit and watch them as they passed by, he listened to their conversations, and noticed how they dressed, and most importantly, how fat their coin purses were. He wanted to know who the local nobles were, the local lords, and he mostly wanted to relieve them of their shiny gold pieces. He always had in the back of his mind tales of the secret world of the assassins that Jakkie turned him on to, and he was always on the lookout for the power-brokers who surely must have knowledge of such things.
There was one particular woman he had his eye on. She dressed all in black, all except for the silky purple cloak she always wore, she was never without it. Her hair was platinum blonde, it was so light that it hurt his eyes to look at her in the direct sunlight. Her coin purse was always very fat. She lived in the more expensive hotel close to Elf Gate, just inside the walls of Mythhold. Zopar knew the woman had money, and more importantly, she had connections. It seemed that she was well-known by the guards, and the locals who would wave to her happily when they saw her, and she talked with many well-dressed locals who came to this place.
There were all sorts of people that came to Elf Gate. There were the lowlifes like Zopar and Terra, looking to score. There were the halflings who came from the Hidden Vale to ply their wares, produce from their gardens, ales, and the curious little smoking plant called Purple Hair. Although the plant was mostly green leaves, the buds had little purple crystals embedded in the fuzz that covered the buds. Apparently this is what made the product so desirable. It was an intoxicant favored by the locals, at least the ones who could afford it.
Through some investigation, Zopar managed to gather from the locals in the area that her name was Aribel, and she was something of a legend in Mythhold. Her business was in Jewelcraft mostly, but she also traded in smithed goods, and she was very good at brokering deals with other business owners if the need arose. Zopar had determined in his dark heart, he must get to know her, somehow, some way.
Over the next few months, Zopar managed to scrape together a handful of gold coins. He had continued to work for the local farmers as a bit of a front, but his real income came from relieving the local nobles of their shiny coin. He and Terra worked the nobles district almost nightly and had also managed to avoid any local entanglements with the constabulary and more importantly, the local crime lords. He knew they were here, they were everywhere, you couldn’t escape it. It was only a matter of time before he was caught. He knew he had to create a new source of income, or his life would be very short, even for an elf.
The day finally came when he was given the name of a contact in the Hidden Vale to speak about acquiring a quantity of smoke for resale. He had packed a small bag, donned his dark brown cloak and set off down the road. This is about the time our story begins.
After several hours march, Zopar saw a figure moving toward him in the distance. As the figure approached, more details emerged. The figure was dressed all in black, all except for the silky purple cloak she wore, yes it was definitely a female judging by the swaying of the hips as she walked. Then he saw the shock of platinum blonde hair emerging from under her hood, and he realized who she was.
It was Aribel.
Excited for the chance to meet her face to face, this chance encounter could change his life, hopefully for the better. He knew she was a woman of great power, but he had no idea how great that power was. He would soon find out.
As the two approached each other on the road, Zopar unconsciously wore his characteristic smirk under his hood. He had forgotten to remove the hood to show he was no threat, as was customary, and that was when Aribel stopped, and she stood waiting to see what he would do. Highwaymen approaching wealthy fair women on the road to steal, rape, or even kill was not all that uncommon. She was ready for anything.
Zopar quickly realized the reason she stopped, and that’s when he drew his hood back to reveal his long red hair and pointy ears. He pushed his hair back from his face with his hand, and gave the sincerest, politest bow he could muster. “Good day, m’lady, fair chance of meeting you on the lonely road today!” he said as he tried to emulate the flourishes the local nobles used when greeting the ladies in the marketplace. He felt stupid.
She grinned at him while dimples formed in her cheeks as she waited for his awkward greeting. “Pathetic, but cute,” was all she could say, and seemed a bit surprised she realized she had said it out loud.
“What?” Zopar asked, standing up straight now, slightly embarrassed.
“Zopar, isn’t it? That’s your name, right? I’ve seen you hanging around the elf gate with the other scamp, Terra...I believe that’s her name, right? Is she your girlfriend?”
“Girlfriend? Um...what? Er, no! Certainly not, she’s just a friend...a very...a very good friend, that is all.”
“Ah, well it’s a pleasure to meet you, young Zopar, I am Aribel.” She extended her hand. He noted the long black fingernails as she did so.
“And you as well, dear lady,” he cleared his throat uncomfortably, “although, I am likely three times your age, m’lady” He realized she appeared to be around the age of thirty, forty at the most.
She leaned to one side to gaze at his pointed ears. “Ah yes, you are most definitely an elf judging by the ears and your amazingly good-looking hair.” she laughed, “You must know, women like myself are jealous of the elves' naturally beautiful hair.”
“So, young Zopar…” ignoring any talk of him being older than she, “...have you managed to find work since you’ve been in Mythhold? I know you’ve only been in town for a few months, but that’s certainly enough time for a young, enterprising elf, such as yourself, to earn at least a little coin.”
His face brightened, “Y-yes…,” she’s been watching me, he thought, “I’ve gotten a job clearing out the rats for the local farmers in the area, but aside from that, not so much.” he said, but seemed a bit uncomfortable at the question, because he knew he wasn’t telling her the whole truth. He couldn’t tell her he was plundering the locals of their shinies every night with his best friend Terra, now could he?
“Wonderful! It’s nice to know you aren’t lazy!” She laughed a hearty laugh that sounded slightly snobby.
“No m’lady, not lazy at all, in fact I am always on the lookout for opportunities...er...ma’am…” He pushed his hair back with his hand nervously.
She tapped one of her long black fingernails on her teeth as she thought for a moment. Her eyes grew wide as she smiled, “You know, my good friend Poppy Hornwood...oh, she’s a little halfling girl, her business is alchemy, and essential oils, things like that…, “ she paused and thought some more, smiled wide and continued, “...she has been looking for young welps, like you and Terra, to gather herbs for her. You see, her business has been doing so well, she has been having some difficulty filling orders, you see. It takes time to brew the potions, and extract the essential oils she sells, and she needs people to go out to the countryside and gather all the herbs she needs. Do you think you would be interested? If you gather sufficient quantities, it could be a bit more lucrative than killing rats, I should think. Does that sound like something you and Terra might be interested in?”
Zopar thought for a moment before he responded. He didn’t want to appear too eager, but he knew that if he could get in with these folks, the local business people and power brokers like he imagined Aribel to actually be, that would lead him to come into contact with the secret societies he so desperately wanted to meet. He knew he was meant to be an assassin, and this could be the opportunity he had been looking for.
He put on his best nonchalant pose as he casually fingered one of the short blades on his hip, “Well, that might be something I’d be interested in...I have some other prospects in the works, but...I could have a chat with her...tomorrow maybe?” He hoped he didn’t sound at all too eager. He didn’t want to appear desperate.
“Wonderful!” she exclaimed as she clapped her hands together and held them in kind of a knife-hands, prayerful pose. “I will let her know to look for you at Elf Gate...er...tomorrow, you say?” She looked at him questioningly.
“Yes, definitely tomorrow...I’ll be around...Elf Gate...yes…,” what an idiot! He thought of himself, for seeming so awkward.
She giggled, showing her beautiful perfect teeth as she smiled. “Alright, then I shall tell her, and I am looking forward to seeing your progress, my young friend.” She curtsied slightly, turned on her heel, and snapped her cloak as she walked away toward Mythhold.
Zopar was ecstatic, but did his best not to appear so. He waved good-bye as she turned to look back at him over her shoulder. The sway of her hips seemed slightly more bouncy as she walked than before. She walked away happily.
He turned to continue his march to the Hidden Vale, but now it didn’t seem so exciting as before. He decided to pretend to keep walking until she was out of sight, and then quietly make his way back to the city before nightfall. He couldn’t wait to talk with Terra.