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|Chapter 3 - Freedom, short lived.
The stairs were solid, but felt like they could collapse at any moment. Perhaps it was the weakness in his knees that made Markus feel like he was about to tumble into oblivion. What a turn of events... a minute from the piercing metal of a knife in his gut to freedom at the hands of some unknown liberators. As he mounted the steps all he could think of was how nice a beer would taste.
With nothing to wait for Markus slowly crept up the stairs and pushed the door open and stepped into the morning sunlight. The room was a wreck. It wasn't just a room, it was the entire cottage. Furniture was turned over and broken, windows were open with the morning breeze ruffling the tattered curtains. The shabby wooden floor was caked with mud and stained with blotches of years of spilled beer, meade, and wine (among other things). Two bunk beds were haphazardly shoved against the near wall, just out of sight from the main door and window. There were no mattresses or pillows, just a blanket on each bunk. They were, of course, unmade and not entirely bug-free... at least that's what Markus hoped was moving under one of the blankets.
A crude wash basin was set in the far corner of the room, with a dirty mirror fixed to the wall above it. Water stains marred the floor below it where a cracked pitcher lay. There was nothing of value in the cottage, as it seemed to be more of a hideout than a home.
Markus lightly padded to the nearest window and peered outside. The day was new, with the sun above the treeline but not yet fully in the sky. A light breeze rustled the trees. Two bodies were lying on the ground. Freshly spilled blood pooled on the ground between the bodies. They appeared disheveled, as though they were searched after they hit the ground. There didn't appear to be anyone else around, and unfortunately, no horses to be seen.
Markus sighed and turned again to the cottage. His head began to pound again as the adrenaline left his system. He hunted around the cottage for anything to drink and found a half-full (for they were never half-empty, always half-full) flask of wine. He drained it in a second, with the excess running down his cheek. The familiarity of the liquid warmed his body and he felt a little better. He walked over to the basin and picked up the pitcher. He washed his face in the water (he didn't want to think about how old it was) and looked in the mirror.
His black hair was in stark contrast to his rather white skin and deep blue eyes. He was fairly tall - topping out just over six feet - but his slim build always made him seem taller. The people of Hawken (and then entire Caldorrian Kingdom for that matter) were generally not tall, usually standing a few inches shy of six feet, but they were a robust people featuring thick shoulders and arms. Many outsiders liked to refer to Caldorrian's as the "People's Dwarves" in reference to the stout ancient race to the north who rarely stood higher than five feet high. That wasn't the only thing Caldorrian's had in common with the mystical Dwarves, as most of the kingdom's finances and resources lay under the earth. Mining was a major industry, as was the creation of weapons, armor, and other goods made from iron, steel, and similar metals. Markus' slight build and rather tall stature always made him stand out among his people, and his physical attributes were the main reasons (causes?) he was a bard instead of a smithy. His father was the proud owner of Steadfast Smithy which had been in the family for generations. His father, Minsk, was highly regarded for his skill in producing weapons and armor for common man. In addition, Markus' brother Milan was quite the jewelry craftsman. Markus always thought that a bit loopy, but he made a nice living turning scrap metals into necklaces, tiaras, bracelets and the like. Of course, Milan liked to boast about his skill in fashioning unbreakable arm bracers - a form of armor worn on the forearm, wrist or bicep - but Markus knew it was a front to impress the old man. If Milan had his way he'd be happy creating crying dragon teardrop necklaces for the well-to-do ladies.
While his father was proud of his two boys, Markus was fairly certain he harbored misgivings about his two sons the jewelry maker and the lute-player. Markus always admired his father for his patience and his willingness to let Milan and Markus live their own lives. Of course, Milan was seen as the favored son since he at least worked in the smithy arts (although his swords and armor always has a certain artistic flair compared to Minsk's work, or the work of his uncle Julius and his many cousins) but Markus knew better. He knew his father well, and while he would be gruff regarding Markus in front of customers and local city tradesmen, he was the exact opposite in private. The two of them were extremely close, even given his odd choice of trade, and would frequently discuss city and world events over numerous tankards of ale.
It's been a while, I should get over to see Dad soon, Markus thought to himself as he reviewed the bruises on his face in the mirror. Dried blood covered most of his right side and most of his hair. His right eye was severely bruised, as was his mouth. Wow... I really do need to get better at fighting, this is ridiculous. He winced as he cleaned off the blood and briefly soaked his head so his hair was relatively clean. The water was room temperature, but Markus was pleasantly surprised by how clean it was. He was also surprised by how little his body ached, given the pain in his head. I guess I have the body blows covered, just need to work on the head shots.
After a bit of work he was in fairly clean shape and walked out the front door. The day was brisk but not cold. A nice day, although the sun's rays were a little piercing given Markus' current state. He held his hand to his head, just above his eyes, and scanned the countryside. The little cottage was only about 100 yards from the edge of the property, with a worn wood fence creating a feeble barrier between the lightly overgrown yard and the road. Given the relative seclusion of the cottage, Markus figured he was a good 10 - 15 miles from Hawken. He couldn't see any of the building tops in the distance, but then again he was surrounded by tress and foliage.
The bodies were very dead, indeed. In fact, the attackers took extra precautions to ensure that the two thugs were not going to walk again. Large, gaping holes were seen in the mid-sections of both men. As he suspected, both had been searched and stripped of anything valuable. Markus spied a wineskin on one of the men, but spat as he noticed that it had been torn open - probably during the skirmish. What a shame.
Looking around, Markus couldn't help but wonder what had happened. Why was he sitting in a dark basement? In fact, why was he beat up and then bought into a dark basement? Why were his captors intent on killing him before they left? Why were they, in turn, killed in front of their hideout? Why did their killers search the bodies and immediately leave? He didn't recall them coming into the cottage, so why stop on the road, kill these two thugs and then take off? There were a lot of questions circling his mind, and he wasn't in any shape to answer them. He kept coming back to that fact that he didn't even know why he was in the cottage to begin with... He couldn't remember a thing about the previous evening, other than he really had a bang-up performance at the Lazy Dragon. Oh, I was on last night. I had the audience in the palm of my hand. But after his second set on the lute his mind was completely blank.
Markus rushed into the cottage and down to the basement. He fumbled a bit, but eventually found a lantern and began searching. After 10 minutes or so (the basement was larger than one would expect) to his great suprise he found his favorite instrument. He strung it across this back and made his way back upstairs.
"Well, hello. Nice to meet you."
A startled Markus turned to the front door of the cottage and saw a cowled figure standing in the entrance. His build was big, bigger and taller than anyone Markus had ever seen before. He could see his face because-
A devastating pain wracked the left side of his head and he saw stars. With that his mind went blank.
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