The River cuts the land between the kingdoms of Kale and Mourngoth. The jagged cliffs of Mourngoth tower over the soft rolling hills of Kale. In the Taro Valley, where the Kalenor Mountains begin to rise and the Mourngoth Cliffs begin to fall, a great bridge spans the canyon cut by the River from the Sheppards' Hills into the Darkwood. The city of Tarovale guards the bridge, protecting the lands of King Oreon Kalerex from the forces of Duke Edward the Shearfist and the armies of Mourngoth.
The walls of Tarovale encircle the crossing of four roads. To the west the road leads to Milton and beyond the heart of Kale on the coast of the Mare Luna. To the North the road is the way to the Sheppards' Hills and the great fortunes to be hard won in the Kalenor Mountains. To the east is the road to Northbend at the edge of Kale where gypsy caravans bring strange wonders from lands beyond. To the south is the Great Bridge over the River, the unkept road beyond leading through the Darkwood into the lands of Mourngoth.
None may cross the Bridge without explicit permision from Count Onnit. Unlike the other parts of town, Southend is not well travelled and is not well kept. It is where the poor. beggars, thieves, muggers, and murderers survive. Crime is rampant despite all the guards and soldiery in the down, for their gaze looks outward rather than in. On the main stretch of the seediest part of town is an ugly little inn where those who manage to scrap up a coin spend it on ale and the occasional meal: The Rat and Broom.
At the bar sits Oaf Ortuna, an orphan of the Southend streets. He remembers having parents once, but for most of his life he's lived in a straw-lined shack in the Circle; a rotting culdesac on the edge of Cemetary park. He's survived by begging and stealing , and by the kindness of the demented old woman who lives next door who knits his ragged clothes back together, and Digby, a gate guard who has provided him a meal a time or two, and let him practice archery in the gatehouse when no one was around. Kind old Digby has always tried to keep Oaf out of trouble, but for his slow and somewhat gullible nature has not always been sucessful.
Oaf is down to his last two coins and a mug of ale. The usual characters are at the bar of the Rat and Broom; Hans the bartender smearing grime into the mugs with his rancid apron, Hilda, his wife, drinking his profits away. Sad sacks, mad men, the usual Southend urbanites. At the end of the bar Krump, Oaf's occasional friend when it's in both their interests, looks like he's plotting something. Oaf goes to find out what.
"Hey, Oaf. Did ya hear about the new travelers in town? Fresh from Kale. Fat purses, too. They're staying at the Golden Waffle. Maybe some of them might like a little more spice in their night life? I was thinking we should invite one of them down here to the Southend. Sound like a plan to you?"
Krump's plans were not so much plans as ideas which never quite live up to reality, but occasionally netted a profit; although often with more running than anticipated. Oaf fingers the two coins remaining in his pocket. "Sure, I got nothing better to do."
"Well, we're not going to sweet talk them with you looking like that." Krump pulls a thread off Oaf's burlap shirt. "Granny's been slacking off again?"
"Yeah, she gives em back worse off than before."
"Well let's run up Easterville and visit the gypsies. They usually have something decent for cheap. Maybe you can make a deal? Or get a five finger discount."
As the sun sets over the city walls the young rogues cross Cemetary Park, an unlit and unkept place of rememberance for lives lost in centuries of battles over the Bridge. Beyond the dead trees and gravestones are the lights of Easterville where middle class merchants buy goods from eastern traders, carry them across town to the West side and sell them again at ten times cost. In most cases it's best to skip the middle man altogether and go straight to the traders who bring the goods into town. However, dealing with gypsies can be dangerous not only to your wallet but to your life.
Walking through the markets streets busy with closing shops and pub bound shopkeepers almost to the outer circuit which runs along the city wall and north through the alleys between the humble yet far from modest homes, Krump and Oaf reach the pond around which the gyspy caravans are parked. The dark skinned people sing and dance around a camp fire; a beautiful raven haired girl in flowing silks and jingling bells dances while her father fiddles. Krump hangs back as Oaf approaches an older woman sitting on the stairs of her caravan smoking a pipe.
"Excuse me," he says, "I need some new clothes."
"Ah, young man," she says as she puts her pipe down, "indeed you do. I have lovely silk garments and fine woven fabrics, all of which it looks as if you cannot afford." Her tongue rolls words out through a thick, smokey accent.
Oaf looks sheepishly at his tattered rags and sandals.
"I hope you were not planning of distracting me while your friend sneaks round and steals from me. That would not be wise."
Oaf looks back to Krump, who suddenly changes the direction of his pace towards the firelight, whistling.
"How much money do you have?" She asks.
"Two gold," Oaf replies as he produces the two coins.
"Wait here," she says as she reaches for the coins. Oaf clasps his hands around them. She disappears into the caravan and returns an instant later with a rather fine looking dark brown cloak. "I'll give you this cloak for your two gold and a favor."
"The red vine that grows in the Darkwood. You will collect some for me. As much as you can carry. It has four leaves like this." She holds her hands together in front of her, one palm on the back of the other with her thumbs tucked under. "When you cut it, it bleeds red." She straightens her thumbs. "Five leaves, like so, do not touch. Is poison."
Oaf thinks about it for a moment. Cautiously he takes the deal and hands over the two gold. He'll have to complete the task, for crossing the gypsies means he'll wind up dead in his sleep, or worse. But for now, he needs this investment to better his future, or so he thinks.
"Very good. Meet me here tomorrow night with the red vines." She hands over the cloak.
Oaf puts it on. It's finely woven, nicely weighted, and just covers his ratty clothes. The brass clasp is new and shiny enough to draw the eye away from his unwashed sandaled feet.
Krump returns to his side. "Nice. You must've made some kind of rotten deal with that gypsy. But, hey, we score well tonight and you might be able to skip town before they take your eyes or whatever you traded for that."
"She asked me to go get some vines from the Darkwood." Oaf suggests, hoping perhaps Krump might be interested in assisting.
"Whoa, good luck with that," he replies.
The two follow the main road around the south side of the Tarovale Keep towards the West Side. The Count's daughter can be heard singing from the southwest tower. Sometimes Oaf would wander out this way just to hear her voice, and catch the occasional glimpse of a silhouette in the curtains of the window. No such luck tonight.
The West Side is the richest quarter of the city, where the merchants who just made ten coins on a gold spent on the other side of town hob-nob with the merchants who will make twice or more than that taking the goods into Kale. Just inside the gate is the most pleasant, welcoming inn in town, the Golden Waffle. The smell of warm mead and fresh bread soaks the bright lit streets with a pleasant flavour. Well dressed men and women wander aimlessly past windowed shops displaying all the finest wares in town.
Krump and Oaf lean on the corner of the Golden Waffle, just out of sight of the guards at the gate.
"Alright," explains Krump," all we gotta do is wait for the right opportunity.
A pair of fat men in fine clothes with short swords dangling below the hems of their capes laugh jovially while smoking sweet smelling tobacco. "Did you see the size of that orc I slew?" "Yes, but his smell was much greater! Oh, hohoho!" they laugh.
Krump and Oaf roll their eyes.
Eventually a young man with a fne robe and spectacles comes out of the Golden Waffle. He looks longingly to the sky before slumping himself on a bench. "Here we go," says Krump. "You go, he looks like your type."
Oaf slides around the corner and sits down next to the guy. "Hey, you look lonely."
The young man ignores him.
"I know where you might find some company? Maybe a little entertainment?"
"Not interested," says the young man. He digs into his satchel and produces a book which he proceeds to bury himself in.
"Ya like 'potions?' I know a place that brews up the best."
"Leave me alone," the young man says, slamming his book shut. He gets up and goes back into the inn.
"Haha, that was terrible!" Krump laughs. "Watch me!" He steps around the corner and approaches a large man with a beard and hardly any clothes on. The man is obviously very drunk and looks unable to walk let alone wield the titanic broadsword strapped to his back, if he could even draw it. "You look like a man who enjoys a fine ale!"
"No," booms the large man.
"You sure? I know where you can find the finest for cheap!"
"Go away," he thunders again. Krump withdraws.
"I watched you," says Oaf. "It was hilarious."
A short while later, a bubbly young woman bounces into the streets. Her robes are similar to those worn by the young man from earlier. She's carrying a similar satchel, even. Oaf steps from out from the alley.
"Hi!" he says.
"Hi!" she says back enthusiastically. "My name's Robin! I'm an adventurer!"
"My name's Oaf. I live here in Tarovale! How do you like it so far?"
"It's great! All the lights and people and great food and drinks! It's great!"
"You haven't seen anything yet! How about I show you around town?"
"Well, I don't know. It's my first adventure and everything and I don't think I should leave my party..."
"Oh, just a quick walk around the inner circuit. I know a great place to go dancing!"
Krump steps out from behind the shadows with a huge grin on his face.
"Who's that?" asks the girl.
"Oh, that's my friend Krump! He lives here too!"
Krump tries to laugh along with her infectious laugh, but it comes out rather malicious.
Oaf leads Robin towards the keep, past the lavish mansions of the West Side. "This is were Lord Mouldebutte lives. He's a very famous adventurer and captain of the guard." As they round the keep and begin to enter the dark streets of Southend, Oaf has to work harder to think of things to say. "And this is where Lord, uh, Cuttlebum was defeated after rasing an army of the dead, and, uh, rats, too. Lots of rats."
Robin is less and less sure about this. "Sure is dark in this part of town. Can we go back into the light? I liked all the mansions and things. I think I should be getting back to my party."
Oaf leads her into a dead end alley with Krump blocking the only exit. Krump draws his dagger. Robin turns around. "You might want to hand over all you've got, dear."
Robin reacts quickly, reaching into her satchel and throws a handful of dust as she yells a word, igniting the powder in a bright flash right in Krump's face. Krump stumbles backwards, dazzled and clutching his eyes.
Oaf grabs her from behind in a choke hold with such suddenness that she immediately faints. He lays her on the ground. "You alright, Krump?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. What's she got?"
Oaf removes the satchel from her shoulder, opens it, and digs in. "80 gold, a book, and a bunch of powders and stuff."
"80 gold! Brilliant! We'll split it 70 - 30. How much is that?"
"No, we'll split it 50-50."
"It was my idea! 60-40."
"I did all the work. 50-50."
"Alright, 30-30. Wait a minute, that's not right. How much is there again?"
"80 gold and a bunch of powders and stuff."
"Alright, I'll take 45, you take 35 and the satchel. You probably can't fence that kinda stuff anyway." Krump examines a bottle of slimy, lumpy somethings. "Who want's a bunch of whatever this is, anyway?"
Oaf nodds his head and takes the offer. Maybe the gypsy woman will buy this stuff, he thinks. She's obviously interested in herbs and things. He flips briefly through the book, but none of it makes sense. He's not even sure it's written in words. It might be worth something to someone, anyway. Krump never put much value in things he didn't understand.
After splitting their earnings, Krump departs. Oaf thinks maybe leaving this girl lying passed out in the alley isn't such a great idea, so he tries to pick her up and hide her in the nearest barrel, which happens to be full of trash. He only succeeds in knocking the barrel over and dumping garbage all over her head. He decides to run off before she wakes up.
He slinks through the alleys of Southend all the way back to his shack on the circle. After barring the door to keep Krump from renegotiating their deal in the middle of the night, he curls up on his bed of hay and slips off to sleep.
The next morning, Oaf is feeling every ounce of his 35 gold haul. It's not quite a million, but it's a start. He gets up early and heads to Northendaton, the quarter where the miners and local adventurers stay. Northendaton has all the best smiths and equipment suppliers on the City. He heads towards one of the best, the Bait and Tackle, which strangely has no fishing equipment whatsoever. What they do have is boots, and that's what Oaf needs.
"What kinda boots d'ya be needin?" asks the bearded, half-dwarven tanner. "You goin' minin'? Hikin'? Workin' in the fields?"
"Hiking," Oaf replies.
"Aye, then you'll be needin' these," he produces a pair of tall leather boots. "Padded on the inside but with a hard sole for long trips. Only 50 gold."
"30," Oaf shoots at him.
"30? Hahaha! I like you, son. A straight shooter. Alright, 30 it is, but only if you promise to come back and spend more later."
"I promise," says Oaf. He wears his new boots out and leaves his dirty, broken sandals in the garbage bin.
After stopping at the Rat and Broom to pick up a loaf of bread, Oaf heads for the southern gate. Digby is alone guarding the gate. "Hello, Oaf? How are you today? You're looking good in that new cloak. I'm afraid the Captain won't let you practice archery today."
"That's okay, Digby. I'm not here for that. I need to go into the Darkwood and collect some red vines for a gypsy."
"You made a deal with a gypsy? Oh, son, that's bad business. I'm afraid no one's allowed to cross the bridge without permission from the Count."
"I've got to go, Digby. If I don't get these vines back by tonight the gypsies will cut out my eyes or worse."
Digby reluctantly submits. "Okay, but you're going to have to sneak past the guard on the other side of the gate. I'll try to get outside duty tonight. Just this once, though." Digby moves to open the gate but stops. "Here," he says as he unslings his bow and quiver. "You better take this. It's dangerous out there."
Oaf accepts the gift heads through the gate. On the other side, the guard is leaning on his spear, snoring. Oaf sneaks as quietly as he can passed the guard, but, un-used to his new boots stubs his toe on a cobble stone and yelps. The guard wakes up and levels his pike. "Hey, you! Halt!"
Oaf freezes and turns around. "You''re under arrest," the guard yells. Oaf turns back towards the Darkwood and runs for it. The bridge is long, but with the clanking chainmail of an angry guard behind him Oaf hardly notices. In an instant, the guard is far behind and Oaf is in the Darkwood.