Chapter I: Reckless Abandon

A gray-cloaked woman strolled into Abandon, a modest farming village. Approaching a simple thatched farmhouse, the young woman met up with a farmer dressed in shabby, earthen colored clothes. He introduced himself as Thomas; she simply nodded and followed him past humble wattle and daub cottages, towards the center of town. The woman noticed two sad looking children resting on a bale of hay in an alley between two old houses, their clothes tattered and their hair dirty and knotted. She couldn't help but feel sympathy for them; seeing the homeless children made the town's name morbidly fitting. She concluded that this wasn't a very savory village as they reached their destination, the local tavern, The Maiden's Call.

The farmer strolled in wearing a worried look on his weathered face. The young woman trailed in behind him, pulling back her hood to reveal fair skin, long red hair, and emerald eyes. Undoing the bronze clasp at her throat, the young stranger pulled off her threadbare cloak exposing sturdy black leather armor, an elegant sword, and an ornate dagger at her hip. She hung her cloak and rucksack on wooden pegs by the door and then took a seat across from the farmer at a table near the entrance. The young woman, only a meter and a half tall, looked out of place among the farmers and simple townsfolk. The villagers didn't see many women wearing armor or with long swords strapped to their backs.

It was a typical night at the Maiden's Call, with plenty of locals eating and drinking after a long day. Thick straw mats covered the dirt floor of the dimly lit bar, iron sconces with candles decorated tables and walls, and a single iron chandelier hung in the center of the room. The scent of tallow and roast lamb permeated the air accompanied by the steady murmur from the many patrons talking amongst one another.

Rheis, the proprietor, walked over to the table to greet the farmer and young woman. Rheis was a tall, burly man with a smooth scalp and a woolly mustache; he also had a deep scar by his left eye. He wore a thick leather apron with a large coin purse tucked under his belt. "Good evenin', name's Rheis, What can I do for yah?"
The young woman glanced up at Rheis. "I'll have some bread with that stew you're cooking and a mug of ale if it's not too much trouble."
"Yer new in town, are yah? We got some rooms here, if yer lookin fer a place to stay fer the night," Rheis said in hopes of squeezing some extra money out of a new customer. "What will ye have, Thomas?" Rheis asked the farmer, with whom he was previously acquainted, though the man was not a regular to frequent his establishment.
"N-Nothing for me, th-thank you, Rheis," Thomas said, with a nervous stutter.
"Yah can't just sit here. Yah know the rules. Yah have tah order somethin' or yah have tah leave," said Rheis, glaring at Thomas.
"I-I'll have an ale then," said Thomas.
Rheis snarled slightly as he went to get their order. He returned quickly with a small tray holding a wooden bowl full of steamy lamb stew, a piece of bread, and two tin mugs of ale. "So what do they call yeh?" Rheis asked, looking at the young woman.
"Nuri," she replied. The tavern fell silent at the sound of her name; two patrons paid their tab and snuck out quietly.
"Hmm! Seems yer name's not very popular to some of mah guests," said Rheis, as he set the food and mugs on the table. He gazed at Nuri curiously. "I hope yer not here tah stir up trouble. We don't take kindly to trouble."
"Sh-She's here to h-h-help me," said Thomas.
"Very well then, dat'll be four bronze khar, Nuri, an' two bronze from yah, Thomas." Rheis collected their payment and returned to his bar.

The people in the tavern returned to their conversations, yet a few quietly stared as Nuri and Thomas started talking.
"Tell me, Thomas, why have you sought me out?" Nuri asked.
"My son, Tommy, has been missing for over two weeks now. I have no one else to ask who would be willing to help me."
"What about the town militia? You have some strong men here."
"I already asked them. They say leaving the town defenseless is not worth the life of one boy. Meanwhile children have been turning up missing for many seasons now. They believe he's already dead, but I know better. He's a clever boy, my Tommy; he's a survivor."
"Where did you last see your son?"
"It was just over two weeks ago while I was tending my fields. He liked exploring the woods near our house at the east edge of town. I have been searching for him every day since his disappearance with no luck until yesterday. When I risked traveling a bit further east, I found this on the side of the road." Thomas placed a worn leather sling on the table. "This belongs to my son. He's quite skilled with this old sling. He can hit a goose in midflight. Sometimes he brings home wild game and we eat hearty. He shall be a great hunter one day. Please, I'm more than willing to give you every last bit of silver I have if you just bring my boy home to me. I have fifty silver khar here with me now, and it's yours if you bring him home. The eastern road, you know where it leads don't you?"
Nuri was about to answer when their conversation was interrupted.
"Are you going to eat that?" said a small voice from behind them.
"Who wants to know?" Nuri asked as she turned to see a wispy little girl, ghostly pale with knotted coal-black hair and sad, gray eyes. She was clad in a black moth-eaten tunic, clutching a soiled rag doll to her chest; the child's feet and legs were bare and filthy.
"I... I... was hungry," said the child, who couldn't have seen more than ten winters.
"What's your name, little girl?" Nuri asked with a warm smile.
"Grimly, Sir."
"That's an odd name for a little girl, and you needn't call me Sir. I'm not a knight or a noble woman," said Nuri, still casting a kindly grin at the timid child.
The little girl blushed as she nodded and eyed Nuri's food hungrily.
"Here, it looks to me like you need this more than I do. I'm not even hungry." Nuri passed the small wooden bowl of lamb stew and the portion of bread to the scrawny girl.
Grimly lit up with a warm smile and gave a slight curtsy in accepting the food. Nuri reached out to the little girl, grabbing her shoulder before she could walk away. "I'm sorry to ask, but that doll of yours, have you had it long?"
The little girl nodded, "Yes, since I was very little. She's all I have. Did...Did you want her?"
"No, she just looks familiar. I suppose it's just a common doll. I'm sorry; I hope you enjoy the food."
The little girl sat on the ground in a corner of the tavern to eat her stew.
Nuri returned to her conversation with the farmer. "Yes, I know where that road leads. There's an old abandoned mine off that way. I've heard rumors of some foul things that live there; though, it takes a lot more than silly rumors to frighten me."
A loud angry voice interrupted their conversation; it was the barkeep shouting at the little girl sitting quietly in the corner. "Yah really don't belong here, yah know! This is a tavern not an orphanage," Rheis shouted from across the bar. He eyed her angrily as he polished one of his tin cups with a piece of torn cloth.
Nuri stood up from her table, glaring at Rheis. "Are you going to make her leave?"
"This doesn't concern yah, woman. Best mind yer own business!" said Rheis, shaking his fist at Nuri.
Nuri slammed her hands down on the table, "I am making it my business. If you want her to leave, you'll have to deal with me."
"Fine, I'm not lookin' fer a fight," said Rheis coolly. He decided to back down and returned to polishing his wares. He waited until Nuri sat back down and continued her conversation with Thomas. As soon as Nuri's attention was elsewhere, Rheis crept over to the corner where the child was sitting and pulled her up by her hair. "I said, yer not welcomed here," he growled. The young girl gave out a yelp as she dropped her doll on the ground, knocking over her bowl, slinging her food into the air.
Rheis began dragging the child towards the door but before he got very far, he felt a sharp pain in his back. He dropped the little girl, and she fell to the ground as the barkeep's body lurched forward violently. Rheis's head slammed down on the table where Nuri had been sitting.
The patrons in the tavern fell silent as they watched the conflict unfold. Nuri was standing behind Rheis, holding his arms behind his back.
"Look here, shovel face. I didn't come to your backward little town looking for a brawl. In fact, I try to help people," said Nuri sternly. "But if that's what you're looking for, I'm more than happy to offer it to you, in abundance."
Rheis struggled to break free and there was a loud crunching sound coming from his shoulders. He cried out in pain as Nuri tightened her hold on him.
"You're not listening; I told you I'm not interested in any trouble here. Now it looks like you spilled the little girl's stew, so I suggest you get young Grimly here a fresh bowl and another serving of bread; I'll even pay you extra for it. Then, you'll allow her to finish her meal in peace, or you and I will need to have another one of these conversations."
Rheis failed to reply, so Nuri tightened her grip even more. The bartender was only able to tolerate a few more seconds of this before he shouted, "Alright!"
Nuri released him and Rheis limped slowly back to his bar where he grabbed a fresh bowl from the cupboard, filled it with hot stew and acquired another piece of bread. Feeling defeated, Rheis limped back over to Nuri's table.
Nuri extended her hand to the child. "Little girl, sit here next to me. You don't need to eat on the floor." Grimly picked up her old doll and sat next to Nuri at the table. Rheis set the bowl and bread down in front of her.
"Thank you, shovel face," the little girl snickered.
Rheis only grunted slightly as he turned back towards the bar. He was about to limp away when Nuri grabbed one of his arms and slipped five bronze khar into his hand. "You see? That wasn't so hard now, was it, Rheis?"
He took the money, but said nothing. He limped back and remained silent for the rest of the evening. Everyone in the tavern was in shock. They had never seen Rheis take a beating from a patron before, but after it was over, they returned to their conversations.

The slender middle-aged farmer across from Nuri whispered to her, "Are we f-f-finished here? I trust you have the information you need?"
"I've heard enough. I'll search for your son, Thomas," said Nuri.
"Thank you, I will be eternally grateful."
"Don't thank me yet. I don't know if I'll find him. Like I said, I'll search for him. That doesn't mean I'll actually bring him home."
Thomas nodded as he stood up from the table. He glanced anxiously at the barkeep and gave him a nod as to say good night. He then scurried out the door.
Nuri sat with her new friend for a while, ensuring that the child could finish her meal without further incident. The child kept beaming a warm smile at Nuri as she shoveled the warm lamb stew into her mouth. "You really are hungry, aren't you? Where are your parents?" Nuri asked.
The child just shook her head.
"Your mother and father, or maybe aunts, or uncles? Someone who takes care of you?"
"I have no such people," said Grimly timidly.
When Nuri saw the child nearly done eating, she brushed her hand over the girl's knotted hair. "You take care of yourself, little Grimly. Rheis is right about this not being a suitable place for children. These people are backwards and don't seem to care much about anything. You're not the first orphan I've seen in this town since I arrived."
Nuri walked to the exit, and gathered her belongings from the pegs on the wall. As she opened the door, she glanced back at the child sitting at the table, then back up at Rheis. The burly man looked down at the cup he was polishing, pretending he was not intimidated. "I'll be back, Rheis."
The little girl watched Nuri leave the tavern and expected the bartender to eject her as soon as he saw the door close, but Nuri's promise to return haunted him. He remained at his bar polishing his wares and tending to the needs of his other patrons.

Nuri stood on the lonely road outside of the tavern debating if she should begin her journey or wait until morning. She was not afraid of the darkness. The young woman felt oddly comforted in the shadows, perhaps because of her past. After all, to a former thief, the darkness was an ally. She didn't look overly rugged or fierce, yet Nuri had a grievous reputation as someone not to be trifled with; she was known for having a very unpredictable temper, unusual strength, and great skill with a sword. People rarely spoke to Nuri much unless they needed her services.

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