The town of Delverbrook, in the kingdom of Ghest, was not especially large, not in the way that cities such as Forgevale to the north or the Fellowdales to the east were large. It was not so small, however, that is was without its share of less-than-favourable areas. It was in one of these areas that there sat a seedy tavern known as the Oaken Cask. The Cask was not an unclean establishment in the physical sense. In fact the Cask's owner and lead barkeep, an older Elven woman, ensured quite the opposite. The main area of the tavern was fairly well lit, with polished wood tables and a smooth granite bar. Food and drink were reasonably priced, albeit far from gourmet, and one could find board in the rooms above for a fair price as well. There was little, if anything, about the Cask's outward appearance that would suggest that it even belonged in the area of Delverbrook in which it was situated. What made for the Cask's sullen, if ill-discussed reputation, were the Back Rooms.
The Back Rooms were where many of the Cask's patrons conducted business, with the Common currency being less often gold, but flesh, either living or dead, depending on the type of business. It was in one of the Back Rooms that there sat two individuals. One, a half-elf, sat relaxed, idly tuning his mandolin. Beside him sat a halfling, fidgeting uncomfortably in his chair as his feet dangled from it, trying his best to conceal his evidently frayed nerves.
“I don't like this, Erasmus.” The halfling stated with a practiced calm “We helped him with that last job, and he told us he wouldn't be contacting us no more.” He wrung his hands reflexively for a moment as his cohort continued the nonchalant maintenance of the mandolin. “For Shendré's sake, we're not even members of his guild, though who'd want to be?”
The half-elf gave his instrument a muted strum and, satisfied with it's sound, placed it next to him. “O'doc, old friend, be calm.” Erasmus spoke with a voice like an aged whiskey; slightly coarse and smokey, but with an underlying smoothness that caused a person to instinctively relax, oftentimes too much if one was not careful. “We've got nothing to fear from Ravenclaw. This'll likely be just another fetch job in some out-of-the-way farming town where the Rats aren't present. Besides, you remember as well as I how well that last job paid.”
O'doc couldn't help but admit that his partner was right; to his knowledge, neither he nor Erasmus had ever crossed the River Rats. If they had, one or both of them would have felt the repercussions long before now. The money, too, was quite the draw. The last time the pair helped Ravenclaw secure some mysterious cargo from a band of bugbears who had ransacked a Rats caravan north of Delverbrook, and the payout was handsome enough to allow the two of them to live comfortably for just over two months. Still, though, O'doc couldn't help but feel uneasy as he sat waiting. So on edge was the poor halfling, that it took what was left of his control to not leap from his seat as the door opposite where the pair was seated opened with a loud baritone creak.
The object of O'doc's unease, a fellow halfling, strode through the opened door. This halfling was dressed in dingy, tattered clothing. On the streets, no one would think him more than a Common beggar, although the thick gold chain beneath his hole-riddled shirt and the two hearty men flanking his sides belied both his wealth and prominence. He strode to the table with an odd hunched gait, his eyes darting suspiciously as he made his way. Upon hopping onto the chair opposite O'doc and Erasmus, the halfling focused his beady eyes on the pair. “Gentlemen,” he began with a crooked yellow grin, “it's been far too long.”
“Lannister Ravenclaw,” Erasmus subtly bowed, still seated, “to what do we owe the privilege of a requested audience?”
“Oh, come now, bard; you've no need to try and butter my biscuit with formality. After all,” Lannister turned his beady gaze to O'doc, “we're all friends here.”
O'doc resisted the urge to shudder. So often, he was the mouthpiece of the operation he and Erasmus had concocted for themselves, and yet any time the pair dealt with the River Rats, and especially with Lannister Ravenclaw, he could not help but be filled with this sick unease, the kind a child feels the first time they see blood. In spite of this, however, the halfling retained his composure. “So what's the job?” he asked, trying to mask his distaste with a feigned casual smirk.
Lannister straightened. “Oh? You're talking, O'doc, splendid! Here I thought I'd gone and frightened the poor lamb stiff...” Lannister, who had yet to sit down, walked around the table as he continued. “'S funny, really, I'd always pegged you as the brains and the bard as the looks. Reminds me of something my father told me: he said 'boy, the quickest way for a man to lose his head is to keep his mouth open and let everything inside fall out'...” as he reached the end of the table where the two partners sat, he leaned in close to O'doc, massaging the now petrified halfling's head with one hand. “So let's be a good lamb and make sure that little head stays right where it is, eh?” The whisper was barely audible, but the cold implications it carried were enough to suck all the colour from O'doc's face.
“Ha HA!” Lannister jumped back, clapping his hands together, scurrying to the opposite side of the table and taking a seat. “But the lad is to the point, and the point is this, gentlemen: I've got someone I need you to retrieve.”
“Someone? Not exactly our specialty.” Erasmus responded, raising an eyebrow “We've done our fair share of jobs for you, but this? We're not bounty hunters.”
“It's not a bounty I'm after.”
“Kidnappers, then, whatever professional term you want to use. The point is, O'doc and I move two kinds of goods: information, and objects.”
“And that,” Lannister said, tapping his finger into the table to emphasize the point “is why I called on you. You and your lamb are the best two smugglers and spies-for-hire I know. I need someone found and retrieved, with as little muss or fuss as is possible. Still smuggling, you see, just that you two'll be smuggling living cargo.” He turned to face O'doc “What say you, Lambkins?” After a moment of silence, Lannister cocked his head mock-piteously, “Oh, come now, I was just teasing before. You'd do best to share your thoughts with the bard, you are the brains of the outfit, after all.”
O'doc began to weigh everything he'd heard up to this point in his head. On the one hand, the River Rats were the most profitable benefactors the pair had worked for, and they certainly could use the money. On the other hand, there was something about the job that didn't sit well with O'doc; the Rats had agents throughout the better parts of the Four Kingdoms, and the fact that Lannister was approaching outside help for this job meant that he needed the pair to go somewhere the Rats could not. Realizing this, the halfling fought through his unease, and opted for a bold tactic. “What's the job going to pay?” he asked flatly.
“Six hundred crowns,” Lannister stated with his yellowed grin “half up front, the remainder held until the job is completed.” The offer was more than double what Lannister had paid the pair for their last job. This alone was enough to make Erasmus nearly leap from his seat and take the job, but O'doc discreetly motioned him to hold.
“Look Lannister,” O'doc now stood, and began to pace with a perceived calm. “It's safe to say that you and your guild have a fair bit of coin stashed up, am I right?” The halfling didn't expect an answer, but all the same he turned and stared straight at Lannister, albeit largely to try and avoid the sight of his bodyguards. “Now, I don't know who's lining your pocket for this job, but if you expect us to sneak in and out of Hallowspire undetected...” he paused, noticing the subtle change in Lannister's expression to that of genuine surprise. “I think it's safe to say you could offer my partner and I something a bit more fair. Say, three hundred pieces up front...” a tiny smirk began to form at one side of O'doc's mouth “and seven hundred more upon return?”
There was a moment of painful, lingering tension. The two halflings stared at one another for what seemed like an eternity. O'doc took a huge risk, but a calculated one; the money Lannister had offered the pair meant that the job would be in a city, and the only city where a person couldn't find a River Rat if they tried was Rheth, capital city of Hallowspire, where were-rats, or any lycanthrope for that matter, was put to death like a diseased animal. Erasmus sat, wide-eyed at the situation, and noticing the subtle shifts of Lannister's bodyguards, motioned his own hand to the hilt of his short sword. No one spoke; O'doc barely allowed himself to breathe. Lannister's eyes narrowed, and a wide, disgusting smile formed on his face.
“I always knew you were the brains of this outfit, Lambkins.”
Lannister Ravenclaw let out a great, sickly laugh as he motioned to one of his bodyguards to go gather the three hundred piece down-payment, and went on to order the group a round of drinks, discussing the details of the job at length.
O'doc spent the rest of the meeting trying his hardest not to pass out from relief.