The sun had crested the mountains to the east. An eagle circled overhead, searching for prey in the tall grasses that grew along the road through the forest. A rabbit hopped onto the path, then froze when it saw the group before darting back into the undergrowth.
The group had been walking for hours. Yolo67 kept complaining his feet hurt, and finally xSlayerx agreed it might be better to stop and have a rest and some food when Carwen spotted an old man in a hood step out from the woods and block their path.
“Welcome, travelers, to my forest,” he said, voice raspy from too many tobacco pipes.
Yolo67 drew his sword and held it up menacingly. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“My name is not important,” the old man said, “but what I have to offer you may be.”
“You speak in riddles?” xSlayerx asked, one eyebrow raised.
“That wasn’t a riddle,” Carwen said. “That wasn’t even vague.”
xSlayerx dismissed her impudence with a wave of his hand and turned his attention back to the old man.
“Tell us what you have, old man, and what we can to do obtain it.”
The old man pulled back his hood to reveal that he was, indeed, very old. His hair was stark white and his face deeply lined. He leered at Carwen, which made her skin crawl.
“I have within my possession, passed down to me by the great Sage Dunhard, translated at great pains into the common tongue…” He looked around conspiratorially and partially drew forth a bit of folded parchment from beneath his cloak. Two leaned forward expectantly, Carwen rolled her eyes.
“This is a map of the Dark Lord’s fortress that lies at the end of this road. It will help you get inside.”
“You mean a schematic,” Carwen said.
The old man eyed her with displeasure. “What?”
“Schematic. Or layout. Or floor plan. It doesn’t make sense to say it’s map of the fortress. Maps are used for areas of land.”
“What difference does it make?” he snapped, “I’m offering to give it to you!”
“Okay, so what do you want in return?” xSlayerx asked.
“Winter is approaching,” he said, “and I have not finished stocking my house for the snows to come. If you will go into the woods and bring me back the thick hides of ten brown bears, and the rich flesh of ten hill bucks, and the tough sinew of ten wild boars, then you may have this map.”
xSlayerx tugged the other two back several paces so they could talk amongst themselves.
“That sounds fair.”
“You can’t be serious,” Carwen said.
“If we each take one part of his request, I’m sure we can be done in no time,” Yolo67 ventured, despite Carwen’s gaze piercing his soul with promises of pain later.
“He gives us a map, but only if we spend the next three weeks helping him get ready for winter? I’m pretty sure my mom told me a story about this when I was a kid,” Carwen said.
Ignoring her, xSlayerx went right on ahead making the plans. “Right. I’ll take the deer. Yolo, you kill the boar, and Carwen, you can off the bears.”
She folded her arms, her eyes narrowing. “I have a better idea.”
“Sorry, but I’m allergic to bears,” xSlayerx said.
She sighed and turned, nocked an arrow, and let it fly. The old man let out a cry of pain as he clutched at the shaft jutting from his chest. A moment later he fell over dead. Carwen walked over and relieved him of the map.
“Carwen, what are you doing?” Yolo67 cried. “He was going to help us!”
“I’m not on this quest to run errands for lazy, creepy old men who can’t be arsed to prepare for their own needs,” she said, handing the map to xSlayerx. “What would he have done first if we hadn’t come along, starved or frozen?”
xSlayerx opened his mouth, then shut it again.
“He probably had plenty and just wanted to get rid of us.”
Yolo67 couldn’t come up with a counter-argument to that. Now that she mentioned it, it did seem a bit fishy.
“And you have to admit,” xSlayerx said at last, “it is quicker this way.”
Carwen rifled through his belongings to see if there was anything else of value to take while xSlayerx examined the map.
Yolo67 looked at the old man dead on the ground, at xSlayerx, then to Carwen. “Yeah, I wasn’t really looking forward to hunting boar, anyway. They’re nasty suckers.”
Carwen divided the dried meats she found into three portions and handed Yolo67 and xSlayerx their share. “Come on, we can probably make the fortress by nightfall now.”
Yolo67 and xSlayerx looked at one another and nodded.
“Yep, good point.”
“Alright, let’s keep going.”