‘Burr, if you don’t stop wheezing on me I’m going to castrate you and leave you here to die.’
‘It’s-not-my-fault! The air’s freezing my lungs. The snow is knee high and just in case you hadn’t already noticed I’m just a tad out of shape at present.’
‘Well, you still look perfectly spherical to me.
Now then, the extraction point is just up ahead. If I know, The Shiv, he’ll already be there and have secured the place. But still, be on your guard.’
‘That’ll be a little tricky. My hands are so numb I can’t even draw my sword.’
‘Not that it would do you any good anyhow; What I meant is, try and keep out of sight. Hopefully the snow storm should mask your considerable silhouette.’
Burr finally eclipsed a virgin white mound. He wheezed heavily for a few moments then toppled face forward tumbling the rest of the way down the slope.
His momentum delivered him up next to the crouched form of Gretchen. She had her bow drawn and was scanning what at first glance appeared to be a mountain range ahead of them.
Once his brain caught on to what he was seeing Burr realised that it was in fact a castle dominating the horizon; complete with battlements, banners, gargoyles and other generally expected aesthetics such a stone bastion would sport. The structure gave the impression that it had risen up out of the blanket of deep snow and stood resolute against the bleak white and grey twilight landscape.
‘Good work on the camouflage, Burr. You’re learning.’
‘Accident’ mumbled Burr through a face full of snow.
‘Yes, you are, Burr. You’re just a helpless little piglet trapped in the quicksands of fate, aren’t you?’ The elf pinched Burrs rosy cheek playfully. Not used to the sour, monotone elf being companionable he warily muttered, ‘Yes, Sir…Ma-am…M’lady…’
The elf got comfy, shouldered her bow, lit her pipe and resumed her reconnaissance while she waited for Burr to right himself.
‘Right, there I am’ he huffed eventually. ‘So, what’s the plan?’
‘Simple,’ purred the Ranger. ‘Sneak through a convenient break in one of those tumble-down walls, stealthily stalk and ruthlessly murder in cold blood anyone we come across; we then loot and pilfer anything of value we can realistically carry, find The Shiv, get a fire going then get the kettle on. How’s that?’
‘Marvellous’ groaned the fat man. ‘It’ll be child’s play I’m sure.’
‘Ok, off we go…’ and with that she was away like a wraith through the swirl, running atop almost three feet of powdery snow and barely creating a stir.
The lithe fey vaulted a downed tree, hop scotched stones over a fast-flowing ford then somersaulted up the ruins of the nearest fortified wall.
Burr stared open mouthed after her like a dumfounded cow. He rearranged his tussled tunic and tightened his belt with grim determination then started off after her. Huffing like a great steam train he galloped forth like only a morbidly obese man in knee deep snow can.
Presently, Burr picked himself up once more and spat out a mouthful of snow. He narrowed his eyes and set his sights on vaulting the downed trunk. After adjusting his back straps and brushing some snow off his breasts he launched in to action like a stoned sloth.
Burr collided with the tree with such colossal force that a family of snow foxes were ejected from their safe haven like a bunch of furry bullets out of a cracked and rusty cannon.
The dazed vixen gingerly sniffed the unconscious Burr, turned her nose up at him then piddled on his leg. She gathered her albino pups and led them away into the blizzard to find another place to wait out the storm.
From her vantage point on the battlements Gretchen winced at Burrs rigorous display of ineptitude, unsheathed a dagger then stalked off silently into the keep.
Burr awoke sometime later, freezing cold in the ruins of the tree and smelling somewhat like wee.
He clambered to his feet and stomped about to get the feeling back in his body. Lucky for Burr he is very well covered and never truly feels deathly cold. Although he often says he does it’s only because he doesn’t move about all that often, so what do you expect?
After slipping and sliding through the icy water of the ford the bulky man attempted to ascend the stony outcrop Gretchen had so easily scaled earlier. The tumbled down stone work was treacherous, jagged and icy. Therefore, our reluctant hero decided to risk trying to gain entry elsewhere.
Not having much experience or imagination in breaking and entering military institutions, Burr decided he’d just try the front door. Along his route to where he assumed the front door or portcullis or what-have-you would be, he stumbled across several corpses of castle guards lying face down in the deep snow on the outside of the fortification. They’d obviously fallen from height, say, from as high as the battlements Burr was now stood before.
Now Burr was no freelance murder detective with a predilection for being in the right place at the right time, but he hazarded a guess that it wasn’t the fall that had killed any of these poor individuals. Using the power of thought and all his skills of deduction he deduced that, on account of the patch of what appeared to be raspberry slushy around the deceased’s necks, the victims had in fact had their throats cut before being jettisoned off the wall.
The bodies were ridged and far too heavy to turn over so he couldn’t really prove his theory, but in retrospect Burr was quite happy not to have to come face to face with an orifice in a human that wouldn’t naturally be there. So he just assumed that this was indeed the handy work of The Shiv and moved on.
With a bit of exertion and a lot of huffing Burr heaved the great double doors open. Quite cleverly the Shiv had been good enough to leave a set of keys hanging from the frost encrusted mouth of a dead sentry propped up against the doors.
The supposed master infiltrator, espionage specialist and cut throat extraordinaire was certainly starting to live up to his reputation. Up until recently, reading between the lines, Burr had regarded him as nothing more than a common, albeit lavish, cat burglar.
Burr found further evidence of this mysterious felon’s passing as he ventured into the courtyard. Chiefly in the form of very cold, very dead soldiers. Each one had a look of such shock upon their features. One or two others, more worryingly, sported the relaxed expression of undisturbed peaceful slumber.
A smithy was face down in his cooling trough, some sort of fire poker or half-finished skewering implement poking out the top of his skull. Some butcher or trapper was flopped over his latest kill, his own cleaver deep in the middle of his back. An archer was pinned to a practice target through the chest with one of his own arrows. Another deadly shaft had penetrated through one ear and out the other. The man’s frozen expression was caught somewhere between smirking amusement and even ridicule then abject horror and agony.
Curiosity led the fat man across the well-trodden courtyard to some crude stables where a healthy-looking brilliant-white horse seemed in distress. Now, normally Burr is very much not a person who is confident around horses. Horses are, for all intent and purpose, the size and weight of a car but with no real discernible brains at the helm. If a car is going a bit doolally all one might have to do is simply switch it off, or perhaps even unplug it. As far as he was assured, you couldn’t really unplug a horse and Burr wasn’t about to conduct a search in order to find a likely input socket.
Anyway, the horse was all saddled and bagged up ready for a journey it seemed, however due to the swift and unforeseen influence of The Shiv, the passenger was no longer fit to travel. The rider had been garrotted with his own riding crop and, unfortunately for the horse, the frozen body which now slumped over the gate had become entangle within its reins. Despite all its strength the poor thing just couldn’t shift the overhanging dead weight.
Quick as an orangutan sausage back up through the digestive tract of an unsuspecting vegan Burr had realised the animal’s predicament and set about putting paid to its plight. Now, Burr couldn’t open the gate or shift the cadaver because it was lashed to the horse and he could get over the body to untie him. Nor could he climb between the stone and timbers of the stable wall because the horse filled the entire things interior. However, a thought struck him. Whipping his extendable handigrabber-reaching-aid out of his backpack he patiently and meticulously unwound the beasts tack from about the dead rider.
In another ludicrous and unlikely display of forethought Burr shifted the cadaver out of harm’s way and opened the gate to allow the animal to roam free.
The errant equestrian entity pranced and gambolled freely about the courtyard tossing its forelock gaily. Once calm Burr re-approached to stroke the things nose and have a damn good rifle through the bulging saddle bags for tasty loots.
After foraging through some seemingly pointless and underwhelming cargo Burr eventually unwrapped a peculiar package of plush purple velvet and gazed in wonderment at its contents. His features lit up as a dazzling curio refracted the moons silvery light…
These things always culminate at the highest peak. Or the tallest tower. Or the top floor. The climatic pinnacle if you will. It’s just the way of things. Sub consciously knowing this, and from having spent his whole life immersed in playing fantasy table top and video games and watching every fantasy film ever produced, Burrs legs led him towards the keep.
Again, another helpful sentry sat on the snow outside the main gate with a ring of keys dangling from his icicley mouth.
An hour later, after side stepping around, climbing over and through the remains of some more very unfortunate castle guards Burr eventually beached on the landing of the tallest tower. Winded, wet and exhausted.
The gold-leaf adorned door at the end of the short corridor swung gently open to reveal Gretchen, leaning on the door frame with her arms folded, a delicate goblet in one hand.
‘Punctual as ever, Burr.’
‘Sorry,’ he wheezed, struggling for breath. ‘Animal welfare concern.’
‘Come, meet The Shiv and get warmed.’
Despite Burrs previous disposition towards, The Shiv, the professional killer turned out to be a most charming little chap, sitting there on a throne at the end of the dining table wearing the castle commander’s adornments and accessories. All of which were far too big for him, mind. But that just added to his quite comical and surprisingly comradely composure.
Burrs first impression of the little serial killer, or Malakai Shaggyflanks as he is actually named, was of a psychotic jockey turned psychotic jester. A very lippy, rather intoxicated jester with a death wish and a penchant for stealthy, albeit rather tasteless, murder. He had a very direct and colourful vocabulary and a quite endearing, if sometimes entirely incomprehensible, regional dialect.
The poor previous incumbent of that most comfortable room was also sat at table, just not in his appropriate spot. He had been stripped of all garments and was wearing just his long johns, with a long cigar poking out of his mouth and a full goblet in one hand on the table. Trickles of scarlet dripped out the corners of his mouth and nostrils.
‘Y alright there, Y’ ‘Ronour?’ bellowed the impish cutthroat. The Shiv winked at Burr, ‘Excuse him Mr. Burr, I don’t think he’s feeling quite himself today. Allow me to introduce him. ’Dis ‘ere is the right honourable Viddick Peppersnort.’
The Shiv leered at the castle patron with quite possibly the most malignant smile Burr had ever seen on a human. The kind a hungry shark gives an oblivious diver the moment he turns around.
‘Right nasty bastard.’ The Shiv confided, ‘When folk don’t do what he tells ‘em, he burns villages to the ground. And that kind of bastards always attracts a lot more bastards to ‘em.’ The short man indicated a dispatched tower guard slumped in a corner who, for some obscure reason, had a cauldron over his head and bruised and smashed fruits and vegetables all around him.
‘So, introductions complete, back to business if you please’ announced Gretchen helping herself to another goblet of fiery wine from a large silver decanter. ‘Shiv, what about the damn Seal?’ a note of urgency apparent in her tone made Burr attentive.
‘Seal?’ muttered Burr. ‘What…?
‘Gone.’ Shrugged the little man. ‘Must have shipped it out already on a fast horse.’ The gnomish man casually hefted a potato and jettisoned it at the cauldron-come-headwear. It made a wonderfully satisfying ‘toooong!’ sound on impact. ‘Six. Hell of a risk if you ask me. But then, I’m not the kind of man who likes taking risks you understand.’
‘What’s a seal?’
‘In that case we’re done for. A good courier could be half way to the Drakk by now.’ Dejectedly Gretchen hurled a large carrot, end over end like a throwing dagger, at the cauldron hitting it squarely. ‘Seven. I don’t like to fail Shiv, as you know. Something must be done. Any ideas?’
‘Ahem? Excuse I, but: What Damn Seal?’ Enquired Burr trying to keep his temper.
‘Shush, Porker!’ snapped the elf slamming a hand on the table and making everyone jump. ‘We’re busy! Real people talking!’
Apparently, the Shiv didn’t like to be interrupted either. And of course certainly not whilst actually about his business. Having learnt this Burr was very happy to take a back seat on the proceedings and keep extremely quiet and unobtrusive.
But that was okay, the cosiness of the room with its golden glow of candelabras, the warmth of the roaring fire, the bold wine and the full stomach of some meaty animal off the spit made Burr feel quite dozy. As the ranger and the murderer plotted easily, as only old comrades can, Burrs eyelids became very, very heavy.
Talk remained on the same tack of this mysterious artefact for some time and a new plan was being finalized in order to retrieve it. Apparently it was all very important and it was imperative if Burr was to get home.
Naturally, the scheme involved many a death defying leap, several bouts of courageous impetuousness, an idiocy of suicidal charges a lunacy of cold, sleepless nights and almost certainly a drastic loss of important body parts.
During the proceedings pacing about had occurred, as did thoughtful chin rubbing; anxious hand ringing could also be observed. Apparently, this was to be no easy feat.
‘So what do you think Burr, do we have an accord?’ demanded Gretchen as the pair concluded their plan.
‘Hmmm, wha-? Oh, sorry must have nodded off there. What was the question?’
The elf growled with frustration through tight closed peepers and tight clenched fists.
‘The plan, man!’ Squeaked the astonished killer. ‘We need the Seal back so we can get rid of you!’
‘Oh, that! Well I’m bored of that story now…’
‘Beg pardon?’ stated the elf, doing a very good impression of an astounded human.
‘Apologies,’ continued Burr. ‘I didn’t want to interrupt your fascinating discussion, to which I was not be a part. But is this what you were talking about?’
Burr took the velvety package out of his backpack and unravelled it. The room became a lot shinier, almost blinding in fact. He used his handy aid to place it far across the table between the Shiv and Gretchen.
The grinning cut throat sat back in his throne, genuinely impressed. ‘The Seal? Well I’ll be buggered by a zombie on pancake day.’
‘Seriously?’ Spat Gretchen. ‘You didn’t think to tell us this earlier-’
‘-You never asked!’ Burr cut in. He helped himself to a large, overly ripe tomato. ‘And besides, I did try to tell you.’ Without gauging the shot he lobbed the fruit haphazardly over his left shoulder. He was rewarded a delightful, sploooonnngggnnnn! ‘Ah, one to me I think.’ Burr smirked and lifted the decanter. ‘Drink?’
The mini sneak nodded his head and grinned approvingly. The sultry Elf simply scowled daggers at the fat man for a moment. ‘You stink of fox pee!’