As Greil reached the crest of a hill, he laid eyes upon the village of Goxhill, a small community, little more than a hamlet. Several rows of buildings were arranged neatly ahead of him, and the rooftops of others could be seen scattered randomly in the vicinity, mostly obscured by the spattering of trees which had grown beyond the borders of the nearby forest. The Gol Mountain range stood to the north east, the incline marking its beginning only a short journey beyond Goxhill. Greil gazed at the mountain peaks, gigantic fingers of rock straining to reach the heavens, the snow capping several of them appearing as bone, the exertion of their unknowingly long journey upwards stripping the highest finger tips of their flesh. He resumed his walk.
Arriving as he was around mid-morning, Greil expected the village to be empty, its community of farmers and lumberjacks out to work, but as he approached the centre of the settlement, an unpaved roadway lined on either side by wooden buildings, he saw that this was not the case; a group of around fifty people were heading his way from the other end of the road, dressed in dark colours and muted tones, a large wooden box held by several men walking slightly ahead of the rest. Greil stood to the side, bowed his head in respect and waited for the funeral procession to pass, several people offering him polite nods and sad smiles, pleased by the kindness of a stranger.
After allowing for a reasonable gap between himself and the group to develop, Greil lifted his head and scanned the surrounding buildings, most seemed to be houses but one, larger than the rest, was adorned with a sign reading “The Groggy Mare”. An inn would likely be a good place to begin the hunt for the answers he sought, though judging by the amount of people who had just left the village the establishment would be sparsely, if at all, populated and would also bear a rather heavy mood for the coming days. He would just have to be careful.
A bell rang over the door as he gently guided it open. Greil had seen enough inns around the nation of Alba to know this was a fairly typical one, though it had more of a homely atmosphere than most of the Gerelden establishments, which had as of late all developed a taste for kitsch interiors and over-priced food, preferring to be referred to as Gastro-Inns. The room was, as expected, practically devoid of life, save from a large, heavily armoured man with an impressive beard, sitting alone at a table gulping ale and a young bar maid, listlessly mopping the bar with a damp cloth.
She looked up as Greil approached, clearly just snapping out of a daydream, and greeted him with a smile, “Good morning sir, can I get you anything?”
Greil perused the shelves behind the bar, before speaking, “Well, the weather is surprisingly pleasant for this time of year… I wonder if you have anything appropriate, a cordial perhaps?”
“Certainly sir, our pear cordial is the most popular.” She produced a flask from beneath the bar as she spoke.
“I’m more of an apple man myself” he replied as he watched her nonchalantly pour the pear cordial into a mug.
“I really do recommend the pear though.”
Greil eyed the woman for a moment before acquiescing and accepting the mug. He sipped the cool liquid and was pleasantly surprised, the cordial was indeed a fine one, earning the bar maid a smile.
“I told you it was good” she said, smiling in return.
Greil paused for several seconds, deciding whether to push for conversation or not, settling for the former, “I’m sorry to see that the village seems to have suffered a loss” he said in a hushed tone, gesturing to the doorway with a nod.
A shadow descended across the young woman’s face, “A tragedy it is. Poor Nathir.”
“Did you know him well?”
“No more than everyone else, but he was popular and as pleasant as they come. Nigh on half the village is out there today. I would be too ‘cept my boss wanted me to stay here in case we have customers.”
Greil paused before continuing, “Do you mind if I ask what happened?”
“I’d tell you if I knew sir, but no one can be sure. Seems he was murdered though. Horrible it was. His head had been cut clean off…” She stopped speaking mid-sentence, seemingly moments away from being overcome with emotion.
Seeing this, Greil decided it was best to wrap things up, “A tragedy my dear. Thank you for telling me what you could though.” He moved away from the bar with his mug of cordial and turned to face the room, there was still another person to talk to.
The bearded man glanced up from his tankard of ale as the chair opposite him was pulled out and suddenly occupied by a cloaked, middle-aged man with an unassuming appearance.
“Morning” Greil greeted him before sipping at his cordial.
“Good day” the bearded man replied in a deep voice.
A pregnant pause filled the air before Greil spoke, seeking to fight through the awkwardness with small talk, “I’m a stranger around here so, excuse me if I seem a fool for asking, but are you from the area?”
“As a matter of fact I am, although I haven’t been back for long.”
“Oh? Where have you been, if you don’t mind my prying?”
“Not at all, I’ve been visiting relatives; elements of my family are spread all over Alba. And what brings you to Goxhill, friend?”
Greil eyed the man, unconvinced by his story but not making his suspicion obvious, “I’m a simple travelling merchant, friend.”
It was the man’s turn to eye Greil, also unconvinced, “Interesting, I can’t say I’ve met many merchants with as potent magical abilities as you seem to have.”
Greil smirked, he had himself detected the bearded man’s magical energy, emanating from him in powerful waves and wondered if his too had been observed, “Perhaps neither of us has been wholly honest.”
“The name’s Greil” he paused, waiting for a reply that never came, “You may be able to help me with something.”
“Mm. I’m looking for information about a black dragon” a flicker of hopeful expectation danced across Greil’s face.
“Ahhhh, well, that is something I can help with” the man continued, seemingly keen to retell the tale, “I saw the dragon myself, almost a week ago now. It flew right over, heading north east, towards the Gol Mountains.”
Though Greil had had conversations such as this on more than one occasion over the last few weeks, hearing news of his quarry never failed to please him, “I imagine that must have caused quite a stir in the village?”
“Oh I’d say so. A good deal of the folk saw it as a bad omen. Then a few days later Nathir is butchered in his own home and well, the sheriff may have some trouble on his hands in the near future if you ask me.”
The conversation was interrupted by the squeaking of the inn’s door. A large, well built goliath strolled in casually and took a seat at the bar without even glancing at the two men. Greil watched him with curious intent, then turned back to his companion, “Thank you friend, you’ve been a help.”
“It’s no trouble” the bearded man clicked his fingers, ordering another ale as he downed the remnants of his current tankard.
Greil got to his feet and refastened his cloak, “Perhaps we’ll run into each other again.”
The man did not drop his gaze as Greil left the inn.