Biggs woke in the morning and immediately jumped to his feet when he noticed his brother missing. He grabbed his sword and charged down the stairs to the main room of the inn only to find Smalls still snoozing. By then he slumped to the ground and was curled up with a tankard in his hand. Biggs took a deep breath and smiled then sat down at the table by his slumbering brother.
The innkeeper noticed the dwarf and immediately readied some breakfast and a cider. The owner of the establishment served Biggs with a brief greeting then left to ready food for the day. Biggs enjoyed the meal in silence and recalled the revels of the night prior with warmth.
Before long, Rhyk the bard entered the room as well and after requesting some breakfast from the innkeeper, sat down with Biggs.
“Good morning to you, master dwarf!” Rhyk beamed clapping Biggs on the back. “I did so enjoy hearing the tale of your battle with the goblin raiders last night! I even composed a ballad to memorialize your great deeds.”
“Oh?” Biggs asked as he raised an eyebrow. “Why would you do that?”
“Well,” smiled Rhyk, “It is, of course, my talent. I write and recite poetry and song of great deeds and epic battles and lost histories. It is in these words that folks remember times past and celebrate heroes of old, finding inspiration to live their lives better than they currently are.”
Biggs raised his tankard of cider, “Well, I can drink to that!”
Rhyk quickly snatched his own mug and clinked it against Biggs’ with a wide smile and a nod of respect.
Biggs leaned back and closed his eyes a moment to recall the battle once more. The images of the goblins falling to his bow and his brother’s axe were fresh and he could hear their hideous screams and see their twisted faces.
His daydream was broken by Rhyk, “Why do you kill goblins with such vengeance?”
Biggs snapped from the trance and his eyes focused. “Didn’t Smalls tell you?”
“Nay, he did not. We were busy enjoying the tale of your battle against the raiding party.”
Biggs swallowed hard and looked past the bard, “They attacked the trade caravan our parents led when we were young.”
Rhyk’s eyes softened, he lifted his mug to his new friend then sipped, “Forgive me, that is a painful memory.”
“Aye,” Biggs agreed.
“So now you kill these goblin raiding parties and return stolen items?” Rhyk wondered.
“Among other things,” Biggs shrugged.
“Do they ever have anything good?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Rhyk began, “I myself have come close to goblins before and they never struck me as creatures who carried things of actual value. Petty thieves if anything, especially the random raiding parties. Nothing but outsiders in their own despicable race. But you have encountered them many times, so I’m curious, do you even find much of value?”
Biggs shook his head then remembered the scrap of leather with a crude map on it. “Wait! Maybe you can help me with something. We found what looks like a map but we couldn’t make much sense of it and Smalls thought it was useless but I took it nonetheless. Maybe you could tell us what it is.”
Rhyk straightened up and smiled, “Well I can certainly try. Where is this map?”
Biggs excused himself and quickly retrieved it from their room, bounding down the stairs like a boy. He showed the bard and then sat back and sipped his cider mind racing with the possibilities.
Rhyk turned it over and over and looked carefully at it, tracing some of the letters with a finger. He studied it for several minutes, at times setting it down and searching through the stories in his head.
“Well?” Biggs blurted finally unable to wait for a sign of understanding any longer, “Does it mean anything to you?”
Rhyk did not satisfy the dwarf immediately, however and instead set the map down in front of him and smoothed it out, then leaned back and once more sought for the answers in the poems and tales he knew.
“I believe so,” the bard finally answered.
“What is it then?” Biggs wondered.
Rhyk leaned forward and locked eyes with Biggs and held the stare. “I am not an expert in maps or even goblin lore. I know a couple who are, but I am a teller of tales. However, I believe that this map shows the location of a place lost to history that is hardly remembered by any.”
“What? What?” Biggs begged as he slapped his hand on the table making the mugs bounce.
Rhyk settled back into his seat before answering, “I think that this scrap of map shows the location of the Lost Keep of Svoga.”
Biggs exhaled and scrunched his face. “What does that mean? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Of course you haven’t. Few have. However, I have heard tale of a kingdom of old that once flourished in riches and its people. It was the center of fantastic trade, art and culture long ago. The markings on this map show a pair of mountain peaks that I am familiar with and a river that runs between them. On that river, this map shows a keep; a fortress. The words, written in the symbols sometimes used by goblins when they bother to write anything, are the symbols we call ‘bestial’ and is used by some of the more savage races in our world. They are difficult to decipher because it is not a common symbol, but I suspect it may symbolize Svoga.”
Rhyk paused and let Biggs process the information.
“If what you say is true, what should I do with this information?” Biggs wondered.
“Well, that is an entirely different and difficult decision. To begin with, as I said, I may be wrong anyways. It is possible that I have not read this map correctly and in fact this map does not show the mountains I believe it shows, the river I say it shows or the kingdom I believe it shows. I may be completely wrong. There are others who could read this better than I. Even if I am correct, and this map shows the lost keep of Svoga, there is no telling what remains of the fallen kingdom. It is likely that it is nothing but ruins and perhaps not even that. If my recollection of the histories is correct, this kingdom was at its peak thousands of years ago.”
“So you think this is just old nonsense? That there is no reason to go looking for it?”
Rhyk didn’t flinch and stared Biggs down hard, “I didn’t say that at all. I don’t think that either. Now, keep in mind once more, that I am a bard, a tale-teller, a poet, a musician, and I entertain for a living and live for adventure.” He let the words hang in the air and Biggs was leaning forward as if to summon the rest of the thought from the bard.
“However, this skin is not ancient. The map is recorded on something that is at most only years old; not thousands. That means someone was recently interested in what is recorded here.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that there may yet be something there.”
“It is difficult once again to say. All I know is that the kingdom was legendary for its construction, culture and riches. There was none like it at the time and perhaps there is not even any like it now. While legends tend to grow over time, if it was ever a tiny bit as glorious as it was said to be, it was certainly a sight to behold.”
“So there may be treasure there?”
“It is difficult to believe that someone a treasure hold of that size remains unspoiled through such a long period of time, but one does wonder whether some portion of that wealth may yet remain.”
Biggs leaned back in his seat and slouched down with his mind reeling. Gold, gems, armor and weapons danced in his imagination. Then in the center of it all, he envisioned he and his brother behind the most glorious inn in the region; their ‘Stumble Inn.’ It was his dream to relax and enjoy luxury and fellowship and fine ale. Besides, this sounded like a fantastic adventure, the likes of which would make their victory over the goblin raiding party seem like afternoon tea.
“How do you know these things?” Biggs wondered.
“There is a poem I recall clearly of which this map reminded me.”
“Will you tell me?” Biggs requested.
Rhyk stood and moved the chair from his way and closed his eyes to recall the words. He cleared his throat and then began to recite the poem:
“Between the twins
Lies the great kingdom
On the river it flows
With silver and gold
Shining brighter than all
Long ago it did fall
And none was ever like it
It’s king wore a crown
Until it crashed down
Pillaged and plundered
It’s walls were sundered
Swarms of beasts
Ended its feasts
None ever fell like it
Long ago lost
Now covered in moss
Gone from our thoughts
In a land we forgot
Svoga the great
Is now but a grave
No one remembers it”
Rhyk looked off, past Biggs and searched for more. “That is all I can remember. There may have been more but I do not recall. It is a simple rhyme, I know, but in it are a couple of clues that this crude map seem to confirm.”
Biggs was hungry for more. “Where are these mountains and this river?”
Rhyk drained his mug of cider and wiped his mouth with a cloth from his pocket. “That is probably the biggest concern.”
“What is? Do you not know where this map is leading us?”
“Truth be told it wouldn’t be difficult for us to find a number of rivers that pass between a pair of mountains.”
Biggs looked down at his plate and exhaled slowly, shoulders slumping.
“But the poem called the mountains twins.”
Biggs perked back up and leaned in once more.
“And I have seen a number of maps of our world,” Rhyk continued, “And I have heard of virtually every place in it and I can only recall one pair of mountains that are called twins.”
“Which are those?” Begged Biggs.
“They are the Devil’s Guards Mountains.”
“Devil’s Guards? I’ve never heard of them.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. Few have. The Devil’s Guards happen to be on the other side of the mountain range that sits beyond this very town. The range you followed the goblin raiding party towards.”
Biggs considered the information. He was afraid to ask the next, obvious question, for fear of the answer, but he had followed this trail all the way to this point and he needed all the information he could gather. “How could we get there?”
“That’s the largest obstacle you face, if indeed you are considering searching for the lost Keep of Svoga. Realistically the only way to the Devil’s Guards is through the mountains. As I’m sure you’ve already figured out, the mountains are inhabited by many goblins, orcs, cave trolls and who knows what other manner of unsavory creatures. It is not something that would be easy to accomplish and I have only known one man to make the journey.”
“Oh?” Biggs chirped. “Where is this man?”
“He’s dead now. But I know many an epic poem of his journey through the mountains and they were filled with peril.”
Both men reclined and pondered all of the information. Biggs’ mind wandered through the options and was already weighing the possibilities.
Eventually Biggs straightened up and looked directly into Rhyk’s eyes and asked, “What’s the chance my brother and I could make it through the mountain alive and find this lost keep?
Rhyk didn’t hesitate to answer and in a slow and clear voice he answered, “You will most assuredly perish.”
Biggs fell back into his seat as if the energy had been stolen from his spirit. “I suppose we should forget about it then.”
“I don’t see how you can.” Rhyk added.
“What do you mean? Didn’t you just say we would most assuredly perish?”
“Aye, I did. And yes, you will most assuredly perish, and you must also most assuredly try.”
Biggs smiled widely and his eyes flared as his heart heard the call of legend.