While honest work was never Ayen's first choice, the noticeboard near the market street inn had been overflowing lately. It seemed a pity not to take advantage of generous benefactors looking to hire anyone who could get the job done. Most jobs weren't the sort of work Ayen was built for. People needed laborers and apprentices, but one job caught Ayen's eye.
A farmer just outside of the city was having an issue with salamanders. It had been a while since Ayen had used a bow, but he knew how. With the right equipment it would be an easy job and the pay was well worth the risk of a few burns. He pulled the notice down from the board and made his way through the streets. He had coin left after helping Allya and Dag. More than enough for a powerful bow and a quiver full of arrows.
There had been a time when Ayen had been taught to make these things on his own. He knew how to pick a firm but springy sapling for the bow, how to carve and shape perfectly straight arrows, how to treat the bow strings so they wouldn't fray. That was another lifetime, though. Ayen wasn't the child who sat with a bow on his lap, humming along to his mother's song about the elven god who pulled the mountains from the soil. His innocence had died long before he came of age. Still, his hands remembered the bow.
With his new gear, Ayen left the city in search of the farm. It wasn't far from the edge of town and wasn't especially hard to find either, but when he reached it he found that someone had already arrived to claim the job.
A very tired looking man with sunburned skin and a balding head spoke with a far more enthusiastic young woman as they stood outside of the farmhouse. She had a lyre strapped to her back and her dyed red hair was tied up in two thick braids. Her clothing was a little too fine a hire hand despite being scuffed and worn.
"Listen, mister, do you want someone to take the job or not?" She put her hands on her hips, cocking them to the side. The man looked past her and relief came immediately to his sun-spotted face.
"Oh good, this elf here looks fit for it."
The woman turned and narrowed her eyes at him. Where her nose scrunched up he could see a splattering of freckles on her dark skin. "I've already claimed the job, mister, so just you go on somewhere."
Ayen didn’t love the idea of shooing the woman away, but he was walking all the way back to town empty handed, either. "It doesn't seem to me that this man finds you fit for the position, my good lady. I am sure there is other work for a bard," he tried to persuade her.
"Yes, exactly," said the man. "I want those damned creatures dead, not sung to sleep!"
The woman glared at him, too. "I ain't some second rate wannabe. I'm a well practiced bard, you know."
"Yes, but how exactly does that solve my salamander problem?" The man looked so worn out that Ayen wondered how long they had been having this argument.
She looked at them both. "I think the both of you are ignoring one important fact."
"And what's that?" the farmer sighed.
"I don't travel alone, you slug brains! I have Smudge with me!" she exclaimed. Then she gestured down to the duck at her feet. It looked up at Ayen with unintelligent eyes.
"Now how in the blazes does that help?" Ayen asked. The woman huffed and opened her mouth, clearly prepared to go off on a tirade, when the farmer interrupted.
"Here's a better idea than squabbling all afternoon," he offered. "Why don't the two of you work together? You can split the fee. I'll even up it by two coins. What do you say?"
Ayen sighed. All of this nonsense and now he wasn't even going to get paid the full fee. It was clear he wasn't going to convince the bard to walk away so it was either take what he could get or cut his losses and Ayen wasn't one to walk away from a job. At least not when it would mean wasting half of the day.
"Deal," he sighed.
"Deal!" the woman agreed with far more enthusiasm. She turned and offered Ayen her hand. "I'm Keyleth Leonala, bard and servant of Earl Tybee," she declared.
"Ayen. Fenfir," he said without enthusiasm though he shook her hand. At least she was energetic.
"Nice to meet you. Now let's be on our way before these salamanders come after the crop again. Come on, Smudge!" Her braids swayed around her shoulders as she marched on down the road. At the wave of her arm, the little duck followed. Ayen noted there were a few black feathers along his back that could have been mistaken for a smudge of ash or mud. Likely where it got the name.
Ayen sighed at his continuing bad luck before following the bard and her duck companion.
The duck was an odd one. It kept wandering off the path to pick up twigs that it liked and give them to Keyleth which she happily tucked into a satchel. When Ayen suggested that they stop stopping for twigs it became aggressive, squawking and fluffing up his feathers until Keyleth made him apologize. Ayen considered ditching them, but he realized that he hadn't gotten the chance to ask the farmer where the salamanders were coming from so he actually needed Keyleth to show him.
It was a half hour's walk from the farm to the crevice that the salamanders had made a den in. Two rocks jutted out of a hillside with a split down the middle just wide enough for a person to slip in sideways. Ayen could see the glow of salamanders within.
"Great. Now how do we draw them out?"
Keyleth gave him a sly look. "Take your mark, Mr. Archer. Let the bard handle this."
Ayen readied his bow and took up a position many paces from the opening. Keyleth stood back, herself. She took the lyre from her back and began to play the happy sort of tune one might dance to at a festival. Nothing seemed to happen at first, then a salamander poked its head out.
Ayen waited until it had fully emerged, then he fired. The arrow made its mark and the salamander dropped dead, but that didn't stop the next one from coming out. One by one, they followed the sound of Keyleth's lyre in a macabre procession. Entranced by her playing, none of them seemed bothered by the growing mass of bodies. It didn't end until eighteen salamanders were dead on the ground. Keyleth played a moment longer, but nothing more emerged.
"Not bad for a bard," Ayen complimented. He went to retrieve his arrows. Three were broken, but that still left him with seventeen good arrows out of twenty.
Keyleth smiled. "I told ya I wasn't no wannabe. I'm a natural born bard. Been making magic with my music all my life."
"Is that so?” Ayen tucked away his collected arrow. “Why use your talents helping farmers when I imagine more important people would have use for you?"
Keyleth blushed. "Kind of you to say so, but I stay out of the affairs of nobles. They might have all the money, but they have none of the honor." She stopped and looked around.
"Have you seen Smudge? He was just here, I'm sure of it."
Ayen was about to say that hadn't seen Smudge since Keyleth had started playing, but a terrified shrieking came from within the crevice. In a flurry of white feathers, Smudge came running out from between the rocks.
"Oh, Smudgy, what did you do?" Keyleth bent and caught the terrified duck in her arms. A hideous roar burst from within the crevice and shook the ground. Then with a boom, the rocks burst outward in a cloud of dust.
Ayen Fenfir is no common elf, but that won't stop him from pretending to be one as he tries to hide from his past. Life as a criminal isn't easy, but when Ayen sees the bounty for turning in an assassin, known as 'The Angel', he finds himself caught between romance and a chance to retire from his life of crime. 'Don't try your luck in West Catoig' is what they always say, but Ayen has yet to discover just how unlucky West Catoig is for its more humble citizens.