Aberny chuckled at the sight of the gnome squaring off with the half-elf, paintbrush crossed with a short sword. The campfire cast the dueling partners into bronze-and-shadow relief. Ralynn glowered down his sword, while Tali glared back up at him, both as riled as if one had slandered the other's parentage.
"This is ridiculous," Ralynn said. "You can't seriously believe your brush is equal to my blade. They're leagues apart in use and value."
Tali flourished her brush, spraying azure droplets about. "So! You admit art is superior to swordplay."
Ralynn's fair skin reddened up to the tips of his ears. "Not what I meant, and you know it." He twitched his blade, notching the wooden shaft of her brush.
Tali's emerald eyes widened even further, and another flick struck drops of paint across Ralynn's pants. This drew an outraged splutter from the fighter, whose grip tightened on his sword hilt.
Knowing Ralynn's temper, Aberny stood from his cushioned stool, wide hands splayed to separate the two before their verbal sparring came to true blows.
"Friends, might we dispense with the arguing? After all, we didn't come out to hunt one another. And the simple matter is, you're both wrong."
The two turned to him, and he grinned, knowing the firelight would enhance his broad smile and dark, plump cheeks. His jovial demeanor often allowed him to turn even the harshest haggling to his advantage, and he hoped the image he'd cultivated through years caravanning along the Dry Way would work just as well with his companions.
Nothing threatening to see here. Just a common human merchant, arrayed in a colorful robe and adorned with silly trinkets. Don't mind him making off with your coin.
At last, Tali lowered her brush. "Hm? Wrong? What do you mean?"
Aberny gestured to the small dining array his servants had set up. "Let's consider matters with fuller bellies, shall we?"
After another smoldering glare at each other, the two hunting partners went to fallen logs on opposite sides of the campfire. Ralynn began tending to one of half a dozen blades he carried, while Tali adjusted her violet and silver-trimmed dress and plunked down before the canvas she'd been painting on earlier. Aberny gave silent thanks that Ralynn couldn't see her work from his angle, as she began to paint his likeness in a most unflattering manner.
Aberny's servants tended to cuts of venison sizzling on the fire, a contribution from Ralynn, who'd downed a deer on their journey out from Whistledown that morning. A pair of Aberny's caravan guards stood on the edge of the firelight, hands resting on sword pommels, alert to any danger the night held—though Ralynn had scouted the area and assured them no sign of the chimera existed anywhere near.
They'd set a first camp in a bushy grove among the hilly grasslands between Whistledown and Sanos Forest; haunting melodies could still be faintly heard, produced by the popular enchanted wooden carvings that gave the distant town its name. The eerie keening was broken up by the occasional whicker of their horses, which had been tied up nearby for the evening.
"You're both wrong," Aberny said, "because art and battle submit to a greater power."
Ralynn paused in worked a grindstone along an edge. "Like what?"
Tali let out a tinkling laugh. "Oh! Of course the trader would think so."
Aberny accepted the mocking with another smile. "Without merchants like myself toiling along the Dry Way, turning coin to goods and back again, neither of you would even have the supplies or equipment necessary to pursue your passions. Profiteers are the lifeblood of civilization."
He accepted a slosh of wine from a skin, and a servant handed him a prepared plate while the other began slicing off cuts for his companions.
Tali hopped up from the canvas and scampered over to the fire, where she began to portion out the proffered meal for herself. "But! Think. Without artists, merchants have nothing to sell. Fighters nothing worth crossing swords. Commerce paves the roads through a city, and fighters build the walls, but art is..." She shut her wide eyes briefly. "Art is the towering pinnacle that defines us."
Ralynn chuckled. "Pinnacle, huh? Take all day to come up with that?"
Aberny raised an eyebrow as Tali piled meat onto her plate. By the time she finished, she staggered under a mound of venison that looked almost twice her weight. How exactly did the gnome intend to devour such a vast repast?
"Some say fighting is an art form in itself," he suggested.
Tali crinkled her nose. "Fighting? Art? If you want bloodshed and death, fine, but I don't see the beauty in it yet."
Ralynn speared a bite of meat and pointed it at her. "Sounds like we got ourselves a blind painter."
"Yet! I said I don't see it yet. I'm not saying it's not there. That's why I cast my lot in on this hunt. To bring greater insight to my craft."
"Yeah?" Ralynn smirked. "Even if it costs you a thousand gold?"
Tali bowed her head, the fire casting half her face in shadow. "I...I'd sacrifice anything for the sake of true art. It can't be faked. It must be lived. But you're only here because—"
"Because I was drunk as slime at the bottom of a wine barrel when you two decided to make a contest of this bounty. I've made worse bets, but I don't back out on a wager." Aberny locked eyes with each of them in turn over the flames. "Ever. Besides, I stand the best chance of winning. Think your gnome trickery will help you beat the beast?"
Tali perked up. "Master Aberny! If you'd read the contract aloud?" She settled back to work on her canvas.
Aberny reached into the pocket where he'd secured the unusual contract they'd drawn up the previous night, when deep in drink back in Whistledown's popular inn, the Azure Cup. Over the years, the three of them had made a habit of meeting there during his stopovers in town. Odd companions, but familiar faces who helped ground him. Still, he never let personal attachments, however fond, get in the way of business.
He unrolled the parchment, revealing their three signatures at the bottom, and read the main statement.
"‘With the evidence of a chimera prowling the nearby countryside—reportedly responsible for at least a dozen deaths of travelers and homesteaders alike—a bounty of one thousand gold has been placed on the monster's head. We, the undersigned, do swear to partake in a hunt of the unnatural beast, employing our individual skills and resources toward the ending of its foul appetites. Furthermore, the first of our party to kill or capture the beast will receive not only the publicly posted reward, but an additional thousand gold pieces from each of the other two challengers.'"
The artist flourished her brush. "Aha! Hear that? Kill or capture." She popped to her feet and swept a bow. "And I will capture the chimera."
Ralynn snorted, an indelicate act that marred his fine features. "Sure. Gonna grab its tail for a moment before it gobbles you?"
Tali turned her canvas around, revealing Ralynn's face, painted with his tongue stuck out, eyes crossed, and cheeks puffed. "There. My first victim. I've captured you. You're trapped in my art forever."
Aberny couldn't quite contain a chortle.
Ralynn's ears reddened again. "Oh?" Before anyone could move, he dashed over and slashed through the sketch, leaving Tali holding ragged fabric on either side of her head.
Her face twisted in fury and she flung a hand out. A burst of dazzling lights exploded before Ralynn's face, forcing him to squint and turn aside.
"Brute!" She cast the scraps away and leapt up, slashing her paintbrush across Ralynn's chest, leaving a cerulean streak.
Ralynn snarled and Tali yelped as the half-elf grabbed the front of her dress and jerked her up inches from his scowl, sword clenched in a white-knuckled fist.
Aberny lurched up, scattering wine and food. "Ralynn! Let her go."
The fighter hesitated until the guards shifted, hands on sword pommels. As soon as her feet touched the earth, Tali jumped back out of reach. She brushed herself off and fixed her viridian hair back into its sweeping coif. Aberny held out a silk handkerchief so the half-elf could clean off his face. Ralynn snatched it away, muttering thanks.
"As host of this hunt," Aberny said, "I won't abide violence towards one another." He fixed a serious look on Tali. "The same for you, little mistress, even in jest."
Tali bunched her fists. "Hmph. I take my leave of you barbarians to dine in peace." She hefted her plate, still mounded with meat, snagged a wineskin, and staggered off into the brush surrounding the campsite.
Ralynn finished wiping off the paint and offered the silk back, but Aberny waved it away. The half-elf frowned in the direction Tali had gone.
"She can't just sketch the beast to win."
"She's technically correct, though," Aberny said with a sigh. "Same as my using hired guards to slay the beast for me, since they're personal resources."
"At least they could give me a real challenge—though I doubt it. She's missing the whole point of a hunt."
"Don't worry. Art is subjective. Even if she does manage to paint the monster, we'll argue the work doesn't truly capture its essence and so falls short of the prize."
Ralynn grinned. "You've thought this through."
"I always do."
Tali returned a bit later, plate and wineskin empty, while her stomach strained at the confines of her dress. With a few unladylike burps, she excused herself to bed and crawled into her gnome-sized tent. Minutes later, high-pitched snoring mingled with the far-off music of her hometown.
Claiming a preference for sleeping beneath the sky, Ralynn laid a simple bedroll beside the fire. He stretched out on this, still dressed in his fighting leathers and with multiple blades strapped to him.
Aberny then retired to his own tent, almost a small home in itself with a portable bed, desk, and chest of select personal items. When one spent countless weeks traveling between anything resembling civilization, investing in personal comforts paid dividends in return.
He spent another hour going through a ledger of contacts back in Whistledown, evaluating how he might invest the reward he fully intended to collect for the chimera's demise. Not that he believed Ralynn or Tali immediately possessed a thousand gold. But their debts would add to the many he'd accrued from others over the years and he'd inevitably find a way to translate them into profits. After all, why have friends if they didn't add value to one's life?
As he pondered snuffing the lamp for sleep, a scream tore the night's peace in two. Shouts rang out from the guards, followed by a defiant cry from Ralynn.
Aberny raced out of the tent just as the body of one of his servants flopped to the ground before him—missing a head.
Coming Next Week: A fireside attack in Chapter 2 of Josh Vogt's "Hunter's Folly."
Josh Vogt is the author of the Pathfinder Tales story "The Weeping Blade." His short fiction has been published in such venues as Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show and Shimmer. For more information, see his website at jrvogt.com.
Illustration by Glen Osterberger