The handsome Ulfen man was bleeding out as he sat propped against a rough-hewn wall. A gaping wound on one of his thighs fed blood to the hungry chamber floor. The crimson fluid quenched the thirst of the dust and broken bits of bone that surrounded the fallen warrior.
The blonde man was not alone in the crude, torch-lit chamber. Several paces away, a pair of gnomes stood amidst a thousand broken cogs and gears, the scattered remnants of the cavern’s clockwork guardian. The two gnomes, a man and a woman, were a study in contrasts.
She was gnomish royalty. She had long ago forgotten her proper name, and asked that others call her Princess. Her short, pinkish-purple hair was dyed a dark brown, except where it framed the edges of her face. Her painted fingernails were showcased by gloves long ago rendered fingerless, one of many small modifications perpetrated upon her well-worn traveler’s outfit. She carried no weapons, leaving such unfashionable matters to her companion.
He was a soldier in the service of Her Royal Highness. He remembered both her proper name and his own, but the princess called him Butler, so Butler he was. His blue hair of modest length and his stylish beard of the same color were each untouched by dye. His modest but well-tailored courtier’s outfit was kept in pristine, unmodified condition, complimented by a gleaming mithral shirt and a long traveler’s cloak. He was armed with a ceremonial but deadly halberd.
Inspecting the broken clockworks, Butler announced, “It appears that our foe is vanquished, Your Highness.” He sniffed the air. “And I detect no trace of malevolence on the wind.”
Anxious, Princess called Butler’s attention to the Ulfen warrior. “Sven’s hurt.”
Butler nodded. “I’ll tend his wounds.”
As the blue-haired gnome approached the fallen warrior, Sven raised a sword. This despite the fact that the handsome Ulfen man was weak from loss of blood, to the point that his face was as pale as death and likely twice as clammy. “Not a step closer.”
Butler stopped, set aside his halberd, and spread his empty hands. “I merely offer my talents as a healer. I may be able to mend your wounded leg.”
“I’ll mend myself, thank you very much.” The blonde man drew a flask from his belt and pulled the stopper with his teeth. Upending the container, he poured a clear, oily substance onto his injured thigh. The oil washed away blood and wound alike, leaving uninjured flesh in its wake.
Color returned to the Ulfen warrior’s face. He regained his feet and tossed aside his empty flask. The whole time, he kept his sword pointed at the blue-haired gnome. “Just who might you be?”
“It’s okay,” announced Princess. “He’s with me.”
“Then I’ll direct my question at you,” said Sven. “Who might you be?”
Princess stepped closer to the towering warrior, where she could be more easily seen in the light of the nearest wall-mounted torch. “It’s me, silly.”
Sven inspected the gnomish princess. “Why, you’re that pink-haired gal from the tavern in Daggermark. You were selling flowers, no?”
“I wasn’t selling them, silly. I was giving them as a meaningful gift to celebrate our finding one another. Those were some of the last blossoms from the garden I kept back in the First World.”
Sven nodded. “I remember you said something about a garden before blushing and wandering off. Didn’t I also see you more recently at a tavern in Sevenarches? You were the gal sitting in the corner, muttering and fidgeting like a nervous ferret.”
“See,” Princess said to Butler, “I told you he noticed me.” She returned her attention to Sven. “But I’m betting you were too tipsy to remember that one night we shared in Gralton.”
“What night in Gralton?”
Princess shook her head. “No, you obviously don’t remember the night I’m talking about. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have asked that question.”
“Enough of these riddles,” said Sven. “What are you doing here?”
Princess indicated the broken bits of clockwork on the floor behind her. “Saving you from big, metal monsters.”
“I don’t need to be saved by a pair of wee folk,” said Sven with genuine Ulfen pride. “I can handle myself. So I’ll ask again, what are you doing here?”
“Well,” said Princess, “I decided the time we’ve been spending together in taverns isn’t nearly enough, so I thought I’d take an equal interest in your daytime activities.”
“So,” said Sven, suspecting the worst, “you found out about my treasure map and followed me here to steal the artifact. Is that it?”
“Don’t be silly,” said Princess. “Why would I want to steal anything from you? I’m here to share in your moment of triumph.”
“There’s only one artifact, so there’s nothing to share. And even if there were than that, it would all be mine. I’m the one to find it. I’m the one to keep it.”
“Yes,” said Princess, sounding bored, “I get it. I’m thoroughly impressed by your treasure-seeking endeavors. But you don’t need to impress me further. You already have me.”
Sven narrowed his eyes. “Have you for what?”
“For a soul mate. A boon companion.” Princess smiled. “You’ve finished the errand that’s been occupying so much of your time, so now we can finally be together.”
“Together?” The Ulfen warrior frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“About being in love, of course.”
“In love? Why would I be in love?” The warrior’s face went pale and his eyes went wide. “Wait. That time you were sitting in the corner of the tavern, muttering and fidgeting. You were casting a spell on me! Trying to bewitch me!”
“You noticed!” said Princess, happily.
The towering Ulfen warrior backed up a step, obviously frightened. “You tried to steal my wits and wrap me around your finger. Tried to turn me into a lovesick, treasure-fetching lackey.”
“It was nothing as unsavory as all that,” explained Princess. “Just a simple faerie charm to remind you of all the fond memories we’ve shared.”
“What fond memories?”
“I wouldn’t know where to start. We’ve had so many fond memories.” Princess paused in reflection. “I really liked our conversation about my garden. That was the first time we connected on so many levels and realized how well we really understood one another. Of course, that’s not to say that I hadn’t known before that night that we were meant to be.”
“You’re saying we met before that time you handed me those flowers?”
“Well, not ‘met,’ exactly. But I saw you a few weeks earlier, when some bouncers kicked you out of a tavern up in Numeria. They said you’d had one too many drinks, but they clearly didn’t know what they were talking about. And they wouldn’t listen when you explained that you’d already paid to stay in one of the rooms they kept above their bar.
“I could tell by your expression that you were raging inside against the injustice of it all, and I knew that I had to help you. So I followed you, that I might offer you a place in my room at the inn down the street. Somewhere you could pass the night, and maybe find a way to sooth your savage, animal anger.
“But when I caught up to you at the tavern down the street, you’d already found a place on the common room floor and dozed off. I didn’t want to disturb you after the rough night you’d been having, so I left after watching you sleep for a while and returned the next morning. But by the time I got there, you’d already left.
“It took a few weeks before I found you again down in Daggermark.”
Sven looked incredulous. “You’ve been following me for months!”
“And watching over you,” said Princess, pointedly.
“Watching over me?” asked the Ulfen man. “How so?”
“I’m glad you ask,” said Princess. “I’ve been dying to tell you all about it. For starters, you know how all the barmaids are always coming up and bothering you on account of your looks?”
“I’ve been known to attract the attention of a fair wench every now and again,” admitted Sven.
“Well, I’ve been stopping them from pestering you whenever I can. Convincing tavern owners to keep those shameless girls they employ from harassing you all the time. As if you’d really want those desperate trollops hanging all over you like that.”
“You’re the reason I’ve been having such terrible luck at taverns lately!”
“No need to thank me,” said Princess. “And I saved your life from a hedge viper a few days ago. When I was following you though the woods north of here –”
“I knew I felt someone watching me in those woods,” Sven interjected.
“I noticed a hedge viper stalking you,” she continued as if she hadn’t been interrupted. “So I plucked the colors from a nearby flower and sprayed them in the wicked serpent’s eyes. By the time it recovered its wits, it was too terrified to continue its pursuit.”
Sven twisted his free hand in a gesture meant to ward against black magic. “More witchcraft!”