The Storyseller pulled his gaze from the fire, and took slowly took stock of the room. With a twinkle in his eye he remarked, "Ah, you never know what kind of crowd Threshing Eve will draw. It looks like it's not just farmers drawn to the Sapphire Stag tonight."
He drained his ale, and gave an appreciative nod to Gnarly, then crossed his boots atop a low stool, his chair creaking as his weight shifted. To no one in particular, he began to speak.
"Not many know of the Guardian of Khartoum around these parts. But as I heard it, that involved not two, but three tinker gnomes. As my gram's gram used to say, 'One gnome brings baubles, bits, and trinkets; two gnomes bring bubbling brews, whirlybirds, and news from afar; but three gnomes bring naught but mischief and an empty purse." But, nay, no time for the misadventures of the three tinkers and the Sultan's Golem. "
The Storyseller thumped his mug upon the table at his elbow, once, twice, thrice. Then he held his talefeather aloft for all to see. It was a simple raven's feather, bound to a short wooden handle with a well-worn leather grip. From the grip dangled three beads on a short cord, one of wood, one of bone, and one of iron. Compared to the ornate talefeathers found in the King's court, rainbow-colored peacock feathers adorned with beads of gold and jewels, it was no sight to behold, but nonetheless it marked the Storyseller as no mere rumormonger, but a true passer of news and knower of many things.
"Gather round, those who care to hear, and let me sell you a story of naming, of deceit, and of forgetting. Let me tell you, on this fine Threshing Eve, the story of the Sapphire Stag."
"Thirty and three generations ago the world was younger, and brighter, and a little quieter. There was no Elmsford, no Ledford, no King as we know him now. The Rhill was there, but perhaps it ran a little faster and a little straighter, and had fewer snags to upset careless ferrymen. Nay, thirty and three generations ago, the Direwood Forest stretched over this whole region. From as far as Trent in the north, down past Donling in the south, the woods, not men, owned this land.
Of course, there were knowers of things, even back then, and those among the men who knew things learned to tame the woods, to drive it back in fits and starts, to make way for their farms and hovels. They were beset upon by all manner of foul beast and daemons, and they grew to fear the Direwood and never strayed far in her depths at night. It came to pass that seven small towns grew slowly prosperous along the banks of the Rhill, and each Threshing Eve the seven chieftans would gather at the largest village to trade, swear pacts and oaths of protection and friendship. They swore oaths of blood and of tears and of ancestors long turned to dust. They slowly beat back the Direwood, grew bolder and stronger, and trade flourished up and down the river. Until one Threshing Eve only six chieftains arrived for their annual Feast of Oaths, as it had come to be known. Absent from among them was Dimnir the Curious.
It was said that Dimnir had dwarf blood running in his veins, and it well may have been, for the people of his town were most renowned among the seven for their skill and artisan of all things iron and stone. Dimnir's town boasted the thickest wall and the longest spears of any of them, and the others regarded it as impregnable. Thus when Dimnir and his party did not arrive for the Feast of Oaths, the others at first suspected he had met with incident along the Rhill. They sent their swiftest scouts up either bank, to check for a capsized boat or a stranded group. The scouts returned from upriver without sight or trace of Dimnir or his clansmen. Thus, the six chieftains boarded their boats, and with a full complement of fighting oarsmen, traveled upriver to Dimnir's Hall.
When they arrived, the gate stood locked, the walls vacant, and the air sat still and silent. They knocked, politely at first, then insistently, then attempting to batter down the door. But Dimnir's Hall was the sturdiest, and the gate would not acquiesce to their entreaties. Finally, one of their scouts managed to find an almost climbable portion of the wall, and with much difficulty slipped onto the battlement. He hurried down and opened the gate himself, for there was no one manning the gatehouse. A search revealed there was no one at all in Dimnir's Hall. The finest fortification along the Rhill lay abandoned seemingly overnight. The only trace of the Dimniran was a well-beaten path leading east into the Direwood.
At dawn the next day, the six chieftains set out along the path, bound by blood and tears and ancestral ash to protect and help Dimnir the Curious and his Dimniran, wherever they might be. They marched until the sun reached its zenith, but still the path wound through the wide spaces between the ancient trees of the Direwood. They resolved to press on, knowing that each step took them one step further from return before sundown. They made camp and were beset by all manner of daemons, losing seven warriors in the night. At first light, they pressed on.
At midday on the second day, the woods broke into a large clearing. In the center of the clearing was a large hill, evenly sloped and covered in thick verdant grass. As they entered the clearing, the keenest eye among them swore he saw a shape atop the hill for a brief moment. The party climbed the hill, remarking on its perfectly even slope. Atop the hill they discovered a circular stairwell descending down into the inky darkness of the hill. Resolving to help their kin, bound by the oaths, they entered a great and ancient barrow, deep in the Direwood.
The chieftains and their warriors were surprised to find well-lit chambers and the whole of the Dimniran within the fay crypt. Dimnir the Curious greeted them with joyous exclamation, and invited them for a feast. The chieftains were perplexed, they had lost warriors seeking out the Dimniran, and they were seemingly safe and secure in this strange place deep in the Direwood. They remained cautious and suspicious, and kept their swords and spears close at hand, despite the jovial atmosphere and happy faces of Dimnir and his kin.
Dimnir led them to a great hall deep in the belly of the barrow. It was as high as a dozen men, and was magnificently adorned with all manner of tapestry and finely woven rug, seemingly unaffected by age or rot. At the end of the hall sat a round table, surrounded by seven stone chairs. In front of each chair rested a small cushion with a glittering object resting atop it.
Dimnir invited his perplexed guests in to sit. As they drew closer to the table they saw that each chair featured an intricate carving of a different animal, and upon each cushion rested a jeweled ring. There sat rings featuring: an Onyx Bear, a Ruby Lion, an Emerald Serpent, an Opal Wolf, a Sapphire Stag, a Diamond Eagle, and an Amethyst Hare, all so intricately carved they seemed to dancing and writhe in the shifting torchlight. Dimnir exclaimed with delight that these were gifts freely given; he himself reached out and placed the Amethyst Hare ring upon his finger. Each of the other chieftains warily put on a ring, and they felt power coursing through them. The power felt different to each, but in a scarcely describable way, much as the difference in the way love feels to different hearts.
Invigorated, and feeling more comfortable and confident, the six chieftains sat down with Dimnir in the great barrow hall for a Feast, and deemed it to be a Feast of Oaths. They swore oaths of blood, of tears, and of ancestors long turned to dust. They promised to use their power to protect their towns and one another, and to prosper and beat back the daemons and the Direwood together. They drank and ate and fell into a deep slumber. It was in the midst of their slumber that Dimnir struck.
He was Curious after all. Curious to see if he could consume the power of another ring wielded by a strong-willed man. He could, it seemed, after he felled the chieftain wearing the Opal Wolf. He felt the power course through him as he crushed the opal into the now-bloody floor. He moved swiftly, his Dimniran mobbing the rest of the groggy warriors, while Dimnir himself chased down the chieftains. One by one, he slayed them, crushed their rings, and absorbed their power as their lifeblood drained from their bodies and their eyes grew dim and sightless. Ruby Lion, Diamond Eagle, Onyx Bear, and Emerald Serpent all ground to fragments beneath his boot. However, in the midst of the din, one chieftain, who had remained a little more wary than the others, and had drank and ate a little less, and slept a little lighter, sprung off. Hare chased Stag through the depths of the ancient barrow. Dimnir's power had grown and the chieftain knew in his heart a fight would be futile. He made for the spiraling staircase, and ran up and up, until he could see the light of day, smell the sweet fresh air. He clawed at his hand and threw his ring backward, down into the depths. Dimnir stopped in his pursuit long enough to recover the Sapphire Stag, and then attempted to chase the chieftain into the daylight. However, while Dimnir's power had grown, it had also corrupted, and at the faintest kiss of sunlight his flesh began to burn and blister. Dimnir let out a pained shriek as the chieftain made his way quickly down the slope of the great barrow.
The chieftain was the sole member of the group to return to the banks of the Rhill. The rest of his kin figured him half mad, but knew better than to chase off into the woods full of daemons and worse in an effort to find the rest of the lost party. The six villages eventually chose new chieftains, slowly grew, and together they beat back the Direwood in fits and starts. However, parts of that wood remain wild and unknowable to this day, and men dare not stray too far afield without sturdy iron at their side.
Of the chieftain who had once held the Sapphire Stag, he spent the rest of his days a hermit in Dimnir's Hall, which slowly fell into disrepair and ruin. Of course, there is no town by the name Dimnir's Hall anymore, but the world does not easily forget such places. Some say that the banks of the Rhill have shifted over three and thirty generations, and the ruins must be off deep in the woods. Others claim that there used to be a ferry crossing called Neershall, several days' travel upriver. But I have been up and down the Rhill and have never encountered such a crossing myself.
They say the chieftain remained convinced that as long as he stood safe outside the woods, no member of the Dimniran could catch him and bring him back to the barrow. That chieftain remained fleet-footed and sharp eyed well into his later years, and while his name is lost to the ages, he embodied the Stag he once held. That is why these days a stag of sapphire is said to watch over travelers, guests, and those in unfamiliar places. I reckon it's as good a name for an inn as any, but there are names and then there are the stories behind those names."
The Storyseller sat his talefeather down upon the table and cleared his throat.
"A story such as that is hard to come by, and leaves a fellow quite hungry and parched, if I do say so myself."