Red’s Part, Part Four
On their way to the bank, Red and Lil stop at Gruff’s smithy. Gruff is upset Red didn’t tell him where she was the prior night, but he is too happy to see her alive to hold a grudge. Upon hearing she is no longer properly armed, he happily gives her an old battle ax he had traded for years ago.
The bank proves to be another dead end, as all three employees they speak with innocently mention how they’ve had no customers visit the bank since Lil left.
The only remaining option for Red and Lil is to find Fino and hope he has learned more.
“Ye like Fino don’t ye, Lil?” Red bluntly asks, as they head out to locate him.
“He’s a charming fellow, that’s for sure,” Lil answers.
“Would ye say ye love him?”
They walk past twenty doors before speaking again.
Lil asks Red, “So, do you love Gruff?”
She does not answer for twenty steps.
“No. Sadly, no. He’s a good man, but . . . “
“Is there anyone you do love?” Lil asks, not expecting an answer.
Red answers immediately, “Well, Orjulun is a right handsome Human man, but he’s not feelin’ the same. Might be SeLiem is taken with me, but Red dunna feel the same fer him as Orjulun.”
Lil makes a sour face. “Orjulun, really? He’s so quiet and private and distant. I don’t think he’d be much of a lover.”
Red shrugs, “None a’ them men would be. The Elves be too delicate. They’d break an arm tryin’ ta man-handle the likes a’ us!”
Lil giggles. “Yes, I see what you mean, but Percy has the hard muscled form that makes a girl weak in the knees and Arturus has that spark of passion in his eye. He might be worth a ride.”
Red shrugs again, “He ain’t bad. Just too scrawny is all. Melias and Percy be good people, but they’s more like brothers ta me. ‘Sides, there be no way Percy could be a lover fer someone a’ me size. Comin’ ta his navel just ain’t a workable situation.”
“Well, for some, that would be perfect,” Lil laughs. When she notices Red doesn’t get her reference, she expands on it, “You know, with the top of your head even with his navel.”
Still Red seems confused, so Lil explains, “You know, Red, like that thing that men like that women don’t – well some women – actually I really enjoy . . . you don’t know what I’m talking about do you?”
Red shakes her head, totally baffled, so Lil switches back to the original topic, “Nevermind. So, if you wouldn’t sleep with Percy, Arturus, Melias, or SeLiem, how about Rastorn?”
Red stops in her tracks. “Me stomach’s strong as can be, Lil, but there be some things even a Dwarf can’t handle.”
Lil chuckles and winks. “You never know, Red, sometimes the big surprises come in odd packages!”
Red tries hard to decide whether her friend is serious and does not reach a conclusion before she spots the young man she had nearly drowned the prior day. He is standing on the same corner as yesterday. When he sees Red he turns to run away, but charges right into a lamp post and knocks himself back several steps. Careening back, he trips over a water trough and falls inside. The last thing he wants is to be in water with Red around, so he scrambles out like his life depends on it, winding up face-to-face with Red.
“Goin’ somewhere, lad?” she growls.
Thumping her index finger into his chest (almost hard enough to knock him off his perch on the edge of the trough and back into the water) she asks, “Where’s Fino?”
Without hesitation, he points to a bar across the street. Pointing so dramatically causes him to lose his balance and fall back into the water. By the time he climbs out the two women are halfway to the bar.
As they enter the bar, the room falls silent. The barkeep hastily pulls several open scrolls off the bartop and stores them in a drawer. Beside him, the only other person in the bar is Fino, who is sitting across from him and instantly stands at the surprise of seeing a breathing Lil.
“Lil! How good to see you have rejoined the world of the living!” he exclaims, as he walks to her. After an affectionate hug, he steps back and holds her in his outstretched hands, smiling warmly as he stares into her eyes. Abruptly, he turns on his heel to tell Red, “I think we have figured out who killed Lil. There are two Assassins from Darkuth who have been spotted inside the city spending a lot of gold. They appeared the same day as you did and did not spend any gold until after Lil was slain. We are working on a plan to trick them into admitting the crime.”
Red’s eyes bulge. “That’d be the best news me ears ‘ave ‘eard all day, lad! Let us know if’n ye need any assistance!”
The ever-observant Fino notes how her accent returns strongest when she is caught off-guard. He nods, then turns again toward Lil, saying, “Your friend Otto will be here – outside, behind this bar actually – any time now. He flew directly here.”
A tear trails slowly down Lil’s face. She gives Fino a big hug, then runs outside.
Watching her run, Fino licks his lips, then says, “She is indeed a special girl. How were you able to get her raised from death?” he asks Red, without taking his eyes off Lil’s posterior.
Red watches the Bard closely. He does seem legitimately taken by the young lady. Within her mind, she crosses him off her list a second time. Yes, the list still exists. Until those two hired killers confess, she will continue investigating.
With a wink to the bartender, she answers Fino, “Sold me body onna street.” She is quick to revert to a more straight face when an amazed Fino looks at her.
With Fino still searching for a reply, Red parades out the door after Lil.
Reaching the wooded area behind the bar, Red sees Lil leaning on a tree and fanning herself.
Lil looks at Red and says, “Whew, that is one dashingly handsome man!”
Lil hadn’t appeared overly interested in Fino while she was in the bar, so Red is surprised, although she hides that from Lil.
“I’m going behind that bush to pee, keep an eye out for Otto, would you?” Lil asks.
Half an hour later Otto arrives. Landing on a branch near Lil’s face, he calmly greets her.
“Hello there, Lil. Very, very good to see you, my dear. The news of your passing must have been exaggerated.”
“No, no, Otto,” Lil says, as she wipes a tear from her cheek, “I had indeed joined my adventuring family in the afterlife, only for a short time, though.”
Spinning his head around, Otto looks at Red and says, “Ah, so this young Dwarf woman used your booty to have you brought back, eh?”
“Actually, no,” Lil answers, “most of the treasure was stolen when I was slain and Red here had to trade her most prized possession to help me.”
Otto stares at Red a short time, then replies, “Reeaallly. How fortunate for you she has a kind heart. I thank you for reviving my favorite student, miss . . . ?”
“Red,” Red finishes for the Talking Owl, “Red Cobblestone is me name. We met ‘afore.”
“Yes, yes, I know. I just don’t recall hearing your name. Thank you, Red Cobblestone”
Otto quickly relays all that happened while he guarded the bodies of Lil’s former partners, finishing with the latest news: their remains will reach the city (by wagon) within three days.
Lil tells her story, too, giving detail each time Otto requests, but toward the end she slows. She asks Otto, “I have to ask you, why am I so tired today? Ever since I was brought back I get tired easily. A walk through the city is enough to make me yearn for my bed.”
“I’m afraid that’s permanent, my dear,” he answers. “T’is a side effect of dying too many times. You’ve become less . . . durable.”
Lil frowns, but Otto quickly asks her more questions to take her mind off of her newfound weakened state.
Red watches and listens quietly. It is clear to her Otto and Lil have a strong bond – stronger than she and Lil. If all of Lil’s old friends are so much closer to her, then where will that leave Red once they are all raised? She starts to doubt the wisdom of trading her one magical item (an item with a long and proud history) for the life of a woman who might not do the same for her. As Otto and Lil continue discussing Lil’s murder and the subsequent investigation, Red wanders to the front door of the bar. They don’t notice her leaving.
Stepping up to the bar, Red orders an ale. Fino has left and the bartender is going to tell her he hadn’t actually opened for business yet, until she stacks three gold pieces on the bar and says, “And keep ’em comin’.”
Having forgotten how talkative Otto is, she is drunk before the conversation behind the bar has ended. Entering the bar with Otto on her shoulder, Lil excitedly tells Red what Otto has suggested.
“Red – Otto has the best idea! We can have a Wizard eavesdrop on the mind of one of the Assassins at the exact moment I make certain he sees me. He should be surprised I am alive and is bound to have thoughts about when he killed me. Isn’t that perfect?”
Red rotates slowly on her stool and makes blurry eye contact with Lil. “Aye. Goodd nuews. ‘Ow much’ll it cos’ dis time? Ye still ‘ave me boots ‘an armor ye can take. ‘Ere,” Red slurs. She slides off the stool and starts stripping off her clothing. “Jus’ take it all!”
Lil is shocked and confused.
Otto whispers something in her ear and Lil responds by casting a spell on Red. Instantly, Red is sober again. She stops undressing and stares angrily at Lil.
“Took lotsa gold ta get that drunk, girl! Ye went an’ wasted more a’ me gold again!” she shouts, before rushing out the door. Red ducks out of sight, before a crying Lil reaches the front door and screams her name, begging her to return.
Red is glad she isn’t wearing any armor, so she can easily follow Lil without giving her position away. Lil had spent another hour talking with Otto outside the bar, but the mid-day business crowd had made privacy impossible for them, so they had since moved on. A young, Half-Elven Bard approaches Lil and whispers something to her. Whatever it is, it makes Lil happy and she hugs and kisses him, before heading for the southern end of town and the woods beyond. Red has a difficult time following her and temporarily loses sight of her twice. When she locates Lil the final time, Otto is no longer with her. Lil is standing in a small clearing with two incredibly tall oak trees at either end. She sits in the middle of the clearing and tends to what looks like a twig sticking out of the ground. Bored, Red circles around until she finds a good hiding place next to a birch tree. Then, she falls asleep.
The sound of voices wakes Red from her light slumber. Many cloaked people step right out of the oak trees and approach Lil. Red tightens her fist around her new battle ax and slides into a squatting position. The way these people walked through a solid tree reminds her of the various earth monsters she’d seen in her homeland – creatures that could walk right through stone as if it were air. To her, it always seemed disrespectful to the rock.
Lil greets the cloaked people with an outstretched hand, immediately proving her safety to Red. She notices they all carry the same symbol as Lil, which she believes is the symbol of Altma. She guesses they are all Druids. Falling back into a sitting position, she watches intently, though she is too far away to hear the interaction. The first hour is spent on what looks like long introductions, which to Red seems like the closest thing to a Dwarven greeting as she had seen in the world of men. Humans never seem to take the time to properly introduce themselves with their full names and personal history and lineage. She decides she likes Druids even more than before. She is now convinced they are Druids. Other than Lil, they all wear nothing but naturally-constructed armor.
After the greetings, an argument breaks out between several of the Druids. Red figures it out eventually. Three of them are unhappy with how Lil is dressed. Her choice of a dirndl is seen by them as not becoming a Priestess of their Order. As they argue, Lil slumps, noticeably miserable about her oversight. She should have changed into the armor or tossed on a hemp robe or something other than the store bought outfit she is wearing. Finally, Lil halts all the arguments by taking off all of her clothing.
The Druids who had first complained about Lil’s apparel find this solution acceptable and end the debate. All of them were men.
“Methinks that girl looks fer opportunities ta show off ‘er assets,” Red whispers, shaking her head.
The next four hours are spent in solemn meditation, prayer, and intricate religious rituals. Most of these rituals involve stones, trees, and plants taken from nearby and returned to their exact location afterwards. The chanting is eerily reminiscent of the sound of wind through trees and Red finds herself enjoying much of the ceremony. She is also struck by how similar these rights are to those she follows in her own religion. Replace tree for stone and ax for staff and many are nearly identical. A short discussion ends the meeting of the Druids and all but a few leave through the trees. The remaining three and Lil sit in a circle in the middle of the clearing. One of the men lights a long pipe and they hand it around the circle, so each can enjoy it in turn. Of the three, two are men and one is female. She looks to be human, but the two males may be Half-Elf. After the first go-round, all three decide to take off their clothing. Red watches in amazement, as the four naked people sit on the ground and smoke their community pipe. She decides this ritual must be a way to release energy while making them even closer to nature, for once it is done, they all dance around the clearing and talk to plants and trees. When she comes near Lil again, the woman kisses her passionately on the lips! Lil kisses her back! The Druid’s actions turn even more odd just before Red is startled by Otto’s voice.
“It won’t be long before they start fornicating. If you don’t want to witness that, you may want to leave now.”
Eyes bulging, Red turns from looking at Otto to peering back at the clearing, just in time to see the woman who had just kissed Lil pulling one of the men down on top of her. Red looks back at Otto.
“I’m an animal,” he says, “I frequently see private moments such as this.”
Red has no intention of watching a bunch of people having sex, so she bounds down the hill to the clearing and grabs Lil by the ear.
“Ye be comin’ with Red, missy!” she scolds and sure enough, Lil (dressing as she is dragged along) follows her stretched ear all the way back to Gruff’s shack.
“Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!” Lil cries as she is pulled through the doorway. When Red finally lets go, Lil collapses on the floor holding her swollen ear and rocking back and forth.
“What were ye thinkin’, lassy?” Red hollers at her.
Her face still shows the pain of a half mile ear tug, when Lil looks up at Red and screams, “Well, first I was thinking how glad I was to see you and to know that you weren’t still angry with me, then all I pretty much thought about was how bad my damn ear hurt!”
Red shouts back, “Ye be knownin’ what was meant by me question!”
“If you want to know what I thought about my part in two sacred Druidical ceremonies and meeting several powerful Druids and getting them to accept me into their circle and offer to help me in multiple ways, well I thought that was all pretty damn terrific!’”
“How ’bout kissin’ on women an’ talkin’ ta trees an’ craziness like that?” Red asks in a tone usually befitting a mother talking to her teen-aged children.
Lil’s face turns red and she rises from the floor, as she screams even louder “What! I can kiss whomever I’d like! Talk to whatever living creature I want! Especially something as sacred as a tree! I can dance naked in the woods if the mood hits me! And, if those Druids all wanted a roll in the hay with me, then that would have been fine, too!”
Red’s face scrunches like she just ate something unexpectedly sour. She spits on the floor, then roars, “One second, yer so serious and pious an’ the next yer flintin’ ’round like a fairy! Don’t suppose it had anythin’ ta do with that pipeweed ye were smokin’? Bet coppers ta Kobolds it weren’t tobacco in that pipe!”
Shaking with anger, Lil answers, “Natural herbs, Red – natural! I worship Altma the god of Nature, remember?”
Red matched Lil’s anger, “Does yer god prefer his Priestesses ta be sluts?”
This outburst hits Lil like a Dwarven hammer. Her posture alters from anger to pain and her voice shrinks to a whisper. “Just because you gave me back my life doesn’t mean you own it, Red.”
She turns and strides out the still open doorway and into the forest.
Red is disappointed with herself more than ever. She knew Lil’s moral code was different from her own. She had accepted that as easily as she accepted the concept of adventuring with Elves (a feat she knew few Dwarves would have accomplished). Yet, somehow, she had let her strict Dwarven upbringing abruptly overshadow the respect she had for her new friend. Doubling over with stomach pain, she knows the pain is caused by guilt. Her mission in the Humanlands is to build bridges between Dwarves and the other races.
“Mission accomplished,” she whispers in a venomously sarcastic voice, as she plops down on the edge of the bed. She sits, staring into space, for hours.
Dinner time is fast approaching and Red has not eaten since morning. Jingling the pouch of coins at her side, she considers returning to The Hot Spring Inn for dinner. The thought of spending more of her treasure leads to her wonder how much longer her wealth will last. Sooner or later she will have to return to adventuring or look for employment. The Undead filth that had slain all her Dwarven companions in The King’s First Diplomatic Excursion Alliance had stolen their riches, so she will have to gather her own funds to continue her Quest. But, how really should she approach her goal? She was only an assistant and never privy to the plans of Bloodyblade Orcbane, her leader. As she ponders her plight, an image of Lil’s happy face keeps drifting into her mind and she struggles to focus on the bigger issue of the Quest she was chosen for by Bloodyblade, himself. The harder she tries, the more her mind is swamped by images of Lil. Then a realization so clear and unexpected overwhelms her emotions so much that she jolts off the bed. Her mission is to improve relationships with non-Dwarves. Well, Lil isn’t a Dwarf! Why not start with those she already knows and work her way up to the leaders of the other races? In fact, Lil had just met some very important non-Dwarves: the Druids of the local Order. The Dwarves of High Mountain could certainly benefit from a strong relationship with those folks!
She falls to her knees, bowing her head, and prays, “Thank ye, Lord Corma fer grantin’ yer humble servant this vision a’ hope!”
Stroking her beard, she formulates a plan for rebuilding her relationship with Lil Forestdweller. Talking will not help. She must take action, if she is to repair the damage done. To prove her loyalty she has to do something truly special for Lil and it doesn’t take long for her to decide what.
“By Corma the Courageous, her murderer will taste me blade!” she vows, with a renewed sense of purpose.
In Dwarven culture, everything can always be fixed by a little bloodshed! But, a lot of bloodshed is, of course, preferable.
Lil said she would be heading out to the woods at midnight for some sort of full moon ceremony, so Red figures she’ll return to the same site she went to at noon. That should make finding her easy and, since her new Druid friends will be there, it should also make her ‘excursion’ safer.
Red has until then to avenge Lil’s death.
“Ye may wanna find ‘nother corner, lad,” Red announces to the young thief she’s been terrorizing, as she approaches.
“I can’t keep telling you everything, Dwarf. They’ll start beating me up or revoke my license or something,” he pleads.
“Simple question,” she says, “where be th’ assassins from Darkuth what Fino thinks may be spendin’ too much gold of late?”
“If I answer you, will you start picking on a different fellow from now on?” he asks.
Red shrugs, “Nope.”
The young man still relates as many details as he can remember about the two men and where they are likely to be.
About halfway there, it dawns on Red that he was probably hoping she would get herself killed if she confronted them and that’s why he decided to be so forthcoming. That causes her to ponder whether she might end up dead. That thought passes quickly. As always, she believes she has Corma protecting her. Plus, she is pretty good at setting up ambushes.
A small kitten has somehow wound up in the middle of a crowded intersection. Red isn’t going to risk the creature being harmed, so she darts through the throng and swoops the animal up into her arms. After a short while petting the kitten as she sits on the edge of a porch, she begins eavesdropping on a group of young toughs gathered within earshot. They seem to be talking about playing cards, but some of what they say doesn’t jibe, so the conversation draws her in.
“So, I tells ’em ta raise or fold,” the tallest of the group announces, “and ‘e sez, ‘not so fast, youngster. Yer hidin’ somethin’ from me.’ I lets ’em think ‘e’s caught me bluffin’ an’ act like I’m ’bout ta piss my pants an’ ‘e starts actin’ like ‘e’s holdin’ a winnin’ hand, still not knowin’ that I be settin’ ’em up fer a euchre!”
They all chuckle a little, but Red still has no idea what they are talking about, so she keeps listening.
“I starts askin’ ’em not ta hurt me, an’ stuff, an’ e’ falls fer it. Like I’m ‘fraid a’ some backwater Wizard!”
Another one asks, “So, did ya feed him the story then?”
“Not right away,” the tall one says, “ya hafta string ’em along a while, but – yea – after a while I told ’em that Orjulun fella had left fer Cultury, jus’ like we was told ta.”
Red turns toward the group, when she hears the last part. This action catches their attention and they quickly move away from her.
That is fine by Red, though, she has heard enough to figure out what they were talking about. If these youths were told to tell Lickmer that Orjulun had gone to Cultury, then either Melias or Fino had a hand in it. Probably both. She could cross Fino permanently off the list now.
The kitten seems restless, so Red sets it down and pushes it toward the alley. Several plans are racing through her head now, but the idea she got from the young toughs is the one on which she settles. It takes her another half an hour of quiet planning (while she eats) for her to formulate the complete plan, a plan which will see the two murderers dead while she risks little. The only issue is: she still isn’t certain they killed Lil. It takes her just a few seconds to decide that it doesn’t matter. They are assassins from Darkuth. That really is enough reason.
She has very little time left, so she has to hurry. Leaving her perch on the porch, Red rushes back to have a meeting with her favorite young street thug, then the young Priestess she met at the church of Raim, and then Fino. Up to the time she leaves the church, her plan has been working perfectly, but she knows Fino is the one most likely to figure out what she is up to, so she will have to be very, very careful with him.
“How’s everythin’ goin’ with yer investigation a’ the two assassins, Fino?” she asks, after the small crowd that had been listening to him disperses. She is very happy Manchio, the thief she had been gathering information through, knew where Fino was again, but she is overjoyed the timing is so good.
“I’ll be getting another report sometime this afternoon. Otto visited me and suggested we use Lil as bait, but I told him the risk was too high. All we have to do is catch them off guard and we’ll find out what we need to know. Have patience.”
Red nods. “That’s soundin’ good.”
Fino starts to stand, but Red grabs his arm and leans in close to him. “Did Melias happen ta tell ye ’bout ‘is Evil sister or Lickmer the Mage what’s chasin’ Orjulun?”
Fino sits and tells her, “In fact, he did. He said they were both chasing the party and he asked if we could give them false directions or delay them in some way. I found out recently that it worked on Lickmer and his group, but no one has spotted Evenliir yet.”
Hw again tries to stand and again she pulls him down.
“So he never told ye ’bout what ‘is sister did?” Red asks dramatically.
“He said it was complicated,” Fino answers.
“Oh, but that be a story a Bard should like ta be hearin’,” she tells him, with a tone befitting a campfire ghost-story-teller.
She then details the whole ordeal with Evenliir: how she was working with the Matavians in a leadership role to capture Melias (and possibly Orjulun), how she was double crossed by their Leader, Creole, and tossed into the volcano, and that she had fought Salamanders to escape the volcano. Red tells stories well and Fino is on the edge of his seat through most of it. She did, however, leave out some really interesting parts, like how the whole of the village had wanted Evenliir dead (not just Creole) and how her leadership role was short-lived and how the party had also been tossed into the volcano and had the largest role in (unknowingly) leading her safely out of it. Regardless of her oversights, the story is still a good one and Fino immediately begins putting it to song.
Red sits and listens for a while, then tells Fino, “That’s soundin’ really good. Could ye play the finished song fer me friend Gruff tonight?”
When he agrees, she tells him exactly when and where Gruff will be waiting to hear it.
“Don’t ye be late,” she tells him, almost menacingly.
Walking away, she chuckles. This is going to be good!
As she nears the tavern Manchio told her the two assassins had visited every night since arriving in ASU, she recalls her various conversations prior to speaking with Fino. She feels a little guilty about the manipulations, but she is certain she never lied to anyone.
The conversation with Priestess Beatrice of Raim had gone as expected. Red knew the Priestess felt guilty about their earlier misunderstanding and the young lady is more than a little afraid of her, so handling her was simple.
“Ye said ye wanted ta help, right? Red had asked.
“Of course,” Beatrice said, then listened intently to what Red told her. It was all pretty simple, really. Red asked if Raim’s teachings of generosity also extended to giving to strangers.
Beatrice said, “Of course, especially strangers.”
So, then Red had asked, “So if’n ye were ta receive this neckalace from me,” as she placed a cheap string of beads she had just purchased around the Cleric’s neck, “with th’ stated understandin’ that if’n anyone asks ye fer them, ye should feel free ta place them on that person’s neck, then ye would be bound by yer god’s law ta do it without hesitation, right?”
Beatrice, who wore no other jewelry, hurriedly agreed, partly because Red was correct, but also because the necklace was ugly and more suited for a man than a woman.
Red smiles as she recalls the conversation, then chuckles when she remembers telling Beatrice the specifics of what she needed her to do to help.
Manchio’s part was easily the most complicated. She left it up to him how to accomplish it, though. All he needed was the duplicate necklace she had the jeweler make for her when Beatrice’s was made. He was so happy that she agreed to leave him alone if he did her this favor, that he gave her his real name and thanked her several times. After all, he had begun to get teased over the bullying and the task she assigned him could really boost his standing among his peers.
She is almost to the tavern, when her musings on the last hour turn to doubts about a major point in her plan. She still has no way to be certain the assassins will be able to find their prey.
“Maybe if’n they had me nose fer scents,” she says, under her breath.
She stops walking so quickly the merchant walking behind her twists his ankle trying not to trip over her. A smile creeps across her face, as another piece of the puzzle falls into place.
“Percy smelled like the volcano!” she shouts, then runs in a different direction toward a very familiar place, still totally unaware she just injured a pedestrian.
To be continued . . .
To be continued . . .
Follow The Realms: A World Apart
Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.