Red’s Part, Part Six
Seconds feel like hours.
Red has the power to call on Corma, King of Courage and god of Dwarves, to heal her lover as he stands inches from her, but can do nothing until the duration of the Hold Person spell placed on them by Evenliir has elapsed. Gruff will bleed to death long before the spell ends. He is already turning white. The blood running from his three vicious wounds is the only clear proof he is not a mere mannequin, so still is he. That and his eyes. They do not blink and his brow and other features display anger. As Red stares deeper into his eyes, she can sense the sadness. Though heartbreaking, it is still better now that she can see his true inner emotions. At first, she could only see rage on his face and it was unbearable having him stare at her, as if he were blaming her for his death, as he slowly dies.
But, it is her fault, she believes. The two men she had so skillfully tricked into confronting Evenliir were not only innocent of Lil’s murder, they weren’t even assassins. Now they float in Red’s beloved hot spring, just within her range of vision, dead for believing Red’s ruse. Soon, Gruff will join them and his only crime was doing what she had told him, as he always did.
That bitch even used Red’s own ax! There it lay, on the floor by Gruff’s feet, covered in his blood. An ax Gruff had just given her for her protection and it was used to kill him.
Please, Corma, please help yer poor servant ta save this innocent Dwarf ‘afore her. He don’t deserve ta die like this, she silently prays.
The seconds pass like hours.
Abruptly, Red’s view changes. She is slowly being slid around to the side. She can no longer see Gruff, but now she is facing a wall and has no idea what is happening around her. Has Evenliir returned?
She hears unfamiliar voices and someone is casting a spell. What now? Someone is touching her back and pulling her around. It is a young man. Not anyone she knows. He looks like a ruffian, perhaps he is going to rob her while she is immobile. With all her might, she screams for him to save Gruff, but no sound escapes her mouth and her body remains rigid.
Another boy’s face pops into view. It is Monchio, the young tough she has been bullying so much lately. Oh, no. All he’ll have to do is slide her into the spring and, since she cannot move, she’ll drown. His revenge would be justified, after she had pushed his head under water not long ago. It looks like all her misjudgements are coming back to haunt her.
Another spell is cast. A Clerical spell again, she is certain. When it is completed, she collapses to the floor. She’s free! In a single, swift motion, she turns and dives for where the ax was laying, without hesitating to check her surroundings. Tumbling to her feet, ax in hand, she assesses the situation. No one moves to attack. Instead, several teen-age thugs are milling about the pool area and staring at the corpses in the water.
Monchio quips, “Yea, she’s back to normal,” and looks to where a robed figure kneels next to the prostrate form of Gruff.
Gruff slowly stands and turns to face Red, his wounds closed and the color returned to his face.
The robed person stands and turns, also. This is the Cleric who saved Gruff’s life and dispelled the Hold Person spell. Tears run freely down Red’s face, as she beholds their savior. All she can manage to say is, “Thank ye, Lil.”
Gruff gives Red a big, bloody hug and tells her, “Ev’rythin’s alright, Red, Lil saved me.”
Red holds him for a while, then pushes away to shout to Lil, “Evenliir’s gonna leave the city, she’s bound ta head back ta her room, we can catch ‘er if’n we hurry!”
Lil waves her off saying, “No, she’s already gone, the boys-”
“Men!” one of the young Thieves corrects her.
“-men,” she concedes, “saw her – disguised as Gruff – leave the inn with a large shoulder pack just before they reached the front door. She’s long gone by now. We should be, too, before any city guards show up.”
After a quick, concerned glance at one another, the young men all casually walk out the door, followed by Gruff.
Red rubs her face with her hands (unknowingly smearing herself with Gruff’s blood) and exhales loudly. She looks up at Lil.
“So, how’d ye know ta come here?” she asks.
Lil is perplexed, but answers, “I needed a room for the night and this is the only place I know. When I overheard the men talking at the front door, I asked them to accompany me inside. They filled me in on the way.”
Stepping to the edge of the spring, Red stares down and frowns at the two men floating in the water.
Lil walks up behind her and slaps her on the back.
“Evenliir may have escaped, but you still got my killers killed!” she cheerfully comments.
Red doesn’t look up to answer. “No. These ain’t yer killers. They be ‘professional decoys’ fer the real assassin. Evenliir killed ’em fer sport.”
Lil doesn’t share Red’s sadness. She turns toward the door and says, “’Assassins’, ‘worked for assassins’, it’s all the same.”
Red certainly takes matters of Good and Evil and right and wrong more seriously than Lil does, but she has to agree with the Druidess on one point: they weren’t ‘innocent’ men. She will have to find some comfort in that.
Gruff reenters the room and announces, “The city guard be comin’ ta investigate these murders. Maybe they can hang Evenliir fer this or fer attackin’ me.”
“What? You called the guards?” Lil cries out.
”O’course, a crime’s been committed,” Gruff answers, confused.
Lil looks to Red, who nods in agreement with Gruff. Lil takes Red by the hand and leads her out saying, “Um, listen Red, we have things to do right now. Gruff can deal with the guards, right?”
Overhearing her, Gruff answers, “Not a problem.”
As Red and Lil walk past Hugh, he can’t help but notice the blood on Red’s face. Outside, Lil steers Red toward the woods and doesn’t stop until they are out of earshot of anyone within the city.
“Listen,” Lil says, urgently, “I know you feel strongly about following the rules and such, but if the city guard investigates this they may figure out that you played a part in leading those two men to Evenliir. You could be found guilty of a crime, too.”
Red shrugs. She feels it is her duty to freely accept any punishments if she is guilty of a crime. And she does feel guilty.
Lil steps back, stares at her friend, and says, “Alright, if you feel you have to follow the law of this city – so be it – but before you go merrily to the hangman’s noose there is something else you need to do.”
Red leans in, quizzically.
“Find my murderer,” Lil answers, sternly.
Red pauses. Actually, she has another thing to do, too. She has to locate Melias and tell him about his girlfriend. First things first, though, she needs to find Lil’s killer, then locate Melias. There is also the assassination which she knows will take place at midnight tonight. Maybe some good can come from Marc and Spider’s deaths, if she can save the target of that assassination.
“Well, the two fake assassins said someone was gettin’ killed tonight at midnight by a female assassin, so there’s also that,” Red says.
Red doesn’t understand why Lil smiled, so she asks, “What?”
Lil answers, “Red, you forget that I, like you, am a Cleric, gifted with wisdom beyond most mortals. You may not know it, but you just gave us a way to solve every one of our problems.”
The water is hot, almost too hot, but Fino likes it that way. He lounges in his metal tub, with his right hand lightly scrubbing a large, soapy sponge on his leanly muscled chest and his left (on the side facing the wall) barely gripping his short sword. He heard her enter his unlocked home long before she made her way into his ‘relaxation parlor’. Holding himself up with his elbows on the rim, he dips his head backward into the water. When he raises his head again, his hair is slicked back, exposing his slightly pointed ears. Faster than Red can follow, Fino flicks the sponge into her face, snatches her wrist, and jerks her forward where his sword tip is brought to her throat.
In a steady voice, he whispers, “Who carried your magical battle axe before you?”
Red tries to pull away, but he is every bit as strong as her and seems very willing to kill her.
“Bloodyblade Orcbane . . . “ she answers.
He releases her.
“Sorry, Red, but – as you know – there is a wicked Mage loose who can change into anyone she wishes. I prefer to be overly cautious.”
Rising from the tub, he discretely wraps a towel around his waist.
Red is relieved to finally meet someone with a measure of modesty. She has seen members of every major race nude during the last ten days and it is beginning to seem too coincidental. It has also been oddly educational. Each person was literally and figuratively stripped before her and each seemed to reveal more of their true identity when undressed. Orjulun, with his slightly pudgy belly and moderately muscled Human form, covered himself more than the other men in the group when he bathed, revealing his private nature. Lil was always slightly more full of life when naked, which matched her free spirit and connection to nature. Evenliir’s appearance was as deceptive as she is. She looked like a young, virgin maiden (as all Elf women must look), but hidden under that innocent exterior is a cruel, Evil witch.
As Fino turns to grab a towel to dry himself, Red determines his exposed body is the most revealing of all. His entire back is riddled with scars. Some are clearly from battle, but most were left by a whip. For the first time, she notices scars on his wrists. Those scars could only be made by chain clamps. This man had endured torture and harsh punishments and possibly slavery in his life, yet covers it all with the frilly extravagances of his lavish clothing and the unquestionable cheerfulness of his outgoing nature.
Fino notes her stares and says, “‘Yes’, I was a slave for a time and ‘no’ I don’t want to talk about it.”
Red bites her lip, then says what Lil had told her to say.
“Been ’bout four an’ a half hour since them men was killed, so by now, yer likely knowin’ they weren’t Lil’s killers, eh?”
Carefully stepping out of his tub and drying his legs, he answers, “Yes. Again, we find ourselves without a suspect.”
Red can’t hide the disappointment on her face. Lil refused to tell Red her entire plan and how any of this will lead to finding her murderer is still a mystery. She turns her back to Fino, so he can dress and follows with the next pre-planned comment.
“So, a Priest spoke with their dead bodies?”
“That’s the usual process. I have . . . friends who relay information about this sort of thing to me. Information is my stock and trade, in case you haven’t figured that out by now,” he says.
“So ye know ’bout the real assassin?” she asks, coyly.
Fino pauses, then comments, “Well, yes, they would have had to be the decoy for a real assassin, that was the assumption.”
“Did they say when the assassination would take place and who the target was?”
As he finishes dressing, Fino asks, “Why? Did they tell you?”
The conversation is going exactly as Lil had expected, so Red continues to follow the script as instructed (after all, none of it is misleading or untrue).
“Got a time. Midnight. Tonight.”
Fino spins her around and looks into her eyes.
“Is that all? Did they say anything more? Did they say who the target is? Is it High Priest Ifon?”
“I don’t know.”
He sighs as he releases his grip on her shoulders.
Placing a large feathered hat on his head, he says, “I have an engagement tonight downtown. I’ll keep my eyes open.”
He starts for the door, then turns and asks, “Is Lil safe?”
Taking two steps to position herself between him and the door, she answers, “Sure. Tonight is the Druid’s Ceremony of the Full Moon. She’ll be surrounded by praying Druids. By the way, she said that Lincont would be a guest at th’ ceremony. Thought he worshiped Raim.”
“Yes,” he shrugs, “but he is trying to repair relations with the Druids after Honeysuckle Goldenrod, one of The Chosen Ones, had attacked the people of Lumberton. Plus, he is fond of orgies. It’s part of his personality his political rival, Howges, uses against him.”
Red pauses, expecting him to come to an additional conclusion, but when he doesn’t she nods good-bye and slips out as quickly as she can, heading for the Druid grove.
Fino is twenty steps from his home when he realizes the implications of what Red had told him.
The outburst attracts some attention, but once eyes are off him he steps behind a tree and twists one of his rings and disappears.
Red is twenty steps into the woods before she realizes Fino should have had no way of knowing who carried her battle ax before her.
Different branches appear to shoot past in the dark. It flies around the thick and unswaying needles of an old pine, swoops under the hearty black arms of an ash, and through the breach in a birch. In and out, up and down, over and under, it gracefully glides in a circular path around the sacred Druid grounds. A robin nests in the low branches of an elm tree. A field mouse scurries over the soil and fungus covering the short, rotting stump of a dead beech tree. Alert as each is, they never detect the silent killer drifting overhead.
As quickly and quietly as she can, Red pulls on her armor, unaware there is an assassin slowly closing in on her from behind. Her mind is racing with thoughts of Lil’s plan for catching the assassin. Almost twelve hours before Lil was asked by the Druid Circle to join them again at Twin Oaks for the Ceremony of the Full Moon. It was after accepting this honor that they told her that Lincont, Guildmaster of ASO and leader of ASU, was to be joining them as a guest of honor for the ceremony. This would be a near perfect time to attempt an assassination. No other non-Druid would be allowed near the site, so Lincont would be unguarded. Also, the Druids would initially be more focused on protecting their ceremony and their sacred grounds than on guarding Lincont. Although it would be a good deed, Red still wonders how stopping an assassination will solve all their problems.
Behind her, the assassin pulls her poisoned dagger and steps within reach of the busy Dwarf.
“Excuse me, m’am . . . “ comes a voice from behind Red.
She falls to the side and turns to look.
The assassin behind her also falls to the side and turns.
They both watch in the darkness as Otto the Talking Owl lands on a branch behind them, having completed his search of the area.
“ . . . I believe this Dwarf is not your true target.” he finishes.
“Of course not,” the hollow tree trunk Lil had stored Red’s armor in says, “but any good assassin knows to search the area prior to the murder, right?”
As the tree changes into Lil, the surprised assassin runs back the way she had come. Lil holds Red back, then casts a spell and nods for her to watch. It starts with a small loose branch which catches between the woman’s legs tripping her up. Then, as she rises from the ground, the grass sticks to her hands and she has to uproot it. She pulls free only to be grabbed by a thorny rose on her right elbow and a strong, wooden vine on her right knee. She chops at the grasping foliage with her short sword and dagger, but it keeps pulling at her.
Shortly, another spell is cast and the assassin is outlined in glowing light. Even a Human’s eyes can easily make out her form in the dark. She drops her hand-held weapons and pulls her bow, planning to shoot Lil and possibly end the spells, but Otto dives at her head and claws at her eyes, giving Lil enough time to cast yet another spell. The assassin stifles a shriek as her bow bends and warps, snapping the string.
While this was happening, the grass and roots at the assassin’s feet had reached up and were holding her fast. The weapons she had dropped are held tight to the ground, as well. She fights back the small trees and other natural enemies attacking her and tries to reach her other daggers, but battling her surroundings slows her and gives Lil time to cast again. The woman stops moving and is quickly overtaken by the plant life.
Lil approaches the spell area with Red at her side and asks, “What is your name?”
The assassin calmly answers, “I am Mamba of Darkuth, Assassin Second Rank of the Guild.”
Lil asks another question.
“Who were you sent to kill tonight?”
The magically Charmed woman answers without hesitation, “Lincont, Ruler of the Allied Sellers Organization.”
“Are you working alone? Are there others here with the same goal?” Lil asks.
“I am working alone, as always.”
“Who are you working for?”
“I never know who requests the assassinations. I do what I am told, without question.”
Lil looks to Red, “Anything else we may need to know?”
Red shrugs, then looks around at the attacking plants, bent bow, and glowing woman and says, “Methinks ye may not be needin’ me protection, Lil.”
Red raises her hand and says, “One question, Lil, how’s this help us with all a’ our troubles?”
“Leave that to me, my friend.”
The Charmed Mamba walks back toward town, escorted by Red, Lil, and Otto, but they halt not far from the Druid Grove when they see a large torch-bearing crowd moving toward them. Many of the people are completely cloaked, while others are obviously city guards. The remainder look to be adventuring-types. Lil whispers to Red that the cloaked people are Druids and she has spotted Fino walking with the group. They stop and Fino adjusts his eye patch, then whispers something to those near him. A few more words are whispered back, before he races out of the pack to Red.
“What is going on?” he asks, eyes wide.
Before Red can say anything, Lil answers, “This is Mamba, an assassin from Darkuth. I have Charmed her and she has graciously agreed to admit her crimes and be taken into the city.”
Otto flies up and lands on a nearby branch, as Fino nods and walks the woman toward the group.
He whispers to them, “We must make haste. The Druid ceremony must start on time. Please, speak quickly.”
Lil fills him in.
A circle is formed for the women to stand in the middle of the group and two people step forward. The first is a cloaked woman, with antlers tied to the top of her hood and other woodsy ornamentation hanging from her neck. The second is a man dressed like most rich merchants in ASU dress. He has blond hair, a big round nose, tired eyes, and the red cheeks of a heavy drinker. Fino bows low, waves his hat elegantly through the air and introduces them as The Hierophant Druidess, Algernona and Guildmaster Lincont of The Allied Sellers Organization.
When Lil is not introduced, she speaks up and says, “I am Druidess Forestdweller, a recent addition to this Circle. This is my friend Red the Dwarf.”
Red steps forward, bows, and recites a more proper name for herself.
“Red Cobblestone, Priestess of Corma, King of Courage and former apprentice to Bloodyblade Orcbane the first chosen to the King’s First Diplomatic Excursion Alliance.”
Algernona and Lincont bow slightly.
Lil continues, “This woman is Mamba of Darkuth, Assassin Second Rank of the Guild. She is now under the effects of my Charm spell and will admit freely to her planned assassination of Guildmaster Lincont tonight, an assassination which Red and I just spoiled. I have told her not to try and kill you now, so it is safe to speak with her.”
Lincont smiles warmly and says, “We have little time, so let us expedite the process thusly. Fino, place your ring on Mamba’s finger.”
Fino bows slightly and pulls a simple-looking ring out of a hidden fold in his vest. Once it is on Mamba’s finger, Lincont nods to Fino.
Fino asks, “Are you Mamba? Did you come here to assassinate Lincont? Who ordered you to kill Lincont?”
Mamba answers, “Yes, I am Mamba and I am here to kill him, although I do not know from where the order originated.”
As stirring and hushed discussions start in the crowd, Lincont waves his hand and all the city guard, a Wizard, and two other men encircle her.
“Mamba, my friend,” Lil says sweetly, “I have allowed you to meet Lincont as I said I would, so will you continue to trust me and go with these men to the city? You obviously cannot assassinate him with all these witnesses, right?”
Mamba nods and (after returning the ring to Fino) allows the men to escort her to the city jail.
Lincont asks for the ring and places it on his finger as they walk toward the Druid Grove, telling Algernona how it will force those who wear it to always tell the truth.
Algernona takes the opportunity to ask Lincont a simple question: Are you going to work to the benefit of Druids?
Lincont could have taken off the ring, but he leaves it on, raising his hand up to show he has it on, and answers, “Yes!”
Algernona smiles broadly. She would never get such a straight and clearly honest answer to any question from most rulers. The relationship between the Druids and the Lincont-led ASU was strengthened greatly in just one exchange.
The Druids continue forward and begin to chant as Fino, Red, Lil, and Lincont stop just short of the grove and anyone else turns back toward town.
Fino smiles at Red and says, “We have to get back now. We cannot witness the ceremony.”
Lincont turns to Red and tells her he would like to speak to her more later, then turns toward Lil and says, “After the ceremony, I would like to have sex with you, Druidess Forestdweller.”
Everyone, including Lincont, finds this comment shocking.
Fino says, “Sir, you still have the ring on . . . “
Embarrassed slightly – very slightly – Lincont pulls the ring from his finger and hands it to Fino.
Lil pulls a cloak from her bag and puts it on, then escorts Lincont to the ceremony.
Red notes how Lil leans toward the city ruler as they walk, shakes her head, and sheepishly smiles at Fino.
Fino says nothing and unemotionally walks back with Red to Gruff’s shack.
All the way, Red can’t stop thinking about how little she has done to benefit Lil, her mission in the world of men, and her party members. She has no doubts that somehow Lil’s plan will be much more effective than her own. How could it not be? She got two, maybe more, innocents killed, never found Lil’s killer, and sees no way to get Lil’s friends raised.
When they split, Red notices something gleaming beneath Fino’s cape. For a moment, she thinks she knows what it is, but then she dismisses that thought, deciding it was just her imagination. After all, it is gone forever. Depressed, she walks into Gruff’s shack and he immediately complains to her that young friends of her’s sent him to the other end of the city – just to keep him from speaking to the city guard.
She tells him, “Sorry, it’s just not worth gettin’ ye killed. Ye won’t be seein’ me again,” and walks out.
The parties on the streets of ASU rage on in the dim light of the full moon and the glow of torches and magical street lamps. Red doesn’t feel like drinking, though. It is late and she is tired. The idea of a hot bath sounds good, but she won’t be returning to The Hot Spring Inn. Too many bad memories. She continues walking around the city for an hour, before she decides she would rather camp in the surrounding forest, than in any of the inns she spots. Picking a dark alley, she sits on an empty crate a short distance in and removes her armor, placing each piece back into her bag.
“Red’s ’bout as handy as a Thief in Cultury,” she tells herself (repeating a common phrase she’d heard around town). “Fergot me bedroll an’ camp gear at Gruff’s.” After a while, she emerges from the alley and walks back to Gruff’s shack. She has convinced herself she is going there just to retrieve her gear.
By the time Red reaches Gruff’s shack, she has been gone for over three hours. ASU is infamous for being difficult to navigate. Standing before his door, Red takes a full minute before she knocks.
She knocks again.
Still no answer.
Frustrated and a little concerned, Red pounds on the door with the butt of her ax.
She listens at the door. Gruff is snoring loudly. She frowns and walks back the way she came. Then she runs back, lowers her shoulder, and smashes through Gruff’s door.
“What sorta Dwarf sleeps that soundly, ye lazy son o’ a Orc?!” she shouts at Gruff, as he falls from his bed and fights with the blankets which his abrupt rolling has caused him to be entrapped within.
“Seems me leavin’ hasn’t bothered ye none!” she shouts. “Ye go ‘head an’ dream away, don’t let me interrupt wha’s most ‘portant ta ye.”
Gruff tries hard not to let Red see him yawn, as he stands up and pulls on his trousers.
“Sorry, girl, a workin’ man’s gotta get ‘is sleep. Ye may not know, seein’ how ye don’t have a real job,” Gruff says. And soon regrets it.
“No job? How’s ’bout gettin’ asked ta join a team a’ the best Dwarves in all a’ High Mountain ta journey ta foreign lands an’ build relationships wit’ a buncha folks what don’t care one bit ’bout how’s our race be dyin’ out!”
“What?” Gruff shouts.
What?” Lincont shouts.
Red spins and sees Lincont and Lil standing in the broken doorway, arm in arm.
Gruff is flabbergasted to see the ruler of his city standing in the threshold of his shack. Try as he might, he can’t seem to get any words out in response.
“Gruff, meet Guildmaster Lincont, leader of the Allied Sellers Union and the Allied Sellers Organization. Ye may a’ heard a’ ‘im.”
She turns back to look at the male Dwarf and adds, “Jus’ ‘nother personage Red’s met while she’s been lazin’ ’round without a job.”
Lil smiles and whispers in Lincont’s ear, “Don’t worry, they always talk to each other like this. It’s how they show affection.”
He nods and she gently bites his earlobe, purring, “Myself, I have other ways.”
Red and Gruff overhear the whisper and stop insulting the other.
Lincont approaches Red saying, “I have to admit, your last comment is very disturbing to me. I planned on speaking with you at some point, but now, I would like to speak immediately.”
Red looks to Lil and Gruff, then back to Lincont, “Now’s as good a’ time as any,” she says and rolls up two small barrels for chairs.
Lil and Gruff listen and work on fixing the door, as Red and Lincont talk.
Two hours later, Lincont knows the entire story of Red’s excursion group and the Dwarves. The Dwarves of High Mountain (the only major city of Dwarves) have been dwindling in number for years. Low birth rates and high death rates have taken their toll. Most damaging has been the way their limited exposure to the rest of the world has kept them from advancing and improving their lives. They need a shock to their system to get them really living again and Red’s King thought opening trade with the rest of the world would be a good start, as well as aiding them in the battles with Orcs, which have also been thinning their numbers.
Lincont listens quietly, asking very few questions. Finally, he responds, “This is a very good first step, Red. We will keep in contact. I will draw up some trade agreements and help facilitate this new era for the Dwarves and the rest of the world. You’ve done well, Red. ASU is the perfect place to begin such a momentous improvement. I will just need you to accompany me for the next few days.”
Red shakes her head. “Red be knowin’ this be important work, Guildmaster Lincont, but there be other tasks what gotta be done first.”
Lincont smiles knowingly and says, “Tell me.”
Shifting on her barrel, Red answers, “Firstly, figgerin’ out who killed Lil.”
Lincont nods, “Druidess Forestdweller told me about that and I will be able to assist you. Tomorrow, I will have the visiting High Priest Ifon cast a Commune for us. Go on.”
She should be excited to hear this, but instead, her brows furrow. He had just referred to someone he was intimate with by her last name and title. Suspicious, Red continues, “Gotta get Lil’s friends raised from the dead.”
“Red, I don’t think you understand just what you and Lil did.”
Red leans back. Is she in trouble?
Lincont’s expression turns serious as he explains, “Not only did you save my life, you kept the Druids from the embarrassment of having me slain while under their protection and at one of their holy ceremonies. Beyond that, you uncovered and ended Spider and Black Marc’s treachery, so they cannot be used to distract the law anywhere else. Best of all, you placed me in a situation where I am able to strengthen my ties with the Druids and allow me to snuff out a possible war between them and the lumberjacks of Lumberton.”
Red raises an eyebrow. Put in that context, she has been pretty successful lately.
“After what you and Druidess Forestdweller have done for this city and the local Druid Circle, the least ASU and the Druids can do is to work together and have The Company of the Gem raised. Their bodies will be here in the next day or two.”
Smiling, Red vigorously nods. It was so depressing to think that Lil’s former party had saved all the gold they had collected, so they could use it for their own resurrections, only to have a thief steal it from them. Lil must have cleverly already convinced Lincont to do this for her. Smart girl. Red would have to be just as clever for her part.
“Right, Guildmaster, but what ’bout Red?” she asks.
Lincont looks puzzled.
“Ye’ve agreed ta get Lil’s friends raised, right? We’ll tha’s great fer Lil, but what ’bout me? That witch, Evenliir, has me friend Melias’ lover held captive an’ Red hasta tell ’em. Problem is, we gots no way a’ knowin’ where he’s at.”
Rubbing his large chin as he stands, Lincont says, “If I were to help you find Melias, then you would consider that a fair reward, right?” he asks.
Lincont leans in very close to Red’s ear and whispers, “I know where he is.”
Red jumps back. How could Lincont possibly know where Melias had gone? They were on a secret quest!
“How could you know?” she whispers back, “They are . . . “
He interrupts, whispering, “They are on a secret quest. A quest to find The Chosen Ones, so The Chosen Ones can complete their quest to reclaim The Cube of Power from Lord Darkoth’s lackeys.”
Red doesn’t even know the whole story of where they had gone, but – based on what she did know – this sounds like the truth. But – again – how did he know?
Lincont, as if reading her mind, whispers to her, “Because I am the one who sent The Chosen Ones on their quest.”
“Ye . . . why?” Red asks.
Lincont smiles. He seems willing to tell her, but hesitant to tell her right then and there. Raising his lower lip and pushing his upper lip up into a frown, he considers what to say. Finally, he replies, although he is careful not to mention The Chosen Ones or The Cube of Power by name.
“Because,” Lincont answers aloud, “we have . . . information suggesting it is not in the safest hands right now. Since no city would claim them, they were uniquely qualified to take on the quest. It also allowed them the opportunity to prove their good intentions and clear their names. They would be dead by now if they’d stayed in civilized lands. They have been hunted down by The Eight or some other band of bounty hunters. I just pray that after the quest is complete, they are cleared of the bogus charges. There is a man in ASU today who I trust implicitly, High Priest Ifon, who is the former leader of Goodmanville, whom we hope will correct the situation. I met with him again earlier. Once it is in his hands, he will call a meeting of kings to debate and decide what to do with it. He is no longer an actual ruler, but he is well-respected. They will come, if he calls. Not being a ruler helps, too, since then Darkoth can’t use the . . . ‘reclaiming’ of the . . . of it as an official act of thievery by the Nation of Homeland. Regardless, our hope is the errors of old will not be repeated this time and the Human rulers will destroy the item, as the kings of Elves and Dwarves suggested last time. I’m not really comfortable discussing this here. I am often under surveillance. I have a safe room prepared for my next meeting with High Priest Ifon this afternoon. You will be able to get further information then.”
Red blanched, “Ye want me ta attend a meetin’ with ye an’ High Priest Ifon?”
“Of course, as I said, I want you to accompany me for the next two or three days.”
Glancing over to the corner, he jerks his head in that direction and says, “Look, Red, this is what we are striving for: peace between lands and peoples, creating free trade and open communication.”
Red looks to where he was indicating. Lil and Gruff are curled up together in the corner sleeping.
Confused, Red blurts, “What? Tha’s jus’ Lil an’ Gruff.”
“No. That’s a woman with quite a bit of Elf blood in her and a Dwarf getting along as if it is the most natural thing in the world. How well would you be treated in Elven lands, Red? Not very well, right? This racial distrust has to stop and we will get that ball rolling. Get some sleep and I will send for you before mid-day.”
Opening the repaired door to the shack, he nods as he leaves. Outside, several guards yell, “There he is!” or call for him. Apparently, they had been searching for the Guildmaster.
Red sinks into Gruff’s bed, her mind reeling with all she had learned and all she must do. After several minutes she drifts into sleep, but is jerked awake, haunted by a single question: what about Gruff? When they all wake, the conversation will begin anew and she really isn’t certain where it is going. Plus, Lincont would be sending for her at Gruff’s place, so she has to remain here until then – no matter what they decide. She rolls over and watches Lil and Gruff sleeping, slowly formulating a plan and making a decision. For the good of her mission, she could not damage a relationship with anyone who is an intrical part of her and Lincont’s plans and both Lil and Gruff would be valuable parts. Lil, because of her relationship with Lincont and the Druids and Gruff, because he is one of the few Dwarves to live among men. If she and Gruff are to remain lovers, that will have to be Gruff’s decision and to keep him happy she will agree to whatever he decides, but – no matter what – Red will make certain they remain friends. As for Lil, Red has learned Lil can take care of herself and doesn’t need her protection. Having sold her most precious belongings to get the woman raised from death, Red had felt the responsibility of keeping Lil alive fell on her. She needs to leave those feelings alone. Lil will die again some day (as everyone does) and Red may not be able to do anything to prevent it. The responsibility for keeping Lil alive needs to rest on Lil’s shoulders, not Red’s. Her famed Dwarven battle ax was sold to purchase whatever time Lil would have until she died, no matter if it is a day or 100 years. Looking at her friend, Red decides it was worth it, either way.
Most Dwarves see Elves as fools for wasting their long lives dancing, singing, and other ‘arts’ and they see Humans as not worth their time, since they are so short-lived. Yet, here is a woman who is a little of both and her frivolous activities and short life seem very worthwhile to Red. Especially considering if Red had not brought Lil back to life, she may have never met Lincont or accomplished many of the other things she had and continued to accomplish. Things that could potentially have profound effects on the world, like building relations between her race and the Humans. Red smiles proudly, as she slowly falls asleep.
The next morning, Red wakes to discover Gruff asleep in bed with her, with one hand clutching her breast and the other gripping her ass.
“Could be wrong, but me guess be he wants ta remain lovers,” Red remarks sarcastically.
She slides out of bed without waking him, washes, and dresses. The water in Gruff’s seldom used basin is warm, so Lil must have refilled it recently. Red catches herself worrying about where Lil had gone, but she does her best to smother those thoughts. She has little time for worry, anyhow, since someone has magically appeared within the room with her. Sensing their presence, Red ducks, grabs her ax, and turns to face the intruder. The ax falls to her side, as she exhales and relaxes.
“Mornin’, Fino,” she whispers.
Her suspicion this may be Evenliir in disguise is quickly squelched when he softly says, “’Tis almost noon, fair lady.”
Red chuckles and thinks, ‘Lady’? Red ain’t no ‘lady’. Not the kinda lady ye think a’, anyhow.
She whispers back, “Didn’t know ye could pop inta places like that, Fino. Ye be fulla surprises.”
“Well,” he says, “I have several magical items which Guildmaster Lincont finds most useful, which – in turn – help me remain somewhat important. Right now, we need to use two of them, so he is not kept waiting. We will be going to a room where you can speak freely. It is magically protected against scrying of any kind. Are you ready?”
Red looks at Gruff, who is still sound asleep (and late for work) and hums a favorable reply.
When she looks back at Fino, he is straightening his eyepatch.
“Good,” he says and steps closer. Just before they are Teleported away by Fino’s magic ring, Red grabs an apple from Gruff’s food basket and tosses it into the air – aimed at his head. She is gone before it strikes, but takes great joy in knowing he will wake from being hit in the head and be perplexed as to who did it, because he is in an empty house.
When the spell ends, Fino and Red are in a hallway of an inn. Fino practically pushes her into the nearest door and locks it behind them. Inside, are two men sitting in comfortable chairs and enjoying a cup of tea. A smiling Lincont and a bearded, noble-looking man, with black hair and priestly garb turn to look at them.
Fino steps in front of Red and announces, “May I present Red Cobblestone, Priestess of Corma King of Courage and former apprentice to Bloodyblade Orcbane the first chosen to the King’s First Diplomatic Excursion Alliance. Lady Cobblestone, may I present Guildmaster Lincont of The Allied Sellers Organization and High Priest Ifon of Goodmanville, within The Nation of Homeland.”
Red is impressed with how Fino has memorized her formal title and High Priest Ifon seems to be impressed with the title itself.
“Lady Cobblestone,” High Priest Ifon says, “your good friend Percy of Homeland had many positive comments concerning your character, yet he failed to mention you were part of such an important mission. I am duly impressed.”
He bows slightly and waves to an empty seat to his left.
She feels out of her element, but accepts the seat and replies, “Please, call me ‘Red’.”
Fino winks at Red, as she sits.
For the next three hours, the three discuss trade, religion, race, and politics. All the while, Fino remains at the door like a common guard, listening, but not openly.
Then, Lincont states, “If only we could have an Elf at this discussion, then we could really get somewhere. We need all races working together for the greater good. As I had said in prior meetings, Blitzarrow is of good character, but he is just a woodsman, he knows little of policies and trade.”
Red cocks her head and asks Lincont, “What ’bout Melias?”
“The Rogue? I know he is a good person, but his occupation is not looked upon favorably – especially at this time.”
“But, sir, he has th’ skills ova Thief, but he’s a politician by trade.”
Shocked by this news, Lincont looks to Fino, who nods his agreement.
Turning back to Red, he asks, “He’s a politician? I didn’t even know Elves had politicians in their ranks. This is great news! He should be returning soon from his mission to assist The Chosen Ones. When he does, we will all meet and plot our strategies. Raim! There will certainly be a lot of paperwork and rulings and such involved – dreadful stuff, Red, but necessary for the greater good.”
High Priest Ifon leans forward in his seat and calmly says, “By then, my friend, the election will have been concluded. Let us hope you are re-elected or none of this will come to pass.”
After a light lunch, brought in by men dressed as merchants, the group begins planning questions for the Commune Ifon will be casting. Lincont and Ifon have lots of questions of their own to ask, but they leave the last two for Red. They ask her a few questions, then help her to formulate the proper phrasing.
The spell is cast and Fino pulls Red out into the hall, so she can’t hear the answers to Lincont and Ifon’s questions and what the questions were that they did not discuss openly in front of her. While there, a young Bard races to Fino with news. Rube G. Howges, Lincont’s political rival, has published and distributed papers which claim Lincont had taken part in a sex orgy with visiting Druids the prior night and in a moment of drunkenness had agreed to use ASU tax money to get a minor adventuring band raised from the dead. Red wonders why this is important (after all, it is somewhat true), but Fino takes it very seriously.
He tells the Bard, “Have everyone prepare songs, as quickly as possible, disputing the claim. We need to remind the people that raising adventurers, who go out and lower the amount of monsters in the woods around us, is a good act. Point out that Howges used to be a heavy drinker and that no one – except dignitaries – are allowed into Druidical ceremonies, so the news is questionable, since no one could have witnessed it, unless they were there. Make the reporter sound like a sexual pervert for watching others have sex – that should help!”
The young Bard nods, then runs back the way he had come.
Red stares at Fino. This man has more responsibilities than his casual demeanor would have one think.
After a while, Red and Fino are let back into the room. High Priest Ifon asks the first of her questions, the one they had calculated would let them know what to ask for her second question.
After receiving the answer, Ifon continues with the final question, the one that would reveal who killed Lil Forestdweller.
The answer causes a stir in the room.
After some discussion, Lincont looks sternly at Red, “Everything else can wait, Red, you have to reach Melias. Tell him about his sister and his girlfriend and all we spoke about. You have to get to him as soon as you can.”
Red jumps out of her chair and charges the door, a determined look on her face.
Fino steps in front of her and reaches behind his cape, pulling something out and holding it before her.
“You’ll be needing this, my friend,” he says, smiling.
Red almost cries. She has no idea how he acquired it, but she is overjoyed for the gift. Fondly, she slides her hands over its surface, before grabbing the handle of Bloodyblade Orcbane’s magical battle ax and pulling it to her chest.
“Thank ye, Fino,” she whispers, joyfully.
Fino smiles down at her, grabs hold of the Ring of Teleportation on his finger and asks, “Where to, Red?”
She glances back at Lincont and High Priest Ifon and smiles, then looks up at Fino and tells him, “If’n Red’s ta play a part inna rejoinin’ a’ men an’ Dwarves an’ Elves, she’s gotta have capable help fer the first, dangerous step. Take me ta Lil!”
Back at Gruff’s shack, Gruff is rushing out his door, rubbing his bruised forehead, and pulling on his work clothes. When the door slams shut, an invisible man leaning in a corner turns visible. He strokes his chin and casually walks out into the city. Looking around as he plots, Lickmer speaks out loud to himself. “Interesting . . . “
We will return to the main story next time!
To be continued . . .
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