The Tale of Westala and Villtin
Marco slowly came down the stairs, blearily rubbing his eyes. Once both his feet were firmly on the bottom floor he looked up with red-rimmed eyes and said:
"I ask it to be noted that when one eats a lot before going to sleep, one won't very well."
And then in the general direction of the common room and its serving maids: "Bring me coffee."
Once the coffee had been brought by a scurrying girl, and Marco and his companion Orjan had seated themselves at their, by now, ususal table, Marco rubbed his chin and said musingly: "Now, let's see, where did we leave off..."
" When they got back to the inn Lowmar was serving Tily and Gideoallet tea. Villtin went to a side table with jars of tea-leave blends, lifted the lid off one and sniffed the contents, then another. At the third he stopped.
"Earl Green!" he exclaimed enthusiastically. "You remembered!"
Lowmar smiled. "You're not the only one who likes green tea, it's becoming quite popular."
Villtin took a small muslin purse from a basket on the table, filled it with the leaves, sealed it and dropped it into a cup, together with a teaspoonful of honey. The other members of the group did the same with their favourite blends and sweetenings.
When everyone had been served boiling water by Lowmar and Kaylad, Tily and Gideoallet shared some news.
"We've found a museum that seems likely to have a map of the Masse-Chute Capitale," said Tily, "It's on Commerce Street, we have the address."
"It's closed, like all museums nowadays," Gideoallet chimed in, "so you'll have to break in."
"We'll have to break in?," said Villtin. "Fine, but why can't you help us?"
"You remember my view on laws, don't you? Well, I happen to think that respecting the property of others is fair, so I don't do burglaries."
"Yes, I remember, but I also seem to recall that it was you who thought that property is theft – or have I confused you with someone else? And anyway, considering the present situation in the city, what's a small crime for the sake of a greater good?"
"There's an argument in the former, but now's not the time. The latter is a good point, but I still don't feel easy about it."
"Fine, whatever," said Westala, clamping his hand over Villtin's mouth. "You don't need to come. In fact, we have another mission for you two."
They recapitulated the conclusions they'd reached earlier, that they needed inside information from the Cult of Me, and that the Canon Crew would be ideal for the task; provided, of course, that Blue Nick and James Pauleson were men of honour. Gideoallet and Tily were asked to check them out, and – if they were clean – talk to them.
"Oh, sorry." Westala let go.
"Right," said Villtin. "What I wanted to say was, if you approach them, there's no need to mention our names."
Tily and Gideoallet stared at him.
Villtin looked to his friend for support, but Westala only gave him a look meaning "Oh, no, that was your doing". He sighed.
When the backstory was told and the other two had stopped giggling, they agreed that naming Westala or, in particular, Villtin was not immediately necessary. Their grins faded rather quickly, though, when they learned about the Dancing Rodents.
When Gideoallet had found his voice, he said, "You do well to follow the Varing's advice. From what I've heard about the Dancing Rodents, I don't think it's a good idea to be within a hundred yards from one of them while being male."
"Oh, come now, they can't be that bad, can they?" Westala looked doubtfully at the swordsman and the innkeeper, who was looking a bit pale, too. "I mean, I know that women can be able warriors – present company is a good example," he nodded to Newra and Tily – "but I have yet to meet anyone that can match me."
"Precisely," Villtin added. "The only women to ever have gotten me horizontal had other things in mind than to kill me."
"And I spotted you within ten minutes. Besides, you never did get me horizontal."
"You just aren't taking this seriously, are you?" she said.
"No. If they want to come, let them. We'll deal with them."
"Listen!" she said urgently, grabbing his collar. "They're fanatics! They'll just keep on coming, and they absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!"
Villtin gently freed himself and smiled at her. "You know you're gorgeous when you're worried? All right. We'll take your advice, and leave town. We were gonna do that anyway, in a few days time. But let's pick up that map before we do, shall we? First things first."
And with that, he emptied his cup and left the table to prepare for the night.
In a gesture not unakin in spirit to Villtin's nosebridge-pinching, Newra put her hand over her eyes.
"'Old Maps'," Villtin read the sign in the gloom. "Second floor."
The three warriors – Westala, Villtin and Newra; Autopet had stayed at the Plummeting Lemming to prepare the departure of the others and co-ordinate proceedings with Tily and Gideoallet – went upstairs. For the occasion, Westala had brought a crossbow along for additional firepower, but the break-in had gone smoothly and the museum appeared unguarded.
They found the map room and searched through the boxes and cabinets.
"Hey! Anyone got a match? I think this is it."
Newra lit a match and hurried over to Westala.
"Yep, that's the one," said Villtin. "Easy money..."
"All right, come on, let's go."
"No rush, Newra. Let's take a look around, see if there's anything else of value in this place."
He walked past her and went into an adjoining room. She turned to Westala.
"Does he ever think about anything other than valuables?"
"Ummm... No." Westala shook his head.
"Hey Westala!" called Villtin. "Come look at this!"
They followed Villtin into the other room. He was standing in front of a large picture, examining it closely. Westala immediately recognized it.
"Oh... Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. Oh boy. Is it genuine?"
"'s gotta be, just look at all the detail. The engravings on the pillars in the background, the veins on the leaves, every pebble clearly visible... and the shading... Yep, I think we're looking at an authentic Keno the Pink."
"Huh? Who or what is that, and since when are you two experts on art?"
"Keno the Pink was, or is, a wizard," Villtin explained. "And as for experts, we're not really, but this guy's style is unmistakable."
"A wizard with a high artistic talent," Westala filled in, "which was only enhanced by his skills in magic. His paintings are unrivalled in their richness of detail, and he was appointed the title of Don for his accomplishments in both magic and art."
"Uh-huh... Wait, what did you mean by 'was or is'?"
"He vanished decades ago, and nobody now knows whether he's still alive. The last report of his whereabouts came from the middle of the rolling plains of that tribe of burning-bush worshippers we discussed before, but what he was doing there is anyone's guess."
"Even so," Westala continued, "he is renowned for appearing when you utter his name – which harks back to his... 'living days', when he had an unerring timing for entering a room just when his name was mentioned."
Newra looked around. "So why hasn't he shown up yet?"
"Because I used the wrong colour. As a precaution, the habit was adopted to call him 'Keno the Pink' instead of saying the correct tint, which is a sort of rosa-ish. The whole thing is a bit like 'The Shining Ones', and for much the same reason; it's a patently bad idea to summon a wizard, most of the time."
"Let's get back to the picture," said Westala. "There's got to be some way we can find out for sure whether it's authentic or not."
"Well, if we could find the signature, that'd be a good hint. But I've been been over it a few times, and I can't find it."
They scrutinised the painting more carefully.
"Oh! Here it is!" Westala exclaimed.
"Right here, on the plant in the foreground. Classic location."
"I know, that's why I did look there. But— oh, it's upside- down."
"Yep. But here it is: O.L.E.D."
"I see it. You know, he just keeps getting better at concealing it."
"Hold it right there," said Newra, "how do you make 'O.L.E.D.' fit with 'Don Keno the... Pink'?"
"We don't," said Westala. "Calling it a signature is actually a misnomer, because it is in fact the first line of a protection spell, which begins 'Onek morf Lrac Elcnu ot Detacided, Klaatu Verata Niktu'. Keno the Pink cast the spell over all his works to preserve them against the wear of time, and hid an O.L.E.D. in his pictures to reinforce it."
"Interestingly," Villtin added, "the Engravers' Guild have done prints of these paintings, but for some reason the O.L.E.D. never transfered well."
"Fine, all right. This is all very interesting, but can we get going now?"
"Don't rush us, Newra. We want to admire the picture some more."
"Especially now that we're certain it's genuine," Westala pointed out.
"Yeah..." Villtin sighed wistfully. "Can we take it with us?"
"No. It's, sadly, too big, and I don't think Newra would like us bringing something that would slow us down. She seems anxious enough to leave as it is."
"Why d'you reckon that?"
"It's the way she's nervously hopping from one foot to another that gave me a clue. Come on, we'd better get on our way."
"Yeah, all right, but..." Villin cast one last longing look back at the painting. "Aww..."
There was a sound from below.
The three warriors fell silent and went into a huddle by the door. Someone was coming up the stairs.
"Could it be a museum guard?" asked Villtin.
"Not likely," said Newra. "A closed museum with no or few valuables generally don't need guards. And when they do they usually employ some old men. And that doesn't sound like the walk of an old man."
"Right. I'll go across the hallway so we can get a clear aim from two directions."
Newra tapped Westala's shoulder. "Hmm? I guess he can stop thinking about valuables, then?"
"Not really..." replied the Northman. "He values his life very highly. As do I, for that matter."
"We should get out of here as quickly as possible."
"Maybe, but let's wait and see who it is first, see if we can deal with them in a friendly way." He drew his sword.
The intruder reached the top of the stairs and stopped. Villtin, dagger in hand, nodded to Westala and they stepped out into the corridor. Newra muttered a curse and followed.
At the end of the hallway was a young woman with a faraway look in her eyes, looking at them blankly as if matching them off a memorized picture. She was dressed like she'd visited Affor's Ladies Emporium, if such a thing existed.
"Oh, brother, what is she wearing?!"
"Looks like she's about ready to catch a cold, to me."
What the girl actually was wearing was a studded leather frame- brassiere, with a metal cup covering each nipple, a pair of minimal black lace panties, with a garter belt holding up the dark silk-stockings, and a micro-skirt10 which began halfway up her hips and ended halfway down her hips. And that was, by and small, it.
"Well, that's it, boys. That's a Dancing Rodent. No, Villtin, you wouldn't want to get to know her."
"How did you know what I was going to— Bah, nevermind. So, anyway, what's she going to do with us?"
Newra told them. The girl still hadn't moved.
"Oh," said Villtin. He and Westala didn't find that prospect very unpleasant.
"Wait, I haven't finished. That's only the beginning, then she will keep doing it..." said Newra and continued.
"I can imagine that would be quite painful," she concluded. By now the two male warriors were slightly more pale.
Westala cleared his throat. "Well, then, perhaps leaving might be a good idea after all, eh?"
The Dancing Rodent began moving forward.
"Yes, brilliant idea. Do it. Her weapons won't work on me, so I can cover you. Now scram!"
She lifted her crossbow and shot. The assassin merely shifted, and the bolt was deflected off the nipple-plate.
Newra walked up to meet the Dancing Rodent, while trying to reload the bow. But the latter grabbed it and held it firmly.
They took wrestling holds, and a jerk from the assassin sent the crossbow clattering down the hallway. Newra swung her around and pushed her into the wall. The other girl returned the favour, shoving Newra into the other wall.
Then she swung Newra around again and crashed her through a door, took another turn, and hurled her through a glass cabinet. Newra was left motionless, and the assassin girl left to go after Westala and Villtin.
Newra lay very still, getting her breath back.
"So. Uh-huh. Right. Very well. So what are we gonna do the rest of the day, then?"
She got up and walked out into the hallway.
"That does it. I'm gonna trask her!" Picking up her crossbow, she followed the other three.
Meanwhile Westala and Villtin rushed down the stairs and out on the street, almost colliding with a mounted nobleman outside.
"Evenin', mister," said Westala. "That's a fine horse you got there, mind if we borrow it?"
"I beg your pardon?" said the nobleman in a cold drawl.
Westala pulled out his crossbow. "We're in a hurry. I wouldn't argue if I were you, mister. This here makes some mighty big holes."
Faced with such impeccable charm, the man quickly got off his high horse, and also vacated his place on the horse he was riding, allowing Westala to mount. Villtin hopped up behind him, and was thus faced with the perennial problem of all males riding behind other males: where to hold on?
But Villtin was a practical man and didn't spend unnecessary time mulling over petty details. Besides, they had worked out a bit of routine from previous, similar situations. So he simply grabbed Westala's wolf-skin vest and held on tight, and they rode off just as the Dancing Rodent emerged from the museum door. She started to run after them.
And kept running. Whatever it was that was driving her, there didn't seem to be an end to it.
They rode out on the widest road in the city, appropriately named Wide Way, and headed out of town.
At the city gates, which were manned by Westala's and Villtin's old friends the fat sergeant and the grubby corporal, the old two-horse cart of an old farmer was just about to leave. Then the sergeant saw the two mercenaries thundering towards them.
"Close the gates! Close the gates!" he yelled to the corporal.
Westala pulled up his crossbow and shot a bolt half a foot above the sergeant's head, where it stuck in the gate.
"Open the gates! Open the gates!"
In a blur, the warriors stormed past.
The Dancing Rodent jumped up on the coach-box of the cart and shoved the old farmer out of the way. He landed softly but stickily, on the corporal. Gripping the reins of the hijacked cart, the young assassin lashed the horses into a hot pursuit.
About half a minute later, Newra rode through too, going after the others – evidently she'd "found" a horse of her own. But by now, the Watchmen took it rather stoically, and were having a quiet smoke together with the farmer.
Westala and Villtin were already almost a mile outside the city, heading north-west, going off the road. Villtin glanced behind them.
"I know! The horse is getting tired! It can hardly take the two of us!"
"Hey, you're the muscleman, so don't blame me!"
Then, despite his best efforts, Villtin's gaze was inexorably drawn back to the cart, and its driver.
"Oh my god...! She's gleaming with sweat! And the bouncing... the bouncing..."
"Hey Villtin!" shouted Westala.
"Do me a personal favour?"
"Look at something else?"
"Easier said than done!"
Leaving the vast fields of the farmlands behind them, they were reaching a more hilly and bushy terrain.11 And still the Dancing Rodent pressed relentlessly on.
There was a crash as the right-hand shaft of the cart splintered.
Riding like there was no tomorrow, Newra had overtaken the cart, and was presently getting her morningstar back under control. Passing in front of the cart, she was subjected to a very intense stare from the Dancing Rodent.
Newra closed in on the left-hand horse, reached out, and grabbed its harness. Steering them gently she thus made the cart alter its course ever so slightly. Then another hit from the morningstar took out the remaining shaft, leaving only the reins to connect the horses to the cart.
It was unclear if the Dancing Rodent ever had time to grasp what was happening, but at any rate it was too late now. Newra stowed the morningstar away and drew her broadsword.
The last connection gone, the horses gallopped away to a side, leaving the cart rolling on in a straight line.
Straight into a thick, leafless, withered old bush.
The cart was obliterated, the old tarred wood fragmenting. The coach-lanterns smashed and the oil sloshed out over the wreck.
The bone-dry wood caught fire so quickly that it practically exploded.
Newra rejoined Westala and Villtin, who were a bit out of breath.
"Are you all right?"
"We're fine, we're just fine." They looked, entranced, at the blazing fire.
There was movement from within the flames.
Newra got her crossbow, cocked it, slid a bolt into the groove and aimed carefully.
Out of the wreckage, as per convention, rolled the obligatory burning wheel.
Newra hesitated, then uncocked the bow and hooked it back to her belt.
"It's over. Come on, let's get out of here."
"With pleasure. I'll tell you this much, I'm beginning to take this threat a little more seriously."
"Not a minute too soon."
Having finished the pot of coffee, Marco gestured towards one of the serving girls, and looked with ill-concealed envy at Orjan's fresh-looking face.
"Don't look so damned awake and spry, Orjan, just get on with the storytelling," he said grumpily and started to munch on some chocolate-covered coffee beans, provided by an avid listener who'd realised that were Marco was concerned, ordinary coffee just wouldn't cut it.
Orjan straightened up and sat himself in his storytelling pose. "Oh well then," he started. But before he could get any further he was interupted by the hurried arrival of a serious looking man. The man went over to Orjan and whispered something in his ear that made Orjan suddenly look very serious as well. He stood up, and said to the gathered crowd that had come to hear the next part of the tale:
"I'm sorry, but I'll have to take care of some grave tidings. I'll be right back."
"Yeah, all r—" Marco started cheerfully, but stopped talking as his brain caught up to his ears and his face turned sombre.
"That did not sound well..."
Orjan left the room, followed by sympathetic murmurs speculating as to what could have happened. After a while the mururs died down and the crowd started to enjoy their beers, the sporadic singing and flirting, and copious amounts of free chocolate that had come into the pub under mysterious circumstances. After some time had passed Orjan returned, calm and collected, and sat down beside Marco as though nothing had happened. Marco gave his companion a searching, and rather worried, look, but said nothing.
"Right, sorry about that. Very kind of you all to wait. Now, where were we?" Orjan asked as he sat down, and then continued the story.
" The three adventurers left the smouldering wreck of the cart and rode back to the city, Westala riding bareback on one of the draft horses, having judged the large animal better suited for his own bulk.
Villtin turned back to look at the still smouldering wreck of the cart, then sighed. You win some and you lose some, he thought, and even though they'd won, he definitely felt he'd lost something, despite Newra's warning. He nudged the tired stallion that had carried both him and his friend out of the city and joined Newra in front.
"Um... Where do you suppose they get their equipment?" he asked as innocently as he could.
She shot him an amused look. "Why, you think you'd look good in her outfit?"
"Nonsense! Purely professional interest," he protested.
"Well, if you ever should have reason to shop for something like that, I reckon you should go see Alfa the Spring. It certainly looked like her design."
"She used to be a stripper, got the name from the way she bounced up and down the pole. She's retired from that now, and designs outfits like those. When it comes to provocative clothing, she wrote the compendium."
She gave him another look, a wicked one. "I've got some of her stuff..."
Villtin filed the fact away for later reference, but decided not to reply.
After a brief debate they decided to avoid the gate they'd left through, reasoning that the guards and the farmer might have questions and allegations to pester them with. Instead, they stopped by the wall under Gideoallet's house and threw stones at his windows until he let a rope down so they could climb up.
"Well," Villtin mused as he rolled his shoulders to make them relax after the climb, "I guess it's good to practice a bit before we go to the hills."
Gideoallet looked up from the map they had stolen. "But you won't be using ropes there."
"What? After we spent a good portion of the money we stole from the Cult on climbing equipment? How else are we going to get there?"
Gideoallet smiled. "I promised not to tell, but I went to see what Peterwok had in store for you, and it's quite ingenious, I have to say."
"Will it let us get up without going in a line?" Newra asked with a nasty look at Villtin. "I found it hard to concentrate, hearing him there commenting on the shapeliness of my behind all the way up."
Villtin just grinned.
There was a knock on the door, and soon Gideoallet returned with a pretty woman whom he introduced as his wife, Capulette. After they had climbed up, she had quickly slipped down the rope to take care of the horses.
"Right, I had to bribe the guards, but they know me and let me in, with all four horses. I've stabled them with my own, and told the groom to rub them down and feed them. They should be ready for you when you leave."
"Well, that's one problem solved, then," Westala said. "At least we have transport down the coast."
"Only so far," Gideoallet interjected, shaking his head. "Looking at the map has reminded me of why the region isn't widely travelled. Masse-Chute Capitale is right on the border of the Hyapatian lands."
"Ages ago, there lived a race of monsters there, called the Hyapatians. There were many wars between them and men, and in the end their fearsome weapons ruined the land. Legend has it the Hyapatians put their queen and her servants on burning carriages that took them up the sky, and then fought until they were all dead. The region is infested with monsters coming North from the wastelands of what was once the Hyapatian land."
"Um... So, is this a legend or is it true?"
Gideoallet shrugged. "Who knows? They were burrowers, building enormous dungeons underground, and when they were all gone, it's said dragons moved in."
"Dungeons and dragons," Villtin muttered, "what's next? Little green men?"
"Funny you should say that, because yes, you'll probably meet The Green Man." Capulette took great care to pronounce the capital letters.
"A giant, looking like a man, but with green skin and a couple of heads taller than even Westala here. He's said to have a house here," she said and pointed at the map, "right on the only road down the coast."
Westala looked interested; he seldom had a chance to fight someone bigger than himself. "So, we need to kill him to get past?"
Both Gideoallet and his wife looked shocked.
"Not at all!" Capulette protested. "He's running a tavern there, for the few travellers who do pass. Or rather, he's inviting everyone into his home. He's very friendly, I'm told, but you have to be out well before midnight."
"Doesn't sound very friendly to me," Villtin grumbled. "We're not really used to having to end a nice evening that early," he stroked his chin in thought, "But it's probably a good source of news and information about what lies ahead."
"What lies ahead is, I think, the cave where Sherilob is rumoured to be, and there you'll have to abandon the horses, since the road is all wrecked after that point." Gideoallet was pouring over the ancient map they'd studied before. "It continues, according to this, but from what I've been told by the few adventurers who've returned after a foray down there it's all gone. I understand you will have to go through the cave."
He gave the three a grave look. "It's not a walk in the park you're planning. You might face death many times before you even get to the fort. But it's late. I'm afraid we have no room for you here, so if you return to the Plummeting Lemming I'll meet you there in the morning. I'll send word to Peterwok and Messy as well."
In the morning, they gathered around a table Kaylad and Tessan had brought into Newra's room.
Messy beamed. "Not one, but two problems solved!"
"With just mud and straw?" Villtin asked sceptically.
"I'm sure of it."
Villtin exchanged a look with his big friend across the table. In his hands, Westala held a white miniature brick, big as his thumb, carefully turning it over. He looked up at Villtin and shrugged.
"If it works it works. If it doesn't we'll fight."
Newra, Varing and Lowmar had also been given a small brick each, and they looked dubiously at them. Villtin dropped his on the table with a thunk.
"Why don't you try to explain again how it works."
"Well, as I said, the satires of Ballong are actually quite ingenious, using a number of arcane properties to achieve their end. The lettering plays a big part, and that is the work of Bos, using the 'Mescom Icsanser If' spell when creating it. Supposedly it creates a lettering so potent and vile it bypasses the higher levels of your brain. Then there are the actual words, put together by Ballong. At first glance incomprehensible gibberish, it's actually in the truest language of poetry. Only the most skilled bards can utilise it; ever since it was first devised by the legendary Stornos of Yerseipiaye it has been known to reach the heart and emotions of the listeners. Finally, and this is the really ingenious part, it's all put to paper using a special quark, one that seems to affect the soul."
She sighed. "I really wish I had a fresh sample to investigate."
"Okay," Villtin said, "so the way it is written is spelled, and the language is magical. But what are quirks?"
"Oh, you have lots and lots of those," Messy said sincerely. "As for quarks, well, remember the metaphor with a brick house?"
Westala lit up. "Oh, so this is a cell!" he exclaimed proudly, holding up his little brick. "I thought you said they were too small to see?"
Villtin sighed and pinched his nose. "Westala, you remember she said the metaphor wouldn't work if the house was made of wood?"
"Well, it's not true. In your case, the building material 'two short planks' springs to mind." He left his friend to mull that over and turned back to the scholar. "Go on."
"Yes, well, those bricks I spoke about are made of even smaller bits, which are made of even smaller bits, and so on and so forth. However, at the lowest level, everything is made out of a small number of things we call quarks. You can't find a single quark, since everything is made out of a combination of them. They don't exist on their own. But to distinguish them, they're given attributes, like sexiness, smell, ideological stance and so on. They don't have those things, but it's handy to have labels for them."
Messy took a deep breath, her eyes shining with enthusiasm.
"Now, the most recent discoveries are the metaphysical quarks. Unlike ordinary quarks, which we are almost certain exist even though we can't see them, these metaphysical quarks can only be inferred. They form a larger group, of which ordinary quarks all belong, sharing the sceptical attribute called 'randi'. But there are also other sceptical attributes, like sidharta, doyle, josephson and many more. The theory is that these are the fundamental building blocks for the metaphysical aspects of existence, like magic, soul and spirit."
"Have you been trawling T-Space again, Messy?" Gideoallet asked.
She blushed faintly. "Why, yes, but it makes perfect sense. I can show you the calculations, if you want."
"And the connection with the bricks?" Villtin interjected.
"Oh, right. Well, as it turns out, sun-dried bricks of mud, reinforced with straw, are so extremely prosaic that they'll absorb all quarks less sceptical than the ordinary randi quarks."
"So, you think adobe can beat a quark?" Villtin looked down on his little brick and sighed. "No proper wizard would suggest that a foe could be defeated with this. It's not even a brick, it's a, a, a half brick!"
"Oh, put a sock in it," Westala said, having figured out the earlier jibe about the planks. "What do we do with them? Throw them at Bos and Ballong?"
"No, just carry them with you. They'll absorb the power of the satires, to a certain extent. You're still liable to the effects of the lettering, but it should not be worse than nauseating, and the language is powerless unless read out. It's only through the denken, or daniken, quarks you could pick up the resonance of the words without knowing the language."
"You said you had solved two problems," Varing reminded.
"Yes, well, it's really Gideoallet who deserves the credit for that."
As all eyes turned to the dark swordsman, he looked a bit sheepish. "It's something you said about the offices of the Cult that gave me the idea. I did a bit of research, and it should work."
Villtin had been examining the contents of the bag Gideoallet had brought. "You can't be serious!"
"It should work. It's said Sherilob always leaves them alone. Maybe it's something religious."
Villtin groaned and handed the bag to Newra. "I don't think they're taking this seriously. Look!"
"Well, it's only a precaution," Gideoallet said dejectedly, "the cave complex is big and it's not certain you run into the sorcerer when you go through."
"But you think we should walk through those caves wearing these?" Newra asked, holding up fake cuffs and collars with straw sewn onto them.
"Sticks and stones may break my bones," Villtin muttered, "Bricks and straw may have a flaw, I say."
"He's got a point, though," Lowmar said, "Sherilob has been known to destroy everything in his path, sometimes, but even when all the crops on a field has been poisoned, he's left the straw man intact."
"All right! Fine! We'll dress up in straw and put a brick in our pockets and hope everyone is glad to see us." Villtin turned to Lowmar. "You said you had just finished a batch of your famous ale. I don't usually drink the stuff, but I think I might need something with a bit more body than cider." He gave Messy and Gideoallet a dark look. "At least I'll have something substantial with that." He shook his head. "I can't wait to see what Peterwok has come up with."
"Yes, where is he?" Newra asked. "You said you'd seen his stuff, why isn't he here?"
"Um, well, maybe," Gideoallet hesitated, "I think he might have a bit of a problem with the packaging."
Peterwok entered the room, a large box under his arm, as if on cue.
Unceremoniously, he put the box on the table and peered around. He fixed his stare at Villtin and hummed.
"Ah. Right. Now, pay attention, Villtin. This is important. This," he said and pulled something pink and slimy out of the box, "may look like an octopus, but is in fact..." He faltered, "Well, it's an octopus, it seems."
"I can see that," Villtin said, "but shouldn't you hand that over to Kaylad? There's good eating on one of those things."
"No! No, this is not an ordinary octopus. It is in fact..." He faltered again.
"An octopus?" Villtin asked tiredly.
"Ah. Yes." Peterwok looked bewildered at the mollusc, whose big eyes took in the room without blinking. One of its tentacles waved at Messy, who waved back.
"I think that's my cue." Gideoallet said. "Should I return this, and go and get the other box? The proper one?"
"Ah. Yes. Yes, of course. Thank you."
As he left, Peterwok sat down in the vacant chair and pulled a package out of his pocket. Carefully, he put it on the table in front of Villtin, who curiously reached for it.
"Don't touch that!"
"Why, is it dangerous?"
"No. It's my sandwich."
Between bites, the doctor spoke, spraying crumbles and pickles all over the table. "I thought you'd like this, Villtin. I hear you're fond of the stories about the legendary scarlet cockerel."
"Hammer Tone? Yes, why?"
"I happen to have a book with a lot of the legends collected. Purely out of scholarly interest, of course. The stories might be fanciful, but like all folk tales, they can serve as historical documents, enabling us to better understand ancient society."
"That's what I always tell my friend Westala!" Villtin exclaimed. "But how come you know about him? I thought the stories of Hammer Tone only circulated in the North."
"Well, I've recently become interested in the Northern heroes, and as I rummaged through my books I came upon this tome. At first, I have to admit I was more interested in his companion Ironglove, thinking he could provide me with insights into the mentality of..." He nodded towards Westala and Autopet. "... people like those."
"Oh no. No." Both of the big Northmen protested.
"Ironglove might be big and strong and blond, but he's the stupid one, the comic sidekick," the Varing said.
"Yeah, and he only wants to fight, and drink ale," Westala said, "not like us at all."
"Right," Autopet echoed. "By the way, Lowmar, weren't you getting something for us?"
"Well, be that as it may," Peterwok said, "I found a story where Hammer Tone faces the same challenge as you do, when he has to scale a sheer cliff wall to enter an enemy's fortress in order to steal a horse's head."
Villtin nodded. It was one of his favourites, as it transpired in the area in the South from which half his heritage came. Suddenly he understood the idea behind the octopus and started to smile.
While Peterwok finished his sandwich, Villtin told the others the story of Hammer Tone's daring climb, how he swam to the cliff, capturing two octopuses, pusi, pusii along the way, and how he used the suckers on their tentacles to scale the wall. Just as he finished with the hero's silent escape with the horse's head, Gideoallet returned.
This box contained what might once have been octopusi, pusii, puses, but now they resembled nothing as much as big drawer handles, with massive suckers at each end. Deftly, Peterwok demonstrated how these suckers could be tightened and relaxed by pressing a small protrusion in the middle of the handle, allowing a climber to move it along as needed. After not even Westala and Varing could pull one off the wall where it had been put, they were happy it would be able to hold their weight.
"I have ten of these, two for each of you." Peterwok said. "I think there were five of you going?" He peered around the room owlishly. "However, because these are living creatures, they need to be fed."
Villtin groaned. He knew there'd be a catch. "With what?"
"Oh, their natural prey, of course. Fish."
"Does it have to be fresh?"
"Ah. Well, yes, in theory. But I have come up with these." From the box he took out what looked like one of Messy's bricks. "This is specially treated fish meat, in a convenient format. It will stay fresh for months, as long as it's in a protective coating." He held up another brick, covered in something crumbly and yellow. "It's basically a stick made out of fish, so I call it Conveniently-Shaped-Marine-Foodstuff. One a day should keep an Altered-For-Increased-Suction-And-Climbing-Convenience-Octopus quite happy."
"Right, I think I'll leave it there for now. I'll just have another of these lemon tarts before I go and look for a bit more information about T-Space," Orjan said and grabbed a spoon. Lemon tart halfway to his mouth he paused and grinned sheepishly, then said:
"I saw a couple of you raised an eyebrow or two when I mentioned it, so I think you'd appreciate a bit more information. But since it's a rather complicated concept I've actually got it written down. Rather than bog down the story I'll just go and find those notes and those interested can have a look through them in one of Marco's inevitable coffee breaks." He turned to his friend:
"What do you say, Marco? Fancy telling about the trip down the coast and all that?"
"We'll see, we'll see... as you know, there were a good few things that happened that merit telling, but we'll see how far down the road I get before my throat dries up," Marco replied, upon which Orjan rose and went to look for his notes, leaving Marco to the telling.
"But there won't be much of that," he said. "They have a very efficient metabolism, so there won't be much shit happening."
"That's good," said Villtin, speaking the mind of everyone present. "Say, do you have more of them?"
"A few. Why, you think you'll need it?"
"We might, for two reasons. First, while I am perfectly capable of climbing with just my arms, we're talking about a rather long climb, at the end of which I want to be fit to fight. Second..." Villtin hesitated, but decided that frankness was the best course. "We might need an emergency food reserve."
The physician's face went quite blank and turned a slightly whiter shade of pale.
"No, no, it's all right..." Peterwok said, pulling himself together. "I understand. How many would you need?"
"A total of three each will probably be sufficient, but preferably four. By the way, do they stick to all surfaces? I want to know if the mountaineering equipment we got was a complete waste of money."
"Hm, no, I think you may still need that." The doctor had regained his professional and scholarly enthusiasm, but there was still something in his attitude that gave away that he was not fully calmed-down. "The surface has to be reasonably firm, the suckers will not hold on to soil or grassland. But I hope you're not asking for that. Bare rock and other firm and steady materials will work perfectly, and it doesn't even have to be very smooth."
"Excellent. All right, is there anything else? Right, let's get to work."
Marco broke off to grab some of the chocolate covered coffee beans he'd been given earlier, and chewed them with much appreciation.
Just as he was getting ready to commence the tale telling once more, Orjan bounced down the stairs, proudly waving a wad of crinkled papers stained with coffee, wine and what might very possibly have been blood. The observant... um, observer could see that the notes were in fact footshaped, with a small ‘12’ in one corner. Happily he exclaimed:
He looked around and said brightly:
"Who wanted to see them, then?"
When no immediate shouts of enthusiasm were forthcoming, he looked dejected and said:
As the notes12 were passed around Marco finished off his coffee beans and then said:
"All right, if everyone is done, I can continue now if you want me to...?" And looked around a shade impatiently.
Once things finally started happening, they happened rather quickly. The following hours were spent in shifts between preparing for the journey southwards – getting supplies and loading carts – and keeping watch on the Cult of Me together with the Dog. In the meantime Tily was out looking up Blue Nick and his apprentice, and so when they all gathered back at the Plummeting Lemming that evening there were some newcomers.
James Pauleson and Blue Nick were sitting with their backs to the entrance, so they couldn't see the approaching swordsmen. The table was full of small furry creatures, but they too had their backs turned.
"Hey there!" said Villtin brightly when he took the seat next to Pauleson. The two joculators took one look at him and then immediately turned around to see if the escape path to the door was clear.
It wasn't. It was blocked by Westala and Autopet, and Newra leaning nonchalantly on Blue Nick's end of the table didn't improve matters.
Blue Nick and Pauleson contrived to sag and draw together in terror at the same time, which was quite impressive and takes a lot of practise.
"Don't worry, they're not going to harm you," said Tily with a meaningful look at Villtin. "These are your employers."
"Indeed," Westala confirmed. "We understand that you're willing to tell us about the Cult's plans. But why? We thought you worked for them."
"We had to work for them, that's right," said Blue Nick. "It's not like we wanted to, but they were the safest bet. We couldn't afford to pay Bos and Ballong, nor to leave town, so it was better to do odd jobs for the Cult of Me. Nothing else was very safe."
"But now you agree to spy on them for us?"
"Sure. In fact, we've been waiting for an opportunity like this one. When we heard that some strong foreign heroes had come here and decided to throw out the Cult and Bos and Ballong, and reinstate the old peace, we wanted to seek them out and offer our services in providing information. We had no idea they were you."
"Yes, well, last time we met things went a bit wrong." It was Villtin who had spoken, in a slow, reluctant voice. "And for that I... want to... apologise." He gritted his teeth. "I'm sorry."
"No problem, don't worry about it!" said Jameson eagerly.
"Anyway," said Varing, "do you think you can get access to all the information we need?"
"I don't think they'll need to worry a lot," said Newra, smiling. "It's the ferrets that are going to do the nosy work. Isn't it right, Maximilian?"
A dark-coated ferret with the hind legs strapped in a wheelchair contraption turned and rolled up to her. "'s right, miss. Me an' the lads can sneak into practically anything."
Villtin pointed at the animal and looked like he didn't believe the testimony of his own senses.
"Have I gone crazy or did that ferret speak?!"
"I'd say it's quite possible you're crazy, but yes, he did speak," said another ferret, another dark one wearing a red uniform jacket who was to be introduced as Morpheus, before nimbly dodging a whip-fast chop from Villtin.
Lowmar scowled. "Villtin, I'm going to have to ask you to restrain yourself in the future. Else you'll cost me a fortune in furniture."
"All right, sorry." Villtin figured he'd better be apologetic about it, lest Lowmar get it into his head to charge him for damages.
James Pauleson quickly explained that the ferrets had been through an incident once at a village fair, where a wizard had tried to perform a trick but failed quite spectacularly and met a sticky end (to the general cheer of the audience). The magical explosion had affected the ferrets, which was why they could speak. No, they already were intelligent, the magic had only opened up the door to speech for them.
Meanwhile, Maximilian rolled up to the weapon buried in the table, and eyed it curiously.
"That's a fine-looking blade you've got there," he said to Villtin. "I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it. It looks a bit like a scimitar, but I wager it isn't. I think it's a match-yeti."
"How did you know that?" asked Villtin, surprised. "It's not a common weapon."
"Eh, we get around a bit. But it how come it looks like that?"
Glad to have found such interested listeners, Villtin explained that his two matchyetis had been wrought by one Koh e-Imaarat, a man from down south in the Anti-Occident17 who had left his home to be a settler in the tropical forest area.
As a blacksmith, he had been much appreciated for his skills in making the long, heavy knives used for clearing the under-growth,18 which he always gave a few scimitar characteristics to remind him of home. The weapons were now quite rare, and Villtin had been lucky to come by a pair of them.
"That explains that, already," said a white-coated ferret with dark eyes, who for reasons unknown had a calotte on his head. "Now can we get a few more details on what you want us to do?"
"You certainly can, Mr...?" replied Westala sarcastically.
"Sambaloelec," said the ferret, ignoring the irony.
"Well, Mr Sambaloelec, what we want you to do is sneak into the house of the Cult of Me, find out where they'll be taking the cabal, viz, Bart the woodsman, No-storm-in-a-bucket, Lassie the Robber and M'Pik, and report back to us. Quite simple, really. And should you find out something else of interest we're of course happy to know."
"Think you can do that?" said Villtin, and on the Richter scale of doubt, San Fransisco 1906 would have been a light massage compared to the amount in his voice.
"Of course we can, already!"
"Scrappy, Scrappy, Scrappy and Scrappy!" shouted Morpheus. "Man wants to know if we can pull it off! Can we?"
Four ferrets, with the pure white coats and red eyes that were tell-tale signs of albinos everywhere, detached from a larger group and scurried up on the table where they stood to attention, front and centre.
"Sir! Yes, Sir!"
Villtin shrugged. "I feel a right dope, talking to a bunch of ferrets. But if you think you can do it, and Newra seems to think so too, I won't argue."
"Mister," the uniformed ferret intoned, "we're professionals. It's been a long time since we were a September Squad, and come to think of it, we were fairly clueful even when we first started out!"
At the Hobbling Gate a well-loaded cart, its driver, and four people on horseback were getting ready to leave the city. Only they weren't actually on horseback at the moment, nor were they showing any readiness to get on the road. Rather, they were standing around, waiting impatiently.
Lowmar was taking the opportunity to take a lengthy farewell of Kaylad and Tessan, who had joined them. Newra and Villtin were involved in a discussion about how long it would be before they would have carnal knowledge of one another – his estimate being, largely, "very soon. C'mon baby, you know you want me," and hers being, equally largely, "when the devils go skating". The argument had now gone off on a tangent on just how trustworthy Newra actually was.
Westala and the Varing were passing the time with a bit of arm wrestling.
At last, another wagon rolled up, and Gideoallet, Tily, Messy Marall and Peterwok hopped off. Gideoallet and Villtin started right away to shift a few boxes from one cart to another, boxes containing the extra Octopussies (as Villtin had started to say, whenever he thought the women wouldn't hear him. Not that he cared much if they did) and some more Conveniently-Shaped-Marine-Foodstuff.
Peterwok was walking up to Westala and Varing, a concerned look on his face.
"It's something I found when I looked at your genetic sequence – your 'human recipe' – Varing. I thought it looked familiar, so I took another look at yours, Westala. And then I thought I had confused your samples, so I did another test and double-checked. And then I triple-checked. I hadn't confused your samples. Your genomes are practically identical."
It was clear that Peterwok thought this piece of news he'd related was ominous at the least, but the two Northmen delivered nothing but blank stares of incomprehension.
"What's that mean, then?"
"It means that you must be related," said the doctor exasperatedly. "There's just no other explanation. Sure, there are enough dissimilarities that it allows for your hair colours, et cetera, but hardly more than you'd expect from twins."
"Are you implying that either of our Dads was paying secret visits to the other's Mum?!" Westala and Varing both drew their weapons. They might not be able to kill the physician, but they sure as hell could inconvenience him.
"No!" Peterwok waved his hands defensively. "Apart from being sure that what you tell me is true, andhavingnoreasontodoubtthehonourofyourparents, of course, your genetic similarities are just too many to suggest you're half-brothers. You have to be either full brothers at least, and at this level of similarity it's hard to accept anything less than identical twins."
"Or one of you is a clone of the other. And that's just as hard to beleive."
The others, having overheard, joined them.
"Couldn't it be a fluke?" asked Gideoallet. "That they just happen to have the same... genome?"
"Oh, sure it's possible," said Messy Marall. "The likelihood is just so small it doesn't exist."
"Well, um..." Newra began.
"That's right," Villtin filled in, "I agree. Is this really something we need to worry about right now? Can't it wait until we come back? You'll have more time to run your tests, or whatever it is you want to do."
"Yes, yes, it's true. I know you need to leave, but I wanted to mention it. I have no idea what has caused this, and it worries me."
"By the way," Westala broke in, "how's the clone you're making of me doing?"
"Oh, fine, just fine. Growing. He's about as big as a five-year-old now, and will probably be finished within the week, as I said. Oh, and I've integrated some of Varing's differing genes, too."
The non-scientists turned to Messy Marall for a clarification.
"I think Peterwok means that it's actually going to be a clone of both of you, sort of."
"Oh, that's nice. What are you calling him?"
"He's making another you, Westala, not having your baby," Villtin teased.
"No reason not to be curious, is it?"
"I've decided to call him Wise Martin. It refers to the genetic learning I've applied on him. He'll know all about swordfight, unarmed fight, chivalry and all the other things an adventurer like you should know." The doctor didn't notice Villtin's manic grin at this point. "Also carpentry and interior decorating."
"Because I wanted to see if I could do it."
"All right, fine by me. Now let's get this show on the road."
"Just a minute. I have one last gift to give you. Villtin, come here, I think you'll find this interesting."
"What is it?"
"Here. I remembered another creature of mine that I thought would be perfect for your trip, that can be used both for climbing and for fighting." Peterwok indicated another, large, box on the cart he'd arrived with.
On cue, it opened, the four parts of the lid spreading in each direction like flower petals. Out of it rose a dark creature with a... which looked like... which had a...
"What is that thing?" said Villtin.
"It's actually a kind of dragon," Peterwok explained. "Bred from the common swamp dragons. You can see a few residual traits of that, like the beard and thrips. It doesn't breath fire, though, nor can it fly – as you see it has no wings, they have transformed into these intricate spike things on its back. On the other hand, it won't explode at the drop of a felt hat two miles away."
The creature – which was almost entirely dark, the only splash of colour being on its feet, which for no adequately explored reason were brilliantly orange – climbed down on the ground and sat down crouching, turning its long, sleek head this way and that.
"It's got no eyes," ventured Newra, horrified and fascinated at the same time. Underneath a translucent skin, a ribbed cranial structure was visible. Apart from the feet, the dragon was a matt black or very dark grey, but depending on the ambient light it shone blue, grey or even brown.
"Ah, yes, the eyes are strongly receded, that's true. But apparently this dragon doesn't need them. It seems has some extraordinarily evolved instincts to navigate by, but I've yet to find out exactly how. Do be careful, I'd like to have it back."
Villtin was leaning forward, looking curiously into the dragon's face. It grinned back at him.
"What does it eat?" he asked, suspecting another catch.
"Ah. Remarkably, it seems to be able to extract nutrition out of practically anything. I've never seen such an efficient metabolism, but then again considering its ancestry it's not all that surprising, I guess. So, it's omnivorous, although I have noticed it's rather partial to flesh."
Villtin pulled back two yards.
The dragon yawned, unfolded its full length of eight feet, and stretched.
"Um... correct me if I'm wrong, but your dragon seems to have teeth on its tongue."
"Oh, the secondary jaw. You know, I had no idea that dragons' internal plumbing could be so complicated," said the physician conversationally. "Apparently it can use it as a weapon. Observe."
He produced a head-sized watermelon and lobbed it to the creature, which caught it in both hands and held it up to its mouth.
They spent some time picking bits of melon off themselves.
"That was very graphic," said Varing, in the calm, absent-minded tones of the nastily shocked. "Anything else we should know?"
"If anyone wants some fruit salad, I could demonstrate the skewer on the end of the tail, too."
"No, thank you."
"Thanks all the same."
"Oh, well. Then on to something else. It is extremely strong, and can secrete an adhesive resin from its hands and feet, making it a very able climber. Its bodily fluids, while not explosive, are like with all dragons highly corrosive. This means you can't eat it, Villtin." Peterwok smiled contentedly.
"How do we control it?"
"For the most part you won't have too. This fellow can sleep through rather a lot, I've noticed. And when you need it to do something, you just have to say. It understands every word I say, I could swear. Oh, and it doesn't require regular feeding."
"Right, good," said Westala. "Anything else? No? Anyone else got anything on the agenda, or can we close the meeting now?"
"Where will you be going right now?" asked Gideoallet.
"We'll head roughly west by south-west at first," said Villtin, mounting his horse. "Then we'll make a slow, wide circle southwards. We'll go for four hours tonight, to get a bit of distance from the city. But we're going to have to go slowly all the way, to cover our tracks."
"I expect we'll reach the Green Man's house on the second day," said Newra.
"Sounds about right," Gideoallet confirmed. "Best of luck."
Somewhere else in the city (which was far too close for comfort, had anyone actually known), another party was preparing to depart as well.
In the secret meeting-place of the Dancing Rodents,19 two of the assassins entered the office of the head of the female death-cult. She was titled Queen of Rodents, and was currently wearing some of the finest from Alfa the Spring's and Sume Anders's collections, lined with ermine. She graciously waved a sceptre, presented to her by Affor of the Grey Hem as a token of friendship,20 towards the two newcomers.
"Greetings, Grand Mistress Peril Rat," she said solemnly.
"Greetings, my Queen," said the older of the two young women and curtsied artfully. "We are just ready to leave, to hunt down the men who with such indignity foiled us, and seek revenge for our fallen sister Gladia Terminatrix."
"Good," said the queen. "Good..." Her voice became thoughtful. "It actually has happend that we have failed before, you know."
Peril Rat was surprised by her queen's so casual admission. "It has, my Queen?"
"Oh, yes. I'm telling you this so that you know that Gladia's failure was not as shameful as you think. Most of them were shortly after our group had formed, but there has been a rare few cases where the first attempt was unsuccessful. It's been a long time since last..." Her voice lost its dreamy tones. "But we have never failed twice. I'm telling you this so that you don't think about starting now."
"I understand, my Queen," said Peril Rat and bowed her head.
The queen turned her eyes to the other, quite young, woman, but still addressed the mistress. "I see you are taking your Wadanap-apprentice with you."
"I am, my Queen. Mega Vole has mastered the hug, so I thought it was time for her to take the next step in her training."
"But these men have already survived us once. Do you think it is wise to take a young apprentice directly from the hug to men who are obviously capable of defending themselves?"
"Mega Vole is only coming along to observe. I will deal with the men myself."
"Good." The queen waved the sceptre again. "Go, then, and may the Delight be upon you."
The two assassins curtsied deeply, and left.
By the campfire, Villtin was striking up a tune.
"Sei una ragazza intrepida
"Villtin!" yelled Varing warningly, his hands clamped over his ears.
"Villtin, stop singing, please!" shouted Lowmar.
"Ungrateful bastards," said Villtin. "Barbarians, the lot of you."
"Well, so are you, Villtin," reminded him Newra.
"Don't try to change the subject!"
The five warriors had been riding at a leisurely pace for three hours, and it was nearing midday. The terrain was already becoming more hilly, and to their right they could distantly see the sea.
By pure chance, Villtin cast a glance behind him and saw a small running animal far back. He rode up to the cart and picked up a bow and a couple of arrows, while asking Lowmar about the extent of their supplies.
"We should have enough to get us to the Green Man's house, at the least. Why?"
"Well, a small bit of fresh meat is always nice," Villtin replied with a grin. "And Newra said there's not much game in these parts, so I thought I'd better make use of the opportunity."
At the sound of her name, Newra turned around, and heard the last part of the sentence. She looked at Villtin galloping away towards the little white animal, which in turn was bounding straight towards them.
"Villtin!" she yelled. "No!"
Westala turned around, and took in the scene. "I'll stop him!" he shouted, and rode off.
But it was too late, and he was much too far behind. Villtin rode around the small white streak, caught up with it again from behind, put an arrow on the bowstring and took aim.
Then the animal turned on the spot, dived in between the horse's legs, turned again, scrambled up the horse's front leg in a blur, and headbutted Villtin fiercely.
When Villtin could see straight again, he was staring right into the red eyes of one slightly annoyed ferret, which was holding his collar in its front paws.
"Scrappy?" he asked dizzily.
"No, I'm Scrappy. And just what did you think you were doing?!"
"Um..." Villtin looked down at the bow and arrows he had dropped, and had the decency to look embarassed. "Hunting?"
"Eh... didn't recognise you. Sorry."
"'Sorry'? I bloody well ought to bite your nose off—" Scrappy began, but got no further when Westala came up to them and picked him up by the scruff of his neck. He squirmed and twisted, but couldn't get loose.
"Calm down," said Westala, "and tell us what you came to tell us instead. You wouldn't have run all the way after us if it wasn't important."
"Damn right it's important, but let me get my breath back first," said Scrappy, and was sat down in front of Westala's saddle.
"If he's out of breath, then why risk choking on my nose?" muttered Villtin, but not very loudly.
They rode back to the cart, where everybody gathered around the albino ferret.
"Nothing's going like it's supposed to," Scrappy began. "Shortly after you left, Deedeecee changed his mind and decided to move the prisoners out six days early. So the Cult took them out to a quiet alley, where they met up with Bos and Ballong."
"What?!" said Newra. "I thought he didn't trust them?"
"Well, according to Scrappy, who was on duty in the high priest's office, he said to Affor, 'I really loathe to admit it, but it's the best thing we can do with those insolent ruffians' – I think he meant you, there – 'running around. They survived the Dancing Rodents, and I've never heard about that happening before. Besides, they've already broken into your dungeon once, but they've never been to Masse-Chute Capitale and have probably never heard of it. So, while I don't like it, it only needs to be a temporary measure. As soon as this pitiful resistance has been taken care of, we can return to our original plan.' That's what Deedeecee said, says Scrappy."
"He didn't know we were already going to pay Ballong and Bos a visit," Westala mused. "So, now we can just turn around, go back and free them?"
"Unfortunately, no. We followed them to a quiet alley, like I said, where they met Bos and Ballong. Like I said. And there they handed over the prisoners, and a handful of cultist guards went with them. Then Bos and Ballong drew a circle on the ground, and they all stepped inside and vanished!"
The company shared a glum silence. All except for Varing.
"But that's still doing us a favour," he said thoughtfully. "Deedeecee said where the prisoners were going to be taken, and we're already going there. And if instead of first going to fight Ballong and Bos and then going back to hunt down the cultists and find the cabal—"
"I thought I told you there is no cabal," interrupted Lowmar.
"Kindly shut up. As I was saying, if instead of doing all that we can shoot two birds with one arrow, that's all the better, isn't it?"
"You forget that we only have supplies for the five of us, and we're relying on the Green Man for the trip home," said Villtin.
"So we'll just buy some more from the Green Man," said Lowmar, "and tighten our belts. I can't see that it's a big deal."
And so the argument fell to the ground. The group got moving again, now with a renewed determination.
After a while, Westala spoke up. "Hey, Scrappy?"
"About you lot hanging out in the Cult house..."
"Didn't the guards get suspicious?"
"Nah, they ain't too clever. They saw me a couple of times, and the others as well, but they didn't care. One of them just bloody called me a rodent! The nerve!"
Peril Rat and Mega Vole were inspecting the remains of a camp-fire.
"Some of the embers are still glowing. Do you know what that means?"
"Yes, my Mistress. We are not far behind. Six hours' journey, perhaps, definitely not more than a day."
"Correct, not more than a day's journey. About eight hours, I believe. We will have them soon. Let us make haste."
The two Dancing Rodents started pirouetting, first slowly, then faster, then began moving forward. Despite the twirling, which did strange and terrible things to their gossamer microskirts, they quickly reached an impressive turn of speed.
As the warriors reached the first sparse woodlands close to the home of the Green Man, the coast already quite a bit closer, they cut down a few branches and carved them into fake swords.
It was the Varing's idea to have some fencing practice. Once during his time in Byxans, he had encountered another Northman serving as a knight in a neighbouring country. The man was ambidextrous, could use both hands equally well, and this trait had given him a great asset in combat, since he could so easily switch hands in the middle of a fight. One particular trick he had taught to the Varing, who was now passing it on to the others.
The idea was to make such a forceful swing with one's normal sword-hand – i.e, usually the right one – that one's body followed the motion around by momentum. It didn't matter much whether the blow struck or not, although of course it helped if it did, because the primary objective was to briefly lower the opponent's guard. It was then only a matter of shifting the sword to the other hand and mustering enough strength to strike with that. The sword would then come in towards the opponent's neck from the "wrong" way, causing one very surprised head to fall to the ground.
It was a dangerous move, since it meant momentarily exposing one's back, but the element of surprise it held was devastating. And since the opponent had to dodge the first powerful blow somehow, that brief exposure was not all that much of a worry. Correctly performed, this manoeuver was unstoppable.
Villtin was not unaccustomed to fencing with his left hand, since he had used his pair of matchyetis for a long time, though mostly he only used it for parrying. But Westala and Newra were having a more difficult time with their heavy hand-and-half and broadsword, respectively. It was slightly easier for Lowmar, who wielded the katana taken from the dead Assassin, which while a heavy two-hand sword was quite swift.
But they could all see what an excellent trick it was – particularly if it could be pulled off on horseback! – so they kept practising.
A decisive moment was drawing near, they could all feel it.
Marco finished talking and leaned forward to discreetly tap a gentleperson in the audience on the shoulder.
"You know, those chocolate-covered coffee beans you gave me before... marvellous! I must thank you most dearly." He said, and then, with just a hint of a greedy glint in his eye:
"By any chance, do you have some more?"
Orjan, not waiting to see wether Marco would receive more coffee beans, turned to the audience.
"Right, then. As has already been recounted, our heroes were practicing a new trick. With varying enthusiasm, it must be said."
Autopet laughed. "That sword of yours is just too long and heavy for delicate manoeuvers."
"Oh yeah? I beat the sword master of Ape Island with this sword and I can beat you too."
"Then you'd better stop waving it around like a feather duster," the Varing smirked.
As the others laughed, Westala went off to sulk with the horses. Soon enough, though, he became hungry and prepared a simple meal. As they were eating, his horse managed to free his reins from the branch they had been tied to and went looking for his new master. Westala, busy preparing his battered briar pipe for a relaxing smoke after the meal, noticed nothing until he got a tentative bite on the top of his blond head. He jumped up with a yelp, almost knocking himself and the horse unconscious as his head collided with the equine one.
Villtin laughed so hard he fell over. "You won't need those false collars," he said between giggles, "you already look like a straw man."
Westala glared at his friend, then turned to soothe his mount. "I'll call you Bill," he decided.
"Why?" Newra asked.
"What else comes and bites you after you've eaten?"
The fellowship of the... thing, it's on the tip of my tongue, ah, yes, cabal-rescuers is the word, were not the only ones amusing themselves with training. Their two pursuers had retreated back into a hidden clearing in the forest and sat down facing each other.
"The time has come for you to receive instruction in our most potent weapon." Peril Rat said sombrely.
Mega Vole obediently began to open the buckles holding her, for want of a better word, clothing, in place, but her mistress shook her head.
"Because of the importance of this mission, I have brought another weapon." Peril Rat took out an object she had had tucked into the back of her microskirt and put it on the ground between them.
Mega Vole inspected the thing carefully, without moving it. It looked like some sort of handle, about eight inches long and one and a half in diameter. The surface was subtly rippled, in order to, she assumed, provide a better grip, and on one end the there was a slightly darker knob. Made out of some strange, beige-pink material, it looked like nothing she had ever seen before.
"What is it, Mistress?"
"It is a sword that can cut through anything."
"But it has no blade?"
"You provide the blade, by focusing on your centre of existence, by concentrating your female force into a tight knot of ecstatic being."
"I do not understand, Mistress."
Peril Rat closed her eyes, a frown of concentration between them marring her pretty face. She breathed slowly and evenly, then gently reached out and lightly caressed the strange object. It started to hum quietly, and Mega Vole thought she could see it vibrating. Peril Rat put her hand on it and began to breathe heavier and quicker.
Suddenly, a shimmering blade appeared in front of the knob and Peril Rat sighed happily. She opened her eyes and lifted the weapon. As it moved through the air it hummed louder. Mega Vole stared in fascination at the semi-transparent blade, shining with a translucent pink light, then gasped with awe as Peril Rat swung the blade with a whummmm and effortlessly cut a rock in half. Then, with a slight swishing sound, the blade vanished, leaving the Dancing Rodent holding the handle, shaking slightly with the released tension.
"This," she said after she'd regained her composure, "is a tight-saber, so called because you must keep your concentration tightly to wield it."
"But Mistress, it vanished. Does it not last longer?"
"How quickly it comes, and how long it lasts, varies from Rodent to Rodent and situation to situation. Some can't make it come at all, some are very quick. For some, it lasts for a few seconds, for others many minutes. Some few have shown an ability to make it come over and over again, almost without pause."
Peril Rat regarded her apprentice with a critical eye. "And some, desperate to hide their inability to focus, fake the process and claim there is something wrong with the weapon."
"It is said, though," she added, "that it comes faster and stronger, and lasts longer, in the presence of a man. It seems that having an enemy to split with it heightens the concentration." Peril Rat smiled faintly. "Now you understand one of our central tenets: 'Hate leads to passion. Passion leads to focus. Focus leads to light.'"
"You have seen the light. And it brings with it an intense joy, which we call 'The Little Death' since it is a pale shadow of the joys awaiting us once we pass the veil and enter the next world. We do not fear the little death, and we do not fear the full death, because we have seen it, and it is wonderful."
She handed the now stilled handle to Mega Vole. "First of all, keep in mind you must let it come. You cannot use force. There are a number of exercises that serve to focus the mind and body of the wielder, and I will instruct you in these."
The man was indeed green, only wearing a pair of torn purple trousers, and something of a giant, looming above the party. His green hair was short; his green face split wide in a welcoming grin.
"Welcome, traveler, to the house of Ursa!" he boomed.
Villtin hesitated. Having been voted the spokesperson of the party, he had gone in first, to check the lay of the land, as it were. The home of the green man was huge, and consisted of four separate buildings around a square courtyard. Numerous beehives explained the buzzing noise he'd wondered about when approaching.
"We? But there's only one of you! Or do you count the horse?"
Newra chose that moment to enter, having been reassured by the loud welcome Villtin had received.
"Ah, I see. Out on a romantic ride, are you?" The green man grinned happily. "Do you and your fiancée want to share a humble meal with me?"
Newra shot him and the similarly grinning Villtin a dark look. "Thank you, if you don't mind having my friends—"
"Friends? There are more of you? How grand!"
Newra gritted her teeth at the constant interruption and nodded, as Lowmar came riding into the courtyard on the cart.
"Yes, as I was saying, our friends—"
"Our friends? So there is more then this friend? Marvelous!"
Autopet rode in, only to be hailed with a booming "Welcome!"
"Yes, as I was saying, my four friends and—"
"Four? Splendid! And there he is! Welcome to you, too."
Westala, who was indeed the last to enter, talked soothingly to Bill, his horse, who had shied at the shout.
Amid numerous interruptions, they managed to negotiate the buying of more supplies from their host's well-stocked barns, before they were invited inside to share "a simple meal, nothing much, didn't know I'd have guests arriving, please forgive, no slight intended" which consisted of wonderfully cooked soup, fish, game, roast pork, cake and ice cream, all accompanied by suitable drinks, from the sherry with the soup to the brandy that came with the coffee.
"I must compliment you," their host said to Westala, "on your attire." He indicated the wolf-skin vest. "Eminent use of wolves."
"Excuse me," Villtin said, but if you don't mind me asking—"
"Not at all!" Ursa boomed.
"Er... How come you are so are so gree... great?"
"Oh. Well, to be perfectly honest, I don't know. My family has been running this inn for generations, and none of my forebears have been as large as me. I just began to grow shortly after the war." He heaved an enormous sigh. "It 's so nice having someone here to talk to. I don't get many travellers now that they've left. But I expect it's for the best, they never really got on with people, and the war was truly horrible, I've been told."
"You haven't heard? There was a big war here, some years ago, until the Hyapatians all left."
Villtin exchanged a look with his astonished friends. "Some years ago?"
"Well, I don't keep count of the days, much, myself. But the Count pops in every now and again and he tells me it ended a little while back. I expect travel will pick up soon again."
"Yes, the lord of the land south of here. He's fond of walking the forest, but he was worried about the spiders last time he came by."
Villtin paled slightly. "Oh. We're actually going in that direction."
"Then you'll want to hear some advice from the Count: don't drink the water, don't play by the pools." The big green face looked sombre. "In fact, unless you're prepared for dangers, no, don't go there at all."
"Can we stay here for the night?" Westala interjected innocently.
Ursa looked apologetic. "Um, no, I'm afraid not. You see..." He gave an embarrassed shrug. "... I got this curse put upon me by a witch, and I just can't get rid of it."
"Well, from midnight to dawn each night I turn into a bear." He gestured to his scant, torn clothing. "That's why I wear these, I sometimes forget to undress in the night, and these are the only clothes I have left. I made them out of our old banner, the once proud banner of the Cheinnhffllyideiei family."
Sambaloelec raised his head attentively. He'd been lying on the top of a shelf most of the day, watching the high priest of the Cult of Me sort through an enormous pile of membership applications. Apart from the rustle of papers and the occasionally muttered "no, that's not arrogant enough" or "when will these people learn not to believe that anybody else matters" the office had been quiet. But the silence had just been broken by a discreet knock on the door.
"Ah, come in."
The door opened quietly and admitted Affor. "You wanted to see me?"
"Yes. On further consideration, I think I'll want a bit more reassurance. Another lever, as it were."
"That girl you told me about. The innkeeper's daughter." Deedeecee hesitated and looked around the office.
"What about her?" Affor asked.
"I swear there is someone listening to us right now," the high priest muttered uncomfortably.
Sambaloelec ducked down out of sight and listened intently. He heard a few quiet steps, indicating Affor had walked around the desk, and then a soft, comfortable noise. Muted whispers were heard. He chanced a quick look. The slaver and the priest had their heads close together under a fluffy blanket that effectively blanketed the sound of their voices.
"Blanking blankers!" Sambaloelec thought, being a well-bred ferret not inclined to utter profanities. He thought furiously as the two conspired to do ill, no doubt, under a pale blue blanket embroidered with teddy bears carrying red buckets. There was still some time before his replacement would come. Who was it, anyway? Scrappy? No, he had been drafted in by Messy to help repair her astrolabia21, which had broken down violently during the Stargazer's study of the Jolly Angel constellation. No, it was Scrappy who had the shift after him today. And Scrappy was well known for being lazy. No chance of him coming early, then.
Thus cogitating, he carefully and quietly got down to the floor and moved furtively towards the two men under the blanket, straining his hearing to discern what was being said.
"No!" Affor exclaimed, and then lowered his voice again.
Sambaloelec heard Deedeecee say something in an urgent voice, and then he reached the edge of the blanket. Carefully, he lifted a corner and put his head under it, but too late.
"All right, I'll do it," Affor said, "but I'm not happy about it."
"I don't care about your feelings, Affor, just my own." There was a smirk in the voice of the high priest. "This is, after all, the Cult of Me, not the Cult of You."
Sambaloelec quickly hid himself under a bookcase as Deedeecee removed and carefully folded the blanket. With an impatient wave, the slaver was dismissed. The ferret lay among the dust and debris left after years of incompetent cleaning and disregard. He was wondering whether to abandon his post and report. He might glean more information if he stayed, and it didn't feel right to leave before his shift was over.
In the end, he decided that the information in all likelihood could wait. Had he chosen to go and report, the special effects budget for the following events in this tale might have been considerably more modest.
As Ursa had said, the forest was dark and dense, thick with undergrowth. The massive trunks of the oaks and beeches by their path were covered in vines and creepers. The sun, struggling as it was to shine through a cover of thick clouds, had little chance of illuminating the narrow path the fellowship had been following for the better part of the morning. It was quiet. No birds sang, no insects buzzed, and no leaves rustled. The word ominous came to mind, rising like a lager-soaked vindaloo in its return journey back into the light late on an overindulgent Saturday night.
In an attempt to lighten the mood, Westala began to sing an old love ballad, but stopped with a guilty look at Newra after the first verse, in which Phranz, the leader of the scouting party in the song, had introduced himself to the fair maiden on whose door he had knocked. Lowmar and the female mercenary looked at the three uncomfortable-looking Northmen with raised eyebrows.
Autopet cleared his throat. "Well, er, quite. How about..."
A low rumble, felt rather than heard, interrupted him. Then the leaves began to move whisperingly. In a moment, branches began to wave at them and the ground gently trembled.
"Earthquake?" Lowmar sounded incredulous. "Here?"
"Can't say I've ever enjoyed a quake." Westala muttered. "I don't like the sense of doom you get."
"Whoa!" Newra shouted, trying to calm her rearing horse. "For Rari's sake, calm down you dolt. I swear, this is the last time I ride a stallion. Like all males with the nuts left," she said with a dark look at Villtin who sat smirking on his gelding, "he's got no sense at all. Like he's punch drunk. He's all... genitalian!"
"Now, that's a word with power. Did you come up with it just now?" Villtin asked. "And who's Rari?"
"Goddess of horses, eponymous with rearing in strength and freedom," Westala said absently. "Can you be quiet? I thought I heard something strange."
Newra brought her genitalian stallion under control and quieted, noticing that the tremors had done the same. In the far distance they could hear, faintly, a beautiful voice raised in song.
"We should find that singer," Newra exclaimed. "He might have some food."
"What are you talking about?" Lowmar gestured towards the back of the cart. "We have plenty."
"Oh. Right. Sorry. It just seemed the right thing to say, for some reason."
"Never mind. Whoever is singing is coming closer."
Indeed, soon enough they saw glimpses of something gaudy weave through the forest towards them. It was a giant of a man, wearing a formal dress with a waistcoat in colors that should never have been in the same room – not even with the assurances from some velvet-suited fop of an interior designer, that they vibrated in harmony at different levels to generate warmth and liveliness – let alone on the same garment. The man wearing the offending item was taller than Westala and Autopet, with vastly greater bulk, but he moved softly and seemingly unhindered through the thick undergrowth until he stood on the path before them. The last notes of his song rang out, and he gave them a hearty smile.
"Welcome, travellers. I am Count Ertremor, ruler of this land. And this," he turned to indicate another giant, even larger, who had silently and unobtrusively come up behind him, "is my manservant Bikkit."
Villtin was the first to rally around and quickly introduced their party.
"A pleasure," the count said. "And what, if I may inquire, is your destination?"
"Ah..." Villtin hesitated. By nature a suspicious man, the round face in front of his own – he realised he was sitting on the back of a tall horse while the count was standing on the ground but still had his eyes level with Villtin's – did inspire confidence. The fact that Bikkit was absentmindedly flexing fingers the size of Newra's forearms further convinced him to be truthful. Well, to give if not the whole truth then at least nothing but it.
"We are on our way to the Wastelands, on a mission to rescue some of our friends who are trapped there."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that, but glad that your friends have such valiant friends to call their friends in friendship."
"You know the way then, I take it? And know its dangers?"
"We have been advised by Ursa, yes. He did warn us not to drink the water, and that there might be..." Villtin suppressed a shudder. "... large spiders here."
"Yes, the water here is mostly coming from underground streams originating in the Wastelands and can have peculiar properties. It is not safe to drink or even touch for most people. On the other matter, Ursa was wrong, however. There are no large spiders here in the forest anymore."
Villtin sighed in relief.
"They all moved into the caves of Magdala when Sherilob returned."
Villtin paled. "She's truly back?" He had hoped the rumour of the shape-shifter's return were just rumours.
"It's he, I believe. Yes, not long ago he returned to the cave complex I'm afraid you will have to pass through to get to the Wasteland, and all the spiders in the forest followed him there."
"We'll just have to chance it," Lowmar said. "I'm not turning back on my friends."
"Your valour does you credit."
Like any landlord would, Lowmar flinched at the last word.
"Excuse me," Autopet interjected, "but what was that earthquake about? Did you sing the land to calm?" He glanced at Bikkit, who had produced a folding knife with a blade as long as one of Villtin's matchyetis and was busy cleaning his nails with it. It looked small in his hand. "If you don't mind me asking?"
"Not at all, not at all. You are essentially correct. This land has been distressed since the Hyapatian war, and my song helps preserve it and hold the Wastelands at bay. We have been walking these forests since the war ended, me singing and my trusted manservant tending to the plants and trees."
"But that's hundreds, maybe thousands of years!"
"Oh?" The count looked vaguely surprised. "Is it really? It doesn't seem like it was that long ago the big vessels of the Hyapatians rose on pillars of flame towards the stars in the night. Are you sure?"
"Well, if I put it like this: that war is considered a legend among those few who have heard of it at all. I don't think that's something that happens overnight."
"Remarkable." The count peered at Autopet. "Is that why you are so small? Have people shrunk?"
"Er... Not that I am aware. There are old statues that are said to be life size, and they look pretty much as we do. Could it be that you have grown?"
"Could be, could be. Maybe there's something in the water." The count looked at the fellowship. "Well, never mind. We won't keep you any more. Indeed, we have our own work to do. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavour, and hope we'll meet again on your way back." He sighed. "So many people have travelled through my realm, but very few of them have ever returned." He brightened. "Still, one should never lose hope. One chance in a thousand is still a chance, you know. Good bye, and good luck."
"'d luck" Bikkit rumbled.
As softly as they had appeared, the strange pair disappeared among the trees.
Tessan, who was walking back to The Plummeting Lemming with a potted petunia she had bought at the market to put in her room, decided to take a short cut through a dark, narrow alleyway. After she had taken a few steps into the gloom, a ball was thrust into her mouth and the strap attached to it pulled over her head and tightened. She dropped the flowerpot in surprise and then thought, as it was hurtling down to certain crackpotdom on the cobbles, "Oh no, not again".
Orjan took out an old briar pipe and stuffed it with tobacco before lighting it. Then he nodded towards the captive audience and said:
"Excuse me, please. I just need a little breather."
With a look of great contentment he blew a perfect smoke ring and leaned back in his seat. To one of the nearby serving maids he then said:
"As my friend Marco has said, this storytelling business makes you thirsty. Can you bring me a glass of water, please?"
Orjan puffed at his pipe again, and then, just thinking of it, said:
"And a pot of coffee?"
He blew another smoke ring, which danced up towards the ceiling and joined its predecessor among the rafters before they both quietly faded away into mist, and then nothing.
"And a platter of biscuits?" The serving maid, who had by now come out of the kitchen two times already, sighed, but turned quietly to fetch biscuits in addition to the water and coffee she was presently carrying.
While he waited for this last request to be arranged and a tray to be fetched to put it all on, and the tray to be carried back to his table, Orjan puffed patiently on his pipe.
"Ah, thank you. That's much better. So..." he said as the maid placed the tray on the table and returned to the story.
" Gideoallet sat brooding in the common room of The Plummeting Lemming. Rescuing the cabal was a good start, but still just a start. The Cult remained, and despite the fear spread by Bos and Ballong, he regarded them as a minor nuisance. Without the Cult of Me sapping the solidarity of the various communities of the great city, those two bullies would not have been able to establish themselves.
The problem, though, was that most people were by now so intimidated that they would not band together; not without a strong and charismatic leader. And the swordsman was innately suspicious of leaders. People who wanted to be led, he felt, were people who, despite all their assurances to the contrary, would have been card-carrying members of the Cult if they'd only been more assertive.
Still, he could not escape the conclusion that a leader was needed. And he knew he could not take on that role, both because of his philosophical objections, and because his principles made him a character regarded with certain wariness. And so, with a cynicism he regretted, he acknowledged the fact that the important reason for rescuing the cabal was not because it was just and right, but because Bart the Woodsman would make a good leader for opposition to the Cult. Highly respected, steadfast in his principles, unrelenting in his work for the greater good of the community, he also was charismatic enough to pull people together. Assisted by M'Pik's charming of the women, Lassie's connections with the underworld and No-storm-in-a-bucket's ability to render any opponent in debate to a shrivelled husk with his trademark scathing remarks, Bart was the last hope for the community and future well-being of the city.
Gideoallet found this thought terribly depressing. He sighed, and longed for some of the people who had departed. Phtone, strong enough in his convictions and martial powers to throw out anyone who wilfully disturbed the peace. Nospe, one of the Clench, of the same clan as Messy in fact, whose oblongly printed and eloquently phrased posters drew the attention of passers-by to important issues of the day. There had been that ugly minstrel, Gidjabol, who could be relied upon to mediate and seek understanding and tolerance when the Cult had first began to gain notoriety. But the decisive factor had been the departure of the city's own goddess, Yurmalke, and her high priest, affectionately known as 'The Belly Man' because of his rumbling laughter.
He shrugged, trying to shake off his maudlin mood. A gust of wind outside sent the sign swinging, creakingly. A voice he knew as well as his own cursed outside the doors, then its owner entered.
"Bloody wind!" Capulette bristled. "It just carried off my favourite riding hat."
Kaylad looked up from the glass pane she was painting to replace one dislodged by the wind the previous evening and offered her sympathy. So did Tily, who had kept her company and helped mix the paints:
"I have a spare, of just the kind you like," she offered.
Capulette gratefully accepted, and sat down with her husband. "I can't escape a feeling something bad is about to happen, and I'm not talking about the loss of a hat or," she nodded to Kaylad, "a cracked pane of glass."
"You know what they say," Tily said, "misfortunes come in threes."
Before anyone could answer that, the doors burst open again, letting a visibly agitated James Pauleson in. "I say, I say, I say," he stuttered, "you have no idea what they're planning."
Sambaloelec jumped down from his shoulder and hurried over to Gideoallet. "Do you know of some innkeeper's daughter associated with Westala and Villtin?"
Kaylad dropped the pane. "Tessan! My little girl! She's out, what are they going to do to her? We must find her!"
Quickly, the ferret related all he knew. Gideoallet ran off to find Dog, the best tracker in the city, and returned in short order with grave news.
"She's been taken again, by Affor." He looked torn. "I don't know what to do. I want to set out after her, track Affor down and deal with him once and for all, but..." he gestured helplessly. "I'm needed here. I'm the only swordsman we have, and..." His voice trailed off.
"But not the only swordsperson," his wife said firmly. "I'll get her back, never fear."
Before he could answer, she was gone, grabbing the hat Tily had brought on the way out.
Kaylad looked at Gideoallet with a worried frown. "Can she?"
"I'd think so." He tried to make light of the situation. "She's a lot more fierce and savage than me, so I don't think she'll leave many of the slaver's henchmen alive behind her."
"Oh, I wish I was free to help her, but..." Kaylad indicated the establishment with a gesture. "You're never free when you have a business to run."
"Free?" Gideoallet smiled faintly. "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. Otherwise, it's simply a matter of judging the consequences of ones options and chose accordingly."
It was a sheer cliff, facing a small lake. In the middle of it was a large, ornately carved portal with closed doors. The members of the fellowship dismounted and approached it carefully.
"There is writing around the portal," Villtin said, "but I can't read those signs."
"I can," Newra said. "It's in my native tongue." She lightly brushed over the frame, sweeping away lichen and dust. "It's faint, but I think... yes, it says 'Speak little friend and enter'."
"Huh? You're supposed to say 'little friend' and it opens?" Autopet asked. "That's a silly idea."
Newra shrugged. "I don't know, I have heard about that trick in a story. Let me try." She cleared her throat. "Amicro."
The doors failed to swing ponderously open. In fact, had they been any more unmoving, they would have remained behind as tectonic shift carried the mountain away.
"Maybe it's another language?" Newra suggested in the disappointed silence.
Westala and Lowmar joined her and Autopet, and together they systematically tried every conceivable synonym for the phrase 'little friend' they could think of, in all the various languages they knew. Villtin, doubtful of the whole idea, walked down to the lake and began throwing pebbles in it, half hoping some horrible monster would rise up and attack him. It would have been an interesting diversion, he felt.
But the lake remained calm, its surface unbroken by tentacles. Instead, a little bird came flying in and landed on a nearby rock. It gave him a suspicious look and then began to peck at the lichen. Although Villtin wasn't as used to wilderness as Westala, years of camping out had taught him that only reindeer ate lichen, and even they wanted it sprinkled with salt and a jar of mustard on the side.
"What are you pecking at?" he murmured and moved closer. The bird gave him a suspicious look and flew to another rock, angrily chirping at him. Villtin bent down and looked closer, then flinched. A large hairy spider scuttled over the lichen, but with a viper's speed he pinned it down with one of his daggers.
"Tasty, do you think?" he asked the bird, holding up its prey on the point of his dagger. With a flick of his wrist he sent the dead arachnid flying towards the bird and wiped his blade on the lichen. As he did so, he noticed that his quick thrust had dislodged a loose piece of rock under the lichen, revealing a strangely shaped hole.
Villtin studied the hole and whistled silently. "Now that's a coincidence you wouldn't expect once in a blue moon." From one of his many pockets, he withdrew a small leather wallet, which he opened to reveal an extensive collection of bent pieces of metal.
After a little while he called out to his friends who now stood silent by the portal. "Any luck?"
"None whatsoever." Newra sounded bitter. "We've tried everything we can think of, but not the slightest movement."
"May I try?"
"Sure, say whatever words you want. I'll give you a hug if you can think of something we've overlooked, and a kiss if it opens the doors."
Villtin grinned. "Thanks, I'll hold you to that."
Theatrically, he cleared his throat and took a couple of deep breaths. With one of his hands held out in the way you are obliged to in order to warn people that declamation is about to be perpetrated with intent, the other innocently resting on the rock by his side, he spake thus: "Bugger this for a game of soldiers."
Ominously creaking, the massive doors opened. Villtin grinned and returned the lock-pick to his wallet.
As the grumbling Newra honoured her word and made Villtin a momentarily happier man, the other three unloaded the cart and horses. A quick look inside had revealed that there was no chance of bringing the animals, never mind the cart, over the uneven terrain, so they hid what they couldn't carry under a pile of rocks and let the horses free.
Westala, who had become quite fond of his mount, was reluctant to leave Bill behind, but when Autopet flatly refused to help carry the animal over the rough patches, Westala sighed and bid his new friend farewell. "I'll be back," he promised.
Lowmar took the lead with a flaming torch in one hand and the katana in the other. They hadn't come far from the entrance when Autopet stepped on a smooth stone on the uneven floor. Instead of wobbling as he'd been prepared for, it sunk into the floor with a click. The doors slammed shut behind them, and despite their best efforts they could not find a way to open them again.
"Well, we're not returning for a while yet," Villtin said philosophically, "and we might find another way altogether." He pointed at a straight gorge in the floor of the cave. "I suggest we follow this dyke or whatever it is. It seems to go in the right direction."
"Hiho," Lowmar offered. The word echoed through the cave.
Villtin pinched the bridge of his nose. "Here we go. What do you mean, 'hiho'?"
"Oh. Well, these dykes, as you call them, are common features in caves. They're carved out by running water, old riverbeds you might say, and provide a convenient way of walking around without being seen. It's called a hiho."
"Is that like, you know, a hoho, such as you would put in a palace garden?" Newra asked.
"Yes. In fact, the garden designers got the idea from hihos, although the word has changed in pronunciation and thus spelling when used in that context."
"Fine. Can we skip the... spellology lesson and move on?" Villtin said sourly.
"There's no need to be grumpy."
"Oh, I'm terribly sorry."
"Don't try to be bashful, it doesn't suit you."
"The doors have closed, Mistress. How shall we now gain entrance?"
Peril Rat reached up and withdrew a small hairpin from her coiffure.
"He's clever," she conceded, "but not the only one who has ever picked a lock."
The hiho slowly grew deeper, until its edges was higher than any of them could reach. The bottom became smooth and semicircular in profile as they carefully worked their way forward.
Villtin, who held the rear guard position, paused at a strange noise from behind. It sounded like the wind rustling the leaves of an autumn forest. Curious, he turned and walked back, the light of his torch illuminating the polished walls. At the edge of the little pool of light, he could see faint movement. He took another step, then stopped abruptly and stared in horror at an army of spiders, thick enough to cover the floor and walls as a blanket.
He threw his torch at them but they scuttled out of the way and continued relentlessly. With a slight whimper, Villtin turned and ran after the others.
"Run! There are spiders coming! Millions, billions!" He quickly caught up with and overtook them. With a grunt, Westala lifted the dragon that was waddling alongside him and picked up the pace behind the others, looking behind every now and then to see if they were about to be overrun. The spiders were gaining on them, running and jumping.
Villtin, running in front, saw well enough without a torch to find his way, especially since there was nothing to do but to follow the hiho. He reached over his shoulder to try to get one of Peterwok's climbing aids out, hoping he'd find the time to fasten it to the wall so they could climb out of this trap. Thus occupied, he failed to see the innocuous rock in his path and stepped on it. He heard a click, then a rumbling noise from behind.
Westala swore. A huge boulder came rolling behind the spiders, picking up speed. It seemed to fit the profile of the hiho perfectly. If they could just keep the distance for a little while, the spiders would be crushed completely, he thought grimly, moments before he, and then his friends, shared the same fate.
The boulder caught up with the rearmost spiders; its surface now glistening with the remains of flattened arachnids. But the leading ones were just a few steps behind Westala.
Newra caught up with Villtin and held her torch high. "There! To the left!"
Villtin looked and saw a small door in the wall of the hiho. He yanked it open, then ran into the dark chamber, tripped over something and fell headlong forward. Newra followed more carefully, pausing by the door to light the way for the others. Autopet, Lowmar and finally Westala with the dragon came inside. The big Northman dropped his burden and pulled back Newra as she was reaching out to pull the door closed, just moments before the boulder crashed into it and stuck. They were trapped inside.
Villtin picked himself up and looked at the floor. He'd tripped on a raised ledge. But he was fortunate, at least compared with the fellow who had come before him. Unlike Villtin, this man had never got up again. He had fallen, like Villtin, but smashed his head on a rock. Judging by his clothes, he'd been a wealthy man, centuries ago. With nimble fingers, Villtin relieved him of his rings and brooches, then exclaimed as he was checking under the collar for necklaces.
Lowmar joined him and tore the ancient tunic apart. Underneath, glittering in the flickering torchlight, lay a shirt of ringmail, shining and uncorroded.
"I don't believe it!" Lowmar touched the armour gingerly. "It must be!" He looked from the corpse's body to Villtin's and sighed. "You're one lucky lad, my friend. He looks like your size."
"So? I'm not too fond of armour – it's heavy, noisy and hampers your movement."
"Granted, but not this byrnie. It's made of uridium – stronger than steel, light and silent as silk. These shirts are legendary. He must have been a very important or rich person when he was alive. I wonder what he was doing here?"
"Maybe there's a clue here?" Westala said, lifting a scroll of parchment from what looked like an altar, covered in dust. He unrolled it carefully and peered closely at it. "It's very faded but I can make out some parts. Let's see '... forbidden knowledge... a dark and hungry god arises... chaos and order... this day all gods die...' That's all I can decipher." He shrugged and tossed the scroll aside. "I guess we'll never know the real story."
The scroll bounced and rolled off the altar, dislodging a thick layer of dust.
"Hey! This is glass!"
Soon they were all coughing from the dust Westala brushed off. It was, indeed, a crystal coffin, in which lay a long-dead woman, with hair white as snow, lips black as coal and skin red as blood.
"Do you think she's supposed to look like that?" Newra asked after a while.
Westala shrugged. "She looks mummified – maybe whoever put her in the coffin painted her? Personally, I'd rather look for a way out of here, before we run out of torches."
"There is another door here," Autopet indicated with his torch, "and unless my sense of direction is completely messed up by that hiho, I'd say it's going in the right direction."
The two Dancing Rodents crept stealthily forward. Despite the maze of chambers and tunnels, they had made good progress. So far, however, they had seen no signs of their prey. Suddenly, Peril Rat froze in her step, indicating with a raised hand her apprentice should keep still. Together, they went down on knees and hands and crept slowly towards the end of the tunnel.
They came out on a ledge, overlooking a vast chamber. Below, they could see the two men they were after standing with their friends and their strange pet. For some reason, they had stuffed their collars and sleeves full of straw, and stood motionless as a tall figure, dressed in a long dark robe with a hood hiding its features, walked slowly around them.
Faintly, they could hear the stranger sniff the air around the fellowship, and then it moved away and disappeared in the shadows. The five companions waited for a few minutes, then visibly relaxed and began moving.
Peril Rat swore under her breath. "That must have been Sherilob. Why didn't she kill them?" She looked thoughtfully at the figures below, then forward, tracing in her mind the path they were taking. The torches' reflected light bounced around the cavern like a ping-pong ball in a tumble dryer, showing a vast chasm spanned by a narrow stone bridge.
The Conga Rat pointed. "That's where I'll bring them down." She smiled cruelly. "Literally speaking."
Silently they found a way down from the ledge, coming to the place the fellowship had encountered the sorcerer. Keeping to the shadows, they followed their prey towards the bridge. This is it, Mega Vole thought nervously. This is the end of them. They'll all die. The thought did not come triumphantly, though, but with regret. She flushed slightly of shame and resolved to muster all her hate of men. If only they had remained nameless and faceless, she thought, it would have been so much easier.
The smaller of their two primary targets was out on the bridge now, walking gracefully on the narrow strip of stone. He stopped at the highest point of the arch and peered down, then took out a spare torch, lit it on the one he was holding and dropped it. From her vantagepoint in the shadows, Mega Vole soon lost sight of it, but the slender man stood looking for a long time before he turned and addressed his companions.
"Looks pretty bottomless from here," he said conversationally. "I'd make a point of not falling off." Then he calmly sauntered off to the other side, turning to wait for the others.
The woman – a traitor to her kind and breaker of contracts to boot, Mega Vole told herself without much conviction – went over next, followed by the short, stockily built innkeeper whose beard was moving with mutterings. A chance gust of moving air brought the word "hiho" to her ears. It sounded almost like he was singing, as he was cheerful.
The two big men were last. The light of the torches made it difficult to tell them apart, but the apprentice Rodent deduced from spotting the great sword slung in its scabbard over his shoulder that the one holding the reins of the dragon was their second target. He had handed his great spear to his companion and was the last to cross over.
Peril Rat waited until he was just about to step off the bridge before making her move. Lighting a torch quickly, she stepped to the foot of the bridge.
"Hello, boys." Her husky alto carried with it undertones of soft bodies and silk sheets. She tossed the torch lightly onto the bridge, providing her with illumination as she moved onwards.
Mega Vole sighed at the sheer mastery of her mistress' smooth movements, the firm buttocks drawing a perfect figure of eight with each lithe, lazy, inviting step. Looking beyond Peril Rat, she saw the five on the other side of the bridge had frozen in place. Only the last of them had his back turned and she could see the powerful muscles in his shoulders tense in an effort to keep his composure.
The others had not had that advantage, and Mega Vole realised her mistress had moved too soon. Just by a second, but enough to let this man slip through her grasp. But he would not be free for long, she was sure. Even the woman was transfixed, as Peril Rat slowly worked her seductive path on the bridge, effortlessly demonstrating the composure the Dancing Rodents had proved time and again passed by the brain and went straight from eyes to libido.
Peril Rat was one of the best. Each little step expertly timed to lend her a fluid grace, every slight movement of limbs harmonically showing off her shapely body. Her victims never had a chance. One by one they would come, and if they didn't push each other off the bridge in their clamour to come to her, she would not need to do much to send them on their way herself.
Mega Vole wondered idly how much longer she would have to train to become so good. She had made good progress, she knew, but this was something else, this was beyond training, an innate part of her mistress' person. She sighed. Any moment now, the shock would pass over into immutable desire.
When movement returned to the tableau on the other side of the chasm, though, it came in an unexpected way. The large Northman released the dragon at the foot of the bridge and snatched his spear back from the limp fingers of his transfixed friend, then turned to the strange animal.
"Stay. Keep them from crossing. But don't kill them."
He squared his shoulders, turned and began walking across the bridge again. The spell broken, the three men left behind stirred and moved to follow, only to find the dragon barring their path. When the innkeeper tried to brush it aside, he received a ridged head on the chin, the force of the blow bowling him over and leaving him stunned. The second Northman found the same welcome, and when the slender thief jumped over the dragon, his foot was caught in a vicelike grip by the prehensile tail of the animal.
Meanwhile, Westala walked slowly to meet the Conga Rat. Something was wrong. He moved too guardedly, his eyes downcast. He should have come running, oblivious to the perils. Instead he came warily, in full control of his faculties. The tension showed, but he had mastered his desires, moved beyond them. Mega Vole caught her breath. The sheer force of will, the bravery, the strength was astonishing.
At the top of the arch he stopped and kicked the torch out of the way. Now the only light came from the torches dropped from limp hands on the other side.
Peril Rat hesitated momentarily. Instead of an enemy already stunned senseless she found an implacable foe. She could feel the tension of his resistance, his steely determination against almost overwhelming desire. But it was just this one. She reached behind her and pulled the tight-saber. It was already vibrating, no, throbbing in her hand, and came alive almost as soon as her fingers closed on the handle, stronger than she had ever experienced before.
The man facing her rammed the butt of his spear hard onto the bridge and with a voice filled with desperate anguish and strain he shouted, "You shall not pass!"
Mega Vole could not be sure whether it was the sudden tremor in the bridge or the force of the opposition, but something set off the tight-saber even stronger. It flared up, illuminating the whole cavern in a flash of pink light.
Peril Rat gasped, moaned and whimpered, shaking with rapture. She reeled from the force of 'the little death', shuddering and shivering. Then, unable to control her body, she took a step to the side and found emptiness beneath her foot.
In desperation, she flailed wildly, still caught in the explosive sensation of her weapon; a weapon than neatly cut the bridge in half before she plunged down in the abyss, still moaning, going without pause from the little to the full death.
Mega Vole saw the man on the bridge relax, breathing hard. His arms and shoulders shook, and beads of sweat glittered on his face, pink in the light from the sinking tight-saber. The bridge swayed, and then the half the Conga Rat had traversed broke off the face of the cliff and fell into the depths after her. Wearily, the man who defeated her lifted his hand and wiped his forehead, then tore away the crumbling remains of straw around his neck and wrists, letting it fall where he stood.
He turned, and a shadow swept past Mega Vole, pausing briefly to sniff the air and, having satisfied itself she was insignificant, moved on to the edge of the chasm. The figure appeared to study the man who carefully stepped away from the cut, then lifted its head.
Mega Vole heard a shrill, piercing sound, followed by a rustling susurration. Spiders came running down the walls, moving towards Sherilob. The first to reach the sorcerer was larger than a horse, and on a sign from its master, it shot a line of web towards the man on the bridge, catching him on the ankle. He turned quickly, dropped the spear and tried to work himself loose, but the huge spider lifted its front legs and began winding the line back. In desperation, Westala yanked at the line, pulling the spider off-balance. It fell over the edge, plunging down in the chasm.
The weight of it pulled Westala off his feet and dragged him towards the edge, and over. For a second his strong arms held on, and he stared at his companions who had revived and watched in horror.
"Run, you fools!" he whispered.
Orjan stopped talking and tapped out the ashes from his pipe. He then turned to Marco and said:
"I wonder if we should take a break there. It is getting late, and..." He was interrupted by a yawn, and used the opportunity to stretch, before finishing the sentence. "... I am a bit worn." Orjan then looked at the people in the pub. "You have listened attentively for long, and I think we all need a bit of rest. I'll resume the tale tomorrow, if you will join me for breakfast."
10 Which has a smaller amount of fabric, compared to a miniskirt, by a factor of roughly a hundred. back
11 This is what we call a detailed description. back
12 T-Space was defined by the philosopher A'Fair Dans'eur as the place where things are that would exist if it wasn't for someone saying "Yeah, but...", which admittedly is not the most cogent of definitions. He came upon the idea when meditating over the fact that while no dog has three tails, and one dog has one tail more than no dog, a dog does evidently not have four tails, as is logical, but only one. Tail-Space is the alternate unreality13 in which the other three tails exist. When pressed for an explanation, he insisted he had said Tale-Space, and argued that "It has been said that in an infinite universe everything that can exist will at some point in time do so. However, there are many things that people were sure existed, and about which there were many authoritative tales, that have later been proved not to exist by some clever bugger who says ‘yeah, but...’ These things did exist up to that point, and after they had been proved to be impossible the universe embarrassedly shuffled them aside and pretended they had never happened. Since this happens quite often, what with all these nosy philosphers, present company excepted of course, who are poking the fabric of reality to see if there's anything interesting hidden in the folds, there must now exist an unreal reservation14 where these things are put to be out of sight."15 By now, the theory goes, the universe is tired of getting caught out and is filling T-Space with things no-one has yet objected to or even found out in the first case just to be on the safe side.16 back
13 In competitive philosophy, points are awarded for every off-the-cuff undefined term introduced and sneaked past the opposition without being challenged. A complicated set of rules governs the scoring, where the highest score is awarded terms which can be used by the philosopher to mean whatever he needs it to in order to defend the original premise. Dans'eur's "alternate unreality" was awarded full points, something theretofore unheard of. back
14 This was also awarded full points, until the philosopher Loshovler objected that the word "unreal" had been repeated. back
15 The first objection to this bold theory unfortunately began with the phrase "Yeah, but..." upon which Dans'eur exclaimed that T-Space now had been demonstrated to exist in T-Space, and thus the whole theory was internally consistent, and by the way, whose turn is it to get another round of drinks in? back
16 It has since been demonstrated that some things can be brought back from T-Space to the real world. This is where ideologies and religions comes from. Experienced exploring philosophers have also reported finds of communities of people living in harmony, good stories co-told by people who've never met, honest politicians and other things that could never have existed at all. back
17 Where the technique was first discovered of how to treat iron so that it wouldn't rust. back
18 It is curious that the knives had been named after yetis, since there were no such creatures within three thousand miles from the tropic zone. But the settlers there felt that, should one ever stray from the mountains and go on a sunny holiday, they wanted a weapon that could be a match for it. back
19 In this case, "secret" really meant secret. No one knew about it. Those who found out were swiftly taken care of. back
20 Well, okay... a select few knew. And the Dancing Rodents were very selective when it came to selecting that few. back
21 An instrument used to study the lips of dense stars to see if they have been subjected to external pressures, which is held to be the cause of excessively swollen lips. The lip is the edge of the gravitational well that confines the flare-ups, and when the lips become swollen these outbursts become excessively dangerous. Well, it could be so. I'd never let a fact stand in the way of making a bad innuendous pun. What are you looking at? Look, it's just a very bad pun; you don't have to take it so seriously. Yes, I know that labia usually refer to another set of lips than the one more commonly reported in the gossip magazines as having been subjected to collagen injections. So what? If you want to see pictures of that kind of lips on so-called stars, there are magazines for that on the top shelf. Sheesh. Some people, trying to find sexual references everywhere. back
This page © Elin Rosén 2002 | The tale © the authors.