Part Two — The Trollbriar
Rivals and Arrivals
THE FRONT PARLOR OF HIGHSTAR HOUSE
Jake comes hustling into the room, slides on the polished floor towards Scarlet, who is just reaching the bottom of the staircase.
“Oh, hey, Scar,” he calls, jogging along beside her as she ignores him and heads towards the front door without slowing. “You’re leaving? I’m leaving, too.” He bends to gather up his boots. “What a coincidence.”
He follows her through the door, hopping and trying to pull on his left boot.
Scarlet glances over, scowls.
Jake is stumbling and cursing. “Okay, stop. Wait. Scar, I have to, hold on, wait.” Jake stops. Pulls his boots on one at a time. Jogs after Scarlet, who hasn’t slowed down at all. “Had to stop to put on my, uh . . .” Jake gestures back over his shoulder. “Thought you might wait,” he says with a forced laugh. “But you didn’t.”
He follows her through the gate and out onto the street. They walk together across the cobbled stones.
“So . . . where ya goin’?” Silence. “Because I am also going . . .” He waves vaguely. “. . . also in this direction.”
“Quit it, Jake,” Scarlet growls.
“I’m not an idiot. You’ve been hanging around babysitting me for the last three days.”
“What? Me? No! Babysitting?”
She stops walking, grabs his arm. Squeezes until he winces.
“Look, Jake. I get it. I fucked up, okay? It won’t happen again.”
“Come on,” he says, dropping the act. “You didn’t fuck up. In fact, honestly, I’m jealous. I wish I were the one who had punched Harriet Swordsteel in her stupid face.” To emphasize, he pounds his fist into his open hand.
“Yeah, it did feel pretty good,” Scarlet says, nodding.
“See?” Jake sighs. “Listen, Scar. Elton just thinks that right now, you know, for the next little while, we should steer clear of the Darkblades.”
Scarlet stares at him.
“And by ‘we’ I mean, you should steer clear of them.”
“I knew it.” Shaking her head, she begins walking again.
“Come on, Scar. Don’t be mad.” He follows, staying at her shoulder.
After a moment of walking in silence, she exhales sharply through her nose, turns her head and glares at Jake. “This is my fault.”
“I don’t know,” she growls. “This. Whatever is going on. Can’t you feel it? Elton’s mood since . . .” She frowns. “And what about those Treasury dorks showing up all of a sudden the day after.”
“That was pretty weird,” Jake agrees. “I don’t know what that was about. Elton hasn’t said anything to me.”
“He doesn’t have to.” She scowls. “It’s obviously not a coincidence. The Lord Mayor has it in for him. For us.”
“Maybe. You don’t know that.”
She raises an eyebrow in warning. Keeps walking.
“I mean, yeah, you’re probably right, Scar. But still–”
“Look, I said you don’t have to worry, Jake,” she tells him. “I’m in control. So you can back off.” Scarlet slows her pace, and turns to enter a shop. Jake stays beside her. She frowns, stops. “I said back off. That means stop following me.”
“Following you? Nonsense,” he replies. “It just so happens that I also was coming here to . . .” He pauses to read the hand-painted sign in the window of the tiny shop in front them. “Mistress Veriam. Herbalist of Feminine Remedies.” He grins weakly, nods. “Yep. This is where I was going.”
Scarlet smirks and extends an arm, bidding Jake to enter first. “After you,” she says, pushing him forward. She follows the swordarm inside.
* * *
FIVE MINUTES LATER . . .
“You okay, Jake?” asks Scarlet as they exit the herbalist’s and resume walking along the cobblestone street. “You look pale.”
Jake takes a deep shuddering breath of the fresh outside air. “Why do I feel like you made that conversation way more graphic than it needed to be?”
She smirks. “Yeah, monthlies are no joke.”
Jake puts his hands to his ears. “Please, I know too much already. I can’t hear anymore.”
“Because you’re a weak-ass man.” She punches him in the arm. “Come on. I’ll buy you a drink.”
* * *
INSIDE THE WINSOME SAILOR, A TAVERN
“Just one,” Jake says as Scarlet orders them drinks from the young lad, Osco, behind the bar. Jake can’t help it but his thoughts are on the ‘Harriet incident’ of three days prior. Scarlet scowls, says nothing.
The Winsome Sailor is the tavern of choice for the Companions due to its location close to Highstar House, the low prices of the drinks there, and the casual atmosphere. Truthfully, it’s a bit of dive. The ceiling slants low in the corners, forcing one to duck in order to get to the farthest back tables. The wood floor is old and stained and warped, the boards creaking and groaning with every step. In the winter, drafty cold air leaks into the common room, and during the hottest summer days the interior becomes almost unbearably humid.
They find Mathos seated at one of the back tables, scribbling furiously, several sheets of parchment spread before him. He looks up as they join him.
“When did you get here, Mathos?” asks Jake. “I didn’t see you leave.”
“Why would you have?” answers the mage with a chuckle. “People come and go, Jake. It’s a big house. I mean, it’s not like you’re hanging around watching the front door all day.”
Jake shares a look with Scarlet, whose lips twist into a smirk.
“Anyways,” continues the mage. “I had to get out the lab for a little while and clear my head.”
Much of the cellar of Highstar House has been converted into a laboratory for the mage to work his magic and to conduct experiments. The fruits of his labor there include many varieties of magical potions and powders, several of which have proved to have some measure of usefulness on their travels.
“The sound of all the rats was driving me crazy,” says the mage. “What an awful racket.”
“Rats?” asks Jake, suddenly alert.
“Oh, they’re all down in the lab, Jake. No need to worry. I’m testing out a few different magical barrier constructions. You know, like the one that Calophanides created back in the tomb of the Sun King. Trying to find the most efficient design,” he says. “One that uses the least amount of magical energy while still maintaining its solidity and duration of effect.” He gestures to the parchments in front of him. “I’m just running through some of the equations. The rats wouldn’t stop chattering and squeaking. Very annoying and hard to concentrate.”
“So you just left them all down there in your lab?”
“They’re all sealed up, Jake. It’s fine.”
“You mean in cages?”
“Behind magical barriers. I just told you. Hmm. Maybe I should look into sound dampening qualities as well.” He scribbles a note in the corner of one of the parchments. “Don’t worry, Jake. Those energy fields will last a few hours at least. And I’ll be back by lunchtime to check on them and strengthen and make adjustments where necessary.”
Jake and Scarlet share a look.
“How long have you been here, Mathos?” asks the swordarm, slightly concerned.
The mage shrugs. “Beats me. Half an hour maybe.” Gesturing to the parchments on the table, he says, “I get lost in the work sometimes.”
“You know it’s after midday, right?”
The mage’s face deflates, but he quickly snaps a smile back onto it. “I know that,” he says evenly. “I eat lunch late.” His eyes flick to the equations in front of him and he begins to make rapid calculations. He forces an unconvincing chuckle.
Jake is about to press the mage further when the front door of the tavern bangs open. A hulking figure looms there for a moment in the daylight before stepping forward.
The huge man-shape resolves into the muscled, tattooed form of Brune Drago.
Oh Gods, Jake thinks.
He glances over at Scarlet, hoping that she hasn’t see the Darkblade man yet, but she’s already watching the brutish mercenary as he crosses the groaning floorboards, a dark scowl on her face.
Drago’s eyes sweep the room and quickly settle upon Jake, Scarlet, and Mathos.
“Well, well,” he says, face splitting into a grin. “If it isn’t the famous Companions of Farport. Say, I’ve heard of you lot.” He waves an index finger, as if thinking. “Ain’t you the ones that found the Crown of the Sun King?” He pauses, looming over their table. “Oh, wait.”
Laughing ostentatiously, Drago looks over his shoulder, and for the first time Jake notices the petite shadow that is Ilsa Ilsanova behind the bulk of Drago, and beside her, the plain and admittedly easy-to-miss cleric of the Allway, Landen.
To these two, Drago says, “No, it wasn’t them, was it? Gods. That was us that found the crown.”
“Yeah it was, Brune,” Landen replies.
The muscled man’s eyes narrow at his comrade. He turns back to the seated companions. Barks another laugh. “Yeah, now I remember. It was us that found the crown. Gods, there was a parade for us and everything.” Drago’s eyes ignore Mathos completely and only flick towards Jake briefly. The big man stares down at Scarlet. “Missed you there, Song.”
Jake glances over, hoping that she can keep herself under control.
Her eyes burn as she glares up at the man.
“What are you doing here, Drago?” she growls.
“It’s a free town,” he replies, spreading his arms wide. “I’ve come to have a drink, that’s all.”
“This is our tavern,” Scarlet says. “You know that.”
“Your tavern?” Drago laughs. He leads his two comrades to the table right beside the Companions and plops down heavily onto a chair. Holds up three big fingers. “Ales. Three of ’em,” he calls to wide-eyed Osco behind the bar.
Ilsa Ilsanova, the lower half of her face covered by black velvet cloth, catches the eye of her comrade, Drago. Makes a cutting motion in the air.
“Two ales,” Drago amends.
“Yeah, none for me, either,” Landen, the cleric, says. “You know I took a vow to–”
“One ale then,” Drago growls, staring hard at the cleric. “No. Just bring the three. I’ll drink them all myself.”
Turning back to the Companions’ table, Drago says, “Your tavern, eh? Didn’t realize you lot were in the restaurant business. Ah, probably, just as well,” he rumbles, “as adventurers, you’re second rate.”
Growling, Jake starts to push his chair back and stand, but Scarlet holds out an arm.
“Actually, tavern management is far more difficult than generally assumed,” says Mathos. “Competition is fierce, the margins are small.” He clicks his tongue as though chastising a misinformed pupil. “There’s actually much more to it than simply ordering some kegs of ale, a few sacks of potatoes to cut up for frying, and hiring servers to–”
“Shut up, magic man,” snarls Drago.
Drago stares at Jake. “Something to say, Redstone?”
Fists clenched, Jake allows Scarlet to ease him back to his seat. The swordarm takes a long, steady breath and tries to compose himself. He’s the one who is supposed to be keeping an eye on Scarlet, he thinks, and here he is, letting Drago goad him.
Meanwhile, Scarlet is the one de-escalating.
“You sorry son of a whore, Drago,” she growls.
Nope, thinks Jake, closing his eyes. Not de-escalating.
“What did you say about my mother?” Drago demands, leaning forward.
Jake laughs a loud peace-pleading laugh and says, “Okay, let’s just forget–”
“I said your mother is a whore, Drago.” Scarlet enunciates each word deliberately, leaning forward in her own seat. “And I feel sorry for the nasty stinking marsh troll that she banged on the night you were conceived.”
Jake sucks in his breath sharply. Puts a hand on Scarlet’s arm. “I think it’s time to go, Scar,” he whispers, suddenly wishing that he’d brought his sword with him as he eyes Drago, Ilsa, and their cleric. Scarlet jerks her arm away from his touch.
But Drago just rumbles with merry laughter, face spilt into a toothy grin.
Jake and Mathos share a look.
“I like you, Song,” says Drago, chuckling. “Always have.” He settles back into his chair. “I heard you put a good one on Harriet’s jaw the other day. Wish I’d been there to see it.”
“I can give you an encore.”
“I’ll bet you can,” he laughs.
His three mugs of ale arrive, brought to the table by Julia, one of the Sailor’s serving girls. The redheaded young woman glances nervously at the Companions before bowing her head and scurrying away. Drago grabs one of the ales, brings it to his mouth and drains the whole thing, throat bobbing. When he finishes, he sets the mug heavily back down onto the table and wipes his foamy lips.
“Why have you and I never laid together, Song?” He grins wide at her. “You and I should go for a roll and a tumble in my bed.”
“A roll and tumble?” Scarlet smirks. “What are we children? Should I bring my dolls, too?”
Again, he laughs merrily. He reaches for the second mug, downs it as quickly as he drained the first. Replaces it on the table and wipes his mouth. “I like your sense of humor, Song.”
Jake and Mathos share another look behind Scarlet’s back. Sense of humor? mouths the swordarm. The mage shrugs.
Drago picks up the third mug. “Enough foreplay, Song.” Jake cringes at his word choice. “When are you going to leave these losers that you run with now and join up with a real guild?”
“A real guild like yours?” She snickers.
He spreads a hand out, grins. “Why not?”
“I think Harriet might have a problem with that.”
“Don’t worry about her,” Drago says dismissively. “It’s my guild, not hers.”
“Hell, Song. We can form our own merry little band.”
“Just you and I?” asks Scarlet, smirking.
“Now you’re talking,” Drago agrees, grinning. He downs the third ale in one long go. Sets the mug aside, satisfied.
“It’s tempting, Drago,” Scarlet sneers. “Tell you what, I’ll join up with you. Just as soon as your cleric there gets himself laid.” She nods toward the plain man, who blinks at the sudden attention.
“Oh, I’m celibate,” Landen says matter-of-factly. He glances around at the many sets of eyes now turned towards him. “What? It’s by choice.” His face begins to color. “It’s a doctrine of our order, you know. All clerics of the Allway are celibate. It’s pretty common knowledge.”
Ilsa Ilsanova’s dark eyes twinkle with amusement above her obscuring face mask.
Drago roars with laughter.
* * *
The three companions return to find a carriage parked on the road in front of Highstar House. Numerous bulky luggage chests are stacked on the front lawn. Sir Elton is there, standing together with a young woman who seems vaguely familiar to Jake. He squints, trying to figure out how he knows her, but then he sees Elaine.
The young cleric is standing nearby, wearing nothing but a long towel wrapped around her body. Her eyes narrow when she sees the trio approaching from the street.
“There you are,” the towel-clad cleric growls, stomping barefoot across the grass. Her hair, hanging wet and limp across her shoulders and onto her back, is a shade darker than usual from the damp.
“What’s going on?” asks Jake.
Elaine ignores him, points an accusatory finger in the mage’s direction. “There are rats all over the house, Mathos.”
“They got out of my laboratory?”
“Yes,” she says coldly. “They got out of your lab.”
* * *
TWENTY MINUTES EARLIER, THE BATH CHAMBER
Elaine lies back, soaking in the heated tub, eyes closed. She hums a beloved lullaby, one from her youth, barely aware she is doing so. Strain and tension and worry seep from her body into the warm water.
She hears some soft scratching sounds from one corner of the room, but they hardly register on a conscious level. They certainly don’t raise any alarms within her bath-calmed brain. After all, she’s in a safe, warm, relaxing . . .
When she feels the light tickling sensation on her cheek, the first place her mind travels is to fond memories of the many friendly cats who made their home at the Temple — in particular, Cherry, a brown and tan long-haired tabby, Elaine’s favorite — who used to nuzzle her damp nose against Elaine’s cheek in such a way that her whiskers would tickle the cleric’s skin.
Elaine enjoys the memory as the tickling sensation on her cheek continues. Until she hears a squeaking sound, loud and right next to her face, and not a noise that Cherry or any other feline would make.
She opens her eyes.
A fat grey rat crouches on the edge of the tub, bumping her cheek with its disgusting little rat snout, sniffing and squeaking.
Elaine screams. The rat startles, falls into the tub with her.
Leaping up, splashing water over the sides and onto the floor, the cleric flees the bath, soaking wet and covered in suds.
She snatches her towel from the hook, and dashes into the hallway while still wrapping herself. Slams the door. Water drips onto the floor, puddles at her feet.
Turning her back to the bath chamber door, she leans against the closed portal and tries to catch her breath.
Her eyes grow wide. Several more of the disgusting furry rodents are slinking across the floor, including one heading right towards her bare feet.
* * *
“I’m sorry I missed that,” Jake says, grinning wide at the towel-clad cleric.
She punches the swordarm in the shoulder hard enough to make him grunt.
Mathos is stroking his chin thoughtfully. “It seems I was away longer than intended. I wish I knew the order the barriers failed. I’m going to have to start all over again. Ah, but on the plus side I can try out a few sound-blocking constructions now. Well, once I collect the rats I can. So, they found their way upstairs. Fascinating.”
“It is not fascinating,” Elaine says, turning her raised fist on the mage, who backs up a step. “It’s a squeaking, furry, horrible nightmare. Now get in there and get rid of them!”
Mathos gives the cleric and her fist a wide berth, and hurries up the walk to the front entrance.
Elaine turns back to Jake and Scarlet, glaring. Narrows her eyes at their amused expressions. “What?”
“So, why are you still wearing the towel?” Jake asks, trying not to laugh.
“Because, there were rats all over the parlor and crawling on the stairs. So I couldn’t get to my room. They practically chased me out here. Disgusting little rodents.”
“What are you laughing at?” Elaine demands, cheeks coloring. She tugs her towel tighter. “I hate rats,” she mumbles.
They look over to their guildmaster, Sir Elton Highstar. He’s waving them forward. “Come,” he calls. “Say hello.” Beside him, the familiar young woman stands with hands clasped behind her back, coquettishly rocking on her heels, watching as Jake and Scarlet approach. She has wide grin on her face. She appears even younger than Jake first assumed, now that he can see her youthful features clearly. Familiar features.
“Hey Elton, who is–” Jake stops, mouth hanging open, suddenly recognizing the young woman.
“Uncle Jake!” she cries, delighted by his reaction. She throws her arms out, wraps them around the swordarm, squeezing her soft body tight against his.
“Ginny Mae Highstar?” he manages to say, hardly believing, although there’s no mistaking the young woman’s sparkling eyes, dimpled cheeks, and prominent front teeth, even if their owner is no longer a hyperactive little girl in pigtails who used to ride around piggyback on Jake’s shoulders and call him Uncle Jake and demand he read stories to her from the Book of Legends before she would fall asleep.
“It’s me,” she giggles. “Surprised?”
“Pretty surprised,” he admits, grinning warmly at the young woman. “Gin.”
“Holy shit,” says Scarlet, eyeing the young woman. “You used to be, like, ten.”
“I know! I’m sixteen now!” Ginny Mae giggles and moves to hug the woman.
Scarlet takes a step back, hands up. “No hugs.”
“Oh, come on,” the teen says, beaming. And then ignoring Scarlet’s grumbling, she wraps her arms around the fierce woman too. Scarlet stands stiffly, hands at her sides, waiting for the girl to tire of hugging her and let go.
“Yeah, come on, Scar,” Jake says tauntingly, enjoying the woman’s discomfort. He drops the smile and ducks when Scarlet scowls and shows him a fist.
Ginny finally releases the hug, and Scarlet steps back, shoulders relaxing as she exhales and her tensed muscles start to uncoil.
“And I’ve already met the towel lady,” Ginny proclaims, indicating the cleric who has come to join everyone. Her eyes however keep darting back to Jake and quickly away again.
“It’s Elaine,” the blushing cleric corrects, clutching the wrapped towel.
“But Gin,” says Jake, his mind finally starting to catch up to the fact that the little girl he remembers has grown up into the young woman before him, and that she’s here again at Highstar House after . . . what has it been, five years? Six? “What are you doing here?”
“Grandfather invited me!” she says, grinning wide. The old guildmaster stands to the side nodding, pleased to see his wayward granddaughter after so long. “And you wouldn’t imagine how dull it is in Morrowsgrove, anyway,” she continues. “Super dull! That’s how dull it is. And Mom and Dad said that I could, and so I packed all my stuff up, and now here I am!”
Jake glances at the stacked luggage chests nearby.
“Wait, so you’re here . . . to stay?”
“Yep! I got into the University. Isn’t that cool? I scored really well on these tests that one of the travelling recruiters who passed through Morrowsgrove gave me, and then they sent me the letter of invitation a couple of months ago, and I was like, what?! And the University is so close to here after all, and I missed Grandfather. And you, Jake” she says, eyes dropping to the ground for an instant. “And you, too, Scarlet. And now I know you, towel lady–”
“Yeah. And grandfather said why not stay here instead of in the crowded old stinky dorms, and I was like, yeah! Why not? And Mom and Dad were like, are you sure? And I was like, pfft, am I sure? Because staying here at a proper adventurers’ guildhall with real life adventuring heroes is going to be super lame. Not! And anyways, classes don’t start until the fall, so until then we’ll have tons of time to catch up and hang out together and stuff. Isn’t that exciting? Maybe you can teach me how to use a sword finally. Ooh, yeah! Will you, please, Jake?” She bats her eyelashes prettily.
Jake begins stumbling through an answer about time permitting and swords are dangerous weapons and maybe if her grandfather says it’s okay and they’ll have to see what happens–
Sir Elton clears his throat. “Jake and the others are very busy, Ginny,” the old guildmaster says, putting a hand on her shoulder, “but I’m sure when he has the time, Jake would be happy to instruct you in a few basic defensive maneuvers.”
“You would?” she asks Jake, hands clasped together in front of her chest.
He shrugs, running a hand through his hair. “Yeah, sure. Why not?”
“Oh, awesome! Wonderful! Fantastic!” Ginny raises a hand as though gripping a sword, and makes several pretend slashes in the air, each accompanied by an exhalation of breath to mimic the sound of the slicing cut. “Swish! Woosh! I’m gonna become the best swordswoman at the University!” She growls, imagining herself speaking with an impudent instructor. “Give me extra work to complete at home, will you?” She makes more pretend slashes in the air. “I don’t think so. Swish! Woosh!” Giggles.
Scarlet leans close to Jake’s ear. “Do not give this girl a blade,” she whispers.
“Come now, Ginny,” says Sir Elton, chuckling with delight. “Mathos will have the house about clear, I imagine, and we must get your possessions inside.”
“There were rats!” she announces, grinning. “Big cute grey ones!” Laughing, she points at Elaine, who flinches. “She saw ’em too!”
“Jake and the others will soon be on their way,” Sir Elton continues calmly. “They must get ready now. And Elaine, here, needs to get dressed.” He gestures towards the towel-clad young cleric, who tugs at her solitary covering, blushing anew.
“Ready for what?” asks Jake.
“A new adventure, of course,” the guildmaster replies, grinning through his grey beard.