Chapter Ten

The Next Adventure

 

“Adventure?” grumbles Scarlet, “sounds more like a chore.”

Jakes shoots her a dark look, and she shrugs and crosses her arms. They stand in the office of their guildmaster, Sir Elton Highstar. Elaine, now dressed in her usual white robes, is also there with them. And as always when the cleric is in this room, she is trying to pay attention to the conversation at hand while simultaneously peering out the corner of her eye at the rows and rows of books that line the walls. The guildmaster’s office isn’t even off limits, thinks Jake, and these books are available to Elaine anytime she wishes — the young cleric literally can’t be in a room with books without being distracted. Mathos, meanwhile, remains occupied with cleaning up and locking away the last of the escaped rats downstairs in his laboratory. Hamfrd, the only one of the Companions who stays outside of Highstar House, they will meet up with along the way. Sir Elton has already sent word ahead to the big man’s family’s cottage east of the city.

“Well, thank the Gods,” says Jake, having listened to the details as related by Sir Elton. Call it an adventure or a quest or a job or–

“Jake.” The young cleric is frowning at him.

“I meant, thank the Allway,” he says, correcting himself. “Look, I think we can all really use a new adventure right now. I know I can. Anything to get out of the city and back into action.” He smacks his open hand with his fist.

Action in this instance is a relatively straightforward job: a merchant from the nearby town of Gateway has contacted the Guild; the merchant’s name is Madeline Le Campe, and apparently, one of her employees, while taking a shortcut through a dangerous stretch of swampy forest called the Trollbriar, has gone missing, along with two wagons full of valuable goods and several armed guards. (“What sort of goods?” asks Jake. “Valuable goods,” Sir Elton replies.) The merchant, Madeline Le Campe, has hired the Companions to explore the area of the Trollbriar where the wagons are believed to have gone missing, and discover, if possible, what happened to both the men and the goods. Especially the goods.

She is willing to pay regardless of the outcome (a point that Sir Elton seems to emphasize during the telling, Jake notes) and the payment will obviously be more if the Companions are able to determine conclusively the fate of Madeline Le Campe’s men and her goods. Especially the goods.

And she’ll pay even more if, in the end, it is still possible to deliver those goods out of the Trollbriar to her, safe and sound. Presumably (Sir Elton continues, specifically because Elaine asks) the merchant would like to see the men return safe and sound as well, although this was never stated explicitly by the merchant during her communications with Sir Elton.

“Okay,” says Jake, “so we travel to Gateway, meet this merchant, Madeline Le Campe, and then travel to the Trollbriar?”

“You’ve got it,” confirms Sir Elton, puffing his pipe.

“And then search around for these missing wagons. In the Trollbriar,” the swordarm says, repeating the name dubiously. The Trollbriar is notoriously miserable and dangerous, and as its name implies, is the home to many varieties of trolls, all nasty.

“Yeah, her men are dead,” Scarlet says.

Jake gives her another look. She shrugs.

“If they’re alive, we’ll find them,” he says.

“Probably made some trolls a nice lunch.”

“We’ll search anyway,” Jake says evenly.

“Good, good,” says Sir Elton, puffing. “Be safe. Come back in one piece. Yada yada.” He waves his pipe in the air. “You know the deal. I’ll be awaiting your return.”

The three adventurers turn to go.

“Jake, a word,” calls Sir Elton.

The swordarm stays behind while Elaine and Scarlet exit the study. Elaine casts one last longing look over her shoulder to the shelves full of books.

The old guildmaster puffs.

“Thoughts, Jake?”

“About?”

“Anything.”

“Well,” says the swordarm, “like I said, I’m relieved to be getting out of the city. Hearing talk of the Darkblades and the Crown of the Sun King everywhere I go isn’t doing my mood any good. Scarlet seems fine, I guess. She understands that going after Harriet wasn’t the best idea.” He forms one hand into a fist and squeezes it with his other hand. “Even if it sometimes seems like it.”

“Good,” Sir Elton says. “I’m not surprised. She’s a smart woman. And strong. Willed, I mean. Capable of anything she puts her mind to, as they say. Plain old strong too, obviously.”

“Actually,” Jake says, and then recounts the morning’s encounter in the Winsome Sailor with Brune Drago and his comrades from the Darkblades. “I’m pretty sure they came to the Sailor specifically looking to set off Scarlet again.” Jake pounds his fist into his open hand. “Those creeps. Doesn’t their word mean anything to them?”

Sir Elton sighs. “I’ll speak with Olliver if I can. Via letter perhaps. With our two guilds being head and shoulders above all others in Gulfside, we’ve always agreed that constant run-ins and scuffles would only serve to do us both harm in the long run. It’s the reason we decided to establish boundaries in the first place. A tavern for us, a tavern for them. Where both guilds could be certain that members of the other wouldn’t appear to cause trouble. It was just a gentleman’s agreement, but still . . .”

“Well, the Dark Marauder is no gentlemen,” says Jake.

“No, I suppose not,” says Sir Elton, chewing on the end of his pipe, lost in thought. At once, he waves the matter away. “Very good, Jake. Thank you again. Take the Companions, head to the Trollbriar. Be safe. And I’ll deal with things here.”

“Things?”

“Hmm?” Sir Elton raises both eyebrows. Waves the pipe around again, trailing a thin string of smoke. “Oh, just things. Not Guild things. Boring house things. Ah!” he exclaims, seizing on one such thing: “seeing that my granddaughter is comfortably settled in, for instance.”

“Ginny Mae,” says Jake fondly. “I suppose that’s one nice thing that has happened this week. It’s great seeing her again after so many years. And so, uh, grown up.”

“Yes, yes,” agrees Sir Elton, his attention already down to the papers on his desk. He waves the pipe one last time absently in the air. “Good day, Jake. Good luck, my boy. Be safe.”

Jake turns to leave.

The guildmaster’s head snaps up. “Oh, and Jake, try to keep a good accounting of everything the group happens to find, eh? Any valuables and such. Anything . . . income. Incoming. Anything you come across.” Sir Elton spreads his hands. “You know. If you think of it. Maybe. Yes. Please do. Okay then, good talk.”

He taps the parchments on his desk with the pipe, lowers his eyes. “Very busy with these . . .” He gestures with his empty hand, searching for a suitable word. Finally just settles for repeating, “These.”

The old guildmaster waits for Jake to see himself out, a slightly confused look on the swordarm’s face.

After he is gone, Sir Elton stares at the door. Rubs his chin thoughtfully, hoping some answer will come to him. The last thing he wants to do is burden Jake and the other Companions with the Guild’s miserable financial matters and the Lord Mayor’s pestering interference.

* * *

An hour later, as the day draws on towards late afternoon, the four Companions approach Hamfrd’s secluded homestead. They hike the last few hundred yards along a packed dirt road, bordered on both sides by tall swaying grass.

Jake and Elaine walk side by side, just ahead of Scarlet and Mathos. Elaine has thus far remained icy towards the mage following the rat incident earlier in the day, although for his part, Mathos seems mostly oblivious to her cold shoulder.

The group climbs the crest of a final hill and Hamfrd’s cottage comes into view in the wide field ahead. A thin ribbon of smoke wafts lazily from the stone chimney, no doubt a cook fire, given the hour.

Glancing back over her shoulder, Elaine can see much of the sprawling city of Farport down below, surrounded by blue water on three sides. Countless ships, big and small, ply through the waves all around the finger-like extension of land. To the north stretches the Vast Ocean. To her the south, where the familiar docks and jetties of Gulfside crawl out into the blue, is Sunreach Gulf. And directly ahead, the channel that joins them — the Narrows. Far off, lost in the haze of the horizon, is Sunrock, a monolithic formation that juts from the water out in the middle of the channel, and even farther beyond that are the Knifepoint Cliffs, which mark the barren opposite side of the Gulf’s mouth.

The cleric stumbles on a rock half-buried in the ground, throws out her arms to gather back her balance and takes a couple of noisy, awkward steps before she’s back under control of her feet. She returns her eyes to the front to watch where she is walking, blushing as Scarlet snickers behind her.

The door of the cottage ahead opens and Hamfrd ducks through the doorway and into the early evening sun. Waves to his approaching companions.

Two boys appear from the doorway, scooting around their tall father and dashing out into the open. Giggling, the boys hurry forward, waving and talking excitedly. They want to see Jake’s sword; they want Mathos to do magic tricks (he doesn’t let anyone except Hamfrd’s two young boys call what he does ‘tricks’); they race up to Scarlet and wait for her to growl and show her teeth, and then dash away from her, giggling.

Osgrd is the taller, leaner one. He is also, at five, a year his brother’s elder. A wild scrum of red hair is piled on his head, matching the hue of his father’s long locks.

Jesse is shorter, chubbier, and younger than his brother. His hair, tossed easily by the wind, is golden brown, a mix of the red from his father and the pure sun-gold of their mother.

Diana appears in the doorway, places an arm around her giant husband’s waist. Hamfrd is tall by any measure — he is the tallest of the Companions by an entire head over Jake — but his wife would be considered short standing next to any of them and most others besides. They’re an odd pair visually: the strong, muscled, red-haired warrior from the north, and the petite, pretty blond whose eyes barely reach the level Hamfrd’s toned chest.

Hamfrd bellows a greeting, laughing with joy, and beckons his friends forward.

They share a feast-like dinner with Hamfrd and his family, crowded together inside the tiny cottage, passing plates of steaming food back and forth across the table to one another. They eat until their bellies are full, sitting back contentedly in their seats.

“That was delicious, Diana,” Elaine tells the other woman, and together the pair begin gathering up dishes from the table. Mathos offers to assist and jumps right in at Diana’s warm smile, helping to clear plates and bowls and utensils from the table. Elaine narrows her eyes, and settles into the task in silence, her lips a tight line.

Hamfrd, meanwhile, pours himself and Scarlet two large cups of visckr, which he always keeps on hand in plentiful supply, and they go outside along with Jake to watch Hamfrd’s two boys run giggling circles around the cottage and the stable and the well, chasing one another and the shaggy, black-haired family dog, Brutus, who has returned from whatever canine adventure had him away from the house when the group first arrived.

“Ah, to have the carefree life of that little fella,” says Jake, sighing.

As they watch, the shaggy dog begins chasing his own tail, snapping around in quick circles in an attempt to catch himself, long red tongue hanging from the side of his mouth as he spins.

“Aye, it’s a simple life,” laughs Hamfrd.

They continue watching.

“Gross,” says Scarlet, “now it’s licking itself.”

“He sure is,” says Jake awkwardly. The swordarm forces his waning grin to remain, and eventually, he shrugs. “You know what, I stand by my previous statement.”

Scarlet glances over, scowling.

Hamfrd chuckles again and drains the rest of his drink.

Elaine emerges from the cottage, jaw clenched with irritation. “Mathos is driving me crazy right now,” she says, crossing her arms under her breasts as she comes to stand next to the others. “He’s in there right now being all polite and conscientious and . . .” Her voice trails off. “Ugh,” she says, “Hamfrd, your dog is licking himself.”

“We can all see it, Elaine,” growls Scarlet.

They watch in disgusted fascination.

“Yep,” says Jake, at length, “that dog is going to town.”

* * *

Twenty minutes later, the Companions are gathered together, ready to leave.

Hamfrd kneels down, kisses his two boys on their foreheads, one after the other, and tells them he’ll be home soon. Warns them to behave for their mother. Ruffles both boys’ hair.

He crosses the yard to the doorway of the cottage where his petite wife stands watching him.

Lopa,” he says, bending to kiss Diana. The word means ‘beloved’ in the language of Hamfrd’s parents, his Northern tribe.

“Be safe,” she tells him.

“Always.”

She nods, eyes damp. Pulls him close, kisses him again. “Don’t you dare die, Ham, and leave me and the boys,” she whispers for his ears only, “or so help me, I will find a way to bring you back from the dead”–kisses him again–“and then I’ll kill you myself.”

He gathers the petite woman up in his massive arms and squeezes her tight. Inhales deeply the scent of her.

“Their love is so beautiful,” says Mathos, face wracked with emotion. He and the others stand several paces distant. The mage reaches out an arm, places it over Elaine’s shoulder. “So pure.”

“Seriously, Mathos?” snaps the cleric. She lifts his arm, steps out from under it.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I just get overcome with emotion.” He turns to his left, arm poised and looking for a shoulder. “Jake?”

“I don’t think so, Mathos,” the swordarm replies, taking a large step to the side, away from the mage.

Mathos looks back over his shoulder, finds Scarlet staring with narrowed eyes.

“I will break it off,” she warns him.

“You’re all so cold and distant,” he says, shaking his head. He turns back to Hamfrd and Diana’s parting. Dabs at the corner of one eye with the sleeve of his red robes. “Something’s wrong with my eye,” he explains, voice cracking.

“It’s owner is pathetic?” suggests Scarlet, smirking.

One last long kiss before the pair finally separate, and then Hamfrd jogs over to join the others.

“Shall we go, friends?”

“You’re a lucky man, Hamfrd,” Mathos tells him. “You have a beautiful family. A lovely home. Two wonderful boys. And you seem to genuinely enjoy kissing your wife. And she appears to be quite a competent kisser.”

Eyebrows rise and heads shake among the companions, but Hamfrd just laughs and slaps the mage on the back affectionately. “Aye, that she is.”

* * *

The Companions walk through the rest of the evening, until the sun is sinking from the pink and orange sky behind them below the horizon.

After first rejoining the main road and leaving Hamfrd’s cottage behind, they journey east, climbing higher into the hills that form the spine of the cape. To the north, which is on their left as they march, the land slopes sharply away. Fed by the numerous streams and water flows, the coastal lowlands below are a wild overgrown area of marsh known as the Borwynd Fen. To their right, the flat plain angles away only slightly, and several leagues distant reaches its end as a stretch of towering cliffs that look out over the Sunreach Gulf to the south. Gulls circle and cry in the colored sky overhead.

The road soon flattens out, even angles downward slightly, and leads them past wooded areas and tended fields and a few isolated farmhouses. They see many animals — a flock of sheep on the side of one hill; black and white cattle lying down on another; a few grazing horses peering at them from the other side of a wood and wire fence — but only a few people in the fields and the farmyards. A woman hangs laundry on a line. A pair of young boys chase a disturbed cluster of chickens, while a dog barks and runs along with them. A man splitting logs with heavy downward strokes of an axe, shirtless and tan, pauses to watch them pass by along the road.

The buildings begin to cluster closer together and nearer to the road, and soon they reach the main collection of structures, the village known as Longview. The mostly single-story wooden buildings are arranged together around a central community green. A massive three-story building, with the utilitarian and uninspired name, Longview Inn, dominates the village, makes up one entire length of the square all on its own.

Longview is a common stopping point for travelers due to its location: less than a half day by foot from Farport, and barely a full day’s travel to the small city of Gateway, which sits nestled farther east at the foot of the hills, and which as its name implies, serves as a gateway from the cape to the vast continent beyond.

The Companions have stopped many times before in Longview on previous excursions, and do so again this night, stepping inside the bustling Longview Inn as the long shadows of day’s end give way to the blanket of dusk.

* * *

“Somebody say something,” says Jake, looking around the booth at his companions. Beside him on the bench is Elaine; across from them are Hamfrd and Mathos. Scarlet sits at the end of the table, straddling a chair pulled up backwards to the table’s edge.

The mood of the group has slipped into one of silences and little eye contact. Drinks are stared into. Throats cleared.

“Aye, sorry,” says Hamfrd, scratching at his red hair. “Just been thinking of something that Diana said is all.” He doesn’t elaborate.

Elaine has been treating Mathos coldly since the rat incident earlier in the day, and Mathos, oblivious at first, has picked up on her cues at last, if not the reason for her attitude, and so has himself lapsed into an unusual silence.

Scarlet is just–

“I’m thinking about punching Harriet Swordsteel again,” she growls.

“But you’re not going to go over there again,” says Jake. “Right? We agreed.”

“Don’t worry,” she says, scowling. “I’m just imagining it. I have a rich imagination.”

Jake lets out a breath.

“Look,” he says, “I realize this isn’t the most exciting job we could be on right now.”

“So we’re not calling it an adventure anymore?” asks Scarlet.

“Alright, I admit it’s not glamorous, and what we’ll probably find is–”

“Nothing? Troll food?”

“Okay, look,” says Jake. “Rule number one of adventuring guilds as laid out in the Book of Legends is what?” He turns to Elaine, because he knows that she’ll have the answer, and because talking about the Book of Legends is an easy trick to pull her out of a bad mood.

“‘Be A Hero To The People,'” she recites, grinning.

“Suck up,” Scarlet mutters.

Elaine opens her mouth, can’t find a suitable retort before–

“Exactly,” says Jake, “be a hero. Rule number one is not, go on epic quests. It’s not, find treasure and artifacts and get rich. Or defeat terrible monsters and battle evil villains. Sure, it’s all those things, too,” he says hurriedly, afraid he’s losing the table. “But it’s also — no, it’s primarily — be a hero. Because you become a hero by being one.”

Scarlet snorts. “Who are you trying to convince?”

“Myself, I guess. Look, I know the last few days have been rough–”

“Jake’s right,” Elaine says, and she glares at Scarlet, daring the other woman to call her a suck up again. She even manages not to look away when Scarlet narrows her eyes dangerously. “I know I haven’t been with you all for very long,” the young cleric says. “And I don’t have the history with the Darkblades that you all do. And I know it sucks that they stole the crown from us and with it a chance for us to really make a name for ourselves, but that’s not going to stop me from helping people who need help.” She gestures towards the swordarm at her side. “Jake has literally been dreaming of being the one to find the Crown of the Sun King his entire life, and he just had that stolen from him.”

“Literally,” Mathos points out.

“But here he is,” Elaine continues, “still trying to raise our spirits and keep us moving forward. Together. So I say we should give him our full support. And support each other.”

“Aye,” says Hamfrd, raising his cup. “Well said.” The others raise their cups murmuring the sentiment. The big man drains the remaining liquid down his throat, and sets his cup aside with a satisfied sigh. Mathos and Jake take more reserved sips. Scarlet peers into her cup, which is already empty.

“And you know,” continues Elaine, missing Scarlet’s subsequent eyeroll, “when I was studying at the Temple and reading from the Book of Legends every night before bed, dreaming of one day being Elevated and leaving the Temple to find an adventuring guild that I could call my own, I never realized that the people I would travel with would become such important people in my life so quickly. But you have,” she says, looking around at her companions, smiling warmly at each in turn, “and I don’t want petty things to come between us.”

Her eyes come to rest on the mage seated across from her.

“Mathos, I’m sorry I’ve been so cruel to you today–”

“That’s okay, Elaine,” he says, waving a hand.

“I was just upset that you never apologized to me, that’s all.”

He pauses, scrunches up his forehead. “Apologize to you? What for? Oh! My socks? Because, you know, I honestly thought they’d dry off in that window faster than–”

“What for?” Elaine almost shrieks. “For the rats! What do you think?”

“Well, Gods, Elaine, you don’t have to bite my head off.”

“Bite your head off?” Her nostrils flare, and she opens her mouth to say more, but manages to stop herself. Exhales a long, steady breath, and puts her hands out in front of her.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I got a little excited.”

“It’s fine,” Mathos tells her. “Really. No need to apologize. You’re an excitable sort, I think we can all agree.” He chuckles.

“An excitable . . .” Elaine’s mouth opens and closes, eyes bulging. She swings her head around to the others in disbelief. “Excitable,” she chokes. “Excitable!? Okay, seriously, Mathos, I’ve apologized to you twice now, and you haven’t said that you’re sorry once yet. You’re the one who’s supposed to apologize to me. And you swore. And now you call me excitable.”

“Elaine . . .” says Jake soothingly.

“I AM NOT EXCITABLE!” She bangs her fists on the table, rattling everything on it.

“Elaine.”

What?” She whips her head around to glare at Jake.

“You just knocked my drink over,” he says, half-standing in his seat as the remaining ale from his spilled mug runs off the edge of the table in front of him.

“Oh my Gods,” she gasps. “I am so sorry!” Then makes a disgusted sound in her throat. “Seriously? Now I’m swearing.” She puts a hand to forehead. “And I’m apologizing again. Oh, but your drink. I’m sorry.” Her cheeks are glowing red. “Allway,” she moans, “why is this happening?”

“This is amazing,” says Scarlet, watching wide-eyed and grinning.

“Here, let me . . .” Elaine slides off the bench. “I’ll go get some rags to clean this up.” She sighs miserably. “And then find a room that I can lock myself in and never come out of.” Shoulders slumping, she heads off towards the bar.

“Order another round while you’re up,” Scarlet calls after her.

* * *

The room Elaine ends up with is a cramped, square room with a wood-framed bed, and a table against one wall, and little space for much else. Shutters cover the window, but one hangs askew, and the only light in the room is a hint of moonlight that slips in above the broken shutter.

She’s sharing the room with Scarlet.

“There’s only one bed,” says Elaine, staring.

“It’s all they had,” Scarlet says, setting her pack on the ground, undoing her belt. “Innkeep says the place is almost full up tonight.” She smirks, tilts her head towards the door and the hallway beyond. “If it makes you feel better, the guys are in a room just like this one.”

Elaine is still looking down at the single bed. “It’s so small,” she says, trying to see how two people will fit on it. Two people that are her and Scarlet.

Behind her, she can hear the sounds of the other woman undressing. The young cleric swallows audibly. Eyes wide, she holds her head perfectly still and turned away from whatever there might be to see going on behind her. Holds her breath, too, without realizing it. Feels warmth coloring her cheeks.

“Why are you just standing there?” asks Scarlet, after the sounds of undressing have given way to a long silence.

“I, uh . . .”

“Just take the bed, if that’s what you’re waiting for.”

“But–”

“I’m fine on the floor.”

Elaine turns her head — very slowly, in case she needs to shut her eyes and rapidly turn away again. Scarlet is a dark shape wrapped inside her bedroll on the shadowed wooden floor. Only her head of black hair and bare shoulders and arms are visible outside the covers.

“I could sleep on the floor,” says Elaine.

One of Scarlet’s eyes comes open, searches for and finds Elaine. The cleric can see the smirk even through the shadows.

Elaine nods, her mouth a tight line, understanding suddenly. “You think I’m soft. You don’t think I can handle sleeping on the hard, gross, disgusting . . .” Her nose wrinkles with distaste. “So you’re just giving me the bed.”

“Oh, look,” says Scarlet flatly, “is that a rat?”

“What!? Where?” cries Elaine, and before she knows what she’s doing, she has hopped up onto the bed. She crouches there, peering over the edge, searching the floor. Eventually her eyes settle on the woman in the bedroll.

“Very funny,” the cleric says, frowning.

Scarlet laughs, a strange, unfamiliar sound that is slightly ominous in the dark room. “You’re on the bed now,” she says. “Might as well sleep there.”

The cleric stares down at the dark shape of the other woman.

“I’m not soft,” Elaine grumbles finally, slipping underneath the sheet, untying her ponytail and slipping the tie around her wrist. She searches around on the lumpy mattress for a comfortable position. At last she turns on her side, faces the wall. To the darkness of the room, she whispers, “I’m hard. I’m super hard.”

Her eyes narrow with a sudden panicked thought as she grips the sheet in a clenched fist. Oh, Light, she thinks. She’s soft.

* * *

THREE DOORS DOWN

“Here we go,” says Hamfrd, grinning. “Winner gets the bed.” He stands facing Mathos; the two men hold fists raised towards one another.

“I should really get the bed,” says Mathos. “My magic requires that I get a good night’s sleep.”

“Aye, well, I have two young boys who never stop running,” Hamfrd replies. “And a beautiful wife who demands much of me. I should be the one that gets the bed.”

Jake, who has removed his pack and unwound his bedroll and laid it down on the floor in the corner of the room, grumbles, “Would you two just hurry up and throw, so we can get to sleep.” He’s already been eliminated from consideration after throwing Rock to Mathos’s Parchment.

Now Mathos and Hamfrd face each other, growling and baring teeth.

“Ready,” rumbles Hamfrd.

“Piece of cake,” replies Mathos, eyes never leaving those of the big man. “You’re so easy to read, Hamfrd.”

“Set.”

“And you think you have some idea of what I’m going to throw, but you have no idea. I’ve spent countless hours working out the math involved, the probabilities. I know all your common first throws in every different type of circumstance, the crucial follow-up throws you use after a draw, plus the innate tendency of strong men such as yourself to–”

“Mathos,” says Jake, “there are only three possible choices.”

“True, Jake, but actually the math does get incredibly complicated after–”

“Throw!”

Hamfrd’s two fingers cut Mathos’s spread hand to pieces.

“Blades?” the mage cries, “you threw Blades? Are you daft?”

“He won,” Jake says.

“I’m a mage, Hamfrd. Parchment is the sign of the mage. I am literally the Parchment. You think so little of my intelligence to presume that I would select Parchment like some mindless automaton? Parchment is the one sign you should have been sure I wouldn’t throw! Blades was a certain losing throw!”

“But you did throw Parchment,” Jake says. “You lost.”

“Of course I threw Parchment,” Mathos replies. “Because I assumed Hamfrd would at least be smart enough to know that I would never throw Parchment, and therefore Blades would be a losing a throw; and given the choice between Rock or Parchment himself, he would fall back on the Rock, his own sign mind you, a natural choice for him; and hence, knowing Hamfrd would throw Rock, it was an easy choice for myself to throw Parchment.”

“Yeah, I think you overthought this one,” says Jake.

“I refuse to accept the result. Jake was rushing us. Clearly he rushed you into a mistake, Hamfrd. Thus, the result is invalid.” He raises his fist. “Again. Set. Throw.”

His Parchment is cut by Hamfrd’s Blades.

The big man laughs.

“You threw Blades again!” Mathos shouts.

“You threw Parchment again,” Jake says.

“Again! Throw!”

Hamfrd’s Blades cut Mathos’s Parchment a third time.

The mage stares at the big man’s two extended fingers, shaking his head. “Are you sure you even know how to play this game?” he asks.

“You’ve lost three straight throws,” Jake points out.

Ignoring him, Mathos says, “Again.”

“Just give it up,” Jake says.

Hamfrd grins, enjoying himself.

“Throw!”

Mathos looks down at the result.

His Rock, meant to smash Hamfrd’s Blades at last, has instead been covered by the big man’s Parchment.

“Are you kidding me!?”

“It’s okay, Mathos,” rumbles Hamfrd. “You can have the bed. I’ll take the floor.”

“Absolutely not. We’ll settle this with throws.”

“We already have,” Jake mutters.

Knock knock knock. Several short raps sound on the door to their room. “Can you keep it down?” a weary voice calls from the hallway.

“Mind your own business,” the mage yells back. Then to Hamfrd, he says, “Last one. No more messing around. Winner gets the bed. And that’s that.”

“Okay,” says Hamfrd, shrugging.

“Alright,” the mage agrees. “Jake, you say it.”

“Ready,” says the swordarm. “Set. Throw.”

Hamfrd’s fingers are spread in Parchment again.

“Mathos,” says Jake. “You didn’t even throw.”

“He’s inside my head, Jake!”

* * *

An hour later, amidst the rumbling snores of Hamfrd on the bed, and the quieter, uneven snoring of Jake on the floor beside him, Mathos lies awake, eyes open and looking up through the darkness to the ceiling above. Calculating. Working probabilities in his head. Trying to discern where things went so wrong. At least he now has a lot of new data, he thinks, to go along with this hard, uncomfortable wood floor underneath him and the sore back he’ll surely have in the morning.

 

<<<Chapter NineChapter Eleven>>>

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