An early morning start is necessary in order to reach Gateway by the end of the day, although the long daylight hours of summer mean they should arrive with plenty of time to spare before darkness falls.
After a shared breakfast seated around one of the booths on the Longview Inn’s first floor, the Companions gather up their packs and weapons and other belongings, and prepare to leave. As they stand together at the bar settling their bill with the innkeep, a boy and girl, barely into their teens, approach hesitantly, a hesitance caused at least in part by the fact that Scarlet is the first of the group to notice them, and does so by fixing a dark scowl on the pair as they approach.
“S-sorry,” the boy says, after an encouraging nudge from the girl. He has shaggy blond hair and is dressed sloppily in clothes that look too big for him. The girl has a dress of poor quality that she manages to wear somewhat gracefully, sunburned cheeks and forehead, and brown hair weaved tight into a braid that rests across her left shoulder and down onto her breast. The boy finds his voice again after pausing to lick dry lips. “You’re adventurers, yeah?”
The others have now turned, too.
“We just wanted to . . . well, what I mean to ask is, are you the Darkblades?”
“The Darkblades,” echoes Jake.
Scarlet growls deep in her throat.
“Sorry,” Elaine says tactfully. “No, we’re not.”
“Oh,” the boy says, deflated.
“We seen you arrive yesterday,” the girl says, a lazy drawl to her words. She tugs her braid as she speaks. “From the west, and we thought maybe–”
“Afraid not,” says Jake, turning to leave.
“Dorkblades, you say?” Mathos rubs his chin. “No. Drawing a blank here. They sound like a disreputable sort, though. Probably real mercenaries. I’d avoid them.”
“Darkblades,” the teens correct in unison.
“Aye, we’ve never heard of them,” Hamfrd rumbles.
“Never heard of the Darkblades?” says the boy, shocked. “Why, they’re the heroes who returned to Farport just this three days past with the Crown of the Sun King. Surely, you’ve heard the news?”
Jake pauses, face pained as though punched in the gut, halfway through the motion of turning towards the front entrance of the inn. He forces a laugh. “The Crown of the Sun King? Really?”
“It’s been very nice to meet you both,” Elaine says stepping in, trying to defuse the tension crackling through her companions.
“Meet us? We ain’t even told you our names,” says the girl.
“The Light of the Allway bless you both,” the cleric tells them.
“How about the names of next of kin you want contacted,” growls Scarlet.
Jake steps quickly to her side, a restraining hand on the fierce woman’s right arm. Her fingers have closed around the hilt of one of the knives on her belt. “Let’s get you outside,” he says through a forced grin and laugh.
“I will cut you, Jake,” she snaps.
“Okay,” he says, struggling to keep a grin on his face for the benefit of the two watching teens. “But outside.” He grimly figures the odds at about fifty-fifty that she will in fact use the knife on him. “Come on, Scar.”
Hamfrd laughs then — a deep, genuine, rumbling laugh — and the tension seems to lessen within the Companions. He puts a big hand on Scarlet’s other shoulder, holds it there gently. “Come, Scarlet. Let us be on our way.” Together with Jake, he turns her towards the entrance and leads her away. “Daylight wastes.”
Mathos eyes the two teens. “Just be advised. Darkblades? Probably not all they’re cracked up to be. Those stories you’ve heard? Rumors and exaggerations most likely.” He snorts. “They probably don’t even have this Crown of the Sun King or whatever you called it.”
Elaine shoots him a look over her shoulder.
“Right. Well, they probably have it,” he amends, “but only because they stole it from some other group of adventurers who actually found it first. You like gossip? There’s some gossip for you. Spread that tasty nugget of truth around.” He puts his hands up innocently as Elaine narrows her eyes. “Just saying.”
Elaine forces a final apologetic smile and then pushes the mage towards the door, leaving the teenage boy and girl staring after them in wide-eyed confusion.
* * *
Outside the Longview Inn, Scarlet jerks away from Jake and Hamfrd. “I’m fine,” she growls.
“Gods, that look in your eye, Scar,” says Jake. “For a second there, I thought you were going to stab me for sure.”
She scowls, makes a show of checking her knives, which are sheathed on the belt at her waist. Waves a hand dismissively. “I wouldn’t actually stab you.”
* * *
ON A WELL-TRAVELED TRADE ROAD, A FEW YEARS EARLIER
“Get out of the way, Jake.”
The swordarm stands in front of the last remaining bandit, his arms spread. “I won’t let you kill this man in cold blood, Scar. We’ll bring him with us. He’ll face the justice of the city’s laws.”
Scarlet holds a knife in her hand, ready to throw. “They murdered whole families, Jake. Children. Mothers. They showed no mercy. For some coins and a few valuables.”
“And he’ll hang for those crimes, Scar, but he won’t die at our hand. We’re not executioners–”
Behind him, the bandit snickers.
“Seriously, pal?” Jake glances over his shoulder.
“Last chance,” Scarlet growls. “Out of the way.”
“We’re adventurers, Scar. We don’t convict and carry out death sentences. We–”
She throws the knife. With a fleshy thuck, it buries itself in Jake’s right thigh.
“Ow! Gods, Scar!” He bends, clutching at his injured leg, falls to a seated position on the grass. “My leg!”
“I told you to move,” she snarls.
The bandit takes a step back, eyes wide.
Scarlet grins, brings another knife to hand. Twirls it casually.
The bandit licks his lips, looking every bit a cornered antelope facing down a fearsome lioness.
But instead of throwing the knife, Scarlet tosses it softly underhand towards the man. It lands on the grass a few feet in front of him.
She nods towards the weapon. “Pick it up.”
The bandit hesitates, not sure what is happening.
“My leg,” moans Jake.
“Pick it up!” Scarlet shouts.
Panicked, the man bends and grabs the knife, holds it up warily.
“My leg,” Jake says again, groaning.
“A cleric in town will heal it,” Scarlet growls. “Man up.”
Jake blinks through his pain, peers up at her. “What are you doing, Scar?”
She stares at the bandit, a cruel grin on her face. Links her fingers together and cracks the knuckles in the air in front of her. “Looks like he got ahold of a knife, Jake,” she says. “He’s armed.”
And then with no weapon in hand, she charges straight at the bandit. He brings the knife up, steps back once, twice, eyes growing wide and terrified.
Then she’s upon him.
* * *
“Technically, I didn’t stab you.”
“Not that time,” Jake mutters, hand unconsciously dropping to his right thigh where the knife had stuck in. The healing provided by the cleric had taken care of the pain and all but closed the wound, making it almost as if the injury had never occurred in the first place. There wasn’t even a scar to mark the spot.
“But that was a serious matter. Those thugs were vicious, Jake. You remember. They showed no mercy. And neither did I.”
“Well, I still disagree with you, Scar. It was a matter for the magistrate of the city. Our duty ended with bringing him in.”
“You had no problem killing the others.”
“Because they were trying to kill us! That last one had surrendered.”
“Like all the people they killed surrendered? We were hired to deal with bandits on the trade road,” she growls. “We dealt with them.” Her eyes are far away, remembering. Gradually, her features soften to gentle frown. Settle on Jake. “We were a good tandem,” she says.
Jake shakes head, exasperated. “Okay, well what about that time in Dingham?”
“In that sleazy tavern, where we ended up taking cover from the tropical storm. Remember? That wasn’t a serious matter. That was just some woman.”
Scarlet narrows her eyes. “Vanessa? Vanesca? What was her name?”
* * *
DINGHAM, IN A SLEAZY TAVERN DURING A TROPICAL STORM, SEVERAL YEARS AGO
Jake grabs Scarlet’s arm, pulls her a short distance away. Glances back over his shoulder.
The blond with the full, pale breasts and the red dress with the neckline that shows them off is dancing to the sound produced by the musicians gathered in the darkest corner of the tavern. No, not dancing. Just sort of moving her curvy body in rhythm to music that is barely audible over the crashing rain on the roof and against the cobblestones and the buildings outside, the howling of the wind and the gusts that blow open the tavern’s shutters and bring the rain in from without. It’s dark because the wind keeps blowing out the lamps and candles. Only the wild flames in the hearth and a hint of storm-grey daylight illuminate the room. The occasional flash of lightning. Thunder rattles the inn.
Scarlet jerks her arm away, sways with drink.
“Look, Scar,” says Jake. “I think it’s pretty obvious that she’s more into me, so just–”
“Into you?” slurs the fierce young woman, scowling. “Don’t flatter yourself, swordarm. Do you not see her eyes glaze over every time you open your mouth to talk?”
“That’s probably all the hash we smoked, Scar. Your eyes are doing it too.”
“Fair point,” she concedes, trying to hold her head up.
“Anyways, she and I won’t be talking,” Jake says, grinning. “If you know what I mean.”
“Oh, I know what you mean,” Scarlet smirks. She pulls out a knife, holds the naked blade between them.
“Gods, Scar,” he says, leaning back. “Put that away.”
“Back off this one, Jake. Or I will cut you.”
“What’s so special about her?” He glances over his shoulder again, becomes momentarily entranced while attempting to understand the physics of how her breasts manage to stay tucked inside her dress while she moves her body in the manner in which she is moving it.
He turns back to Scarlet. “What about a threesome?”
“No way,” she says. “Never with a travelling companion. It only ends badly.” She hiccups, puts a hand to her mouth looking slightly queasy. After a moment, she brings the knife up. “Now back off, Jake. I will cut you.”
“Come on, Scar. You won’t do it. And if you’re not up for the threesome, then I’m telling you, she’s more into me.” He glances over his shoulder, follows the woman’s swaying hips with his eyes. When he turns back to Scarlet, he says, “You probably don’t even remember her name.”
“It’s Vanessa,” Scarlet slurs.
“That’s right,” the swordarm agrees, snapping his fingers. “I was thinking Marinda for some reason.”
“Vanesca?” says Scarlet, scrunching her brow.
“What are you two doing?” calls the dancing woman over the sound of the rain and the low rumble of thunder. “Come here!”
“Coming!” says Jake, waving to her.
He turns back to Scarlet. “Look, I’m sorry, Scar. But–”
She stabs him in the leg.
“Ow!” He howls in pain. “What the hell, Scar?”
She draws the blade out, flicks Jake’s blood onto the floor.
The swordarm clutches his bleeding, injured thigh. “Gods! You stabbed me!”
“Those clerics we met upstairs will heal it, you big baby.” She leaves Jake groaning in pain, strides forward to join the woman, who doesn’t seem to notice that she’s left the swordarm behind.
* * *
“It was Vanesca,” Scarlet growls, remembering. She scowls. “Bitch stole my coin purse.”
“Seriously?” Jake laughs triumphantly. “You never told me that.”
“Yeah, she split during the middle of the storm. Sometime after I passed out.” She makes a fist, cracking her knuckles.
“Well, you certainly deserved that. I still can’t believe you literally stabbed me so that you could sleep with that woman.”
Elaine has just walked up to join them. Now the color drains from the young cleric’s face, all except the reddening glow of her cheeks. Her mouth hangs open.
“Uh-oh, virgin alert,” says Scarlet, smirking. She slaps a high-five with a grinning Jake, and walks off, leaving the blushing cleric scowling after her retreating form.
“Oh, come on, Elaine,” says Jake, nudging her gently. “It was just a joke. I mean, also the truth. But a joke, too. We’re only teasing.”
Biting her lower lip, Elaine huffs, and stalks off in the opposite direction.
Hamfrd places a big hand good-naturedly on Jake’s shoulder, rumbles a chuckle.
“What’s up her butt?” the swordarm grumbles, watching the cleric go.
“Nothing,” replies Mathos, grinning. He elbows Jake in the ribs theatrically. “That’s the joke, right?”
Jake stares at mage, shakes his head. “No, Mathos. That’s not . . . do you even . . . you know what, nevermind.” He nods his head towards the road. “Come on, it’s time to go.”
* * *
Gateway is a sprawling city at the base of the Golden Hills.
From the crest of one of the easternmost of those dwindling rises, the Companions look out at the evening shadows and see the land flattening, and Gateway spread out on the plain below, stretching towards the horizon. Behind them, the orange glare of the sun lingers just above the taller ridges, pokes through the windblown leaves of the trees. Soon it will drop from sight; but for now, daylight remains.
“We can save ourselves time,” Jake says, “if we meet with this merchant, Madeline Le Campe, tonight. That way we can head out to the Trollbriar first thing tomorrow morning with as much of the light of day as possible.”
“You mean we can sleep in longer,” says Scarlet.
“I mean we can get an early start.”
The Companions begin to march down the final gentle slope towards the city below.
Two major roads cross like a giant plus sign in the middle of Gateway, and where they do, traffic flows steadily around a great central round-about known as the Hub. The crossing of the two roads serves to divide Gateway neatly into four relatively even quadrants.
The road that runs west and east — on which the Companions now enter Gateway — is known as the King’s Road. It runs from Farport in the west along the length of the cape through Longview and the Golden Hills, cuts through Gateway, and continues on far to the east across the center of the vast continent. It passes through many more towns and cities on its way to the mighty ancient metropolis of Cormar from whence the King for whom the road is named still rules, although nowadays, the monarchy has little influence on places so far away as Gateway and Farport.
The North-South road, most commonly called the Continental Road for it travels the length of the continent, runs hundreds of miles in both directions, all the way to the distant lands of the Northern Tribes where Hamfrd was raised in the north, and to the splintered, broken realms of the south, the Sundered Lands. The stretch of road north of Gateway is sometimes referred to as the Coastway, as it runs right along the coast of the Vast Ocean for many miles.
Where these two roads meet in the center of Gateway is the Hub, a vast open square except for at its center, where there sits, like a formidable island jutting from an otherwise flat sea of cobbled stone, a squat, menacing keep ringed by a stone and iron fence. A few trees grow hunched submissively like prisoners within the tiny enclosed yard, sparse and wan. A rounded tower at one end of the building reaches several stories into the sky and is topped by ramparts where a few tiny heads can be seen looking down into the Hub and out over the rest of the city. This is Gateway Keep, home to the Peacekeepers of Gateway.
According to the directions Sir Elton has provided, Madeline Le Campe resides in the southeast quadrant of the city, well beyond the central district of Gateway. They pass through the downtown area, which bustles with merchant caravans and street peddlers and thick evening crowds, and cut straight across the Hub, passing through the long shadow of Gateway Keep. Soon, they enter an area of wealthy residences, similar to the manses of Crown Heights back in Farport, but here spread farther apart from one another, with larger yards and more outbuildings and fancier gardens. They are outside the inner wall that serves as a protective ring for Gateway’s central district, but here stone walls enclose the individual properties. Several of the largest manors have manned guard houses beside formidable wrought iron front gates.
“Look at these places,” says Jake, whistling. “What does this Le Campe trade in anyway?”
“It isn’t horseshoes or piss buckets,” Hamfrd replies with a dark laugh, “that’s for sure.”
* * *
Madeline Le Campe’s manse turns out to be the grandest in the entire neighborhood. Whether that means it’s the fanciest in all of Gateway, they don’t know, but it must surely be in the running. It sits majestic and palatial, perched upon a small rise, so that it seems grander than the neighboring homes, as if looking down on them. Encircled by a wall of reddish brick ten feet tall, a wrought iron gate similar to those they’ve seen on many of the other properties provides the only break in the otherwise solid barrier. Here they encounter a guard nook, which is little more than a person-sized widening of the wall just beside the gate on the Le Campe property side.
The man who steps out is older, hair and mustache grey, face hard and lined with age, though he appears more than capable. Most probably a retired soldier or Peacekeeper. He speaks to them through the bars of the gate.
“Business?” He eyes the group, looking the five adventurers up and down. No doubt sizing them up, pegging each for who and what they are. The swordarm, the barbarian, the badass, the mage, the cleric. If he frowns at Jake’s grin and at Hamfrd’s size and obvious strength, his scowl turns wary at the sight of Scarlet’s fierce countenance. He reserves a look of distaste for both Mathos and Elaine.
“We’re the Companions of Highstar,” Jake announces. “From Gulfside in Farport. And our business is with Madeline Le Campe.”
“Ah.” The veteran guard nods, continues sizing them up, perhaps adjusting his initial gut feelings based on whatever he may have heard of the Companions from his employer or elsewhere. He glances again at Elaine. “I believe Lady Le Campe was expecting your arrival in the morning. I shall see if she is available to meet with you now.”
He returns to the nook and speaks with someone inside. Apparently the space is larger than it seems, although it must be a tight fit for two. This second person steps outside. It is a boy, perhaps just into his teens, and clearly a page whose job is to transfer messages quickly between gate and house. He nods with the information he’s been given, and then rushes off towards the house.
The grey-haired guard stands nearby.
“Nice place,” Jake says to the man during the interim. The guard pays him absolutely no interest and looks in his direction only once, and then only to disparage the swordarm with a condescending side eyeroll. “Yep, pretty nice,” Jake continues, oblivious. “Say, what’s a place like this run? Just, you know, approximately. A tad curious, that’s all.” He nods back to the other Companions, who are in various stages of looking awkward and out place in the extremely wealthy neighborhood. “We do pretty well as adventurers.” Jake looks around, nodding as if appraising the surrounding environs. “Seems like a quiet street. Probably could start a family here, raise a couple kids. How are the tutors in this area, good? Home school obviously, right? Right.” He forces a laugh, grins. “I mean, why wouldn’t you if you have the means? Anyways, it seems like the, uh” — Jake lowers his voice conspiratorially — “the riffraff stay well away back in town.” He jerks his head vaguely towards the main portion of Gateway. “Which is nice.”
By this time, the page has returned and now whispers into the guard’s ear. The grizzled man nods, and comes forward to open the gate. To Jake, he says evenly, “Generally, yes. The riffraff do stay away. And yes, it is nice.”
Jake narrows his eyes, trying to decide if he’s being insulted.
The guard, meanwhile, swings the gate wide and bids the Companions advance forward to the main house. Stone steps wind up the grassy hillside leading to the entrance of the manse. Behind them, as they begin to ascend, comes the clang and crash of the gate being closed again.
“Wow,” says Elaine, following close at Jake’s shoulder. “What was all that? Starting a family? Tutors? You really don’t like silences, huh?”
Jake heaves a sigh. “Ugh. No. I can’t stand them. I just start talking. There’s nothing worse than being forced to wait around in silence with untalkative grumps like that.”
“Yeah, nothing except listening to you fill the silence with gibberish,” says Scarlet, scowling.
“Hey, it doesn’t have to be me talking all the time. Everyone else is perfectly free to say whatever is on their mind.”
“Alright. You’re a dunce,” she says.
“Everyone except Scarlet,” Jake amends.
“Oh, what’s this in my hand?” she asks flatly. “Oh, look, it’s my knife.”
“Ha, ha,” says Jake, without turning around. “Very funny.” Aside to Hamfrd at his other shoulder, he whispers, “Don’t let her stab me in the back.”
“I heard that,” Scarlet growls.
The big man chuckles.
Behind them, the grey-haired guard watches the Companions make their way up the winding stone path. He frowns, eyes narrowed. Casually taps the fingers of one hand on the hilt of the sword strapped at his hip.