Into the Trollbriar
Elaine is the first to wake.
The common area has been cleaned of used glasses and empty bottles. A cart bearing numerous breakfast dishes is waiting for them, along with carafes of fresh fruit juice and steaming coffee, and an assortment of pastries. Elaine nibbles on some sort of sweet breakfast cake while she waits for water to boil for her tea. Hamfrd rises next, looking, as usual, no worse for wear despite the night of heavy drinking. He takes a seat at the dining table, digs in ravenously to a plate he’s piled high with potatoes and eggs and gravy and sausage and bread and fruit. Jake stumbles out from his room, blinks and rubs his eyes, and then settles in with a grin on his face to fill his belly with a heaping plate of his own. He grimaces while chugging a cup of tart juice and then switches to the coffee. Scarlet appears, dark bags under her eyes, which add an ominous effect to the scowl on her face. She knocks Jake’s hand off the coffee carafe and pours a tall cup of her own, and then grabs a literal handful of sausage and wanders across the room and plops down onto one of the cushioned sofas.
“Where’s Mathos?” asks Elaine after a while, breaking the silence.
“I haven’t seen him like that in a long time,” says Jake, shaking his head. He takes a bite of sausage, chews. “He was pretty excited by our host’s drink selection. Gods, how many different liquors did he sample last night?”
Elaine frowns at Jake’s casual curse, but says nothing. The swordarm notices her look, but doesn’t catch its meaning. “He may need the healing of a cleric,” he tells her.
“The Allway is not a hangover cure, Jake.”
When Mathos finally does emerge, the others are shocked to discover the mage looking bright and chipper. He hums as he fills a plate with food, and hums as he joins Jake and Hamfrd at the table. Hums as he sets his plate down, and then notices everyone watching him.
“What are you all staring at?”
“A dead man,” Scarlet grumbles, “if the humming doesn’t stop.”
“You look good, Mathos,” says Elaine.
“A little too good,” Jake says, eyeing the mage. “Did you magic yourself sober somehow?”
“Oh no,” says the mage, “no magic. Just good old fashioned vomiting my guts out.” Under Jake’s continued doubtful glare, the mage chuckles. “Okay, there may have a been a concoction I whipped up once I was done emptying my stomach into the chamberpot.” He pats his red robes, indicating the many varied ingredients and magical components stashed away in his numerous interior pockets. “Had to make do with what I had on me. It was mostly an experiment. A successful one, happily.”
“Well,” Elaine says, “I happen to know a safer way that involves no hangovers, no experimental concoctions, and no being sick.”
“Yeah, I bet your way also has no drinking,” growls Scarlet.
The cleric turns her head. “Is that really so horrible?”
“Ugh.” The fierce woman shakes her head and leans back into the cushions. “You mean that sincerely.”
Footsteps approach from the corridor that leads back to the main section of the manse. A moment later, Leone, the bald fellow appears, knocking on a heavy door that’s been propped open. “Lady Le Campe sends her regards. She wishes to know when you plan to set off for the Trollbriar?”
Jake looks around at the faces of the others. Scarlet, for all her morning groaning, is sharp and ready at a moment’s notice. Just a few minutes then for those who wish to finish eating breakfast; they can be on their way shortly. He tells the manservant this.
Leone accepts his answer, bows slightly. “Then Lady Le Campe shall see you off shortly from the front gate.”
* * *
“Jerrold will be accompanying you,” Madeline Le Campe tells Jake.
They have assembled near the iron gate at the entrance to her property.
Jerrold turns out to be the grizzled guard who let them in the previous night. The gray-haired man looks fresh and ready, his advanced age seeming in the morning light to be much more of an asset — his rigid face is hard with experience and a calm readiness to kill. One gloved hand casually and naturally caresses the hilt of the longsword strapped at his side.
He studies the Companions, his eyes cool and emotionless.
“We don’t normally travel with others,” the swordarm tells Madeline Le Campe.
“Well, I must insist in this case,” she replies. “Jerrold will be of assistance, I assure you. Not only can he fight, he knows the intended route and will take you along the track that my shipment was meant to come in on through the Trollbriar.”
“You could draw a map.”
“This is really the best way. I insist. You won’t even know he’s there most of the time. He can be very quiet.”
“I noticed that yesterday.”
“Think of him as my surrogate since I can’t be along with you personally. My eyes and ears.”
“Eyes and ears,” says Jake, glancing over at the hard man. “You haven’t much else in common.” This earns a genuine smile from Madeline Le Campe, which is gone by the time he turns back to her. “You don’t trust us,” the swordarm says.
“I trust you well enough to pay you, adventurer. I trust you’ll do the simple job I’ve employed you to do. But Jerrold will be there to act on my behalf, you see. Make decisions concerning my business interests in this matter. Based on what you do or do not find out there in the Trollbriar, Jerrold will explain what is expected of you.”
“So why hire us at all? Why not send your own men in? Surely you have more like him.”
An amused twinkle plays briefly in Madeline Le Campe’s eyes. “There are few like him,” she tells Jake. “And I have fewer men-at-arms than you seem to think, and I prefer them here protecting my home and my interests. I’m a businesswoman after all, not the general of an army or a ruler. And as a businesswoman, when I need something done, I hire the right people for the job. I don’t keep carpenters or masons permanently on my books. I hire them as my needs dictate. Why should it be any different with those of your skillset? I have a dangerous quest at hand, and you’re an adventuring guild.”
“Very well,” Jake says with another dubious look towards the Jerrold.
The swordarm walks past the man, rejoins the other Companions.
“Nothing has changed,” he tells them. “We go to the Trollbriar and find these wagons. Everyone, just keep your eyes open.”
Standing at Jerrold’s side, Madeline Le Campe places a hand on the man’s muscled arm, leans close. “Use your best judgment with the others. They may prove mercenary enough to handle the truth. Perhaps they shall even be useful to us again in the future.”
Jerrold grunts, his eyes trained on the group of so-called adventurers gathered several paces distant. True heroes are few and far between, he thinks. Money talks. And it speaks to this group. Mercenaries, that’s all they are. But no more trustworthy because of that fact. And perhaps less so, regardless of what his employer believes.
“But the cleric seems a devout young woman,” Lady Le Campe continues. “Too devout, I fear. She’ll be trouble. If it comes to it, you shall have to kill her.” Her thin fingers tighten around Jerrold’s arm. “Make it seem an accident. Or else you’ll have to kill them all.”
“I understand,” he says, gloved fingers tapping casually on the hilt of his weapon.
* * *
Madeline Le Campe provides horses for the group. Jerrold and the five Companions ride south and west through the wealthy residential district, past extravagant walled homes, to the outskirts of the city. They soon leave the cobbled streets of Gateway behind entirely.
The road they follow is one of packed earth with narrow ditches cut on either side for drainage. The sun blazes behind them, a searing furnace behind the haze that settles over the region, trapping the day’s heat on the ground. The temperature rises. Away to the north, the green hills of the cape appear ghost-like on the horizon, fading in and out of sight among the haze. Tall grass lines the road, standing silent and still with no wind to move it. Farms dot the landscape, few and far between as the group continues on, fields of crops stretching away over the gentle rolling hills.
“Make no mistake,” says Jake, wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of one hand. “It is still summer.”
Mathos, riding beside him, makes no reply. His stomach on the other hand, growls loud enough for Elaine, riding several horselengths behind the pair, to hear.
The swordarm glances over. “Everything alright?”
“Never better,” the mage replies, forcing a weak smile.
Eventually the group, led by Jerrold, turn off the road and cut diagonally across a field of half-dead grass and leafy weeds and hard earth. A few buildings are visible in the distance, likely a farmhouse and associated structures. They’ve not seen another person for some time. Ahead of them now, a copse of trees, and then another, and a distant third, lead them towards a treeline they can see stretching out along the horizon in both directions.
* * *
“We’ll lead the horses on foot from here,” says Jerrold, having called the group to a stop at the edge of the woods. He dismounts. “Rest. Five minutes.”
The grey-haired man guides his horse ahead to the edge of a trickling creek that is only a fingerlength deep and narrow enough to stand with one foot on either side.
The transition from open field to forest is sudden, with the land sloping downward slightly to the edge of the woods, and the creek sitting just on the boundary between the two. Thick undergrowth covers the floor of the forest ahead, crowding around the trees and in some cases wrapping around and climbing up the trunks.
“It’s so green,” says Elaine, peering into the shade within the woods that is created by the thick canopy overhead. She looks back over her shoulder at the meager grass and weeds in the field behind them, much of it turning brown and close to death in the dry, cracked earth.
“Rumor is,” says Jake, “a powerful wizard once lived somewhere in there.” He motions towards the thick green growth of the Trollbriar with a nod of his head. “It was a spell worked by that wizard which changed the Trollbriar from the normal forest it was then to what is now. And what you see here, this is nothing. Deeper in, the woods become a truly tangled mess. The growth gets so thick, it’s near on impassable in places. The earth becomes a soupy, stinking bog.”
A look of distaste crosses the young cleric’s face.
Jerrold, standing nearby, has been listening to the swordarm. Now the grizzled man snorts. “What a load of horse’s dung. Rumor is all that wizard talk is. Might as well say that the Allway’s got our best interests at heart. There’s no evidence to support that tale neither.” His mouth curls up into a false half-smile. A scar splits his lower lip. He nods to Elaine. “No offense.”
“How am I not supposed to take offense at that?” she asks, glancing around at her companions as she reaches up to feel the medallion that rests against her skin, beneath her robes.
“Spare me your wounded feelings, cleric,” says Jerrold. “You’re far too biased to consider such a thing critically.”
“You sound more than a bit biased yourself,” says Jake, moving to stand in front of Elaine. “Did somebody hurt you when you were young, Jerrold? Do you want to talk about it?”
The gray-haired man chuckles mirthlessly. “You might have Lady Le Campe believing you’re something you’re not, swordarm, but I can see right through your little guild.”
“Oh yeah? And what exactly is it that you think that we aren’t?” demands Jake. He then runs through his sentence a second time in his head, and nods when he’s certain it’s correct.
“Right,” Jerrold announces, holding Jake’s eye. “That’s five minutes. Let’s move.” His scarred mouth curls up again, mockingly. He turns and leads his horse ahead into the undergrowth, stepping around a section that is so dense with tangled vines and bushes it seems almost like a natural wall.
“That’s what I thought,” mutters Jake to the man’s back.
Elaine puts a hand on the swordarm’s shoulder.
Hamfrd leads his horse past, following Jerrold into the forest ahead. Scarlet follows after the big man, twirling a knife casually in one hand and holding the reins of her mount with the other. Her face is twisted into a scowl as she picks her way in among the trees.
Jake and Elaine go next, leading their horses around the edge of the thick barrier of tangled growth. Mathos brings up the rear.
“This looks like somebody put it together purposefully,” says Jake, studying the obstruction of vines. “Look, these bamboo shoots are tied in here. No way that happened naturally.” He marvels at the design. “This is a wall.”
“A gate would be more accurate,” says Jerrold. He points, illustrating where the entire tangle of vines and branches can be slid aside, creating an opening at the treeline. Looking around, Jake can see that a road has been cleared, leading deeper into the dense woods. It’s narrow — tight for even a single wagon probably — and it’s cleverly hidden by weaving back and forth through the trees, never staying straight for a long enough stretch to draw attention to itself.
“You’ve cleared a road right in,” Jake marvels.
Jerrold’s only reply is a smug grin.
“How often is Le Campe moving goods through the Trollbriar?” Jake wonders aloud, but no answer is forthcoming.
The grizzled man is moving again, leading the group deeper into the forest. They follow the cleared winding path as it reveals itself around sharp bends and hidden turns, the landscape and the abundant plant life conspiring to all but conceal its passage.
Mathos walks just behind Jake and Elaine. “The stories are true, you know,” he says. “Even if the wizard’s tower has never been found. It’s not for lack of trying either. Many have searched.” His stomach gurgles loud enough that his horse whinnies nervously.
Jake and Elaine share a look.
“It’s really quite a fascinating tale,” the mage continues.
“Tell me,” says the young cleric. Beside her, Jake shakes his head in warning, makes a cutting motion with his hand, but she ignores him. “I would like to hear the story.”
* * *
Several minutes into the mage’s tale, Elaine is beginning to regret making the request after all. Mathos’s story, which started appropriately enough with the rumored wizard and his fabled tower at its center, has gradually veered further and further away from that initial point.
“–and that’s when Patton, he’s another one of my cousins on the Arthollos side, decided that enough was enough and told that tax collector where he could stick his twelve missing gold coins. He then worked a spell that transformed the official writ the tax collector carried into a picture of the man bent over with his head right up his own behind. Well, needless to say, that tax collector was not happy.” Mathos chuckles, remembering. “Of course, the truly funny part was, later on the very same day that Patton sent the tax collector packing empty-handed and fuming, he found the pouch with the dozen coins buried underneath some scrolls in one of the drawers of his desk. Turns out he had forgotten to pay the tax after all!”
Mathos chuckles and shakes his head with amusement, as though he’s reached the punchline of a particularly good joke. Elaine and Jake share another look. Scarlet, who has slipped to the rear of the group, casts a dark frown forward from her position several horselengths behind. Mathos pauses to take a breath and let out a long sigh — his stomach rumbles noisily during the relative silence — and then he chuckles a little more.
Elaine takes advantage of the short break to jump in and attempt to steer the tale back onto track. “So, Mathos, that wizard, Randlestarius, you said it was his spell that changed this whole area into what it is now?”
According to Mathos, the area now called the Trollbriar was transformed instantly into a tangled, overgrown forest by the wizard’s magic. An entire city, Stolhme, nestled at the edge of the forest and on the far eastern shore of the Sunreach Gulf, was completely lost.
Lost? she had asked. Lost where?
Swallowed. By the Trollbriar. The location where the city is said to have once existed is now permanently flooded — the very worst of the boggy, tangled forest. Of course, the trolls that give this area its name, they moved in later. After the land was forsaken by men. If Stolhme is still there, Mathos had remarked, it’s buried beneath the muck and the wild growth, and is infested with the foul creatures. The same with Randlestarius and his tower, which is supposed to have stood somewhere south and east of the city. Neither the wizard nor his tower were ever seen again.
Because they never existed, Jerrold had interjected then. The grizzled man, walking his horse a short distance ahead, had been listening to the conversation, frowning.
“Mathos?” Elaine glances over at the mage, who has yet to resume speaking.
Presently his stomach groans and growls ominously.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“Just fine,” he replies tightly, forcing a grin. “Why do you ask?”
She opens her mouth to reply, but before she can, his stomach makes another twisting, wrenching noise. This one has a tangible effect on the mage, who doubles over, hugging his mid-section.
“Mathos!” Elaine rushes to his side, puts a hand on the cleric’s back.
“I’m fine,” he manages to gasp. “Be right back.” And before anyone can respond, the mage turns and dashes away into the thick growth, rustling through the tangled bushes, the sounds of his passage and his groans of discomfort receding until he’s out of earshot.
Elaine looks at Jake. “Should I–”
“Absolutely not.” Nearby, Scarlet snickers and Hamfrd barks a sharp laugh. “I mean, it’s up to you,” Jake tells her. “But I don’t think it’s a cleric that he needs.”
Elaine fingers the medallion of the Allway resting against her chest, and watches with concern the area of thick undergrowth into which Mathos has disappeared.
* * *
The mage returns a few minutes later, picking his way meekly towards the group through the thick foliage.
“Everything alright?” calls Jake, grinning.
“Hmm?” Mathos appears distracted. “Yes,” he says, nodding eventually. “It seems to have stabilized.”
“Stabilized?” Jake glances at the other Companions. “That seems like an odd word to use.”
Mathos approaches, but remains on the far side of his horse and comes no closer.
“Are you sure you’re okay, Mathos?” asks Elaine with genuine concern. She frowns at Jake, Scarlet, and Hamfrd, who are snickering and giggling.
“Oh yes, quite fine,” the mage says, trying to assure Elaine. “I think it’s all over now.”
“What’s all over?”
Jake makes a loud raspberry noise, causing Hamfrd to rumble with laughter. Scarlet snorts once with derision and smirks.
“Seriously?” Elaine shoots them all a dark look.
“I’m fine,” Mathos tells her. “Really. Let’s just–” He pauses to narrow his eyes while Jake and Hamfrd continue to laugh for a time, slowly bring themselves under control and attempt to stop laughing, and then burst out laughing once again.
Mathos steps forward in front of the group.
“You know what? Fine. Laugh it up. Ha, ha.” He turns around. “Get it out of your system. Because this is for real.”
The sight of Mathos facing away quiets the group instantly.
A large bumps pushes out the back of his robes from his waist all the way down to the ground where they can just catch a glimpse of–
“Mathos,” says Jake, all mirth gone from his voice. “Is that a–”
“A tail? Yes, Jake. It’s a tail. I have a tail now. Apparently I was still more drunk than I thought when I was putting that hangover antidote together.”
The fleshy, pointy end of the new appendage reaches below the hem of the mage’s robe, just touches the ground.
“Still,” says the mage, shrugging. “Not a total failure. It did cure my hangover.”
“Mathos.” Elaine is staring in disbelief at the mage’s backside. “You have a . . . a tail.”
“Yeah, there is that.” He frowns, puts a hand to his chin in thought. “I’m pretty sure the culprit is the powder of lizard essence. Not sure what I’d replace it with. To still cure the hangover, I mean. Without creating, you know. The tail.”
“Is it . . .” The young cleric swallows and tries again. “Is it permanent?”
“I don’t know,” says Mathos cheerfully. “But it’s pretty amazing, right? You should feel all the really strange tactile input it’s sending my brain. Imagine having a whole new limb all of sudden, all that alien feeling in your mind all at once. My brain is sort of tingling. It seems really sensitive too. Or maybe this is normal. This is my first time having a tail. Do you want to see the whole thing?” He bends and eagerly begins to lift the bottom of his robes.
He’s exposed his skinny legs up to his knees when all the other Companions call out in unison, “No!”
Mathos pauses, robe in hand, and then shrugs. He lets the bottom of the robe fall back over his newest appendage, back down to its normal position at about mid-shin.
Jerrold opens his mouth as if to speak, then shakes his head instead, disgusted. Spits noisily on the carpet of weeds and tangled bushes at the edge of the cleared path. “This way,” he mutters. His horse snorts and whinnies as he leads it forward along the narrow path.
Hamfrd, Scarlet, and then Mathos followed after him, leading their own increasingly nervous mounts along.
“I’d say that fellow, Jerrold, took this incident relatively well,” says Jake.
“You all have,” says Elaine, still feeling somewhat stunned herself.
Jake leans towards the young cleric and keeps his voice low. “This isn’t the first time that Mathos has done something like this, you know.”
“Somehow, I sort of figured as much,” she replies.
“This one time–”
“Hey!” Jerrold is up ahead, already around the next bend in the path and mostly obscured behind a curtain of trees. “Let’s move it, people.”
Jake turns his body so that he is facing Elaine and away from the gray-haired man.
Let’s move it, people, he mouths to the young cleric, twisting his face sarcastically. She offers a faint smile.
They hurry with their mounts after the others.
“But seriously,” says Jake, still talking quietly. “This one time . . .”
* * *
INSIDE THE KITCHEN OF HIGHSTAR HOUSE, A YEAR EARLIER
“Jake!” Mathos rushes into the room. He hurries to the table where the swordarm sits eating a bowl of hot oatmeal.
“Jake,” he says again, holding up his right hand. “Look. Jake.”
“Look,” the mage says again.
Sighing heavily, Jake turns his head. “What the–” The swordarm startles back, falls out of his chair to the floor. His spoon clatters to the ground nearby.
Sunk into the center of Mathos’s palm, peering down at Jake, is a very human, very misplaced eye. It stares at the swordarm, unblinking. The iris is a warm brown that matches the mage’s other, properly placed eyes. Mathos angles his hand back towards himself so that he is looking at the eye there, and presumably it is looking back.
“By the Gods,” Jake mutters, picking himself up off the floor, wiping at the seat of his pants. “Mathos–”
“This is pretty amazing, huh, Jake?” The mage has turned his hand outwards again and is waving it back and forth in the air. He winces and shakes his head, as if to clear away a headache. “This is actually really nauseating,” he reports, continuing to wave the hand with the eye.
“Then why are you doing it?” asks Jake. “And why do you have an eye on your hand? Do I even want to know?”
Mathos closes and opens his hand experimentally, covering and uncovering the eye. It seems to have no eyelid like an eye that is where an eye belongs would have.
Now Mathos holds his hand up, lets the eye stare around the kitchen. Concentrates and just by thinking, he moves the eye so that is looking first to the left and then to the right.
“That thing is hideous,” says Jake. “Is it . . . please say it’s not permanent.”
“No, no,” says Mathos. “Far from it. In about an hour or so, according to my calculations, it’s going to go dry and shrivel up and fall right off, sort of like a scab I guess you could say.”
“Gods,” mutters Jake. “Is that going to hurt?”
“Presumably only if I scratch at it.”
“Well, I guess, don’t do that,” Jake suggests.
Mathos closes the hand with the eye into a gentle fist.
“Problem?” asks Jake.
“It’s really rather annoying, more than practical,” says Mathos.
“What were you expecting?”
“It’s mostly useless,” the mage continues, “unless I hold my hand up like this.” He demonstrates, placing his open hand beside his head. “If I rest my hand in a more normal position, at my side or in my lap, inevitably the eye ends up upside down or looking off to the side. And it’s input mixed with my other two eyes is dizzying to say the least.” His brings his other hand — the hand with no eye — up to his chin and rubs thoughtfully. “Unless I close my eyes. Then it’s not so bad. Although trading two eyes for one seems counter-productive, even if the single eye is more mobile for not being attached to my face.”
“So, failed experiment?”
“Technically a success,” says Mathos, brightening. “I mean, I have an eye on my hand. That was the goal of the experiment. Anybody using this?” He grabs one of the unused mugs resting on the table with his eyeless hand and then reaches for the carafe of water with the other. “So not a failure. It’s just not what I–ow!”
Mathos gingerly covers his eye-hand, with his non-eye-hand.
“I just poked my new eye with the water jug.”
* * *
THE TROLLBRIAR, THE PRESENT
“Ah, yes,” says Mathos, leaning into the conversation between Jake and Elaine. “The eye.” He chuckles. “I remember that day fondly. And Jake, you’ll be pleased to know that newer versions of the eye now have an eyelid and lashes to protect it, and even tearducts, which of course, help to flush out any particulates and debris that might get in there.”
“Newer versions?” Jake snaps his head around to stare at the mage. “You mean you’ve done that again?”
“Oh yes,” says Mathos. “Many times. Why? Do you want one? Because I could do that. In fact, I’d like to try it out on some–” The mage stops talking, looks around suddenly, confused.
Jerrold is up ahead, longsword out, and gesturing with his free hand.
“We’re coming!” Jake calls. He lowers his voice and turns to Mathos and Elaine. “What is this guy’s deal? Impatient much?”
The three Companions turn and look.
“Trolls!” Jerrold’s shouted warning informs them, just as their eyes are telling them the same thing.
The lumbering creatures, like twisted men all covered in wild brown hair and lacking any recognizable emotion that might mark them as human, come plodding from out of the thick growth along the path. They stand even taller than Hamfrd.
Wood trolls. Three of them.
The horses grow frantic at the creatures approach, rearing up and snorting with terror.
“Get the horses behind you,” Jake shouts, trying to drag his horse out of the way. Elaine and Mathos are both struggling with their own mounts. Jake reaches for Elaine’s horse, helps the cleric urge the frightened animal forward. “Get them behind you.”
Hamfrd’s familiar warcry pierces the overgrown forest. A similar cry that must belong to Jerrold echoes it.
But it’s Scarlet who appears first, racing from around the bend ahead, a blur of black. She slips between the terrorized horses and streaks straight towards the three trolls, knives in hand.
Jake pulls his own weapon free of its scabbard, hefts the sword overhead and rushes after her. The charging Hamfrd arrives right then and follows at Jake’s shoulder, brandishing his mighty mace.
One of the trolls roars in pain and fury, collapses to the ground. Its legs have been cut out from under it, hamstringed by the flashing blades of the fierce woman. She spins and moves to finish the creature off.
Jake and Hamfrd rush forward to meet the remaining two, Jerrold a step behind.