A Nasty Business
Fighting rages around the young cleric.
Rather than let the horses dash away in a panicked flight, Elaine remains at the side of her mount and those of Jake and Mathos. With soft words and a gentle touch, she urges calm in the frightened animals.
Mathos is nearby, fingers poised in the air in front of him, ready to work any of the many potentially useful spells that he might consider casting. Except the others seem to have the situation well in hand. Even as he watches, the last of the three trolls is silenced. Mathos drops his arms to his side, somewhat disappointed by the speed of the battle.
Elaine breathes a sigh of relief, resting her head against the neck of one of the trembling horses, soothing the animal with her voice and her touch.
“You know,” says Mathos, wonder in his voice, “I actually felt those trolls approaching. Their heavy footsteps coming towards us.”
“How?” asks Elaine.
He gestures to his backside with a thumb. “With this. My new tail, coming in handy after all. Wait until Jake hears this! Nothing will ever sneak up on–”
Mathos cries out.
A heavy weight thumps to the ground beside the horse Elaine is leaning on. From above.
The panicked animal tries to rear up onto its hind legs, but ends up twisting and falling to the side. Elaine loses her balance and tumbles to the ground with it, crying out as she does. More thumps land around her as other heavy somethings drop to the ground.
More trolls, although these seem somehow different — leaner and longer-limbed than the previous three, with thick fur that is more green than brown. They shriek and snarl and come for her. Elaine scrambles backwards on the ground, off the road and through the tangled weeds and in amongst prickly bushes that grab and tear at her robes.
One of the creatures comes straight for her.
Someone — she thinks Hamfrd — lets out a fierce roar nearby. Tall plants block her view.
The troll stands over her, snarling, its hairy face almost human, but all the more hideous for the wrongness of the features. The mouth is a mess of sharp, broken teeth set in blackened gums.
The cleric fumbles in her robes for the medallion of the Allway. Winces as thorns from a groping plant tear at her hands.
The troll steps forward, seemingly unbothered by the pricker vines clinging to its tangled fur, which have been ripped from the ground by the creature’s passage. It reaches out with gnarled fingers towards her.
A blade bursts through the front of the creature’s chest, crunching through bone, and the creature’s snarl turns to a wet gurgle. Elaine flinches as wet specks of blood land on her cheek.
The sounds of more fighting continue nearby, the battlecries of her allies and the shrieking of the trolls.
The impaled creature in front of her is maneuvered to the side by the owner of the blade, and then shaken free from the weapon so that blood gushes out of the wound and the lifeless body slips down among the bushes.
Jerrold stands over her, the point of his bloodied sword lingering close to her face. His smile seems laced with menace and disgust for the fallen troll.
She stares up at him, her medallion clutched in a fist.
He extends his free arm.
Elaine takes the offered hand and grunts as he pulls her to her feet. “I’m okay,” she says, although he hasn’t asked.
* * *
“There will be more of them,” Jerrold tells the Companions, once all the trolls lie still on the forest floor. “We want to be gone before that. They’ll be distracted by these bodies for a time.”
“Distracted?” asks Elaine. Nobody replies, but the grim faces of the others suggest the gruesome answer. She recalls the monstrous tooth-filled mouth of the one that threatened her. The cleric’s fingers reach for and find the medallion on her chest.
Jerrold continues, “The deeper we go, the fiercer these bastards become. Expect to face more.” The grizzled man searches for weakness or fear in their eyes, looks especially towards Jake. The swordarm nods, ready and focused.
“I believe more are coming,” says Mathos. “Like right now.”
“Most likely,” Jerrold agrees.
“No, for sure,” the mage replies. “I felt that first group, although I didn’t know what I was feeling at the time. Of course, I missed those ones in the trees. That’s kind of cheating. But still, it’s really quite fascinating, this sensation. And I feel the same thing now, only moreso. There are more of them this time.”
“Feel? What do you mean you feel them?” demands Jerrold.
“With this.” Mathos turns and pats the tail that is pushing out against his robe in the back. “I think I felt their approach as vibrations on the ground. I feel it again now.”
Jerrold stares hard at the mage for a long moment before finally nodding. He starts back along the path that leads deeper into the Trollbriar.
* * *
“Where exactly does this road you’ve cleared go?” asks Jake. “Straight through to the far side of the ‘Briar?”
Jerrold and the Companions have put a couple hours of walking between themselves and the site of the troll attack. The group has slipped into watchful silence for the most part, with Mathos occasionally pausing to ‘listen’ to their surroundings by resting his sensitive new tail on the ground and feeling for vibrations that might give away trolls or any other creatures approaching on foot. Thick foliage limits their vision to the small area of the cleared road ahead and behind. Between the towering trees, countless varieties of smaller, thin-trunked trees and bushes, hanging vines, and wide-leafed ground plants grow so lush and thick that the forest feels like one incredible looming organism on either side. The treetops overhead form a canopy that obscures the sky and leaves the forest floor below drenched in humid shade. The ground is becoming softer under their feet.
“Can’t say exactly where,” Jerrold replies gruffly. “Trade secret. Already shown you the road and the entrance.” He looks back over his shoulder at the swordarm. “Probably have to kill you after this is all done.”
Jake narrows his eyes, and then glances at the other Companions for their reaction. Elaine, walking just beside him, meets his gaze with a troubled frown, and then flicks her eyes back down to the ground. The road has been cleared, but the way is still littered with exposed tree roots and half-buried rocks that threaten to catch the feet of the unwary. Hamfrd leads his mount several horselengths behind the swordarm and the cleric; a low growl sounds in the back of the big man’s throat. Mathos and Scarlet are farther behind, out of earshot of the conversation. Jake turns back to their guide.
“It’s a joke,” Jerrold says. His scarred lip is curled into a smirk. “Lighten up.”
“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t quit your gig with Le Campe if I were you,” Jake tells him.
“If Lady Le Campe”–he emphasizes the title that Jake has just omitted–“wanted you to know more, she’d have told you more.”
“Of course,” Jake mutters. “Information is the lifeblood of business, right?”
Jerrold snorts, either with actual mirth or derision — Jake can’t tell which. “That’s right,” the man agrees. “You got it.”
Jake shakes his head and leaves the conversation at that.
They walk for what must surely be most of the afternoon, but the canopy overhead hides the sky so thoroughly that only a constant grey gloom surrounds them. Jake can’t say for sure whether the sun is out or hidden behind clouds, nor even in which direction they are headed. It seems to him that the light of the sun settling lower in the sky is primarily up ahead of them, with darker sky behind — which would mean they are moving generally west on the twisting road — but the swordarm can’t be certain that the difference in daylight he perceives isn’t down to the relative thickness of the treetops that cover them like a shroud.
Staring overhead, Jake almost walks into Jerrold, who has stopped in front of him.
Just at the edge of the cleared path, lying half in amongst the lush vegetation, is the mangled skeletal remains of what was surely once a horse. The general shape is right, although the flesh and muscle and all the organs have been torn away and devoured by something or somethings with a ferocious appetite, leaving only a pile of gnawed bones.
A short distance farther ahead, broken and resting on its side, is one of the missing wagons. The smashed and splintered wood of the enclosed carriage lies in pieces across the path.
The shattered remnants of the second wagon are a few dozen horselengths beyond the first, its snapped and broken frame sticking out from among the foliage at the side of the road like jagged fractured bones.
The Companions pause behind Jerrold, peering at the ruined transports.
Scarlet is the last to join the stopped group. “Looks like we’ve found your wagons,” she says.
* * *
Jerrold turns and faces the Companions. “Wait here,” he tells them, holding up a hand. “I’ll assess the situation first.”
“What is there to assess?” asks Jake.
“The fate of the goods that these wagons carried.”
“It looks pretty obvious,” Jake tells him, but the gray-haired man is already approaching the destroyed wagons.
The Companions stand together, watching from a distance. Elaine glances down at the remains of the horse at the side of the road. She closes her eyes and grips the medallion that hangs around her neck.
“This is ridiculous,” growls Scarlet.
Elaine blinks her eyes open.
The other woman is watching Jerrold move from the wreck of the first wagon to the second, a look of distaste twisting her features.
“I’m done with this,” Scarlet announces. “I’m going to see what exactly we’re out here strolling around the Trollbriar for.”
“Scar, wait.” Jake puts out a hand to restrain her, but she walks through his half-hearted attempt. “Scarlet,” he calls after her.
Jerrold’s head snaps around. When he sees Scarlet approaching, he hurries back towards the group to intercept her before she reaches the first wagon. “You were given specific instructions by Lady Le Campe that you were to listen to me,” the man says, “and I’m telling you–”
“Out of the way,” Scarlet snarls. “I want to see what we’re out here fighting these filthy trolls for.”
“There’s nothing left,” Jerrold tells her.
“Then you won’t mind if I have a look.” She attempts to brush past the man, but he snakes out a hand, and his fingers wrap around her arm.
“Let go of me,” she growls, pulling away.
He tugs her back.
She spins out of his grasp and her knives are suddenly in her hands.
Jake watches, horrified. “Scar!”
Jerrold draws his sword and faces the fierce woman, who is poised to spring into an attack.
“Scarlet!” Jake rushes over, puts himself in between the pair, arms extended and seeking peace. Hamfrd hurries to join him. “Enough.”
Jerrold grins across at Scarlet. She stares back through narrowed eyes, jaw muscles tight.
“Out of my way, Jake,” she growls.
“No,” he says.
The other Companions gather closer around the tense standoff.
Elaine stands at Jake’s shoulder. “Scarlet,” she says, “you’re the one who was okay with this yesterday. You said to let the merchant keep her secrets.”
Scarlet turns her hard stare onto the cleric. “Yeah? Well, I’ve changed my mind. Come on, Jake,” she says, imploring the swordarm. “You’re not okay with this. I know you’re not. Let’s just go take a look at the reason we’re out here in this Gods-forsaken forest.”
Elaine winces at her curse.
Behind the young cleric, Hamfrd is cracking his knuckles.
“Just a quick look,” Scarlet says.
“Quite clearly nothing remains,” says Jerrold. But he lowers his weapon, indicating that he won’t prevent the Companions from approaching the ruined wagons. Turning to the swordarm, he says, “You’re making a mistake. Lady Le Campe will be disappointed.”
“She’ll live,” Scarlet growls. She deftly sheaths her knives, keeping a wary eye on Jerrold. Satisfied that he’s truly standing down, she turns and crosses the soft ground to the first of the smashed wagons. Lifts up broken boards and peers inside what used to be the closed carriage.
A moment later she is striding quickly back towards Jerrold and the others, face dark. With twin flourishes, her knives reappear in her hands. “I’m gonna kill that bitch,” she growls.
“Whoa, Scar.” Jake steps in front of her again, well aware that with the fierce woman’s sudden increased rage, the likelihood that he ends up on the receiving end of her blades has gone dramatically up. “What is it? What’s the matter?”
“That sick bastard knows what the matter is,” she snarls, gesturing with one of her blades.
Jake risks taking his eyes off of Scarlet for a glance over his shoulder. Jerrold appears calm, almost grinning at Scarlet’s fury. He has yet to draw his sword again, which is presently back in its scabbard.
“Hamfrd,” says Jake, nodding towards the wagon that Scarlet has just returned from. “Go tell me what’s going on, please.”
The big man jogs over to the broken carriage.
“I’ll tell you what’s going on, Jake,” spits Scarlet. “This prick is a slaver. We’re working for slavers.”
“Slavers?” He looks towards Hamfrd. “Ham?”
The big man is examining the interior of the ruined wagon. He stands straight and nods. “Aye. Chains. Manacles. I’d say they were definitely transporting people.”
“Slaves,” snarls Scarlet. “Gods damn it.”
“It could be . . .” Jake searches for an alternative. “I don’t know. Criminals?” He turns to Jerrold for confirmation.
“Workers, actually,” says their guide. “But also–”
“Workers?” Scarlet barks a laugh. “That’s a funny way of saying slaves.”
Mathos clears his throat. “Everyone? Excuse me, but–”
“This is just a simple misunderstanding,” says Jerrold. His gaze moves from Jake to Elaine. The young cleric’s face has sunk into a troubled frown. “Lady Le Campe is not a slaver. I assure you.”
“Then care to explain why your workers“–Scarlet mocks the word–“need to be kept chained up in the back of that wagon?”
“I’ll explain everything,” Jerrold tells Jake. “But not while this one is waving around those blades.”
“Hey!” Mathos shouts. “Everyone listen.”
The conversation stops. Angry faces turn towards the mage.
“Hi, yeah. I just want to say that there are several trolls coming this way right now. Or something just as big as trolls. I can’t be sure.” He gestures to the new appendage on his backside. “It’s a tail, not a scrying bowl after all. And I’m just getting used to it. Look, whatever they are, they’re very close now. And this is the Trollbriar after all, so my money is–”
The familiar shriek of a troll interrupts him.
The horses whinny with fright and begin to shuffle nervously. One of the animals rears up, startling the others.
Jake turns on the mage. “Why didn’t you say–”
“I’m saying now, Jake. I’m saying something now!”
A few dozen paces behind them, four or five of the hairy hulking figures break through the vegetation onto the cleared path. They turn towards the group, snarling.
The horses bolt.
Everyone begins shouting at once.
Scarlet pushes forward towards Jerrold, but Jake stays in front of her, holding her back. “Priorities, Scar.” He points. “Trolls. Our lives are in danger right now. In case you haven’t noticed.”
“Your life is in danger,” she snaps bitterly. She glares at the swordarm until he blinks and swallows nervously. Glancing over at the trolls with a look of disgust, she twirls one of her blades casually. Sighs heavily. “Fine.” She dashes to meet the approaching creatures.
Jake spares a quick look over his shoulder for Jerrold, and then draws his sword and rushes after Scarlet.
The gray-haired man watches them engage the trolls, his hand on the hilt of the sword at his waist. He takes a step back.
Hamfrd, still farther down the road near the wrecked wagons, lets loose a warcry and hefts his mace. Sprints forward.
Mathos calls out a warning to the big man: “Ham! Two there, behind you.”
Hamfrd pauses his charge to join Jake and Scarlet, and instead turns to meet this new threat. Two of the monstrous hairy creatures emerge from the undergrowth onto the road. They loom over even the tall Northerner.
Mathos steps forward speaking words of magic and points a finger at one of the two trolls. Lightning crackles forth, blasts the creature off its feet. It lands in a heap, the hair on its chest blackened and smoking.
Hamfrd knocks in the skull of the second troll with a single mighty swing of his mace. The big man roars again, the ecstasy of battle flowing through him. He moves to finish off the troll lying crumpled on the road, smoke still rising from its body. The smell of burnt fur hangs in the air.
* * *
Elaine holds her medallion tight, saying a pray of safety for the fleeing horses. Hopefully, the mounts will be smart and remain on the cleared road and only run far enough away to remain safe. But they must take care of themselves — now she must help the others.
A voice from just behind startles her.
“This way, cleric.” Jerrold roughly grabs Elaine’s arm and drags the hesitant woman along with him. “It’s not safe here.”
“But the others might need–”
“They’ll be fine,” Jerrold assures her. He leads her off the path and into the thick vegetation beside the road. Thorny vines and pricker bushes grab at their clothes, tearing and dragging along after them. His grip is painful.
“Where are you going?” Elaine demands.
“This way.” Jerrold plunges even deeper into the tangled forest growth, swinging his sword to clear away hanging vines. The ground squishes under their feet. “Here, perfect.” Up ahead, a massive fallen tree lies among the thick sea of green. Even on its side the wide trunk comes up to their waists.
“Over it,” he urges, pushing her forward. “Hurry. You’ll be safe.”
“Safe?” Elaine follows the man’s lead more from confusion than obedience. “I’m perfectly fine,” she assures him. Now she stops beside the fallen trunk, yanks her hand free. She looks around cautiously. There could be more trolls anywhere within the dense vegetation. Frowning, she rubs her wrist. “We should be helping the others.”
Jerrold watches her, eyes narrowed. “You’ll be safer here.”
“I need to go back,” says Elaine, making up her mind.
“No.” Jerrold smiles grimly, moving to block her way. “You don’t.”
The young cleric pauses, scrunches her brow, annoyed. “I don’t understand. I think we should–”
He strikes suddenly, smashing the hilt of his sword against the side of Elaine’s head.
The young cleric drops.
Groaning, she blinks away thick tendrils of darkness that tug at her, trying to pull her down into unconsciousness. She lifts a hand to her throbbing head, grimaces.
“Wha . . . ?”
She is lying on her back, looking up at the treetops. How did she get on the ground? And, oh, her head!
Jerrold appears above her, leans close, his face filling her vision and blotting out much of the meager light.
“Nothing personal,” he tells her, grinning. He reaches out.
Thick fingers encircle her throat. Squeeze tight.
* * *
A troll saves her life.
One of the nimble, long-limbed creatures drops from somewhere above. Lands close by. Elaine hears it snarling. Hears the man, Jerrold, curse, “Gods damn it!”
He shouldn’t say such things, she thinks, dazed.
His weight on top of her moves away. The pressure crushing her throat is gone, but her gasping breath is ragged. She tries to swallow.
Light returns slowly.
Her surroundings leak back into focus. Treetops overhead. Distant. She’s looking up at them, lying on her back, surrounded by thick vegetation.
The others! She needs to warn them. Jerrold tried to kill her!
Something heavy crashes down, lands close beside her. Another troll, she thinks.
Coughing, she prepares to sit up. To cry out. Her hand seeks the medallion around her neck.
Jerrold appears again, looming over her, blocking her view.
Not another troll, she realizes. The same one. Dead. He’s killed it.
And now he’s going to kill her.
As if reading her mind, his scarred lips curl into a crooked grin. He leans close, hands reaching for her.
“Jake! Scarlet!” She tries to call out, but her voice is a raspy whisper. “Help!”
His fingers close once again around her throat, squeezing tight.