Chapter Fifteen

That Which Was Lost . . .

 

The last of the trolls crumples to the ground, its final roar transformed into a ragged pained growl that gargles away into silence. The hairy creature becomes still.

Scarlet stands over the beast, looks down in distaste. “I know it’s the Trollbriar, but this is getting old quick.” She plucks her twin knives from the creature’s bulk, wipes them on some spongy vegetation at the edge of the road.

Jake stands nearby, his swordblade dripping with the thick blood of the fallen trolls. “Not too shabby,” he says, glancing around at the corpses of the mighty beasts. “We are pretty awesome.”

“To be fair,” says Mathos, joining the pair, “they do fight without weapons. Or magic. I imagine the result wouldn’t be so one-sided if we were to battle them on their terms.”

“Yeah?” Jake frowns at the mage. “Well, they attack in numbers. By surprise. And they’re freaking huge. And they literally eat people. And horses. And pretty much anything really. It’s not my fault they aren’t smart enough to use any weapons besides those savage claws, or you know, civilized enough to have blacksmith trolls that forge troll swords and axes and such.”

“Boy! Could you imagine!?” The mage’s eyes grow wide as he considers such a scenario. “Imagine if they organized to the point of a troll nation. Established a troll government. Formed a troll army with troll weapons forged by their blacksmiths. Imagine–”

“Imagine living the rest of your life without your tongue,” snaps Scarlet, holding one of her blades up in front of the mage. “Because you will be if you don’t shut up.”

“Easy, Scar.” Jake puts a hand out towards the woman.

She snorts like an annoyed bull, looks away disgusted. “Where is that asshole, Jerrold? I’m not done with him, either.”

“I don’t see him. Or Elaine.” Jake calls out to Hamfrd as the big man comes to join the group. “You okay, Ham?”

“Aye.” The Northerner strides forward, his heavy mace resting casually on his shoulder. The head of the mighty weapon is wet with troll blood.

“Jerrold!” Scarlet shouts the man’s name. “Where the hell are you?”

Jake puts his hands to his mouth. “Elaine!”

The forest is thick and impassive on either side. The only reply is the call of some animal far above in the treetops, and the chittering of countless insects.

“She’s probably gone after the horses,” Jake says.

Mathos scrunches his brow, as though listening; in fact, he has placed his tail firmly on the ground. “I’m pretty sure the horses are just around the next bend,” he tells Jake, indicating the road up ahead. “There’s something else . . .” He concentrates, tries to identify the other vibrations he’s picking up.

Jake, meanwhile, jogs ahead. Just beyond the two smashed wagons littering the road he skids to a stop. The group’s horses are gathered together up ahead, stepping nervously and glancing around in fear. A couple of the animals whinny and neigh, upset at the swordarm’s sudden appearance.

“She’s not here.” He turns. “Elaine!”

There’s no answer. The entire forest around them seems muted and watchful.

“There’s something else, Jake. In the forest, there.” He points to a spot where the vegetation appears disturbed. Branches and stalks bent and broken, pricker bushes stretched and ripped from the ground.

“It must be them,” says the swordarm. “Elaine! Jerrold!”

Mathos shrugs helplessly. “I can’t tell. The vibrations are too light for me to be certain. The trolls feel much different. I’m certain I’m not feeling trolls.”

“She would answer if she could,” says Jake. He looks at the others. “She’s in trouble. Come on.” He rushes forward, into the area of thick growth where Mathos has indicated. Scarlet and Hamfrd follow right behind the swordarm.

“I should point out,” says Mathos, hurrying after them, “that my tail doesn’t seem to pick up the ones that move through the trees. So, you know, look out above.” He plunges into the wake of bent and broken plants created by the others, keeping his eyes focused up on the looming trees and crisscrossing branches overhead. A thick pricker vine snags on his ankle, strong as a rope, and clings to his robe and tears at his boot. He struggles to kick it free, stumbles, and crashes to the ground through sharp leaves and branches that snap and poke and scratch the mage on his way down.

“Also, look out below,” Mathos mutters, grimacing. He points a finger at the offending pricker vine that has tripped him up. Watches in satisfaction as a magic flame blooms to life and burns away the annoying vegetation. “Yeah, that’s right,” he tells it. “Now who’s the boss?”

* * *

They find Elaine seated on the ground beside an unfamiliar figure who wears a fine leather armor covered by a cloak the same color as the dense green vegetation. The hood of the cloak obscures the figure’s identity. But it’s clearly not Jerrold. Lean and wiry, the stranger leans casually against a massive fallen tree trunk, a long bow in one hand. The fletching of numerous arrows rise above the figure’s right shoulder from the quiver on their back.

The stranger has one outstretched arm resting on Elaine’s shoulder, almost tenderly. When Jake and the others burst through the thick foliage and come upon the scene, the hand withdraws. The longbow is up an instant later, an arrow at the ready. “Get away from her!” Jake faces down the unknown archer, his fingers tightening on the grip of his longsword.

“Jake, wait!” Elaine raises a hand. She tries to rise to her feet, pushing herself up with her other hand. She struggles, grunting from the effort. The stranger glances over, lowers his bow and reaches out with one hand to steady the young cleric. She accepts his help and makes it to her feet.

“Who are you?” Jake demands of the archer. “Elaine, are you okay?”

“What the hell?” Scarlet arrives, pushes ahead of Jake, knives in hand. Takes in the sight of Elaine struggling to stand, the stranger helping her up. “Who the fuck is this?” When Elaine looks her way, she adds, “You alright?”

“Jerrold,” croaks Elaine. Her voice is ragged. “He tried to kill me.” She leans against the huge tree trunk.

Jake blinks, shocked. “What?”

She shows them the swelling mark on her head. “He struck me, and then he . . . he tried to choke me. He did choke me. Would have, except . . . This man saved my life.” She indicates the stranger with the bow standing beside her.

“Where is that fucker?” growls Scarlet.

Elaine points.

Hidden amongst ferns and tall weeds on the muddy ground alongside the fallen tree, one of the man’s boots can just be seen. It doesn’t move.

Scarlet stalks forward for a better view, knives ready. When she’s standing right up against the huge trunk, she peers down at the ground, brushing aside one of the full fern leaves. She visibly relaxes.

The man lies crumpled in the mud at the base of the fallen tree, bleeding from several arrows that still protrude from his body.

“Gods,” says Scarlet, “he turned Jerrold into a pincushion.” She doesn’t sound displeased.

The wounded man groans, tries to turn his head.

“Gods, he’s still alive.” She steps forward to finish him, knife in hand.

“Scarlet, stop!” Elaine tries to rush forward and intercede. Instead, she sways on weak legs and the hooded figure beside her puts out a hand to offer her balance.

Hamfrd hefts his mace menacingly. “Do you wish me to bash his head instead?”

“Yes,” says Scarlet instantly, looking back at the others, waiting. “Somebody has to.”

“Are we taking a vote on it?” Mathos shrugs and puts his hands up helplessly. “I don’t know. Maybe?”

“No.” Jake steps forward towards Elaine and the stranger, lowers his sword. “We can’t. Look, he’s incapacitated. And we’re still working for his boss.” To the cleric, he says, “Are you okay?”

Hamfrd looks to Elaine. “Cleric?”

“Ham, we can’t,” Jake insists, “at least not until–”

“You already had your say,” growls Scarlet, “now shut up.” She turns to Elaine, twirls one of her blades. “I can cut his throat, Elaine. Quick and easy. Just say the word. Please say the word.”

“No!” The young cleric frowns at Scarlet. Her hand goes to the medallion of the Allway around her neck. She turns to Hamfrd. “No. We don’t kill him.”

“But he tried to strangle you!” Scarlet insists. “He’s been–”

“You already had your say,” Elaine tells her, meeting the fierce woman’s eyes. Those eyes narrow dangerously, but after a moment Scarlet nods and turns away, disgust apparent on her face. She glares down at the softly moaning man lying in the mud by her feet.

“We can show him mercy,” says the cleric, trembling from the intense staredown with Scarlet. “We’re not like him. He’ll face justice.”

“Justice?” Scarlet snorts. “This is probably a good time to remind you that this prick and his boss, Madeline Le Campe, the bitch that hired us, are slavers.”

“Possibly,” Jake cuts in. “We don’t–”

“That doesn’t turn us into judges and executioners,” Elaine says. “He will face justice when we return to Gateway.”

Scarlet scowls fiercely and stalks several yards away, pushing through plants and pricker bushes until she’s almost out of sight, arms crossed tight across her chest. Elaine watches her go, cheeks burning.

Jake clears his throat.

The young cleric shakes her head, and turns to the swordarm. “Jake, can you and Hamfrd bring Jerrold out into the open, away from the tree.”

The two men step forward to do as she requests. Together, they drag the wounded man across the ground, not gently, and let him lie there at the cleric’s feet. The stranger has placed an arrow close to both of Jerrold’s shoulders, one in the right thigh, and another in his left upper arm. All non-lethal locations, so either the stranger was trying not to kill him, or has trouble with his aim.

Jerrold groans as the two men release the limbs they’ve used to drag him out from beside the fallen tree.

Jake clears his throat again. “Are you going to introduce us to, uh . . .”

Elaine glances over at the hooded figure, who still leans casually against the huge tree trunk. Her eyes go wide and her cheeks color further.

“I actually don’t . . .” She steps forward, bowing her head. “I haven’t said thank you, even. I apologize ever so humbly. Please forgive me.”

“Oh, it’s quite alright, cleric of the Allway.” The stranger’s voice is airy and light, though with just a bit of underlying gravel to it. “You needn’t apologize. By the Light, but you very nearly met your end mere moments ago. It’s quite understandable.”

“You saved my life,” she acknowledges. “I owe you–”

“Nothing,” the hooded man finishes swiftly. “You owe me nothing, holy child. Although . . .” He pauses, turns his shadowed gaze upon the other Companions. “I would ask your help, all of you, with–”

“Yes, of course, anything,” says Elaine.

Jake puts a hand out towards the cleric. “Just a second, Elaine–”

“Very good,” says the hooded figure, clapping his hands. He seems to be grinning. “I need your help robbing a treasury.”

Elaine raises her eyes, scrunches her brow. “Wait, what?”

“Aha!” The hooded man waves a hand in the air. He laughs lightly, very nearly a giggle. “Not really. I’m only pointing out why you shouldn’t be so quick with your apologies and your offers of assistance. You might end up aiding someone like that.” He nods his hooded head towards Jerrold, who is moaning on the damp ground.

“Right.” Jake watches the figure carefully. “What is your name, stranger?”

“They call me Kavin.”

“Kavin?” Jake glances over at Hamfrd dubiously.

“That’s what they call me,” the stranger affirms. “It’s the name I use when I’m trying to blend in.”

“Blend in?”

“That’s right. In human lands. Why do you say it like that? Kavin? Is that not a good human name?”

“You’re not . . .”

“Human? Nope!” The figure pulls back his hood. “Tada!”

The features are fine, soft and delicate. The skin pale, almost grey. The revealed white hair is wild and spiky. The face splits into a wide grin. And the ears . . .

“I’m an elf, bitches! Surprise!”

* * *

“Holy shit.” Scarlet stands at the edge of the group. “You’re a fucking elf.”

“As often as I can, I am.” He giggles. “Say, have you been talking to my wife?” The elf waves away the question. “Nah, I’m just kidding. I’m not married.” He whistles while he pantomimes removing a plain wooden band from one long finger. Giggles. “Nah, now I’m kidding,” he says, pausing halfway through the action. “I’m married.” Flashes the wooden ring at them, wiggles his fingers. “But my wife’s probably not the best one to ask, you know what I’m saying?” He ostentatiously elbows Mathos in the ribs. “This one knows what I’m talking about.”

The Companions look at one another, confused.

“I always thought elves were a myth,” says Scarlet dubiously.

“The Gods and Goddesses? Real. Books full of fanciful stories about magical swords? All true. But apparently you draw the line at elves?”

Scarlet frowns, narrows her eyes.

“Oh, we’re real.” He gestures to himself, giggles. “Here I stand.”

“Is your name really Kavin?” asks Jake.

“My full given name is Kalkavinda,” the elf replies. “But who wants to say all that?” Hamfrd and Scarlet share a look.

Elaine stares wide-eyed at the elf. “The stories say the elves left the world behind in a previous Age. Millennia ago.”

“We left this world, it’s true. Can you blame us?” He glances around with distaste. “And it’s only going to get worse I’m afraid.”

“I can’t believe I’m speaking to an elf. You are not what I would expect,” the young cleric says. “I don’t know what I was expecting, I mean I wasn’t really ever expecting to meet an elf, but–”

“I’m better looking than the drawings, right? I know. I get that all the time. Wanna touch the ears? Girls always wanna touch the ears.”

Elaine makes a sour face. Quickly judging the young cleric to be disinterested, he looks instead to Scarlet. Raises an eyebrow. He takes a few steps towards her, turns his head so that one of his ears is tantalizing revealed.

Scarlet narrows her eyes.

“No?” He looks to the others. “Gentleman? Any takers?”

Mathos steps forward, lifting a hand. Jake shoots the mage a dark look and shakes his head. Mathos steps back, clears his throat.

“Very well. You’re all shy. I get it.” The elf strokes his own pointed ears for a moment. “Mmm, that’s nice.”

“What are you doing here?” asks Jake. “I’m sorry, no disrespect. We’re grateful that you helped Elaine. I mean, what are you doing here. In the Trollbriar.”

“A fair question,” the elf says. “What are you doing here?” Jake opens his mouth to answer, but the elf continues. “Because at first, I thought you lot were with this one.” He gestures towards Jerrold, who lies on the ground by their feet, groaning.

“I should help him,” Elaine says stepping forward.

“Help him?” growls Scarlet.

“Yes, he’s suffering.”

“Good.”

Elaine manages to hold the fierce woman’s glare long enough that Scarlet makes a disgusted noise and looks away first. Shakes her head. “Whatever.”

The young cleric kneels at the wounded man’s side. Jake and Hamfrd come closer to keep a watchful eye. “Someone is going to have to remove the arrows,” Elaine tells them. Her heart pounds in her chest after successfully meeting the other woman’s fierce gaze not once, but twice now.

“I’ll do it,” Scarlet says immediately.

“Gently,” Elaine warns her.

“Hey, I can be gentle.” Scarlet kneels on the opposite side of the injured man. “Anyway, you’re just going to heal him after, right?”

“Yes, but–”

Scarlet grips the shaft sticking from just below Jerrold’s left shoulder. Rips it free.

The man cries out in pain. Blood begins to pool and run.

“Scarlet!” Elaine frowns across Jerrold’s groans and gasps of pain at the other woman.

“Three more to go,” Scarlet tells her through clenched teeth. She meets the cleric’s glare this time with one of her strongest.

Elaine blushes red, blinks rapidly, and casts her eyes downward. Places a hand on Jerrold’s forehead and one on the medallion of the Allway around her neck. Begins murmuring prayers to the Allway.

“This is number two,” says Scarlet, gripping another arrow. She yanks.

Jerrold screams.

* * *

Elaine kneels at Jerrold’s side, bandaging the last of the man’s wounds. He has slipped thankfully into unconsciousness. Her quick healing isn’t total — for that she would need to spend much more time and concentration — but his pain should be almost entirely gone, and her prayers to the Allway will have repaired the worst of the damage caused by the arrows. And by Scarlet’s very not gentle removal of them.

Around her, the conversation has resumed.

“That’s right,” says the elf. “I’ve been following you lot for a while now.” He nods towards Mathos. “Thought this one might have noticed me once or twice with that nifty tail that he’s got going on there. Tell me, is one of your parents a salamander by any chance?”

“I wish!” the mage replies. “How amaz–”

“Pity,” says the elf. “Delightful creatures, salamanders. Well, the fire ones can be a bit testy. Anywho. I’ve been watching you all. Her most of all.” He indicates Elaine, who is just standing and wiping off her robes after kneeling on the ground.

The young cleric glances up, suddenly aware of the attention. “Hmm?”

“I thought to myself,” the elf continues, “by Our Lady’s breath, what is a cleric of the Allway doing in league with these bastards?”

“What bastards?” asks Jake.

“His bastards,” the elf replies, pointing at Jerrold.

“Yeah,” says Scarlet bitterly. “We were misled.”

The elf nods. “Gradually, I came to realize this myself as I watched and gained some sense of your characters.” He gestures towards Jake. “The conflicted leader.”

“I’m not conflicted,” the swordarm replies. He looks to the others. “Am I?”

“This strange one, with his sensational tail.” The elf indicates Mathos.

“Ah, sensational. Very nice. I like it.” The mage grins.

The elf waves a delicate hand of long fingers towards Scarlet. “The badass,” he says. His hand moves up to the side of his head where his fingers begin to play with his pointy right ear. “Mmm, except it’s actually quite fine.”

Scarlet’s face darkens. “What?” Growling, she steps forward, her raised fist clenched and the knuckles cracking.

“You wouldn’t hit a mythical creature,” says the elf, grinning wide, “would you?”

“Do you wanna find out?”

“Oh, my.” The elf pantomimes cooling himself by using one hand like a fan. Giggles and turns his attention to Hamfrd. “Aha! The mighty child of the Pyrs. Such strength.” His fingers continue to slide up and down his pointy ear. “Mmm. Such muscles. Bless those cold northern wastes. They produce such fit and hearty stock.”

Jake casts a confused glance over to Hamfrd. The giant man just shrugs. Scarlet, looking disgusted, snorts with derision. Mathos nods sagely. “It’s true,” says the mage. “About Northerners. They are all really fit.” Senses the others staring at him. “Well, they are.”

“And you, cleric of the Allway. I knew once I saw you here among the group that you weren’t allied with this one.” He taps Jerrold, who is groaning and just beginning to come awake on the ground, with one foot. “No true cleric could condone their heinous actions. Also,” he adds, giggling, “quite a delightful bottom on you, I must say. I had a nice long look when you stepped off the road to squat among the bushes. A divine bottom, you might even say.”

Mathos chuckles. “Divine. I get–” He cuts off at Jake’s sharp look.

“You . . . you watched me pee?” Elaine asks, horrified.

“There are few things more natural in this world, holy child.”

Elaine gapes.

“Okay, that’s enough,” says Jake, stepping forward. “She’s a cleric of the Allway. You should show more respect.” He fails to notice Elaine’s stunned look shift to him.

The elf puts his hands in the air defensively. “Why, I have nothing but respect for the Allway and their holy children. Did you know our very own Palmora, Goddess of Elvenkind, was very nearly invited to be a part of the Allway. In the end it didn’t work out, alas. Our Lady is too fond of pranks it seems; or rather, the other Gods and Goddesses were not fond enough. Nonetheless, they remain close divine allies. Rather like siblings, I should say. Why, if one considers Our Lady the mother of all elves, and this one” — he indicates Elaine — “to be a child of the Allway, I’d say that makes us quite nearly cousins. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“People don’t watch their cousins piss,” snaps Scarlet.

“No?” The elf considers this, tapping one long finger on his chin. Eventually, he shrugs. “If you say so. Truly, I must say, I find humans endlessly odd.”

* * *

Jerrold comes fully awake and sits up on the wet earth. Cautiously, he tests his wounded limbs. “You healed me.” He looks up at Elaine.

“Yeah,” Scarlet growls, coming forward. She grips the man’s arms and wrenches them painfully behind him. He grunts as Scarlet binds his wrists together behind his back. “Nobody’s perfect.” When she finishes the knot, she puts a boot to his shoulder, causing the man to tumble over onto his side. She smirks, watching him struggle to sit back up with his arms bound.

Scarlet kneels beside him, one naked knife blade held up where he can see it. “One wrong move, and I’ll make sure she won’t make the same mistake twice.”

Jake puts a hand on the fierce woman’s shoulder. “Scar.” She brushes aside his touch. “Take it easy,” the swordarm advises. He steps in front of Jerrold so that the other man is looking up at him from the ground. “Now, give us one good reason to not leave you out here for the trolls.”

“Jake.” Elaine frowns at the swordarm.

“One good reason besides her reason,” Jake amends, nodding towards the young cleric. “She might be the forgiving type, but me, not so much. And you know how Scarlet here feels about you.”

“And I,” rumbles Hamfrd, cracking his knuckles.

“I’ve already put four arrows in you,” says the elf, peering down at the grimacing man. “If the cleric of the Allway continues healing you, I might continue putting arrows into you. Sounds like a fun game.”

“Filthy elf,” Jerrold growls. “I look forward to taking your ears like I have those of your kin.” He grins. “Just as soon I’m free, I’m gonna–”

Scarlet’s fist is a blur as it whips forward and snaps Jerrold’s head back.

“Scarlet,” Elaine admonishes.

“Sorry, my hand slipped.”

Jerrold stares at the fierce woman, barks a laugh. His tongue feels around inside his mouth for damage. His lip is split near his old scar. He spits a mouthful of blood onto the ground by Scarlet’s feet.

“Are you going to tell us what this is all about?” asks Jake. He leans forward, grabbing two fistfuls of Jerrold’s shirt and shakes the man. “Why did you try to kill Elaine? Talk, Gods damn you.”

“Jake.”

He looks over at the young cleric. “Really? You’re going to warn me about my language now? After this guy tried to kill you?”

“Don’t do anything you’ll regret later, Jake. He isn’t worth damaging your own soul.”

“He tried to kill you!”

“He failed.”

“If I may,” says the elf, getting their attention with an ostentatious clearing of his throat. “He’s not likely to talk. But he doesn’t have to. I can tell you exactly what’s going on. They have found the ancient city called Stolhme.”

* * *

“So the stories are true?” Jake stares wide-eyed at the elf. “Stolhme truly existed?”

“Of course it existed. Still exists, I’d say, though it’s buried in acres of mud.”

“And the wizard? All of it?”

“Your stories are true. It seems everything you humans consider myth turns out to be true, wouldn’t you agree? Myself. The city of Stolhme.”

Jake turns his attention to the man seated on the ground with his hands bound behind him. “You knew of this?”

Jerrold makes no reply. He stares up at the swordarm with cold fury in his eyes.

“You did. You knew. And earlier you called the story of the wizard and the lost city nonsense.”

“So I did,” he agrees.

“Why did you try to kill Elaine?”

“If you mercenaries had only done what you’d agreed to do, none of this would’ve happened. You were instructed to stand back and not get too nosy.”

“We are not mercenaries,” Jake tells him, teeth clenched.

Jerrold snorts. “Whatever you want to call it then. Adventurer.” He twists the word into a slight.

Jake moves to strike the man, but Hamfrd at his side is faster. He grips Jake’s arm and holds it until he feels the swordarm relax his tensed muscles. “Easy, Jake,” he rumbles. Jerrold grins at the pair with his split and scarred lip.

“He knows the stories are true because he’s seen the city and what lies within,” says the elf.

“Ooh,” says Mathos, leaning forward, “what lies within?”

“Ruins.”

“Oh.” The mage settles back deflated. “Randlestarius?” he asks. “The wizard’s tower.”

“Gone,” replies the elf.

“So, destroyed then.” Mathos sighs, thinking of all the fabulous treasures that might have been found within that powerful magic user’s tower.

“Not destroyed,” the elf says. “Gone.” He holds up a finger, silencing further questions from the suddenly perked up Mathos. “One thing at a time,” he tells the mage.

“So the people being transported in the wagons?” asks Jake. “Slaves?”

“Oh, piss on it,” Jerrold says bitterly. “Lady Le Campe is going to have you killed the moment you step foot outside this forest. Why shouldn’t you know?”

“How is your bitch boss even going to find out what happened here? Are you gonna tell her?” asks Scarlet. “We can still leave you for the trolls, you know.”

“No,” says Elaine, “we are not doing that.”

“Freaking Elaine,” the other woman growls, “you are so Gods damned good.”

The cleric grimaces. “Please don’t curse like that.” Some color comes to her cheeks. “And thank you.”

“No! You’re not welcome. That wasn’t a compliment.”

“Ladies, ladies,” says the elf. “Admittedly, I find this tension quite exciting, but please, let the man speak. I would like to hear this too.”

“Piss on all of you,” Jerrold shouts, and suddenly he’s twisting onto his feet, struggling to stand. He manages to take one step and then Scarlet’s boot in the small of his back sends the bound man reeling face first into a stiff fern-like bush that crunches under the man’s weight. He groans, and lies there among the broken stalks.

She barks a laugh. “I hope he tries that again.”

* * *

“The wagons bring men to the ruins to work. Digging. Recovering artifacts. One wagon for the men, another for the items they uncover.”

“Why the chains?” asks Jake. “The manacles? Are you saying they’re not slaves?”

Jerrold pauses to wipe wet blood from his cheek with a shoulder. His hands are still bound behind his back, and now his ankles are tied together as well. He sits on the muddy ground with his back against the massive fallen log.

“They’re not slaves exactly,” he says. “They’re procured from the Peacekeepers. So, criminals, as you suggested earlier. Of course, they have no say in the matter, so . . .”

“How are you able to get access to these men?” asks Jake. “Is someone inside the Keep working with Le Campe?”

Lady Le Campe,” Jerrold growls. “And yes. Someone inside Gateway Keep.” The man grins as though proud of the fact. “They arrange for the men to work once or twice a month.”

Jake frowns. “Aren’t you concerned about the prisoners blabbing about what they’re doing out here? The lost city?”

Jerrold smirks. “Can’t talk about what you don’t remember.”

“Are you saying you use some sort of memory wipe on them?” asks Elaine, appalled.

“More like a memory blocker, but yeah. Whip up a little mental magic before they head out, and they make no memories of the trip, the city, the dig. None of it.”

“Disgusting,” says the cleric.

“Who does this?” asks Jake. “You?”

“Someone. Another partner. It doesn’t matter.”

“So they are slaves,” says Scarlet bitterly.

“Call ’em what you like,” says Jerrold, shrugging.

Scarlet turns and walks a few steps away, clenching and unclenching her fists.

“So why hire us?” asks Jake. “What did you and Le Campe expect was going to happen when we found out the truth? What if we’d found your wagons intact and stuffed full of artifacts pulled from the lost city? Workers in chains?”

Lady Le Campe believed” — his face twists with disgust — “incorrectly it seems, that were that to happen, you would be of a mercenary enough disposition to become . . . additional business partners. I told her,” he says, shaking his head. “I told her.”

“And I told you,” says the swordarm, leaning close to the man, “we are not mercenaries.”

“Clearly.”

This time, Hamfrd isn’t close enough to catch Jake’s arm. His fist lands flush with Jerrold’s stubbled left cheek, knocks the man’s head backwards into the huge log.

Jake stands back, shaking his hand. “Ow,” he mutters. “That hurt.”

Jerrold leans against the fallen tree, his face bloodied, laughing.

* * *

“It makes sense,” says Jake, speaking quietly with the other Companions. “Le Campe did say she was surprised that Elaine was with us. Of course a cleric of the Allway wouldn’t go along with a plan like this. But she thought the rest of us . . .”

“The security detail with the two wagons that were attacked,” says Scarlet.

“Aye,” rumbles Hamfrd. “We were to be their replacements.”

“Right,” agrees the swordarm. “Assuming we would say yes to an insane plot like this.” He turns to the young cleric. “But you, Elaine. She knew you would never go along with any of this, so Jerrold was to eliminate you. Probably blame it on the trolls in the confusion of battle.”

“But he didn’t count on me,” says the elf, poking into their circle. “Watching from the trees.”

“We’re trying to have a little private huddle here,” says Jake.

“Oh, don’t mind me. I can keep a secret.”

Jake opens his mouth to protest.

“So, that’s it,” Scarlet interrupts, scowling. “We know what happened to that bitch’s wagons and to her sensitive goods. Gods, what a psycho.” She makes her hands into tight fists.

“Aye,” agrees Hamfrd. “Exactly what you’d expect would happen in the Trollbriar. They were attacked by trolls.”

“I am gonna kill her when I see her,” Scarlet growls.

“Actually . . .” The elf stretches the word out. “That’s not exactly what happened.”

“Then what exactly happened?” asks Jake, casting a worried eye towards Scarlet. Her anger is palpable.

The elf opens his mouth to reply, closes it again. Slowly rubs a pointy ear. Takes a deep breath and sighs. “Remember when I said that I should like to ask you all for help. Well, that was true. I do need your help.”

“Doing what?”

“Those wagons weren’t just carrying prisoners to work in the ruins.” He pauses, and takes another long breath. Nods to himself, seems to settle something in his mind. “Very well. If you’re going to help, then you deserve the truth,” he says.

“What else were they carrying?” asks Scarlet, frowning.

“Not what else. Who else.”

“Alright,” she growls, “who else?”

“Mmm.” The elf inhales as though something smells especially fragrant. “You are a delight,” he says, fingers returning to rub his ear briefly. He grins through Scarlet’s dark glare. “Alright.” He claps his hands. “Very well. Story time. But first . . .”

The elf leaves the Companions huddle and strides across to where Jerrold remains bound and seated on the ground, his back resting against the massive fallen log. The wounded man glances up, watching the elf approach with a grim, defiant smile.

“Come to poke me with more of your arrows, elf?”

“Not exactly,” he replies.

The elf withdraws a small knife and before anyone can react, reaches out and slides the blade across the Jerrold’s throat. Life drains swiftly out of the man.

“Gods!” cries Jake.

“No!” Elaine shouts in horror and rushes forward.

Scarlet shrugs, one hand drifting down to feel the comfort provided by the hilt of her own knife. “Glad somebody finally did it.”

“What have you done?” Elaine demands, eyes wide. She stares at Jerrold’s still body, transfixed by the gruesome sight before her.

“Not to worry, holy child,” says the elf. He wipes his blade on the dead man’s clothes and then puts it away. “Elves live for centuries. Our souls are much more durable than your kind. Worry not.”

The young cleric sinks to her knees, tears in her eyes.

 

<<<Chapter FourteenChapter Sixteen>>>

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