Chapter Nineteen

Crimes and Punishments

 

IN FRONT OF THE LE CAMPE ESTATE, GATEWAY, THE NEXT DAY

“You’ll have to leave your weapons here,” says the bearded man stationed just inside the front gate of Madeline Le Campe’s manse. His hand rests on the hilt of his sword.

“Yeah, that’s not happening,” growls Scarlet. She’s poised to leap onto the wrought iron bars and clamber over to the other side. The previous night was another night spent in the Trollbriar, suffering through the suffocating darkness and the maddening buzz of unseen insects, and she’s in no mood to be told what to do, especially when that thing is to disarm. She’s got other ideas for her knives, and they don’t involve being left behind at the gate.

“Then you’re not getting in,” the man replies. The unnatural bend of his nose indicates a prior break or two, suggesting he is no stranger to violence. But he’s nervous and unsure as he contemplates the five adventurers peering through the gate at him. He takes an uncomfortable step backwards, clears his throat. “Lady Le Campe’s orders.”

Scarlet steps forward. Her fingers close around the bars and she gives the gate a solid shake, growls at the guard, who backs up another step. “You listen to me,” she hisses.

They must have been seen entering the city, Jake thinks, frowning. Without Madeline Le Campe’s man, Jerrold. And the shrewd woman will probably assume the worst — that the Companions have found out the truth of her operation in the Trollbriar and that they aren’t the least bit interested in joining forces with her. A messenger page has already rushed up to the house, carrying news of their arrival at the gate and of their foul mood.

“Easy, Scar,” says Jake.

He reaches out, but is hesitant to actually lay a hand on her shoulder lest she turn her anger upon him. He’s known her long enough to understand that his calming hand would be anything but. Instead, he addresses the man on the other side of the gate: “You might want to reconsider.”

However, right at that moment, the page comes hustling down the hill from the manse, taking the sloping stairs two at a time. He rushes to the side of the guard, sliding to a stop on the gravel. Breathing hard, he says, “Lady Le Campe says to let them through.” The young lad, who appears barely into his teens, glances at the Companions. Swallows visibly. “They can, uh, keep their weapons.”

The gate guard turns to face the page, incredulous. Turns back to the Companions, and in particular, Scarlet, to her knives. Back to the page.

The teenage lad shrugs. “Those are her orders.”

The guard looks over his shoulder towards the manse. At last, he shrugs, too.

Stepping forward, he brings out a rattling keychain, fumbles with the gate. A moment later he is sliding the wrought iron portal open. Scarlet barely waits for the gate to open wide enough to pass through, and then she is striding forward, pushing the guard aside with a stiff hand on his shoulder even though he’s not even in the way. He grunts, but apart from an angry expression that crosses his face briefly, he doesn’t respond. The other Companions follow.

Jake jogs to catch up with Scarlet and then matches her pace up the stairs, staying right on the fierce woman’s shoulder. “Scar,” he urges, his tone one of warning. “Be cool.”

Her voice holds its own ominous warning, drips with venom: “You be cool.”

The swordarm says no more, but stays with Scarlet stride for stride all the way to the entrance of the manse. The other Companions trail behind — Hamfrd, Elaine, and then Mathos. The bent-nosed guard, who has now closed and locked the gate, hurries after them, the young page on his heels.

The door swings inward as Scarlet and Jake mount the top step. The pale, bald manservant, Leone, is there in the gloom of the entrance. Scarlet physically brushes past him, finally pauses in the antechamber beyond. The bald man clicks his tongue with annoyance.

“Le Campe!” Scarlet calls, voice echoing ahead in the vast house.

“Lady Le Campe will see you in the sitting room,” Leone tells her stiffly. He shuffles back past Scarlet into the front parlor. “This way.”

“Le Campe!” Scarlet calls again, following after. The fingers of her right hand are stroking the grip of one of her knives.

Jake stays right with her, and together they walk behind Leone, farther into the manse, followed by the others.

* * *

Madeline Le Campe is waiting for them in the same room where they first spoke with her several nights prior. Scarlet growls as she follows Leone into the room and finds three men there with Le Campe, each clad in the armored uniforms of the Peacekeepers of Gateway. The fine armor of the man at the businesswoman’s side is more elaborate than that of his two fellows, polished and shining in the room’s light and without dents or dirt. A dark red cape hangs from his shoulders. His chiseled jaw has a shadow of dark stubble. He holds his hands clasped casually behind him. The other two men, fingers on their weapons, are alert and watchful. Scarlet ignores the three men, turns her cold stare upon the businesswoman. To her credit, Madeline Le Campe returns the murderous gaze with a cool expression.

As Jake and the other Companions file into the sitting room, Leone bows slightly to his employer and then excuses himself. The guard and the page have followed, and are just beyond the door, in the hallway outside. Hamfrd is keeping them both at bay with a stern look over his shoulder. He rests his mace calmly on one big shoulder.

“Rathias.” Madeline Le Campe catches the attention of the guard in the hallway.

“Yes, m’lady?”

“You’re dismissed.”

“Lady?”

“Thank you, Rathias.”

The man bows, sputtering an apology, and hurries off. The page has already slipped away.

“Jerrold?” Madeline Le Campe moves her cool gaze among each of the five Companions, reading their individual looks and filing away what she finds.

“Dead,” says Scarlet, smirking. “And good riddance.”

Apart from the slightest tightening around her lips, Madeline Le Campe absorbs this information unfazed. “By your hand?” she asks, voice steady. Almost sounding disinterested.

“Sadly, no,” answers Scarlet.

“Residents of the Trollbriar,” says Jake, emphasizing the first word. “Defending themselves from your men.”

“I see,” says Madeline Le Campe, nodding. She understands precisely what Jake has left unstated. What his chosen word implies. Residents. Not trolls. Elves. “So.” The tight wrinkles around her lips become more noticeable. She shares a brief look with the man with the cape. “You found my wagons.”

“We found them,” Jake agrees. “What was left of them.”

“Destroyed?”

Jake nods.

“And my men?”

“You mean your slaves?” snaps Scarlet. She steps forward, fingers tight around the knives strapped to her belt.

The two flanking Peacekeepers react to Scarlet’s aggressive movement by sliding their swords free of their scabbards.

“Enough,” says the  businesswoman, glancing sternly at the two Peacekeepers, one after the other. “I won’t have violence in my home.” Her gaze moves to find Scarlet, remains equally stern. “Is that understood?”

The man at her side, who hasn’t said a word, smirks at the sudden tense mood that chills the room. His own hands have yet to move anywhere near his weapon.

“All your men are dead,” says Jake. “The guards. The man called Rock. The . . . workers.”

“Those men,” says the businesswoman, “were volunteers.”

Scarlet snorts. “Save it. You’re so full of–”

“Scar,” says Jake. He steps just in front of her, eases her back with an extended arm.

Glaring at the swordarm, Scarlet snaps her mouth shut. Lets out a noisy, irritated breath through her nose. Lowers her voice for only him to hear: “I’ll break that arm, Jake.”

“What you’re doing is wrong,” says the swordarm, addressing Madeline Le Campe. “And we want no part of it. And those whose home you are pillaging, they wish for you to stay away. For good.”

Now Madeline Le Campe snorts, and an expression that approaches incredulity flashes briefly across her face before the neutral mask returns. “You’re serious? Knowing what is out there, you would have me turn aside and let it alone? Are you not adventurers? I accepted the possibility that you may not see eye to eye with me or my particular aims when I came to you with this job, but it seems I greatly misjudged your guild.” Her eyes flick momentarily to the man at her side, and then to the two regular Peacekeepers, who have lowered their weapons only slightly. They are watching Scarlet and the Companions warily. Madeline Le Campe visibly chooses her next words: “We’re talking about a lot of money. Vast riches. Treasures. The stuff of legends. And you ask me to forget this?” Her eyes narrow. “Wait. Perhaps I misunderstand. Have you made some sort of deal with these creatures? Is that it?”

“Creatures? They are not creatures.” It is Elaine who steps forward now to address the businesswoman. “Nor are the trolls who call that forest their home. Your greed has already cost so many innocent lives, can’t you–”

“Oh, please.” Madeline Le Campe’s face twists with disgust as she laughs. “Trolls? Innocent lives? My Gods. I knew it was a mistake sending you. The moment I saw you standing there at my bookcase. Bloody Allway! I should have called it off right then and sent you lot right back where you came from.”

“Yeah,” says Jake, clearing his throat a bit louder than necessary to reclaim the attention of the woman who hired them. “About that.”

“About what?” Any attempt to remain impassive has been abandoned. Madeline Le Campe’s expression is now one of disdain. “You return here threatening me, apparently allied with my enemy, and responsible for the death of a very good man.” Her calm slips further. “And you wish to know what exactly? Whether I still intend to pay you despite the great trouble you’ve caused me?”

“Well.” It sounds different when she says it out loud, thinks the swordarm. “We had a deal.”

The lines around her mouth tighten. “A deal?”

“You wanted to know what happened to your precious wagons,” says Scarlet, spitting out the words, “and the fate of the men you were using as slaves. Now you know. And your good man got himself killed after he tried to kill one of ours.” She glances back over her shoulder towards the young cleric, who is frowning at the businesswoman.

Madeline Le Campe taps her lips with a finger. “A deal,” she says, echoing the swordarm again, and her face slowly transforms to a more thoughtful expression. “Very well. A deal then.”

“What deal?” says Jake, wary.

“You’re absolutely right. You did as we agreed and learned the fate of my wagons. This was the task for which I hired you, after all. As for Jerrold, he knew the risks involved each time he entered that Gods’ forsaken swamp. For the same reason that I should have called off this deal beforehand, I can be sure that you speak the truth regarding Jerrold’s fate.” She gestures mockingly towards Elaine. “Your cleric wouldn’t let you kill in cold blood, and if, as you say, he attacked first, you have no reason to lie about who killed him.” Madeline Le Campe grins viciously. “The Gods know, Jerrold sent plenty of those sharp-eared creatures to the afterlife first.”

“You bitch.” Scarlet steps forward, but Jake holds her back with his outstretched arm. The two Peacekeepers raise their weapons once more. “Jake,” she growls dangerously.

Madeline Le Campe, meanwhile, turns her attention to the man at her side. “Tomas, have your men wait outside, please.”

The man, Tomas, glances at the businesswoman, an eyebrow raised. He crosses his thick arms over his breastplate. “Madeline, are you sure that’s wise?”

“Send them out.”

“Very well.” He nods to the two men, who have turned towards him to see whether they are actually being asked to leave the room. “Outside.”

Without complaint, the two men sheathe their blades and exit the room, peering back over their shoulders until they are through the door and gone.

Madeline Le Campe walks across the room, closes the heavy door behind the two men. She turns and considers the Companions, who have followed her with their eyes and are watching warily.

“Now, let us speak very frankly,” she tells them. “You will speak of Stolhme and what is there to no one. Ever. Is that understood?”

“Or what?” Scarlet smirks. “Gods, I should kill you right now.” She takes a step forward, brushing aside Jake’s arm, and draws both knives.

Even as she’s completing the motion, the man in the red cape has drawn his own blade in an instant, though he makes no further move.

“Perhaps you should,” says Madeline Le Campe, and now it her turn to smirk. She crosses the room, returns to the man’s side. “But you won’t.” She considers the Companions. “Just like you won’t tell anyone of Stolhme. Or anything else you saw or heard in the Trollbriar.”

Elaine steps forward, places a gentle hand on Scarlet’s right arm. The fierce woman jerks away from the cleric so roughly, Elaine flinches.

“I don’t know,” says Jake, moving so that he is between Scarlet and Madeline Le Campe. Scarlet has yet to put away her blades and Jake tenses slightly, hoping that she doesn’t decide to stick them in his back. “It seems the Peacekeepers might be interested to hear how you’ve been using prisoners to do your dirty work for you.”

“Slaves,” growls Scarlet.

Madeline Le Campe laughs. “Honestly?” She shakes her head. “You think they’re going to care? Anybody in the Peacekeepers? Those men are prisoners. Criminals. They are scum. No one has yet even noticed that they come and go.”

“Except for this last group,” says Jake. “Who aren’t ever going to return.”

“It doesn’t matter, swordarm. Truly, it doesn’t.” She gestures to the man beside her, who is himself wearing an amused expression. “This is Tomas Garrolt. The Peacekeeper General. So, please, tell me again how you’re going to convince the Peacekeepers of anything against this man’s word.”

Jake says nothing, grinds his teeth.

Behind him, Scarlet mutters, “Bitch.”

Madeline Le Campe’s grin widens. “Now,” she says, steepling her fingers before her, “let’s talk business. You keep my secret safe — Stolhme, those elven creatures, all the rest of it. And in return, I’ll keep your secret safe.”

“What secret?” asks Jake.

“That you went back on your word, that you betrayed me and our deal.”

“What?!”

“That’s right. You broke our arrangement. You killed one of my men. And physically threatened me right in my own home.” She puts a hand to her chest, feigning indignation. “I’m a respected businesswoman.”

“Those are all lies!” Jake insists, furious. He glances at Scarlet. “Well, I suppose maybe the threatening thing has merit. And maybe the part about you being a respected businesswoman . . . although, you know what? No. That part’s a lie, too! It’s just that no one else knows about you. You . . . you . . .” He searches for a suitable insult.

“You broke our deal and betrayed me,” continues Madeline Le Campe calmly. “Tsk tsk. A grave sin for an adventure guild such as yourselves. I’m afraid your reputation would take quite a severe hit when word got out. And believe me, I would make sure that word gets out.”

“What do you want?” demands Jake.

“Simple.” Her expression turns cold, and she glares at the swordarm, and at Scarlet and the others behind him. “I wish you to leave, and I never want to see you again.”

“The feeling is so mutual,” growls Scarlet.

“That’s it?” asks Jake.

“Just what I’ve said. You tell no one about Stolhme or anything else you’ve seen or heard. Or else.”

“Or else . . .”

“Or else”–she glances at the armored man beside her–“you become the honored guests of Tomas here, at Gateway Keep. The dungeons are quite cozy, I hear.”

“You’ve convinced me,” says Scarlet. She brings her knives up. “I’ll just kill you.”

“Do that, mercenary,” snaps Tomas Garrolt, “and you’ll end up locked away so deep in the Keep’s dungeons, no one will ever find you but the rats.”

“It would be worth it,” snarls Scarlet, but her knives drop back to her sides. She’s practically shaking with rage.

“Not to mention,” says Madeline Le Campe, “that your blessed cleric there would never allow you to do such a thing.” She stares at Elaine, smirks. “Would you, honey?”

“She doesn’t tell me what to do,” Scarlet growls.

Elaine stares down at the floor, ears burning.

“And if we agree to this?” asks Jake. “And we don’t talk. We keep your secret.”

“Then I’ll hold up my end of the agreement. I pay you, and our business arrangement ends. Immediately. And I never see any of you again. Ever.”

Jake looks back over his shoulder at the other Companions, the displeasure that he’s feeling mirrored in their faces.

“Well?” prompts Madeline Le Campe.

* * *

TWO DAYS LATER, HIGHSTAR HOUSE

“True to her word,” says Sir Elton Highstar, “Madeline Le Campe has paid the amount we agreed upon. It’s simply unfortunate that someone of her standing turned out to be so . . . well, I’m so very sorry for involving us in such foulness.” He blows out air, ruffling his flowing mustache.

“It’s unfortunate she’s still alive,” grumbles Scarlet, who takes a large swallow of drink, and belches loudly. She begins casually twirling a blade in one hand.

At the head of the table, Sir Elton frowns. Not at Scarlet, but rather, he’s still considering the merchant, Madeline Le Campe. “I trust that her word is good, as her business dealings depend on it to be so. Still, perhaps we should be wary nonetheless. Knowledge of a secret of this magnitude is far from ordinary. She might yet decide that letting us keep it is too dangerous.”

The lost city of Stolhme, the old guildmaster thinks wonderingly. “I almost can’t believe it.” And a portal to another world entirely. “To think, you met actual, living elves. How extraordinary!” He chews on the end of his pipe, which isn’t presently lit, and clicks his tongue.

“We thought much the same,” says Jake, “about Le Campe, I mean. We kept an eye behind us the entire way home from Gateway. Thought for sure she’d send someone after us, no matter what she said to our faces. She can hardly be trusted if you ask me.”

* * *

Later, seated together with the five Companions and their guildmaster around the massive dining table are Hamfrd’s wife, Diana, and their two boys, as well as Sir Elton’s granddaughter, Ginny Mae Highstar.

Having heard an abbreviated version of their adventure — battling trolls, encountering some mythical elves, but none of the details concerning location or the personages involved — Ginny Mae Highstar stares wide-eyed at Jake.

“Thank goodness you’re okay,” the teenager breathes. “Trolls!”

The swordarm, still thinking about Madeline Le Campe and potential reprisals against the Companions, is oblivious to her attention.

Diana glances over at her husband and frowns, her thoughts focused on the trolls. Their two young boys, fingers still greasy from the meal, want to hear more about the elves. Hamfrd, missing his wife’s troubled look, grins at the two boys with pride, fondly recalling their wide-eyed looks moments earlier upon hearing that their father had battled trolls and spoken with elves.

“How amazing are the elves, Papa?” Osgrd asks.

“Are elves really like extra beautiful people?” asks his younger brother, Jesse.

Smirking, Scarlet peers down into her cup. “One of them sure believed so.”

Elaine giggles, and then quickly lowers her eyes to her lap, her cheeks coloring, when Scarlet glances over.

“Yes! I want to hear more!” declares Ginny Mae, clapping her hands together. Her eyes linger on Jake a moment longer, until she eventually turns to the mage. “Mathos, did you really have a tail? What did it feel like? That sounds wild! Was it wild? I wish I could’ve seen it.” The teenager pouts dramatically, before her face immediately brightens again. “Oh, I know! You should grow it again!”

Hamfrd’s boys agree, giggling, delighted by the idea.

Soon, everyone is laughing and offering suggestions on how Mathos might enhance himself by becoming like various animals, gaining the best attributes of each.

At the head of the table, Sir Elton chews on his pipe and watches his makeshift family joke and laugh together with a grin on his face.

Only Scarlet’s face is dark as she reaches out for her cup, drains the liquor within.

* * *

Later that night, Jake is lying in his bed, staring up through the darkness at the ceiling, replaying the events of the last few days in his mind. He is disgusted by the idea that they were to be used in a such a way, as if there were any chance they would be party to exploiting those men, prisoners or not. They were like slaves really, as Scarlet continuously referred to them. He’s also disappointed to have been so close to the lost city of Stolhme and yet seen nothing of it. And then to have promised Kavin and his sister that they wouldn’t venture any closer. He doesn’t wish to break his word with the elves, but Gods! There are few things that excite the swordarm more than the thought of exploring a true lost city, sifting through the ruins and searching for artifacts and treasure. It’s practically the reason he became an adventurer in the first place. Instead, he has ended up doing a job for someone as despicable as Madeline Le Campe. Imagine being so vile as to refer to elves as ‘creatures’!

A scrapping sound from outside his window startles the swordarm. It’s only a soft noise and quickly gone, but lying there in his bed wide awake, it catches his attention. He lies there another minute waiting for it to sound again, but it doesn’t. Rather than forget it, he’s more troubled as the seconds stretch on.

He sits up, listens intently to the darkness and quiet of his room and the house around him.

Something tells him to get up and go to the window, a feeling in his gut that he’s learned to trust. He pads across the dark room, leans on the window ledge and peers out.

It’s a warm, still night. The few glowing streetlamps leave much of the cobbled street down below in thick shadow. The buildings across the way are black shapes in the darkness. There’s not a single person moving out there, thinks Jake. The hour is late, after all. He twists his head, examining the side of the manse and the small fenced-in yard down below. He’s just about to pull his head back in when movement catches his eye. A dark figure some distance along the street and moving away, just briefly illuminated in the light of one of the streetlamps.

Jake squints.

He recognizes the figure, even from this distance. The familiar gait, dangerous and cat-like, and swaying ever so slightly with drink.

His fingers grip the window ledge.

Scarlet!

Well, shit, he thinks.

They’re back in Farport now, and he supposes he should still be keeping an eye on the woman, especially considering their latest adventure has done nothing to improve her mood. Only a week ago, they were having to plead for her release from a cell in the Iron Keep after her drunken visit to Darkblade Manor and the right hook that dropped Harriet Swordsteel. Not that Jake wasn’t pleased with that particular action, but he’d specifically been asked by Elton to keep Scarlet away from Harriet and the Darkblades. He’d managed to stay with her previously, but now it appears that she has managed to slip out by scaling down from her own second-floor window in the middle of the night.

For then it dawns on the swordarm: that noise he heard was Scarlet leaving through her window and climbing down to the ground below.

And then this worrying thought: how drunk would Scarlet have to be to make so much noise that Jake would hear her?

Drunk enough to do something stupid, the swordarm realizes.

She’s been muttering all day about how they should have just killed Madeline Le Campe and been done with it. Surely she wouldn’t . . . all on her own . . . in the middle of the night . . .

Gods damn it. This is Scarlet, after all. Of course she might.

The dark figure, which he is now sure was Scarlet, is out of sight. It’s a day of travel back to Gateway, but where the hell else might she be off to in the middle of the night, if not to do something stupid?

He’d better try to follow if he can, though there’s little chance he’ll be able to catch up with her.

Stumbling around in the dark, Jake dresses as quickly as he can and hurries from his room.

* * *

He pads down the front stairs, several of the steps creaking beneath his feet. He holds a candle before him, shielding the flame with one hand. Nevertheless, the small light flickers and only barely illuminates the parlor. He sets the candle on the table beside the front entrance and looks around for his boots.

A soft noise across the room makes him pause. The sound of someone there in the darkness of the hallway, near their guildmaster’s study.

Jake whispers into the darkness, “Hello? Elton?”

Forgetting his boots and Scarlet momentarily, he picks the candle up again and walks in that direction. The small flame dances and casts shadows upon the walls of the parlor. Maybe the old guildmaster is having trouble sleeping too.

“Hello?” He holds the candle up, enters the dark hallway.

“Jake.” A soft voice from the shadows.

“Hello?”

A slight figure steps out from a doorway into the light, feet bare on the stone floor. Long, slender legs extend up to the bottom of a dangerously short, suspiciously sheer nightgown. Suspended by two thin straps over pale shoulders and revealing a deep cleft of cleavage, the nightgown stretches tight against the swell of the full, youthful breasts tucked snugly within.

“Hi, Jake.”

He clears his throat noisily. “Ginny?”

“Mmhmm.” She bites her lower lip, steps forward.

Jake holds the candle up and turns away from the young woman’s advance. She cuts off his angle and he finds himself with his back against one of the hallway’s walls. The candle, held up by his head, spills its dancing white light onto the teenager’s bare shoulders and sketches out her clavicles with contoured shadow.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to . . . I was . . . umm . . .” Jake tries to back farther away, but he’s up against the solid wall.

Ginny takes another step forward until the space between them is reduced to atoms.

She stands on tiptoe to bring her face to his.

“Are you looking for me?” she asks, voice breathy.

“What? No!” He shakes his head at his harsh tone. “I mean, no. I wasn’t. Not that it’s not . . . I mean, it’s nice to see you, and all. I mean, what are you doing up in the middle of the night?”

“I heard someone walking around,” she replies. “I came to see who it was.” She puts an arm out, places her hand on the wall at Jake’s right shoulder. “I was hoping it was you.”

“It’s me,” says Jake with a nervous laugh.

He starts to edge away to the left.

Her other hand comes up just beside Jake’s left shoulder, pinning the swordarm in one spot. “So I came to say hi.”

“Umm, hi?”

She grins playfully.

“Umm, Ginny, look. I think you have the–”

Her hands leave the wall and move to Jake’s chest. She takes twin handfuls of his shirt. “When are you going to teach me how you use your sword?”

“I’m, uh . . . Gin.” The candle in his hand trembles in the air over their heads as Jake tries to flatten himself further against the wall. “Look, I–”

“Don’t you like me?” She leans close, big brown eyes peering up at him from inches away.

“Of course, I like you. I like you just fine.” More nervous laughter as Jake tries to extricate himself from her grip. “It’s just that you . . . I mean you’re practically–”

“I’ve missed you these last few years.”

“Ginny you’re just–”

She leans all the way into him, brings her lips to his.

He makes a slightly panicked noise, but she doesn’t let him get away, pressing forward so that his head is pushed back against the wall.

The kiss continues despite his noises of protestation.

She releases him and backs away suddenly, leaving Jake gasping for breath and blinking. “Ginny, I–” A moment later, he sees what has caused Ginny to step away.

Elaine is standing at the edge of the candle’s meager light, frowning darkly.

“Is everyone awake?” asks Jake miserably.

“I thought I heard others up and about,” says the young cleric, eyes narrowed on the swordarm.

“I was actually just on my way to bed,” Ginny says hurriedly, glancing from her back to Jake. “I was saying good night to Jake here.” She flashes him a quick smile, conscious of Elaine’s doubtful gaze. Winks at the swordarm. “Good night, Jake.” She turns to the cleric, voice trembling slightly. “Good night, Elaine.” Bowing her head, the teenager spins on her heel and hurries away into a room farther down the hallway.

Dazed, Jake stares at the empty end of the hall for a moment until he realizes that Elaine is still there, staring at him. Glaring at him.

“What?”

The cleric comes closer, her whispered voice a hiss. “What do you think you’re doing, you lecherous creep? She’s a teenager. You’re like thirty . . . thirty something,” she sputters. “Probably. I don’t even actually know. How old are you?” The cleric’s nostrils flare with anger.

“Look, I’ve known Gin since she was little,” Jake protests.

“Seriously? That makes it even worse!”

“That’s not what I meant,” he hisses back. Jake takes Elaine’s arm and pulls her along with him, back into the parlor, until they stand together by the front entrance. “What you saw back there, that was not what it looked like.”

Elaine narrows her eyes.

“I mean, okay, it was sort of pretty much what it looked like,” Jake amends, “but it was completely turned around from how you might expect. She was coming on to me.”

“Uh-huh.” The young cleric doesn’t bother to hide her doubtful expression.

“I swear!”

Elaine arches an eyebrow.

“She’s like a little sister to me. I mean, she used to call me, Uncle Jake. I’m not . . . there’s nothing between us.”

“Well, it seems she has other ideas. You had better talk to her. Tell her plainly.”

“I will.”

She sticks a warning finger in his face. “You better.” Her eyes narrow further. “What are you doing up and dressed anyway?”

“It doesn’t matter now,” says Jake, all of sudden remembering Scarlet. The encounter with Ginny had momentarily caused him to forget. “She’s long gone now.”

“Who is?”

“Scarlet.”

“Scarlet?”

Jake explains the noise and seeing Scarlet down below on the street, and about Elton previously asking him to keep an eye her.

Elaine scoffs. “She’s a grown woman, Jake. She doesn’t need you babysitting her.”

“I’m not babysitting. I’m just . . . okay, it’s sort of like babysitting. But I’ve known Scarlet a lot longer than you have, and you may not have noticed this, but she likes to drink sometimes. Especially when she’s upset and maybe shouldn’t be drinking quite so much.” He puts his hands up for peace because Elaine’s glare hasn’t lessened. “I’m only looking out for her, okay? I mean, we did just have to bail her out of jail. Remember that?”

“I suppose.” Her voice suggests that she doesn’t find this explanation good enough to justify encroaching on the other woman’s privacy.

Jake spreads his hands, trying to explain. “With her mood right now, I mean, what if she goes after Madeline Le Campe on her own?”

“She wouldn’t do that.”

“Wouldn’t she? Okay, or so maybe she’s just out looking to get in a fight more locally. That’s no better!”

“It’s also none of our business.”

Jake sighs and throws up his hands in defeat. “It doesn’t matter now anyway. She’s long gone.” He raises an eyebrow at the young cleric. “What are you doing up?”

“I’m a light sleeper.” She makes her mouth into a tight line, raises a finger. “Stop sneaking about after Scarlet. She’s an adult — treat her as such. Ginny Mae on the other hand is not.” She arches an eyebrow of her own meaningfully at the swordarm.

“That wasn’t . . . look, I told you,” Jake begins, but then he sees the tiny crack in Elaine’s stern expression, her lips curling up ever so slightly, suggesting that she’s now at least partly having fun at his expense.

* * *

Late the next morning, Jake is relieved to see Scarlet descending the stairs and making her way into the kitchen. From the pained look on her face, he can tell she is hungover, but she’s right there in front of him, scowling, which means she isn’t sitting in a cell somewhere deep within the Iron Keep, or dead, or imprisoned on her way to distant Gateway. So that’s good.

Hours later, fast-moving news reaches Sir Elton:

Madeline Le Campe is dead. Murdered in her own home during the previous night, along with all the servants and guards present. Rumors are flying, whispers of multiple intruders, but no one can say for sure. Gateway is in a state of panic. In addition to Madeline Le Campe, who was one of the city’s most prominent residents, another murder has taken place late the very same night: Tomas Garrolt, the Peacekeeper General, the highest ranking officer of the law. Murdered right out in the open, in the middle of the street, by multiple masked assailants in the early hours of the morning, before the sun was fully up.

When Elton gathers the Companions in his study and tells them the news, Jake and Elaine share a horrified look. Then they both turn and stare at Scarlet. Eventually, the fierce woman, who has been smirking at word of Madeline Le Campe’s demise, notices.

The mirth drains from her face as she stares at Jake and then at Elaine.

“What?”

Elaine opens her mouth, but finds herself unable to speak.

Scarlet snorts, assuming her mirth is the reason for the cleric’s unease. “Sorry. But it’s kind of funny.”

“There’s more,” says Sir Elton quietly. “Both Madeline Le Campe and the Peacekeeper General had their ears mutilated in some way. Removed entirely, perhaps. The news is still very fresh.”

“Their ears?” Scarlet turns back to the guildmaster. Her eyes grow wide. “Holy shit.”

“Wait.” Jake blinks. “That means . . .”

“That fucking elf,” says Scarlet, sounding impressed. “Sounds like he and some friends paid that bitch a visit.”

Jake lets out a relieved sigh, grateful that his worst fears about Scarlet haven’t been confirmed.

Elaine’s hands go to the medallion around her neck. Her brow creases.

The others continue to discuss the shocking news with Sir Elton, but Elaine turns and quietly leaves Elton’s study. Her heart aches as staggers up the stairs to her room and seats herself at the desk in the corner, sinking down into the seat, stunned.

Still holding the medallion in one hand, she lifts the lid of the simple wooden box with her other. Carefully stored within among Elaine’s few other precious possessions is the elvenstar.

She picks up the delicate glass-like charm, a gift to her and the other Companions from Kavin, the elf who saved her life, and his sister, Lynsandrasa.

Saved her life, she thinks sadly, and yet, has taken how many others now in cold blood?

In her mind, she can’t unsee the image of that beastly man, Jerrold, the life draining from his cut throat as he sat bound and helpless on the ground. She can still feel the shock of that moment on her soul, when the beautiful elf, who had moments earlier saved her from death, took a defenseless man’s life. Cruelly. Without remorse. Now two more lives, plus an unknown number of others who died simply because of their proximity to Madeline Le Campe.

That woman was responsible for many terrible things, thinks the young cleric, of that there is no doubt. Likewise the man who abused his position with the Peacekeepers of Gateway to perpetrate such evil.

Nonetheless . . .

Elaine holds the elvenstar in her fingers, staring at the delicate trinket with eyes clouded by dampness.

Reluctantly, she places it back in the wooden box, closes the lid.

She blinks, and the first of many tears slides across her cheek.

The young cleric sits in the late afternoon shadows of her room, clutching the medallion tightly to her chest, afraid that if she lets go, she’ll find herself falling, sinking right down into the floor and beyond, into the very earth the house is built upon, and down deeper yet, into the forever darkness that exists far below.

 

The End of Part Two

 

Adventure Guild will return January 2020.

 

<<<Chapter Eighteen — To Be Continued>>>

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