Chapter Eighteen

Monsters and Heroes

 

“Elaine!” Scarlet’s voice pierces the horror of the snarling trolls rushing towards the young cleric, who backs frantically away. “Get down!”

A look over her shoulder undoes Elaine, one foot catching a rut in the sloping earth. She trips and tumbles to the ground, landing hard on her tailbone. In the end, it’s her poor footing that helps her follow Scarlet’s shouted direction. Even as she’s grunting from the impact of sitting down painfully onto the ground, Elaine sees the other woman soaring above her with a wild battlecry.

Scarlet launches herself into the nearest troll, balances her body on its wide chest by hugging tight with her thighs. She drives both knives directly into the creature’s face, deep into the eye sockets, and then rides the slumping troll as it falls backwards to the ground. Rolls forward over it, yanking free her blades as she does so, springs to her feet as she completes the roll and crashes into the next troll, her blades sinking deep into the creature’s chest.

The troll roars in agony and staggers, limbs flailing, before falling.

Blood spurts as Scarlet yanks her blades free. She’s turning to attack the next troll when she sees the heavy club from yet another coming towards her at the last instant. She twists her body to dodge the strike, but it makes solid contact with her right side, sending her sprawling to the ground. Her knives, jarred from her grip, clatter away.

She ends up at the feet of a different troll. This one, carrying no weapon, instead reaches down and scoops up the dazed woman. Scarlet tries to break its grip by pounding her fists against the creature’s arms and kicking at its chest. Annoyed more than hurt, it lifts her higher and then hurls her aside. Her body crashes against the moss-covered side of a boulder, and she slumps to ground, groaning.

A mighty warcry alerts the looming troll an instant before Hamfrd arrives. The big man swings his mace with lethal force, crushing the creature’s skull. It sinks to the ground, unmoving. A second swing of his mace knocks aside a dangerous blow from the club-wielding troll. It then crumples under the brutal might of a third swing of Hamfrd’s mace.

Two other trolls in the immediate area rush Hamfrd together.

One swings a longsword that it has acquired from somewhere, no doubt plucked from some defeated foe. It holds the blade awkwardly and wields it all wrong. Hamfrd parries with his mace, knocking the blade right out of the troll’s unaccustomed grip. Hamfrd steps forward to attack, forcing the creature back.

The second troll holds no weapon. Instead, it grabs Hamfrd from behind, its thick limbs encircling the tall Northerner in a tight hug, pinning the big man’s arms at his sides. The hairy creature roars in Hamfrd’s ear, its stinking breath hot on Hamfrd’s face. Even in the midst of battle, he twists his nose in disgust.

The first troll comes forward again, now menacing with its claws. Hamfrd, held tight around the chest from behind, jumps up and kicks out with both feet, pushing away the attacking troll. Landing his feet back on the ground, the big man grunts, struggling to break free of the strong creature’s grip.

The beast roars again in his ear, this time a cry of pain. Hamfrd staggers forward, suddenly free, as the troll releases him and spins around. Beyond the angered creature stands Elaine. The young cleric steps back. The white glow of the medallion in her right hand is already fading. Her left hand remains upraised, fingers spread wide, the divine light which burned the troll a moment earlier already vanished. The young cleric takes another wary step back as the injured troll stares down at her, snorting with rage.

Hamfrd finishes off the other troll first as it comes at him again, seeking to do damage with its savage claws. Hamfrd swings his mighty mace, a blow powerful enough to push through the troll’s hands, which come up defensively at the last instant, and continue through to his intended target. The creature’s face flattens with a sickening crunch. The troll collapses.

The big man turns and shoves the remaining troll in the back. The creature staggers off balance away from Elaine. “Turn around,” Hamfrd tells it, raising his mace. “Face me!”

The troll turns. Roars and spreads its arms wide. It charges forward towards the big man. Hamfrd adds his own warcry to the voice of the troll and with a final swing of his mighty mace silences the creature forever.

Hamfrd looks to Elaine. “Are you alright, cleric?”

She nods, eyes wet with tears. Her shoulders rise with a deep breath and slump as she exhales raggedly. Then, her eyes grow wide. “Scarlet!”

Elaine rushes to the other woman’s side. Scarlet is just beginning to pick herself up off the ground, gingerly rising to her hands and knees. She stays that way, wincing.

“Are you okay? Is it bad? Can I help? I can–”

“I’m fine,” Scarlet snaps, the edge in her voice dulled by the obvious pain. “What the hell happened?”

“That happened,” says Hamfrd, pointing.

“Help me up,” Scarlet growls.

“Are you sure?” asks Elaine, but as Hamfrd steps forward to assist Scarlet, Elaine puts out an arm too, and together they help the injured woman up. Scarlet’s expression is strained and she expels air noisily to keep from crying out.

Once she’s standing, Scarlet brushes away Elaine’s hands and then Hamfrd’s. Looks where the big man has pointed.

“Who the hell is that?” she asks, watching as a thick, broad-shouldered bald man finishes off several more trolls all on his own, armed with only a hatchet.

* * *

Rock swears gleefully at the creatures as he cuts them down.

“You like that?” he asks one. The creature staggers back, blood spurting from where its arm has been severed at the elbow.

The hatchet finds the thick, hairy neck of another, sinks in deep.

An instant later, Rock is twisting to avoid the claws of a third troll. He kicks out, keeping the creature at bay, wrenches his hatchet free of the dying troll. When the other troll comes forward again, Rock meets it with the deadly weapon. The blade sticks in the beast’s face, and this time Rock loses his grip on the hatchet as the troll slumps away from him.

He finds a dropped wooden club on the ground near his feet, swings it in a wide arc as two more trolls come looming close. They both back off. One recovers faster and comes rushing in with a furious roar. Rock swings.

The troll sinks to its hands and knees on the ground, its skull deformed from the powerful strike. The next swing of the solid club puts the creature out of its misery.

The final creature comes forward warily. It growls deep and long. Rock flicks blood from the club onto the ground and faces this last troll. It’s missing the lower part of one arm.

“Ah, you again,” Rock says, grinning. He hefts the club. “Come on then,” he tells the troll.

It seems to understand the sentiment, even if the words are meaningless to it. With an angry roar, the creature leaps forward, trying to rake Rock with the claws of its good arm.

Rock beats the creature back, swinging the club defensively. Then he steps into the creature, attacks. He is shorter, but as thick as the troll. Perhaps more savage. His club goes for the creature’s knee, smashes the leg to uselessness. The troll, drops to the ground. Tries crawling away.

Rock ends its life with the heavy club.

Laughing out his pent up tension, Rock surveys the troll’s encampment. None of the creatures remain standing. Across the space, on the other side of the cookfire, several more of the lifeless creatures lie scattered on the ground. Beside one of the large boulders, Rock can see another big warrior standing together with a couple of women, watching him. It seems Lady Le Campe hasn’t forgotten him after all.

Rock raises a hand in greeting. The smaller woman, dressed in white robes like a cleric, is the one whose distraction provided the opportunity to strike at the trolls. And how successfully, he thinks, grinning. Killed the whole lot of ’em. The filthy–

Thuck.

He staggers, a piercing strike slamming into his upper back.

Rock reaches behind, feels the arrow protruding from just below his right shoulder blade. Turns around, brings the club up, ready to face this new threat. Grits his teeth, blocks out the pain.

* * *

In the darkness near the back of the cave, Mathos’s magical orb is the only light. It illuminates the space well enough, but the uneven rock walls and the low, curved ceiling create numerous shadows. A few hidden corners tucked away in the very back remain concealed by darkness. Along with the trash and filth of the trolls, various pieces of armor and discarded weapons — both fashioned blades and makeshift sticks and clubs — are scattered on the floor.

Jake peers down at the two remaining men, crouched in the troll’s prison. Both are shirtless, their arms bound behind them with strips of cloth that probably once made up the missing garments. They are staring up at the swordarm, eyes wide and full of fear.

“Are you here to save us?” asks the skinnier one. “Thank the Gods!”

The elf on Jake’s arm stirs.

He glances down at her and then forces himself to look away when he notices the tattered state of the female elf’s clothes. The remains of her blouse hang in loose shreds from her neck, covering far less than originally intended.

“I, uh . . .”

“Take care of them, human,” she says. “I must go to my brother.”

“He said to take care of you.”

“Then you should do as I ask,” she tells him, her smooth elven face glowing in the mage’s light despite bruises and exhaustion.

“I don’t . . . that’s not how that works, I don’t think.”

But she pulls away from him, a gentle touch lingering on his arm briefly, as if to offer further assurance with her words. She takes a few careful steps under her own power, testing her legs. Another step, and she leans down and collects something off the ground. One of the discarded weapons. The swordarm watches her limp away towards the bright light of the cave’s entrance.

“Jake,” says Mathos, suddenly alarmed, “there’s something–”

A vibration that he feels in his tail and a rumbling growl are the only warning the mage has that there is still a troll among the thick shadows at the rear of the cave. Then the creature is lunging into the light, snarling and swinging a big clawed hand.

Mathos manages to raise an arm just in time. A hastily spoken magic command creates a burst of electricity that flashes and sizzles as the troll makes contact. Its swing still carries great force, and the mage is sent spinning down to the floor of the cave. The troll, shrieking in fright and pain as the shocking blast sparks and burns, jumps and twists away from the flash and the hurt, tumbles to the ground nearby.

Jake draws his sword, calling out the mage’s name with concern.

“Oh, Gods!” cries the skinny man in the cell. “They’ll kill us all!”

Jake springs forward, slashing at the huge troll, which is already climbing to its feet again. The creature roars in anger and knocks aside the attack. Jake’s sword clangs harmlessly against the rock wall, jarring his arms. He recovers quickly, makes his next strike a lunging stab. This time, the creature reacts too slow. The blade bites into the troll’s hairy abdomen, sliding in and knocking against ribs.

The troll screams in pain and rage. One big hand closes around Jake’s wrist, pulls the swordarm forward. The troll’s other fist swings out, clobbers Jake on the side of the head. Jake drops to the stone floor, leaving his sword stuck in the creature’s belly. Stars dance and swirl in his vision.

Mathos, dazed from the troll’s previous blow, is just beginning to climb to his hands and knees. Somewhere above and behind him, the troll roars. Mathos looks back over his shoulder in time to see the creature stumbling towards him, Jake’s blade protruding from its gut. The troll reaches for him.

The mage scrambles forward, seeking escape. Stops suddenly as a strong hand on his new fleshy tail pulls him back.

“Jake! Help!” shouts the mage. “He’s got me!”

The troll pulls the mage backwards. Mathos, his fingers scraping over the dirty cave floor, struggles to get free. The troll snarls. Pulls him closer.

Aiming one hand over his shoulder, the mage speaks a few quick words of magic. A burst of crackling energy hurls through the gloom of the cave and strikes the wounded troll in the chest. The force of the energy knocks the troll off-balance. Its fingers clamp down tighter on the mage’s tail. Mathos refocuses on his effort to scramble away. The troll sways.

Mathos strains forwards.

The creature falls backwards.

With a short burst of pain and a tearing sensation, the mage tumbles forward, free of the troll’s grasp.

It takes him a moment to process what has happened.

“Jake!” he cries. “My tail!”

The swordarm is back on his feet, slightly unsteady. His head aches.

The injured troll is struggling to regain its feet. The cave smells like burnt hair.

Jake comes forward. His fingers close around the hilt of his sword, still stuck in the troll. Jake pulls the blade free. The creature lets out a mournful, pained howl.

A moment later, Jake silences it permanently.

* * *

“You!”

Rock stares, the arrow in his back nearly forgotten.

Standing at the cave’s mouth is that elf. That bloody elf who led the assault on the wagons. That same elf he’s fought before in the ruins of Stolhme. Rock growls. This time, he’ll finish that pointy-eared bastard for–

Thuck.

A second arrow buries itself in the thick upper thigh of his right leg.

“Son of bitch!” roars Rock. The elf draws another arrow.

Rock races forward, club up and ready to strike. Each step on his injured leg sends pain alerts firing to his brain. He ignores them, rage fueling his charge forward.

Thuck.

Another arrow sticks into a similar spot in his left thigh. His forward run slows.

The elf already has another arrow nocked and drawn.

“Come on, elf!” Rock shouts. “Do it!”

Only a couple steps more, he thinks, preparing to swing the club. His eyes are on the elf’s face. He’ll crush those delicate features into a–

Thuck. The force of the arrow fired from so close stops his forward motion, pushes him back a step. The shaft protrudes from his upper chest, just beside his right shoulder. His arm has gone limp, the club hanging useless, barely held at his side in fingers gone suddenly numb.

“Fucking bastard elf!” Rock screams.

The elf just looks at him with disdain, as if he’s better than Rock.

Roaring with fury, Rock lunges forward. He’ll strangle the fucking elf. He raises his good arm, reaches for the elf’s throat.

The elf sidesteps, causing Rock to lose his balance and stumble forward. His eyes remain on that arrogant bastard elf as he catches himself, skids to a stop on the hard earth.

Rock doesn’t see the female elf until she steps right up against him. It’s her, he thinks, even as she buries a dagger deep into his chest, aimed straight for his heart. That sweet little thing he’s been stuffed together with in that filthy cell. His good hand comes up to her face, tries feebly to push her away. But he lacks the strength. Darkness swoops in all around him.

She removes the dagger, plunges it right back in. Her determined eyes bore into him. He staggers, but she stays right there, holding the deadly blade inside him. With one hand, he manages to turn her head to the side, fingers scratching at her face. Dried blood stains her silver hair and the side of her head where he already took one of her precious ears days ago.

He sinks to the ground, and she lets him fall. The dagger is still stuck in him. Something rips and tears in his back as he lands on the ground. The first arrow.

The female elf looks down at him, and now he can see her good ear, the one he’ll never get the chance to take. Specks of wet blood that are his own dot her fair features.

The other elf, the male, comes and stands at her shoulder. Together they stare down at him as dies. He closes his eyes so that he doesn’t have to see their smug fucking faces. But they’re there anyway behind his eyelids in the darkness that soon envelopes everything until finally that too disappears and there’s nothing.

* * *

“Jake, it’s gone. My tail.” The mage stands, a tentative hand feeling around the bottom of his back through his robes, where the fleshy appendage had grown. “I mean, it’s not gone,” the mage amends, “it’s right there on the . . . oh, Light, that troll tore it right off. This is worse than the time–”

“We’ll get you a new one,” Jake tells him absently. His attention is back to the two men in the troll’s prison cell. To them, the swordarm says, “Can you men walk?”

“Who are you?” The skinny, rodent-like fellow stares up at Jake. His brown hair is cut close to the scalp and the mustache above his lips twitches as he glances fearfully about. “Is it finally over?”

“They ate the others,” the second man tells Jake bluntly. “Those creatures.” His head is shaved nearly smooth, but he wears a beard, black and full. Several metal rings decorate one ear. A serpent is tattooed on the left side of the man’s thick neck. “There was half a dozen more of ’em like us. Thought they’d eat us, too, for sure.”

The man starts to push himself to his feet. He struggles because his hands remain bound behind him, and so Jake reaches out, helps the man to his feet.

“Do you know what the hell is happening?” the man asks. “One minute we were rotting in the belly of the Keep, the next thing I know we’re here in this Gods’ forsaken place. Traded one damned cell for another. I’m Sander, by the way.”

Jake introduces himself and the mage.

“Some lizards do lose their tails intentionally.” Mathos is still speaking somewhere behind Jake in the gloom of the cave. “In order to escape danger. They often grow back eventually, you know.” The mage considers, a hand on his chin thoughtfully. “Perhaps mine will, as well. If not . . . oh, blast it, what all was in that formula I mixed again?”

Jake, meanwhile, cuts the bindings on the wrists of the two men. “Come on,” he tells Sander and the other man. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Then you are here to save us.”

“Something like that.” Jake looks to the mage. “Come on, Mathos.”

He leads the two grateful men towards the cave’s entrance. Towards freedom.

“Is this nightmare really over?” the skinny one asks as they approach the light.

* * *

The two former prisoners emerge from the troll’s cave with Jake and Mathos. The skinny one, whose name is Lank, puts a hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes. “Damn, that’s bright,” he mutters, and then makes a nervous giggling sound. “By the Gods, I’m free. I’m a free man.”

Sander follows quietly, glancing around. His eyes move from the dead trolls to the body of Rock to the elves and finally, the other Companions. Putting together the pieces of the puzzle in his mind.

Brother and sister elf face each other, their foreheads pressed together.

In Elvish, Kavin says, “My starlight, you’re safe.” He holds his sister’s bruised face gently in his two hands.

“I’m so sorry,” she replies. Reaching up with one hand, she delicately explores the ruined, raw flesh where her right ear used to be. “Am I hideous?”

“No! Of course not. You remain the most beautiful star in my sky, sister. Always.” He reaches out and pulls her body against his, hugs her tight. “I am so glad you are safe.”

“Oh, Kal.” She lays her head on his shoulder and returns his warm embrace.

They stay that way for a moment, until at last they separate slightly. After a brief moment of deep eye contact, they lean together and their lips meet. They stay locked together for several long seconds, kissing.

Jake glances at Mathos. Brother and sister? he mouths to the mage, an eyebrow raised.

“Reminds me of Edith Boxwell,” says Mathos quietly. “Her branch of the family tree is quite fruitful. Lots of siblings and cousins, I mean. And pretty much every year at the Arthollos-Boxwell reunion, she has a bit too much to drink and ends up–”

“Not interested,” Jake says, holding up a hand.

The mage shrugs. “This past year it was Tiffani Boxwell.” He shakes his head and clicks his tongue, recalling the memory, but says no more.

Jake glances over. “Wait, no. Go on. Tiffani and Edith.” He waves a hand, prompting the mage.

Before the mage can reply, a joyous shout rings out.

The other elf, who before the fight had been dragged out to the center of the encampment by the trolls, comes hurrying over to join the group. “Kal, you came for us. Bless Our Lady! You came!”

The brother and sister separate, and Kavin welcomes the third elf into a warm embrace. “Po!” he says, grinning. “Thank Our Lady, you are well.”

“Well enough,” the elf replies. “But . . .” A visible tremor passes through him. “The beasts killed Solanthadel.”

Lynsandrasa steps forward, nodding somberly, and all three elves share a long, mournful embrace.

* * *

A short distance away, Scarlet watches, scowling. She’s absently rubbing the tender area of her right side. Touches it wrong, winces as the pain flares.

Elaine, standing at her side, notices the sharp intake of breath. “Let me heal you,” she says.

Scarlet turns her head, glares at the young cleric. “It’s fine.”

“It’s clearly not fine.” She meets Scarlet’s dark stare.

“Fine,” Scarlet growls after a moment. “So pushy.” Her expression loosens into an amused smirk. “That eager to get your hands on me?”

Elaine’s eyes go wide. She swallows, mouth suddenly dry. “What? No! I–”

“I’m messing with you,” Scarlet says, giving Elaine a light punch in the shoulder. Her smirk is now nearly a genuine grin. “You clerics. It’s too easy to mess with you.”

“Yeah,” Elaine agrees lamely. She can feel her cheeks and ears burning.

“Have a look then.” Scarlet lifts up the side of her shirt to the armpit, revealing a wide swath of bare flesh. Elaine’s eyes grow wider. She swallows audibly.

“Is it bad?” asks Scarlet. She twists her neck so that she can see.

There’s a huge bruise, already nasty purple and yellow and swollen, that covers her ribs on that side. “Gnarly,” Scarlet says, eyeing the injury. She glances over towards Hamfrd. The big man grins and nods approvingly.

“Well?” Scarlet looks back to the young cleric. “Are you going to do it or what?”

Elaine nods, tries to focus only on the bruise and not all the other revealed skin. Realizes that she’s still holding the medallion of the Allway at her side and slips it over her head. “Don’t move,” she tells the other woman.

“I’m not.”

Elaine exhales noisily. “Okay.” She clutches the medallion, begins to murmur the necessary prayers. Soon the divine symbol is glowing. The light grows, infusing Elaine’s hands with warmth and power. She releases the shining medallion, which settles onto her chest, and then places her hands against Scarlet’s side.

“You’re shaking,” Scarlet tells the cleric.

“I, uh . . . you and, uh . . . there will be a little tingle.”

“I’ve been healed by other cleric’s before,” Scarlet says.

Elaine takes a deep breath. “Okay, hush.” She releases the energy, freeing it to enter into Scarlet, who inhales sharply at the sensation like burning ice that flows from Elaine’s spread fingers across to her flesh, sinks deep into the injury beneath, knitting the damage and greatly lessening the pain.

After several seconds, all the energy is gone from Elaine’s hands and the medallion around her neck has dimmed to its usual bronze luster. The bruise is completely gone.

“Thank you,” says Scarlet, voice breathy with post-healing awe.

Elaine exhales “You’re welcome.”

“Elaine.” A slight edge creeps into Scarlet’s voice.

“Hmm?”

“You can let go of me now.”

“What? Right! Sorry!” An embarrassed laugh bubbles out of Elaine. “I . . .” The young cleric jerks away from the other woman. “All done.”

Scarlet lowers her shirt, and then presses experimentally with the fingers of one hand, probing for any lingering pain. There is none. Takes a deep breath, feels no discomfort. She peeks at Elaine, almost grins at the sight of the young cleric blushing and half turned away and staring down at her feet.

“Elaine.”

“Hmm?” She brings her eyes up hesitantly.

“Listen, what you did, before with the trolls — that was really brave.”

The young cleric almost chokes. “It was?”

“Fuck yeah it was. And it was working too, until dickface over there went on a troll-killing rampage. Which, admittedly, was pretty awesome to watch, just a hatchet, standing there toe to toe like that.”

Elaine frowns.

“Point is, what you did took a lot of guts. And you were right. Your way was going to work.”

“Wow. Thank you, Scarlet.” Elaine is blushing again, but this time with pleasure. Her heart thuds in her chest.

“The way you walked right out there in the middle of those trolls with no weapon or anything.”

“I had the Allway with me.” She grips the medallion on her chest.

Scarlet considers the cleric. “You remind me of myself when I was younger.”

“Really?” Elaine clasps her hands together, tries to keep the giddiness from her voice.

“Yeah. I was stupid too.” She narrows her eyes. “Light, Elaine. You could have been killed.”

“You said . . . but . . . it was working.”

“Yeah, until it wasn’t. That was stupid, Elaine. Brave. But stupid.”

“Thanks?”

Scarlet pats the younger woman roughly on the shoulder, and then turns and strides towards the others, leaving Elaine to scrunch her brow in confusion. Squeal with delight or whimper with shame? She closes her eyes and clutches her medallion to her chest, tries to sort her feelings.

Hamfrd’s big hand settles warmly on her shoulder. “You did well, cleric,” he says.

Elaine trembles, heart in her throat, delight winning out.

Meanwhile, “I’m ready to get the fuck out of this forest,” Scarlet announces. “What the hell are we all doing?”

* * *

“We can transport you to the spot where we left the horses,” Kavin tells the Companions. He indicates his sister, Lynsandrasa, and the other elf, Poryonddel. The female elf now wears her brother’s cloak over her ruined clothing. “Our magic can take us there instantly.”

Mathos perks up. “Magic?”

“If you can do that, why didn’t you zip us over here in the first place?” asks Jake.

“By myself that would be quite impossible,” Kavin explains. “My sister is the truly gifted one, but even she could not take half a dozen others with her alone. Elven magic is different from that which your mage uses. We are magic, of a sort. And when we work powerful spells, it drains our life force. It is more than mere fatigue. Therefore, we have learned to work our magic together, in pairs and groups. Knitting our combined energies together, we become capable of feats of extraordinary power.”

“Fascinating,” breathes Mathos. “Tell us more. How do you work the flows? What do you see when you look at the energy? Colors? Elements? Does one person in the group control the spell or do you all focus on separate bits?”

“I haven’t the time to explain it all to you, mage.”

Mathos nods, disappointed. “Maybe you a have a book or something which describes it?”

“I’m afraid not,” the elf says. He turns his attention to the entire group. “Please, all of you, come closer, form a tight circle here.”

The Companions, plus the two former prisoners, arrange themselves in a circle with the three elves in the center.

The magic is wordless and without ritual. The elves stand with their heads bowed and their eyes closed, holding hands together. To Jake, nothing seems to be happening, but they could be communicating with their minds for all he knows. Can they do that? he wonders, after thinking it. Mathos, meanwhile, has his hands raised in front of his face, fingers bent and arranged in such a way that they create a window-like shape. The mage peers at the three elves through this opening of his fingers. Jake wonders what he sees.

An instant later, the troll’s encampment and the huge boulders around the swordarm seem to blink and shift, and then the scene is replaced by the tall trees and thick vegetation and wet decaying stench of the gloomy forest they left behind earlier in the day.

The group stands on the cleared road.

Of the horses there is no sign.

“Amazing!” breathes Mathos, still peering through his fingers. “I’ve never seen anything like that. The way the magic flowed between the three of you. I have so many questions!”

“If I tried to explain it to you,” says Kavin, sounding a tad weary, “it would take many days.”

“That’s fine. I have time. Let me just” — Mathos reaches over his shoulder, digs through his pack — “let me get some parchment and a pen.”

“And furthermore, human, it would be quite pointless. You aren’t meant to use magic as we do, for you’re not an elf.”

“But . . .” Mathos raises a hopeful hand, as if hopeful that Kavin might call on him to ask more. He does not.

“It looks like the horses split,” says Jake, glancing both directions along the road. Or else the trolls got them, he thinks. “Let’s hope they took off rather than the alternative.”

“On the contrary,” says Kavin, ignoring all further questions from a dejected Mathos, “the animals shall be found just around the next bend there.” He points ahead to a spot where the cleared road seems to disappear, but actually twists around a particularly massive tree and continues out of sight. “We aimed our spell to arrive a short distance away, lest we spook the animals with our sudden appearance.”

“I can still document what I saw,” Mathos mutters to himself, sitting down on the ground in the middle of the road and beginning to scratch at parchment with a pen. “So amazing!”

The two prisoners, standing among the Companions and the elves, look around in wonder at their new surroundings. “I can’t believe we’re alive,” says the one called Lank. “Thought we were done for!”

The prisoner called Sander glances down the road, in the direction the elf has indicated. “This is truly the Trollbriar? So that man, Rock, spoke the truth. He brought us into this cursed wood? Good riddance, then.” He spits on the ground. “Where lies Gateway?”

“Gateway lies not far beyond the end of this road,” Hamfrd tells the man. He points along the cleared path, the same direction Kavin indicated. “That way.”

“Thought we’d never get outta there,” Lank says.

“Po and I began to despair as well,” says the female elf. “Especially after . . . we lost Solanthadel.” She reaches out, takes ahold of her brother’s arm, switches to Elvish. “Still, we knew you’d come, Kal.”

“I shall always come for you, starlight,” he says, also in Elvish. The pair stare longingly into one another’s eyes for a time.

Jake clears his throat, glances elsewhere — into the thick bushes beside the road, up at the sky, down at his feet.

Lynsandrasa eventually breaks eye contact with her brother, considers the Companions.

“My heartfelt thanks to all of you. Truly.” Her eyes settle on Elaine. “Holy child,” says the elf, stepping forward until she is face to face with the young cleric. “My brother explained to me what you tried to do. The peace within your heart soothes my wounded soul.” She reaches out a hand, places it on the back of Elaine’s neck and gently urges the human woman’s head forward. Presses her forehead to the cleric’s.

“I . . . it was . . .”

“I sense so much light within you, holy child,” Lynsandrasa says.

Elaine takes a deep breath. Blushing mightily, she speaks. Haltingly. In Elvish. “You warm my heart,” she says, or tries to say. A common Elvish response to a compliment paid.

The female elf’s eyes grow wide. She glances back to her brother and Po. The three elves look wonderingly at the young cleric.

So do the other Companions.

Elaine and the elves exchange words back and forth in the musical Elvish language while the others stand by, gaping. Kavin says something and then laughs merrily. Elaine giggles and looks down at her feet, her cheeks visibly red, even in the gloom of the Trollbriar.

Jake stares at the young cleric. “Wait, you can speak Elvish?”

“Not well, apparently,” she replies, grinning. “Kavin just told me that my accent is terrible.” The other Companions are still staring. “To be fair, I’ve never heard a native speaker before. A few of us studied it at the Temple, what there was to learn anyway, whatever words we could find scattered in various old texts. We used stay up past curfew, chugging honey tea and practicing all the Elvish that we knew with one another in whispered voices so that we wouldn’t be caught by the priests.”

“Wow,” says Scarlet blandly. “What a wild life you’ve lived.”

Elaine sticks her tongue out at the other woman, but her face is aglow with pride.

Kavin steps forward, puts a hand on his sister’s back. Speaks to her in Elvish. Lynsandrasa nods.

“Elaine,” she says, “my brother wishes you to have something. A special gift. Something rarely given by an elf to a human.”

The young cleric shakes her head furiously. “I couldn’t.”

“We insist.” She waves an open hand towards the rest of the Companions. “Let it be a gift for all of you.”

The female elf places her hands together, clasped as though protecting some precious artifact within. Sparkling light glows and seeps out between her fingers. Her face is a mask of intense concentration. Kavin steps forward and puts his hands around his sister’s. They stand this way together for long moments.

Eventually the light fades. Kavin steps away.

Lynsandrasa approaches Elaine, takes away her top hand. Resting there on her palm is a star-shaped ring that looks to be made of pearl-white glass.

Mathos, back on his feet, peers through his fingers again, gasps. “It’s pure magic!” He comes closer, holding his fingers right up to his face, one eye wide and unblinking, staring down at the star. “You’ve created a solid object from pure magic! That’s not . . . how?”

“You can call it an Elvenstar.” She holds it out for Elaine. “Please, take it.”

“I, uh . . .” The young cleric swallows a lump that has appeared in her throat. Reaches out with trembling fingers to pluck the delicate star from Lynsandrasa’s palm.

“Think of it as a promise, holy child. From my brother and I to you and your friends. If ever you are in need, desperate need, snap the Elvenstar. We shall hear this and come to you, offering whatever aid we can.”

“Snap it? I could never.”

“That is its purpose, holy child.”

“What will you do now?” asks Elaine.

Lynsandrasa glances towards her brother.

It is Kavin who speaks. “We shall return to Stolhme and the portal.” He shares a meaningful look with his sister. “It must remain safeguarded. Whatever the cost.”

* * *

The Companions watch the three elves depart, hands linked and heads bowed the same as when they travelled the whole group instantly from the troll’s encampment. This time, only the three elves disappear.

“Right,” says Jake, “what should we do about these two men? They were used against their will by Madeline Le Campe, but they are still technically . . .” He glances over to where the prisoners have been speaking quietly to one another for the last few minutes. His eyes grow wide. “Where they hell did they go?”

“The horses,” growls Scarlet.

Hamfrd is already rushing along the road in that direction. He rounds the bend and slows to a stop. Up ahead, the animals stand shoulder to shoulder in the center of the road, trying to stay as far from the edge and the wild vegetation as possible.

Jake and Scarlet join Hamfrd, followed by the others.

There should be six horses, one for each of the Companions, plus the one which carried Jerrold from Gateway. Sure enough–

“They stole two of the horses,” Jake says in disbelief.

Mathos shrugs. “Well, they were convicted criminals after all. We should have seen this coming. And technically they stole Madeline Le Campe’s horses. Who, I mean, they were sort of working for her. Against their will, obviously, but–”

“Mathos.” The mage quiets at the warning note in Jake’s voice.

“I say let them go,” says Elaine, standing with her hands clasped together on her medallion. “They’ve been through enough, I think.”

“We don’t even know what crimes they committed to get thrown in the Keep in the first place,” Jake says, incredulous. “They could be–”

“I agree,” says Scarlet.

Jake puts out a hand towards the fierce woman. “See?”

“With Elaine,” she clarifies.

“Seriously?” Jake looks to each of the Companions. “All of you?”

Hamfrd and Mathos nod their heads, in agreement with the women.

Jake throws his hands up. “Fine then. But once we’re out of this forest, someone’s riding two-to-a-horse and it isn’t me.”

“Fair enough,” says Hamfrd, chuckling. He puts his big hand on Jake’s shoulder.

“Right.” Scarlet smashes a fist into her other hand. “Time to go see that bitch, Madeline Le Campe.”

 

 

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