The Adventures of Strongarm and Lightfoot – Scratching a Lich – Chapters One and Two

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Final cover art for "The Adventures of Strongarm & Lightfoot - Scratching a Lich." Art and Copyright Patricia Lupien.

Act One

In Which Unlikely Heroes Come Together

To Undertake an Epic Quest

 

ONE

Ill Fortune, Undeserved

 

Greetings and welcome — welcome! to Ne’lan, a magical, fantastic world that will no doubt seem strange to your eyes — a world full of wonders and horrors and mysteries awaiting discovery and, yes, on occasion, the dreary mundanities of daily life.

What can I say? No world is perfect.

Now sit you down and prepare yourself for an epic tale of danger and daring-do, of friendship gained and loyalties tested, of tragedy and loss — indeed a tale for the ages, starring two humble men who shall, in time, come to live ever on in legend —

What? No, I will not hurry it up. I’m trying to set a mood here. Now shush.

(People these days…no respect for the art of storytelling.)

This grand adventure starts, as grand adventures often do, with a single small story — the kind of trifling distraction that strikes no one in the present as significant, but through the lens of history, will stand revealed as the spark that ignited the fire in which the very world was re-forged.

This single small story begins with two small men: would-be adventurers of fortune who, as of late, have seen adventure aplenty but a dearth of accompanying fortune. To wit — let us look now upon these gentlemen’s current exploit, which sees them fighting their way up Mount Rihon, a long-extinct volcano upon whose south face sits a great ugly boil in the form of an ancient keep, the name of which has been lost to the ages.

(It’s Castle Cramm-Rankor, by the way. As a narrator I know these things; one of the perks of the job. But I digress.)

As we join our heroes, they have already successfully, and with a minimum of fuss, dispatched several sentries who sought to bar the adventurers’ way, starting with a pair of Hruks guarding a rickety wooden bridge that no longer served its intended purpose, as the river it spanned long ago had dried away to dust.

(An aside — one of many in which I shall indulge throughout my tale — regarding the savage Hruks, a race of vaguely human creatures that has plagued Ne’lan for centuries. Bestial and simple-minded, Hruks are often sought out by powerful but evil men who prize the Hruks’ two greatest skills, the first of which is their uncanny ability to follow orders to the letter — particularly when those orders involve inflicting terrible violence upon other living creatures. The second is their proficiency at inflicting terrible violence upon other living creatures. A further aside: their common name was coined following man’s first documented encounter with the race. A poor, hapless hunting party scout was ambushed by a lone Hruk, and upon his return to camp, as he lay dying in his wife’s arms, he responded to an inquiry as to the nature of his attacker with, “hruk.” His comrades mistook his dying grunt for a proper noun, and the rest, as they say, is history.)

Once past the first set of sentries, our protagonists hacked and slashed their way past several more Hruks patrolling the anemic forest of twisted, skeletal trees ringing the base of Mount Rihon — with no harm to themselves, I add, for such was their skill with blade and bow. Hruks are most dangerous in large numbers, but individually they are no match for the duo of Derek Strongarm and Felix Lightfoot — respectively a warrior whose battlefield experience belies his youth and a thief who honed his skills as a young apprentice cutpurse under the tutelage of Lars of the Gentle Fingers, a master rogue whose name unfailingly provoked juvenile tittering but whose exploits could fill this tome and several more besides. However, another narrator has been employed to chronicle his adventures, so I shall speak of him no more lest I incur my colleague’s litigious wrath.

Felix, an ace archer, next dispatched with a single arrow to the eye the massive troll chained to the front gate like a guard dog — were that dog in fact a hulking humanoid with fists the size of its own head, a leathery wart-pocked hide, and a taste for human flesh. The Hruks, overconfident in the troll’s ability to ward off intruders, had posted no additional guards beyond the front gate, and so the men ascended unhindered to the keep’s upper level. There they located a portcullis separating the keep proper from an upper courtyard of sorts, an expansive crescent-shaped lip of rock edging the central crater. On the far side of this courtyard sat the penultimate obstacle: a guardhouse, crudely constructed of wood scavenged from disparate sources, sufficient in size to hold several dozen bodies but — according to the detailed scouting reports shared with Derek and Felix before their departure on this errand — generally unoccupied during daylight hours.

Two Hruks stood outside the guardhouse, though their postures suggested they were loitering rather than on a scheduled watch detail. Reinforcing this notion was the presence of a dented steel stein, large enough to hold as much blood as one would find in a single infant — its express purpose — which the Hruks passed back and forth.

(I am pleased to report they were not partaking of baby’s blood but brandy stolen from the very same caravan that ferried the object of our heroes’ quest.)

Derek pressed his face to the rusted portcullis and scanned the courtyard. “Just the two,” he reported.

Felix set an arrow on his bow, a simple yew longbow that had served him very well since he acquired it — that is to say, stole it — in his fifteenth year. The first shot would be simplicity itself, but the second posed a greater challenge since speed would be of the essence. Felix waited until one Hruk took the stein, until he tossed his head back to drain it, before loosing his first arrow. The Hruk lowered the stein, beheld his companion’s state, and thought, Huh, that’s weird. He didn’t have an arrow in his throat a second ago — that keen observation coming a split-second before Felix’s second shaft entered the Hruk’s ear canal.

“Nice,” Derek said. The portcullis, as it turned out, was not attached to anything. “And check this out. Boy, this has been an easy one.”

“A little too easy,” Felix said.

“Pessimist.”

“Realist.”

“But you can’t argue the intelligence has been spot-on so far,” Derek said. “Now, Lord Spendle said there are maybe a dozen Hruks around at any given time, and we’ve taken out about that many between the bridge and here…”

“So, what? Maybe a couple more inside?” Felix said. “That’s doable.”

They dashed across the courtyard and took positions on either side of the entrance, a plain slat door held in place by wooden peg hinges. It invited kicking in, and Derek was ready to oblige.

“I’ll charge in, take care of any Hruks near the door,” Derek said, “you take out any others. Sound good?”

“We could just seal them in and torch the place.”

“That’s a little inhumane, don’t you think?”

“It’s efficient.”

“It’s cruel.”

“Oh, so now you’re sympathetic toward Hruks?” Derek gave him a look. “Fiiiiiiine. We’ll do it your way.”

“On three. One. Two. THREE!”

The door fell under Derek’s thunderous kick. He charged in as planned, his longsword ready to taste Hruk blood. Felix followed, the first of many arrows nocked and drawn. Their screams were a horrible harmony that foretold of death and destruction and would forever haunt the dreams of any Hruk who might somehow survive the onslaught to come.

Fifty Hruks froze in the midst of their midday feast and stared at the men stupidly — their default mode. Derek and Felix froze and stared back just as stupidly — which was not their habit, generally, but in this case understandable.

Felix summarized this unexpected scenario thusly: “Well, shit.”

The brightest of the Hruks pointed damningly at the interlopers. “HOO-MUHNS!!” he bellowed, and his fellow Hruks rose as one and roared their intent.

Felix, ever quick-witted, formulated a cunning new strategy. “Retreat!”

I assure you this was not the whole of his plan, for upon entering the guardhouse, Felix noticed a series of oil lamps hanging from iron hooks set into the walls. He fired, shattering one such lamp and spraying flaming oil across the walls, a feasting table occupied by a dozen or so Hruks, those self-same Hruks, and the dirt floor beneath them. The latter of these was the only object that did not ignite instantly.

Felix led the strategic withdrawal. Derek cleared the door, spun, and ran through the first Hruk in pursuit. The hapless Hruk unwittingly aided the battle that followed by crumpling in the doorway, giving his comrades something to trip and fall over; four toppled and pig-piled onto one another in sequence, and each received a sword blow to the back of the neck. Felix dropped several more as they charged the entrance, adding to the dam of greasy mottled Hruk flesh.

The Hruks’ screams of rage changed to screams of panic as the fire spread and consumed the guardhouse, aided and abetted by several Hruks who — in a rare, well-intentioned, and ill-advised display of creative thought — attempted to extinguish the blaze by blowing out the flames or dousing them with brandy.

At first, despite the unexpected turn, our brave adventurers believed they had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat — ah, but often do noble men fall victim to the sin of hubris. Had they thought to properly reconnoiter the premises, perhaps they would have taken steps to barricade the second door on the guardhouse’s western face. And so it was that a handful of Hruks escaped the growing pyre, and within the span of a few seconds they surrounded the men, their weapons drawn — and fearsome weapons they were: wicked swords with broad blades and flattened tips with a sharpened edge, hence their name among men: chisels. They were crude weapons for a crude race with a crude style of fighting based entirely in wide, wild swings that would most certainly do great harm if they connected with their target.

If.

And that uncertainty was only amplified against a swordsman of Derek’s caliber; clumsy blows were expertly parried and deflected, leaving the Hruks vulnerable to precise retaliatory cuts and thrusts. His armor, a mismatched patchwork of steel and leather, was not once tested by a Hruk chisel. Felix, having at this point slung his bow for a pair of matching short sabers, fared as well, though he was less in his element with hand-to-hand combat than his comrade; he greatly preferred stealth to direct confrontation.

The battle, such as it was, did not last long and ended with a score of Hruks dead upon the courtyard. They were the fortune ones; their suffering was trivial compared to those who perished within the blazing guardhouse. To his credit, Felix resisted an open boast over the ironic turn of events.

“We were told a dozen, right?” Derek said.

“We were,” Felix said. “I think when we get back, we should have a little discussion with our employer about the quality of his intelligence. And negotiate a bonus for the extra trouble.”

“Sounds reasonable to me.”

In time, the guardhouse collapsed to ash and embers, granting Derek and Felix clear passage to the final leg of their journey. As is often the case with yawning chasms, the only way across was over a rickety footbridge assembled from dry planks laid over a network of thick but frayed hemp rope.

(Explorers throughout the world of Ne’lan have thus far failed to document a single rope suspension bridge in trustworthy condition. Historians have theorized that these constructs have always been of questionable physical integrity, made that way by early bridge-builders who were universally corrupt and padded their bottom line through the use of substandard materials.)

“I hate these things,” Felix said, peering past the bridge and into the crater that, centuries ago, held a roiling lake of molten lava. He estimated a half-mile of open air beneath his feet — enough of a plummet, should one take an unfortunate tumble, to give one time to seriously contemplate the series of decisions that led to such a miserable demise.

“Yeah. But think of it this way: if the Hruks could cross it to stash the horn, it should be safe enough for us.”

Felix was unconvinced, but at this late juncture, turning around and going home empty-handed seemed a far less desirable option than a headlong plunge to certain death — which speaks strongly to the lean times our heroes had as of late fallen upon.

The men ventured across at a modest pace, balancing caution with the strong desire to cross as quickly as possible and reach solid ground — specifically, the solid ground of a vast column of rock jutting, against all logic, from the center of Mount Rihon like the axel of a wheel that had lost all but one delicate spoke.

“So far so good,” Derek said.

“You’re determined to jinx us, aren’t you?”

Yet jinx them he did not; they crossed without incident and marked the occasion with deep sighs of relief.

A high stone dome, a natural formation, capped the pillar. As daylight did not want to stray far past the black cave mouth, Derek paused to withdraw from his pack a travel torch — a short shaft of wood wrapped in pitch-soaked burlap — which he set ablaze with flint and steel and no small amount of profanity over how long it took him to set a travel torch ablaze with flint and steel. When the torch at last caught, the flickering flame revealed a wondrous sight that made the entire day worthwhile: wooden chests, large and small and in-between — and behind the chests, something that made their eyes pop and lips spread into unbreakable grins.

“I think we just got our bonus,” Felix said.

“First things first,” Derek said, forcing his voice of reason to do its job. “The horn.”

“Yeah. Right. Horn.”

Felix tore his eyes away from the mountain of gold coins and picked at random one of the chests, one secured by a heavy iron padlock that looked easy enough to spring. From a leather belt pouch, he removed his picks, and then he set to work.

“Bring the torch down, I need more light.”

Derek stabbed the butt of the torch into the ground next to Felix, who grunted a thank-you, then turned his attention to the gold. There was so much here, more money than he’d ever seen, too much for him and his partner to carry off in a hundred trips — a hundred lifetimes. The gold glittered in the torchlight, tiny reflections of the flame dancing in each coin. Derek bent to scoop up a handful for closer inspection; they were not the square coins common in most lands but oval in shape and, it appeared, oddly convex.

“Hey,” he said, feeling the pile, which did not shift under his touch as he’d expected. “The coins are warm.”

“Uh-huh,” Felix said distractedly.

“And they’re stuck together.”

“Great.”

“…And they’re not coins.”

“Trying to work here.”

The treasure raised its head and blinked the sleep from its eyes.

“Felix…”

“Ha!” The lock popped open under Felix’s gentle ministrations. He raised the lid and beheld the prize within: a black bull’s horn, as long as his arm from fingertip to elbow, polished to a nacreous finish and inlaid with intricate gold swirls cascading down its length.

“Derek my man,” Felix said, closing the lid with the greatest of care, “I do believe our luck is changing.”

“It isn’t,” Derek said. “It really isn’t!”

Drakes are a distant branch on the family tree of dragon-kind. They share a general aesthetic, but drakes are smaller and wingless. They are highly adept at scaling the most terrifying of ascents to reach their mountain lairs, where they live solitary existences. They interact with few creatures that do not immediately become the evening meal, and Hruks, curiously, are among the rare exceptions. Scholars have theorized this is due to the Hruks’ atrocious flavor — though how these scholars discovered this fact is best left unsaid. Consequently, drakes and Hruks have been known to form if not friendships, amicable truces. In terms of disposition, drakes are not very pleasant under the best of conditions — and when rudely roused by obnoxious humans intruding upon its den? They’re rather surly, to say the least.

“Ohhhhh,” Felix said as the beast rose to its full height; its shoulder was on level with Derek’s head, and Derek by most measures was not a small man.

Have I mentioned that drakes could, on a less impressive scale than their gargantuan draconian brethren, breathe fire? Not many people are aware of this ability.

Derek and Felix certainly weren’t.

 

Fear not, dear reader. I have not brought you so far only to end my tale aborning with the untimely and unseemly demise of our good heroes — nor have I glossed over their harrowing fight for survival against the irate drake but merely spared you the disappointment of witnessing one of Derek and Felix’s decidedly less impressive battles.

Despite the drubbing received by the leads in our drama, Derek and Felix escaped with their pride more bruised and battered than their bodies, and that is the sort of injury that may be easily soothed with a pint or three at the local pub (as you shall witness momentarily).

For now, however, let us look in on the adventurers as they return to their point of origin for this more or less successful assignment: Ambride Manor, the opulent and extravagant home to Lord Spendle, he who sent Derek and Felix upon their errand with the promise of a reasonable reward.

“The horn!” Spendle cried as Felix opened the chest with a lack of ceremony, for exhaustion from the long journey to and from Mount Rihon — and all the fighting in-between — had claimed as its first victim Felix’s sense of the theatrical. Spendle gingerly lifted the horn and held it up to the late afternoon light beaming through a series of tall windows lining his great hall, where the kindly lord of Ambride regularly held magnificent feasts for esteemed guests. The horn appeared as it did when Lord Spendle first packed it away for transport to Lord Paradim of Somevil: gleaming and spotless — the polar opposite of our heroes, who had yet to rinse away the grime of their labor. Ne’lan is not such a magical world that hot baths are readily available in its forests.

“And not a scratch on it,” Spendle said as if he were expecting otherwise. “Well done, gentlemen! Well done indeed!”

“All in a day’s work, m’lord,” Derek rasped, his throat raw and parched. His mouth tasted like he had polished off a severely overcooked steak — as well as the ashes of the fire upon which it was severely overcooked.

“You have no idea what this means to us,” Spendle said. “This drinking horn has been in my family for generations, and I promised the horn to Lord Paradim as a dowry for marrying my daughter Alyssa.”

Alyssa was pretty enough, but she had a face that seemed most at home set in an expression of sour disapproval — and in this moment her face was extremely comfortable. Lord Spendle’s chamberlain Elmore, unusually young to hold so important a position within a warden’s household, smiled as would a man who’d received a birthday gift of questionable taste, yet as a matter of decorum, he could not allow himself to make the appropriate retching sound. Conroy, captain of the household guard, might have had an opinion, but one would never know it by his face, ever an unmoving mask of stern indifference.

“Paradim refused to proceed with the marriage unless he received the horn — a matter of pride, you know — but now that you’ve retrieved it, the marriage can proceed!” Spendle turned to drink in his daughter’s thin, forced smile. “Isn’t that wonderful, my dear?”

“Marvelous.”

Felix felt the chill through his worn leather cuirass.

“I’m going to send a message to Lord Paradim right now to tell him the good news!” Spendle said, clapping his hands like a little boy who just discovered the entertainment value of daddy cursing after striking his thumb with a hammer. “Elmore, please see to these gentlemen’s payment. Captain Conroy, if you’ll kindly secure the horn…”

Conroy moved, dispelling any notions that he might have in reality been a remarkably lifelike statue.

“One moment, Lord Spendle,” Felix said.

“Tactfully…” Derek said.

“Why weren’t we told about the drake?”

“The what?” Spendle said.

“The drake. The one guarding the horn. You told us about the Hruks at the old river and in the woods, and the troll at the front gate, and the guardhouse — even though there was a teeeeensy discrepancy between how many Hruks you said would be there and how many there actually were — why did you not mention the friggin’ drake in the cave?”

“Tactfully,” Derek said.

“I knew nothing about a drake, Mr. Lightfoot,” Spendle said in earnest. “Elmore? Did your sources mention a drake?”

Elmore cleared his throat. “That particular detail might have slipped my mind, my lord.”

Felix reddened. “Slipped your —?! You motherfu—”

“Tactfully!”

“Oh, dear. I wonder if that’s why the first four expeditions never returned,” Spendle pondered aloud. “Did you defeat it?”

“Let’s just say there were no real winners in that fight,” Felix said — tactfully.

“Mm. Well, what matters is you’re returned and you’ve recovered my horn! Now, if you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I have happy news to share. Elmore, their compensation?”

“Of course, my lord.”

Spendle departed, mumbling merrily to himself about weddings and feasts and grandchildren and advantageous political allegiances.

Conroy bent to take the chest, only to have the lid slam shut under Felix’s boot. “Mr. Elmore,” Felix said. “I’m sure your…memory lapse was completely accidental, and you fully intended to tell us about the drake, but seeing as you didn’t, I think that violates the conditions of our original contract — and as such, I think we’re entitled to a little extra compensation. You know, so our payment is commensurate with the increased risk we faced. Say, double?”

“No,” Elmore said. “You’ll receive two hundred gold coins, as we agreed on, and you’ll be grateful for it.”

“Yeah? Then maybe we won’t hand over the horn until we renegotiate the contract to our satisfac—”

For a man who did not move frequently, Conroy, when suitably motivated, could move quickly and fluidly; Felix did not realize Conroy had drawn his sword until it was resting on the back of his neck, right below the shallow depression where skull and spine met.

“Maybe we’ll take our payment and be on our way,” Felix said airily.

Elmore threw a sack of coins at Derek’s feet. “A pleasure doing business with you.”

Felix held his profane tirade in check until he and Derek exited the great hall and entered the safety of the grand foyer, which boasted bold acoustics that lent Felix’s outburst a certain majesty.

“I know, I know,” Derek said.

“That wasn’t an unreasonable request, was it? I mean, all I asked for was something extra for our troubles, y’know? A little show of gratitude?”

As Felix said this, Alyssa, followed by Elmore as closely as by her own shadow, burst through the great hall’s grand double doors. “Wait!” she called out, sprinting up to the adventurers.

The flickering ember of hope for a more profitable conclusion was cruelly extinguished when Alyssa’s dainty hand landed broadside on Felix’s cheek and, like a flat stone on a still lake, skipped off and landed again with equal force on Derek’s cheek, leaving behind clean spots in their second skins of filth.

“Do you know how much grief I went through to get rid of that damned horn?!” Alyssa screeched. “Now I have to marry that fat, sweaty, hairy oaf Paradim thanks to you two IDIOTS!”

Her dramatic exit was very dramatic indeed — and yet undermined by Elmore sliding into a parallel course of travel and, with no hint of subtlety, laying a hand upon her firm left cheek.

“That’s gratitude for you,” Derek sighed.

 

TWO

A Pale Woman on a Dark Path

 

Allow me to indulge in a tried and true technique of the storyteller’s craft and detail a moment in time concurrent with the events that I have just described. This is an example of, as we say in the trade, a non-linear narrative. It’s a wonderful way to convey artfully vital information that, really, one should have presented a bit earlier.

I take you now to the road leading from — well, from many places, for no road leads to but a single destination, but for our immediate purposes, this road leads from Oson, the grandest of cities in Asaches — the largest, most advanced, and most civilized of the six continents of Ne’lan — to the smaller but, in its own way, quite magnificent city of Ambride. It is a well-traveled road, but like many paths in life, it has its periodic barren stretches.

It is upon one such barren stretch, in the fading light of sunset, that a pivotal event within the greater scheme of this story occurred while Derek and Felix were feeling Lady Alyssa’s, ahem, displeasure. This event involves a dark lady by the name of Erika Racewind — and by dark I refer to her demeanor, not her complexion, for Erika is of the elves of the Clan Boktn, a rugged, bellicose, some say nigh-barbaric segment of Ne’lan’s elven population. Most elves are fair, but those of the Clan Boktn have skins the colorless hue of a winter frost, and for this simple quirk of the cosmos, other clans roundly shun them. Humankind is not so unfair and instead chooses to resent the elves of Clan Boktn for their reliably unpleasant dispositions — a more reasonable stance, say I. After all, one cannot choose to be pink or pale, but one can choose not to act like an ass.

Yet there are those who prize a no-nonsense, all-business attitude and will not hesitate to put these energies to good use — for example, High Lord Ograine, ruler of all Asaches, who years earlier took our lady Erika into his employ as his personal bodyguard. Her temperament has proven a benefit to High Lord Ograine, for during her tenure as his protector, she has personally and without aid slain four assassins — and severely injured one innocent soul who came at her master wielding in a threatening manner what she later learned was a pie server. She has not been allowed back in that particular restaurant since.

Erika would normally never leave her lord’s side, but these were not normal circumstances, and High Lord Ograine deemed her talents necessary to safeguard a very precious cargo, now secured inside the hulking horse-drawn carriage upon which she rode. Next to her sat a driver whose name she’d not bothered to learn, for that might have invited the mindless chit-chat that often accompanies long journeys. She needn’t have worried, for he was very businesslike and preferred to focus on controlling the four thundering destriers pulling the carriage. The sextet of mounted guards flanking the transport were too far away to engage them in conversation, so Erika enjoyed relative peace — a peace broken only by the rattle of carriage wheels on the compacted dirt road, the steady tattoo of hoofbeats, and the choked scream of a guard as he took an arrow to the face.

She cursed to herself; she hadn’t expected this so soon…

“AMBUSH!”

Her cry alerted her companions to the danger but also acted as an attack signal for her unseen assailants. Numerous shafts shrieked out of the dark woods from all directions, stinging the guards who had brought with them only their swords — useless weapons against distant attackers. Erika was not so short-sighted; she took up her longbow, a slender but deceptively powerful elven bow capable of punching an arrow through stout plate armor at impressive distances. She scanned the woods for flashes of movement and, with a speed and fluidity of motion of which only elves are capable, returned fire — but she knew luck would only favor her for so long against such odds.

“Get us out of here!” Erika screamed.

 

“Summon Lord Spendle,” Erika said to the young footman, who stared in awe at the mighty destriers. The horses had shown more fortitude than their human companions had by ignoring the many arrows jutting from their bodies just long enough that they might dutifully ferry their cargo to safety. Their task completed, the animals sank to the ground and closed their eyes.

“Who may I say is calling?” the lad stammered. Such inquiries were proper protocol, but in this instance, it felt foolish to ask.

“Tell him Erika Racewind, sworn protector of High Lord Ograine, is here and requires sanctuary.”

The footman shifted his gaze to Erika and continued to gawk; he’d never met an elf of the Clan Boktn before. He led a sheltered life.

“Hey! Am I not speaking English?” Erika barked.

(Technically, she was not speaking English but the common tongue of Asaches, which has been liberally translated for your convenience. You’re welcome.)

She jumped down from the carriage, which now resembled an expertly hand-carved pincushion, and stood nose-to-nose with the footman. “I said get your ass inside and get Lord Spendle. Now.”

The footman glanced past Erika to the driver, who sat bolt-upright in his seat, his face surprisingly placid in light of his recent experience. “Is he okay?” the footman said.

As if in answer, the driver pitched forward to display his newly acquired collection of arrows, which he carried in his back.

“He’s fine,” Erika said.

 

Elmore studied Erika with the quiet disgust of a man who’d chanced upon fresh roadkill — or of a priss whose early bedtime had been thwarted by a very rude elf who looked like she counted barroom brawling among her hobbies. She was a striking young woman, admittedly, with long white hair shot through with streaks of black, presently twisted into a braid that fell almost to her tailbone. Her face reminded him of a porcelain doll’s, pale and perfect, save for an odd tattoo: a design in gray that described a gentle arc below her right eye and ended in two small prongs that suggested eyelashes.

“I suppose I should offer you some refreshment,” Elmore sniffed. “Would you care for anything? Wine? Beer? Puppy blood?”

“Boy, you’d better lose the attitude,” Erika said. Elmore stiffened; the threat Or else I’ll snap your spine over my knee was implicit.

Satisfied that Elmore was in his place, Erika took a seat on the edge of a massive banquet table, one of three curved tables that ringed the great hall to form a sort of arena in the center — a performance area for bards and jesters during formal dinners. She did not rise, as etiquette demanded, for Lord Spendle as he bustled into the hall, wearing an enormous fur robe that could still fit the grizzly from which the hide had been forcibly taken. Conroy drew his sword upon spying Erika and moved to intercept her. She held her peace.

“Remove your sword belt,” he said in a most impressively commanding monotone.

“Oh, Conroy, really,” Spendle said. “That’s utterly unnecessary; I know this woman.”

“But my kind can’t be trusted,” Erika said in Conroy’s direction, almost as a dare. “Everyone knows that.”

“Nonsense,” Spendle said. “What brings you to my house, Miss Racewind?”

“Four dying horses,” Elmore said, “which are bleeding all over the courtyard.”

“What?”

“My carriage was ambushed,” Erika said, “in the woods about five miles outside the city. My driver and escorts were killed. I need sanctuary for the night, four fresh horses, and a dozen armed guards — your most trustworthy men — to accompany me to my destination.”

“Now see here…” Elmore began. Erika silenced him with a look.

Deciding that a touch of politesse might be in order, Erika said, “I realize I’m asking a lot, Lord Spendle, but I’m on…” She paused; important business was a fantastic understatement, yet she hesitated to divulge the sensitive details of her mission — at least in present company. “I need to speak to you in private.”

“I trust Elmore and Conroy implicitly,” Spendle said.

“I don’t,” Erika said. “I can’t. I mean no offense, Lord Spendle, but I shouldn’t even trust you — but if you insist on knowing the nature of my mission…”

“I’m afraid it’s a moot point, my dear. I could provide a horse or two, but most of my personal household guard are with my wife in Idlerouh. Visiting family, you know,” he added by way of an explanation.

“You have no one you can spare?”

“We’re running on a skeleton crew,” Conroy said, “and I am not about to leave the manor unmanned, for you or anyone.”

Spendle shrugged as if it were not within his power to override the man.

“I need to be on the road at first light. Are there any reputable mercenary guilds?” she asked, loathe to consider that avenue but lost for another. It would take a courier several hours to return to Oson to fetch replacement guards, a few hours to ready a new escort, and several more for them to return — assuming neither courier nor guards were caught in the same lethal crossfire that had created her current predicament.

“Not in Ambride. The nearest guilds are in Somevil, but I wouldn’t regard them as reputable,” Spendle said softly, as if fearful one of the thuggish guildmasters might overhear his assessment. “But perhaps you could inquire in some of the local inns and publick houses. Adventurers pass through regularly, looking for work.”

“Just look for the drunkest of the drunken idiots in the room,” Elmore said.

“No no, that’s not — oh!” Spendle said with a snap of his fingers. “The two gentlemen who recovered my horn! They did excellent work, and at a very reasonable price.”

“Competent men?” Erika said, resigning herself. “Trustworthy?”

“Very competent, very trustworthy. Wouldn’t you say, Elmore?”

No was the answer that first formed on his lips, but then Elmore considered how Derek and Felix’s unexpected success had so neatly confounded the plan he and Alyssa had laid — a plan devised to thwart an arranged marriage neither of them wanted consummated.

“This mission of yours — exceptionally dangerous?” Elmore inquired.

“I lost six of High Lord Ograine’s finest guards already.”

“Then I can think of two people no better suited to aid you,” Elmore said with a devilish grin, “than Derek Strongarm and Felix Lightfoot.”