“Are we even going the right way?” Tangsen asked in exasperation.
“According to our map we are.” Gaeren said with confidence.
“And you got the map…”
“So its accuracy is…”
Tangsen sighed. “I really am not looking forward to another night in the woods. If I put my foot in my boot to find honey again…”
“They’re just trying to tell you that you’re sweet.” Gaeren put his best smile on, but Tangsen’s expression did not communicate that he was convinced. “I put down two gold boars two nights ago and have been free of faerie molestation since.”
“You know, paying for the privilege of being free of molestation has a name – it’s called extortion.”
“It’s also called taxation. You don’t grouse about that.” Tangsen gave Gaeren a look. “…much.”
Tangsen shushed Gaeren. “Someone’s coming. Rider.”
Gaeren pulled up his horse short. “Do we need to…”
Tangsen shook his head, but held out his hand in a quieting gesture before answering in a low tone. “I don’t know. It’s just one, but I think I hear something…” Tangsen’s words died off as the rider crested a hill. He was a tall man shrouded in a mottled green and brown cloak. The hood was back, revealing tussled chestnut hair and a two-day growth of whiskers along his jawline. His head swiveled in a furtive search as his horse stamped impatiently beneath him.
Tangsen squinted, “It’s the Marshall…or the Warden…no, I think he’s Champion now. Lars? Lan? No, something Halfling-ish. Lem…his name’s Lem…I think.”
“Champion, eh?” Gaeren raised an eyebrow. “You don’t suppose he’d qualify for…”
“Why would you even think that?”
“They call this serendipity my friend,” Gaeren replied happily, “This is good ole Cayden watching out for us.”
“And do you think the Champion is going to be okay with Cayden’s grand plan?”
“Oh, you’d prefer to go back to Plan A then?”
The thought quieted Tangsen with a slight grimace. After a second he muttered, “Not especially.”
“Then why don’t we go introduce ourselves and see where it goes from there.” He looked back toward the hill, “Do you suppose he’s seen us?”
“If he hasn’t, his bird probably has.”
Gaeren looked up, “Bird?”
“He’s a ranger,” Tangsen replied, “You know how they are with their pets.”
“Well if we’ve already been seen there’s no reason to pretend we haven’t.”
Gaeren kicked at the side of his horse. Tangsen followed a few wary strides behind.
Three days prior, Nina had asked over dinner if Lem had noticed that the Spring Bells were blooming in the Greenwood. Lem had answered casually, “Sure, they’re pretty little things aren’t they—not as pretty as you of course—but they’re okay.” Smiling coyly, Nina had asked if Lem could bring her a handful to season a cask of mead she was fermenting. Lem, of course, had agreed.
The problem was, Lem didn’t know what a ‘Spring Bell’ was. He presumed it was some kind of flower, and after a quick consultation with the herbalist in Tatzlford he had confirmed that such a flower did exist and it was probably blooming. But the picture the herbalist had drawn was not exactly to scale, and Lem had neglected to ask what color they were. Now, deep in the forest, Lem was realizing that there were a lot of tiny bell-shaped flowers that could possibly be the ones that Nina was asking about. Frustrated by his own stupidity, Lem had decided just to pick a handful of whatever ‘bells’ he could find and bring them back to the herbalist for identification. After a few hours at it, he had a veritable bouquet blossoming up from his right saddlebag.
Lem was distracted enough by his search not to notice either of the other riders until the nose of Gaeren’s horse emerged from between two trees. Turning, he blinked, then reined his horse to the side and slipped his hand down to the holster ahead of his knee. His palm settled on the stock of the massive crossbow Lem called ‘Springsnap.’ He briefly considered how stupid a way this would be to die.
His apprehension eased a bit as Gaeren gave a cheery wave. “Greetings, Champion! I am Gaeren Stormcrow and I believe you are already acquainted with my partner, Tangsen Billowbreeze.”
Lem used his free hand to try and covertly hide the flowers, “Umm, yeah…greetings. It’s a fine day to wander the woods and ummm…enjoy yourself…in any number of possible innocuous pursuits. And what pursuit are you two fellows enjoying today?”
Gaeren produced a roll of paper from his saddle. “As it happens, we’re looking for a peculiar landmark. It might have been a faerie circle at one point.”
Lem winced, “The faeries out here aren’t the friendliest.”
Tangsen nodded. “Did you get the honey as well?”
Lem snorted, “Squishy mushrooms in my pockets and tree sap in my breeches…and that’s just for staters. It’s enough to make an otherwise friendly guy into a would-be arsonist.”
Tangsen nodded in agreement, but Gaeren cleared his throat.
“My apologies, Champion…”
“Lem, then…” Gaeren unfurled the paper. “We’re looking for a spot called the Maiden’s Escape. It’s marked on this map, but I think we’ve rode past the point on this map, judging by the scale, at least twice.” Lem led his horse alongside Gaeren and peered at the map.
“The Maiden’s Escape isn’t there. It’s three miles south of Elkhorn. That spot is a pond that our local Boggard uses for…waste.”
Tangsen gave a hard look to Gaeren, whose cheeks were coloring slightly. “Can’t recall, huh?”
“Wouldn’t have been that girl…”
“The one who you bought all those drinks for.”
“She was fonder of me than that.”
“Fonder of the drinks, at least.”
“Ahem…” Gaeren rolled up the map. “Let’s not bore Lem with trivia.” He turned back to the ranger with a grin. “Appreciate your help, sir. We’ll just…”
His eyes lingered curiously on the flowers sprouting up behind Lem on his mount. He passed a look to Tangsen.
Lem tried to think quick, “They’re for a funeral.”
“Oh I’m sorry to hear that. Who’s passed?”
“No one important.”
“They just put you on flower detail?” Gaeren asked skeptically.
Lem straightened in the saddle, “The Champion of Ursundova goes where he’s needed.”
Tangsen looked purposefully away, “Well we won’t keep you from it. Would hate to think that…”
Tangsen’s words trailed off as he noticed leaves shifting among the forest undergrowth. He stared a moment, then his eyes widened and he gave a shout. “Down! Archers!”
As though to certify the halfling’s words, arrows came flying out of the trees. Gaeren and Lem tumbled from their horses, whose eyes were rolling and they whickered angrily before abandoning the adventurers. As they dove behind trees, Lem was loading Springsnap and Gaeren’s black-bladed sword appeared in his hand.
Gaeren pressed his back to a wide tree, “This seems a bit harsher than a prank. I wonder if they want more gold.”
Lem peered around a tree of his own, “This isn’t the fae.”
Above him, Lem’s falcon Shay wove in tight aerobatics through the forest canopy. The bird’s keen eyes pulled Lem’s attention to the shadows of a dozen figures moving through the woods, bows in hand. He fired off a bolt that drove one of them into hiding behind a fallen tree trunk. “Bandits…”
The figures held a moment, before a harsh voice bellowed from the other side of the trail, “Dovan D’Nisroch sends his regards. If you boys would put your arms away and come out with your hands up, we’ll just take our toll and be on our way.”
Lem almost smiled, “Sorry friends, I’m sorta sworn to the River Freedoms.”
Gaeren shouted back, “And I don’t pay legitimate taxes, why in the Nine Hells would I pay a gaggle of scum who can’t hit a stationary target on a horse?” Lem glanced at the swordsman oddly, then looked around him.
“Where’d Tangsen go?”
Gaeren grinned. “He’s busy. How many do you think you can put down?”
Lem peered around the corner again and considered. “I’d wager four.”
Gaeren looked as though he was figuring in his head. “That’s four for me, then. Done and done.” He gave a shout in halfling, “Dezlantui ladul!”
Lem’s eyes widened, “Unleash hell?” A clap of thunder was the answer and Lem turned to see a fiery explosion erupt in the woods, sending a mushroom of gray smoke up into the canopy.
“Hey!” Lem protested, “Lay off the pyro! The faeries around here are cranky enough as it is.”
“Please. Living wood doesn’t burn that easy.”
“I think it’s the principle of the thing.”
“We’ll litigate it out later. For now, take the ones to your left.”
Gaeren whispered an arcane chant and was suddenly moving as a blur. As the Magus bolted off, Lem also felt a rush of magic quicken his reactions. It was a familiar spell, one he had been without since Variel had been lost. But there was no time for sadness. He snapped his crossbow up and spun out from the tree.
With mechanical efficiency, Springsnap popped and fired again and again, driving bolts into advancing bandits. They tumbled into the tall brush as they were felled, some screaming or loosing a last angry curse. Among them, Lem saw the swordsman darting for foe to foe, his sword now crackling with lightning as he cut down the thugs. Gaeren was on them before they realized what was happening, most dropping their bows for a blade only moments too late. Another burst of flame forced a few more from their hiding place, one trailing a burning cloak as he fell. Bolts sang, the sword of lightning rose and fell, and explosions punctured the air. As suddenly as the fracas had begun, it was over.
Gaeren and Lem met back on the path. Gaeren replaced his sword as Lem called Shay back to him.
Lem furrowed his brow, “Where’s your friend?”
In response, the Halfling appeared from behind a bush.
Gaeren smiled. “Master Billowbreeze prefers to go unseen until the violence is done.”
Tangsen gave a wry grin, “While Master Stormcrow prefers to stand out. I’m going to repaint that armor with a target.”
“Red is not my color.” Gaeren quipped. “Our most sincere thanks for your assistance, Lem.”
Lem blinked at the two for a moment, then grinned. “Not sure you needed it, but any chance to show off. It’s been a while since I got to give Bandits what for.”
“Maybe I’ll even pay my taxes this year, if they pay for such able help.”
“Don’t get me started on taxes,” Lem answered as Shay alighted on his shoulder, “Why don’t you buy me a drink and we’ll call it even.”
Gaeren looked down the trail. “I suppose we should go find the horses.”
Lem peered at the ground, “Well wherever they are, mine’s with them. You want some help?”
Tangsen’s mouth twisted slightly. “Well, we’re…”
“…more than grateful for any help you might provide. Even more so if you could help us find the Maiden’s Escape.”
“Eh, sure, what the hell. I’m probably already on Tiressia’s list for the fires.”
Lem pictured his horse in his mind, and said to Shay, “Seek.” The bird chirped, then disappeared in a flurry of quick wingbeats. Lem commented appreciatively, “Helps to have another set of eyes.”
Tangsen gave Gaeren a wry glance, “I wouldn’t know.”
It took them only an hour to find where their mounts had stopped and another three to find the old circle. The trees stood clear of the patch of land, nearly 70 yards in diameter and cordoned off by daisies and vibrant, bell-shaped flowers the color of morning sunlight. Lem pretended not to take notice.
Lem took a look around the circle. “So what’s out here?”
Gaeren scratched his head. “Well, according to a book I consider far more authoritative than my map, a Taldane princess was rescued here from a band of evil faeries by a knight. He fought off the first wave, but that only brought on a larger contingent, bent on killing both of them. For his bravery, the princess rewarded the knight before they were both cut down. The less-evil faeries were moved by the knight’s bravery and hid the two of them. Supposedly, he ended up leaving something in the hiding place…”
Lem nodded. “Okay, so it’s like a secret faerie crypt or something. So, where is…” When he turned, Gaeren was standing only inches from Lem’s face. Lem drew back, but not quick enough to stop Gaeren from taking his face in his hands and giving him a kiss full on the lips.
Lem grunted in protest and shoved Gaeren roughly back, “Ugh! At least buy me a drink before…”
An unnatural sound drained the words from his protest. He turned to see…a doorway, sitting in the center of the circle. It led into a twilight space that was similar to the woods, though shrouded in night.
“See!” Gaeren said jovially toward Tangsen. “I thought he’d do. And that encounter with the bandits confirmed it.”
Tangsen shook his head ruefully. “Truly the God of Heroism and Drunkards is watching over us. Hold here a moment, let me check the passage.”
The Halfling stepped slowly through the doorway. Gaeren turned and faced Lem, whose face had twisted up in a red-cheeked mix of disgust and disbelief.
“Appreciate the help, Lem. It was a pleasure meeting you.” Tangsen’s voice came from the doorway, calling Gaeren’s name in a voice that held a note of panic. “Sorry, have to get going.” He drew his sword and rushed to the portal.
Lem snapped out of his fugue. “Wait a blasted minute. What was that all about?”
Gaeren turned at the gateway, a knowing grin on his lips, “Didn’t you guess? The portal opens to a kiss from a hero.” He saluted Lem with his black sword and stepped through the door. A moment later it closed, leaving the ranger alone in the circle.
Lem moved over to where the portal had been and probed the springy grass with one cautious boot. Shrugging, he turned his attention back toward the flowers at the edge of the circle. He said to himself, “The Champion of Ursundova goes where he’s needed.”