Murmuring a curse he had once heard from a particularly mean-spirited fishmonger, Eammon stepped out of the tree line and hailed the men loading cargo on the dock.
“Hello? I say, hello lads!”
Strange men appearing out of nowhere and hollering salutations while one loads crates onto a river barge will startle even the most even-tempered sailor; when that barge is moored at a solitary quay and warehouse in an otherwise remote piece of wilderness, the potential for misunderstanding is especially high. As the workers stopped abruptly to stare at the old bard, another man appeared at the gunwale of the river vessel, spat over the side, and eloquently voiced the thought written clearly across the faces of his men.
“Who the fuck are you now?”
Eammon bowed lower than necessary, but resisted giving the tattered lace at his sleeves even the barest of flourishes—no sense casting pearls before swine. Still, he set his third-best smile on his face before straightening to take a few steps across the open meadow toward the quay.
“That’s close enough, my friend. Answer the question.”
Eammon opened his arms, palms out and well away from the rapier at his hip, though he took a beat longer than necessary and let the silence hang so he could listen for sounds of warhorns in the distance. Nothing yet.
“Thanks the gods we found you!” Even as he was saying it, he knew he was overselling the line. Easing a bit, he pressed on. “My companions and I have just come down the mountain, lost in that frigid wilderness and beset by…” he left the line hanging and made a gesture to ward off evil, only partially an act—he remembered all too well the frozen river and the corpse soldiers guarding the bridge, the groan and snap of the rotten ice breaking as the dead burst up and clawed for them in a shower of frozen spray.
“Companions? What companions?”
“Of course.” Eammon made a hurried gesture without turning around, trusting that the others would play along. “You have the great fortune, my new friends, of meeting the premier mountebank company of Alans Crossing—though it has been said by noble personages who would prefer to remain unnamed that we are indeed the greatest troupe in all of Dal Gurath. And who am I, but a humble player and more than adequate playwright, to argue with that?”
Still hearing nothing from behind, he spared a glance over his shoulder just in time to catch the sound of leaves crushed underfoot and see Belarus scowling at him. “Our magician,” he exclaimed, sweeping a grand gesture toward the tiefling, “sure to dazzle and delight with the mystical arts.” He leaned in conspiratorially, despite the great expanse separating him and the quay. “Notice as well the many vials hanging from his person. He is also an apothecary of no small talent. Should any of your visits to Alans Crossing have left your crew with…hmm, certain afflictions…this is your man.”
Eammon almost didn’t hear young Benjamyn as he approached, somersaulting end over end to land a few feet before him with a bow of his own. Trust the boy to pick up on a faltering con and play along. “Our master tumbler, a Halfling of dexterous ability not seen in a generation.”
Del spat on the ground and inspected his nails, sauntering as little as possible out of the dappled shadow. Eammon suppressed a sigh. “Our marksman, who will strike a target dead center from one hundred yards away even as a maelstrom swirls around him.” The man on the ship grew more serious when Del was introduced. Eammon made a mental note.
Roland clanked up in his damaged plate armor, his mouth drawn in a tight line. “Our spiritual counsel, and on rare occasion when the city watch fails to keep the peace at our more ribald performances, our stalwart shield.” The man at the gunwale said something over his shoulder to another man, who seemed to be bolting the hold of the barge closed.
The dwarf sauntered up, his helmet resting at a jaunty angle. “Aye, savin’ the best fer last, I see, Eammon. Very wise, very wise.” He elbowed the bard playfully on the hip; the old man winced, and thought he could almost feel the knot forming already. “Make me something grand now, bard. Ringleader, perhaps. Kissin’ booth operator, that’s an easy sell. No, no, surprise me. You’re the poet of the bunch, ye boney gray poofter.”
Eammon rested his hand on the dwarf’s head. “And this is our hostler, dog trainer, and during performances, crack stagehand.” He leaned in for another stage whisper. “Even humble players such as ourselves must do our part for the wretched, the homeless, and the deranged.”
The dwarf squinted up at the bard for a few seconds, seeming to consider him. “Havin’ them underestimating me greatness from the start, is that the plan?” He nodded sagely and turned to glare at the men working the dock. “You’re a clever old bastard when you want to be, aren’t ye, Eammon?”
When the bard looked back to the keelboat, the man—was it a woman? —who had bolted the hold was already halfway down the gangplank and striding toward the warehouse. The other smiled flatly, still standing at the edge of the deck. “How lucky, then, that the premier theatrical troupe of all Dal Gurath, alone and beset on a mountain, should find us.”
Eammon inclined his head slightly. “No more fortuitous than we should find a crew of honest tradesmen loading a barge surreptitiously at an otherwise isolated wilderness warehouse and pier.”
The man’s smile broadened momentarily before he gestured after his crewman toward the warehouse. “Shall we palaver, then? I think we have some tea left to celebrate our mutual good fortune.”
. . .
Eammon settled gingerly onto the rugs strewn across the floor of the warehouse, the knot in his hip already making movement difficult. Benjamyn sat beside him, politely waiting for Cups, the woman Eammon had seen sealing the hold, to pour the tea. The boy’s eyes would occasionally flicker around the space before darting back to the woman and the steaming green liquid in the cracked mugs.
The others remained outside with the rest of the crew. Del and Belarus had each pulled Eammon aside individually to tell him they didn’t like the situation, and each—charmingly, to Eammon’s mind—tried explaining to him in their own way what would be the signs of a poisoned or otherwise drugged tea. Each time, the old man had politely listened before explaining that Captain Brocton wouldn’t dare, and that even if he did, the game was already too far along to stop now. Belarus had nodded grimly. Del opined that at least the bard was wearing his red pants. Eammon hadn’t understood the remark, but knew better than to ask the ranger for an explanation.
So as Benji nervously scanned the room for valuables and for exits, the bard gently eased his cittern off his back and onto his lap as he watched the green trickle of tea splash into his own battered cup, plucking a string to check how badly their flight through the cold and wet of the mountain had hurt it. He hummed softly in a minor key, tried to pick the same from the string, and was rewarded with a single delicious note. He smiled in genuine pleasure and relief, which the woman mistook to be for the sludge in the battered cups. All the better, Eammon thought, as he raised his in silent thanks and gingerly sipped. It tasted of bark and nettles, and finished with the faint bite of alcohol.
“Gentlemen such as ourselves,” Eammon began as he set down his cup, “have little time to bandy words, so forgive me if without further ado or other decorous niceties I cut directly, as they say, to the chase.” Captain Brocton—or ‘Brown,’ as his men seemed to call him—grunted from across the room, leaning on a crate that had yet to be loaded. “My companions and I would like to book passage on your vessel, so that we might put these mountains firmly behind us and return to the warm embrace of more civilized lands, or at least,” he gestured lazily with his hand, “what passes for civilization in these colonies.”
“We’re not in the habit of taking charters, friend, and as you can see, we’ve nearly finished loading our cargo. Still,” he paused overly long for dramatic effect, even scratching his chin as Eammon imagined every dead acting coach and playwright in Dal Gurath rolling over in their graves, “I suppose the color of your coin might go a ways to changing my mind.” He leaned in then, conspiratorially and not unlike how the bard had originally across the field. “And between two such gentlemen as ourselves, a bit of money in the purse will help keep my crew on the straight and narrow until I can divvy up our take from the cargo.”
“If your men are as restless as you say, captain, then what better remedy than the delight of jugglers, acrobats, and true thespians on the ship to help the days pass in the blink of a starry eye?” He paused, less for dramatic effect and more to work some moisture back into his mouth. “A service my troupe will be all too willing to supply in exchange for our passage.”
The captain chuckled ruefully. “You can’t expect me to clutter my deck with strangers out of the goodness of this old heart.” His eyes glanced briefly at the Halfling, who was grimacing openly at the taste of the tea. “And I don’t think you said anything about jugglers when you introduced yourselves earlier.”
Eammon swallowed, forcing an apologetic smile onto his face. “True, though only because none of us specialize in such mundane feats of manual dexterity.” His tongue felt two sizes too large for his mouth. “Any of them, I mean, any of usth can eathily…”
The captain waited politely for the old man to finish, his gaze unflinching. “You were saying, friend?”
“You godthdamned…” the bard broke off as the room swam madly for a moment before righting itself again. “…godthdamned…cliché…hack. Have you no…thense of…dramatic…propriety?”
Benjamyn suddenly bolted to his feat. “The tea is poisoned, Mr. Quinn! I knew I was right to come in here and watch out for you! I never trusted—oh how pretty!” he abruptly exclaimed as he snatched at nothing in front of his face before careening sideways into a pile of wooden palettes.
“Don’t worry, friend,” the captain crooned, smiling maddeningly from beside his crate. “We’ll just toss you and the rest for your valuables and then be on our merry way.” He glanced again at the Halfling. “Though we’ll likely take your boy for insurance. I don’t believe a half of what you were selling earlier, but the hayseed with the bow does at least look like he knows how to use it.” Captain Brown nodded toward the Halfling, who was struggling to rise from splintered boards of the now broken palette. “Wrap that one up, Cups, and smuggle him onboard now. I’ll put a blade to the old timer’s neck and make the rest of his little troupe see reason.”
As if on cue, the lonely blast of a horn drifted down the mountain.
. . .
At about that time, the hayseed in question was squatting on his haunches outside of the warehouse, eyeing the twin half-ogre crewmen who were taking their time loading the final crates onto the keelboat. He dragged a knuckle under his nose for the sixth time in as many minutes, snuffling quietly and chastising himself for the three different remedies he’d passed on the descent but left unpicked. Of course he would be the one to get a cold. The dwarf ate meat from a dead werebeast, Eammon danced with half a foot in the grave on his best days, and the half-man didn’t have the good sense the gods gave a squirrel, but he was the one who still got the cold. Figures.
Roland stood beside him with his arms crossed over his chest, sparing a look of disapproval for pretty much the entire situation as far as Del could see. “Remind me why we let Eammon go in there alone.”
“We sent Benji with ‘im.”
Roland snorted. “Remind me why we sent Eammon in there with just Benji.”
Del raised a brow at the paladin. “Did you want to spend ten more minutes listening to Eammon prattle on about his game being a foot?” He picked at a bit of something under a nail, muttering, “Whatever that means.” He wiped his nose again. “Besides, I told ‘im what to look for in his tea. Even he couldn’t miss the signs.”
“No, but in hindsight, not wanting to hear the old gentleman ‘prattle on’ seems a thin excuse for putting him in danger like that. We should know better.”
Del shrugged. “Cups and Captain Brown don’t strike me as the particularly sinister type.” He nodded almost imperceptibly toward the brothers. “Just like those two don’t strike me as big readers” and turned to stare at the first mate, Fingers, who he had tasked Kok to watch. “That one, though, I’m surprised has made it this long without hanging from a tree.”
“Hmm?” Did he hear the faint moan of a warhorn? He couldn’t be sure. “Oh, no. Fingers.” He thought a moment. “The dwarf too, though.” He felt the wind change direction, and spared a moment to pick a weed and cast it in the air to confirm. Yup. It was blowing down off the mountain now.
Suddenly Benji shouted something from within, but both caught the word “poisoned” and a faint crash. Roland eyed the brothers and rested his hand on his warhammer, but otherwise stayed where he was.
“Did he just say—“
“And I’ll stay out here. Too tight in there for my liking.”
“On three, then?”
Del shrugged. “Whatever.”
Del drew and fired without thinking, the movement as intuitive now as placing one foot before another. His aim was true—it always was—but the half-ogre wasn’t quite as dim as he seemed, for he got a forearm up in time to catch the arrow in the meat of his arm and save his eye. The ranger was already on his feet, dashing around the corner of the warehouse toward Belarus and letting out a whoop. “Kok! Smash!”
The dwarf howled wordlessly, sucker punched the first mate, and grabbed his axe. A blast from an orcish warhorn wailed through the air again, closer now and loud enough for anyone to hear.
By then, though, Roland already had his hammer in hand and was striding purposefully into the warehouse, his eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom.
. . .
An hour later, Eammon stood at the bow of the keelboat, massaging his temples slowly and waiting for the knot in his guts to untie. Captain Brockton stood next to him, smirking still, though the slight wildness around his eyes suggested he wasn’t quite as unfazed as he pretended to be.
He had reason to be skittish. The fight with his crew was still hazy, as Eammon had spent much of the time sifting through a drug-induced fog, but he recalled enough to piece it together. Benji apparently had managed to blink outside with his magic cloak before he finally succumbed to the tea. Roland’s timely arrival thwarted any chance Captain Brown had of holding anyone hostage, and things quickly went downhill for the strangers from there. Cups had turned out to be a mage, but Belarus made short work of her, while the lads downed one of the two half-ogres, and not long after, sent the other to join him. Fingers had held out the longest.
“Don’t trust this smirking fool, Eammon,” Belarus growled, glaring past the bard at the captain. Eammon tried not to flinch; he hadn’t realized the tiefling was standing beside him. “Anyone who would betray his own man—especially in the middle of a fight like that and without provocation—would easily do the same again.”
Captain Brockton raised an eyebrow at Eammon but the tiefling didn’t notice and so the old man kept his peace; he nodded absently to Belarus but otherwise went back to rubbing his temples. He’d find the right time to tell the others that the captain had actually had plenty of provocation: the bard had promised him three hundred gold on the spot to betray Fingers. But now was certainly not the time to share that trifling detail—perhaps once they were underway. Better yet, a few days underway. Better yet still, once they actually had three hundred gold.
A muffled cry turned Eammon around, and he lingered a moment watching young Benjamyn and Kokurl help the last of the emaciated Nolleh Balanis prisoners — slaves? — from out of the keelboat’s hold and into the open air of the stern. It seemed the Captain was no longer in such a strong position to negotiate either.
At the time, though, he was. Fingers refused to go down or surrender, despite the odds against him, and it had seemed that every other breath was punctuated by a blast from that damned horn somewhere in the forest. Even amidst the din of battle, they struck the deal because both knew whatever warband was closing in would be on them soon enough. They weren’t wrong: not long after Brockton ran Fingers through with his saber from behind, the orcs finally found their quarry.
It was a smaller warband than expected, but no less deadly for it. It was lead by an orog, a far more cunning breed of orc, and supported by a shaman of some sort—probably an Eye of Grumish, if its mutilated eye socket was any indication. The real danger, though, had been the ettin they brought with them, a two-headed giant that stood some thirteen feet tall and, if Eammon understood the orcs correctly, was named SkyrtleVyrtle. Thankfully, the two heads were prone to argue with one another, and the poor dim beast was easily swayed by Eammon’s songcraft. Still, the dregs of the tea in his system muddied his concentration and made heavy his tongue, and in the one moment his voice faltered, the ettin managed to smash Belarus with its club, cracking one of his horns and nearly killing the tiefling in the process. Exhausted as they were from their flight down the mountain and the ambush of Brown and his crew, the lads nevertheless held strong and dispatched the warband with a grim efficiency.
Though not without further incident. As the last orc fell to his axe, Kokurl whirled madly and charged the survivors on the quay. Eammon couldn’t tell if he was going for Captain Brown or not, but the dwarf ignored all entreaty and howled in an animalistic frenzy. This was unusual—even for a psychopath like Kok. So much so, in fact, that Eammon had to enchant the berserk warrior, holding him thrashing aloft in the air until he suddenly fell into a deep sleep. He woke mere moments later with no recollection of what he had done, and none in the group were eager to fill in the gaps for him—or linger nearby for long.
The old bard’s eyes lingered on the dwarf a moment longer, wondering what they had brought back with them from the Fey, and how many more of them had been twisted in unknowable ways by its wild magic.
Benjamyn looked up from a weak and shivering Balanis to glare at Eammon for a moment before shifting his attention back to the sick Halfling—but not before letting his gaze slide briefly across the captain.
“The boy will slit this one’s throat the second you close your eyes tonight, Eammon. Your speech only delayed the inevitable.” Belarus continued to watch Benji as Eammon turned back to the water.
“He knows Brocton is the only one who can navigate this river and get us to Alans Crossing. He’ll hold his blade for now.”
The tiefling grunted. “Our young cutpurse isn’t one to think that many steps ahead, Eammon. I’ll do what I can to run interference, and there’s a chance Derek can still be convinced as well. But as for the others…you may have burned a bridge with that stunt you asked of Roland.”
Eammon winced as his headache seemed to suddenly throb more sharply. “I was trying to keep the half-ogre from figuring out his brother was already dead. It was meant to save his life and spare us further conflict.”
“You had Roland pray over the corpse and told the half-idiot that he was healing the body.”
“We need to get back to civilization, Belarus. By any means necessary.” He stared blankly into the grayish water, refusing to meet the tiefling’s gaze. “Gods, man, if Brockton here is to be believed, a year and a half passed while we were in the damned Fey. We lost the reliquary and very nearly our lives, the trail has gone cold, who knows what has transpired while we were away, and this merry band of ours is a frayed lute string away from snapping apart forever” he spat, finally punctuating it was a glare for the tiefling. “I’ll do what I damn well need to.”
“You’re not yourself, Eammon.”
All his sudden energy seemed to drain from the bard. He nodded. “I’ve suspected as much. Our time in the Fey clearly touched your retainer, and there’s no telling whether I or any of the rest of us are hiding a similar affliction.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Eammon sighed again. “I know. Still, will you keep an eye on the others for me? Watch for any signs of glammer or enchantment?”
“Of course.” He turned abruptly and strode away. “I always do.”
The bard watched him go, saw him stop and talk to Del, and saw the ranger shake his head slowly. Roland moved among the Nolleh Balanis, imploring his god to heal them, or to at least allow them to linger on long enough to receive the healing they needed. He studiously avoided looking toward the bow. Benji had no such reluctance, however, and routinely shot glares at the old bard until Kokurl called his attention back to the survivors. Those who hadn’t survived their captivity remained in the hold.
“How fortuitous,” Captain Brockton observed sardonically beside him, “that the premier theatrical troupe of all Dal Gurath should find us.”
Eammon continued to massage his temples as he turned back to the waters, suppressing another sigh. “Fortuitous indeed.”