“Your pineapple is crooked.”
Bolin scowled at the Elf as she crowded close to him, staring at the top of his bald head with something he could only describe as enthusiasm, though it felt a bit more sinister somehow.
“William,” he called.
“Kris, leave his pineapple alone,” the hulking mercenary nudged.
She pouted, but thankfully, withdrew a few steps. “I’m just trying to figure out why it’s crooked. It shouldn’t be. Pineapple’s don’t normally lean.”
“It’s his age,” Bill suggested.
“Hey, now,” Bolin objected.
“Makes sense,” Kris nodded.
“What’s that suppose to mean?” the old Dwarf snarled.
Kris held up a finger. “Pineapples are best eaten when they are fresh. If you let them sit out in the sun for too long, they get droopy.”
A few yards away, April ground her teeth at the absurd exchange taking place behind her.
Bolin blinked a few times, trying to understand her logic. “So, you think I’m droopy, is it?”
“Not you,” she exclaimed quickly. “Just your pineapple!”
“William,” he all but begged.
“Kris,” Bill said, with a note of his patience being taxed. “Bolin’s pineapple is his own business. Don’t be rude.”
Kris’ eyes got wide for a moment. “I’m not being rude. His pineapple is! Everybody knows it’s rude for pineapples to lean in public! Just ask that stray cat over there!”
Bolin and Bill both looked to where she waved. Neither saw a stray cat. They looked to each other, Bolin in irritation, Bill in resignation. After a moment, they both looked at Kris, who felt fancy for having so many people admiring her, and got shy.
April restrained her angry killing hand.
“Why are you doing that?” Bill asked as she covered her chest and groin with her hands.
“Doing what?” Kris asked innocently.
“That,” Bolin growled, jabbing a stubby finger at her.
“No,” Bill yelped. “Don’t. Just let it go.”
“I will not, William,” his old mentor barked. “She’s acting absurd.”
“I’m not acting,” Kris wailed. “I really am just absurd!”
“Now that, I believe,” the Dwarf chuckled.
“Mr. Ripley would be so happy,” Kris grinned, giving up on covering herself to wave her hands in the air with a loud cry of woo hoo.
Bolin struggled. Bill stared. Kris did it again.
April practiced aiming her dagger at Kris’ head.
“Honey, maybe we should just drop the whole thing and get moving,” Bill finally offered. “We wouldn’t want to keep Scarlet waiting.”
“Drop what?” Kris asked. “And is it hot?”
“What?” Bolin stammered.
“What?” Kris asked.
“Stop,” Bill sighed.
“It’s our gag!” Kris yelled, stomping a foot. “We gotta do it!”
“Yeah, no,” Bill said, feeling tired for some reason.
“Fine,” Kris pouted, again. “Way to ruin the expectations of our fan base.”
“We don’t have a fan base,” Bill insisted.
“Well, duh,” Kris blathered. “We gotta have consistent gags in order to build one. Fates knows, we can’t do it on my crazy antics alone.”
Bolin raised a hand to object, realized he didn’t know what he was objecting too, and stood there for a while, mouth open, finger up, as he tried to find a reason.
April threw her hands up, utterly defeated upon seeing Bolin so stumped by the mad Druid.
Bill pushed his hand down.
“Kris, let’s go, please,” Bill urged.
“Okay,” she replied with a proud salute. “Remember Roy Danger!”
Bolin screwed up his face in preparation to cry what, only to find Bill’s hand clamped over his mouth. Looking to his adopted son in annoyance, he found the massive man shaking his head, eyes begging him not to say it. With a sigh of exhaustion, Bolin gave up on understanding the insane Elf.
April just glared.
“Why do you suppose your sister wanted us all to meet here, anyway?” Bolin asked instead, staring at anything but Kris, who had decided April needed a hug.
The Halfling was less than enthusiastic about this.
“Beats me,” Bill shrugged, actively not noticing April’s cries for help as her face was buried in Elf cleavage.
“Kinda out of the way, isn’t it?” the old Dwarf grunted, looking over the dilapidated inn that stood to one side of the road.
Bill scratched his chin, thinking about that. The sprawling forest that surrounded them wasn’t exactly thick, giving anyone looking for a sniper post few options. The lack of any other buildings also cut down on possible ambush zones. There was just the inn, run down as it was, and nothing else.
“Typical,” he muttered.
“What’s that?” Bolin asked.
Bill gave a general wave to the vicinity. “Scarlet. She’s a bit paranoid, don’t you think?”
The Dwarf chuckled. “I was noticing it as well. Whatever it is she feels to be so urgent must have her back hair up for her to take these kinds of precautions.”
“And not much gets her there,” Bill mused. “Which actually worries me a bit.”
“Little help!” April screamed.
“Kris, stop,” Bill deadpanned.
“No!” the Elf squealed.
“I tired,” he said with a note of indifference.
“Traitor!” April roared.
“You are a terrible brother, William,” Bolin sighed.
“At least she’s off your pineapple,” Bill pointed out.
“Fair trade,” the Dwarf agreed.
Bill scanned the are again, chewing his lip slightly. While the area would make it hard for an attacker to get the drop on them, there was one vantage point. Ahead of them, just past the inn, the road took a sharp turn around a small copse of trees, creating a blind spot an assassin could use. It wasn’t like Scarlet to miss something like that.
“Kris,” Bill called. “Lay off April. I need you.”
The Elf dropped the Halfling instantly, darting to his side. “Whatcha need, baby?”
Bill pointed out the blind spot ahead. “Can you make those trees move a bit. I don’t like where they are.”
“Like she can do that,” April snorted, collecting herself.
Bolin laughed. Bill ignored her comment. Kris gave another sloppy salute.
A moment later, with her brief chanting of the incantation done, the trees pulled themselves from the ground, waved, and move a few yards away, clearing the blind spot completely.
“How’d I do?” Kris asked.
Bill was gone, hitting a full run within two steps. Kris blinked a bit, trying to figure out where he went. Bolin was bellowing at April, and slowly, the mad Druid turned, to see Scarlet in the road beyond where the trees had been a moment ago.
Half a dozen arrows were sticking out of her.
“What?” she whimpered.
“Kris, snap out of it,” Bolin yelled, shaking her. “She’ll need healing!”
“But… why is she like that?”
“Doesn’t matter!” he snapped, yanking on her arm. “She needs us, now move, dammit!”
Ahead, Bill sprinted towards his sister as she struggled down the road, holding one arrow in her side, her left leg limp and dragging as she pushed herself on. As he rounded the bend, he spotted the archer, a human in dark leathers, already pulling back another shot.
“Bull run him, Billy,” April whispered in his ear before she was gone, having hitched a ride on his back, and launching herself towards the tree line.
He didn’t need to be told. He already knew.
As he passed Scarlet, he saw it, in her eyes. The only thing keeping her on her feet was her iron will. She barely even seemed to notice him, gaze fixed on the inn ahead as she kept moving, determined to reach it.
Bill didn’t know what was going on, and he didn’t care. All that mattered was covering his sister’s back.
The archer let fly with the arrow as Bill passed her, swinging his shield around with his left hand as his right pulled his massive bastard sword free from his back. He saw the surprise in the assassin’s eyes as the arrow was deflected, then the fear as he realized just how fast Bill was moving.
He was wrong to be afraid of what he could see. He should be worried about what he couldn’t. Bill couldn’t help but smile at that thought.
Powered by his massive legs, Bill was on him in a moment, shield swinging towards him. The archer tried to dodge back, to Bill’s left, keeping the mercenary’s sword away. As his right foot hit the ground again, Bill shoved himself to the left, striking the man dead in the chest, and knocking him back with considerable force.
He had time to drop his bow and reach for the daggers at his hip, but they never came free as Bill’s shield drove him into the waiting blades of April Triggerblade.
His life ended before he knew he was dying.
“Search him,” Bill barked. “I want to know everything.”
“Already on it,” April replied as she dropped into a crouch. “Go tend Scarlet.”
“Gone,” he nodded, swinging around and running back.
By the time he returned, Bolin had hauled Kris around, and was trying to get her to focus, no easy task under any circumstance. It was the look on Kris’ face that worried Bill more, however. The distant, dull, blank look of her wide turquoise eyes was one he’d seen before.
Bill swept Scarlet into his arms without even breaking stride. “Kris! Come on!”
“Huh?” she muttered, turning slightly at the sound of his voice as he passed her. “Okay.”
“No time to be going vacant eyed, dammit,” Bolin growled as he hurried to follow his son.
“Leave it,” Bill snapped. “Let’s get inside, then you check for others. April will scan the perimeter in a minute. I don’t want any surprises right now.”
“I know, I know,” Bolin groused. “I’m the one what trained you to do all that, you know.”
Bill let the matter drop, too focused on the problems at hand. Scarlet was bleeding heavily, and only seemed distantly aware of him, or anything else. Kris was in a bad place, her mind trying to cope with Scarlet’s condition, for reasons he was painfully familiar with. He didn’t have time to worry over Bolin’s ego.
Reaching he inn, he dropped a shoulder and crashed through the door, startling the old inn keeper inside from an afternoon doze at the bar. The elderly Half-Elf struggled with the sight before him long enough for Bill to do what he needed.
“I’m taking a table,” he roared. “Fetch me water and clean rags, now!”
“Uh… yes… right!” the old man squeaked out, scurrying away to do as the monster of a man had ordered.
“William,” Bolin called as his son dropped his eldest daughter on a table.
“Not now,” Bill yelled. “Kris, come over here.”
“Bill…” Kris whimpered, still hovering by the door.
It hurt him to do what he knew he must, but with Scarlet’s life on the line, he had no choice.
“She’s dying, Kris,” he snarled. “Now get over here. You are the only one who can save her.”
Kris hesitated a moment more, then nodded and pulled herself straight. The foggy look in her eyes faded, replaced by certainty as she pushed past Bolin, and strode over to give the Half Elven woman a quick examination.
“She must have pulled some out,” the Elf muttered. “She’s got too many injuries for the number still in her.”
“Bolin, go,” Bill snapped, circling a finger around to indicate the inn.
The old Dwarf grunted and managed to tear his eyes off his daughter long enough to do as his son asked, trundling away to inspect the building.
The old inn keeper returned with water and towels as Bolin left, offering them to Bill in a mixture of concern and fear. Bill just held up a finger, asking him wait, as Kris circled the table, assessing how bad a shape Scarlet was really in.
Neither of them expected her to clamor up on to the table and straddle the woman, much less to start yanking he arrows free.
“Kris,” Bill warned as she drug a scream of pain from Scarlet.
“They are poisoned, Bill,” the Elf barked back, her eyes bright and angry, the usual twinkle and absent look completely gone. “If I don’t hurry, bleeding to death is the least of her worries.”
“Do what you have to,” he nodded.
Kris returned the gesture and went to work, bracing Scarlet with one hand, and pulling the arrows away with the other, her eyes brimming with tears at each scream she forced from the Half Elf. Still, she did it, methodically, and did not hesitate even once.
“Perimeter is clear,” April called as she entered, slamming the door behind her. “Looks like he was alone.”
“What else?” Bill asked.
April shook her head, telling him everything. Who ever the archer had been, he was a professional, and carried no trace of his identity, much less his employer. They would learn nothing more from the corpse, it seemed.
“Can tell you he was guilded, though,” the Halfling said as she tried to ignore Scarlet’s screams of pain.
“The poison,” she replied, holding up a vial. “It’s Methin’s Kiss. Only the Shadecard use it.”
“Toss me that,” Kris said, holding out a hand as the last arrow hit the floor.
“Why?” April asked, startled by the complete change in the Elf’s demeanor.
“Just fucking give it to me!” Kris screamed at her.
April started, then flipped the vial towards her. Kris caught it, held it up to her eye, then muttered an incantation under her breath. The liquid inside glowed for a brief moment, after which Kris tossed the vial aside, and looked down at Scarlet.
“This is going to hurt, a lot I think. I’m so sorry, sweetie.”
“Kris, what…” Bill started.
The Elf jammed her index finger into one of the arrow wounds in Scarlet’s side, dragging a cry of pain that Bill knew would haunt him to his grave. April took a step forward, eyes wide in fear and anger, but Bill held her back by resting a hand on her shoulder.
Kris was casting, words flowing off her tongue in the strange, ancient language of the Druids. The True Words, she often called them. Bill didn’t know what they were, or what she was doing, but he had faith. It was all he could have now.
As Kris finished, a soft green light flashed from her finger, then from every wound in Scarlet’s body, dragging a soft gurgle from her. Kris slumped over her for a moment, then shook her head, and slapped Scarlet, dragging her back from the brink of unconsciousness.
“Stay awake, damn you,” Kris ordered. “The poison is gone, but you’re still bleeding heavily. I don’t know if I can stop it all. That last spell took a lot out of me. I’m going to need you to fight with me, if you want to live. Got it?”
Somehow, Scarlet nodded, one hand wandering up to grasp at the air near Kris for a moment, before finding her cheek and cupping it.
“Side by side,” the Half Elf managed. Her hand slid away, leaving a trail of blood on Kris’ cheek.
“Good enough,” she said, and set to work, hands moving over the other woman, seeking out the worst of her injuries.
“Kris,” Bill finally intoned. “Are you okay?”
She paused, not looking at him. “I’m here, and I’m clear. Don’t ask me to think too much about it, or I don’t know what will happen, William. I need to focus. Please don’t interrupt me again. Okay?”
“Got it,” he agreed, stepping back, and pulling April with him.
“Bill,” the Halfling said, the question in her voice plain as day.
“Not now,” he pleaded.
She didn’t like it, but she didn’t press the matter, turning instead to watch as Kris went to work, trying to save Scarlet’s life.
On the other side of the table, the old inn keeper stared, wide eyed, as Bolin returned, shaking his head at Bill. The rest of the building was clear. Bill gave him a nod, and together, they waited, as Kris began chanting spells.
A half an hour passed, as everyone watched, barely daring to breath. At last, Kris leaned back, the golden glow that had been emanating from her hands since she had begun casting fading. Beneath her, Scarlet’s breathing had steadied, but was still not as regular as any of them would have liked.
“William,” the Elf said, looking towards him for a moment, before her eyes rolled back and she collapsed.
Bill caught her before she hit the floor.
“We’ll be needing some rooms,” Bolin said to the inn keeper. “As well as any medical supplies you can muster. Naturally, we’ll be wanting your discretion, too.”
He dropped a heavy bag on the table, the rattle it made making it clear it held coin. Just in case, he tugged the drawstring open, allowing the glimmer of gold to shine through.
The old Half Elf glanced at Bill as he swung Kris up in his arms. “I assure you, Master Dwarf, you already had the latter. Doubly so, now, of course, but you already had it.”
“Caution is never in abundance,” Bolin replied.
“Truer words were never spoken,” the old man nodded, tugging the bag closed and hefting it up. “I can’t muster much as far as bandages and the like go, but if you give me a few hours, I can fetch as much as you’ll be needing.”
“From where?” April asked, eyeing him warily.
The man swallowed a bit at the look. “Back a ways into the woods is an old witch. She’s trained in the healing arts. Lots of folks from the village a few miles out come to her for various things they want kept discreet. She knows how to keep her mouth closed, as surely as I do, miss.”
“Get to going, then,” Bolin nodded, waving April down. “We’ll be needing them sooner, rather than later. And the witch, too. My girl there is doing better, but she’s far from out of the woods, as it were.”
The old man snorted. “You go tossing this sort of gold about, my friend, and I dare say you can command most anything you want, including getting that old bat to leave her cottage.”
“Then show her what you have to show her,” the Dwarf grunted. “Just get her here.”
“As you say,” the Half Elf agreed, giving a slight bow before hurrying towards the back. The echo of a door announced his departure a moment alter.
Bill nodded his thanks to Bolin, getting just a scowl in return, before he laid Kris on another nearby table, and tried to wipe some of the blood from her. It was pointless, and he knew it. She was covered in it.
“Bill,” Scarlet called, voice soft and hoarse.
“You should be resting,” he replied, giving Kris a pat on the head before turning to her.
“Can rest when I’m dead,” the red head scoffed. “May yet soon enough.”
“Stow that sort of talk, right now,” Bolin barked. “Ain’t no daughter of mine getting taken out by some random assassin.”
Scarlet gave him a wan smile. “Wasn’t anything random about him. Trust me.”
“You know who he was?” April asked.
“Conder Marsh,” her sister answered, rolling her head to smile at the Halfling, before reaching out to her.
“Bastard,” April snarled, grasping her hand and holding it tight. “Your lucky to be alive.”
“Lucky is a crazy Elf,” Scarlet replied, squeezing her hand.
“Who is this guy, then?” Bill pressed.
April shook her head a moment. “The master of the Shadecard. One of the best around. He doesn’t come cheap, either. Whoever wanted Scarlet dead was willing to pay a lot for it.”
“Wasn’t me he was after,” Scarlet cut in. “I just got wind that Marsh was moving, and tried to stop him. Turned out to be not one of my brighter ideas.”
“Then who was he after?” Bill asked, a knot forming in his gut.
“Her,” Scarlet said, making his world sink painfully with a single nod of her head towards Kris.
“Why?” Bolin demanded. “Who’d want her dead, enough to pay that sack of shit a fortune in gold for it?”
“You already know, don’t you?” Scarlet asked, eyes fixed on Bill.
He struggled with it for a long time, simply staring down at her, jaw working as he tried to grasp not the why, but the how. Of course he knew who. That was obvious. There was only one person it could be. The only person in the world who had anything to gain from Kris’ death. The only one who had everything to gain from it.
“It was Theron.”
Bolin exploded. “That good for nothing brother of yours? What in all the Fates lost names would he want Kris dead for? That makes no sense, William. You must be wrong.”
“He isn’t,” Scarlet said, reaching out to rest a hand on the Dwarf’s arm. “It was Theron. Without a doubt. Marsh himself told me so, when he thought he had me finished.”
“Thought?” April asked, giving her a scathing look.
“I knew he used Methin’s Kiss. I had a counter potion for it. I just didn’t expect to get hit so many times, or for him to pick up my trail after I gave him the slip. I got sloppy.”
“For her,” Bill stated, rather than asked.
“Yeah,” Scarlet said with a grin. “Of course for her. I know who she is, Billy boy. I found out.”
Bill couldn’t meet her eyes anymore, his head jerking to the side. He twitched a moment, then began pacing the room, his mind focusing on how to deal with this, rather than on what she had said.
“What’s that mean?” April asked.
“Never you mind it,” Bolin told her, the gruff tone of his voice making April back up a step. It as the same he had used when he had trained her, to let her know she was pushing too far, and about to get a beating.
“No,” she snarled, forcing herself to step forward again. “We don’t keep secrets, not from each other. We’re a family. That’s what you drilled into us, Bolin. From as far back as any of us can remember. So, no. I will not never mind it. Who the hell is that woman, what’s Theron got to do with her, and why would he pay Conder Marsh to kill her?”
“It’s a long story, April,” Bill intoned, pausing in his pacing. “One I can’t get into right now. I don’t have time. Just trust that she’s important, not just to me, but to the world.”
April grimaced. “The world? What the fuck, Bill? How is that nut case important to the world? I’m sorry, but you’re asking me to take a pretty leap right now.”
“Then take it,” Bill roared back, then caught himself, took a deep breath, and smiled at her. “I’ sorry. Forgive me. I didn’t mean to yell.”
The Halfling stared up at him with a hard frown. “I get it. I’ll give you your leap. But I best damn well get some answers, and soon.”
“You will, I promise. Very soon.”
Bolin scowled at the hard look that crossed his son’s face. “What is it you mean to do, there, boy?”
“I’m going to kill my brother, before he can kill Kris.”
“You don’t even know where he is,” Scarlet said when the others only stared in stunned silence.
Bill gave a humorless laugh. “I know where he will be, now that he knows Kris is still alive. There’s only one place he will go.”
“Argorand,” Bolin sighed.
Bill nodded. “If I can get there first, I might stand a chance.”
“And if he’s done been, Argorand will kill you instead,” April snorted, waving him off. “That’s a dumb thing to do.”
“Arogrand will try,” Bill countered. “She and I both know, she can’t take me. If nothing else, I can find out where he’s heading next, and maybe, who he’s working for.”
“Working for?” Bolin cut in. “You can’t mean…”
Bill nodded. “I don’t know all the details yet, but somebody hired Theron to do all he’s done. Why, I can’t figure, but my guess is they want to start a war. Means it’s somebody in a position to profit off of it. Who, I don’t know, but they must have some deep pockets, so it must be a noble.”
“Or a merchant lord,” Bolin mused. “Either way, no easy foe to fight.”
“No,” Bill agreed. “But fight them, I most certainly will. Soon as I know who to kill.”
“Back up,” April snapped. “What all has Theron done, exactly?”
“Shana’Thar,” Scarlet told her. “He was the one who burned it.”
April gaped, then slowly shook her head. “No way. I mean, yeah, he was always a bastard, but that’s just… no way.”
“I was there,” Bill told her. “It was him.”
“Then that means…” April whispered, turning to Kris. “Ar’Verum. She’s… what the hell? No way.”
“Yes,” Bill told her. “The Holy Queen of the Seven Realms of the Elves.”
April stared for a long time, shaking her head slowly, trying to grasp it all. Bill gave her the time she needed.
“I’m going with you,” the Halfling finally declared.
“No,” he told her. “You stay here.”
He looked to Scarlet. “She’s in no condition to fight, and frankly, Bolin is getting to old for it. I need you to protect them, and Kris as well. You’re the only one I’ve got.”
April grimaced as she mulled it through. “Dammit to hell. Fine. But you best come back with all the same pieces you leave with, or I’ll be super pissed, you hear me?”
“Too old? Really, William?” Bolin whined.
Scarlet patted his bald head. “At least you aren’t a total invalid.”
He snorted at that.
“Keep them safe, until I come back, no matter what. Got it?” Bill said.
“Of course,” April scoffed. “I can kick your ass. I can sure as hell kick Theron’s, and any fucking nitwit he drags after him.”
“Damn right,” Bill grinned, holding out a fist.
April bumped it, but he saw the worry in her eyes. He saw it all their eyes. He knew it was in his own. Theron was better than him, and always had been. He would rather have them at his back, but the Fates had been cruel, so he would do this alone.
“Tell Kris I’ll be back soon, when she wakes up,” he instructed them. “She won’t like it, but if you keep her focused on Scarlet, she won’t put up too much of a fuss. If all else fails, shove April at her.”
“Fucker,” the Halfling groaned.
He smiled, tousling her hair. “This isn’t how I wanted to end this, but it looks like I’m out of time for plan A. If I don’t come back, head for Erinmir’Kala, and ask for Danny. Use my name. They’ll get you to him, and hopefully, he can keep you safe until you can figure out what to do.”
“We’re on the brink of war with the Elven nation, William,” Bolin reminded him. “Crossing the border won’t be easy.”
“An Elf, a Half Elf, A Dwarf, and a Halfling will have an easier time of it than I would. Just get her there. You’ll know why when you do.”
“I’ll give you two weeks to come back,” Bolin demanded. “We’ll rest here till Scarlet can move, then head for my retirement cabin. Theron doesn’t know where it is, so we’ll be safe for a time.”
“Sounds like a plan,” he agreed.
Turning, he looked down at Kris as she slept. “Sorry, babe. I gotta go for a bit. Don’t be too much trouble, okay?”
She murmured something under her breath, drawing a warm smile to his face. With a kiss to her forehead, Bill Wick headed out to face his brother, Theron Ashscale, for the first time in seven years.
Only one would walk away this time.
©-2017 Cain S. Latrani
To be Continued, Next Month In:
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious.
Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
No inn keepers were harmed in the writing of this short story.