Part 7: Face Value

Gerrig was on his way to his workroom, deep in thought, when he heard a noise behind him. He turned round to see their resident Gnome Rogue.

“Boss man? Can I have a word?”

“Certainly. You may call me ‘Sir Gerrig’, you know.”

“Oh. Thanks, Boss.” she took a breath. “In private?”

“Well, yes, but in public as well… oh I see. Follow me.”

They went up the stairs, and into the work room. Gerrig hadn’t changed it much since he took it over from his father. Desk still in the same place, cupboards, papers. On the desk was a sketch someone had made of Marcia and his children, framed in dark oak. If there were any difference, the place was a lot tidier than when Old Bannog had used it. Interalia sat down on a chair and looked at the boss.

“That speech this morning. About attacking, provoking or otherwise looking funny at the Greens.”

“Yes?”

“Does it apply to me?”

Gerrig sighed. “I’m not sure. How big a chance is there of you ever getting caught?”

Interalia took her lucky silver coin out from inside her shirt, and started moving it through her fingers. A sign she was thinking, Gerrig knew. He waited patiently for Interalia to answer.

“Not much. You said not to get caught, so I haven’t taken any chances. Haven’t nicked anything they’d miss. I’m too good for them to notice me if I really want to stay hidden.” She scratched her cheek with her coin. “But all it takes is one accident, and all hell’l break loose.”

“Would you risk it if it were your life on the line?”

Interalia looked up, her dark eyes glinting at Gerrig. “Sure. No problem. Far as I can see, they’re being good little Orcs. They aren’t doing anything nasty I can see. Training troops, mostly.” A hard look came on her face. “Still, I’m glad I wasn’t there when they were working on that poor bastard you chopped the head off. I still wonder why they did that.”

“So do I,” said Gerrig.” He raised one finger. “One. Gath’ilzogg was trying to please me, showing he takes the Accord seriously.” He raised another finger. “Two. He’s reminding me what will happen if I attack any of his Orcs. Three…”

“Three,” said Interalia, “He’s cottoned on to the fact we seem to know more about him than he likes, and this is a friendly reminder to stop peeking into his bedroom.”

Gerrig looked at Interalia with a small smile on his face. “If ever you find out what goes on in Gath’ilzogg’s bedroom at night, I’d appreciate it if you kept it to yourself. There’s intelligence, and there’s nightmare fuel. Anyway, four.”

“He’s planning something, and he wants to scare you into pulling back those damned good spies you seem to have.”

“Hah,” said Gerrig. “Not a chance. My spy will never be caught. She’s too good to let a bunch of Orcs catch her. Still…”

“Yes?”

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t have anything on your person that linked you to the castle. If you do get caught, Light forfend, I can deny you’re anything to do with me.”

“Oh thanks, Boss Man. I feel all warm and fuzzy inside now.”

“Don’t get caught. I don’t want a declaration of war written in hot poker on your back.”

“Me neither, trust me. I’ll be careful.”

“Good. Oh, by the way, how is your new roommate getting on?”

“Nails? Can’t get the height of her. She looks happy enough, even when bloody Gnolls used her as a chew toy. I hear those Humans she was living with are a right bunch of bastards. They could have healed her better than they did, and she’s not going to stop being pissed off about that for a long, long time. And she’s pissed off at herself for dropping that spellbook. I keep trying to tell her, noobs can’t run to Morgan’s Vigil and live. She doesn’t believe it.” Interalia looked at the coin in her hand, then put it back in its usual place. “Anyway, she’s one tough cookie. Doesn’t whine, just gets on with it.” Interalia smiled. “I like her. She’s mad. I’ve put out the word with the soldiers that anyone who messes with her better have all the kids he wants already.”

Gerrig rubbed his chin. “That would certainly keep me back.”

“Hah. It’s as much for their protection as for hers. I’ve got a feeling that when she goes all holy on their arses, they won’t like it. Anyway, she spends most of her time in front of that shrine. Or in bed, or at the table.”

“Well, if it helps her recover, then it is well worth the price of three bowls of food per day.” Gerrig looked out of the window, then back at Interalia. “Say, why don’t you take her along on one of your missions? Get her out in the healthy fresh air. Do her good.”

Interalia stared evenly at Gerrig. Oh, brilliant idea, Boss Man. Would you like me to take an orchestra and dancers as well?

“Umm… Paladins aren’t very… stealthy critters.”

“Oh, I don’t mean take her into the tower! Let her guard your horses while you do your mission. As far away as prudence dictates.”

“I don’t know. I like working alone. Just my own butt to keep out of trouble.”

“She looks like she can keep herself out of trouble. And she can’t just live her life in the chapel. Also, if I don’t give her something to do, I’ll get looks from the rest of the soldiery. Won’t do her rep here any good.”

“So put her in front of a door, or on top of a tower.”

Gerrig shook his head. “Can’t. Father Eolas told me to keep her away from the rest of the soldiers. So you get an assistant. See it as a promotion.”

Interalia looked into Gerrig’s eyes, and recognised the signs. This was one of those ideas that she wouldn’t be able to get out of his head without cracking open his skull. She resigned herself to the inevitable.

“Thanks, Boss Man.”


Cullan looked at Gezza, who nodded back at him. With his elbow, he knocked out the glass, then he opened the window. They climbed in. Gezza shook his head.

“Subtle, that. How are you going to close it up again, eh? Burglars might get in.”

“That would be very unoriginal of our colleagues,” said Cullan. “This will signal to them that others have gone before and the wealth in this house needs to grow back somewhat first.”

“Still, it’s bad form. You don’t want to leave a great big clue for the guards.”

“Other than the absence of valuables?”

“Well, there’s that. But I like to keep them guessing how we came in. Distracts them from thinking about who it was that came in.”

They walked into the house. People had assured them that it really was empty this time. They went through every room, quiet as mice, and found that indeed it was. Cullan pulled out the bags and they started filling them with whatever took their fancy. Gezza had an impeccable eye for things small and valuable, where Cullan more or less grabbed anything he could carry. He held up a set of painted dinner plates to Gezza.

“Are these worth taking?”

“Custom made,” said Gezza. “Probably unique. About a hundred years old.”

“Catch,” said Cullan. Gezza did, and gave him a look.

“You’re in a good mood tonight. Had a bit o’luck last night then? Or are you finally warmin’ up to being a tea leaf?”

“In any other place, my friend, I would be very troubled indeed. But here, I almost feel I am doing the Light’s work in dealing out some poetic justice.”

Gezza wrapped the plates in some cloth, and put them in his bag. He looked sideways at Cullan.

“How’s that? Don’t tell me you’ve just seen the Light.”

Cullan opened a jewel box, looked inside, then dropped it in his bag.

“The Lord of this Manor is not a nice person.”

“Blimey, Cuchullainn. Neither are we. I’m a scabby little rat, ‘s what our Mum used to call me.”

“The Lord here has an unhealthy interest in his own daughter,” said Cullan. “I find myself unable to care much about his tranquility of mind.”

Gezza stared at Cullan. “How the ding dong bell do you know that?”

“A young lady who works here told me.”

“Blimmin’ hell you idiot! Have you been hobnobbing with the chamber maid or something?”

“No, the lady I speak of… helps to keep his Lordship’s unnatural ardour at bay. She has to pretend she is his daughter, the poor woman. Which is why I have very little sympathy.”

Gezza slowly shook his head. “If you know what’s good for you, mate, keep your boat race shut about that. The high-ups don’t like it when their little games get out in public. Makes them take an interest, know what I mean? And you don’t want that.”

“I understand. Is there more we need from here? If not, let’s leave.”


There was a bang on the door. Interalia opened her eyes, and her hand found the hilt of her dagger. A voice called.

“Dismiss your guard Gnome! Good folk requesting entry!”

Interalia’s eyes shone. “Nix! You little cheat! Come on in! Oh hold on, I’m forgetting. Wait a minute.”

She knocked on the shelf above her with her knuckles.

“Oi Nails! Cover yourself. Male person wanting entry. No giving away the goods too soon.”

Nægling pulled up her blanket.

“So I hear. Do you wish me to leave?”

“Naah. Will be fine.”

Interalia pulled on a robe fashioned out of some Human’s discarded shirt, and opened the door. She looked into Nix’ open, friendly face.

“Yeah what do you want?”

“What would any man want? Your money or your life!”

“Oh good. I thought you were here to ravish me.”

“Not at this time in the morning. Got loads of measuring up to do.”

Nix walked into Interalia’s commodious closet, or rather cramped bedroom, depending on how you looked at it.

“Nice place you’ve got here. Couldn’t get used to sleeping with the Humans?”

“Nope. Too many admirers.”

Nægling looked down on the Gnomes from her vantage point on the shelf above Interalia’s bed, her brown eyes moving from one to the other as they spoke. She made a noise, and Nix looked up.

“Good morning,” said Nægling.

Nix stared at her, and his face fell. A female lug in the room was not what he had counted on. Interalia grinned. She could almost see the little puff of smoke that used to be of one of Nix’ ideas.

“Nix, meet Nails. She’s here to overcome her unnatural desire for Gnome rogue girls. She’s doing great! Hasn’t laid a finger on me yet!”

Nægling frowned.

“I’m not sexually interested in you.”

Interalia gave her a double thumbs up.

“Excellent! I’m proud of you!”

Nægling rolled over, looking at Nix.

“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “Even if your friend were interested in me, she would never choose me over you. She told me about the presents you have been sending her. I never knew one could be so passionate about locks, until I heard her speak. I could almost imagine her delicate, nimble fingers touching, teasing, almost caressing the intricate workings of your locks, and the almost, dare I say, orgasmic pleasure of having them open at last. I assure you, you have nothing to fear from me.”

Nix stared into Nægling’s eyes, shining in the darkness of Interalia’s cupboard. He took a slow, deep breath, then looked back at Interalia, who in turn was looking at Nægling with an expression on her face that hovered between amusement and annoyance. Then, Interalia laughed.

“Right Nix. Make yourself scarce. Women taking their clothes off in here. See you in the dining hall. Tell the lugs not to eat all the breakfast.”

Nix grinned, raised an eyebrow at Interalia.

“So you enjoyed my locks, then?”

“Chocolate gives me a rash. Now get.”

X

“Well, are you going to eat that?” the pot-boy looked at Nix. He was trying to get the large pot from the table. Nix resisted.

“They’ll be along any moment now. I’ll bring it to the kichen if you want.”

“Well, don’t be too long about it.”

“No problem.”

Interalia entered, followed by Nægling. She walked over to Nix, who was guarding her porridge. She sat down next to him.

“Thanks. Boss Man is giving me silly hours for work, so I’m always late or early for every meal.” She started ladling porridge into a bowl. “Which means so is Nails, ’cause she’s too nice to disturb my slumber.” Interalia tasted her porridge, and pulled a face. “Aww. Gone cold. Oh well.”

“I believe we have not been formally introduced,” said Nægling. “I am Nægling of Northshire. Your friend Interalia named me ‘Nails’, in honour of I know not what. Pleased to meet you.”

Nix’ smile froze as he saw the scar on Nægling’s face. Interalia shot him a look. Don’t start.

“I had an argument with a band of Gnolls,” said Nægling.

“Not to mention a varknaaier for a boss,” added Interalia, with her mouth full.

“Perhaps you need to work on your skills for assessing people’s preference for bedfellows,” said Nægling. “I would not take him for a pig person. Sheep, perhaps.”

Nix looked disapprovingly at Interalia. “You’re being an Influence again.”

“Corrupting the world, little by little. So what are you doing here?”

“Taking measurements for the piping, and for the concrete floor. Marking out the places where the pipes will go. Generally getting in the Customer’s face so they don’t think we’ve forgotten about them. Also, I’m delivering one-hundred yards of copper piping and fittings, and checking to see if the boiler will fit down the stairs. Always nice to know that beforehand. Oh. Trixie said to give you her best.”

“Let’s see, that would be her Shockwave right?”

“Yeah. Light help us if Dad ever lets her spec Fury. By the way, how did you like my latest lock?”

Interalia gave Nix the evil eye. “You cheat. That was a dud and you know it. Here!” She pulled out the broken box and dropped it on the table in front of Nix.

“It wasn’t a dud! Come on. Give me a bit more credit than that.” He looked genuinely hurt. “And there was no need to break it open.”

Nægling coughed. “I’m afraid that’s my fault. I didn’t understand the lock was the gift, rather than the contents.”

Nix picked up the box and examined it.

“Ah. The lock’s still whole. You just ripped the lid off. I brought the key here. Look.”

Nix put the key on the table. Interalia frowned. It was just a single stem, nothing sticking out.

“Another one of those magnetic ones? I told you, those will stop working when the magnetism goes.”

“That’s why I didn’t use magnetism here. It’s enchanted steel. Watch.”

Nix pushed the key into the lock, and turned it slowly. As he turned it, Interalia saw the key changing shape, growing combs and pins. The lock clicked, and opened. Interalia looked up into Nix’ smug grin.

“Oh, that’s sneaky! How was I supposed to pick that with the kit you gave me?”

“Did I say you had to use that? And the best thing is, I can make millions of combinations if I don’t have to keep the key in the same shape throughout the opening cycle.”

“Heh. I was going to kick you, but now, just for that, I won’t.”

“Ye gods! Other girls would be eating out of my hand by now.”

“That’ll take more than a flashy lock.”

“You’re not a cheap date. I plan to sell these locks for a hundred and twenty gold a piece. Well, bigger ones for strongboxes.”

Nægling had picked up the box, and was opening and closing the lock. There was a pleasing feeling in the well-running mechanism.

“How will you keep people from bypassing the lock, and simply smashing through the box?”

“Ah, that depends on how nasty you want to get. You may want to invest in Titansteel for really important stuff. Or you could make do with Thorium or Saronite, and instead add a small explosive charge with a tampering switch. That’ll destroy the contents rather than letting it fall into the wrong hands. A seaforium charge will also destroy the wrong hands, should they try to open the box.”

“That might impair recovery.”

“Yeah. Titansteel’s the way to go, then. That’ll drive the price up to four thousand gold, easily. Without even our usual extortionate margins.” Nix grinned. “For my master piece, I’m going to make a titansteel lunchbox. Nobody gets at my cheese sandwich.”

“Have you thought of a name yet?” asked Nægling.

“You’ve been talking to Gnomes, Miss. Haven’t decided yet. Something with sparkling metal, most likely.”

“Ye gods, Nix,” said Interalia, “How are you going to afford the materials?”

“For your master piece, you have to mine them yourself. So that’s a trip to Northrend. Not this year.”

“Well, I’m not that ambitious,” said Interalia. “Trip to Stonewatch Tower this afternoon. And on Boss Man’s orders, Nails is coming with. Though what she’s going to do, I don’t know.”

Nægling put her spoon in her empty bowl. “Sir Gerrig is very kind to let me stay under his roof. It is high time I made myself useful in return. I daresay I will, in one way or another.”

“Well, try to stay out of sight. You pallies aren’t built for stealth. You’re more of a blunt instrument, no offence meant.”

“None taken. It is always fascinating to watch people compensate for their physical disadvantages with cunning.”

“Thanks,” said Nix.

“Oi,” said Interalia.


Selena breathed in deep. A dark-haired man was gently stroking her cheek, and she sighed. Hmm. I’m having one of those dreams. What are you going to do to me, Lieutenant? With that, consciousness floated in and she woke up, slightly annoyed at being ripped away just as she was getting to the good bit. Reality asserted itself.

“Ow!”

Selena grabbed her head, and gently, gingerly, sat up. She closed her eyes and winced. Oh gods. What had she been doing? What was that about grapes and grains? For that matter, how had she got here? She didn’t remember coming back to the tavern. Nor did she remember getting into bed. She pulled up her knees and bent over them, making little anguished noises. Her eyes fell on Hieronimo, in the bed next to her, slowly stirring in her sleep.

Hieronimo turned over, and slowly blinked, then opened her eyes. She groaned and closed them again. Light not good. Hurts our eyes. After a few moments, she opened them again. She sat up, and stuck her bare feet out of bed.

“Oh by the Titans, never again.”

“Must have been something wrong with that ale.”

“And stout,” said Hieronimo.

“Yeah.”

“And bitter.”

“That too.” Selena nodded, and was sorry immediately.

“Definitely nothing wrong with that cheap plonk you got from some git in Brewnall, then.”

“Wasn’t cheap plonk dammit,” said Selena.

“Yes it was. If you paid lots of money for it, more fool you.” Hieronimo looked up at Selena. “What’s that on your face?”

Selena scowled. “Freckles. Get used to it.”

“No, not that. On your cheek.”

Selena focused on Hieronimo’s face. Her mouth fell open. A word from yesterday evening… night… came floating up like a chunk of potato in a stew. Tattoo. The word waved at her, and submerged again.

“You mean like… triangles?”

“Yeah. What’s that?”

Selena said nothing, and rushed over to the mirror. Her lips trembled. With her fingers, she brushed her cheek, as if to verify that the face staring back at her from the other side of the mirror was really her.

“Oh shit!”

She closed her eyes. Opened them again. The red, blue and black triangles were still there. On her face. Unmistakable. Indelible. For the rest of her life.

“Oh crap!” She turned round to Hieronimo, furious. “This was your bloody idea!”

“I was thinking of a bird or a bear on yer shoulder or on yer tit! Not bloody fertility symbols on yer face!”

Selena stared, wide-eyed. “Is that what this is? Come and get it boys, and I’ll make you lots of little Dwarfs?”

“How the hell should I know? I didn’t ask for it!”

With a long arm, Selena grabbed Hieronimo’s hair and dragged her in front of the mirror.

“Well, you’d better find out!”

X

There was a knock on the door. After a few moments, it opened and Berrin walked in.

“Now there, lasses. What’s all the shouting about? Isn’t it about time to get going? Breakfast is getting cold.”

Selena pointed at her cheek. “Look!”

Berrin did. He nodded approvingly.

“Och, that’s beautiful! Lovely bright colours and see how the curves of the triangles follow your cheekbones? That’s good work, that is. Where’d you get that?”

Selena took a deep breath, then burst into tears. “I don’t remember! Dammit, I don’t remember! I know I wasn’t that pretty to begin with, but who’ll have me now? This probably means I’m married to… her!”

Selena sniffed and rubbed her tears away with her hand.

“Aww,” said Berrin. “Ye’ve spoilt it now!”

Selena blinked. She looked at the back of her hand. A black and purple smear of paint was on it. In a rush, she was back at the mirror, rubbing her face with a wet towel. She closed her eyes, and sighed.

“Oh Light be praised.”

Berrin laughed. “Well I still think it was pretty. Breakfast’s on for about thirty more minutes. See ye downstairs.”

They could hear Berrin laughing all the way down to the dining room. Selena looked round to see Hieronimo in front of the mirror, turning her face this way and that.

“Hmm. You know, yer uncle is right. This tattoo guy does know his stuff. Maybe I’ll come back later and have this done for real.”

“You’re mad. I’d never want to walk round with that on my face.”

“Pah. Ye shouldn’t be drawing attention to yer face anyway. It’s not yer best bit.”

Selena raised her eyebrows. “Oh? What is, then?”

“Tits,” said Hieronimo, without a moment’s hesitation. “Ye’ve got scary thin stilts for legs, no bum to speak of and yer face looks like it couldn’t decide what colour it wanted to be, but ye do have a decent pair of tits. Oh well.” She picked up a towel and started to rub her face clean.

Selena stared at the Dwarf girl. “No bum to speak of?”

“Nope. Mind you, I was running behind ye all day yesterday and it’s right at eye level so that may have put me off.”

“Um,” said Selena. “Just checking, understand. You do fancy boys right?”

Hieronimo slowly looked round at Selena, eyes darkening.

“Before askin’ yerself if I’m so sad that I can’t get any boys and I’m reduced to gettin’ it on with girls, ask yerself first if I fancy Humans.”

“Hey,” said Selena, raising her hands. “No offence meant. I know some Elves do girls. Just asking.”

“Do I look like an Elf to ye? Elves are weird.”

Selena laughed. “Yeah. Can’t argue with that, Nice enough, though. Once you get to know them.”

“I’ll take yer word for it.”

X

They arrived in the dining hall, and were forced to scoop up the last of the scrambled eggs, a few bits of bacon and some sad-looking bits of toast. Selena spotted a bowl of oats and pounced on it. Berrin and Thorfin Stoneshield were sitting at the table, empty plates in front of them, finishing their coffee.

“Well, good morning,” said Stoneshield. “Or what’s left of it. Wrap yerself round that breakfast, and get ready. We’re off to Dun Algaz, and then to the Wetlands. It’s time to stop slacking and start hunting prey a wee bit more difficult than the little bears here. We’ll be doing wetland crocolisks, and perhaps even the odd raptor or two.”

“Cool,” said Selena. “That means leather. I’ve always wanted a pair of proper leather pants.”

“Yeah. Don’t sell the skin before ye’ve shot the crocolisk. They’re not that easy.”

X

They were running along the road, taking the same route Bannog, Peterselie and Ariciel had taken such a long time ago. The fresh crisp winter air slowly burnt away the last of their hangovers. Bjorn and Evert were running next to Hieronimo and Berrin. Hugin flew overhead, now flying ahead a bit, sitting down on fenceposts or trees, then leaping into the air and following them again. Thorfin Stoneshield had no sympathy at all for the state of their poor heads.

“Ach! A man by night, a man by day, lads. Keep moving!”

Selena didn’t even want to point out that neither of them were men. Annoyingly, Stoneshield could run for hours on end and showed no signs of getting out of breath. He could even keep talking while at full run, which Selena thought was completely unfair. While they ran, he explained to them the three different stances for their pets. There was Agressive, where it would rush out at anything it saw, Defensive, where it’d only attack things that attacked you first, and Passive, which was to do nothing even if all of the Horde jumped you. That last one seemed a bit silly, but presumably even pets need an off switch sometimes.

“Now the Dragonmaw Orcs are always nice enough to leave a few scouts and grunts out in the tunnel to the Wetlands, so that’s the perfect opportunity to practice putting yer pets on passive. We’re not hunting them yet, so we just barge right through. They usually give up when we get into the other tunnel.”

Selena winced. Orcs. Real life Orcs. Want-to-kill-everything-Human Orcs, without a nice thick wall between you and them.

“Um… How big are these Orcs?”

“Big enough that ye won’t want to stay and chat with them. But that’s later. Let’s have some fun first, while we’re still in reasonably safe places. Everybody, put yer beast on agressive. Then, shoot anything they find.”

Evert the Swine was the first to see something. With a high-pitched squeal, he ran towards a wolf unwise enough to stick its nose out of the undergrowth. Berrin shouldered his shotgun and fired. The wolf fell over.

“Gah! Bleedin’ racket!”

“Well, it works,” said Thorfin Stoneshield.

Berrin pulled a face. Hieronimo was already on her knees, skinning the wolf. While she was working, Bjorn sniffed the air and set off. Quick as lightning, Hieronimo put away her knife, grabbed her gun and ran after him. Another wolf! Before they could even think of skinning the beast and taking the meat, Hugin flapped off at great speed, and nearly bowled Selena over with the remains of a boar.

Thorfin Stoneshield stood a little way off, stuffing tobacco into a pipe, while Berrin, Hieronimo and Selena ran after their enthusiastic pets. He felt in his pocket for a flint and steel. He still didn’t like to use matches. Who’d use something that ran out? He took a calm side-step as one of Selena’s arrows whizzed past him and hit some unlucky member of the local fauna.

“Nice shot lad, but hold yer fire till yer bird gets to it.”

Selena came sprinting past.

“Lass, damn you!”

“Save yer breath. There she goes again.”

X

Thorfin studied the bowl of his pipe. It had finally gone out completely and the lads were stil running after their pets. He raised a foot and knocked the head of his pipe against his boot. Then, he took a deep breath and shouted.

“Everybody, pets back to defensive! Let’s see what we’ve got.”

It turned out that they had got quite a lot. Twenty-three skins of various animals and an impressive supply of meat.

“Excellent. Now what does this tell ye all?”

“Gets busy,” said Hieronimo, feeding Bjorn lumps of wolf meat.

“Right. So do we want to do this with Orcs when we get to the tunnel?”

“Hell, no,” said Selena.

“Right answer,” said Thorfin Stoneshield. “Still think passive mode is silly?”

Selena only gave him a look and said nothing.

“Good. Now pack up the supplies. I don’t doubt we’ll be able to find some takers at Algaz Station. Let’s get moving.”

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