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Volume 3182a
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ROSE OF STORMGAARD

Chapter 5.  Apprentice

The Black Dragon door guards were a matched set of brutes.  Dressed in black leather pants and vests that left their chests bare, each man stood over six feet tall and was muscled like a wrestler.  Wearing open faced black dragon helms, and carrying a black mace a good two feet long, they looked formidable and served notice that not just anyone could enter the Black Dragon.

There were other taverns nearby with their stairways leading up from the undercity. Each had its own décor. The Deadly Dwarf Dungeon had a stairway going down and two Dwarves in Dwarven plate armor guarding the entrance. Only Dwarves and Dwarf friends could get inside. The Palace of Delight was guarded by two human beauties in transparent costumes. Each guardian carried a magical wand, and they randomly scattered sparkle-glares around themselves. You couldn’t look at them for long without getting a headache. Of course, the cure was right inside, for those who could and would pay the admission fee.

Petal bounded lightly up the Black Dragon steps and threw herself into the arms of the guard on the right.  The move surprised him, and he had to drop his mace in order to catch the airborne elf.  The mace rolled down the steps, and Rose lightly caught and hefted it as she climbed.  Petal seized the man’s head with both arms and savagely kissed him.

“I’ll bet she gets into the tavern for free,” griped one of the beggars in the street below.  People without money were not welcome in the Black Dragon.

Petal squirmed in the guard’s grip, molding herself to the contours of his muscular chest, and wrapping her legs around his hips.  “Urm, Karn.  If the boss sees you behaving like this on company time . . .” said the other guard.

“He will be so jealous.” Rose finished the sentence for him. “Ollahay, Zheen. Here, hold this,” she handed him Karn’s mace, “until your mate gets a hand free again.” She started to move past him, but he stuck out an arm and blocked her path.

“What makes you think you can just walk in here without my approval?”

She turned and smiled at him. “Several things make me think that.  One: I live here—“

“And you’re a month behind on your rent.  Daragon said . . .”

“I have the money for Daragon with me.  He will want to see me tonight.”

Thorn shoved her way past them. No one was getting in her way.

“Two: my friend here,” Rose gestured at Calyx who stood waiting for the guards to get out of the door and let her in, “can turn you into a frog if you give us a hard time.”

Zheen noticed Calyx watching him. He took a half step to the side and gestured for her to pass, touching the edge of his helmet with his free hand, almost like a salute. High Elves often had that effect on people, especially men.  Calyx walked in with a swing of her hips and a small smile for the guard and followed Thorn across the cellar and toward the stairs leading up to the Common Room at street level.  The sound of music from a qatarh drifted past them.

“And three,” Rose continued, still smiling, “I can kick your butt in a fight, so you’d better not make me mad.”

“In your dreams! You got lucky the last time . . .”

“You think? Tomorrow. Noon. Wrestler’s circle. Duke’s park. You bring the oil.”

“You’re on, and this time . . .”

Rose started to turn and walk inside, but once again Zheen’s arm was in the way. “Aren’t you forgetting something? Not fair that Karn gets paid and I don’t.”

Rose smiled up at him. “Say please.”

“Put me down, Karn. I want to see this.”

The guard set the elfin girl on her dainty feet again. He wanted to see this too. “Very well, I’ll let you down so you can go inside and get lubricated, but you will come see me later, right?”

“Me? Go see a man?” Petal laughed. “Perhaps, Karn, or perhaps you should come see me instead. I’m not one to chase a man around.”

“But you threw yourself at me just now!”

“I was just happy to see you.”  She danced past him into the room but looked back to watch Rose.

As Petal disengaged herself from Karn, Rose finished her conversation with Zheen.”

“I won’t say please.” Zheen looked as if he wanted to bite her.

“Your loss.” Rose started to turn.

“But I will tell you something you’ll want to know before you go in.”

“Oh? Then come here, big boy.” She threw one arm around his neck, dragging his head down to her level, and let her other hand lightly stroke his crotch, not that he felt more than a little pressure in his leathers.  She kissed him, and when his mouth opened a little, she forced her tongue into his mouth for just a touch. Then she withdrew.

“Brother, you worked hard for that kiss,” commented Karn.

“What do I want to know?”

Zheen pulled himself together. “There is a wizard upstairs looking for you. He asked for you as soon as he came into the tavern.”

“A wizard?” Rose’s face became thoughtful. “Did he seem angry?”

“No. I think he wants to hire you. Started asking for you as soon as he entered the place more than an hour ago. Seemed surprised that you weren’t already here.”

“Interesting. Thank you, Zheen.” Rose leaned forward and gave him a quick peck on the cheek, a friendlier, but not nearly as sexy, kiss than the previous one. “Why don’t you two join us if you get a break, and I’ll buy you both a drink.”

“I’ll buy for Karn. He’s mine!” Petal wasn’t going to let Rose steal her man, not even for a little while.

The woman and the Elf entered the room. This cellar of the Black Dragon was reserved for serious drinking, a bit of friendly gaming—dice rattled at several of the tables—and private conversations. As Rose entered, more than one of the patrons looked up and called a greeting. Rose had an ollahay for each of them, but she wasted no time getting upstairs to the common room.

Thorn and Calyx already had a table for them—a little round one near the far end of the bar. They’d be bumping their knees together, but at least it was a place to set their drinks. Calyx was just ordering elven tea for all of them. The room was only half full. Bad weather had apparently kept some people home. Even so, there must have been a hundred people in the Common Room, and half a dozen barmaids scurried about with trays full of drinks and food. Yryna was taking Calyx’s order when Rose and Petal arrived. “Elven tea is good for me,” Rose told her, “but also bring ham, cheese, and fresh bread.” Yryna headed for the kitchen to get their orders.

Rose rapped on the table 3 times—one of the band’s signals for “pay attention”. They all looked at her. “Interesting news Zheen just gave me. Seems there is a wizard here tonight, looking for me, or maybe all of us.”

Calyx pointed toward the one fireplace in use that evening. “I spotted him when I came in, sitting over there by the fireplace in his scary black robes, shivering. He not only does magic. He is magic.”
Rose took a casual look in that direction. She saw a man in a black robe.  His skin was coarse and pallid, but only the face and hands could be seen. Large misshapen hands twisted restlessly, rings on every finger, long black twisted fingernails moving like so many restless cockroaches. A jagged mark on his forehead, a livid scar someting like a figure 4 made of lightning bolts drew the attention away from the heavy-lidded eyes. He wore a black robe and cowl, that was lined with pockets. Multiple necklaces, each holding one or more silver pendants lapped his neck, shoulders, and breast. There were sigils all over him, pinned to the robe, sticking out of pockets. They came in many different shapes--squares, circles, spirals, stars, lightning, trapezoids, diamonds, ovals, fish, birds, doors, gates, keys, and other shapes for which Rose could not even think of a name. He exuded magic in the same way that bogs exude a rotten odor.
 

“Are you going to go talk to him?” Petal’s curiosity was aroused.

“No good comes from dealing with wizards,” Thorn growled, “especially from wizards who dress in black.”

Calyx sniffed. “I’m a wizard,” she said icily.

“Not really. You’d like everyone to think that, but you’re a rogue. You never went to wizard’s school. I’m always amazed by the spells you don’t know.”

“I tell you, the training for Elven wizards is different.”

“Mmm hmmm.” Thorn went back to drinking. “We’re going to need a new pot of tea.”

“Slow down. That stuff contains alcohol, you know.”

“Not enough! If this were a Dwarven drinking party, we’d be on our second keg of ale by now.”

“Drunken Dwarf!”

“Tipsy Elf!”

“Knock it off!” Rose punched them both in the shoulder. “Friends don’t argue about booze. Thorn, you can order ale if you want it, but keep your head. It’s not every night that a wizard comes looking for us. And no, I’m not going to go over and talk to him. If he’s looking for us, I want him to come to us. We don’t go to him. He’s seeking our help. We’re not seeking his.”

The wizard only had a stool, and he wasn’t drinking anything. People at nearby tables and benches had pulled away from him, leaving a little charmed circle of empty space around him. One of the serving maids came up and whispered something to him. He looked up, and his gaze turned toward Rose and her friends. His eyes were coal black. His face was pallid and gray except for the unhealthy red scar on his forehead. He had neither eyebrows nor beard. He caught the serving maid by the hand and closed her fist inside his own black gauntlet. She looked surprised, then happy, opening her hand to display briefly a gold coin, a golden roc of Stormgaard. Smiling, she looked at Rose and company, nodded, and walked away. The wizard picked up his staff, which had been lying against the wall and started in their direction.

“Here he comes, ooh! I’ve got shivers.” Petal shuddered delicately.

“Me too,” growled Thorn, “but mine are more like shudders of revulsion.”

“Let me do the talking. Calyx, see what you can learn from his behavior. You’re our expert on wizards tonight.”  Rose laid out the encounter strategy decisively.

“I’m just a rogue.”

“Calyx!”

The wizard trudged toward them, slowly. His black robes jangled as he walked. There were so many sigils and charms sewn into his garment that he seemed to be weighed down by them. People got out of his way. A path magically appeared leading straight to their table.  Even furniture like chairs and tables no longer blocked his path. He walked toward them, and a sense of coldness came with him. He stopped a foot away from their table, looked squarely at Calyx and said, “You are Rose! I require your services.” His opaque eyes glittered. They were all pupil and no iris, and as black as his robes.

Calyx shook her head, violently as she exerted her will to cast off the glamor the wizard had cast at her. “No, I am Ceelin, that is Rose.” She indicated the shorter woman with a glance.” Names had power. Calyx took advantage of his ignorance to give him a name that could not hurt her.

“Eyes,” whispered Petal. It was a warning and advice at the same time.

The wizard turned abruptly to face Rose. “You are Rose! I require your services.” He stared at her with the glare of a cobra trying to hypnotize its prey.

Rose stood up. She averted her eyes from his face and looked at the silver design worked into his left shoulder pad. It seemed to swirl in her vision. She looked away from that also, seeking something safe to watch. She settled on his chin, and kept her lashes lowered so she couldn’t see his eyes. “I am Rose. Who are you?”

“You will look at me when I talk to you!”

“I think not, and if you don’t tell me your name, I’ll call a door guard and have you bounced into the street. My Dwarf friend could do it by herself, I wager.”

Thorn brightened up. The idea of throwing this wizard out into the rainy streets appealed to her.

“Are you afraid to look me in the eyes? I expected more courage from the famous Rose of Stormgaard.”

“Not afraid—just cautious. There are tales of what can happen to those who trade stares with wizards. I won’t give you that power over me.”

“So, the stories about you do not exaggerate. You are wise as well as wicked.”

“Watch it with the insults,” growled Thorn. “I don’t like you, wizard, and for two silver eels, I’d shove a foot of good Dwarven steel through your guts.”

“It wouldn’t do any good, Thorn. This thing is already dead. He’s a lich.” Calyx made the comment as a way of keeping the Dwarf from doing anything rash.

“Take no offense. I meant it as a compliment. Still, I could use your help, and I’m willing to pay you very well.”

“And who are you?” Rose insisted.

“My name means nothing. You may call me Nam.” His lips moved upwards in the faintest rictus of a grin, as if he were springing some joke upon them.

“And what service can a lowly human perform for you, O Nam?” Sarcasm fairly dripped from Rose’s voice.

“I want you to retrieve something for me, something that I lost in a dangerous place.”

“Why don’t you get it yourself?’

“I cannot return there. It is barred to me now.”

Yryna came back with the food and the extra pot of elven tea, but stood a few feet away, hesitant to interrupt a wizard. Rose saw her, and motioned her to bring the food up and set it down. The barmaid edged in and set the food on the small table. There wasn’t much room left over.”

“Nam is paying,” said Rose.

 A flicker of anger crossed the wizard’s face, then he opened his palm and tossed three golden rocs at the barmaid. “Begone!”

“I hope, for her sake, that’s real gold, and not an illusion.”

“If we take this job, what’s in it for us?”

“Would one hundred golden rocs be enough?”

Thorn looked interested.

“No!” Rose said it calmly. One hundred golden rocs was not a bad offer, but she was not about to sell herself and her companions for the first offer that anyone made.

“Two hundred. That’s fifty for each of you.”

“I can do the math. No.”

“Three hundred. That’s exorbitant, and my last offer.”

“No. Let’s say five hundred.”

“Five hundred is outrageous. Do you think I have infinite wealth?”

Yes, actually. Five hundred is cheap, and I’m only giving you that rate because I like you.”

“That line would get her slapped by any true man,” whispered Petal.

“That one ceased being a man a long time ago,” whispered Calyx in Petal’s ear.

“Five hundred is cheap. What is my life worth? I am tempted to ask for five hundred for each of us.”

“What is your life worth?” The wizard seemed taken with the question. “More than I had thought.”

“Five hundred, or no deal. In fact, . . .

“I do not require them. I only need you. Five hundred it is, payable when you bring me the emerald armband.”

“Half now, and half when I bring you this emerald trinket! I would guess that it is worth a good deal more than five hundred gold coins.”

Nam snarled and bared yellow teeth in a horrid grimace. His eyeteeth were longer and sharper than those of any mortal man. “Woman, you try my patience. I did not bring that much money with me. A hundred golden rocs was enough to buy the last party I sent after the armband.”

“How did that work out for you?”

A nasty smile twisted the wizard’s face for a second—just a flicker of satisfaction. “They have not returned.”

“You know my terms. Two hundred fifty now or it’s no deal.”

“I tell you that I do not have that much money with me, and the mission is urgent. The sooner you recover the armband, the better for all of us.”

“Summon it. Surely you could summon a demon or a familiar to bring you the cash.”

“I dare not. The master would notice and punish me.”

“The master?”

“My master, the Grim One . . .” He stopped. He acted like he had said too much. He reached for a silver sigil hanging at his waist.

Thorn’s axe was suddenly in her hands. “I wouldn’t do that, Nam. If you even try to cast a spell on us, your head will be in one corner of the room, and your body in another before you can say two words.”

“You do not need to know my master’s name. You must forget it. You must.”

“Consider it forgotten. That name means nothing to us. But do not even think of using your spells on us without our consent.” Thorn spun her battleaxe lightly.

Nam’s hands fell to his side. “Very well. You are a most formidable group. I begin to hope that you can succeed.”

“The money?” said Rose.

“Follow me, and I will give it to you. Then you can enter the Pits of Despair immediately.”

“No.”

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN—NO?” Nam’s voice rose into a shriek and his teeth grated together with a sound that everyone in the tavern could hear. “You say that word far too often, Woman. Who do you think you are to gainsay me—ME?”

Twenty voices answered him as men all around the tavern stood up and moved toward them. “She’s the Rose of Stormgaard.” A tall fellow with a golden mane of hair, curling gold mustachios, and a well-trimmed golden beard spoke for all the men. “There is not one of us here who wouldn’t cut you to ribbons to protect her.  Who do you think you are dealing with, wizard?” Steel glittered and a riot seemed about to break out.

The wizard fumed. The air above his head turned black and tiny lightnings danced in it. His hands curled into claws and came up to point at the encroaching mob. In another instant all hell would have broken loose.

“Hold!” cried Rose. Everyone turned to look at her. She had her sword of silvery metal in her hand and it was poised above her head, ready to deal a killing stroke to the wizard in front of her.

“Thank you, Monjo, and all you brave gentlemen of Stormgaard, but this is my affair, and I can handle it. Return to your seats. Barkeep, a round for the house, and put it on my tab!”

The men looked doubtful. The wizard looked at Rose, saw the silvery sword, now glowing faintly, and suddenly sagged. The air above his head cleared and the lightnings dissipated.

“Very well, Rose, it will be as you wish it. But the affair must be done soon, or not at all. You are my last hope.”

“Tomorrow at sunset, then. Bring my money, Nam, and be prepared to answer some questions. We will meet at the lighted fountain on Bank Street.  If you play us false, or if the money is not true, the deal is off, and you will regret it.”

He glared at her, then turned on his heel and strode toward the front door. He slammed it open, and a gust of rain and wind blew into the Black Dragon, putting out half the candles and torches in the room. He surged out into the storm, but not a drop of rain touched his body.

A man slammed the door shut. “I’m glad he’s gone,” someone said.

“Three cheers for Rose!” The bar erupted into a bedlam of cheering. Rose put her sword away and sat back down, her eyes gleaming and a smile on her perfect lips.

They sat down, refilled their mugs, tore off pieces of bread and ham, and began to eat. Thorn told Yryna to bring a pitcher of ale and real flagons to drink from. Things returned to the relative calm of a busy tavern.

Just before they went upstairs to their rooms on the third floor of the tavern, and well after they had paid Daragon the ten golden rocs they owed him for the last month’s rent, Calyx said calmly, “You know it’s a trap of some sort.”

“Yes, I know, but if we can spring it, we may have enough money to live in luxury for the rest of the year. I don’t believe any wizard’s apprentice is more than a match for the four of us.”

Calyx, Petal, and Thorn smiled.


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