3. Morgan and Gherzille

This is the culmination of Morgan becoming something more. It explains why he’s tempersome, and a bit of a lush. I enjoyed writing this, and would have had it up sooner, but I was stuck in Atlanta on and off for months. 

As always, feedback and link backs appreciated. 

Thank you. 

(This is fairly PG-13ish, so don’t be frightened of the opening scene.)


 

The room was dimly lit with a single flickering candle. Morgan was kissing the short haired woman with enthusiasm, and ran his calloused hands down the side of her neck. He generally pursued men, but occasionally a woman caught his eye. He was a short man, but his work as a sword for hire left his body muscled. His shirt was off, and the scars, tattoos, and runes that covered his skin gave him a rough look.

His brown hair was neatly cut today, and he was reasonably clean shaven. He’d just gotten off a job, and had made a beeline for a bar called the Tipsy Tankard, one of Tombsville’s fine drinking establishments. There he had met a beautiful lady, and they had drank and flirted their way into a private room.

The woman he was with had short dark hair, and dark brown eyes. Her shirt was off, showing her bright red stays underneath. She had a rose tattooed over her left breast, and her tawny skin was clear and smooth. Although drunk, her eyes were still bright.

She reached down to Morgan’s pants, and began to undo his belt. Morgan reached down to stay her hands, with a look of concern.

Morgan said, “Jenna, I have to tell you something here.” He was a little drunk, but not drunk enough to make this any easier. This discussion ranked as the worst discussion of all time, as far as Morgan was concerned.

“You’re not married are you, because I don’t care about that,” the dark haired woman said breathlessly, and tried to undo his belt again.

“No. That’s not it. I’m . . . Um. . . I don’t have the same parts most men do,” Morgan said. He watched her eyes, hoping for recognition, but found none.

He pressed on, “Most folks here in Tombsville know about me, because I’m open about it. Since you’re just moving through, I didn’t think about it until now. I have more lady-like plumbing, so I hope that’s not a problem.” He said it casually, with a shrug, and let go of her hand. Morgan’s demeanor was light, but he held his breath waiting for her response. This was always a tricky discussion.

“What? What does that mean? I don’t understand. Are we going to have sex, or what?” Jenna asked, looking confused. Her brows were furrowed, and she looked annoyed.

“I can do things with my mouth and my hands that will make you scream. When it comes to big dicks, however, I don’t have one,” Morgan said with a swaggering smile. If nothing else, he had nothing to hide, and nothing to feel ashamed about, so the confidence was real.

Jenna looked concerned and said, “Did you get into an accident?” She reached up and traced some of his scars for effect.

“No, that’s not it either. I looked like a girl when I was born, and shifted in my teens. You know, when I was old enough to be able to take charge of myself,” Morgan explained. He had never hid his past, but that sometimes meant folks were not exactly happy about it.

Jenna narrowed her eyes, and then exclaimed “Oh hell no. You are one of those fake men, aren’t you. You had me fooled! I’ve seen that in the High City. Freaks that change gender? Is that it? Your really a woman in disguise?” Her expression had turned cold, and she pushed away from him. She crossed her arms across her chest in disapproval.

“I’m not a freak, and I’m certainly not a woman.” Morgan said with finality. He sat up, and reached for his boots. He fumbled drunkenly with one, and stomped his foot into it.

“I’ve seen the men that prance around in women’s clothing. You can’t tell me that’s natural,” she continued drunkenly.

“Yeah? Well I looked like a ‘normal’ teen girl before I started, so I guess that makes me unnatural as well,” Morgan said, and reached for his shirt. He then paused, and grabbed the open bottle of whisky, too.

He then stalked out of the room, leaving the woman on the bed. His eyes were dark with irritation, and he shrugged his shirt on as he stalked down the stairs. At least he took the whiskey, and the room had been cheap.

His footsteps traced their way back to the Lady Rose Inn. It was as close to a home as he’d had since he came to Tombsville so many years ago. Inside he saw a big half-orc sitting at a table with a pair of women. When they saw them, they waved him over with smiles.

The half-Orc was named Axe and was one of his best friends. He was just over seven feet tall. His face was a bright smiling one, punctuated by two small tusks that protruded from his lower jaw. He was dressed in a plain shirt, snug fitting breeches, and a pair of tall boots. He carried no obvious weaponry, besides his Orcish size.

The women were named Sealy and Ansi, and were sisters that had just joined the crew Morgan worked for. They resembled each other closely, and it would be difficult to miss that that were related.

Ansi, the elder sister, was a tall, dark skinned woman, with a halo of natural kinky hair. Her golden eyes were kind, and she was given to easy smiles. She dressed pragmatically as the fighter she was, complete with a large ancient blade on her hip.

Sealy was slightly shorter, and given to wearing dark leather. Her coat had a deep hood, but it was thrown back. Her hair was a complicated number of long tight braids, wrapped up on top of her head. Like her sister, her skin was dark, and her eyes were golden. She was officially recon for the team, but unofficially she was a sneaky thief of some skill.

Morgan flopped unhappily in the chair at their table, and slammed the half empty bottle of whisky down. He glowered down at the bottle, and snorted to himself. His boots were unlaced, his shirt disheveled, and his hair was standing up in patches.

“Well that was a helluva entrance,” Ansi said with a smile. She picked up his half empty whisky bottle and said, “That is a helluva big bottle, let me help you with that.” She took a big swig out of the bottle.

“Yeah, well some nights suck,” Morgan said, and took his bottle back, upending it for a judicious gulp. He then put the bottle down a little more gently, and wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve.

“What happened?” Axe asked. His greenish orc complexion, complemented his dark greenish black hair. The greenish grey coming in at the temples was highlighted in the inn’s lanterns.

“I actually found a lady I was interested in, and turns out she’s from the High City, and has heard of freaks like me. What I have in my pants isn’t what she expected, so she threw out words like ‘freak’ and ‘unnatural’,” Morgan said. “No matter how often I’ve done this dance, it doesn’t get easier.”

Morgan usually looked far younger than his years, but at that instant all that was wiped away. He looked age weary, and said to Axe, “Sometimes I hate that conversation more than anything. It’s never easy.”

“Hey, if she can’t handle what you are, then she doesn’t deserve what you have to offer,” Axe said. “I think I might have heard that advice once from a really smart man.” Axe reached over and palmed Morgan’s head in a moment in sympathy.

Sealy offered, “That’s terrible. She could have declined with a bit more grace. I guess that happens sometimes to you?” She wore an expression of concern.

“No kidding. At least she didn’t take a swing at me,” Morgan said, “Sometimes folks are cool, and sometimes folks aren’t. I usually tell people before we get upstairs because it saves me some coin on the room, if they are idiots.” His tone was upbeat, but he looked bothered by it. He drank deeply from his whisky bottle, again.

“I guess I’m with you guys tonight, and I’ll find someone better tomorrow,” Morgan said with a shrug. “I’m just used to everyone here in Tombsville knowing about me before I get to that point.” He shrugged, and put on a happier face.

Sealy gave him a look of sympathy, and said, “That is rough. Do you want me to go over and kick her ass for you? It’d be on the house? Or maybe help you find one of the lovers you see normally?”

“Normally? Yeah. Not so much tonight. That’s why I ended up with the drifter lady from the High City,” Morgan said. “It’s fine. It’s not like this was the first time this has happened. I just leave when it does. The woman doesn’t know what she’s missing. If she was just looking for an insensitive ass to jump on her, I guess I’m not it.” He made a lewd gesture with his tongue, and smirked.

“You can drink with us, then,” Ansi said to the short man with a smile. “We’re celebrating our normal job concluding with out so much as a single thing out of place. In fact, the more boring the better, right?”

Morgan smiled. He wasn’t the type to dwell on things when there was a bottle of whisky to drink. “Sure. I’ll catch up with some of my friendlier friends tomorrow. Jokes on the High City woman, the Tipsy Tankard is all family-like to me, so they’ll probably charge her high, and treat her cold for that crap.”

“See, Tombsville takes care of it’s own after all,” Axe said.

The night continued with just the three of them drinking until they were the only ones left. Ansi and Sealy were the first to head upstairs to their room to sleep it off.

Morgan and Axe continued drinking until dawn, and Rose herself had wandered down to the bar from her rooms upstairs.

“Are you still down here? Still drinking?” She asked in a motherly tone. She was wearing a long skirt of expensive, but sensible fabric, a white blouse, and a bodice that matched her skirt. She was wearing slippers instead of shoes, and was carrying a couple empty plates down from her rooms.

“Shoo! Both of you! Go sleep it off!” She said. She put her plates on the bar, and then reached over to confiscate the near empty bottles that they still had on the table.

Axe got up, and said, “Of course, you’re right, Rose. Morgan had a bad night. I was just keeping him company.” The giant swayed a little on his feet, and turned and carefully worked his way up the stairs.

Rose leaned down, and took Morgan’s face in her hands. “Welp. No bruises or blood, so it wasn’t a fight this time.” She smoothed down his hair.

“Nah, just the usual. Having to explain myself,” Morgan said, and reached up to mess up the hair she just smoothed down.

Rose looked into Morgans bleary blue eyes, and said, “Just remember what I have said since you were a kid. You don’t owe anyone an explanation of who or what you are. It’s their loss. You are a good man Morgan. Don’t let anyone make you forget that,” She said it with some conviction.

Rose then bent over to kiss the top of Morgan’s head, and said, “You stink. Go sleep it off.”

“Yes, Rose,” Morgan said. He shakily got up from his chair, stumbled, and wove his way to the stairs. “Thanks for being the mom I always needed.”

“Someone has to look after you,” She said, and walked over to take his arm, and help lead him up the stairs. “However, You’d think at your age, you’d be over this drinking crap by now.”

She then helped Morgan to drunkenly get up to the room he and Axe were sharing, and handed him off to the Orc at the door.

**********

Several weeks later, it was a fine summer morning at The Lady Rose Inn. The big table in the window was populated by the usual characters.

Loren was at the head of the table with a few papers, and maps. Unlike the previous Winter, when the crew wasn’t able to find enough work, Summer had given way to an abundance of jobs. They had been declining offers because of it.

He was dressed in the normal Dallingshal greens and browns. His clothing was upscale for most of the elves in Tombsville, but he had the pedigree to carry it off. He always looked impeccable, from the eyepatch over his left eye, to his tall soft elven boots.

Next to Loren sat James. A tall thin human-ish looking man. His hair was mid length and shaggy. It was the color of black velvet kept out in the sun too long. You could tell it had been black at one point, but it had inexplicably faded. He rarely looked at anyone when speaking, instead communicating through his ever faded hair.

James was dressed in clean, new clothing that could be described as unremarkable. He was incredibly pale, and gaunt, so even his unremarkable clothing choices looked pointedly large. On his shoulder hung his ever present worn leather satchel, home to all his magical bits and bobs.

Loren was explaining the upcoming work schedule. He was a good leader, and he took care of his men and women well. He had been in the mercenary business for decades on end. He had picked his crew carefully, filling his small team with men and women that showed exceptional traits.

He cast an implacably calm gaze at Morgan. The short human was severely hung over again. They’d only been in town since yesterday, and he looked like he had been fighting. Loren’s expression was unreadable, as usual, but his gaze lingered.

To be fair, whatever fight Morgan had been in, Axe must have taken part, as well. Although wide awake in the warm morning air, the big half-orc had his own bruises. From the rumors, Axe had waded in to pull Morgan out of another fight. It apparently took a half-orc to get Morgan to stop when he got started.

It was hard to deny that Morgan’s behavior was getting worse. He was a good man, and an excellent sword for hire, but Loren was going to have to figure out a strategy to keep Morgan out of trouble during down time. His erratic behavior had been increasing over the years, with an exponential increase in explosive behavior since the job they’d done for James in the cemetery.

“So that’s the schedule,” Loren concluded, “That is three months worth of work, and all of it well paying. We’ll squeeze an emergency escort job in, as our very next job. It’s a bit odd, but I think it has potential for a larger payout. I think we have done a lot of run of the mill, decently paid jobs recently. I’d like to take a chance on this last minute one for the bigger pay out.” Loren continued to shuffle his maps and papers.

James spoke up, “So we’re talking a day off between jobs? I haven’t known you to cut jobs so close before, Loren. What if we get delayed?” His pale features seemed out of place in the bright morning sun.

Loren replied, “It’s temporary.” His face was inscrutable.

“I don’t mind,” Ansi said, “There’s some equipment I’ve been saving up for.” She then nudged Morgan, and said with a smile, “Did you get all that, boozehound? or too hungover?”

Morgan just looked at her with a pained expression, and nodded with a groan, causing Ansi to laugh at him.

“When’s the next rendezvous?” Sealy asked Loren.

“Up in Walker’s Town. It’s a couple days east of here. We’ll meet up with our new boss there, and keep heading towards the 4th province,” Loren reiterated.

“We leave tomorrow morning, early.” he said, while looking at Morgan pointedly.

Loren then turn to the half-Orc, “Axe, you’re on Morgan duty tonight.”

Axe looked at Loren seriously, locked eyes, and nodded, “Got it. I’ve been on Morgan duty since we got into town.”

For Morgan’s part, he was too hungover to even notice the interchange. He didn’t respond until Axe nudged him

“Did you get your medicine today?” Axe asked, he was looking at Morgan appraisingly.

“Um. No. I need to get to the apothecary, but I got sidetracked,” Morgan explained. He didn’t notice the look Axe shared with Loren.

“Well come on, lets get you down there, and pick it up. There was a time you wouldn’t miss that shot for the world, you know,” Axe said gently. He then reached over and pushed the short man out of his chair.

The unlikely duo walked down the warm summer streets of Tombsville. If you could ignore the tombstones used for building corner stones, or bones and skulls used as decorations in side gardens, it was a beautiful little village.

They arrived at the apothecary’s shop in short order. Mr. Farley was at the counter giving instructions to a human woman equally as ancient as he was. When he was done, he smiled broadly, and waved the two men over.

“Morgan! It’s been forever. I had thought you must have gotten a different supplier,” the old man said. His hands, thin and shaky, grasped Morgan’s hands and patted them.

“Things keep getting away from me,” Morgan said quietly.

“Well, I can see what got away from you last night,” the apothecary said, with a fatherly look.

“Let’s get you that medication, and I think my assistant, Millie, might have something for that hangover,” the old man continued. Then he turned to yell into the back, “Millie! One Friday Night Special, please.”

It wasn’t long before Mr. Farley had a small brown paper packet wrapped in twine, ready for Morgan.

By this time a very young elven woman had a mug ready for Morgan to drink. Millie handed him the mug, and admonished him, “Now drink the whole thing down. You could use it, and a bath mister.”

Morgan gave her a look, and took the mug, and drank the whole thing in one go. He then handed her the empty mug.

“Okay then. You should be feeling less pain, and less murderous in short order, Morgan,” the girl said with a smile. She was completely unaffected by the irritable look Morgan was shooting at her.

“Thank you both. I really appreciate you looking after Morgan,” Axe said, and physically steered the short human out of the shop.

“Morgan, if that helps you lose whatever is making you want to get into a fight with every sword for hire in town, I’ll give that girl half my pay for this job,” Axe said.

“I think your pay is safe,” Morgan retorted with a snort. “She was nice, though.”

*********

The crew met up the next morning. True to his word, Axe had wrangled Morgan into submission the previous night. The short fighter was in good spirits, and looked more like himself. He was clean, shaved, and awake for the walk out.

It was an uneventful two day trip to Walker’s Town. The crew was pleasant, and the jokes flew. The weather was dry, and clear. It felt more like a camping trip, than work.

“So does the sword do everything James promised?” Axe asked Ansi, as they sat by the fire, dinner in hand.

“Yes, but Sealy hates it. You can’t actually feel your injuries when you plant your feet. It’s a great broadsword, but it’s concerning when you could be injured and have no knowledge of it,” She responded. She reached over, and pulled the big broad sword out of it’s scabbard and laid it across her lap.

“It’s a beautiful weapon,” Axe commented, “I guess, I’ll have to keep a closer eye on you. Does it need to be drawn? How does it work?”

“I’m not sure. James wasn’t either. It doesn’t work in the scabbard, which makes sense. You don’t want to go through life without a sense of pain. That would be dangerous,” she smiled and shrugged.

“All I know,” the tall woman said, “is when I pull it out, and take a fighting stance, this sword knows, and I stay fighting no matter the wounds.” Her golden eyes flashed in the firelight like a cat looking at prey. “That is a helluva ability to have.” She traced a finger over the hard lines of the Dwarven runes.

“I wonder if there are any Dwarves left deep down in the earth?” Axe asked.

“I had no idea they were real until I got this,” Sealy said with as snort.

They then settled in for the night. It would be a long push tomorrow to get to Walker’s Town. The road would be easy, though. They might be in a hurry, but the weather was fair, and the road would flow quickly underfoot.

They were to meet up with one Wilsie Vale. She was the Chancellor to the king of Leannin in the 4th province. She hadn’t said why she had traveled out to the unincorporated lands, but her business was concluded, and she needed new escorts back to Leannin. All the crew had to do was get her, and her three people back to what she would consider civilization as fast as they could.

When they arrived at Walker’s Town, they went straight to The Cherry Blossom. That was the highest priced inn the city had to offer. Walker’s was bigger than Tombsville by at least three times, and far more settled. They had some of the hallmarks of a real city, such as refined dining, a theater, and a newspaper. That said, it was still considered a rough and unsettled town.

This is how Loren’s crew found themselves sitting at a fancy dining table with the closest thing to nobility any of them had ever seen. Loren and James were the only two members of the crew that seemed at ease with the fancy china, and multitude of eating utensils. Wilsie Vale had decided they could meet over dinner, which translated into multiple courses.

Wilsie Vale was a woman in her mid 50s. She was impeccably dressed in a long skirt, and a high fashion jacket. She wore a hat, over her dark grey hair, and her eyes were a deep brown. There was a shrewdness in those eyes, and her demeanor was simply imposing. She was a woman that handled power on behalf of the the powerful.

For accessories she traveled with two large men in light armor, sporting Leannin colors. They wore full faceplates, and carried long swords. For their part, they stood silently behind Ms. Vale, adding a touch of menace to the older woman.

The other person in her retinue was a small well dressed mousey woman in her twenties, wearing expensive glasses. She appeared to be Ms. Vales’ secretary. She carried a satchel with a multitude of papers, and a few books. She tended to whisper to Wilsie Vale whenever more information was needed. She had been introduced as Laveda.

As they sat at the table, even Morgan was intimidated into silence. It was clear that these well dressed people were asking for the best the area had to offer, and came upon Loren’s crew as the solution to their problem. That didn’t mean they couldn’t make life difficult, if things went wrong.

“Your team came highly recommended by everyone I spoke to, Loren,” Wilsie was saying. “It was mentioned they would be rough around the edges, but that they could get us where we were going.”

Loren smiled, uncharacteristically, and said, “This is true. My men and women can get you where your royal escorts are waiting, safe and sound.”

Morgan stared at Loren, never having seen him turn on the charm for anyone like this. He glanced over at Axe, and caught his eye. Axe, for his part looked surprised as well. Loren was a shrewd business man, and although they knew of his past in Dallingshal, and proximity to the nobility classes, it was another thing entirely to see this kind of charm in action. Loren was usually difficult to read, and here he was smiling, and engaging in small talk as if he was born to it.

“We have procured enough horses for everyone. You can have them when we reach our destination. Consider it a bonus,” Wilsie continued. She sat at the head of the table, and nodded to Laveda.

Axe barely contained his frown. Axe hated horses. They were skittish, and never really took to Orc folk. He’d be better off on foot, or in a cart, but the route had been chosen for speed, not good roads. That meant there would be no cart. It also meant any horse that could take his bulk was probably a work horse, not meant for this kind of job.

The negotiations finished, and Loren led his crew out of the Inn. He put a hand on the half orc’s arm, “Keep Morgan out of trouble. Recruit Ansi for it, if you need to. I don’t want to hear a word out of place tonight.”

Morgan had already walked ahead, in a straight path to the bar.

“You don’t give me the easy jobs, do you. What are we going to do about him?” Axe said with some concern. “I can’t keep yanking him out of trouble. Even I’m having a hard time keeping up. I’m never sure if I’m going to be in a fight with him by my side, or just in a fight with him these days.” He sight heavily.

The half orc leaned into Loren, and said, “It’s not the booze. Something else is eating him up. I hear he was like this before he changed. I’m not even sure he knows what it is, though. He fights at the drop of the hat, fucks anybody that won’t turn him down, and has had more of his berserk episodes than I’ve ever seen outside of real combat. I can’t even get that stupid shrieking blade James gave him out of his hands before he starts drinking. He’s a mess.” Axe threw his arms up in frustration.

Loren nodded. “I’m looking into it. I don’t want to cut him loose yet. . .” The silence at the end of that sentence hung heavy between the men.

“I understand,” Axe said heavily, and whistled at the sisters walking away, “Ansi, I need you with me.” Then he took long strides to catch up with the Morgan in the bar.

************

The next morning saw Morgan in a foul mood. Axe and Ansi had tailed him all night, reminding him that he was on duty. He’d almost come to blows with the big man, and then Ansi had sucker punched him. Then they’d taken his sword, and hustled him back to the inn they were staying at, like he was a prisoner.

He still wasn’t speaking to either of them. He could feel Loren’s eyes on him, as he saddled his horse in silence. He ignored the rich lady, and her soldier’s until they had ridden just out of the city. Then he took point like he usually did. Someone would need to, since Axe was having a hard time with the giant plow horse he was on.

They took the pace at a brisk walk, keeping the plow horses’ short comings in mind. Even then, it was more likely that the real breaking point for their pace were the companies’ collected rear ends. It was all fine and good to buy a dozen, or so, horses to speed you on your way, but the reality of having to sit in the saddle for multiple days on end was usually more than most people could bear.

Luckily for Wilsie, Loren’s crew included Axe’s capable ministrations. His knowledge of herbs, and healing ranged from the pragmatic to the fantastic. He would be the one keeping them all in the saddle long enough to get to their destination. Without that, none of them were in shape to ride that long.

That also meant, the horses were more likely to make it relatively intact to their destination. Without the half-orcs ministrations, this would be a hard ride for such unconditioned mounts, as well.

The morning was uneventful, and they stopped far less than expected. Apparently Wilsie Vale, despite being of elder age, was as tough as steel. She neither complained, nor asked to stop. Her secretary, Laveda, was just as determined as the woman she served.

When they stopped to make camp, Axe sidled up to Morgan, and asked, “Are you speaking to me yet? Or are we doing this for the next week?” Axe looked exasperated.

Morgan rolled his eyes, “Yes, I’m speaking to you. I’m pretty pissed off you took my sword, though.” His blue eyes laid bare his irritation.

“You tried to pull that damn sword out in a bar last night. The last thing we needed was for the town guard to show up with you and the shrieking devil sword.” Axe hissed in a whisper.

“I can tell you are babysitting me these days. I’m not an idiot. You think I’m a drunk, and that I’m losing it.” Morgan snapped quietly, back.

“I’ve known you for decades, Morgan. I have no idea what’s going on with you. I have never seen you like this, and I’m worried,” Axe said, and put a hand over Morgans shoulder, and squeezed, half turning Morgan so he could look him in the eyes.

Morgan took a deep breath, and met Axe’s gaze. Morgan’s blue were eyes worried, and he said, “I have no idea what’s happening to me, but I kind of feel like I’m falling apart at the seams, Axe. I don’t know how to make it stop.”

Axe pulled the little man into his arms, and hugged him. “I know. That’s why I’m watching out for you.” He patted Morgan’s head as he held him.

Axe seemed to be content to hug the small man for a little too long, and Morgan finally said, “I’m not dying Axe, so you can let me go already.” Then Morgan struggled out from Axes big arms.

“There is the Morgan I know,” Axe laughed, and finally let him go. Nobody else seemed to notice.

Wilsie and her entourage were determined, but that didn’t mean the trip was easy for them. Spending all day in the saddle was not something most bureaucrats were used to. Let alone one of Wilsie’s age.

***********

The next morning started uneventfully. The crew and their charges ranged out in single file up the narrow hilly track. The path was the fastest route available, but it wasn’t ideal. There were choke points, and areas where ambush were made easy by the natural terrain.

They were headed for the city of Willowshire. It was where the large caravans stopped to resupply. It was what someone of Wilsie’s status would consider a proper city. It was larger still than Tombsville or Walker’s Town, and sat on the outlying border of the 4th province.

It would have taken three weeks to get there on normal roads. The more common route could have been done with a caravan, with luxury wagons for Wilsie and her retinue. Wilsie required speed, though, and they could make it to Willowshire in perhaps a week and a half on this route. It all depended on how they hard Wilsie Vale, and her retinue could be pushed.

Since speed was so important, safety concerns wouldn’t dictate a less worrisome route. Ms. Vale had declined to explain if she expected trouble, or why speed was so vital. Luckily for her, Loren’s men and women knew this land well, and could be argued to be the best crew the area had to offer.

They had been traveling for several hours, and it was well into mid-morning. Morgan was up front again, and had just passed several massive crumbling boulders, when an arrow shot past him, and hit Ansi in the chest. She was knocked backwards off her horse, and hit the ground hard.

The suddenness of the strike was so quick, that Wilsie and her retinue didn’t notice right away. Loren was already pulling his bow around, and knocking an arrow, while Sealy spurred her horse to Ansi’s side.

Morgan yelled unintelligibly, and kicked his horse into action. He drove the animal up the hill. He wasn’t a skilled horseman though, and was only able to cling to the animals saddle until he managed to find himself in the middle of four armed men. Then he flung himself to the ground, pulling out his sword.

He drew his sword, and screamed in fury, as he rushed into his opponents. His sword glowed like hot molten metal, and unleashed a shrill noise that came close to sounding like a scream. Morgan’s snarl, the sword, and the ferocity of his attack were unnerving.

The first man faltered, and backed up into his comrades. Morgan plowed into him, swinging his short sword violently. He plunged the shrieking sword of Gherzille into the man, and cooked his skin into a black smoldering stench. Morgan’s opponent didn’t even scream, as his flesh pealed away in burning layers.

The other three broke, and tried to scramble back up the steep incline. Whatever this screaming devil was, it was far more than they wanted to deal with.

Morgan reached out, and caught the closest booted foot, and yanked hard. Under the crumbling shale, the fighter slide down towards Morgan. She lashed out, kicking Morgan hard, but it wasn’t enough to keep the flaming blade he wielded from slicing deeply into her thigh. The sword seared and burned flesh, causing her to lose her footing, and come sliding down into Morgan’s range. He then thrust his sword home, through her chest, and her struggles ended.

Morgan advanced on the last two, and took them down, one by one. He was ferocious, and had lost track of the opponents facing the rest of the team. He snarled wordlessly as he hacked into them.

He never saw the other men hit his team from the opposite side of the trail. He didn’t see James throw up a magical shield around Wilsie and her people. Axe waded into the soldiers coming down the other side as Loren and Sealy had picked off the attackers with their own bows. It was short work.

Axe was the one that finally caught up to Morgan. The short man was on his knees, eyes unseeing, snarling in a berserk rage. He was stabbing a corpse repeatedly.

“Morgan.” Axe called from out of swinging range. “Morgan. Snap out of it.” Axe wavered on his feet, unsure.

Axe looked back at Loren, and said, “I can’t shake him out of it, and I don’t want to get hit with his devil sword. Any ideas?” The half-Orc was careful to keep his distance.

Loren dismounted his horse, and walked up behind Morgan, whose blue eyes reflected nothing but unseeing rage. Loren drew his bow, and let loose an arrow that hit the pommel of Morgan’s sword. The shock of which knocked it out of Morgan’s hand.

This was enough to shock Morgan, back to himself. When he reached for his sword, Loren ordered, “Don’t touch it again. Let Axe get the damned thing.” He then turned to check on their employers.

Axe reached down to gingerly pick the sword up. “Sorry. Let’s get you back. Are you hurt?”

Morgan shook his head, and said, “I don’t know, but probably less hurt than Ansi is. I lost it again, didn’t I?” He left the sword on the ground though, and his expression changed to one of deep embarrassment.

Axe said, “Yeah, you do that in fights now and again. It’s getting worse, and the screaming sword makes it more . . . disconcerting.” He then put the sword in the scabbard that Morgan offered him, after cleaning it. He then carefully tucked it into his waistband, where it looked like a toy in comparison to his size.

“Sorry. Go take care of Ansi. I’m more worried about her, than me,” Morgan finished. He then wiped his hands on the unbloodied cloak of one of their assailants. That’s when he noticed the pendant around the man’s neck. It was of the iconic royal Eshire swan. “Shit,” he mumbled under his breath.

Morgan then reached up, and unclasped the pendant from the dead man’s neck, and studied it. It was an expensive pendant, inlaid with precious metals. This wouldn’t belong to a bandit, a mercenary, or even a low level Eshire soldier. Only royal regiments got expensive items like this.

He then walked down to were everyone was waiting. He walked past everyone to Loren, and reached his hand out to the elf. Loren looked questioningly at him, and held out his hand in return. Morgan then pressed the pendant into it, and closed the elves fingers over it so nobody else saw what he had passed him.

Axe then called, “Morgan, come over here and help me. I need a pair of small hands.” He was kneeling next to Ansi, and his face was grim.

Sealy had Ansi’s head on her lap in the middle of the path. Her multitude of tiny dark braids had broken lose of it’s ties, and were hanging around her face. She was murmuring, “Ansi, you’ll be fine. Axe is here now. He can help you.”

Axe reached his hand out to pat Sealy, and said, “Hush. It’ll be fine. Just let’s get her shirt and stays open.”

He then motioned to Morgan, and said, “You get that clothing off the wound, and I’ll get my gear.”

“Why is it always you, Ansi?” Morgan asked the unconscious woman. As he carefully pealed the shirt back, and started undoing her stays. “Why always this shoulder?”

Ansi said nothing, but gasped for air like a fish out of water. The sounds coming out of her were an ugly mixture of asthmatic gasping, and wet gurgling.

“Her lungs probably punctured, maybe flattening or filed with blood by now,” Axe said. He pulled out his kit, and unrolled it. He selected a large pair of toothy forceps, and a wire loop to remove arrows from bone, if need be, along with other helpful things. “This is going to hurt, but I can’t heal it until the arrow is out.” He then set about his instruments with more precision than his big Orcish size would have indicated.

“How far do I have to remove things?” Morgan asked. His brows were knitted in worry, and he was carefully pealing the bloody cloth away.

“I need her shirt all the way off. Cut it around that arrow. Clear off her whole left side as well,” Axe then pulled out a candle and some incense and laid them out on a small red cloth, and lit them, as he started singing a bit in Orcish.

“Now wash your hands off in this,” Axe said, and handed Morgan a bottle of grain alcohol wrapped in leather. “Don’t drink it. It’ll blind you.”

Morgan uncorked the bottle, and poured the alcohol liberally over his hands. He rubbed them until they stung.

Morgan then carefully cut Ansi’s shirt off, and cut down into her stays. She was naked from the waist up with an arrow protruding from just above her left breast, towards her sternum. Her skin was pale, and sweaty, and blood was welling out slowly but steadily along with bubbles of air from a punctured lung. She looked like a shallow parody of the woman she was, laying there gasping for air.

Axe finished his song, and turned to Morgan, “Okay, I need your tiny hands to feel for me. I’m going to make a cut along the shaft of the arrow. I need you to snake your fingers down, and feel if the arrow bent when it went in her, or not. Here’s hoping it’s not fish hook shaped. Her ribs are obviously broken in there, but tell me if it’s still lodged in bone.” Axe sounded sure, but his eyes were worried.

Axe was deft in his movements as he cut Ansi open. His small blade was so sharp, it cut the skin away smoothly. More blood welled up, but Axe continued to work the incision downwards into Ansi’s chest. He then nodded to Morgan to reach in with his much smaller fingers.

“I’m sorry, Ansi”, Morgan whispered. Then he reached his fingers into the wound, and felt down the shaft of the arrow. The blood oozed out around his fingers. He felt the arrow, mostly unbent. He also felt the fractured ribs. The arrow head went right past them, and into Ansi’s left lung.

“It’s not bent. It’s also not stuck in bone. It can be pulled out, I think. The ribs are cracked, Axe, and I can feel her lung sucking air and blood,” Morgan whispered in fear. He pulled his fingers out of the enlarged wound.

“Okay then,” Axe said grimly, “I’m going to take the arrow, and twisted it just a little to make sure it’s not hooked up on anything in there. If it’s not, I’m going to pull it out. Then I need you, Morgan, to take this pile of clean cloths, and press them to the wound as soon as I do. Then you have to keep pressure on her while I prepare the healing.” The big half orc gingerly took the shaft of the arrow, and nodded encouragingly to Morgan. He kept his voice smooth and calm.

Morgan picked up the bandaging, and nodded, ready. His eyes betrayed his fears, as he tensely sat at the ready.

Axe twisted the arrows shaft just a little, and confirming the arrow wasn’t stuck, then started backing it out of the wound. Ansi thrashed a little in pain, and Sealy held her down. It wasn’t long before Axe had threaded the arrow head out past her broken ribs, and pulled it out.

True to Morgan’s word, the head of the arrow was warped, just a little. Axe looked at it, and said, “You should give this to Ansi when she’s back up and running. If this had hit just a little towards the center of her chest, it would have killed her and nothing I could do would have helped.”

Blood and bubbles of air exited the wound with Ansi’s every struggling breath. She was moaning, and her eyes were open and unseeing. She was awake enough to be gripping her sisters hand tight. Her breath came in ragged gurgles.

Morgan applied pressure, and held the bandages over the wound with both hands. His blue eyes sought out Sealy’s. The thief’s golden eyes were wet with tears, but she nodded to Morgan.

Axe started singing again. He pulled some herbs and ash out of his healing pack, and started mixing them in a mortar and pestle, grinding them together. He sang his song with a relaxed pace, as if he was at his own kitchen counter making dinner. He then cut his own arm with his small knife, and talked in Orcish, as if he was asking for a favor.

“What’s he saying?” Sealy asked Morgan.

“I don’t speak Orcish,” Morgan responded, “But he told me once that he always has to talk Horxl, his goddess, into healing us sometimes. She’s an Orc god, and other races have a long history of war with the Orcs. You should have heard him when he had to heal Loren once. Axe said he had to remind her that Loren had never fought Orcs. She won’t heal you if you were an Orc murderer, especially of women or children.” Morgan explained.

“Ansi hasn’t rode down any Orc women or children, has she?” Morgan asked, concerned. “The 5th regiment used to be known for that.” He looked over to Axe, concerned.

“No, Colonel Draper stopped that practice when he took over for Mastiffson. He actually recruited Orcs when he could. They made better scouts than humans,” Sealy answered. “I think Ansi is safe on that front. By the time we joined, that wasn’t something the 5th did anymore.”

James had come over to watch, casting a shadow over the trio. He stood stock still, but his eyes showed his fascination. It wasn’t often the big half-Orc needed to do this kind of magic for them, so James always took the opportunity to observe.

Loren was with their employers, but his eye strayed to the group in the middle of the road frequently. His words were confident, and he waved away the severity of the situation. He kept Wilsie and her people away, so Axe could finish his work.

Axe then put his larger green toned hand over Morgan’s and said, “Alright, pull up, and I’ll see if my Lady will heal it for Ansi. Told her she’d like Ansi. Fights and speaks her mind like an Orcish woman.” He smiled fondly down at Ansi, and nodded.

He then poured his mix of ash, herbs, and his own blood into the wound, and sang over it. There was no obvious sparks or showy displays like James’ magic. It was hard to see if it was working at all.

Axe then laid his hands over it gently, and kept singing, and cajoling his goddess to fix the wounded warrior.

Ansi stopped gasping for air eventually, and her body relaxed. Sealy brushed her sister’s sweat soaked hair, and said, “See, I told you Axe would fix it.”

Axe eventually removed his blood soaked hands. Ansi’s wound was healed mostly. It looked several months healed under the bloody Orcish hand prints.

Ansi breathed in deep, and sighed it out, “I didn’t even see the attack coming.” She reached up, and rubbed the wound gingerly, then stretched her arm experimentally.

“That’s because Axe was at the back fighting with his plow horse again,” Morgan said. “Usually, folks try to pick him off first because he’s the biggest fighter. They never think I’m much of a threat because I’m short, and carry a short sword. They should hit James, but we’re so far from Tombsville, I doubt they knew what a necromancer is.” He snorted with derision. “So that left you as the most obvious threat.” He said rolled his eyes at the word obvious.

“Can you get me a new shirt, Morgan, with clean hands?” Ansi asked, and pulled the remnants of her stays around herself. She sat up, and Sealy shielded her from their employers.

Morgan nodded and went to wash his hands, and started digging in Ansi’s pack to find her a new shirt. Luckily she had a spare, or she’d be wearing one of Morgan’s, and that might not fit quite as well.

Loren nodded to Morgan as he walked back to Ansi with a new shirt, and said, “See Ms. Vale? We are fine. This won’t slow us down at all. It probably wasn’t that serious. We’ll be on horseback, and continuing as soon as Ansi is dressed.”

Loren then said blandly, “I thought Leannin and Eshire governed the 4th province as sister kingdoms. I hadn’t been aware that there had been a break down between your kingdom and Eshire.” Loren smiled politely, and kept his tone lightly conversational, but he watched Elsie’s face closely.

Wilsie eyed the elf for a minute, and asked, “What makes you think those were Eshire men?”

Loren smiled politely, and held out the royal Eshire swan pendant. “Apparently the Royal Regiment wear the royal swan. I could strip the bodies, and I’m sure we’d find their regimental tattoos as well. If you wanted further confirmation. . . “ Loren motioned to the dead men around him.

“Let’s just say,” Wilsie said, “That the united front of Leannin and Eshire in the 4th province is sometimes rockier underneath.” She shrugged a tiny bit, but didn’t look surprised at all.

“Or let’s just say that we were hired to protect you on the road from regular road hazards to Willowshire. Not from dedicated regimental troops trying to wipe you out. I think a little more needs to be said about what is going on.” Loren said, continuing to smile blandly. “You can trust we will be circumspect with any information you give us.”

Wilsie Vale narrowed her eyes, and nodded, “Fine. We ride with confirmation that there is an heir to the combined kingdoms of Leannin and Eshire. King Leannin is overjoyed his son fathered a child with the daughter of King Eshire. The Eshire King does not want the two kingdoms to merge eventually, and would rather kill the child, and risk splitting up the 4th province entirely. He’d risk devolving into war to prevent any perceived loss of power.”

She nodded to Laveda, always at her side, and said, “We went to confirm the heirs bloodline. The baby and his parents are safe, and it’s why I left my guard with them. We’ll need a bit more protection to get them from where they are to Leannin, though. If they kill me on the way, they buy time to find, and kill the child.”

Laveda chimed in, “We felt the risk of hiring you to escort us, was better than having an unknown guard the child.”

Loren looked thoughtful for a moment, and then said, “That information requires a change in tactics. Changing the 4th’s political makeup, will make some people unpleasant. We can still get you there, but we will need to shift how we are doing things.”

“You might have chosen incorrectly. Your Leannin guard are not as experienced as we are. If Eshire hires mercenaries to finish the job, I’m not sure ornamental regiments will hold as well as you hope,” Loren said with a smile as if he was discussing what they might have for breakfast.

Loren gave a half bow, and strode over to the rest of his crew, “James! I need to know if you can raise some of these dead, and run them ahead of us for reconnaissance? Maybe soften up our enemies? We can expect more attacks from Eshire. They will be desperate. They are looking to capture Ms. Vale for her information, or kill her barring that.”

Loren then looked directly at James and said, “We have a rogue heir to a throne.”

James was standing over Ansi still, and was cocking his head listening, “A rogue heir? That makes this more interesting.” Then he smiled widely. It was disconcerting with his dark black eyes peering out from his shaggy black hair. He never really met Loren’s eyes, but he followed the elf’s movements.

“And more fun,” James said under his breath.

“What does that mean?” Sealy whispered to the rest of the crew. “Is he supposed to look that happy?”

“Son of a . . . “ Axe muttered, “No. This is when he brings the graveyard out to play.”

James turned and nodded a half bow to Wilsie Vale, and her retinue before saying, “I hope your ready to see you money’s worth.” Then he turned and surveyed the dead around him for a moment. He nodded to himself a couple of times, and clicked his tongue.

“Axe, remember that spell you hate? That’s the one I’m using,” James said, before raising his arms, and beginning the verbal intonations that would focus his magic to his will.

“Shit. . . Alright ladies, up and at ‘em. This is going to get ugly fast,” Axe said, and reached down to help Ansi carefully up on her feet.

“Morgan?! Get the horses!” Axe bellowed. “They won’t like what James is going to do, any more than I will.”

Morgan was already running for their mounts, and snapped at Vale’s retinue, “Grab those animals or they’ll bolt. This is going to terrify them, and you!”

James chuckled low to himself, amidst his deep baritone chanting. As he boomed out the raising spell, red strands of smokey magic snaked out from his fingers, and twisted and danced it’s way to the dead men around them. As the strands found their target, they started to wrap around the bodies, and finally into them.

The bodies jerked, and snapped in a cheap facsimile of a seizure. Tissue split, and they fell on hands and knees. The dead men and women then shifted and changed. Skinless boney protrusions grew bloody from their backs, as their arms elongated. Teeth grew, and faces twisted.

One of Ms. Vale’s armored guards swore, and drew his sword, “I thought those things weren’t real.” He looked like he might bolt along with the horse he was holding steady. His training didn’t include protocols for the raising of the dead, and reforming them into ravenous monsters.

James chuckled as he moved his hand like a puppeteer, and tested his control over the creatures. He carefully mounted his trembling horse, then raised his arms like he was conducting an orchestra, and the creatures moved in time to his silent direction.

He chuckled again, and flicked his right hand to send half of his monsters off to the right. Then he flicked his left hand to send the other half off to the left. James tilted his head back, and his black unseeing eyes stared skyward.

“I’ve finished the spell. I can see what they do, and control them. It won’t last forever. This spell is expensive, and they will burn out and rot faster than a less capable version,” James explained, “So we better get moving.”

Loren, Axe, and Sealy had their hands full keeping the horses under control, but as the undead things raced outward, gaining distance, the horses started to calm. The rest of the crew mounted their steeds, and were ready to go in quick order.

“I see the worst worries about necromancers are true,” Wilsie said, and then turned to her men, “Get the horses calmed, and mount up. We don’t have time to spare.” She then took the reins for her mount from her armed guard. She took control of the animal instantly, and swung up in the saddle.

“Laveda, keep up,” Wilsie called to her assistant. She rode to Laveda, to help grab at the horses bridle, to steady the animal for the girl. Laveda nodded, and swung up into the saddle.

“Ready when you are Loren,” Wilsie said, when Laveda, and her guards were seated, and ready to ride.

Axe didn’t bother trying to direct his own horse. He let Ansi take his animals reins, and lead it. The plow horse was far less trouble that way. He just sat on the big animal, holding the saddle for balance.

Ansi was in a new shirt, and sat astride her mount. She was talking low to Sealy, “I’m fine. I can do this. If I fall, just have that dead-touched jerk raise me up, and throw me at our enemies.” She smirked and pulled the giant dwarven blade out of it’s sheath. “Okay, maybe not that last bit. Don’t let James do that to me.”

Sealy laughed, and turned her horse towards Loren, and pulled her short bow. She and Loren flanked their charges, bows out, ready for trouble.

Morgan rode to Loren, and said, “You’ll have to give me my sword back now.” He held his hand out for his short sword Axe had handed off to Loren before healing Ansi. His blue eyes met the elf’s gaze with determination. In the long second it took Loren to decide, Morgan sat astride his horse still and firm in his demand.

Loren looked at him, measuring the request. Then he handed the short sword over to Morgan, finally. For once, his face betrayed his misgivings.

Morgan wheeled his horse, and yelled excitedly, “I get to be scary too!” before racing up to take point again. His child-like glee at odds with the flaming blade he waved over his head.

The party started off at a brisk pace. This time, there was no question that they would be finding more trouble. The hope was James could deal with it before it got to them. They’d have to increase their pace to keep up with James’ monsters.

James rode his horse with skill, and swung his head from side to side as if he was looking at something nobody else could see. Occasionally he’d make motions with his hands, and muttered in his deep magical voice. Occasionally he would snarl to himself, and yank his arm as if yanking a leash back on track.

The entire group picked up speed, until they were going as fast as they could safely go. Loren kept the pace alternating between a walk and a trot. It would be a good pace to keep at for the long haul. With Axe’s little miracles, the horses and their riders would be able to reach Willowshire in short order.

James started calling out, “Three scouts ahead. Dead. Raising them. Spreading out further, found more. .  . I should be able to keep this up until evening. They’ll burn out by then.“  He looked less human than usual, and his face reflected his satisfaction at being allowed to preform magic in his own way. Occasionally he would laugh, and mutter, as if to the Eshire men and women he was slaughtering ahead of them.

“Tactically, you only need enough manpower to take down the initial waves, then turn their dead against them?” Laveda asked Loren as she directed her horse around him. “I had no idea necromancers were this effective.”

“Yes. It’s why nobody has ever taken Tombsville in a battle. The first time an armed force tried, it was over before the day was out. Tombsville has enough dead-touched necromancers to augment our forces. Not to mention, folks in Tombsville are used to fighting the dead for their place in this world, the living hold no threat to them,” Loren said, smiling. “Of course, why anyone would want Tombsville is another thing entirely.”

“Around one hundred and fifty years ago, before the current provinces were all set, Cartwright’s Rangers decided they were going to take Tombsville. I think, it was because they had heard the vault in Tombsville contained some treasure from the cemetery,” Loren explained with derision.

“The town was a lot smaller then, but the Rangers numbered around 150 men and women. Tombsville numbered around 500 men, women, and children. The Rangers were little more than bandits anyways, and rode into town like a storm. They cut down anyone that stood in their way,” Loren said.

“Some of the smaller necromancers raised up Tombsvilles’ dead, and threw them back at the Rangers, while the city regrouped,” Loren continued. “Despite riding into town with the upper hand, within hours the Rangers numbers were shaved down. Each Ranger a citizen of Tombsville took down, their necromancer neighbors raised back up.”

“The smaller necromancers threw the dead back as unthinking shamblers towards the Rangers, but the more experienced ones,” he nodded towards James, “reformed those dead into bloodthirsty horrors to rip through our enemies ranks.”

“It took about 12 hours for the Rangers force to be decimated. It took three or four more, for Cartwright to be found with the last of them. They were executed, in Tombsville style, and left to dance on their nooses as an undead warning to anyone else thinking about it,” Loren said.

Laveda’s eyes were wide, and she turned to look at James, who was still acting as a puppeteer for his creations. “I thought that was all just embellished story. . .”

“I was there, and so was James,” Loren said without fanfare. “There is a reason we can command the prices we do.”

Loren shepherded his charges up the deep cut, and onward towards Willowshire. They pushed the horses as fast as they were able. They didn’t have any mounts to switch out with, so when evening came, they had to break for camp. It would give not only the horses a rest, and let them eat and drink, but also the riders.

They had cut two days off their trip by taking this particular route, but it had taken it’s toll. Wilsie Vale made no complaints but she was stiff and having a hard time moving, despite Axes’s ministrations. A Chancellor’s life didn’t usually take place on a mad dashing horse for 6 hours.

Loren hopped off his horse, and said, “Morgan, can you help Wilsie’s guards take care of the animals. Be careful, and look for any limping. Walk them a bit before letting them rest. I’ll send Axe over to look at them in a bit.”

The elf then turned to Axe, and said softly, “Go over and see if you can do anything for Wilsie and Laveda. We won’t make our time table if she’s this sore now.”

Axe nodded, and headed over to their employer.

“Ansi? Sealy? See if you can make camp. I’ll have Morgan start dinner as soon as he’s done, then you guys can take first watch,” Loren continued.

Then he strode over to James, and said softly, “I need a word, when you have burned the last of your puppets up.” He then went to help make camp.

Later that evening, James nodded to Loren, and the two headed out of camp.

When they had left the others behind, Loren said, “I need to know what you were thinking with that sword. It’s making Morgan worse.” Loren was calm, but to those that knew him well, could have seen he was angry under that unflappable elven demeanor.

“You have it all wrong,” James said. “That sword is probably the only thing keeping Morgan from killing himself or others right now. You have to stop trying to separate him from it. It was designed to help people like him.” James stood very still. His dark hair hung over his eyes. He had taken to cocking his head when he was talking to people lately.

“I wouldn’t give Morgan something that would make his situation worse. He was always going down this path, I was hoping the sword would help him hang on,” James explained.

“What does that mean. Morgan was fine for close to two decades until that business in the cemetery, and he got that sword,” Loren pressed.

“Morgan is a paladin. I didn’t give him a paladin’s sword because he looked cute shirtless,” James said sarcastically.

“You expect me to believe that?” Loren said, now showing irritation in his eyes.

“Yes. I do. He is a paladin. Just because there are no longer any orders that support or make use of them, doesn’t mean they just stopped existing,” James said slowly. “My family was founded by Paladins devoted to the goddess Armeya. They were paladin’s and priests. It’s why we are so magically capable, theoretically.”

“I had thought Paladins were created by faithful devotion to the sects that encouraged it?” Loren asked. His brows were furrowed. “What’s the real truth to it?” He calmed, and decided to let James explain.

James nodded, and continued to explain, “Only certain people have the capacity for the kind of faith that creates a Paladin. It takes a certain child-like world view. Where the world is black and white, and us versus them. Add to it the capacity for fanaticism, and you have a paladin in the making. The problem is, that these individuals are often not very good at functioning outside of a crisis. Day to day life is too hard to parse with all it’s grey fuzzy situations. They usually become alcoholics or blow up in a conflagration of massive proportions killing themselves and others.” James shrugged.

“Morgan is a Paladin,” The tall gaunt man reiterated, “He was when I met him when he was 16 years old, and so malnourished, I thought he might be a shambler, the way he was stumbling drunk. He’s a good man, but the old orders are dead. There are no more organizations looking for people like him. That sword is one of the last relics, and it’s no coincidence when he’s suffering he hangs on to it like a lifeline. It’s the last line holding him together.”

James laughed and said, “All that propaganda about the super clean, well mannered, by the book religious warriors? That’s half propaganda, and half rigid rules by which men and women in their ranks were expected to live. People like Morgan don’t function in civilian life, and the orders that utilized Paladins knew this and created rules to keep them in order. Morgan is a Paladin in the wild, in his natural beer and sex soaked habitat. They don’t have self control.” He chuckled at his own turn of phrase.

James then shook his hair out of his face, so his eyes could meet with Loren’s, “I could have directed him to an order that would have required him to give up everything he loved, and taught him to despise himself for his gender, or I could hand him an artifact of Armeya which would let him be himself, and love himself. I was waiting until he was ready to teach him about Paladins. He already has a positive role model for faith, in Axe. He’s probably ready, I can start anytime.”

Loren nodded, “I hadn’t known that. Paladin’s are uniquely human. Elves don’t manifest faith that way. Whatever you need to do, please do it. Morgan is falling apart. I don’t want to lose him. Especially not in the middle of a job.”

“Morgan has always been a loyal friend to me,” James said. “I would not forget that. I’ve been watching for years. The only reason he’s been doing so well, is you keep him ordered. If he hadn’t had that kind of direction, he would have spiraled ages ago.”

Loren nodded, and said, “I don’t think he’ll take direction beyond what I normally do. Morgan isn’t going to give up drink, or his lovers. I have a hard enough time keeping him smelling recently bathed when we are working. That didn’t use to be an issue.”

“It’ll get better. From my understanding, paladins get worse right before they manifest themselves. If we can get him up over that barrier, he’ll be fine. We just have to support him through it,” James explained.

Loren nodded again, and said, “Okay, we’ll keep on this strategy, then. Morgan is not going to like that I keep Axe on him during off time, and the half-Orc might think of Morgan as a little brother, but I’m going to have to pay him a bonus for being on Morgan duty,” Loren said.

“Nobody said keeping a paladin was easy,” James said with a smile. “There is a reason those old orders fell apart, even without outside pressure.”

The two headed back to camp. Morgan was already starting a stew for dinner. He had most of his ingredients in the pot, and one of Wilsie’s guards was sitting with him. They were laughing over a joke. During a crisis, Morgan could usually be counted on to make people laugh. The man he was joking with was already less concerned about James’ necromancy.

Axe was still sitting with Wilsie and Laveda. He was working on them, and explaining Orcish magics. He was gently attempting to relieve the soreness, and prevent the blistering that would be appearing on his charges.

“Do you have spells for fertility, or to prevent pregnancy?” Laveda asked over her glasses.

Axe laughed, “Of course there is a spell for that. Amulets, spells, potions, etc. Every hedge wizard on the planet could learn that if they wanted.” He was gently rubbing an herbal mix onto the back of the young woman’s thighs. He was careful to keep his eyes averted, and his face gentle. He showed no improper behavior with the young woman. Just a kindly healer.

Laveda was kind enough in return to let him tend to her. It wasn’t often Orcish folk were seen by human ruling houses, so it was indeed a kindness for her to accept Axe as a healer, and not give in to the brutish primitive stereotypes so often propagated about Orcs.

“I worship a goddess whose purview is healing. Being a goddess, it’s basic stuff. Orcs are very practical people. We do magic and theology that has real living benefits,” Axe continued to explain. “Of course, you have your war wizards, necromancers, and whatnot that can do impressive magic that can explosively kill, but the real magic is what helps you heal a sprain, or sooth a child that’s teething.” Axe smiled over at James with a look that spoke of a long term friendly theological difference between the two.

Axe then nodded that he was done, and the young woman pulled her clothing back around her, and said, “That’s amazing. I can’t tell when the soreness left, but it’s gone now. I had no idea this kind of magic could be done.” She rubbed her back side, and smiled. “I will never think of orcish culture the same way again.”

Axe smiled, and patted her shoulder, “Tell me if it comes back, or if something happens. You two ladies aren’t used to being on the road, because your professions usually put you in council rooms. Me? I’ll take unruly plow horses over unruly sovereigns any day.” He then picked up his healing kit, and stepped lightly over to where Morgan and Wilsie’s guards were.

It wasn’t long until he had looked over everyone in the party, and then the horses, too. His gentle hands carried out his promises, and set everyone back to rights. The only person his touch wasn’t needed for was James. Either his dead-touched body didn’t succumb the way the rest of them did, or he had his own tricks.

The evening went well, with no more attacks. James had driven off the Eshire troops, and the crew were able to recover from the hard days ride. Loren’s crew took turns at watch, and making sure their enemies didn’t catch them unawares. This allowed their employers to sleep heavily.

Closer to morning, James leaned over Morgan’s bedroll, and reached down to wake him early. James smiled as Morgan snarled, and swung. Morgan wasn’t able to make contact with the necromancer, instead his fist hit a crackling red smoke that lit up the early morning camp. James then snickered.

“Ouch!” Morgan hissed, and opened his eyes all the way. He shook his hand, then held it. Then he glared at James. He looked around to the dissipating red smoke, and went back to glaring at James.

“I’m not Axe, and I’m certainly not going to let you punch me because you are an ill mannered bastard,” James said quietly, then “Get up, I need to talk to you.” He couldn’t seem to stop chucking low and under his breath.

Then without another word, James walked out of camp. Morgan considered ignoring James, and sleeping the last hour he had before they had to move again. However, if James thought it was important enough to wake him, he should probably see why.

Morgan then rolled fully clothed out from his blanket. He deftly rolled the blanket up, and packed his belongings back in their pack, and set it besides the saddle he’d been using for a pillow. Then wordlessly, he trotted up the path, after James.

James was waiting in the early pre-dawn mist. He would have been easy to miss, if you didn’t look for the silent man shaped shadow. His dead-touched frame didn’t fidget or move. He might not have the forest skills Axe had, but it’s hard to see something that doesn’t move, and barely breathes in the dark pre-dawn air.

When Morgan caught up to James, they wordlessly passed beyond the hearing of the camp to a ridge just above those still sleeping. Loren was on watch, and was nearby, using the lookout point as the perfect place to survey for enemies. His bow was out, and on his lap, as he kept his elven gaze ever alert.

As they passed Loren, he nodded to them both, and gave Morgan an encouraging smile. That was when Morgan knew this was serious, because Loren never smiled like that to his crew. Morgan decided the elf must be worried about something.

Morgan knew everyone was worried about him, but he retraced the last few days in his mind, trying to see if he’d lost his marbles more than usual. He hadn’t insulted their employers, and had only lost it once, in the heat of battle.

Morgan had worked for Loren for close to three decades. He’d seen him cut people loose if they became a problem. He would never do that in the middle of a job, though. He would also never let James do it for him. Whatever this was, both James and Loren were in on it.

James settled onto a rock, on the ridge overlooking camp. Like Loren, he kept his gaze out over the camp, just in case there were any enemies approaching. He sat, straight backed, with his hands folded in his lap. His clothes were new, and clean. His hair was grown out and in need of looking after. He looked like an old thing wrapped in a new package.

When Morgan came to sit next to him, he cocked his head, and regarded the younger man. They sat in silence for several seconds, as Morgan anxiously picked at his fingers.

“Do you know exactly what a paladin is, Morgan?” James finally asked, and sat waiting to see what Morgan knew.

“Um, it’s a super religious fighter that can do magical things sometimes,” Morgan answered. He shrugged, and continued, “But that was all bullshit, right? Just more publicity for those religious orders that liked to take things by force?”

“No.” James responded flatly. “It’s a person born with the seeds of something much bigger than themselves. Where they choose to plant those seeds is up to them. You cannot become a paladin by choice. You are born to it, I think,” James said.

“But you said I was a paladin, and I’m not religious. I’m just stupid and crazy,” Morgan said. He looked worried, and his shoulders slumped as he said it. It was now obvious to him the reason for this talk was his inability to keep it together. He had been hoping it was anything but that.

“No. You are a paladin. They are all very much  like you. They have to find a path, or they fall apart. You haven’t found one you feel like walking yet. I thought Gherzille would help you. It’s made for a paladin to wield,” James explained softly. “It’s made to help a paladin keep their focus.”

“I have seen the preachers in Tombsville. We get all of them, from everywhere, because of the shamblers. Every stupid religion out there. I think they are all a crock,” Morgan said. He looked out over the camp, and wrinkled his nose in disgust.

“Do you think Axe’s goddess is a crock?” James asked patiently into the early pre-dawn.

“No. She doesn’t ask him to do stupid crap, like avoid sex or not eat bread after sundown. But I’m not a peaceful person. I’m not a healer,” Morgan said. “Axe always says I’m more fight in less fighter than any Orc he knows.” Morgan smiled momentarily at the compliment.

James nodded his head, “But there are others. My family worshipped a goddess named Armeya. She didn’t ask us to be anything other than what we were. She was a goddess of pain, fire, and justice. She was bloody, but it was in pursuit of protecting this world from other darker ones. You don’t have to follow her, but she exists. She valued fighters like you.”

“There are other options if you are not religious, though. There are even those paladins that didn’t follow a specific deity, but instead focussed on a righteous cause. It’s not about where you put your faith, but about having a place to point your life towards. You need to find something you can believe in,” James explained.

James then looked down at the camp, and said, “I think teaching you about faith and what it means to be a paladin would help you, even if you don’t believe in a specific god. If you don’t find a cause or faith you believe in, you will continue on the way you are going. Paladins that find nothing to believe in die, and usually take people with them.” His words were soft, but sure. He left the repercussions sit silently between them.

Morgan winced at the pronouncement. Morgan figured James was probably right. He usually was about weird magical things. Why this, and why now? Why. . .

“Is this why I am the way I am? Why I’m a man?” Morgan asked. He voice was so low, it could almost be missed.

James then laughed out loud unexpectedly, “No. That’s all you. There were paladins that are men, women, and everything in between.” He reached over and patted Morgan’s shoulder twice, in a proximation of human kindness.

James then continued, chuckling, “The lack of self control, with the drinking, sex, and fighting? That’s a paladin. The blood lust you have when you attack your enemies? Especially when you are protecting your own? That’s all paladin.” He cocked his head, so his hair would fall out of his eyes. His big black eyes looked Morgan in the face. James might find his eyes sightless, but he felt compelled to make his point as well as he could in whatever way Morgan could see.

“That doesn’t sound like the stories,” Morgan said, still suspicious. He looked at James’ face, and moved closer to look him right in the eyes. He gauged his friends words, and decided James must really believe it.

“The stories are a nice bit of public relations to try and keep people from turning on the mystic orders that used people like you,” James said. “It didn’t work. The orders that used paladins were eventually,hunted down and destroyed. Most people in power don’t want an entire order of people like you opposing them. There is real power to people like you. Especially when they all move in the same direction, via faith or a just cause.”

Morgan squinted at James’ black eyes, then looked away. He breathed in deep, and sighed it out. Then as if sorting it out, he nodded once or twice.

“So how does it work, so I can get my mind back?” Morgan asked finally. “I don’t want to feel like I’m falling apart. I haven’t felt this lost since before I changed. When I was deciding whether I should find a sure bet towards death, or get someone to help me be the man I knew I was.”

“Man? At the time, more like boy. You were so young. No 16 year old is ever a man. There are days you are still a boy, to me,” James joked.

“Well I thought I was grown up when I met you. I’d been on my own long enough to count!” Morgan argued, but he smiled at the joke. It was one the two of them revisited often over the years they’d known each other. It was an argument they’d had the first night they’d met. James had never questioned that Morgan was male, at the time. He’d just questioned if Morgan was an adult.

“Morgan, I helped then, and I’ll help you now. Loren won’t cut you out of the team. Axe isn’t going to forget your his brother in arms,” James said confidently. “We’ll get you through this. You are smart, so it’ll come quick. It’s always the worst right before a paladin finds their path.” James explained, and patted Morgan’s shoulder again. His sincerity was only slightly marred by how unnatural the actions were for him.

“First, I’ll start teaching you about a goddess that won’t deny your experiences, or put restrictions on the things you love. Then we see if it appeals to you enough that you can put your faith in her ways,” James said. “If not, I’ll teach you about what other Paladins have done in the past. Whether it helps you find a path for your future, is hard to say. The old orders were good at controlling paladins, but I think you are blessed to have enough friends here that would keep you from being used as someone else’s weapon.”

“And if I think it’s all a crock?” Morgan asked, watching James’ face carefully.

“We keep looking for a path you can walk,” James said, “It can be anything. You just have to be able to put that fanaticism of yours somewhere. Without a clear direction, it will eat you up. I have faith in you.”

“So I’m not crazy?” Morgan asked. He looked away from James’ face, and picked at his fingers again. He was holding his breath for the answer.

“No more than anyone else, my friend,” James said quietly. “What you are, is amazing. Axe is more right than he knows. You are more fight in a fighter, than most people have probably ever met. “

“Now let me show you how to still your mind. It’s not going to be easy for you. In theory it’s simple. In practice, you could take a lifetime to master it,” James explained.

The sun dawned across the camp below them, as James kept redirecting Morgan to breath and clear his mind. James was tirelessly patient with Morgan. Even as Morgan huffed, and flopped on his back on the ground in frustration, James’s would softly say, “Again,” and walk Morgan through it from the beginning.

People began to rouse, and pack up the camp. Axe stepped in, and fixed breakfast since Morgan was with James. The horses were saddled, and an elven form keep his eye on the ridge that James and Morgan were sitting on.

Eventually James let Morgan go back down, but as he followed Morgan down to camp, he smiled at Loren as he passed. Loren let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding. If Morgan could make enough progress for James to feel confident, the human would be alright.

The next couple days were a whirlwind of hard riding and occasional skirmishes. Wilsie and Laveda grew more quiet as time went on. Their determination overriding how arduous the adventure was.

The crew had no replacement horses, so they were careful to ride their horses at a pace that wouldn’t be detrimental to their progress. This included a mix of walking and trotting, with breaks to let the animals cool down. Despite that, they made incredible progress.

The Eshire scouts that were sent their way, weren’t a match for Loren’s crew. Sealy and Loren were a able to pick off any that got close with their bows. James raised them up, and threw them back out. Morgan and Ansi got any that got close, and Axe played healer to the party to keep everyone going.

James rode close to Morgan, and told him stories about his god, and about the paladins he’d known when he was younger. James knew a lot of about what paladins were capable of. Morgan liked the stories of other paladins. He liked hearing about what they could do.

Then on the fourth day, Sealy came back from scouting to report. She dodged under the brush, and silently crept into camp. She was exhausted, but looked happy to be out of the saddle. She pulled her leather hood off, and smiled as she crossed the camp.

She jogged up to Loren, and said, “I couldn’t see any signs of them. They are gone. They just packed up and left. Do you think they finally got tired of throwing their lives at us?” She looked happy, and nodded at Wilsie as she explained.

Wilsie frowned before she responded, “How far out are we from Willowshire?” She was looking over at Laveda, calculating something in her head.

“We can get there in another day,” Loren answered, with a shrug. “Is there a problem?”

“Yes, can we travel through the night? I’m worried they found the baby, and I need to get to my men and women in Willowshire to be sure.” Wilsie said. She looked to Laveda again, and her two men, assessing if they could take the extra strain. She wore a look of determination on her exhausted face.

Loren nodded slowly, and said, “We can do that. Give us an hour to get some food in and rest the horses, and we can be there by dawn.” He then looked over at Axe, and nodded.

Axe nodded back, and reached into his bags to pull out some herbs and powders. He then set about combining them into little packets.

Morgan hopped down to make some more food for everyone, and said, “I’m making a hot meal. All this travel bar crap isn’t going to help anyone get through tonight.” He then started humming to himself while he started a fire, and pulled out his pot.

James sat next to Morgan, and told him stories about paladins for Armeya, again. James could tell a good yarn when he was motivated, and Morgan listened avidly.

Axe walked over to Loren, and knelt down next to him. He had his concoction mixed, and ready, but he needed to talk to Loren first.

“Do you think James whispering stories about dead fighters to Morgan is going to help?” Axe asked Loren in a low voice.

“I don’t know,” Loren said, “But I think James believes that Morgan is a paladin. It’s a human thing, so I have no experience with it. I know orders have been hunted to extinction over religious issues, and those with paladins went down with enough fight to be noteworthy.” Loren said with a shrug.

“It could explain why James took an interest in a 16 year old boy,” Axe offered. “He’s not exactly the empathetic or the altruistic type. If he believes Morgan has that kind of power, he would take note of power.” Axe snorted.

“Maybe. If he’s right, Morgan has it in his bloodline. It could be why he’s always survived the most improbable odds,” Loren said. “James isn’t always so transparently strategic, though. I think he truly cares for Morgan, but that might be Morgans ability to see past James condition.”

“I’d worked with James for years by the time he asked if I’d consider taking Morgan on,” Loren continued. “I got the sense that he was surprised the boy was so completely fanatically loyal. For Morgan, it was like being dead-touched wasn’t something he saw.”

“Does being a paladin explain why Morgan bites?” Axe asked with a growl, and a roll of his eyes.

Loren smiled, and said, “That’s probably all Morgan, but maybe. James said they have very little self control without a strict environment. I doubt we can impose that kind of rule over Morgan now, though. I’ll be happy if we can just return him to the semi stable position he was in before this all got worse.”

Axe laughed as he agreed before moving over to where the cook fire was, to sit and wait until the food was ready. He joined Morgan in listening to James’ stories, and laughing at the best parts.

Dinner was heated quickly, and eaten just as fast. Axe and Morgan did the dishes in comfortable silence, and packed everything away efficiently. They then turned to helping Wilsie and her people get back in the saddle.

The party rode into the night, driving the horses on, in one last burst to get to their destination. Laveda was the first to slump in the saddle. She was gritting her teeth against the aching of her body.

Axe pulled his horses reins from Ansi and rode up next to the girl. He reached into his horses pack, and pulled out a flask from his pouch. It wasn’t the packets he’d been working on, though. He was saving those concoctions for even more dire circumstances. He was sure by looking at Loren, they’d need it before they were done.

“Here,” Axe offered, and handed Laveda the small nondescript flask. “Drink this. It will only take a little bit, but you’ll feel better, I promise.”

Laveda took the small unmarked flask, and drank from it. Her eyes opened wide, and she shook her head. Then she looked at the flask in her hand, before handing it back to Axe.

“What was that? I feel refreshed, but it tastes like water,” She said. “I will never look at Orcish magic the same way.”

“I hate to disappoint, but that’s all human magic. It’s a flask of vitae,” Axe said. He then directed his horse toward’s Wilsie, and handed the flask to her. It wasn’t long until he had refreshed the whole party. He was careful about this kind of magic, though. It was always a possibility there were side effects that he didn’t want to rely on it too heavily. Magic always had a cost.

With that, they were able to press on. The horses were exhausted, but they were still able to continue with very few breaks.  The party doggedly rode through the night, until the sun rose to meet them.

By morning, the exhausted crew rode into Willowshire. They kept up the pace straight through the center of town. The center road led to the more expensive houses, where nobility lived. Shops gave way to bigger and bigger estates. Until one of the largest homes in Willowshire could be reached at the very end of the road, as if all of Willowshire was arranged on its expansive driveway.

They headed straight to the estate of Ermin Locke. He was related to the Leannin royal family, and was allowing the Leannin royal regiments to use his massive estate as a staging ground for their movements.

From the looks of it, the Leannin troops were preparing for a worst case scenario. They were camped around the estate en masse. Tents peppered the manicured lawns, and the corralled horses had destroyed the grass under their hooves. The early morning air saw cook fires already stoked, and men lining up for their morning meal.

As they approached, several younger messenger boys broke off from the breakfast line, to go racing up to the manner house. It wasn’t long until Ermin Locke came down to meet them in front of his large manor home, accompanied by several advisors and armed men and women.

Ermin Locke was an older man in his late 50s, with white hair, and tanned skin from a life of royally sanctioned hunting. He was thin, and carried a saber on his hip. His clothing was refined, and in accordance with the latest Leannin fashions. He walked with confidence, and strode over to take Wilsie’s reins, and hold her horse so she could dismount.

“Any news,” Wilsie said before he could even greet her, as she dismounted her horse. She stumbled, and Ermin reached out a steadying hand. His sharp eyes showed concern, as he held her arm.

“Yes. All of the Eshire guard left early yesterday. My people tell me they think they know where the babe is. They outnumber us, and even if we can get there in time, I’m not sure it’s a battle we can win,” he said grimly.

The rest of the crew were dismounting their horses, and trying not to look like they were eavesdropping. Loren handed his horse to a retainer, and strode over to stand near Wilsie directly. There was a glint in that elven eye of his, that he knew good business when he saw it.

“Tell me they weren’t headed for the foothills of Lutherwood,” Wilsie exclaimed in exasperation.

Ermin didn’t answer, but looked pained.

“How the hell did they find out about that place?!” Wilsie exclaimed. “All this will be for naught if those bastards get there first.”

“That, I can tell you,” Ermin responded. “My men caught a turncoat. Apparently Eshire gold was persuasive. I’ll give him over to you, and you can deal with him. We were only waiting for you, to find out if that was where the child was. We had thought Eshire had taken out after a false lead, or we’d have pursued them faster.” The older man shook his head, and looked frustrated.

“I can’t apologize enough. We wouldn’t have let them get ahead of us, if we’d thought the lead was correct. The turncoat only knew that you had grown up there, nothing more, so we weren’t sure. . . “ Ermin said, and then snarled, “Damn them all!”

Wilsie pursed her lips and held up a hand for Ermin to quiet, and turned to look at Loren. She tapped her lips with her right index finger and then turned to look back at Ermin. “They have a days lead? Too big a force for us to take?”

Ermin nodded, his brow furrowed in frustration.

Then Wilsie Vale turned to Loren, and then at James, and said, “How much?”

“That won’t be cheap, but I think we might be able to come to an agreement,” Loren said with a smile.

Loren then turned to his men and women, “Walk off the ride, and see if Mr. Locke will resupply us. We’ll need his fastest horses, and something big enough for Axe that can keep up with us.”

“Son of a . . .” Axe muttered, and kicked at the ground, “My ass can’t take this much longer you know.” However, he then reached over to his exhausted plow horse, and pulled off his bags.

“Whiskey! I want a bottle of whiskey!” Morgan chimed in. “It’s important!” Morgan was always one to take advantage of a situation.

Ansi stretched her recently injured shoulder, and winced. “Damn. This is going to hurt a lot later.”

James smiled, and said, “I have need of some things if we are going to do this. It’s nothing you are going to want to give me, but if you want me at full fighting strength, you’d best deliver.” He then walked over to stand next to Loren, “Don’t worry. I don’t need anything sentient. Animal stock will do.”

“Give them whatever they need or want,” Ms. Wilsie Vale ordered. “Loren, you are with me. I’m sure we can work out a pay rate for what I need, if you can provide me with that child.” She took Loren’s arm, and walked him past the men towards the large house.

“Loren loves these jobs because the pay is always good,” James said blandly to Ansi and Sealy. “You can count on him maneuvering us into any job he thinks we can pull off, that others can’t do. I wouldn’t doubt that the previous run was nothing but a bit of marketing for the job we are now getting hired for. The elf sees ten steps ahead sometimes.”

“I hate these jobs because they are always hard as hell,” Axe retorted. “Plus the riding. I hate riding.” He was sorting through his gear to see what he needed, and what he could leave behind. “The pay is always good, though, true enough.”

Sealy and Ansi were doing the same, while Morgan laid on his back on the grass. He always traveled light anyways, and had already separated out his cooking pots and foods, and set them to the side in favor of just the dry rations they would need. He was down to one food bag for the crew, and just the equipment he carried on his back.

A sharply dressed attendant trotted up to James. James whispered some things to the woman, and was led off to the estate house. Despite the woman’s impeccable court manners, she looked nervous and pale, as she led the dead-touched mage towards Mr. Locke’s stable.

“Not even a nights sleep?” Ansi asked sadly. “I just want a flea bitten bed to rest in for the next week. I don’t know how well I can keep up without sleep.”

The crew were fed, and resupplied with the best Ermin could offer. He gave them the fastest animals he had access to, as well. These were better conditioned animals than the ones they had been using, and could probably do a harsh endurance run, with less issue. Ermin was known for riding down some of the hardest game the world had to offer, and as such, the animals he rode were some of the best.

James came back without the attendant, looking satisfied, but none of the householders would go near him after that. He smirked to himself when Morgan had to go get him some food because the householders flinched away from him.

Wilsie came out to see them off. She looked exhausted, but her demeanor was strong, “Heed what I said. If possible save the parents and the babe. However, the baby is the most important. They have a day and a half head start. Are you sure you think you can get there first, and protect them?”

Loren nodded, and said, “I wouldn’t bid for this, if I didn’t think my crew could do it. We’ve done harder jobs, and this one is more about speed, than the fighting. Mr. Locke’s horses will see to that part. We only have to keep in the saddle until we get there.”

Axe said, “I have something for the exhaustion. It’s going to feel like hell when we crash down on the other side, but it’ll get us there.” He then held out a handful of packets. He was mostly explaining to Sealy and Ansi, who were new to the crew.

James said, “I don’t need an Orcish battle drug, but as always thank you for the offer.” He already looked awake, and rested. His needs having been met by his trip to the stable.

“What will it do?” Sealy asked. Her profession led her to trade in poisons, and as such, she showed more concern. She reached for one, and then turned it over in her fingers. She looked at her sister, and shared a confused look with Ansi.

“It will light a fire in your belly, and drive you along until you kill everything in your way,” Axe said gruffly.

Then he smiled more gently and continued, “It’ll keep you up for a few days, maybe a week. Your heart will race, and you won’t be as brilliant as you usually are, and you’ll crash hard when it’s all over. You’ll be argumentative, and annoying to everyone around you, but in the heat of the moment you will battle gloriously.”

Loren took a packet, and added, “This is what the Orc raiding parties take before they hit their targets. It’s how they overwhelm so many larger forces. We have several days of hard riding to do if we want to overtake them. This won’t be fun, but it will be doable. Especially with James’ at our side. Our job is to kill as many of our opposition as we can, so James can raise them.”

Morgan took his packet, dumped it into the bottom of his near empty whisky bottle and shook it up. “Hey rabbits, drink up!” he said, then upended the bottle and drank it all down. His blue eyes danced with exhausted happiness as he downed the concoction.

“I love this stuff! I’m not allowed to take it unless ‘there is a reason’”, Morgan said, mocking Axe’s voice at the end, making a face. When Axe shot the human a look, Morgan just wrinkled his nose at him, and tried to get every last drop out of the empty whiskey bottle.

“That’s not good,” Ansi said, looking at Morgan, then cautiously put her packet in her drink, and swallowing it down with a look that spoke volumes about the taste.

“What happens if you use too much of it,” Sealy asked looking at her glass with a wrinkled nose.

With a shrug, Axe said, “You die. It’s hard on humans, but you’ll never get it outside of an Orc shaman, and no other will give it to you, so the risks are not that high. I made it with your human dispositions in mind. You are all young and healthy, you will be fine, if miserable for a day or so when you come down.”

With that note, Loren said, “If we are done, can everyone mount up? Wilsie’s men and women will follow us to give support, but we will be the first there. No holds barred on this one.”

“What happens if we run over time. We are a week early now, but we certainly won’t be back to Tombsville in time for out next job,” James said quietly.

“I have a contingency in place,” Loren said with finality before mounting his horse. “I always have a contingency plan.”

This seemed to mollify James, so he nodded, and swung gracefully up and into the saddle.

The rest of the team followed suit, and saddled up. Even Axe was on his big beast of a warhorse, and moving. They had extra mounts to switch out to, with a request to try and keep the animals alive, for return to Ermin when they were through.

Morgan led, he wasn’t a great rider, but he was fearless on a normal day, and down right reckless today. They were careful to take it at a slow trot to warm the animals up to the task. Morgan rode with his horse, and led the one he’d switch out on later.

The rest of the crew rode behind him. They continued for most of the day, taking breaks for the horses, and switching between trotting, short runs on straightaways, and walking. They were already, as a small group, making more headway than a large armed regiment could in the same amount of time.

The orcish herbs seemed to be pushing everyone into an extreme hyperactive and awake state. Squabbles occasionally broke out between the three humans. Ansi and Sealy bickered incessantly, which was unlike them, and Morgan waded into the arguments more often then usual. The rest of the party were quick to stop it. The orcish battle drug was harder on the humans than it was on Axe or Loren.

They stopped to give the horses a couple hours rest that evening, and eat some of the dry rations. Axe was careful to look over everyone, and the horses, to make sure they were all as healthy as he could keep them.

Morgan and Ansi had to be separated, because of a squabble over a ration bar that Morgan favored for himself. It took Axe’s big arm around Morgan’s shoulder, and James stepping in with angry dark eyes to put it to rest.

“This is why I don’t let the little biting man have the damn packets unless we have too. Now I see Ansi is the same way, so take note of that Loren, please,” Axe entreated the elf.

Loren was more in control than any of them, but the drug was in evidence because it caused his elven form to sweat uncharacteristically in profusion. He nodded in agreement to Axe, and turned to his own rations.

James, having refused the drug, was clearly more level headed than the rest of them. He contemplated Morgan, and said to Loren, “I think this is a good opportunity. When this drug is in your systems for several days, the humans will experience a severing of their relation with reality. When Morgan is at that phase, I will push him through to the other side. He’s already so close.”

“Is that safe?” Loren asked. His eye was wide, pupil dilated. “I don’t want to risk him.” Loren spared a glance at Morgan, who was still grumbling about the lost ration bar.

“Some of the orders, my families included, used altered mental states to help paladin’s become, or awaken,” James said. “This is a happy accident. I was going to drug him, with consent of course, when we got home anyways.” James shrugged.

“Be careful with Morgan,” Loren said, and then ordered the crew to mount up again.

They rode intermittently for two more days. Axe handed out more packets as needed, and the effects were definitely harder on the humans. Sealy and Ansi had to be separated more than once. Morgan occasionally snarled and had taken to swinging rather than talking. Axe kept joking it was probably okay because the little man wasn’t biting yet.

Loren kept them in control of themselves through force of will. His commands barked out with precision, when they threatened to lose focus.

The crew only stopped long enough to rest the horses, and eat. They were not only catching up to the Eshire force, they were circling around them to get to the site in Lutherwood first.

Several days faster than expected, the crew rode up to a small hunting lodge. It was affectionately called a lodge, but it was really an old manor keep. It was carved into the bottom of a rocky hill face, with more refined additions added by the generations of Vale’s family. The yard was smoothed out and gardened, with large ornate greenery making a stunning reveal at the last moment when approached on the road.

The lodge itself was updated with large windows, and expansive stairs leading up to the massive front doors. The front of the lodge extended outward from the cliff face by a fair bit, with the facade of an expensive capital city home. Expensive flowers and plants had been brought in from afar.

A half a dozen guards in Leannin colors stood outside. There were supposed to be 12 men on site, what was left of Wilsie’s honor guard. They were complacently sitting on the steps.

They were a Leannin royal regiment. That meant they were well trained, but rarely saw any actual battles. Leannin had not been at war for decades, and these men were completely untested. If Leannin took the route of other kingdoms, then most of these men were younger sons of nobility that had no land to claim. They could be a good trained fighting force, but you couldn’t bet on it.

Loren rode to the front, “I have orders from Wilsie Vale.” He said loudly, while holding up a parchment.

One of the guards ran into the lodge, while another stepped forward to accept the orders. He was a young man, in his mid twenties. His human features showed suspicion, but relaxed as he read the orders and saw the seal.

“How many are coming?” He finally asked of Loren.

“Enough to be a problem,” Loren said. “Is the family safe?”

“Yes, they are inside. We’ll move them into the root cellar, in case they have a battle mage,” the man said. “I’m Strand. I’m second in command, Frisco will be out any minute.” He was pale skinned, but tanned, with brown hair and green eyes.

As the crew dismounted, Axe said, “I think we have a few hours on them, but they are riding hard, too. I’ll get the horses in the stable. Morgan? Some help please?” Axe said.

Morgan was quick to move, and erratic. “You should give us this more often. I could conquer the world!” Morgan said to Axe.

“No, little man. You don’t need this. If we hadn’t been crunched for time, I wouldn’t have given you, or the sisters, any. Humans are hard hit by this, or don’t you remember what it’s like when you crash afterwards?” Axe asked gently. His eyes were wide, and he was definitely under the effects, but not the way the humans were.

“I slept a lot?” Morgan asked, after a few seconds.

“A little more than that,” Axe said with shake of his head. “I’m sure your memory will be refreshed when this is all done.” The big half orc chuckled, “Then you’ll wish you hadn’t taken any.”

Morgan wasn’t listening anymore, though. His eyes were dilated, and glazed. He had just put the last of the horses in the stall, and was standing there looking half crazed.

“Morgan? Morgan! Are you still with us?” Axe said, without touching Morgan.

“Uh, yeah,” Morgan said snapping out of it.

“Don’t put all your faith in James. He always has ulterior motives, okay?” Axe said, before walking back out front.

Morgan shot Axe a look, deciding if he should fight Axe over that, but then followed him to face their real enemy instead.

Loren was working out their strategy on the front steps, “James, where do you need to be, to have the most effect?” He was scanning the area.

Next to Loren, Frisco stood. He was a tall man with a dark complexion. His head was shaved smooth, and his dark brown eyes looked harder than the rest of the younger men under his command. He was dressed in Leannin colors, and carried a less ornate weapon on his hip.

“Roof?” James answered, “I can cast if I can see. The roof will give me the best line of sight. The terrain is a bit too bushy for my tastes, see if our host will let us rip up some of the shrubbery?” James said. He was already walking to the building, and deftly climbing up the trellis on the exterior wall.

Loren nodded, “We don’t need to ask. Wilsie owns this place, and we do whatever it takes to defend those inside. Axe, see if you can start ripping up some of that ground cover. Take the human troops with you. We need a decent line of site around the building.” Loren’s orders were direct, but there was a frayed edge to his voice, giving away the herbal concoction running through his body.

Frisco’s deep voice agreed, as he turned to his men and said, “You heard the man, get out there and pull up anything you can. Grab the tools from the gardening shed. Hack down anything that obscures our line of site for magic or arrows.” When some of his men looked surprised, he nodded at them, and said, “I won’t ask twice.” This caused his men to move quickly.

“Sealy, I want you on the roof with James,” Loren directed.

Sealy turned to argue, “No, I stay with Ansi, she took an arrow to the chest already!”

“No, no, little thief, up you go,” Axe said gently, giving her a little push. “She’ll be with Morgan and I, so nothing to fear.” He shooed her towards the trellis. He shook his head, “Remind me that if I give this to the sisters, I’m creating more Morgan’s, and he becomes impossible.”

Loren nodded, and said, “Take these,” and tossed Sealy some extra arrows. “Ansi is better trained than these men coming. They aren’t taking us by surprise, either.”

Sealy caught the quiver, and slung it over her shoulder. Then her leather clad form scurried gracefully up to the roof. She was deft in her movements, and up and out of sight in a heartbeat.

Then Loren turned to Morgan, “I want you front and center with me. Ansi will hold the door. Her Dwarven blade will allow her to stand indefinitely in their way. However, if anyone get’s in, you are to pursue them and save that baby, got it?” Loren said. “I need that ‘never give up’ quality on this.”

“Save the baby at all costs,” Morgan repeated. “I will not let that baby die.” His eyes were dilated, and his unshaved face and scruffy hair gave him a wildness that made most of the men glad he was on their side. His stature might be small, but there was a fanaticism in his demeanor.

Work continued. The Leannin guard weren’t able to get too far in their landscape destruction when one of Frisco’s soldiers yelled out, “They are coming! They’re coming!”

“Fall back! To your positions!” Frisco yelled. He didn’t need to, because his men and women were already falling back, and grabbing their armor.

Axe ran back to Loren’s position, and waited for orders.

“Axe, I need you with Ansi. Your axe has more reach than her sword,” Loren ordered.

“I guess I’m off nurse maid duty, finally,” Axe said with a laugh before pacing out a few steps on the stairs. He held his war axe out, to check his swing radius, and smiled wildly over his tusks.

Loren knelt at the door next to Ansi at the top of the old keep’s stairs. He had a large pile of furniture in front of them both as a barricade. He was pretty sure they weren’t facing off against archers, but being able to duck would help if there was a battle mage amongst them.

He wasn’t convinced the Eshire troops would have one, though. Mages were rare, and often refused to go out on the front lines. They could usually command their own wages, and work conditions. If there was, it was harder to effect a target if they couldn’t be seen. Better to have the barricade just in case.

Close to 50 horses, all in Eshire royal colors, came thundering towards the lodge. Half of the men looked far too rough and capable to be Eshire regulars. They were obviously mercenaries, like Loren’s crew. The Eshire king wasn’t taking any chances in stopping this political change to the 4th province.

Loren didn’t wait for them to close the distance, and started firing arrows at the oncoming men and women. Loren dropped men off their horses one arrow per rider. Sealy followed suit, and was quickly doing the same.

The first three bodies hit the ground, and that was all it took. James deep casting voice rang out, cutting through the din of racing horses. His booming incantation cast a chill into the air, and a couple of the oncoming riders swerved towards the remaining brush for cover.

The three bodies were wrapped in red smokey magic, and the effect on the Eshire company was immediate. The horses panicked, and some of the soldiers lost control. Wide eyes, and screaming, the horses scattered. Some took their riders with them, but most of the soldiers were able to get off before being carried away.

Axe bellowed in orcish at the oncoming Eshire forces. His bellowed threats could clearly be heard above the disordered men in the field before them. His face was contorted into a wild snarl, and he held his axe outwards. This was the orcish threat that human’s told their children about.

Before the Eshire troops could regather, James’ monstrosities were up, and tearing in to them. Over the din of screaming soldiers, could occasionally be heard laughing from the necromancer. He orchestrated his dead soldiers with precision, taking down any Eshire troops in their path.

A large man with a scarred face, pulled a small but rough looking group of men and women to his side, rallying them. He then carefully marched his men towards the lodge’s front door, shields up, to keep Loren and Sealy’s arrows off of them.

James’ monsters were eating through the regular Eshire troops without much difficulty, but these men and women were harder and clearly more skilled. They worked together well, which spoke of more experience than an Eshire regular would have.

A large woman, kicked over Loren’s furniture barricade, and jumped half over the furniture. Ansi was on her before the woman could get all the way over. However, the barricade was being ripped down by enemy hands, as Ansi kept the fighters from stepping across.

Axe swung his massive axe at another armored woman, that tried to jump the barrier. He snarled wordlessly, and split her skull. He batted her into the furniture barricade as if she was a nothing. Then he turned, and swung again, at another soldier as he approached the wall. He wielded his giant namesake as if it was nothing at all.

Ansi’s massive broadsword sang as it met the steel of the soldiers trying to break through. Her short hair lifted and stood up as the magic in the dwarven blade swing into effect. Her feet planted in front of Loren and his bow, and she snarled almost inhumanly as she blocked and swung.

She brought her sword down on the enemy soldier’s weapon. The other woman blocked, but Ansi’s sword shattered the blade, and the dwarven sword sank deep into it’s target.

Ansi snarled more curses, and swung and parried with skill despite her wild eyes, and drug induced aggression. No matter how they pushed, the fighters in Eshire colors could not push Ansi back. She held the line.

They were under the porch roof, so Sealy couldn’t see to help pick their enemies off with her bow. Instead, she focused on taking down targets on the battle field, in order to give James more corpses to work with. She favored head or throat shots to make sure ensure her targets died, and James could work with them.

Frisco called his men to the fore, organizing a defense. James’ monsters had effected Frisco’s men and women as much as the Eshire troops attacking them. It had taken Frisco’s steadfast force of will to get his men and women back in order.

The Leannin guard rushed the Eshire mercenaries that were trying to force their way into the keep’s front doors. This offensive, engaged the mercenaries, decreasing their chances of making it into the house.

Morgan went to rush in and help Frisco’s offensive, but Loren held a hand on his shoulder.

“Wait, your moment will come,” Loren said grimly, then he took another shot.

Morgan growled, but waited. Even a drugged, violent Morgan trusted in Loren’s judgement.

Loren was usually right, and the less experienced Leannin royal guard could only do so much against the men and women before them. That didn’t stop Loren from continuing to take shots with his bow.

Loren carried The Singing Bow. It was purported to be carved from the bones of the last dragon, and strung with a steel string, that had come out of an ancient dead city. It was unlike any bow in existence, and had been gifted to him by James.

With every shot Loren took, the bow sang out across the field. It was a musically shrill sound, and unmistakable. The way Loren used the bow, every shrill scream of the bow meant the death of one of their opponents.

A crash of expensive imported glass was heard. One of the large front windows had been kicked in by the mercenary with the scarred face, and some of his fighters. Five soldiers crawled their way past the broken glass, and into the keep.

“Morgan! Get to the root cellar now! I need you to hold them off until I can get there,” Loren yelled, taking another shot. “Do not let them past. I’ve seen you take worse odds than five to one.” Loren was confident Morgan could keep them at bay.

Ansi was holding the front line, but yelled, “Down and under Morgan!” She couldn’t step out of the doorway, or risk breaking the dwarven enchantment that allowed her to hold her position.

Axe was down the steps, across the broken barrier of furniture, and yelling orcish curses as he added more bodies for James to animate.

Morgan snarled wordlessly, and ran at Ansi, and the man she was fighting. Then at the last minute, he slid between the tall woman’s legs. He didn’t even stop moving as he gracefully rolled to his feet. His boots pounded down the hallway in a direct path to the child he was protecting.

The mercenaries were racing through the house, looking for the family. They had split up, a handful of fighters were upstairs dumping over wardrobes, and searching bedrooms. The old keep was big, and the royal heir could be anywhere.

Morgan raced straight to the kitchens. He hit the stairs, and skittered down to the root cellar. He burst into the room, and skidded and hopped to a stop at the bottom of the narrow stairs. This location was chosen because it was such a narrow entry, that any attackers would have a hard time entering as a group.

For the first time, Morgan saw the heirs to both royal houses, and their child. Morgan was wild in appearance, and he wasn’t wearing Eshire colors, so the family were startled by his sudden appearance.

Macwin Leannin was a young man in his early twenties. He was soft skinned, and held a sword like it was a snake ready to bite him. It was clear that whatever lessons in swordsmanship the young man had, none of it had prepared him for actually having to defend himself.

Sarah Eshire was behind him, barely 20 years old, and holding a small bundle to her chest. She held the small baby with her left hand, and a long dagger in her right. Her face was wet with tears.

Both Macwin and Sara wore fancy royal clothing, but it was in stark contrast to the terror on their faces. This relationship was unsanctioned by the king of Eshire, and he would rather kill his daughter and grandson than risk his family losing control of their half of the 4th province. All the privileges of their birth wouldn’t help them if Eshires’ men and women caught up with them.

With the young family was two very young Leannin royal guard. Although trained, they were green. To their credit, they stood firm in front of Morgan. They held their weapons as they had been trained, and stood determined.

“More like a root stadium! This place is huge,” Morgan quipped with a smirk. “They are coming, stay behind me. . . I’m one of the guys protecting you, in case you were wondering.” He then turned, and held out his burning blade, “Nobody is killing a baby on my watch. I promise you I will not fail.”

They listened to booted feet run across the hardwood floors above them for several minutes. Everyone held their breath. Eventually, footsteps headed into the kitchen above them. The booted feet stomped down the stairs, until a man ducked his head into the root cellar, before screaming, “I found them! Here!”

Morgan didn’t wait, instead taking three strides, and screaming wordlessly, and throwing himself at the man. The soldier was immediately on the defensive, trying to back up out of the way, but Morgans sword struck true, flames sank into the man’s chest, blackening flesh and bone, while screaming it’s own wordless song.

Then four more men were on Morgan. He took a hit to his thigh, but kept fighting. They were pushing past him, when Morgan spared a glance at Sarah Eshire holding the newborn. Then he snarled and shoved forward with renewed determination.

Morgan’s brow was furrowed, and he stopped snarling. He narrowed his eyes. His whole body seemed to lose the drug induced fervor. Then Morgan’s blue eyes faded in color, and started glowing with white clear light. This light flowed outwards across his body, coating everything he wore and held. His flaming blade quieted, and ceased it’s screaming.

“I’m a paladin assholes,” Morgan hissed quietly, as the light grew brighter and brighter.

The mercenaries stepped back as one. Fighting a crazed, obviously drugged fighter was one thing, but this was magic. It wasn’t a known magic, either. This was clearly not a mage casting spells.

Morgan turned the momentary lull in the fight to his advantage. The glowing human cocked his head, like James did when he told stories. Then Morgan turned and drew a line in the dirt floor of the root cellar, and white light exploded upwards as a wall behind him, leaving only his glowing self as a target.

“I love James’ stories,” he said to nobody in particular, and smiled calmly at his opponents.

One of the men finally yelled out, “What are you waiting for? Kill him before he does anything else!” That’s all it took to break the inertia that held the men, and they plunged forward at Morgan.

One of the men swung with force, and Morgan parried the blow. Then Morgan plunged his sword into the man’s thigh, and followed up with a blow to the chest. The man fell dead and smoking at Morgan’s feet.

One of the men ran to the side of Morgan, at the white wall, but the minute he touched it, his flesh burned. The wall was as hot and fiery as the sword that Morgan held. As the attacker fell through, nothing but charred bones hit the ground on the other side.

Morgan then easily dispatched the last two men. No more attackers came down the stairs, so he held held his ground waiting to hear from the battle above him. All traces of the orcish drug inspired craze was gone. He stood still, and sure. Even his screaming sword was silent, burning white hot.

Above him, James’s undead monsters finished the men in the field, and the surrounding area. Then he maneuvered them to support Ansi and the Leannin men and women on the front steps. The monsters were uncomfortable but effective allies.  It wasn’t long until even these abominations fell apart, as James let his magic fade.

James necromancy had kept the Leannin forces mostly intact, and had slaughtered the opposing side. It was rare he could let go of his restraint, and as he climbed down from the roof, he wore an uncharacteristic smile.

Sealy followed the lanky pale man down to the steps, and ran to her sister. Ansi was sweating profusely, some of it bloody. It was the price for the magic runes in the dwarven blade. Magic always had a price, and her artifact cost her health if she stood too long with it.

Axe had already set his weapon down, and was looking Ansi over. She was smiling wildly, still under the effects to Axe’s battle herbs.

As Sealy approached, Axe held out a large finger at her, “Your sister is fine. It’s mostly just scrapes and bruises. It looks worse than it is because of the damn stunty’s sword. She’s just sweating a bit of blood. Nothing too severe. Coming down off the battle drugs will be worse.” He was sobering, and was hunched over Ansi looking her over. He hadn’t even looked up as the leather clad thief approached.

Sealy ignored Axe, and nearly climbed over his back to look at her sister. Ansi just laughed at her, and waved her away, though.

Loren stepped in and said, “Sealy, go find Morgan, and make sure the baby is fine.”

Sealy nodded, and headed into the house quietly. Unlike the fighters before her, she silently padded down the hall, and into the large kitchens. Then quietly stepped down the stair into the cellar.

She found Morgan still glowing in front of a wall of light, holding his sword at the ready. It was the quietest she had ever seen Morgan. He stood calm, and ready. Everything about his demeanor screamed of patience. He was glowing in bright light and his screaming sword was silent.

Sealy’s golden eyes went wide, and she turned halfway back up the stairs at a run.

“Loren! Morgan did something!” Sealy screamed up the stairs, as she ran back up them.

Running footsteps emerged as the one eyed elf, raced into the room, with several of the others following him.

Loren came to a stop when he hit the cellar. He paused and stared for a second or two. He walked calmly over to Morgan. Loren took in the white light, and the wall of light.

“Morgan? What is this?” Loren asked, incredulously.

“I’m keeping them safe,” Morgan said, calmly. “I couldn’t let anything happen to them, so I did like James’ stories said. If I’m a paladin, I should be able to do what they do.”

The rest of the crew was filing in down behind Loren. Nobody said anything. This was an impressive magical display by any standards.

James stepped into the room and asked blandly, “Did you decide to follow Armeya?”

“Nope,” Morgan said, lowering his sword, “Are we okay? Did we win?”

“Yes,” Loren said. “Once James had enough dead to throw back at them, it really wasn’t a contest.”

Morgan sighed, and sank down to his knees. The white glowing light faded from him, and the white barrier behind him faded to nothingness.

“Good. I think I need a nap. You were right, Axe. That orc crap is bad for you,” Morgan mumbled.

“If you didn’t accept Armeya, then who did you decide to put your faith in?” James pushed. He looked confused.

“Myself. My team. What was right,” Morgan said. “You showed me I could do these things, so I just let it happen. I always try to stop it, but this time, I didn’t. I just let go. I knew what was possible because you told me stories.” He was hanging on his sword, to stay sitting upright. His sword was no longer a fiery danger, just a small short sword dulled by time.

“I guess that will do,” James said. “I’m glad you found a way to make it work.”

Franco stepped around the crew, to get to the young family behind Morgan. “I’m glad you did whatever you did,” he said, as he reached a hand out to the Leannin heir.

The crisis wound down, to a tired rumble as Franco’s men started putting the home back together again. The relieved young family were reinstated in the master suite upstairs, and Loren and his crew sat around the kitchen eating whatever they found in the cupboards.

The three humans were starting to look worse for wear. The adrenalin of the fight had helped clear the drug from their system, and it wouldn’t be long before that and the lack of sleep would render them useless.

Ansi was sitting sprawled on the floor, with her sheathed sword across her lap. She was coated in a fine sheen of sweat, but the borrowed energy was fading fast, and she looked exhausted.

Her sister was sitting cross-legged on a countertop. Her leather hood was pulled up and round her face. All that could be seen of her face were her tired amber eyes. They almost glinted, cat-like at the rest of the team. She was hunched over so much, she looked like she was almost rolled into a ball.

Morgan was already asleep, sprawled across the large table, where Axe had put him. He was out cold, and Axe had carried him up from the cellar. Even so, Axe had made sure to let the smaller man keep his dignity. He carried him over his shoulder, like a downed soldier, not like a child or a woman. Then Axe had laid him on the table gently, and left his hand on his sword hilt.

“Does he look better then those two?” Axe asked James and Loren. He was peering over Morgan’s face, which looked peaceful and smiling.

James leaned over, and considered Morgan for a moment before saying, “They say, when a paladin finds his path, he has found his way off the brink. That with that comes a a deep calm. Not that it wipes away the wild edges completely, but that it lets them coexist with the rest of us a bit easier. He will always be Morgan, though.” James smiled and continued, “Stinky drunken nights and all.”

Loren said from the side, “I’m just hoping this sorts out the problem. I don’t know anything about paladins, but what he did was a nice piece of magic. I didn’t realized he had it in him. Humans are so flexible in how they channel things.”

It took three more days for Wilsie Vale, and the rest of the troops to arrive at Lutherwood. It took another week for Loren’s crew to crawl out of bed.

The old converted keep bustled with armed men and women, with rumor of more on the way to escort the young family directly to King Leannin’s seat of power. It would be a grand procession, for maximum political impact. Letting the world know there was an heir that would unite the two kingdoms. It’s a lot harder to kill an heir that everyone knows about.

In the end, Loren’s crew found their way back to Tombsville, and their beloved Lady Rose Inn. They sat around the table with Terry and some of her men.

Terry was the half-orc woman that ran another small mercenary crew. Her ties with Loren had tightened since the graveyard job. She and her men had just come off of the job that Loren’s crew had not made it back for.

Terry was as tall and as broad as Axe, but she favored strictly human style clothing. Her long dark green hair was loose, and flowed around her face. She was relaxed and her smile was genuine.

She was sitting next to Loren, and was sharing a bottle of elven wine with him. Occasionally she leaned over to the elf to whisper into his ear, causing the blond elf to laugh loudly.

“So was that job any trouble?” Ansi asked Terry. She was relaxing with a tankard of rot gut ale.

“Nope. Loren said if all went as he hoped, he’d need the job covered. He was pretty sure there was some big politics afoot,” Terry said. “I was fine with it. The escort job we did was no trouble. Just nice easy gig, and decent cash for it. Besides, Loren has a good head for business strategy. I’m more than happy to work with him, because it means my crew gets good work, too.”

“Funny, he didn’t share that with the rest of us,” James said, as he turned his attention to Loren. He made a passable impression of Loren’s usually unfazed half smile.

“I don’t share everything with you, and you most certainly don’t share everything with us. Yet, it all works out well,” Loren said cryptically over his glass of wine.

“I hear your human bundle of human trouble pulled off some sort of faith-based witchery,” Terry said with a laugh. She had pointed at Morgan with her glass of wine, and raised her eyebrows waiting for an explanation.

“I’m a paladin,” Morgan said simply. He put on a serious look, making his face serene. He sat that way for several seconds, looking calm.

Then he broke in to chortling uncontrolled laughter, and said, “It’s pretty damn cool! I can do shit, just like in the stories.”

Then Morgan said, “You should all buy me drinks to congratulate me. Seriously, it’s like a paladin tradition, or something. . . “ He then upended his beer, drank the glass dry, and slammed the empty glass down on the table.

“Oh! It turns out Gherzille, my sword, doesn’t make a screaming racket when you are calm and doing it right,” Morgan explained happily. “It’s like a paladin tool, that screams when you are out of control to help you keep your shit sorted when you are fighting.”

“Thank the gods, because I can’t stand the noise that thing made,” Axe said. “No wonder it was so grating. I kept wondering why the hell James’ ancestors would want to create a sword that made that kind of noise on purpose.”

“It only makes a noise at all when a paladin wields it,” James said nonchalantly. “For you or I, it’s just a small dingy short sword. For Morgan, it’s a significant tool. To be honest, I wasn’t sure about it until Morgan worked it out. Despite being a lush, he’s pretty sharp.” He then poured a portion of his drink into Morgan’s empty glass.

Axe then poured half of his drink into Morgan’s cup, and said, “All I care about is that Morgan is getting into half as many fights when he drinks these days. I’m getting too old for that.” He then palmed Morgan’s head in his hand. “I am happy you found your path, little man. You seem so much happier now.”

A man in his early thirties, wearing a nice tunic, and tight brown pants made his way to the table. His dark eyes looked nervously at the rough men and women sitting there. He reached up and pushed his hand nervously through his shaggy dark hair.

“Morgan?” the young man finally asked. “You said I should come find you?”

“Sal! Yes! Let me down this drink, and we can get out of here,” Morgan said. His whole face brightened in a contagious smile. He then downed the mixed mess of a drink in his cup in less than a minute. Morgan slammed the cup down on the table when he was done.

“I’m off to have fun. You kids take care of yourselves. Don’t wait up!” Morgan said without looking as he got up and walked over to Sal.

Sal smiled nervously, until Morgan leaned up to him, and kissed him. Then his nervousness faded, and he reached down and caught Morgan’s hand, and led him out of the inn.

Sealy laughed and said, “At least he’s happy again. I’ve never seen him this happy.”

The half-orc nodded, and said, “At least Sal is someone he knows, and is a good guy. We won’t be seeing Morgan again tonight.”

About jellotheocracy

I am a boring old man.
This entry was posted in Fiction, Morgan's Stories and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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