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6 - Madreach

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IN WHICH Osmorn reminisces about camping, and the party arrives at Madreach. Plans are made, and plans are broken. The festivities of Founding Day are Interrupted. 

My recollections of which conversations happened during which days of camping are somewhat blurred. We spoke a lot during those dark evening hours on the road to Madreach. Thomas was right, there was no way I was going to reach the coast on my own when I had set out full of ignorance and hope a few days earlier. So my recollections of camp conversations are stitched together from roughly two weeks of camping. Just pretend it was all one long night.

We settled into a camping routine fairly quickly. It doesn’t take much; we would build a fire pit (me, digging and putting rocks around it) and we would set up our bedrolls around it, but not until after dinner. (Again, me, cooking. Since nobody else in this little band showed any inclination to learn how to cook beyond “heat meat until it’s good to eat”, and they showed even less inclination after I started cooking.) Then we would clean up. Andraste actually set up a rota for cleanup, and after couple of days accepted my suggestion that the person who cooks shouldn’t have to clean up. During that time I would practice playing the lute or just talking to my sister for a few minutes while Ivy washed dishes. I totally wasn’t being spiteful about this. Definitely. 

“What are you playing?” Andraste asked me while Ivy was scrubbing the cast iron cauldron I had used to make stew.

“It’s…not a song. It’s just what’s going on around us.” 

“I don’t know what that means, Ozzie.” 

“I just start playing and see what feels right. Some songs fit their time and place. When I play like this I think it opens me up, lets me focus more on what’s going on around me more clearly. Like meditation I guess.”

“What sorts of things do you focus on when you’re playing?”

“People, mostly. They make and have the best stories. I think I'm more perceptive to little things about how people are feeling when I’m casting them into notes and chords.”

“That’s not perceptiveness, brother mine, that’s magic.”

“I’m not a wizard, or a druid. I’m just…me. No magic.”

“I wonder.” She said. “Tell me what you are sensing right now. From each of us.”

I played a little longer. It...wasn’t pretty.

“Thomas is as far away as he can be, on purpose, and not just because he’s not a fan of my lute. Ivy is unhappy that I joined your world, and is unhappy that you are preparing to leave it, but right now she’s mad at me more than usual, possibly because I burned cheese onto that cauldron. You…you are very curious right now, and are trying to keep it in check, so I don’t notice.”

“Can you do this all the time, or only when you’re playing the lute?”

“I mean, I can ‘read’ people as well as anyone, maybe a bit better. But I think when I’m focusing on my music I can sense a little more than just that. Like I said, I think it just focuses my mind a little more.” 

“I wonder. Well, keep practicing, and consider adding lyrics from time to time. We’ll need them in Madreach.”

“Yes, thank you, Andé, I know how songs work,” I said and she laughed. 

Another moment:

I was chopping onions for stew and called out, “Can someone chop the carrots for me?”

“No,” said Ivy and Thomas in unison. 

“Ivy, go chop carrots,” Andraste said. 

With bad grace Ivy came over to the cook table and pulled out a knife from her belt. “How do you want these chopped?”

“Disks, please. You can quarter the larger pieces if you think they wouldn’t be fun to eat.”

Ivy shrugged and started chopping. She didn’t seem inclined to carry on a conversation but I’m bad at silence. 

“So, you said I need to learn about pain. What pains have educated you, Ivy?”

“Psh. Seriously? You think you can just listen to stories and then you’ll be as good as me?”

“No, I think I’ll have a better frame of reference. Maybe be a little less ignorant.”

“That’s not how it works.”

“Isn’t it? Isn’t the point of being sentient that we can communicate, share memories, and grow from others’ experiences?”

Ivy shrugged and just chopped carrots for a moment. But this time she didn’t seem able to leave it at that.

“I wouldn’t know, I haven’t had decades to sit around reading about what it means to be smart.”

“You said you left home when you were sixteen, what did you do?”

“I was unprepared and foolish. I thought I was already strong, but the world knocked that out of me quickly. I was waylaid almost immediately after leaving home—“

“Sounds familiar.”

“Shut up. Unlike me and Thomas my captors were brutal, cruel, undisciplined, almost feral. Barely human.”

Ivy stopped talking suddenly and shuddered at the memory.

“I learned then and there that I had to be strong for myself, nobody else was going to help me. Fortunately my captors were idiots; they thought me to weak and ruined to try to escape, and were negligent. It cost them their lives.”

I had a brief flash in my mind. Young, scared, victimized, crying Ivy. Standing sword in hand, bloodied and sweating, the bodies of her former captors at her feet. It was terrifying.

“How many?”

“Three. A father and his son and nephew.” 

I almost retched. She shouldn’t know that, she shouldn’t have to know that. All the ramifications of that statement flooded my mind. 

“And then you were free again…”

“And I defended that freedom. Fiercely. I learned the sword and I learned to hunt. I found some less-terrible people to train me. I healed and I hardened. I got stronger, more canny. I found someone to train my skill with the sword and the bow and worked like a fiend to develop those skills. I will not be a victim again.”

Her words were falling into a set cadence. A mantra, I realized. She was telling the story of Ivy, the one she told herself to define who she was now. She knew these words by heart because they set the shape of her heart.

“I became a sell-sword eight years ago. When Captain — found me I was working with a small band, unorganized and inefficient. She hired me away from them and taught me…are you okay? You almost cut your finger off.”

I looked down and saw a line of blood on the back of my hand. “That is not going to make it easier to play the lute,” I said. 

“Good,” Thomas muttered from where he was drowsing by the campfire. 

“Yeah, we’re not giving you any weapons, halfling,” Ivy said, but the intentional misclassification was less an insult this time, more of an inside joke. “Here, I’ll finish up these onions, your blood is a terrible seasoning. Go clean and bandage that, then you can come back and stir the pot or whatever it is you do next.”

“I could teach you to cook, you know.” I said, handing her the knife.

“Say that sometime you aren’t openly bleeding.”

I walked over to my backpack, trying to fish things out one-handed. A moment later Andraste approached with some bandages. “The healing gear is in the wagon, in fact,” she said and sat down next to me. 

“I saw what happened,” she said in elf speech. “They’re going to think we’re telling secrets, look offended. Later we’ll tell them I’m calling you baby names for cutting yourself.” I did my best, and responded in an whiny tone.

“I literally no longer remember father’s name; how long does it take to say?”

“Between one and two heartbeats, at rest.” She chided, wrapping my hand.

“We can’t ask them to stop saying your name,” I said, making it sound like a petulant insult.

“I’ll tell them to use just my title, I’ll tell them we are too well known to use real names” She said, flipping her hair back like she had just delivered a killing bon mot.

“You kiss your mother with that mouth?” I said in Common, loud and disgusted. 

“Did you want to hear about the time I kissed your mother with this mouth?” she replied and I scowled, and walked back over to Ivy. “I’ll take over. Don’t worry, I’ll only bleed in Ann-NASTY’s portion.” I said, grabbing the wooden spoon roughly.

“That’s CAPTAIN Ann-Nasty, Ozzie.” She said, walking back to her tent, laughing lightly.

Thomas had sat up a bit during our exchange. “I need to learn to swear in elf, apparently,” he said. “What did she say that got you so worked up, birdy?”

“I wouldn’t repeat such…uncouth speech—“

“Ohhh, was it all the way to uncouth?” Thomas laughed. “Dear me, ’tis a wonder you didn’t faint dead away, you blushing young maid!”

“Thomas, leave him alone,” Ivy said, dumping the carrots and onions into the pot.

“Thank you,” I said.

“He’s woozy, he just lost a lot of blood from a self-inflicted injury.”


I’d like to tell you a story from our camps where I got to know Thomas better. There isn’t one. I wish there had been. He kept mostly to himself, competent and dependable. But he didn’t do extra work, he didn’t go out of his way to socialize, he didn’t even join us around the low campfire in the evenings. He just said he preferred sleeping under the wagon. He kept the wagon and the weapons in good repair, though, so we all just accepted his desire for privacy and quiet and went on with what we were doing. 

Thomas’ version of Ivy’s shrug was a slight smile and the word “nah,” which I suppose saved a lot of time. Any question he didn’t want to answer was left unanswered. He followed Andraste’s orders, always, and Ivy’s if it was convenient. He helped me if he was close enough to do so without strain, or if ordered. Mostly when we got to camp he laid out his bedroll, unpacked what few things we needed, set up Andraste’s tent astonishingly quickly, then found a rock or log near the fire pit and sat down to wait for dinner. 

Once when Thomas had finished setting up the one tent in our camp I asked Andraste why she needed a tent but nobody else got one. “You don’t even sleep,” I said.

 She smiled at me and said, “a girl needs her privacy.”

“What about Ivy?”

“Ivy hasn’t been a ‘girl’ in a long time, Ozzie.”

“I…I have no real idea what I'm supposed to glean from that.”

“I didn’t think you would. You’ll survive, and I will continue to have a tent. Get used to it, brother.”

One last memory. Roughly a week into our journey, I woke up in the middle of the night. The moon was full and was high overhead. I stirred slightly, and leaned over to settle another log on the fire to take a little edge off of the cold. Then I noticed Andraste. 

She was sitting, back to me, on the ground and facing out into the forest. Moonlight sparkled on her hair, in a way that no other species seems to manage. 

I learned a word from an artificer once: fluorescence. It seems that certain materials absorb one kind of light, and then release it as a different kind of light.

Elves fluoresce moonlight and starlight. It seems brighter on their skin and hair than the moon and stars themselves. 

Half-elves don’t. I looked down at myself, and then over at Andraste again.

We weren’t the same. We never had been, we never would be. For a moment I saw her mother’s point, I saw why Laniatte hated me. I wasn’t an elf; I was a mortal. I was born to be outcast. This was the only way my life could have gone, and I was foolish to think it ever could have gone any other direction. Andraste sat in the moonlight, wandering the elven dream, and yet also present in our world; no doubt she had heard me stir and was aware that I was awake. She would live for an appreciable portion of eternity, I would die. 

Comforted not at all by such speculations I looked over at Ivy. She was fast asleep. In her sleep her face didn’t have its usual hard wariness, and she looked younger. I felt like I was getting a glimpse of her before the world had taught her all those supposedly vital lessons. She looked much more vital this way.


 

At length we made it to Madreach. I’d never been in a mortal city before. For those of you who have never been in an elf haven before, let me try to explain:

Elves are timeless. Our havens have stood in the world for centuries, refined a little here and a little there over time, maintained now by master craftsmen who dedicate centuries to a single building. Nothing changes, not much. Houses combine and recombine, elves marry and are given in marriage, but the Houses, the stone citadels and living groves, those remain. 

So coming to Madreach was like walking into a nightmare. People everywhere, going in every direction, doing I knew not what. So much noise, so much motion, and every noxious smell all combine

“Dragons’ blood! Why do mortals live like this?” I asked Andraste. She looked over at me and said, “Like what?”

“All loud and piled up on top of each other like this and…excuse, me, sorry, wasn’t watching,” I said to a dwarf with whom I had collided, “and unable to walk in a straight line because of everyone else.”

“Ozzie, my brother, you are a mortal.”

“Yes, thanks for that.”

“No, you’re not getting it. Your whole life you’ve been thinking of yourself as a, I don’t know, a lesser elf. For better or for worse, that’s over now. It’s time to realize that what you really are is an enhanced human.”

“And what am I supposed to do with that information, tell?” I wasn’t in the mood to be lectured on how well off I was just at the moment. Andraste didn’t answer right away. 

“Okay, here’s your assignment: watch how people here move. You need to look like you belong, like you’re comfortable moving around amongst normal people. You’re very bad at that so far. Watch, observe, learn. Can you do that?”

“Yes Captain,” I said and she smiled at me. 

“Good. Then I won’t have to let Thomas sell you to slavers.”

“And people say you don’t take after your mom.” 

So I started watching. I pulled my lute out and started playing. What did people expect of me? How would I fit into their concept of the world?

The first thing I noticed was that I was far from the only half-elf in Madreach. Not that we were a major percentage of the population, but there were more than a few half-elves around. So I started by observing them. 

They were…happy? Mostly? Many were employed, it seemed, in artistic trades. Here a sculptor, there a tailor for bespoke gowns and outfits for the gentry. Some of them were the gentry. I saw a number of half-elves in fine clothing, with retinues, or riding high in elaborate carriages. Had I gotten my view of my life all wrong? 

Then I watched the other races as well. I won’t do any of them the injustice of recording my first impressions; they were naïve, ill-informed, and all sound like stereotypes. It turns out you can’t learn everything there is to know about a race from a few random observations on the street. 

Patterns started to emerge. Taken as a whole, as a heaving mass, the citizenry seemed mindless, milling and chaotic. But watch any one person and you saw them move with purpose from task to task, autonomous and intelligent. Some were deeply engrossed in just one or two transactions, other seemed to be willing to talk to anyone and everyone. Some were happy, others miserable. Some fluidly moving around groups and knots of people, others plowed straight through, walking in a straight line no matter what got in the way. It wasn’t chaos, it was hundreds or thousands of small bits of order, all overlaid on top of one another.

After a few moments I couldn’t decide if that was more terrifying or less. From there I started observing the buildings. They were much like the people. A collection of varying styles and structures, no central or cohesive themes to be seen, but each one…once you observed it, once you divined its purpose…each one individually made sense.

“Andé, I can’t decide if I'm impressed or terrified.” I said.

“Hold that thought a bit, Ozzie.” She said and called out. “Thomas! We’re going to the Statesman.” Thomas nodded.

“What?” I asked. 

“The Elder Statesman is an inn. That’s where we’re staying.”

“Andé, what’s an inn?”

“Oh Ozzie, I just want to put you in my knapsack and keep you safe,” she said in response. 

You all know what an inn is. I won’t belabor the next few hours. It was amazing how my perspective had shifted in regards to bedding though. After roughly three weeks of sleeping on the ground, or on broken cots, the small, cramped bedrooms we had at the Statesman were like heaven. 

We gathered in the common room for dinner. Andraste was already down there, talking with someone in a long cloak and expensive looking hood. She shook their gloved hand, and then the stranger left. Andraste turned to the barkeep and nodded to him, he nodded back.

“I just ordered food, It’ll be brought to our table over here,” she said to us and we all sat to wait. 

“That your contact?” Thomas asked and Andraste shrugged what I still thought of as “Ivy’s shrug”. Thomas just nodded.

A pleasant faced halfling waitress came to our table, carrying a tray, expertly weaving around patrons two feet taller than herself, calling out good-naturedly when people impeded her progress. She set our food on the table and Andraste handed her a few small copper coins. The waitress curtseyed and departed and we were as alone as we were going to get in this environment.

“We meet the Prince’s retinue at sunrise tomorrow. He is staying in the manor of a minor lord here, the lord’s servants have been told to watch for us. Osmorn, you’ll be given the garb of a wandering minstrel playing music for the celebration, I suggest you learn the music quickly. Don’t worry about learning the words, though. We’ve got new ones for you. 

“As a spotter,  you put everything in terms of directions. If you see someone who might be a threat, work the phrase ‘I espied a fair maid’ into your lyric.”

“Ugh, you really do want me to sing folk songs,” I said but Andraste just continued.

“If the person is north of you, say ‘in a field of clover’ if south the fair maid is ‘deep in a wood.’ East is ‘upon a may morn’ and west is ‘sing ye now kucoo’.” 

“What did I ever do to you?” I asked, but Ivy and Thomas simply nodded. Apparently this was standard operating procedure for them? 

The morning of Founding day dawned bright and clear and we were up to see it, dressed and out moving around doing real stuff. 

We made our way to the fancy side of town, and even in the very early morning there were throngs of people out and about. 

“Does anybody in this place sleep?” I asked and Ivy shrugged. 

We were admitted into the manor house where Bribis was staying. Prince Heavybrass was short, even for a gnome, and heavy set. It would have been easy to be distracted by these two surface level details. I looked a little closer, though, and found that he still had active eyes and hands. And when he spoke his words revealed a driven mind; one that was clearly crackling with thoughts. 

“Well well well and welcome,” he said, in a lordly way. The room in which he greeted us was built for humans but had been somewhat hastily redecorated for a gnome. Bookshelves that reached to a ceiling nine feet above the ground had been shrouded, and many books had been moved down into gnomish reach. A large wooden desk was pushed against the wall and in front of it was a throne, fully six feet high, but with a seat only two feet high. 

“You’ll forgive my surroundings; I hope. One is never fully at home in another’s manor. But one does one’s best,” he said, climbing up into his throne after we had knelt to him. 

“I appreciate your organization’s support in this matter. I, of course, will have little to do with the operations of your…well, operation. My man-at-arms will brief you on the particulars. I gather that you have already met with him once, Captain—?”

“Yes, your highness,” Andraste said with perfect grace and manners. “If I may beg a boon, not just of your highness, but of everyone in this room. My name has gained some small notice over the years during which I have been active in the world, and perhaps it would be best if I were simply addressed by my title. Therefore I ask everyone here to simply call me Captain, at least until after the prince is safe and the threat removed.”

“Wise,” said a voice from behind the throne. “To that end you may call me Copperplate Gothic.” 

A dwarf stepped out from behind the high back of the throne. He was dressed in half-plate armor, a kirtle of chain mail hung down to his knees, as did his beard. 

“A bold name,” I said and he looked up at me. 

“You didn’t tell me you had a half-elf in your party,” Copperplate said to Andraste. 

“I didn’t when last we met.”

“Fortunes do shift and change when you live on the road,” he said, nodding. “I’m guessing that also explains why you have three fewer members of your party then we discussed.”

“I believe we agreed that there would be four people involved in this operation, regardless of the actual size of my band.” Andraste said, her eyes locked on the Prince instead of the dwarf.

“Indeed. I did not intend to reopen negotiations, Captain. Simply commenting on the lifestyle your people lead. We will proceed as planned, unless you have suggestions for last-minute updates to our plan, given your current…roster?”

“Just one. The half-elf, let’s call him Songbird. We intend him to be a scout. He has some skill with the lute, and will be dressed as a wandering troubadour. He will communicate with us via the lyrics of his song and help us spot the opposition.” 

Copperplate nodded and the Prince all but bounced on his throne. “Oh but this is just too exciting. Almost makes me wish there were more attempts made on my life, so I could be in the center of more of these kinds of plots.”

“An unwise wish, Highness,” Copperplate said and the prince waved a hand at him irritably.

“Oh of course of course. I have complete faith in you…Copperplate, you said? Yes. Anyway I have faith in your ability to protect the royal person.”

“Have we learned any more about the attacker?” Ivy asked, addressing Copperplate instead of the Prince. 

“No. My informants have gleaned that the party who wishes to harm his Highness has also contracted with…freelancers such as yourselves, but we have been unable to identify specifically whom. Or even where. Unfortunately my informants were identified and were forced to exfiltrate themselves from their position within the organization, in order to bring that news to me.”

Andraste nodded. Copperplate brought out a large map of the area and we gathered around it, showing the area in which the Prince would be most vulnerable, and the timings. 

“This is too timid, too timid by far, Copperplate,” Andraste said. “We’re letting them pick the time and area of engagement.”

“So you’re suggesting we put the Prince in danger simply for tactical reasons?”

“The Prince is going to be in danger regardless. This is simply letting us decide where we can best utilize that fact. Look, if we move through the plaza earlier, before the bazaar is fully set up, we force them into the open. They know their best chance is when the Prince is visible from directly above. The plaza is the only place they get that open of a shot, especially on a gnome sized target. The only other likely opportunity is in the auditorium during the speeches, and there will be far more coverage there. There’s no way they would want to risk their venture on carrying out the mission there.”

“And why would you know that?” Copperplate asked.

“Because that’s how I would do it if I took the contract,” Andraste said, not looking up from the agenda and map. “They are planning on hitting the Prince in the plaza, during the Bazaar. They have ample coverage, ample lines of sight that are effectively non-reciprocal. We can deprive them of these advantages by having the Prince move through that area before all the stalls and pavilions are set up.”

“Well, aren’t we lucky to have someone so well versed in the subversive arts,” The prince said quietly, eying Andraste warily. She half-smiled but didn’t look up. 

“This makes more sense, your Highness, if you will allow me to advise you. We’ll see if we can flush out the opposition in the plaza, and put them into plain view, possibly neutralize them. If not then we have ample time to send elements of our group ahead to the auditorium to ensure that security measures are up to par.”

“Copperplate?” The prince asked.

“MMMmmmmmm I have to admit the sell-sword has a point. This would eliminate one area of concern, and keep all your Highness’ commitments.” 

“Very well,” the Prince said and Andraste nodded. 

“Okay. Songbird, you go get dressed as a troubadour and head to the plaza. Keep an eye on rooflines and people who are moving without any specific purpose. Ivy, stay with the Prince. Thomas and I will go find areas at ground level to neutralize any threats spotted by our Songbird. Everyone nodded and I found myself slightly stymied. 

“Go get dressed where, in what?”

“Our host has a collection of motley that he uses for his visiting entertainers,” The Prince said and looked me up and down. Well, up and less-up, I guess. He clapped his hands and a servant appeared. “Show the songbird here to the dressing room. From there  I suggest you take the servant’s exit and circle around back to the plaza, sir Songbird.” 

I really hated that this nickname was catching on. But not as bad as I hated “motley”. Garish, clashing colors, all clearly designed to designate the wearer as a fool. And they were so clearly intentional. The materials were of good weave, surprisingly good for human make, and well sewn, this effect was intentional. 

With bad taste I found a set that fit me, mis-matched hose that clashed entirely with a tunic, and a pointed cap with--ugh—with bells on it. I dressed without looking at the mirror once. I could only abide so much shame. 

I headed out alone, my lute already at my fingers, and made my way to the plaza. As I rounded the last corner into the plaza I realized that I was in good company. 

There were dozens of other “musicians” playing individually or in small groups. Nobody seemed to mind the cacophony of conflicting songs. Some sang poorly, some seemed to treat their instruments more as props, Some were dressed in far finer fool’s-clothing than mine, some were wearing rags. 

I had a sudden thought that made me laugh; what if they were all spies, what if every single singer and fool here was a spotter for some group of covert fighters? There was one pair of singers, dressed in all black. One had a squeeze-box, the other a lute, and they were singing a song about a “blue canary”. There was no way this was simply music; it was clearly a coded message. 

I tuned up almost without thinking about it, my fingers feeling the proper tuning more than my ears hearing it, and I started playing. I played…ugh, I played folk music.

It was easy to do, frighteningly so. The first day of Brightmoon is a beautiful day, and well celebrated in so many folk pieces. So mixing up phrases about “prancing gladly all upon a bright, Brightmoon morn, sing ye tra lolly, la loo” and other such nonsense took up almost none of my thought. I was able to let my senses wander outward, and it was frightening. There was far too much. So many people, all with so many conflicting ideas, thoughts, desires. I couldn’t keep track of everyone.  So I didn’t. 

I let myself feel themes instead of people. I can’t explain it, I’m sorry. But the overriding theme that day was boredom. It seemed a lot of work to go to just to have a lot of people feeling bored. 

But finding that let me tune it out. So all I had to do was classify all the not-bored people. 

Turns out there were still to many. So I tried again. Who was angry? I felt a groundswell of anger and realized it was laying under most of the boredom. I then further realized that boredom was built to keep that anger safe, to keep people from expressing their anger and frustration. 

Which was all very philosophical but wasn’t helping me do what I was trying to do. I was trying to find people whose behavior was out of place, especially if they were interested in the people I was here to protect. 

I finally saw Ivy on a roofline, moving slowly. Well, felt more than saw. I looked around more and found Andraste and Thomas. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could do this. I was sinking under all this, too many demands, too many minds, too much going on all at once. Trying to hold the positions of Andraste, Ivy, Thomas, and the Prince all in my mind at once I started looking for others. Who was paying them more attention than they should be? I started picking people out of the crowd, and putting them into my song. It made it easier to track them, somehow. 

A slow eternal tune for Andraste, a quiet methodical percussive line for Thomas, and action and motion for Ivy. I saw Copperplate and worked him in as well, adding a reassuring cadence to the rest of the music. 

And then I saw them. Four people, at least one of them a half-elf, moving contrary to the flow of the crowds. Not moving fast, not making a fuss, but the four of them cut through the crowd like fish swimming up stream. Determined and not wasting energy. I had my targets…

And forgot my lyrics. What was I supposed to say? Also, which direction was north?

I all but screamed “I espied a fair maid, and her ladies in waiting” and I saw Andraste and Ivy turn to me. But I really didn’t know which direction was which and couldn’t remember which direction meant “sing we now kucoo” but that was the only direction lyric I could remember. 

I did the next best thing I could think of. Orienting my body towards the four attackers I said “standing all in a row afore me.” But my compatriots weren’t getting it.

The attackers, however, got it immediately. One of them turned to face me, and I knew in a moment I was discovered. I tried to look like a regular troubadour, singing about fair maids in a fair springtime field, but it was no good. He tapped his companion on the shoulder, and two of them were facing me. I glanced around. Andraste and Thomas seemed to have figured out what was going on, so I had some hope they were getting in position to help me. Ivy was stringing her bow, her quiver on the roof next to her. 

I tried to casually walk away from the two who were chasing me while keeping my eyes on them. Hard to do.The other two were still headed toward the Prince and my sister, but Thomas and Andraste should be more than a match for them. Despite the crowds one of the pack readied a small crossbow which he had been holding, apparently already cocked and loaded, under his cloak. I saw him take aim at me and fire.

Dear friends, it’s hard to incite too much concern for my continued life, as I sit here hale and whole before you. But I would tell you a small secret. What is the name of this tavern? 

The Bolt and Lute, indeed. And the sign out front? 

That, my friends, is the lute that likely saved my life, with the bolt still stuck into it. I gave it to the owner of this tavern when she decided to open up shop here. But back to the story.

Having just enough presence of mind, I turned the lute so that the back was facing the attacker and felt the bolt hit home, slamming hard into the wood. The noise was enough to alert people around me, which set up a generalized panic. If you can avoid it, never set up a generalized panic, and if you do, try not to be caught in the middle of it. 

The crowd suddenly started surging, but they knew not where, although the exits of the plaza seemed to be favorite destinations. I saw Andraste and Thomas, pressing closer to the Prince. Two of our opponents were closing in. Thomas stood forth, his sword suddenly in his hand. He engaged one of the two, and then, then there was direction and purpose in the direction of the people. Move away from cold steel. 

Meanwhile I still had two people chasing me. I had no weapons, not even my lute, not really. But suddenly I had a thought, an insidious thought. 

I knew why everything felt wrong. 

I looked up. There was a widening circle around Andraste, Prince Bribis, and Copperplate. Thomas was engaged in a nasty, brutal sword fight with one of the attackers, holding him at bay and also defining the radius of the circle surrounding the prince. He was slowly pushing the attacker back, clearing space. 

Copperplate was standing in front of the Prince, putting his body between his liege and the visible attackers. I looked up at my two. They were professionals, their eyes hard, and they were entirely focused on me. Which didn’t make sense. I was nobody, their contract was to kill the prince. 

Unless they thought that was mine. 

I called out “if you value the life of the prince help me get close to him! I have been contracted to defend him with my life!” Which was close enough to true. 

Andraste would tell me later that I saved the entire operation with those words. It was the last thing we said to one another for some time. 

My attackers looked confused, and the other two of their party faltered as well. Which allowed Thomas to run his sword into the thigh of his opponent. However the blade stuck and his opponent, while going down, still had enough presence of mind to take advantage of the opening. He stabbed Thomas through the abdomen, and pulled sideways. 

Thomas fell. By now the plaza was relatively empty, a wide space around the Prince. I looked up at Ivy. She had to have a clear shot by now. She had. She held her bow in her hand, loose, looking at her handiwork.

Copperplate lay bleeding on the stones, Ivy’s arrow in his throat. The Prince looked up at her, fear and realization dawning. Then started to turn to look at Andraste, but it was too late. Her dagger flicked twice, on either side of his neck, and she dropped him to the ground, one foot on him to hold him in place. Ivy shot again and one of my attackers was down. The other turned to look and Andraste shot him with a crossbow. 

He staggered, looked at me and growled out, “liar.” He pulled his own crossbow out and shot me with it, in the shoulder, as he lay bleeding on the stones. 

It didn’t hurt, not right away. Or perhaps it did, but there was so much going on that I couldn’t be sure. I saw him go limp. I saw Andraste roll the prince over, so she could look down into his face and make sure of her handiwork. I saw Thomas, as no mortal should ever see another, laid open. 

I couldn’t take it any more. My side was wet, I was losing blood. 

And that’s all I saw for a while.


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