“Psst!” Lucha jumped and looked around, finally locating the sound in a nearby potted bush. He'd just stepped out of the Stump Tavern for the morning. “Psst!” the noise came again, and Lucha spotted a human doing a poor imitation of a stealthy person among the foliage.
“You HAVE to take me with you,” the human hissed. “I can't stay in this hole any more. I heard you took a job from that brood. I want to come with. I'm a wizard. I'm useful. Well, useful-ish.”
“Er, who ARE you?”
“M'name's Daz,” he stuck out a scrawny, pale hand. “You don't have to pay me or nothin'; I just want to come along.”
“If you're a wizard, I take it you have a spellbook?”
“Of course! Well, no, not really.”
“Um . . .”
“I mean, I have it, but I don't really HAVE it, you know?”
“You . . . mean you own a spellbook, but you're not currently in possession of it?”
“That's what I said.”
“So, would you be willing to trade spells with me?” Lucha asked, hanging on tightly to what he saw as the main point.
“Are you going to take me with you?”
Lucha hesitated, taking in Daz's filthy and disreputable clothing. “Just one moment.” He stepped back into the tavern, where Herald, Elendol, and Listens were finishing breakfast.
“So, I have a question,” Lucha said. “There's another wizard here in town who wants to join us in our adventures, and he's willing to share his spellbook if we let him come along, but he's . . . he seems unreliable.”
Elendol shrugged. “Is it that guy Daz?”
Lucha sighed in relief. “You know him?”
“No, I just talked to him once. Did not impress.”
Herald Crash frowned. “We could check up on him, see if he's caused any accidents or other problems, and if not, I'd like to bring him along. Everyone deserves a chance.”
“Honestly, I think we should see about dealing with Rundell and his buddies first,” Elendol said. “That elf looks like a ranger. If he wants to take us out, He'll follow our tracks and set an ambush, and with that bow of his we'll be dead before we can even get to him.”
“You think they dislike us that much?” Herald asked.
Elendol snorted. “See, I pay attention to what people are saying when they're standing around at a big festival, and I was not liking what I heard about those three.”
Listens to Greenlings looked up. “Leeta the Barmaid was certainly afraid of them.”
“So, what do we do?” Lucha asked.
“Someone around here has to know something more about them,” Elendol said.
Lucha stepped back out of the door and examined the potted plant, which emitted a rustling noise as Daz peeked around it. “Do you know anything about our competition in the games yesterday?”
“Huh?” was Daz's illuminating response.
“The archer and that wrestler fellow and his orc friend.”
“What, them? They suck. If you have anything, they'll take it off you. Not because they need money, but just because they get bored. I'm kinda glad the old lady doesn't pay me in money, because they'd just take it off me. I think there's a hobo kid that Thaon kicked in the head. He's still unconscious or something like that.”
“Where? And when did this happen?”
“Uh, three days ago or so? Before the party. I can show you where the family is if you want. Sometimes I sleep down that way.”
“Please. But let me get my friends first,” Lucha said. He peeked back into the tavern, but Herald and Elendol had left, leaving Listens to Greenlings alone. “Where did they go?” he asked the druid.
“To fetch Rogus. I'm sure they'll find their way back.”
Herald Crash tapped at the door to Rogus' office, just outside Melina Binlay's large and pleasant hall. The Orc stuck his head out the window. “Have a minute?” Crash asked.
“Yeah, what's up?”
“Rundell and his group seem to be causing trouble around the place. Inappropriate manhandling of the ladies and potentially some extortion.”
Rogus chuckled, displaying sharp tusks. “If you have anything solid on them, it'd be a blessing for this village. I've been trying to nail them for months.”
“Do you currently have any leads?” the halfling asked. “What would be considered solid?”
“Just more than one witness actually willing to talk to me would work. Or someone with actual injuries. Something I can show the Lady.”
“Very well. We'll do some checking around and be back when we know more.”
They returned to the tavern and the four set out together, following Daz down twisty paths carved in, over, and under the thick buttress roots of the stump. A surprisingly large number of people appeared to be living down there in dark, dank little niches. They peered at the friends, but didn't seem interested in hindering them.
“And, here we are,” Daz announced as they arrived at a room sandwiched between two protruding roots. He gestured at a poor, emaciated man in ragged clothes. An exhausted woman sat nearby tending a motionless boy on a filthy pallet. A girl who looked to be about three stood in the corner, clutching a shapeless rag doll. “This is, uh . . .”
“Vigen,” said the man, in a tired, wheezy voice.
“Hello, Vigen,” Lucha said. “Can you tell me what happened to his young lad?”
“Who are you and why do you want to know?”
“My name is Lucha, and these are some of my friends. We heard of your plight and want to help right this wrong.”
“You want to help? You got any healing?” Listens stepped forward immediately, bending to look at the boy. Vigen looked nervous, but did not attempt to stop the druid from examining his son.
“A head injury with swelling inside the skull,” Listens murmured. “He will need healing magic to escape damage to the brain. I can do this immediately.”
“Not yet,” Herald said. “Sir, we'd like to heal him, but let us get the guard first. Once they're here, will you tell them what happened?”
Vigen winced, but as Herald held his gaze he hunched his shoulders. “I . . . all right, if it'll help my boy.”
“I'll be right back,” the halfling said, and hurried back the way they had come. Within half an hour, the halfling reappeared, Rogus in tow. The woman shrank away from the tall and muscular orc, but Rogus' expression was mild as he examined the child on the pallet. “All right,” Crash said. “Heal away.”
Listens to Greenlings cast several spells, chanting, gesturing, and presenting a large snail shell with an interesting spiral pattern. All at once, the boy began coughing violently. His mother rushed to him side and helped him turn over, leaning his head down over the side of the pallet. The coughing soon subsided and he moaned and opened his eyes.
“He needs water,” Listens said. “Just a little at first. Do you have a spoon?”
The woman nodded and began carefully ferrying spoonfuls of water to the boy's mouth. He reached for the cup, but she held it back. Listens knelt and began pinching the boy's toes one at a time. “Can you feel that?” he asked after each pinch. The boy nodded. Vigen looked like he wanted to rush forward, but the presence of the strangers forestalled him. All at once the woman set the cup down on the floor and began to sob.
“Pa?” the boy asked hoarsely.
Rogus frowned. “I hate to interrupt what is obviously an emotional moment, but I've come here to get a statement.”
Vigen flinched and looked at Herald and Lucha, hoping for some support.
“Vigen, this is Rogus,” Herald said as gently as he could. “He's the chief of security here in town. We just need you to tell what happened to your son, that's all. We're here to help you.”
“I don't wanna cause no trouble. I thank ye folks for your help . . .”
Herald took a step forward and looked up beseechingly at the much-taller human. “Listen, we don't know for sure who did this, but we have a hunch. We just need your information and they can be locked away where they can't hurt you or your family again. But Rogus can't lock them up without a good reason.”
Vigen looked over at the orc and wrung his hands. Finally, he sighed. “We came here not long ago, an' I had a few small bits of jewelry as belonged to my wife hidden away, but afore I could find anyone as to buy 'em, comes this large fellow an' his elf an orc friends and shoves me around, makes to search our belongings. I din't want my family to starve, but what could I do? I ain't no fighter. But my boy tries to grab one o' them trinkets an' run away. So the elf one with the braided hair kicks 'im in tha head an' takes it. He been fadin' since then, couldn't get no food down 'im, nor hardly any water.”
“Could you describe the gems? We might be able to find them and return them.”
“Weren't no gems, just a silver pin what my wife had from her parents on our weddin', an her silver mirror.”
“How's that, Rogus?”
“It's good enough for me. If this fellow and his boy will come upstairs to talk to Melina, I'll get my boys together and see if we can fetch those ruffians.”
“That all right with you, Vigen?” Herald asked.
“I don't want no trouble . . .” the man began.
Rogus snorted impatiently. “If you don't testify, who knows what they'll do next time.”
“And they'll find out you spoke to us easily,” Lucha said.
Herald frowned at the elven wizard. “Please, Vigen. You're among friendly people here. This is your best chance. Why don't your wife and daughter come too, we can get some food on the way.” The little girl's head popped up at the mention of food and she began tugging urgently on the woman's sleeve.
“I . . . all right,” Vigen gave in. They made quite the procession climbing to the top of the stump.
“I have an idea,” Listens said, and abruptly changed into rather a large bear. He began sniffing around. Rogus jumped and Vigen staggered backwards into the platform railing. The young girl gave an excited shriek and the woman dove forward and snatched her before she could try to pet the druid/bear.
“What is he doing?” Rogus growled under his breath, looking down at Herald.
After casting around on the platform for a minute or so, Listens became a man again. “I believe our quarry can be found in yon alchemist's shop.”
Rogus frowned yet again. “Let me get my men.” The friends stood on the platform for several minutes with Vigen's family while Rogus passed the word, then they gathered together around the door to Chayo's shop, with Vigen and his family safely out of the way at a food vendor. “Do you want to do the honors?” Rogus asked Herald, who shrugged and stepped through the door. Rundell, Thaon, and Enthir were inside looking through the tables of small bottles and jars. Over at the counter was Chayo, deep in conversation with Prandwas the brood adventurer.
Prandwas looked up and saw the crowd behind Herald. “Oho, this looks serious!”
“Sadly, it is. We're here to speak to Rundell and his friends. Or, at least, the town guard would like to speak to them.”
“Yeah,” Rogus piped up. “Lady Binlay wants a word with you three.”
Rundell looked them over, clearly calculating the odds, then glanced at Thaon, who shrugged. All of them had their weapons peacebound, and there was no other way out except for going past Chayo, who was gray-haired but still spry and had both arms covered in the pearly, swollen nodules of a powerful alchemist. “Lead the way,” Rundell said. The procession reformed, now somewhat larger and rather better-armed, and proceeded its way to Lady Binlay's house. The entrance hall of the house was more than large enough for the group. Rogus flagged down a servant to fetch Lady Binlay and she appeared without delay, taking a seat on her carved ironwood chair.
“Well, Rogus, what's this about?”
“Ma'am, we're here to present a complaint. These three men stole from this family and injured one of the children badly, almost killing him.”
“He would have died soon without magical healing,” Listens said.
“Rogus saw the injuries before the boy was healed,” Herald added.
“Oh? What do you say, Rogus.”
“The man Vigen identified his attackers as Rundell, Thaon, and Enthir, ma'am. And the boy was badly hurt, even I could see as much.”
Lady Binlay transferred her gaze to Vigen. “Do you identify these men?” The man looked overwhelmed, but his son tugged at him. “C'mon, Pa!”
“Yes, ma'am. Y'honor.”
Melina smiled at him briefly. “No need to concern yourself with titles. Rogus, a word.” The orc approached and bent his head, they whispered together for several minutes, then Rogus returned to his position on guard. “Well, my loyal guardsman would like to see you three hang, but lucky for you I have no authority to order such a thing and no desire to face an inquest from the Adventurers' Guild. However, I can order you confined until the next upriver boat arrives and then throw you out of my little town, and that's exactly what I intend to do. Rogus, see to it, please.”
“With pleasure, m'Lady.”
“Well, gents, sounds like our job's almost over,” Herald said as Rogus and his men divested their prisoners of weapons and armor and escorted them out. “We should see if we can find that silver pendant and mirror.”
“How long are you going to hold them?” Elendol asked Lady Binlay.
“The big boats generally come every two weeks, this time of year.”
“You may want to keep them separated,” Lucha said.
She laughed. “How large of a jail do you think I have? There's rarely anything but drunks to deal with. Thank you for your help, though, those three have been a thorn in Rogus' side for a while now.” She sat back and gave them a thoughtful look. “If you'd like to stay for tea, I'd like to talk to you.”
Herald shrugged. “Sure.”
A servant, quite possibly the same one, brought a tea tray heaped high with sandwiches to a comfortable but by no means overly rich sitting room next to the receiving hall. Lady Binlay poured neatly and efficiently, and everyone sipped politely. “You are all strangers to my little village? I expect I'd have heard of you before if you were all locals. It's not much, but it's been my home for over thirty years. I do wonder what will become of it when I die.”
“It's rather a wonder, the stump of such a huge Ironwood tree,” Lucha said. Listens nodded.
“Yes it is, and all thanks to my husband, Arcasio. Have you heard the tale?”
“Can't say that I have,” Elendol said.
“This was, oh, forty years ago, when I was just a girl and new-married. My parents wouldn't hear of me marrying some wild alchemist of no family and no fortune, but I knew he was a good man, so I ran away and we were married in secret. There was nothing here back then, just some stilt huts in the swamp, but he'd invented a formula for growing Ironwood trees to sell to Elfhome and Polis. The Mincor family had a monopoly on the franchise at the time, using a laborious conversion process on dead wood, so Ironwood was prohibitively expensive. They claimed if you transmuted the wood in the sapling the tree couldn't be cut, but Arcasio knew better and started his plantation out here in the swamp.
“Well, the Mincor's got wind of it and sent their bullies to start sabotaging our plantation. When Arcasio tried to chase them off, they started bribing the gnomes and kobolds in the swamp to harass our traders and suppliers. Still, I thought things would come out all right. We were holding on, barely, and the Elves purchased a large shipment. Mincor sent his men into Elfhome to burn down the warehouse, can you imagine it? There was an enormous fight, a large part of the city caught fire, and the Elves complained to Polis about the disruption.
“Surprise, surprise, the Mincors had plenty of friends on the Patrician Council and my poor husband was ordered to stop production and turn his plantation over to them. The Mincor's didn't understand his process for cutting the grown trees, so they couldn't make any use of his work. The Elves, who were the largest customers, started to complain again, but Arcasio refused to sell his process. So Servus Mincor proposed a contest to determine who got the franchise. Arcasio agreed, and they set out to magically grow the largest ironwood tree in one year.
“I won't bore you with the details, but Arcasio was absolutely going to win. His alchemy was second to none. You can ask Chayo if you like, they were great friends, although the two of us have never gotten along. But right before the contest was about to end, thousands of giant beavers came out of the swamp and chewed the tree down, leaving only the stump. Arcasio and his workers tried to fight them off, but somehow in the fighting Arcasio vanished. Rogus searched for days, but all he could ever find was two of Mincor's hirelings, who'd seen Arcasio turned to stone and had rowed him out into the swamp somewhere and pushed him overboard. They didn't even know where they were when they did it, they got lost. That was how we found them at all, they stumbled back into our camp instead of meeting with their compatriots.
“So, he's still alive, just transformed to stone, but we've never been able to find where they dropped him. He used to wear an amulet that protected him from locating magic, and it must still be working because no one can find him. And here I am, an old woman, now, running this poor village in the middle of nowhere, while the Mincors are rich from taking away Arcasio's masterwork a bit at a time. I can't even stop them, or they'd force me out of here.” Melina sighed. “Oh well, mustn't indulge in self-pity. I appreciate you taking the time to listen to an old woman. There might be something to interest you, though. Arcasio knew things might go bad, so he left a cache of magical items somewhere out in the swamp. Supposedly, there's a map that'll lead you there, but I've never been able to figure it out. Ask around, maybe the other people who knew him can give you some clues.”
Listens, who had gotten up to wander around the room while Lady Binlay spoke, pointed at a large wooden object hanging over the fireplace. “This is a curious plaque. What is its origin?”
“That? It belonged to Arcasio. I'm not sure what it is, but I keep it to remember him by. What's curious about it?”
“It's a trail blaze.”
“No trails here, I'm afraid.”
After some polite goodbyes, they left Lady Binlay's home and began to search the vendors around Stump, looking for Vigen's silver pin and mirror. The mirror they found almost immediately at Factor Iddelendo's shop. He was reluctant to part with it, but in the face of several armed strangers he gave up with poor grace.
“Look at that,” Elendol said. “It's another plaque.” And it was, on the Factor's wall.
“I wonder if there are more,” Herald said.
A thorough search of the public areas of the town turned up the pin as well as four more of the trail plaques, yielding what seemed like a series of instructions to . . . somewhere. Intrigued now, they broke out the canoe and rowed south on the river, into the swamp. There they found a small streamlet that seemed to match the trail markers, leading to a hill and a peculiar grove of giant mushrooms. After some digging, they found a half-rotten crate that did appear to be Arcasio's cache, with a few useful items inside and one oddity, a necklace.
“What does it do?” Elendol asked.
“It's an Amulet of Location. They're made in sets. If you wear one, it hides you from scrying and locating magic unless it's cast by someone wearing an amulet in the same set.”
“You mean, like the amulet Lady Binlay said her husband had?”
“I bet she'll be interested to hear about this, then.”