Chapter Two: "There's No Way I'm Going To Be Able To Lift Him"

The Darksider Inn is owned by the Guild. Actually, many inns are owned by the Guild, thus facilitating the heroes as they travel and incidentally creating more revenue for the organisation, but the Darksider in Geltor is actually staffed entirely by Guild members and has special rooms reserved for heroes and sidekicks.

The journey to Geltor hadn't actually been too bad. I'd been expecting bandits, mercenaries, monsters... the usual distractions that I'd been warned of in lectures at the Guild HQ and had experienced with Berek since. But in fact, the road was remarkably clear. Along the way, we camped by the roadside, despite Tharan's protests that there were plenty of decent inns we could stay at.

"It makes no sense to camp by a fire when inns offer increased warmth, security, and human contact," he pointed out one evening. "I don't see why we cannot stay at that one we passed half an hour ago."

I scowled at him. "Hey, I know my business, okay? If we go anywhere near a tavern, an adventure will happen to us, and we happen to have a prior engagement. Besides, the last thing I need is to pay the damages for another bar fight, so we are camping and that is that!"

Tharan shook his head in a confused manner. "But that makes no sense. Why should entering an inn automatically mean an offer of employment? And you know I am more intelligent and capable of self-restraint than the other uncultured barbarians that constitute heroes."

I groaned, missing Berek. At least he believed everything I told him! For once, I could sympathise with the Guild's attitude towards intelligent heroes.

"How about this one, then," I argued. "If we stay at an inn, we have to keep up our pretences. Camping, we can be ourselves."

Tharan was forced to agree with that, and made no further arguments over my choice of sleeping arrangements. Since there were no daytime interruptions, we made good time to Geltor, arriving a mere week after setting out, in the late afternoon. Like most other cities around here, the place seemed to be built mostly one or two storeys high, flat-roofed, and made of yellow stone. It was also chaos; dirty, overcrowded, full of traders trying to push utter junk onto passersby such as ourselves. Tharan seemed a little bewildered, but I soon showed him how to deal with the pressure.

"Buy some feathers, sir? Fine for a lady friend!" one man called up to me.

"No, get lost," I replied.

"But they're so cheap..." the man began. He didn't get any further before I pushed on, my mount outstripping him even at a walk. I was careful to let Tharan take the lead here. People had to believe he was in charge... as he possibly was. I still couldn't be certain of our exact relationship.

Together we forced our way through the crowds, muscling through the narrow backstreets until we reached the Darksider Inn, its faded and cracked sign swinging gently in the breeze. Tharan and I dismounted, leading our horses around the back and tying them to a wooden post clearly provided for the purpose.

"You are certain we can prudently go in here?" Tharan asked me, sarcastically. I glared at him.

"Lose the smart mouth in here, wise guy," I replied. Honestly, how can someone so smart be so dumb? I took the lead, pushing the door open and stepping through it. Inside, the inn was dark and smoky, the other occupants obscured from view. In any other inn, I would have anticipated a fight, but I knew better than that here. I walked confidently to the bar, and rapped on it. A dozy-looking barman with a scarred face sneered at me.

"What can I get you, young sir?" he oozed. I smiled brightly.

"I'm Jake, and this is Tharan. We're here to see the AD."

The man's expression didn't change, but he nodded briefly. "Follow me," he said, his voice more normal now, its edge missing. We did as he said, following down a dark corridor with guttering torches unevenly spaced along the walls. He reached a solid-seeming wooden door, and rapped smartly on its surface.

"Who is it?" called an irritated voice beyond.

"Jake and Tharan," the barman replied, in utterly average tones. His face now looked far less menacing, its expression as neutral as his voice. There was a momentary pause, and then the door swung open to reveal a harassed-looking man in his middle years glaring out at us from behind a flourishing moustache.

"Come in, come in," he blustered, scurrying off to sit down behind an overflowing desk. "Let me see..." he seized one of the pieces of paper, and smiled triumphantly. "Ah, yes; Jake. You were the lad who worked with Berek, weren't you?"

"Yes, sir," I replied, proudly.

"Excellent job. Excellent," the man beamed. "Now, I've got a new bit of Guild work for you here... a nice easy one, to break the new boy in... ah, here it is!" Another piece of paper emerged from the pile. "Honestly, all they do is send me paperwork. They say the pen is mightier than the sword, so I suppose I shall die of boredom... where was I? Oh, yes. Your new quest. Here are the details."

He passed me a sheaf of papers and I scanned them swiftly. It seemed fairly standard, nothing wildly out of the ordinary. An evil wizard had apparently demanded the hand of a beautiful princess, and intended to destroy her kingdom with magical cataclysm should she refuse. The situation had recently escalated with her kidnapping; I could see why Karl had called it an urgent mission.

"Her family have promised twelve hundred in gold to her saviour," the man added as I finished scanning the sheet. "Guild wants you to hold out for at least twenty. As usual, if you want to sub-contract, it comes out of your pocket, and you follow the guidelines. Okay?"

I nodded, and the man whisked the papers away.

"Excellent! You've seen all the data, and I assume you'll be setting out at first light?"

"Yes, of course. Thank you," I replied, shaking hands with the man.

"No, no, my pleasure. Please, see yourselves out." And with this, he went back to working at his papers. Tharan and I slowly moved out of the room, until we were out of earshot in the corridor. Then the vast hero-to-be turned to me, a worried frown on his face.

"Jeka, I became a hero to assist people. I don't feel comfortable with this extensive fiscal interest."

I nodded sadly. "I know what you mean. But the Guild wants money, and heroes who don't supply them are liable to get the chop. Or, to be more honest, the collapsing underground temple. Or the enraged griffin, or the hungry dragon, or the horde of invincible demons..."

"I get the picture!" Tharan broke in. "And believe me, it is not a charming illustration. But still... it doesn't feel moral."

"Get used to it," I told him harshly. "I did."

Tharan fell silent for a moment as we stepped out into the tap room. The hostile atmosphere of the room landed heavily on our shoulders as he assumed a blank expression. I was impressed; without the lively spark of intelligence in his eyes, Tharan looked just like every other hero I'd ever seen, and I suddenly realised that this was how he'd gotten past the Guild… pure, unadulterated acting ability.

Was there anything the man couldn't do?

"Want ale," he grunted as we passed the bar.

"No, Tharan," I informed him sternly. "No ale. Work time." And so saying, I took his great meaty hand and led him outside onto the street.

"Thank you," he muttered as soon as we were in the clear. "I was forced to quaff vast quantities of some foul brew at the Guild HQ in order to maintain my pretence, and personally I would be delighted if I never saw its like again for as long as I live!"

A hero who doesn't like quaffing ale? I definitely had something unusual on my hands … as if I hadn't already guessed that.

"It was smart of you to ask, though," I complimented him. "Most heroes would have."

"I surmised as much," Tharan nodded. We walked a few paces in relative peace, the city bustling noisily on around us.

"You know, that man was most impolite," the large man added thoughtfully as we passed two women arguing over the price of a bolt of blue cloth. "He didn't address me at all."

"Well of course he didn't speak to you!" I point out, exasperated. "You're supposed to be an idiot. Most heroes don't even understand what's going on. How else do you think the Guild manages to fleece them out of ninety percent of all their loot?"

"Ninety percent!" Tharan whistled, and shook his head in horror. "That's... despicable."

"Damn right," I agreed.

"Jeka," Tharan mused slowly. "This does rather beg the question; why did we ever agree to their employment?"

"We weren't suicidal enough to refuse."
"Ah. Right."

Once again, we continued on without speaking. Around us the streets grew busier, and from the propensity of small stalls and vendors cropping up I guessed easily that we were approaching the market district. Tharan took the lead as I shoved him ahead, managing to look every inch the typical hero. People made way for us as we walked the streets of the city, avoiding the large muscles and larger weapons that spelled trouble in any language. But some things are stronger than even the survival instinct, and sadly from ground level it proved harder to avoid the street traders.

"Buy a hat, sir?"

"No."
"Sure, sir? It'll make you look dashing."

"Why don't you dash away?"

"Oh, come on, I'll halve the price for you."

"I SAID NO!"

"New cloaks for sale!" a second man insisted, while a third shoved a tray of pies under my nose.

"I… said… NO!"

"Je… Jake," Tharan began slowly, tapping my shoulder. I glared up at him, in no mood for foolishness.

"What?" I snapped, fending off eager vendors who seemed to take my lack of constant refusals as keen acceptance of their goods.

"What precisely did the AD mean by his reference to sub-contracting?"

I shrugged, dodging away from the grabbing hands around me. Honestly, it's no wonder pickpockets are so common in cities… people can't tell them from the traders, half the time.

"Basically, some quests need additional skills that the hero and henchman don't have. In those cases, the Guild has certain procedures for hiring extra help."

"Like an adventuring troupe?" Tharan wondered, his voice bright with curiosity. Of course, he wasn't being plagued by traders. No. His progress was unimpeded.

"Not really," I argued, hurrying after him. "A troupe would be based on friendship and loyalty, and everyone in it would be an equal partner. The Guild tends to frown on that sort of thing. We'd just be hiring help."

Tharan nodded. "So this mission requires sub-contracting?"

"Yeah. We could use a mage to go up against this wizard, and a thief to do some sneaking, because I don't do that stuff."

"Where are we going to locate this assistance?" Tharan wondered, stepping out into a bustling square. I burst out after him, and to my infinite relief the persistent vendors stayed where they were.

"Leave it to me…" I began, before suddenly taking in where we were. "Oh, bugger."

"What? What is it?" Tharan asked, whirling around in alarm.

"We're in the slave market," I replied glumly.

"So?" the hero demanded. I sighed and rolled my eyes to the heavens. He'd learn.

"You'll see," I told him. "In five, four, three, two, one…"

As I finished my countdown, a sudden yell went up from across the square, and with one smooth movement I pulled Tharan down behind some free-standing barrels out of the way. Not a moment too soon, as the vast crowd of people in the square became a mob, struggling to hold their own against a mass of escaping slaves. The slaves were being pursued by armed guards in tough leather armour, and their indiscriminate thumping of anyone within range soon caused the entire area to degenerate into a riot.

"What happened?" Tharan gasped.

"The slaves escaped!" I yelled in reply, ducking as a wooden mug flew past my shoulder and cracked on the wall. "It always happens when a questing hero enters a slave market! Always!"

"Why?"

"How should I know?"

Tharan glanced out over the barrels, and grinned. "Look at that!"

I followed his gaze, and saw one of the slaves tiptoeing along a roof on the other side of the street, above the bright awnings of the stalls. He was just as filthy and ragged as the rest of them, but from his height and build I guessed that he was young, about my age or perhaps a little more. He moved with easy agility along the roof, and as I watched he jumped to the next without any apparent difficulty.

"Talented and ingenious," Tharan approved. I had to agree. The youth was making his escape without even being noticed, and would likely be long gone before anyone thought to look for him. As he reached the edge of the square, he moved to the edge of the roof and looked cautiously over, presumably scoping out a spot to drop onto safely.

"He's going to make it," I prophesised. Which just goes to show that I really don't have a drop of magical talent, I suppose. What happened next seemed almost to occur in painstaking slow motion, every awful moment of it dragging outwards.

One of the brawling traders in the square threw a stone at a plump goodwife who was laying into those around her with a decidedly decrepit-looking fish. She was looking the other way, and should have been knocked cold, but just as the stone approached she saw a gold coin on the floor and stooped to lift it. The stone flew over her head and struck squarely on the boy's knuckles, causing him to flinch and yelp. This wouldn't have been a problem, had the roof beneath him not chosen that exact moment to crumble slightly, tipping him off just as one of the armed men crawled out of the fray. With a resounding thud, the escaping boy landed right on top of the guard.

For a brief moment the two of them simply lay stunned on the floor, then there was a tussle, and when it was over the youth's arm was twisted up behind his back in a painful-looking manner. Next to me, Tharan whistled, having just witnessed the same sequence of events.

"What are the odds?" he wondered aloud, and I nodded. Then we shared a glance.

"We shouldn't," I pointed out. "How'll I explain it to the Guild? They don't like strays."

"Public relations," Tharan declared immediately. "It significantly improves my image."

We looked back over at the youth, who was struggling with furious futility in his captor's grip.

"Oh, bugger it," I sighed, and with that blessing Tharan sprung into action.

If I'd ever doubted that Tharan was cut out to be a hero, my worries were washed away in that blur. He charged the armed man with all the raging battle-fury of any legendary crusader, wielding his immense axe with a bloodcurdling scream of challenge. The man took one look at the advancing hero and ran, not even stopping to wet his pants first.

The boy, however, was made of sterner stuff. As Tharan approached, his gait now slowed to a walk, the youth stood his ground, despite clearly being overwhelmed by the sheer bulk of the man facing him. I decided to launch my own rescue attempt, and hurried forwards to stand next to Tharan. Being a girl, I'm naturally shorter than most males my age, and especially beside a six-foot plus hero I tend to be very unintimidating.

"Hi," I greeted the boy, who seemed utterly dazed. I could hardly blame him; one minute he'd been a slave on the run, then he was in the middle of a riot, and then he found himself faced with two complete and utter strangers. To his credit, he managed to pull himself together in mere seconds and give a coherent, even eloquent, response.

"A thousand thanks for your timely rescue," he bowed solemnly. His accent was thick but pleasant, and his flowery speech made an odd contrast to his generally filthy appearance. Up close, I could see that he had coffee-dark skin beneath the grime, and short hair as black as a raven's feather. "May I know the names of my saviours?" He looked at us, a smile in his dark eyes. They were amazing eyes, really, a midnight brown.

"This is Tharan the Berserker," I announced, waving a hand to my larger companion. "And I'm Jake."

"I am most pleased to meet you," the boy announced. "My name is..."

He got no further, as half a brick came flying out of the ongoing riot and struck him on the side of the head, knocking him to the floor unconscious. Tharan and I shared another glance, and I sighed deeply.

"Well," I said slowly, considering the still form that lay on the ground before us; "There's no way I'm going to be able to lift him."

With an understanding nod, Tharan hoisted the boy up and over his shoulder, at which point we turned our backs on the riot to make our way back to the Darksider Inn, the escapee in tow.