Chapter Seven: "Is There Anything Else You'd Like To Tell Us"

"I would love to know how you intend to get us out of this."

I glowered at Aryn. "Weren't you complaining about me being in charge earlier?"

"You're the experienced adventurer," he snapped in reply. "I can come up with a plan if you like. I just thought you might appreciate the opportunity to come out with another hare-brained idea first!"

I wriggled uncomfortably against the ropes that bound me to the tree. "What hare-brained idea?" I demanded. "Since when have you even heard one of my plans?"

"I'm working on experience," Aryn sneered. "Everyone else in this world seems to be mad, why not you? You do believe in magic."

"Is Tharan not a hero? Could he not merely break his bonds and slaughter the bandits?" Erek inquired softly. I switched my scowl onto him.

"Bandits have sharp pointy killy things," I explained slowly, in my talking-to-heroes voice. "Tharan is one person. Bandits can stab the rest of us with sharp pointy killy things, and then Tharan would be sad."

"I was only curious," Erek sulked.

Tharan and Daria were not taking part in this conversation. Somehow, they had both managed to fall asleep while sitting bound to trees, and were dead to the world. I wished I could join them; Erek's insatiable curiosity and Aryn's blatant cynicism were not what I needed just then. Being captured always makes me grumpy, and quite frankly it would have taken a miracle from the heavens to cheer me up right then. It would have needed to have a good excuse for not showing up sooner, too.

Aryn was now babbling about something called "science", whatever that was, and why it meant magic couldn't possibly be real. I decided to shut him up.

"Look, can't you just accept the existence of supernatural phenomenae?" I practically yelled.

"But it doesn't make sense!" the unwilling mage wailed. Erek frowned.

"Well, what if your science does not make sense to us?" he suggested. "Can we not just agree to debate this later?"

I gave him an approving look; I'd never have thought of that. Maybe he did have a use after all.

"It's still ridiculous," Aryn muttered blackly, but he did decide to shut his gob and keep his beliefs to himself. The three of us spent a few minutes staring coldly into the firelight, a period of silence that was only broken when a rather large spark leapt straight into Erek's eye, causing him to wail in pain and waken Daria, who was lying next to him. There was a long moment of fuss, during which the former slave got a solid thump in his burned eye and set the bottom of his trousers aflame for a panicked moment, all through the well-meaning efforts of others. I noted that our guards must be asleep to have missed that amount of fuss; earlier they'd been checking on us, but then they'd retreated to swig some foul-smelling brew from the bottle.

"Bad luck really does follow you around, doesn't it?" I exclaimed, as we straightened ourselves out to discover we were all awake, alive, and in one piece. Erek smiled sheepishly at my words.

"Yes, it does" he admitted.

"Which does make me wonder exactly why we should keep you around," I continued. "Seeing as how you were the one who insisted on coming in the first place."

I sensed Daria's eyes turning sharply to me at this point. Well, of course. She knows about my crush… but Erek doesn't, and since he thinks I'm a boy it's staying that way. I have other considerations beside my own feelings. I might feel guilty for going after Erek… but at least if you're guilty you're alive.

"I owe you a life-debt," the object of my obsession said simply, in response.

"At this rate, you'll probably repay it best by keeping as far away from us as possible," I pointed out. Daria's eyes flicked between us in the darkness.

"Except it only affects me, not those around me," Erek grinned. "So I'm sticking around."

"This is idiotic!" Aryn burst out suddenly. "You're talking about bad luck as if… as if… as if it were a conscious creature, some sort of curse! It's random chance, nothing more. Mathematical possibilities. There's no need to be so credulous about it!"

"Well, Erek sure meets more bad possibilities than the rest of us," Daria yawned. "What's that if not bad luck? What do you think, Tharan?"

There was a silent, frozen moment as Tharan looked across at me. In a tiny, almost imperceptible motion, I shook my head. Be dumb, I prayed. Better to seem stupid to others than smart to the Guild.

"Tired," Tharan declared. "Sleep now. Escape later."

Silently I applauded him. An excellent, noncommittal response… albeit showing a little more grasp of temporal continuity and progression than most heroes might possess.

Then I noticed that I'd thought the phrase "temporal continuity and progression" without any outside help at all. The big guy must have worn off on me a little… a worrying thought.

Just then a low snore sounded from off to the side. Our heads all snapped around to observe the two guards slumping against each other in deep slumber. Daria grinned and nodded triumphantly, a fact none of us missed.

"What did you do?" I asked, curious. She smiled innocently at me.

"You remember earlier, when they decided to try and flirt with me?"

Of course we did. Erek had gone a little nuts. He still had the bruises to prove it.

"Well, while they were distracted, I slipped a few of Aryn's herbs into their drinks," she explained calmly.

"My herbs?" Aryn snapped sharply. Dania shrugged.

"Thief, remember?" she pointed out. I nodded, sharing a glance with Tharan that boiled with information in both directions.

You see, this is why we bring a thief with us, my eyes said.

Perhaps. But sooner or later, one of our companions will observe my non-communication and start to make inconvenient enquiries.

Great. He could even look in complicated words.

"What about these ropes?" I asked, wriggling to try and get a look at my bound hands.

"Give me a moment," Daria said firmly, struggling against hers.

"Or better yet, let me do it," Erek grinned, holding up his bonds. We gaped.

"How did you…" I began, then dismissed it. "No, save it. Untie Daria, then you can do the rest of us."

Erek was quick, I had to give him that. In moments, he had Daria loose, and she was working on Tharan while he did me. From the way she shot towards the big man, I suspect she did so on purpose, but I rather wished she hadn't. It was hard to stay focused with Erek less than an inch away, his breath tickling my neck. Once again, parts of my brain began to point out the various benefits of being female, most of them involving Erek and the possibilities inherent in throwing caution to the winds and just kissing him there and then…

And then he was moving on to Aryn, the not-really-mage complaining at having been left until last. Tharan was already getting to his feet, brushing the last of the ropes away from his arms and legs. Daria slipped over to where the two guards were snoring; our weapons and depleted packs lay in a heap at their feet, conveniently placed for us to find and take away with us. I silently blessed any gods that happened to be listening; this escape, at least, would go smoothly as normal. Bandits always left their captive's gear within easy reach… another thing mentioned in Guild training as common occurance.

My bow and pack on my shoulders where they belonged made me feel much better, and the others seemed to feel likewise. I gave my motley troops a last look-over, then with a finger to my lips waved them after me as I stepped out of the circle of firelight into the pitch-black forest beyond, Tharan just ahead of me, Erek and Aryn close behind. It took me a moment to realise that Daria wasn't following. I paused and turned back.

"Coming?" I whispered. She nodded quickly and stepped after us; for a moment I was sure her face looked paler than normal, but it was hard to tell in the firelight. I turned and nodded. We set out once more, vanishing into the shadows of the forest like ghosts in a fog.

For about five seconds, that is, before Daria let out a piercing scream of sheer terror.

The next few minutes were something of a blur. I can remember Erek diving for the floor and rolling down a bank to land in the muddiest stream I've ever seen, knocking himself out on a rock when he got there. I can remember Daria screeching at the top of her lungs, curled up on the floor in the foetal position. I can remember the bandits waking and clunking into each other in their hurry to find and apprehend us. I have a few recollections of Tharan knocking bandits left, right and centre… but nothing's really clear until we found ourselves rounded up and dragged ingloriously back to the main fire, where the bandit chieftain regarded us thoughtfully, picking his nails with a dagger.

None of us dared move. There were too many sharp pointy killy things pointing sharply at us. We wanted to avoid the killy bit.

"Well, this is a problem," the bandit chieftain said thoughtfully. "What am I supposed to do with you?"

I nodded dumbly, knowing that our fate now rested in the hands of this man.

"See, I had you all tied up, nice and neat," he explained, getting to his feet. "And then you tried to escape… well, fair enough. People do that. But heroes? It wasn't very professional to get recaptured, was it?"

Again, I nodded. "No it wasn't really," I agreed. "Not very professional at all."

"In fact, I'm wondering if you're even heroes at all!" the man declared. A roar went up from the bandits, a cheer for their leader's speech. "So I reckon we can do what we like to you folks! Tie them up!"

Once again, we were dragged off and tied up, this time far more securely. Our guards were more alert and far more suspicious. If escape had seemed hard before, it now seemed impossible.

"So what happens next?" Erek asked, leaning over to me. I shook my head.

"No idea," I replied, trying to sound braver than I felt. "We should have escaped that time. I don't understand it… Daria, what scared you like that?"

The young thief woman, who had been keeping very quiet since our recapture, looked up at me shamefaced.

"Nothing," she whispered. That got her noticed, all right.

"NOTHING!?" Aryn yelped. "What do you mean, nothing!?"

Daria started examining the floor in detail. "I'm afraid of the dark," she admitted softly. There was a terrible pause.

"You're afraid of the dark," I repeated, flatly. She nodded.

"And heights," I clarified. Again, a silent nod. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and slowly counted to ten.

"Is there anything else you'd like to tell us?" I wondered, with barely concealed hostility. I was wearing an expression usually reserved for the Grim Reaper. It did not improve when Daria nodded.

"'M scared of confined spaces," she whispered, barely audible.

I dropped backwards and started hitting the back of my head repeatedly on the solid earth, until Tharan gently manoeuvred himself behind me and pushed me upright with his bare, muscular knee. I spent a moment with my head bowed, trying to compose a sentence that didn't end with me throttling someone. My hands were tied, but in my mood that wouldn't have made much difference.

"Let me get this straight," I said grimly, smiling without a trace of humour. "You are scared of heights, confined spaces, and the dark?"

Daria nodded.

"How the hell did you ever pass the Thieves' Union tests?" I asked wonderingly.

"Um, well, actually…" Daria began. I closed my eyes and groaned.

"You didn't pass the tests, did you?" I realised fatalistically. A non-Union thief… as if I didn't have enough problems…

"No," she admitted. I cast my eyes up to the sky.

"Why me?" I asked despairingly. "What did I do to get saddled with an unqualified, phobic thief, a mage who doesn't believe in magic, a runaway slave who doubles as a bad luck magnet, and…" I broke off suddenly, closing my mouth to preserve Tharan's secret. But I finished my sentence mentally anyway. And the only intelligent hero on the face of the planet.

"If I may make a suggestion?" Aryn began. I opened my eyes to glare at him with all the raw fury I could muster. At that point, it amounted to quite a lot. Ravenous bears with migraines would have fled from that gaze. Forests would have burst into flame. Aryn blanched white and snapped his mouth shut.

"We sleep," I said, and those two words carried all the sheer hypnotising menace of a cobra at a mouse convention. Every single one of my companions immediately lay down and closed their eyes without argument. I joined them, lying back on the cold earth and rolling from side to side until my arms were no longer uncomfortably locked beneath me. They were starting to go numb, but that was the least of my problems.

What the heck do we do now? I wondered. No answer was forthcoming.