Chapter 4

No one really likes bandits. Unfortunately, bandits are rarely considerate of such opinions, and as a result most of the people in the land of the 10,000 gods will probably have to deal with them at some point. If you're unlucky enough to be one of those people, here are some pointers that may help you survive the experience:

1) Be a hero. No matter what they do or don't do, they always seem to be able to come through these situations smelling like a rose.

2) Don't travel with a hero. In case you haven't noticed, while heroes seem to have little difficulty with bandits, everyone else ends up dying in a horribly painful manner. Sometimes, it's even vital to the plot. So if you're smart, you'll wait for the next wagon.

3) Know how to fight. If you're not with the hero, and your death won't somehow make the hero more impressive, there's a chance it might actually work.

4) Run screaming. This is probably the safest (and most reliable) option available.

"Right this way, you said," Kayla said disgustedly as she impaled the nearest bandit with her sword. "Just through these trees, you said. Then we're home free."

"It is just through these trees," Ren grunted as he swung an unusually large branch over his head in an awkward manner. "And we would have been home free, had we not run into these guys. How was I supposed to know there would be bandits?"

Knowing such a thing would have, in fact, been Kayla's job, but since the two of them had been making a concerted effort not to bite each other's heads off he decided not to mention it. Kayla, knowing what he could be saying but was choosing not to for the aforementioned reason, decided that it might be best to avoid berating him for a little while.

In the meantime, there were still plenty of bandits to damage, so Kayla doubted she would have much trouble occupying herself. A swing here, a slash there, maybe a kick in the middle of things when no one was looking (proper swordfighting techniques were, after all, only for proper people) - all in a day's work. The fact that it was work she would have rather avoided at this point was only to be expected.

Ren, however, was used to a day's work that consisted mainly of sitting around and being virginal. Not that he enjoyed that line of work much, but that was what he was trained to do and that was what he was good at. This, on the other hand, this swinging and whacking and jabbing and occasionally screaming (after a tragic introduction with Kayla's sword at just the right location, one of the guards was a magnificent soprano), was entirely new territory. And, to be honest, it wasn't territory he was particularly skilled at navigating.

Oh sure, he almost made up for it in enthusiasm, but almost and a sword point was still more than enough to get you quite dead. He had managed to survive so far because it's inevitable that a large, swinging item will eventually hit something that it's supposed to, especially if there are a lot of things you're trying for.

Still, this particular technique won't keep you alive forever, especially if there are five or six extremely sharp things swinging back at you in the process. Ren, sadly, was slowly becoming aware of this fact as he found himself in the situation described, the attacking bandits being quick to realize that the guy with the stick was much less threatening than Kayla, the pissed-off warrior princess.

That same warrior princess was still too busy dispatching her batch of villains to ride forth to the rescue, and on his own Ren was losing badly. Not even Kayla's horse, found as they were running madly from the Swinging Ax, could provide any traditional warhorse assistance, having sensibly run away at the first sign of danger.

They had him backed against a tree, chopping and stabbing and generally making the little life Ren was going to have left quite miserable. He made a valiant effort (you notice how they always use that phrase just before the aforementioned effort turns out to be pointless?), but anyone looking that had any stake in the matter - namely Ren - realized that it was going to end badly (see, I told you).

Still, Ren felt that dying unmanfully was no longer suitable to his current position in life, and managed to give one or two of the bandits nice new dents in the side of their heads before the branch finally gave way to an elegantly chopped salad. Everything paused for an instant, giving Ren the chance to look down at his destroyed weapon in a ballad-appropriate moment of shock and despair (the background music strikes a dramatic note in the distance).

Then there was nothing else to do but close his eyes, throw his arms out in front of him, and be grateful that he got to have sex first. At least I'll finally get some peace and quiet ...

There was an evil cackle from a bandit (there's always an evil cackle in these sort of situations) a whoosh of well-placed sword stroke, and ...

And ...

And ...

Ren was certain there was supposed to be something after the and. Not that he had much experience with this sort of thing, but the if someone was swinging a sword at your head that you couldn't block it was fairly obvious that it was supposed to end up in your head. He should be dead by now, or at least have an incredible headache.

And it certainly shouldn't be taking this long.

Still, he was no expert, so he decided to keep his eyes closed and give the bandit a few more minutes. There was possibly some reason why he had decided not to kill him just yet, and, whatever it was, Ren certainly wasn't going to complain about it. He wasn't used to people having reasons for not killing him, but he was pretty sure he could learn to enjoy the concept.

But ... Ren hated to bring this up to whatever god or goddess was in charge at the moment, but why was it suddenly so quiet? Too quiet, really, for the free-for-all sword fight that was still supposed to be going on. Of course, there was always a slim chance that Kayla had somehow defeated all the bandits attacking both of them in the before that Toreti-cursed blade managed to come down, but Ren privately didn't think so.

So that definitely meant the silence was a bad thing. And, while he was huddling here making life more miserable for himself, the sudden increase in temperature probably wasn't helping matters.

There was only one thing for it.

Very slowly, Ren opened his eyes, still half expecting to see the sword he had been waiting for earlier suddenly appear and split his head open. But there was nothing. No sword, no bandit, nothing.

Ren took a cautious look around. In fact, all of the other bandits were gone as well, and there wasn't quite enough bloody bodies lying around to make Ren think he had been wrong about Kayla's abilities. There was, however, a considerable amount of trampled undergrowth heading off into what looked like the distance, implying that a lot of running for various lives had occurred at some point.

Also, and much more interestingly, there was a little pile of ash, sitting just in front of Ren and still smoking gently.

Just beyond that was Kayla flat on the ground, her hands over her head as if she'd just ducked something.

And she did not looked pleased.

She got up, ignoring the flaming tree in the background. "What, exactly, was that?" she asked in that low and menacing voice that had been so effective at inspiring him to talk the first night they met. Normally, it was a very good sign that the person hearing it should do whatever it is Kayla wanted and then, unless Kayla had other plans for them, leave the area as quickly as humanly possible.

This posed a bit of a problem for Ren.

"Actually," he began, a little uncertain as to the safest way to phrase it. "I was wondering if you could tell me. I didn't really get a good look."

"Because you had your eyes closed."

Ren refused to be embarrassed. "Which is a really good explanation for my not getting a good look, wouldn't you say?" He hadn't screamed or anything, so what was there to be embarrassed about? If the great Kayla herself hadn't closed her eyes a time or two, he'd eat the next conveniently obtainable headgear available.

Not that he was about to make the offer out loud, of course.

Still glaring, but momentarily unable to argue with his logic, she grated out "There was a fireball. A very large, very hot fireball. It went through the bandit, who underwent a stunning makeover into the little pile of ash that you now see before you, almost though me, the individual that saved your miserable life, and into that poor unfortunate tree back there. And do you know where that very large, very hot fireball came from?"

Ren followed the trajectory backwards with a slowly growing incredulity. "Me?" he finally squeaked out. "I ... I've inherited my mother's powers?" Ashti's liver! (One of the bandits had called out this one, and Ren thought it sounded worth a try - he didn't remember that one dying.)

"It would seem so." She continued glaring at him. It was not a pleasant look. "Why did you not feel the need to tell me about it?"

There were several reasons he could think of, now that he was calming somewhat (hanging around Kayla meant you weren't allowed to enjoy shock for very long). The major of these was the fact that he hadn't known about it. How could he, when he hadn't even known until a few days ago that his mother had it, a fact that his comical reactions on both occasions should have made perfectly clear.

And he would have been willing to explain all this to her, if he hadn't been certain that she wouldn't care. Logic didn't seem to work very well against Kayla.

So he just shrugged. "You didn't ask."

A moment of uncomfortable silence followed as Ren took the opportunity to process his dramatic move up the epic character chain (a mage was far more impressive than the requisite virgin/individual in distress) and Kayla tried to convince herself that now was not the best time to throttle him.

Then, because stupid questions must be answered or they will eat the brain, Ren spoke. "Um, I hate to ask this, but what happened to everyone else? You only mentioned one fireball, and I don't remember Mom's being that big ..."

She growled. "They ran, sensibly. I probably should have."

"Ah, that explains it, then."

Another uncomfortable silence, then Kayla's muted growl. "It's probably going to happen again, isn't it? Another Kayla threatening fireball."

Ren shrugged. "Who can say? I don't know what set off the first one."

Another, very uncomfortable moment of silence.

"Bloody Hestax!" (Mila's occasional lover, and therefore acceptable for her followers to call on - it's never a good idea to make your goddess jealous.)

Ren was intrigued. "Oooh, can I use that one?"

"No!"

"Where is it that we're going again?" Ren asked, still trying to keep his hands out of Kayla's line of sight.

"A herb woman I know in the village. She'll know what to do." Actually, Kayla had no idea if this was true. She didn't really know the herb woman, either, having spoken barely ten words to her when she had come around with a broken arm a few months before. Still, it seemed like the best option they had right now.

Kayla tried not to get too depressed about that fact, or the extremely gratuitous use of the word "they." It sounded so ... team-like. Ugh.

"If you know her, why are we trying to sneak into her place like thieves?" Ren paused, repressing the urge to add that, now that he thought about it, it made perfect sense that someone who knew Kayla wouldn't want to see her. He had, after all, just thrown a fireball at her, and it was no doubt time to be nice for a little while.

"Because letting it be known that you've got magic you can't control is like painting a target on your butt and holding up a sign saying 'please use me for your nefarious purposes.'"

"Ah." A pause. "Where is this herb witch, exactly?"

"Just over here." Well, that hadn't been so bad - given their previous experience, Ren had been expecting something more like "behind this great wall of thorns" or "just beyond this lake of fire". Maybe this little detour would be survivable, after all.

Kayla reached the door, opened it, and froze. "You're not the herb witch!"

Or maybe not.

The woman who wasn't the herb witch didn't look any more pleased than Kayla at who was on the other side of the door, if the glare she was sporting was any judge. Even worse, the fighter's body and few carefully placed scars gave the impression that she could do something about it. "No, she moved out last week. I'm the new tenant."

Kayla's eyes narrowed. "Why in the seven hells would someone like you need a hut for?"

"I'm a healer. Any broken bones you need fixed? Or given?"

There was the challenge, which meant that Kayla now had to come up with an appropriate response, Mala curse it. Normally, this would have been a highly stimulating prospect, quickly and efficiently proving that Kayla was the better of the two, and the other woman had no right to be annoying.

Now, though, she was sweating, bruised, horribly tired and probably bleeding someplace that she shouldn't - no condition to come up with an appropriately snappy comeback. Of course, simply punching the woman in the nose might be considered snappy ...

It was at this point that Ren felt the need to comment, though whether from a bold attempt to diffuse the situation or a horrible sense of timing Kayla was never sure. Privately, she suspected it was the latter.

"Um ... are you two related in some way? You look so much alike."

This was obviously not the right thing to say. "Related!" The woman leaned forward, the idea seeming to offend her on some deep personal level. "There is no way in Temar's blessed name that we could be related! Anyone related to me would be much smarter than this one." Curse the woman, she was seething! Only Kayla had a right to seethe over Ren's idiot comments.

Wait a minute, that wasn't important. "What's this about me not being smart?" Kayla shouted, stalking forward until she was nose to nose with the unfortunately taller woman. Sure, she had the same brown hair, blue eyes, basic face shape and body type, but they looked nothing alike. "Obviously, you're the idiot here, living in a herb witch's hut and then being annoyed when random strangers come by, needing assistance. Everyone knows that sort of thing just comes with the territory." Maybe she could work that punch in now. The nerve ...

"She's right, you know," said a very small voice from behind the healer, quiet enough not to be offensive but pitched to cut through any ego. "I told you when we moved in that there were going to be random people on quests coming by any day now. We should just be grateful that they didn't interrupt breakfast."

There was a whirring sound, and something that looked very much like a tiny blond fairy flew into view from behind the evil woman's head. She hovered in the air between them for a moment, wings beating frantically as she gave Kayla and Ren a good once over. The latter took this opportunity to place a reminding and gently restraining hand on the former's arm, as if to suggest that it wouldn't be particularly smart of Kayla knock her out of the air like she might be planning.

Which, of course, was ridiculous. The little thing had been on her side, if only for a moment, and it was always a good idea to be kind to people who thought you were right.

As if deciding something, the fairy turned back toward the woman, gesturing behind her as she alighted on her shoulder. "This is Sonya Ardeen, and I am Greensleeves. Welcome to our humble abode." She smoothed a stray lock of hair back into place. "Please forgive the mess. Unpacking, you know. Total chaos."

"Of course," Ren murmured. How would he know?

Still, there was really nothing else to do but follow them inside. That is, if this Sonya woman would move, which she didn't seem to inclined to do at the moment.

Sonya glared first at Greensleeves, then at Kayla again (she really seemed to enjoy glaring at Kayla) then over at Ren, just in case he was feeling left out. Kayla could feel her hunting for an excuse.

Suddenly, her eyes narrowed in victory. "Not unless they have anything they need me to do. No time for anyone but paying customers." Greensleeves looked annoyed, but there was really nothing she could say against it.

"Why in the heavens would we have come of we didn't need anything?" Kayla threw her hands up in the air. "Do you know anything about magic, old woman?" Only about five years older, really, but it was a jab she hadn't tried yet.

Sonya gritted her teeth a bit at the comment, but unfortunately there wasn't another outburst. "Yes I do, actually. The company I used to fight for had a mage, and I spent some ... time with him. Does this have anything to do with money?"

An old lover was a mage? Maybe that was enough for the woman to have some idea of what she was doing. Besides, it was the best option they had right now, because, though she hated to admit it, neither she nor Ren had a clue ...

Wait a minute.

Her eyes widened, and she stared incredulously at the woman. "You were a soldier?"

The glare took on a disdainful edge, and Sonya waved a scarred arm at her. "Yes, I was a soldier. Where did you think I got these, gardening?" The glare warned away any questions of a backstory. Everyone always wanted to know the backstory, the bravery and sacrifice of a too-wounded soldier rebuilding her life. It made her such a tragic figure, so heroic ...

So far, Sonya had shoved exactly 37 harps down the throats of various annoying bards. It hurt your hand, doing that sort of thing all the time.

Kayla, however, didn't care about backstory. There were much more important issues at hand. "Well, that explains your lack of intelligence, then. Only an idiot would let herself be shackled to one employer, constantly throwing yourself in danger for pay that wouldn't keep a dwarf in decent alcohol."

Okay, so maybe it wasn't the smartest thing to say at this point in the story. But there was quite a rivalry that went on between soldiers and mercenaries in most areas of the land of the 10,000 gods, and that kind of thing tends to go far beyond intelligence.

More than aware of this rivalry, Sonya's eyes started flashing even as she held the glare (an impressive trick if you've ever seen it done) and her fists clenched. "Why you little ..."

Across the haze of ego that had started to choke the threshold, Ren and Greensleeves gave each other a look that said "Great, it's time to save the idiots from themselves again" without having to use so many words. Being the type that didn't want to get their teeth kicked in, it was something of a responsibility for the both of them.

Since both of their partners were very clearly of the opposite temperament, and not about to stop a fight for anything short of a very serious head wound, it was a responsibility that they had to practice a lot. Greensleeves was already quite good at it, and Ren was getting better all the time.

And it looked like they were going to get a chance to practice again.

Half wishing he could get another one of those fireballs to show up, Ren grabbed Kayla's arm again in that gentle yet insistent way that begged whoever it was being grabbed to think for a moment before they did something stupid. To back this up, he said in a low voice, "She can't help us if she's dead." A little flattery always made good sense go down that much more smoothly.

Kayla grit her teeth. "And why do we need her help again?"

He wiggled the fingers of his other hand, though he had no idea if that was what he had done to set it off in the first place. "Remember the whole exploding fireball fiasco?"

Kayla's glare, relented only slightly at the memory. "Oh, yeah. The fireball fiasco."

Together, they looked over at Sonya, whom Greensleeves had also reasoned into a similar state of willing to hold off a good beating for a moment. There was one final glare between the two of them, then Greensleeves turned back to Kayla and Ren and motioned them inside. "I think we're ready for the two of you, now." Exactly what they were ready to do, of course, was left to the listener's imagination.

The fairy held back somewhat on everyone's way inside, and Ren was more than willing to do the same. The chance to talk to someone sane ...

"Before you ask about the name ..."

Ren could lie when he had to. "I didn't even think of asking about the name."

Greensleeves sighed. "That was kind, but everyone asks about the name. I know it's rather literal, but it works." She plucked at her own clothing. "See, green sleeves. And I didn't want to have to say my real name every time we had a customer."

The question was out there, so Ren was obliging and asked it. "Which is?"

"Tulip Begonia Lilly of the Valley Ivy Dandelion Rose Daisy Petunia Marigold Buttercup Hyacinth Ann Smith."

Ren hadn't understood a word of it. "Good choice, then."

The examination went on for ages. Greensleeves had hung around for a bit, obviously trying to play hostess until the echoing silence and well-timed glares sent her fluttering off into the back room a few seconds later. Since then, Kayla had been occupying herself with pacing and coming up with new swear words she could use to try and describe the whole experience.

The tiny, tiny part of her that was worried about him was too small to even mention.

Kayla was once more reminding herself of this when the door to the aforementioned back room swung open and Sonya stepped out, only slightly seared. Still, Kayla noticed the injuries with some satisfaction. Now the other woman had at least some idea of what Kayla had been going through.

From the look on Sonya's face, though, it probably wouldn't have been a good idea to mention this fact. "He's a mage, all right," she said in a tone of voice that suggested "dead" would have been considered a perfectly acceptable replacement.

"I had guessed that. Do you know what causes it?"

Greensleeves flew in at this point, with a slightly dazed and wincing Ren following behind her. Kayla allowed him a little sympathy - it was never fun being examined by a healer, especially if their instruments were cold. Still, he seemed together enough to answer Kayla's question. "Fear, she thinks, or at least an instinct for self-preservation." He shot Kayla a rueful smile. "Story of my life, I suppose."

Out of the corner of her eye, Kayla saw Greensleeves melt at his expression and was remarkably annoyed by it. They weren't even the same species, for Mala's sake! Certainly not enough to leave Ren satisfied.

Comforted by this highly inappropriate thought, she was able to move on to more practical matters. "Did she say whether you had any more powers?" Sure, perhaps ignoring Sonya directly wasn't the most polite thing to do, but the other option would be to ignore Ren and he seemed to be the more tolerable of the two.

"They say they can't tell." He winced, looking apologetic enough for the three of them. "They only have a limited experience with this sort of thing."

Kayla sighed. "Fabulous." Yet more surprises she was going to have to deal with. Saving Ren's life was looking to be a worse and worse idea as time went on.

Sonya merely gave her a pointed expression this time, work having calmed her too much for a proper glare. "Don't look so put out. In my day we would have considered a mage working with the company to be a valuable commodity, no matter what their powers were."

So long as they continued in the bedroom, of course, Kayla thought but did not say, realizing that another snipping match with the woman could drag on for days, which would mean that she would never get to Chandrus Hill and the fairy would never stop looking at Ren like that.

She shook her head, disgusted. Why was she still thinking about that? There were obviously more important issues at hand, such as when she could be expecting that next fireball.

Instead, she merely asked, "So, do you want to take him, then?" Of course it would be a no - Sonya Ardeen seemed even less patient than Kayla was, though such a thing had not been previously conceived possible by anyone but madmen and possibly Sonya's ex-husband. In the slightly bug-eyed silence before the no, Sonya would be so disconcerted that she had even asked the question that she might be slightly less annoying for a minute. That was the entire point.

Standing by a still-silent Greensleeves, Ren was unable to pick up on any of this. She wanted to get rid of him? Of course she wanted to get rid of him. They had done nothing but drive each other insane since the moment they met, barring that moment of quite lovely sense that first night that he should have recognized was a fluke.

He leaned against the door frame, disconcertingly short of breath. Which, of course, was utterly ridiculous. He wanted to be away from her as much as she wanted to be away from him. She was obviously completely insane, and there was a good chance his father would be much too occupied for the next little while to bother him. Not that Sonya seemed any less stable, but Greensleeves looked like quite enjoyable company for being a fairy and all. There was no reason at all that he should want Sonya to say anything but yes.

"No," Sonya said shortly after a minute, and Ren breathed a sigh of relief.

Kayla looked at him again, and Ren stepped forward, already knowing what she was going to say. Her annoyance limit had no doubt been passed ages ago, leaving her safely in the happy valley beyond where no one could tell what she was thinking. Even she knew that was the cue to get away from absolutely everyone.

As for him ... well, she'd just have to deal with it.

Noticing this (and silently approving) Kayla stalked off ahead. Ren turned around to say good-bye to his hosts Greensleeves when she lifted a hand. "You know, you could stay for ..." Whatever he had been invited to, however, was sadly muffled by the well-placed finger that suddenly covered Greensleeves mouth. A final glare from Sonya suggested that it might be best if the good-bye were skipped this time, thank you very much.

Ren hurried to catch up to Kayla, currently skulking through the bushes as she presumably tried to find the horse (it was skilled at sensing all kinds of danger). Not having much else to do at this point, he began helping her look.

Finally, he realized the silence had a certain ... well, tone to it, one that certain husbands were known to feel just before a couch was in their immediate future, and Ren realized if he was fond of keeping all his various pieces attached he'd better do something to try and dissipate it. Besides, she'd let him stay ...

"I'm ... sorry?" he tried after a moment, not exactly certain what he was apologizing for but realizing that after the past week there were probably several options to choose from.

She kept looking. "You already said that."

"Ah." Since the tone had, if anything, gotten stronger, it was clear that it hadn't worked then either. "Is ... there anything I can help with?"

Several things flashed through Kayla's mind, several of which involved fairy mutilation, but she just sighed and shook her head. "Not really."

"Ah." Maybe not the best sign, but at least it no longer sounded like she wanted to kill him. Taking that to be an improvement on things he trudged ahead, barely sparing a glance upward at the surrounding branches ...

... And froze.

Please don't let her shoot the messenger, please don't let her shoot the messenger ...

"Um, Kayla?" He pointed upward, wincing at the neigh that came from that general direction. "Maybe you want to rethink the whole help thing."