The Dryad’s Dream
Chapter 10 – Geolt Brent
It was another two days before they finally stepped clear of the forest, and although there were still many dangers, the way was made much more passable with their wizard back in company.
It also helped that they could once again travel on the main road, now that they weren’t worried about orcs, or at least not roaming patrols of the beasts. Without the Beholder to keep them organized, most of them fled into the depths of the forest, never to be seen again. They passed a few, obviously trapped and killed by the forest itself, including one that had been ‘impregnated’ and was ‘giving birth’ to a seemingly endless stream of little squirming pods. Wendel mercifully killed the creature before engulfing the whole lot in a column of flame.
A few came at them out of pure desperation, and were cut down by Taya’s spear. Peleial put an arrow neatly through the eye socket of one orc at over sixty paces, proving that she was indeed handy with her bow, and even Lawen had a chance to show off a spell or two when Wendel took a poison dart from a rogue Spitting Pine.
All in all, they were immensely fortunate, all things considered, but they still breathed a collective sigh of relief when they finally stepped out onto the open of the Lorshe Highlands. It was a more rocky road, but no longer under the influence of the dark magic that pervaded Vel’Orthak, which meant that they didn’t have to assume every living thing was out to kill them. They could, at last, relax a bit.
“I was most impressed with the spell you used to heal your sister, Lawen,” said the wizard as they settled into a steady but easy pace through the safer lands. “The ability to create a Holy Aura is usually taught only to higher level clerics or full acolytes. I’m interested to know where you learned it…”
The elf in question blushed. “Oh, that… uh… Brother Bartholomew was very willing to share knowledge. I learned quite a few things from him.”
“I’ll bet you did,” commented Peleial, smiling.
Her sister continued. “Are you complaining, sib?”
“Not me. Thanks to you, I was spared what was sure to be a very… uncomfortable death. Besides, if Brother Barty wants to rut your pretty body sweaty, then who am I to stand in the way. He was cute…”
“He was, wasn’t he,” she grinned, and the pair fell back to talk and giggle, and after a moment, pulled in Briddle, who was watching them in wide-eyed confusion.
Taya took up a place next to the wizard.
“So… The other night I couldn’t help notice you with the girl.”
“She’s awfully young, Wendel.”
He sighed. “She’s of age… nearly nineteen…” Something occurred to the man, and he frowned for a moment.
Taya shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, I know. She’s just so… innocent. She’s not ready for what’s going to happen when we reach Holsfield. You’re setting her up for some pretty heavy disappointment.”
“I simply want her to have a few pleasant memories to fall back on, just in case.”
In case of what,” she asked.
“In the event that I am unable to acquire her from Ebbis Brent.”
“You’re going to buy her…” she stated, surprised.
“That is my intention, yes. I told you, Taya, I will do everything in my power to see that girl freed, even if it means I have to barter myself in trade to do it.”
“But with Brent? I thought you said he was an underworld figure?”
“He is, yes. He’s a Geolt. Er, a regional boss. I’m sure he won’t let her go easily… None the less, I have to try. My skills would be extremely valuable to someone in his position. The gang feuds have been getting increasingly bloody.”
The woman sighed. “Well, it’s your life, I suppose. Do you think we’ll encounter any more trouble before Holsfield?”
He snorted. “I didn’t think we’d encounter the trouble we’ve had! I tell you Taya, this whole job has been fishy. Those Kax, the orcs, that Beholder… None of them makes sense. There’s more going on here, and we’re just not seeing it.”
The warrior frowned. “A war maybe, or an uprising?”
“Possibly,” he said, rubbing his chin. “But against what kingdom*?* I know it sounds paranoid, but it’s almost as though all these forces were brought together against a single common enemy…”
“Who would that be,” she asked.
He looked at her directly. “Us.”
The woman shook her head, confused. “But why?”
He turned and stared at the giggling trio behind them.
“Surely not the twins?” she offered, surprised.
“No. Their history is licentious, to be sure, but nothing terribly out of the ordinary. They’re honest wenches.”
“The girl, then? She’s just a slave who has barely been out of doors. She couldn’t have such an enemy, could she?”
“She is an Akanit.”
Taya considered this. “You think this all revolves around what she carries…”
He nodded. “Perhaps she harbours more than a simple ‘birthday present’. It could be anything.”
“Like a map of an enemy’s stronghold?”
“Or a contract alliance against a common foe. Whatever the case, it would seem that someone doesn’t want that information getting to Brent, and is willing to apply considerable resources to that end.”
Taya was stunned. “Is that even possible?”
“You said it yourself. The orcs were mercenaries. As for the Kax… It would take some intermediaries, but they could be bought. Same with the Beholder, though for that they would need to have fel connections.”
“Why wouldn’t he tell us? Tarn, I mean.”
He shook his head. “He may not know. Or, it could be a tactical ploy to avoid the appearance that he does know. Marching his own army to Holsfield would send a message of a different sort.”
“Well… shit. What should we do?”
He shrugged his shoulders again. “Stay on our toes. Don’t make assumptions regarding our safety, certainly. And Taya…” She looked to him. “Never leave Briddle alone. Not even for a moment. If that girl goes to take a crap, someone needs to go with her as guard. If I were planning an ambush,” he said, looking at the open rocky country around them, “this is when I would do it – when we’re starting to let our guard down after the forest.”
She made no comment, but just regarded him with very tired eyes.
Despite their vigilance, no attack came. The group arrived at the outskirts of Holsfield two full days before their deadline.
“Personally, I’m going to spend at least an entire afternoon in a hot bath,” commented Peleial. “What about you, Taya?”
The warrior smiled. “I heard that Holsfield has some of the finest armor merchants in the Vale…”
“Sorry you lost yours again.”
The woman shrugged. “I still have my spear, thanks to Briddle.” She smiled at the girl, who was holding the elf’s hand as they walked. The older human saw her face become suddenly sad and turn away.
Moving into the city proper, Wendel directed them through the streets until Taya touched his arm to get his attention. Briddle had stopped between the two elves, and was quietly crying.
“Damn…” he muttered under his breath.
“I don’t want to leave you,” she sobbed as he approached her. “Any of you…”
“I know. And we don’t want you to go. But if we don’t deliver you to Brent, you’ll die.”
“I don’t care. I… I would rather be dead than be a slave again.”
He drew her into a hug, whispering in her ear. “I’ll find a way to free you, Briddle. I promise. But you need to live. Do you understand?”
She wiped her face. “You don’t know what it’s like…”
“No, I don’t. But I have a good imagination. Maybe too good. I need you to trust me.”
“I trust you,” she said, sniffing. “All of you.”
He considered her for a moment. “We have an extra day… Do you want to wait until tomorrow to see Geolt Brent?”
She shook her head. “It would only make it harder. Let’s go now, please… Wendel.”
He smiled and led her on, holding her close as they walked.
It was a few blocks later that the group first became aware of something unusual happening. Several villagers ran past them, and then they heard bells.
“Wendel?” quired Taya, gripping her spear.
“Hold fast. You there,” he yelled, to one of the passing townsfolk, “what’s going on?”
“Big brawl down at the Leaselilly. Turf war, no doubt.”
The wizard stopped in his tracks. “The Leaselilly… where have I… Crap.”
“What’s up?” asked Peleial.
“We need to move… now! Come on!”
He took off at a brisk pace, dragging Briddle, nearly running, along with him. The others followed. Taya jogged up on his other side.
“Care to share what we’re headed into?”
He sighed. “The Leaselilly is an inn.”
“It’s Ebbis Brent’s inn…”
Her eye grew wide. “Oh shit!”
“Look, I don’t know what we’re going to find around the corner, but Taya…”
“Be very careful who you kill, okay?”
She took a deep breath, looking to the girl. “Right.”
Rounding the bend, they suddenly found themselves in a crowd. Several dozen people were gathered around the entrance to a lavish, three story building. At least a half dozen bodies were on the ground, none moving.
He was having trouble pressing through the throng until he finally relented and tapped the end of his staff on the cobblestones twice. A deep red light fanned out from the head of the weapon, and people started to step back. Moving forward again, he came nearly to the door before he was stopped once more.
“Ho there. That’s far enough,” said an armored guard of the city.
“We must be allowed to pass. I have important business here.”
“Do ya now? And who would you be then?”
He stood a little taller. “I am Wendel Alcott, Grandmaster Wizard of the Fourth Order, and Lightsbringer Exemplar. My associates and I must be allowed to see Geolt Brent!”
“Really.” The guard turned and called out to someone inside the structure. “Hey, Capn’… there’s a wizard here to see Brent.”
“Yeah? Send him in,” came the reply.
The guard held out his arm that they should proceed.
“By the light…” commented Wendel as soon as he was inside and had a clear view of the carnage. The floor was covered in blood and bodies. A single garbed soldier sat on a stool near the center of the gore.
“So, wizard, you have business with Brent?” he asked.
“Er… yes. Yes I do. Is he here?”
The man pointed with a gloved hand to a charred and still smoking figure laid out on his back over one of the tables. “Right there… well, most of him. I think his arm might be somewhere behind the bar. Not sure.”
“Son of a bitch…” muttered Wendel.
“What happened, Captain?” asked Taya. The guard eyed her for a second, noticed her spear, and nodded.
“Well, from what I can deduce, the Southern Sun finally decided they’d had enough of Brent’s boys and started one hell of a brawl. Fought down to the very last man. They even killed the slaves.”
Lawen put her hand on Briddle’s shoulder.
“They basically wiped each other out,” he continued. “Though they did leave the working girls upstairs. Guess they figured they were just contract employees, so no relation. If I may ask, sir, what was your business with the Geolt?”
Wendel sighed. “Delivery of a bonded slave.” He nodded toward Briddle.
“Bonded you say? Well that’s interesting.”
“I don’t see…”
“YOU FUCKING MAGGOT! ROT IN THE NINE HELLS, YOU PATHETIC PIECE OF BEN’ RUA AUCTA SE MERAS CHO!” Peleial shifted into old elvish as she jumped up on the table where Brent lay, stabbing his chest with a pair of long daggers.
“Whoa there, miss!” said the startled Captain. He stepped forward with Wendel, and together they dislodged the distraught elf. She had tears in her eyes as they passed her on to Lawen.
“Sorry about that…” mentioned the wizard.
The guard sighed. “No worries. He’s already dead. I recon there are quite a number of people would would like to stick a dagger in that dwarf’s black heart. His is the only body I need to take with me, the others are all yours.”
Wendel did a double take. “Uh, what then?”
The Captain stepped forward with a smile on his face. “Well, I really wasn’t looking forward to dealing with this mess, and now, it looks like I don’t have to.”
“I don’t follow you.”
He nodded to Briddle. “You said you were delivering her, yes?”
“You have transfer rights?”
Suddenly Wendel started to see what the guard was thinking.
“Now wait one second…”
“Bonded slaves have title transfer. They can inherit an owner’s property if no one else comes forward. Frankly, I’m pretty sure the only people who could have inherited from that bastard, are among the sixty odd bodies scattered about this room. With Brent dead, this place, and everything in it, belongs to her. And since she now belongs to you…”
He tipped his helmet. “Have fun cleaning up, Lightsbringer.”
The Captain and his assistant collected the burnt body of Ebbis Brent, and were gone within the hour. Taya righted a moderately clean table and some chairs.
“What now, Wendel?” she asked, sitting down.
He looked to Briddle, his face a mask of grief. “I‘m so sorry…”
The girl shook her head. “I don’t understand. Isn’t this good news? I… I am yours now, yes?”
“For the forty-plus hours you are, Bri, but then it will be the solstice.”
“The Akanit spell…” said Taya, comprehending. “Oh god.”
The little human still didn’t get it. “But… Brent is dead. Does that not break the curse?”
“He was burnt, Briddle. We needed his blood…”
Her face fell. “So… I am still going to die.”
“Nope. You’re not,” said Peleial coming forward with a huge smile. “Ta da!” She held up her daggers, stained red with blood.
Wendel’s mouth dropped open. “It was an act?!”
“Well, duh. The Captain wasn’t going to let me just jab a knife into Brent’s body, so I took matters into my own hands. So how does this work?”
He was amazed. “She… she just needs to touch it!”
The elf came and stood in front of the younger female. “Go on, Briddle,” she prompted, smiling.
The other reached out slowly and placed her finger to the side of one of the elf’s blood stained blades. The instant she made contact, there was a pop, and a brief flash of light which caused them both to jump.
“Is that it?” asked Taya.
“By the light. The spell is gone…” he confirmed.
“WOOHOO!” yelled Lawen.
“Congratulations, Bri!” added Taya.
The girl was up with her arms around Peleial, hugging her.
“Thank you… thank you!” she was saying as she squeezed the elf, big tears in her eyes again. Then she noticed Wendel standing.
“It’s time, Briddle.”
She suddenly had trouble breathing. “B-But… What would I do? I don’t know how not to be a slave…”
“Do whatever you want,” suggested Peleial.
“Go wherever you want,” added Lawen.
The girl was shaking her head. “I… I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to be with you. All of you!”
Wendel smiled. “Taya?”
The warrior nodded.
“Lawen?” he asked.
“Yup,” she replied, simply.
He turned to the other elf. “Pel?”
“Yes. It’s always been yes.”
The human girl looked confused. “What?…”
“It’s unanimous then. Briddle, I am about to release your slave bond, after which, you are completely free to go your own way. However, it is the feeling of this group, individually, and as a whole, that should you decide to stay with us, we will accept you as one of our own… our little family. We’re not much, we just have each other, but we promise to take you in and care for you, not as a slave, but as an equal member of our group. I can’t promise you an easy or safe life, but you can know that you will always have a home, and our love. Will you have us?”
She burst into tears, nodding and sobbing over and over, “yes!”
When things finally settled down, the wizard made a slow proclamation in an strange tongue, and then touched the center of the magical tattoo that encircled the girl’s neck. There was a flash, and the slaver’s ring vanished.
Once again there were cheers and hugs all around.
“How does it feel to be free for the first time, Briddle,” asked Taya.
“I think you’ll get used to it,” added the other, smiling.
“It’s the best birthday present ever!”
“Is it your birthday,” asked Lawen, surprised.
The girl shook her head. “Not until the day after tomorrow, but close enough.”
“You were born on the solstice…” said Wendel, stunned.
She nodded. “Mr. Brent and I had that in common. Though, I don’t think he would consider himself as lucky as I.” She looked to each of her friends.
“You’re lucky… You’re LUCKY!” stated the wizard, loudly. “How could I have missed it?!”
Taya frowned as the man headed over bar of the inn, searching. “Wendel, what’s going on?”
A minute later he returned carrying a pair of mugs.
“I’ve put water in these. One has a little salt too. Briddle, I want you to put a hand in each and tell me which one is the salty one.”
“But Wen,” started Peleial, “you can’t…” She stopped short when he raised his finger. The human girl came forward and immediately reached into each cup without comment, then almost at once turned to him, smiling.
“This one,” she said, pointing to the one on the left.
“Thank you my dear.” The man was grinning. “It all makes sense now.”
“Care to enlighten the rest of us,” said Lawen, “because I’m dead lost. How did she know which was the salty one?”
“Because she’s a Dryad…” said Taya in awe. Both elves turned and looked at her.
The wizard nodded. “More likely a Sapling, but yes.”
“How in the seven hells did you know that,” asked Peleial.
The warrior was staring at the younger human. “I read the stories as a child. A Sapling is the offspring of a Dryad and a human lover. It’s said that they can ‘taste’ through their skin.”
“You mean, you can’t?” asked the girl to the others. Lawen actually laughed aloud.
“Naw. That’s awesome, Bri!… Though I can think of a few situations where it might be kind of a bummer…”
“… It’s also said,” continued Taya, “that they’re exceptionally strong, and very…”
“Lucky,” finished Wendel. “That’s why Tarn wanted her around. She no doubt brought great fortune to his business. It also explains why he wanted her dead so badly.”
Taya, Lawen, and Peleial collectively gasped, Briddle just frowned. The wizard quickly explained.
“It didn’t make sense to me, who might want to stop Briddle from reaching Brent so badly. Tarn certainly has enemies, but none that would dedicate so many resources to such an end. I mean, if they simply wanted to stop her, an assassin with a knife back in town would have done the trick. Instead, we were met repeatedly by foes that just shouldn’t have been there. The Kax, the orc army, that Beholder… They were all paid to look for a ‘wizard and a human girl’, in a cursed forest no less. That took planning and money, as well as fel connections. Tarn had all of those.”
Lawen shook her head, still confused. “But why would Tarn Lorish want her dead if she was so good for business?”
“Because she was about to turn nineteen…”
“Dryads are fae creatures, love. And in the fae, any offspring are protected by powerful magic for their first eighteen years.”
“…The Shrouding,” commented Taya, remembering.
“That’s right. Until the day of their nineteenth birthday, all fae children are undetectable to other fae. It’s to protect them from possible political influence, vendettas, that sort of thing. Tarn must have acquired Briddle when she was just a baby, raising her as a bond slave and taking on the benefit of her luck. But, he knew that as soon as she turned nineteen, the Shrouding would reveal her to the fae… who would be very interested in how he had treated a member of royalty.”
“Royalty…” said the girl, shocked. “I… I’m not a noble…”
“You are, Briddle. All fae hold some royal blood, but Saplings are very rare. As the offspring of a Dryad and a human, you would be considered high royalty, actually. It doesn’t quite mean the same thing as it does for us ‘regular’ folk, but you definitely have status. Sooner or later, the fae would want to know what happened to their missing highborne, and they’d show up at Tarn’s door. I don’t think they would take kindly to the fact that he had made you a slave and abused you. One doesn’t piss off the fae if they’d like to continue breathing. So he had to see to it that you disappeared before then. He could give your bond to Brent – that would take care of the legal part of his problem, but he couldn’t risk you ever speaking to the fae… and he couldn’t kill you himself, or even anywhere nearby. But, if you just happened to die while traveling, then he could claim innocence.”
“Vel’Orthak,” said Peleial.
“Exactly. With a few added surprises as an insurance policy in case her luck held. A few elementals… an army of orcs guided by a fel creature with instructions to find and kill her… Now that I think of it, the Beholder was probably for me. Tarn knew I might be able to handle the Kax, but Beholders are wizard killers. There’s no way I could have taken it down on my own.” He looked at Briddle warmly.
“He was not a good master,” commented the girl.
“No, he was not,” he agreed.
“What now,” asked Taya. “I take it we won’t be collecting the rest of our bounty from Tarn.”
He frowned. “No. And unfortunately, my funds need to get us to through till fall if we’re planning a return trip.”
“Why not stay here,” asked Peleial. “Briddle owns the place. We could reopen under new management… Unaffiliated with the underworld, of course.”
Lawen turned and looked at the room full of dead bodies. “It would take some work, but it’s probably doable. I think there are still even a few of the working girls upstairs. They bolted the doors when the mayhem started and never left.”
“A brothel?” asked Taya, a little surprised.
Peleial was suddenly excited. “Yes! I have always wanted to work in a whore house!”
“It’s true,” confirmed her sister, smiling.
Wendel rubbed his beard. “Well, I could maybe see getting the inn running again, but honestly, I don’t know the first thing about running a brothel…”
“I do,” added Briddle, simply.
The wizard blinked and stared at the girl for several seconds. “I’ll be dipped. Of course you do. You managed Tarn’s! HA!”
“Ooh! Ooh!” started Peleial excitedly. “And if you own the place, Bri, you get to name it! How about, The Nubile Nymph…?”
“Or Wendel’s Wenches!” chimed in Lawen.
“Oh god…” said the man.
“The Dagger and Sheath!”
“Huh?” commented Lawen.
Her sister just grinned. “It’ll come to you…”
“Oh! Hahaha! Or, The Shiny Pearl!”
“Good one… Hmm, The Wizard’s Staff!”
Wendel groaned and looked to Taya. “Please make it stop…”
The warrior laughed.
Peleial countered with, “Taya’s Tarts!”
“The Enchanted Spear?” suggested Lawen.
“You know,” said Wendel, “I’m just going to go do something a little less nauseating, like cleaning up these dead bodies…”
“How about, The Dryad’s Dream,” said Briddle, quietly. “Because that’s what it’s all like to me… A dream.”
They were all silent for a moment, then Wendel reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder, smiling.
“The Dryad’s Dream it is then.”