This is last chapter of Choosing the Blade. Soon, it’ll go up on Amazon. In the meantime, tell me how I can make it suck less.
I’d like to think that if I hadn’t been caught, I could have explained everything to her and she’d have been willing to keep it more-or-less quiet. Oh, sure, she’d have dragged me to the Class Stone anyway to check that I was still a Jack, that I hadn’t gone along with having my class crushed and replaced by Footpad or another outlaw class.
(Hell, I’d like to think that if Jack had been crushed out of me she’d have still had faith in my good intentions.)
But I was trying to get her to mobilize, then I had my little breakdown, and the Eamon busted in and she had to go all official Secretary General. Which meant that thirty seconds after he came in I was in restraints that were magicked to block any use of outlaw knacks. Even Blindsight, ‘cause apparently the fact that it came from Clifton’s little ritual instead of learning it from an adventurer was enough to make it tainted as far as the magic rope tying my hands together was concerned.
Still, Abby relaxed a little bit after they hauled me to the Class Stone and verified that I was still a Jack. Enough to hear my explanation that Myles had thought I hadn’t had a class at all, that according to him I’d been training up to take Scout.
“I might have recommended that, if you’d had enough trade goods or specie to live on until summer came,” she admitted, although her voice was cool and remote.
“Wait,” Eamon put in. “If Myles was a higher level Enforcer who could pass as a first level Warrior, their band must have a Quack mixing them potions for concealment.”
Abby took a sharp breath. “That’s true,” she acknowledged, very quietly. “So Thomas could still be a Footpad after all.”
“I swear I’m not!” I protested. “But that’s not the important part! They’re going to kidnap and kill farmers today, and if we don’t-”
“Is that why you came back this morning?” she asked emotionlessly. “A bit of theft was exciting, but murder still turned your stomach? That doesn’t speak too badly of you, I suppose.”
I gaped at her. The implication – that I’d been having a grand adventure being a lawbreaker – made me want to break down and cry again. Because it wasn’t true . . . except that it was! Aside from the spiders, which Abby had tried to keep me away from once she knew about them, all my actual quests had come from the bandits.
“Still, if we move quickly we ought to be able to intercept them,” she went on after a moment. “Rupert can damned well leave off playing foreman today. If we’re going to run them down, we’ll want him guarding us. Thomas, I’ll have more leeway to be lenient if you guide us to where the other bandits were camping last night, so that Eamon can track them from there.”
“Of course!” I agreed immediately. “But who else are you bringing? We need to set out right away, but-”
“Rupert, Eamon, and myself should be more than enough to disrupt their attack today,” Abby told me, her voice still cold and remote. “Bandits rarely survive long enough to get above tenth level, and even a gang of a few dozen won’t be able to overwhelm Rupert. Not when they’re recruiting novice outlaws.”
“But it’s not a few dozen!” I protested. “It’s a few hundred!”
Eamon snorted. “Don’t be silly, boy. Even in the Grimwust they wouldn’t be able to hide that many bandits.”
“No, they’re spread out,” I told him. “There’s at least ten small gangs, each led by a Mountebank, and-”
Abby cut me off. “Thomas, are you trying some sort of trick? Mountebanks don’t work together. They know all too well how dangerous their Charm is, even on each other.”
“I know that!” I replied fervently. “But there’s one who’s higher level than all the rest, and he’s in charge of them all. His name is Liberio, and his Charm is so powerful that when I was presented to him I thought he had to be a prince in exile, trying to bring justice to a new land.”
They looked at me skeptically.
“He doesn’t make them work together!” I insisted. “Each Mountebank has their own camp, if you trespass they just might kill you even though you’re all supposed to be allies, and he doesn’t explain what he’s planning until it’s almost time to do it! That’s how I found out what was going on, I was playing around with Shadow Creep and ended up spying on a meeting that was for Mountebanks only!”
Eamon and Abby exchanged a long look with each other.
Finally she sighed. “Tell Rupert to bring everyone. We might need them after all.”
I told her everything I could while the adventurers were gathering. How I’d been captured and conscripted. How the holders were making sure the renters never prospered quite enough to rid themselves of debt and become independent, and how there’d been room for what amounted to a rival guild to set up in secret, because no one from Mistleten was willing to do any more quests until the summer rush, and the farmers who needed those quests done the most couldn’t afford to spare the time from planting.
“Merciful gods!” Abby breathed, once I’d managed to explain the scheme. “When I was younger the farmers would band together if there were quests that needed to be done in springtime. Has that changed so much?”
“It looks like some of the holders use quests to set up tenants for ruin by letting them be done sloppy,” I told her. “They probably don’t encourage anyone to rescue unfortunate neighbors. It’d defeat the purpose of sabotaging them in the first place.”
Then I went on to describe the plan of kidnapping, murder, and scapegoating that was to take place today. Which made me want to cry again, because how much time had we wasted already-!
I was trying to blink it all out of my eyes when Abby suddenly pulled me in for another hug. “I’m sorry, Tommy,” she murmured. “If you were all recruited by the promise of being heroes . . . and to learn that adventuring isn’t a game when you’re still so young! I wish you hadn’t, yet.”
I pulled away just enough to look up at her in surprise. “I’m not the only one who acts like-?” How could this world possibly know about video games? The technology was medieval!
She laughed sadly and pulled me back in. “That’s one of the secrets of adventuring that children never believe. Because it is like a game, a grand diverting pastime, until you find yourself with someone else’s hope riding on your deeds. And then one day you fail a quest, and if you’re lucky it’s on their dream that dies. If you aren’t-”
She broke off, but I didn’t need her to continue. I knew what was going to happen, and even if we saved most of the farmers who were being targeted today, it was probably too late to stop all of the deaths.
Then Abby let me go. “I hear them coming back,” she whispered. “And I’ll be able to treat you better after all this is done if it doesn’t look like I’m favoring you.”
I nodded quickly, and started blinking again, this time to try to conjure up the appearance of tears instead of getting rid of them, as a group of the strongest adventurers in town entered the room.
“Get anything useful out of the boy?” Rupert demanded, at the front of the group.
She nodded. “How they’ve managed to stay hidden, and why they think they can get the support of the renters, to remain hidden through the summer rush.”
“Are those farmer lowlifes that ungrateful to us?” someone in the group demanded. Couldn’t remember his name, but he was one of the beefy Warrior types.
“It’s more like they’re becoming the wife whose husband beats her,” I said.
Which got all the eyes on me, and I flinched at the sudden attention.
“Explain that, Thomas,” Abby ordered, her disapproving mask back in place.
“Liberio’s going to kill some of them, the ones won’t stay silent about him, and that’ll set an example to the other farmers if they start to get cold feet.” I paused. “Or maybe it’s more like a pimps and his whores? Punish the ones he has no use for, favor the ones supporting him, make it clear that their only hope is in keeping him happy?”
This time the attention was more than a little disturbed. Except these were adventurers, they had to know about villains-
Oh. Right. I still looked too young to know about any of that.
“The point is,” I quickly went on, “if we don’t save as many of them as we can, the rest won’t dare speak up against Liberio or anyone who tries to follow his example!”
“Thomas says he can lead us to where the bandit army feasted together last night,” Abby announced. “From there our Scouts can follow their trails. The new outlaws still believe they’re heroes serving their families and their friends’ families, and at most they’re second level, so they won’t be much of a threat to us. The ones we need to track down soonest are the veteran outlaws carrying out the murders of renters that they don’t trust. So let’s be off!”
They didn’t unbind me for the trip. Instead Rupert carried me as the advance party ran down the road. More than a bit mortifying, but apparently everyone in the lead had knacks for running faster than I could hope to manage, so I didn’t complain out loud.
Then we arrived at yesterday’s gathering site, and found that about half the gangs hadn’t bothered to leave. Apparently the veteran outlaws who’d been left behind to be in charge had given up after organizing a few questing parties, and decided to let everyone else just take a day off. (And be ready for when vigilante ‘justice’ was to be demanded that night.)
I wish I could say that I got to do something cool during the short battle that followed, but Rupert pretty much dumped me onto the ground and left me there while they all went to fight. Which pissed me off, and even worse, I had to take it because I had been consorting with outlaws. But nobody was there to see me snarl, at least. Hell, I barely managed to get to my feet in time to see Mistleten’s strongest adventurers show why a single bullshit outlaw knack didn’t make up for the versatility that proper adventurer classes gave.
Or maybe just show why a crowd of mostly second levels had no business facing an advance party where the lowest level member (aside from myself, and I didn’t count) was eighth or ninth level.
Funny thing is, they were even being nice about it all. The AoE attacks that I saw were all stuns and disarms and entangles, and I don’t think there were any deaths at all. Everyone was kept alive for trial.
Another good thing about capturing them all was that Abby had an excuse to take the binding rope off of me. They needed it for one of the veteran bandits who almost managed to sneak away in the direction Liberio and his officers had headed. And since I’d led them straight to the camp, according to her I was probably trustworthy.
Then the rest of the adventurers arrived, and she and Rupert handed out orders for handling this first batch of prisoners.
“Thomas, do you know where any current camps are?” she then asked me, once they were secure and marching towards Mistleten, with a detachment of the lower level adventurers to guard them.
Bad idea, I’d say, except all the veteran outlaws had their knacks suppressed, and trying to Dominate from a position of weakness would be pretty hard for second level Enforcers to pull off against the fourth and fifth level adventurers guarding them.
“I can show you where Louie’s camp was, but they have a lot of traps guarding their treehouses,” I replied. “And I didn’t see Andre with the prisoners we already caught, but I know where he and the rest of his team have been doing quests for tenant farmers who can’t afford to wait for the summer rush.”
Abby nodded. “I’ll send you with some Scouts to the camp, then,” she decided, “once you give directions to where the others were . . . questing.”
Which I did, and then I was sent off with several adventurers. Scouts, yeah, and some Warriors and Marksmen as well. By their dark looks in my direction, they didn’t seem to want to speak with me, so I just led them to where the women’s camp was.
We stopped when the Scouts started pointing out traps that I’d never noticed, but by then we were close enough that it didn’t exactly matter. I pointed up into one of the trees that had thick foliage. “That’s one of their buildings up there,” I whispered. “I think their Netters use it to build traps.”
The leader of the group – I’d heard his name back when working construction, but I couldn’t remember it now – grunted and had one of the Marksmen shoot a knotted rope up into the branches. “Keep a hand on him,” he told one of the Warriors before the rest quickly climbed up the rope.
I scowled as the guy who’d been left behind grabbed my arm and held on tight. “Do you gotta do that?” I grumbled.
“Maybe you ain’t steered us wrong yet,” he replied, “but that don’t mean you’re clear, not when you ran off to the outlaws in the first place.”
I shut up at that point. Didn’t want them complaining to Abby that I’d been trying to escape. So we stood there and listened to various shrieks, curses, and footsteps chasing each other through the treetops above.
But it didn’t take that long for the noise to calm, and then after a minute or so of quiet a rope pulley was lowered and the first bound and gagged prisoner descended. My minder stepped up to take charge . . . then stopped and gave me a rather odd look.
“Didn’t think to tell anyone that this was where the lady outlaws stayed?” he asked.
“I-” My mouth snapped shut as I realized that no, I hadn’t. I mean, I’d told Abby, but not these guys, and Louie can be a boy’s name. “Oops? I didn’t think-”
“Can tell that.” He rolled his eyes and let go of me. “Help me get them in formation. Can’t do it with just the one hand.”
I had no idea what he meant, until he tried to pull her into position and she did her best to be dead weight. Only got worse as more of the prisoners were lowered down, too. Turns out that the guys may have known they were beaten, but a lot of Louie’s women tried to struggle. Maybe that’s because they knew the Mistleten adventurers were less likely to beat the shit out of them? I dunno, but Abby hadn’t sent along any of the very few lady adventurers that hung out in town, so it started out as a pain and got worse from there.
And that’s even with them tied up to the point where they couldn’t escape unless we were really dumb about watching them. Oh, and by the time they were rounded up the other adventurers giving me looks almost as dirty as the glares from the prisoners who recognized me.
“I swear, I told Abby that Louie ran the women’s camp!” I protested, as the last of the prisoners came down.
“Doesn’t matter, if no one saw fit to tell us,” the leader pointed out. Then he sighed. “We’re not going to be moving them without more trouble. You two, take the kid back to their main camp and round up enough to handle this lot.”
“Runnin’ low on people as it is,” the guy in charge back at the big camp grunted. “And if Abby knew, she probably expected you to treat ‘em like any old prisoner.”
“Right, we’ll just go back and smack ‘em around until they behave,” one of my escorts replied sarcastically. “And then never get the time of day from any woman for a hundred miles around, once word gets out. Thank you, but no.”
“Why are we running low?” I asked.
The guy in charge shook his head. “Turns out you were right, a lot of the new bandits were out doin’ quests. Almost like they were real adventurers and not kneebreakers, if you can imagine it.”
“Not only can I imagine it, I was helping them do it,” I pointed out. “Because tenant farmers can’t afford to become adventurers, and couldn’t spare the time from planting even if they had classes and levels like they’re supposed to, and no one in town is willing to give it a go without a higher-level adventurer playing nursemaid.”
His eyes narrowed. “You watch your tone, boy. Half the veteran outlaws we’ve captured are already in the rolls for their thieving ways. Just because they were playing at hero with their new recruits don’t mean they weren’t goin’ to show their true colors sooner or later.”
“I know that-!” I started, but he’d already turned away and was stomping off, calling out names to come over. For the reinforcements needed to handle the women with kid gloves, I’m sure. Equally sure I wasn’t welcome to join that group.
So I just started wandering around, trying to get a picture for who’d been taken alive. I mean, I didn’t know hardly any of them, but I’d been working with Myles team a lot, and I was hoping they’d had the good sense to surrender instead of try to fight it out.
Which ended up with more betrayed glares when I found Andre, Cecil, and the others, gagged and hands tied behind their backs, waiting to be marched to Mistleten. Made me want to run and hide, but who could I hide behind? Abby wasn’t back yet, and she was the only one who didn’t seem to think I was scum.
“Knock it off,” I told them. “Liberio’s a Mountebank with a strong enough Charm that we all thought he was a prince.”
Which didn’t exactly change their expressions, but if I was going to try to explain I couldn’t stop there. “He took all the captains to go kill tenant farmers that weren’t willing to sign on with his revolution. I heard him tell them the plan. They were going to blame the murders on other tenants, ones who were close enough to becoming independent that they wouldn’t need his help.
“And then he was going to have us be the ones to execute the people he was planning to frame. You were all going to be killing your neighbors for the crime of not needing to depend on Liberio for help!”
That made a few of them flinch, including Cecil, although Andre looked away. But they were still gagged, so they couldn’t exactly reply or ask questions. I just kind of stood there for a few minutes, feeling awkward and not knowing what to say-
And then I was rescued by the noise of a bunch of people marching back to the big camp.
Turned out, when I went over to see what was going on, that a new batch of prisoners were being hauled in. A bigger group than any of the other adventuring Enforcers-
Because they were the Mountebank captains and their lieutenants, as I realized when I spotted Louie and Primula at the edge of the group. They saw me at about the same time, and I was never happier about the prisoners all being tied up, because by her death-glare Primula was ready to march over and shank me on the spot. Louie didn’t look much happier, for that matter.
With the Mountebanks all captured, the plot was pretty much over . . . except I didn’t see Liberio. Or Clifton and Myles. Or Abby, for that matter.
“Where’s the Secretary General?” I asked Rupert, as soon as I saw the foreman and hurried over to him.
“That’s not your concern,” he growled. “And you’d best keep away from these. Any of them escape, and not even bein’ her pet will save you.”
No, he wasn’t willing to listen. The town’s adventurers were already shorthanded, and with the higher level prisoners to deal with suddenly everyone was too busy to take a moment to talk to me.
Which was frustrating as hell, because if the bandit king had gotten away with at least some of his support, we could capture everyone else today and be in a ton of trouble tomorrow. They hadn’t faced Liberio, they didn’t know how terrifyingly charismatic he was when he used his Charm, and the best we could hope for was a mass prison break.
I mean, I’m sure they’d have anti-Charm protocols in place, but start with something like, “Any rules that say you should ignore me were just a test, which you passed. Now, take me to your boss.” Rinse, repeat. Maybe the others weren’t strong enough, but I’d be willing to bet Liberio himself was at least level twenty. If anyone could pull it off, it’d be him.
And if he’d gotten away with Clifton and Myles, I had a good idea of where they’d be. I mean, it’d been a guy from Clifton’s company that had been in Lulach, so that’s the dungeon he’d be familiar with. That had already accepted him. That would be stronger after he ‘primed’ it with prisoners.
And all I had, since Abby still hadn’t returned, was Vanish and the Shadow Creep upgrade. Against three higher level outlaws, if they were there.
Honestly, I kinda hoped I was wrong.
I tried not to be a complete idiot about it, by which I mean that once I’d gotten away from the big campsite I dropped Vanish and started to leave a very obvious trail. Hopefully everyone was so busy that Abby would be the first one to pay attention to the fact that I was missing. Hopefully it’d get me another audience with her, without anyone keeping me away on the grounds that she was too busy or something.
Hopefully nothing would go wrong, but the hopefully’s were starting to pile up.
And no one had caught up to me by the time I got the Lulach’s entrance.
I hesitated for at least a minute, staring at the tunnel leading inside. Because if I’d guessed right there was no way I could stand up to Myles. And without backup I couldn’t-
Then I realized I didn’t actually need to face them all. Just confirm if they were hiding out in Lulach, and then retreat back to the entrance and wait for the adventurers to track me down.
Feeling a little better about that, I went inside and pulled Vanish up. Nothing spawned to try to kill me, so either the dungeon had decided I was one of Clifton’s, my stealth was enough to keep it from noticing me, or it had already exhausted itself. I didn’t know which, but as long as I could get in and out without getting caught, I’d be fine.
But then I reached a room further than I’d ever gone before, and Clifton called out.
I was just about to go back, to wait for Abby to show up, when I had another thought. Myles was made for combat, but Mountebanks like Clifton were focused on scams. He was surely good enough to beat me in a fair fight, but this world didn’t use hit points. If I could take him out in one blow, then I wouldn’t have to hope that it was the Secretary General who came looking for me. That’d be one hopefully I wouldn’t have to worry about.
And facing Liberio as a raid boss would be easier for everyone if I took down one of his adds, right?
So I got closer, and did my best to ignore Clifton when he turned on the Charm and did his best to make me feel rotten for siding against him. Until I was right on top of him, and I thrust-!
And he still turned quick enough that I only managed to get his side, my seax bouncing along the ribs and not managing to bite deep enough to take him out. Then something slammed into my side and everything went dark.
“. . . too busy, we should slit ‘is throat ‘ere an’ now!”
That was Myles’ voice. So they were both here. Damnit, I really wish I hadn’t guessed right.
“No,” Clifton declared. “We were counting on more lives to prime Lulach. He’s an adventurer, so at least he’s a better offering than just another farmer.”
“No much better.”
“Well, no. But take hold of him, he’s starting to come to.”
I almost threw up as Myles grabbed me and picked me up. Then I held very still as the tip of a knife poked my jaw. “Best not be movin’,” he growled into my ear. “Best be still as stone.”
“I quite agree,” Clifton said, holding a wad of cloth at his side. “So what made you turn traitor, little boy?”
I glared at him, but kept my mouth shut.
“If he doesn’t answer,” the Mountebank told his lieutenant, “you can take an ear as a trophy. He won’t need that on the table.”
“Gladly!” Myles snarled.
“Your meeting this morning!” I blurted out right away. “I was following Louie, ‘cause I wanted to see Liberio again!”
Clifton gave me a measuring look, then started to laugh tiredly. “And you weren’t ready for the harsh realities of leading people to freedom. Like we were worried about, for all of you.”
“You were planning to blame the murders on the farmers who were closest to gaining their freedom!” I snarled. “You aren’t liberators, you’re pimps killing off the competition!”
He gave me a slow smile. “That may be the most apt description of nobility I’ve ever heard. Perhaps I should have made you a Mountebank, instead.”
Then the smile vanished and he slapped me across the face. “I’m going to enjoy watching Liberio feed you to this dungeon. Once Lulach’s apparitions are fed, they’ll be far-”
He suddenly cut off, gasping soundlessly, as a crossbow bolt buried itself into his chest. Then, as he was crumpling, Myles yanked me around so that I was between him and the direction the bolt had come from.
“Don’t even twitch,” he shouted, “or th’ runt ‘as my steel jammed right up ‘is jaw!”
Then he grunted, and the knife – my seax! – fell from his hand onto the ground, and I turned around to see him fall, another bolt right between his eyes.
Abby stepped out of the shadows at the entrance, where she’d been just beyond the range of my Darksight. “Hard to use someone as a shield when you’re about a cubit taller than they are,” she said, giving the two corpses a rather satisfied look.
Then she looked at me. “Is this what you were trying to tell Rupert about? That trail you left made it seem like you wanted to be followed, but no one noticed you were gone until I returned.”
I nodded. Or tried to, it was more of a spasm. “I-I-I-” I began, but my teeth were suddenly chattering too much to speak, and then I was shaking all over and-
But then Abby had crossed the distance, and was holding me as I dropped to my knees. “Shhh,” she murmured. “It’s fine. You’re safe now. They can’t kill you anymore.”
“L-Liberio?” I managed to ask. “Is h-he-?”
“We haven’t caught him yet, but our best Trackers will find his trail sooner or later,” she promised me.
“N-no, I th-think he’s h-h-here,” I got out, still shaking. “Pr-priming-”
She took a sudden, sharp breath. “Tommy, stay right here. I’ll be back in a little while.”
I nodded as she let me go . . . but then before she went any deeper into the dungeon, she pulled out a little vial and poured a drop of something onto my head. “If you’re right,” Abby told me, “that will protect you from his Charm.”
Then she marched off, cranking her crossbow as she went.
I mostly sat there and shook while I waited for her to come back. That had been . . . the spiders I could at least outsmart. If I was too slow to dodge their acid, it meant I’d misjudged. But going up against Clifton, when Myles had been close enough to hear and be alerted? It’s like the difference between single and multi-player. Real-world opponents are smarter than any computer, and they’ll crush you without mercy if they have the chance.
Except in the real world, losing meant you died. And I’d lost, except I’d left enough of a trail behind for Abby to follow me.
A little while later, she marched Liberio past me with her crossbow planted in his back. He gave me a speculative look, but then kept going when she jabbed him. I slowly got up and followed, although my legs were still shaking and feeling weak.
I was maybe halfway to the entrance of Lulach when Abby returned. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“I don’t think I can do this,” I told her. “I-I almost died, and I can’t stop thinking-”
Once again, she wrapped me in a big hug, although this time I managed to stay standing. “Don’t worry, Tommy,” she murmured. “Everyone is scared, when they brush against Death for the first time. You’ll learn to handle it, we all do.”
“H-how?!” I demanded. “I couldn’t-”
“Against adventures ten levels higher than you?” Abby asked. “Of course you couldn’t. But I saw how the one was favoring his side. You almost had him, didn’t you?”
“He turned at the last moment,” I mumbled. It did feel nice, being held. I’d just about stopped shivering, even.
“So even at third level to his thirteen or better, you almost had him. Tommy, that’s not the work of a coward. You’re shaking because you’re still a new adventurer, not because anything’s wrong with you.”
Then she let me go and grabbed me by the shoulders, glaring down at me. “That said, young man, if you try to take on senior adventurers by yourself like this again, I’ll make you wish you’d stumbled into the Grimwust!”
“Do you know how terrified I was, when I saw that Enforcer holding your own seax to your throat!?”
This time I was the one who threw my arms around her, doing my best not to cry.
Not just because of how she felt, or how I felt.
What about my parents?
Okay, so I hardly ever saw them. Even when they slept at home and not at their offices I might get five minutes at breakfast, and then if they came home they were too tired or busy to listen to me. I was used to it, and I guess it wasn’t all bad, with the money they made, but I wouldn’t have minded a little less money if it’d meant a little more time for me.
But even if they didn’t have time for me they cared enough to get angry if I didn’t do well enough in school. So I meant something to them, even if it felt like they never showed it.
So how had they felt, when I vanished off the face of the Earth?
The genie swore that if I returned, he’d have to kill me. But I was going to be a hero, and one day I’d be strong enough that I could kill him first. As long as I didn’t wimp out, at least.
I didn’t know how long it’d take, but I was going to let Mom and Dad know that I was alright. Someday, and somehow.
So I dried my eyes on Abby’s arm – because I was still chest-high compared to her and that just wouldn’t be right – and looked up at her. “Is that all of them, now that he’s captured?”
She nodded, and we left the dungeon together.
Clifton and Myles weren’t the only bodies that had to be retrieved for burial. Liberio had sacrificed a farmer in Lulach to ‘prime’ it, and there were four more who’d been killed, three farmwives and another farmer, before the Mistleten adventurers had caught up with the outlaw raiding party. And there were casualties on both sides from the battle, although not too many deaths before the Mountebanks had started to try surrender.
I don’t think they were happy to find out that Abby had been warned about them and had brought along that vial of whatever potion it was that countered their Charm.
But all in all, the sun hadn’t set before we were all back at Mistleten. The field on the eastern side was full of outlaws and adventurers guarding them.
“Are we just keeping them here?” I asked. Abby had given me strict orders to stay by her side for the foreseeable future, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t ask questions.
“First we’ll bring in the parents of the conscripted farm boys,” she told me. “If they can vouch for them, and find the farms that you’ve all been doing quests for . . .” She trailed off and shook her head. “They’ll still need to have their outlaw classes sealed, but if they haven’t been committing any real brigandage, we can release them on parole to their families.”
I tried not to flinch. At least some of the quests had been Robin Hood types, robbing the holders to give to the tenants. That probably wouldn’t fly. “What about the rest?”
“Our jail won’t hold them all,” Abby admitted. “Most bandit gangs are three dozen at the most, but this time that’s the women’s camp alone! They’ll have first call on jail space, I’m sure, aside from the Mountebanks.”
“You’re taking special precautions for them?”
She nodded as we walked along, inspecting the camp that was slowly organizing. “You never let a Mountebank use his Charm, unless you want to wake up one morning and find out you’ve lost everything you have, and they’re already halfway to the next town and laughing at you’re gullibility. No, Liberio and his minions will stay locked up and secured until we can arrange the trials.” She shook her head. “And the holders will be demanding a say as we make-”
Then she suddenly stopped short and stared at one of the prisoners that we were passing by.
He must have felt the heat of her expression, ‘cause he raised his head with a snarl on his lips. “Whaddya want? Come to gloat, you townie bi-”
The man cut himself off as his eyes widened and the blood drained from his face. “Abby?” he croaked.
“John?” she replied softly. “Is that you?”
“You know him?” I asked. “How?” ‘Cause, well, we weren’t next to the prisoners who were new recruits, after all. And even if there’d been some mix-up, he didn’t look young, either. I’d have said forties, or at the youngest a hard-living thirties.
“Because I was hoping to court her, back before that townie asshole got his friends to level her up so she’d let him get his cock wet,” the outlaw sneered.
Abby’s eyes blazed. “Well! Now I know I wasn’t wrong, not to wait for you.”
“Hardly!” he snarled. “We could have made it work, if you’d waited like you promise. But no, one bad harvest and you were taking other callers, and then only going to townie dances with all the other harlots!”
She stiffened, and for a moment I thought she was going to slap him. Or even pull out her crossbow and put him out of her misery.
But after a moment she took a deep breath and marched on.
“Weren’t just me you condemned to this!” John shouted after us. “We’d have been proud to break new ground, all of us, and it would have meant everyone’s chance. Fernie, Sam, Lowele . . . they’re all dead now, and Mathi’s due to hang with me! All we needed was a fair shot, but you were too eager to whore yourself out to . . .”
His voice slowly faded as we marched double-time away from the prisoners.
“He wasn’t in any of the camps I spent time in,” I said. “So I didn’t recognize him. I didn’t know you’d know any of them. I’m sorry.”
Abby was quiet for a long moment, before she sighed and slowed down. “I don’t think I ever truly did know John. Not if he could live with himself as an outlaw. I’m just grateful that you were clever enough to stay a Jack the way you did, so I had reason to listen. The conscripted, I’d have known them when they weren’t much more than toddlers, back when I was still going to farmer dances and I thought John hung the moon. Having to deal with them after they became hardened like he did would have been awful.”
“What was he talking about?” I asked. Then, very quickly: “Not the whore part, that was obviously just him being jealous-”
“Was it?” she asked softly. “Some adventuresses do carry on with a new man whenever one catches her fancy. And grateful adventurers can be very nice when they appreciate you.”
“Uh-” I wasn’t really sure how to respond to that. But, “Your kids all look like Caleb’s their daddy. So it doesn’t look like you, uh, carry on the way some women back home would.”
She gave me a ghost of an amused look. “Nobles,” she then murmured, shaking her head.
I didn’t try to correct her. What was the point?
“I stopped going to dances at all, at least at first,” Abby went on. “It wasn’t just one failed harvest. His family had a poor harvest the year before that, too, so there was no money to send John to town to become an adventurer, or even offer as a bride portion to help buy a farm plot for us in one of the safer areas. They were going to need time to recover, and when I tried to come to a farm dance he was too ashamed to show his face. As if I’d already declared that I wouldn’t be waiting for him!”
“You don’t have to tell me any of this,” I said, feeling very uncomfortable.
“Maybe I don’t,” she replied, “but you kept faith with Mistleten and the Guild. With me. So I want you to understand that John’s as full of shit as if he’d stumbled and fallen into a cow patty!”
Abby shook her head. “There wasn’t a great deal more to it, honestly. I tried to write him a letter, but he returned it unopened. And even then I was determined to stay true to him. Except Caleb said that if I was going to stay by myself when all the other adventurers were celebrating at the guildhall, he and his friends would keep me company. And they did. So I started going to the town fetes, just so they wouldn’t miss out.”
She shook her head again. “And then Caleb offered to help me level, so that I could go assarting a new farm with John and his friends if that’s what I truly wished. And I knew he admired me, that he was courting me despite what most adventurers would sneer at as ‘farm prudery’. But I also knew that John wouldn’t be able to have his own farm without someone helping him along, and I told myself that’s what would happen.
“But by the time I was close to tenth level – and if you’re clearing a new farm close to Mistleten you don’t want to be anything less, especially if your spouse hasn’t had a chance to level up a class themselves – I heard John had left to go seek his fortune. I wrote him another letter, but I never got a reply, even though his family said they’d sent it on to him.”
Abby paused and took a deep breath. “He never came to Mistleten to choose a class, but if you pledge yourself to a noble for a term of service they’ll give you a soldier class. That’s what I thought must have happened. There wasn’t any need for him to become an outlaw!”
“Wow. And now your childhood friends are all dead or condemned to hang.”
She blinked, then started laughing. “Childhood friends? Tommy, I didn’t meet John until my first dance, when I was fourteen.”
“But-” I really wasn’t sure how to continue. Back on Earth, everyone at school knew each other all the way back to pre-K. Or at least, everyone who’d grown up in the district. There were some families who’d moved in. “What about the children you grew up knowing?”
“They’re like brothers and sisters to me!” she exclaimed, still laughing. “You don’t court and marry someone you’ve known all your life! Unless . . . I hear that a lot of nobles arrange marriages for their children. So perhaps you did grow up thinking you knew who you were going to marry.”
I blushed. “Not really,” I muttered. None of the girls at school had ever given me the time of day. But I was shorter than just about all of them, even the freshmen girls after I became a sophomore. Hell, it’d been like that in middle school, too, when my classmates first started being silly around each other.
(Not that I wouldn’t have minded some silliness directed my way, but I was tiny, I was scrawny, my voice is still cracking, and all the really pretty girls were making cow eyes at the varsity teams.)
But if Abby was right, that growing up around someone meant you shouldn’t marry them, maybe that was why everyone seemed to break up with each other all the time. Hell, none of them made me feel all funny the way some of the girls in my handheld did, when they smiled at me. And I mean RPGs, not the games you’re probably thinking about!
And I still liked Zelda more, even when she bitched about Link always following orders and was all snooty like some of the girls in AP classes. As least she has a nice smile. And her voice is way classier!
“Isn’t there anything you could try to do for him?” I finally asked. “I mean, it sounds like you were in love with him, even if you fell out of contact. If he never came back until recently-”
“Oh, John’s been back for at least a few years, almost assuredly,” Abby said heavily. “Liberio needed men who knew the area, who could make contacts with the tenant farmers and not have it be reported to Mistleten. But that also means doing away with anyone who tried to report him, so he doesn’t just have foreign blood on his hands. I expect he’ll have killed people he grew up knowing, at least by sight. So I can’t argue for his exile, no. Not with local blood on his hands.”
“But if he’s been back here for a few years, how come he never tried to meet you?” Honestly, I didn’t care that much about what was going to happen to him. Hadn’t even properly met the man, but Liberio and his top crew were all horrible people. It would be a relief when they were buried, but I guess I was playing devil’s advocate. Or at least I wanted to know why he’d been so bitter, if he hadn’t even tried to reconnect.
“If he asked about me, he’d have heard that I was married and with five children,” she pointed out. “There’s not too many as would just pick up and leave that kind of life. Not unless their man was a threat to their little ones, and sometimes not even then. And Caleb’s always been a good husband, so John wouldn’t have been rescuing me from anything.”
Abby closed her eyes for a moment. “Besides, once I agreed to marry Caleb I’d have cut my acquaintance with John, Lowele, and all the others. You don’t keep contact with men who’d courted you once you trade your vows with another, not unless they’re in his circle of friends as well. That only leads to heartbreak or worse.”
I nodded slowly. Heartbreak was one way to put it, at high school. But a couple of times in my freshman year, the cops had gotten involved. They wouldn’t tell the rest of us what had happened, and the biggest rumors were too silly to be the truth, but if Abby was still about high school age when she got married, it’d make sense.
Might even be part of their religion. Their gods did stuff for them, it made sense that they’d actually listen to their preachers instead of ignore them like everyone does back on Earth.
Hell, around here the preachers probably didn’t get caught with their pants unzipped all the time. After all, piss off the gods while you speak in their name and they might just pull out the Old Testament smiting and stuff.
“Even still,” I said, before pausing and trying to figure out the uneasiness wiggling at the back of my mind. “Even still, he should have had other chances to court and marry, and then settle down. If everything was so bad that he had no chance-”
“All he had to do,” Abby interrupted softly, “was come to me and ask for help. I certainly wasn’t going to charge him. And he could have always come to town as a classless hireling until he had the Guild fee saved up.”
Yeah, the way Myles assumed I had. But adventurers look down on you if they think you aren’t one of them, and a lot of guys hate it if they’re stuck at a lower rank than their sweetheart. Which John would have been until he could save up for his initiation, and then he’d have to level up quickly somehow if he wanted to catch up to her. Foolish pride on his part, yeah, but it’s pride I could kinda understand.
Hell, part of me is kinda glad that Abby isn’t close to my age or single. Sure, I had a bit of a crush on her, but I knew it was silly and hopeless, and it was better for both of us to let her be the cool adopted aunt.
But I’d finally found the problem in the whole setup. Because if John had swallowed his pride and come to Mistleten to hire out, he would have wanted to level up as quickly as he could. And I knew what it was like these days during the off season.
“Was there a rush at the start of each season, back then?” I asked. “Or is this recent?”
“Oh, no, the seasonal rushes here have been tradition for generations,” she assured me. “There’s hardly any point to a higher-level adventurer living here year-round. But at least junior adventurers do have the chance to gain levels during each rush!”
“Yeah, but we don’t exactly need to wait until a rush to level,” I pointed out, feeling confident in my conclusion. But would she get where I was heading?
Abby smiled wryly. “Yes, Tommy, you’ve proved that, but you could have gotten yourself killed more than once in the last few weeks. You practically gave me a heart attack when you ran into Bebehn to try to draw out the spiders, and ever since then-!”
“And nobody wants to die, so nobody goes adventuring once the rush is over,” I concluded for her. “So everything Liberio’s been saying about what’s going on with the tenant farmer is right, even if he was using it instead of actually trying to fix it.”
“Farmers aren’t helpless,” she pointed out, giving me a funny look. “Even the ones who never take a class spend enough time drilling so they can handle it when something dangerous comes around.”
“Yeah, but what happens when trouble comes around during the spring when they have to plant?” I asked. “Or during the fall when they have to harvest? Because no matter what else ‘Liberio’ was doing, the farmers who signed on with his plan got adventurers when they needed help. Outlaws, maybe, but still men and women willing to risk their lives to deal with trouble.
“With adventurers helping them, it didn’t cost planting time to have their problems dealt with, and their crops weren’t ruined by waiting until summer when a group from Mistleten would finally get around to dealing with their problems. Liberio didn’t ask much as quest rewards, either, so the farmers who needed help weren’t being ruined by it, either.”
Abby gave me a narrow look. “No, he was just going to have them killed if they tried to resist him, or did too well on their own without his ‘help’.”
“I know!” I assured her. “But John’s family had a bad harvest a couple of times in a row. And any normal farm could be ruined by having trouble pop up right after the rush ends, the high-level adventurers leave, and everyone at Mistleten stops caring about your problems.”
Her breath caught, and she froze for a moment.
“Tommy,” Abby then said very quietly, “are you trying to say that ‘Liberio’ kept his plot hidden for so long because of me? Because I didn’t post the right quests, or send low-level adventurers out into the hinterlands to risk their lives?”
“No, you just inherited the problem,” I replied, equally quietly. “But is risk really something we should avoid? I know you don’t like to see Magicians go off and get killed, but even a Jack like me can practice and get ready to fight.
“Besides,” I quickly went on, “you haven’t had quests from the farmers to post, once the rush ended each season. They gave up on that generations ago, from what I’ve heard. As far as everyone’s concerned it’s normal to let problems wait until the next rush, or deal with it yourself if that’s what you have to do.
“But I think that’s gotta change. Even if we don’t get another bandit king plotting to set himself up as a lord, the farmers who needed help aren’t going to be happy to see it go away, not after a year or two of finally getting it. They need to know that they can submit quests to Mistleten. And I guess once they do, you’ll need to push adventurers out to do them, just like you said.”
“But how will we get them to send notice to us?” Abby asked. “You know better than the rest of us, how upset they are. How they’re hardly even grateful to have their sons and daughters spared from judgment! Why would they trust us after this?”
“They won’t, at first,” I agreed. “But when I asked to come to Mistleten, all I wanted was a fair chance to be a hero. So can I ask you a question?”
She nodded curiously, and waited for me to ask.
“Farmer Gavin?” I called, as I approached the man working the field.
He gave me a hard look, then went back to tilling the soil. “Don’t have anythin’ t’ say to Mistleten. We’re quit of those bandits as kidnapped m’son, an’ that’s an end to it.”
I winced. Maybe coming around in new clothing gave the wrong impression, but my old tunic was so far gone that I hadn’t had much choice but to buy a new one. At least I’d been able to get one that had more room for me to grow into, now that it was confirmed that I was starting a growth spurt.
(Caleb had even given me a discount for it. Exposing a bandit army by joining it apparently wasn’t how adventurers were supposed to go about things, so officially I wasn’t getting any reward. Unofficially Abby was sharing some of what she was due. Which was great, ‘cause if this worked out I might be able to afford real shoes in a few weeks.)
“I’m not here on behalf of Mistleten,” I told him. “I was the Footpad who snuck up on the mole king and pulled it in so that your son could help kill it.”
Farmer Gavin blinked, and he looked me up and down. “An’ then how is it that yer walkin’ around, free an’ armed?”
I shrugged. “I wasn’t ever really a Footpad. But here’s the thing, sir: Your son Cecil, he wasn’t tried for anything. Liberio had us conscripted outlaws playing at being heroes, ‘cause he knew most of us would quit if he ordered us to act like real brigands.”
“Been told that, aye.” He turned back to his work.
“So did Cecil want to be an adventurer?” I asked. “And maybe figured this was his only chance?”
“Hmph. Who doesn’t want a few levels, farming this close to the Grimwust?” Farmer Gavin didn’t even look up. “He’ll have no such prospects anymore, even if we could afford it.”
“Right. But the thing is, don’t you all still need adventurers willing to work outside the rushes? I mean, we took care of the moles, so your farm is fine, but what about the other farmers?”
He stopped and gave me another look. “You ain’t strong enough to adventure on yer own, boy. Need a dozen more levels for that, I reckon.”
“You might be right,” I agreed, “but I wasn’t thinking of doing it on my own. There are a bunch of new Enforcers, like your son, who were doing an honest adventurer’s work. Think maybe they might like to keep on doing it? Think your son might like to get back out in the field and help people? Maybe even save up enough to send your daughter to town, if that’s what she wants to do in a few years?”
Farmer Gavin blinked. “They’ll never let a gang of outlaws . . . did you say you weren’t a Footpad?”
I shook my head. “Mistleten made me an adventurer first, but the bandits didn’t know they needed to crush my class before initiating me. So I’m an adventurer in good standing,” sort of, but Abby was cover for me there, “and I checked with the Secretary General. She says I can hire whoever I like, as long as they aren’t exiled. People may not expect someone with an outlaw class to follow the law, but Cecil and the others were all paroled.”
“Won’t be allowed to advance while they’re still outlaws,” he pointed out.
I nodded. “That’s gonna be tricky, yeah. But most of what we’ll face we can handle with enough numbers, and if I have to I can send to the Secretary General for help. So do you think Cecil will want in? And do you know I should approach next, for work that needs doing?”
“Farmwife Euphemia?” I asked, when the door opened and a tired-looking middle-aged woman looked out at me.
“Aye, that’s me,” she replied.
“Farmer Gavin says you’re in need of an adventurer’s aid, and well before summer rolls around . . .”
To be continued in Wielding the Blade, Book 2 of Jack of all Heroes.