The Companions

Chapter III - The Companions

Lysinthia Fickelsong had performed in this little barrel of a common room for the last hour, and the whole state of affairs began to rapidly disgust her. Why had Quillion picked this toad-forsaken hole to meet in? Probably for the nostalgia of it all. Quillion always loved tradition and useless things like that, and Malaryn's big, life changing event took place right here in The Sinner's Cove. Many years had passed since then, but she and a couple of the other companions still remembered that tragic day. She glanced again at the door, and again sighed disappointedly. She hoped that Quillion would get there soon.
Resigning herself to staying on stage a bit longer, Lysinthia picked up her guitar and gave it a pluck, wincing as her musically trained ear caught the sour note echoing from the instrument. The bloody moisture from the sweating bodies in the room was going to ruin her strings. Of course, the oafish louts in the common room this night did not have the raw intelligence to notice or understand things like sour notes in comparison to pure ones. Unfortunately, the perfectionist performer inside of Lysinthia chose moments like this to rise up, so she tuned the guitar anyway. She would not allow a group of unrefined drunkards to bend her standards. Somewhere inside Lysinthia's bard soul, despite how she sometimes wished to the contrary, there existed the desire to please all who listened to her tales and tunes, watched her acrobatics, and marveled at her sleight-of-hand tricks.
After tuning the guitar and pointedly ignoring a few bawdy comments from a surly Half-Orc seated at a nearby table, Lysinthia struck the opening chord of a rousing tune called "Braving Hogun's Wrath". The rhythmic cadence lent well to a marching song, and soon the entire crowd within listening range rose to their feet, putting their arms around each other's shoulders and singing joyously in coarse, off-key voices.
Soon the song ended, and Lysinthia let the last, pure note from the guitar linger on, primarily for her own pleasure since the crowd noise prevented anyone noticing the subtleties in her music. The men surrounding the stage filtered back to their seats after congratulating each other on remembering the words to the simple song. Those that did not, immediately began making song requests from Lysinthia or ordered another round of drinks from the overworked waitress.
Ignoring the song requests, as well as a few other requests not related to music, Lysinthia placed the guitar on the rough-worn planks of the stage and opened the pack which contained her performance gear. Rummaging around the contents of the bag, she casually shoved offstage a drunken man who climbed up to "get a feel for the music." Finding what she wanted, her set of dancing sticks and a group of interlocked rings that slid in and out of each other, Lysinthia turned and stared coldly at the man as he lay on the ground. The man, after receiving a chorus of ribbing from his friends sitting nearby, sulkily moved back to his seat, sparing Lysinthia only a glance and a frown. The bard ignored him and prepared her magical tricks for the next section of the show, as the crowd seemed to favor those this evening.
Like most bards, Lysinthia dabbled in real magic, not just the sleight-of-hand she used now to entertain this rabble. One could not travel to the edges of the continent, investigating tales and re-telling them to the delight of audiences without coming across some mystical knowledge. However, the sleight-of-hand arts tended to tax a body much less than the real thing, which added up on a long night of performing. Most people could never tell the difference between the two anyway, especially during Lysinthia's show. Judging by the crowd thus far, she doubted that any of them could tell the difference between a Summoning and a pile of gravel. Lysinthia preferred to limit her knowledge of magic to spells that added to her performance, though she had others, but this simple crowd would require no true magic to entertain them.
Launching into her interlacing rings trick, Lysinthia eyed the patrons nearby, gauging their mood. This common practice among bards had saved her life many times since an agitated crowd could easily erupt into a violent one. This crowd at The Sinner's Cove had the characteristics of both the interested and the uninterested. Unfortunately, the interested members of the crowd seemed to be her immediate problem, as not all of the men in the crowd paid as much attention to her hands as they did to other parts of her body much less related to magic tricks. If their leering, though slightly vague eyes gave any indication, these men, including the one she previously snubbed, would soon work up the nerve to approach her, despite the earlier man's result. Yet another of the unfortunate side-effects of the alcohol they consumed as the night progressed. Lysinthia gave a silent sigh of regret. What ever happened to the days when she played before many more happy drunks than sad or violent ones?
This particular group of men caught Lysinthia's attention more than normal due to the fact that a slurring Half-Orc sitting at the back of the table kept prodding them along. She never could understand what he said to the men, but after each exchange, they appeared to bolster themselves to make a move towards her. Lysinthia continued to perform the trick without a flaw, despite their stares and catcalls, doing her best to entertain the less agitated group seated to her left.
Unfortunately, the peace did not last long, for at that moment she saw one of the men from the table stand and leap onto the stage. He reached out a hand to grab Lysinthia's shoulder, but received a shocking surprise as his hand clasped around the dagger that Lysinthia had drawn. As soon as his hand clasped around the blade, Lysinthia jerked the dagger away, a move that would normally slice through the tendons of the palm. This instance, however, Lysinthia used one of the enchanted daggers she had "appropriated" from a Halfling in Gisk. The blade radiated a cold around it that could freeze water at two hands away and would freeze a man's body in a matter of moments just by its touch. Only her matching sheaths could hold the blades safely, as they had a spell cast upon them by a rogue wizard from the same town of thieves and cutthroats where she got the daggers.
She held the ice-blue dagger up in front of her, where the man could see the frozen chunks of his own flesh still stuck on the blade. She casually nodded her head towards the man's hand and his eyes widened as he looked at the damage done by the frost dagger. The enchanted blade not only sliced the palm of his hand but ripped off the underlying muscle as well, leaving only frozen bone behind. The man raised his pain-stricken face to look at Lysinthia, who casually tapped the dagger against one of her trick rings, sending the frozen bits of the man's hand clattering to the stage.
The large man's eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed to the stage in a lump. Lysinthia simply walked over and kicked the man off to the floor, staring down the group of men the whole time. As the body hit the floor with a thud, the group to Lysinthia's left broke into a peal of laughter. The fools probably thought the whole thing was all part of the show. The remaining men around the table in front of her, though, looked away, avoiding eye contact with the mixed-blood bard. That is, all looked away except the Half-Orc, who simply smiled and ordered another drink from the exasperated bar wench. Lysinthia hoped the man was not more than a common thug. Not for the first time, she wished this infernal inn had a doorkeep to control this type of occurrence.
Lysinthia had always faced the problem of leering stares and occasional advances of drunken men when she played. She did not have a traditional beauty, but her Elven grandfather's blood ran strong enough in her veins to give her an exotic appeal. Thankfully, she did not have the pointed ears of someone like Quillion, who had stronger Elven blood, but she did inherit the slightly slanted eyes common to all Elven kind. The combination of that foreign beauty, her appealing stage personality, and the prime physical shape she kept herself in through years of traveling and performing magnified her attractiveness ten-fold. She occasionally had evenings where she thought she would need a club to fend off the men looking to "get to know her". Men of all races throughout Mer seemed to relish the idea of laying down with a bard, especially due to the fact that females rarely became bards in western Mer.
Granted, Lysinthia played up to the strengths of her physical appearance, for she knew that a sensual approach to performing would bring in more coin, especially when liquor played a part. The outfit she typically wore when performing, and often times not, clung to her in just the right places to emphasize certain areas of her body while keeping everything concealed. She had it tailored to not hinder her movement as well, for she knew all of the physical tricks that the best bards on the continent could do. She, however, did these tricks with a feminine grace that would seize a man's attention and not release it until she wished.
After finishing her latest magic trick, to the delight of the drooling men to her left, Lysinthia leaned over to take a swig of ale from the mug the bartender had given her. She tried to remember the man's name, Sturk, or Stork, or something like that. Nice enough fellow, if not too bright. While she squatted there, she heard someone off to her right calling, "Mistress Ligeia? Mistress Ligeia?"
It took a moment for the bard to recognize the fake performance name she had given the people in this foul inn. She gave the false name because she would never have the word spread around Mer that Lysinthia Ficklesong had played in this pig sty. She felt a tug on her sleeve and she automatically grabbed the small hand holding her shirt, whipping her head around to find its owner.
A small boy looked back at her through the dirt on his face with fear-filled eyes. Lysinthia recognized the boy as the one she set as a lookout by the front door. The young boy looked at his hand, still held within her grasp, and gave a startled cry, attempting without success to jerk his hand free. Lysinthia released the boy's hand quickly and took a moment to calm him so he could say what he came to tell her.
"Calm down boy. I'm not going to hurt you," she said in as soothing a tone as she could manage. "What was it you came to tell me?"
Luckily for her, the boy, once reminded of his purpose, spoke quickly, though not very clearly. "Yes mistress. The man you told me ta look f'r? The slanty-eyed one? He just came in th' front door."
Lysinthia absent-mindedly pressed a copper piece in the boy's hands and stood up to her full height. Her vantage point on the stage afforded her a full view of the room and she immediately found who she sought: Quillion. The Half-Elf walked across the room behind Malaryn, sipping a mug of the cold, bitter ale. She smiled as she saw that Malaryn attempted to balance half the mugs in the inn on his arms as he walked across the crowded floor. She thought back to their younger days when she and Scintara taught the big smith the basics of balancing and juggling. At least Malaryn had found a good use for the training they imparted to him. She wondered what Scintara would think.
Her green eyes returned to Quillion, who continued through the crowd doing his best to not jostle any of the patrons. He looked exactly the same as he did the last time she saw him, almost five years ago. He had the same scruffy hair, today pulled back into a tail at the base of his neck, the same coppery skin, and the same full mouth that she used to like so much. He moved with the same willowy grace as she herself did, due to their mutual Elven blood, but he managed to do it and still look threatening, whereas she usually seemed sensual.
They had not parted on exactly the best of terms those many years ago, but they remained friends. She swallowed the butterflies of fear that rose in her stomach and took a steadying breath. Surely they still remained friends. They may not ever get back what they once had, but they could at least remain friends. If not, he would not have summoned her to this place along with the others.
Realizing she still held her mug of ale in her hand, she quickly drained the last of the now lukewarm liquid. Ignoring the disappointed calls from those who realized she ended the show, Lysinthia picked up her gear from the stage in a series of practiced motions. In the time it took a normal person to get up from their seat, the bard had packed all of her equipment in her traveling bag and slung her guitar over her shoulder. As she hopped off the stage, she slid the guitar to her right side, so that her short sword would not bang into it when she landed. Casually slapping the hands of an amateur pickpocket who reached for one of her array of pouches, Lysinthia moved across the common room to the table the companions had taken for the evening.

Melina sat at the table with the rest of the companions, watching, as she normally did, as they chattered on about the same old arguments and told the same old stories. At least some things would never change. Well, not all things would change. The years had taken their toll on the companions, much as they did everyone else in the world. None of the companions escaped the ravages of time. No one could. She suspected Quillion would show less wear than the rest when she saw him next, but then again, Half-Elves usually lived quite a while longer than Humans. No, the changes among the companions went slightly beyond the physical. They rested in their eyes, as if the years of living on their own had subtlely altered them. Melina gave a slight snort of disgust at herself. The years had changed her as well. She had best stop picking the others apart about it. Despite her admonition, though, Melina's eyes still roved around the table, looking for signs of change in the companions.
Ell, of course, showed almost no signs of aging as well, but she inherited that characteristic from her people. The Yerracht, the were-tigers of legend, showed almost no outwards signs of old age until they reached the point where they keeled over from it. The Yerracht remained a mystery to Melina, as they had to most of the people of Mer. Few could understand their tribal society, as they all had the ability to morph their bodies into various degrees of tiger form, ranging from fully human to fully tiger. They rarely carried weapons of any kind, just as Ell did not, as their natural teeth and claws made much better weapons and served them better than man's steel ever could.
Melina watched Ell sit uncomfortably in her chair. Even after living so many years among humans and away from the verdant plains where she grew up, Ell never felt as comfortable sitting in a chair as she did squatting down on her haunches. Fidgeting uncomfortably or not, Ell emanated a natural grace that never failed to elicit twinges of envy from Melina. Actually, more so than Ell's grace, Melina felt jealous of the fact that the Yerracht woman never had to brush her golden hair as it would always glow and shine as if she had brushed it for hours. Melina quickly hid her smile behind her glass of wine. An interesting thing to feel jealous of.
Ell's cat-like demeanor, even while in her human form, made her much more graceful than the average person and that made her a favorite for many years among the men of Two Sands. Melina remembered many times the Yerracht walking down the street, turning every man's head, and a few women's as well. Ell once told Melina that her father called her his plohoie debushka, an expression in her native Yerracht tongue that meant she was quite a "mane shredder". Melina did not know what that meant, for certain, since tigers did not grow manes that she knew of, but the intent was obvious. Ell's soft, purring laughter drew more than a few leering stares from the men seated at nearby tables.
Melina looked over at the source of Ell's amusement and saw Preosha arguing with Tersiano... again. Those two had bickered about the same topic for the last seven years before the companions split, Preosha's obsession with technology and the natural sciences and Tersiano's obsession with the magic of the world. Melina listened in to a bit of their conversation. Perhaps her luck would hold and they had found new points to argue in the last six years.
"I'm telling you, wild mage, you cannot place all of your faith in something you cannot see or touch," explained Preosha, her voice rising in pitch as she became more animated.
"And what would you have me place it in, my dear inventor?" asked Tersiano, his mesmerizing eyes whirling in a keen amusement.
"The natural world, of course, and what you can use from it," answered the short inventor woman, an air of satisfaction to her voice. She seemed to think her point was driven home. Melina knew better.
"Well now, Preosha, one could argue that the magical energy that surrounds the world and seethes through everything in it is a part of the world as well," responded the wild mage, his mirth suddenly gone and looking very intense. "What would be the difference between using it and fashioning a hammer from loose ingot of iron, hmm?"
Melina tuned out their conversation as Preosha prepared to come back with an equally qualified response. The inventor woman's short dark hair tossed about as she shook her head, emphasizing her remarks. The longer Melina knew Preosha, the more she thought the inventor would make a fine teacher. She had the demeanor and the knowledge to do so, but needed to broaden her horizons a bit before taking on the mantle of a mentor to others.
Preosha's family had moved to the city of First Point when she still lay in her cradle, and there the Dwarven and Gnomish people instructed her in their ways. She grew up learning how to build advanced tools with her own two hands, but, like most inventors, she never bothered to learn the valid uses of her inventions. The Gnomish people did not show their ways to many from the outside, but in Preosha they saw a chance to instruct an outsider their ways almost from birth, without the prejudices that society taught a person. Preosha would never be labeled a tall person, either, and Melina felt sure that fact helped ease the Gnomes' fears tremendously.
According to the tales Preosha told Melina long ago, the Dwarven people taught her reverence for the land itself and how to care for it and use it to her purposes while the Gnomes taught her how to take the raw material from the land and create wondrous objects for the world to use. Over the years, through the lessons taught to her by her new family, Preosha firmly believed that she could duplicate anything magical in the world with a little determination and time. Melina had to admit that the inventor woman often made some of the most interesting devices to get the companions out of trouble. Unfortunately, these devices would often times backfire on her, causing the companions twice as much trouble and time trying to recover themselves.
On the flip side of the coin, Tersiano ate, slept and lived magic. Magic dominated a wild mage's world and made him all that he was. The dichotomy of the two personalities and desires almost always caused them to break into this age-old argument whenever they sat near each other. Melina thought Tersiano sometimes started the disagreements just to entertain himself, especially since they had long since exhausted any valid arguments. They now resorted to repeating themselves over and over. Melina watched in amusement as Preosha waved her arms around emphatically trying to emphasize a point to Tersiano, who just smiled and shook his head, his eyes whirling in the torch light. Preosha's movements caused the chain mail shirt she wore to glint in the flickering light, especially the small metal heart affixed over the breast. It caught the light still radiating from Tersiano's staff and shone brightly.
Melina shifted her gaze from Preosha to Dealyon, who sat a bit apart from the others, sipping his wine. Melina's breath caught as the noticed the quiet Druid stared back at her. Her shock was only momentary, though, as Dealyon simply turned his head to face the arguing pair next to him. Perhaps her mind played tricks on her. The way the Druid continually kept the hood of his robe pulled low over his eyes prevented Melina from getting a good look, but she could swear he had been staring at her. Trust Dealyon to watch her as she watched everyone else.
The Druid kept in continuous harmony with his surroundings wherever he went, even in a crowded bar while surrounded by his friends. Melina knew better than to think the fact his hood remaining low prevented him from seeing almost everything that occurred around him. Every now and then she saw his lips twitch a bit in amusement when Tersiano made a particular skewering comment to Preosha. Even that small concession to emotion happened rarely for the Druid. His very nature kept him slightly reserved, even among the companions, who passed as the closest thing to human friends that he had.
In harmony with his surroundings or not, Melina knew Dealyon felt like an Orc trying to swim in deep water when surrounded by crowds indoors. A man who spends his entire life engulfed in the natural world and avoiding civilization, such as Dealyon did, rarely became the life of the party. Melina could empathize with him greatly, for she held no fondness for crowds of people, either. Dealyon would normally come out of his shell more, though, when he had a definite topic to discuss and not so much small talk. Melina made a mental note to ask Quillion how he managed to get the message of the companions' meeting to Dealyon in the middle of whatever abandoned wilderness the Druid came from to get here.
The common citizens of Two Sands somewhat distrusted Dealyon, despite their typical acceptance of almost anything strange and unusual. The Druid's somewhat aloof manner made him seem unapproachable, and therefore, untrustworthy. In her life, Melina knew only one Druid other than Dealyon, and that woman had adopted the same attitude. Perhaps they did it to prevent people from engaging them in useless conversation.
Despite the fact he never did anything illegal or even remotely immoral, the people of Two Sands labeled Dealyon as a devil many years ago. Dealyon, in an attempt to bring an element of his world into Two Sands, a city already interwoven into a forest, raised a grove of trees that no person dared to construct a building in. One of the most beautiful places in the city for the six years the Druid tended it, the grove became known as the Devil's Dance. The truly superstitious folk in town probably still scared their children to this day by claiming their wee ones would get thrown into the Devil's Dance if they did not obey. Melina did not agree with this idiotic and cruel way to exact obedience from a child. Back in Consul, where she spent her youth, a child got a good smacking if they did not obey, but certainly none of these superstitious mind games designed to frighten a child by playing on their ignorance. Melina wished she had the time when she came into town to go by the grove and see if it still stood. Perhaps she should ask Dealyon.
Before Melina could put action to her thoughts, however, Ephirea unceremoniously sat down in the chair next to her, interrupting her plans. Ephirea's balance wavered and she almost tumbled over and upset the entire table. Melina looked reproachingly at the mercenary and gave a quick snort.
The jovial archer grinned apologetically back at Melina, saying, "Sorry 'bout that. This bloody floor is sticky. They really should clean it up or someone could get hurt."
Melina smiled back at Ephirea and nodded her head understandingly. Interesting how that floor had not seemed sticky to Ephirea two tankards ago. Melina did not consider herself a talkative person, having come from a land where her people, deemed "barbarians" by the northerners, did not put great stock in useless chatter. Ephirea, on the other hand, seemed to have made it her second nature to talk as much as possible, as often as possible. The sometimes mercenary could usually be counted on to keep on chattering when the rest of the companions fell quiet, which did not happen often. Occasionally, she would break into fits of giggles in a tense situation when the companions tried to remain silent to avoid notice from their enemies. Melina had a theory that Ephirea talked just as much when alone as when surrounded by a crowd.
Ephirea shifted her icy blue gaze around the room, scanning her surroundings. Melina knew that part of that habit came from the archer's days as a sword for hire, but the other half came from the fact Ephirea loved to watch the men in the room.
"I sent Malaryn to the bar to get us another round," noted Ephirea, her voice unslurred despite the amount of alcohol she had consumed. "He's such a nice guy. You know, I think he'd do anything for me if I asked him. When do you.... ooh, look at the arms on that guy over there... When do you think Quillion is going to get here? I think he's being late on purpose... Now that's my kind of man over there! I do like 'em with a beard."
Melina sat silently, listening to the running commentary that Ephirea spouted. By the time the archer stopped to drain the last of the ale from her tankard, she had rated and catalogued almost every male within view based upon her tastes. Melina had seen Ephirea in action before, flirting with men during their travels together with the companions, but she still could not comprehend the archer's taste in men. It seemed the raven-haired woman always took a liking to the least desirable man in the room, at least in Melina's opinion. Then she would flat reject anyone showing the slightest hint of promise. Melina supposed that everyone had different tastes, but it seemed that common sense would take over in at least some cases.
These days, and since the split of the companions, Ephirea claimed the title of mercenary, selling her considerable skill with a bow to the highest bidder, provided the bidder could meet her conditions, of course. During these hard times, the merchant trains around the western half of Mer sought her out now, instead of the other way around, especially as her reputation as the best shot in all of Mer spread wide. These trains traveled all over the world and Melina had heard Ephirea referred to by her new nickname, "Roamer", many times during her trip up from Consul. The merchant train she rode with across the Jungon Desert could scarcely speak of anything else once they found out Melina used to travel with the "Roamer". Ephirea had definitely found a bit of fame on her own in the last six years, especially in the merchant circles.
Melina thought back to the day when the companions went their separate ways, moving on to explore their own lives. She had gone back to Consul with firm thoughts and ambitions in mind to settle down in the land where she grew up and raise a family, something she never had the opportunity to do while she traveled with the companions. Nothing quite like that ever happened, though. Typical for her life.
She returned to her land to find it in turmoil, with the Chief of her tribe having passed away, leaving no apparent successor to the title. She returned from her many years away to see the beginning of a civil war, as each clan leader struggled to press his claim to the Chieftain's Scepter. After joining the struggle and fighting for years for her own clan, the Accabashi, against the other clans in her tribe, Melina grew weary of the useless battling. She thought she had seen plenty of bloodshed during her travels with the companions, but even that paled in comparison to seeing her people slaughter each other in a senseless struggle for power.
She eventually realized the war between the clans was not a phase, and forced herself into the role of mediator between the hard-headed clan war chiefs. Due to the fact she had earned a reputation during her travels and the fact that she was one of the few female warriors in the tribe, the people of Consul knew and recognized her, some even trusting her after a sort. She used this trust to fight her own battle amongst the clan war chiefs, trying to prevent any more loss of life.
After three long, tension-filled years of hard work and negotiations, Melina forged an agreement between the clan war chiefs. They would engage in a set of games between them to settle the rights of claim to the Scepter and leadership of the Mendolashe tribe. Melina and her clan much preferred these games, despite their brutality to their contestants, to death of their own people in senseless fighting against their tribesmen. That same year, Loren Flatland earned the title of First Chief of the Games and took possession of the Chieftain's Scepter, placing him as leader of the Mendolashe. He would hold the Scepter for two years, until the next set of games determined the new chief, as they would every two years after that.
With order to her land restored, and her own name suddenly revered as a creator of peace, Melina attempted to reclaim the home she had left in despair during the fighting. In only her first day of repairing her parent's home, the message from Quillion arrived, telling of the meeting between the companions this night. She promptly dropped everything and set on the journey back to Two Sands. She felt she owed the companions at least that much, despite her desire to start the family she had wanted six years prior.
Melina's ruminations about her past quickly dissolved when her wandering eye caught sight of a familiar face popping up between two obviously drunken humans. She blinked and looked again to make sure, but only the two humans remained, standing back to back and sloshing ale over the front of their leather jerkins. Melina would place a large wager that the next time one of those two bellied up to the bar they would find their purses had mysteriously vanished. They would learn to watch their money closer when Scintara Everglade came to visit. The likable thief would more than likely buy the companions a round of ale on the money she had pick-pocketed while simply walking across the room, including that of those two drunkards. Melina had absolutely no problem with that.
As soon as Scintara cleared the throng of people, Ell sprang from her chair and embraced her. Of course, the Yerracht probably spotted Scintara as soon as the curly-haired thief walked in the door. Not too many people embraced Scintara without first depositing their valuables in a strongbox, but Ell harbored no such reservations. Melina knew Ell had two-fold reasons, first, because the tiger-woman sat closest to where Scintara appeared and second, that Ell was the one person Scintara never tried to pickpocket, at least not anymore. Oh, Scintara had tried in the past, but Ell's keen senses detected her dalliances almost instantly. Scintara still blushed to this day when someone brought up that little incident. The thief had so loved to believe that no one could catch her in the act that it had taken a long while for her to regain her old, confident swagger. Watching her walk to the table after releasing Ell, Melina saw that Scintara's swagger had returned in full bloom.
"Hey Melina," gasped Scintara, still breathless after the Yerracht's fierce embrace.
"Hello, Scin'," replied Melina, grinning back to the thief.
"You're looking a bit pale Scin'," observed Ephirea, standing to greet Scintara personally. "I take it Ell crushed you like she did us."
Melina watched Ell affect a hurt air as she sat down in her chair, eliciting laughter from the others at the table. Suddenly, though, Ell's head snapped up and she grinned ferally at Melina.
"He's here," she said.
Melina glanced up into the crowd and asked, "Who? Quillion?"
Ell nodded her head, pointing to her nose, indicating she had caught his scent in the room full of people. Melina heard a collective groan from the crowd near the stage where Lysinthia performed. The bard must have stopped her act, which meant she had seen Quillion as well. Well, it looked as if almost everyone had returned to the city that began their adventures together. Melina wished Malaryn would return quickly with the next round that Ephirea ordered. She would be damned before having a tearful reunion with an empty glass in her hand.

Quillion contented himself with following Malaryn to the table as the big smith rattled off a string of comments about how the rest of the group fared. According to Malaryn, everyone seemed in fine spirits on this sultry evening. Good. That meant they would better receive the news that Quillion brought with him. He hoped beyond hope that they would follow him onto this bold new adventure. If not, then he had no choice but to roll the dice and forge ahead on his own.
Malaryn finally made it to the companions' table and began passing out the ales he brought to all assembled there, even to those that never drank ale. One of the others must have ordered a round for everyone, regardless of what they drank. Quillion suspected Ephirea on that point. Quillion walked up to where Malaryn stood and took a glance around, steeling himself for the onslaught of questions, but none came.
The sight of all the familiar faces together again after so long sent waves of old memories crashing through the Half-Elf. He stood there a minute, overcome by the wash of emotions, until he felt a hand on his shoulder. Quillion raised his moistened eyes to see Lysinthia before him, an expression on her face he could not quite read. She regarded him almost hesitantly, as if she expected him to lash out or bolt at the sight of her. Instead, Quillion broke out into a smile and laughingly embraced her.
In less than two heartbeats, the sounds of chairs scraping across the wood floor and empty ale mugs toppling came from the table as the companions gathered around and embraced Lysinthia and Quillion. Drawing many looks from the nearby crowd, the ten companions stood packed together in the floor for a few moments, content to be back together again.
Finally Tersiano quipped, "Is this going to last much longer? I've one of Ephirea's arrowheads digging into my unmentionables and I could find a better way to spend the evening."
Ephirea just grinned back, flashing her dimple, and asked, "What makes you think that's an arrowhead?"
Tersiano's whirling eyes grew wide and he stammered, attempting to vocalize one of his traditionally biting retorts. The companions all broke into laughter at the wild mage's discomfort and moved to settle back in their chairs.
Quillion made a show of counting all the mugs of ale around the table and teasingly told said, "Malaryn, I only count seven mugs here. Didn't you get one for me?"
"If you would quit swiping them off my head, then maybe there would be enough," replied Malaryn without missing a beat.
Lysinthia spoke in a hurt-sounding voice, "Mal? You didn't even get me one?"
Malaryn's eyes grew wide as he stared at her, saying, "But.. but.. you were still playing on stage!"
Lysinthia raised a hand to forestall him, saying, "Don't worry Malaryn. I suppose I'll have to go order my own since no one was thoughtful enough."
Preosha reached up to touch Malaryn's shoulder comfortingly. "Don't worry Malaryn, She's just jesting with you," she said, smiling at Lysinthia.
Quillion leaned back in his chair, thinking of the familiarity of the situation. They all interacted with each other just as if they had not spent a day apart. He reached out his arm to get the attention of the serving wench, who walked nearby in a tattered yellow apron and bare feet. She forced a smile at seeing him in the manner of someone with too much work to do. As she walked towards him, Quillion did a quick check around the common room, noticing that no other servers worked that night. He ordered an ale for both Lysinthia and Scintara as politely as he could, knowing the poor woman needed a break or two from rowdy customers.
As she walked away to fetch his order, Quillion turned to face the seated companions and was startled to find them all looking at him expectantly. He regarded them for a moment, unsure of where to begin. He finally cleared his throat, saying, "Let's have a couple of ales before I get to why we're here. I, for one, would like a little time to be with my friends."
"Here, here!" bellowed Malaryn and the companions followed suit, slapping their palms on the table.
As conversation sprung up again around the table, Melina leaned across the table to Quillion and said, "All I really want to know is how you got word to everyone about the meeting tonight, especially Dealyon, who's never around civilization."
Quillion glanced at her for a moment, then impishly put his finger up against his nose, saying, "Ah! Now as to that. That is a trade secret. Isn't it Tersiano?"
"Quite right," replied the wild mage before taking a long sip of his wine.
Melina sat back in her chair with an irritated expression on her face while Quillion scanned the faces around the table. After a moment he interrupted the conversations. "Wait just a second. Where's Aramari? She supposed to be here, too."
The companions all looked at each other with blank expression on their faces, until Ephirea broke the silence. "Well, she's apparently not here yet."
"Bloody Tartarus," growled Quillion. "You mean no one's heard from her?"
"You're the one who sent the message," snapped Preosha back. Quillion could tell she did not like being implicated, even though he did not mean to do just that. "I would think she would get in contact with you."
Ell spoke up suddenly, crinkling her nose and sniffing the air as she did. "She just walked in the door," she said in a low voice, "but something doesn't smell right."
Quillion's brow furrowed in puzzlement. "What do you mean?"
The tiger-woman just shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly, saying, "I'm not sure. It's as if it's her scent, but at the same time, it's not."
Quillion stood in his chair and looked in the direction of the door for Aramari. Smells like her, but not her. That does not help a bloody bit. He could not see the priestess in the throng of people, but Aramari would not rise above some of these men's shoulders. Finally, he saw a flash of white robes between two men and he pushed them apart, reaching through them to grasp Aramari and ignoring their pointed glares.
The priestess looked haggard and wan, and Quillion immediately recognized the signs of exhaustion in her movements. She looked as if she had walked for days without sleep before arriving. Ephirea and Melina both gave a gasp when they saw her and moved immediately to assist Aramari into a chair. Quillion heard Dealyon's low, rumbling voice ordering a glass of wine from the serving wench who had returned with Quillion's order.
Quillion moved closer to the priestess and asked in a low voice, cautious of the patrons standing a stride away, "What's wrong, Mari? What happened to you?"
Aramari simply looked at him with eyes darkened by exhaustion and made a motion towards her pouch. Quillion glanced at the pouch she indicated, and made a move to open it for her. Aramari then threw him off with a strength Quillion did not know she had and sat up straight, fumbling with the buckles to the pouch.
Quillion recovered his balance in time to see Aramari remove a cloth-covered object and set it on the center of the table, moving aside the litter of empty mugs in the process. Quillion looked closer at the object. Aramari had struggled with the small fist-sized thing as if it weighed twenty stones. Strange, considering the strength with which she shoved him away.
"I've been fighting it all the way here," said the priestess in a quavering voice. "I've had to do it on my own since receiving Meyasha's help back at my shop." Her eyes looked towards the ceiling. "I wonder where she has gone?"
The priestess of Meyasha then removed her hands from around the object and turned towards Quillion, her eyes no longer unfocused, but full of fear. "I was told to bring this to you tonight," she declared. "I can't explain why, but I had a premonition that if I didn't, the companions were doomed."

©   1998   C.A. Lutke

The Sinner`s Cove Hero`s Return, chapters 1 through ten Aramari`s Gift