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Who by Fire


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It was very sudden, and they were terribly groggy. That was certainly part of the reason the whole nasty business was thrust upon them. The gang had been sleeping into their fourth hour, oblivious to the world; they had been through plenty. The recent meanderings of the Blues (the name had been haggled and warrior wizard thief'd over by last week, and everyone agreed to put on coats of the nice uniform color, though Kagain the dwarf had had to be bribed) had charted a ziggurat over this, southern, part of the Sword Coast. They had cut unrelenting straight lines of exploitation southeast to a dusty, forsaken alley of tholos tombs and sun-beaten barrens, not frequented even by the dead, from there west, to a lush pine forest where livid-faced midgets had tried to charge them on the back of a grizzled she-bear, then north to a lighthouse encrusted with brine, ringed with wolves, and after that enormously east again, to the great Firewine bridge. That had been a sight to see. And then they had turned west once more... The Blues had gone after gold and glory, in that order, more or less. The purpose of their leader had been less clear-cut. And now they were sprawled in their boots on the excellent springy beds of the Jovial Juggler, an inn in Beregost. Had all gone to plan, after waking they would have had rich meals and fabulous smokes in the dining hall, their boots would have been shined under the tables and then, after some more light recuperation, the leader would have unrolled the map and thrust a finger at a point still abstract and full of promise.

Instead they were brought out in nightmares. For example, Montaron, the halfling thief, dreamed that the lady cook of the Juggler was preparing her famous six-piece omelette, the Farewell, tossing it up and down, winking, and the smoke of the stove was becoming thicker and thicker and starting to clog up his throat. Suddenly he saw that it was Fzoul Chembryl. Then he was rattled awake, and a big voice from the day world roared into his ears: "Fire! The inn's on fire!" The others were wading in or tumbling down in states of undress and distress. The hall was littered with overturned furniture. Smoke was billowing from the back room, where the kitchen was or had been. There was already a crowd chocking up the entrance, and a few lodgers getting trampled. Some sort of captainy type was appealing for calm from the stairs, one arm extended in an oratorial gesture over the bobbing heads while the other supported the bed-quilt over which sat his breastplate. The bartender who had woken the halfling had already trotted on, his haunches a-jiggle. He did not make any more sense but moaned and crashed into things.

"Get some water!" yelled Branwen, the cleric, from behind a pillar.

"Where from? Smash a window, Monty," said Xzar, completely naked and therefore at ease.

The halfling grabbed a stool and swung, but a lean figure interposed itself between him and the target. It was bluer than the rest of them, which triggered something little by little in Montaron's spinning brain.

"Oh," he said. It was the leader.

"I don't know if there is any water, but we can smash the wine and beer barrels," he spoke. "Come on!" Ushering them along like a mother goose with broad azure wings, he drove the three others through the billowing cloud. A loud knock greeted them behind the counter, and the face of Kagain, already a little sooty and scowling, peeked out. He had dislodged one of the beer barrels and started it along the floor, toes or no toes.

"Come on!" he yelled.

Branwen chased after it. Being the tallest and strong enough, Xzar bent his naked back for the second and with a giggle slowly carried it to the kitchen.

"Where's Garrick?" asked the leader.

"Who cares? I need me something to open them blasted barrels, and my sword's upstairs," said Montaron.

"There should be something here, for troublemakers." The leader searched behind the counter and produced a small sword. "Go stab Xzar. Not too deeply, though. Kagain, do you need help with that?"

"I'm fine," grumbled the dwarf as he dragged the next barrel all by himself. "Make yourself useful!"

"Wait, wait," said the leader. "There is Westgate ruby wine in that one. You don't want to pour that out to extinguish a little fire."

Kagain stared suspiciously. "I don't, too. But how do you reckon it's little?"

"There's no heat, only a lot of smoke. It's just a few scoops of coal that got on a hot grill, I bet. But I'm surprised you were the first in line to try to save this place."

"Don't be. I own five per cent of it." With these words the dwarf grabbed a smaller keg, checked it for a spigot and, so armed and primed, flip-flopped away. Branwen slowly rolled back the first, biggest barrel. She was bent low over it, and the leader politely averted his eyes.

"By Tempus," he said. "Ahem! Let me get the other end."

Between the five of them and at the price of two barrels and a keg, the fire was soon suppressed. It had indeed been rather modest as yet, and had even started in coal, only it had begun directly in the great crate of it that stood conveniently in the back, next to the meat spits, where the cook could reach inside at her convenience.

"I wonder," said Xzar.

"Where is that cook? The woman?" demanded the leader. He was rather out of it from all of the hauling, breaking and irrigating. The room smelled like a giant's pissoir. "And where on earth is Garrick!?"

"He's in the back. I mean, in the front," said Branwen. "Don't you hear?"

They strained, and clear though uneven music, just a strumming, no words, veered through, between and over the last hanging little clouds of smoke and vapor and their own strained and malodorous breath (four out of eight hours slept) and caught them right in their hearts through the valves left half-ajar by labor. Which is not to say that it necessarily did much there. Nonetheless, Kagain asked: "What the hell is he on about there?"

"He calmed down the crowd," explained Branwen. "He and that man... warrior... in the blanket."

"Paladin," mumbled Montaron. "Of course, it only worked because we killed the smoke on this end."

"Yes, yes," said Xzar. "I believe I can move this conversation forward, friends. The woman cook you were looking for is there."

 The leader took a huge step forward and crouched. There indeed she lay, that smallish, very stooped woman of sixty or more, usually flushed and enlivened by the small fires under her control but now pale, very pale. He sought a pulse.

"Dead?" asked Branwen.

"Heh. It's not Fzoul this time, anyway," said Montaron. Xzar clapped him on the back.

"Are you still asleep, Monty? You are talking in your sleep, then."

"Mmm. For the gods' sake, wizard, put on some pants. Or anything!"

"Well, is she?" insisted Branwen.

"No," said the leader finally. "And I see no burns. But she has inhaled a lot of smoke. She must have been trying to put it out herself. We could simply risk taking her outside, in the clean air, and hope for the best..."

"Just the thing," said Kagain.

"I can cure her," said Branwen.

"You haven't rested, and I know you need that to pray for your powers," said the leader. "Her best chance is at the temple outside the town, I think. The Song of the Morning."

"Not a very good chance, if I'm supposed to haul her there," said Montaron.

"Common sense returns to you, chum," said Xzar. "Stick to it. In any case, I concur. I'd much rather go back on my pillows."

"Wimps... She's a pretty good cook for this place," said Kagain. "I'm up for a little trip, if we don't have to pay for the cure. Anyhow, we probably won't. The guv, Ormlyr, he's the sort of guy to help pro bono. I voted for him every time when I still lived here."

"Enough talk. Take her out now, anyway," commanded the leader. Branwen and the dwarf picked up the body and carried the unconscious woman to the lobby. They found it in greater disarray than before. A few windows had been smashed, after all, in their absence, and a sour-faced man sat on the floor, clutching his ear. But the door was open and free, the crowd had all filtered out. Garrick, the bard, looked triumphant and vain as he ran the strings of his small traveler's harp to and fro in tousy arpeggios. His long legs dangled from an armchair installed in a stretch of clear air from one of the broken panes and the exit.

"Good work!" he exclaimed with a smile and brandished the instrument. "And look - no panic! We had a very orderly evacuation, Bjornin and I. He was the one who helped out here... Where did he go? Anyway, who's that?"

"A victim, maybe," said the leader, following behind this small procession. The fact that their heads were all uncovered made it look even more funeral-like. They carried the woman some paces outside of the entrance, beyond the cobblestones of the street, and put her down on the green grass. The crowd that had disappeared from the inside of the inn was here in excessive quorum, and the rest of the town was rushing in to help put out the fire or offer praise to those who had put out the fire, depending on the freshness of their news. On the spot all were instantly but inaccurately updated. "That Kagain tried to steal a barrel of wine or something," said one woman. "I saw it through the smoke." "Bjornin couldn't stand the smell of this bunch," said another. "Them paladins have a way to sniff out the evil. That's why he rushed out just now. This bunch, they've been down south in Nashkel, spying, I bet. It's not them who put out that fire, I tell you." But when the cook had been laid on the grass, and it was confirmed that she was alive, opinions began to realign, sure memories were consigned to oblivion, and then Xzar, immaculately dressed and smiling, stepped onto the scene, and the leader of the Blues smoothed down his hair and made a speech... It is true, he said, that his group's reputation has not been entirely positive, but now it was time for mistrust to become understanding and acceptance. Et cetera. Smoke had stopped coming out of the inn's door completely, and his last words were drowned in an ovation.

"All right, all right," mumbled Kagain and threw around little glance darts from under his eyebrows.

"We are about to take her to the Song of the Morning," concluded the leader. "There we will ask that she be cured." After this there was a pause, a gentle pause, and as pauses imply a resumption, this time the people did not hesitate to bring up the other end. "Here is to buy Erna the cure!" shouted a rough voice, and a gold piece fell next to the body. "Yes, here is for the clerics!" cried another, and more gold followed. "Get her back on her feet!" All together they scooped up several hundred, not that they counted on the spot, of course. So the cook was lifted again, and put on a stretcher, and the gang quickly made itself decent, or something like it, and out and away they embarked, as though on a great quest (the temple’s minarets rose not half a mile from the door of the inn, and the towners could follow just as well, but it was awesome and intimidating enough). Branwen kept next to the stretcher and checked the pulse every now and then. Garrick strummed a little valorous ditty timed to the rhythm of their feet.

"We may spoil their shops with treasure, but still we are a having an easy time in this town," said the leader half to himself, "easier than we deserve, considering a thing or two we have done." Xzar, who was walking next to him, guffawed.

"Yet we were truly heroic this time. My back still hurts from the weight of that barrel. I had to wonder, had we been on the other side in this incident, had we been the villains, how would we have gone about destroying the inn?"

"Destroying?" echoed the leader. "But it was a simple accident. I daresay, I made the best of it."

"Possibly. It could all go downhill from there. But really, if you were, theoretically, a little old ant and for some reason wanted to destroy this big, sturdy rubber tree plant, how would you do it? Arson? Mind you, that place has no attic heaped with straw, no cellar with inflammable mineral gases rising out of it. And the doors to the attics and cellars that do exist are all well-locked. Ask Montaron. So, if I lived in that same inn myself to boot, how could I burn it down? I think," he went on, "I would start a fire in some place already expected to make a little smoke, and I would give it a little time to gather strength, and meanwhile I would make myself unpresentable and join the others in innocent confusion and panic."

"Well..." said the leader. Xzar interrupted:

"You were all on the lawn nursing, and I found this on the bottom of the coal box." He reached inside his robe and took out a small, open lamp, the sort usually filled with fish oil, now reeking of beer. "It was practically drowned, you know. But before, tucked between coals, burning slowly, steadily... Still, I don't pretend to know who it was."

The leader stopped in his tracks. "I know who it was."

"Speak, master starfish!"

"The breastplate. Of course..." mumbled the leader. "Why should anyone put on a breastplate and not the rest of armor? What use could it serve, except to make you look ridiculous and unready - unless that was point! And we have had an easy time in this town, even in that inn. Why? How? You, or Montaron, or Kagain... well, perhaps he passed as a local. And Branwen, Garrick - granted. But even myself, why didn't he ever accost me? Because it's awfully convenient to have us around!"

"I always said it was," said Xzar. "But we will find out in a minute, we will find out in a minute."

In fact, it took almost an hour. The priest, Kelddath Ormlyr, had finished the solemn incantation, had taken his hand away from the creased, time-stressed forehead of the old cook, but the awful pallor of her skin only slowly filled with a little blood. She opened her eyes and raised a dull stare to their faces.

"Can you hear me?" demanded the leader. Then, relenting a little: "Please answer, if you can hear me. Erna."

"I think so, sir," she said in a faint voice.

"Do you remember what happened? The fire."

"Yes. The kitchen..." She trailed off.

"I trust it is more important to inquire of her well-being, or else let her rest," offered the priest governor grandly. Everything about him was grand: his turquoise doublet, his tones, his beard, less like silver than like platinum, his gestures that described orbits so lofty they must have been in ephemerides. Montaron, who had heard the conversation before, elbowed him in the kidneys, and the old man doubled over. The bow-carrying beauties that stood guard in the shrine turned sharply, their interminable song instantly stopped, but Kagain jumped in front, waving his big arms. "Apologies! Apologies! It's a misunderstanding! He'll be all right!"

"Really!" said Garrick.

"You'll see that this is important," the leader told to the governor's pain-wracked face. "Now, grandmother, tell me what you remember. We saved you from the fire, me and the others. Was there anyone else in the kitchen when it started?"

"No..."

"No?"

"Before. He came out," she said, rather painfully and vaguely. "He said he was looking for an apple. I thought it was odd, but he's the paladin, you know? Bjornin is."

This is the beginning of a story that may or may not be continued, but probably won't be. It's not enough to simply want to create or be able to create. Thanks to this try, I know I can, and there is a method ahead that is rather exciting. But the incentives and rewards for making something must always outweigh the challenges and costs, and the environment on these boards is a lot of the latter with very little of the former.

Edited by temnix
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