Becky let Vola and Henri spend the night in front of the fire in the common room since she didn’t have any rooms to rent. In the morning, Vola set herself up at one of the tables at the back of Tea and Tap Room, and Becky kept her tea cup full throughout the day. Vola had set up a billboard right outside the door of the bar and another in front of her table which read:
“Looking for Adventurers!
Experienced explorers apply inside.
Vanquish evil and earn both money and fame!”
Henri’s lessons had not included compelling sign writing.
By mid-afternoon, Vola was ready to beat her head against the table.
A knobbly youth dressed in dirty trousers and a faded shirt stepped up to her table.
“Name?” Vola said. Then made the mistake of smiling at him.
He staggered back a step. “R-Ricky,” he said. He tried to hide his hands, but it didn’t do him any good when his entire body shook. Apparently, the promise of gold outweighed the terror of conversing politely with a half-orc.
“Well, Ricky, do you have any previous combat experience?” Vola asked.
Over his shoulder, she noticed Braydon. The redhead was setting up a table at the opposite end of the room. The sign propped next to him read:
“Honor! Glory! And fame!
Find these and more when you join your fellow neighbors to fight evil and win back your family members!”
Vola scowled. He’d stolen her idea. And he was better at writing signs than she was.
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Already, a line was forming at his table, full of strapping young men and promising-looking women.
And here she sat with…Ricky.
“Have you handled a weapon?” she said.
“My da says a pitchfork is a weapon if you hold it right.”
“Hmm,” Vola made a show of shuffling through a stack of papers. “Well, thank you, Ricky. I’ll keep your application on file and get back to you with a decision.”
Ricky’s head bobbed, and a smile flitted across his face as if he was a little relieved she hadn’t thrown some gear at him and marched him out of town. The youth hunched away. Over to join Braydon’s line.
Vola let the papers fall and buried her face in her hands.
She might have been desperate, but she wasn’t in the business of recruiting farm boys with delusions of not dying.
She rubbed her eyes. Henri was fair and gracious to a fault and he wouldn’t blame her if she couldn’t find anyone to help in a town like this, but leaving this table empty-handed would feel like she’d failed one of the first lessons he’d ever taught her. How to make friends.
Someone sat with a thump on the seat in front of Vola’s table, making her jump.
“So, when do we leave?” Sorrel asked.
The halfling had slung a quarterstaff across her back, and she’d managed to sit with it even though the thing was twice as tall as she was.
Well, Vola had been looking for competent adventurers.
She pulled the stack of paper closer and smoothed the edges self-consciously. If the halfling leaned forward, she’d see there wasn’t actually anything written on any of them, but Vola felt more official with the paper serving as a barrier between herself and the rest of the world.
“I didn’t think you were coming back,” Vola said.
Sorrel’s brow drew down with hurt. “I just had to go get my things. I figured we’d be going after the kidnappers. That’s what we’re doing, right?”
Vola glanced around the table but the only thing the halfling had brought with her was the quarterstaff and a tiny pack.
She shrugged. So far, Sorrel was the closest thing to an adventurer she’d seen in this town.
“You can fight,” she said without a hint of question.
The halfling nodded succinctly. “Since I was four.”
Vola dropped the pages with surprise. Four? She beat Vola by at least two years. And she’d thought her parents were insane to take a six-year-old on a camping trip in goblin territory.
“I was raised by the monks in one of Maxim’s monasteries and trained in martial arts since I was old enough to force the issue,” Sorrel said.
Vola blinked, wondering what exactly that meant. She cleared her throat. “Aren’t monks supposed to be peaceful? All that meditation and self-reflection stuff.”
“Just because we know how to hold our tempers doesn’t mean we don’t know when someone needs a kick in the shins, too. The abbot always preached non-violence, but he still let Master Bao teach everyone how to throw a punch.”
“You’re not a spell caster, too, are you?”
“Drat. I’d really like one of those.”
“Because of the illusions? Smart,” the halfling said and reached for one of the papers. She held the blank sheet in front of her, then frowned. She laid it back down on the table and smoothed it with broad, capable fingers.
“About the pay,” Vola said, clearing her throat. “It’s not set in stone yet.” She actually had no idea where they were going to get the money to outfit themselves, since this wasn’t a full contract. But her sign had looked so incomplete without those squiggly little gold coins she’d drawn in the corners.
Sorrel waved a hand. “I don’t care about the money. You can keep my share.”
Vola blinked. “What?” All adventurers cared about was gold.
“I’ve been sleeping on a stone slab since I was a baby. I eat gruel and drink cheap beer. I fight with a glorified stick.” She touched the quarterstaff on her shoulder and shrugged. “What use do I have for gold?”
“Then why are you so eager to come along?” Volagra said, eyes narrowing. Becky bustled by with a steaming teapot, leaving the sweet scent of wake blossom in the air.
Sorrel shrugged again. “I won’t make any secret of it. It’s the illusions. The golems. I’m trying to find Maxim’s Warhammer. And the last time it was seen in the mortal world, it was capable of that sort of magic.”
Sorrel was looking for the weapon of a god. Not just any god either. A Greater Virtue. Maxim was the god of strength and loyalty. Vola had lost count of the number of paladins who followed him.
“So, you think the kidnappers might be using a god’s weapon to replace townspeople?” Vola said, tilting her head.
Sorrel sighed gustily. “It’s the only clue I have. And I’m not a spell caster so I don’t have a lot to go on to begin with.” She shifted her chair with a bright screech against the floor to survey the room. “Do you think any of these guys have magic?”
The assorted blond and brown humans who sat at their tables and waited in Braydon’s line scowled at them. Vola scowled back. Sorrel was getting some equally strange and hostile looks, but the halfling just swung her feet and returned the looks with a bright, open grin.
Sorrel took a swig from her mug, and Vola struggled to remember if she’d had the drink with her the whole time.
Over Sorrel’s shoulder, the door of the Tea and Tap Room opened and a young woman poked her head in. Red-gold hair fell down her back in silky waves and she pushed it over her shoulder with a practiced gesture. She glanced around the room with a pair of vivid blue-green eyes before her gaze latched on Vola’s table and the sign.
The girl shuffled inside and made her way across the floor. Halfway through the room, she tripped over the leg of a chair, stumbled a few steps, and then righted herself, her cheeks stained red. She skipped the last few steps to the table and said breathlessly, “Are you the one offering gold for a rescue mission?”
Her voice was sweet and melodic. Vola could imagine her with a lute and a filmy gauze dress strumming for the pleasure of some noble lord.
Vola leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms, then swept her gaze up and down the young woman’s figure. She wore a blue vest over a white blouse and a pair of pants that showed off a set of curves that would make an hourglass jealous. A book bound in blue leather hung from her wide hip. The girl flushed even harder under Vola’s scrutiny.
Vola tried not to roll her eyes. This young woman was the mirror image of the perfect pale village girls Vola had longed to look like when she was a little younger and less settled in her own skin. From the perfect hair to the wide beautiful eyes. Sure, she was shorter and thicker than the stick figures Vola’s village had revered ten years ago, but that didn’t hide the clear pink skin and delicate features she undoubtedly took for granted.
There was no way this soft beauty would be worth anything out in the field save as bait.
Vola tapped her sign. “I’m looking for warriors. Are you trained in combat?”
“Er, no, but I…”
Vola met Sorrel’s eyes, and the halfling monk gave her a sympathetic shrug.
“Have you had any experience fighting?”
The young woman’s face went sickly pale, losing all of its healthy glow, and she dropped her incredible gaze.
“Yes. A little. Once.” She raised her eyes again to catch Vola’s unguarded expression. She swallowed. “I’m sorry I’m so…so…” She gestured to herself. “But I need the money.”
Vola tried to soften her expression. If nothing else, this woman had enough courage to look a half-orc in the eye and ask for a job with no skills or recommendations. “What for?” she asked.
“I’m traveling,” she said simply. “And that requires gold. More than I thought. Even just a place to sleep costs money.”
Vola’s eyebrows went up. She said that as if it had never occurred to her before. And now that she was looking, Vola could see bits of straw sticking out of her near-perfect hair as if she’d spent the night in a hay rick.
Vola sighed. Paladins were called to help all those in need, and it would break her heart to turn away this lovely hobo, but she couldn’t afford to have someone on her team who couldn’t defend herself. Sorrel and Vola would spend all their time trying to keep her alive.
“I’m sorry,” Vola said. “But—”
A beefy farmer from the next table over stood up, letting his chair screech back. In the back of her mind, Vola had noticed him ogling.
The farmer stepped up behind the young woman and put a hand on her shoulder. He leaned close to breathe on her neck. “If you need a place to stay the night, half of my bed is empty,” he said. “And I can think of lots of things you can do to earn some gold from me.”
Vola’s hand closed over the hilt of her sword which hung in its sheath behind her. But before her fingers could even find their grip, the young woman’s gaze flashed up, all uncertainty gone.
“I suggest you remove your hand from my shoulder before I remove it from your person,” she said.
The farmer guffawed.
The young woman placed her fingers on the back of his hand and a spark zipped between them.
His laughter turned into screams, and he snatched his hand back to cradle it against his chest.
The girl turned, her fingers twisting in a complicated spell before a ball of fire formed between her palms. “Would you like to continue this conversation?”
Vola met Sorrel’s eyes, and the halfling mouthed “spell caster,” then wiggled her fingers like she was casting a spell.
The farmer took one look at the young woman’s hands and her implacable expression, then ran.
Her mouth thinned into something that wasn’t quite a smirk. “I didn’t think so.”
She turned back to the table. Then tripped on her boot lace, fell backward, and sent a fireball directly into the ceiling.
Kendra Merritt has relied on books as an escape for as long as she can remember. She used to hide fantasy novels behind her government textbook in high school, and she wrote most of her first novel during a semester of college algebra. Now she writes comedic fantasy and fairytales with main characters who have disabilities. She lives in Denver with her husband, their book-loving kids and a lazy, black monster masquerading as a service dog.