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Foundering Valley – Chapter 41, Saturday, June 21 – The Last Huzzah!

Chapter 41 – Saturday, June 21 – The Last Huzzah!

 Flummox had had enough of Olivia’s potions and elixirs by Saturday morning, and so decided to do without the painkillers and headed towards the market.  He got as far as the front room of the inn before deciding instead to spend the day with the book he had been sent by Archie Tomes – ‘The Defense of Bewilderwood Forest.”  It was about how a group of elves held off the orc invasion of the last scrap of forest that they could call their own. 

            With a stoic grin on his face, he told his friends to go ahead and enjoy the market sights and tastes.  Perhaps he’d be able to join them for the show that afternoon, but if not, they could tell him what he missed; he had probably seen better burlesque in the City, anyway.  He even bet D-Stract that she wouldn’t see anything new, but to keep him posted just in case.

            In truth he felt the need for some old-fashioned natural painkiller – the kind that came in a bottle.  He settled down at a corner table with a good view of the front room, and savored the idea of a quiet day, sipping liqueurs, reading his book, and watching the world go by.

 Goldilocks came by to serve him.  “Oh, I really enjoyed that book!  How the elf maiden shamed all the biggest orc warriors by seducing them and stealing their weapons and gold.  Like typical males, they were too macho to admit they’d been defeated by a woman, and they all claimed it was a fierce elven prince that had beaten them.  Hilarious!”

            Flummox skimmed over the first chapter quickly, to get beyond what Goldilock had just revealed.

 Spamwich brought out some lunch.  “I see you’re reading Bewilderwood.  It was so funny seeing the orcs push forward the gay squire to go clear the woods, secretly thinking that he would be proof against the elf maiden just because he favored boys instead.  The Chief is shocked when this pansy jumps at the task the better warrior’s had failed at, because that idiot actually wants to meet this vaunted elf prince, not knowing he was actually just made up!  Priceless!  Now, did you want sauce with those fried tubers?  I’ve got something made from tomato, mustard, horseradish, and a hint of wasabi.  Very spicy!”

            “Um, no thanks.  Salt and pepper is fine.”

            Annoyed, Flummox flipped forward to where the pansy orc entered the forest.

 “Excuse me.  I don’t mean to interrupt your lunch, but do you have a moment?”  Sherlock stood by the table hopefully.

            Flummox pushed aside his plate of fried tubers and gestured invitingly at a chair.

            Sherlock sat.  “How are your wounds healing?”

            “Well enough.  I ought to be up and going in a few more days.”

            “Wonderful.”  Sherlock leaned forward and dropped his voice.  “I have further need of your assistance, to deal with a rash of jewel thefts.”

            “Déjà vu, yet?  I thought that was all cleared up?  Just a game the upper class types play with one another.”

            “This is something different, something new.  The current modus operandi suggests an entirely new force at work.”

            “Oh really?  Do tell.  I love a puzzle.”

            “In that, we are alike.  Some of the thefts are classic locked-room mysteries, with second story windows cracked open too little for a human to enter.”

            Flummox looked embarrassed.  “Um, well, about that…”

            Sherlock waved a hand.  “I’m not interested in Rufus and his pet.  Besides, that was for a good cause and those ‘upper class types’ will never miss those few items.  No, I’m talking about theft on a different order.”

            “Has a whole lot been taken?”

            “That’s relative.  Bear in mind that this town is, at heart, the marketplace for a gem-mining operation.  The people here have been holding back the best pieces for hundreds of years.  They would put jewel encrustations on their chamber pots if they thought anybody would ever see them.  Now these new thefts, rather than showing up again as trophies around some lady’s neck, are simply disappearing.  And too, most of the thefts are not wearable items.  Cups, letter openers, candle holders, snuff boxes – all manner of things that are small and easily carried off.  Quite enough to make it worth a thief’s trouble, but on a percentage basis for the uptown folk…  Well, it’s a point of honor, not economic necessity, that I find out who is responsible.”

            Flummox nodded.  “So, the M.O. – open windows, small items — suggests a trained animal of some sort is carrying them off.  And yet, you are certain Rufus and Parrot are not responsible.  Interesting.  Go on.”

            Sherlock smiled.  “I have been observing the hawk, and it is not guilty.  I have also been watching the Asian’s trained ferret, and little Petunia’s cat Shadow.  None are responsible.  Quite mysterious – I may yet have an interesting puzzle worthy of my attention.”

            Flummox smiled back.  “Sounds fun.  I may have a few little leads to follow up on, when I’m healed.”

            Sherlock nodded.  “Don’t be too long about it; the game’s afoot.  Good day to you sir!”

            “And to you.”

            Flummox tried a fried tuber absently, wrinkled up his nose, and went back to his book.  He flipped through several pages, trying to find a good point for reentering the story.           D-Stract: Hey there, how are you holding up?  The show is about to start.  Can I bring you anything to eat, or is Spamwich toning things down?
           
Flummox: Thanks, I’m fine.

            D-Stract: Okay, I’ll keep you posted.  Holler if you need anything.

            Flummox: Will do.

            Here was a good point to start — the pansy orc was searching for the handsome elven prince.  He started tracking some prints through the woods, but didn’t yet realize that it was not the prince he was following, but rather the elf maiden.

 Beryl approached with a mug of ale, which he set down on the table. “Goldilocks went to the show, so let me know if you need anything.”

            Flummox looked up.  “Okay, thanks.”

            Beryl frowned.  “Somebody told me there was a white ghost flying from roof to roof the other night.  Your little friend, the white fur-ball, isn’t going to be messing up any more of my rooms, is he?”

            Flummox shook his head.  “Nah, I think Mama Yeti has him firmly under her wing again.  I think they must have been just passing through town on their way to their new home, to the south.  Rufus pointed them to the old mine up above the Withers place.”

            Beryl nodded.  “Good place for them.  The further from here, the better.”  He went off to polish more glasses.

            D-Stract:  The show is starting!  Beowolf, Socrates, and Casanova are recreating the scene of the big Trog fight between the Chief and Slasher!  You really need to see this!

            Flummox:  I’m good.

            D-Stract:  The clown, the Vikings, and that bouncy babe, Sunny, are all in the wings, acting as the peanut galleries for both sides.  The dwarf juggler is up above, getting ready to distract Slasher.

            Flummox:  I’d ask you to tell me how it ends, but I already know.  Let me know when you see something new.

            D-Stract:  Spoiled sport.  She then blew a mental raspberry at him.

 When Flummox looked up, five characters in garish costumes were approaching him tentatively.  The Masked Marvel was in the lead.  “Say, friend, that wound looks pretty tough.  How did you get it, if you don’t mind me asking?”

            Flummox cocked his head and looked at them.  “Wounds, plural.  A 7-foot long lizard chomped down on my elbow, dug its claws into my arm, and tried to rip my guts out with its toenails.  Why do you ask?”

            The five exchanged glances.  “Are there more of those… big lizards about?”

            “Well, I did for that one, with a poison dagger behind the shoulder joint.  Why do you ask?”

            The Masked Marvel sat down, brushed crumbs off the ‘mM’ on his front, and leaned forward.  “We thought we knew what was going on, what with the outlandish stories of fighting elementals, vampires, and werewolves and all.  That’s right down our line.  When you were hurt, we thought maybe it was either staged, or was an accident.  Now we’re not sure.  What’s going on around here, anyway?”

            Flummox shook his head.  “You’re not the first to be sucked into this place.  Summoned by the Earl, I mean.”

            The blue bird-man with a big green fist banged it on the table.  “I knew we shouldn’t trust him.  He has all the earmarks of a mad scientist, right down to the creepy castle.  He must have drugged us to get us here.  I don’t remember signing any contracts.  Do any of you?”

            The caped man with the bat on his chest shook his head.  “I sure didn’t, and I’m very careful about contracts.”

            Flummox looked at him.  “You’re BatLord, right?  Superhero with no actual powers but lots of expensive toys, right?  They mostly work here, but you’re not really as strong as you make out to be, right?”

            BatLord frowned.  “I’m still shaking off the effects of the drugs.  Give it time.”

            “And you, with the big fist, ‘Punch’ is it?  What’s the strongest thing you’ve punched through since you got here?”

            Punch stood straighter and threw back his shoulders.  “It is a matter of control.  I can’t just go around destroying things indiscriminantly.”

            “Right.  And you, BirdMan, how’s the flying at this altitude?”

            The man in yellow with a cape looked at his feet.  “Well, I’ve been a bit dizzy since getting here.  Like BatLord said, the drugs…”

            Flummox shook his head.  “There were no drugs, and you five are not superheroes; you’re actors and you’ve got no clue what’s going on.”

            The five looked at each other.  IronGuy frowned and leaned on the table.  “Hey!  Be more careful.  You’re breaking the fourth wall.  Somebody is watching us strut our stuff, somehow, for whatever reason, and you’re messing things up.  Maybe there’s no audience and this is just an audition, but we haven’t had a good gig in ages, and you’re going to blow our big chance!”

            Flummox spread his hands.  “Ain’t nobody watching.  Your souls have been snatched back from the ether hundreds of years after the stories you used to act out, and your old lives are gone to dust, and if you don’t know any modern magic, which you apparently don’t, you’re just as mundane as everybody else, and worse off than most.  You’re going to have to make a big effort to carve out new lives for yourselves.  But don’t worry; there are a couple dozen of you in the same pickle.  In fact, the Viking group is in your exact position.  They are all actors, no fighting skills in the bunch, and they joined the traveling performance troop.  You actors could do worse than following their lead.  You know they’re putting on a show right now, out on Market Square?”

            The Masked Marvel looked at his colleagues, then back at Flummox.  “Thanks for being straight with us.  The whole thing is kind of hard to swallow, of course.  We need to talk things over.  Taking in the show seems a good next step.”

            Flummox nodded and made a shooing motion.  “Off with you then!  Go enjoy the show.  Let me read my book in peace!”

            The five of them filed sheepishly out the door of the inn.

            With a sigh, Flummox returned to his book.  The pansy elf finds the camp where the elf maiden is staying, but it is defended by a unicorn…

 “That is one beautiful animal, isn’t it?”  Clang the blacksmith reached over Flummox’s shoulder and pointed at an illustration of the unicorn, in silver and gold.

            Flummox whirled around, then winced as his side throbbed.  “Yes, I suppose it is.”

            “I really like the part where he rallies all the forest animals to hinder the progress of the orc hunter.  It is really funny the things they do to him, but of course the girl lets him find her in the end.”  Clang looked wistful.  “I wish I could see the unicorn up in our woods.  I hear it’s even more beautiful in person than any picture.  The moon on its coat is supposed to glow like fairy lights.  Duncan told me.  You’ve seen it, haven’t you?”

            Flummox shook his head.  “Nah, some of my friends have, but I’ve missed out so far.”

            “I surely would love to see it some night, with a full moon.  Maybe he’d even let me go for a ride…”

            “I’ve heard you have to be, ah…. very gentle with the beasts, to get close.”

            Clang flushed with embarrassment.  “Speakin’ of being gentle with beasts, that’s why I’ve come to talk at you!  The state you brought back Foggy Bottom in was a disgrace!  Horrible musky smell like she rolled in dragon poo, scratches all over her legs, hair a tangled mess, and blood!  Blood spilled all over her flanks.”

            “That was mine.”
            “Eh?”

            “My blood.  I was in pretty bad shape, and it was only Foggy Bottom could carry me back.  I owe my life to that mule, in a way.  I’m sorry she’s distressed.”

            Clang looked taken aback.  “Well, uh, truth be told, she’s fine.  Just needed some attention.  Had to do it me-self, since Duncan’s busy haulin’ rock.  Point of fact, she’s frisky and more active than I’ve ever seen her.”

            “Well, that’s good then, isn’t it?”

            “Yep.  Oh, by the way, Tinker wanted me to tell you lot, that they’ll be takin’ Sunday off, but likely will have the last culvert ready to fire over on Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday morning.  The Buccaneer is comin’ back Thursday afternoon and he wants to be long gone ‘fore they get here.”

            Flummox nodded.  “Interesting.  Okay, I’ll let Rufus know.  Consider it done.”

            Rufus:  Got it.  Thanks, Flummox.  We’d better get that crew dredging up sand before that, so I’ll need to talk to Tinker.

            Flummox:  You do that.  I’m afraid I won’t be much help before Thursday.

            Clang furrowed his brow.  “Are you okay?  You looked a mite pained there for a bit.  Can I get you anythin’?”

            Flummox smiled.   “No thanks.  Beryl can get me whatever I need.  I’ll just sit here with my book.”

            “Later then.”  Clang gave a nod and headed out the door.

 A balding man in a long coat with half-moon glasses cleared his throat.  “Excuse me, we met previously, I’m Mr. S.”

            “Of course.  Sorry I have nothing worth putting in your bank.”

            “Tut, tut, never too late to start saving!  But be that as it may, I wanted to talk to you about another matter, if you have a moment.”

            “Okay, have a seat.”

            Mr. S. sat across from Flummox.  “I was hoping to get your insights on something.  I’m brokering a possible investment, and have a duty to minimize the risks involved, you understand, for my clients.”

            “Of course — the dwarves and their glassworks.”

            Mr. S. shook his head.  “No, that’s already moving forward, most satisfactorily.  No, this has to do with certain novel technologies certain other clients wish to commercialize.”

            “You’re talking about that clear flexible fabric from the Trogs, aren’t you?  Sorry, but I really don’t know how that works.”

            Mr. S. shook his head.  “No, no.  Well, yes, that’s the technology of interest, but the technical details are not my concern; I must necessarily rely on others to delve into such things.  The Trogs are reliable trading partners, and will cooperate as long as it is in their interest to do so.  It’s just a matter of how the pie is divided — but everyone wants to see the pie get bigger.”

            “What then?”

            Mr. S. leaned forward.  “I need your impartial assessment of the business team.  It’s a rather unorthodox crew that is putting this idea forward.  You see Master Cardigan and his wife have the funding covered, and marketing connections, but they are wanting me to vet those responsible for actually setting up the manufacturing operation.”

            “I see.  And who has he got, so far?”

            “Well, not to be too blunt about it, a straw man, a werewolf, and a man who’d rather be at sea or arranging his nick-knacks – anything to avoid breaking a sweat.  Though it’s not his fault of course — his missing foot makes manual labor difficult, but there it is.  I understand Cardigan’s concern that this lot might not be able to take the Trog technology and make it work.”

            “Werewolf?  Oh, you mean Delft.  They expect him to start the cure later this week, and it’s looking like about 2 weeks will do the trick.  He should be up and ready to get on the job in a month or so.  You know more about his abilities than I do; I understand he used to run the tanning operations for years, without much help from Flang.  I’m a newcomer here, but you should be familiar with his work.”

            Mr. S. nodded.  “Fair enough.  We won’t go into the impulsive nature that led him and Rudy Rouge to go chasing after the wolves in the first place.  I mean, you expect a certain amount of boldness in an entrepreneur; it’s a must, in fact.  What about the straw man?”

            “He’s obviously new on the scene.  He seems intelligent and earnest, if a bit… insubstantial.  I’m sure he’d give Delft good advice, and help with office work and such.  Heavy lifting seems to be not his forte.  I suppose I share your misgivings about Captain Flang’s commitment to a project like this; he’s stretched pretty thin, and I thought he was going to sail with the Narwhal, isn’t he?”

            Mr. S. bit his lip.  “Yes, I agree.  But his main contribution is that he owns the building where the tannery is located, and all the equipment, vats and such, that will be needed.  As a contributing partner, who is going to be travelling abroad, I’ll need assurance that if anything happens to him, the business will not suffer.  I’m sure I can put the proper legal instruments in place – powers of attorney, insurance, an option on the property and such.  Yes, I think that would do the trick.”

            Flummox put a hand to his chin.  “Um, have they told you what they’ll do for raw materials?  Chemicals and such would come from the mines, I guess, but what about the Chitin?”

            “Chitin?  Oh yes, the exoskeleton of bugs.  I gather there are quite a few roving through the burnt barrens.”

            Flummox shook his head.  “You do NOT want to rely on beetles from there as a raw material.  Even if your crew could successfully hunt them, which I doubt, there is a matter of politics.  The Lizards don’t want humans on their turf.  Besides, they eat the beetles; they consider them a delicacy.  That’s the weak point in the plan.”

            Mr. S. frowned.  “Yes, you are quite correct.  They must secure another source of chitin before we release funding.  Do you have any suggestions?”

            Flummox thought a moment.  “Well, other things have exoskeletons.  Seafood like shrimp, lobster, crabs.  There seem to be quite a few crabs in your lake.”

            Mr. S. visibly brightened.  “Oh, it’s all good then.  I’ll just ask them to test their formula on one of those.  You don’t mind having your friends bring one to the tannery, do you?  I’m sure we can release funding to reimburse you for any incidental costs.”

            Flummox looked pained.  “Well, uh…”

            “Sorry, must run.  I have a million things to do, starting with that paperwork on the tannery building.  And, I must get back to the office.  Later!”

            Flummox stared slack-jawed at Mr. S.’s back as he left the inn.

            Flummox:  Guys, I hate to tell you, but we’ve got one order up  — for fresh crab from the lake — to go.

            D-Stract:  What are you talking about, Ducky?  Blaze and Silky are taking opposite ends of the stage.  It looks like there’s going to be a catfight, with Garcia in the middle clutching his guitar.

            Flummox:  Chitin.  Bug skins, or in this case crab husks.  Mr. S. want to back Cardigan’s venture into transparent fabrics but he needs to know if crab skins and shells will work as well.  He wants us to fetch one up to the tannery.

            Animus:  Why are we running errands for him?

            Flummox:  Unh, good will of the community, and all that?

            Animus:  Really, why are we doing any of this?  It’s not like Green said, that we’re in line to take over this place, are we?

            Sapphire:  Foundering Valley could do worse, but you can name a dozen others that would do better than us, let alone the Earl.

            Rufus:  I thought the idea was to prop him up until he grows into the job.

            D-Stract:  Hey guys, we’re missing the show.  How about we hash this out over dinner tonight?

            Animus:  Probably better that way, so I can see your eyes when you try to explain to me what exactly is in it for us.

            Flummox:  Suits me.  Enjoy the show, and let me know if they do anything original.

            D-Stract:  Hush now, the elven twins are up next.  Or are they a couple?  I haven’t figured that out yet.

 “Are you all right, Master Flummox?”  Flummox opened his eyes to the sight of the dwarf Gorbag, cleaver hung at his side, his apron spattered with blood.

            Flummox sat up straighter, and covertly felt around for his axe, which had been left with his bow back in the room.  His small knife was lying on the table in plain sight.  “Oh, sure, I’m fine.  Were you looking for me?”

            “Yes, my brother and cousin sent me to make sure you were going to get that replacement sand you promised.”

            “Oh yeah, it’s all set.  We’re going to dredge it up first part of this week, before the Buccaneer gets in.  Wouldn’t want to have them get stuck on a sandbar again.  Ha, ha.”

            Gorbag slid into a chair and leaned forward.  “And how about the other stuff you promised?  The magical dogs and control devices?”

            “Yes, well, we will need the dog with the water protection to help go after the sand, and the lightning protection to work with it safely.  You probably shouldn’t try working with the other dog, with the fire protection, until we finish pulling up the sand.  End of the week, looks like.  So how is the glass works going?”

            Gorbag looked cagey.  “Not bad.  We need some equipment that’s coming in on the Buccaneer.  Then some drilling.  We’re almost done cutting the rock for the kiln from the mountain side and shifting it into place.  We ought to be able to start turning out bottles for Grog in a month or so.”

            “You know the dam has been fixed, don’t you?  The water supplies should be going back to normal soon.  I’m afraid there won’t be much demand for purified water after that.”

            Gorbag gave a wink.  “Maybe yes, maybe no.  We’re betting that, now that people are more aware of where their water comes from, they’re going to want to be more careful in the future.  The muck at the bottom was stirred up pretty bad, you know, and who knows what toxic metal sludge may be washing into the river at this point.  That’s the story, anyway.  We’re not going to be able to make bottles fast enough to meet the demand.  Plus there’s a rumor some of the farmers have grape crops coming in, for wine.”

            Flummox rubbed his chin.  “Hmm.  Do you think your brother would be interested in some other containers?  In addition to the glass, of course?”

            Gorbag caught his breath and squinted.  “Tell me more.”

            “Let me think about this a minute.”  Flummox looked at the ceiling.  “Yes, that might fit nicely.  You like catching things, right?  And could use another meat supply?  I had been thinking that the razor dog with the water amulet would just protect you from the crab-men in the lake – while you’re on the beach I mean.  But, do you suppose that, with the razor dog’s help, you could actually catch them?  They make good eating, that I know.”

            Gorbag grinned.  “That’s right down my alley – catching a critter I can see, and lay my hand on.  Meat is pretty scarce these days, and Whittler is taking his time about rebuilding my shop.  I’ve had to work in a back corner of my brother’s place.  Just had to swear to him I’d lay off the black powder, and all.  Yes, I think we can build a trap for crab-men.  And they’ll be flocking to the beach, with the glass works operating there.”

            Flummox smiled.  “Well, I may be getting ahead of myself, but I bet you’ll find there is a market for the flexible crab skins, and maybe the shells, too.  I see a barter trade in the works, crab husks for the clear containers, like wine skins, that they make from them.  We need to prove it out, of course, but it’s not too soon to be talking to Scarecrow, Flang, and Delft – and thinking how you’d go about catching crab-men.”

            “Hmm.  The bodies are pretty soft and flexible, I see where they’re going with that, but if the shells are too hard for them, we could maybe use them in the glass mix.  Pure calcium source.”  Gorbag stood up and offered to shake hands.  “I’m happy I came by.  This may yet prove to be a profitable day.”  He hurried off.

            Flummox muttered.  “And I may yet read two pages of this book without interruption.”  So he read how the elf maiden finally allowed herself to be ‘captured’ by the pansy orc squire.

“Oh I love that part, it always makes my cheeks flush.  Men are such idiots.”

            “Excuse me?”  Flummox looked up to see Mrs. Ironborg, with Upsie on her hip.

            “It’s really a very… arousing chapter.  She’s trying to seduce the squire like she had the rest of the orcs, only he’s just interested in men – finding the prince, that is.  He’s got no idea that she’s throwing herself at him.  Men!  Talk a big story but when a gal is ready… a big bust!  No pun intended.”

            Flummox frowned.  “Did you want to see me about something?”

            “Why no, I’m just here to pick up some things Spamwich is holding for me – milk and such.  But then, as long as you’re here…”  She swung Upsie over her shoulder and sat down.  “You’re acting just like the orc in that book.”

            “Excuse me?”

            “You don’t pay that lovely girl, D-Stract, enough attention.  I see it in her eyes, every time she looks at my kids.  She wants a baby too, and she wants you to give it to her.  But no, you’re all off being macho and adventuring.  Got to save the world, haven’t you?  Never mind that the world doesn’t want saving!  You need to settle down and focus on what’s really important.  Start a family – with D-Stract!”

            Flummox’s jaw dropped and he stared, at a loss for words.

            Mrs. Ironborg stood up.  “Well, I suppose it’s none of my business.  I’m just sayin’.  You’ll do what you want, anyway, whatever I say.”  She then hustled off to the inn’s kitchen.

            Flummox just shook his head, closed his eyes for a few minutes, then flipped forward a few pages.  He’d finish this book yet, without having to read hardly any of it.

            And so he read how the elf maiden agreed to take the orc squire to see the handsome elf prince, but began to sew the seeds of doubt.  She said she wanted to have the squire kill him, because he was such an evil doer.  He had sold the elves out to the orc chieftain, and now was in fact setting plotting against the Chief’s minions – those whom the elf prince had caught and humiliated would be revealed as unworthy to serve the orc chieftain.

            D-Stract:  Oh, Flummox.  You should see what Napoleon is doing with some of the lady actors.  They sing and do voice, while he paints images of them in fairy-tale landscapes.  It takes real willpower to pry my eyes open and see them all just standing on the stage.  Bog, he would ever be able to set things up for a pickpocket!

            Flummox:  A deaf one, anyway.  That is something novel, because it hinges on his special talent.  I think you win the bet.  Now let me read.

            D-Stract:  You rest up, Ducky.  You’re going to need your energy later.

            Flummox:  Now just what do you mean by that?

            D-Stract:  I’m going to enjoy keeping you wondering about that.  Later, Ducky.

            Flummox closed his eyes and shook his head.

            Back to the book.  The elf maiden continued to take advantage of her position, whispering untruths to the orc squire, spinning the web or her plot.  Somehow a dragon entered the story, as if he were somehow responsible for all the strife.  Flummox shook his head again, trying to clear it.  Somehow he couldn’t get at what the elf maid was trying to accomplish.

 Suddenly Larsen burst through the front door of the inn.  “Where is that man?  I want to talk to him about this road business!”

            Flummox groaned softly to himself.  “Why is everything going on my fault?”

            Larsen surveyed the front room of the inn, and spied Flummox sitting in his corner.  As Larsen rushed over, Flummox decided the only way to deal with him was to pretend to be asleep.  By time Larsen left, it was the truth.

            When the rest of the adventurers returned to the inn for supper, and to get away from Moonbeam’s dissonant postlude, they were concerned to see Flummox slumped over the table.  To their relief, there came the soft sounds of snoring.

 D-Stract laughed.  “This is the first time I’ve ever been happy that he snored!”

            They carried Flummox off to his room, and settled down to supper, and some deep soul-searching.

 Animus started it off, questioning everything about what the adventurers were trying to do in the valley.  “You know, Tinker has been footing our bill at the inn all this time so that we’d help rescue his caravan.  They’re all leaving now and, in case you didn’t notice, we have nothing coming in.  And Maude, don’t give us that ‘you can’t take it with you’ stuff.  We are here now, we need to eat, now, and the only reason any of us came here was to find our fortunes in that ancient ruined city off in the mountains somewhere.  I for one have tried being poor, and I don’t like it.  Not one bit!”

 Maude of course defended herself.  “Of course you can’t take it with you, and when you look back at your life, you’re going to wonder what you accomplished.  But on the other hand, I agree, you need to have some fun while you’re here, too, otherwise what’s the point?”

 Cleo spoke with righteous fury.  “I for one can’t stand to see the forces of good destroyed by evil, or by diseases, or by greedy and ignorant people, who can’t see past their fears and prejudices.  We have to make a stand for what is right!  It is our duty to fix the wrong things that we see here, whether we’re rewarded for it or not.”

 Grace elaborated on what Cleo said.  “Rewards are nice, but your karma is whatever you make it.  Good deeds remain good deeds whether someone else is watching or not.  What matters is whether you make progress, spiritually, at each turning of the wheel, or not, and fall back.  Whether you believe in just one shot straight into heaven, hell, or history, or if you believe in an endless cycle of reincarnation, whichever, what we do here matters.  It is what makes up the very fabric of our souls.  We must do what is right, for goodness sake. For our souls.”

 Rufus, as was his nature, sought balance.  “You all have valid points, of course.  You should look at the moral considerations as boundaries on what sort of things you are willing to do.  Then, from what is left, wisely choose jobs that will actually pay, so that we can sustain ourselves.”

 D-Stract had a different take on transactional relationships.  “Reminds me of the so-called friend who says, ‘I was nice to you, so now you have to be nice to me’.  Tit for tat.  You folks are talking as if money were an end in itself.  What you really need is power.  Power to do what you want, and to be safe at the same time.  And, the only way to do that, no matter how skilled you are personally, is to be part of something bigger.  You need to make friends, be part of a community.  You help people in need, because they are part of the community you serve.  When you voice needs of your own, if you are valued by the community, someone will step forward to help – probably someone other than who you helped.  Strength and power lie in belonging.  That’s the path I’ve seen us on.  We’re becoming solid members of this community, and that gives us security, strength, and power, and the help we need to do – whatever it is that needs done.”

 Sapphire cut to the heart of the matter.  “Okay, so we’ve been working our way into this community, and that is a good thing, no matter if somebody is keeping score.  However, we can’t ignore the fact that this band of us already have significant power.  Whoever we work for is going to advance up the social ladder — whoever we support is going to end up ruling.  So the question is, if we’re kingmakers, whom do we support?  The Earl, who clearly is unfit for the job?  His mixed collection of royal guardians, who can’t agree with each other on the time of day?  Exchequer, who everybody hated when he had the job?  Mr. S. and his financiers – as in the golden rule?  The local middleclass merchants?  Traders?  The Church maybe?  Or, should we be thinking about what Doc Green said?  Should we be angling to rule the valley ourselves?”  A general murmur of protest broke out and Sapphire raised her hands to calm the others.  “I know, I know.  Look at what one afternoon of nagging did to poor Flummox – none of us are desk-bound administrators.  But whose claim do we support?  Right now, we seem to be working for the Monk.  Is he destined to rule this valley?”

 At this point, I (yes, me, myself, the one narrating this story) had to speak up.  I had been content to stay in the shadows, listening, while they went back and forth between these positions (which I have clarified and summarized above).  But when called out directly in this way, I could no longer remain just an observer.  “Hold on, my friends.  I am no more interested in ruling this valley than you are.  I am here because I sense a growing nexus of magical forces in this place, and feel compelled to observe.  Yes – it is still growing, despite your efforts to rein in the local elementals, and there is no telling when and where it will all peak.  But still, Sapphire is right.  Your support will tip the balance of leadership, here in the valley.  Whomever you support will have the power to shape what is to come, based on their vision.  Choose wisely, as the community you build together will face dark challenges in the time ahead.  But now, I must rest, and I suggest you all do the same.  Think on where you will throw your support – whose vision of this valley you want to see realized.”

            And so, with a few final words, they parted ways and settled down to dream of what was to come.

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{Stay tuned for the next chapter.}

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