Tabarnas always felt nervous whenever he was separated from his stock. It wasn't just a matter of distance, if the stock could be left outside a walled city whilst negotiations took place with the Master Chief of the town's trader's guild then it didn't matter; these were negotations and something any goblin trader would be well used to.
The separation anxiety began to bite when the stock had to be cached because outside circumstances, not conducive to trade, dictated that carting a load of sale items around might not be prudent, in the strictest sense of the term. Then your stockpile could be safely under lock and key in the next street and you'd still be worried.
It wasn't the distance, it was the prospect of thievery, or acts of nature, or acts of deliberate plunder and villainy. In short, it was generally acknowledged that any kind of risk was bad for business. The prospect of risk sent a shudder down Tabarnas's spine. Well it might, because if a risk matured then money would be lost. And if money was lost... well, what was the point of trying to wed that self-evident disaster with a 'then'? Money... would be lost. There would be a loss of money. How could anything be worse than that?
What made matters worse, at least in Tabarnas's opinion, was that they were well within the bounds of the Hundred Kingdoms, surrounded by crossways, not even in the brightest of shadow realms. Most people were perfectly safe here, protected under the rule of law. Not Tabarnas though, not with his current cargo and his current travelling companions, not with his current business.
He had to stop for a moment and ask himself why he was doing any of this.
The answer, of course, was stories. His story books had continued to evolve and change over the week that it had taken them to come to the edge of Sommerslip woods. Tabarnas had checked the main points of the Chronicles of Avan Weatherstrong and the new work detailing the life and adventures of Princess Anabyl, the Dragon Warrior.
The general shape and tone of the stories was the kind of stuff that Tabarnas liked best. Tales of derring-do and high heroics. There were little notes, swatches of darkness, where heroism, it was implied, was not enough and the battle, it was suggested, may not be won by the correct side.
These scurrilous passages, nestled away in the reams of epic prose needed to be excised, redacted, reversed, put right. The only people in the whole of Faerie who could wrangle a story were the Story Keepers of the Faerie Archive. It was these individuals that party or parties unknown had determined should never meet with Tabarnas, or his little band of helpers. Tabarnas had graduated from reading tales of heroics to being in them.
The only slight disadvantage to this being that Tabarnas did not feel, had not ever felt, and was extremely unlikely to feel in the future, like a hero. He was a trader, a business man: along with knowledge of the deeply important mission that he had accidentally become a part of was a natural curiosity as to whether he could broker a deal with the paymaster of the mercenaries who were currently pursuing him for the very items that he was supposed to protect.
There was nothing Tabarnas could do about this, it was his nature. So, altogether the best idea would be to sit here in the Sommerslip Inn and not do anything. He didn't want to end up betraying anyone by following his instincts.
A plain looking. burly farmer with a low brow and a missing tooth slipped into the booth opposite Tabarnas.
"Tabarnas," the farmer said. "Don't worry, it's me, Harvey."
The farmer reached up to his chin and pulled forward his face, the narrow jaw and high cheekbones of the djinn peeked out from the shadowy interior space that opened beneath the man's face. The farmer returned the chin to its initial starting place before continuing:
"I adapted some masks that I took from the House of Mirth," Harvey explained. "It means that we can all get around without causing too much panic."
"So why didn't you give one to me?" Tabarnas asked. "I'm positively sick sat in this nook, trying to be unobtrusive."
"Only the three masks, I'm afraid," Harvey said. "Don't worry, the trolls aren't bright enough to spot you. Freddie, Feebs and I are much easier to identify. I don't think anyone knows much about you beyond the fact that you're a goblin trader, and there's lots of them."
"So, what? I just have to sit here until you've... done... something...?" Tabarnas asked. He found the djinn terribly condescending. Tabarnas believed that Harvey regarded him as nothing more than a talking animal, and not one of the sophisticated types either. Like a dog that someone had enchanted to ask for food or beg for a stick to be thrown.
"Feebs seems to think she can give Freddie a boost," Harvey shrugged. "Then we can work out a strategy for getting the trolls off our back."
"I've got the distinct feeling," said a gawky looking young woman who slid into the seat next to Tabarnas without warning, "that things may, shortly, begin to get a bit frantic. I invested in a crossbow, and some new vambraces."
"Phoebe?" Tabarnas tried.
"No, it's Frederick!" the woman objected. "I would have thought the talk of weapons and armour would give it away."
"It's just, you're..." Tabarnas didn't know quite how to put it.
"I look like a girl, yes," Frederick said.
"Which some people might think was closer to reality," Harvey said. Frederick shot the djinn a look of tired disappointment and annoyance.
"Actually, Phoebe was going to take this mask," Frederick said. "But then she realised that if we swapped masks then it would probably help throw the trolls off the scent."
"But..." Tabarnas said. "There's still a male mask and a female mask, presumably, how does that help?"
"They're looking for a man buying weapons and a woman buying witchy things," Frederick explained. "Not the other way round."
"You have to remember," Harvey said. "These trolls are not much for subtlety and they're pretty easy to fool. In fact, the only advantage that they've got is that there do seem to be quite a few of them. Also they are all very strong."
"So what did you find out?" Frederick asked Harvey.
"There's three patrols walking around Sommerslip. The locals are pretty happy and peaceful, so they stick out a bit, that plays to our advantage," Harvey explained. "Unfortunately there isn't much in the way of a town watch, that I can see, anyhow. So if trouble comes our way then it looks like we could be on our own.
"The rest of the goons are assembled near the Archive building, there's a folkish chappie ordering them about and looking like his trollish soldiers are treading continually on his last nerve. The operation, as a whole, does not appear to be going smoothly.
"Oh, and he was wearing one of those rings, like the one we pulled off the fellow at The Castle."
"If we could find out who that ring belonged to," Tabarnas said. "Maybe we could work out how to get rid of them."
"Maybe," Harvey said. "But I think, at the moment, the small army of armed trolls hunting us down are the immediate concern. As long as trolls get paid they don't worry overmuch about who's doing the paying, and they're incredibly difficult to reason with. I think Feebs was right when she said we should deal with the immediate threat before identifying the general one."
"Did you just say I was right about something, Harvey Raine?" a toad-like middle-aged man said, sliding into the booth next to Harvey.
"Well, you said pretty much what I was thinking," Harvey said. "So obviously it was the correct thought to be having. How did the shopping trip go?"
"Immensely well," Phoebe said. "Turns out that this town is riddled with crossways, not only that but the town on the other side is pretty normal, not really mortal at all. There was a magic shop, down on the sea front, no trolls, I went there to get the supplies."
"So, what have you got for us?" Frederick asked.
"Ingredients for a nice piece of sympathetic witchcraft," Phoebe said. "Also, I was passing a shop as I came back to the crossway that had this in the window."
She held up a slim black-jacketed book.
"It's an alchemical guide to the classical elements. I think it's intended for students, it has some pretty impressive quick recipes for pre-prepared fire potions," she said.
"That you can mix up in an alley? Before the Day Bell?" Frederick asked.
"In theory, as long as the book's recipes are accurate." Phoebe shrugged.
"And if they're not?" Frederick asked. "What are the chances that those close by will be rendered into some sort of thin red paste?"
"Are you suggesting that I lack skills in alchemy?" Phoebe asked.
"I just don't like alchemy, generally speaking," Frederick replied. "It's really nothing personal. I am suspicious of all alchemy on an equal basis."
"Well, I think everything will be fine. I know how to stay safe when mixing potions," Phoebe said sniffily.
"Maybe," Tabarnas broke in. "We could stop arguing about it now and see if we can actually commit to some sort of action."
Everybody appeared to be able to agree on that point. Frederick hired a room and the party all went upstairs to allow Phoebe to work. By the time she had finished soaking things, burning things and infusing things with plasma energy the Noon Bell had rung. Phoebe presented the fruits of her labour, an hourglass, to Frederick.
"So, what does this do?" Frederick asked. "It's not going to explode is it?"
"Oh, heavens, no," Phoebe said. "That magick's a lot less subtle. This is a single use charm of enhanced vigour. It will make you stronger as long as the sand is travelling from the top bulb to the bottom bulb. I didn't have time to properly bake it, unfortunately so it will only work once. It's highly important that the hourglass is not smashed before the charm is finished or the remaining energy will disperse with a nasty snap."
"Define 'a nasty snap'," Frederick said, still regarding the charm with suspicion.
"She means," Harvey explained. "That the previously organised and directed magical energies will, all of a sudden, revert into a localised mischief field and they will be rather cross about it, so it won't be gentle mischief."
Frederick did not look happy about this.
"It's alright Freddie," Harvey said. "I'll come along and take care of the charm. They won't smash it while I'm looking after it."
"Bind him to that," Frederick said to Phoebe. Phoebe opened her mouth to say the fateful words, before she could speak Harvey cut her off.
"Now wait a minute!" he said. "Binding me to protect that charm is tantamount to declaring that you don't trust me to do it by myself."
Phoebe and Frederick looked over at Harvey with eyes that said: 'Seriously? You believe that morally indignant outrage is your right at this point?' far more eloquently than mere words could have expressed the sentiment.
"Further," Harvey said, warming to his theme. "You are implying that I'd rather see Sir Freddie beaten to a pulp than get rid of these trolls."
The look from the other two did not change.
"Well, I think that's a bit much," Harvey complained. "If Sir Dimwit there gets pulped then I will surely follow shortly thereafter. To damage our strong arm is to damage all of us. I don't mind you thinking of me as a sneak and a traitor, but stupid? I am not stupid."
Phoebe bound Harvey anyway before he and Frederick went off to find some trolls to beat up. Tabarnas stayed behind to help Phoebe with the fire bombs.
"I'm not sure I like this," Tabarnas said to Phoebe whilst he was stirring a flask of clear yellow liquid for her. "Violence tends to be bad for business."
"Mhmm," she said, emptying some red crystals into a pestle, while looking at the open page of her book. "I have to say I absolutely loathe violence. Unfortunately I'm very good at it."
"I know they're trolls and everything," Tabarnas said, trying to approach his misgivings from a different angle, "but I'm a goblin myself. We're genetic cousins. I've never really been a big fan of fighting and such."
"You read all those stories," Phoebe pointed out. "They're full of fighting."
"Well," Tabarnas said, although he couldn't think of what to say after that single syllable. He had a nasty feeling his pacifist agenda was about to be completely undermined. "I mean, Avan Weatherstrong, that was a long time ago, before... well, before."
Phoebe finished grinding the red crystals into a powder. She took the yellow liquid from Tabarnas and dumped the powder into the flask. She stirred it and the whole mixture turned into a black slime. Phoebe rested the flask on a stand over a burner.
"So you don't mind old violence, from the past?" Phoebe asked Tabarnas. "You just don't like the violence when it's in the present? Have I got that the right way round? What do you feel about violence in the future?"
"It's not that simple," Tabarnas complained. "In the past... Times are different now. The Hundred Kingdoms are at peace, the shadows are mostly stable, the Shadow Emperors have been defeated, the Black Dragons disappeared in the Vanishing. The age when there were great evils that needed to be vanquished have passed."
"Have they?" Phoebe asked. "Then why are people chasing us for your books? What do they not want us to find in the Archive? How do you think people like us felt when they had a problem with a single unit of Emperor Shymak's army, for example? Do you think those people didn't pray for a hero to liberate them from oppression? And when the hero came along do you think he stood aloof because peaceful oppression was better than violent liberation?"
"But nobody's oppressed here," Tabarnas objected. "Sommerslip is under the rule of the third Lord Sommerslip, direct descendant of Avan Weatherstrong. The trolls are only bothering us."
"And what happens if the trolls steal the books? What do you think the person who is paying the trolls will do with them? What do you think their plan is?" Phoebe asked.
"I don't know that," Tabarnas asked. "How could I?"
"We could give them what they want, stand back and see what happens," Phoebe suggested. "How do you fancy that?"
Tabarnas didn't know how to respond to that. Phoebe was pretty adamant that what they were doing was necessary. The only way Tabarnas could argue otherwise was to take a position where he was, underneath it all, wrong, or at least mistaken about something. If the paymaster of the trolls really was ultimately harmless then where was the sense in not giving them the books?
Did Tabarnas believe that nothing bad would happen if whoever was behind the small army of mercenary trolls got what they wanted? No. Tabarnas decided he did not believe that. He had no proof that fighting would make the world a better place but he felt very strongly that not fighting could make it a worse one.
"Very well," he said as the liquid in the flask turned white. "Just try not to hurt anyone."
"I always do," Phoebe smiled. "Now, were did I put that packet of Coagula Powder?"
As Phoebe rummaged in her satchel a noise floated up from the street outside, a shout, the speech too indistinct for Tabarnas to hear through the shutters over the room's windows. Tabarnas opened the shutter enough to peek outside, he saw a small boy running through the streets shouting something out. By the time Tabarnas's ear had started to make sense of the words the boy was too far away to be heard.
It didn't take too long before one of the squads of trolls came hurrying past underneath the window. They were headed in the direction of the archive.
"I think the trolls have called everyone back together," Tabarnas said. "Frederick must have begun fighting."
"Just give me a couple of minutes," Phoebe said. "Then I'll be ready." Then, after a brief pause: "Why don't you walk down there. Take your books. The trolls are probably too busy to mess with you now."
Not having another idea Tabarnas complied. It was nice to get out into the fresh air anyway after spending the morning sweating in a corner of the inn. Tabarnas did see one other squad of trolls hurrying down towards the sea but they were far too busy to concentrate on anything but forward motion.
It took Tabarnas about ten minutes to walk out to the Archive. He dared not get too close because the scene that greeted his eyes upon arrival was chaotic to say the least. Frederick jumped, ducked and punched his way around the twenty or thirty trolls that were attempting to take him down. The huge monsters were shouting at Frederick and each other in some confusion as to what, exactly, was going on. They knew that a single young man should not be able to fight all of them together and yet Frederick was there, holding his own against this small army.
Of course not all of this was due to Phoebe's strength charm. Anyone could see that Frederick was actually a pretty skilled fighter. Wherever a troll's fist or foot happened to be Frederick tended not to be. Frederick's defence was all him. It was the punishment he was dishing out that was down to magic but Tabarnas knew that Frederick was fighing on borrowed time. Tabarnas hoped that Phoebe would not be too long.
Indeed she wasn't. Shortly after Tabarnas arrived she swooped out of the air on a broomstick and started dropping off little paper wrapped parcels from a height. As soon as the packages hit the floor they bloomed into bright white flowers of flame.
For a couple of minutes this just gave Frederick something else to think about, as the sudden additon of fireballs into the melee served only to confuse the trolls. When they worked out that the fire was against them, not supporting them they sensibly began to cry out and one by one thought better of fighting the super strong knight with fireball air support.
Maybe the trolls would come back when they knew it was safe but in the meanwhile Tabarnas went unimpeded up the path to the Faerie Archive. The Story Gatherers welcomed the goblin and his friends inside the high walls of the Archive and were extremely interested in the contents of his books but the hows and whys of that situation are a story for another time.