Chapter Twelve: In which our heroine wakes up, elf problems are discussed, and normalcy is briefly restored.

Serafin woke up and found Mother Haggard looking down at her, which would have given anybody a bad start to begin with, and then the cleric grabbed her blanket and yanked it down, which only added insult to injury.

"Yrrrk!" Serafin clapped her hands over her breasts.

"Here now, lovey, don't fret yourself. I've seen it all before. Not gonna hurt you, either." She grinned, displaying crooked teeth. "Well, not without a good reason, anyway."

Serafin took in the dark holy symbol hanging from the woman's plump neck and said "You're the cleric."

Fear my observational skills, world.

"Right you are, duck. Mother Haggard's the name, and Bishop tells me you're named Serafin. And now that that's out of the way—" she clucked her tongue and poked Serafin's ribs, which made the younger woman yelp, "—you'll be happy to know that you're healing up nicely. Up you go."

"Oh…oh, that's good…" said Serafin, sitting up obediently as Mother Haggard propped pillow up behind her.

"Let's see about getting some food into you, lovey."

Serafin watched as the woman bustled around the dim kitchen. The cleric reminded her of a bulldog—heavy, jowly face, powerful shoulders, and an expression that was currently cheerful, but which could probably tear your face off without breaking a sweat.

Let's stick to being polite…

"You healed me. Thank you."

"'Course, honey, could hardly let you drop dead on my doorstep, could I? Besides, any friend of Bishop's…"

Serafin smiled faintly. "I'm not sure if Bishop would describe me as a friend."

Mother Haggard shot her a wicked grin. "I'm sure he'd rather describe you as something else, lovey. Bishop doesn't bring just anybody this way, especially not with a paladin in tow."

Serafin dropped her head back. "Um. That was very…err…kind of him."

Probably not wise to insult Bishop just now…

Mother Haggard's eyes glittered with amusement. "Now, now, duck, don't you twist your tongue on my account. I know just what he's like. If you want my advice—and you're stuck in that bed, so you don't have much choice—I'd stick to that sweet little moon elf friend of yours and give Bishop a pass. Lovely boy, but crazier than a wet wolverine."

Sweet little…Sand? She thinks Sand is sweet?

Serafin mentally re-filed Mother Haggard under "Dangerously Insane."

She's right about Bishop, though, anyway…

The cleric came over with a bowl of soup and a chunk of bread. She handed it over. Serafin discovered that she was ravenous, picked up the spoon and began applying herself.

Mother Haggard pulled up a chair to her bedside and settled, a tectonic motion like a mountain chain being formed. She watched Serafin eating, and clucked her tongue again. "Good, good. Looks like all the plumbing's hooked up right again." She tapped two fingers against her lips. "'Course, if soup starts squirting out all over your torso, be a dear and say something, will you?"

Serafin grinned around a mouthful of bread. "Will do."

"Mmm." The cleric reached out for a cup of tea. "Yes, give Bishop a miss."

"Thought you were a friend of his," said Serafin warily, between bites.

"Indeed I am, in very deed. But he never did handle love well, and Mother Haggard's too old to comfort sulky rangers with bruised hearts." She took a sip of tea. "Besides, you wouldn't know it to look at me, lovey, but I was once quite a heartbreaker in my youth—"

Oddly enough, Serafin had no trouble believing this at all.

"—and I know trouble. That boy'd be a lot of fun, but he'll leave you high and dry. And the paladin'll follow you to the very end, but you'll be sick of him long before that."

Truer words were never spoken… The bread was excellent, fresh-baked, with a thick crust.

"Now that nice little elf…"

Discretion. Remember discretion.

"We're just friends," said Serafin weakly.

The cleric snorted explosively. "Does he know that? Stayed at your bedside half the night, he did. Quite a tongue on him, but if he isn't half in love with you, Mother Haggard'll personally swear allegiance to Tyr and take up paladining her ownself."

It took a minute for this fascinating and horrifying image to play itself out inside Serafin's skull, while the cleric grinned at her.

Where would they find the plate mail? You'd need to hammer out two breastplates and weld them together…

"Nah, stick to him, that's my advice," Mother Haggard continued. "Unless he's got elf troubles, of course." She waggled her eyebrows at Serafin.

For a minute, all the Knight-Captain could think was that "elf troubles" sounded a lot like "woman troubles." She wondered vaguely if Sand ever got cramps.

Nah, he can probably make a potion for it…I know he whipped one up for me that one month, and…wait a minute, what?

"Elf troubles?"

"Oh, you know." The dark cleric pressed the back of one plump hand against her forehead and rolled her eyes back. "Oh, woe is me, I cannot love a mortal, for she will die of old age while I am out getting a ham sandwich, alas, woe is me." She dropped her hand and grinned. "You know. Elf troubles."

Serafin stifled a snicker. "Oh, yes. No, he, uh…it hasn't come up."

The thought was a trifle depressing—did that mean that Sand had no intentions of sticking around that long? Oh, probably not. Granted that he thinks we're going to die in the next few months anyway, it's not like we've been making plans about growing old together.

Hell, if we live to see a one-year anniversary, I'll be very, very surprised. Sand's just too practical to make plans when neither of you'll live to see them.

It was odd to be heartened by the thought of her impending death, but Serafin had gotten used to finding comfort in odd places.

Evil clerics, for example.

"Well, good. Had a lovely little pointy-eared lad pull that on me once, and I turned around and outlived him." Mother Haggard smiled broadly.

There was something about that smile…

"Did you kill him, by chance?"

""Course, lovey, o'course." The dark cleric patted her arm reassuringly. "Fed him poison with dinner. Died in twitching agony, the poor dear. Now, if you're done with your soup…" She took the empty bowl away.

I'm absolutely sure she did that deliberately. Serafin squelched the jangle of her nerves. It'd be stupid to heal me and then turn around and poison me. She's just trying to rattle me for fun.

It's working.

Be polite. Be very, very polite.

"Thank you again for healing me," she said.

Mother Haggard grinned over her shoulder. "Well, lovey, just keep it in mind when you're up in that big stone keep of yours. Mayhap someday Mother Haggard'll come looking for a favor, eh?"

I knew it.

"I always pay my debts," said Serafin, swallowing hard. Kana's going to have my ears.

The cleric grinned. "Now, now, duck, don't be lookin' like that. If I want the noble and dutiful treatment, I'll take some cookies out to that cute little paladin of yours. Mayhap Mother Haggard'll never come to collect. P'raps you'll die first, or I will. Don't fret yourself over what may never be."

"Good advice," rumbled Ammon Jerro from the doorway. He nodded to Mother Haggard. "We have other concerns, and we should be leaving soon."

"Oh, hello, Ammon. I'm fine, thank you for asking."

He grunted, strode over, and stood looking down at her. The shadows under his hood and around his hawk-like nose were very deep. "Hmmm."

"And good morning to you, too, sunshine."

The warlock leaned down, grabbed the blanket, and yanked it back. Serafin yelped and clapped her arms over her breasts again.


"Don't flatter yourself," the warlock said, annoyed. "Unlike some people, I know you're too young for me."

I wonder what he means by that…no, on second thought, I'm pretty sure I don't want to know what he means by that.

So much for discretion. What did Sand do while I was out, propose to my carcass?

Ammon glared down at her ribcage as if it had personally offended him, and poked her just under the sternum. She yelped.

"Hmm. You'll live."

Serafin craned her neck and peered down her body. The immense scar had faded under the last of the cleric's treatments, and left only a painfully red patch, spread out across the bouquet of blue and purple bruises. "How 'bout that…"

The warlock leaned forward, studying the red mark as if there was something written on it. "I don't sense a demonic taint, either. Good. That would have been inconvenient."

"Demonic taint?"

Ammon straightened up, showing his teeth. "Demon-inflicted wounds sometimes get a mind of their own. Fortunately, you seem to have avoided that."

"Mind of their own? I could have gotten possessed?!"

Ammon shrugged. "No need for histrionics. Possession is a minor matter, and easily dealt with."

"Oh. Well, that's good…"

"Nor were there any eggs, which is often problematic…"

"Eg—oh, now you're just trying to freak me out. Very funny." Serafin hauled the blanket up to her chin, while Mother Haggard cackled.

Whatever he might have said to that was lost as Sand backed into the room. "My dear warlock—" the elf said, "—your creature is following me."

"So it is," said Ammon, sitting down at the table with a cup of tea.

A tall black shadow drifted into the room behind the moon elf, vague arms folded across an even vaguer chest.

Sand shot him a worried look. "Shouldn't it have gone back to the netherworld by now?"

"Perhaps it likes you." The warlock smiled under his hood.

"An interdimensional horror of impeccable taste, to be sure. However, it is still following me." Sand retreated across the room. The shadow began drifting around the table after him.

"Mm." Ammon casually stretched out a hand and clicked his tongue, like a man calling a dog. The shadow veered off from Sand and crept humbly to the warlock's chair.

Sand twitched his robes straight and went to Serafin's bedside. He reached down, grabbed the blanket, and hauled it back.

"Oh, for god's sake, why do I even have a blanket?" Serafin folded her arms across her chest. "Might as well get Bishop and Casavir in here too, since everybody else's been ogling me today..."

"We are merely concerned for your safety, dear girl," said Sand, eyeing the remains of her injury. "Without our glorious leader, what choice would we have but to wander aimlessly about the countryside, bereft of purpose?" He dropped the blanket. "Mind you, we seem to do a great deal of that anyway…"

Serafin would have come up with something cutting to say about that, but was distracted by the sight of Ammon Jerro, who had put one hand inside the shadow's head. He propped a tattooed cheek on his fist, an expression of bored concentration on his face, while the shadow writhed silently under his fingers.

After a moment, the warlock dropped his hand, and the shadow hunched down, and began creeping across the floor towards Sand. The elf backed up nervously, ran into Serafin's pallet, and nearly sat on her.

"It likes moon elves," said Ammon, nodding to Sand.

"To eat?" Sand's voice was a bit higher pitched than usual.

Ammon shrugged. "Maybe. It might have absorbed one once, or one might have been kind to it—or it might have actually been one at some point. It's difficult to tell with shadows. They're not very bright." He watched as the entity slunk across the floor. "Regardless, it can't hurt you unless I order it to." His teeth flashed briefly.

"Comforting, I'm sure..." Sand tried to back up again. Mother Haggard chortled.

While Serafin enjoyed sharing a bed with Sand, she would prefer not to do it with Who's Who in Modern Evil watching. She sat up, wrapping the blanket around her, and watch Sand retreat to the marginal safety of the mattress.

"Speaking of wandering aimlessly through the wilderness…" Serafin rubbed the back of her neck. "Where's the gith?"

"Headed back to the Keep." Ammon nodded to her. "Which means that we should leave as soon as possible."

Mother Haggard, without saying a word, leaned back from whatever she was mixing and handed Ammon a large wooden spoon with bits of batter adhering to it. The warlock took the spoon, nodded to the cleric gravely, and licked it.

It spoke volumes about the man's inherent dignity that he could lick cookie dough off a spoon while still looking diabolical and capable of unspeakable evil. Serafin felt a pang of envy.

Man, I could be in full regalia with a sword and an army behind me, and I'd still get backtalk.

"Indeed." Sand peered over the edge of the bed, and then jerked back as the shadow extended a bit of darkness toward him. "We should definitely be leaving, before the rest of your dear friends come rampaging through the wilderness to try and locate you." He peered over the bed again, then retreated. The shadow peered hopefully over the edge of the bed, then sank back down.

Ammon watched this bizarre game of peek-a-boo with an expression of resigned contempt, in no way lessened by his continued attention to the cookie dough. "There is also the matter of the crystal drago," he said. "Bishop mentioned that he has found you a path."

Sand's head jerked up at the word dragon, not unlike a dog hearing the dreaded word bath. "Well, perhaps we should wait another day or two," said the elf. "Until you're fully recovered. We would hate to have you relapse on the trail."

Serafin rolled her eyes. She was surprised to find that she felt pretty good. Her chest was still bruised, but she'd been hurt worse walking to the privies in the middle of the night. For someone who'd recently been spitted on a claw the size of a table leg, she felt remarkably good. Mother Haggard might be a dark cleric, but she obviously knew her business.

If I were Casavir, I'd probably be worried about the moral ramifications of owing my life to a dark cleric. Bein' me, I'm just gonna be glad she was around.

Serafin swathed herself in the blanket. "I feel okay. Mother Haggard?"

"Yes, yes, get on with you, duck." The cleric made a shooing gesture. "You're safe enough to travel." She put her hands on her hips. "But the next time you think about getting in a fight with something ten times your size, lovey—"

Serafin bowed her head, waiting for another lecture.

"—you make damn sure you get him in the back first. None of this fair fight foolishness." A plump finger waggled at her, flinging bits of batter around the room. "Never ends well, now does it?"

"Yes, Mother Haggard," said Serafin meekly.

"And don't you be forgetting what we talked about, mind."

"No, Mother Haggard."

She scooped up her pack from the end of the bed and scooted through the door to change.

Her shirt was pretty much a total loss as one might expect, and there was a great deal of blood on her pants. Still, you didn't get to be a Knight-Captain without learning to live with blood stains.

At least she had clean underwear. Daeghun had never particularly harped on the importance of clean underwear—possibly you were more in touch with nature if there were mushrooms growing on your briefs or something—but Retta Starling had always gone on about it, given half a chance. She'd be proud.

Serafin wiggled into it, then the pants. A wad at the bottom of her pack revealed itself to be a badly travel-stained shirt.

"Oh, well, any port in a storm…"

Bishop snickered behind her.

Serafin did not yelp, did not turn around, because that's what he would have wanted. Instead she yanked the shirt over her head, settled the wrinkled folds around her hips, and only then turned around.

"You're looking particularly lovely, Captain," he said.

She made an obscene gesture, which apparently pleased him to no end.

"Such gratitude." He shook his head in mock-despair.

He's got a point. He did get you to his friend.

Serafin sighed. "You're right." She met his eyes with all the sincerity she could muster. "Thank you, Bishop. Your cleric friend saved my life. I won't forget that."

The ranger looked briefly startled, then hid it behind a wolfish grin. "Oh? Just how grateful are you?" He raised his eyebrows suggestively.

Bishop could suggest things with his eyebrows that would otherwise require a fairly thick book with numerous illustrations.

"Not that grateful." She threw the bloody shirt at him.

He ducked away from it. "I bet if it was the paladin, you'd be that grateful," he muttered.

"The paladin wouldn't ask."

"His loss."

And so, normalcy is again restored…

Serafin shoved her feet into her boots. Time to get everybody together, and go see a dragon about a sword.