Stan was halfway down the stairs when the wall gave way. He watched in shock as barbarian troops started spilling in through the rising cloud of dust around the ragged gap in the stonework.
"Well, I guess there's not much point in getting the boiling oil now, is there?" he muttered as he hurried the rest of the way down the stairs.
The other guards were rushing in all directions. Stan followed in the direction most of them seemed to be going, which was away from the hole in the wall and toward the armory. Sensible enough.
Then two guards, running like mad from the area right inside the break in the wall, both ran headlong into Stan at the same time, and all three went down in a tangle of arms, legs, and one beer bottle.
"They're going to the Human Resources office!" one of them shouted, right in Stan's ear.
"What? Why?" Stan said as he gingerly extracted himself from the tangle and got back to his feet.
"I don't know, I don't know, but they sure seem mad," the first guard babbled. "Talking about pillaging and burning and --"
"Pillage and burn the HR office?" Stan said in horror. "But -- but if they do that, then who's gonna cut our paychecks?"
"I don't know anything about that," said the second guard. "All I heard was that a whole bunch of them are headed for the kitchen."
Stan froze in indecision. Protect the payroll office, or protect the food?
He made up his mind. "Okay, come on, you two. To the HR office, and we'll grab as many guys as we can on the way." He started out, and the toe of his boot connected with the beer bottle he'd dropped.
He stopped in his tracks. Okay, now there was a more important question. Protect the payroll office, or protect the beer?
Roderick was halfway back to the outer walls when the flames reached his hand. He yelped and dropped the entire quiver onto the stone floor, where it lay, burning quietly.
The pain in his hand cleared his head slightly. Okay. Right. Wait until just before you shoot the arrows to set them on fire. Setting them on fire back before he left the armory was maybe not such a good plan.
Well, he had gone to get flaming arrows...
I need, Roderick admitted to himself as he hurried back in the direction of the armory, to stop letting women fuzz my brain like that. Of course, he'd thought that before, and somehow it didn't seem to be quite that easy...
Then again, he reminded himself, maybe it wasn't all his fault. He reached into the pouch at his waist, pulled out a pinch of salt, and tossed it over his shoulder as he ran.
It didn't help. Well, maybe it did help keep the faeries away, but it didn't seem to be doing much for his luck, because when he turned the next corner, the short guy in the black robe, the one from outside the castle, was right in front of him, facing the near wall.
Roderick let out a yelp, and the guy in black jumped. Little white plastic letters scattered across the floor.
"Oh, now look what you've made me do," the man grumped, as he bent down to pick up the letters he'd dropped. "Guards!"
Now thoroughly confused, Roderick said, "Um, that's me. I'm a guard."
Two other guards, Bob and Doug, appeared from around the corner. The guy in black pointed at Roderick and said, "Take him away."
The guards looked at each other in confusion. The man said impatiently, "Well, are you henchmen or aren't you? I'm an Evil Overlord and I gave you an order!"
"Well, yeah, but... he's a guard," said Bob.
"Yes, but he's in my way," said the man in black.
"Um... if it's not too much to ask, just who are you?" said Roderick. "And what are you doing with the directory?" The open glass case on the wall, where the little plastic letters had come from, was one of those directories that says which suite number each office is in.
"What I'm doing is none of your business," the man said reasonably. "After all, I'm an Evil Overlord; you're a henchman. Evil Overlords only explain their full plan to underlings when they need some comic relief, or sometimes as a poorly-done plot device."
Roderick thought about that for a moment. "Well, yes, I suppose that's true," he admitted.
"But if you must know who I am..." he heaved a long sigh and threw back his hood, revealing a face Roderick recognized.
"Why, you're Darwin!" he exclaimed. "I've heard of you!"
Darwin blinked in surprise, then smiled. "Have you now? Well, it's always nice to have one's reputation get around..."
"Yeah, you were the featured interview in last month's union newsletter. You were Evil Overlord of the Month!"
Darwin's face darkened. "Don't talk about that."
"What?" Roderick frowned in bewilderment. Bob and Doug exchanged a what the heck is going on? kind of glance.
"Take him away," Darwin said gruffly, stooping again to pick up more of the little plastic letters. "I've got things to do." He carefully counted the letters, ignoring Roderick's halfhearted protests as he was led away.
Damn, he thought, frowning at the directory and looking around on the floor. He made me lose one of the "R"s.
Barbara opened her eyes and sat up. A mistake, she decided at once, wincing at the throbbing in her skull. She made a mental note to avoid being on the next wall that fell over.
She slowly eased to her feet, and found that she had landed behind a large heap of rubble. So she had been concealed quite effectively from the eyes of anyone on the outside - or inside - of the wall. No wonder she hadn't received prompt medical attention.
Then she looked again at the hole in the wall, and at the muddy footprints that had been tracked in through it by quite a number of large, furry boots. So with an entire barbarian horde inside the keep... well, maybe she shouldn't feel so bad; some of that medical attention was probably needed elsewhere.
She heard a pained grunt from behind her, and turned to see what looked, from the large dent in his helmet and his pained squint (identical to her own), like a barbarian who was making a mental note to avoid being under the next wall that fell over. She took a quick look around; the rest of the horde, as the muddy footprints had already led her to suspect, was nowhere to be seen.
Then he caught sight of her - and judging from the way he bounded to his feet and started toward her, he must not have been hit all that hard after all.
She looked around apprehensively, and noticed a bit of cloth pinned under one of the rocks near where she'd landed. It was light blue - hardly a color typical of barbarians, she thought in a moment of perplexity. Then she realized that it was the same color as her dress - and she felt a draft.
A quick look down confirmed it - a chunk of her skirt had been torn off during the fall. Her right leg was still completely covered; the side of her left leg was almost completely uncovered.
She could guess what he had in mind.
"Um, now wait a minute," she said, backing hastily away. "Don't you think you should be joining your friends inside? Plenty of looting and pillaging to do, I expect."
He frowned at her, and said in a gravelly voice, "And burning. Don't forget burning."
"Oh, yes, whatever came over me? Looting and pillaging and burning, the Three Pillars of Barbarianism, aren't they?" she said, still backing. "Um, don't you think you should, you know, go do them?"
He shrugged, still advancing. "Don't know which promotional literature you've been reading, lady. They promised me four when I signed up. Loot, pillage, burn..." He moved even closer, his shadow looming over her, an evil grin on his face. "And intimidate."
She backed a little faster, stumbled over a large chunk of stone, regained her footing and kept going. "Intimidate," she said slowly. "Riiight."
Somebody should tell him, she mused wryly, that intimidation usually works quite a bit better when your victim doesn't know you're only in it to scare them.
Yeah. Yeah, someone really should tell him.
Thinking fast, she reached over her shoulder and unslung her harp. He paused when he saw it.
"Anything you do," she said, "you'll be known for far and wide."
A slow grin split his face. "Cool."
Great. Now she remembered - that "four" thing belonged to the Third Barbarian Auxiliary. And yes, they rather prided themselves on it. She supposed they were a great deal for the employers, since they worked cheap, but...
Then she had a sudden idea. "That includes," she said hastily, still backing away, "the drool that's dripping into your beard."
That stopped him in his tracks. He self-consciously wiped his hand across his face, then gave her an inquisitive look.
"It's still there," she said cheerfully, even though it wasn't. "But it doesn't matter - it's already made it into the song."
His face started to turn red. Deciding to press her advantage, she moved a little closer, looking closely at the name embroidered in his bearskin vest. "Let's see, your name is --"
It was his turn to stumble away backwards. "Uh, not important," he said hastily. "I'll, uh, just go loot and pillage now." He turned and hurried into the keep.
She sighed with relief, and allowed herself a sudden grin. "And burn," she called after him. "Don't forget to burn."
"Huh? Oh. Oh yeah, right," he called back, as he disappeared through the gap in the wall.
As she put her harp away, the thought crossed her mind: Maybe I got just a little carried away with that "burn" thing.
"Well, he just said 'away'," said Bob. "That's all I'm sayin'."
"Well sure, but he just didn't say how far away, did he?" Doug countered. "I mean, he could've meant outside the castle, he could've meant outside the country. Or maybe just take him out to the courtyard for a little sun, y'know? He didn't say one way or the other."
"That's very true," Roderick piped in, as the other two marched him down yet another hallway. "And you know, maybe this is far enough away. I mean, you're missing a very exciting battle, and all that. You could be in an epic song if you were out in the battle!"
"Yeah, don't remind me," said Doug sourly. "Instead we're running an errand for some Evil Overlord I've never even seen before."
"Huh?" Roderick said in surprise. "Didn't you read last month's newsletter?"
"Still, it doesn't matter," said Bob. "We got our orders, we gotta take you away. Me, I think we'd better take you to the next kingdom over, just to be sure."
"Yeah, but then not only would we miss the battle," grumped Doug, "but we'd also be out on horses for four or five days. That's four or five days without a decent bed or a solid meal. I mean, yeah, it's a job, it's a paycheck, but I mean c'mon, I'm young, I'd rather take the battle and get hazard pay, y'know?"
They had been marching along somewhat aimlessly, and Roderick recognized the corner they were nearing as one they had been past about ten minutes earlier. "Hey guys, we're going in circles," he said.
"So?" Doug said.
"So, if we're going back toward a spot where we've been before," Roderick reasoned, "then we can't be going away from that guy. Either we were going away from him when we were going away from this corner, or we're going away from him now. Couldn't possibly be both. So one way or another, you're not doing what he told you to."
Bob stopped. "Y'know, I think he may be right," he said. "So now what do we do?"
"I think this is the part where you realize you can't carry out that order any more than you already have," Roderick said helpfully, "and just let me go so I can go, uh, join in the battle."
Doug frowned. "There's a stairway at that corner, though. When we got here the first time, we were coming down that stairway, right?"
"Yeah," Bob agreed.
"Well, so if we go further down, then we know we'll be going further away." Doug brightened. "And hey, don't those stairs lead down to the dungeon?"
"Hey, yeah! That'd work out great, wouldn't it?" Bob said. "We take him to the dungeon, then he's definitely out of that guy's hair, right? And it'd take way less time than going to the next country, so we might even be able to get in on the battle."
"Great," said Roderick. "Swell. Hey, you guys can just forget about getting anything in the Secret Santa exchange this year."
Bob's face fell. "Oh. Yeah, that's right, you're the one who runs the name-drawing, aren't you?"
"Oh, man," Doug complained. "That's just not fair."
"And locking me in the dungeon is?"
"Hmm, good point. Man! I wish that guy had just said how far we were supposed to take you."
Roderick blinked. "Ooh, hey, maybe he didn't care!"
"Huh?" Bob said.
"Well, I mean, think about it. He just said to 'take him away', right? Well, you've already done that, obviously. He didn't say to keep me away."
Bob and Doug both stood there for a long moment. Then Doug grinned and said, "You know what, he's right."
"Off to battle!" Bob cried in delight, and he and Doug scampered off down the hallway.
Roderick let out a deep breath, and grappled with indecision for a moment. Then, curiosity having won out, he hurried back to the hallway where he'd seen Darwin.
Stan poked his head out the doorway at the top of the stairs, then darted out into the hallway. With the hand that was holding the chicken leg, he gestured the other guards out to join him, and they all set off at a fast trot in the direction of the Human Resources office.
He paused at an intersection, wiped the grease off his mouth using the back of his sword hand, and listened. Yes, there were voices coming their way. He gestured the other soldiers to stay back and be ready to attack.
The voices rounded a corner, and one voice clearly rang out above the others. From the accent, Stan could tell, it was clearly a group of the barbarians. A large group.
"This way, men!" came the voice. "Suite 315! We'll get to the bottom of this!"
Stan frowned. Suite 315? That didn't make any sense. For reasons that had never been made clear to him, all of the suites on the third floor were even-numbered.
"What will we be looking for?" came another voice.
"Oh, hiring records, probably," said the first voice. "We'll start with the file cabinets with the payroll info, but they may have hired them on contract, so we'll have to look in the accounting cabinets for accounts payable. Maybe some tax records, too."
Stan looked back at one of the other guards, puzzled. If the barbarians were looking for the HR office, then why were they coming this way?
Then he turned back around to see the huge barbarian lord standing in front of him, holding a very large, wicked-looking double-headed axe.
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