Roderick rounded the corner and skidded to a stop. The barbarian standing right in front of him was very large. Well, so much for finding Darwin and figuring out what he was up to.
The barbarian didn't seem to have noticed Roderick's arrival; he was studying the directory intently, his mouth forming silent words. He looked extremely puzzled.
Roderick turned around, and had started quietly back down the hall when the barbarian said, "Excuse me, but could you tell me what this says?"
Roderick looked nervously over his shoulder. The barbarian was gestured him back toward the directory. "Come on, I just want your help with something here."
Taking a deep breath, Roderick turned and headed back toward the barbarian, going just far enough so he could see the directory. After all, that barbarian's muscles were big.
"I can't make this out," the barbarian said, pointing.
"Um, neither can I," said Roderick. "You got fingerprints all over the glass."
"Well, you can't expect to see from way over there, can you?" demanded the barbarian. Then, finally noticing Roderick's reluctance, he said, "Oh, forgive me. Where are my manners? Name's Johnson." He stuck out his hand.
"Uh, I'm Roderick," said Roderick, stepping forward to shake the big, meaty hand. "Nice to meet you."
Johnson grinned, then turned and stuck his finger onto the glass again.
Roderick peered at the spot Johnson was pointing to. "Human Resources," he read. "No, wait. Human Resou-- 'Resoubces'?" He gave Johnson a perplexed look.
"Yeah, I can't make it out either," said Johnson.
"Well, I think it's supposed to be 'Human Resources'," said Roderick. "It's just misspelled. Someone must have run out of R's or something."
"Ah! Actually, Human Resources is exactly what I was looking for," said Johnson with a grin. "Sorry. I was trained in the 'whole word' method of reading, so I have a tough time when I run across new words. Or misspelled ones, for that matter."
"Oh, that's okay," said Roderick. "In fact, the union library is on the way to HR. Maybe you can stop in and pick up a copy of 'Clawing Toward Phonics'. It worked for me."
Johnson looked thoughtful. "Y'know, I may do that. It'll count toward my continuing-ed requirement, won't it?"
Roderick was momentarily distracted by a guard coming around the corner, wheeling a full-size file cabinet on an appliance dolly. "Huh? Oh, yeah, I bet it will. Hang on, we'd better get out of this guy's way."
The guard grunted a brief thanks as he squeezed the file cabinet past Johnson's bulk.
"Okay," said Roderick, "the library is just at the end of this hall." He pointed in the 360-399 direction, where the file cabinet had come from. "Last door on your left. And HR is just past that, turn right, and you'll see it." He moved aside as another file cabinet appeared around the corner. "Big glass doors. You can't miss it."
"Great. I do have business in HR, but I'll see if I've got some time afterwards to look into that book. Thanks, pal!" Johnson trotted down the hallway.
"Hey," grunted the guard pulling the latest file cabinet, "give me a hand here, willya? This thing's heavy!"
Roderick hesitated. "Well, I should get back to the armory and pick up some more arrows for the --"
"They're paying time and a half for this job."
Roderick moved in and grabbed the handles in one smooth motion. "The trick," he explained, "is to balance it properly."
The guard blinked. "Wow, that's great. You got this one OK?"
Roderick grunted a bit as the other man slipped out from under the cabinet, but then he got his foot braced on the dolly's axle and got it balanced. "Yup," he said, "all set now."
"Great! Just take it out front, they're loading the cart. I'll go back and pick up some of those document boxes."
"Will do," agreed Roderick, as he checked to make sure the dolly had tracks to help get it down the stairs.
"Oh," added the guard as he headed back down the hallway, "and that file cabinet isn't fireproof, so make sure you watch out for barbarians and flaming arrows on the way."
Stan was not happy.
Sure, he was pretty good at fighting; in fact, he co-taught his squad's swordfighting class two nights a week. But that was regulation swordfighting -- not sword-vs.-axe fighting.
He was starting to wish he'd taken that elective in guard vo-tech school.
He was managing to hold his own, as were the other guards, despite being outnumbered at least ten-to-one, for three reasons. One, the guards were more disciplined, while the barbarians were more of a hollering mob. Two, the hallway was narrow enough that the outnumbering didn't matter quite so much; each guard only had to fight off one or two barbarians at a time -- although it didn't help morale to know that there were plenty more where each of those came from.
Third, the guards had just eaten.
Still, the battle wasn't going particularly well. The guards were holding their own so far, but they were getting tired, while the barbarians had fresh reinforcements aplenty.
The battle wore on. Stan found himself backed up against a wall next to a painting, and the rather absurd thought popped into his head that this scene would make for a remarkably dull painting. There just wasn't a lot of color to it. The guards were all wearing gray; the barbarians were dressed in various shades of dirty bearskin. And over there was a glimpse of light blue.
"Hey!" he cried. "Whoever's over there! Give us a hand, will ya?"
A few barbarians turned to see who he was talking to, and as they moved aside, he caught a glimpse of Barbara, coming down a cross hallway. "Are you crazy?" she demanded, as a figure dressed in black and carrying two big document boxes brushed past her in the other direction. "I don't fight. I don't even handle weapons."
"Well, for God's sake, do something!" Stan yelled. The barbarians, evidently deciding that they were more interested in a good battle than in a lone unarmed bard, turned back to the guards and started attacking again.
"Well, I'll see if I can find someone to come help," she called, as she continued down the hallway. "But if that doesn't help, then I'll tell you what. I'll write a nice song about you."
Johnson walked slowly down the hallway, thinking. He thought he'd done everything he was supposed to, but somehow he wasn't quite happy with the results.
He rounded the corner, and noticed two things: the door to the library, and someone in a light blue dress just rounding the corner at the far end of the hall.
He ducked quickly into the library.
The room was large and high-ceilinged, with real glass in the windows (to keep the pigeons out, he assumed, given the state of most of the books in the library back home). The shelves, tables, and ceiling beams were all richly varnished oak. A handful of people were sitting at tables and study carrels scattered throughout the room, but most of the massive space was taken up by row upon row of books. So this is where my union dues go, he thought in awe.
He found the information desk in the near corner. "Hi," he said to the librarian, who was tall, birdlike, bespectacled, and had her black hair back in a tight bun. "I'm looking for a copy of 'Clawing Toward Phonics'."
"All right," she said in a loud, squeaky voice, "I believe we have some copies in. Nonfiction, in the 370 section. Would you like me to show you to the area?"
"Uh, yes, please," he said, pleased. "Oh -- and one other thing. I think I could use a copy of..." He leaned closer and whispered.
"'Looting and Pillaging for Dummies'?" she repeated loudly.
"Shh! Not so loud!" he said frantically, his cheeks reddening.
Unperturbed, she said, "Yes, sir. That would be in the work education section, in the 330s. I can show you that section as well." She came out from behind the desk and led the way briskly into the stacks. Johnson tried hard to avoid anyone's gaze, his cheeks still bright red.
Suddenly, he heard a shriek from out in the hallway. He darted to the nearest study carrel and ducked in, making sure he couldn't be seen from the hallway.
"Is everything all right, sir?" the librarian asked, a puzzled look on her face.
"Oh, yes, I just need to... ah... rest my legs for a bit," he said, with what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "Been standing and running all day, you know."
The librarian frowned, as running footsteps came and went in the hallway outside.
Roderick rolled the now-empty appliance dolly out from the back of the carriage, only to see a black-clad figure sitting on the ground almost directly in front of him.
"Darwin!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
Darwin looked up from the sheaf of papers he had been flipping through. "Well, I hired these movers," he said with a shrug.
"You -- what? Wait a minute. I left the battle to move these cabinets! And now you tell me that -- well, you're stealing these file cabinets, aren't you? Looting them?"
Darwin flipped through a couple more pages, then glanced up and said, "Yes, actually, I am."
"Well, then," Roderick said, drawing his sword, "I guess I'll have to stop you."
Darwin set his papers aside and leaned back. "Why?" he asked.
"Why?" Roderick said, now completely flustered. "What do you mean, why? I was hired by this castle, as a guard. So I have to guard."
"But you were hired more recently, by me, to move these file cabinets," Darwin pointed out.
Roderick frowned in concentration, trying to work that one out. "But --"
"Oh, come on, do you want to get paid for the moving work or not?"
"Um, okay," Roderick said.
Darwin stood up, opened his money pouch, and counted out three silver coins into Roderick's palm. "Time and a half, there you go."
"Hey, thanks!" Roderick turned and started back to the castle. Darwin collected his sheaf of papers and followed. Roderick looked curiously at him.
"Oh, I just have one more thing to pick up. Here comes the last load of document boxes," Darwin said, nodding toward another guard who was just approaching with three large boxes, "so after this trip I'll be on my way."
"Oh, by the way," Roderick said as they started up the stairs, "I was wondering. Why on earth did you attack the headquarters of your own union?"
"It's not my union anymore," Darwin said shortly. "I'm quitting."
"You're quitting your job as an Evil Overlord?" Roderick asked incredulously. "After you got the Evil Overlord of the Month award?"
"No, you fool," Darwin snapped. "I'm quitting the union. I can't put up with them anymore. Those fools wouldn't know genius if it turned into a snake and bit them," he added bitterly. "And besides, they've... treated me poorly. I'm not happy with them."
"Have you tried filing a grievance through official channels?"
"I've done all I could. They're totally inflexible. Pencil-brained bureaucrats."
"Oh," Roderick said. "Well, I can imagine them not being too happy about your leaving. Is that why you had to hire the barbarian horde?"
"Yes. I wanted to make sure they couldn't use my work after I left, so I broke in and stole it back."
"Okay. Oh, and just one more thing: isn't it a little early in the story for you to be telling me all your plans and motivations?"
"Oh, I'm not," Darwin said airily. "We haven't even started the major storyline. There's plenty I haven't told you yet. Oh, and by the way..." He shuffled through his stack of papers, and pulled out a tri-fold brochure. "Why don't you take this?"
Roderick accepted the brochure and leafed through it. "Benefits of becoming a Paladin," he read. He looked questioningly at Darwin.
"Well? Don't you want to become a Paladin?"
"Uh, I don't know," admitted Roderick. "Isn't it a whole lot of work?"
Darwin frowned, flipped open a manila envelope, and skimmed the first page. "I would've thought you would jump at the chance. The pay for heroes is much better than for guards, you know. And Paladins have a great dental plan," he said, pointing at the picture on the brochure's front cover, of a knight in shining armor, with gleaming white teeth that even outshone the armor. He leaned forward and whispered conspirationally, "Besides, heroes get all the girls."
Roderick perked up at that last item. "Oh? All the girls?"
"Well, I'll tell you this, a hero doesn't sleep alone unless he wants to," Darwin said with a sly grin. He glanced at his papers again, and said, "And don't forget all the bards hanging around writing songs about him. Especially when he's a Paladin."
"Girl bards?" Roderick said, a goofy grin spreading over his face.
"Girl bards too."
They walked along in silence for a while, Roderick lost in his own happy thoughts, Darwin still reading through the stack of pages.
"Hey," Roderick said after a while, "why are you giving me this? You said you weren't quitting your job as an Evil Overlord. Why on earth would you want a Paladin running around? Paladins are the most powerful heroes there are."
Darwin shrugged. "Because it would really piss off the union."
"Oh," said Roderick. "I guess that makes sense."
But he wore a puzzled frown for the rest of the way through the castle.
Stan heard running feet. The barbarians he was fighting turned to look, and he was granted a respite that lasted almost two seconds. He took it while he could get it, gasping for breath and leaning against the wall to rest his legs.
Then Barbara burst into the hallway, spotted the crowd, and shouted, "Fire!"
This time it was longer than two seconds. Stan stood still, his sword in the air. The barbarian whose axe blow he had just blocked was standing still, too. Everyone looked at Barbara in perplexity.
Finally, one of the barbarians spoke up. "Lady, we don't even have any bowmen here."
She blinked at him. "Huh? No, sorry, let me rephrase that. There is a fire! The whole Human Resources office is burning!"
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