Magic Gifts Page 10

"Suck on that!" Johan pivoted to Derek. "You're next!"

Ascanio shot from his seat in a blur and punched Johan off his feet. Vikings swarmed. Someone screamed. A chair flew above us and crashed into the wall. Grendel bounced in place, barking his head off.

Ragnvald heaved an exasperated sigh. "Which way are you leaning, Kate? Veterans or Mark?"

"Are you going to tell me where Dagfinn is?"


Bastard. "Then I guess I don't know which way I'm leaning."

Ragnvald looked at Curran. "Seriously?"

Curran shrugged his broad shoulders. "It's her show."

A tankard hurtled through the room and crashed against Ragnvald's back. He surged to his feet roaring. "All right you fuckers, who threw that?"

The second tankard took him straight in the forehead. He staggered and lunged into the full-out brawl raging in the middle of the mead hall. Fists flew, people growled, and above it all, Ghastek's vamp crawled up the wall to the ceiling, its left paw gripping pissed off Johan by his ankle.

I sighed, jumped on the table, and kicked some viking in the face.

*** *** ***

My butt hurt, because some viking woman kicked me from behind while I was busy and the motion of my horse wasn't doing me any favors. The red spot on my shoulder promised to bloom into a baseball-sized bruise but other than that I got away scot-free. Derek sported a cut across his chest and Ascanio, whose shirt somehow got mysteriously ripped to shreds in the heat of the battle, was black and blue from the neck down. It wouldn't last more than a couple of hours and by the evening the lot of them would look like new, while I would be nursing a sore shoulder.

The wind brought a whiff of hops from Ghastek's vamp loping next to me. The vikings had tried to drown it in the barrel of beer and most of the green sunblock had come off, so Ghastek ended up rolling him in some mud to keep the skin damage to a minimum. The mud had dried to a nasty crust and the vamp looked like something that would come out of Grendel's tail end.

Grendel had spent most of the fight barking and biting random people and was now smeared with someone's vomit.

Curran escaped unscathed, mostly because when people tried to assault him, he punched them once and then they didn't get up. He walked now next to my horse in his human form, a big smile on his face.

"What?" I asked him.

"Good thing you took the lead on that one," he said. "It could've gone badly and degenerated into a huge brawl."

"Screw you."

"Oh I hope you do, baby."

In your dreams.

"And that's why I don't like visiting the neo-Vikings," Ghastek said, his voice dry. "They're an uncivilized, idiotic lot and nothing good ever comes from it."

"They started it," Ascanio said.

"Of course they started it," I growled. "They're Vikings. That's what they do."

Ghastek cleared his throat. "I can't help but point out that now Dagfinn knows we're looking for him. He may go into hiding."

"Dagfinn doesn't do hiding. If he isn't involved in this mess, he'll show up on my doorstep demanding to know what's going on. If he is involved, he'll show up on my doorstep, waving his axe and trying to crush skulls. Works either way."

"So we wait?"

It made me grit my teeth. I'd hoped we'd get a hold of Dagfinn today. Roderick was running out of time, but there wasn't anything else we could do. "We go home and wait."

Chapter Six

We parted ways with Ghastek and the four of us, Curran, Derek, Ascanio, and I, made our way back to the Keep. Jim waited for us on the stone steps as we rode into the courtyard.

"What happened to you?"

"We went to see the Vikings," I told him.

"This is nothing," Curran said. "You should've seen what happened to the vampire."

Jim smiled.

I dismounted and gave The Dude's reigns to a shapeshifter kid from the stables.

"Some people are here to see you," Jim told me.

"What people?"

"From the Guild."

Argh. "Fine. How's the boy?"

"Doolittle says he's the same. Your guests are in the conference room, second floor, third door on the left."

I marched to the second floor. Grendel decided to accompany me. Five people waited in the small reception hallway by the third conference room, guarded by a female shapeshfiter. One of them was Mark, the other four were Bob Carver, Ivera Nielsen, Ken and Juke, collectively known as the Four Horsemen. Most mercs were loners. Sometimes, when the job demanded it, they paired up the way Jim and I did, but groups of more than two were rare. The Four Horsemen were the exception to the rule. They made a cohesive, strong team, they took rough jobs and finished them efficiently and mostly above board, and they were respected by the rest of the mercs.

The two parties stopped glowering at each other long enough to contemplate my dog.

"What the hell is that?" Bob asked.

"It's my attack poodle. Did you agree to come here at the same time?"

"Hell no," Juke said, shaking her head with spiked black hair. "We were here first. He just showed up."

"I made an appointment," Mark said. "Once again, you're bringing your bully tactics to the table."

"You're an asshole," Ken told him.

"And you're a thug."

Why me?

This was the first time I heard about an appointment. I made a mental note to ask Jim about that and pulled a quarter from my pocket. "Heads." I pointed to the Four Horsemen. "Mark, you're tails."

I flipped the coin into the air and slapped it onto the back of my wrist.

"Tails." I nodded at Mark. "Let's go."

We stepped into the conference room, I shut the door, and we sat a large table of knotted wood.

"What can I do for you?"

Mark leaned forward. He wore a crisp business suit and a conservative burgundy tie. His dark brown hair was cut in that executive/politician style: not too long, not too short, conservative, neat. His nails were clean and manicured, his chin showed no stubble, and he smelled of masculine cologne. Not overpowering, but definitely detectable.

"I'd like to talk to you about the Guild arbitration," he said.

And here I thought he made the trip to chat about the weather. "I'm listening."

Mark looked at the dog. Grendel gave him an evil eye.

"I'll cut to the chase: I'd like to take over the Guild."

Ambitious, aren't we? "I kind of gathered that."

"I'm not popular. I don't wear leather and I don't carry guns." He braided the fingers of his hands into a single fist and rested it on the table. "But I make the Guild run. I make sure the customers are happy, the profits are made, and everyone gets paid on time. Without me the whole thing would collapse."

I had no doubt it would. "I'm waiting for my part in this."

"Your vote will be the deal breaker," he said. "I'd like us to come to some sort of arrangement."

He just dug a lovely hole for himself. I waited to see if he would jump into it.

"Of course, I understand that sufficient compensation is in order and our arrangement would have to equitable and mutually beneficial."

And he did. I sighed. "Mark, the problem isn't that you can't run the Guild. The problem is that you think 'white collar' is a noble title."

He blinked, obviously taken aback.

"In your world, everyone has a price," I said. "You don't know what mine is, but you think you can afford it. It doesn't work like that. You could've gone many ways with this. You could've argued that with the Guild being in limbo, nobody is getting paid. You could've pointed out that the longer this goes on, the more talent Guild will lose, as experienced mercs move onto new jobs to feed their families. Offering to bribe me was the worst argument you could've made. My opinion isn't for sale."

"I meant n offense," he said.

"But you did offend and you've demonstrated that you have no idea how to relate to me. A lot of guys are like me, Mark. Yes, you make the Guild run, but you lack the elemental understanding of what makes mercs tick, probably because you never were one. If I wanted to endorse you, which I don't, I'd have to defend my position before the Guild, which I find difficult under the circumstances."

He chewed on that for a long minute. "Fair enough. So you'll vote for the Horsemen then?"

"I don't know yet."

"Thank you for seeing me." Mark got up and left.

The door barely had a chance to swing open when Bob shouldered his way in and dropped into one of my client chairs. Ivera followed, uneasy, watching me.

Bob was the leader of the Horsemen. If our world had spawned any veteran gladiators, he would be it. He was on the other side of forty and built with that mature strength and endurance that would make him a tough opponent even for people half his age. He might not be as fast as he used to be, but he had plenty of experience and he used it. Ivera was a tall, large Hispanic woman. She was nasty in a fight and a firebug - fire mage - on top of it.

The other two members of the Horsemen remained outside. Ken, a Hungarian mage, measured out words like they were gold and Juke, well, Juke was barely twenty and made up for the lack of experience in natural viciousness and hot temper. She was fast and she liked to talk trash. I understood the urge. I liked to talk trash too, but twenty year old me would've chewed Juke up and spat her out.

I looked at the two veterans. "What can I do for you?"

Bob leaned forward. The chair creaked and I almost winced. He was a big guy and the chair was none too sturdy.

"I'll come right to the point," he said. "Solomon was one of us. A merc. A working stiff."

"Actually Solomon only worked as a merc for the first three years of forming the Guild, and given that he's been underground for a few months, we can drop working from his description."

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