She hadn’t wanted to leave Jolly – not so soon after finding him again – but once away, it took about five minutes for Aely to figure out she had a problem.
That problem had just announced that it was not really dead, and it had a new body, but it’s own old brain. And that problem needed to be reintroduced to the Riders – deserved to be, for all he’d been through. But she had no idea how to convince anyone that it really was Jolstraer, wearing some hapless Scarlet like a new suit, back to haunt the world and cuss out it’s denizens with the best of them.
She wasn’t really sure how she was even sure it was Jolstraer, but somewhere, deep down, something had clicked into place . Whether it was the roar, or the self-hatred, or that he’d known her but attacked her anyway – or just that the voice was right. Still, she distrusted her heart’s response – was she just clinging to false hope because she was so out of her mind over losing Arrens?
Aely rode into Hearthglen, past the training camps and the gryphon master, past the barracks, into the civilian part of town, straight to the house Tarquin now shared with Annalea. The man she called boss was in the yard, in a ragged vest and trousers, beating the hell out of a somehow smug-looking target dummy.
For the second time in the span of a day, she took a deep breath, steeled her nerves, and walked up to him. “Oi, Boss?”
Tarquin’s head snapped over, the short wicker blade in his hand stilling. “Awright, Aels?” he gasped out between lungfuls of air.
“I’ve… got some interestin’ news. I think ye maun wan’ ta be sittin’ down fir this too.”
“Huh.” The boss leaned against the manikin, wiping sweat-slick hair off his forehead. “Maun’s well, then. I think this fucker’s winnin’. One tick.” He dropped his weapon carelessly and pushed off to gulp down some water and dunk his head in the barrel, while Aelflaed waited as patiently as she possibly could, nerves fraying at the edges, circling back over the same questions she’d been asking herself since she got back on her horse.
After what seemed like an hour, Tarquin finally dropped his gangly frame into a wicker chair and nodded to the empty seat next to it. “What’s the score?”
Aely did not sit, opting for something more like pacing instead. “‘s… well, I headed out wi’ a few Argents yesterday ta look fir someone they’re callin’ Sir Spooky – some dark rider, seems ta be oan our side, but makin’ folks nervous. I went wi’ them, figured I could use sommat ta do. We found him though, an… well.” She ran her hands through her hair, pushing back the loose curls. “Says he’s Jolstraer ap Taborwynn, back fra th’ dead.”
“Jolstraer.” Tarquin was smiling faintly, but it was hard to say whether he was amused or just Tarquin. Aelflaed was too rattled yet to consider punching him if it was the former. “An’ did yeh tell yir Sir Spooky yeh ken Jolly’s fate, better’n any in this world?”
“Did. Offered ta show him wi’ my sword too. He swears he’s th’ only one’d have th’ nerve ta call himself Jol Taborwynn, an’ tha’ some Val’kyr found his ring an’ gave him a new body. I couldna beat ‘im in a swordfight if I tried, but I matched him at wits, an’ beat him wi’ Light, an’…” She swallowed again, glad at least to see the smile gone from Tarquin’s face. “…an’ I think he is tellin’ th’ truth.” She sank into the chair next to him.
Tarquin’s face was blank as fresh paper as he looked at her, tapping one thumb idly and slowly on the arm of his chair. “Yeh think he says it true. That he’s Jolstraer – our Jolly – come again.”
“I do. I’d swear it. He’s e’en th’ same voice.”
“Once mair, Aels.” Infuriatingly, coldly, steadily. “Tell me once mair.”
“Oan th’ ashes ay th’ house I sang o’er. He recognized me, an’ … An’ I think he speaks truth.”
The boss rocked back a little in his chair, and there was his smile. A bit different, though – like he smelled the scent of the track that might, just might, lead to believing her. And what that belief would mean. “Three times yeh tauld me, then. ‘Moan.” He unfolded his gangly frame with a grunt and headed into the house, which was, all things considered, a bloody mess. “Annie’s up the lab. I’ll get her presently.” Aelflaed rose and followed, Tarquin still talking over his shoulder. “First, but – where are yeh, yeh bollocks – right.”
Tarquin tossed aside a blanket atop a table and turned up his buzzbox. He went through the agonizingly slow process of switching it on, dialing it in, and finding whatever mysterious, ghostly waves would carry his voice across the world, while Aelflaed hovered, cursed herself for hovering, and cursed herself again for not doing…something. “Chryssy,” Tarquin finally said. “Am I wakin’ yeh?”
Chryste Kaleigh’s response came with a minimum of hiss and crackle. “Of course not, Tarq. If you did, I’d have to murder you. So I guess I’m having some awful dream.”
“Well awright. When yeh wake, hie yirself ya Hearthglen, an’ dinna spare the bird.”
“Can I murder you when I get there?” Aelflaed assumed Chryste was joking only because she knew Tarq had done worse than wake her from a mid-afternoon nap.
Tarquin pinched the bridge of his nose. “Kaleigh.” She grunted in response. “Posthaste, aye?” There was a long silence on the box and then, an answering “Aye,” and the click of gnomish technology calling it a day. Tarquin turned to Aelflaed, who was eyeing him with what she hoped was concealed impatience.
“Chryste?” she asked him.
“Aye,” he responded, flipping his own buzzbox into silence. “She’ll be quick eno’, an’ I need me rig an’ ta find Annie.”
“Quick enow, boss,” Aelflaed agreed. “But why?” Chryste had wept on Jolstraer’s death, but so had a good many others. For a long – she pulled back from that precipice. Tarquin smiled at her a little bitterly.
“Yeh told me three times, Aels, an’ so I believe yeh fine. But could be wir both wrong.” He turned away, heading for the stair to his rooms. “An’ then we’ve some thing bearin’ auld Jolly’s name. That’s Kaleigh’s job.”
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