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A Guide to Decorating with Antlers

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Erik hated this dung hole, conveniently masquerading as a town. For one thing, the townspeople of Boursin assumed that a man clad in black and wearing an unfriendly grimace was a man in mourning and thus required some form of consolation, be it a mug of ale on the house (this he reluctantly welcomed), or the advances of a local whore, which he refused with alacrity. Not, it had to be said, out of any particular animosity towards the woman (she was surprisingly clean, healthy and well-received, for someone who must have tumbled half the puritan town), but because there was the chance that he would happen to look into the pub.

That was not a risk worth taking.

"For the love of whatever god you believe in, Erik," Emma hissed into his ear when he slapped the whore’s hand away from his thigh (kindly – upsetting whores in a bar could win a man a jagged glass to the face) and sent her along to the red-headed carpenter, with whom she dallied on a basis so regular and inevitable, Erik sometimes wondered why they even bothered with the overt pecuniary exchanges.

"What now?" he asked Emma, when she refused to continue.

"Would it kill you to tumble the poor girl? She’s got to eat."

"She does alright."

"What’s your point?"

"My point is she doesn’t need my business."

"No, but ‘your business’ desperately needs a moment at her business." Emma the Countess, Emma the bastard daughter of a king, Emma the White Lady of Pont-l'Évêque, picked up a mug of beer, downed half of it, slammed it on the bar top and belched loudly enough to turn the heads of half the patrons.

"Just when I think I can’t see how I could possibly hate you any more," Erik said, raising her hand to his mouth for a kiss, "you become so revolting it would take a saint to withstand your company. Thank you, Emma, lest I forget what a monster you are."

"My pleasure, darling." She stared at him while she nursed the remaining ale. "I trust you aren’t entertaining the fantasy that I don’t know what this is about?"

"How should I dare," Erik muttered, feeling for his rapier. Following the unpleasantness in an inn on the outskirts of Époisses he made sure to periodically check that it was still affixed to his waist whenever he was drinking. God knew they didn’t need a repeat of that incident.

As though to spare him the indignity of arguing, not for the first time, the ridiculous nature of his abstinence in the town of Boursin, the winter wind howled in the swiftly opened door and then died, having blown the rest of Erik’s companions inside. They began shaking the snow off their coats, or so they should be doing, but instead Azazel began pushing aside people in his haste to reach Erik and Emma at the bar, dragging behind a girl, thoroughly wrapped in a coat made for someone much broader in the shoulders.

"I don’t recall putting out a recruiting call," Erik said lazily, fixing her with the most unfriendly stare imaginable.

"She was seeking you. I, being a gentleman, hastened to offer my services," Azazel said, affecting the most dismissive shrug of shoulders known to mankind.

"She can speak, thank you. And thank you for your help. It is most appreciated." The girl straightened, took off her winter coat and shook the excess snow onto the floor, sharing with the entire inn the view of her scandalous wardrobe. "I come to you seeking help."

Erik laughed. "Surely you have me confused with someone else."

She offered a quick, humourless laugh. "No, not really. Not now that I see you before my eyes, anyway. My brother is being held against his will by a terrible beast in a castle. I need your help to save him."

"Darling, now I know you have me confused. You want a knight, not a bandit, and anyway, rescuing a brother, really? What kind of a man would drop all he was doing to save a brother, when there is a pretty lady before him?" Erik raised his mug and took a healthy gulp, realising too late that the girl was watching him with narrowed, mean and gleeful gaze.

"Oh, did I not mention my brother is called Charles Xavier?" she said gaily, then grinned brighter when Erik choked and spit the mouthful back into the mug. He should have known better, truly, after all, how could a man trust a girl of marrying age who shamelessly wore trousers in a public place?

"What, pray tell, has sent you to seek my assistance?" he managed, in between Emma’s helpful pounding of his back, though how was he heard when Janos, Angel and Azazel began sniggering in a thoroughly unsubtle manner, he didn’t know. "Your brother is not an acquaintance of mine."

The girl grinned at him, bright as a daisy and twice as malicious. "Well, since you must know, I just asked myself, who has been unable to ride into town without setting up camp in front of whatever it was my brother was doing at the moment, and thus would likely take offence to never seeing him again. You were far from the first choice, naturally, but a girl must consider other criteria as well." She propped her hands on her hips and smiled, as though the battle had already been won. She looked at the entirety of Erik’s team, who had erected a wall between them and the rest of the pub, gaining their unanimous support, going by their faces. "Unless I was wrong and you aren’t at all interested in helping out a desperate damsel, in which case there is the woodsman, who would have been my first choice, except I couldn’t find him."

Emma, damn her to the seven hells, inclined her head. "Very well, darling, we’ll retire to a more private setting. You may regale us with your tale, but my interest is sufficiently piqued. Congratulations."

"Hold on," Erik began, despite the painful hammering of his heart. "What makes you think we are getting involved?"

There is a time in the life of every leader when he must charge forth and pray that his subordinates follow him, even should the charge be to their own deaths. The true leader anticipates such charges and measures them carefully, so as not to spend his followers carelessly. Erik fancied himself a talented man, where leadership was involved, though his operation was on a small scale. He never asked of his people more than they could give, although on occasion he would ask for more than they wanted to give. He had yet to be wrong. This applied to a grand scale, obviously, because he had gotten them stuck in the mud once or twice.

This was one of the other times, the kind that the leader dreads. Inevitably, there will be a time when a leader raises his voice to utter a command, or question, and finds that his people have ignored him completely and have already left.

This was the time Erik's leadership now faced: the girl left, guided by Azazel, while Angel and Janos followed, leaving him and Emma to settle the bill.

"Let me answer thusly," Emma said, having acknowledged his belated realisation with a hearty gulp of beer. "Barkeep – if this was a fine-weathered day, where would you look for this gentleman?"

The barkeep, an elderly creature who hadn’t set foot outside the pub within the past century or so, squinted at Erik and said, "Well, if the needs be, sunshine permitting, his lordship could normally be found by the smithy, yes, on account of today’s being Tuesday, and young Master Xavier spends his Tuesday afternoons at the smithy, kind madam."

Emma slid three gleaming coins in the barkeeps direction. "For proving my point. Come on, Erik, let us battle the beast and rescue your pretty boy. Fates permitting, we can solve one of your issues by appealing to his sense of gratitude."

"I have no idea what you mean," Erik said haughtily, banishing the fantasy of rescuing the lovely Master Xavier from the clutches of a beast and being rewarded for the deed by the swooning youth. "Wait, did she say beast in a castle?"

"We will worry about the details later." Emma drew her white hood over her hair and stepped out into the winter storm. "She is young and excitable – I’m sure the boy is merely stuck in a deserted ruin with a wild ferret. The saving is what matters, the danger can and will be arranged."

Emma will have turned out to be very, very wrong. This didn’t happen often. Erik's hopeful predictions, on the other hand, will have proven themselves correct to an astonishing degree, if one generously omitted the fantasy of swooning and the somewhat convoluted matter of who had been saving whom.