Stepney looked tired and irritable when she called on Rob. Rob was teaching Cripps how to play poker and looked up from his hand at Stepney's entrance. He had intended to sulk with her all day and be a general pain in the duff but he ended up feeling guilty and awkward instead.
"Stepney, about last night ..."
"Fenton won't be doing that again. We were arguing so viciously we woke my mother and in she waded." Stepney exhaled loudly and sat on the edge of the bed. Rob winced and felt even worse.
"I shouldn't be here, Stepney. All I'm doing is causing trouble. I have you fighting with your brother and Lady Julia's left to sort it out. It's unfair on all of you." Rob went to sit beside Stepney and Cripps tided away the cards. "I'm sorry for calling you anal. You aren't anal, everyone else is. Er ... well Cripps isn't, or McLintock. I meant ..."
"You babble too much." Stepney managed a smile. "Lady Julia hit the roof with Fenton. She went apeshit with him."
"Apeshit." Rob smirked. "Yes. Not funny, sorry. Go on."
"She threatened to banish Rigman from the house and she means it. The only reason she didn't is because it would create a nasty divide between two powerful Lawlim houses. Yes, they are all anal." Stepney learned a new word. "He's Fenton's adviser so he's restricted to Fenton's wing. Eamon Grey will make sure he sticks to it. Bugger for Rigman, isn't it? Not even a fellow Lawlim like Eamon likes the creep." She sniffed.
"It seems like nobody does apart from Fenton." Rob commented.
"You know, I've often watched the pair of them together. I don't know what it is, but at times I get the impression Fenton would rather he wasn't around either. Fenton's far more at ease in Eamon's company. Oh well. Bunch of weirdos. Now then! Remember your drawing of the Shaded Orchard? Do you want to see it for real?"
"Whoa! Yes I certainly do." Rob stood up and extracted his leggings from their niche. The Shaded Orchard was on the very edge of the Lyons estate and they had to walk for ten minutes through the most beautiful and well tended gardens that Rob had ever seen. Even the fact that he hadn't drawn these only caused him mild and fleeting dismay. On one of the manicured lawns was a gleaming, white statue surrounded by a crystal clear pool. The statue was of a man with long, shoulder length hair and fine handsome features. Two short swords hung at his hips but he wore no armor.
"Lord Robin Lions." Stepney stood infront of the statue with Rob. "The mason originally carved 'Rubin' and Lady Julia battered him with serving tray and made him redo it." The image of tiny Lady Julia attacking the mason with a tray made Rob laugh. "It was solid silver too, poor man, and it had a hog roast on it. Dinsen knows how she managed to lift it." They walked along the stone path that lead to the Shaded Orchard.
"I didn't draw this, Stepney." Rob said in complete awe. "I could never draw anything like this. It's amazing." They were surrounded by trees, bushes and vines that bore fruit of every colour and every shade imaginable and the scent was intoxicating.
"I've always loved it here. Those trees over there with the red fruit are Fentons. The green fruits are Julias. You're standing right next to my bush."
"Good job Tommo's not here." Rob muttered. "This one here?" He nodded toward something that resembled a wild rose bush without the thorns. It had blossoms that were pink, red and black, and tiny yellow berries. "So these are Stepneys?"
"Used to make alcohol of all things. I get giddy with spring water." Stepney rolled her eyes. "Speaking of alcohol, this area should be right up your terrace. Barley and hops for ale."
"Oo! Home brew!" Rob darted in for closer look. "So what was that stuff McLintock gave me when I first woke up. That tackle would probably be illegal where I'm from."
"Nightberries. It has so many healing properties I've lost count. The side effect is that does your head in."
"Yes I know. So where are those?"
"Over here but tread carefully." Stepney picked her way through the orchard until they came to an area fenced off with sharp, tangled shrubs and bushes. Inside this enclosure were two trees that looked exactly like Christmas trees. They only stood around six feet tall. "Don't touch them. Those Thornwraiths are there for a reason. During the day, Nightpines secrete toxins that act as strong narcotics. One needle would knock you out cold and could cause paralysis. A greater dose would kill you."
"And you make wine out of this stuff? Seriously?" Rob said in disbelief.
"No we make it from the berries and they only appear during the night, when the trees lose their toxins, and only for thirteen days after the new moon. The rest of the time, they're seriously badass, like now." Stepney explained.
"Right. Yes. Can we go that side of the spiky bushes?" Rob backed away. "So these trees just grow all over the place?"
"Hell no. There are five in Lawlim and we have two of them. There's one in the Civic hall grounds surrounded by more locks and gates than the jail house. One's in a cave half way up the Rowan Cliffs and one's on a tiny island very close to the Barrier. They can't be uprooted or replanted. People have tried in the past and the trees just died. They can't be grown from seed either. The five we have left are all in their original locations from before we got here."
"Well hard." Rob complemented. "So is there any more fatal foliage I should be aware of?"
"One or two irritants but nothing fatal." Stepney smiled. "In time I'll show you the rest of Lawlim. At the moment, Rigman is out and about winding everyone up. It's a good job I'm Divinely chosen otherwise I'd boot him right in the cluster."
"Stepney!" Rob roared with laughter. "You said you got your language from me but I have never ever said that. Not once! Anyway I'm a Divine tool and no one's told me I can't boot him in the cluster so it's just as well we're staying here for now. On that subject, any news from Dinsen?"
"She pointed me to ancient rituals and folklore." Stepney sighed. "And I do mean ancient. There's tomes and tomes of it. I can only pull a few clerics away from the Barrier and only for a short time. Most of the research falls to me. "
"No wonder you're knackered. There has to be something I can do. I'm sitting playing poker with Cripps and sniffing flowers and you're flogging your guts out. Can't I help you with those tomes?"
"No for a few reasons. The archive vaults are in the Temple's Inner Sanctum. Clerics only. Also, you wouldn't know what you were looking at. I mean that in a nice way, Rob and thank you for offering. I really should get back to it." Stepney rubbed her eyes.
"You really should get to bed, that's what you should really do." Rob advised as they made their way back to The Den.
"Stepney!" They turned to see Fenton and Eamon walking toward them. "We need to talk."
"We don't seem to be very good at that these days, Fenton." Stepney glared at her brother.
"No we don't." Fenton eyed Rob from top to bottom and Rob noticed.
"I've had enough of you pal." He squared himself infront of Fenton. "She's exhausted. Absolutely knackered. It's a wonder she's still standing and there's you squawking like a big tart. I realise there are things in this whole ... wigged out ... business that only she can do but don't you think she has enough on her plate without you and your cronies bitching on at her every five minutes? Whatever it is, go and bloody fix it, Fenton. You're a big boy now."
"I should gut you for that." Fenton snapped and Rob looked at him challengingly. "We need to know why you're here and we need to know soon."
"No one's arguing that one." Rob stated. "We don't know! I don't know and Stepney doesn't know. How many other ways are there to say it? Now I'm not in a position to talk about cleric business because I haven't got a bloody clue but by my understanding, Dinsen the Wise, your Deity, tells Stepney, your peoples' High Priestess. Yes? So do you think Stepney's hiding it all from you? From me? From Lady Julia? I know you don't like me, Fenton. You aren't top of my Christmas card list either but there's nothing we can do! I'm here. End of. Get over it."
"And in the mean time the people out there are brewing riots." Fenton said shortly.
"Oh and I wonder who's instigating all that?" Rob sad sarcastically. "Where is he? I'll belt him all over Lawlim."
"That's really going to work." Fenton shook his head. "Hersh is taking it all to far, even for me. Eamon agrees with me. He's doing all this without my backing, or encouragement. No, I don't like you but I do like my city, and its people. Trust me, the mobs and sides are forming right now and there's only so long they'll rely on blind faith as a reason for your being here."
"Especially with Rigman stirring the pot." Stepney spoke up. "You are an arse Fenton! By now, the people out there will assume you're of a mind with Rigman. Who'd blame them? Your bigoted behaviour at dinner would have spread through Lawlim like wildfire! So he's overstepped even your mark? You should never have had a mark in the first place. You play with feathers, you get your arse tickled. I'm going to the Temple. Excuse me, Rob. Piss off Fenton." She marched away in tears of exhaustion, rage, and frustration.
"To use a quote, 'I should gut you for that.'" Rob said menacingly. "You're the Civic Leader, Fenton, you go and sort it." Rob headed for the house in a very black mood. He entered his room and immediately felt two arms round his neck from behind. The last thing he remembered was a flash of light as metal struck metal.