“What did she want?” Jonathan stood in the open doorway of the smithy and peered down the street towards where Mara had walked.
I sighed. “She needed to ask me about something.”
Jonathan looked from me to the sword and scabbard in my hands. “Looks to me like you’re not planning on fighting her after all.” A sly grin crossed his face.
I rolled my eyes. ”While that is true to a point, it’s not because of anything like ‘that’.”
“Oh, and which ‘that’ are we talking about now?” Rat looked up from some cards he’d dealt himself in his corner of the floor.
“I could be wrong, but I think Rickter’s little barbarian friend is getting her way.” Jonathan chuckled as he walked to a table hurriedly built earlier during the day.
“Jonathan… nevermind. Say what you will.“ I muttered my way toward one of the two rooms in the back, closed the door behind me and sat down in the darkness on the hardwood floor.
The room was still and silent and I listened for an hour or two until the sounds of movement and shuffled cards quieted down. My eyelids grew heavy and I felt the strain of the day in my head as my eyes drooped closed.
* * *
I was wondering when you were going to have time for me. The voice in my head chided, shaking me from my sleep. I opened my eyes and looked around. A shadow sat in a corner across the room from me and I sat up.
Don’t speak, you’ll wake the others. The girl’s voice echoed in my mind as the shadow crawled across the floor on all fours. She’d not needed to say anything, as I found myself unable to speak when I opened my mouth. Instead I found myself trembling and paralyzed with cold fear as the shade crawled slowly and silently across the floor in a manner that seemed like a scene from a nightmare. The shade, having made her way across the floor placed a small hand on either of my thighs and, turning around, sat down gently in my lap and leaned her small frame against my chest. With that, her still, small weight in my lap replaced my fear with a warmth that settled my achy head and I fell asleep almost instantly.
* * *
The morning found me, albeit a little late, feeling renewed and extremely hungry, but the girl was nowhere to be seen. I thought about being concerned for her, but just couldn’t bring myself to do so. I got up brushed the wrinkles from the cloak and the blankets I’d wrapped about my middle the previous night.
“Food… and clothes” I said, verbalizing my to-do list as I considered my ridiculous appearance. Turning, I opened the door to the main room which was empty except for Mara, who was sitting at the table napping as she waited for me.
“Erm… morning.” I said, suddenly worried once again about my ‘garments’.
She opened her eyes and popped her head to the side. “I got your money for you from the town council about an hour ago. Not as much as I’d hoped for on my end of the deal but what’s fair is fair.” She tossed a hefty coin purse to me and I caught it and looked in.
“It’s only a hundred scales… not much, but every little bit helps.” She stood from the simple wooden chair and walked around the table to me.
“…how much did you get?” I asked.
“fifty… fiends don’t pay as well as saving whole towns, and, apparently, even saving whole towns isn’t very profitable around here.
I closed the purse and looked back toward her. “You can have the extra to equal it out if you’d prefer.”
“No, You’ll need it for some new clothes, might be good to pick up some light armor while you’re at it, too.” She added with a smile.
She tossed me an apple and we made our way out into town. The apple didn’t go very far and I made a point of stopping by the bakery for some loaves of bread. I was met on my way in by Mikel carrying a large bag full of rolls, biscuits and pastries and I shook my head and smiled at him as I walked by. He, however, was more curious about the company I was keeping and made this known as we entered the small shop.
“Well, what do we have here? You’re still following my friend around, wench?” Mikel shook his finger as he spoke like a mother reprimanding her children.
She smiled and walked up to him, “Rickter ‘n I are partners, now, Boy. Run off with your bread and try to stay out of trouble, hmm?”
Mikel looked at me with a deeply betrayed expression. I shrugged. “You’re welcome to come along if you’d like, but I don’t think you’ll want to when you know what our business is to be.”
Mikel looked flabbergasted. ”As if I could be cowed into not coming with a phrase like that. What could be so bad that I wouldn’t want to come with my best friend on his adventures?”
Mara and I looked at each other.
“We’re going hunting for trolls.” I finally replied with a sigh.
Mikel fairly shrank where he stood.
“Really…? But… why?” Confusion played across his face painfully.
“Because… they have to pay, Mikel.” Was all I could say as I looked on the floor. I didn’t want to look at him anymore. I didn’t want to see him hurt.
“…I’m still coming,” Mikel said barely audibly. He grew in confidence as he continued, saying: “You’re not the only one with a blood debt owed.”
Mara then turned around to look at me. ”We didn’t discuss this. I don’t want him with us.”
“You need to discuss it? Fine. You needed protection, right? One more body will make the job easier. He’s also got a royal’s education…could be useful.”
Mara was starting to turn red as I turned toward the counter, picked up a few loaves of warm, fresh bread and made my way out of the bakery.
Mikel followed very closely after me not wanting to be alone with her. “Things are going to get very uncomfortable for you two if you don’t decide between you who’s going to be making the decisions around here.”
I looked at him, and he backed off.
“I’m just stating a fact, is all.” Mikel turned around.
Mara made her way out a moment later. “Is there anyone else you think we should bring? I’d like to know now as opposed to later”
I thought for a moment before replying. “Actually there is someone else, but seeing as he’s not here I’ll discuss that before we find him, too. I’m not even terribly sure whether or not he’ll come.”
“His name’s Rat. He was the shortest of our little group, but he knows the roads pretty well, been as far as Evincere anyways, and I know from experience he’s good in a scrap.”
Mara stood thinking for a moment. ”I’ve never been there myself and someone who knew the roads would be a good idea. So that makes us four, then?”
I didn’t know how she’d respond to the idea of having a spectral girl child following us about, so I chose not to mention her at present. “Yeah…that’s right.”
“Well, the tailor is down the street. I’ll go find your little friend and ask him if he wants to go. You go get something to cover that hide of yours.” She shook her head and walked off, leaving Mikel and I to go on without her.
The tailor’s shop in Bridgeton was quite a bit more organized than what had served for one in Stumpton, but unlike Stumpton, their staff was ill-experienced to the task of clothing someone of my proportions. So, all in all, it took just about as long as it would have there.
Two sets of breeches and shirts later, I found myself going out for dinner.
“It’s a good thing your boots didn’t get too destroyed. The cobbler should be able to replace the threading on them pretty quick. Had we a need to get them replaced…” Mikel rolled his eyes imagining the wait.
“Yes, I suppose that was The Unnamed’s work.” I said to myself, looking at the monstrosities I wore as boots.
Mikel looked down the street. “Well, it’s at least two hours past my lunchtime…I need food.”
“What about that satchel of bread you were carrying earlier?” I knew the answer before I could finish asking.
“That was brunch!” Mikel smiled and patted me as high as he could on my back in place of my shoulder.
We made our way around town to Butterby’s place. He’d apparently been expecting us.
“Young masters, It’s ever a compliment to my establishment that you come to dine here. Come in.”
Butterby took us to the table where I’d originally eaten. A large seat in the same fashion as the other chairs in the dining room sat at the table. Butterby stood nearby and watched as I sat into the chair which not only held my weight easily, but was far more suited to my hips than the wooden recliner I’d used before.
“Y-your seat, sir?” Butterby asked as I scooted myself from side to side and settled into the chair.
“Very nice, Arlo.” I said. You really outdid yourself.
“Pish-posh, I provide a service. ‘Tis a responsibility of mine to guarantee my customers’ comforts. Now, as a personal way of saying thanks for your service to my town, your meal is free today. Pick whatever you will!” Butterby sat a serving boy near our table to ensure our drinks were filled promptly, and took our orders with his usual alacrity. The food was, as usual, very good, and despite our temporary position as heroes I made sure to leave a tip and, since I had money to spend, I gave the serving boy a couple scales, for which I was awarded with a very big smile and an excited, but polite ‘thank you.’
As we left, we found Mara and Rat waiting for us outside the inn.
“…See? I told you. Mikel’s stomach always leads him back here.” Rat stated matter-of-factly.
“We spent a long time looking for you.” Mara said.
“Sorry, the tailor had no idea he’d be serving such a large customer.” I chuckled.
“Are we ready to go then?” Mara looked from me to Mikel and back again.
“Other than letting Jonathan know I’m leaving we should be good, and the shop he’s working at is on the way out.
“Let’s go, then.”
We turned and walked down the street toward the north road, passing people on the busy thoroughfare until we arrived at the storefront for Wilbur’s smithy.
Upon entering, the clerk recognized me and got Wilbur. “Well, if it’s not the town’s savior, I’ll give ya one day, I guess, but tomorrow I’ll need you here with your… Um, with Jonathan.”
“-Actually, about that.” I smiled and continued as Jonathan walked in behind him, a frustrated expression stewed on his face. “Thankful for the offer as I am, I won’t be taking the job after all, at least not for now. I have to go to Evincere on some business.”
“Oh?” Wilbur and Jonathan replied in unison.
“I’m escorting the Barbarian there, and I might look for work up there while I’m at it.” I added with some haste.
“Well then, good luck. Come visit when you get back.” I heard the ‘if’ that had been omitted from the comment in his tone.
Jonathan, however, was not satisfied yet. “What fool errand is she setting you up to do?”
I collected myself and with a moment’s thought I answered in one breath. “I’m to be her bodyguard, nothing more, nothing less. The payment was the sword. She also said she knew something of my family and would share what she knew if I came. I’m taking Rat and Mikel with me.”
Jonathan face was blank. All he managed to say as he walked back into the forge was, “Be careful.”
* * *
Needless to say, we didn’t get too far that evening before we had to make camp.
Mara was still somewhat incensed concerning the size of our party. Rat was busy in his own thoughts, and Mikel, who’d bagged a few hares from the road as we walked, was too busy smacking his lips and making slurping noise with his food to be much conversation.
Are you lonely enough to talk to me? The specter queried.
Sigh… What do you want from me?
Nothing. Just to talk. You hatched me, you know. How do you think I feel? I had to get my own Firstmeal, human. If one were to expect such a thing from a human… or even a half-troll, they’d be thought just plain silly!
I rubbed my head as she continued her tirade. Can I sleep in your lap again, tonight?
I thought of the dreamless sleep from the previous night. Will it always be like this with you?
I don’t know. Maybe. I just hatched yesterday, you know.
I guess, but wait for everyone else to get to sleep first, okay?
Her voice emptied itself from my mind as quickly as it entered it. Am I going insane? I stared into the forest, thinking on the journeys ahead of me.
* * *
“Rickter, are you alright?” Rat spoke from beside me, shocking me back to reality.
“I hope so. How long is it from Bridgeton to Evincere again?”
“Well, it always took me about a week and a half by myself. Riding on your shoulder, I think we’ll make it a little faster than that.” Rat’s little bald head bobbed up and down in consideration as he spoke.
A few minutes later, Mara unpacked her bedroll and laid it out before asking. “Who’s taking first watch?”
Rat raised his hand. “I’ll be getting carried during the day, I can keep watch during the night.”
Mara half-smiled and laid down, “I’ll give you one thing, Rickter. I’ve yet to see what Mikel is good for, but I approve of letting Rat come.”
Rat stood and bowed deeply. “An honor.”
If Mikel had heard he hadn’t responded with even a glance.
I yawned as I stood up, looked around and went to a nearby stand of trees to relieve myself before bed. The night air was downright cold.
“Does everyone have enough blankets to stay warm?” I called out from behind the tree. No one answered. I peeked around the edge of the tree as I buttoned my breeches.
What I saw turned my blood colder than the wind that blew through the trees.
Mara’s body was stripped bare of clothes and covered in old blood, as a pair of crows beginning their job started with her eyes. A charred skeleton was all that remained of Mikel and what I guessed had been Rat was hopelessly crushed to a fleshy pulp. I screamed.
A chuckle from behind me spun me about and I tried to draw the sword from its scabbard at my side, but the blade would not budge. A huge form, with a man’s face and a fiend’s grin stared down at me.
I tried again to pull the sword from the scabbard’s clutches, but a hand from the shadows flew out at me, grabbing me around the neck and lifting me from the ground effortlessly. I gagged out a terrified cry as it brought me towards its gaping mouth. As I wept in terror, I recognized the face of my assailant as that of my own, just as he clamped his teeth onto my neck. I felt the airways close and the flesh on my throat begin to tear.
“Leave him be!” A voice from elsewhere thundered. Suddenly I felt myself yanked backwards and thrown to the ground and watched as the shadow of the fiend disappeared into the darkness. The earth behind me shuddered as a claw easily as big as two of me landed beside me, covered in steel-colored scales and bearing talons like great swords. I bent my injured neck, bleeding to death as I did so, so I could see what creature had seen fit to keep me from being eaten, and my eyes closed in death as I beheld a dragon.
* * *
I snapped up from where I’d been sleeping. Looking around, Rat was awake and he stared at me wide-eyed from across the fire. I looked to the ground beside me and the specter’s shadow laid almost invisible in the firelight.
It’s alright, He’s gone now. Go back to sleep.
And so I did.