The next morning I awoke to find Rat standing over me. “Good morning, Rat.”
His reply was disconcerting as he stared at me. “Is it?”
I rolled over and looked over to the spot where the specter had been. As seemed to be the usual, she was gone.
“Yeah, I mean, I guess so.” I smiled as I looked back to him.
“You were making some… noises during the night. I was worried you’d had another dream.”
“Well, I did… but I think everything will turn out alright this time.” I answered with a smile trying to smooth over any fears he might have. “Everyone has bad dreams once in a while… That other time was probably just a fluke.”
He nodded, with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. ”Yes, you’re probably right.”
We packed up camp as soon as the other two woke up a few minutes later. I wrapped my blankets, like a sling, over my shoulder and under my other arm and Rat crawled into the makeshift hammock and slept as we made our way down the road.
“That is very convenient.” Mara commented as the four of us made our way down the road.
“We discovered this method of traveling when we made our trips to Bridgeton and back from Stumpton. Saves time and keeps someone fresh for watching at night, and that has saved both our lives at least once.” I agreed.
Mikel, looking for something to shoot for food, stopped suddenly, looking into the trees.
“What do you see, Mikel?” I stood and watched for movement in the direction he was looking.
“I-I’m not sure… looked like something big, but I didn’t look fast enough and I lost it,” Mikel stammered nervously.
I watched for some time but didn’t see anything. “Let’s go. If there is something out there maybe it just wants to be left alone.”
“I hope it feels the same way about us,” Mikel mumbled mostly to himself.
Mara had her bow out and an arrow in hand ready to notch at a moment’s notice. Taking her cue, I pulled the sword from the scabbard. I was momentarily transfixed once again on the beauty of the weapon in my hands as it slid cleanly out and reflected the morning sunlight making its way through the leafy canopy above us. I rested the flat of the blade on my shoulder and we walked down the road armed, searching the tree line for an attack, and continued in this manner for an hour or so until Mikel was satisfied we’d either lost it or had just been seeing things.
“I must be jumpy or something.” Mikel shook his head, embarrassed.
“Better to be careful and pay attention to such feelings than to ignore them and end up dead, Mikel.” Mara said. “Your eyes may yet be of use to us, even if your education and manners aren’t”
Mikel rolled his eyes at her back-handed compliment.
A sudden snore from the bundle slung over my shoulder pulled a chuckle from me as we continued on.
We were beginning to pull out some of the bread for lunch when the sound of a tree crashing drew our attentions to the side of the road.
“Trees rarely just fall over by themselves,” Mikel noted. He slowly walked over towards the edge of the road and peered through the trees.
I noticed over his shoulder a blur of movement, but couldn’t make it out. Mikel quickly pulled an arrow from his quiver and let go. Turning around, he looked at Mara and I, panic-stricken, and screamed, “Run!”
Over his shoulder, I saw a creature easily a foot taller than me crashing through the brush towards us. Its body was covered in short, dark brown fur, and gouts of smoke issued from its nostrils as it ran. A pair of bull’s horns sprouted from the sides of its head.
“Minotaur!” Mara yelled, pulling her bow and starting to run.
I drew the sword from its scabbard and began to run as well. The creature toppled over a tree as it rushed onto the road, its shoulder bleeding where Mikel had shot it, and roared before dropping to all fours and charging us, horns lowered.
Rat woke as I raced down the road as fast as I could manage. Climbing up my shoulder as I ran, he saw what was approaching and gasped.
“Who was the fool who shot the minotaur?” he asked, testily. Mikel was gaining ground on me, as was Mara. For once I was glad Mikel could outdistance me, and I hoped for at least his escape.
“Mara, here!” I yelled, heaving a very confused looking Rat towards her.
Mara looked at me wide-eyed as I turned toward the oncoming beast. “Get out of here!” I yelled to the others at the top of my lungs, wishing that the minotaur would also take my advice. It didn’t.
I tried to swing the sword at it, but, unaccustomed to fighting with it, I moved too slowly and it bounced off of the creature’s right horn moments before the minotaur collided with me.
Thankfully, my blow had struck the beasts head to the side so that I wasn’t gored as it struck me, but the impact of its charge was more than enough to knock me from my senses as went down, grabbing for anything to keep my feet.
Incidentally, my hand came to grip with the same horn I’d struck and, while nearly dislodging my arm, the beast tripped and rolled head over feet.
I scrambled to and the fire in my shoulder tinged my vision red. The minotaur regained its feet and looked from me to Mikel and Mara who were, thankfully, making good headway towards an escape. As it did so I picked up the sword, and slid it into the scabbard, removing instead the shorter of the two blades.
The beast, snorting a gout of smoke after the others in a manner which seemed to suggest disgust, turned and lumbered lumbered toward me, shaking an enormous fist. It raised its arm, preparing to strike, and an arrow from behind pierced through to the other side of the monster’s arm. Blood spurted down onto the ground and my face as I took an opportunity to thrust my blade into its exposed abdomen.
The world spun as a crushing blow from the back of its hand sent me sprawling into the unforgiving side of a large oak beside the road. Looking to my left down the road, I saw Mikel slowly making his way back towards me, firing arrows as fast as he could. Mara stood behind him about twenty paces, also launching arrows.
I lifted my hand toward them and coughed out, ”Go,” before a sudden sharp pain in the back of my head caused everything to go black.
* * *
The crackling sound of a fire and the smell of cooked meat greeted me as I finally shook off the worst of the pain in my head and woke up.
“He’s awake!” Rat’s voice boomed. I felt a freshly cold compress on my forehead being checked as I opened my eyes.
Mara, carrying a chunk of the cooked meat on her knife, walked over and looked down at me.
“You’re not going to make much of a bodyguard if I have to keep pulling you out of the fire like this.” She smiled half-heartedly.
Mikel was sitting on the other side of the fire, very quietly.
Rat seemed to be continuing his various ministrations on me despite my having woken up. “Don’t move, Rickter. I know your flesh heals quickly but I don’t know how quickly your bones mend, and I’d bet money that what I’d heard when that thing was shaking you about was your neck breaking.”
I didn’t argue. I was just glad everyone was alright.
After a few minutes, I asked, “What happened?”
Mara was the one who, a few moments later, chose to answer. “The minotaur was bleeding very badly from where you’d stabbed him. Had it not been completely berserk, it might have lived, but you’d apparently angered it so that it just decided to pick you up by your head and whip you around a bit. It bled to death as it did so, with a bit more help from Mikel and I.”
Mara kneeled next to me then and I watched as she lowered her face to mine. I never realized until that point how much a kiss from her would have been pleasant, but she had other reasons for getting so close as she whispered softly in my ear. ”Mikel is taking this very hard. I don’t much care for him, but he did help out with the beast and in taking care of us while we were tending to you. He believes himself at fault for the whole thing.”
I listened but had little to say in response to that. Mikel had always held high expectations of himself. In the meantime, the smells from the food were beginning to have an effect on my appetite. “What’s for dinner, Mikel?”
Mikel turned around on his backside, and looked over the fire at me. His face, though recently cleared of the tears themselves, bore their tracks amazingly well in the firelight. “I’m sorry, Rick… I–“
“Tighten your knot, Mikel.” I laughed to keep myself from crying at the sight of him. ”Just get me some dinner, I’m hungry. Nobody blames you for this.”
The camp was extremely quiet in response to my statement, pointing out to me the errant nature of my assumption. This drove me nuts. I sat up, much to the chagrin of my small, bald caretaker.
“Okay, this has got to be said… now. The errands we run are going to be inherently dangerous, and none here can claim perfection, so if we are to be efficient in anything we do, we are all going to have to put aside our pride and, rather than constantly browbeat and criticize each other for our mistakes, work towards helping each other so that we can accomplish the goals we’ve set, and, hopefully, return to our separate homes alive.”
Rat shook his head for a moment before speaking up a few moments later. “Damn it all if he isn’t right…” He stood to his feet and walked a step closer to the fire. “Mikel, I’m sorry for the words I spoke. I should know better at my age than to let my tongue flap. What I said was spoken more out of anger and fear than reason.”
Mara looked at Rat then at me, coughed, and then muttered quietly. ”Yes, it was the same for me.”
I sighed, hoping this would be the last time I had to come to this kind of aid to them. These people… need a leader. I wish I knew of someone who could help. Jonathan would be a good leader, but he was never for such adventures. Well, perhaps we’ll find someone, yet.
I watched as Rat sat down next to Mikel and began discussing something with him in a hushed tone as Mara stood and went into her tent.
The specter’s voice suddenly rang like bells in my head. You know, I think you’re quite the leader. They listen to you. They trust you, even when they don’t trust each other.
But I’m the second youngest here! I’ve no place leading those more experienced than me.
Actually, including myself, you’re third youngest. As I see it, experience is good, but talent is better. With some experience to hone the talent of leadership in you, I think you’ll do fine.
What about you?
What about me?
You’re apparently fairly intelligent considering your age, and I’m guessing fairly powerful from what I’ve experienced since meeting you. Why don’t you lead us?
You know the answer to that before I even speak it. They trust you. I’d just be another monster to them. I may yet reveal myself to them if circumstances require it, but then and only then. The mortar holding you four together is still soft. I fear my sudden presence might dash your party against the rocks.
I stopped for a moment to think about what she’d said when an idea popped into my mind. Did you help during the fight with the beast today?
I tried. Its spirit was so enraged though that it was buffered against my abilities. I nearly lost myself to its rage.
Well, thanks for trying, I guess.
A warmth seemed to fill me as if I could feel her smile as a physical sensation, then she was gone again, leaving me to my own thoughts. One of these days I’m gonna remember to ask what her name is.
Mikel had just pulled off a large piece of the meat and had put it on a tin plate for me. I reached over, taking the plate, which was quite warm, but pleasantly so. The meat glistened in the light cast by the flames and looked like a promising meal.
“So… I’m just guessing… Minotaur?” I asked as I took a bite.
“Um, no actually,” Mikel answered with a mouthful of his own. Swallowing, he continued. “Mara said that Minotaur meat, despite its bovine appearance is that of an intelligent creature, even if only barely. She wouldn’t let us touch it. This is actually a deer I managed to bag while they were tending to you.”
“Hmm,” I said with yet another mouthful. ”Did you cook it?”
“Yup!” he said with a smile. “Do you like it?”
“No,” I said, taking another bite. ”Barely palatable.”
From her tent, I heard Mara snort a laugh in response as I reached out with my bowl, allowing Mikel to serve me a second helping.
* * *
I watched over the course of the next three days as the forest around us began to thin. Naked oaks and elms reached out from the side of the road and the occasional farm peeked through to the road. This was interesting to me, but I was starting to have my doubts about the wisdom of traveling north during this time of year.
Mara was prepared enough, having brought a number of furs and pelts tent to sleep in, and Rat was warm enough when in my pack, but Mikel was in poor sorts the colder it got. Still unaccustomed to the road, Mikel’s feet wore raw and the cold winds blew through his thin cloak and clothing leaving him shivering the better part of the time.
I was happy to see a small sign on the side of the road late on the fourth day pointing down a small but well-traveled trail that read, “Trading Post.”
“Let’s go to the trading post. See what they have while warming up a bit, eh?”
Mara shrugged unconcernedly, but didn’t argue. Rat answered with a loud snore. Mikel, his arms across his chest, nodded agreement while clenching his teeth to keep them from chattering.
The trail toward the post was well kept as we proceeded down it, and at its end stood a large stone and plank building with a windmill at the top and a large well in front of a small stable built off to our right.
Upon entering the building, the smell of hot food brought tears to my eyes and with a glance toward Mikel, I could see his relief as the warmth of the post’s interior thawed his face enough to allow for a smile. There weren’t any other customers there at the moment, but that didn’t bother us as we glanced at the goods stacked along the walls and placed on small shelves about the room.
Mikel followed his nose into another room and as I was checking out some large furs, I heard a woman’s voice behind me yell cordially, “You look about fit for wolves, boy. Sit down. Midmeal costs three copper, but if you’ve not the money we’ll trade it for a few chores.”
I turned and followed the voice into the other room to find Mikel seated at one of three small tables. A fluffy lady about Jonathan’s age was accepting a small handful of coins from Mikel.
“Sir, this is enough to feed everyone in your party twice.” The stout woman said incredulously as she counted out her handful. She turned to see me, and then politely removed her jaw from the floor before heading to a doorway to the kitchen, “Rebekah, start another pot, we’ve got some really hungry travelers in here!” At the sound of that Mara made her way into the dining area as well.
The smell of food rousing Rat, I felt as he tapped my shoulder and I lifted him out of my pack so we could both sit down. I sat on the floor by the wall, so as to not break one of their chairs, and when bowls of hot soup and small loaves of bread were brought out, Mikel was in rare form and ate four bowls of soup and three loaves of bread.