I woke to the face of the shopkeeper’s daughter, eyes bloodshot and face stained by tears. Small white arms wrapped around my neck when she saw I’d woken up.
“You’re gonna suffocate him going on like that, girl.” Mara barked as she walked over and stood next to me. “Get up. We all need to talk to you.”
I sat up flexed my jaw a few times and looked over to Rebekah. “You… um…injured?” She shook her head and looked at the ground.
I wanted to hold her and tell her it would be okay, but I didn’t know if it would. Instead, I stood and walked over to where Mara and the rest were standing. All eyes were on me and I realized I’d not felt T’chak’s presence since I passed out.
“When were you going to tell us about her, Rickter?” Mara locked eyes with me.
“Um… her?” I motioned to Rebekah.
“Don’t play the fool with us, lad.” Rat spoke quietly. “You know of whom we speak.”
“Well…” I started and my throat suddenly ran dry. ”I’ve been trying to find a good time to do so. Just hadn’t shown up yet.”
Mikel looked at Mara. “I don’t see what the problem is. She protected Rickter and even killed the—“
“Shut up, Mikel. This isn’t about her intentions. It’s about Rickter keeping secrets.” Mara walked over to me, barely restraining herself. “All this talk of how we are relying on each other, and the whole time you’ve got some dragon-girl secretly in tow!”
Mikel walked over and stood in front of me. “Yes, I understand that, but I also understand that Rickter has not done anything yet to implicate any kind of guilt or wrongdoing. Would you have reacted any better if he’d just told us a day or two ago, ‘Oh, just figured I’d mentioned I’ve found a dragon and I think it wants to travel with us.’” Mikel looked at me. I could tell he was hurt that I hadn’t told him, and I felt like a wretch.
“I understand why you did it this way, but after all this time I thought you’d trust me, at least.” Mikel went back to where he had been and sat down.”
Mara glared at me for a second and then did the same.
Rat looked up at me. “We put up the tent you’d gotten for Mara… She’s resting in there.”
I looked at the ground. “She’d hatched from the egg in the tunnels below Bridgeton. It was only recently that I found out she was more than just a dream.”
“A dream?” Mara looked doubtful.
“She can disappear and reappear at will, and she has… stood within my dreams for a time. I thought I might be going mad until just the other night.”
“Your… nightmare?” Rat looked at me quizzically. I nodded.
“I’m still not terribly sure of her abilities, but she came to my aid—“
Mara interjected,” —and almost got herself killed.”
“Is she bad off?” I’d forgotten the troll’s attack on her. I saw again the troll with its massive hands around her neck.
Rat raised his hand to me. ”She’s fine lad. Just a bit roughed up. I only noticed a bit of bruising on her shoulder when the fight was done. After she turned into a little girl, that is. I didn’t go near her when she was still…”
“A dragon!” Mikel was past being upset. “I’ve only ever read about them! Just think what Jonathan will do when he finds out we have a dragon.”
Mara rolled her eyes.
“Tch. Mikel, I’m quite sure that Jonathan will be absolutely ecstatic to find out we’ve made yet another interesting addition to our motley bunch.”
A bit of silence fell between us.
“What are we going to do about her?” Mara motioned towards Rebekah.
Rat was quick to answer her. “Well, a young girl is not someone to be left alone this far from anywhere. We’ll take her with us. Perhaps we can find some extended family of hers somewhere.”
I agreed. “It’s the least we can do.”
“You say it as if we brought this on her” Mara looked at me crossly.
Her attitude was beginning to irritate me again. “Fine. It’s the least I can do. Better?”
She sneered at me, and then turned to walk off into the woods.
“Get some wood if you’re going out there. I think we’ll be making camp here tonight.” Rat shouted to her as he set about to figure out what we’d eat for dinner.
Rebekah walked over to us. “What do you want me to do?”
Rat looked up at her. ”Well, if you’d like you can help me set up the other tent. Rickter. If you would, please check the inn for anything worth salvaging. Mayhap we can find something for the girl as a keepsake.”
Rebekah’s face lit up at Rat’s request and she dashed off toward the burnt building.
“Oh well. Keep an eye on her at least, then, Rickter.” Rat said as he untied the other tent.
* * *
Rebekah was pulling a small stone out of the hearth, when I reached her. From a hidden space behind the stone she pulled out a small metal tin. She spun around and looked at me when she realized I was there.
“What do you want?” She was more than a bit nervous.
I scratched the back of my head. ”I was just making sure you were safe is all.”
“You can’t have it!” She spat and pulled a small knife from somewhere.
I raised my hands. “Whoa! I don’t even know what you’re talking about. You can keep it. Whatever.” I backed away a bit.
She looked at me, sighed, and then fell to her knees in the ash at her feet. “I… know.” I stepped toward her, offered a hand, and shrugged. “You’ve been through a lot today. A little bit of crazy is to be expected.”
She smiled faintly and offered me the tin. “It’s not much. Just what me and mom and had saved for my dowry. It’s just a handful of gold coins. If it’ll help…”
I placed my hands around hers and pushed the tin back toward her. ”Then I think it even more important for you to keep it. You’re almost to the point that you might need it. It would be a shame to have to start over from scratch on that as well.”
She smiled up at me. Her hair was just a bit darker than Henny’s.
The thought made me feel a bit ill. “Rebekah, did this place have a root cellar?”
“Yes, it did. It should still have some food in it that we can take with us.” She said, sounding a bit more enthused.
* * *
Upon getting back to camp I’d asked if anyone had checked up on T’chak, yet. They all just stared at me and so I stepped past them and called into the tent. “T’chak? You awake yet?”
I lifted the edge of the tent flap just a bit to check on her, but she was gone.
“Did anyone see her leave?” I turned toward the others. Rat shook his head worriedly.
I’m right here, Rickter.
You had me worried there. Are you okay?
I’m fine. The others are still scared of me though. I think they might need more time.
Actually, I think at this point it’d be better for you to visibly join us. People don’t generally feel comfortable knowing they can’t see someone who can see them plainly.
I could feel a bit of anxiety in her as she considered what I’d said. Okay, but I’m leaving if they get too nervous.
It’s more your nervousness that’s likely to spook them. Just relax, I won’t let them hurt you.
I felt her at my side as she coalesced into sight. I looked back toward the campfire where everyone sat, staring at our newest guest.
“All of you, this is T’chak. She’s going to be part of our group too from now on.” I placed my hand on her shoulder and she stood there, looking at the others.
Mikel looked over at her. “You want some rabbit stew?”
She looked at him, cocked her head to the side a bit and nodded. “Yes, please.”
Rebekah was putting some cut up carrots and potatoes into the pot. “Thank you for helping me, Lady T’chak.”
T’chak smiled and walked over and sat down next to Rebekah, watching as she cut vegetables and dropped them into the stew.
* * *
Dinner came and went quickly, and Rat and Rebekah were washing out the cook pot and other dishes over by the inn’s old well as Mara walked over to where I sat looking at the fire.
With a bit of a jerk, she tossed her sword to me. I caught it, barely managing to keep from getting smacked in the face with it.
“Stand up.” Mara pulled a pair of long knives from her boot and belt. ”Your sloppy swordsmanship is going to get us all killed.
I got to my feet and pulled the long blade from its scabbard. It was a marvelous weapon, light enough to wield easily but with the required weight and balance to aid it in cleaving through a foe.
A stinging pain rang out from my thigh as Mara leaped backwards. “You’re not paying attention. That’ll also get you killed.” She flicked the smaller of the two blades at the ground sending a few drops of my blood to the grass at her feet.
I dropped the scabbard and pulled out my short sword. Apparently, Mara was in a hurry.
I barely had the blade free when she drove at me with her knives. In and out, back and forth; I tried to deflect her blows but she was never there when I was. Training and experience were greatly in her favor. A knick here. A cut there. I had trouble just locating where her blades were piercing me, let alone where they were going to be to block. After several barrages of this, I dropped my weapons. I looked at her as blood trickled down my forehead. “This isn’t training!”
She spat at my feet. “You’re right. This isn’t training. This is pathetic. An unpierced boy of twelve summers knows more of blades than you.” Mara sheathed her knives. “What have I done? I’ve enlisted a lack-wit’s aid to best a giant.” Mara turned toward the tents and disappeared into one.
The little cuts and scratches were gone, but the pain was still there. I felt Mikel and Rat’s eyes on me as I picked up the weapons and the scabbard.
“Don’t take it to heart, lad. I’d not have stood long against that kind of attack either.” Rat stirred the fire with a small stick. “Barbarians are some of the fiercest foes you’ll come across.”
“She has a point, though.” Mikel countered.
My jaw dropped at Mikel’s statement.
“Don’t be like that, Rickter. I’m not saying you’re to blame. That would lie at the feet of the mayor and townsfolk of Stumpton.” Mikel stood up. “I’ll not repeat their mistake. Are you healed, yet?”
“Then draw your sword. I’ll teach you the same way I was taught.”
For a solid hour Mikel worked at teaching me how to hold the sword properly and how to stand defensively.
“Notice what you’re doing here, Rickter?” Mikel tapped my right arm. “Your muscles are too tense. You’ll never block a blow all rigid like that.”
“I had no idea swords were so hard to use.” I slid the blade back into its scabbard.
“They’re not really, but they do require a great deal of practice.” Mikel walked back to the fire.
Rat offered me a tin cup with some water in it. “They say barbarians start training when they’re about five summers, boys and girls both.”
“Makes sense,” Mikel sat down, “that’s when royals start, too.”
Rat looked over. “I thought so. Your manner is far too measured to be common.”
“Psh!” Mikel rolled his eyes. “Royals are just as prone to foolishness as commoners. They just have position and money to mask that part of themselves.” Mikel paused. “Rickter and I have that in common. We’re both bastards. My father is just a different kind of troll.”
I sat down. “Thanks, Mikel.”
He smiled over at me. “You won’t be thanking me for long, Rickter. In fact you might just want to go back to Mara when I really get started with you.”