I had just caught up with the rest of the group as they were finishing their lunch. Stopping to catch my breath, I watched as T’chak and Rat stood up from the small patch of grass they’d been sitting on.
“Ah, Rickter, there you are. I was wondering if you’d catch up in time to eat something.” Rat spoke as he walked over.
Offering me a bit of jerky and hardtack, Rat looked over his shoulder at Mikel. “I’ve never heard of this training method before. How are your legs holding up?”
Speaking through a bite of jerky, I grimaced, “Well, I’m not terribly comfortable, but I’ll survive.
“Rickter, that’s enough for today. I want your legs somewhat reliable this evening.” Mikel said called over to me as he turned his back to me and began down the road.
My mind drifted back to the previous night.
* * *
“You’re never going to parry a blow from me if you just keep standing there like that, Rickter!” Mikel fairly bellowed.
I scratched the back of my head, embarrassed.
“You’re a big target, Rickter, with too many holes in your defense as yet.” Mikel softened, “The fastest way to cover those openings at this point is to keep moving from side to side or backwards.”
I took the sword stance he’d taught me earlier that evening.
Mikel closed the space between us. “I’m not going to make a pin cushion of you any more this night, Rickter. Instead, I want you to practice something else for now.”
Mikel stood at my right side and took his sword stance facing the same direction as I.
“Watch my feet, Rickter.” Mikel began to move to the right placing his left foot first behind his right foot and then in front of it.
I attempted to do the same, but ended up getting my legs crossed and falling. Ugh.
Mikel offered a hand up from my spot on the ground. “You just need to practice that. Tomorrow while walking you can practice this. It works the same going to your left only in reverse. Switch sides whenever one of your legs gets tired.”
* * *
As I choked down the last bite of hardtack rat had handed me, Mara glanced around. “Where is T’chak?” Mikel glanced over his shoulder to reply. ”She turns invisible, Mara. She’s not going to be one that can be easily watched if she decides as such.”
“…Or she could be just off the road somewhere. Even little dragon girls probably have to go sometimes.” Rat mused.
“I’m right here.” T’chak called out from right behind me. “Rickter’s just as good as a tree for blocking out the sun when it’s a little too bright out.”
Laughter broke the comparative silence that had built up after lunch.
That’s a refreshing sound.
The mood was lighter for the next couple of miles as jokes were bandied about the group. I was often the subject of the punch line, but that was nothing new. I was happy as long as we were getting along. It was a few minutes following a string of such jests that Rat noticed Mikel seemed quite intent on something. He opened his mouth to ask him about it when, raising his hand and stopping, Mikel turned his head to face me,” We need to get off the road.“ He whispered.
He ran to the right side of the road, hiding behind a large clump of leafy bushes. The rest of us quickly followed suit, and just as I managed to hide myself I heard voices on the other side of the bushes on the road.
A low gruff voice was audible through the leaves. ”Nobody here. Let’s get back to camp.”
“Are you daft? Cappy said watch the road not take a quick gander at it.” A thin nasal voice returned.”
I looked at Mikel and then back towards the edge of the bushes waiting for one or both of the men to step around the edge of it. I found the hilt of my short sword and slowly drew it from the scabbard.
I’m not daft. Just bored. Too many days gone by without a drink, a woman, or the chance to gut someone.”
“By Ira, you’re a moron. If’n we finish this job we’ll be rollin’ in scales.”
A few footsteps toward the bushes we hid behind.
“Psh, Cappy’ll take most of that as usual. We’ll get enough scraps to stay at his heel and that’s it. I’ll be earnestly shocked if I get over a hundred scale for this job. Not that it matters, I didn’t take the job for the money.”
“S’pose not. It was either join him or hang…”
The footsteps continued around the edge of the bush. My grip on the sword tightened.
“What are we lookin’ for, Morry?”
“Not sure, actually. We got the messenger from Bridgeton a week past. I heard something about a half troll, but I’ve not seen anything so dangerous as that since we left that other place.”
“What was it called again? Stumpville, Stumptown…”
“Doesn’t matter. Lost a few dozen men. As we’ve still got over a hundred left. All it means is more for us.
“Would’ve been more if Cappy hadn’t cut a deal with that Troll.”
“Bad business, that. Getting involved with fiends.”
“What’re you so worried about? You’ve offed as many folk as most fiends. You’re a fiend in all the most important ways.”
“Ha hah. You’ve got me there, Nalls. I saw a good place to catch a wink just south o’ here with a good view of the road.”
“Sounds good. I could use a nap.”
The footsteps turned around and headed back the way we came. We waited until they were out of earshot and crept back onto the road.
“They were looking for us?” Mikel’s furrowed his brow in thought.
“Well, Rickter anyways.” Mara corrected.
“They came from west of here. I bet their camp’s not too far from here.” Rat tugged at his beard.
“Should we check it out?” Mara looked at me.
“They got the messenger from Bridgeton. We need to get the message of what’s going on to Evincere.” I looked around to see everyone looking at me. “What?”
Mikel and Rat looked at each other. Mikel placed his hands at his hips. “I can agree with that, but I think it’d be better if we had more information for them when we get there.”
“Well, what do we not know, yet? Those two said there’s over a hundred cutthroats working with those trolls.” Mara crossed her arms. “We’re only about two days south of Evincere.”
“Well,” replied Mikel,” we don’t know if the trolls are amongst them and we don’t know who leads them. Those would be important facts to know for any force tasked to dealing with them.
Rat nodded in agreement. “Rickter is right to be cautious, though. We’re possibly the only chance to warn Evincere of their presence here.”
“Agreed. Perhaps we should split up, then. One group of us going on to Evincere, and the other staying back and catching up after we know a bit more.”
T-chak’s small voice rose to my mind. I don’t want to split up.
Me neither, but this might be the best way. I turned to meet her eyes. She wasn’t visible.
“I suppose splitting up is probably the best option we have available for now, but who goes and who stays?” Rat looked at the branches above us and then at me.
Mikel answered him. “I’m not one to bring up a plan if I’m not prepared to act on it. I’ll go. If I might borrow you, Sir Rat; I believe your experience might be welcome in this endeavor.”
Rat exhaled. “I suppose you have a point.”
Mikel looked over to me before continuing. “This is a task for a quiet few. We’ll catch up with you as we can. Make haste to Evincere, and if we don’t show in two days following your arrival, we most likely won’t be coming at all. Get the information to the captain of the guard there. He’ll relay the news to where it need be.”
“Be careful, you two…” Mara beat me to speaking.
“I’m always careful” Mikel reassured us with mock bravado.
“I’ll do what I can with him.” Rat said as he turned towards the direction of the camp.
* * *
The rest of us continued down the road, occasionally looking over our shoulders for any sign of our friends return.
Rebekah was the first to speak after a long period of silence. Voicing a shared concern she asked, ”W-will they be alright?”
My stomach lurched. I want to tell her they’ll be fine, but…
“They’ll be okay. Those two are really good at going unnoticed when they want to.” Mara looked over her shoulder at me angrily.
What? I shrugged. Why is she so angry all of a sudden?
* * *
A few hours later the three of us stopped for what would serve as dinner. I excused myself from the fire as Rebekah worked over the fire to pan cook some salted meats salvaged from her mother’s root cellar.
Finding a quiet place within earshot, I practiced the stance and side-step Mikel had taught me a few nights previous.
Mara stepped around a tree, still apparently upset.
“What are you so steamed about?” I knew it was a mistake the moment I said it.
“Well, first. You allowed us to be split. Second, when Rebekah asked about their wellbeing, you were hardly comforting to her. She just lost her mother, Rickter! She doesn’t need this added distress.” She hissed.
Wait a second… “You’re the one who implied back at Bridgeton that we didn’t need to have all these people with us, and as far as the girl is concerned, I didn’t want to lie to her. Hardly comforting… That’s the last thing I expected you to be mad at me for!”
“Keep it down. She’ll hear you.” Mara spat.
I couldn’t listen to her badgering anymore so I made my way back to camp.
Rebekah looked up at me as I exited the tree line with Mara a few steps behind. “You all don’t have to be concerned about me. I’m okay.”
Mara glared at me as she walked over to the fire and sat across from Rebekah. “You don’t have to push yourself to be…”
Rebekah, still tending dinner, looked up from the fire to Mara. “Miss Mara, I’m not a child. Many women my age are already wed with children, and when I say you don’t have to concern yourself with me, I mean it.”
“but…” Mara started to counter.
“No ‘buts’” Rebekah looked back at the fire, ”I loved my mother, but I learned after my father died that past those first few cries, it does little good to let such things continue to hamper you. All it does is make you weak.”
I bit my tongue. That’s a hard line to take, but… I suppose it’s her call to make.
We ate, and Rebekah left a plate of food for T-chak for when she felt like being visible again.