Laurelyn decided they couldn’t have asked for a better day – the sun was bright overhead, and the breeze was light against her skin. Her only concern was some of the clouds that were on the horizon – they had the potential to bring rain; depending on which way they went.
From behind her she could hear the Pup snuffling at the mesh covering to her backpack. Ahead lay a road that would take them to the coast. And Laurelyn felt a healthy eagerness to see the sea again – and Morrow’s Hold. Softly she said to Thomis, “It’s good to be heading home again.”
Daron’s mood was lightened considerably by the good traveling weather. Were she alone, she would have put Falcon through her paces for the sheer joy of it. Reluctantly, she made the mare keep in line with her traveling companions.
There was… something ...about their destination which seemed to draw her attention as surely as a moth flew towards the candle flame.
“How are you doing, Rudolpho?” she asked her passenger, surprised her voice was so calm. As the mare was not altogether fond of strange riders, she had expected a struggle between woman and horse to settle the matter. When Rudolpho climbed aboard, however, Falcon had accepted him as easily as her mistress. Which puzzled Daron to no end…
You like him too, don’t you? Daron thought. Falcon whinneyed as if in response to the unspoken question.
Rudolpho was deep in thought. There were many memories to contend with. He still couldn’t understand why he had parted with the group stating “I have something I gotta do before we leave,” as his explanation. There would now be a few more meals and maybe some clothing for the needy of Helgastop, courtesy of Stan. He remembered what traveling used to be like. Climbing atop their great wagon he had named Roweena, master of all he surveyed as they passed through the countryside, and being with..
“Uhhh..yeah. I’m fine. How are you?” He snapped to what was going on in the group as Daron called his name. The pace had been somewhat hypnotic. “Maybe I should go on ahead and do some looking around. I’ll ask Thomis.” He nimbly clambered off from behind Daron and jumped off the mount. “Excuse me, mister Thomis Sir, but do you think I should move on ahead and take a look?”
Keir loped alongside the horses, his bounding gait easily keeping pace. Whenever chance allowed he’d move off the hard-packed road to the grassy border or field edge where the going was easier on his feet but never strayed far from Laurelyn’s side. Occasionally he’d look up with trepidation, hoping he wouldn’t have to actually climb up behind her on what would obviously be a high and unstable platform. He glanced at Jacques upon his little horse and regretted his foolish pledge, if he was forced to ride the smaller mount would be preferable. His main concern however, was that they’d forget he was there and he’d be accidentally trampled underhoof and so let out a precautionary “Yip” whenever someone came near.
Jacques tried to keep his eyes shaded as his little white pony plodded along after the others. The sun was a little too bright for his liking, though the clouds up ahead promised rain that he wasn’t entirely sure he would prefer. Wet or blind – it was hardly a choice.
He glanced ahead to Laurelyn’s pack where the puppy was wiggling around in some incomprehensible game. Occassionally it would let out a muffled bark as it apparently discovered something worth barking about. Jacques envied the animal its dark, quiet, place.
Thomis looked down at the boy, looked at Laurelyn, and looked back down to Rudolpho. The child certainly was eager to prove his usefulness to the group, but the last thing Thomis wanted to do was to allow Rudolpho to scamper ahead – for Thomis could not allow him to go alone. “The road is clear enough for us to see ahead,” the Oath-bound answered smoothly. “If you have a good set of ears on you, you might want to focus on whether you can hear anything to either side of us.”
Laurleyn was careful to keep Beast from straying too close to Master Keir. The clear weather and congenial company was a combination that urged her to sing something cheery and rhythmic – to ease the rigors of long travel. And maybe to draw out the quiet Pierre. She had to remind herself that he could not help in that in his manner he reminded her of Justinian.
The only reason she didn’t give into her urge was the rumors of highwaymen – she didn’t need to give such as they a good target.
She felt the Pup trying to right itself in the backpack – probably after getting himself upside-down. The frantic yips were rather muffled, and she could feel the rhythmic motion of the little one digging at the bottom of the back. Soon the yipping moved closer to her ear and she knew all that had been righted, and Laurelyn wondered why she was bothering being quiet. So she started singing of Spring morns and bright robins.
As the sun neared its zenith the group had begun to ride through a patch of forest – the trees offering a welcome coolness.
Laurelyn watched the trees and the shadows – moving her sheath into a handier position.
“I’ll listen for things but, you really shouldn’t worry about me so much. I can really take care of myself. I know you’re thinking that I’m just a kid but I can help a great deal.” Rudolpho moved back to where Falcon was and walked along side them. He reached down into a pocket and withdrew a coin. He began manipulating it, keeping his hands in motion and in practice. He made the coin walk along his knuckles, made it disappear then reappear in assorted places, and made it seemingly multiply. He made sure to put the extra coins back in Daron’s pocket when he was done.
“No offense meant,” Thomis called back to the boy, scanning both the road ahead and the woodland on either side of them, “I have spent too many of my recent years guarding children.” Mostly from their own innate ability to find trouble; Drywen and his brothers had proven quite a handful, and in many ways more bothersome than guarding Mesani I’Se on her travels. “Every one of them was convinced he could take care of himself.” It was a pleasant day, and Laurelyn’s singing made it even more so, but he remained alert as they rode on.
Daron hummed to herslf as she rode. She pretended not to notice when Rudolpho slipped coins into her pocket. Every now and then, she reached out to stroke Falcon’s black mane. Her eyes and ears were alert to any suspicious movements or sounds around her.
A soft rumble in her stomach alerted her to a neglected matter.
She trotted her mare beside Laurelyn’s horse.
“Pardon me for asking, Mistress Laurelyn, but when are we going to break for our next meal? I mean, I think the horses, too, need to be grazed. From the sound of things, there’s a stream a little ways ahead. And I think…er…Fiend,” Daron said the name with difficulty, “could use some water and a bit of exercise. The decision is yours, of course,” she deferred respectfully.
Having watched Rudolpho’s display, Jacques snorted.
“What are you going to do, kid? Bribe the bandits with someone else’s money?”
He shook his head, setting his hat bells ringing faintly. Anything near enough to hear the bells would have heard not only the horses, but the pup as well, so he made no attempt to silence them.
“Or maybe you think they’ll be so impressed they’ll applaud and throw coins of their own?”
He sidled the pony closer to Rudolpho.
“Look, kid. I’ve personally no doubt you can handle yourself against other street urchins, or clumsy shopkeepers,” he allowed. “But for now, it’s prob’ly best if you do as the man says. Use your initiative when we’re not in danger of having our throats cut, eh?”
Without waiting for an answer from Laurelyn, Daron trotted her mare back to where Jacques was confronting Rudolpho. She counted to twenty before she spoke.
“I don’t believe there’s any need to be insulting, sir,” she respectfully stated. “Appearances can be deceiving. After all, you yourself could be a mighty warrior, brave with sword and bow. And not someone given more to drink than using the good sense the Maker gave a defenseless puppy…”
Smiling to herself, Daron trotted Falcon back to Laurelyn’s side to await her answer.
The forest they rode through was not filled with the silence of an ancient wood, but with the chattering of birds – high in the branches. It sounded like crows, which made Laurelyn have the faintest of shivers, but she reminded herself that there fields near, which would draw the birds.
She noted Daron’s approach and said, “We’ll rest soon enough – but that stream you hear could also provide an excellent bait for the highwaymen to make use of.”
Laurelyn looked over at the other woman and added, “It would not be wise to rest till we’re beyond the woods.”
Jacques blinked in surprise, and muttered something to himself. Not only did they have one kid trying to prove himself invaluable, but they had another backing him up in his foolishness.
He sighed faintly, and hoped that any highwaymen that were nearby were too busy laughing to attack.
Down by the stream, Brendan heard the sound of voices and froze. His shortsword was at his belt, sure enough, but he could never tell exactly what he was going to meet in these areas. Even if his friends had told him this would be a safe area of the woods, he knew that those voices (though innocent sounding) could be those of orcs, kobold, bugbears or the like. He shivered at the thought, and stood slowly as he waited – for there was nowhere for him to run. Thus did the travelling group chance upon a man in his twenties, brown of hair and dark eyed, a shadow of stubble occupying the lower half of his face. His clothing was cloth, but dirty from travelling, and a large sack lay beside him. His face still dripped with streamwater. He said nothing, waiting instead for the newcomers to make their greeting.
Laurelyn pulled Beast to a halt – her expression did not show her suspicions, and her voice was pleasant as she said, “Greeting.”
One hand rested on the pommel of her saddle, but one move would have let it drop to her sword. She had no doubts that Thomis and Jacques were watching for any possible companions – but she hoped the others were watching as well.
Another chance encounter? Thomis wondered to himself, allowing his horse to fall back just a bit so he could have a clear view of the area surrounding the party. Fortunately, his mount was trained well enough for him to loop the reins around the pommel of his saddle without fear of the animal wandering. One hand was prepared to pull his sword, the other to move towards his dagger. He did not focus his gaze at any particular spot, just stayed aware of the relative positions of the members of their party, and who presented the most vulnerable target. A gentle pressure of his knee moved his horse yet again, positioning it so Master Keir and Rudolpho were loosely surrounded by the others’ mounts.
Finding his view of the stranger blocked by the horses, Keir squatted down and watched from between their legs. He certainly looked like a highwayman, or at least what he imagined a highwayman should look like. As a precaution he attached the stretchy band to the forked end of his staff and reached into his vest for one of his many fragile glass vials.
[Jacques & fiend]
From Laurelyn’s pack came a determined scrabbling, and muffled whining. A small furry brown head appeared from within as the pup somehow managed to slip his way to freedom. Then, like something akin to a rabbit, the pup leapt from the pack to land unsteadily on the trail.
He yipped and scampered off towads the stream, scattering a couple of grasshoppers and a small flightless bird in the process. Reaching the stream, he plunged in with abandon and began swimming in random patterns, yapping happily.
Jacques watched the animal in silence for a few seconds and then cursed under his breath.
“Damn fool animal is going to get us all killed someday.”
“What the….!” Laurelyn yelped as the Pup shot free of her backpack, and she had to take a second to settle an equally startled Beast.
The Pup seemed to be in one piece so Laurelyn kept her attention on the newcomer. She wanted to warn the others not to go after the pup yet – thereby giving any attackers clear targets – but she also didn’t want to let it be known that they were prepared for any attacks. At least Laurelyn hoped they were ready.
Daron didn’t see anyone else around, save for her party and the unknown man ahead of them. She casually scratched the back of her neck, surreptitiously checking the position of the throwing dagger sheathed under her shirt.
If she had a clear field, she would be able to take out the highwayman ahead if necessary.
She fought the urge to go after the pup with difficulty.
He better not hurt the Pup!
Rudolpho noticed that the “wagons” somehow circled him and everyone had tensed. I don’t think this person means us any harm. Guess I should go check. He checked an inside pocket for the particular component he would need if it came down to it, and ducked between the legs of one the horses. He strode toward the man with his hands out near his sides and then extended it when he got in range. “Hi there! My name’s Rudolpho. These are my friends and we are headed down that road over there. What’s yours?”
Brendan shook hands with the stranger, making sure the shake was not too firm and not too vulnerable either. It was never a good idea to give away anything about yourself at first meeting. He smiled, and rolled up his pant legs and shucked his boots.
“I’ll just fetch your hunting hound first,” he said, and waded into the stream after the little puppy. He scooped the pup in one hand and splashed back onto dry land, still smiling that half bearded smile. He looked at the puppy.
“What’s your name, boy?” The dog did not answer. “No matter, I’ll call you Jepardi.”
He placed the puppy to the ground and patted it in the direction of its owners.
“Where are you traveling to?” he asked.
Jacques muttered something unintelligible again. Was everybody suicidal? First the stupid pup, and then the … stupid pup. He grinned a little at that thought. Pups of a different litter maybe, but pups nonetheless.
As the stranger named the pup, Jacques shook his head. The animal was accumulating names faster than most dogs accumulated fleas.
The pup yapped, and trotted towards Laurelyn, tail wagging furiously.
Jacques nudged his pony towards Daron.
“You were saying, miss?” His bushy white eyebrows rose in a mock question. “Looks like your friend is none too bright. Still, they say only the good die young, so he must have something.”
Then he kneed the pony into a quick trot down to where the boy in question was talking to an apparently non-highwayman. If everyone else was going to get themselves killed, he may as well be there to go through their pockets afterwards…
Daron stared after Jacques in total disbelief.
“Faith, but if that isn’t the pot himself calling the kettle black!” she snorted in disgust.
Her gaze focused on the man in the distance shaking hands with Rudolpho.
Pleasant looking enough fellow… Still, he _could up and murder Rudolpho, you know! FKeep your eyes open to see if he’s brought any friends with him…_
The Oath-bound had shaken his head slightly as the boy had deftly ducked under the horses and done his part to promote good will and understanding by greeting the stranger with a friendly introduction and a handshake. At least Jacques had moved closer; he already had proven he could move quickly enough to protect the head-strong child if the strange man should decide to present a threat. Thomis fell back even more, and half-turned his horse at an angle to the others. Too many were focused on the man ahead of them.
Laurelyn urged Beast forward, but slightly off to the side so that the newcomer and the “children” were surrounded.
Brendan tapped his bare foot on the sand impatiently and glanced around, noting that Jepardi was making the most of his time off the horse. He dried his feet on an outcrop of grass and started to tug his boots on. The crows were loud in the trees, though out of sight. Perhaps they sensed danger near by. “Well, if you don’t want to tell me where you travel to, don’t let me hold you up.” he said, stomping his boot back on with finality. He stepped to one side and bowed, waving for them to pass.
Rudolpho scratched his head. He didn’t remember the man giving his name, although they had shook hands. “I’m sorry sir but I don’t recall you ever giving me your name. I’m sure we would be happy to tell you where we’re bound, but not to a complete stranger. Thank you for retrieving the puppy by the way. It seems like he is always getting loose at the most inopportune times no matter how well he is looked after.
“Are you headed anywhere yourself? I notice you don’t have any companions, or do you?” Rudolpho made a show of looking around, then continued. “It certainly isn’t very smart to travel alone, but maybe you feel more comfortable and can handle yourself just fine on your own. I’m always telling people that I can take care of myself, but they don’t believe me.” He continued talking and asking questions as only a “child” could. -Maybe if I ask enough questions he’ll answer a few of them. Hopefully the others would take the cue and be ready for trouble if he wasn’t alone. “I see your putting your boots on. Does that mean you want to come with us?”
Keir cursed his luck, if he hadn’t had his hands full and the band wasn’t on his staff, he could have grabbed the wayward pup. In addition, with the horses constantly moving their legs he didn’t have a clear shot at the bandit. Taking a cue from Rudolpho he darted under the belly of beast and moved to the edge of the wood. He was farther from the stranger but his slingshot could easily cover the distance if need be. Foolish big folk, clumping together like hens. He didn’t know much about strategy but it seemed like they were making it simple for a gang of rogues to surround them.
“The lad’s right, good sir,” Laurelyn said, “We’ve heard tell that the road is hazardous – have you seen anything odd on your travels?”
She realized that this good gent might be fearing for his own life with the way their little group seemed to be taking the defensive, but fortunately he didn’t seem to be prone to a hot temper. Which either spoke well of his disposition or the fact he had back-up.
The longer they sat in one place, the more ridiculous the situation seemed to the Oath-bound. The reports of the highwaymen had not been all that bloody – so far, merely simple robberies and the travelers permitted to continue on their way. But their group was, by this point, so paranoid that the first fellow they encountered, no matter how polite he was (and he had gone into the water after Fiend), found himself facing a number of hostile individuals ready to slice him apart if he made the slightest movement in the wrong direction.
Perhaps this man was a thief. Perhaps he even was working with the bandits waylaying groups traveling this road. Or perhaps he was simply another traveller, or even a native, who had the misfortune to encounter himself and Laurelyn.
Thomis did not allow himself to become any less alert as he moved forward. “My apologies for our jumpiness,” Thomis addressed the man, fighting the urge to place himself between Rudolpho and the stranger. The Pup yipped and yapped and wagged his tail in agreement, apparently not at all put out that his noon swim had been interrupted. “We have heard reports of bandits on this road. Have you encountered any trouble?” Thomis still allowed for the possibility that this man himself was trouble, but until he showed any signs of it, he deserved the benefit of the doubt.
Laurelyn moved back – willing to let Thomis work at defusing the situation. She wasn’t sure of her reactions – and considering the quest she was on – there were days she wasn’t even sure of her sanity.
Rudolpho allowed Thomis to take over the whole affair as he spied a stray hair on the man’s tunic. Using all the stealth he had mastered over his lifetime, Rudolpho kept his eyes on the man’s face as his hand slipped down and gently picked the hair off and held it. After a moment he began to play with the pup as much to keep it occupied as to redirect attention from himself. Having done that, Rudolpho decided to move down the road and have a look at what lay past the man they had just encountered.
Brendan didn’t know what to think of the barrage of questions, so for a moment he just shook his head and stared at them. When he answered, he began with a sigh.
“My name is Brendan and I am traveling alone. However,” he looked at them ruefully, “it appears that we travel in the same direction. As to the presence of bandits; I have seen none, or you’d likely see bodies on the dirt.” He laughed, and patted the shortsword at his side. “My wife says I am a difficult man.” he said, as if completing a joke. He hoisted his sack onto his shoulder and started off down the road, whistling a lewd, but common bar song.
The pup made his way back to stand by Beast and then sat unconcerned in the road, head to one side as though contemplating the situation. Jacques watched first Rudolpho and then this man Brendan start to continue along the road and sighed. The boy was nothing but trouble, and would likely end up face down with a knife in his back somewhere.
He nudged his pony into a quick trot and caught up with Rudolpho before he’d made it very far.
“Hey kid, why don’t you wait a second,” he called down. “We could all use a break.”
He stopped the pony and turned it back to face the others, but didn’t start moving again. Whether Rudolpho returned or not, he wasn’t going on alone to get ambushed.
The boy’s in good hands, Laurelyn thought, watching as Jacques – who she had no doubts was a survivor – went to keep an eye on Rudolpho. Nor was she fool enough to underestimate the lad – just because he was young.
She swung down from Beast and rummaged through her backpack to pull out a towel. “We just as well water our horses,” she told the others, “Though I still don’t think it would be wise to stay here to eat.” Having said this she bent to gather up the dripping Fiend.
The pup took one look at the towel in her hand, gave a “Yip” and scampered between Beast’s legs.
Beast gave an indigant snort and shifted restlessly – just enough to keep Laurelyn from making a grab for the pup.
He looked back and noticed that Jacques had followed him. The rest of the party had decided to stop and rest. It shouldn’t be that hard for them to believe that I can be a good scout and take care of myself. He stopped and looked at Jacques. “Oh I’m not tired. While everyone rests I can go take a look around.”
“Your call, kid. Just don’t wander too far in case someone decides to pay us a visit.”
He slid off his pony and began to slowly lead it back towards the others, but then stopped after only four paces.
“What do you say, horse?” he asked the animal. “Think this is a good place to rest for a while?”
The pony whickered and nudged at his shoulder.
He dropped the reins and pulled the saddle bags off to let the pony amble unencumbered down a little to the stream. Then he dropped to the ground, and began digging through the saddle bag for something edible.
Pocketing his glass-encased missle, Keir left the shade of the trees with a regretful sigh and set out to help Laurelyn recapture the dog-with-many names. Using his staff, he tried to herd the frisky animal back towards her. “Come on little beasty, you’re holding up my lunch.”
The pup zigzagged around Keir – circled once around Laurelyn – and going fast as its legs could carry it – ran right back into the shallow water by the bank. There it stood – brightly yapping and splashing.
“Why doesn’t this make me believe that baths are going to be this easy,” Laurelyn muttered under her breath as she ground-tied Beast, and sat down to pull off her boots and roll up her pants’ legs.
She had to smile as she felt the long, warm grass against her bare feet, Laurelyn looked over at Keir and said, with a chuckle, “I honestly didn’t realize that puppy herding was going to be part of the travel plan.” With these words she stood up and waded out.
The feel of water lapping over her feet, and the pebbles under her soles brought back a hundred memories of walking the beaches by Morrow’s Hold. Laurelyn stood – remembering how much she missed what in truth was her native element. She watched as the Pup tried to chase the silvery little fish that swam in the shallows – amidst a great deal of glittering spray from the Pup’s scampering.
For a moment the storyteller thought of calling a few of the larger fish for the group’s lunch, but decided that it was still too risky to stay long enough to cook the fish. Laurelyn crouched down, enjoying the feel of the water against her legs, and wiggled her hand under the water – waiting to see if the Pup would take the bait.