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Escort Duty – Part 5

With that, they repacked their things and continued their ride through the forest. Hollo left the glade for a few minutes and returned riding a shaggy pony with a long tail. The tall man’s long legs almost bounced along the path as he rode it, but the pony bore his weight, as well as two large saddlebags.

Hollo and Simon rode a few yards in front of Erika and Greta, while Soren and the mule took up the rear. Once Erika began to talk with her maid, Simon looked over to Hollo and smiled.

“Was that the best you could steal?” he asked as he took one of the saddlebags from Hollo.

“Didn’t have much time to be choosy. It took almost an hour to get your things out of the wagon without being seen, and I had to leave before dawn to get ahead of you.”

“We’ll get you something more comfortable when we can.”

“It’s not so bad, and besides, I won’t be riding him all the time.”

Simon snorted at that.

“We’ll get to the tavern tomorrow, won’t we?”

“It’s too far to try to get there by sunset, not at this pace. We’re going to have to speed up a bit if we want to get through without being hunted down.”

“Give it time. They’ll get impatient and want to get moving once the surroundings aren’t so pleasant,” the half-elf said as the trail narrowed again.

~~~

The rest of the afternoon was spent winding their way through the woods. Just as the afternoon became warm and the forest started to feel close and sticky, the trail pitched upward into a series of hills, and the trees quickly thinned. A breeze, cooled by the snow which capped the mountains beyond the hills, rolled down from the heights, making their going easier in the bright sunlight.

When they reached a small valley between two hills, with a shallow stream only a few feet across running down its middle, Simon raised his hand and reined his horse to a halt.

“We shall make camp here, my lady,” he said, “There’s fresh water and forage for the horses, and the hills will shelter us from the wind while we sleep.”

Erika alighted from her saddle and was soon joined by Greta. Soren took their mounts and removed their saddles and blankets while the ladies settled in the grass.

After dismounting, Simon and Hollo exchanged a look. Hollo nodded and walked up one of the nearby hills. Erika watched him as he went, then turned to Simon.

“Where is your friend going?” she asked.

“He is keeping watch for us, my lady,” Simon answered, “These hills are the border between Ocre and Pesht.” He reached down and picked up a couple of stones, their edges rounded by their tumble through the water. He began to bounce them in his hand.

“So we’ve made good progress today, wonderful,” she answered.

Simon nodded absently as he looked at the heather growing on the side of the hill. “We’ll do better once we fall into a good rhythm, my lady, but yes, this was a good start.”

Suddenly, his arm flashed out, launching both stones into the heather and bracken. Squeals broke the quiet, then Simon walked quickly up the hillside and pulled a pair of furry creatures the size of large rabbits from the undergrowth. He quickly dispatched them and walked back to the campsite holding them by their long, bushy tails.

Erika looked at him in horror, her eyes wide and a hand to her mouth.

“What did you do that for?” she demanded once she found her voice.

“We need to conserve our supplies, my lady,” Simon replied, taking out a dagger and cutting into one of the animals. “This will make for a good dinner.”

“What are they?”

“Ground squonk. Well-fed ones, at that.”

“We are not going to eat that,” Erika said forcefully.

“My lady, have you never eaten rabbit? It’s very similar.”

“Of course, but they were always good, clean animals from a cage. Those filthy things are….”

“Delicious and already dead, my lady,” Simon said, finishing his work, “Let me get a fire started and they’ll roast up nicely. They’ll be good with the rest of that soft bread we had at midday.”

“I said we shall not be eating them.”

“Well, then, my lady, you will be famished by the time we stop to have a hot meal again,” Simon said, spitting the carcasses on a stick and leaning them against one of the bundles from the mule. He reached into one of Hollo’s saddlebags and took out a small wooden box. Opening it, he pinched out some salt and began to sprinkle it liberally on the squonks.

Erika glared at him for a moment, then turned her back to Simon. Soren saw her movement and walked over.

“What’s wrong?” he said, his hand on the pommel of his sword.

“This barbarian murdered two wild creatures and now expects me to eat them.”

“Raw?”

“No, I’ll cook them as soon as we get a fire going,” Simon replied, shaking his head, “Raw squonk is disgusting.”

“My lady, they do appear to be good, fat squonks.”

Erika swung around and glared at both of them. “I will not eat them!” she declared, her hands on her hips.

Simon shrugged and walked off to find wood for the fire. Soren opened his mouth, but had nothing more to say.

Erika turned to stalk off, but paused and looked around the campsite. Soren had unpacked bedrolls for himself and the two ladies, and Greta was laying them out.

“Where is my tent?” she demanded.

“Princess,” Soren answered, “we didn’t bring along tents. We must travel light if we are to move quickly and without being noticed.”

“Then where am I to sleep? Surely, you don’t mean for me to sleep on the ground.”

“My lady, I chose your blankets and pillow myself. They’re the best we had.”

Erika’s face reddened and she opened her mouth to shout. Greta flinched at what she knew was coming, and Soren, who stood two heads taller than the princess, looked as if he were a dog about to be kicked.

“Princess,” Simon said calmly as he walked back with an armload of sticks, “You’ll draw our enemies down upon us if you do that.”

Soren and Erika looked at the half-elf in shock. Simon acted as if he did not notice.

“The rebels fled into those mountains, and I’m sure there are a few here and there in these parts,” Simon said as he stacked the wood into a pyramid.

“Are we in danger?” Erika asked, glancing at Soren.

“I’m sure we’re safe, my lady,” he answered.

“That’s not what the map in Tor’s tent said. There were red X’s all over this place when I saw it,” Simon said, rolling a handful of dry grass and bracken into a ball. He took flint and steel from his belt pouch and began to strike sparks at the tinder.

“But there’s nothing to fear,” he concluded as one of the sparks caught in the grass He picked it up to blow on it gently. After a moment, the ball was burning brightly, and Simon placed it in the middle of the sticks. He carefully laid twigs on the flames, letting them catch before feeding in larger pieces of wood. Soon, the flames spread to the thicker sticks he had piled up.

Soren nodded. “So long as we keep a good watch, we will be fine,” he said.

“Yes, and it wouldn’t hurt to try to keep from being noticed, either,” Simon said, rising up from the now cheerily burning fire. He mumbled something under his breath, and the smoke from the fire dissipated before climbing out of the draw they lay in.

Erika said nothing. She looked from one man to the other, then turned without a word and walked primly over to her bedroll and sat down. Greta took a seat next to her. After a moment, the two women began to talk to each other in quiet tones.

Simon shrugged again and walked back down the hill to get more wood. Soren returned to caring for the horses.

Once the fire had burned down to a bed of coals, Simon pushed two stout sticks into the ground on either side of it and laid the stick with the two squonks on it between them. Soon the aroma of roasting meat wafted through the camp, and even Erika’s mouth watered at the scent.

Once the squonks were cooked all the way through, Simon removed them from the fire. Greta fetched the remaining bread, now a tad stale, and cut it into thick slices. Simon thanked her, and sliced thick pieces of meat from the carcasses, placing them on the bread.

“There’s enough for a good meal tonight with some of those apples,” he said, “and enough for a bit of meat in the morning.”

Greta took two helpings and brought them to her mistress. She offered one to Erika, who huffed at it.

“I’m not hungry,” she said, lifting her chin.

“My lady, you must eat,” her maid replied.

“I will satisfy myself with some fruit.”

“As you wish, my lady. May I eat?”

“Yes, if you can stomach it.”

Greta fetched a pair of apples from the bundle of food, cored them, and sliced them onto the last piece of bread. Erika accepted them with a small smile. Greta picked up her own meal and took a bite of the meat.

Erika watched the other three eat their meat and bread while she nibbled on her apples. After she had finished them and eaten half of her bread, she pointed to Soren.

“Get me something decent to eat,” she ordered, “This isn’t enough.”

“My lady, this is the last of the fresh bread, and there’s but a little cheese left. There is some way bread if you’d like me to soak it in wine for you,” he answered after swallowing the last of his dinner, “If you want meat, this is all we have.”

Erika glared at him for a moment, then snatched the slice of bread bearing her share of the squonks. She tore off a piece of meat and popped it into her mouth, then suppressed a gag at the flavor.

“That’s terrible!” she said, “It tastes awful!”

“My lady, not all meat is raised on sweet timothy and clean grain,” Greta said gently, “This just has more flavor than you’re used to.”

Erika made a face, but chewed the meat and swallowed it. Simon smiled at her, but said nothing. He looked up as he saw movement on the hill above them. It was Hollo coming into the camp, silhouetted by the last light of the setting sun. He raised his hand as he approached, sitting down next to the fire and taking the proffered food from Simon.

“See anything?” Soren asked.

“There’s someone keeping a cold camp in a gully about two leagues north of here,” Hollo replied, picking up a squonk leg, “I thought I saw smoke from a fire higher up in the mountains, but it might have been the wind blowing dust. Gods, but this fire feels good. That breeze was cold.”

“How many were in the camp?”

“Couldn’t tell. There were four horses, though. Nothing else this side of the mountains.”

“You could see all that from the top of the hill?” Soren asked.

Simon broke in, saying, “Hollo is the best scout I’ve ever worked with. He can figure things out from clues most of us wouldn’t notice.”

Hollo nodded at the compliment, but went back to eating. Soren looked from him to Simon and back, then threw up his hands and poked at the coals with a stick. Erika and Greta talked quietly as the sky darkened and the stars appeared.

Simon pointed to Soren and said, “Why don’t you take first watch? I’ll take second, and Hollo can finish the night?”

Soren nodded. “Makes sense. I’ll wake you after moonrise,” he replied.

Simon stood and walked to Hollo’s horse, removing two blankets from the saddlebags, before returning to the fire.

“My lady, he said as he laid them out, “If you wish, we can put your bedrolls nearer to the fire so that you will be warm through the night.”

“I am fine, master guide,” she replied haughtily, “I have no wish to sleep so close to men I do not know.”

“If you wish, I can sleep between you and the others, princess,” Soren said.

Erika considered her options for a moment, then nodded. “All right,” she replied, “but mind that there’s enough space between all of us.”

Greta and Simon dragged the blankets and pillows, which Soren had laid out for the women, next to the fire, then Simon lay down on his own blanket on the other side of the flames. Hollo was already wrapped up in his blanket and snoring softly. Without a word, Simon lay his head down and slept.

“An odd pair we have here,” the princess said quietly to Greta as she lay down.

“Yes, my lady,” Greta answered, closing her eyes. Erika took one last look around the fire, then lay her head down on the pillow.


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

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4 Comments

  1. mrgarabaldi

     /  January 29, 2018

    Hey DB

    Good Story. on a different note, I saw your coffee cup at Irish’s website.

  2. Love it… 🙂

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