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Escort Duty – Part 8

The next morning, Simon was enjoying a mug of wine and some bread when Erika and Soren came down the stairs from their room. Soren wore his normal drab tunic and breeches, but Erika had changed into a gown of blue satin with white fur collars and cuffs. A chain of pearls hung from her neck, and at her breast a brooch of silver and pearls glistened in the light.

Simon stood as she alighted from the stairs, bowing dramatically to her as she smiled at him.

“Good morning, my lady,” he said, “You are certainly the most beautiful woman in these parts.”

“Why thank you, good sir,” she replied, her voice light and sweet. A good meal and a night in a comfortable bed seemed to have done wonders for her mood. Soren looked at Simon suspiciously, but said nothing.

“Why, I’m sure your appearance today will be the talk of these folk for weeks to come,” Simon continued, leaning against the table, “and of everyone who passes through.”

Erika’s smile faded, her brow wrinkling to a scowl.

“You’re mocking me, aren’t you?” she said, her tone changing from the tinkle of a silver bell to a low growl.

“Of course, not, my lady,” Simon replied, “I look forward to the excitement of trying to dodge patrols and pursuers who seek the beautiful lady dressed in rich raiment.”

Erika fumed at that, and opened her mouth to retort, but Soren cut in.

“You think you’re funny, don’t you?” he demanded.

“Actually, I think I’m hilarious.”

“What makes you think you can poke fun at your betters?”

“Well, since my mother is a princess of the Chanani, and her line stretches back to before her people were driven into the Wispmark, and your grandmother was the daughter of a goat-herd, I think we really ought to evaluate the term ‘better,’ shouldn’t we?”

Soren tried to respond to that, but the words caught in his throat. Erika arched an eyebrow and suppressed a smile of her own.

“How did you know that?” he hissed after a few moments.

“Soren, do you really think I hired on with your master without learning everything I could about those he trusts?”

Soren said nothing, but stole a glance at the princess.

She arched an eyebrow and said “A goatherd?”

“She married well, my lady,” Soren explained, his pale face flushing in embarrassment under his beard.

“Scandalous,” Erika replied with a small smile.

“It was, my lady. The court never let her forget it, but my grandfather loved her.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t matter,” Erika said, “Any house that traces its lineage finds such things regularly.”

Soren nodded, then turned back to Simon.

“And what of the princess? Are you her better?”

“Oh, no, not at all. I am but her servant.”

“Then you should act like one,” Erika snapped, “Greta knows her place.” Greta looked up at the mention of her name, but seemed to be trying to shrink out of sight while the others argued.

“My place, lady, is to protect you. You are making that difficult by attempting this trip in such finery,” Simon replied.

“What would you have her do, travel in rags like a beggar?” Soren said, a touch of anger in his voice.

“No, that shouldn’t be necessary. But we must do something so that she does not shine like a diamond in the dust.”

Erika glowered at the half-elf. She again opened her mouth to retort, but stopped and turned when the door opened behind her. Branka came in, a basket of eggs hanging from the crook of her elbow. A younger woman, smaller than the innkeeper and carrying a basket of greens and vegetables from the garden, followed her.

Simon considered the younger woman for a moment. He smiled at Branka and said, “Is this little Annya? Say it isn’t so!”

The young woman blushed and looked at the floor as Branka replied, “Of course, who else would it be?”

“Why, it seems only yesterday she was tottering around and singing like a little angel!”

“Well, she’s all grown up now,” Branka said, setting her basket on the bar, “She’s to be married at the first full moon of summer.”

“Ah, a blushing bride,” Simon said, tipping his head down to level his eyes with Annya’s, “And which of the strapping young men hereabouts is the lucky groom?”

“He’s a groom at the palace in Pesht,” Branka said with a smile. She chuckled at the joke. “She’ll be leaving her dear mother here in the sticks and be a maid for the Count’s wife.”

Simon considered that for a moment, then tilted his head and smiled at the innkeeper’s daughter. She set her basket down on a table and joined her mother at holding the eggs up to the light from the window to find the ones which had been fertilized.

“We met when he came through here with his lord a few months ago,” she said in a soft, piping voice.

“A fine match, and I’m sure he’ll be as good a husband as you will be his wife,” Simon said thoughtfully, “Do you have a wedding gown yet?”

“I have a few things,” the young woman said, looking away from her work, “and Oleg says I can get something nice once I get to Pesht.”

Simon turned and winked to Soren and Erika. The Princess’ eyes bugged out as she understood where he was going.

“You’re in luck, little one,” he said after turning back to the two women candling their eggs, “My companions here deal in ladies finery, and I believe they’re of a mind to make a bargain today.

Both Branka and Annya turned to face their guests. Branka was the first to speak.

“Bargain? How so?”

“My lady Erika is in need of some traveling clothes. Hers seem to have been mislaid, and all she has are such as you see her wearing now.”

“And she’d be willing to part with it if we have something to offer?”

“Yes, she’d like to get something that doesn’t attract the eye so much, if you catch my meaning.”

Erika gave Simon a hard look, then smiled at Branka and her daughter.

“Yes, ladies,” she said sweetly, “This is a wonderful gown, but I’m afraid that it just won’t do for the road.”

Branka stood and walked over to Erika, wiping her hands on her apron. She reached out and pinched a bit of fabric between her calloused thumb and forefinger.

“Very nice,” she said, “but what do you want in trade?”

“Annya, how tall are you?” Erika said sweetly.

“I am seventeen hands at the top of my head, my lady,” Annya said, standing up.

“What a coincidence,” Erika said with a smile, “We’re almost the same height, and if I don’t miss my guess, we’re about the same at the shoulders and hips.”

Soren looked quizzically at the princess, but said nothing.

“Would you be willing to trade a dress or two for the ladies gown?” Simon said, looking more at Branka than at Annya.

The older woman considered it for a moment, then said, “She only got the one dress better than what she’s wearing now. You could have that.”

“What if you threw in a few odds and ends to seal the deal?” Simon replied.

“I can make sure you leave here with enough food to get you through Pesht, if that’s what you’re after.”

Annya blushed, saying, “It’s a beautiful dress, but I’m not sure I could wear it.”

Erika waved her hand at her dismissively. Smiling warmly, she said, “Pish, don’t worry about that. Come with me and we’ll see how it fits.”

The princess extended her hand to the innkeeper’s daughter and gently led her up the stairs to her room. Greta followed, her eyes shifting from her mistress to Simon and back.

“If she likes it, is it a deal?” Simon said.

Branka looked at him through slitted eyes, then spit on her hand and extended it to the half-elf. Simon returned the gesture, and they shook on it.

“Annya’s good dress and some provisions for one ladies gown,” the innkeeper said before picking up the eggs and walking into the kitchen.

“Call me when she’s done,” she called over her shoulder, “I want to see my baby girl in a fine dress.”

Soren waited until he heard her working in the kitchen before he turned to Simon and glared.

“Did you just trade away a fine gown for some bread and a set of plain clothes?” he demanded.

Simon sat back down to his breakfast and took up his cup. Gesturing to the stool across from him, he answered, “Here, have a seat and eat something.”

Soren’s lips tightened to a white line, but he took the offered seat. As he sat there, he crossed his arms and looked at Simon expectantly.

Simon took another bit of the bread, and after swallowing it, said, “Soren, this way we will be able to go through most villages or even a city or two without sticking out. If she’d gone about dressed like that, we’d have had to stick to the wild lands and this trip would take three times as long.”

Soren considered that, then nodded.

“All right,” he said, “But you’re just lucky she cooperated.”

“If I didn’t think she’d cooperate, I wouldn’t have tried to do it,” Simon replied, “She’s just like her father. Bit of a hothead, but practical when it’s needed.”

“I suppose you knew her father when he was that age?” Soren said, taking a piece of the bread.

Simon snorted. “What tales you all believe about the elves,” he said, “I’m younger than you are, and if I’m lucky to die in my sleep as an old man, I won’t be any older than you will be when you meet such an end.”

“But I thought you all lived forever.”

“Old wives tales. I’m as mortal as you are. I’m just better looking.”

Soren looked at him darkly, then saw the smile on Simon’s face. Shaking his head, he returned to chewing his bread.

“I spoke with someone last night,” Simon said after washing a mouthful down.

“About?”

“Pesht.  You heard what Branka said about a plague?”

“We heard that there’s some epidemic going through the capitol, but we’re not going that way, are we?”

“Not if we can help it,” Simon replied, “But my friend said it’s spreading along the main roads.”

“Should we go back?”

“Do you think we could convince her highness to go back to your master and admit defeat?”

Soren thought about that as he chewed a mouthful of bread, then shook his head.

“Not a chance,” he said, “Can we go around to the coast and get a ship?”

“That would double our journey, and I didn’t exactly bring along a treasury to hire a boat and crew.”

“What about the mountains in the north?”

“That’s twice as far as going straight through to Booda, and it would force us to go through their capitol.  All roads lead to Pesht in Pesht.”

“So what choice do we have?” Soren asked, putting his mug down.

“Hollo says that he knows ways through the hills which will keep us off the roads,” Simon replied, “That’ll only cost us a few days.  It’s either that or we turn back now and have Dveglammar hire a ship to take the princess home.”

Soren considered Simon’s words for a moment, then picked up his mug.  He drained the last of his wine before saying, “We’ll follow Hollo, but we won’t take any chances with the princess.  If we come upon a place the sickness has reached, we’ll turn back.”

Simon nodded and lifted his own drink in acknowledgement of the soldier’s decision.

Both men turned when they heard footsteps on the stairs behind them. Greta came down first, followed by Erika. The princess had changed into a simple long-sleeved shift of green wool, with a few embroidered accents at the throat and hems. The only hint of the finery she normally wore were the leather riding boots peeking out from under her skirt as she walked down the stairs.

But both men’s attention was drawn to Annya, who came last. Her tawny brown hair had been let down from the braid she normally kept it in, and now her tresses fell in curls down either side of her face. Her eyes sparkled as she carefully walked down the stairs in the blue satin and white fur gown. She had been pretty, if a little plain, before, but she seemed to almost glow in the sunshine from the windows now.

Simon and Soren gaped for a moment, then bowed to her as one when she alighted from the stairs. Behind them, Branka came out of the kitchen, stopping with one hand to her mouth.

“Oh, but that’s a beautiful lady there, that is!” was all she could squeak out before rushing forward to take her daughter’s hand and turning her around.

“Do you like it, mama?” Annya asked in a hushed tone, “Is it too much?”

“Darling, it’s wonderful,” Branka said with tears in her eyes.

“Your Oleg will be the envy of the court, Annya,” Simon said, “He’ll certainly be the luckiest man there.”

Branka turned and engulfed Erika in a tight hug. The princess gasped as she felt the older woman’s arms crushing in on her, but returned the embrace as best she could.

After setting Erika down again, Branka dabbed at her eyes with the corner of her apron, saying “I’ll make sure you eat well on your trip, my lady. Thank you for this.”

Erika smiled warmly at the woman’s happiness, saying “Think nothing of it. She looks better in it than I do.”

“Come,” Branka said, clearing the emotion from her throat, “Let me make you a proper breakfast.”


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

Book Review – Under A Different Sun

J.F. Holmes has started a new space adventure series, starting with the thoroughly entertaining and engrossing first book, Under A Different Sun.

Here’s the blurb:

In the near future, massive empires rule the stars, and west of the Reach, they are battling for control of new systems. In the no-mans land between the front lines, Captain Nate Meric and the crew of the privateer Lexington fight for prize money, and loyalty to their ship and their friends. Beneath it all, though, runs a hidden dream. To see America restored, and take her rightful place among the stars.

If you were to ask me what the overall theme of this book is, I’d have to use a line that kept popping up in my head as I read it – The light that shines in the darkness burns brightest. A crew of dedicated, hard fighting professionals fights to claim their next prize, keep each other alive, and work toward the restoration of their nation.  Through its pages, we meet Nathaniel Meric, captain of the Lexington and privateer in an interstellar war.  His crew, made up of humans from all nations and several people from other species, is well thought out and easy to visualize as you go through the story.

The plot is, well, space opera, but it grabs your attention and keeps at you until you come to the last page.  It’s an easy read, but forces the reader to think about concepts such as loyalty and freedom.  I’m also giving Holmes extra points for being the first space opera writer I’ve ever run across who didn’t go into detail about how the faster than light (FTL) drive works.

Holmes is an excellent storyteller, and Under a Different Sun is an entertaining, engrossing yarn. It mixes mil-scifi with space opera, and tells a quintessentially heroic, human story.  I definitely recommend it to fans of Heinlein, Drake, or Grant.

Escort Duty – Part 7

It was past dark when Hollo and Simon brought their horses to a halt. Erika, not paying attention after hours of keeping up at the hard pace the two men had set, almost walked her mare past Simon before Greta took the reins from her and stopped them both. Soren, exhaustion on his face, slumped in his saddle as his horse stopped without being told.

The windows of a building glowed dully in the gloom, and the sound of someone singing and other people talking loudly could be heard from inside. At the sound of their approach, a boy stepped out from the door and watched them expectantly.

Simon dismounted, then put his hand up to help Erika down. She took it without thinking, and almost fell into his arms as she swung down from her saddle. Simon helped her to her feet, then assisted Greta. Soren, who finally noticed their halt, got down and stumbled over.

“We’ll spend the night here,” Simon said, “I know the tavern’s owner. Hopefully there’s still room.” He motioned to the boy, who walked over and spoke to Hollo in hushed tones.

“How far did we go?” Erika asked.

“About ten leagues, my lady,” Simon replied, “A good day, and I believe that any pursuers from the hills gave up hours ago.”

“We’ll know by morning,” Soren said, “If there isn’t a fight tonight, then we’ve lost them.”

The boy and Hollo took the bundles and saddlebags from the horses, then the boy led their mounts around the building. Simon and Hollo picked up their baggage, and the group walked into the building.

They were met with the smell of wood smoke, beer, and cooking onions. The sound of conversation died off as they entered, but picked back up when the patrons turned back to their mugs and companions. In the corner, a man with grizzled hair sat on a three legged stool, plucking at a harp with the head of a dragon carved on it. A black dog, somewhere between a puppy and a full-grown beast, lay at his feet, watching the room for a dropped morsel. Simon and the man exchanged a nod, then the half-elf turned toward the bar.

“Branka, my darling!” he said with a wide grin when the barmaid saw him.

“Why, by the goddess’ blade, it’s Simon!” she replied merrily, coming around the bar and embracing him in her meaty arms. She was short, thick, and had deep black hair that she kept pulled back with a leather thong. Erika’s eyes widened as she lifted Simon, who was a head taller than she, off the ground and squeezed him.

Branka put Simon back down, allowing him to take a deep breath to replace the one she had squeezed out of him, and turned to one of the tables.

“Clear off, you lot!” she rumbled at the two men sitting at it, “That table’s taken.”

“But we’ve been here for three hours!” one protested as they got up and took their mugs to the bar.

“Quiet!” she snapped, taking a rag from her belt and wiping the table down before turning back to Simon.

“Here, have a seat,” she said with a wide smile of yellowed teeth, “I’ll bring mugs and a pitcher.” With that, she turned and hurried behind the bar.

Simon pulled the bench out on one side and offered it to Erika. The princess sat primly, then scooted over so that Greta could join her. Soren and Simon took the other, while Hollo pulled a stool up and sat at the head of the table.

Branka lay five mugs and a pitcher of thick, brown beer upon the table, then smiled at Erika.

“And who might this be, Simon?” she teased, “Did you finally settle down and marry a fine lady?”

Greta, who had been pouring a mug of beer for Erika, started at that, almost spilling the entire pitcher on her mistress, but Erika smiled broadly.

“No, good woman, Simon is only escorting me and my….” she started to say.

“Husband,” Simon said, motioning to Soren, “I’m showing them and their servant to Booda.”

“Booda?” Branka said, “Oh, I wouldn’t try to get through Pesht right now.”

“Why is that?” Soren asked, taking the mug Greta offered him.

“Why, haven’t you heard? There’s a plague going through there,” she replied, “Oh, it’s awful, the stories we hear.”

“Plague?”

“Oh, yes, horrible. It’s gotten so bad that we’ve had to have the boy out front tell people to go away if they come from that direction. Can’t have plague here, now can we?”

“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Erika said, “We’ll be careful.”

Branka chatted with them for a few more minutes, then left to fetch them some dinner. She returned with five bowls brimming with stew and a loaf of dense, brown bread. Soren thanked her and passed her a silver coin.

“You’ll want a room then?” she asked, slipping it into her pouch.

“Yes, please,” Erika said, “One for us and one for the rest.”

“There’s only one left upstairs, but it’ll keep you cozy,” Branka said with a wink. She turned back to the bar and several other waiting customers. Her voice boomed to someone in the back to fetch more wood for the fire, then hectored a customer who was attempting to refill his mug without paying.

Erika’s eyes stabbed at Simon. “Husband?”

“It was the best I could think of, my lady. We need to keep a low profile, and I couldn’t say ‘Oh, she’s a princess and we are escorting her back to her kingdom!’, now could I?”

Erika harrumphed again, then picked up the bread Greta had laid next to her bowl. Tearing off a piece, she dipped it in the stew and took a tentative bite. Her eyes widened, and she grabbed at her wooden spoon and began to drain her bowl quickly.

Once it was gone and the last of the gravy had been sopped up with her bread, she took a sip of her beer and daintily blotted at her mouth with a cloth.

“That was delicious,” she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever had better chicken stew before.”

Simon and Hollo exchanged a glance, and Soren closed his mouth without speaking when he saw Simon give his companion a subtle shake of the head.

“Yes, it is good,” he said instead.

The group finished their meal and the beer, all them too tired for conversation. After a while, Erika rose from the table. The legs of Simon and Soren’s bench scraped as they rose as well. Hollo looked up at the sound, but continued sipping his beer.

“I believe I shall retire, gentlemen,” she said, suppressing a yawn. Branka saw her stand, and walked over.

“Here, lady, I’ll take you up to your chamber,” she said, smiling. Erika looked around, spotted the stairs at the corner of the room, and walked toward them. When Soren did not move to join her, Branka motioned for him to follow, then set off after Erika and Greta.

Soren’s smile faded quickly, and he looked at Simon with a scowl. He leaned in close to the half-elf, his eyes ablaze.

“If word of me having to share a room with the princess gets back to Tor, it’ll be you he strings up by his guts!” he hissed before turning and following the women upstairs.

Simon sat down and grinned at Hollo.

“Well, that went well,” he said, “Guess we’re down here in the common room for the night.”

“You can have it,” Hollo said, standing up from his stool, “I’m going to go sleep in the stable. Too many people in here.” With that, he walked back out into the night.

Simon took the last gulp of beer from his mug, refilled it, and walked to sit next to the fire.

“Hello, old friend,” he said to the old man playing the harp, “What news do you have of the lands to the west?” At his feet, the black dog thumped his tail on the rushes and leaned over for a scratch behind the ears.


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

Olympic Origins

Like a lot of folks, I’ve been watching the Winter Olympics a lot lately.  OK, more than a lot.  As I’ve enjoyed the different events, I’ve wondered how they came to be, and I thought I’d share my research with y’all.

  • Cross-Country Skiing – Wow, it’s really snowy, and I’ve got to get over there as quickly as possible.
  • Biathlon – Wow, it’s really snowy, and there’s a bunch of people over there that need to be shot.
  • Downhill Skiing – I’m at the top of the mountain, and I really need to be at the bottom of the mountain in a few minutes.
  • Slalom – Trees!  Trees!  Trees on the mountain!
  • Ski Jump – Two Norwegians, a mountain, and a keg of beer all contributed to the inception of this activity, I just know it.
  • Snowboarding – Well, there’s too much snow for skateboarding.  What’re we gonna do now, dude?
  • Speed Skating – Well, the lake’s frozen, and I really need to be over there then get back here as quickly as possible.
  • Short Track Speed Skating – Go fast, lean left.
  • Short Track Relay – Go fast, lean left, push on my butt so I can go faster!
  • Figure Skating – I feel pretty, oh so pretty!
  • Ice Dancing – All the funny clothes of figure skating, without all the grace and jumps
  • Bobsled – We’ve got a sled, a steep hill, gravity, and a lot of ice.  Punch it!
  • Luge – Bobsled? Wimps.
  • Skeleton – Pffft!
  • Curling – I really have no idea how this got into the Olympics, but I’m glad it did.  I never realized how hypnotizing this game was when I was little and curling was what people who were too old for hockey did on a Friday night.
  • Hockey – Soccer pitch is frozen over.  Well, might as well make the best of it.

Interplanetary Playlist

After the successful launch of the SpaceX heavy rocket yesterday, we all watched as a red Tesla Roadster convertible, complete with a spacesuit in the driver’s seat headed out toward Mars and the asteroid belt.  As OldNFO reported, the car is playing music to the stars.

So, of course, I’m wondering what music Elon Musk and his intrepid crew programmed into their monument to “Hold my beer and watch this”.  Here are a few suggestions:

First, of course, we have some David Bowie, although it’s not the song they chose for the launch.

Then, we have some Peter Schilling.

And who can do a space-based playlist without Sir Elton John?

Of course, we will need Valentine Michael Smith’s favorite song.

We’ll need some encouragement for anyone who travels out beyond the Roadster’s orbit.

And finally, just in case there are any visitors who might have hostile intentions toward our little blue planet, we need to have something that’ll let them know who they’re messing with.

Have suggestions for the playlist?  Leave them in comments!

Musings

  • I watched the SpaceX launch today, and I’ll be honest: I haven’t been this excited about a rocket launch since Challenger.  Good on Mister Musk and his team for making space fun again.
  • Yeah, launching a red convertible into solar orbit might seem like a frivolous thing to do, but you have to admit that it has style
  • I wonder how long the thing will be up there before it goes from ‘Wow, what a technological wonder’ to ‘Don’t touch it!  That’s a historical landmark!’ to ‘Will someone please do something about this navigation hazard?’
  • The latest book went off to the alpha readers today.  Hopefully, it’ll be ready to go by the end of March.
  • I started alpha reading a friend’s book that I’ve been neglecting while I finished up my own project.  Someday, I hope to write half as well as my friends.
  • Speaking of good writers, LawDog has a sample chapter from his first audiobook up.  I’ll admit it.  I read the blogposts, have a hard copy of the book, and I was still happy to spend an Audible credit to get this.  It’ll be a great book to listen to during drives.
  • I’m pretty sure that the next few months at work are not going to well and truly suck, but I am also sure that they won’t go as smooth as glass.  It’s trying to figure out at which end of that spectrum my life will be that’s giving me fits.

Escort Duty – Part 6

It seemed to be only a moment before Erika awoke with Greta tapping her arm, but her maid’s face was lit with the gray light of a pre-dawn sky. Erika sat up with a groan, then arched her back.

“Good morning, my lady,” Soren said as he rolled up his bed and tied it closed.

“It’s still dark out,” she replied, “Tell me good morning once the sun is up and I’ve had breakfast.” Her stomach chose that moment to grumble loudly.

Erika stood and walked to the stream, dipping her hand into the frigid water. She almost squealed at its touch, but splashed a bit over her face and into her hair before standing and walking back to Greta. Her maid motioned her to sit on the bracken next to her, then pulled her braids apart and ran a silver brush through her blonde hair.  The curls from her braids caused it to catch occasionally, but Greta was gentle as she unwound the knots and replaited her mistress’ hair.  Erika endured the morning ritual while glaring at the men as they packed and loaded their sleeping rolls.

“Breakfast shall be what is left of our apples and cheese, my lady,” Simon said, “And there’s some meat left if anyone wants it.”

Erika made a face, but took the food Simon offered and bit into an apple. She did not notice that he had not cored or sectioned it for her, chewing mechanically as Greta finished setting her hair for the day. Once all that remained of the apple was a core, she held it out to Simon.

“Oh, feel free to toss it in the grass, princess,” he said as he continued his task of loading bundles on the mule, “The field mice will bless you for the treat.”

Erika looked at him with a hard expression, then threw the core in his direction. He let it sail over his head, then turned as it disappeared in the undergrowth. He did not look at Erika as he said, “Next time, aim for my middle, princess. You’re throwing about a foot and a half high.”

Soren, who was saddling the horses, froze at this, but Erika only sniffed and took up a piece of the meat. It was cold, and a little greasy, but her stomach gurgled again when she smelled it. She took a dainty bite of it without saying anything. Soon, the rest of the squonk’s leg had joined the apple in filling her belly.

Soren looked up when he saw Hollo coming down the hill, his hand pointing to the west.

“That group from the north is on the move,” he said, “They’ll be here in less than an hour.”

“So much for a leisurely breakfast,” Simon said, lashing the last of the bundles to the mule and walking to his horse, “I suggest we make haste and try to be over that ridge before they find our camp.”

Hollo emptied his water bottle into the fire, causing a sizzling cloud of steam to rise a few feet before dissipating like the smoke had the night before. Soren offered the princess his hand as she climbed into her saddle, then helped Greta onto hers. He tied the mule’s lead to his own saddle, then mounted his horse.

Erika looked down and said “Stop!”

All three men turned to her. Simon waited a few moments, then said, “Is there a problem, my lady?”

“I’m wearing the same gown as I did yesterday,” she said indignantly, “Why, I slept in it! I can’t go about looking like this.”

Simon and Hollo exchanged a glance. Simon shrugged and said, “My lady, there is no time to unpack another dress, nor is there anywhere for you to change in privacy. Tonight, you will be able to change, but for now, we must get moving.” With that, he nudged his horse in the flank and set off uphill.

Erika glared at his back, then looked questioningly at Soren. He just shrugged and motioned her to go before him. Erika’s lips tightened into a colorless line, but she set off with Greta in tow. Soren and the mule took up the rear as the group left their campsite and headed higher into the hills.


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

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.

Musings

  • We slept in this morning.  Not ’til noon, of course, just a couple extra hours of slumber.
    • The dogs were ecstatic to see us, and very appreciative of us filling their food bowls.
    • The cats, on the other hand, gave me the stinky eye as I gave them their breakfast. If I’m not mistaken, they’ve spent the day complaining online about the service at our establishment.
  • Moonshine the Wonder Lab must have decided to cook his own second breakfast this morning, because Irish Woman was called to the kitchen by the clicking sound of our stove lighting and the faint smell of plastic burning.
    • She discovered one burner lit, but still trying to ignite, and a larger burner pumping raw gas out as fast as it could.
    • A plastic platter that I had set on the back of the stove had a hold burned through it and was making quite the smell.
    • Luckily, she caught it before it was a major problem.  However, I have now been tasked with finding a way to affix a spring to keep the baby gate to the kitchen closed.
    • This is, of course, after his adventure last week in which an entire platter of french toast disappeared after a brief incursion by our beloved pet into the food preparation area.
  • The rough draft of the latest story is done. I’m basking in that afterglow of “I got the story out” that ends when I start proofreading and find all of the warts on it that I can.
    • It’s not like anything I’ve done before, and I’m not even sure which genre it goes into.  We’ll see what it looks like after a few rereads.

Escort Duty – Part 4

The small group rode at a steady pace along the forest track. Simon led the way, while Soren brought up the rear. The two women looked about as they went, and occasionally spoke to each other or to Soren. Simon attempted to chat with his wards, but none of them made more than perfunctory answers to his questions or comments. Neither did they engage him in conversation as they moved deeper into the forest.

At mid-day, they stopped in a small clearing and ate the bread and cheese Greta prepared for them. Erika sat upon a cloth her maid had laid out for her, and looked around as she nibbled upon her bread, still fresh and soft.

“Isn’t this rustic?” she said to Soren, “Papa would be so proud to know I’m finally breaking away from camp and living rough for once.”

“Aye, my lady,” Soren replied, “But such conditions are only temporary.”

Simon studiously examined the hunk of cheese rind Greta had given him.

“Yes, this is pleasant, isn’t it?” he said with a smile in his voice.

“Did someone talk to you?” Soren growled.

“No, nobody talked to me, so I decided to talk to someone,” Simon said, taking a nibble of the cheese.

“Then hold your tongue,” Soren retorted.

“Soren, you and I need to come to some sort of accord,” Simon said, shaking his head, “You seem to have a dislike for me, but we have a job to do.”

“Half-elf, your job is to get us to Prince Jorgen’s lands. My job is to protect the princess from harm,” Soren replied, “including harm to her honor from smiling thieves.”

Simon nodded at that thoughtfully. Standing up in a smooth motion, he walked to the side of the little glen.

“All right, so you don’t trust me. But, I’ll give you three reasons why the princess is safe from me and why we can at least be cordial with each other,” he said.

“And what are those?”

“First, I gave my word to your lord and liege that I wouldn’t lay a finger on either of these beautiful ladies.”

“And your word is worth, what?”

“Oh, just about every drop of blood in my body. Or yours, as the case may be.”

Soren narrowed his eyes at that.

“And the second?”

“Second, we’re going to be going through some rough terrain and dangerous land. I can’t lead you down a dark trail if I have to worry about a knife in my back. The same goes for you.”

“You have nothing to fear from me unless you try to harm the princess.”

“Good, then I have nothing to fear. You have nothing to fear unless you try to harm me.”

Soren considered that for a moment, chewing on the inside of his cheek for a moment as he thought.

“Don’t ponder too hard, Soren. Your hair will catch afire,” Simon said with a smile.

Greta quietly snorted, but covered her face with her hand after her mistress looked at her sharply. Soren fumed for a moment, then heaved himself up and faced Simon.

“And what’s your third reason?”

“Tor Dveglammar will skin me and dance around a fire wearing only my hide if something were to happen to you or the ladies because of me.”

“So you’re afraid?”

“Of him, yes. Of you? Not really,” Simon said with a grin.

“I suppose you think you could beat me in a fair fight?”

Simon sighed.  “Soren, if I admit you’re bigger and stronger than me,” he said, “can we dispense with this tiresome display of virility and come to an agreement to not snarl at each other until after we have deposited the ladies with the good Prince?”

“I could beat you.”

Simon sighed, saying, “Soren, I’ve killed better men than you, in fights both fair and otherwise. And you’re forgetting something.”

“What’s that?”

“I won’t be alone,” Simon said, bringing his hand up and scratching at his ear.

The whistle of an arrow broke the quiet, followed by the thunk it made when it buried itself in the ground between Soren’s feet. The soldier and both women stared at it in silent shock as the echoes of its impact moved across the glade and into the woods. Soren took a step back and pulled his sword from its scabbard. The ladies continued to gape at the arrow as it quivered in the dirt.

“My lady, allow me to introduce my companion,” Simon said with a bow toward the princess.

A tall, slender man, dressed all in black leather and fur, walked into the glen. In his left hand, he carried a bow, with his right holding an arrow nocked to its string and ready to pull back. An amulet of black stone on a silver chain hung from his neck, catching glints of sunlight as it swayed with his every step. His feet made no sound as he walked into the light.

“My lady, this is Hollo, a dear friend of mine,” Simon said. The tall man bowed his head slowly to the princess, but did not take his eyes off of Soren.

“Put it away, my lord,” he said in a deep, croaking voice, “You’ve nothing to fear from me.”

“Soren, please, you’re being rude,” Simon said, taking a step between the two men.

Soren looked to the princess, who nodded, then put his sword away.

“Hollo is a native of Booda, and knows the country better than I do,” Simon continued, “If we get into a scrape, he’ll know the secret paths and passes to get around trouble.”

Hollo put his arrow back into the leather quiver he wore over his shoulder, then lowered his bow. Turning to the princess, he bowed low.

“Whatever vows of loyalty my friend has made, my lady, I also offer to you,” he said with a rolling accent. He lifted his head, his dark eyes glinting in the sunshine, and offered a warm smile.

Erika rose from her blanket and motioned for Hollo to stand. She raised her hand for quiet and stepped between the three men.

“Gentlemen,” she said in a formal tone, “you are all bound to take me to my betrothed. Such displays of mistrust, as well as goading each other into discord, will hinder us in our travels.”

“Master Soren, you shall be civil to our companions and guides,” she continued, her voice firm, “Masters Simon and Hollo, you shall also keep a civil tongue in your mouth.”

She paused for a moment, then concluded, “Do all of you understand?”

Together, the three men bowed and murmured, “Yes, my lady.”


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

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