When we left the elven capitol, we did so on a wagon. That was Amelia’s doing. She brokered a deal with the merchant who was taking his goods to the nearest city, Midway.
Midway was named so because it was halfway between Tarethia and Cooper, a major human city. It was started by elves and humans as a joint venture to bridge the gap between races but had become a haven for half-kin. Half-elf, half-human, they didn’t fit in fully with either society.
Many of the elves who had left the city longed for the comforts of home, and that was where this merchant had found his niche. He bought excess wares from the city in the trees and sold them at a hearty markup to the residents of the mixed city. The market expanded exponentially with every generation of half-kin, as human clothing lacked the flattering elegance of elven garb. Not to say that humans weren’t capable of producing quality items, they just don’t quite understand the delicacies of the elven form; or so I was informed by our host.
He wasn’t a bad man, elf, whatever, but he did have that smug air about him that I had caught in Tarethia. Perhaps it was living for centuries longer than the other races, or literally being above everyone else, but their culture seemed to have cultivated a superiority complex. At least, he was willing to work out a fair deal with us.
The deal was that Amelia and I would act as guardians and drivers of the wagon. We were supposed to keep the wagon always moving, few to no stops at all. We were supposed to sleep in turns and plan our potty breaks accordingly. When I asked about the poor horse, he just winked and said it was of no concern. I felt bad for the creature and went to offer it an apple, only to discover it did not exist. It was an illusion.
Billiadwin, for that was his name, explained that the illusionary horse was a necessary magic. If people knew his wagon was as magical as it was, seeing it rolling down the street under its own power, he would be a much larger target for bandits. As it appeared to be a perfectly normal wagon, he was only a normal target. He thought himself extremely clever. Amelia asked what happened when they went into the wagon and discovered its magical nature. He said it had never happened, and we were hired to ensure it remained that way. I was less than convinced.
That was how we ended up where we were. Billie was stowed away inside, enjoying the comforts of his abode, and we were up front “driving” a wagon that moved of its own volition. We were there for show and protection. I was in the middle of writing a new section, filling the last few pages of my old parchment journal with Reckless Rika’s adventures in the magnificent space port filled with starfolk, a race of people comprised entirely of cosmic essence. They had difficulty relating to the mortals, whom they considered to be lesser beings, but were nonetheless intent on partaking in the society at large. And then we heard a voice call out to us from the trees.
“Ho there!” an unseen man yelled. I closed my journal and set it in my bag on the seat beside me.
“Greetings! We are but mere travelers, passing through” Amelia said nonchalantly. At this, a group of dirty men and women materialized at the sides of the road. Despite their ragged appearances, they were clearly well-armed.
“This road is under our protection, see?” their leader said, stepping into view. He was tall, with the leathery skin of someone who lived outside, and bright sandy hair. He spoke with the confidence of a man with the upper hand, “And there’s a cost to maintain its upkeep. If you would kindly stop your wagon and pay the toll, we’ll happily let you be on your merry way” he promised. I found it difficult to believe him.
“My sincerest apologies, but I am unable to stop” Amelia informed him.
“I am certain it can’t be too difficult” he chuckled, the others grinning wickedly, “surely, a driver knows how to stop her vehicle. Just ask your horse nicely” he encouraged her. She and I shared a small, worried look before she answered him.
“Again, that’s not exactly an option” she said. The wagon continued rolling along, forcing the bandits to keep pace with us. I was surprised they weren’t attacking us just yet.
“My dear ladies, you test my patience” he said, walking alongside us easily, “I must ask that you comply with our requests, ere some harm befall you and your wares” he warned us. It was a poorly veiled threat, and everyone present knew it. Still, my companion was unfazed.
“This horse understands commands only in elvish,” Amelia bluffed, “and neither my companion nor myself are versed in that tongue,” she added. That part was true, “Our employer has made it exceedingly clear that he is not to be disturbed until our destination is reached. I am certain we can handle any difficulties the road may provide” she said confidently, though I knew she was at least as scared as I was.
“Let it not be said that I didn’t give you fair warning” he shrugged and quickened his pace. He drew up alongside the illusionary horse. If he did what I was certain he was about to do, the situation would get really bad, really quick.
If I had a gold piece for every action that I performed without thinking it through first, I would have a hoard to make a dragon envious.
I launched myself from my seat and tackled the bandit leader just as he raised his sword to strike at our nonexistent horse. I grabbed his wrist and twisted it, the two of us crashing to the dirt road in a heap. He did not struggle, the blade of his weapon pressed dangerously against his neck, but he was not afraid either.
“Well, well” he smiled at me, “this certainly is a predicament, is it not?” he asked. I heard his followers approaching, and I knew that my position was tenuous at best.
“No one needs to die today” I told him. He shrugged, as best he could in his current position.
“Everyone dies eventually, love. Somewhere in this great wide world of ours, someone is dying right this very instant”
“That may be,” I agreed, “but none of us here need die. There may be many more robberies in your future yet” I countered. He smiled at that. The wagon was still trundling down the road, Amelia unable to stop it. If she abandoned it, she risked letting the merchant roll right into an ambush. The bandit under me coughed slightly, drawing my attention.
“Well spoken, Red. Have you, perchance, ever considered pursuing a life of freedom and fortune such as ours? You may find it suits you”
“How about we call it a draw? I back off, you and your warriors leave us alone”
“Sorry, no deal” he frowned, “If we start letting merchants travel through here for free, we’ll starve before the month’s end” he said. The others nearby voiced their agreement.
“There must be an alternative to conflict, though. If I kill you, then your friends kill me and go rob the merchant I was hired to protect” I concluded. Was there a way out of this mess?
“Again, that loyalty of yours, combined with this fierceness in your soul, would make an excellent addition to our band”
“My loyalty lies with Amelia. The merchant was a free ride”
“An opportunist. I love it. You really should consider my offer” he said again. I heard the footsteps of the other bandits wondering if they should pursue the wagon. I couldn’t just let them get away.
“Tell them to stop before I spill your life on the road” I said, increasing the pressure against his neck by a fraction.
“You misunderstand the nature of our company, Red. No single one of us is the leader; we are an autonomous collective of capable individuals working for the benefit of the whole” he said. The others didn’t seem to understand what that meant. He was trying to talk over me. The joke was on him.
“I have an alternative solution” I said, releasing the pressure against him. I stood up and offered him a hand. He eyed me warily before accepting it reluctantly. His eyes were locked on my sword the entire time, but he did not raise his weapon against me.
“What if, instead of being feared for your reputations, you were honored for them?” I asked.
“That’s not going to happen, Red” he said, shaking his head.
“It could happen, if you changed your tactics” I proposed, “If, instead of accosting travelers along the road to make your coin, you assisted them”
“Assist them? In what way?”
“You are all, clearly, a capable band of fighters” I said, earning a few nods, “and would not endure anyone encroaching upon your turf” I added, trying to find the words for my idea.
“Get to the point, Red” he said impatiently. I found myself wishing I hadn’t left my shield on the wagon. I held up my hands in a gesture for patience and peace.
“If you were to work with the authorities of Tarethia and Midway, patrolling these roads and keeping them clear of any potential dangers, then you could do almost exactly what you’re already doing, but making a steady wage while doing it” I offered. The others looked a little confused, a handful of them smiling appreciatively. One of them, a woman with dark hair tangled with sticks and leaves, was watching me like a hawk. She seemed reluctant to let me continue living.
“Since we’re already patrolling the road, we could get paid to do so. We wouldn't be fighting with caravan guards anymore…” he thought about it for a moment, “It sounds nice enough, I’ll give you that. However, it all falls apart with the details of making such an arrangement. There is no way, in any of the Hells, that the guards would be willing to hire a group of bandits to protect the road” he concluded.
“Reformed bandits,” I corrected him, “and you have the advantage of knowing what a group of unruly brigands might be willing to do and can therefore counter them with greater efficiency. That insider knowledge is what separates you from just a group of guards taken from the city and set to patrol the road. Where they would be ambushed, you would be prepared. You already know these woods and are adapted to living here. Having anyone else attempt this would end in utter failure, whereas you and your warriors could find success” I said, making my case. I was half-surprised by the words that fell from my mouth. Had that really come from me? Was I smarter than I realized, or was I just desperate? Their apparent leader clapped his hands together and placed an arm around my shoulder.
“I like you, Red. At the very least, we won’t kill you”
“Then you’ll let me regroup with my companion?” I asked hopefully. He shook his head softly.
“I’m afraid not. I’d be a fool to release what leverage we have for bargaining”
“Not really helping with the ‘reformed bandit’ imagery,” I said, shifting my hand so that it rested on the hilt of my weapon. Just because we had reached an uneasy truce, it did not mean I was willing to let myself be disarmed. Luckily, he did not make any moves for my sword.
“We’ll reform when we have an agreement”
I spent the rest of the afternoon in their company, following them off the road and into the woods to where their camp was. It was surprisingly well-hidden, and I was shocked to find that we stepped into it without warning. We rounded a large boulder and I found myself in a clearing with semi-permanent structures in place. Granted, the “structures” were tarps tied to posts stuck firmly in the ground and walls made of long, skinny logs leaning over a frame, leaving the walls steeply inclined. Still, it offered a semblance of privacy, and real protection from the weather.
“Welcome, to Camp Midway Midway!”
“That’s a fun name”
“There’s also Camp Quarter Midway, and Camp Quarter Tarethia” he waved nonchalantly. I smiled at those, enjoying the simplicity. “I’m afraid you’ll need to be under watch, should you choose not to relinquish your arms” he added, pointing to the sword at my side.
“That’s fair enough. You’d be a fool to leave me unchecked, though I would be a greater fool to cause trouble here”
“The world is full of fools, Red”
“Indeed, it is, Sandy”
“Where are my manners?” he said, shaking his head, “My name is Lewis. These are my companions, Clark, Garret, Wendy, Cass, and Mumble” he added, gesturing to each of them. Mumble was the only one who still hadn’t warmed up to me, looking just as ready to cleave me in two as ever. I ignored the urge to pick the detritus from her hair; it was obvious she would not appreciate the gesture.
“My name is Erica, though my friends call me Rika”
“Well, Erica, ‘tis a pleasure to make your acquaintance” he said with a solemn bow.
We shared a surprisingly hearty meal of venison and wild vegetables. There were even some cultivated potatoes, only a generation or two from wild, added to it. Due to a lack of flatware, our meal came as a thick stew in hand-carved wooden bowls. I couldn’t help but notice that Lewis had a real tin mug, unlike the wooden drinking bowls the rest of us were using. For all his talk about not being the leader, it was undeniable that he was regarded as a cut above the rest.
As promised, someone was always nearby to ensure I didn’t cause any trouble for the ragtag group, but Mumble was the only one who seemed hostile. Even when it wasn’t her turn to watch me, she glared at me like a raptor. I did my best to ignore her, and the rest of us passed the evening swapping stories.
I told them about learning to fight from Fynn, but decided against sharing the tale of the Megalodon, lest they think I was boasting to intimidate them. Besides, I was uncomfortable recalling the tale as the memories were still too fresh. Lewis nodded appreciatively when I told of how I had beaten Fynn in that sparring match, recognizing the move as what I had used against him. To be honest, I hadn’t expected it to work quite as well as it had. I’d never really practiced it, and just barely managed to get lucky with the maneuver anyway.
Despite my instincts against it, I fell asleep as the night wore on. Long after the fire had died down to mostly embers, and the bandits around me had withdrawn to their own private areas, I found myself drifting off to sleep. Perhaps it was because I felt I had earned his respect, but I felt safe enough with Lewis watching over me that I allowed myself to rest. It was, after all, in his best interests to keep me alive for the time being.
I woke up suddenly to the sound of someone gasping and choking above me. My eyes snapped open, and I scrambled away from Mumble. There was an arrow sticking out of her chest, which she was looking at in horror, and her ax was frozen in midair where she had raised it to attack me. Another arrow slammed into her chest, and she took a step back. I got to my feet and whirled around, searching for our attackers. It had not dawned on me by then that someone had just saved my life. I only knew that the group I was with was under attack. The others jumped to their feet the moment I drew my sword. Lewis looked at Mumble, who had fallen and was gasping for breath, and then looked at me with betrayal on his face.
“What did you do!?” he asked, drawing his sword.
“It wasn’t me! I was asleep!”
“So, she just sprouted those?” he shouted, gesturing to Mumble who was feebly struggling with the shafts protruding from her chest. It sounded like she couldn’t breathe.
“Does this look like a bow to you!?” I said, waving my sword vigorously. Lewis frowned.
“Is it common for your kind to murder one another while they sleep?” An unfamiliar voice asked from in the trees. I couldn’t tell where it came from, but he sounded almost bored.
“Show yourself!” Lewis called out to him.
“Not likely, bandit”
“You led them to us! I was a fool to trust you, Red” Lewis said, rounding on me.
“Whoa, calm down” I said, taking a step back from him, “I had nothing to do with this”
“She speaks the truth” the voice in the trees said, “I followed you from where you accosted the wagon. I’ve been watching this entire time” he added. Lewis seemed to consider this for a moment. I took the opportunity to expound upon the conversation.
“Well, then,” I said hopefully, “You heard about our deal then!”
“I did” he confirmed, “hence why I didn’t slit their throats as they slept. That one, however,” he said, and I assumed he was talking about Mumble, “decided to kill you instead of honoring that deal. If anyone else feels as she did, please inform me now” he said lightly. I wished he would stop threatening them, it could hardly improve the situation.
“What reason have we to trust you?” Lewis asked.
“I could kill you now, if you prefer” the voice in the trees suggested.
“I would prefer we not kill anyone” I interjected.
“You would have died had I not acted” he repeated. I knew that. I understood it, but it didn’t change anything. Fighting spiders, or sharks, was one thing. Killing people was something else entirely. I sheathed my sword and dashed to Mumble’s side. She looked at me in fear as I knelt over her, but I did my best to comfort her.
I don’t know. Honestly, I couldn’t say why. She had been ready to kill me in my sleep. She wanted me dead. I should have wanted her dead as well. I should have been glad that she was dying there, lying on the ground with two arrows sticking out of her and a pool of blood forming under her. I wasn’t. I was horrified. I didn’t know what to do. The arrows went deep and pulling them out would only make matters worse.
I tried to apply pressure but was helpless to staunch the flow of blood. She was fading. Blood was trickling out of her mouth, her breathing ragged and harsh. A bloody hand reached up and touched my cheek.
Her mouth was moving. I couldn’t make it out through the tears and wiped my eyes on my sleeve. I looked at her again and placed my hand against hers.
“I’m sorry” she whispered too faintly to hear, but the words were unmistakable on her lips. And then her hand fell limply into mine. I clutched it tight in my hand and felt the sobs wracking my body. I don’t know how things ended between Lewis and the mysterious voice in the trees. I assume it went well enough, because I was left alone for the rest of the night.
When I woke up, my eyes were puffy and sore, my head ached and throbbed, and Mumble was cold and stiff. There was a fox in the camp, staring at me stoically. When it noticed that I was awake, it stood up and waited for me. I stood up, eyeing it warily. What was it even doing there? It walked off a few steps into the woods and turned around to look at me. I followed it, and we continued that way.
I followed the fox into town, needing to walk for two more days, but we ran into no trouble along the way. Thankfully, it led me to fresh water several times throughout the day, but I went hungry for that time. The fox curled up against me at night, keeping us both warm, and he made for decent company. At least, he never tried to hurt me.
I was on the way into town, when I heard the most amazing sound of my life. I thought it was a harp, at first. A soft melody, beautiful and sweet, caught my ears.
I closed my eyes and listened to the sound. It was coming from somewhere nearby. The river wasn’t terribly far away. The sound might have been coming from there. I abandoned the road and followed my ears.
I stumbled over grasses and through bushes, snagging my clothes several times, and nearly fell into the water when I came upon it suddenly. The water was burbling happily by, rushing back the way I had already come. It was amazing to think that this little river was the same one that opened into the New Port Bay. Then again, it was a long way there.
The sound caught my ears again, from farther upstream. I fought against a particularly stubborn berry bush covered in thorns that clung to my clothes for a few minutes, and nearly lost the mesmerizing sound. I made up the distance and caught just a glimpse of a person up ahead.
The sound was someone singing. This startled me so much, that I tripped over a tree root and smacked my face into the trunk. While it wasn’t broken, my nose was gushing blood. I cursed my clumsiness and failed to tear a strip of my shirt off. I grabbed a handful of moss instead and used that to staunch the blood.
My little fox friend was gone by the time I reached the road. Thankfully for me, I could see the streets, off in the distance. I could find Amelia soon.