Episode Seven - The Journey Begins and a Wool-Earned Rest
"No. I don't know the way reliably enough. Come with me." I followed her through a row of vendors and down a bit. She stopped in front of a rug merchant. "Here," she guided me around behind some carpets hanging from the roof of the tent, acting as displays and windbreaks. "Look at these." She stood round the other side, watching something. I peeked around and peered to see what it was she was looking at. Before she pushed me back behind the rug, I realized she had a decent view of the front of the tea tent and could certainly see a herd of matching orcs leaving.
"You're pretty smart. Maybe you should be protecting me."
She gave me a look of reprimand, then switched topics. "What happened to the orc? I heard him shouting and then you came back into the pavilion and he was laying on the ground."
"Not much except that he didn't know how to fight against a chain." Could be done. Got my ass kicked more than once because of it. But not a lot of people knew how to do it. Chain wasn't a real common weapon, mostly because a little person could usually do more damage with a sword. Well, little being normal sized. Riordan, for instance, would be hard put to get any significant amount of swing to a chain this size. Get him a light enough gauge to swing adequately and you've still got a decent weapon, but now you're down to pissing people off when you hit them with it, knocking em out on a good shot, hard put to get a kill blow in. Not that killing people is all that great, but if you're fighting someone with a sword that can kill or seriously maim you on a good shot, you want a more even playing field. Now I have heard some of the sailors talk about pirates who use a lighter chain but get special links with spikes on them that they hone as sharp as razors. It's where I got the idea to sharpen my hooks. Now you're talking about evening things out again, but to go through all the trouble to get a chain like that made and figure out how to use it when there are so many swords to be had and people to teach you to use them…
"There! They're leaving," Minerva interrupted my reverie. "The fourth orc is back on his feet, though he does not look well. They seem to be looking for you, but their employer is moving on like he does not wish to spend time on the matter. Come with me."
I followed her back around to slip into the scarlet tent, undetected by my new friends. Truth be told, I was glad the guy got back up. I couldn't bring myself to hold his reaction to me against him. If I didn't fit right in with one half of my heritage, why would I assume that I might fit in smoothly with the other half? I do confess, it would have been kind of neat to be hated for something different though, instead of all the same old reasons. On the other hand, Kafok did call me "puny" didn't he? That was a start.
We sat and sipped tea peacefully in the warm of the tent for long enough for me to get feeling back in my toes. I thought about asking Minerva more about her family, or why she could sound so convincingly like one of those western robed people, and if those dark eyes they had in common meant anything. But while I was thinking, I thought about the fact that if I had learned anything so far this morning, it was from Riordan: don't stare, don't point, don't talk. If Minerva wanted to tell me something, she'd tell me something. Otherwise, I'd just sit here, sip my tea and sneak peeks at her cloak. And fantasize about those long nights of drinking ale and staring down her top.
"You're quiet," she commented finally.
That drew an eyebrow raise from me. After three years of near silence, I spend one morning making a few comments and suddenly I'm being abnormally quiet? "Seems to work smoother that way."
"It was rather admirable that you didn't become angry when the orc came over and started trouble."
"Thanks. If I got mad every time someone thought I was ugly, I'd waste a lot of time being pissed off. Now, how come you're tellin' me I'm being quiet when you're the one who normally talks? Haven't heard much from you since last night."
"I haven't felt much like talking. I don't want to leave." She stared into her tea cup for a moment. "Gray Sam and the Widow Shorey have been very kind to me." I waited for more, but that was it. So we sat in silence until Riordan returned, red cheeked from the cold.
"All right. I've got water, but we need to hurry. None of us have slept, so we're catching a ride out of town. I've got a man with a wagonload of wool headed to Waymeet. If we hurry, he'll let us ride for a few gold. 'Thank you, Riordan! You're so amazing, Riordan!' Come on, come on, you ingrates. Won't do us any good if he leaves without us. Mmm… Ozzie, your cheeks are warm. Come on!" he clucked at us as I slapped his hands away from my face and stood up. He swung four full water skins into my arms and then hustled us out of the tent. "Hurry, hurry, hurry. Step lively, miss. Any problems while I was gone?"
"Nope," I answered.
"That's what I like to hear."
We moved as quickly as we could through the maze of bodies and goods towards the great gates looming up ahead. I caught sight of my orc buddies once, but they didn't seem to notice me. Call me a moron, but I was a little disappointed. Maybe I secretly felt if I could get past the initial posturing, they might overlook my breeding enough to talk a little. About what? That was a good question. Being an orc, I guess. I had no idea, really. Maybe that's why I wanted to talk to them.
"That's our ride," Riordan said proudly, pointing to a very large wagon, drawn by four brown draft horses. Four men were lounging around, in various states of boredom, one checking the horses' gear, one leaning against the side, two in the front. As Riordan waved, they slowly straightened up and gathered to look us over.
"What did I tell you, eh?"
"Aye, he's a stout lad all right. Well, then, five gold a piece, to be reimbursed in Waymeet when he helps us unload this wagon. You're on your own for food, and we expect help if we run into trouble along the way."
Riordan beamed and clapped me on the back. "Oh, my boy lives for trouble." I slid Riordan a look. Unload wagons, eh? Live for trouble? Dock Dog had no idea. "So we're settled, then?"
"Aye, Kevin and Bruce will stay back. Give us some gold and load yourselves in. Need help with your sister, or has your lad there got it?" He had dark hair and a weathered look to him, but he wasn't wearing the garb of a sea farer. Land merchant then. He stood there with his hand out while Riordan fumbled about in his trousers for coins.
"Thank you, mistress," the younger man who had been tending to the horses approached Minerva and me, tugging at a lock of his hair. "If you and your brother hadn't come along when you did with your man there, I and my father would've had to help my brothers take this load to Waymeet. It's a great kindness that you came when you did, for my wife's about to give birth to our first child any day now, and I was loathe to leave her. And he'll never admit it, but our fa's getting too old for long wagon rides in weather this cold."
"Oh, it was our pleasure," Minerva smiled a bit shyly. "Your wagon will be a great convenience to us in our journey to Waymeet. We are quite weary and were not looking forward to the walk."
"Fortunate meeting, then," he smiled. "Gods of weather and road smile upon you. And thank you, sir," the lad gave me a grin and a nod, then turned back over his shoulder. "Come on, Fa, let's get you comfy in front of my fire, so you can tell me how to raise a child proper."
"Beat 'em," a rickety looking fellow climbed down from the wagon, with a hand from one of the others. "And plenty of it."
"Aye, it's a good plan. Worked on us when we was lads," the man called over to the expectant father, bringing a shout of laughter. Minerva looked happier than she had of late as I led her around to the back to help her in, and I had to admit, Riordan had done a good job on this one. Nice family business. Too bad they weren't going further than Waymeet. They looked like they would have been a good prospect for Minerva to travel with. Speaking of whom… helping her into the back of that wagon was very distracting indeed. It seemed to be a choice of holding her by the waist or pushing on her bottom to help her up. Waist seemed more appropriate, but I nearly forgot what I was doing when I stood behind her and circled my hands around her waist. Very inappropriate thoughts flooded my mind, the most coherent of which was that her waist was so small my fingertips touched. I also caught a glimpse of her booted ankle as she climbed up in. Almost too much to deal with.
"Oh, Ozzie, its perfect!" I climbed up enough to take a look in. The top and sides were covered with canvas, with flaps at the back and front that could be opened. There was enough room for me to stand up in there, or to stretch out sideways, so it was fairly spacious. And loaded with burlap bags stuffed with wool. Minerva was stretched out on a pile of them with a mischievous smile on her face. "So soft! We won't feel the ruts in the road at all! I may sleep the whole way there!"
"Here," I chuckled a little, swinging my luggage into the back. "Lemme get you a blanket."
"I have one with my pack."
"Yeah, but you'll want one to lay on and one to cover up in."
"No, Ozzie, you'll need one, too…"
"Here." I wrestled the blanket free from my pack and tossed at her face. She let it knock her backwards onto the pile of burlap sacks, giggling. I had that weird feeling in my stomach again, and the urge to grin like a moron. Time to get Riordan. Fortunately, he was coming around the back of the wagon as my foot hit the ground.
"Load it up, Ozzie. We're moving out and all I want is someplace warm and soft to sleep. Like in the back of a wool wagon. You are both," he said as I climbed up and pulled him by the back of the shirt in after me, "very welcome. Ungrateful bastard. I mean Ozzie, of course, miss."
"Ready back there?"
"Good to go, Havard!" Riordan called forward, fixing me with a grin as he pulled his blanket free from his pack.
The wool and burlap was scratchy, but in terms of cushioning, it was easily the softest bed I'd ever had the opportunity to sleep on. Warm, too. I had to chuckle, shaking my head. "For somebody so annoying and useless-looking, Riordan, I have to admit you have some pretty good ideas."
He yawned, wrapping himself in his blanket and snuggling in. "Yeah. It's okay. Keep me up in some rathole bar all night before we have to go on a long journey, you stupid bastard - watch your ears, Minerva - it's all right. I've got us covered."
I felt my eyelids growing heavy, watching Minerva as she dozed off, a happy smile playing about her lips. Even when I couldn't see her breasts, she was beautiful. Her eyes fluttered open for a moment to catch me looking at her. "Comfy?" I mouthed. Her smile deepened and she nodded silently back. I gave a satisfied nod and turned to look out the back of the wagon. I could feel her watching me though, and after a moment I glanced back to see what she wanted. She just gave me another smile, then shut her eyes. Within moments, both she and Riordan were breathing soft and slow. Sound asleep. I considered joining them, but I kept staring at that open flap in the back, until finally I got up and closed it up tight. No one would get it unless they cut their way in. Moving quietly to the front of the wagon I could see some supplies stacked up behind the wool. I tapped on the canvas, then opened the front flap. The two brothers in the front looked back expectantly.
"Gonna be okay for us to sleep?"
"Aye, lad. That was part of the deal."
"All right, then. I have the back shut tight. I'll leave this open in case you need us. Shout if anything comes up."
"Oh, we will. And, lad, if you have any trouble going to sleep… try counting sheep." He winked and joined his brother in laughter. I shook my head and chuckled. You know, just in case appearances were deceiving and they were cutthroats waiting to murder us in our sleep… I was going to remember that joke as incentive in the fight.Next week: A Mysterious Hole