Episode Eight - A Mysterious Hole
I crawled back to make a spot between the back flap and my traveling companions, just in case there should be trouble. Not that I really cared what happened to Riordan, I just wouldn't trust him to be more than a two second delay to anything coming in the back side. Ah, that was mean. Maybe I was interested in keeping him around a little longer. Overall, I had to admit he had done all right by me so far. Here I was, fabulously wealthy, warm, comfortable, on my way to see the world, a beautiful woman at my sideï¾& about the only thing I had to blame him for right now was the fact that depending on how I moved, some sensitive things were getting pinched between coins now and again.
The bouncing of the wheels over the ruts was soothing through the layers of burlap bags. Kind of reminded me of crates hitting the dock. Having given my blanket away, I pulled a couple bags of wool over myself and snuggled in, daring to fantasize about Minerva... we would get lost in the wilderness and be unable to find our way back. Ever. I would protect her and she would touch my arm like she had in the bar, and look up at me with those big brown eyes... I would wrap my hands around her waist and since there was no hope of us ever finding civilization again, she would let me lay her back and...
Somebody's boot would connect with my ribs. With a grunt, I sat up. Riordan was balancing on some bags, looking wide-awake and rambunctious. Behind him a ways, Minerva was still sleeping. "What the hell?" I grumbled, rubbing my bruise.
"Yeah, that's right. Good morning, love god," he leaned in to whisper. "I can only guess who and what you were dreaming about, but I know where you're keeping your half of our money, and until I can be sure my half gets to a secure location, I want it all to stay virginal!"
I spluttered in fury for a few seconds before I found my tongue and whispered all the vilest names for him I could think of. That had been a damn good dream, thank you very much. For his part, Riordan was ignoring me - I think I caught him smirking when his face was partly turned away - clambering to the back of the wagon. He opened the flap.
"...and don't you ever sleep?" I concluded my low-voiced recital of his pedigree.
"I didn't think it was possible, but you wake up uglier than you usually are. What, you dream about finding a great bargain sale with a hooker only to discover too late she's a 'he'?"
"No, it's all this wool," I snarled sarcastically. "I was having this great dream about being locked in a barn during a blizzard with a flock of sheep."
Riordan grinned, holding the flap so he could see out without letting too much wind in. "And they were young? Kind of scared but willing, just been shorn for the first time? I was having that dream, too." That drew a grudging chuckle from me. He turned to look over his shoulder at me with a smile. "Look, it's going to be getting dark soon. They'll be stopping at an inn for the night and we can finish sleeping then, but I kind of figured we should be awake on the road once the sun starts going down. That and your 'mmm' sounds were starting to get kind of loud and I figured you wouldn't want to wake up the princess."
"So, what, you make a deal with a devil? You get to have good ideas but you have to be an asshole so everyone hates you anyway?"
"Pretty much, except that I get to be well endowed and do your sister in with the bargain."
I bit back a snicker as I pushed open the wagon flap to prop my elbows on the rear gate. The sky outside was white and blank, nasty cold weather. "Think it's gonna snow?"
"Devil didn't give me weather sense."
"I hate to break this to you, but doesn't look like he gave you much 'endowment', either. I'd hate to have seen it before the bargain." I held up my little finger as an illustration.
"Trust me, you sick son of a bitch, you never would have."
Behind us, Minerva stretched and yawned, causing us both to jump guiltily. Time to clean it up in front of the lady. "What time is it?"
"Late afternoon. Probably won't be stopping until after dark."
She came and joined us at the back, smoothing her hair into place. "Not many travelers out."
"Weather's not real great," Riordan supplied.
"How can you tell?" I asked him innocently, earning a glare.
Minerva was looking down at the road, then at the bushes alongside the road. Then down at the road again. "I think I'm going to go stretch my legs and walk alongside the wagon a little ways."
"Ah, that's not a great idea. Why don't you wait until we get to the inn later tonight?"
She stared at Riordan primly for a moment. "It's not the kind of leg stretching that can wait that long." Turning, she moved up to the front of the wagon where I could hear her exchange a few words with the brothers.
"See this?" Riordan hissed at me, darting a glance over his shoulder. "This is precisely why women will never rule the world. A man can pee over the side of the wagon. Now we're going to have to go out in the cold and the mud until she finds someplace private enough. Probably have to have pleasant smelling herbs and a nice view, too."
"C'mon. Your last girlfriend wouldn't even wait to go outside, she'd just pee on the rug. And she'd chew up your boots, too. You should be able to handle a situation like this with no problem."
"Ha. Ha ha. Ozzie, you're a funny guy. How come people at the docks call you that big ugly guy instead of that big funny guy? I don't get it."
"You're right. I'm sorry. I was just teasing you. I know you've never had a girlfriend."
"Stop. My ribs hurt.," he glared. Satisfied with a glance over his shoulder that Minerva was making her way to the back again, he tied his side of the flap open and swung a leg over the edge to hop down.
"Havard and Finn say they'll be keeping the horses at a walk for a while. Should be no problem," she smiled. "Did you sleep well, Ozzie?"
Hopefully the blush didn't show. "Um. Uh-huh." I made sure she made it over the side okay. She hung there for a moment before hopping down. Riordan had been walking behind the wagon and made sure he was there to catch and steady her when her feet touched down on the road. The charming smile he gave her before he let her go was as much for my benefit as hers, I'm sure.
He gave me a sunny smile. "Coming Ozzie?"
"Umm," I grumbled darkly, clambering over the side and dropping down myself. The wagon was not traveling so fast that we couldn't scout a decent spot for the lady's "leg stretching". Riordan watched the road and the wagon while I made sure there were no bear dens or anything to disturb Minerva while she was out of our sight. Somewhat satisfied that the spot was safe, I headed back to the road to give Minerva the okay. "Just be careful."
"I think she's probably done this before, big guy."
"Aren't you supposed to be watching the wagon?"
"I watch... and I talk. Some of us can do two things at once. You should practice it."
"I got something you can practice doing, little man."
"I wouldn't want to be your first love, Ozzie. That sort of thing should be saved for someone special."
"Osgun? Master Seawolf?"
We stopped and turned to look over our shoulders. Minerva was standing up on the hill, away from the nice, safe leg-stretching place I had found for her, staring over the rise of the hill. Riordan and I exchanged glances, then headed her way. Grasses and weeds clawed at our legs, mostly dead sticks poking up about thigh high and mushy from the cold and the wet. "Everything okay?"
"I ...see something down there." She pointed down the slope to a little dell.
I peered down in that direction. "I don't see anything, Minerva."
"We're still good with the wagon," Riordan said, looking back toward the road. "Hey, careful, miss, there could be, uh, snakes."
"Not in the winter," Minerva said, picking her way carefully down the hill. I shrugged at Riordan and followed her. "Here," she said, once at the bottom, but she hadn't been looking at the ground when she said it. I was watching her and she had been staring at something in front of her, about chest high. She bent down and started to clear away weeds.
Frowning, I pitched in and helped her. "What is it we're looking for again?"
"Um," she puffed a little from the angle and the exertion, "I just saw it here."
"Saw what, Minerva?"
"ï¾&I'm not sure."
"Well, what did it look like?" She was acting a little strange again. This wasn't like Minerva at all. The thought crossed my mind that maybe she was smoking opium or something. That was when I felt a chill move through me, like the wind had turned bitterly cold and knifed through my ribs, and a sense of something watching us. Something full of rage and sorrow. I jerked up straight and took a step back, unslinging my chain, but there was nothing in sight.
"What's the word, Ozzie?" Riordan called down the slope.
I looked around, but there was nothing to see but dead grass and gray winter sky. Nothing to hear but Minerva tearing up grass. "I don't know," I called up the hill, unwilling to say there was nothing to be worried about. This whole situation didn't sit right with me. It took me a second to realize I was starting to sound like Minerva.
"Here!" she said, distracting me from that train of thought. "This hole! That's what I saw. There's something in here."
"You mean this hole here, under all that grass?"
"That you saw when you were, uh, stretching your legs. At the base of the other side of the hill."
"Here, lower me down into the hole."
"Well, you can't go. You have to stay up here and pull me out."
"Minerva, you don't know what's down there. It could be dangerous. We'll send Riordan down."
"Oh, Osgun," she sighed, pulling up her skirt to remove a dagger from a scabbard strapped to her calf. I was rendered temporarily speechless. Not only was it a perfectly shaped calf, but it was only inches away from her thigh. I was almost lightheaded. "Don't waste time, just lower me down." Automatically, I obeyed. I'd have probably eaten live coals without thinking just then if she had asked.
"What are you doing??" Riordan called down the hill.
"She, uh, there's, um... I don't know," I called back up to him.
Riordan slapped his forehead. "You are a moron!"
"Don't listen to him, Osgun. Lower me just a bit more... there. I'm at the bottom. Oh, this looks like an old thieves' lair."
Gingerly, I poked my head down into the hole to see for myself. Crashing sounded along the hill as Riordan made his way down, fueled by a string of curses. One of the reasons I worked the hours I did on the docks was that the bright noon sun hurt my eyes, whereas I had absolutely no problems seeing once the sun went down for the night. It only took me a second now for my eyes to adjust fairly well to the near lack of light down in the hole. "Huh. I think you're right." I saw a decent sized dug out room, with an old rotted table against one wall and some piles that might have been chairs by it.
"Ozzie, dear, you're blocking my light."
"...Just a minute." I wasn't quite done looking around. There was an old skeleton on the ground against one of the walls, something like a crate or a chest against another and then a ...yes, I think it was a hole in the third. "Careful, Minerva, you've got one opening in one of the walls in there."
"Get out of the way, you big twit." Riordan knelt by the hole, opening his cloak to tear off a piece of his sleeve. "Minerva, miss, that was not a very clever idea. These old thieves dens are often full of traps and other unpleasant surprises. Not," he glanced at me and added in an aside as he pulled a small box from a pouch at his waist, "that I would know anything about what thieves would or would not do."
"Of course not," I agreed, watching him tuck a corner of the sleeve into the little box and blow on it. A puff of smoke and a small flame licked up out of the box.
Riordan leaned down into the hole with the burning scrap. "Here you go, my dear, is there any dry wood down there?"
"I think soï¾& thank you, Master Seawolf."
Coughing, Riordan struggled upright, sucking at a finger. "You know, you remember earlier what you were saying about ideas and who has the good ones? Can I make just one request? Just one?"
"Aw, c'mon, Riordan, it was kind of a spur of the moment type thing."
"Just run things by me before you spur 'em, okay? Say, 'Hey, Danny, we were thinking about crawling down into a deep, dark hole where bandits probably have pitfalls or poison traps set up' and give me a chance to say things like, 'You kids have fun, don't forget your mittens'. Okay?" He stuffed his head down into the dark again to get assent from Minerva as well. "Oka... hey, is that an old body? Don't touch that stuff. You can get sick."
"I found it. Pull me up."
Riordan leaned back to cough for a moment and fan some of the smoke away from the hole, then leaned back in. "What, you haven't even checked out that old chest over there."
"It's empty. They took everything when they left the body. They just didn't know about this."
"Minerva, my dear, you understand that you are frightening your uncle Danny, don't you?"
"Will you please let me up? The flame is almost out."
"Nope, wait," Riordan held up a finger to stay me from shoving him out of the way. "Trust me, Ozzie." He turned to call down the hole again. "We'll let you out, my dear, but I think it's time you came straight with us. Like about where you're from and how you knew about this hole. You're a member of a thieving ring from Darkdim Crux, aren't you? And now your crimes have caught up with you!"Next week: Minerva's Monstrous Secret or "She's in it for de-money"