Seth sat uncomfortably at the base of the tree he had picked for the watch. The others were beginning to stir with the morning sun peeking through the trees. The cold night had made him stiff, and the warmth of the rising sun was starting to produce fog in the forest that was beading lightly on his armor.
“How was the watch?” Garret asked, stretching.
“Cold and uneventful,” Seth replied, pushing himself to his feet with a groan.
“Looks like another beautiful day,” Garret said, “You think we’ll make it to Turame today?”
“If everything goes well,” Seth replied, looking to the other two figures rising from their bedrolls. “These two aren’t helping much, though.”
Ruven, the taller of the two, stood a full head above Seth but as thin as a sapling. Seth had thought that he looked malnourished from the start, and over the last span of travel had only seemed to look paler and thinner. His long black hair fell in messy knots around his long face hiding the milky white eyes that seemed to see far more than he let on. He never wore any armor, but carried a black twisted walking stick with a sharp point on it.
Larrel, Ruven’s companion, was much shorter and stockier. Larrel had seemed, at first, to be the more competent of the two at traveling, but ate his rations too fast as they traveled. As a result, things slowed down because Garret had to forage for food for him, and it never seemed to be enough. Larrel shifted as his cloak opened, revealing the Mythril shirt that he hadn’t removed since they had left. His short sword had never left its scabbard either even when they had run into bandits four days ago.
Garret glanced back. “I know what you mean. They haven’t helped a lick since we left Musil. I’m not sure we should have taken the job.”
“You know how it is,” Seth said, checking that his sword wasn’t sticking in the scabbard, “most people can’t afford us, and those that can usually don’t know much about traveling this way.”
“Is there breakfast today?” Ruven asked.
“Just the food that you brought,” Seth replied. “If we make good time today, we should reach Turame before nightfall, so we should get moving.”
“Thank the gods,” Larrel said, wrapping his bedroll. “I can’t keep eating so little. It’s sapping my energy. Have you foraged yet today, Garret? If not, I’d like to go with you.”
“I haven’t, and I’m not going to today,” Garret replied, tossing a ration at him. “I can wait until we get closer to eat. In the meantime, try to make that last you the day.”
Garret walked past Seth, muttering under his breath, “useless bureaucrats, worse than bringing children along, I swear it.”
The comment came simultaneously as Larrel wrinkled his nose at the wax cloth wrapped ration. Seth smiled and walked over to his clients to help them gather up their camp.
Bedrolls packed and food eaten, the group began their trek through the forest to the Northeast. Seth knew that they needed to move further north before they could head east. The ravine between them and Turame would be impossible to cross without the bridges at the edge of the town.
“Where’d Garret go?” Ruven asked after an hour of traveling.
“He’s scouting ahead so that we don’t run into more trouble,” Seth replied without looking back.
“You think we will have trouble this close to Turame?” Larrel asked.
“Don’t know, but it’s always better to try to avoid it rather than stumbling blindly through the woods,” Seth replied.
They stopped for lunch at midday, hiding from the sun under the canopy of a large tree. Garret had returned only a few minutes before carrying a pouch of berries and a dead hare.
“Oh, a wild hare. My favorite!” Larrel exclaimed as Garret gutted it.
“I already gave you enough food for the day,” Garret replied, pulling the skin off with one swift pull. “This is for those of us keeping you safe.”
“I demand you feed me some of the hare,” Larrel stomped, tossing the remains of the rations to the ground. “I won’t eat anymore of this business.”
“Then you’ll go hungry,” Garret said, pushing a sharpened stick through it and setting it over a small fire Seth had built.
“I didn’t pay for-” Larrel began.
“Me to feed you,” Garret finished. “You paid for us to get you safely to Turame, which is being done. We told you what you would need, and you underprepared, overate, and have otherwise inconvenienced us at every turn since halfway.”
“I’ll not pay you when we get there,” Larrel said.
“Larrel, we will pay the men for what they have agreed to do,” Ruven said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “They have made good on their promise. You can wait a few more hours, and when we get to the inn, I’ll pay for you to eat your fill.”
Larrel’s demeanor changed as soon as Ruven’s hand touched him. Seth thought he saw some spark of magic but wasn’t entirely sure about it.
They finished the break and got moving again. Larrel didn’t complain even a little as they walked. He didn’t so much as comment on anything he saw around him. Instead, he stayed close to Ruven, keeping Ruven’s hand on his shoulder as though he were a guide animal for the man.
Garret came back into view and fell in step with Seth, “Nothing ahead. We’re about to break through to the bridges. Be mindful of the ravine.”
“Thank you, Garret,” Ruven said from behind them.
Another minute later, they stepped out of the thicket revealing the pointed roofs of the guardhouses and the rope bridges that spanned the ravine before them. Water from the streams nearby fell over the edge and vanished into a mist below.
“How deep is it?” Larrel asked, startling Seth.
“No one’s ever come back that’s gone down, so no one knows,” Garret replied.
“Here is the gold we owe,” Ruven said, holding out a pouch.
Seth took it, felt the weight of it, and nodded with a smile as he hooked it on his belt.
“Thank you for your kindness over the trip. I apologize for my friend’s manners this afternoon,” Ruven asked. “Will you be staying in Turame before heading back?”
Garret shook his head, “no. We’re due back to guide another party to the west in six days. No time to rest today.”
“Well, in any case, safe travels and may the gods smile down on you,” Ruven said.
Seth and Garret bowed before turning back and going through the forest. Garret stayed next to Seth for a time in silence. They had traveled together long enough that Seth could feel the tension coming off Garret.
“What’s wrong?” Seth asked.
“Nothing, I’m sorry I snapped at that guy. I just couldn’t take his attitude anymore,” Garret said.
“I understand. It did seem a bit ridiculous that he carried armor and weapons but didn’t lift a finger to help us against the bandits. On the plus side, Ruven tipped us,” Seth said with a smile.
“He did? I thought for sure they would try to stiff us,” Garret said.
“You don’t have much faith in people, do you?” Seth asked.
“I have only as much-” Garret stopped talking when the sound of an explosion and screams echoed through the forest.
Seth and Garret turned without a second thought and ran back to where they had left their charges. They skidded to halt at the edge fo the ravine where all the bridges were cut and hanging.
“Is that-” Garret began.
From where they stood, Seth and Garret could see Ruven floating above the town, wreathed in shadow that lashed out at the people below. Larrel was beneath him, swinging a sword that shed a blue light as he laughed. Villagers that were touched by the shadow withered away to nothing, leaving only dust behind, not even their clothes were safe.
Seth felt his heart sink in his chest as he bent his legs.
“Hold on,” Seth said, leaping as soon as Garret had a good hold on him.
Artist Credit: Unknown (If you know the artist, or are the artist, please let me know so I can link people to your work!”